There were two other cars parked there, both SUVs. The cabin had two windows covered by thick, dark curtains with cracks in the center of each. Peepholes, some part of me guessed.
He removed the key from the ignition, and the music stopped.
“What is this place, and why are we here?” If he claimed we were outside of town and he planned to murder me because I now knew too much, I think I’d be fine with that, as long as I never had to be in close contact with those monsters—or whatever they were—again.
“You’re here because you can’t go home like that,” Cole said, motioning to my clothing with a tilt of his chin. “You need to shower and change, and your injuries should be cleaned.”
I gave myself a once-over and grimaced. He was right about my need for a shower. My clothes were dirty and torn, with some kind of black goo caked on several sections. I had scrapes and bruises on my legs, and my knuckles were the size of golf balls.
“This is our getaway home, where we go when we need to relax.”
No need to ask who “we” were. His friends. “So it’s not your home home?”
“Nope. That’s closer to the school. We like this place because it’s far more private and monitored twenty-five/eight. There’s nothing here that I don’t want to be here, which makes it the safest place for you.”
The idea of a safe place really intrigued me. At the moment, I had so much acid churning in my stomach I needed to throw up before I became completely toxic. Or maybe that would make me into a new superhero, like Peter Parker and the radioactive spider. Only I’d be Vomit Girl, capable of grossing everyone out.
“I told you, I’m not going home tonight. I was supposed to stay the night with Kat,” I muttered. “Can I stay the night here, and if yes—” no reason to presume “—will you take me home in the morning?”
“Yes. To both.”
Okay. That had been easier than expected. “Thank you.” Permission granted from his end, I pulled my cell from my boot to text Kat. “I’m going to tell her that you and I hooked up.” I simply wouldn’t mention that the hookup had happened over monster bodies. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah. That’s fine. Smart. If she comes to me for details, and she will, I’ll tell her to talk to you, so give her whatever kind of story you think will satisfy her.”
“Thanks. Where does she think we all went, anyway?”
“No telling. Two of my boys would have told all four girls they were no longer wanted at the club and would have driven them to Reeve’s. Those same boys will keep guard at Reeve’s, in secret, for the rest of the night.”
“That’s good.” One less worry. “Okay, here goes.” Took me nearly ten minutes to get my text right—W/Cole. I’m sorry 4 bailing! Don’t be mad, but I’m spending night w/him. Don’t call my grands—but I finally pressed Send.
Even though I knew nothing would be happening between Cole and me—I wouldn’t let it, and from the sound of it, he wasn’t going to try—I felt as though I’d just placed a giant Tramp Stamp on my forehead.
Two seconds later her reply came in: Rock on, dirty girl! Give me deets 2morrow. PS: If U C Frosty, tell him I hate him!
Such easy acceptance from her caused guilt to gnaw at me. She had only ever been nice to me, had accepted me from day one. I owed her so much—even the truth, no matter what I suspected her reaction would be.
“You did the right thing,” Cole said, probably sensing my regret.
I stuffed the phone in my pocket and gripped my knees. “I know.” That didn’t make me feel any better.
He reached over and pried my fingers loose. He brought my injured knuckles to his lips and kissed them. “Don’t worry. You’re part of my world now. I’ll teach you how to survive it.”
Part of his world. What, exactly, did that mean? “The first thing I want to know is what those things are. I’ve asked twice, but you haven’t said. So tell me. Teach me. What did we just fight?”
Only a single beat of silence this time. Then he uttered one word. Just one. But that one word forever changed my life, as feared. “Zombies.”
Hungry…Need Brains…Will Have Yours
Zombies. The ominous word played through my head over and over again as I stood under the hot, streaming water in the shower stall. The blood and black goo had been lathered away and were now blending together and swirling around the drain. Every muscle I possessed ached. And now that my adrenaline had completely crashed, my bones felt liquefied.
Only sheer grit kept me on my feet. I needed more information.
Zombies. What were they, exactly?
Oh, I knew what books and movies claimed. They were the living dead, they were mindless and they craved human flesh. But…I now knew they weren’t human. They weren’t tangible to human touch. They were spirits—as I was a spirit.
In fact, how were spirits of such malevolence created?
Was I truly safe here? Could zombies slink through the bathroom walls at any moment and attack me? I mean, how hard would it have been to follow a dirty Jeep with two delicious snackpacks inside? I think I could follow a Hostess truck in my sleep.
Before panic could have another go at me, I reminded myself that the zombies had approached my grandparents’ home time and time again, yet they’d never come inside—which brought up another question. Could they not enter a person’s home? After all, they’d never entered my old house, either. Had they tried, the entire street would have heard the gunfire my dad unleashed.
What was Cole’s part in this? He and his friends fought the zombies, I knew that. But what else? They were so knowledgeable, they had to do more.
A knock at the door disrupted my line of thought. “Ali? You good?”
Cole’s deep voice had me shivering. “Yes.” He’d saved my life tonight. Without him, I would have become zombie food.
“Hurry up, all right? You weren’t very steady on your feet, and if you pass out, I will bust in and play doctor.”
And he would find me naked. Immediately I shut off the water and toweled off. A white tank top and a pair of pink sweatpants rested on the toilet lid. How the heck—I searched the entire bathroom, which wasn’t hard to do, considering it was a small space with only a toilet, sink and shower. Those clothes hadn’t been there when I’d stripped.
Gritting my teeth, I checked the lock I had engaged the very moment I’d stepped inside. The knob stuck.
So…someone had broken into the bathroom, given me the clothes, then relocked the knob. Not a lot of thought was needed to piece together that particular mystery. Cole was the culprit, who else? And didn’t that just figure. He carried an arsenal on his body at all times, hung out at clubs meant for adults, and fought monsters on a nightly basis. Of course he could pick a lock.
I dressed, dried my hair as best I could and gave my reflection a quick inspection. All I could do was grimace. As pale as I usually was, I was now pallid. There were shadows under my eyes—eyes that were bigger than usual, with bruises circling underneath. I had road rash on the side of my jaw from when the zombies had pushed me onto the concrete.
While I would have loved a thousand pounds of makeup, a blow dryer and a straightening iron, plus professional stylists to ensure I used the tools wisely, I finally left the relative safety of the bathroom. A cloud of soap-scented steam followed me into the bedroom I’d been given. Small but comfortable, with clean blue sheets, lots of pillows and a—
Who cared about the room? Cole stood a few feet away from me, his arms crossed over his chest. Clearly he’d showered, too, because his hair was damp and slicked back from his face. He’d ditched his T-shirt and wore only a clean pair of jeans. Even his feet were bare. But his feet weren’t what I found myself staring at.
His chest was bronzed to perfection, ripped with muscle—and covered in crisscrossing scars. Some looked like teeth marks, some like claw marks.
He had a myriad of beautiful tattoos, a few designs but mostly words that were scripted just below each of his collarbones. On both of his arms was a grim reaper’s scythe. Each staff began at his wrists and stretched all the way up, with the hooks ending on his chest, just over the names. There was a trail of dark hair that led from his navel to below the waist of those low-hanging jeans.
“Should I pull on a shirt?” he asked with a hint of amusement.
I will not blush. “No.” He’d be doing the world a favor if he never wore a shirt again, but I wasn’t going to tell him that part. “You’re fine.”
“I’m glad you think so.”
Okay, so I blushed. “I didn’t mean…that was… Oh, never mind!” I was too frazzled to be witty.
“So what do the words mean?” I asked.
“They’re names,” he said, fingers brushing over the ink. “Friends I’ve lost in the fight against the zombies.”
A way to honor them, I realized, and in that moment I knew I would one day have the names of my family tattooed somewhere on my body. “My first day of school, Kat mentioned that two boys in your group died from some kind of disease last year. Did that have something to do with the zombies?”
He nodded. “They were bitten and couldn’t fight the infection.”
An ice-cold lump formed in my throat. “I was bitten.”
“Yeah, but I administered the antidote in time, saving you from having to fight the toxin. You remember a sting in your neck, right after I found you, right? You’ll be fine.”
I did remember a sting. Gradually the lump melted and I warmed. “You’re sure?”
Well all right, then.
“Come on.” He held out his hand. “You want the rest of your questions answered, I’m sure.”
Overjoyed that that was still an option, I closed the distance and linked our fingers. The calluses on his palms comforted me, reminding me of his strength and his ability to take down anyone or thing that threatened us.