WILDFIRE PART 3
The cicadas were loud and buzzed tirelessly in Natasha's eardrums until all sounds around her disappeared like water in a desert. She could still make out other sensations. The sun on her face. The wheat brushing against her skin, and the colors shifting within the cloudy sky.
Natasha was dead still, staring off into space with a glazed look in her eyes that told nothing. Silence captured her voice while her mind was ensnared within the sounds of the world. Not once did she blink, breathing very softly until she suddenly felt a hand firmly grasp her shoulder. Natasha gasped sharply and snapped her head around and yanked herself free. She was taken back to see Rick standing behind her.
Rick's face contorted with confusion. "Natasha, I was calling for you. Did you not hear me?" He should have been close enough for her to hear him but she only seemed to react when he touched her shoulder. It even startled her too. "Are you doing alright?" he asked a bit seriously. Rick had noticed for a while now that Natasha was quite distant from everyone. When she was nowhere to be found, he always figured she was on the outskirts of the camp where there would be a view of Atlanta. She would stay over there quite often.
Natasha swallowed hard. "Ye...yeah. Sorry, I did hear you but..." She clenched her hand tightly until her knuckles turned white. "I'm fine. It's just been a wild couple of days and I'm still trying to wrap my head around some things." She rocked her head and got up off the ground to follow Rick back to the campsite. "What's Shane saying? Are we still on our way to the CDC?"
He shrugged. "We're about to find out, which is why I came over to get you. I can tell that he thinks it's a bad idea. Hell, he even said it to my face. Despite things though...he still wants everyone to stick together."
"I'm glad to hear that. Surviving out there alone is harder than you think. You gotta know what you're doing beforehand. How to hunt. How to track. How to survive," she named off.
"And I guess you know how to do those things?"
"I know the basics and that's about it," she shrugged. "I ain't an expert like Daryl but...I know how to stay alive when the time comes for it. I know how to pick my fights and when to run."
Rick already knew of Natasha's rough upbringing since Dale told him, so he decided that right now was the time to bring it up. "Yeah, uh, Dale told me what you use to be. About how you lived when you were young. Is that where you learned all this stuff?" He noticed Natasha's eyes sharpening when she gave him a side glance.
"Kinda. I just learned to keep my head down and figure out my own strengths. Sometimes I would run into the worse kinds of people and my blunt attitude got the better of me way too many times. Like I said though...I knew my strengths. I was light on my feet and my body was small enough to get out of sight fast and hide. Because of a lot of things...I had a pretty bad reputation with some of the gangs in the area.
"And you never got caught?" Rick actually found it funny, knowing that he was a former cop and Natasha was a punk. Just the dynamic alone was enough to laugh at. She could pick up on it too and smiled.
"No. Guess I was smart enough never to something totally stupid." Her smile dulled a bit. "That was a long time though. It was my teen years. I haven't looked back at that life for a long time."
"Looks to me that you mellowed out." he pointed out since the woman she described sounds nothing like the person walking beside him.
"Yeah, I guess I did," she muttered just as they were heading back over to the camp.
Rick gave a gesture over to Shane and signaled him to start since everyone was there and waiting to hear the plan.
Shane nodded and spoke up to the survivors. "Everybody listen up. Those of you with C.B.s, we're gonna be on channel 40. Let's keep the chatter down, okay? Now you got a problem, don't have a C.B., can't get a signal or anything at all, you're gonna hit your horn one time. That'll stop the caravan. Any questions?"
Morales raised his hand slightly and gestured everyone's attention to him. "We're, uh… We're… We're not going."
"We have family in Birmingham. We want to be with our people," his wife Miranda explained to all of them.
Shane didn't look so sure about that since Morales had two young kids with him. Both were around the same age as Carl and Sophia. "You go on your own, you won't have anyone to watch your back," he warned him since he knew staying together was better for survival. Better for his family.
"We'll take the chance. I got to do what's best for my family." The man was steadfast.
"You sure?" Rick asked one last time.
"We talked about it. We're sure."
"All right. Shane."
Both him and Shane went over to the bag of guns and skimmed through it before pulling out a 357 revolver and a box of ammo. Ignoring Daryl's obvious scoffing, they handed both over to Morales and his family. It wasn't much but it wouldn't feel right if they left him with nothing. Hopefully, it was enough to protect his family until they got somewhere safe.
"The box is half full," Shane gave him one last firm handshake.
"Channel 40 if you change your minds. All right?" Rick said
The rest of the group began to give out tight hugs with tearful eyes and bitter goodbyes. Eliza, Morales's daughter even gave Sophia her own doll before leaving with her family.
Natasha awkwardly stepped away from everyone and waited by Dale's RV. To be honest, leaving Atlanta for good made her feel a bit nervous. She was actually born in Florida and can faintly recall a beach scenery inside her head. After her parents died though she was forcefully moved out to Georgia and never knew anything since. Atlanta had always been her home and in a way, a source of comfort. Her best memories were there, along with the worse ones. It was her life, her home, and the body and soul of her fiancé. Anywhere beyond that was uncharted territory.
They had a train of at least five cars with everyone scattered among them when they finally hit the road. Natasha decided to ride in Dale's RV to keep a close eye on Jim and make sure he didn't go berserk when the infection got too much for him. Jacqui looked after him as much as she could but could hardly do anything to help as they watch his condition worsen with every small bump in the road. His cries and whines of agony were saddening and it broke their hearts to see how much he had deteriorated over time. The change was happening way to fast for them to keep up with and he was sweating through every bandage they had.
Natasha walked up beside Jim and placed a hand against his forehead and almost immediately pulled it away when she felt his temperature. He was burning hot. Scalding like she had dipped her hand in boiling water. "Jesus..." she muttered and rubbed the back of her burning hand.
Jacqui swallowed hard when she saw Natasha's reaction. "It's bad. These roads are killing him," she spoke through the severe cracking in her voice. "And I...I don't know what to do anymore."
She wasn't the only one who felt that way. Natasha did have an idea but was too afraid to speak up about it. It might feel a bit too inhumane but leaving him like this, to suffer, felt far worse. He didn't deserve to feel this agony. He deserved to rest.
They were only on the road for an hour when there was this loud crackling noise up front, following by a burst of hot air from the engine. When this happened, Dale immediately honked once for the caravan to stop and pulled off to the side. He didn't even look shocked that this happened, just slightly irritated.
"I knew it. I just knew it," he muttered and headed outside with Natasha as everyone crowned around the front of the RV. He popped it opened and a cloud of steam frantically escaped. "I told you we'd never get far on that hose. I said I needed the one from the cube van." Dale turned to Rick when he strolled up to them.
"Can you jury-rig it?" he asked.
"That's all it's been so far. It's more duct tape than hose."
Natasha scoffed and leaned against the RV. "And let me guess. You're outta ducktape."
"How'd you guess?" Dale's lips curled up into a sarcastic smirk.
Shane pulled up his binoculars to see if there was anything around them that could help. He did see something within the distance though, a small structure of some kind. "I see something up ahead. A gas station if we're lucky," he said.
Jacqui then suddenly came rushing out of the RV, looking pale and frantic. "Y'all, Jim… It's bad. I don't think he can take anymore." she urged before running back in with Natasha close behind her.
"Hey, Rick, you want to hold down the fort?" Shane asked. "I'll drive ahead, see what I can bring back."
"Yeah, I'll come along too and I'll back you up," T-Dog volunteered.
"Y'all keep your eyes open now. We'll be right back."
They all began to head off when Natasha stepped out of the RV a minute later, gesturing over to Rick. "Rick, Jim's not looking too good right now. You better get in here."
He nodded and gave her a short wave. "All right." Rick headed inside the RV with her and saw that Jim had gotten worse. He was disheveled and so pale that he resembled either a corpse or a ghost. It was evident that the man was in agony and was even struggling to breathe. "We'll be back on the road soon," he said and sat down.
"Oh no. Christ…" Jim choked up. "My bones… My bones are like glass. Every little bump… God, this ride is killing me. Leave me here. I'm done. Just leave me," he spoke breathlessly. "I want to be with my family."
"I don't think you know what you're asking. The fever… You've been delirious more often than not."
"I know. Don't you think I know?" His voice was weak and distressed. "I'm clear now. In five minutes I may not be. Rick, I know what I'm asking. I want this. Leave me here. Now that's on me. Okay? My decision. Not your failure."
Reluctantly, Shane and Rick carried Jim outside and up against a nearby tree and left him there. They tried to be as gentle as they could but the moment they put him down, a look of utter peace swept across his sickly pale face. Being inside that small RV was killing him so he couldn't help but smile when he felt the fresh and cool air on his shivering skin.
"Hey, another damn tree," he chuckled to himself and looked up at everyone gathering around him.
"Hey, Jim… I mean, you know it doesn't need to be this." Shane asked but Jim shook his head.
"No. It's good. The breeze feels nice." He leaned his head against the bark of the tree and sighed deeply. For once the world didn't smell like rotting or burnt flesh from bonfires.
Shane still didn't like the decision they were making but knew they couldn't say anything since this was Jim's choice. He wanted to stop fighting. He was ready to go. "Okay. All right." He nodded his head and stood up.
They all started to say their goodbyes to their friend and each one had a little something to say to him, offering up kind words with tears welling up in their eyes. Natasha was the only one who didn't come forth and stood near the back of the group. She wouldn't know what to say to him to ease his passing. She just didn't like the idea of leaving him here to succumb to his fate. A fate she wouldn't even want to fall too.
Everyone soon dispersed and began to walk away from him for the last time. Natasha turned to leave as well but stopped when Jim called out using a weak voice that didn't have any strength left to raise. "Natasha. Can you come here, uh, for a second?"
"Uh, yeah. Sure." Confused, she walked back over to him and kneeled down so he wouldn't have to speak up. "What is it? Something you need?"
Jim's eyes shifted side to side and he opened his mouth a couple of times, seemingly trying to gather the courage to speak. "You...you don't like this idea, do you?"
"I'm pretty sure no one does." She wanted to smile but sadly couldn't give it to him. "I'm sorry but...I know what you're going to become and...do you really want that?"
Jim didn't blink and was speechless at first, trying to process what she said. "Something tells me you have a better suggestion."
"I have one in mind." Natasha quickly looked back at the group before adjusting herself into a sitting position, making small but subtle gestures towards the gun inside her coat. "I know how it may sound but...I think most people would like to die who they are now then fade away into something entirely unfamiliar." She was trying to be gentle with her words but the idea was now starting to dawn on him. What she was offering to do.
Jim swallowed hard and tightened his jaw. "Have you done this before?"
Natasha never broke eye contact with him and begrudgingly told the truth. "Once or twice. "
Out of everyone in the camp, Jim knew that Natasha had more exposure to what was out there in the world. She must've seen and done things that would've made her ask a question like this. Her words didn't feel cold to him though and he could see that there was no malice at all in her eyes.
"You make a pretty convincing argument," he scoffed.
"In my experience...It's not murder. It's mercy." Natasha cast her eyes down and chewed the inside of her cheek. She hated the offer she was giving him but it felt that it was the best route. To be what the world wanted us to become felt like the worse kind of insult. "That's all we can offer people nowadays."
Jim reached out and grasped ahold of Natasha's hand, clenching it so desperately that he finally became teary-eyed. "If that's what you truly think is best then...please," he pleaded.
Natasha enclosed her other hand around his fist and steadied her throbbing heart. "Okay. Give me a second." She got up and headed back over to the group that had stopped by the cars, waiting on her with curious looks on their faces. That soon changed though when they saw the shadow of gloom following at her back.
"Something the matter?" Rick was the first one to ask.
"You're probably not gonna like it but I offered Jim another suggestion and, uh...it was mercy." As she figured, she saw their faces began to contort and look horrified at what she said to them. Others though seemed more understanding. Like Dale, Lori, Shane, and even Andrea. She couldn't make out Daryl's face though and wasn't sure what he was thinking. Or if he was thinking anything at all.
Shane stepped towards her. "And he wants you to do this?"
She nodded. "Yeah, and if it's not too much trouble...to spare the kids, if only a little, can you drive down a little bit? Just until we're out of sight. After that, I'll come back." she spoke in hushed tones, though she had a feeling Carl might've heard her since he buried his face in Lori's stomach.
"You need one of us to stay with you?" Dale reached out and patted Natasha gently on the back.
She shook her head. "No. I wanna do this by myself."
"If you say so." Shane turned back around to the group and ushered everyone to get back into their vehicles so they could give them some privacy.
Natasha didn't dare look up at anyone as they passed by her. She kept her head down the whole time until she heard the roar of multiple engines began to leave. After at least two minutes, the sound faded away and left her in the serenity of the deep back roads of Georgia. The calm sounds of the wind and rustling leaves did their job and calmed her erratic heart after a while.
Jim waited until Natasha walked back over to him. "You got...anyone upstairs waiting for you?" he asked to lighten the gloomy mood.
Natasha moved her body to the side and glanced down at her gun. She pulled the slide back to check and see if there was a round in the chamber. "Yeah," she said while tracing the smooth surface of her engagement ring. "The man who was...who was supposed to be my husband."
Jim's eyes softened. "I'm sorry. What's his name?"
She was about to say 'Ben' until a thought occurred to her. His full name. The name she was supposed to have been given but never got the chance to earn. "It's Ben. Benjamin Rockafield."
"Ben...okay." He nodded his head slowly and sighed. "I'll tell him you're doing alright."
Natasha looked taken back for a moment and even close to tears as they welled up. Her eyes quickly turned back to steel though and she clenched down on her ready gun. "Thank you."
Jim laughed and tilted his head to the side. "See you on the other side?"
"Yeah, but hopefully not too soon."
There was only a single solitude moment of calmness as the wind swept over the lush sea of trees until that silence was taken away by a gunshot. It was so powerful and disturbing that it made the birds in the surrounding area flap their wings and flee.
The caravan rolled up to the compound just as night began to slither and slink over all of Atlanta, surrendering everything into darkness. Natasha could still see pretty well at night and can make out the corpses that lined the outside, all of them being swarmed with flies and smelling of absolute rot. It made her pull her scarf tight across her nose and mouth to try and take in her own scent, rather than the decay in the air.
She wishes the kids could've been spared the gruesome sight when they stepped out of their vehicles, clenching ahold of their mothers while the group made the small jog towards the CDC. Shane gave Natasha brief instructions to bring up the rear and watch out for any corpses that would want to wake up, hoping to kill them before any of the rest could stir.
Shane and Rick led the survivors towards the building as quickly as they could. "All right, everybody. Keep moving. Okay, keep moving. Stay together," he ordered.
They reached the compound but everything was locked and the shutters were down, stone quiet with not so much as a peep coming from the other side. Shane tried to force the shutters open but they didn't even budge. There was nothing. No one was here by the looks of it and the sun was dying faster than they could make a decision.
"There's nobody here," T-Dog said.
"Then why are these shutters down?" Rick snapped back.
Natasha took a breath and groaned before closing her eyes to think of a plan and a way out. The sun was down and they were way to close to Atlanta for them to feel safe. Walkers were going to start getting up soon because they were making too much noise. They needed to leave fast and find some other place to hold up. If it was any other situation, she would scout around the building and see if she could find a way inside. Natasha didn't have the time to do that though. Not when it was this dark.
She stood still when her ears picked up on a sound coming from behind her. The sound of dragging feet with labored breathing, like blood bubbling up from the back of someone's throat. Natasha immediately turned her head and swung her knife up towards whatever it was and made contact with the side of a walker's head that was directly behind her, only an arms reach away. "Oh, God!" she shrieked and yanked her knife out.
"Walkers!" Daryl alerted everyone just as Natasha backed up closer to them. "You led us into a graveyard!"
"He made the call," Shane argued back.
"It was the wrong damn call!"
Natasha pulled Daryl away from Shane and forced his eyes on the front. Walkers were starting to wake up and notice them, gathering around like a pack of hungry animals and leaving very little room for escape. It was still possible for everyone to get out alive but they needed to make a decision right now in the next minute.
"Rick, this is a dead-end," Shane said urgently.
Natasha pulled her knife away and reached for the pistol inside her coat. "Rick you need to make a decision now. We can't be this close to the city after dark!" she snapped at him like a snake hissing venom. Stress began to build up inside her and she felt her calm composure starting to crumble with panic. She knew that she needed to stay calm and vigilant but things were getting dark. She was afraid that people were going to start scattering if they got too scared.
"Fort Benning, Rick… Still an option." Shane offered, still trying to pull his best friend away from the door.
"On what? No food, no fuel. That's 100 miles," Andrea shot back.
"125. I checked the map," Glenn chimed in.
"Forget Fort Benning. Natasha's right. We need answers tonight, now," Lori snarled.
Natasha glared into the darkness and could make out all sorts of sounds and at least five walkers shuffling about, getting closer with every limp. Her night vision was decent but total darkness with little artificial light was impossible to pierce through. "Rick..." She inched closer to the women and children as they all huddled at her back. She could even make out the feeling of a small hand clenching ahold of her jacket. Either being Sophia or Carl.
Rick was about to move out with the rest of the group when he caught a glimpse of the security camera moving. It was very faint but he noticed it. "The camera… it moved," he said just as everyone was beginning to make for the cars.
"You imagined it," Shane said.
"It moved. It moved."
"Rick, it is dead, man. It's an automated device. It's gears, okay? They're just winding down. Now come on. Man, just listen to me. Look around this place. It's dead, okay? It's dead. You need to let it go, Rick." Shane tried to pull him away but Rick pushed past him and banged on the shutters.
"I know you're in there. I know you can hear me."
"Rick, there's nobody here!" Lori yelled.
Shane called back to Natasha while he and Lori tried to pull Rick away from the building. "Natasha, get everyone back to the cars. Now!"
"Please, we're desperate. Please help us. We have women, children, no food, hardly any gas left."
"Rick. There's nobody here!"
"We have nowhere else to go." It was like he didn't even hear them. Rick was relentless, totally out of his mind, and confident that someone was watching them through the camera. "Keep your eyes open. If you don't let us in, you're killing us! Please!" he screeched so loudly as Shane hauled him away. "Please help us. You're killing us! You're killing us! You're killing us!"
They were all about to leave when this loud noise stopped them still. The shutters on the building opened up in a flash and bright white light from the inside flooded out and engulfed them all.
I wanna say this. I don't think this is my best chapter and I'm not really a fan of it. Writing had been such a pain this week and I was more often just wanting to get it over with then make it good. I tried my best though and I promise I'll make the next one better.
So please tell me what you think of this chapter and I'll see you next time.