It took a moment for Joel to regain his senses. Behind him a gun battle raged on; the Fireflies had struck again. Up ahead, Tess sprinted away, heading toward the dilapidated tenement building across the street. Holding his wounded elbow against his side, he followed. From the speakers overhead, the woman’s unaffected voice droned over the loudspeakers: “All civilians must clear the surrounding area immediately.”
He ran past the orange and white barrels propped high on old tires, sloshing his way through a deep puddle in the street. To his right was a building that was tattooed with the familiar red & white WANTED signs of half a dozen known leaders of the Fireflies.
The Humvee from earlier drifted into position, the muzzle of the .50 caliber machine gun following Joel’s movement. It wasn’t safe to be on the street in this situation - soldiers shot first and asked questions never. Tess knew this, which is why she was running so fast.
“Goddamn Fireflies,” he cursed under his breath.
“Joel!” she scolded. “Let’s go! C’mon!”
As they turned up the street, Joel saw other residents quickly disappearing into buildings, like roaches caught in a flashlight’s beam. Tess was fast - she was fifty yards in front and headed toward the steps leading to an entrance in the far tenement building.
She reached the steps of the entrance and stopped to catch her breath. “Looks like the coast is clear,” she said. She headed up the steps toward the heavy double doors. “C’mon.”
Joel jogged up the steps just as the monotone recording repeated: “Attention. Checkpoint Five is now closed until further notice. All civilians must clear the surrounding area immediately.” Tess was holding the door open for him and he ducked inside.
He followed her into the darkened hallway, closing the door behind him. Tess turned and looked at him. She sighed. “Fuck. So much for the easy route.”
They were in a quiet lobby of an old apartment building; minimal power, paint-chipped walls, the smell of rotting wood. The large checkered tile beneath their feet was dingy and gray. Some of the doors in the hallway were barricaded with the familiar military locks: iron bars that expanded into door frames in both directions, with an Army placard in the center bearing a unique ID number and a warning not to intrude.
Tess saw the nasty gash just below Joel’s elbow. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” he said. Thankfully whatever had grazed him had missed the bone, but it sure stung like hell. “Just a flesh wound.”
Tess pulled a small roll of gauze from her back pocket. “Here,” she said, handing it to him. “Patch yourself up.”
Joel took the roll and nodded. He quickly dropped to one knee and wound the gauze around his forearm, pulling it tight. When he was done, he used his teeth to rip the gauze free, then rose and handed the roll back to Tess. The whole affair took less than a minute.
“Good,” she said, nodding with satisfaction.
She turned and headed down the hall. “They’re gonna close all the checkpoints. We’re gonna have to go around the outside.” She turned to her left and headed down another dark hallway. A dim bulb flickered overhead.
Joel wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “Outside the wall?” Two things immediately sprung to mind: trigger-happy soldiers and flesh-ripping infected. Neither filled him with confidence.
“Or,” Tess said, giving him another choice, “we could just let Robert go.”
Joel grunted and said, “Cute.” They both knew that wasn’t an option.
As they approached the end of the hall, a dark figure rose from a chair. The faint light overhead shimmered on the black man’s glasses. It was Lawrence, one of the tenement building’s younger residents. Joel knew him vaguely.
“Hey Tess,” he said, falling in step with her. “You see that shit?”
“I was there,” Tess said simply and without bravado.
As they walked down the hallway together with Joel lagging a few feet behind, Tess looked at the young man and asked, “Hey, how’s the east tunnel looking?”
“It’s clear. I just used it. No patrols.”
The trio rounded another corner, this time to their right. A fire extinguisher hung on the wall.
“Where you off to?” Lawrence asked.
“Gonna pay Robert a visit.”
They entered a long hallway. Dark shadows interspersed with pale light. A ceiling fan turned slowly up ahead. The entire hallway appeared eerie and almost completely vacant. Another extinguisher hung askew near the corner.
Tess hesitated and her eyes narrowed. “Who else is looking for him?”
“Uh, Marlene. She’s been asking around, trying to find him.”
“Marlene?” There was incredulity in her voice. “What do you the Fireflies need with Robert?”
The young man snorted. “You think she’d tell me?”
Joel noticed another resident sitting in a chair against the wall with his arms folded across his chest. This one appeared to be either sleeping or comatose. Joel couldn’t have cared less either way. A wire cage sat beside him. Inside were a handful of pigeons gently cooing.
“Well, what did you tell her?” Tess seemed unfazed by this other man’s presence.
“The truth. I got no idea where he’s hiding,” Lawrence replied.
“Good man,” she said. “Hey, you stay out of trouble, all right? Military’s gonna be out in force soon.”
“Yeah,” Lawrence replied. “See you around.” He walked a few feet further and then took a position by leaning beside one of the locked doors, shoving his hands into the pockets of his coat. Joel met his gaze as he walked by and said nothing. Joel lived by one simple rule: the less friends you had in the zone, the better.
He and Tess walked along in silence, approaching another turn. Joel lagged a few feet behind her in her shadows.
Once alone again, Tess spoke as she turned left down another hallway. Her voice was low: “Marlene looking for Robert? What do you make of that?”
“I don’t like it,” Joel grumbled. “We better find him before the Fireflies do.” He could still hear the warning sounds from the emergency alarm wailing outside the walls of the building.
Finally they reached the end of the hallway. An old sofa cushion, stained and mildewed, sat against the far wall. To Joel’s immediate left was an open doorway. Tess strolled inside without knocking and Joel followed her.
They entered an apartment with sparse furnishings. Windows lined the far walls, their dingy glass partially obscured by broken levolor blinds. A small wooden table squatted against the wall to the right, sporting a few plates and bowls. The walls were in the same dilapidated condition as the hallways: marred by peeling paint and water stains. The wooden floor was warped in places and littered with debris.
In the center of the living room was a pale area rug, a worn leather sofa and a gray loveseat. The apartment was occupied by a sole resident sitting alone on the edge of the sofa. Behind the loveseat stood a battered mahogany bookshelf showcasing a busted television, and nailed to the wall beside it, for entertainment, a dartboard.
Tess approached the man without a hint of concern. “This is us,” she said to Joel, exhaling.
The man on the sofa sat with his hands in his lap and looked up from a fog of either drugs or alcohol. “Hey guys. How’s it going?” he asked, a slight slur to his words. He didn’t bother to stand.
“Shit’s stirring up out there,” Tess replied. Joel was near the window and could hear the sirens still blasting their alarm. “How we looking over here?”
“Ah,” the man said, scratching his stubbled chin with dirty fingernails. “It’s been quiet. No signs of military or infected.” The man’s eyes lifted to Joel’s. They regarded each other a beat before the man glanced away.
“That’s what I like to hear,” Tess said, her tone cheery.
The man made a vague gesture to the entertainment center behind the weather-stained sofa. Joel waited for the man to acknowledge his presence but the stranger avoided his gaze. The air was thick with an uncomfortable silence; there was something about this friend of Tess Joel didn’t like. He wished she was as guarded as he had become. It only took one loose pair of lips for the military to make damn sure neither of them were heard from again.
Joel moved toward the mahogany case. Ripped through the drywall and wooden slats behind it gaped a jagged hole, big enough for a man to step through and barely hidden by the edges of the bookcase. Tess took up position on one end of the entertainment center and motioned Joel to the other.
“Joel, gimme a hand with this.”
He gripped the edge of the heavy piece of furniture and together they slid it out of the way. The books on the top of the shelf fell and an empty bottle tumbled onto its side.
As Tess stepped through the hole and disappeared into darkness, he heard the man on the sofa snort. “Y’all take it easy out there.”
Joel didn’t reply but the hairs on his neck rose and sent a feeling of dread throughout his body. He jumped through the hole and fell into a pit of blackness.
He felt Tess’s presence beside him.
“God,” she gasped. “This place reeks! They need to watch what they throw away down here.”
They swam in a sea of darkness. A disgusting Molotov aroma of sour milk, human waste and rotting wood filled his nostrils. He could feel the gag in his throat rising.
In the distance, a gas-powered, single-stroke engine purred. The generator. He heard Tess reach for the light switch and flick it on, and in the next instant the underground basement was filled with light. Joel squinted, raising a hand to shield his eyes.
“Let there be light,” Tess pronounced.
Concrete floor, wooden tables. Iron beams embedded within the brick walls. He followed Tess around the corner into a room to her right. Now they were crawling through a makeshift tunnel, a shielded industrial lamp pulsed with light above their heads.
“Let’s grab our gear,” Tess said.
A concrete pipe waist high stretched across the entrance to the next room. Electrical cables hung low, suspended from beams in the ceilings. The place looked like a mining operation from the old west. Joel wondered how long the wooden pillars would forestall the inevitable cave in that was sure to come.
He vaulted himself over the concrete pipe and soon found himself in the middle of a small workshop with metal shelves, wooden tables, toolboxes and parts bins. A few weathered maps and posters were affixed to the walls.
“Our backpacks are still here from last time,” stated Tess, seeing them on the workbench.
Joel approached the bench and took stock of his belongings. A weather-beaten, leather backpack with worn straps, a clip-on flashlight, a gas mask with one working canister. He picked up the compact 9mm automatic handgun, racked the slide. He hit the eject button and a magazine popped into his waiting hand.
“Not a lot of ammo,” he sighed.
“Well,” replied Tess. “Make your shots count.”
Always the optimist, Joel snickered to himself. He slung the backpack across his shoulders and followed Tess to a scaffolding covered with a ragged gray tarp and plywood.
“All right, Texas,” she said, turning to Joel with a mischievous grin. “Boost me up.”
Joel shoved the pistol into his back pocket and tiredly took up his position, back to the wall, body crouched low, hands forming a stirrup just above his bent knee.
“You ready?” Tess asked, as she prepared to place her foot into his cupped hands.
“Yes ma’am,” Joel replied. He’d become used to his role as a makeshift ladder.
With a running start, Tess leapt agilely into his grip and in one smooth move Joel hoisted her up above his head. Years of practice had made the two of them practically experts at this maneuver. She grabbed the edge of the scaffolding and, with a grunt of effort, scampered over the ledge.
Joel waited for her head to reappear. She lowered a hand to him, bracing the other against her knee. “C’mon,” she said, her tone brusque. Joel guessed the idea of lifting a hundred and eighty pound man with a single arm was less than appealing.
He took a step back and, like Tess, got a running start. He jumped high so as to make her job easier. She grabbed his hands in hers and grunted. Joel felt her muscles strain as she gathered all her strength and pulled him up to the ledge.
He managed to get one hand on the ledge and then used his strength to pull himself up, aided by Tess grabbing him by the arm. Finally he climbed his way up, grunting from the exertion. With a sigh he rose to his feet. Tess’s face was flush from the effort. The two looked at each other and nodded.
Without a word, Joel slipped past her, heading to the exit of the tunnel just up above. A large wooden door had been propped to conceal the exit and he pushed it up now, motioning for Tess to climb underneath it.
“Go on,” he told her.
She scampered through the gap and grabbed the edge of the door.
“Got it,” she said, holding it up for him.
Joel slipped underneath it and then replaced her grip on the door, easing it down. They were now out of the tunnel and one step closer to the outside.