'Did they follow us?' Ben bounced the tip of his baseball bat up and down, catching it in his palm.
Alberto bent down, his rifle perched on his knees, his fingers tracing over the prints. The sun bloomed through a break in the clouds, its light catching in the crystals all over the ground. The previous night brought more ice than snow. Ben stood behind Alberto, scanning the forest. The breeze brought the hint of a moan from town.
'Just one,' Alberto said, pointing to a set of prints, the left foot strong and clear, dragging the right behind. 'It went into the forest.'
'Maybe a bear got it.'
'No bears awake this time of year.'
'Think it's still there?'
'Want to check?'
Ben glanced towards the deep growth that surrounded the town, breaking only for the two roads that gave access to the outside world. Inside, between the trees, it was dark as coal. 'I'll pass.'
Alberto grunted and stood upright, resting the rifle on his shoulder and nodding with his chin towards the town. 'Vamanos.'
For the first hundred yards, they followed the previous day's path, running close to the forest: two trails of shoeprints engraved into the snow and a thick rivet cutting through, where they dragged Álvaro. The trench was stained with what Álvaro lost. Animal tracks intersected their main conduit. Deer and coyote, rabbit and squirrel, shooting out from the woods, across the baseball field and towards the pond they used to call a lake, twenty foot deep at most, just shy of a football field in size.
The two men moved swiftly past the front school buildings and down Gilead, crouching as they weaved between empty cars backed up from Statesboro Road. A collision blocked the intersection, and it looked like a mass of them swept through the traffic, taking many by surprise as they waited in their cars. Bodies remained, each in the middle stages of consumption and putrefaction. The stench was visible, wavering like a heat mirage. In the middle of the junction, Alberto stood on the hood of a pickup and looked down his sight in each direction. 'A few further down Gilead,' he said, 'but I can't see anything where we're going.'
Ben nodded as Alberto jumped to the pavement and they went the two blocks further to the drug store at the mouth of a shopping center. Behind it, a pizza parlor, a seafood restaurant, and a furniture store. To one side an all-night diner, the other a gas station. For many years, this was the busiest part of town, but today they were alone. The two passed through the parking lot and bent down on each side of the large, glass door swinging on the breeze.
'Let's not fuck this up again,' Alberto said, trying to make eye contact with his compatriot.
'Look, man, I said I'm sorry.'
'Not me you have to apologize too.'
'He'll be fine.'
Alberto grimaced and moved his gaze to the darkness within. 'You make a mistake and people get hurt. You have to deal with that.'
The day before, three men left the school. The group of twenty, most too young or old to travel out for supplies, were hunkered in the building furthest from town. One man was dragged back, slowly fading as the women tried to keep the infection at bay. Alberto listened carefully and when they were sure the drug store was empty, they crept inside and turned on their flashlights.
'You have your list?' Alberto said.
'Yeah. You get the medicine, I'll get the rest.'
Alberto nodded and they separated, Ben moving through the front aisles, filling his pack with batteries and canned food. When that was full, he grabbed a few paper bags from the cashier's stand and took all the bottled water he could find. He judged he could carry three bag's worth in his left hand, keeping the right free for the bat. In the back, Alberto jumped over the pharmacy counter and picked through the stacks, grabbing antibiotics and bandages. He stopped repeatedly, listening for anything beyond the sounds of Ben rummaging. Once he had everything he came for, the man followed the noise and stood in the dark for several long minutes, watching Ben hum a discordant melody as he pushed more bottles into his bag. Alberto adjusted the strap on his shoulder and his left hand traced the barrel of his rifle, the metal cool and smooth. An idea ran through his mind and he followed it until Ben turned around and jumped, dropping the bag. It landed with a dull thud and several bottles rolled out over the floor.
'Shit, 'Berto, you scared me.'
The clouds moved between the two men and the sun, casting long shadows like the spidery fingers of childhood nightmares as they backtracked without a sound towards the school. At the intersection, Alberto climbed back on top of the truck and looked towards the horde he had spotted earlier. They were closer and he counted ten of them moving slowly through the traffic, moaning, a block away. A male stopped and sniffed at the air. The skin along its jaw torn away, exposing broken tooth and rotten gum. The scraps of clothes they still wore were matted with blood and snow. They moved sluggishly, even more so as they fought the cold, legs and arms hanging awkwardly as they moved, jaws snapping unconsciously, always moaning.
'Shit, how many of them are there?' Ben took a step closer and stood between Alberto and the crowd, squinting his eyes to get a better look.
When Ben turned around, his eyes went large and his lips formed a whisper that was overpowered by the sound of the rifle firing. The bullet tore his knee, ripping bone and muscle. He fell to the ground with a whimper that gave way to a piercing scream.
The horde heard everything and they moved faster, legs shuffling forward, inch by blind inch, on feet bloated with lividity, the wind passing over mortified larynxes creating a chorus of moans that spread throughout Ben's existence.
'I said I was sorry, man,' Ben said, snot and tears leaking down his face.
Alberto dropped to the ground and put the smoking barrel to the prone man's forehead. After a moment he raised the gun and brought the butt crashing into Ben's forehead. With his foot he shoved the man onto his stomach and slid the satchel from his shoulder.
'Berto, man, fuck, I didn't mean to get your brother bit. It was an accident.'
'You didn't kill Álvaro, and I won't kill you.' He put the satchel over his shoulder and picked up the bags Ben dropped. He moved up Gilead, towards the school, as the moans and the screams from Ben got louder. He heard a ripping sound, then a gurgle as Ben went quiet.