Everyone keeps a safe distance from the flames. I stand watch from above and pray there is enough tree cover to keep us all hidden from sight. We’ve been on the road for three nights; three nights longer than we’d planned.
Something wriggles down onto my arm from a nearby branch, and I resist the urge to yell out. Clenching my fists around my weapon, I breathe in deep before taking a hand and swiping the unseen creature from my skin.
A crackle in my ear jerks me back to attention.
“You’ve seen every horror imaginable, Carrie.” Tom’s voice is terrifyingly loud through the bud nestled in my ear. I glance around nervously, but nothing stirs beyond our small camp.
“Yeah?” My voice remains steady in spite of the fear coursing through my veins.
“You’ve seen it all,” Tom continues, “and yet bugs still give you the willies.”
I roll my eyes and raise a middle finger in Tom’s general direction as his muffled laughter recedes and silence engulfs us both once again. I glance back down to the fire and the ten souls surrounding it, focusing my thoughts on the forest and who or what could be lurking within.
There used to be 32 of us, I think to myself. Leaning into the tree, I ignore the coarse bark as it scratches against my bare shoulders and close my eyes to the night, envisioning each face we left behind.
I’d awoken three days before to Tom violently shaking me until I practically fell off my cot.
“It’s here,” he’d whispered, the fear shining brightly from his eyes. He didn’t have to say anything more.
We moved as one through the settlement that night, grabbing everyone we could and leaving the rest. Tom said it had already gotten to most of them. As we’d practiced time and time again, we lit the fires set in the four corners and sent the small clearing we’d called home for almost a year up in flames you could see for miles, though we didn’t wait around long enough to watch.
The screams still echo through all of us.
I feel myself coming to and jerk awake at the realization that I’ve fallen asleep on watch.
“Don’t worry, Carrie.” Tom says, and I feel his smile beneath the words. “I’ve got watch. I figured you needed the rest. You’ve barely slept since we left.”
“Neither have you,” I say, barely above a whisper as my eyes slowly close, and I fade back into my nightmares.
Tom’s screams pull me out of the black, but it’s not through the small device in my ear that he calls to me. He’s beneath me.
I resist the urge to call out to him as I pull myself to my feet. The sun has begun its slow rise into the sky, and as I look down to the ground, I’m just in time to see Tom’s dragging feet disappear beyond the treeline.
Throwing caution aside, I move as quickly as I can and swing myself down from the tree, releasing my hands from the branch to land in a crouch on the dewy grass. I make to run after Tom when a small face emerges a few yards beyond the clearing. I stop dead in my tracks.
“Meg?” My voice shakes at the name that’s haunted me for three days. The brush rises almost to her shoulders. She’s merely a floating head among the weeds. I watch the virus flow through her, turning her veins black as they pulse beneath her skin. Half her face is burned. I think I see bone, and my body involuntarily shudders. How on earth did she survive?
I take a tentative step forward, but Meg holds up a hand and I obey, holding my own up in acquiescence. A small smile plays on her lips, her jaw bone moving beneath the wound. I force myself not to look away.
“Meg, what happened?” I whisper. My thoughts go to Tom, and my stomach flips with worry. It’s only at that moment that the silence of the small clearing catches my attention. My gaze briefly turns to the ground and the near-dead fire in its center. What was just recently littered with the sleeping bodies of my friends, now lies deserted.
“You left us.”
Meg’s tiny voice reaches my ear, and I jerk my head back to her, but it’s too late.
She’s already gone.