Centipede howled, clicking through the screech that caused Jaime’s bones to shiver from the flint-like strikes of teeth sliding against each other.
“Okay,” Jaime said, taking off at a gentle trot, “time to go. Keep up Kale, I may have saved your ass once but I’m not dying for it!”
“Yes ma’am!” Kale replied, running alongside her, knife held inverted in her left hand. They ran down the parking lot and onto an overgrown sidewalk that led deeper into downtown. When Jaime scanned ahead she didn’t see any zombies ahead of her, just tall grass and broken concrete, but knew too well the follies of assuming nothing was there. Kicking a chunk of cement up she snap-kicked it as if it were an old soccer ball and sent it tumbling into the weeds, where a loud crunch was heard, followed by several clicking rotten.
Kale stopped next to Jaime and listened, shaking her head. “There has to be a different way!”
Jaime pointed down a different road, one not clogged with weeds, an old rusted sign illegible beyond this point. “Know what’s down there?”
“No, I’m not from here,” Kale replied.
Jaime frowned. “Neither am I,” she said, “let’s learn together!”
They broke into a run as two rotten, both devoid of teeth and crawling with large spiders, began to slither out of the weeds, their bony limbs perfect for pushing them against the rocks slowly. Jaime looked back and saw Centipede standing with six rotten in the parking lot, clacking at them orders in the devil tongue that she was growing to hate. Every time she heard someone click their silverware against a clay plate or tap their teeth when around others, she thought of the zombies.
Made her happy to be alone, most of the time.
She winced when she heard Kale grind her teeth, and glared at the young girl as they jogged between and old gas station and past the peeled golden arches of an ancient McDonalds.
“What?” Jaime asked, “what are you thinking?”
“Huh?” Kale said, breaking from her reverie, looking over at Jaime, her eyes darting around at the lightly wooded area they were running into, “I was just wondering where this path led.”
“Okay then,” Jaime said, “like I said, we’ll find out. I know how to get back to where I need to be. I think I’m not going to be able to get what I originally came out here for, but maybe some lucky looting will win me some brownie points.”
“Brownie points?” Kale asked, confused.
Jaime shook her head. “Old world saying, means to have people look favorably on you for actions you performed in the past.”
“Oh,” Kale said, going silent as they continued their trot.
Jaime looked up just in time to duck beneath a branch as it swung in a lazy arc, a growl coming from a tree that with the speed of a crumbling wall, lurched from its place in the woods, plodding with heavy footsteps as it ran between Jaime and Kale in a mad attempt to gore them on leafy branches.
“What the fuck?” Jaime cried out, drawing an arrow to take aim, the she didn’t know where to aim for certain.
That’s when she heard the clicking.
Coming from high in the canopy, she could make out the vaguest outline of an upper body, suspended by branches and vines, which were intermingled with dried out strands of intestine. The zombie perched high above clicked high and loud, calling for others Jaime assumed. She fired off a wild shot, the arrow getting caught in foliage some five feet from the actual corpse.
“Shit,” Jaime said, “this plant crap is getting old! How are they bonding like this?”
“I have no idea, please, let’s just run!” Kale cried.
“Run ahead a good distance, watch out for more like this one,” Jaime ordered, “I have to kill this one before it calls down the rotten and others onto our trail. The others are slow, but this one can outpace us.”
As if wishing to demonstrate its abilities, the tree swiped down, forcing Jaime to roll backward into a crouch, the dirt and concrete where she’d been standing now torn up by the might of the bough. The zombie clicked a few times, before croaking in a low grinding fashion.
“God, I hate that noise,” Jaime said, drawing an arrow, “and I wish I had my old pistol, the one time I wouldn’t mind making some noise…”
Kale screamed as the tree swiped in a backhanded manner at her, slamming into her body, throwing her back ten feet amidst the rubble of the road, where she lay still.
“Kale!” Jaime screamed, raising her bow and firing into the side of the tree. She smiled when she saw an inky ichor well up from the wound, dribbling out like maple syrup from the strange tree. Running up, Jaime leapt onto the trunk and grabbed on for dear life before doing something she hadn’t really mastered until she was an adult.
Scaling the side of the rough bark was easy for someone who was used to urban environments. While she didn’t have any of her climbing equipment on her, this wasn’t a sheer surface by any stretch of the imagination. Pulling out a spare knife, Jaime sank it deep into the pulpy wood, tearing away a good chunk of meaty fiber before propelling herself above the three large branches that could grab her.
The zombie low croaking grew in intensity as its intestines wriggled, the arms waving in a mad dance at its sides, possibly in a mad attempt to manipulate the tree into shaking Jaime off like she was a bad case of fleas.
But she was worse than any bloodthirsty mite, and persevered, reaching her original arrow that’d been lodged in the twigs around the zombie. The twigs seemed to pulse and breathe around her, and the zombie hissed in anger as she grabbed onto slim branches, pushing her way into the canopy with a mad fury possessed only by someone who’d witnessed a child being slain mercilessly.
The zombie slammed her with a weak, bony fist when she came within reach. She ignored it, instead grabbing onto the front of the creature’s sternum, yanking herself up to the perch. In one fluid motion, she came within inches of its face, as if she were allowing herself to be pulled into lovers embrace.
Then she sank her knife into the side of its head, the same soft wooden texture that the tree was composed of marking the zombie. It fell limp and the tree groaned out as the limbs fell stiff. As if in slow motion, it began to topple. In a mad rush, Jaime grabbed the cadaver and gripped it hard enough to squeeze out a gallon of blackened slime from the creature on the ride down, finally crashing with a splintering of wood and snapping of bone.
Climbing out of the corpse tree, Jaime wiped off her jacket in disgust, before looking over at Kale where she lay. Heaving a sigh, Jaime walked over to the body to retrieve her knife.
“Maybe I can open her up and use her as bait for Centipede and his buddy, keep them off my trail?” Jaime muttered, spitting out an errant twig that’d found its way into her mouth.
Jaime jumped when Kale coughed, her body heaving up. “I’m not dead yet!” She cried, clutching her stomach, “though I kind of wish I was.”
Jaime ran over to Kale, looking her over. Her sweater was torn in a hundred places, revealing she was wearing a green tee shirt underneath. Jaime was about to say something when she noticed something poking from beneath Kale’s right sleeve. Grabbing her arm, much to the girl’s protest, she pulled up the shredded sleeve and looked at a fresh scar of a human bite. Stunned, Jaime didn’t even flinch when Kale yanked her arm back and scuttled ab few feet away, brandishing her borrowed knife at Jaime.
“You’re infected,” Jaime said, slightly dazed. She couldn’t believe she found someone like her, her own scar feeling like a brand at that exact moment, “you survived the bite wound.”
“Yeah!” Kale said, her voice wavering as she panted, “now leave me be! I can make it out of town on my own, I don’t need you. No need for you to put me down, or show me mercy. I’d rather see this life out to the end, thank you!”
“Kale, calm down,” Jaime said, holding her hands up in a placating manner, “I don’t care that you’re infected, alright?”
“Liar!” Kale spat, waving the knife as she scuttled back over the damaged road.
“Kale, listen, we need to get moving. The ghoul howled, and likely was heard. We have maybe two minutes before this area is swarming…” Jaime said.
“And you think I want that?” Kale demanded.
“No!” Jaime growled, “I think you want to live, just like I do!”
“I do! So, leave me be and let me go! You don’t have to kill me!” Kale said, tears welling in her eyes.
Jaime waved her hands in defeat. “Fine. Go then. I’m not going to kill you, but leaving will result in your death.”
“I can make it on my own!” Kale said, rushing to her feet.
Jaime snorted. “Yeah, you did great against the pack that had you and your grandfather, and the tree!”
Kale began crying at that, and Jaime felt a pang of regret for bringing the dead old man up. “You suck! Grandpa mean the world to me, and I know its my fault he died, but you don’t have to throw it at me!”
“Yeah, well, the truth hurts kid!” Jaime said, standing up from her crouched position, “Now I’m headed out. You’re free to join me, or free to wander in the most infested part of town on your own. Your choice.”
Kale lowered her head. “Grandpa said I’d better be smart and stay with him, but he’s gone. You did save me, so I guess you aren’t going to just try and kill me.”
“Of course not,” Jaime said, “being infected doesn’t make you dangerous. It just means you rise after you die. Guaranteed. And with the way this town is, that seems like it’s a high possibility already.”
Kale snorted, her tears slowing. “Lead the way then,” she said.
Jaime was about to say something when she heard it.
Laughing. No, not laughing…
"What the fuck is that?" Jaime asked, looking around. Kale, however, was already tugging on Jaime's hand to get her to move.