If I'm being totally honest, my first instinct was to just leave her there.
I was fully aware, even in that moment, that the person I was, just a year earlier, would have been horrified at that idea, and disgusted by what I'd become. That wasn't what changed my mind though. I didn't feel a whole lot of kinship with my former self. That well-fed, complacent, self-satisfied prick was free to sit around imagining how noble he'd be in my place, when his idea of a rough time was when the cable went out.
No, I had no illusions about how much I'd changed, and couldn't waste emotional bandwidth feeling ashamed. Survival was now about doing what you had to do. For people in the old world, being able to gun down shambling hordes probably sounded like great fun, until you realize that some of those dead-eyed creatures were going to be pregnant women, little old ladies, and small children. The kids were the worst, by far, because despite the decaying flesh, yellow eyes, and look of feral hunger, they were still recognizably kids. There were plenty of people who died or were turned because they were too weak to pull the trigger in a case like that. I came pretty close a time or two myself, but... well, I'm still alive.
It doesn't take too long for that to sand off all the fine edges of your conscience. In the world now, you take care of yourself and your own, and everyone else is a potential threat. Respect for all human life is simply a luxury we can no longer afford. If we ever rebuild, maybe our great-great-great-grandchildren will be secure enough that that can look back with disgust at how we lived, and be ashamed to be descended from us. Right now, though, you keep your eye fixed on surviving, or you lay down and die.
I heard the car before I saw it, which put me on alert right away. By the time I got over the crest, I could guess what had happened. The car had run off a straight, dry road in broad daylight, and collided with a sign post at fairly low speed, judging by the minor damage. The wheels were still spinning uselessly against the mud, so something was still pushing on the gas. Adding it all up, either someone had died at the wheel, or turned. I weighed just walking away, but if there was a creeper in the car, it was best to deal with it now. One on it's own was little danger, but if he came up when I wasn't looking, that could change.
When I got close, it became clear that my guess was right. In the driver's seat was a creeper uselessly pawing at his own seatbelt, but without enough brain function left to figure out how to unbuckle himself. I heard, well before I saw, the sobbing shrieks coming from the back seat. That was unexpected. The simple truth was, you didn't see little kids very much any more. No small children had gotten to my settlement alive, and you quickly learned not to bring the subject up around several of the people there. We had one pregnant girl, and another who'd miscarried a month or so back, but few people were having babies on purpose.
Curiosity drew me closer. I kept my spade at the ready, in the off chance that dad managed to break free and come after me. She looked to be in surprisingly good condition, all things considered. She couldn't have been more than two, though I'm not great at judging such things. Probably adorable under normal circumstances, though her face was beet red, streaked with tears and contorted into continuous screams. I was pretty sure she wasn't injured, but your father turning into a monster in front of your eyes would upset anyone.
The simple, harsh reality was that this girl was dead weight. It was at least a three day walk back to the settlement on my own, just carrying the fruits of my scavenging mission on my back. I knew nothing to about taking care of a toddler, and even if I did, carrying her would at least double the time it would take, and make it near impossible to run, if we were attacked. And it wasn't pure selfishness that drove me. My settlement couldn't afford to lose me. That's not ego, just a realization that irreplaceable skills are a common thing now. If I got myself bit because I felt sorry for a squalling kid, other people could die because of it.
To this day, I couldn't tell you for sure what changed my mind. It was a couple of things, I guess. One was that, as I approached the car, I saw a paper pinned to her shirt, with big, block letters that said "My Name Is Rosie". For some reason, that really hit me. Knowing her name was part of it, but it was also a sign of what her dad had gone through. This mindless beast trying to get free and eat her, not so long ago, probably loved her more than anything in the world. He'd managed to keep her alive and safe against all odds, and then he got bit, and out of desperation, must have just driven, trying to get her somewhere safe before then end. He knew he probably wouldn't survive the journey, but kept trying as long as he possibly could. And if she survived, he wanted her to at least know her own name.
The other realization was harsher. If I left her, she was going to die, and if I was going to do that, I'd have had to finish it myself. Better a mercy-kill than leaving her to die of thirst in pain and fear, or be torn to shreds by her father, or whatever other creeper happened along. I'd been wondering, for a while, what the limits were to how far I'd go to protect my own survival, and I realized I'd just reached it.
I smashed in the window on the passenger side and unlocked the door, being careful to stay out of dad's reach. When I loosed her from the car seat, I wasn't sure what to expect, I was a complete stranger after all, and a pretty rough-looking one at that. But I guess none of that matters to a toddler in abject fear. As soon as I picked her up she clutched her arms around my neck so hard I was almost afraid of being strangled, and she sobbed into my shoulder so hard that all I could do was stand awkwardly until her cries settled down.
When she was down to tears and whimpering, I realized that she had to thirsty. I carried her a little ways to the nearest shade, far enough that she couldn't hear her father's ongoing grunts and struggles. She drank quite a bit of water from my canteen. She only really nibbled on the hard tack I offered her. I was going to have to figure out what a kid that age could eat. But that seemed like enough, and she fell asleep in my arms soon after. I managed to get my jacket off without waking her up, and wrapped her up and laid her there gently. I was glad she was going to be asleep for what was coming next.
Bullets had become a precious commodity, and the reality is, creepers are pretty easy to take out if there's only one, and you stay alert. All it takes is a sharp blow strong enough to crack through the skull. The sharp corner of a heavy spade will do the trick. By the time I came back from the car, she finally had silence.
I made sure to search the car for anything both useful and portable. There was still some food and water, which she'd probably find more palatable than the provisions I had. I could tolerate the weight of one change of clothes for her. A couple of other tools and supplies that were worth packing out of there. He'd even kept some kind of long cloth for strapping a kid to your stomach while leaving your arms free. Took me the better part of an hour to figure out how to use it, but it was probably the only way to lug her cross country without getting us both killed.
As I finally got her strapped in, with the rest of my supplies on my back, she was just waking up. As her eyes blinked open and focused, she looked scared.
"Rosie?" I asked.
She looked up at me, still apprehensive.
"That's your name, right? Rosie?"
This time, I got a shy smile out of her.
"Well, kiddo, it's been a pretty lousy day for both of us. But at least
it can only get better from here."
That actually got a giggle. Must have been my delivery. I'd almost
forgotten what a little kid's laugh sounded like.
"We got a long road ahead of us, but I've got you now. Let's get you somewhere safe".