DL: Chapter 26

The man was a father of three.  He had two sons and a daughter, and a wife that he left when he found out she was cheating on him.  The only relief the man found was that in the trial he had wiped his wife out.  He had not been cringing or fearful, his wife had destroyed the beautiful family they had together, and he was going to make her pay.  With the money from the divorce the man was able to send his sons to fantastic boarding schools.  It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but he had not seen them in over a year, and his last conversation with his oldest child had been eight months ago.  With the divorce the man had also won the summer home.  The man had tried everything he could think of to get in contact with his sons to get them to come home after the Virus broke out.  Nothing had worked.  So the man had reinforced his fortress, built up supplies, and waited.

He watched his daughter sleep.  It did not take much to tell she was adopted, an Asian child in a black family, but the man’s wife had wanted a girl.  When he laid eyes upon her his heart ripped itself apart. The father could not see her without remembering his other children, he could not look upon her without knowing she would be next.  She was sick.  The man prayed that he would not be forced to outlive all his children.

 

Four houses and three more viral.  Abal twirled her ax against the ground, it felt lighter than when she had first picked it up.  Food and a small amount of upper body exercise were fortifying their muscles.  Abal was feeling healthy and fit, food was no longer an overriding and unrelenting thought every hour at the back of her mind.  She was sitting with the three men in the fading daylight in a new house.  The building would not do for more than a day and the fireplace was electric, but for one night it would shelter the survivors.  Abal was downstairs doing push ups.  In a few hours she would be trying to get to sleep in the downstairs master bedroom with one of three potentially horny comrades by her side.  Abal knew that if it was James he was going to try something, she could just feel it.  She didn’t mind, a mild rebuke and some name calling was all it seemed to take to dissuade him.  She was not working out for the sake of the living.  

“I have a surprise for you guys,”  James announced out of the blue.  Three pairs of eyes jumped from pages onto the suspicious hooligan who was beaming with the knowledge of his gift.  “It must be about Christmas so I have a present we can all enjoy, so let me just go grab my bag of goodies and I’ll be down the chimney in a moment,”  without another word he was gone.  Abal exchanged a confused smile with Max.  She thought the improvising Santa was funny and maybe even a little cute, if she had met him before the Virus, he might have had a chance.  James reentered with one hand behind his back.

“You missed the chimney,” Abal said.

“Santa didn’t approve of my gift,” James slowly took the bag out from behind his back.  Abal recognized the substance and felt a strange sort of wonder.  She had seen marijuana passed in front of her, but it looked different not being burned.  The only fact Abal felt sure about was that the drug was less dangerous than public education made it out to be but not as helpful as hippies claimed it was. 

“I don’t know if we should be really fucked up if something or someone tries to break in here,”  Max said.  Abal nodded, “But I definitely need to relax, and I’m pretty sure you guys do too,”  Max indicated toward Abal and Michael.  She continued nodding as if she had thought the whole conversation through before hand and was waiting for them to come to the logical conclusion.

“Well if you need to calm down, join me.  We can take the batteries out of the smoke alarms or just send all the smoke out the window,”  James said.  Abal continued bobbing her head up and down.

 

Michael had tried a cigarette once.  He did not enjoy it but knew it had looked pretty bad ass to his friends.  The great appeal of the burning cylinders was how they made the user look, but Michael had never smoked another.  He had acquaintances who smoked packs a day, some wanted to stop the habit but couldn’t.  Michael inhaled.  Weed was a different story.  Michael loved it, but knew it was irresponsible to spend too much money on something that wasn’t going to help Tyler.   

One joint, soon to be followed by another, made its way across the couch, each member blowing the smoke out of the open window behind their heads.  Michael enjoyed the occasional high, his always hellish world faded away for a short time, the difficult past and impossible future did not exist, his mind felt clear and saw a satisfying present.  The joint was passed across the couch to the start of the line.  It was Abal’s first time, Michael could feel it.  She had not coughed but had not held her breath for very long either.  He inhaled deeper the second time, it had been a long time since his last high and he had to pace himself.  Michael watched the smoke erupt from his mouth; there were no real effects yet, but he was already feeling better.

 

There was little trace the survivors had ever been in the house when they left after a small meal.  Light snow was falling on the morning frost, clouds prevented the sun from melting it all away.  There was still a fair supply of non-perishables in the packs but a large amount was macaroni or other types of noodles.  Some of them ate packets of ramen raw but experiments with real, uncooked spaghetti proved too difficult for the survivors’ debilitated digestive tracks, swallowing a mouth full was a painful experience none of the survivors planned to attempt again after that morning.  

The only clothes the survivors carried were the ones covering their skin.  The only extra piece of clothing was in Abal’s arms, a winter jacket.  She already had on a tank top, a button down shirt, and a zip up sweater, and did not need the added warmth, but in a few weeks it would be a necessity.  Most of the  group’s clothing was similar to Abal’s in the fact that it was all buttoned or zipped, something that could be easily removed and left if it got snagged.  The four males were still on the look out for a heavy coat for the upcoming months. 

James took a hit off a joint.  Two fingers for six viral was a good trade but James would be hesitant to elect for it again, the attack had been one of the most painful physical experiences of his life.  Years back he had broken a collar bone and received a blow that gave him a concussion, but the fingers, laced with all their nerve endings, would render him helpless if they were torqued.  Blunt weapons were useless to him, many requiring two hands to inflict significant damage.  James did not know what to consider his decision to make a spear except to know that not having it would make him slightly more prone to death.  Since he was injured James had also been given high priority on firearm detail.  Tucked into the back of his pants was a glock 18, the 9mm pistol held 17 rounds and was reliable as hell, James had never seen it out of Michael’s possession.  James considered how easy it would be for him and Max to sneak away one night with all the food and weapons they could carry.  Hiding away in a house would be easy, there were plenty the group had already checked and far too many for Abal, Tyler, and Michael to recheck.  With the amazing food supply and less than half the stomachs to feed the pair could last for a long while.  James knew that Michael and Tyler were in the same position, and they had never tried to escape or take advantage of the others.  James smiled, despite all the opportunities there were, he had no desire to act on them.  The five humans trudged around the lake, 

 

Tyler waited until the last person was in their room before getting out of bed.  He had a small single bed and room to himself, he just had to be careful in the hallways not to make anyone suspicious.  His brother had elected for first watch and was sitting at a chair that had been moved to the bottom of the staircase.  He heard Tyler coming and nodded at him as he came down the stairs.  The older Mackay was not entirely ignoring his sibling but it was still not enough, Tyler was going to fix it.  He was unsteady for a moment standing next to the large man who was temporarily guarding the group, but had guarded had protected Tyler since infancy.  

“I’m sorry,” Tyler began slowly, “You were right.  Abal told me what happened after I,” small stutter as Tyler wanted to pick out the right word.  He had forgotten about the first part of the story and did not want to make an accusation.  “After I was unconscious.  I’m sorry for what you had to do.  I know it was because of me that he suffered.  His death should have been easy but I didn’t let you do the right thing.  And ever since that day every decision you’ve made has been as perfect as possible.  I won’t question you again.  I’m sorry.”  Tyler turned and walked back up the stairs.  He was expecting no response, and he was right.  After letting the moon to guide him to bed Tyler fell asleep with relative ease, his job had been done.

 

The heart beat less than twenty times in a minute.  The body was more efficient in some ways than that of a normal human.  The cold, if not felt by the skin, was sensed as offensive and the white was considered to be the problem.  Anywhere not white would be better.  The fists were balled and arms crossed in a base instinct to conserve heat, but there was no energy wasting shaking.  There was noise, not normal noise.  The body sped up its advance towards the source of the noise, the brain could not recognize the wooden structure as a house.  The natural tendency to hunt for food was strong and the viral crawled through a hole in the wall it encountered.  On the inside the brain waited a moment for another noise before continuing forward, the remaining eye was alert for prey.  The viral caught sight of a body face down in the corner of the room.  The thought pattern changed back to a more primitive form of, cold, bad, avoid.  It was not specifically aware of survival functions but the brain was doing a remarkably good job keeping the host alive considering the nature of the disease.  Repressed pain, basic coordination, energy conservation, even the flesh was poisonous to predators giving the body a defense it was unaware it even possessed.  Another human who was not truly alive fell through the broken window, but the first viral paid no attention to its new companion.  Instead it walked toward the face down body that was shifting slightly in the corner of the room, with a controlled descent the brain ordered the body on top of the lying figure.  The body heat was further conserved when the third viral added itself to the heap, another brain with similar inclinations as its infected brethren came through the window after seeing the second and third enter.

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DL: Chapter 24+25

Smoke detectors had been designed to wake every member of the house no matter where they sleep or how heavily.  The general message being sent by them was, “Get out now or you might die.”  The effect was still the same amongst the three huddled around the small fire, but instead of praise for the warning system there were curses.  If the alarm had sounded in the world in which it had been designed outside attention would have been minimal, but in a world deprived of electricity, devoid of cars or music, where only the rustle of wind through trees broke the silence, the noise was a beacon.  The blaring wail was blocked by the forest in front of the house, but with a lakeside backyard the shrieking carried over the water without inhibition.  

Michael turned over the warm pot and doused the fire.  Now in darkness the survivors stumbled to the stairs, they stubbed fingers feeling their way forward and stepped on one another’s toes.  By the time they were to the first floor a second alarm was going off and James was downstairs with a flashlight and pistol.  

“What the hells going on?”  James had to yell to be heard.

“Smoke alarm, we’re getting out of here,”  Michael grabbed the flashlight from James and ran up to the second floor.

“Are we taking the food?”  Abal shouted her question.

“Yeah, get all of it, and the weapons too.”

At the top of the stairs a second flashlight shined in Michael’s face, blinding him for a moment, “What happened?”  The voice was barely audible.

“We’re leaving,” Michael shouted.

The startled flashlight jumped back at the order, then floated into one of the rooms.  Michael grabbed a backpack full of cans and slung it over his shoulder, the weight staggered him for a moment.  He cursed himself, since he knew they were ready to leave at any moment he had let his guard down and allowed the stupid fire.  The anger continued to grow in Michael over the twelve seconds it took the group to gather up every last weapon, tool, and consumable.  The alarms continued to screech.

“Is that everything?”  Tyler asked.

“Yeah I think so,”  shouted Abal.

“Doesn’t matter, we’re leaving now,”  Michael said, he handed his bat to James, “Everyone follow me.”  He drew his glock and flicked on the second flashlight.

Each pack weighed over fifteen pounds, Tyler’s muscles strained under the weight of the pack, .  Max had his pistol, and Abal her shotgun, drawn with safeties flicked off.  The sound from the fire alarm was so powerful that Michael thought he might have imagined the second noise that came from downstairs.

“Did you hear that?”  His question was partially for his sanity, partially for caution’s sake, either way the answer would mean bad news.

“Yeah,” James said.

So he was not crazy.  But there was an unwanted guest in the house.  Michael supported his pistol hand with the wrist of his flashlight hand.  He flicked the safety off. But when the group reached the bottom of the stairs the foreign footsteps were in a different part of the house.  Michael pushed open the front door and covered the flashlight with his hand.

“Tyler hide your flashlight,”  Michael said.  The boy did so.  

The pace on the road was as fast as the group could manage with the packs.  With the alarm in the house to distract from their escape noise control was a non issue, but the small amount of light needed to see was still enough to announce their position to anything with eyes.  Michael heard the first viral before he saw it.  A quick shuffling through the leaves announced it had found them and was on its way.  Michael turned his weapon and light toward the attacker.  The face was grayish white, hunger and anger and lust mixed together in the visage to form a depressed and tormented emotion that pumped fear into Michael’s veins no matter how many times he saw it.  The lead tore through the skull and the viral fell,  Michael kept his light only on it long enough to see that his shot had landed.  

Three more houses to go.  Michael kept a controlled pace to his goal.

“Need light in the woods,”  James said to anyone who would listen.  Tyler responded with by sending a bright flash across the trees and found a viral pulling its way through branches.  Max shot twice with one hand, the first bullet landed in the viral’s chest, the second missed entirely.

“Need light behind,” said Abal.  Michael stopped and turned around to illuminate another face.  Abal killed the viral with her first shot.  Max finally scored a hit just above his viral’s left knee cap, it collapsed and began a pitiful crawl, no more immediate threat.  

One more house.  Michael leveled his pistol at what he hoped would be the last viral he had to kill before entering their hideout for the night.  He watched the demented and diseased body get within a reasonable range.  His finger began putting pressure onto the trigger.  

 

The smoke filtered through the house and out windows.  Viral swarmed where there had been humans only minutes ago.  They trampled over ashes and some abandoned cans.  The smoke detector no longer sensed the danger it had before.  

 

A moment before Michael fired the smoke alarm turned off.  The hammer fell on the blast cap and a metal explosion burst forth towards the viral’s head.  

 

Another man was listening to the commotion while keeping an eye on his own fire.  Guns had been going off all around the lake for a month or so, the man did not mind, the fools were attracting viral and drawing them away from his home.  The man twirled a fully loaded hunting shotgun in his hands, he did not mind the hooligans shooting up other houses and looting them, as long as they never threatened the safe environment he was trying to create.

Chapter 25

Tyler awoke when the first ray of sun reached his eye.  He was still exhausted and sleep deprived but getting back to sleep was not an option.  The bed sheets were wet with sweat from a nightmare that still clung to some part of his mind.  Some terrible killer, a dark cave, a trapped woman, not much remained of the dream world Tyler had built.  He only remembered seeing the woman, curled up on the floor of the cave, her whole body had different colors of bruising and blood dripped from one of her legs.  Her voice was lost to his memory, but her words stuck, He won’t let me die.  Tyler threw the covers off his body intending never to sleep again for fear that the woman would be there.  It was only the second time Tyler had gotten any sleep in four days.  The five had remained on the second floor of the sixth house.  There were two rooms, two twin beds in one and a queen in the other but they were never all used at the same time.  The first morning after the smoke alarm the group had counted the scattered viral the gunshot had attracted.  Ten were visible on the first day.  On the second day only three were wandering around the house.  Two on the third day.  Nothing had broken into their little hovel, the small protection offered by concealment.  

Tyler peered out both windows that were in the room with the twin beds.  He saw one viral, it was a different one from the day before.  With no clear goal the infested had no focus, no balance, it stumbled from side to side.  Tyler watched for a moment wondering how something that looked so childlike in its movements could suddenly break into a full sprint if it saw something it wanted.  They ran faster and further than Tyler could, he had witnessed their speed on too many occasions.  He had also seen that they were not as agile as a human, they would trip and fall over minor obstacles, but it almost never mattered with their speed.  Tyler walked out of the room, leaving it empty.  James, Abal, and Michael were all sitting down, hanging their heads.  Tyler feared the worst.  There had been no signs of the Virus in Abal and four days was normally too long a time for this particular disease to wait, but it was still possible.  If she had merely gotten some blood in her nose or ear, even the Virus could take some time to show up, a week even.  Tyler worried about what he would find inside her mouth were she to open it. 

Saliva did not carry the virus, blood did.  A bloody mouth was the end of a fuse, the beginning of devastation.  Before that point a fever or fatigue could be mistaken, or even optimistically accepted, as another disease, but blood in the mouth was the beginning of the end.  Within hours the victim would tumble into a restless comatose state, their breathing becoming irregular and their heart slowing.  The pulse of the victim would waver so low that thinking they would come out of it alive was impossible.  Then, when the heart was pumping at its weakest and slowest point, it would skip a beat.  Or at its longest stop for up to thirty seconds.  As if by a miracle the subject would start taking normal breaths and have a regular heart beat, but at that point they were no longer a victim, but a target.  No one returned from blood in the saliva.

Tyler could not bare to look at the top of Abal’s head for fear of what he would see if she looked up.  He decided to join in staring at the floor before speaking.  “What happened?”

“We’re leaving,” James answered.

“Oh god,” Tyler breathed a hefty sigh of relief that drew the attention from the three in the triangle.

“We didn’t think you would be so thrilled to go back out there,”  Abal said through a set of relatively clean and non-bloody teeth.  

“I’m not,” Tyler said with a smile full of joy.

“You certainly seem happy,” James said.

Tyler could not drag his eyes from Abal’s mouth where the teeth were white and the gums a reddish pink, everything was where it was supposed to be.  He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her neck, “I thought you had the Virus.”  After a moment Abal decided it was okay to return the hug.  They released each other and Tyler drew himself up in front of the three, “How many viral are out there?”

“We only saw one,” James said.

“Was he out the window in that room?”  Tyler indicated with his thumb.

“Nope,”  James answered.

“Well then we might have two, are we waking up Max or letting him sleep?”

“I think he can sleep for a little while before we get moving.”

Tyler nodded with all the wisdom and approval he could muster for his age.  He asked a few more questions about breakfast and learned he was going to be eating alone.  He grabbed some pre-toasted bread that came in a plastic package and a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread.  It was one of the most delicious meals he had eaten in his life, the only improvement would have been the addition of cold milk.

 

Michael watched his brother eat knowing that the young man had a certain tendency to be foolish with his emotions, with his love.  Tyler had once cried over a stray dog that lay dying in the street after having been hit by a car.  Michael thought and remembered all he could about his little brother to rationalize what had just happened between Tyler and Abal.  Michael tried the best he could to hide his emotions from himself but he could not help but wonder.  Would Tyler do the same if Michael was the one who was at risk?   

Michael still sat against the wall while the other three made sure everything was ready to leave.  Michael needed some time with his thoughts, the idea of Tyler going to Abal for comfort, for protection, was background noise in Michael’s head that he needed to confront if he was going to ever think clearly again.  

 

Max awoke when his stomach churned and demanded food.  He pulled his legs off the side of the bed and stood up feeling mildly uncomfortable.  He scratched himself.    He felt better.  Now he had to make a choice for what he wanted to keep him alive today.  A couple granola bars, and some water.  Max was over hungry, after one granola bar he was feeling sick.  Max finished his second granola bar only because he knew he would need the energy.  James walked into the room.  Perfect, just the man Max wanted to talk to.

“You okay?”  James asked.

“Nope, I’m not doin’ too great, but I’ll be better soon.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m leaving.”

“Max please,”  James didn’t want to deal with the same problem every couple of days.

“I’m not leaving you guys, but it might end up that way, and I’m not trying to die.  I just can’t stand another damn day here.  If we stay here any longer we will all go crazy, or starve, or freeze, something bad will happen.  Our food won’t last forever and books can’t save our lives if we aren’t ready.  I hate to be saying this but in order to be ready we have to do what Bones was trying to do.  We have to set up a house that can last through the winter, no matter how crazy he was, he was right.  So I’m going to leave because I can’t just sit here waiting to die.”

James was attentive the whole time, he suppressed the urge to smile as Max spoke.  “It is a lot safer up here, our food will last us a while,”  James said with a straight face.

“But how long will we last once snow starts falling and we have no way to warm ourselves.  We’re going to be needing a safe place to make a fire, you know what happened at the last house.  Blankets won’t keep us warm in a few months.”

James mused for a moment about how they still used weeks and months to calculate time.  “We probably couldn’t make a fire up here.”

“It’d be impossible, we have to get out of here if we want to survive.  I want to stay alive now and the only way we can do it is to find a place that will survive the winter.”

“You know what, you’re right,” James tried to sound as serious as he could,  “Let’s go,”  He stood up.

“What right now?”  Max lost some momentum.

“Yeah, we have to get out of here if we want to survive and the sooner the better.”

“Well we should get ready first,”  Max wondered if James wanted to leave the other three.

“No, let’s go, this time is as good as any, besides we’re mostly ready anyway,”  James grabbed the piece of metal he had been fashioning.  The tip was starting to look like a spike.

Max rubbed his forehead, this was not turning out how he had expected.  Now James was the one pushing and he felt like he would have to be the nanny to hold back an overeager child.  While he was thinking about what to say Abal poked her head into the room.

“You guys ready to go yet?”  She asked.

“Yeah,”  James said, “Get up man, time to go.”

Max turned slowly from one person to the other.  He had never been to college but he wasn’t stupid, educated and uneducated survived on the same level after the Virus, but the unintelligent had been wiped out.  “You bastard,”  He said turing to James with a smile.  

“It’s my job,” James responded smiling with his friend, “You came up with our plan all by yourself, congratulations!”

“Yeah, yeah, screw you,”  Max laughed softly, “But thanks.”

“Well come on then, we actually are leaving now,”  James said.

The brothers had packs strapped onto their backs and baseball bats.  Michael was holding his modified piece of equipment that James had said looked like some antique witch hunting tool.  James rolled his piece of metal around in his hands, it was probably easier to hunt witches, but he suspected a spike would be useful against viral as well.  After wrapping his backpack around his shoulder he gripped his extended knife like an old horror movie killer would, after all he would be stabbing the viral, not cutting them.  His only interest was in the thin brain case he needed to break through, the weapon would soon be taken on a test run.

 

Tyler was disappointed by his weak child’s body.  The malnourished boy was between Max and Abal as they prepared to exit through the front door.  He understood that his stature was a disadvantage and he would not be much use in clearing out danger when the group confronted it.  Michael and James led the way outside.  That was not to say he was helpless, he was incompetent with a firearm but with any blunt instrument he could take down a human or viral.  Each enemy presented different difficulties, fighting another living person meant they could defend themselves and react to danger, but a shot to the neck, balls, or breasts (Tyler had fought two females in his life) left them in shock and pain.  Michael went left and James straight ahead, they had each selected their viral beforehand.  James had elected to go despite his hand.  The other three remained at the doorway keeping a lookout, Tyler watched the two with a detached envy.  He had learned how to fight viral, there were no tender locations only load bearing structures and vital targets.  The nervous system of course took priority, that is how Michael and James destroyed their viral almost simultaneously, the crude spike did the job easily.  

The brain was too high for Tyler to score a solid hit if the viral was standing and the spine was usually unreachable unless sneaking up was an option.  Tyler was forced to find other targets, the kneecaps and ankles were strike-able and could leave the viral crawling because they lacked the awareness of damage to even limp, trying to support their full weight on a split knee and collapsing.  The five gathered together and prepared to enter the neighbor’s house, Tyler was on full alert.  Elbows and shoulders could be snapped or dislocated, but it was senseless to bother with the arms unless someone was being attacked.  The house had some boards over windows and tables flipped over behind doors, someone had tried to defend it at one point.  Tyler knew he would probably never grow to full height, paying attention in school had yielded some key knowledge, mostly from science.  Tyler knew how certain parts of the body worked and how wounds were repaired.  A full search of the house found no viral so the secondary search began, Tyler headed straight for the bathroom.  Under Michael’s orders Tyler had stayed after school and received extra education. The teacher knew the relative situation of all the students, and thus many of the lessons were directed towards drugs and abuse and taking care of the delicate human body.  Now Tyler stood in front of a mostly empty medicine cabinet, out of the four remaining bottles of pills he knew the effects of three.  Tyler’s knowledge was general but he had an understanding of the bacteria the broad spectrum anti-biotic would kill, another bottle could be used for inflammation or general pain, and the third was for allergic reactions.  Tyler took the ibuprofen and put it in his pocket, James was taking some for his fingers and the supply was running low.  The bottle felt almost empty.

Tyler reflected on how fantastic his brother’s judgment had been in the past, and how it had been slipping since the start of the virus.  Until Michael hit Tyler.  Michael had returned to his old self.  Tyler’s heart shrunk and he felt sick as the thought at how he was losing his brother crossed his mind.  Tyler would not destroy the beneficial personality Michael had created.  It would be foolish to make emotional demands from Michael for Tyler’s own sake.  The boy suddenly felt sick at what he would have to do because it meant leaving his brother at a distance, forever.  The internal organs in Tyler’s body were all fighting what his brain said it had to do.

Young people were often overly dramatic or concerned and usually ended up bringing the unnecessary emotional pain on themselves.  So James just patted Tyler on the back when he handed over the bottle of pills even though the young man acted like some parasite was eating his innards.  James emptied the seventeen pills from Tyler’s find into his old bottle, he had about fifty pills in total with three different brand names.  They would be great for his pain but would do nothing for his stress.  James rubbed his hands together against the cold, he wanted a cigarette.  It was not an addiction, James was never a heavy smoker, usually only five a week, and sometimes not even that.  His intake went up at parties or when he was stressed.  James had smoked his last cigarette as he was watching the first newscast about viral in the United States.  The smoke had left his lungs too quickly, James would have savored it if he had known how long he would go without tobacco.  He had even considered breaking a machine once to get some nicotine, but in the end decided it would be too much noise.  James wanted a cigarette, but his cravings were not as bad as they had been in the world before the Virus.  The stress of survival was great but James found it much more straight forward than trying to live in a world of corporations and investment where millions of dollars could disappear in the space of two minutes, and that was if you were lucky enough to get a job.  But nonetheless James had desired something to breath into his lungs for months.  He found it.

After Tyler gave James the pills the man had continued to search  a mostly bare room.  The only real item present was a small dresser that James guessed was left because it would be useless in terms of defending entrances.  With nothing else to do he searched through the tiny cabinet that contained mostly clothing.  At the back right corner of the bottom drawer there was a clear baggie containing a parts of a certain plant.  In the same corner there were papers for rolling said herbal material.  James held the bag in the palm of his hand, around an eighth of an ounce.  He put the baggie in his pocket, no smoking pot when doing something important, that was a rule.  James didn’t know how the rest of the group would react to the green plant, but he was willing to share.  

DL: Chapter 23

Three days passed and nothing presented itself as an opportunity for breaking in the spiked club.  The community was an unspoiled haven for the five who had been starving for months without any semblance of security.  Between a couch and a variety of chairs sat a table adorned with a chess board.  The survivors rested.  James had asked if anyone wanted to play but the group was content to read, no one knew how to play save Abal and James, and if learning meant getting nagged by the self proclaimed master they were not interested.  So the five sat in a circle with their books, but two were not focused on their literature.  Tyler was not reading, occasionally he would turn a page, but Abal noticed that his eyes were not following the words, just focused between the pages.  

“I’m going upstairs to decide which food we should eat first, even though its all lasted this long it will go bad eventually,” Abal said as she stood up.

James put his book down, “You want some help with that, could take all night alone.”

“Yeah sure,”  Abal nodded, “Tyler you want to come help me?”

Through his daze he was aware that his name had been called and Tyler looked around to find out who wanted what. 

“Over here buddy, do you want to help me upstairs?”

Tyler shrugged and stood up.  Even though the day was little more than half over the group was not going back outside.  Clouds covered the sky, it was not cold enough to snow but ice cold raindrops were rapidly painting the soil a darker shade.  So the three sat and they read, in the twenty some years of Max’s life he had never been a book person.  When he met Paco the amount of printed word he took in increased slightly because his burly friend would have Max reading newspaper and magazine articles.  Paco had been up to date on current events and at least once a month found something that he thought his literature deprived friend needed to see.  Max appreciated the sentiment and on occasion he enjoyed the pieces Paco brought to him, but reading for pleasure or to pass the time never occurred to him.  But reading to save his life, Max had never thought of it that way.  James had taken care to find a book that had been popular, one he knew by name, and one that had very few if any metaphors or deeper meanings.  The kind of book that English professors would scorn as an inferior piece of writing.  James found a book for Max that was entertaining, and that had been the only criterion, because those were invariably the best.  So Max sat and read and for a few minutes, a few moments, his mind was only concerned with what the next chapter would bring.

 

“You collect things that will expire this year and I’ll collect things that expire next year or later,” Abal ordered.

Tyler did not know what year it was and when he told Abal she held back a snicker before realizing that she had to think about it before answering.

“I talked to your brother the other night.”

“Oh,” Tyler continued collecting.

“He appreciates the books.”

“Mhmm.”

“This is hard for him too.”

“Okay.”

“He really really loves you.”

No response.

“Tyler!” Abal hissed.

“Yes?”

“A few days ago you were all about getting to talk to your brother again and now you seem like you don’t care.”

“I do care, I just know what I’m going to do.”  Tyler continued sorting, about one eighth of the pile was already around him.

“So you have a plan?”

“Yes.”

“A new one?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not disappointed that the books didn’t work out as you had hoped?”

“Of course I’m disappointed, but to keep thinking about that won’t do me any good.”

Sometimes Abal forgot that she was talking to a kid. Abal remembered why she had brought him up in the first place, “You know Tyler you might not need that second plan of yours.”

“Oh?”

“Michael wants to things to be like before, he just doesn’t know how to start.  It may surprise your brother is human too, no one’s a super hero.”

Abal realized as soon as she spoke the lesson she had thrown in was foolish.  He knew his brother was human, he stood up to his brother and contradicted him, Tyler was no child looking blindly at an idol, just a young man who had lost a close friend.  

“What I’m saying is he might be the one who starts talking.”

Tyler nodded and continued sorting, Abal had nothing left to say.  When they finished Abal had two thirds of the sustenance on her side.  

“What will we do with this?” Tyler held a box of spaghetti.  They had found macaroni and pasta in almost every house that still had food.  

“I guess we will have to start making fire,” Abal said, “But not tonight.”

Tyler nodded and placed the long rectangular piece of cardboard among its numerous fellows.  

“We will have some warm food soon.”

“Guess so,  it’ll be a nice change,” Tyler said and then smiled, “Thank you.”  Abal returned the smile and they headed downstairs with an armful of what would be lunch.

 

The day was spent exploring the house and finding ways to keep the mind entertained.  With some inspiration from Michael’s creation James decided he was going to switch up weapons, he thought the aluminum bat was too light and wanted some force behind his blows.  Tyler gladly accepted the relinquished piece of baseball equipment and James searched the basement.  A plethora of rusted implements awaited, after a half hour James became bored and picked up an iron pole.  It was two feet and a couple inches long and had only a few patches of rust.  James thought there might have been some sort of abandoned project because there was a stack of them in the corner of the basement.  He only wanted a little practice swinging a weapon and getting a bit of a workout before continuing to look for a viable weapon.  It was a half inch in diameter and James made sure to place his hands away from any sharp rusted parts.  It felt like what James imagined a sword would feel like, maybe worse balance but the corrugated iron felt heavy and strong in his hands.  After a minute James continued his search, but he kept the piece of metal in his hands.  

“Why wouldn’t you just use a bat,”  Max said.  James was showing his desired weapon to the group, the pole with some rags wrapped with rubber bands on one end for his hands.

“This is stronger and, look.  At.  This.”  James struggled to pull a metal file out of his pocket.

“What’s that,” Tyler asked.

But Abal recognized it, “Great, so you’re going to have a knife at the end of a stick, why not just get a knife and tape it to the end of a stick.  Or better yet forget the stick and just take the knife.”

“I thought I would use it more like a spear.”

“And when was the last time you threw a spear?” Michael asked.

“Not to throw just to stab.”

“Yeah, like I said, an extended knife.”

“You know what, screw you guys, I’m going to make this work, I’ll take first watch by the way, I’m not tired and I’m going to work on this tonight so tomorrow you will see just how wrong you all are.”

“Okay you have first watch,” Abal said, “Don’t try and prove us wrong.  I’m being serious.  If you feel comfortable with what you have there use it, but don’t force yourself to use something just cause we were joking with you.”

“I feel comfortable.”

Abal nodded, “I’ll take second watch.”

 

James roused Abal from one of her few pleasant dreams.  She and Michael and Christi were on a beach on the little lake.  When she was out of the dream Abal realized how ridiculous the whole set up had been.  Why Christi was there she had no clue, but the beach was a figment of her imagination.  The dream lake only barely resembled the real lake, there were certainly no beaches on the real one.  As the dream was starting to fade in Abal’s mind, she remembered that she wanted to ask James about his little project, but he was asleep or very nearly so.  She crept downstairs and admired the moon from a window.  The sky had cleared up and the giant orb hung over the lake, splashing light on the surrounding trees.  The moon was full and Abal thought that no matter what happened on earth, it would continue around and around.  The universe itself would continue without a care to the little speck of dust that was being consumed by the worst plague of its short existence.  Abal tried to focus her mind on remedying the group’s problems, in particular the brothers’ separation.  It all depended on how they treated each other, she thought for the most part she would let them be, but if the talk was small and the air felt like divorced parents at a forced reunion she would jump in.  However her mind continued back to the state of the stars and their fate.  Abal stared at the water, its beauty only worsening her foreboding, the off white light shining through the leaves as they floated to the ground.  The gleam rippled with the movement of the water and it illuminated the shore.  When Abal was focused on where the water met the land she spotted a silhouette against the water.  The pace was uneven and the head lolled ever so slightly from side to side.  It stopped for a moment and watched something on the ground, then with a sudden leap the humanoid was upon the dirt and scrambled after a small animal.  The mammal ran up a tree and for a moment the viral gripped and rubbed and pulled on the bark.  Then sat down as if content to watch the tree.  The body tilted to one side then finally collapsed entirely, and there it stayed, waiting for its little morsel of nutrition.  

Abal thought about waking up everybody but figured that it would not do any good considering they would just be awake and have to continue to wait for daylight to do anything.  In a few hours she would wake Max, tell him what was going on and try to get some more rest herself.  Abal was wide awake, her fears of the universe and the pitiful state of humanity left her, she was only concerned with dealing with the viral.  They had finally started to fall into a day to day routine.  Now there was this creature that came along just to ruin the set up, Abal tried to calm her breathing, she did not feel tired, but soon she would have to try to get a few hours of rest.  Abal shut her eyes and hoped there was only one, she listened for the sounds of hunting.

 

Michael had the last watch.  He sat on Tyler’s bed, watching the door for his entire shift.  When the sun started to rise Michael tapped his brother’s shoulder.  Tyler shifted back and forth on his back then blinked his eyes open and sat up.  The brothers spent a minute in silence.  Michael stood up from the bed and extended a hand to Tyler and pulled him off the bed.  Michael lowered himself to one knee, wrapped his arms around Tyler, and hugged his brother.  Tyler hugged him back.

Early morning light was easing its way into the house.  Tyler sat on the top step watching the house below him and tried to ignore the light voices a few steps behind him.  If he had been a different kid in a different time he may have tried to eavesdrop, but Tyler was aware that his job was not just busy work meant to keep him away from the adults.  He would either be told what they were talking about or he would see the final plan first hand.  Michael passed by Tyler on the staircase clutching his bat while Abal tapped the boy on the shoulder and held a finger to her lips.  Tyler nodded and followed behind Max at the end of the line.  Abal looked out the window she had pondered the universe from the previous night, she saw nothing.  Abal shook her head towards the group and with Michael in the lead they continued to the front door.  There were five weapons between the members, Michael had his special bat and his pistol, Abal the ax, Max a bat, and James had a hammer.  His spear was not ready.  Tyler was unarmed.  Only Michael and Abal approached the door, the other three remained at the foot of the stairs.  After setting her ax aside Abal prepared to open the door with one hand, and with the other she held up three fingers.  Two fingers.  One finger.  She pulled the door and ducked behind it, Michael was ready to swing but there was no need.  There was nothing waiting on the porch and the survivors soon secured the position.  The four survivors moved as a tight square with Tyler at the rear.  He held onto Abal’s shirt and kept his head over his shoulder, making sure nothing snuck up on them.  The street curved away in both direction, there was nothing visible.  After Michael was sure that there was no immediate danger he started leading the group toward the water.  The houses were all about the same distance from the water creating a lane of vision for the survivors.  The trees were sparse and the ones present had few leaves, James tugged on Max’s shirt and pointed towards the house two doors down on his side.  A short, chubby viral, clad only in jeans, was close to the building, walking toward the water.  The group oriented itself in the proper direction, Michael left at a fast jog followed closely by Max.  The other three went back to back and held their position.  Michael was only focused on the viral ahead of him while his back up was checking left and right constantly.  Twenty feet away from his target Michael began to slow down.  The infected human turned its head at the sound of rustling leaves, when it caught sight of Michael it whipped around and tried to run towards the attacker.  The viral had taken two steps when Michael decided it was in range and swung his bat.  The nail closet to the butt of the bat hit only air, the second one caught the flesh of the check and some bone, not doing much damage.  The nail furthest from Michael was out of sight, completely embedded in the skull.  The force from the swing drove the viral into the ground and Michael hastily pulled his bat free from the head of the viral.  The three standing back to back hurried over the recent kill once they got the go ahead.

“All clear over there,”  Michael whispered.

“Yeah, but this isn’t the one I saw last night,”  Abal’s voice was as quiet as Michael’s.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, he is too fat.”

Now Michael whispered to Max, “Does that look like one of the one’s that was chasing you with your old group?”

“I don’t recognize him,” Max responded.

“Best case scenario we have one left, lets find it.”

The team formed up again behind Michael and walked back to the road in formation.  The group walked wide circles around each house, after prowling around six houses the five turned around and headed back to their house.  They followed the same procedure in the opposite direction.  Four houses past where they had started Abal saw her viral, a lanky naked man, he was walking away from them.  Michael prepared to repeat the same procedure when he noticed another viral walking by the shoreline and two others face up in the dirt and leafs.  He turned around and held up four fingers to his company.  The two lying down were about ten feet apart and the walker was separated from them by about twenty feet.  It was not unusual to encounter groups of viral that had amassed at random.  One viral would make noise by falling into a window or wading into water then thrashing around.  Others would follow the noise and make some of their own.  Thus some areas seemed nearly deserted but were punctuated with heavy concentrations of viral.  James nodded to Max who pulled Abal, Michael, and Tyler in close.  James kept a constant watch.

“Be ready for more than four,” Max whispered, “Tyler keep vigilant and warn us if you see any more, don’t worry about noise.”

“We should choose our viral now,” Michael murmured, “I’ll take the one walking at the water.”

“Naked guy,”  Max chose.

The four broke apart and prepared to run.  Abal grabbed James by the shoulder, “We have the ones lying down, I’m left you have right.”

Michael held out a hand and lowered his fingers one by one.  Three.  Two.  One.  The group raced into the open and within a second Max was upon his viral, Tyler stayed close to him.  One swing of the aluminum club and the viral dropped, two more made sure it would not get up.  The other viral heard the thud of bone against metal and rustled themselves from apathy.  

“Two more, two more,”  Tyler’s shout reached all the survivors.  He grabbed Max who was searching for his next victim but was looking in the wrong direction.  Tyler pulled Max toward the shore where he was hoping the three other viral would soon be dispatched.  The two viral had been in the house and were in the process of falling out of a first floor window after hearing the commotion.  

James reached his viral first, his weapon was light and sprinting was not difficult, before the creature was even on its hands and knees James was upon it.  He dispatched it with two blows to the side of the head, but as his second blow landed one of the viral from the house reached him.  The viral grabbed his shirt and pulled, James twisted his body, but the viral would not let go, and both were thrown to the ground.  Abal and Michael reached their targets at almost the same time, her viral was in the process of standing up.  The head was craned back to watch her and she caught it just below the right eye.  It was twitching when she removed the blade so she struck again, ending the spasms.  Michael’s viral had up some speed when he reached it.  The viral ran with a variety of arm movements, for a second they would follow the form of the run, then would be forgotten about and hang at its sides, then back to pumping with its feet, but as the viral reached Michael it held its arms wide, prepared for a bear hug.  Michael’s timing was better than the first time, two nails caught the head and the viral tumbled forward.  Michael put his foot on the head and pulled his weapon free just as a viral from the house reached Max. 

“One, coming from the red house,” Tyler called just as Max turned around to deal with the viral coming up behind them.  Max did not have time to take a proper swing, instead he crosschecked the viral while sidestepping, not fighting the momentum coming at him but using it to throw his victim off balance and onto the ground.  At the same time James was struggling on the ground trying to hold his attacker at arm’s length.  The viral from the other house was racing towards Abal and Tyler, Michael was coming to support them but he had more distance to cover than the viral.  If a viral got ahold from behind it was too easy for it to wrap teeth around a shoulder or neck, after that point it would be all over for the survivor no matter what happened.  James was left to struggle alone, he fought and pushed and although the viral was too strong for him to push off he thought he could hold it for a minute at least.  One of his arms was holding the neck of the viral and his other was stuck between the two bodies to keep them apart.  The body on top of James snatched at his face and body, but James held on.  It was an energy consuming struggle but after the food James had been getting he felt strong, able to maintain the locked position, but the viral stopped pulling his shirt and instead grabbed the hand pushing against its chest.  Across the lawn several swings from Max’s bat finished the monster that had come his way.  He turned in time to see Abal strike a solid blow into the head of the seventh viral.  The ax landed just above the lower jaw, cutting flesh and bone, but nothing else the viral needed to attack.  The full weight of racing body plowed into her stomach.  

When the viral grabbed for James’s hand it lost enough grip on its subject that James was able to throw it off, but the viral grabbed the pinky and ring finger on James’s left hand.   James rolled got onto his knees trying to pull his trapped digits away from danger, but he could not get free.  James stood up grabbed his left arm with his right hand and pulled, but as he did the viral tried to wrench the fingers it held to its mouth.  James felt the sickening, unnatural range of motion before he felt the pain, he was not free, the viral had not gained any ground, but the item they were struggling for had given way.  

The viral was on top, and Abal was having trouble holding it off.  Blood from the viral’s shattered mouth was streaming onto Abal’s face.  Abal closed her eyes and stopped breathing in case any got near her nose.  Tyler noticed Tyler grabbed on of the arms that gripped Abal and tugged it away, giving the woman an advantage, but she was struggling to hold her breath.

“Tyler move,”  Max’s screamed, he was within striking distance of Abal but the boy’s head was in the way.

Tyler was only concentrated on Abal, “James, go help James,” He responded.  Max ran past Abal in frustration, he would not be any help if Tyler would not move.  When Max made it to James a second later he was just in time, the viral was pulling in the man’s arm and he looked pale trying to resist.  One strike and the hand was released, two more and the body would never move again.  Max turned around, ready to be in mourning for Abal, a prepubescent was fighting an fully grown infected man.  When he saw Michael standing over the three fighting souls his hopes rose, but soon it was clear the older Mackay was not going to do anything.  Tyler was still in the way.  Max felt like screaming at the boy, but he watched the malnourished young man from a distance, anything he did would be too late.  Tyler pulled the arm he had behind the viral’s back, then up behind its head.  The creature could not get any closer to Abal and seemed only vaguely aware that it might not be using both hands.  Tyler had the viral’s right arm and had it situated behind the head moving towards the left side of the body, with one quick jerk he popped the shoulder out of its socket and rolled the viral off Abal.  When it lay on the open ground Tyler moved away and let his brother finish the job.

 

There was a mild ache in James’s fingers.  It surprised him how little they hurt considering their current condition.  His left pinky and ring finger made an acute angle with the back of his hand.  They were dislocated and possibly broken.  James sat down, even though only his hand was damaged his whole body was starting to feel a cloud over his head and when he turned his head colors blended together.  James thought he was going to puke.  Michael was helping Abal toward the lake.  She continued to try and keep her face shut to the terrible disease that was sitting on her skin.  With one powerful burst of air Abal blew everything she could manage out of her nose, then took one tentative breath.  Michael guided her across the rocks by the water’s edge and into the cold liquid for for a few steps.  Once Abal was in up to her knees she leapt toward the water in a shallow dive and immediately began to scrub her face with open palms.  

“Is everyone alright?”  Michael asked.

“His hand is pretty fucked up,” said Max nodding towards James.

Michael made his way over to the wounded survivor.  Michael let his drift around the shivering man in the grass, letting his gaze come to a halt on James’s left hand, “Lay down,” He ordered James.

“What are you going to do?”  The man in a mild state of shock asked.

“We have to correct your fingers, it’s best to do it while your still a little hyped up from the fight, you won’t feel it as much.”

James nodded and put his back in the dirt, he had felt like lying down anyway.  Michael straddled him when he was down, James’s left arm was trapped between their bodies.  James realized he wasn’t going to be asked to consent to anything else, the man was going to do what he was going to do.

“What are you going to do?”  James asked the question with the most obvious answer, but there was no response from Michael.  One hand held his wrist and palm, another gently wrapped around his hurt fingers, they were tender and James felt pain to his wrist, “Hey, isn’t there a better way we can do this?”  The grip around his fingers tightened and the broken bones and swelling tissue in the hand created a cascade of bolts and pinches of pain all through James’s forearm.  James groaned, “Please, just let go and…”  Before he could finish his fingers were realigned back in their sockets.  James screamed and then cried a string of obscenities as a new pain bloomed in every joint of his two broken fingers.  When Michael got off James rolled back and forth holding his hand, he could neither bend nor extend his fingers.  

“What happened?”  Abal asked, she was still wet from her swim.

“His fingers were pretty bad,” Max answered, “Michael just tried to fix them.”

James stopped rolling on the ground, his eyes were closed, “That hurt a lot.”

“How are you feelin’?” Tyler asked

“Not great,” James slowly rose to his feet, Max was at his side prepared for him to faint, “But not terrible.”  He held his hand out for the group to admire, it was red and the digits were already mildly swollen.  Michael pulled his gun out of his pants.  The four others froze, “I’m okay, it’s not that bad.”

Michael held the pistol out and offered it to James’s good hand, “Take this, give me the hammer.”  James accepted and handed over the short carpenter’s tool with the thumb and pointer on his bad hand.  Michael picked his bat off the ground and offered it to Tyler, “You two get back to the house and pack up everything.  We’re going to search the houses now that they should be clear.”

“But Michael…”

“Now, go,” Michael cut his brother off.  Tyler would have been happy for the small amount of interaction if he liked the situation.  He wondered for a moment if the only time he would get to see his real brother was when they were in danger.

“Michael why would we do that?”  James asked, “Why would we leave?”

“We aren’t leaving,” Michael said, “But if something happens to the house and we have to leave we could lose all the food.  We need to be ready to get out of there at any moment.  So go!”

James nodded, realizing what Michael was saying, he and Tyler took off at a jog toward the road and back to the house.  The remaining three avoided the bodies on the ground as they walked toward a white house that looked like it had been boarded up at one point.  Glass and wood was shattered on the porch, it was the house two of the viral had come from.

“Why didn’t we pack up the food before if it was so important?” Abal asked.

“Because I didn’t think of it until now,” Michael responded with complete honesty that almost surprised him.

“We’ll be ready from now on,” Abal said.  Out of three people, including herself, zero believed her, it was impossible to be ready.

 

In the first house Abal found herself a change of clothes and tried to get herself as dry as possible after her swim.Two of the houses had makeshift defenses with tables and interior doors nailed behind windows.  Entrances were littered with broken wood, glass, and blood.  Some viral bodies lay decomposing on carpets or wherever they had dropped.  Early in the infection some survivors had tried to bury the bodies, the extra effort for an attempt at human decency soon died.  If the three ventured into the forested area across the street they would find twice dead bodies thrown on top of one another.  The other four houses were more or less abandoned with little to no viable food remaining.  The survivors were able to fit their finds into their pockets.  Abal scooped up two lighters and a half dozen cartons and books of matches.  Max found a half full pack of batteries he thought might work in one of the flashlights.  The survivors found little else.  They returned to the house with not much to show for their ventures hoping that their home and companions were in tact.  Tyler and James were almost asleep in the master bedroom.  All the food sat in the same place but now it was ready to move.  

“How are your fingers?”  Abal asked.

“Broken,”  James just wanted to get some sleep but his damn knuckles would not stop aching.

“That’s why we’re going to splint ‘em,”  Michael said.  James pushed himself out of the bed, it was clear he was not going to be allowed to get sleep anytime soon.

“Is it going to hurt as much as last time?”

Michael was already walking out of the room, “We’ll find out.”

James tried to fall asleep, maybe if he was out by the time Michael got back he would be left alone.  Abal and Max looked at him in pity for a moment before going to find some dinner.  Tyler was snoring.  Michael took his time getting bak and James thought that maybe if he had not been trying to fall asleep he might have.  Michael measured the fingers on the wounded hand with a wooden ruler.  He then broke the ruler into pieces and placed one part across three of James’s fingers and one part running parallel.  Some gauze and tape later and there was no more easy movement for the intended hand, a splint.  

“Now take these,”  Michael handed a bottle of aspirin to James, “Two or four.”

“Nothing to wash them down with?” 

“Your a man.”

“Not much of one,” James said, “But I can get it,” He moved to stand.

“No I got it,” Michael pushed him down, “You should be resting.”

 

After James was properly drugged up and Tyler was out cold from his day of intense action followed by monotonous boredom, the other three congregated downstairs.  The sun was brushing the tops of the trees and spilling an orange glow into the lake.  Michael was doing pushups in the elevated living room where he had a view outside but the windows were too high for visitors to get a clear view.  He finally had some extra energy to devote to strengthening his body, the gradually increasing tension in his chest muscles was an empowering feeling, one that he had been missing but never realized it.  Abal sat in a chair and James on a couch, all three watched the sunset.

“After swim today I could use a fire,” Abal said.

“Wrong time of day and the fireplace here is no good,” Michael responded pulling his weight off his hands and rolling onto his back.  In a room that faced the lake,  with one large window, and absolutely no cover was the fireplace.  Michael would not eat in there much less cook.

“We could have one in the basement,” Max said.

Bodies wanted the warmth, minds wanted the comfort, and bellies wanted the food, it was too much for Michael to resist.  “We just have to make sure nothing catches on fire unless we want it to.”  The three came to an agreement and scattered to collect wood and paper and whatever else would burn.  They brought a pot with water from the lake, and created three towers of cans to hold the pot above the fire.

A small stack of old newspaper and bits of scrap wood were arranged under the pot.  Neither lighter worked, but the first match lit easily and the paper was alight within moments.  The pot was already on its pedestal gathering warmth for the box of noodles that awaited.  Smoke rose around the pot.  Abal put her hands near the fire and finally felt some real warmth returning after her swim earlier, she breathed deep, the smell of burning wood calmed her nervous mind.

“Abal,”  Michael said, “We. umm. We should be careful.”

She had wanted him to be more forward, he was with everything else, “Because I might have it.”

“Yeah, we might be in trouble if it,” he paused and closed his eyes, “if it turns out you got the Virus.”

Abal was frustrated, “In trouble?”  If she had it she was going to die and all he could muster was ‘in trouble.’  “What do you want to do Michael, how do you want to handle this?  Just shoot me right now and get it over with or leave me alone to die?  I mean as long as I’m dying here we might as well be practical about it.”  

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Do what?  You want me to calm down?  Yeah, why not, by tomorrow I’ll probably be trying to kill you guys so why not enjoy the now right?  You gonna shoot me when my back is turned, keep you and your fucking brother safe?”

Michael and Max looked into the fire.  Tears of fear and confusion began to well in Abal’s eyes but she continued to glare at Michael.  With caution he slowly looked up towards her face, but stopped at her mouth.  With one hand he pulled down her bottom lip, she didn’t pull away, but she didn’t do it herself, so he continued.  Michael opened her mouth and looked inside.  He was searching for blood, but found none.  It meant very little except that she was not dangerous for the moment.  Michael pulled away and put his hand over the pot to feel for warmth, not much yet.  Max continued to watch the fire, he had wanted to say something about breathing in the smoke but the conversation had turned too quickly.  In a moment he would regret keeping his mouth shut.  The smoke drifted up and out of sight, where it was detected by an alarm still running on good batteries.  The food was not going to be cooked.

DL: Chapter 22

Abal sat across from James.  He had tricked her and she had no escape, Abal was completely boxed in.  The best she could hope for was him getting left out of position but in the end she would still be behind.  Even if he made a mistake and trapped his units behind hers he would not lose a queen’s worth of pieces.  Abal made her best move, took a pawn and in a moment her most valuable piece was taken.  

“You’re not that bad,” James said, “You just need to look ahead a bit further.”

Of course that’s what she had to do, anyone with one eye could see that, “Thanks,” said Abal.  She did not appreciate his willingness to pass on his extensive knowledge when it consisted of comments that any novice could blurt out.  He had only won one game against her and now he was ready to flabbergast her with how he had done it.

Max walked in and watched the game for a second, “Where’s the food?” he asked.

“We took it upstairs, thought it would be safer in one of the rooms,” James responded, “Why?”

“Well I was getting hungry and thought I might find something I liked.”

James turned his attention away from his chess game, “That’s great, lets go find you something to eat.  Abal, think about your next ten moves.”  The two headed upstairs and Abal stayed in her chair.  She leaned back and crossed her arms sending a freezing glare towards the staircase where the men disappeared.  

James was not about to question his friend’s decision so he went with the route of small talk, “What’s your pleasure.”

“Pretzels and then some sort of fruit.”

“We’ve got some canned stuff, but I don’t know what it is.  There is so much food I haven’t been able to keep track of it.”

None of the houses had a hoard comparable to the one in the house with the family suicide.  Moving the food had been an all day activity and even when the sun was going down there were still four more houses that needed a second check.  The group called it a day and packed it in, there would be plenty more days to collect before snow started falling.  At the end of the hallway on the second floor the food was organized and even though the preserved packaging did not allow any aromas to come from their contents Max’s mouth began to water.  He moved his eyes between the bright advertisements trying to find the salt his body desired.

“James, Max,”  Tyler smiled at the two, “What’s going on?”

“Max wants something to eat.”

Tyler wanted to burst with congratulations but he had to keep his cool, “Alright, when you’re done we should talk about guards tonight.”  Neither of them knew that Tyler had heard their conversation and the boy wanted to keep it that way.

“That sounds fine Tyler,” Max said.  His eyes locked onto a bag of chips, potatoes transformed into vehicles for salt.  Hands tore at the top and ripped it open, but when Max had made an entrance he slowed down.  One chip, it was broken and had vinegar mixed with its salt, against the lips and the smell invaded nostrils, the first taste of the bitter potato crisp, despite their age they were crunchy, when it was gone the flavor remained in molars and the roof of his mouth.  Max repeated the process with the second chip.

 

Abal had her moves planned.  She sat back and let disappointment fill her, Michael and Tyler had not acted how she thought they would.  After how the older, more reserved Mackay had opened himself up she had expected him to do the same for his brother.  But when the three returned to the house to pick up Michael and Abal Tyler had avoided eye contact and shuffled out of the way whenever someone got close.  Now he walked down the stairs and cast a confident look at Abal.

“Do you know where Michael is?” he asked

“Probably still in his room,” Abal said.

“Right.”

“Why do you want to know, do you want to go talk to him,” Abal leaned forward in her chair.

“Not exactly, do you think there is a chance that he will come out of his room tonight?”

“I have no idea.  Why don’t you want to talk to him?”

“Do you think we could pull him out for the guard duty thing tonight.”

“Maybe, I guess so.”

“Great, could you tell him that we all need to meet down here for that soon.”

“Why don’t you tell him yourself?”

“I’d really rather not.”

“It can’t feel good not talking to him, after all he is you brother, even if only half.”

“What?”

Abal froze, she studied the look on his face.  She could try and backtrack but that would not work and what she had said would end up erupting in one of the brothers’ fights, “When we were waiting for you guys to find a new house Michael told me about how you two grew up.  I’m so sorry for what happened to you when you were younger, your childhood was more difficult than I could have imagined.  And from what Michael tells me, it turns out, you guys are only half brothers.”

Tyler rubbed his forehead and his had blocked his eyes from Abal’s view.

“I’m sorry Tyler.”

He continued massaging his face, “Why are you sorry?”

“Well, I’m just sorry that you had to find out this way.”

“Find out what?”  The look of confusion returned and Tyler met eyes with Abal.

“That you guys are half brothers.”

“I knew that, I was just surprised that Michael talked to you about that.”

An invisible clamp disappeared from around Abal’s chest and she took a moment to catch her breath, “Yeah, he told me all about it.”

“Well that has never happened before as far as I know, you might be the first person he confided in his whole life.  I don’t know what to expect from him any more, at least when he screamed at me he was honest, now I can’t tell what he’s thinking or what I should do.”

Abal paused again, “I think you should talk to him.”

“No.”

“Why don’t you want to ask him?”

“It might be bad for my plan.”

“So you have a plan to start talking to your brother again?”

“Yes.”

“Well in that case I’ll help you with whatever you want.”

Tyler took a step back, “You want to help me?”

“I want you guys talking again.”

He smiled, there was a stroke of luck for his scheme, “Alright, well this makes you an accomplice.”  Tyler began to lay out a new plan with an extra supporting character.  Abal listened and smiled, she realized he was still a child.  Despite all the horrors he had seen and the torment he had endured he had a small piece of a little kid left in him.  The extravagant plan with many subtleties and perfectly timed comments to do something as simple as talk to another human being.

 

There was knocking on his door.  Michael’s brain was feeling fine, but his muscles were drained, he wanted to lie in bed for a couple weeks but with one arm he propped himself up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.  His body was heavy and dragging it to the door was tiresome.  He opened the door without a word.

“Were you sleeping?”  Abal asked.

Michael did not answer, he just moved past her and towards the piles of preserved nutrition.  He stood a moment trying to decide what to eat, it would be the third time in a day so he did not want too much.

“You can have as much as whatever you want,” Abal said.

Of course he could have as much as he wanted, it was his food after all.  The others were the ones who needed permission not him.  Michael reached into an open bag of chips and pulled out as much as his hand would carry.  “What are we doing?” 

“We’re going to assign look outs, but we have some time, eat more.”

Michael ignored her and walked past, but she grabbed his arm and pulled him back.

“You’re not going to be useful if you are tired, we had a long day today and we finally have enough to eat.”  Abal wanted to tell him to stop being so proud, but worried about what it might mean for Tyler’s plan.  She was not going to cause damage by not being able to keep her mouth shut, so Abal kept her thoughts to herself.  She turned around and walked down the stairs.

When Michael heard her feet reach the last step he collapsed to his hands and knees.  Grabbing a box of chocolate cookies Michael tried to pacify his stomach.  He ate each sugary circle in one bite, then with one hand he reached for a can opener that lay near some open containers of preserved peaches.  He snatched some closed cans and began working on them.  Less than five minutes later Michael’s weakened digestive track had enough to keep it happy.  It was not used to so much food and sent messages of thanks to Michael’s brain.  When he got into the living room it looked like an intervention.  Four people  on two couches and a comfortable chair just for him.  Tyler looked like he was asleep and James was explaining why he had won to a sour loser. 

“Michael, come sit down,” Abal was glad for something to pull the attention from the chess board.

“We’re just talking about tonight, right?” Michael approached the circle and stood behind his chair.

“We can do that first if you want,” Abal responded, “Tyler, time to start.”  He rolled his head and opened his eyes but turned them away from Michael.  

“Can I have last watch?”  He asked

“I don’t think that’s a problem,” Abal said, “Any one have a problem?  Alright sounds good, you have last watch.  Do you want to go up now.”

Tyler nodded as if his head weighed eighty pounds and began to walk away, but he stopped, “Wait, do you think I should get the. umm.”

James jumped in, “Oh yeah, get those, then go up.”

Abal smiled at Michael as the boy walked away trying to contain his excitement.  Tyler had to hold his breath to keep from jumping into the kitchen but once he was out of sight Tyler hastened to the stack of books on the counter and was ready to reenter the living room in a half second.  He waited for a few moments to make it seem like he had maintained the same pace and had no particular enthusiasm about what was going on.  He set the books between the grown ups and walked towards the stairs as if he was fading so fast he couldn’t afford the energy to say good night.  His progress up the stairs was slow and his ears were tuned in to the conversation at the table.

“Those were Tyler’s idea,” James said, “At the beginning of the day he told us to find something we thought we might like to read.  We chose some for you guys but we didn’t know what you liked.  Tyler said that it was your idea originally Michael, that’s pretty smart.”

“Seems like your brother has taken your lessons to heart,” Abal said.

Michael nodded, the top book was a crime thriller he thought it looked interesting. 

“You know he really loves you,” Abal whispered, she was going off the script, “It would mean the world to him if you two started talking again.  He adores you so much, he doesn’t even want excess attention, just something.”

When it became clear the two were waiting for one another James said, “I chose this one for myself, I’ve always been into fantasy and I don’t care how old I get I won’t move on to those crap books mature people are supposed to read.  I’ll take a sword and dragon over fiscal responsibility any day.”

“One thank you would make him forget all about the Virus for a day, a week, a month.  He just wants something.”

Max and Michael remained silent.  The third one helping with the intervention did not know whether to be funny or serious and the man they were trying to change waited form them to finish.  When a half minute passed without any more comments Michael looked up.

“I’m willing to be first guard,” Michael said.

A pause, “I’ll be the second,” Max said, glad for a chance to contribute.

James added, “I’ll take third, good night.”  He stood up and left, after a moment Max realized he should have been with his friend.  Now he stood up and exited after an awkward nod to two people who didn’t acknowledge him.  

When the room was quiet Abal spoke, “What the hell?”

“Did you want first watch?”

“Why the hell are you doing this to your brother?  The world is dead and it takes all we have just to survive and you’re turning your back on your only flesh and blood.  He’s doing everything he can to show how much he loves you and all you have to do is stop trying so hard to ignore him.  We have a total of five people here and if you can’t get along with one of them we have a problem, but if you continue to scorn this poor boy he will have nothing left in the world.  You told me how much you loved him and how much you cared for him, why can’t I see that now, you haven’t cared for him at all.”

Abal cooled off with some deep breaths as Michael studied her. For a moment they tried to gauge one another’s motives.  

“To say I’ve been ignoring him is true,”  Michael deployed a tentative scout.

“No shit.”

Michael ignored her, “But to say I haven’t cared for him is a lie.  I have watched him for the past three days just like I have been for the past thirteen years.  The only difference is that now I’m scared.”  Abal’s glare faltered, “I’m scared because of what happened.  When we were young our father used to hit us.  I’m not sure if I told you that part, and what I did reminded me of him and I’m sure Tyler thought of it too.  Please don’t talk about our dad with him, it’s depressing for him to hear.”  Abal nodded. “I thought if we just stayed out of each others’ way, I could look out for him and wouldn’t have to worry about getting angry again.  This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, I’ve never hit him before but he just makes me so mad sometimes I figure we could just live close but apart.”

“You guys wouldn’t be able to live without each other.”

“I know, this isn’t going to be forever, just for now.”

Abal stood up, “I’ll talk to him tomorrow, try to keep him calm.”

Michael nodded his thanks, “Good night.”  Abal went up to the bedrooms as the three others had done before her, and Michael sat.  He had never been much of a performer but she had bought it.  Almost everything Michael had said was a lie or twisted version of the truth.  The silence was becoming easier to maintain and as far as he could see his little brother cold bear it.  Michael lay back in his chair, his mind moving from his brother to the near future.  Snow would start falling and the ground would freeze, winter had been hard enough when the brothers owned an apartment they couldn’t afford to heat.  Michael picked a book off the table, a fiction with no clear educational or practical information.  The sun was going down and it was getting difficult to read, he would not use a flashlight because they were going to be saved for emergencies, but whatever piece of plot he could get to change the course of his thoughts could be lifesaving.

DL: Chapter 21

The two chums who had some history together; and also happened to be the newest members of the group, were virtually off on their own.  Michael stared at the food but he saw nothing, Tyler did not count as proper surveillance for a smart-ass and a depressed basket case.  What if they decided to off Tyler before they ran away, Michael would chase them down, he would make them suffer.  It would only make sense for them to take the boy along to make their escape seem legitimate and then kill him so he could not report back.  Michael held onto his knees, he pushed his muscles against one another to drain his excess energy while remaining still.

“How long do you think we wait till we go check on them?” Michael asked, with the realization that Abal would not let him leave without explanation.

“Nervous?” Michael thought pitting his body against itself allowed him to look at peace.  

Michael was suddenly aware of how tense his body was, he tried to calm himself down and sit normally but continued shaking, “How long?”

Abal sat back, “Why do you want to know?”

“In case you forgot it’s my little brother out there.”

“You really love him.”

“Yes.”

“You do a great job taking care of him.”

“No one else ever did.”

Abal felt the information coming, she just had to push a little bit more, “What about when you guys had parents, before the Virus?”

Michael scoffed, “That would have been nice.  Parents to take care of us, we’re only half brothers you know, our dad could only hold onto a girl long enough to get her pregnant.  I’m sure he had other children that I did not know about but maybe those women were brave enough for a custody battle.  My mom left me with that son of a bitch and I grew up in an apartment with no rules, my dad was too high up to make them.  I used to look forward to him getting some crack because that would mean that he might not return to the apartment for a few days.  The only reason I came back at night was for a dry place to sleep.  I went to school sometimes, at least I was smart enough to realize that school mattered.”

“So you guys have different moms?”

“Yeah, dad got a girl more his type for a while, she was a crack head too and the pair of them would have been perfect for each other if she was a complete waste of flesh.  But she cared about somethings and when he got her pregnant she tried to lay off the drugs.  I like her more than my dad so I stopped going to school for a while to help her out, I figured I could return in a year but I never did.”  Michael stopped, he didn’t know if Abal was bored by his story, but when he looked up her eyes assured him she wasn’t.  “The only way I knew to help was how my father had done, but I figured if I was using a small amount of violence for good it was okay.  You have to realize that I was young and the pregnant woman was a desperate drug addict, she could bowl me over if she really wanted to.  So I would lock her in the apartment, I stole cabinets or shelves or something to stop the doorknob and then stacked stuff on top of that, it also served to keep my dad out.  Dad would give up when he ran into the shelf structure and eventually he stopped coming all together.  With a little help I thought this woman could stay clean and be a good mom.  One night she disappeared, it was too hard for me to keep an eye on her forever and she got out.”  Michael suspected it had more been her guilt than the barricade that kept her in the house.  “I had been to police stations many times before and that was where I went.  One really nice guy helped me out, the rest of the cops did not really care, I told them everything and they still didn’t want to help me find a lost drugged up pregnant woman.  But this one cop, this amazing guy, Ulysses, he took me in his cop car and drove me around the city. 

“It was dark by the time we found her.  She was wearing almost nothing standing on a dark corner, I don’t know who would have picked her up with her stomach bloated like it was but she was standing there waiting.  She walked casually away from the cop car, like she was not just trying to whore herself out.  Ulysses jumped out and grabbed her and shoved her into the back, she was screaming she had done nothing wrong.  I still remember how she smelled when I turned around to look at her from the front, vomit, and blood, and more.  When she saw me she started crying.  Ulysses kept her in jail for a few months, I got to stay there too because it was summer.  When she went into labor she was rushed to the hospital, I went with her but Ulysses had to stay at the police station, I was so sure I would see him again I did not think much of it, but I never saw him after that day.  When we got to the hospital another cop led us inside and left after a doctor took over.  My dad showed up at the hospital and took me and my new brother home, it was one of the few times I saw him sober.  He stayed home for a few days and brought money from somewhere, he said the new baby’s mom had to stay in the hospital for a little while then she would come home.  When she did not come home he started drugs again.  When I found a place where I could work I took the job, I was underage and the job was below minimum wage but it was something, after all I had a brother to take care of.  For a couple years he was kept in a shelter because I could not take care of a baby.  The adoption center was a shit hole and I could not imagine any one worth anything coming to get a kid from there.  When he was old enough I walked in with a hundred bucks to get my brother, I knew which worker at the center loved rocks just like my dad, so I laid the money on the counter and watched him leave.  I walked out with my brother, I was an underage kid with no parents and no legitimate income without having to fill out any papers and that only assured me I was doing the right thing.  I took him home and introduced him to his father once, after that I tried to keep them separated.”

Michael stood up, “Let’s go get them.”

Abal grabbed his wrist, “They’re fine, sit down, we have to watch the food.  Don’t worry so much.”  Michael sat down and Abal asked “You’ve taken care of him for his whole life?” Her voice was soft and should could not look at Michael, but she wanted to hear more.

“Yeah pretty much, I even named him.  My dad gave him a name but I can’t remember it, Ulysses had a son named Tyler so that is what I called my brother. I imagined I was Ulysses taking care of the innocent and fighting the hate that was everywhere.  When my dad found out I had a job he started taking the money, sometimes I could hide it from him, sometimes I couldn’t.  If I hid it well enough he would beat me and leave, and Tyler and I could have some food that wasn’t stolen.  I’m lucky I got so big, by the time I was sixteen I could fight off my dad’s drunken ass and get better money because of my size.  The money I got was dirty of course, I would find druggies or whores and I would beat the shit out of them then take their money.  I did not feel bad because I knew what they were doing with the money anyway.  I never took my dad’s cash, I don’t know why not, I should have.  A year ago I kicked him out, we didn’t have to pay rent because the landlord whored out girls, but we could stay as long as we kept our mouths shut and let him use the room sometimes.  I sort of worked as security for him, and he turned out to be alright.  My dad snuck back now and then, sometimes he would steal whatever we had and sometimes I would catch him.  The landlord wouldn’t let us change the locks.  A month before the virus came into our city Dad tried to break in again, I found him passed out in front of the door.  I threw him onto the sidewalk, and left him in the rain.  That was the last time I saw him.”

Michael was looking out a window and Abal focused on his breathing.  His eyes were dry but he was not taking in any air, it was as if his diaphragm had stopped working and his lungs stopped filling.  Abal had nothing to say, she had endured racism and hurtful comments and some abuse from intolerant goons but her parents had always been there to help, even if they weren’t always supportive they were there.  Abal stood up and Michael stayed down, he had no energy to look for his brother at the moment, she walked to his chair and lowered herself to his level.  When she moved closer he remained still, she wrapped her arms around him and rested her head against his shoulder.  He took in a staggered breath when her arms touched his body.  She could feel his muscles tighten at first, then relax, he stayed still in the embrace.  Not joining, not rejecting, so Abal stayed as well.

 

Only the little kid with them, the first part was going to be easy, the second part was always going to be hard.  James and Tyler walked behind Max.  The first house had been run down and would be impossible for anyone to defend.  He was going to wait and execute his plan in a house worth searching, a house where there might be something to be found.  The second search was almost a thorough as the first, but again the trio decided that it was unsuitable.  Each house took less and less time as the group figured out what they were looking for and he waited for a quiet location.  The seventeenth house was in better condition than most of the others; James knocked on the door just in case there was an unpleasant surprise waiting inside.  The house was safe as far as the three could hear, but the door was locked.  Max walked around the side with the ax and broke in through a window, he let the others in through the front.  The three made one trip around the house together to keep one another safe.  The house was going to be perfect and getting rid of the boy would be easy.  The only problem would come from the lack of food, they had deadly weapons to keep them safe but long term they would need something to eat.  He decided that it was time to start the plan.

Max said, “Tyler why don’t you and me search the basement and James will stay here and check the first floor.”

Tyler hesitated, contemplated the plan, and found nothing wrong, “Sounds good, I always thought basements were kind of creepy though.”

“You’re funny Tyler,” Max smiled, “A world full of violence and death and you still choose to be afraid of a dark room.”

Tyler forced a small laugh, “I guess you’re right,” this guy was strange, but then again everyone was entitled to a small amount of dementia after the Virus.  Tyler followed Max to the basement.  It did not matter what anyone told him or what he had seen, Tyler still hated the feeling of being underground.

“Wait,” James called after them, “Tyler, you really don’t like basements?”

“No, I really don’t, but it’s not really important.”

“Why don’t you search upstairs and Max can stay with me down here.”

“Why?” 

“Because you don’t like basements, so why not?”

“I don’t like being underground, give me a better reason.”  

James was stumped, he was being grilled by a little kid and it was threatening his plan.  Tyler spoke, “Why don’t you two search upstairs and I’ll search downstairs.”

James nodded, “That sounds good.”  He continued bobbing his head up and down waiting for something to happen.  After a moment Tyler pointed to the staircase and shrugged his shoulders.  James stopped nodding and followed Tyler’s silent order, Max followed behind. 

When the pair could not see their tiny general James said, “That kids got some balls huh?”

“I guess so,” Max responded.  The pair walked into a bedroom and separated to start searching.

“Just ordering us around like that.”

“He was worried that we would leave if he couldn’t keep an eye on us.  That’s why I suggested you and me split up, what was wrong with my plan anyway.”

James took a deep breath, this was the hard part of his plan, “I have to talk to you.”

“It sounds like your going to tell me you’re pregnant,” the joke was forced and neither man laughed.

“Why didn’t you eat anything before?”

“I had just seen a dead family, I wasn’t hungry.”

“But you didn’t eat anything before either.”

“You must not have seen me.”

“I’ve been watching you, you haven’t eaten in two days.”

“I don’t want to suck up anymore of your resources, you don’t have much left.”

“The food is yours too you know, you’re part of this group.”

Max did not respond.

“Do you want to get out of here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you want to leave?”

“Tyler is still here, I wouldn’t just leave him like that, besides we can talk here.”

“I’m not trying to say that and you know it.  Are you planning on leaving this group and going on your own.”  

No response, James knew he had gotten it right. 

“You know you would not live very long out there, trying to survive with no one to help you out is impossible,” Again James got no response so he made his message more blunt, “You will die.”

“I’m starting to think that might not be so bad.”

The plan was working, James was getting somewhere and what he was finding was exactly what he had been afraid of.

“I think about it too you know, everyone does, it’s tough to continue living through this.”

“And what would it really matter, I mean one more dead, so many are dead already that it wouldn’t make a difference if one more passed on right?”

“But that’s wrong,” James said and broke Max out of his haze, “One more dead would make a huge difference.  One of the reasons I continue to get up in the morning is because of how important it is that I survive.  We are some of the few remaining humans and it is up to us to make sure our race lives on.”

“What if we’re just waiting to die, and there really is no hope.  It would take some sort of miracle to run into more survivors and to find a place where we can settle down an reclaim.  Then we would have to start farming or something because what we’re doing now can’t last forever.”

“I’ve thought about that too.  There really isn’t a reason why we have to settle down, I mean we could be like nomads for a while until we wipe out all the viral.”

“Are you kidding, there are more of them than us.  If we play they wait and hide game they win every time, if we try and fight them they win, every time.”

“Yes that’s true, but there is hope, there is a chance that we can survive and rebuild, right?”

Max paused, he knew absolutes were a foolish argument and James had backed him into a wall, “A very very slim chance.”

“As small as that chance may be we have to take it.  Our lives may be the hardest lives ever experienced and giving up would be a great relief.  But our lives are also some of the most significant, we mean so much more now than we did before the Virus and we can’t ignore that.”

It is rare that an argument for suicide is a successful one, but even after the dispute has been won by the side fighting for life the thought still remained.  James knew that although he had done well he had not been perfect and might not have done his job well enough, he had wanted food so that he could see Max eat, but that would have to be later.  

“If you leave, I’m coming with you,” James said, “Whatever you do, I will follow.  But I hope we can stay with these guys.”

“James there’s…” Max stopped when he heard the stairs creak as Tyler came up.  The pair had worked their way through all of the rooms and were standing in the hall just out of sight with the stairs.

“You guys done?” Tyler asked.

James nodded.

“Well then lets go to the basement and check it out.”

“Not scared anymore?”

Tyler shrugged, “I’ll be okay.”

“Alright, well wait for us at the stairs, Max and I have to talk for a little while longer.”

“Yeah no problem,” Tyler headed back down the stairs.

 

Now that he was sure these guys could be trusted alone without trying to escape Tyler felt comfortable waiting.  He had listened in on the last part of the conversation, and now knew that Max had some problems but they would not cause trouble for the rest of the group.  James might get upset but he seemed strong and Tyler was not too worried, his mind was more focused on what he was going to do when he saw his brother again.  Apologizing might solve the speaking issue but it might also send Michael back into his aggressive arrogance.  Tyler thought that his brother was finally being reasonable but where he was getting screamed at seemed like a preferable option.  When ever he lost a patient Michael would become bipolar for a day or six, or he would remodel his actions for some reason.  

Tyler read the spines out of a bookshelf, he was not paying much attention.   Perhaps he could just wait for his brother to break the silent wall.  The time required for that venture was incalculable and Tyler did not know if he would be able to hold out as long as his brother.  But what if he were to apologize with something other than words, Tyler could destroy the wall but retain the silence.  He started to focus on the books and searched for five titles.  He did not know what titles he was looking for but he would choose five.  War, fantasy, biography, sci-fi, crime, Tyler was stacking the books on a table when the pair came down.

“All set down here?” Asked James.

“Yeah,” Tyler said, he noticed Max still had a distant look on his face.

“So what do you think, good enough?”

“Yeah, I think it’s alright.”

“Wanna check the basement now or go get your brother and the girl first?”

“Umm… either ways fine with me I guess.”

“We’ll lets go get them first, they can help with the basement.”  The two older men headed for the door as Tyler collected his books.  On the way back he was thinking of how he should hand them off: with a little nod of the head; that would be over confident, a small smile and shoulder shrug; that would be too submissive.  Tyler decided on just laying the books in front of his brother and turning around without making eye contact, if he was lucky Michael would call after him to give thanks.  Tyler was still unconfident in his decision when his thoughts were interrupted.

“So what’s with the books?” James asked.

“Huh? Oh, thought I’d bring a little something back, keep us entertained.  Boredom is one of the deadliest things out here,” Tyler stole a phrase his brother had told him.

“Sure, but why are you bringing them back to the house?”

Tyler thought about it for a second, he realized what James was saying, “Oh shit, cause we’re going right back so taking them only means we have to return with them.  Shit.”

“Calm down, it’s no big deal,” James hadn’t meant to aggravate the kid, he had just wanted to break the silence.

Tyler put his eyes into a hand and his breathing became short and shallow.  They we’re only one house away from where Abal and Michael were waiting.  Tyler thought up a story about how he had picked the best books from the houses they had visited, Michael might believe that if he thought Tyler didn’t know much about literature.  But again why would he bring the books back after he had them all, Tyler felt tears in his eyes.  And now crying, Tyler couldn’t believe himself, this plan he had to restore his most valued relationship was falling to pieces, and so was he.  James put a hand on Tyler’s shoulder and pulled him back.

“It’s really no problem, we can just carry them back and it will be fine,” he said.

“M-m-my, brother,” Tyler stuttered, he wanted to say more but it seemed his tongue was devouring his words and it grew fat, blocking the throat.  

“You’re worried about your brother?”

Tyler was shaking and he could only barely nod in response.

James could tell he was not quite right, “You’re worried about what your brother would think.”

Tyler let more tears flow and hung his head.  Bingo.  James knew what was happening and how to solve it, “This is an easy fix.  Let’s walk back to the house we chose and you can put the books there and then we can come back to get Michael and you tell him that you found some books you think he might like.”

Tyler’s tongue digested all the words it had swallowed in a matter of seconds and the panicked boy could breath again.  Was it really that simple, just walk back and Michael wouldn’t have to know how stupid he had been.  Tyler looked at James as if he had just explained the meaning of life.  The second part of his idea would have to be modified but overall it was so perfect and simple that Tyler wondered how many of his problems had a solution like the one he had just been handed.  

“Let’s go put the books back,” James released Tyler’s shoulder and turned around.  Soon all three were in the best mood they had been all day.  After worrying initially for the little boy Max and James got a reminiscent sort of amusement and joy from seeing his emotions do a complete turn around.  They knew it was easy to have the smallest problem flood one’s emotions like a tidal wave, especially for kids.

“Can we tell him that we picked out the books as we went along and they were what we each liked best but, but can we umm, tell him that it was my idea?” Tyler asked

“We can tell him anything you want,” Tyler said.

The walk between the houses was a little more than half a mile.  It gave Tyler plenty of time to flesh out a plan with the help of his two editors.  When it finally came time for Tyler to lay his books down on a table in what would become their new temporary house his plan was solid.  He was exuberant with confidence on the walk back.  Max smiled at the scheme and the joy it brought, he smiled at James the shared experience of being young and scared, he smiled for the food and the house.  He smiled.  It was the first time since Paco’s death.

DL: Chapter 20

Dead weight hangs with every intention to succumb to gravity and fall to the ground.  Tyler was sixty pounds of flesh and bone half-conscious on his brother’s shoulders, he faded in and out of wakefulness but that did nothing to help his brother carry him.  Michael had not meant to knock Tyler out, merely get him out of the way.  But the force of the blow had shocked Tyler, and he could not catch his fall, thus his second impact, this one with hard ground, had caused additional damage.    

James was leading the group, he wanted to get several houses away before stopping.  The gunshots were loud enough to have attracted any viral in the area.  One, two, three, four, far enough, James turned and raced down a stone walkway towards the front door of a brick cottage that looked like a relocated castle.  He grabbed the doorknob and twisted, it was locked.  James shook the door for a few seconds before he backed up and prepared to kick it in.  He had never kicked a door in before but people did it all the time he supposed, but as James launched his foot forward something crashed against the door from the inside.  

James redirected his body weight, letting his foot fall to the ground and holding his hands out in front of him.  James fell against the door, but it held strong, he commanded, “Next house, next house.”  Abal and Michael were across the yard before James recovered but Max stood and watched him.  The two men stared at each other for a moment, James said, “Thanks, lets go.”  He expected Max to follow, but instead Max stood where he was left and watched the door as it shook.  James turned around and ran back when he noticed he was alone, “You can’t stay here, the next house will be better, lets go!”

Max was staring through the door and saw his fate knocking on the other side, “Go away.” 

James ran back and grabbed the last member of his original group by the collar, “I’m not letting you die.”  James dragged Max by the shirt for a few steps before his feet began moving on their own.   

James and Max rushed in the front door and Michael said, “Finally, alright, up the stairs, Abal leads.”  The four jogged across the open room to a flight of stairs tucked off to the side.  Tyler was sitting up against one wall, with some effort Michael pulled the boy to his feet and steadied him as they walked together.  The hall on the second floor had four doors and Abal tapped on the closest one with her axe.  She waited a moment before pushing the door open, revealing a bathroom, it was too enclosed.  Abal repeated the routine on the next door, a bedroom.  She motioned for Tyler to lie on the bed.  Tyler blinked several times, as if trying to clear a mirage from his vision, but he did not approach the bed.  He kept still, all the survivors kept still, save Michael who began searching the corners of the room.

“I’m sorry about your friends James,” Michael said.

“There was nothing else that could be done, you did what you had to.”

Abal spoke up, “I’m sorry you had to do that Michael.”

The three waited for a response, Tyler tried to lick his nose.

“You did not know them very well, but they would have been so glad that you did that for them,” James said.

Michael finished with a bedside table and moved to a dresser, there was no other movement in the room except for a glance between Abal and James.

“We are trying to help you know.  You could acknowledge us,”  Abal did not sound irritated, just confused.

Michael responded, “We should get some rest while we have some down time, he needs to sleep especially,” Michael pointed to Tyler who had one pointer finger in each nostril, “I’ll take first watch.  While I’m up I’m going to search the room.  You should all try to get some rest.”

 

Tyler opened his eyes for a moment before pain shot around his head and he closed them.  It felt like his head was pushing out his eyeballs so Tyler covered his face with his hands and groaned with pain as he rolled back and forth on the bed.  It was empty except for him and he was also the only occupant of the room.  Tyler swung his legs off the side of the bed and rubbed his left temple, the right one hurt too much to even touch.  Abal walked into the room, unnoticed by Tyler, and watched him for a few seconds.

“Glad you’re up,” Abal said without smiling.

Tyler was in too much pain to be surprised, his senses were all dulled, “What happened?”

Abal walked over to the bedside and sat down next to Tyler, “What’s the last thing you remember.”

“Standing in front of Michael, he was about to shoot that man.   Is he dead?” Tyler’s question seemed like a distant formality as he rubbed his aching head.

“Yes.”  Tyler focused on the ground but Abal saw the tears in his eyes.  Without a word he rose and walked toward the door.  “I was going to tell you what happened, sit down.”

“I don’t care,” Tyler was going to find Michael.  The young Mackay started down the stairs, there were no plans in his head, only anger coupled with regret.  There was a fiery beast on Tyler’s tongue waiting to be unleashed, but it would not have the chance.  Abal chased after Tyler and put her hand on his shoulder.

“You have to wait, you have to know everything.”  Abal walked Tyler up the stairs and sat him on the bed.  She started with the worst details, the ones she knew would only make the monster in the boy smolder.  Then, when Tyler seemed like he was ready to kill his brother, she told him the rest.

 

James was done searching.  They had added two family packs of potato chips to their store of food and James felt as if his time would be better spent watching Max.  He seemed disoriented, holding two carpenters hammers against each other and sitting on a couch.  About once a minute he would separate the hammers and pound them together.  James was convinced that everyone had to do things they regretted in the viral world and the only way to live was in a state of denial.  Max had seen four deaths and he had only just been getting over Paco. 

“What are you going to do?”  James walked closer to Max.

The response was a click of hammers.

“I think you should stay with us, Michael may be a little strange but he’ll be better, I mean after what happened earlier.” James bit his tongue.

Hammers.

“We need everyone we can find.  The more we have the longer we’ll last.”

“Where have I heard that before?”  Max stayed focused on his hammers while speaking.

James stuttered a moment but was saved when Michael entered the room.  Michael set one hand on Max and waited for him to turn around.  Even though Michael was at least half a foot taller James thought he was trying to make himself smaller, more humble, in front of Max.

He enunciated  each word clearly, “Thank you for helping me with my brother.”  James immediately thought that Max had not really helped with anything, but he kept his mouth shut.  It looked as if more was going to come, but Michael stayed silent and the men stared at each other.

“You’re welcome,” apparently Max had lost interest in the hammers, he was now focused on the man who was extending some sort of gratitude.

Michael relaxed, “Alright good, so that’s over, you’re coming with us.”

Max was still trying to figure out was going on but his silence was accepted and Michael continued without any input or verbal agreement, “Good, now, is the water in the lake safe?”

Max was still confused but now Michael was ready to accept his confusion, “The lake, is it safe to drink out of it?”

“I think so,” Max had consumed a small amount the other day just to try it out.  Michael nodded and smiled at Max before heading outside.  Max looked to James but only got a shrug.  The interaction had done nothing to improve Michael’s image as normal, but it helped Max separate him from Bones in his mind. 

Abal and Tyler walked downstairs and surveyed the room for Michael.  They had new clothing and James complimented them when they walked over to him.

“Thanks,” said Abal, “Where’s Michael.

“He just went outside, he’s checking out the lake.”

“Thanks.”

Abal shrugged at Tyler when he looked up her, they had been talking about what the brothers would do in order to work past their problem. Tyler stayed a step behind Abal.  The pair were walking outside when Michael surprised them around the corner.  Abal yet out a little yelp and covered her heart.  Michael had jumped as well, but he caught himself and hoped the pair had not noticed his little jolt.  They stood facing each other for a moment, Tyler and Abal watched Michael.  After waiting for a moment Michael said, “Do you guys want to come inside?  I have something to say.”

Inside the house Michael made an announcement, “I like your idea Abal, we will all be needing new clothes soon, I suggest we start looking, but not here.  We can still get to another house today and I’m sure no one else has been looking for clothing.” 

The group nodded in agreement, Michael checked to see that everyone was nodding, but his gaze only darted over Tyler.  “Let’s get our stuff and get out of here, James and I will take the hammers and Abal, are you good to stick with the ax.”

She nodded.

 

In ten minutes the bags were all packed and slung across shoulders.  A line formed behind Michael at the back door while he peaked his head around the corner.

“We have one viral, should be no trouble.  I’ll get it and you guys run to the next house, if the doors are locked break one in.  If the backdoor is locked unlock it because that is where I’ll come in.  We don’t have too many viral around here so whatever we attract should not be a problem.”

“There are some more across the lake,” Max commented.

“Anywhere near us.”

“No.”

“Lets go.”

Michael pushed the door wide open and raced toward a bloody man crawling across the ground.  When footsteps echoed into the rotting ears the viral turned, mouth open, toward Michael.  Food running straight toward it, if the brain had any higher thought process it would not have been able to believe its luck.  But a hammer crashed into it and before the viral could stand, its brain was pulped.  Michael pounded a few more times until the legs stopped shaking then scanned the surrounding area for additional threats.  There was one more viral, but it was wandering away from where Michael was heading.  A hundred yard dash later the survivor with his bloody hammer stood in front of a locked door.  He knocked twice, checked his back, knocked again, checked again.  The third time the door opened and Michael rushed in past James who closed the entrance behind him.  In a small room with several empty shelves, Max pulled a dead viral across the floor while Abal wiped blood from her ax, and Tyler was pacing between two rooms.  When Max had disposed of the body, Michael again took the role of talkative leader and decided on a plan with the consent of the group.  They were going to check the basement Abal had seen and then head upstairs all as a group.  Once the possibility of surprise viral was ruled out, Michael would search the upstairs, Max and Abal the first floor and the other two would take the basement.  Tyler followed at the back of the group.  

 

The house was uninhabited, apart from the first resident that Abal had dispatched, so the pairs broke off and headed downstairs to their floors.  In the basement the two stayed silent for a few minutes while they tried to figure out why they had been sent together.  James hoped that it was more than random chance, he wanted to believe that Michael trusted him with the little brother.  But more likely was that Michael did not want Max and James running off with half the supplies and he did not trust the new guy with his brother.  Tyler’s train of thought was just as egocentric.  Michael probably thought that he and Abal were getting too close and wanted to separate them.  The silence was comfortable at first, but then Tyler started rechecking places that James has already searched.  Did the little guy doubt James’s capabilities or did he just not remember where his partner had checked?

“I already checked there,” James said in his least confrontational voice.

“Oh sorry,” Tyler responded he stopped searching and did not know where to continue.

James pointed to a wall filled with tools, “See if any of those are not rusted.”

“Okay.”

James continued his search but said, “How’s your head?”

“Better, thanks.  How about yours?”  Tyler could not help his automatic small talk response.

 

Max had been helpful, Abal was amazed and relieved.  After seeing him breaking apart over the course of the day she was worried he would let a viral in without making a sound, but he seemed to be recovering.  Max knew hiding places for guns, valuables, and money.  Max had explained that in houses like this any guns would probably be for self defense, therefore out of the way.  There were no firearms to be found, but like a good American family the previous residents of the house owned baseballs, gloves, and, most importantly, bats.  In a closet filled with a variety of sports equipment Abal pulled out two baseball bats, one aluminum, one wooden.  

“What do you think?”  Abal showed off her find to Max.

“Not bad, anything else in there.”

“Nothing useful, but it will be nice to have something besides a hammer and an ax right?”

“Yeah, I think those will keep you alive a lot longer.”

Abal nodded and laid the bats against a wall before continuing her search.  Basketballs, soccer balls and some hockey equipment was all that was left in the closet.  The hockey sticks were too thin to be a weapon but they made Abal think about how cold it was going to get.  The winters stayed far enough below freezing for long enough that the lake froze over.  The group would have to either have to catch a bus headed south or get some serious winter gear.  Abal’s new outfit included a long sleeved t-shirt and a light jacket, her waist down remained clad in denim and old shoes.  

Max’s voice came from the kitchen, “Come check this out.”

Abal forgot about clothes for a moment as her stomach whimpered for food.

Max shook a box that rattled “If you guys ever get a fire going this could be perfect.” 

Abal recognized the long green packaging, “Spaghetti?”

“Just a thought.”

“You know you can stay with us right?  I don’t know what’s going to happen but it would be easier with an extra pair of hands to help out.” 

Max sighed but did not speak so Abal continued, “Think seriously about it, and don’t just write us off, we’re not like your old team.”

He nodded and held his forehead.  The two stood in silence, Abal waiting for a response and Max tried to think of one.  After a minute a much wanted interruption occurred when Tyler and James appeared and announced they had found nothing useful.  

“You guys find anything?” Tyler asked.

“A couple bats and some spaghetti,” Abal responded.

“Well good I guess we have something to go with the sauce now.”

“It would appear that way,” Max cut in, he was focused on the staircase and the rest of the group followed his gaze toward a beaming fashion monstrosity.

At the bottom of the staircase the older Mackay stood, dressed in a compilation of warm clothes he had found.  The previous owner of the house had apparently been large around the middle but had not been blessed in the leg department.  Thick sweatpants hung loosely before elastic at the bottom pulled them tight around Michael’s mid-shin.  An orange sweatshirt sagged in the stomach but did not quite reach Michael’s wrists.  When the eyes turned toward him there was a moment of quiet wonder before Tyler could not restrain a laugh and covered his mouth in an attempt to stifle his thorough enjoyment of what his brother had come up with when he was left alone.  Michael did not turn toward Tyler but there was a falter in his smile.

Michael indicated towards the apparent thickness of his outfit.  The judges were not buying it.

“You look like an old man,” the first rating came from Abal.

“You’ll still be cold,” an unexpected commentary from the new guy.

“There has to something that fits your ridiculous proportions better,” a double edged strike from James.  Michael frowned, that was three zeros.  He went back upstairs.

 

The five stayed in the house overnight, no one fell asleep on guard duty and Max was allowed to have a full nights rest.  Michael had the last shift.  He started by prowling around the first floor for an hour or so with the bamboo bat, studying the little nooks and crannies of the house.  However, his mind was still bored, Michael lit a candle and made his way into the basement, he was going to find entertainment.  

After calling his name several times, Abal finally woke Tyler up.  When his eyes were open he pulled the covers over himself and curled into a ball, it was cold.  Tyler sighed, he could see his frosty breath flow across the pillows.  Even with a long sleeved shirt and sweatpants waiting for him Tyler did not want to get up, but having to be dragged out of bed would be worse so he exposed his mostly naked body to the freezing air.  The four shuffled downstairs to see what their boss had arranged for the day.  Three waited huddled on a couch while Max checked the house and outside for the night guard.  He heard methodical sounds of pounding coming from the basement and assumed it was Michael, but just to make sure he checked.  Max reported back to the couch to find Abal, Tyler, and James huddled together.

“Michael is in the basement working,” Max said, “And there is frost on the ground outside.”

The group was deep in thought and did not notice Michael enter the room with his creation, but when eyes finally began turning in his direction they were not mocking as they had been with his style the previous day.  

“What do you guys think of my new toy,” Michael tried not to show how pleased with himself he was.

After a few seconds Max was the first to comment, “Looks effective.”

James and Abal nodded their agreement.

“Looks kind of scary,” Tyler said after observing Michael spin his tool in his hands,

“That’s just an added bonus,” Michael responded, but soon after he spoke his look of confidence was gone.  James and Abal exchanged glances and Tyler looked up in wonder, his brother had just acknowledged him.  Oh happy day.  But soon both brothers were frowning when Michael realized what he had done and Tyler realized it had not been on purpose.

“I can’t wait to see you use it,” Abal hoped to break apart the silence by getting Michael excited again.

“I wish I would never have to use it,” Michael said.

The silence persisted for a few moments until James said, “Lets eat something.”

The survivors sat at a table in the dining room, Max had elected to collect water from the lake so the others had started without him.  The dog treats turned out to be easily manageable with some peanut butter spread over them.  There was still a fair amount of “Bacon Wraps” by the time the peanut butter was almost gone but the breakfast was over.  Every stomach at the table grumbled for more, but when the eyes saw how little was left, overall and peanut butter wise, it was clear restraint was in order.  When Max arrived back with water the group washed away the little remaining flavor in their mouths and began to pack up.  The breakfast foods were left on the table until Max started packing them up without eating, he thought no one was watching.  

Michael held his creation tight, he inspected the new weapon; three nails faced Michael they were spaced about an inch apart, two more sets were at a right angle to the first one and the fourth was opposite.  Twelve nails in total, they all protruded an inch and a half out of the bat, a spiked club.  Michael thought it looked like a medieval torture tool and, despite what he had said earlier, he was ready to try it out.  The five were again lined up behind a door and prepared to leave, Michael pushed open the door.  His strength and fury faded, nothing, he looked left, right, nothing, no need for a spiked club this morning.  

“Is it clear?” James asked.

“Yeah,” Michael responded, he moved his hand up the bat to hold it just below the nails, he did not want to nonchalantly swing it into his leg.  Abal kept her ax in a battle ready grip, James had his aluminum stick over his shoulder, Max and Tyler each had their hammer stored in a deep pocket.  None of the weapons were going to be of any use throughout the day, the living and the semi-living never encountered one another.  The first house was stripped of anything that the survivors could have used.  It had not been ransacked, all the pieces of furniture appeared undisturbed before the group of five searched them, but it was empty.  No food anywhere, no possible weapons better than the ones they already had, not even a great selection of clothing.  The second house was worse than the first house.  It was torn up with tables, chairs, and windows smashed.  The group found containers of food on the ground but after opening them found out that some animal had beaten them to the punch.  Clothing was torn into bedding for mice and rats which scattered when dressers were opened.  It hurts more to have nothing after thinking you have something.  You are no worse off than you were before, but worse off than you could have been.  

Tyler kept himself going on the idea that they were the first ones to discover this city after the infection hit.  Some houses may have been broken into by neighbors but he nurtured hope wherever he could find it.  Since the first house was still in good condition, he reasoned, there had been no organized effort to plunder the houses.

Tyler made a short prayer to himself, he knew it was all chance, but he wished that chance would be on their side.  The third house was blue and white with an odd roof that slanted in three directions with multiple windows pushing out through the sun bleached shingles, many of which were missing.  The third house had not been looted and it looked as if the family had left without gathering up their things.  The pantry had a few rats running around but they scattered when light entered their domain.  Water, soda, junk food, good food, cereal, Tyler wanted to announce his find but he did not know what to say.  But he could use this food two ways, and Tyler ran to find his brother.  The best way to spread the information was without words and Michael would not be able to ignore what Tyler had to show him.  But first off James had to know what was happening so he would not spoil the opportunity that had sprung up before Tyler’s eyes.  One hand tugged at the confused man’s shirt and he followed his search partner to a closet door.  When the treasure was revealed before James’s eyes he opened his mouth but a small fist landed in his stomach and shut him up.  Tyler motioned for silence and then used his hands to tell James that he was to stay right in front of the door, and for God’s sake stay quiet.  Tyler made sure his instructions were clear before he ran into the basement.

Michael noticed the intruder out of the corner of his eye but did not make any move to toward his little brother.  Instead he continued to sort through a variety of rusted chisel-type tools, he did not know what they were used for but they could come in useful, effectively an eight-inch spike with a handle.  The tip was not as sharp as a knife but it was dangerous, the only problem was that it could only be an attacking weapon.  The ability to backup while still fighting and causing damage was almost zero, no defense and Michael decided that it was unsuitable to carry along.  So far there had been a flashlight and some extra batteries, a good find but Michael was hoping for more.  When he turned around to move on Tyler had moved closer but stood still, waiting for Michael to address him.  It would be impossible to get the child to go away on his own so with reluctance Michael tipped his head toward Tyler and shrugged his shoulders.  That was all it took, Tyler waved for Michael to follow him and started up the staircase.  It took a moment but Michael followed and picked up his finds on his way out of the basement.

James was busy sorting the food into three piles: yes, no, maybe.  The brothers saw the three stacks of food laying just outside the pantry, Michael gulped when he saw all that there was, and Tyler smiled and folded his arms across his chest.  When Michael could see the whole closet he lost his composure again and gulped the excess saliva that was building up in his mouth.  

“It’s going to be easier to sort this stuff with you guys,” James said.

“You found this,” A smile was forming on Michael’s face.

“Nope, your brother deserves the credit.”

The smile stopped growing, but it did not disappear, “What are the piles?”

“Good, maybe, bad,” James indicated to the three piles in turn.

For fifteen minutes Michael was forced to interact with his brother in a line of passing food.  Tyler stood at the end and put more in the maybe pile than he should have.  After the food was sorted the pile that was either rotted or had excessive damage was given one last check, then dumped outside.  The three sat around the Maybe pile and began resorting, sometimes a taste test was in order, sometimes grubs and magots were found.  The first time Tyler came across insect larvae he showed the others then put it in the discard pile.  Michael picked up the half eaten box of cereal and reached in.  He pulled out a squirming white worm like creature and held it in front of Tyler’s face before he tossed it into his mouth and seemed to contemplate the flavor like a wine connoisseur.  Tyler frowned for a moment but continued sorting the food, after all he had eaten dog treats.  

“There is a lot of stuff here, it would weigh a lot to drag it from house to house,” James said.

Michael grunted agreement, he was still working past the flavor in his mouth.

“What are you saying?” Tyler asked.

“We could make this house a sort of home base and bring everything back here, at least until we work through some of this food.”

“What if we find another house like this?”

“Then I will be very happy to lug all the food back here on my own.”

Tyler smiled then began to laugh at his question, he had asked it like it was the worst possibility.

“What if we have to abandon the house?” Michael asked.

Tyler frowned and James answered, “Then we would probably have to leave it here anyway.”

The young silent boy covered his ears, he did not want to hear his older commanding brother shoot down another plan because it was not his own, “You’re right, sounds good,”  Tyler opened his ears and eyes, “We can sleep here at night and go out during the day to find more supplies,” said Michael.

The men finished sorting and admired the nourishment that would allow them to have a home for more than a night or two.  Spirits only rose when Abal walked down the stairs with a rifle in her hands, Max followed with a small paper box.  

“Lets get the hell out of here,” Abal said, she could not see what the three were sitting around and she did not care, she was standing at the door waiting.

“Come take a look at this,” James said in a calm voice.

Abal hung her head and shuffled as if the longer she stayed in the house the weaker she got.  Max followed her with a distant look on his face.  They both discovered what the three were sitting around at the same time.  Max tilted his head to get a different angle in case he was just seeing a mirage.  

James sat back proudly, “So what did you guys find upstairs?”

The response from Abal was immediate but she did not look up from the food tower, “Bodies.”

The boys sat a little straighter, “What?”

“Four bodies, three shot,” Abal shook the gun in her hands, “One hanged.”  

Tyler’s voice was soft, “I think we should eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” said Abal.

“Me neither,” Max followed suit.

“James had a great idea actually,” Michael said, “He recommended we stay in the house for a few days.”

The shock Abal had received from the food faded slightly, “I’m not staying in this house any longer than I have to.”

“I came up with that before I knew that there were dead people upstairs,” said James.

Michael nodded as if he were an adult accepting a child’s apology for something he had known was foolish all along.

“But it’s an easy fix, we can just find another house and set up shop there.”

“That still involves toting all this food around which was what we were trying to avoid in the first place,” Michael said.

“Some people could go out and search while the others stay here with the food, then when we find a good house the whole group can help move the food.”

“And on the off chance that you run into something dangerous?”

“Everyone is going to have a weapon so if a viral shows up anywhere we can be ready for it.”

“Who’d you have in mind?”

James thought for a moment“Max and Tyler could come with me.”

Michael ground his teeth, “You and Max?”

“Yeah, but first I want something to eat, I haven’t had a soda in forever, this looks great.  After Tyler and I get some energy we can head out and start trying to find a home without the family still in it.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

DL: Chapter 19

Mouse spat leaves out of his mouth.  When Christi and Max had told him they were going to put him down he had an idea of a soft landing.  Then his human crutches had gotten distracted, they let him fall the few feet from his knees to his face.  Mouse thought that as long as he was on the ground it would be a good time to sleep, so he did.  While his blood deprived body slowed into a state of rest, Christi and Max crawled toward the front of the house.  Max was in front and he approached a bush that had no foliage.  He would be able to see through it but hoped that it would be enough cover that he could stay hidden.  Max went prone and pulled his body behind his hiding place, he took tally as fast as possible before yanking himself back.  Woman, boy, James, pull back.  James?  

Max returned for a second look, they were humans.  And a man, Max added a tall, ropy guy to his tally of people, and James was definitely with them.  Retreating from the bush Max turned back to Christi and shrugged his shoulders.  She frowned and shook her hands, Max thought it was supposed to mean something in Italian hand gestures but he wasn’t sure.  

Max called out, “James?”

There was a pause, “Max?”

“Yeah, it’s me man, where’s Leo?”

“Dead.” Another pause  “Is everyone else there with you?”

“Only Christi and Mouse, the others are dead.”

“Jesus, what happened?”

“Later, do you need help?”

“What do you mean?”

“With those people who are holding you?”

A small laugh, “No they’re cool.”

Max stood up and poked his head around the corner to search for any sign of danger.  No weapons were drawn so he walked into the open.  James walked forward and held his arms out, prepared for an embrace, Max sent a fist into the traitor’s chest.  James stayed on his feet but lost his breath and took a step back.

“You’re lucky we believe anything you say after what you did.”

James’s shoulders were slouched, his earlier vitality had left him, “What happened?”

Christi walked out from the side of the house, “You left us.”

James stared from one to the other while Michael, Abal, and Tyler grouped together.  Max went back to tend to Mouse while Christi explained to James what had happened because he had not been there to warn them.  

Max shook the shoulder of his injured friend, “Time to get up Mouse.”  The heap of pale flesh didn’t respond.  Max slapped Mouse’s face, “Mouse, Mouse!”  

Max yelled around the house for Christi.  She was destroying the comfortable wall of ignorance that James had been hiding behind.  At the call they both ran to  Mouse and Max, Christi to see if she could help, James to see if he would be responsible for another death.  The three from the other group followed at a walk and stayed just within sight.  

“He’s not getting up,” Max explained the obvious, “Do you think he’s dead?”  

Max was willing to defer to Christi but he didn’t have to, “I’m not dead… ugh… Not feeling too good either.”  Despite Mouse’s comment being less than fully positive his two crutches were relieved, while James took in the sight of the damage he had caused.

“We have to stop his bleeding,” Max said to Christi and indicated towards Mouse as if the state of the man sealed his argument.

“It’s not going to do any good if we leave the bullets in him,” Christi responded

“I’m not as book smart as you, but sticking our hands into his open back wasn’t the best goddamn idea.”

“Max calm down, we can’t get angry.”

“All we did was make the holes bigger!”

“I’m not saying that we reach in with our hands in again but those bullets are as dirty as anything.”

The conversation was loud enough that the three standing by the front of the house could hear all the options and problems that the rival group had.  At the mention of cleanliness and the removal of bullets Tyler nodded toward his brother.  Michael pretended not to notice.  Since Michael was tilting his head away from Tyler he did not notice when his younger brother turned around and walked back out front to where they had left their bags.  Before Michael realized what was going on Tyler was walking past him with the first aid supplies.

“What do you guys need, we have plenty,”  Tyler was saying as he walked toward his new patient, “I think forceps will be first to get the bullets out.”  The blank and amazed stares of the three might have only lasted a few seconds but before the first moment passed without action Tyler spoke again, “If time is a factor, stop sitting around letting him die, lets do this.”

Again before the three could respond.  Michael spun Tyler around, “What are you doing?”

“I’m helping these people because they need something that we have and are not using.”

“What if we need it later?”

“We’ll find some more later but they need it right now.”  

Michael reached for the first aid but Tyler turned away, “They need this, I’m not letting you get in the way of what is right.”  With that Tyler turned around and opened up the first aid supplies.    

“There is only one thing that this man needs,” Michael said.  Tyler kept focused on finding the container of antibacterial liquid he hoped that his brother would not open his mouth again and whatever Mouse ‘needed’ would stay in Michael’s head.  Tyler tried to keep focused and wait for his brother to give up, but when he heard the click of a hammer being pulled back into the firing position he froze.  “This man will die, and killing him is the right thing to do.”

Tyler didn’t turn around, “Go away Michael.”

“But Tyler this is what you always want me to do, ease suffering.”

“He still has hope, go away, you don’t have to help.”

The last line struck something in Michael, “You need my help!  And that is exactly what I’m going to do.”

Tyler turned around to see Michael raising his pistol toward the bleeding but conscious man on the ground, “I’m not feeling that bad,” Mouse said, his voice was forced and pained.  Before the barrel reached the height of the intended victim’s head a barrier appeared in the sights.  The gun paused but it did not lower.

“Tyler what the hell are you doing?”

The young boy stood in between Michael and Mouse.  The other survivors were frozen, none of them had any experience with what they were seeing. 

“I’m stopping you from taking your power trip too far.”

“No.  You are once again throwing your life around like you don’t care about it.”

“I’m doing what is right.”

“You disregard yourself everyday so I have to take care of you, but you never stopped to see all that I do to keep you alive.”

Tyler was starting to see what his brother was trying to do, “I’m responsible for myself and you for yourself.”

“You have never taken responsibility for keeping yourself alive, without me you’d be dead.”

“That may be true,” Tyler said, “But you need me just as much.”

“You have no idea what I do for you!  You only see the pleasant surface that covers the reality of the hell that I have caused to keep you safe.”

Tyler’s fists were clenched at his sides.  Furious tears rolled down his cheeks before he could wipe them away.  Tyler did not have any intense emotion without tears and now was not a exception.  Tyler knew exactly what Michael was talking about,  “You killed him, didn’t you?  He was never bitten.”

“It was for you,” Michael said.

“Don’t you ever say you killed someone in my name.  I’m not helpless and his death was not my fault, it was all yours.  I can’t be your excuse forever.”  Tyler had to work past a lumped muscle in his throat, “You would not be alive without me because you would not be able to live with yourself without me.  You use me to excuse anything you feel bad about and then hold it against me.  You need me, I’m your balance, and right now I’m telling you that you have to put down the gun and help this man, because you’re not blaming this on me.”  Tyler and Michael each held their ground for a moment, the pistol still pointed toward Tyler’s sternum.  

“If you’re going to say that then I don’t feel responsible for you anymore.  If you are going to disregard your life, so am I.”  Tyler was caught off guard by the statement and even more so when an open hand collided with his temple.

 

Michael stood above Tyler, the martyr had finally gotten what he had wanted all along.  The strike had technically only been a slap, but with when your opponent is a third of your size it doesn’t matter how you hit them, they will go down.  Michael nudged Tyler with his foot, no response, he was out cold.  Michael did not notice his hand lowering and taking Mouse out of the line of fire.

“Roll over,” Michael said as if it was to himself.  No one moved.  The dominant brother used his pistol as a pointer finger and indicated toward Mouse, “Turn over, on your stomach, now.”

Mouse opened his mouth although he didn’t mean to, “Why?”

Michael put his gun back into his pants, “Roll over, now.”

With the weapon away Mouse revealed his back to the man he was not yet acquainted with.  It was a struggle for the injured survivor but no one helped him.  All eyes were focused on Michael as he took a pair of forceps from the first aid bag and placed them into a container of liquid.

“This is going to hurt, a lot,” Michael said to his patient, “It’s going to hurt more than you will be able to take without moving.  You will be held down so don’t move.”  It took all of Mouse’s strength to nod, rubbing his cheek against the ground.  “Raise your arms above your head, I’m going to take your shirt off.”  Mouse obliged and Michael slowly rolled the bloody article of clothing up to the shoulders and slid it off the arms.  The entire back was covered with blood but the two enlarged entry wounds were clear to Michael.

Michael said, “Alright, James and other guy come hold his wrist with your hand and put your shoulder on his shoulder, like this.”  When the men were in position Michael continued, “Abal and girl come here and get into a leg bar on each of this guy’s legs.  It is important not to go too hard or you could break his knee.”  It took the females longer to set up but once they were ready Michael thought that there was no way struggling was going to mess up his ramshackle procedure.  “You should never try to remove a bullet without proper equipment, they are clean, but now everything is contaminated,” Michael took his forceps from the antibacterial wash and steadied them above the left shoulder.  Michael closed the forceps and advanced them in the path that the bullet had carved in the muscle and bone.  He found a hard block in his way soon after entry, the projectile had been stopped by the layers of bone it had encountered.  The round was lodged sideways, most likely due to manipulation after the shot had been fired.  Michael opened his tool until he could slide it forward over the bullet.  With a tight grip Michael pulled and lost his grip as Mouse’s muscles contracted in pain.  

“This tool isn’t very strong, I’m going to have to go deeper, it’s going to hurt more,”  Michael said as he moved the forceps further into flesh.  Mouse tried to twist and torque but his restraints were tight and heavy.  Michael got a solid grip and pulled the lead slug out of the struggling body.

“One down,” Michael did not want to say anything else about the state of the operation.  His patient had been lucky with the first shot, but the second one was lower in the left side.  The entry had been between some lower ribs and from where the last one had been Michael thought it had been on an upward path, toward vital organs.  Michael started the procedure for the second bullet in the same way, but this time he had to push deeper, much deeper, and still he felt nothing.  The liver had been shredded by the piece of shaped metal.  One of Mouse’s lungs had either had a close call, or it had been hit.  When the impromptu surgeon found the bullet it was stuck behind the front of the ribcage.  Michael was sure it would become infected, but he could not risk dropping Mouse’s lung.  

“Calm down, calm down, it’s over, I can’t do anymore.”  Mouse nodded again but he was shaking all over with pain.  Mouse vomited on James who let go of the body he had been holding.  Michael did not have time to retract the forceps and when Mouse jerked with his free shoulder the open wound swallowed up medical tool.  Mouse released more of his stomach as James tried to return to his post.  With all his weight Michael pressed down where James had been holding and reached into the bullet hole, ignoring the continued retching, and pulled out his tool.  

“Get off him, I can’t do anything,” Michael said.  The three improvising nurses released Mouse who shook several more times before trying to curl up into a fetal position, but curling up stretched out his back so Mouse remained sprawled out on the ground and cried into his arms.

Mouse tried to vomit once more before saying, “Kill me,” and continuing to cry in his arms, “Please, just kill me.”

Michael reached for his pistol but hesitated, all eyes were on him and the only sound came from the man who was bleeding out between them.  Max nodded, Christi shook her head and grabbed Max’s collar so she could speak into his ear.  Christi walked toward Michael as if he was death itself and he had brought the unavoidable, it wasn’t his fault, just his job.  

She said, “Give me a minute.”  

Michael nodded, The man had lost too much blood, even if he wanted to live Michael doubted if he could.  Michael’s hands were covered in blood, failure, and the pain of an unnecessary procedure.

 

Christi bent close to Mouse, “I’m sorry.”

Mouse kept his eyes closed, “You’re safe?”

“Yes, yes I’m safe.”

“And.”

“Yes, very safe.”

“I’m sorry.”

Christi wiped tears from her eyes, “No, no why? don’t be, there is nothing to be sorry for.”

Every word from Mouse was a struggle, “No.  Father. Hard.”

“It’s not your fault, but our child will grow up and he will live in a world without viral.  He will not be afraid of them, because he won’t know them.”

“Love. You.”

“I love you too,”  Christi bent closer and kissed Mouse before drawing away and turning her head.  The sound of the pistol firing was quieter than Christi expected but as soon as the noise caught her ears she crumbled, whimpering, to the ground.  Mouse lay still.  Max crouched down, then moved to his knees, he put a hand on Christi’s shoulder who fell onto his shoulder and wet his shirt with the amount of liquid from her eyes and nose.  

She spoke through her tears, “Max, will you do the same for me.”

Max choked on his spit after her request, “No, no you’re depressed, this will pass.”

“It has to be done Max.”

“Christi you’re stronger than this, things will get better, you have to take care of your child.”  Max had not know she was pregnant until a few moments ago, but he thought it was his only option.

Christi sobbed harder, “No no no no.”  She thumped on Max’s chest with her fist to try and calm herself down.

“It’s okay, you’re go…”

“Shut up, just shut up,” Christi pushed Max away and her tears began to dry, “I don’t even know whose baby it is.”  Max was quiet, Christi broke down into Max’s arms again, “But it doesn’t matter.”

“That’s right because you’re both going to be okay.”

Christi pounded Max so hard in the chest he lost some of his breath, “Shut up.”  Her eyes were furious and fearful, “We’re both going to die.”

Max opened his mouth but remembered his reprimand and stopped trying to reassure the girl who was determined to die.

“I want to be shot because if I’m not you might die later.  When we were pulling the boat into the water yesterday and the viral jumped on us it got me.  I wanted to wait and see if Mouse would live before I told anyone.  I’m going to change so soon, so it doesn’t matter who the baby’s dad is, it has to die.  I have to die.”

Before he could respond a shot rang out in the air, Christi’s head jolted to one side then back again.  The body of the pregnant woman collapsed forward.  Max looked up to see Michael walking toward him.  The angel of death put away his scythe then extended a human hand toward Max.

“Get up, we don’t have much time here and I need help with my brother,” Max did not know if the voice was referencing him or not but his body responded.  Arms on his body helped to sling the limp body of a boy over the merciful murderer.  Max’s legs walked beneath his body but his mind was not controlling them.  The five people Max was watching from a distant planet moved onto the road and set off at a strong pace, but the man in front was a little slow because he was holding a pair of tiny arms around his neck.  The world Max watched was a terrifying and incomprehensible one, a single day had passed and five were dead, and one of the two that survived was the man that had caused the slaughter.  Another one had survived, but he was not long for the world that he was trapped on, Max watched him and wondered when he would pass like the others, and why he had been the one to survive, not someone stronger.