“I can’t leave my friends, infected, wandering the hotel. We have to kill them.”
The words came out of her mouth easily. She expected more pain or shock. But instead, all she felt was resolve. Karly knew she couldn’t leave the people who knew her, the people that cared about her, to suffer the way they were. In her mind, she couldn’t decide if they were sick and knew what was happening, or if their souls had left their body. She wasn’t even sure she believed in souls. But if she imagined them still in the sick bodies, eating people, she wanted to break down and scream.
As she stood she thought about her friend Melanie with her frizzy permed hair. Karly once tried to convince her to stop frying her hair with the chemicals, but Melanie had laughed her off. She had been doing the style for ages and wasn’t going to change now. Thinking about that moment, Karly could almost hear Melanie’s ironic laughter. She tried to grasp that good memory and hold it close, as the image of Melanie bending over a body and tearing into it with her teeth tried to invade her thoughts.
Karly thought about Lydia with her new mohawk. She was probably the most conservative of their group. Well, was, thought Karly. She sniffed back the flood of tears that threatened to break free. Lydia had just cut her hair into the mohawk before they came to Las Vegas. Do something crazy for a crazy trip, Lydia had explained. Karly’s heart broke thinking that this wasn’t the trip any of them had envisioned. She never expected to be the only one still alive at the end of it.
Abby was in the pink halter top, the top that Karly lent her for their night out. Abby was scatterbrained and showed up for their trip with a backpack and no luggage. She claimed she needed nothing else only for them to make it to the hotel and discovering she had no party clothes. Karly thought about the pink soaked through with the blood of Abby’s victims. She swallowed hard, fighting the lump that was rising in her throat.
Matt stood still looking at Karly and she knew emotions were flying across her face. She set her expression in determination and waited for his answer. His eyes searched hers and he finally slowly nodded.
“Ok. We can try. But if it puts us in more danger, we go. Agreed?” Matt reasoned.
“Agreed. We don't need to lose anyone else.”
Karly fished Abby's backpack out of the clutter in the closet. Everything behind the closed closet doors had escaped any of the blood spatter of the room. She dumped out Abby's clothes, keeping her travel sizes toiletries. She then grabbed all of the practical clothing she had traveled with and shoved those into the pack. Her feet were thrilled with socks and tennis shoes. The city was a mess now, so she knew she'd need clean clothes at some point.
The open suitcases in the closet caught her eye and Karly began pulling items out. She smiled when she found Melanie's stash of airline snacks. She crawled out of the closet and held the pretzels up in a victory. Matt looked at her strangely for a moment. She knew her face looked a little wild. The memory of Melanie taking the extra snack and hiding them felt like a crazy thought to have. But it played in her mind making her want to laugh out loud.
“Pretzels?” She finally asked.
“I'm ok. You eat them,” Matt replied.
Karly opened a small bag and fished out a pretzel. Matt watched her as she enjoyed the salty goodness. She took another out of the bag and held it to his lips. She knew it was personal to try and feed him. But in the back of her mind, her attraction to Matt was still roaring. There was a question in his eyes but his lips parted and allowed her to slide the pretzel into his mouth.
“You can't just let me eat all the time when you eat nothing,” she said quietly.
“We'll have plenty for us all when we get to the bus,” Stuart said suddenly, his face close to Karly and Matt. “Then you two can feed each other all you want.”
Despite their situation, Stuart looked at them and wagged his eyebrows. Matt’s face instantly colored as he stepped away and busied himself with the items he was sorting through. Karly met Stuart’s eyes. She could see he was trying to joke and be relaxed. But behind that, she could see the pain that lived there. She smiled softly at him before patting his cheek.
“It’s not like that, Stuart.”
“Uh huh,” he replied with a roll of his eyes.
Thirty minutes later they had scavenged what they could carry. Karly had a backpack strapped on and a messenger bag draped across her body. Matt had checked and rechecked the straps to ensure she could move quickly and not fall behind. She wasn’t worried about her bags. As she wiggled her toes in her shoes, her injured feet screamed at her. Before she pulled on socks she had cleaned the soles of her feet the best she could with a wet washcloth. She didn’t want Matt to know there was pain there. If he knew, he’d change everything they were doing.
“You have the keys?” Matt asked Stuart.
“Again, yes. The keys are here in my pocket,” Stuart said, patting the front of his pants.
Matt had asked the bus driver at least twenty times if he had the keys. Stuart had answered him each time, not making a fight out of the question. Matt was pacing the room now, still working their plan through his mind, making sure they had all avenues covered. The pounding on the hotel room door had slowed and all but stopped ten minutes before. If they were going to go, it was the right time.
Karly stepped to the door and looked through the peephole. There were no infected right in front of the door, but she didn’t let the absence fool her. Matt planned to defend them with his knife and Stuart with his ax. She hoped it was enough to get them to the bus outside. The large vehicle felt like a salvation they needed just then. The plan after that was still hazy, but at least they would be together and safe.
Matt came to her side and touched her shoulder. She looked up into his face and studied his eyes. She felt safe with him. She followed his lead because she knew in her heart that he would make the right choices for her. He provided for her and did whatever necessary to get them to the next safe place. Making it to the bus was his goal and Karly had no doubt he would make sure they made it in one piece.
She nodded to Matt, as she stepped away from the door. Stuart stood behind her with the ax in both hands. He looked determined and fierce, despite his joking. Karly was pleased to know that he was ready to fight for his life. She would continue to keep her eye on the nice man. The hole left in him from the loss of his husband would not disappear quickly. She couldn’t bear to lose another person she was getting to know.
Matt looked back at the both of them and they nodded their agreement. They were all ready to go. He turned back to the door and carefully took the handle. With the door open a crack, he looked out into the hall. Karly knew the plan was for him to go out into the hall immediately if he didn’t find any infected right in front of the door. As Matt opened the door further, she took a deep breath knowing there would be no turning back.
The hallway seemed darker than before, though Karly assumed it was her imagination. The only lights were those of emergency exit signs. They illuminated the space but not by much. Karly stayed close to Matt, not wanting the shadows between them. She had no trust for what was in the shadows.
Behind her, the hotel room door clicked shut. Karly knee without looking that Stuart was within her reach should things go wrong. They first moved toward the stairs but it was clear that the infected weren't that direction. Matt turned to look at Karly and his eyes held question. She knew he wanted her to change her mind. She also knew she wasn't going to give in to fear.
Seeing the clear resolve on her face Matt motioned to Stuart to take the lead. As a group, without changing their lineup, they turned toward the center hall of the hotel floor. Without seeing the walking infected, Karly knew they were still close. The smell alone gave good indication that they hadn't gone far. The putrid smell of rotten flesh was hot in her nose. She had to fight to keep her hands from covering her airways to prevent the smell from entering her body.
Stuart was a tall man, preventing Karly from seeing clearly down the hall. The only sign she got before peering around him was his sudden intake of air. His body stiffened and he arranged the ax in preparation for an attack. When Karly leaned around to see what Stuart could see, she wished immediately that she hadn't.
Lydia limped toward them, her face smeared with blood, a bite mark visible on her neck. Whoever attacked her took a chunk of her with them and Karly knew that had to be her ultimate death. Her stride was slow and uncoordinated, as her joints seemed to pop and move in different directions. On the other hand, her mohawk was in perfect formation.
Stuart looked over his shoulder for a moment and Karly gave him the confirmation he was looking for. Stepping away from Karly, Stuart hefted the ax and brought it whistling down into Lydia's head. Karly flinched away and Matt wrapped an arm around her. When she looked back she saw Stuart pushing the body to the side of the hallway, partially hiding her in the shadows on the ground.
“Want to keep going?” Matt said quietly as possible.
“We've started. We need to finish,” she replied in a small voice.
His arm was warm around her. He squeezed her to him once more before letting her go to continue down the hall. They knew there were no dead behind them so Matt joined Stuart in the front of their procession.
As a group, they approached a small bend in the hallway. Matt presses against the wall, trying to see if there was movement close by. He turned to Stuart and held up two fingers. He mouthed the words “Stay Here” to Karly. She moved to the wall where she could watch them and nodded her head.
The men rushed quietly around the corner and the groans of the infected became louder as a food source entered their view. The noise made Karly want to cover her ears. It made the hairs on her arms stand on end and turned her stomach sour. She knew that it was likely her friends around the corner. She couldn't bring herself to imagine the undead sound coming from their mouths.
The sound of the ax coming down on a body made Karly jump. A moment later Matt came back around the corner. He held his knife away from him, dark red blood dripping from it. He motioned her forward and she met him at the corner.
“Are you alright?” She asked immediately.
“Yes. No problems. Are you ready to see if these are your friends?”
Karly nodded and moved around him. She found Stuart pulling one of the bodies to lay on its back. At once a tear rolled down her face as she recognized the women on the ground. She bent to cover Abby, who's halter had ripped from her neck, her left breast exposed. Blood pooled under her head where Karly assumed the ax had struck. Melanie had fallen across Abby’s legs. Her neck and face were ravaged by bites, much of her skin missing. The white bone of her jaw seemed too bright against the red bloody mess of blood and torn skin. Karly had to look away quickly as she wanted to gag.
“That's them,” she said softly.
She furiously wiped at the tears on her face. Somewhere in her mind, she scolded herself for allowing the emotions to bubble out again. Crying for her dead friends wasn't going to change anything now. She could mourn them later. When she was safe and getting away from the city.
Matt took her hand and pulled her to her feet. He dropped his knife and pulled her to him tightly. She didn't hesitate to wrap her arms around his waist. He was warm and alive. He was there for her. And she knew he would take care of her. Pressing her face to his chest, she took a deep breath and let calm fall over her again.
She would have stayed that way longer but the sound of growling echoed from further down the hall. Karly turned toward the noise and looked at Stuart who stood ready.
“We should go. You took care of what needed to be done,” Karly whispered.
Matt retrieved his weapon and took Karly’s hand to run down the hall. They knew now there was nothing between them and the stairwell. Karly’s backpack bounced off of her lower spine as she tried to keep up with Matt's longer strides. Her shorter legs had to take two steps to everyone for Matt. Stuart easily kept pace and Karly glared at him when he only had to walk fast to keep up with her.
At the stairwell door, Matt hesitated. He and Stuart looked through the small window and once they decided it was clear they slowly swung open the door. Inside the smell of dead, rotting flesh wafted to them. The three exchanged looks, all knowing what that smell meant. Karly looked back, knowing this was their only way out. The infected stumbling toward them with their hands outstretched only confirmed her thoughts.
They stepped onto the landing and let the door close and click quietly. A moment later the infected from the hall began to pound on the door, frustrated that their meal had somehow escaped. Stuart stopped to watch them through the window for a moment. He seemed to study them as he leaned closer to the window.
“They definitely can't figure out doors,” he finally whispered.
“I’d rather be safe than sorry,” Matt whispered back.
“I know that woman. She was a housekeeper here. God, something really mauled her,” Stuart said.
Karly took a moment to glance through the window, getting a better look at the small woman, her face barely visible through the small window. Karly gulped down the bile that wanted to rise up her throat. The infected woman's scalp hung away from her skull, white bone glinting in the emergency lights. As she pounded into the door, the flap of hair and skin seemed to bounce and Karly had to look away.
A sound below them caused them all to freeze in place. The gurgling groan seemed to rise up into the stairwell. Matt leaned over the railing. Karly couldn't be sure but thought she heard him curse.
“That's doesn't sound good,” she said quietly.
“Only one I can see. I was just hoping it would be clear all the way to the lobby.”
“How do you figure it got in?” Stuart asked.
Karly thought for a moment. She couldn't remember if they had closed the bottom door fully. She refused to believe the dead walkers were smart enough to find their way through a closed door. Thinking back she remembered the front door was on a motion sensor and slid open automatically.
“The door shouldn't work now,” Karly explained to the men.
“Not unless someone forced it open,” Stuart said, reading Karly’s mind.
That suggestion slowed them, realizing the lobby could now be full of the infected. Karly's heart raced at the idea of getting to the bottom floor and having their escaped blocked by more infected than they could handle. They didn't have a plan b. Going back wasn't an option. Staying in the hotel would be a death sentence. If the infected didn't get them, they could starve to death.
“Let's go,” Karly said.
Matt took the lead again, heading down the stairs. At each landing, he slowed above it so he could look down and check for any threats. He took Karly’s hand, keeping her close as they descended. She held her small knife in her other hand, though she still questioned if she would be any use with the blade. Up close fighting wasn't something she was trained in. Panic and running was much more her type of fight.
At the second floor landing, Matt stopped them. He leaned over to get a more clear picture of what they were facing. He held up one finger to confirm that only one infected was bouncing around below them. Without a clear meal in sight, it seemed the dead being didn't have a path to take. Matt signaled to Karly and Stuart to stay where they were.
“Wait, you don't need someone to watch your back?” Karly said, stopping him from going downstairs.
“I'll be right back. Don't worry,” he replied. He looked at her and touched her cheek before walking away.
“Yeah, there's nothing there,” Stuart scoffed from behind Karly.
She looked down at the ground as her cheeks grew hot. Her hands were gripped in front of her, so she forced them apart and busied herself with the straps of her bags. She leaned over to watch as Matt approached the infected on the first-floor landing. Stuart’s hand covered her’s on the railing, where she gripped tightly, causing her knuckles to go white.
“It’s ok to feel something for him, Karly,” he said quietly as he leaned over to watch Matt as well.
Karly didn’t answer. She was too concerned with Matt’s movements below them. As soon as he turned the corner to approach the landing, the infected noticed him. Immediately the dead hands rose, grabbing at the air near Matt. The hissing moan that rose to her ears made a shiver go down her spine. She watched as Matt pushed the arms away so he could step in closer. As he moved near the chomping teeth, Karly could feel her heartbeat speed up. However, before she could panic, Matt slammed his knife up through the chin and into the brain of the infected. He looked up to them and motioned for them to come down.
She moved faster down the stairs than necessary. She knew Matt was unharmed, she had watched the whole encounter. But she felt better once she was closer to him and could see there was not a mark on him. He was bending to clean off the blood from his knife before moving to the door that led to the lobby. Karly took a few deep breaths before summoning the courage to step over the truly dead body. Joining Matt at the door, she waited for him to decide what they were going to do. He had his face pressed against the window, looking back and forth.
“The lobby doors are still closed,” he said quietly.
“Where did the infected come from?” Karly asked.
“There are other people in this hotel. I saw some when I finally got here,” Stuart whispered from behind them.
Matt didn’t answer, just nodded absently. Slowly, he turned the knob and opened the door leading into the lobby. Sticking his head out first he looked side to side, checking for the infected. He carefully stepped out of the stairwell and Karly followed close behind. She let out the breath she was holding, seeing the lobby to be as empty as it was when they left it. The sliding doors were still shut. Nothing stirred and it was completely silent except the click of the door as it closed behind Stuart.
As they planned, Stuart took the lead now. He had his hand in his pocket preparing to get out the keys to his bus. Moving to the sliding doors, the plan was for Stuart and Matt to pry the doors open just enough for them all to slide out. Stuart would then lead them straight to the bus where they would all climb into the back door. Stuart would then slide into the driver seat.
But, when Stuart reached the sliding doors, he stopped abruptly. Karly bumped into him and became unsteady. Matt grabbed her upper arms to keep her from falling over with the weight of the bags. The two of them moved around Stuart and looked at what had stopped him at the door. Karly felt as if the nightmare they were living would never end. At each turn, the situation accelerated beyond her realm of comprehension.
Standing between Matt and Stuart she stared at what stood between them and the bus. She could see the large black shiny vehicle fifty yards from the doors. Absently she thought it was much further than she previously assumed. The distance didn’t matter now. What did matter was the sheer number of infected now wandering the parking lot.
“Oh my god,” she whispered.