“What’s your name?” Mr. Caldwell barked, puffs of smoke escaping his mouth with every word.
“Jamar,” the man answered. He stood with his hands on his head, his feet spread, his gun between them. “Jamar Cooper.”
Arthur held his pistol with one hand and felt along Jamar’s legs with the other. “And what are you doin’ in here, Jamar?”
“I was gonna ask you the same thing,” Jamar said. “I been holdin’ out here a day now.”
“Why’d you pull a gun on us?” Sky asked in a flat tone. She sat on the tipped vending machine, her legs dangling in front of the Pepsi logo. The zombies behind her chewed the glass door, too stupid to realize she was out of their grasp.
“I thought you were thieves. Pfft. Looks like I was right.”
“Oh, sonny, don’t go sayin’ shit you’ll regret,” Arthur warned. He gave Jamar a gentle shove forward. “He’s clear,” he announced.
“No bites?” Sky asked.
“No bites,” Arthur repeated.
She hopped off the soda machine and grabbed a nearby chair. She planted it in the front lobby clearing. She motioned for Jamar to sit. With a sigh, he complied.
“What do you want from me?” Jamar asked. “There’s more than enough to go around. Why don’t you just take what you need and go?”
“So you and your buddies can track us down later and shoot us in the back?” Arthur asked. His bitter laugh turned into a fit of coughing.
“Buddies?” Jamar said, confused. “What buddies?”
“Jesus,” Arthur muttered. The pistol lolled back and forth in his hand as he circled the chair.
Jamar held up his hands. “Listen. I was out patrolling. Scavenging. I was on my way back in when I heard you. I’m alone. My gut reaction was fight or flight. I wasn’t gonna shoot—not unless you pulled guns on me, too.”
“Oh, so if we wanted to defend ourselves from a gun-wielding maniac, we’re the ones that deserve to get shot?” Sky said. “The fuck?”
“I figured if you were good guys you wouldn’t draw on me.”
“What does that make you?”
Jamar fell silent.
Kris finally stood from where he sat against the wall. “W-we should let him go.”
Sky gave him a quizzical look. “What? Kris, he just pulled a gun on us.”
“We should let him go,” Kris repeated. He looked at Jamar.
“He coulda shot us, kid,” Arthur said, sounding more bored than anything.
“He didn’t, though. I mean, we’re leaving anyway, right?”
Sky palmed her forehead, and Arthur sighed. “Jesus, Kris!” she said.
“W-what’d I do?”
Sky walked over and grabbed his bicep—part of it, anyway. “You can’t go around telling potentially dangerous people where we’re going, what we’re up to. That’s how people get mugged—or worse.”
“I’m sorry,” Kris whispered back.
Sky gave him an apologetic look. “So what are we doing, Arthur?” she asked the old man, turning back around.
“Depends on if we believe him or not,” Arthur replied. He took a drag and blew the smoke upwards.
“Well,” Sky said, gesturing with her hand as she took her seat atop the vending machine. “Let’s hear it, then.”
Jamar leaned forward and looked between Arthur, Kris, and Sky as he spoke. “Listen. My wife and I lived on the south side. When all this shit went down, I was at work. I drove home and she was gone, so I called her. No answer. I’ve tried every place I can think of, and now I’m here. Been here a day now. Check my backpack. Nothin’ but food in there. When I heard you rummaging in here, I thought you were scavengers or something. I had to defend my turf.”
“Lookin’ for your wife, huh?” Arthur said. “In case you hadn’t noticed, the whole country has gone to shit. If you haven’t found your wife by now, she’s long gone.”
“Arthur!” Sky scolded.
“Bullshit,” Jamar said, ignoring Arthur’s comment. “Kurisu’s a fighter. If I can make it, so could she, especially if she found a group. Look. I have proof.” Jamar reached into his wallet and pulled out a picture.
Sky took it and stared. Kris looked over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of a young Jamar with his wife. She was squeezing a purple stuffed octopus.
Sky nodded and handed the photo back. “Got any leads?” she asked. Arthur’s expression changed into disbelief.
“None. I tried her favorite coffee shop and the library. No trace of her or her car.”
“What if she went back home?”
“No dice. My ‘hood is twice as infested as this place. She’s way too smart to go back there.”
“Are you seriously buying into this?” Arthur said.
“The guy’s wife is missing, Art. He’s got proof. Cut him some slack.” Sky turned back to Jamar. “What about her work?”
Jamar shook his head. “She’s a freelancer. Worked from home—or the coffee shop, or the library.”
“What kind of freelancer?”
“Artist.” Jamar turned and flexed his arm, displaying an ivory tattoo of a menacing octopus that covered him shoulder to wrist.
Sky whistled. “Damn. My buddy Kris here is an artist, too. Maybe he and your wife can exchange tips.” She looked at Kris, bit her lip, and raised her brows suggestively.
Jamar stood, his mouth forming into a cautious smile. “You mean you’ll help?”
Arthur waved his arms and stepped between the group. “Wait a minute. I thought we were gettin’ outta this shithole. We shouldn’t stick around Chicago longer than we need to. It’s dangerous all over.”
“It’s my parents waiting for me. Does it really make a difference to you guys if we put that off a few days?” She looked between Arthur and Kris, waiting for an answer.
“It does,” Arthur said. “The longer we stay here, the greater risk we take.”
“No one’s making you stay,” Sky said.
Mr. Caldwell marched over, grabbed Sky by the arm, and jerked her over to where Kris sat. Sky rubbed where Arthur had gripped her and gave him a dirty look. “Look, kids,” Arthur began, “We don’t know this guy. He could be anyone, leading us into a trap. Who knows?”
“You warmed up to us pretty quickly,” Sky pointed out.
“You two brats didn’t pull a gun on me.”
“To be fair, he pulled a gun on us,” Sky said, motioning to Kris. “You pulled a gun on him—kinda like when we first met you. Hmm…” Sky tapped her chin and cocked her head. Arthur ground his teeth.
“All three of us know exactly what happened to this guy’s wife, that ‘proof’ of his is even legitimate. And you wanna risk staying here?”
“I’m not leaving some poor man behind!” Sky said, a bit too loudly. Kris saw Jamar look over, concern etched into his features.
“W-what if we brought him with us?” Kris suggested.
Sky and Arthur stared at him and stayed silent. Sky spoke first. “You really think he’d come with us without closure on his wife?”
“Well, uh, maybe,” Kris said with a shrug. “It might take some convincing.”
“And if we can’t convince him?” Arthur growled.
“We stay,” Sky decided for the three of them.
Arthur scoffed. “For how long?”
“As long as we need to.” Her mind made up, Sky turned and left.