He runs into her while traveling through north Texas (rumor has it there’s a functioning military base in Arizona somewhere, and even if it’s as reliable as a fortune in a cookie from a Chinese restaurant at least it’s something). His traps weren’t quite as effective as they ought to have been, and his panicked shots go wide of head injuries. Then there’s the sound of a shotgun going off, and every single zom’s head explodes in a slurry of flesh, bone, and blood.
She begins by chewing him out for letting them sneak up on him, criticizing his hideout and mocking his aim.
"Hey, I didn’t ask for your help,” he snaps, though he’s almost glad she didn’t expect a thank you. He doesn’t do gratitude very well.
Turns out she ran out of food two days ago. He gives her two bottles of water, and they share a can of Chef Boyardee’s finest ravioli. He doesn’t point out that she could have killed him too and taken all the food for herself, and neither does she.
She confirms the Arizona rumor is BS. She’s headed east, trying to locate the kid sister of a friend, last known to be in South Carolina. She doesn’t mention what happened to the friend, and he doesn’t ask.
In the morning, she’s still out of food and he’s still a crappy shot, so when she casually suggests they stick together he casually agrees. Neither of them mentions the last time they had a fellow traveler.
She improves his shooting, a little. If she ever thinks of him as a burden for his bad aim, however, it doesn’t last long because he proves his worth by designing zom traps, locating the best places to sleep, watching the weather, patching up injuries, and - most importantly - identifying edible berries and roots.
Mostly they communicate by arguing. She wins more often, mostly by letting him talk himself into a corner or by threatening to beat him up, but he gets his jabs in. Over time, they learn each other’s sore spots and take care to avoid them. And every so often, they trade bits of their past like valuable gems, quid pro quo.
Winter is cold. He hardly even blinks when they go from curled up separately to curled up together, because survival trumps everything else; but he does blink a little because, she’s hot. Like, really hot. Like, hot as all those girls who ignored him in high school and college because he was such a nerd. He tries not to think about that too much, though, because now is not the time to be thinking things like that.
They have a bad night in Missouri. First they’re forced into a mall to look for clean water so she could wash a cut, then they get chased further in by zoms and trapped on the second floor, and then she runs out of ammunition. Both of them have to stay up all night, armed with whatever they can scrounge from the abandoned stores and scattered debris. In between fighting off zoms, they tell each other things they had never told another living soul, anything pressing on them to say aloud before they died.
Sometime around 3:25 AM, he tells her he’s in love with her. Sometime around 3:26 AM, he wishes he’d kept his damn mouth shut.
The flow of zoms ebbs in the early morning, and in violation of what would seem to be natural law, they make their way out of the mall and back outdoors. As he works out their direction based on the sun and the streets, she stands off to the side, silent. It isn’t until nearly nightfall when they make camp that she says anything.
She says his name, and when he turns to look at her, she kisses him.
She never says “I love you” back, at least not in words - but then neither does he. He says it by letting her eat the last of the canned peaches, by always giving her a little more of the water, by recognizing her bad days before breakfast and treading lightly even when she chews him out. She says it in how she says his name, in the way she rips him a new one that time he goes looking for food and comes back a half hour later than he planned, in pushing him relentlessly to become a better shot.
One night, she makes him swear that if she ever turns, he’ll put a bullet through her head. He swears, but he doesn’t mean it.
The kid sister isn’t in South Carolina, but their group does increase by one. Neither of them intended it or wanted it. They would have ended it, had they known about it (her cycle hasn’t been regular for years, they’re always hungry because they never eat enough, and the constant stress wears on everyone’s emotions). It isn’t the right time, they aren’t the right people, and it certainly isn’t the right place, but here they are anyway, on the filthy floor of a long-abandoned Walmart, sweating, terrified, bloody and uncertain, suddenly dealing with an eighteen-inch, five-pound baby girl. She has her father’s eyes, her mother’s hair, and the vocal chords of a troop of monkeys.
She changes everything in the worst possible ways. Traveling quietly becomes next to impossible. Finding new clothes keeps jumping to the top of the priorities list. There is no one to ask when she starts coughing like a lung is going to come up. There are no growth charts, nothing to tell them when she should be getting teeth, holding up her head, sleeping through the night, eating her first solid foods. They move slower, use up more resources, attract more attention and are in greater danger than ever before. And at the same time, she magnifies the joy of just being alive tenfold, a hundredfold, enough that they would willingly pay double the price of her existence for a single day with her.
She grows like she was never undersized. She asks questions about everything. Too quickly, she learns too much fear to treat the world like her playground, but she still smiles, still giggles, still considers rain showers and starlit nights miracles. Even on the hottest days, she loves to curl up against them, riding on their backs or atop their shoulders, snuggling as close as two bodies can get.
It is the harsh reality of their lives that it is inevitable that one day they will not be lucky, that the tiny bubble of their private happiness will be punctured. As much as he knows it, he learned a long time ago that constantly trying to expect it would wear him thin, so it is inescapable that when it comes it hits him like a hurricane.
She doesn’t come back. She left in the morning on a supply run, and it’s been hours and she hasn’t come back. He doesn’t dare leave Carolina alone to look for her, and he refuses to go on without her. So he waits, distracting the little girl as best he can with stories, pretty rocks, and finding shapes in the clouds.
Night falls. Finally, without any other choice, he straps the sleeping child to his back and heads into the town.
He finds her, a little over an hour in. She’s wandering the streets, hair falling out of her ponytail, stumbling and seemingly unaware of the canned food tumbling out of her backpack. He almost calls out to her, but she staggers into the moonlight, and he sees her face. The grey tint to her skin. The empty stare in her eyes.
Her name dies on his lips, but it takes a full minute for him to realize that it isn’t her he’s seeing. It’s her corpse.
He follows her for another hour, always keeping downwind and out of sight. It’s only thanks to the stars overhead that he can tell any time has passed at all. All he can think about is him, and her, and the sudden uncrossable chasm that has sprung up between them. He keeps trying to find a way across. He keeps thinking about jumping in.
He almost trips over a gun, dropped by some other wanderer most likely, and the promise he made to her springs to mind. Just as he comprehends it he rejects it, feeling revulsion so strong it makes his stomach lurch.
She trips in the gutter, falls face forward onto the pavement. She screeches; Carolina stirs at the sound, and for moment he worries she’ll wake up.
He remembers when she gave him the gun currently on his hip, after she found the shotgun in that barn in Oklahoma. ‘Better shot gets the better gun’.
He remembers her setting up empty soup cans for him to shoot at, how she would get more and more frustrated with his bad aim, but never angry. ‘Alright, new plan. How fast can you throw bullets?’
He remembers the way her eyes would flash when he came back late, or injured, and the biting sarcasm she employed if he tried to downplay it. ‘Sure, ‘cause if you die, I can just find another asshole who knows how to make zom traps out of plastic knives and glue. They’re a dime-a-dozen out here.’
He remembers when her soft singing was the only thing that would keep a fussy, colicky baby asleep at night, how he would lie awake even though he wasn’t keeping watch just to hear her voice.
The little girl on his shoulder stops shifting and falls into a deeper sleep. The ‘thing’ with her face in the gutter struggles to stand.
He breathes deep, and is startled by the taste of hot salt water on his lips. He pulls out the gun, and walks quietly, steadily, to the edge of the sidewalk and stops.
He blinks to clear his eyes. He has to do it twice. He pictures her standing behind him, her head just over his shoulder, her hands directing his arm. ‘Hold your breath so your aim doesn’t shift,’ she instructs quietly. ‘Squeeze, don’t pull. Don’t move the gun right after you fire it. Aim, fire, follow-through. Think you can remember all that?’
It staggers to its feet and runs into the edge of the sidewalk again. It stops, standing nearly still, starts to turn around.
He cups his free hand over Carolina’s ear. He fires once.
His aim is perfect.