An excerpt from my recent novel, We are the Living, a post-apocalyptic love story. A more tender scene–at Mom’s advice 🙂
I examined his face. There was the beginning of a mask tan on his face. “Do you have to wear the mask all the time?” I asked, in a feeble attempt to redeem myself.
“No,” he said, no elaboration. He took another forkful and chewed slowly, the muscles of his jaw bunching and relaxing in slow, deliberate movements.
“I’m sorry. Perhaps not while you’re eating…”
“No, it’s fine,” he said after he swallowed, “I get along well there.”
“Yeah,” I said, half-laughed. “It looked like you’ve hit off with them.”
His lips twitched. “Heck of group of soldiers, in their own way.”
He shrugged and laughed sheepishly. “Not really. None of them actually are—heck, they have MP5 submachine guns from the army, but about all they know about them is how to pull the trigger. It scares the hell out of me.”
“Yes it does!” A man about my age with a respirator hanging around his neck plopped down beside Liam. He fixed me with a stare that was a little wild. “After Liam teaches us, we’ll know which end to point.”
“Oh, shut up.” Liam grinned, but his eyes flicked toward me. “Even Kayla knows which end of the gun to point, and she’s probably better shot than you.”
“I don’t want to think about that, Liam.” For all my big talk, I didn’t want to think or talk about shooting. Panic, like bile, rose in my throat. I’d had dreams of the grey-eyed infected, still wearing a business suit, flying backward in a pink spray.
I felt Liam’s gaze on me again.
Max leaned in, his rubber mask clunking on the table. “Is he right?”
“Leave it, Max,” Liam said.
“You’ve shot infected?” he asked.
Liam grabbed Max and pulled him back onto the bench. “Leave it!” He turned to me. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up.” His navy eyes said he could guess what I was thinking. And then his lips twitched. “And Max is generally an idiot. Ignore him.”
I pushed away my plate. “I’ll be fine.” I’d be fine, but I wouldn’t be eating. I couldn’t expunge the image from my mind that quickly.
Liam sighed, elbowed Max, and stood up. “Walk with me?”
We slipped out of the courtyard, across the piazza, past the rusted-out Siena truck, and meandered down the road toward the east wall, all without speaking.
As we turned around at the far end of town in front of Rudy’s wheat beds, we paused and stood facing each other in the middle of the road.
“Are you sleeping any better, Kayla?” He asked.
“A little.” It seemed that my sanity had returned after joining the greenhouse crew, as if belonging brought life back to me. “You?”
He shrugged. “About the same. Listen, when Max was… yammering back there. What did you see?”
I looked up at him and gulped. It all flashed before me again. Grey eyes. Lipstick. Poof! The gun knocked me on my ass as her blood sprayed all around. I forgot to breathe.
His warm, rough hand closed around mine. “You tell me yours, I’ll tell you one of mine. No judgment, I promise.”
I swallowed. “I saw… I saw me and Simone in the back of that truck we took from the GI. We drove into the pack of infected, and I shot this one. She was in a business suit and then she just… disappeared.”
Liam flinched hard, and I could almost see the scene play out on his eyes. “I didn’t see that. I’m sorry.”
I swiped at my eyes. “Your turn.”
“I keep dreaming about Alex,” he said. “I’m driving faster and faster toward Torino and I can hear him screaming in the back of the truck.”
I was gut-punched. “He didn’t scream.”
He pressed his lips together, hard. “When we get to Torino, it isn’t him dead in the truck. It’s you.”
We stared at each other, with the full weight of our shared horror hanging between us. It drew us together slowly, and I sagged against him, my face pressed into his neck. We didn’t cry. We were past sorrow.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered into his warm skin.
His hand slid up and caressed the back of my head. “Just don’t die, okay?”
“I’ll do what I can. Same to you.” I lifted my head and stared him in the face. “You take care of yourself, okay? Wear your mask, and sleep, and talk about… talk about this stuff.”
His face tightened and he sighed, “I’ll see what I can do.”
We began walking up the hill, slowly. “It bothers me that you aren’t armed here,” Liam said.
“That’s not Father Lucien’s style.”
“It’s my style,” Liam said, then quickly added, “Though I wish it wasn’t.”
“But do you need to fend off the infected any more?”
Far away a truck started up, and Liam glanced up the hill before looking me in the eye. “We’re not concerned about the infected. It’s the GI.”
The words I’d planned to say disappeared from my mouth. I blinked up at him.
He propelled me onward. The piazza was in sight. “I haven’t seen them recently. Don’t worry.”
“I wish you’d stay.”
“For my safety?”
We paused at the tailgate of the truck. Max and the other guy were already in the cab. Liam would be riding in the back, alone.
“I know I’m being stubborn about this,” Liam said quietly. “But I have my reasons, okay?”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I whispered. I reached out and touched his hand, and the look in his eyes squeezed the breath out of my lungs.