Three men rush me from the corners of the room. My dad stands against the fourth wall watching. I wipe the sweat out of my eyes before spinning and kicking the first of my attackers. I wince at the muffled thud and his groan. The other two don’t slow down, though I know they want to.
The second attacker raises the wooden practice sword. He’s armed, I’m not. I duck down and away from him, sweeping my leg in a kick low to the ground. He loses his balance and topples down. I grab the sword and turn, blocking the swing of the third attacker. He meets my gaze, blue eyes steady. With a practiced flip of my sword, I disarm him, and thrust my sword toward his throat, stopping just before I strike.
“It’s not natural,” says John. He’s the first one that fell today. “I’m telling you there is something unholy in the way she moves.” He crosses himself before backing away from me.
“She’s been training since she could walk,” my dad says. A smile is on his face, the same one I always see when he wants to show me off to a visitor. Smugness and it doesn’t always have to do with me. “You should see her fighting the infected. You want that speed when you’re surrounded. She’s saved more than one life with the way she moves.”
“Still I’ll be glad when it’s time for me to move on.” John shudders and leaves the room without asking for my father’s permission. The other two wait silently, watching me warily, as my dad unfolds his arms and walks toward me. He ruffles my hair.
I’m soaking with sweat, my shirt sticking to my back. My legs are exposed, and I’m not entirely comfortable standing still in my fighting clothes. I pull back from his touch, the condescending way he speaks about me makes me angry.
“Lexy, go change and get ready for dinner. It’s not every day we get to celebrate your birthday.” He smiles and then nods at the other two who hurry out of the room without looking back. I’m used to the way others are uncomfortable around me. I am the only child in the compound.
I walk quickly to my room, head down. Stopping only once at a corner until the other people pass. There are a lot of whispers today. It’s been more crowded lately since my father has been calling followers in. My sessions in the practice room have been watched more. Something is changing. I miss the quiet routine of the last two years: study, practice, and then going out to fight.
We haven’t gone on a raid in two months. I can’t burn off my nervous energy when I practice. I fight men more than twice my age. Their hair is starting to gray, and I feel guilty each time I knock them down. I’m holding back, and we all know it.
When I open my bedroom door I find a package on my desk next to my computer. I rip into the box and pull out a smaller box wrapped in striped pink paper. I tear it off and open a small box, inside is a silver chain, with three small charms. A heart, a star, and a sword.
I slide the card out of the envelope. “Happy Birthday. I wish I could celebrate with you. Love, Jason.” I slip the necklace over my head, smiling at the jingle I hear when I move. It is perfect, just like Jason.
I jump into the shower, washing quickly and changing into the long plain dress that is the uniform for the women in the compound. I am more comfortable now. I love to fight, but inside the compound my differences are emphasized when I’m not dressed like the other women. Being the only girl to fight is difficult at times.
“Lexy, come set the table.” Emma calls down the hall. I button the last button of the dress and turn to leave.
“Lexy,” the voice is raspy from disuse. It’s not a voice I recognize. Turning I scan the room to be sure I’m alone. I go to the door and lock it. Press my ear against it to listen.
“Lexy.” The voice is right outside my door. The thump and drag of an uneven gait goes past my room, and then the smell hits me through the door. Rotten meat, decaying flesh. So strong I gag. My throat closing up and eyes watering, I reach down for my knives or my sword automatically, but I’m not dressed in hunting gear and my weapons were checked in after our last trip out.
I wait for the sound to move away from me, pressing against the door. My heart is beating hard, as I pray for him to go past. Please don’t let him stop at my door. Several seconds pass, and I crack the door open peering into the hall. The smell is lingering even though he is gone, toward the kitchens.
Taking a deep breath, I run. Emma’s in the kitchen. The other women cannot defend themselves. My silent approach is ruined by the jingle of the charms on my necklace. I burst into the room and everyone looks up at me, but he turns grabbing a knife off of the counter in front of him. One of the women screams and doesn’t stop. There is a clatter as pans and plates drop as the women realize what is happening.
“Lexy.” He smiles, his teeth black in his mouth, his skin is graying, bubbling along one side of this face. One arm is cradled against him. The virus seems to have only attacked one side of his body. He lunges, surprising me with his quickness. The knife in his hand slices against my cheek, drawing a line right underneath my eye.
Gasping, I back down and away as he slashes again. Behind him I see the women gathering against the far wall. I try to kick him, but my feet tangle in my skirt. I duck as he comes at me again with the knife. I gather my skirts up in one hand and kick hard, glad that I only have one pair of shoes. They are heavy combat boots and I can hear the crack of his arm, as I hit it full on. He groans, my cheek is stinging and that eye is watering, tears streaming down the cheek making my vision blurry.
I kick again, and grunt as I hit his hurt arm. He lets go of the knife and moves forward in a burst of speed, grabbing my arm and spinning me toward him. He’s stronger than I thought he would be, and though I’m fighting, dragging myself away from him, he keeps pulling me closer to him.
The smell is overwhelming, but his touch on my arm is what makes me shudder. His flesh is soft, and spreads over my arm. I want to get away from him. The background noise fades away from me, and his ragged breathing matches mine. I pull again.
“Let go of me,” I scream, stomping one foot down on his. I try to shift my weight to throw him off balance, but he pulls me in closer. Trembling I fight again, wishing I had my weapons with me. If I had a sword or even a knife, I would not be in this situation. I look around for something to grab, to attack him. But everything is too far away. I kick again as his grasp on my arm tightens.
Then men burst in the kitchen in quick movements. They grab him, putting a gun against his head. They won’t shoot if they can help it. The risk of spreading the virus is too great in the kitchen. My dad pries his fingers off of me. And I lean back against him for a moment. Then he shifts me away, and I look at my attacker, hold his gaze as he looks at me with cold blue eyes. He’s not completely gone, like I’ve seen the other victims. There is something in him still.
“Get her cleaned up,” my dad says, turning away from me, and then orders the men in the compound to dispose of him. They walk out in a straight line. The women are huddled against the far wall away from me. Someone is sobbing softly, and some of the women have their arms wrapped around each other. There is food scattered all over the kitchen, splattered on the walls. The smell of something burning tries to etch out the stink of rotting flesh, but it ends up in acrid horrible combination that makes me gag.
“Lexy, are you okay?” Emma walks toward me hands outstretched. She’s the closest thing I have to a mother. Her pale blue eyes are wide, and her usual smile is gone, but she still reaches out to me. Inside I begin to shake, the horror of the moment sinking in as the adrenaline seeps away.
“He touched me.” The spot on my arm where his flesh touched mine is beginning to tingle and burn. I look down and see bits of the gray flesh adhering to my skin. When we fight we go out in a full uniform, the only part of us that is exposed is our faces. I’ve never actually made contact before. Then my cheek begins to sting more. I look down at my shirt; blood is dripping onto it.