Rosin started laughing, high-pitched and breathless.
Kaity stood up, clutching the pistol with white knuckles. She gasped twice, like an asthmatic. Decker turned around, clumsily, and shoved his tied hands at her. “Hurry, get me out of this.”
Cold fingers fumbled around his wrists, jerking at the cords. Seconds dragged by, and then his bonds went slack. Decker yanked his arms apart, shedding the cords, and blood stabbed back into his fingers.
“Help the others,” he said, and scrambled over the side of the jeep. His boots hit the sand and pain jagged through his body, dancing in all the places Jenni’s fists had landed. His vision splashed red, and he dropped to one knee.
He forced his eyes open. She’d laid his pistol on the sand–he snatched it up and scrambled to his feet. More pain. Fumbling his still-numb forefinger around the trigger, Decker scanned the desert down the gun’s barrel.
Just sand, broken highway, and ruined buildings. He stepped away from the jeep, panning the pistol in wide semi-circles.
Nothing. If the Infect was out there, it was hiding. Waiting.
Decker’s eyes burned, every line and detail of the landscape like a caustic drip in his vision. He mopped sweat from his eyebrows with his shoulder and swore through his teeth. The hurt from his beating and the sharper, needling hurt of withdrawal were intertwining in one big pain party, impossible to distinguish from each other.
Rosin stepped beside him, rubbing his arms. He choked on another laugh. “I can’t believe you had her shoot that thing.”
The numbness was shedding like dry skin, leaving rawness behind, stirring his thoughts into a bubbling whirlpool. He needed that med kit. He thought about Jenni grabbing it off the sand, and thought for one wild second about returning to Bowzerville and getting it back.
A humorless grin cracked his face. They were stranded in the desert, miles from their mission objective, uncomfortably close to the city that had just tried to kill them. Tyler was a hostage and missing an arm, and they were being hunted by a smiling Infect who liked playing cat and mouse. And right now the only thing that seemed to matter was replenishing the chemicals in his brain fluid.
“You’re looking pretty awful,” Kaity said. Her face had regained most of its color, and she watched him with an appraising twist in one eyebrow.
Decker turned back to watching the desert. “How’d you get my gun?”
“I can get into a lot of places other people can’t. One of my job’s perks.” She stepped in front of him, pulling a thin metal rod out of her waistband. “I also got this–only had room to carry one.”
An EMP grenade. What do you know. Decker took it from her. “Thanks.”
“Sure, thank me for grabbing one of your grenade things out of your jacket, not for shooting a bomb at close range and saving your life. That works.”
“That was an all-encompassing Thanks.” Decker turned to Rosin and Shonda. “We’ve got to go back and get the guns we buried. We’ll drop her off as close to Bowzerville as we can, and then we’ll hightail it for Vale.”
“We have no supplies,” Rosin said. “Water, Decker.”
Water. The inside of his mouth felt like it’d been swabbed with cotton. When was the last time he’d had a drink? He kept his face still, to avoid disturbing the still-forming bruises. “That’s why we’ll be hightailing it.”
Kaity stepped around him again, forcing herself into his vision. “Hey. I want to come with you.”
Decker stared at the girl. She met his gaze squarely, unblinking. The kid was serious.
“No,” he said.
“You think I saved your sorry skin just because you beat up my dad?” She glared. “You think I was going to thank you for that? Do you know what happens to a girl who tries to run this kind of business by herself?”
“That kind of business sucks,” he said. “You should try something else.”
Kaity barked a laugh. “I’m a girl toy, Decker, there is nothing else.” She stepped closer, and under the anger crackling in her eyes there was scared pleading. “Look, my dad at least treated me decent. I’m just going to end up with a new boss, and I know how the other bosses are to their girls. Least you can do is help me get away.”
He looked away, wiped sweat out of his eyes with his elbow. He didn’t know this girl. She shared a name with a sister Alice had told him about one time, and that was it.
She couldn’t come with them. She’d be in the way, just another person to to take care of. And if she knew what was really out there, waiting for them, toying with them, she wouldn’t want to come. If she’d seen Alice’s face as the blade had punched into her body–quivering with pain, gasping from ruined lungs.
The image surfaced in his mind like a nightmare, dimming his surroundings. The sound of his own breathing hissed in his ears, quickening along with his heartbeat.
He turned and limped toward the jeep. “We’re taking you back.”
“I got down on my stomach and shot a bomb, because you told me to!” Rage quivered through her voice. “Three feet from my shacking face, a bomb! I risked my life for you, and you’re just going to take me back?”
Decker leaned on the jeep, squeezing his eyes shut against the thundering of his pulse. At the back of his mind, formless thoughts raced around and over each other, churning like the ants under his skin, threatening to break apart and reveal what was underneath.
He clamped his free hand over the jeep door and squeezed. Rust bit into his palm, spiking pain through his forearm. He inhaled the pain, focusing through it. They were still in danger. He could not shut down now.
He turned back around. “Let’s go get our guns.”
“And the truck,” Shonda said.
Decker halted and shot her a look. She grinned at him. He shook his head. “What truck?”
“The one I stole,” she said. “Running pretty good, I think. I hid it out past where we hid the guns.”
Decker frowned. “Jenny and Lamar said they caught you in the middle of stealing a vehicle.”
She looked sheepish. “’Cause after the first one, I decided I wanted one with a gun on the top. So I went back, and then they jumped me.”
Decker looked at Rosin. Rosin blinked. “I didn’t know about this.”
“Okay,” Decker said. “Show us, Shonda.”
She smiled. “I hid it good. Come on.”
The truck was indeed hidden pretty good. About a mile from Bowzerville, under a broken-down overpass.
It was an unpainted, devoured by rust and absent of any doors. The tires were in decent shape, though, and according to Shonda, the gas tank was more than half full.
Maybe it’d get them as far as Vale.
Decker leaned against the hood and looked around at the coils of ruined road. Every fiber in his body hummed a symphony of pain that had only crescendoed during the hike up here. Part of him desperately wished the Infect would show up now, while he was physically able to lift his gun and blast it. But still no show.
Shonda leaned into the front seat, fiddling with the steering wheel. Rosin squatted, his recently-unearthed rifle on his knees, squinting down at it as he used his shirt to clean stray particles of dirt out of every crevice.
Decker looked over at Kaity. She stared out in the direction they’d come, no sign of emotion on her face.
“I don’t know that we can get you any closer,” he said. “Just be careful. Keep your head down.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Do people know you’re gone right now? Because when they don’t hear anything blowing up, they’re going to find out pretty quick we got away, and they might figure we had help. Be a good idea to come up with an alibi.”
She shrugged one shoulder. “Cindy, from the bar. She’ll cover for me.”
“Sorry,” he said, after a few more moments.
“Nah. I don’t even know why I bothered.” Kaity looked upward, nose wrinkling in a frown. “Whole thing was just stupid.”
She shook her head and started walking. Decker stood for a moment, then limped after her. “Wait a second.”
Kaity stopped, but didn’t turn around. Decker caught up, and she shot him a sidelong scowl. “What?”
“Look,” he said, voice lowered so Rosin couldn’t hear. “I don’t even know if we’re going to live through the next couple of days. But if we do, we’ll be coming back this way at some point. You still want to leave that badly, I’ll try to fix it so we can talk.”
Her expression didn’t change. “Sure.”
“Jenni and Lamar have one of our guys. His name’s Tyler.” He paused. “Maybe you could just keep an eye on him.”
“Look, I don’t know Tyler. I don’t know you, mister.” Kaity gave him a hard-edged smile. “And you don’t know me, just like you said a little earlier today. Seeya.”
She turned her ponytail on him and walked away. Decker stood for a few minutes watching her, then, wincing, turned and started back to the truck.
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