“I mean be as quiet as possible so we can make it to the compound undetected, and we won’t have any problems,” I said.
Nobody shot at us as we made our way into the town, so that was something. I didn’t see any signs of marauders, but that didn’t mean anything. All the houses had been damaged, lawns were torn up, and the streets were littered with smashed cars and broken furniture, as well as body parts and corpses.
A low rumble came from a tree next to us, and Boden turned toward it, aiming his gun at the monster in the branches. I looked with him and saw that it wasn’t a zombie, but something that made me much happier to see.
“No!” I shouted and pushed Boden before he could shoot her, and his gun went off, shooting emptily in the air.
“What the hell, Remy!” Boden yelled, but I ignored him.
“It’s my cat,” I said, stepping away from the others to see her.
Ripley leaped out of the tree and raced toward me, her ears poised happily. She almost knocked me down when she reached me and threw her paws around me in an awkward bear hug. Then she walked around me, rubbing her head against me, reminding me very much of the housecat she wasn’t.
The lioness was much bigger than when I’d seen her last. She was growing fat on a zombie diet. I ran my fingers through her course fur, and I actually couldn’t recall a time in recent memory that I was happier. Ripley rarely let me pet her, but she seemed just as happy to see me as I was to see her.
“I remember the lion,” Nolita said. “She was at the quarantine for a while before she escaped. I didn’t think she was friendly.”
“She’s not usually this friendly,” I admitted, scratching her behind the ears. “But she’s pretty tame.”
Nolita reached out and tentatively petted her back. Ripley let her and nuzzled her head into my stomach. It hurt, but I didn’t complain.
“I don’t mean to cut your reunion short, but we really ought to find shelter before dark,” Boden said. “Where is the compound?”
“Over that way. I think.” I pointed to the left. “It’s on this side of town. I know that much for sure.”
“Great.” He stepped to the side and gestured for me to go. “You lead the way.”
It had been so long since I’d been here, and it’d only been once. We’d left in a hurry in a car, so my directions weren’t the best. We wandered through the town, with Ripley staying close by. She actually walked at my side most of the time, stopping when she heard a noise and raising her ears.
We could hear the zombies, but we avoided them. A small pack of four zombies went by us down the street, and we hid in the living room of a rather decimated house. Ripley watched them from the front steps while we hid, and eventually the zombies passed by without noticing us.
But I’d seen them as I peered through the broken glass of the windows. One of them was wearing a marauder uniform – the black camo with a helmet. The zombies had gotten much worse since the last time I’d been here.
After the zombies passed us, we left the house, and we only had to round one more block before we found the compound. As soon as I caught sight of it, my heart froze in my chest.
The three white pillars in front were unmistakable. They were also the only things that were standing. The rest of the building had burned to the ground, collapsed in a pile of black rubble.
But that wasn’t where they really hid out anyway. It was underneath the house, in a tunnel through a cellar door.
“No, no, no,” I whispered and shook my head.
“This is it?” Nolita asked, staring at the same mess I was.
“No.” I shook my head and raced around to the back of it.
The doors were still in place, although they were charred black. The bush that had been hiding them was completely gone, burned down to a tiny stump. I threw open the doors, praying they were still down there, but the house had collapsed onto the stairs.
“No.” I repeated, as if that would somehow make it true.
I started digging at the rubble, the bricks and broken boards that blocked the path into the basement. Ripley had climbed onto a part of the wall nearby, and she watched me curiously as I tried to clear out the steps.
“Remy,” Boden said, and when I didn’t answer him, he grabbed my arm. “This is it, isn’t it?”
“No.” I let out a shaky breath. “I mean, it was. But …”
“If there were any survivors, they moved,” Bishop said. “This isn’t a safe place anymore.”
“It’s just like I said.” Nolita glared at me and Boden. “I said this place would be crawling with zombies, and we wouldn’t find anything here.”
“We have like eight bullets left, Nolita,” Boden pointed out. “And almost no food. It was worth a shot.”
She shook her head and pursed her lips but said nothing more on the subject.
“It’s getting dark, and we’re exposed,” Bishop said. “We need to find a place to stay for the night.”
“But …” I looked back at the rubble, swallowing a lump in my throat.
“We’re finding camp,” Boden said firmly and turned to walk away.
Daniels lingered behind with me, staring at the rubble, while the others began the search for a safe-ish place to hide.
“If your brother survived, he isn’t down there,” Daniels said softly. “And if your brother’s anything like you, he’s a survivor.”