"I don't think I can do this anymore."
"What'd you mean?" I said, not understanding. "Do you wanna go home?"
"No, of course not." She sounded insulted. I looked up at her and saw her eyes starting to water, but Rose kept a steady gaze. She was good at avoiding eye contact.
The previous night, we'd been watching a herd of walkers pass through from the caravan. Carla saw them coming and hurried in, telling us to turn the lights off. The caravan was plunged into darkness and we sat, poised. Then we could hear the signature groaning of the walkers, all chorusing together morbidly. I leaned forward and peeled the curtain back.
"Josie! What're you doing?"
"I'm looking," I whispered. Rose edged up beside me and peered out the window. We sat in silence, watching the walkers as they moved on, oblivious to our presence. They weren't distinguishable in the dark, but they could be easily recognised for what they were. Their limping gait and guttural noises, which always creeped me out. What disturbed me the most though was their appearance. Riddled with decay, their flesh rotted and fell from their bones, green and stinking. Their emaciated bodies were clothed in what they died in; the last trace of who they were.
"At least we know what happens when you die," Rose said.
The herd moved slowly, almost docile, but one noise and they'd turn. Just a few at first, but the rest would soon come, like ants following pheromones. Moving as one, I imagined if they caught wind of our presence, or general direction rather. They weren't smart. Walkers were like ghosts, wandering around aimlessly. It was sound that attracted them. Sight only came into play once they could see their next meal, then they were predators.
I was chased by a walker once, when it all began. It rushed at me, still half-shuffling, but urged on by its hunger, its taste for meat. The walker reached out for me, gnashing and snarling. Like all stupid little kids I fell over, and the thing nearly got me. Its maw stretched open and I could see into its black mouth. I hoped there was a light at the end of that tunnel, that it'd be over quickly. I didn't consider that I'd come back. The walker would probably eat all of me, because I was small.
But before I could brace myself for the pain of having my skin torn off, a blade sank through the walker's forehead and it dropped dead. Or double dead. I pushed the corpse off of me and rolled to my feet. Rose was standing there, breathing hard with a bloodied knife in her hand.
"None of us can ever go home. Never again," said Rose softly. She dipped her gaze and started picking at the wood grain of the fence.
"It might get better. Then we could all go home," I suggested brightly.
"Don't be so naive, Josie. For every one person there are ten walkers. How many military are left to deal with that?"
"They might find a cure," I said.
"And how many doctors are left? We're screwed, but it's okay for you. You're probably used to this now."
That hurt. I knew Rose was digging at me because I was eleven when everything happened, and that excluded me from being able to mourn the lost world. She thought I didn't understand, that the walkers were just the monsters under my bed and I could still play my games, so everything was fine. According to her, the biggest loss I suffered was losing contact with my family, but I'd get over it, my parents were still alive. I thought this was unfair. Besides, I was twelve now.
"I'm not used to this," I said stroppily, staring at the fields in the distance. My eyes pricked and I couldn't stare for long. I couldn't pick at the fence either. The bit I stood near was broken, where the walkers had passed through. I turned my focus on my shoes instead. My white trainers. They used to be white when I first got them a year ago; a birthday present. They used to light up too. When it got dark, I ran around pretending I was going super fast, my shoes flashing red.
"Sorry, Josie. I'm just so angry. I hate everything."
"That's why you don't wanna do this anymore?" I said, unsure.
"Yeah." Rose sighed again, long and drawn out. It reminded me of the sound walkers made when you stabbed them in the head. "I don't want to live anymore."
I didn't know how to answer that, so I stayed quiet for a while.
"Does everyone else know?"
"Yeah, just you," Rose nodded. I felt pleased. Sharing secrets was something I hadn't done for a long time, not since everything happened. There was nobody to share secrets with, but now I thought of it, Rose was only five years older than me.
"Can I tell you a secret too?" I asked hopefully. Rose frowned, but must've relented given my tone.
"I've shot a gun before."
Rose laughed. "No you haven't."
"Yes I have!" I insisted, but before I could divulge she shot me a look that stopped me in my tracks. It wasn't angry or sad. Her eyes had stopped watering, leaving the unspilled tears sitting on her lash line.
"Can you do it now?" she said soberly.
"That might be dangerous," I warned. A gun shot was like a beacon for walkers and it would make the others come running too. I didn't want to worry anyone, and I didn't even own a gun.
"We can go to the woods down there," she said, pointing to a cluster of trees in the distance. Trekking there wasn't desirable.
"Why, target practice? I don't think Mum and Dad like me using a gun." That's why what I'd done before was a secret.
"No," Rose shook her head. She squatted to my level and pursed her lips. "Josie, I want you to keep a secret."
"Okay," I said. Rose's severity made telling secrets less fun.
"I want to die. I hate to ask you. For goodness sake, I'd do it myself if I had the balls and I know no one else will."
"You want me to kill you?"
"No, don't say kill. It's just... letting me go. I died a long time ago."
I thought about that. I knew Rose didn't literally mean die, but since I met her she always seemed dead on the inside. That's why she was so good at staring and could kill walkers, even kid ones. Carla said she was a cold person, but Rose dealt with everything the best, never getting upset and never regretting her actions. Somehow though, she seemed the most damaged.
"Shouldn't we tell the others?" I looked back at the caravan warily.
"No, definitely not. They'd stop us."
Suddenly my face crumpled and Rose grabbed me, hugging me hard. It was the first loving thing I'd seen her, or indeed felt her do.
"Don't cry, Josie. Please don't cry. I'm sorry," she said, her voice close and tender. When I pulled away, there was a little wet patch on her shoulder and her own face was pink and puffy. She avoided my gaze again.
"Where are we gonna get a gun?"
"I have one," said Rose, presenting a handgun from her back pocket. I looked down, remembering its details: the long dark barrel, uneven grip and the small curve of the trigger. She pocketed the gun and stood to her feet, then we set off into the next field.
As we trudged through knee-high grass, Rose told me to mind where I stepped. Otherwise she just gave me a load of instructions: to run as soon as I fired the gun and to keep the weapon for myself. When I tried to object to the latter, she wouldn't hear it.
"Your parents might not always be around to protect you, Josie, and you're not a little kid anymore."
That's funny, you've treated me like one, I thought meanly.
"They always make me stay by them."
"Do they?" Rose said flippantly, gesturing around us. She'd made her point, but I knew my parents wouldn't like it all the same.
We mostly walked in silence, and I watched as the woodland ahead slowly grew bigger and bigger. I tried not to think about what I was going to do. I'd never killed a walker before, nevermind a person, unless you counted the time at the library.
I wanted something new to read, so my parents decided to go and loot the library. I got bored waiting out back, so I went in to try and find them. I was too short to see over the bookshelves, so I climbed up one of them, judging it to be sturdy enough. Looking out across the library, I caught sight of Mum and shouted out to her. Suddenly, a walker came around the corner, teeth bared by the deteriorating flesh around its chin. I panicked and the bookshelves wobbled. Before I knew it I came tumbling down. The unit crashed onto the floor, a shelf going straight through the walker's head with a gross crunch.
The memory stopped replaying itself when I felt the gun being pressed into my hand.
"Here will do," said Rose. We were approaching the last field. I could just make out the broken fence before the woods. I felt her push me when she gave me the gun, so I stopped walking and watched her go ahead.
"Are you sure?" I called to her, the moment dawning on me. Rose halted and I thought she was about to answer me, but she didn't. I looked down at the gun in my hand and cocked it, struggling with the slide because it was stiff. Then I slowly raised the gun to aim, looking down the sights.
"Just do it, Josie!" Rose shouted, her voice cracked and shoulders shaking. She saved my life once and now I was going to end hers. I stared down the barrel, feeling the smooth trigger, unable to squeeze it. Suddenly Rose turned, getting angry at me. I panicked and fired. Just a slight amount of pressure and bang!
The speed of the bullet defeated my eyes but I saw Rose fall down. I screamed and ran over to her, as if someone else had done it. I suddenly hoped I'd missed, that I'd shot her somewhere else. If Rose survived the trauma, maybe she'd feel differently about dying. It'd completely change her mind and now we'd both saved each other.
"Rose!" I collapsed by her side, gasping at the hole in her head. "She won't come back, she won't come back..." I whispered, clinging to that truth like a comfort blanket. At least a bullet spared the horror of plunging a blade through skin and bone. Rose was gone now. Always gone. I wanted to bury her, but I didn't have a shovel. I thought of running back and getting everyone to help me, but before I could plan this I glanced up and saw distant figures, walkers leaving the treeline of the woods. Then a grim realisation dawned on me.
I stood to my feet and dragged Rose's body. She was relatively light from meagre meal sizes, given the limited supplies we had, and she still felt warm. When I was satisfied with the distance I put between her and the entrance into the next field, I stopped. My fingernails left marks on Rose's wrists and blood still trickled from the wound in her head. I saw her complexion had turned a ghostly white. My stomach churned. After composing myself, I pushed her body into the hedge outlining the field, concealing her.
"I'm sorry I couldn't bury you properly," I told her, sitting on the ground. Then I heard shouting from afar. I stood up and lifted my shirt, instinctively taking my gun in hand. It was mine now, but for how long?
"Josie!" I heard.
"Where are you?" another voice wailed.
I sprinted up the field, noticing a walker enter the pasture from where I shot Rose. When I was far away, I looked over my shoulder toward Rose's body, but I couldn't see her. Good, she was well hid. She was safe. Then I kept running and I didn't look back. Soon, my family and the others came into sight; just dots in the distance. They paused, then came at me even faster. When I dared a glance behind I understood why. A dozen walkers or so were heading in our direction.
"Josie! What the hell were you doing?" Dad said. He would've roared at me if he wasn't so out of breath.
"We heard a gunshot!" cried Mum. Carla grabbed my arm and we all started back toward the caravan. Too tired to run anymore, we power walked instead.
"Where's Rose?" someone asked, annoyed. Rose used to wander off a lot.
"She's dead," I told them. Everyone froze, several mouths dropping open at once. They connected Rose with the gunshot, and I was overwhelmed with guilt.
"Someone shot Rose," Carla concluded, holding me tighter. Everyone's eyes darted around, searching for the killer. Maybe Rose's murderer was running away in the distance... maybe some of them were pondering revenge... Then Carla stepped away from me.
"Why have you gotta gun?"
At that moment I burst out crying. I was sure killing Rose was the best thing. She made it sound so easy. Rose didn't want to live, so I helped her. But everyone was staring at me, horrified. If I wasn't already in trouble for using a gun, I knew this would do it. I was a murderer!
To my surprise, Mum came and hugged me. Then Dad approached and enveloped both of us in a warm embrace, but I could sense the puzzled looks being exchanged. I knew I'd have to answer for myself, that the sympathy was only because I was twelve. Despite this, I used the current silence to contemplate my explanation. Then I heard geese honking in the sky. I glanced up, seeing their arrow formation flying overhead. I longed to join them, to just fly off and not be held responsible for anything. Instincts can't get you into trouble, but choices can. Then I thought, what about walkers? Walkers were dead, that was clear to see, but I was told parts of their brain reanimated. The animal brain. Were they responsible for their actions?
"Come on, you can explain when you get to the caravan. We have to leave," Dad said, gesturing to the walkers down the fields. There was a murmur of agreement and then Dad took the gun off me.
I looked back at the walkers and hated them anyway.