REMNANTS OF TOPPLED CASH REGISTERS, broken carts, card‐ board boxes, and plastic bags littered the floor.
“Paper or plastic,” Quentin kicked a white bag. It flew across the room like a specter.
Brazen vermin squealed and scurried in front of Jenna’s feet. Most of the shelves were not only empty but badly deteriorated. Still, Emma and Jackie were able to gather a few cans that had hidden in dark corners or under filth.
She stepped over a long-dried puddle. It was hard and black.
“Clean up in isle four.” Quentin’s voice rang out behind her. They wandered through the maze of aisles—skirting empty. molding containers, broken shelving, and avoiding the darkest of places. A noise caught her attention and that of the group, signaling for everyone to stop. Jackie motioned for Jenna and Quentin to fan out. Quentin gave her a thumbs-up before he prowled ahead. A broken sign dangled. The words cereal and bread still attached by thin chains.
Quentin pulled out a wallet and handed Billy a one-hundred-dollar bill. “Go crazy. Buy whatever you need.”
“Gee, thanks.” Billy took the money, but a moment later let it slip through his fingers. It sailed to the floor, landing gently.
They could be dead soon. Why had she never tried to get to know Quentin?
Everyone loved him and his off-beat sense of humor. Something she didn’t understand and shied away from. He’d been part of the group for more than two months. One of the last human survivors she and the rest of them had run across. It was their first scavenging party together.
Always friendly since day one.
Did his antics make her feel protected? She couldn’t remember how that worked.
Why had she remained aloof?
“Attention shoppers.” His hands cupped his mouth, so the words echoed in the emptiness. “Today’s specials include dented cans of long-expired veggies. Don’t forget those condiments. A bottle of ketchup can spice up any type of zombie brains.”
“We don’t eat zombie brains,” Jenna blurted.
He smiled at her. “I know.”
Exactly the reason staying quiet is best.
She studied him. He stood at least five inches taller than Jenna, and when he turned back, hoisted his bat, and winked at her, the tight, long-sleeved T-shirt highlighted muscled arms. Tousled brown hair fell into his blue eyes. She’d seen it all before, but it was as if today she took it in and etched his features in her mind.
He waved her forward and she joined him. “The town’s been quiet since you and Caleb vanquished the last batch of Streakers.” Mice, frightened of his voice, surged forward, leaping over Quentin’s steel-toed boots. “Free of the undead types and humans.”
Jenna jumped back before huffing out a breath. “Yup.”
So much for practicing those social skills.
“Looters cleaned this place out long ago.” He ran a long, straight index finger along a shelf, picking up a layer of dust mixed with animal hair. “Nothing’s here but the stench.”
“And the rodents.” Jenna pointed to the boots the vermin had just run over.
“Those too.” He held her gaze.
“We should have searched houses. You know how people stockpiled at the end.”
“Staking out each house, ensuring there are no Streakers, and then searching takes so much longer. Grocery stores are a one and done deal.”
“Does it make sense to split up?” Emma peeked around a corner.
“It will make the search go faster. I doubt we’ll find much in here.” Jackie smoothed a lock of hair behind an ear.
“Not too far apart.” Emma headed away from the group and Jenna. “We can see each other from the ends of the rows. Let’s stay in sight when possible.” “Come on.”
Emma grabbed Billy and followed Jackie. “You two take the rows at the other end of the store. We can meet in the middle. Yell if you need us.”
Quentin bumped shoulders with Jenna. “Partner.”
She ignored him. He repeated the contact. This time more forcefully.
“Stop.” The growl emerged from deep in her throat. She strode away until she found an interesting store aisle and then meandered through it; Quentin followed a few steps behind. His breath hit the back of her neck and she stopped short. “Do I need to yell over to Jackie for a rescue, or are you going to behave? I like my personal space.”
What does he mean by all the close contact?
Quentin didn’t take the prior hint and started a drumbeat on the back of her jacket.
“Stop,” she protested.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Are you ten years old?” Posture rigid, exasperation leaked out. “We’re on a mission here.”
“I’m old enough.” Quentin’s blue eyes twinkled.
“Good to know you’re so seasoned and battle ready.”
“Look at these arms.” Muscles bulged under his shirt. “Do they look like the arms of a pre-teen? I’m ready for battle… and other things.”
“All I see are the lovely and appealing stains on your shirt.” She did a double take. “Actually, I recant my statement.”
His smile was wicked. “I knew you would.”
“They look like the arms of a small child. Someone needs to be hitting the gym a little more often.”
“Ouch.” He shoved her.
Catching her off guard, she stumbled. He reached out and drew her in. “Sorry.” His whispered word tickled her ear.
He didn’t let her go and she stood cocooned in his warmth. The heat of his body, close and warm, was confusing. It’s been such a long time since physical closeness with anyone was normal.
“There’s a pharmacy at the end of the next row we should check out.” She tried to break the spell of the moment.
“Really?” He didn’t take the hint and relinquish her. “There’s a lot going on right here I want to examine.”
“I take it back.” She wiggled out of Quentin’s grasp, then punched his arm.
“What?” His arms went limp at his side.
“You’re acting like a toddler.” She inched closer to the pharmacy, placing more distance between Quentin, the confusing emotions, and herself.
“Everyone okay?” Emma’s voice echoed from the next row.
“We’re good. At least Quentin is good. I’m suffering through his antics.” Jenna wasn’t sure what was going on or why, and she didn’t want to begin to address the sensations careening through her.
“Try your best not to judge him too harshly.” Muffled laughter filtered through the ramshackle shelving.
“I’m trying my darndest.” To be over there with the rest of them. Why am I stuck in a teen dating movie? She chalked her bewilderment and awkwardness up to the recent near-death experience with Streakers and nightmares. After some quality sleep, everything would be fine and dandy. “Come on.” Jenna tugged the arm of his T-shirt. He remained planted like a tree. “We have a job to do and not a lot of time to do it.” Jenna edged back. “Let’s get moving.”
He groaned but followed, kicking at the discarded face masks littering the floor, some flaked with dried blood. She checked the nook of a shelf on the way to the pharmacy. Vermin squeaked, scurried, then scattered.