“You know, after trying some of the stuff that passes as food in the real world, I’m starting the think the cooks at the labs had a little something going for them,” Mouse murmured, poking at what was apparently a salad.
“The burgers are okay though.” Nicole took another big bite of the hulking creation spilling from her hands.
“And the ice cream,” I chimed in, watching the people walking along the beach. They looked like silhouettes. The sun sat low over the water; rose streaked the thin clouds of the horizon behind them.
“Hey, Kayla.” Mouse said the words in a soft voice, but something in her tone told me things weren’t okay. “I think the guy by the bar is watching you.”
I turned casually as I reached across Nicole to steal some of the fries left on her plate. She slapped my hand away, but I managed to see whom Mouse was talking about. It was the man from earlier.
“How long’s he been there?”
“Since the food arrived.”
“I probably remind him of someone else.” I tried to look uninterested, but I felt the tug of fear in my stomach that seemed to be becoming too familiar.
Mouse gave him another glance but seemed satisfied enough with my opinion.
I pushed away the pathetic excuse of a salad I’d been working on and grabbed the burger next to it, shoving a handful of fries into my mouth.
“Although first reported in South Carolina, zombie sightings have been flooding in from as far away as Alabama, Tennessee and West Virginia.”
I froze mid-chew, brain processing the words that blared from the television over the bar. I elbowed Nicole, but she was already focused on the news reporter.
“Soldiers and scientists are working together to locate and contain the creatures, but they’re proving difficult to capture and even more difficult to kill. Their origins are still unknown, but they are spreading quickly. If you, or anyone you know, come into contact with them, or if you have any information, please call the number at the bottom of the screen. People are reminded to remain inside their houses when possible. Lock your doors and cover any windows, which could be used as access points.”
The anchor moved onto another topic but still I stared at the TV. Why had the scientists not contained the experiments? Why were they letting such dangerous things wander around among innocent people?
We ate our meals in silence, inhaling what remained on our plates. We made a quick detour to the store for more ice cream—caramel crème since the chocolate was gone—before heading out onto the pier.
Leaning against the barrier, we watched the stars and the moon. Tiny waves lapped against the shoreline under the darkened sky.
“What are we going to do about the creatures?” I gazed at the horizon.
“Nothing,” Briana answered sharply. “They’re not our problem.”
“No,” Nicole cut me off. “It’s too dangerous to go back there.”
I couldn’t believe Nicole was siding with Briana on this one. “What about the people who are getting hurt?”
“You heard them. They’ve got the army and scientists. They don’t need us.”
“We’ve got more important things to think about,” Briana said, “like how to get our hands on more money. This isn’t going to last forever.”
“We’ll need to find jobs,” Mouse said quietly.
“Can’t we withdraw more from his cards?”
“Not here,” Mouse didn't turn to face us. “They can trace them. We don’t want them to know where we are.”
Briana huffed, slouching against the pier.
“I’ll check online later, see if I can find anything. There was a computer in the television room,” Mouse volunteered.
I lowered my eyes to the water washing gently against the pillars below us. How could they think those creatures weren’t our problem? The scientists and soldiers obviously weren’t doing enough. In only a couple of days, they’d spread across several states. Were they doing anything at all?
I gazed at each of the girls in turn. Could they really let those creatures roam freely?
My throat tightened as footsteps approached from behind us. They were heavy and purposeful. No one had been on the pier when we’d walked out and those on the beach were ambling leisurely along.
Shock rippled through me as I turned and recognized the man from the restaurant. I straightened, crossing my arms over my chest.
“So, are you going to screw around? Or are you going to tell me what’s going on?” he demanded, stopping several yards away from us. His face was stern but I could detect an underlying hint of anger in his voice.
I couldn’t hide the shock from my face nor still the tug at my gut that told me I needed to get away from him.
“What are you talking about? You’re the one who’s been watching us.” I could see where the fabric of his jacket buckled against a shoulder holster. It was tempting to reach for my own gun, but I resisted the urge. I was sure, if it came down to it, I’d be faster than him on the draw. “Who are you? And why are you following us?”
He completely ignored my questions. “You shouldn’t be here. She was supposed to take you away.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” He wasn’t making any sense. “Who was supposed to take us away? Where to?”
The word hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the last thing I’d expected this stranger to say. I hadn’t heard that word in years, the one that could stop me in my tracks; my mother’s name.
“How did you know her?” Pain throbbed in my chest as the memories of Mom resurfaced. I swallowed, imagining that the action somehow pushed back the emotions trying to rise within me. I needed to keep a clear head.
“Because I was the one who organized it. All she had to do was get you past the gate,” he said. “You never showed.”
“It?” I asked, confused
“Why would she try to free us? And I’ll ask again, who are you?” I’d never seen this man in my life and now he was talking like he expected me to understand.
“Why do you think? You ran away. There must be some reason you didn’t want to stay there.” He was still ignoring my questions. “You don’t think she liked keeping you there any more than you liked being there, do you?”
I’d often wondered about that. How she could let them treat us that way? But I’d come to terms with it long ago. It was part of the deal, she didn’t have a choice.
“Can you answer her other question now?” Nicole's voice was steady, but the tense set of her shoulders told me she wasn't totally at ease.
He glared at her. “I’m not going to jeopardize my family by telling you things you don’t need to know.”
“How could we do anything to your family?” I’d never seen this man before nor had any idea that he had family, let alone where they might be.
“I don’t know you. And I don’t trust you to keep your mouth shut. That’s the end of the discussion.”
That line of questioning was getting us nowhere. “Where were you supposed to take us once she’d done her part?”
“Not them, you.”
“Why would she leave us behind?” Briana seemed offended by his words.
Trying to figure out what he was going on about was making my head hurt.
“She wanted to get all of you out, but we couldn’t manage four, only one. You’re the one they would have missed the most.”
“Why would they miss me? I’m no different than the others.” I turned to Nicole, willing her to confirm my statement.
“She said you were special. You’re the one the scientists most wanted to keep,” he explained. “Obviously, you’re different enough to matter.”
“When was this escape planned for?” Nicole asked.
His words were a slap in the face. A pain stabbed deep within my chest before I could close off that train of thought.
Nicole's jaw tensed as he finished speaking. “That’s the day she died.”
I sometimes wondered if Nicole remembered our mom as I did or if she considered her nothing more than a glorified babysitter. The way she talked about her sometimes revealed neither warmth nor affection; it all seemed to be about the facts.
Nicole was often hard to read, amazing at concealing her emotions, but not this time. I heard her swallow and out of the corner of my eye I saw her head droop forward a few degrees, although not removing her eyes from this mysterious man.
There was still something there for Mom. A little warmth fluttered inside me. She still thought of Mom like I did.
I began to speak but a distant growl crept into the back of my mind. It was similar to, but not quite the same as, the earthquakes over the last few days. The other girls heard it too. Their bodies stiffened, ready to spring into action.
What surprised me was the awareness that ignited in the man’s eyes.
“Run!” he yelled.