Chapter 21:

Falling to Pieces

By the Shores of Time

Their footsteps echoed through the second floor, barely evading the onslaught climbing over the railings. With a collected weight, some infected fell straight back into the first floor’s bloodied floors. A tentacle shot toward them from the darkness. Had Gabriel not shoved Elizabeth to the ground she would’ve been absorbed. Instead, it slammed against a multitude of infected as they frantically climbed over. The horrific sight burned into his mind, hearing their cries amidst their agony.Bookmark here

“S—shit,” she uttered with bated breath.Bookmark here

“Liz, c’mon,” Gabriel caught her attention, helping her to her feet.Bookmark here

They slipped through the barricaded western hall while a few infected followed. Gabriel tripped forward, soon feeling the infected attempting to strangle him while another ran toward Elizabeth. He held off its heavy strikes, feeling his bones rattle. With his arms bruised and bloodied, it struck him in the face. His skull bounced against the floor, leaving him disoriented before witnessing the next bludgeoning strike incoming.Bookmark here

He thought about Celeste, unable to defend himself. Elizabeth intervened, driving her bloodied knife into the side of its head. Blood trickled over as she tossed the body to the side. She leaned over to examine Gabriel with the little light available. She looked behind her, hearing the infected rummaging through the shoddy blockade. Her lips tightened as she looked upon him unnervingly.Bookmark here

“You think you can stand?” she asked, seeing his weak nod. “All right! Up, up, before these fuckers get to us.”Bookmark here

He staggered onto his feet with her help. He leaned against the wall, glimpsing as light pierced through the flimsy blockade. Their arms began to fill the holes, ravaged with anguish while it came to the brink of collapse.Bookmark here

“I don’t know how we’re supposed to pull through this,” he admitted his concern while looking toward her.Bookmark here

Gabriel looked over to find her deranged gaze, sensing a strange aura she emanated. He winced, wondering what she thought, ignoring the howls filling the desolate halls. It was to his reluctance to follow her, knowing something was amiss as they fled from the scene. Their panting filled the quieter portion of the hall while the barricade collapsed.Bookmark here

Gabriel absorbed the haunting beauty of the ash-layered grounds when they reached the wide-open hole. A fleshy substance covered along the walls and the dirtied floor, buried beneath the fresh ash. He didn’t waste a moment to boost her first, his forearms still aching from the violent blows. He bared his teeth with the slight push to get her over, not before an infected tried to grab hold of him. Clenched by his collar, he kept it away from biting him, seeing a row of bloodied teeth. A loud gunshot sent the rest of the hall’s infected into a frenzy, while Gabriel watched in horror with a blood-covered face.Bookmark here

“Get on up here!” Elizabeth shouted, leaning over to reach his hand.Bookmark here

Nudging the body against the oncoming infected, he scaled part of the way up the wall, boosting him toward the edge. Elizabeth was surprised by his adrenaline boost as she helped him over. The infected weren’t able to reach them as they scoured the lower floor to reach them. Taking a deep breath, Gabriel looked over, seeing the young woman clenching the pistol grip with her finger close to the trigger. He looked on reluctantly as she stood up, ignoring some of the infected that tried jumping to reach the edge.Bookmark here

“What are you doing?” he finally asked, finding her silence damning.Bookmark here

“I—We need to end this,” she responded, angling the way she held her pistol. “For her.”Bookmark here

“What are you talking about—”Bookmark here

“Come on. Why the hell would there be a backup generator up here? It’s about Celeste, and you’re doing so much harm to her.”Bookmark here

He clenched his fist. His selfishness thus far couldn’t have gone without notice over the months, especially regarding Celeste. He didn’t expect anyone to understand his wishes, nor did he feel the need to justify them. Parts of his old self bled through the image he projected: a confident and deeply flawed human. Whatever hurt he put her through was never his intention, as he just wanted her to stand on her own in the new world. Although he felt the peeling eyes of the southern belle in front of him, he didn’t have any hard feelings.Bookmark here

“Is this why you brought me here?” he sighed, gazing back at her as she took a few steps back. “Put the gun down.”Bookmark here

“No,” she responded, raising the firearm. “I—”Bookmark here

“After everything we’ve been through? You’re seriously going to point that gun at me? If you two make it out, then what?”Bookmark here

“Have you ever considered how she felt? All those times you’d tried to push her away, finding excuses to not be around her—”Bookmark here

“That was a choice we made,”Bookmark here

“A choice you made for her! She really cared about you—”Bookmark here

“You think I don’t? Tell me, what the hell do you know about us, anyway?”Bookmark here

“She deserves better.”Bookmark here

He stood up, maintaining his eye contact. With each move he made, she took a step back as her hands trembled, taking aim at him. The frightened expression overtook her stern demeanor when he began walking toward her. With his arms spread, he walked forward in a shallow attempt to provoke her.Bookmark here

“Stand back,” she shouted.Bookmark here

“Go ahead,” he insisted as his voice maintained his conviction. “Shoot me! See if that changes anything because we’re on the same sinking ship. You’ve lost it, Liz! Just give me the gun and—”Bookmark here

“Not happening,” she nodded, stopping Gabriel when he saw her finger reach the trigger. “Greg—He gave me this.”Bookmark here

Elizabeth pulled the folded paper in her pocket, tossing it to the ground. He carefully picked it up, unraveling the folded pages. She continued taking a few steps back, observing their surroundings while maintaining the barrel’s direction. The infected were still finding a way around. Gabriel winced, reading each page of the scientist’s hypothesis. He gripped the pages tightly, looking toward her to find fear in her eyes.Bookmark here

“Is this a fucking joke?” he muttered angrily.Bookmark here

“Nathanial apparently had a similar conclusion,” she responded. “If I do this, we can end all of this.”Bookmark here

“It’s a bunk theory, Liz—”Bookmark here

“What the hell made any sense since this all started Gabriel? Open your eyes! Time doesn’t make sense, people just disappear for weeks when it feels like days? Celeste, there’s something about her, about her stories that don’t add up.”Bookmark here

“So, killing me resolves that? Is that—”Bookmark here

“No!”Bookmark here

Her voice cracked before she wiped away her tears with one arm. Sniffling, she took aim, breathing heavily when she glared back. He could see the old hesitation marks, some barely healed within the past few days. Gabriel pitied her, admired her for her diligence during the calamity that shook their world. Yet, gripping his heart was the sinking impression neither was going to get out alive. He wanted to deescalate the tensions, easing his gaze in response to her incomprehensible standoff.Bookmark here

“Liz,” he muttered.Bookmark here

“This can’t keep going,” she whimpered. “I can’t have you hurting her anymore!”Bookmark here

“Call me what you want. It doesn’t change where we stand. All we can do is press on, together. Now, give me the gun and we can all get out together.”Bookmark here

She shook her head, taking a few steps when he inched forward.Bookmark here

“You’re no different from him,” she raised her voice. “You’re just worried about what makes you feel good.”Bookmark here

“Don’t lump me with that asshole,” he shot back a cold glare. “What he did to her—The bastard could burn.”Bookmark here

“Then why—”Bookmark here

“So, she didn’t have to feel so hurt when I died. I love her more than you could imagine!”Bookmark here

“That’s it? You think that gives you a free pass?”Bookmark here

“Of course not. I should’ve done better, but we’re here now. If shooting me is the answer, so be it. But, the things her and I shared, that bond, is beyond what you see.”Bookmark here

“What are you saying?” She winced.Bookmark here

“It doesn’t matter,” he conceded. “I don’t think anything I’ll say is going to change your mind. And running at you, well—That would be unwise.”Bookmark here

“So, then what?”Bookmark here

“The power is in your hands, quite literally. You pull the trigger; chances are it’s already too late. I won’t hate you—”Bookmark here

“Who are you bullshitting? Don’t think I didn’t hear about those stories—What’s so funny?”Bookmark here

His laughter cracked through his calm expression. Elizabeth’s ire couldn’t have been clearer as she grit her teeth. He ignored her quivering posture as she extended her arm out.Bookmark here

“Yeah,” he spoke as his amusement trailed off. “Stories were exactly what they were. How many people died? I wondered why I managed to survive, but it isn’t much of a mystery. I didn’t want to die… And right now, I don’t plan to die, not here at least. But, I don’t want to hurt you—”Bookmark here

A shot rang, echoing in the gray distance. Warm blood trickled over his hand, panting in excruciating pain he staggered against the rusted AC unit. He looked upon his blooded palm, feeling the blood ooze from his shoulder wound. He couldn’t move his arm as he agonized with the slightest movement. Gabriel locked eyes with Elizabeth, who withheld her surprised reaction.Bookmark here

“Did that hurt?” she snickered as she walked toward him.Bookmark here

She lowered her gun, realizing how incapacitated he was. His pathetic state nearly drew her pity as he focused on the pain. He glimpsed toward her, sending a jolt when their eyes met. She was within his range, a fifty-fifty chance at taking her down. He raised her pistol as he charged at her, pulling the trigger in a panic.Bookmark here

Another shot echoed, quickly turning to silence once again. Elizabeth laid on her back, looking toward the pistol along the hole’s edge. Gabriel fell to his knees, not too far from her. The bullet grazed along his face, narrowly evading his death. Elizabeth ran toward the gun, being halted by Gabriel’s sudden pull. She brandished her knife, readying to stab him against the side of his head.Bookmark here

He thought quickly, glimpsing her hatred while he blocked off the knife with his forearm. He grunted, feeling the blade pierce his bone. She tried to pull it out, but the hooked edge kept the blade lodged. Angered, Gabriel slammed her onto the ground, hoping it would stop her. Elizabeth wouldn’t give in, although she misunderstood his intent.Bookmark here

“This is enough,” he plead, keeping his eyes on her.Bookmark here

She swept against his feet, knocking him off balance. Elizabeth scrambled toward the pistol, swinging around in a frantic display of fear. The barrel’s trajectory gave pause to his pursuit, painfully raising his hands. Her lips quivered, also tired from their scuffle.Bookmark here

“We’ve come so far, Liz,” he spoke.Bookmark here

“No, not everyone makes it,” she responded tearfully.Bookmark here

“Is this what you want? Fine. Do it, but it doesn’t change a damned thing.”Bookmark here

An indescribable dread overwhelmed her before she fired her shot. A strange sound emerged from the hole behind her when the bullet left its chamber. Gabriel felt a thud against his abdomen, witnessing the horrific view before him. Several tentacles sprung around her with a peculiar sound that overwhelmed her panicked screams.Bookmark here

The first tentacle slapped against her. She shrieked as her flesh burned into the tendril. He ignored the horrific simmering of the grotesque process, running as fast as he could only to trip before the edge. It quickly took her down when the other tentacle slammed onto her other side, silencing her within moments as her pained moans distorted into silence.Bookmark here

“No,” he gasped, gritting his teeth as he got on his knees. “Why? Why did it have to be this way?”Bookmark here

He coughed blood, shaken by the reality he faced. His body was weakening, bleeding out slowly without any medical help. Instead of fear, he was filled with sorrow, wishing things could’ve been different. Ricardo, Elizabeth, and Greg were all gone; Now he hoped Celeste fared well, and he wanted to see her one more time. Gabriel’s eyes trailed toward the folded notes by the vent.Bookmark here

Truth to the madness was what he saw.

I wonder what was in those notes...
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