<-- Earlier | Cursed Earth

I'd considered Mark's offer and decided to accept it. After that close call with the gamma demon back at Wal-Mart, it wouldn't hurt to have an extra, competent person along. It wasn't just that, either - there was something positive about Mark. I couldn't put as finger on it, exactly, but something about how he approached each day gave me a glimmer of hope, as if maybe, even in this ruined world, things would turn out alright after all. The way I figured it, we all needed a little hope. Maybe Mark's attitude would rub off. To that end we opted to stay at the old school for a few days before heading out.

I realized on the first day that this guy really believed that he'd make it. You know, though, I think finding out that you're not the last man on Earth and that there's others, not only living but fighting is probably enough to light a fire under just about anyone. I know it did for me. Mark wasn't letting any grass grow under his feet. He'd wake up early, go down to the gym for a morning workout, then out to the greenhouse and the freezer to prepare food. I was really amazed by the degree to which he had things together. I was reminded, in a way, of Doctor Neville in I Am Legend.

Of course, at least there you could hope for a cure. Here, well, demons were never human. There was nothing to cure. But that didn't matter right now. What mattered is that someone was still alive in Chicago. Right now that mattered more than anything. I didn't hold out any hope that I'd ever find anything like a normal life there, but at least maybe Jess could finally find some peace. Goddess knows she deserves it - at least I knew my parents. I tried not to let the thoughts consume me.

Mark had a strange taste in movies, too. We were watching one called Zombieland - ostensibly a comedy, but it struck a little too close to home, I think. I was pondering the last part of the movie - wondering if that was what I was doing, before I ran into Jess, when suddenly the fire alarm started screaming. I was confused. Mark went wide-eyed and looked at me, puzzled, as if wondering why I was still standing there.

"Oh, right!" he finally exclaimed. "That's the demon alarm!"

Jess let out an exasperated sigh. "You'd think the demons could at least give us some breathing room, out here!"

I laughed inwardly. Four days was a heck of a lot of breathing room, I thought - but then, I guess it was just long enough to make it feel like the peace might last. Mark just shook his head.

"Life sucks, kid," he said. "Get a helmet." With that, he produced one - from where, I wondered? - and put it on. The sheer amount of kit he had stored in every last crevice never failed to amaze me. I briefly wondered if he'd have an entire spare bug-out bag hidden under his chair. He was off like a shot, slamming a magazine into his SMG as he went. Jess jogged off after him, and I wasn't far behind, stopping only long enough to grab my rifle.

"Quick!" Mark shouted. "Get upstairs! They'll probably pass us by, but you never know..." He dashed up the stairs and took up a position in front of the window. Jess and I jogged up behind him and peered out.

Demons, dozens of them at least, milled around outside the school, looking for a way in. I'd seen this sort of siege before - they'd try to draw the defenders' attention while gammas snuck in through the top floor windows to kill everyone. My first move would be to find a closet and bug in until the gammas were inside, then wait for them to come to me, and kill them as they do. Not Mark, though. He produced some kind of gadget from his pocket and typed something on it. Suddenly, the lawn sprinklers came to life, the water mist outlining several camouflaged gammas. He drew a bead and double-tapped the first one in the head.

That simple action had turned a treacherous situation into a shooting gallery. I raised the FAL and squeezed the trigger, and another demon's head vanished in a chunky mist. Jess lit a pipe bomb and threw it into the middle of the largest cluster of alpha demons, then Mark and I picked off the stragglers one by one.

I caught sight of a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. An instant later, a box clipped to Mark's belt started emitting a piercing whine. We both spun at the same moment to see a gamma demon drop from the ceiling, still camouflaged with the drop-tile pattern. Jess blew it away, unloading half the Benelli's magazine into it.

Mark patted the little box. "Demon proximity alarm," he said. "Not the first time it's saved my bacon, either!"

"Impressive setup you've got here," I said, then turned to look out at the demon congregation, which had started to scatter.

Jess looked out the window and clapped Mark and I on the shoulders. "Hey, I think we make a mean team!"

I couldn't help but agree. Maybe we'd even make it. After it was all over, I slept easier that night than I had in as long as I could remember. We left the next morning in the weirdest kluged-up SUV I'd ever seen, but somehow I knew we'd be alright.

With The Black Mages blaring on the makeshift speaker system, we drove off with the Sun at our backs. Toward Chicago. Toward hope.

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