Let me tell you something about Iowa: it's pretty fucking empty. That's why we moved here.
Well, part of why. The sparseness of its population was why the CDC set up a secret lab housed in a bunker not all that far from our eventual home. A home we picked because of its proximity to that bunker and all the juicy research contained within. The man living in it, John Liebowitz, was Kell's former research partner. He joined us, which meant moving all the research to the farm.
Gone now. All gone.
My larger point is to demonstrate that you can walk for a long time in this state and not see anything past the plains and the farms written into their soil. Towns are oases, small dots of civilization with resources to draw on. Our slow walk led us to one of them. As happens more often than anyone likes, this ended up being a lot of boring time spent with little change followed by sudden and unpleasant excitement.
Though the spaces between towns and cities here were nearly bare of zombies, even a small burg like our destination always had a few. We stopped a hundred yards from the first buildings at the edge of town and stared at the milling bodies ahead.
"You've got to be fucking kidding," Jess said. "Didn't we sweep this place like a month ago?"
"We did," I confirmed. "I figured some would drift in, but this many is just insulting. It's like we didn't even touch the place."
There were dozens of them that we could see. Jess and I both had weapons, of course. The escape tunnel we used to get under the farm's fences was provisioned for a worst case scenario. Jess's rifle rested on a strap over her shoulder, but it was a tool of last resort. I held a heavy baton, a solid bar of aluminum. She carried one of the mass-produced extra-thick machetes common across all the communities in the Union.
Jess crossed her arms, letting the blade dangle from her hand. "We're not going to fight those things. You do know that, right?"
I frowned. "Do we have a choice? The car we stashed here isn't going to drive itself to us."
She gestured at my lower half. "You can't run. You've been pushing through the pain and it's impressive and whatnot, but this is just gonna get you killed. Probably me too."
I leaned on the baton like a cane, trying to subtly take pressure off my knee. Jess noticed, of course. She noticed everything nowadays. I ignored the satisfied smirk on her face. "What do you suggest, then?"
She gazed toward the teeming dead, who clearly had yet to smell us since they weren't moving toward our position. "Let me scout it. If I can get to the car, I'll drive back to you. If not, then at least I'll have a better lay of the land than we do now."
"And what am I supposed to do while you go out there and risk your life?" I asked.
She pointed toward a tiny cluster of trees. "Haul yourself up and wait for me."
The argument happened in my head at about fifty times the speed it would have in real life. I could have tried to cowboy my way through it and pretend I was fit enough for a fight, but she was right. Once again, Jess would be carrying me. I didn't hold it against her--she was tough and strong, fully capable--but it made me feel like a burden. It was a common state of being for me.
"Fine, go ahead," I said. "I'll wait for you."
Jess nodded, wasting no time as she turned and began jogging in a wide arc around the outer buildings. I watched her until she vanished from sight. I made my way over to the trees and found an oak with a branch low enough to snag. Pulling myself up without the use of my leg would have been impossible before The Fall, but the apocalypse got me into pretty good shape.
I found a comfortable perch and settled in. Over the years the worst enemy I'd fought was my own mental health. Depression and anxiety that would have still emerged had the world not ended, but made that much worse by our circumstances. I knew on a logical level that many of the fears and worries I had were unfounded, yet as I thought back to a few minutes earlier, a bunch of facts lined up in a way that didn't seem a product of my imbalanced brain chemistry.
Even before we moved to Iowa, Jess had begun to change. I don't mean the obvious stuff like becoming a better survivor and developing rock solid confidence. I guess it was more about how she changed with me. We spent so much time together that the slow decline in how often we shared a laugh or even companionable silence was hard to notice at first.
Since leaving Haven, it had become much harder to ignore. She protected me, but something wasn't quite right. She left to face danger, possible death, without so much as a pat on the shoulder.
It scared me in ways I didn't even know existed.
But I waited anyway. I knew she'd be back. Long legs and years of cardio meant it would take a truly groundbreaking zombie to run her down.
When she finally came back more than an hour later, it wasn't in a car. And though she was being chased by zombies--outpacing them by a wide margin--it isn't the dead I'm referring to when I say that she didn't come back alone.
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