“Finger off the trigger,” Devin Reid instructed.
Noah rested his index finger on the side of the trigger guard, and stared down the makeshift gun range. He lowered his head, frustrated by his failure to hit all the targets set out for him.
“You just need to relax a little.”
Noah glanced at Devin. “You said to grip it tightly.”
With a nod, Devin said, “I know. But not so hard your hand shakes.” He pushed away from the front of the car, and came to stand beside Noah. “Grip. Ease off slightly.” He squeezed his hand around Noah’s, then relaxed it as he gave his instructions.
Devin’s hand was warm and clammy but Noah didn’t care. A small smile curled the corner of his mouth at Devin’s touch.
Devin’s breath was shaky as he lowered his head.
Things had been strange between the two of them over the last seven weeks. Both of them were figuring out where they fit in the world, and in each other’s lives. They had spent more time together, though Devin remained somewhat distant, not that Noah blamed him. Devin had lost the man he’d loved at the start of the monster-filled nightmare they found themselves in. He understood that Devin struggled with the lack of closure he still felt, despite knowing there was no coming back for Connor. The man Devin had known was dead. But it was about more than Connor. It was about Devin not thinking himself strong enough to go through that kind of loss all over again. To leave himself open to such grief and despair if he got close to Noah only to lose him as well.
Noah closed his eyes as he felt the warmth of Devin’s breath on his neck. His heart ached as he longed to have Devin close. He remembered the warmth of Devin’s touch, the lines of his body, and the feel of Devin’s skin on his during the night they’d spent together in Chicago.
Chicago. He wondered what had become of the people they’d left behind. Were they safe? Was Chicago still able to offer them protection?
Sometimes he felt guilty that he didn’t care more. It wasn’t as if he knew them, not really. He wasn’t sure he remembered their faces anymore. Them or the people who had died on the journey there.
The journey for a cure. Had anything come from the blood sample they’d taken from him, of the vaccine or biological weapon against the undead they hoped to create?
His blood had saved Devin, had created a serum that could battle the infection, but it wasn’t a true solution. It could happen again, to Devin, to everybody.
Silence fell between them and Noah opened his eyes. Devin was looking at him through his shades, one crooked eyebrow raised above the frames.
“It helps if you keep your eyes open.” Devin smirked and reached down, taking Noah’s other hand in his. “Support your grip with your left.”
“Like this?” Noah waited as Devin checked his hold. He shifted his footing, steadying himself as he battled the frustration over only being able to hit the target two times out of five. “I don’t get why I’m doing this. I managed perfectly fine without a gun before you showed up.”
Has it really only been seven weeks? It feels like longer. A lot had happened since the day Devin had turned up at the Weber family’s farm. Noah remembered the shouting and gunfire, of coming across Devin and his partner, Kerry, desperately fighting off a small group of the undead monsters created by some twisted virus. He hadn’t hesitated when Devin was attacked. Noah had run headlong into the fray, determined he wasn’t going to see anyone die that day.
“Trust me, I know.” Devin frowned as he nudged Noah’s arms higher. “But if you’re going to be out here with me, then I prefer to cover all bases. You should be able to protect yourself in every possible way.” He stopped and peered over the top of his sunglasses. “I want you safe. You may be immune, but you’re not invincible.” He hesitated, then gently turned Noah’s wrist. They both checked the old scars—jagged marks left by the mouths of hungry monsters. “You could easily find yourself in a situation you can’t fight your way out of with just your bare hands.”
Tensing his jaw, Noah inspected Devin’s hand on his arm. Devin had scars of his own. With a breath, Noah focused back on the gun. Devin’s words were sobering. He knew he should be taking the training seriously, but all he could think was that they shouldn’t be wasting ammunition for him to practice, not when the bullets could be better spent by giving them to someone who could already hit their mark.
“Have you been dry firing like I suggested?” Devin leaned in close and looked along the sight of the gun.
Noah nodded. Devin had given him a snap cap to use to practice his aim. Devin was close enough that Noah could feel the beating of his heart when he leaned his chest against Noah’s biceps. Did Devin realize just how distracting it was to have him near?
“Good,” Devin said. He stepped back, nudging Noah to raise his arm higher. “You see the front sight? That’s where I want you to focus.”
Noah didn’t argue the fact he’d already been trying to do that. “Okay,” he agreed with a sigh.
“This is important.” Devin touched Noah’s forearm and waited for Noah to face him. “Please?”
Noah closed his eyes and took a breath. “I just don’t like the idea of wasting ammo.”
Devin shook his head. “What good is ammo if no one’s around to use it?”
He guessed Devin had a point. Noah’s gaze drifted from the gun sight to his forearm and the bite marks. So many people had died in the last year.
Why am I still alive? What makes me so special?
“If you want another reason why we’re doing this, then it’s about protecting others. Not just yourself.” Devin cleared his throat and stepped back. “Things can go to shit in the blink of an eye. There’s not always time for you to run in and play hero.”
Noah glanced along the range to where five splintered wooden boards were propped up about twenty yards away. He knew Devin was right. Time was critical if there was an attack. He eyed the boards and the crudely painted words in red on some—Zombies grrr, Feed me brains, and Romero was wrong. He wondered who had painted the words. He didn’t figure it for something Devin would have done. There was very little Devin found funny. He eyed the third board.
Romero was wrong.
He’d seen the original movies, groups of shambling undead somehow catching up to and overpowering characters as they stood and stared, and seemed to scream for a full ten minutes before getting their tasty, soft, internal organs devoured. The reality of the dead rising was a little different, or at least it had been in the beginning. The freakish monsters were hungry and fast, and unnaturally strong. It was only now that some of the first to have turned, after severe decay, showed signs of slowing down and immobility. Could they just outlive the monsters? Hide away until they rotted to nothing more than bones?
“Okay,” he said on a sigh, then set his sights on the center target. He steadied his aim and inhaled. Blinking, he readied himself to release his held breath, but Devin brought up his hand and held it over the gun, halting the practice.
Noah glanced at Devin, who had set his gaze on the horizon. “What?” He narrowed his eyes and scanned the area. “Did you see something?”
Although the yard the range was set up in was considered clear and secure, there was no guarantee something might not stray into the area and beyond the protective wire mesh of the fence.
“I don’t know. I thought I heard…” Devin thumbed the catch of his holster as he surveyed the area.
The land surrounding the yard was mostly flat and open, ideal for reducing the chances of being caught unaware.
Devin shook his head. “I guess it was nothing.” He didn’t turn away at first, and eyed where the fence met the edge of an abandoned warehouse. “Let’s call it a day, okay?”
“Okay,” Noah agreed. He rubbed his stomach as it made a hungry growl. Hopefully, they would make it back to the prison in time for the afternoon meal. They had traveled several miles from the penitentiary to what could have been described as the middle of nowhere, to ensure the sound of gunfire didn’t draw any of the infected monsters to their door.
Handing Devin the gun, Noah shifted his attention to the building. “This place was cleared, right?”
Devin held the gun at his side. “A few weeks back.” He ran his hand over his unshaven jaw, then removed his shades, hooking them onto the front of his dark T-shirt.
Could anything have gotten in since then?
“The fence was secure. There was no evidence anything had got in or even tried to.” Devin sounded his thoughts. He scanned the yard. “I guess we should check it out.”
Devin quirked an eyebrow. “Really.” He set his silver gaze on Noah.
The intensity of Devin’s stare sent a shiver down Noah’s spine. He would never get over how strange, yet fascinating, Devin’s eyes were. He thought he would miss the clear blue Devin had studied him with when they’d first met, but all he could think about was how grateful he was Devin was here to look at him at all. Devin had been bitten. He’d been dying.
To Noah they were beautiful.
“Okay.” Noah shook away the memories of Chicago, trying to ignore the tightening of his chest. He walked to the car, where he took a red-handled fire ax from the trunk. He balanced the weapon in his hands, accustoming himself to the weight and feel of it. Though he felt uneasy, he knew they couldn’t leave without being sure. Neither he nor Devin would forgive themselves if anybody got hurt because they had dismissed their concerns and walked away.
Together they proceeded to the large warehouse. Clouds slowly drifted across the sky, blotting out the sun and casting a hazy gray glow over the yard. They began their investigation at the corner of the premises, where the fence met the steel shell of the warehouse. Wooden pallets leaned against the side of the building. Old blood stained the light colored wood.
Devin edged toward the fence and wrapped his fingers in the wire mesh. Arching his neck, he examined the length of the building.
“I don’t see anything,” he stated. “If this place is compromised, it’s not from this side.”
Noah walked across the front of the warehouse. He stopped outside the large metal double doors. Idly, he reached out and pulled on the padlock attached to a chain, which secured the doors. “Should we break it?”
Devin shook his head. “There’s a door round the side.” He pointed to the other end of the steel structure. “Check that first.”
They made their way to the side entrance. Devin stepped forward and examined the broken handle. He tilted his head and looked grim. “There’s blood.” He took a step back.
“Do you think it’s one of them?” Noah tightened his grip on the ax.
“Freaks don’t usually go around smashing locks. But…” He raised his gun and pointed at the dried blood. “If someone was bitten, and sought shelter… They could have turned by now.”
“Okay.” Noah didn’t know what else to say.
Devin hesitated, then edged forward, leaning against the door as he listened. “I don’t hear anything—” A crackle of static and Jack Torres’s voice over the radio startled them both.
“Devin, you there?”
“Christ.” Devin pressed his hand to his chest and stepped away from the door. He pulled the radio from his belt. “Great timing there, Jack,” he said in a hushed voice
Noah smirked as Devin shot him a despairing look.
“Why are you whispering?” Jack asked.
Devin cleared his throat and moved farther away from the building. “No reason. Just checking something out. Everything okay?”
“Yeah, just wondered if you guys were heading back soon?” Jack sounded edgy.
“Is there a problem?” Devin narrowed his eyes. He glanced at Noah as he talked to Jack.
Quickly, Jack dismissed Devin’s question. “No, no problem. I just need to talk to you about something.”
“Yeah, yeah. It can wait. Come find me when you get back.”
“Sure. See you in an hour maybe.” Devin secured the radio onto his belt.
“What was that about?” Noah asked.
Devin shrugged and fixed his attention back on the busted lock. “Let’s get this over with, then we can find out.” He held his gun in front of him. With his free hand, he pushed. “Something’s behind it,” he said when the door didn’t budge. “Stay sharp, okay?”
Fear mixed with a rush of adrenaline as Noah flipped the ax over in his hand. He waited as Devin used his weight to shoulder an opening. There was a scraping sound. Whatever had been used to secure the exit was forced across the concrete floor of the warehouse. Eventually, Devin stumbled forward as the barricade fell away with a clatter.
Noah peered over Devin’s shoulder, noting more of the wooden pallets. The building was dimly lit. Sunlight shone through overhead skylights, illuminating dust that hung in the air. They held off entering the building for a moment, waiting to see if the noise drew the interest of anything nonhuman. When nothing came of their, less than subtle, entrance, Devin took the lead and headed inside.
The temperature in the warehouse was cooler than outside, and Noah shuddered as he examined the interior of the building. The space was high, higher than it seemed from the outside, and was filled with rows and rows of empty pallets. He looked at Devin who had stopped a few feet in. Noah examined the ground, noting what Devin had already spotted. There was more blood. Someone had been hurt, but not gravely, if the small amount of blood was anything to go by. Gravity had caused circular spatters where droplets had hit the floor, marking a path toward the front of the warehouse. Devin didn’t say anything and followed the intermittent stains.
The silence was unnerving and Noah checked behind them. Content there was nothing there, he shifted his focus back to Devin and the row of pallets they were following to the front of the warehouse. Devin raised his gun as they neared the end of the aisle, stepping out as he turned the corner. He stopped, seemingly surprised. He glanced at Noah, his expression softening.
Curious, Noah took the corner, catching sight of a woman and a young boy huddled together on the opposite side of the building. Though frightened, they appeared okay.
Devin lowered his gun, and raised his other hand. “We aren’t going to hurt you. Are you injured?”
Noah studied the pair along with Devin. The boy was pale and scared, but there was no obvious sign of injury.
When neither replied, Devin took a step toward them. “Are you alone?”
Devin’s question was answered with an angry cry and blur of motion from his left. A man lunged at Devin, wielding a crowbar. Devin barely swerved the attack. The metal edge struck him on the shoulder, and unbalanced, he fell with a grunt to the dusty, hard ground.
“Stop,” Noah yelled, putting himself between Devin and the desperate man. He raised the ax, aware there was a second person standing in the shadows. “Look, we’re not here to hurt you.” He shifted his weight as a teenage girl stepped forward. She held a dented aluminum baseball bat in her hand. “Devin? You okay?” Noah kept his gaze fixed on the two people in front of him.
Devin coughed. “Yeah, I’m fine.” He cleared his throat and got to his feet. He rotated his shoulder, then joined Noah in the awkward standoff. He raised his gun and pointed it at the man.
“What do you want?” the man asked. His voice was shaky. He edged closer to the teenage girl, favoring his right foot.
“Are you hurt?” Noah said, drawing everyone’s attention to the poorly wrapped bandage above his left knee.
“Were you bitten?” Devin nodded toward the man’s leg.
“He wasn’t.” The teenage girl jumped to the man’s defense. Her dark hair had been cropped into a short uneven bob, which formed a rough line along her jaw.
Devin pursed his lips. “He your dad?”
The girl nodded.
“How about we all lower our weapons and figure this out, okay?” Devin glanced at Noah, indicating for him to go first.
Though wary, Noah did as Devin instructed. “Fine.” He loosened his hold, lowering the ax to his side, and stepped back to put space between him and the still-armed father and daughter team.
“Okay?” Devin returned his handgun to its holster. “We didn’t mean to scare you.”
The man glanced at his daughter. “It’s okay, T.” He dropped his weapon, and encouraged his daughter to do the same.
“I’m Devin, and this is Noah. We’re sorry if we scared you.”
Hugging his daughter close, the man said, “Kirk. This is my daughter, Tatum.” He pointed in the direction of the woman and boy, who were still sitting together. “My wife, Marie, and our son, Samuel.”
Devin seemed to relax when the man shared his and his family’s names. He kept his hand at his side. “Have you been here long?”
Kirk blinked rapidly. “A couple of days. My son is sick. We needed somewhere safe.”
“Sick?” Noah eyed the boy. “Sick, how?”
“I don’t know.” Kirk’s shoulders dropped as he gazed at his boy. “He hasn’t eaten properly in days, and when he has, he’s thrown up soon after.”
“I’m sorry,” Devin offered. He settled his sight on Noah. It was clear that he was considering what to do. Since the incident with Corden, they no longer had the luxury of taking people at their word. They had to be sure of who they were letting into the prison, no matter how adamant people were in claiming they were okay, or arguing that their injuries were from anything other than a bite.
The father gave a strained smile at Devin’s voiced sympathy. “It’s been hard. No food, no shelter. Always moving. It’s hit him the worst.”
Each member of the family appeared unkempt, dirty, and tired. Noah sucked on his teeth. These people needed help, help they could offer them. “Devin.”
Devin raised his head. There was doubt in his eyes.
“Please.” They were just people. Scared and exhausted people.
Devin stared at the ground. “How did you hurt your leg?” he asked. “I can help your son, but you have to tell me the truth.”
“On the fence.” Kirk looked from Devin to Noah. “I swear.” He wrapped his hand around his daughter’s. His face seemed brighter almost, as if he had been gifted with something amazing—the fact that maybe there was some hope and goodness left in the world after all.
“And the kid? He’s just sick?”
“Yes.” He nodded emphatically. “You’re part of a group? You have somewhere safe?”
There was a beat before Devin confirmed they did have somewhere. “We can help. We can look at your leg too, stop it from getting infected. But we’ll have to check you over. All of you. Properly. We can’t risk letting anyone who’s been bitten in. You understand, right?”
“We understand. Do what you have to do, but please, help us.”
Kirk’s desperation cut at Noah’s heart. If only it was just the undead monsters they had to deal with, but even now, despite all the horror and bloodshed, they were faced with the uncertainty of one another, of the danger other human beings still posed to them. Who should they trust? And who should they keep at arm’s length? He had fallen foul of people he thought were his friends, his neighbors. Distrust for others was why he had been alone when Devin had found him and why he had wanted to return to the farm, his farm, and be in a place he knew, not with Devin and the others at the prison. It was the reason he had survived for so long. But now, he couldn’t imagine anything else. He was glad Devin had shown up at the farm that day, even though his arrival had flipped everything he’d known on its head.
He had put his trust in Devin.
Noah looked from one family member to the next, then at Devin. They both knew this was the right thing to do. This was the human thing to do.