Dumbo shakes his head. “Thought I saw something,” he whispers. “Guess not.”
We hold for a minute. It’s so damn quiet. You’d think the town would be overrun with packs of wild dogs barking and feral cats howling or even a damn owl hooting, but there’s nothing. Is it all in my head, this feeling of being watched? That there’s something out there I can’t see but can sure as hell see me? I glance at Dumbo, who’s clearly just as spooked.
We move out, not on the quick now but sidestepping to the opposite side of the street, where we slide along the wall of the consignment store facing the dealership (SPRING INTO SAVINGS THIS MEMORIAL DAY!). We don’t stop until we reach the next intersection. Check right, check left, then straight ahead toward downtown, three blocks away, the buildings’ big boxy shadows silhouetted against the starry sky.
We trot across the intersection, then stop again on the other side, pressing our backs against the wall and waiting—for what, I’m not sure. We scoot past busted-out doors and shattered windows, the sound of glass crunching under our boots louder than sonic booms, another block, then repeating the drill, left around the corner, right across Main, then zipping to the relative safety of the next building on the opposite corner.
We make it another fifty yards and then Dumbo tugs on my sleeve, leading me through a broken glass door and into the near dark of a shop. Brown pebbles crunch underfoot. No, not pebbles. The smell is faint, barely discernible beneath the familiar rot of sewage and the spoiled-milk odor of plague, but we both pick it up, and there’s a little ache of nostalgia when we do. Coffee.
Dumbo eases down in front of the counter, facing the doorway, and I give him a look: What’s up?
“I loved Starbucks,” he sighs. Like that makes everything perfectly clear.
I sit beside him. I don’t know, maybe he needs a break. We don’t talk. The minutes drag out. Finally, I say, “We gotta be the hell out of this town by sunrise.”
Dumbo nods. He doesn’t move. “There’s someone out there,” he says.
“You saw them?”
He shakes his head. “But I feel them. You know? I feel them.”
I think about it. Paranoia. Has to be. “We could try to draw their fire,” I suggest, humoring him.
“Or distract them,” he says, glancing around the store. “Blow something up.”
He rummages through his sack and pulls out a grenade.
“No, Dumbo. Not a good idea.” I ease the grenade from his hand. His fingers are colder than the metal.
“They’re gonna slide in behind us,” he argues. “We won’t even see it coming.”
“Well, I’d rather not see it coming.” I smile at him. He doesn’t smile back. Dumbo’s always been the coolest player on the team, probably why they picked him to be the medic. Nothing fazed the kid. At least, nothing till now.
“Sarge, I got an idea,” he says, leaning so close, I can smell the chocolate from the power bar on his breath. “You stay here. I go on ahead—but in a different direction. Once I draw them off, you can haul ass due north and—”
I stop him. “That’s a terrible idea, Private. A really, really terrible idea.”
He isn’t listening. “That way, at least one of us makes it.”
“Stow that shit. We’re both gonna make it.”
Shaking his head. His voice breaks. “I don’t think so, Sarge.”
He rips off his eyepiece and stares at me for one very long, very uncomfortable moment. He looks startled, as if he’s seen a ghost. Then Dumbo lunges at me, rising to his feet and coming straight at me with hands outstretched like he’s going to grab me by the throat and choke the life out of me.
I raise my own hands instinctively to block the attack. Oh Christ, oh Christ, the big-eared sonofabitch was right, it woke up, the thing woke up in him.
My fingers catch hold of his jacket. Dumbo’s head snaps back. His body stiffens, then goes limp.
I hear the report of the sniper rifle a second later, the kind of rifle with a laser-guided scope, which fired the bullet that a second before was coming straight at my head.
The bullet that Dumbo took for me, accepted without hesitation, because I’m the man, the CO, the thick-headed moron that the enemy in all his infinite wisdom put in charge of keeping our asses alive.
I GRAB HIM by the shoulders and drag him behind the counter. Out of the line of fire but also cornered; I don’t have much time. I put him on his stomach, yank up the jacket and the two shirts underneath to expose the wound. A quarter-sized hole right in the middle of his back. The bullet has to be inside him—otherwise I’d be hit, too. His chest moves. He’s breathing. I lean down and whisper in his ear, “Tell me what to do, Dumbo. Tell me.” He doesn’t say anything. Probably needs all his energy just to breathe.
Zombie, you can’t stay here. That calm, Ringerish voice again. Cut him loose.
Sure. Cut him loose. That’s my thing. That’s how I roll. I cut my sister loose, I cut Poundcake loose. They go down and I keep going.
I crawl around to the front of the counter, grab Dumbo’s bag, and go back to him. He’s curled into a ball, knees pressed against his chest, and his eyelids flutter like someone having a bad dream. I tear through his med kit, looking for the gauze. I have to pack the wound. I remember that much from my one and only course in battlefield injuries at Camp Haven. If I don’t pack it and pack it fast, he could bleed out in less than three minutes.
The other thing I remember from that course: It hurts like hell. Hurts so goddamned bad, the first thing you’re supposed to do is take away the patient’s weapons.
So I pull his sidearm from the holster and tuck it behind my back.
There should be a thin metal rod in the kit—you use it to push the gauze into the wound—but I can’t find it.
Bug out, Zombie. You’re outta time.
I push the gauze into the hole in his back with my finger. Dumbo bows up. He screams. Then he instinctively tries to escape, clawing at the base of the counter for a handhold, and I wrap the fingers of my free hand around his neck to keep him still.
“It’s good, Bo. It’s all good . . .” Whispering in his ear as my finger sinks inside him, pushing the wad of gauze ahead of it. More gauze. Gotta pack it tight. If that bullet sliced an artery . . .