Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Blue Jean Regime (Part Two)
Don’t get bit. Crush their skulls. Find our baby.
Sounded simple enough until Jonas opened the door and they had to step over Connolly and Fitzgerald’s bodies. They'd been her security detail for two years, efficiently escorting her to and from necessary functions and safeguarding her when her mother was away from home, as she so often was. And now they lay decomposing on the blue tiled floor instead of standing at attention and greeting her with crisp military nods.
She swiped at the tears. Was she crying because she was sad about their deaths or because she was angry they’d been the ones who kept her locked in her room? Crud! Was she going to cry over every corpse? Maybe just the ones she’d known in life. And maybe just until the pregnancy hormones wore off. They were going to wear off, weren’t they?
Jonas touched her arm. “You okay? I know you cared for them. They were good to you, probably felt like part of your family, but this is just a glimpse of what's out there, what we're facing now. I want to tell you about everything, girl, but there's so much I don't know where to begin."
"How fast does it happen? I mean, if you get bit, how long do you have before -"
He shrugged. "About five minutes. Give or take a couple minutes on either side."
"Not time to say goodbye or get far enough away from the ones you loved to keep from turning on them, huh? I have so much to catch up on. Feels like we're in school again and I should be taking notes."
"How about you ask whatever questions come time to mind as we're heading for the nursery?! Seems like that might work better than me trying to figure out what to tell you and where to start.”
She nodded. "Okay, why are we moving so slowly when we're in such a hurry to find the baby?"
"See, that's good," he said, moving past the empty nurses station. "Didn't think to spell it out. Just kinda went through the motions like I was on autopilot. See, we got to clear the area as we move through it, make sure it's empty, so that nobody, living or dead, gets the jump on us."
"Like in cop shows, where they clear each room in a house as they look for a suspect?"
"Exactly! You got it. That way, we protect ourselves and also the folks who come through here after us."
She couldn't imagine who would come in here on purpose. Not now, when the lights were flickering, the hall was littered with corpses, and the air was still as death.
He motioned to the door at his left. "Okay, so sticking with that cop scenario, for now, we're partners. I'll take lead. You stay on my tail and protect my back. As time goes along and you pick up some skills, you can take point if you want."
Somehow, she'd forgotten how calm and rational he was. So easy to talk to. So quick to include her in things. So conscious of her needs and wants. "Do they try to stop you from killing them?"
"Who? The zeds?"
"The what? Zeds?"
He grinned and his dark eyes lit up. "Oh, well, that's what Donovan started calling them. Mix 'zombie' with 'undead' and you get 'zed.' Kinda catchy, huh? No, they don't seem to have any awareness other than the drive to bite you. Okay, now we're going to go into this room, slow and quiet. I'll take care of occupants. You close the door and stay behind me."
Act as partners. Clear the area. Watch his back.
She could totally do that. Back up her man. Okay, maybe he wasn't exactly hers but he'd come to her aid in the middle of a full blown zombie take over. And he did seem as invested in her well-being as the baby's. That had to mean something, right? Like maybe he still cared, hopefully.
For a moment, as the door swung open, she felt a jolt of relief that it was empty and then her chest froze and her teeth slammed into her lip as a misshapen body turned from the window, its distorted face scenting the air and then turning towards them.
Jonas raised his rifle and shot the zed in the center of its decaying forehead. It tottered, as though its body was slow to recognize it was finally dead, and then fell against the wall and slid to the floor.
Her stomach lurched and her eyes squinched closed. Get a grip. It was already dead. Stop acting like such a baby. Take a memo. This is life now. Get it figured out or your daughter is going to suffer for it.
She heard her name and looked up. "What? Didn't hear what you said. Was too busy berating myself."
He crouched beside her. "Well if you're done, cupcake, we got three more rooms before we can get to that nursery."
"Sorry. This is just ... "
He patted her hair. "Hey, I didn't mean for that to sound so harsh. I never wanted you to see shit like this. Damn it, that's not the whole truth. I didn't count on how much I didn't want you to see me kill someone. That woman over there on the floor, she was a new mom, same as you. I didn't feel any joy or pride in taking her out. It wasn't like scoring points in the video game. The only thought in my head was keeping us alive."
She scooted closer, so that their thighs and shoulders touched. "I spent a lot of nights watching you, Jay, and Donovan play that stupid game. And yeah, I cheered you on. Pushed you to get the higher score. And I don't know, but in some strange way, maybe it paid off and that's why you're alive, why we're alive. But I know you and I know you didn't feel any pleasure in doing what had to be done."
He put his cheek against her shoulder for a brief moment. "Thank you for that, because what you think about me, well, it matters."
She pushed his head off her shoulder, gently, and got to her feet. "Come on, partner. We've got more ground to cover. Maybe I can't make sense of all the things I feel about you but I trust you. If you say killing zeds is the safest way to go about protecting ourselves and our territory, that's what we'll do."
He stood up, headed for the door, and held the door open for her. "You better be careful talking like that. Might get a man to thinking you're sweet on him."
The hallway was still clear, as were the next three rooms, but the nursery was occupied and by the kind of occupant they were most hoping to avoid. Through the half shuttered windows, they could see a nurse moving from crib to crib, rotting jaw exposing gray decaying teeth that clicked and chattered, skeletal fingers clawing at the acrylic bassinets.
In quick purposeful strides, Jonas pushed into the room, and shot the nurse. Haley hurried past him, searching the cribs, scanning for a pink tag that read 'Baby Buchanan.' Should have said 'Baby Kiddrick' but mama had negated that right off.
All the cribs were empty, blankets rumpled and booties left behind. No baby girls and no cribs with the pink tag. Voice high and tight, she said, “My mom must have her, right?"
Jonas ran a hand through his hair and turned away from her. "I’m telling you right now, if your mom took our baby, I’m going to .... Give me a minute, okay? I need to get myself under control before I say something that hurts you."
While he did so, she started shuffling through charts, drawers, and papers. “Look, one of the babies was transferred here after he gained enough weight to leave the intensive care nursery. Maybe that’s where our baby is – next door in the NICU. Makes no sense but it's possible, right?”
They took the hall at a run, skidding to a stop when they saw a pair of zeds roaming among the raised cribs.
"It's okay," Jonas said, breathing hard. "I'll lead, you follow. We got this."
Partners. Trust. Order. All of those concepts dissipated in the face of her terror when one of the zeds bumped a button that raised the protective cover of the nearest incubator. Smashing her hand into the emergency fire box, Haley grabbed the axe and rushed the putrefying nurse, slamming the axe into her skull and knocking her to the floor.
She heard the shot Jonas fired, the thud as the second zed crashed into frame of the incubator, and the sound of crying though it took her a moment to realize she was the one crying.
Jonas was instantly beside her. "Are you hurt? Aw shit, Haley! Tell me you didn't get bit! Talk to me!"
Stupid hormones were gonna keep screwing with her, weren't they? "I'm okay. I'm fine. Really. Just mad because that stupid zombie, zed, whatever you call it, got blood on my slippers."
"The world has gone to hell and you're crying over bloody bunny slippers? Oh, here now. I'll stop teasing you if you stop crying, okay? I'll get you new slippers, girl. I promise. Now, come on. Let's take a look in the incubator."
She reached for the armband and lined it up with her own. “They don’t match, Jonas, but I know it's her.” She stopped talking, turned the baby over and peered at her left heel. “It is! See this mark? I was looking at her toes last night and accidentally scratched her heel. See the little boo-boo right there? Oh my god, I was thinking what a terrible mom I was, scratching my baby, but it just saved her, saved us.”
"I don't need an armband or barcode to tell me this is our daughter. She has your face. Well, that's my nose, isn't it, but the rest, that's all you. I don't know why she's in here but let's take her chart with us and have somebody with medical training look at it. My sis, or somebody else you're more comfortable with."
She lifted the baby out of the crib and held her close. “It’s okay, sweetpea. We’re here. Look, daddy’s here too. We’re all together now.”
Jonas drew his girls into a hug.
Into his shoulder, Haley said, “Elizabeth.”
He kissed the baby’s forehead. “What?”
“That’s the name I was thinking of. It was your mother’s, right?”
“Yes. I love that you'd choose it for that reason, but I'd rather it was her middle name.”
“I'm okay with that. What do you have in mind for her first name?”
He kissed her temple. “You’ll laugh, but from the moment you said she was a girl, I started thinking about the very first man and woman, and how they found themselves occupying a strange new world, and how they invested themselves in that garden, how they cared for the garden and the garden cared for them.”
You want to name our daughter Eden?”
“Yes, I do. I mean, if it’s too weird, we can make it her middle name, or you can tell me there's no way in hell you'd agree to it, but it just seems perfect. Look at her. Beautiful like you. Going to be smart like you too.”
She stroked the child's soft chubby cheek. "Sweet, strong, and funny like her daddy, too."
"What about charming and irresistible?"
She brushed a quick kiss along his jaw. "Yes, that too, but how about we continue this conversation in the safety of my room?"
"Good idea. You get Eden wrapped up nice and secure, in case we bump into company on the way back and I'll gather up all the supplies I can find. We're going to need diapers, blankets, that kind of stuff, right?"
All of those things awaited them back home at the nursery her mother had designed but none of it would be put to use now. She and Jonas would have to start from scratch, build a life for themselves and Eden, moment by moment, day by day. Maybe that was the way it was supposed to be.
She tore a crib sheet into strips, knotted them together, and used the improvised rope to secure the baby to her chest. Not as fancy as the top-of-the-line baby carrier she'd been eyeing in the swank baby catalogs her mama didn't know she'd stashed in her nightstand drawer, but it would work just as well for now.
"If you ladies are ready," Jonas said, pushing past them with a laundry cart piled high with baby supplies, "we should get settled in before sunset. Nightlife is a bit dicier to deal with so let's hunker down for the night and get a fresh start in the morning. And look what I found! A little bottle of bubbly to celebrate Eden's birth!"
Damn if that didn't make her burst into giggles. She'd spent months crying over the situation and hiding from her mother's furious disappointment, the rampant rumors at school about her pregnancy, and the horror and helplessness she felt when she learned how her mother had retaliated against Jonas.
He'd been stripped of his wrestling records and awards, expelled from school for the remainder of the year, and barred from the graduation ceremony. She'd been so sure he'd spent every moment since then hating her, planning how to get even, maybe even going so far as to take their baby away from her, just for spite. But here he was, as affectionate, confident, and energetic as ever.
Maybe her guilt, heartache, and imagination had gotten the best of her. Maybe her mama's lectures about slutty girls, horny boys, and illegitimate babies was out-of-date propaganda. Maybe Jonas wasn't the angry vengeful boy she'd pictured all these long lonely weeks. So many maybes flitting through her mind. Maybe it was time to open the window and chase them out.
Yes. That's exactly what she was going to do. Tonight, she was going start growing up. Curl up, drink up, and make up with Jonas Kiddrick. Tomorrow, they could figure out the logistics, together. But tonight, she was going to tell her brain to shut up and let her heart speak up.
Smart tough guy. Safe sleeping baby. Soft tender feelings.
In spite of it's uncertainties, life was awfully sweet at the moment.
Like what you just read? Have a question or concern? Leave a note for the author! We appreciate your feedback!
A reader by birth, paper-pusher by trade and novelist by design, story-telling in my passion. If you enjoyed reading today's story, please consider checking out my blog bullishink.com, joining my creative community sweetbananaink.com or participating in the madcap twitter fun @bullishink.