The baby cooed quietly as Kim laid him down on the towel in front of her.
As she took his diaper off, he just looked up at her smiling. “How is it you never cry, little guy?” Kim asked him, booping him on the nose, then pulled a container of baby wipes out of her backpack.
“Knock it off!” A boy’s voice yelled out, far too loud, two or three shelves over in the store. Kim froze in terror, expecting to hear the front windows smashing in around the corner.
“Mom! Tell him to stop hitting me!” The voice was on the move, and a boy in his early teens stomped past on the side of the aisle closest to the front.
Shushes rolled in like a series of waves from all over the bookstore, and Kim saw a flash of Victor following the same path the boy took a moment ago. Kim could barely hear Victor whispering sternly, “Lady, you better get a grip on your kids and keep them quiet. They’re gonna get us all killed.”
“Mind your own business,” a harsh voice responded, “They’re my damn kids. I’ll raise them how I want to, dammit!”
Oh God, Kim thought to herself, They really are gonna get us all killed. Kim hurriedly put a new diaper on the baby and found a onesie in the backpack to put on him. Who knew how long they’d have if the Rabid figured out where they were, and where they could even go from here when they did?
Victor and the woman were still exchanging loud whispers when Barry appeared.
“Hey,” Kim whispered to him as she stood up, ready to go.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he responded.
“I don’t even know, but if I hear those windows up there smash …” she trailed off with a gesture of her head toward the front of the bookstore.
“Listen,” Barry responded, “I was just peeking around the corner a second ago — I was up there for a while too, and I haven’t seen any Rabid wandering around out there. At least not for a while.”
“Really?” she replied, incredulous, “Where’d they go?”
Barry shrugged and sat down. “I’m not saying it’s gonna last forever, but we need a better view of the street. It might be a good time to go right now, but unless we can get a good look at what’s going on out there …” then he trailed off.
The loud whispering from Victor and the boys’ mom had ended, and that fact filled Kim with relief. She sighed and sat back down, then realized she hadn’t actually put the baby into the onesie yet, so she laid him down and started to put it on him.
“What did Victor say? About getting to the water?” Kim asked.
“Well, it’s half a mile away, so …” Barry trailed off.
Kim sighed, and her anxiety came flooding back in a rush, “Jesus! Half a mile?”
“Well, he did say there’s a basement that goes the entire length of the building, and you need a key to get down there, so it’s possible there are no Rabid down there. That could at least get to Campus Parkway, and that would be one block down. Just five or six more to go.”
“Did he ask you why you wanted to get to the water?” she asked.
Barry shot her a look, “Seriously, Kim? You still don’t see it?”
“Did he?” Having fastened the last snap on the onesie, Kim put the baby over her shoulder so he could sleep if he wanted.
“No! I guess it was just as obvious to him as it was to me.” He put his head back against a row of travel books and closed his eyes. “Anyway, he’s putting together a group of people and we’ll talk about it in the reading nook after the sun goes down.”
“He’s not inviting everybody?” she asked, a little shocked.
Barry opened his eyes and looked at her, “You seriously want the World’s Greatest Mom and the Death Wish Twins along for the ride?”
She grunted with understanding, but didn’t feel great about it.
Barry leaned in a little closer and spoke low enough that she could barely hear him, “And they’re not the only deadbeats in here.”
“Jesus,” Kim tried to keep her voice low enough so nobody else would hear, but she was aghast, “When are they gonna decide that the baby and I are also deadbeats?”
Barry chuckled, looking at her again like she’s completely missing the point, “You’re a nurse, Kim. You’re the closest thing we have to a doctor. And Kim …” and he looked at her with a dark, sad look. For a moment, he looked like he was about to cry, but then got more serious than she’d ever seen him, “… you need to understand what’s happening right now. Everything … has changed, and we can’t live the way we used to. Some of the people here -” and he gestured with his head all around the store, “- they’re not gonna survive. Hell, all of us could be dead or infected — which might as well be dead — by this time tomorrow. If we want to survive even the next couple days, we need to recognize the realities of the situation we are in, you know? And to make the hard choices to get somewhere safe.”
Then he looked at her long and hard, and she saw in his eyes something unspoken, something he was bottling up with a kind of grim anger. He’s mourning, she thought, and couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps she should be as well, but she couldn’t even think of her family hundreds and hundreds of miles away, when the thought of going even half a mile was so frightening. Barry finally looked away, then closed his eyes and leaned back.
She looked down at the baby and couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with relief. Thank God, you don’t cry, she thought, Otherwise, they would have kicked you and me out hours ago.
Victor had come in the night.
Kim wasn’t asleep, but Barry was. He awoke silently when she touched his arm, and they all slipped silently to a small back nook away from the main body of the bookstore. Kim hadn’t even seen this section and she was shocked that the store was such a labyrinth. Thank goodness, too! she thought to herself, Though a metal roll-down gate would’ve been nice.
When they got back to the nook, they saw Rosa and Garrett and just a half dozen others, all fairly fit, and more or less young. Garrett was probably the oldest, but could clearly hold his own.
Jesus, Kim thought to herself, This is barely a quarter of everybody in here! She didn’t even want to think about that sweet old couple holed up in the self-help section. The picture of them in her mind holding each other instantly filled her with guilt, but she couldn’t deny that Barry was right.
Everybody got silent as soon as they entered, the light of a single cell phone flashlight cast their shadows all over the ceiling and walls. As they recognized Barry, each one turned to him expectantly. They’d clearly been waiting for him, and he jumped right into it, barely speaking loud enough for any of them to hear him, even this close, but even so nobody missed a word.
“Look, it’s not gonna help anybody to pretend we’re fine right here, right?” Some moaned and nodded with agreement, and others just stared at him, so he kept going, “We’re running out of food — I mean all we have is the crappy snacks they sell here anyway and that’s not enough. Plus we have no idea how long the water’s gonna keep running.”
A young Asian kid in a UW sweater — couldn’t have been more than 19 or 20 — piped up, “Okay, but what’s your plan?” There was just a hint of shrillness in his voice, but he heard it too and immediately shrank back, red-faced.
“We need to get to the water,” said Barry, and everybody got silent for a moment.
Now Rosa spoke up, “That’s like seven blocks away! How are we gonna get that far?”
“It’s more like five really, six at the most,” Garrett added, but Rosa put her hands up like that made much of a difference.
Another young man spoke up, “How would we get even three blocks with all those Rabid out there? We were only half a block away when shit went crazy out there and we barely made it in. Thank God none of them saw us.” Others murmured their agreement, but then Barry put his hand up.
After everybody calmed down, Barry spoke, “You’ve all seen the front. There’s no gate protecting those windows. All it takes is one slip up, one mistake and those windows are smashed.”
Victor added his two cents, “All it’s gonna take is for one of those idiot boys to do something –”
“Excuse me?!” A voice from the hallway made everybody spin and there was the boy’s mother. Kim never actually saw her before, but she recognized that voice.
The mother stepped into the nook, a look of pure loathing on her smashed up face, “Were you talking about my boys?” she walked right up to Victor and got in his face, “Huh, faggot?”
That got everybody riled up, the volume got so loud a few other faces started to appear outside and Kim wasn’t having it anymore. She stepped right into the center of everything with the baby on her shoulder “Shut up! Everybody!” The mother almost pushed Kim away, but then she noticed the baby and backed off.
Once she had everybody’s attention, Kim spoke to everybody, continuing to look around the room, “We need to take this seriously. Every single one of us. This isn’t a joke. This isn’t some make believe shit. This is serious, and you all need to start acting like adults. You need to consider the lives of everybody here.”
After a moment, Barry spoke quietly, “But Kim we can’t save everybody.”
“I understand that, but we have to share what we know and give everybody a chance to make their own decisions. We can’t just leave everybody high and dry. It isn’t right, and there’s no need to anyway. We can work together. We can coordinate. And besides …” she gestured out into the hallway where a couple dozen faces were now peering in at them out of the darkness, “… that cat’s out of the bag already.”
Kim looked at all the people in the nook, and couldn’t tell what they were thinking, but she knew she was right, and nobody was fighting her. Victor looked livid, but the horrible woman didn’t have an ounce of gratitude in her face, even though Kim had just given her and her boys a fighting chance to make it.
She turned to Barry, “So what’s the plan?”
He moved in close and spoke quietly and angrily, “The plan didn’t include thirty people, Kim.”
She whispered back with equal parts sympathy and gravity, “I understand, but could it? Or are there at least other options so different people can try different escape routes?” Barry threw his hands in the air and looked at Victor.
Victor stared back for a moment, but then spoke up, “I didn’t even want to go to the water. It’s too far.”
By the time the sun came up, almost everybody in the bookstore had joined one of the different groups, each with its own plan. Barry and Kim’s group was leaving first since it had the furthest to go. Victor and Rosa’s team was gonna try to get to Rosa’s apartment a few blocks to the west, some group of students were gonna try to break into a small grocery store the next building over — apparently one of them could pick locks or something — and the rest were gonna try to tough it out in the bookstore. Kim asked the old couple what they were planning to do and with smiles on their faces, the woman said, “We’re gonna stay. The military will probably come in and clear this all up.” The man just smiled in agreement.
“Okay,” Kim said in response, and had to turn away to hide her tears. She pretended to cough to hide the move, but she felt a pressure on her hand and looked down to see that the woman had grabbed it and was giving it a squeeze.
When she looked up, the man said, “Thanks for trying though. We really do appreciate it,” and the woman nodded in agreement.
Kim couldn’t hide the tears anymore and just gave them each a half hug with her free arm — still holding the baby with the other, then she headed back to the travel books section that she’d commandeered with Barry. She’d feed the baby, change his diaper, then try to get some sleep. They were gonna leave that night, so she needed to get all the sleep she could get.
READ 27-PAUL | Read all the episodes in the Last Days series in reading order — the next episode publishes Monday morning (US) / Tuesday morning (AU/NZ)