“Do you think it is safe?”
“Even if I don’t what choice do we have?”
“We could wait until we come across an abandoned farm or something.”
“We can’t rely on those, too uncertain.”
The brothers had been trekking on a small road with a river on one side and farm fields on the other. Several barns and farm houses were in decent repair but others were burnt and rusted polyps sinking back into the soil. The fields were not directly next to the road, there were about twenty yards of thin forest between the road and the pasture. The river continued in a lazy line, and what appeared to be a small farming town was on the other side, across a concrete bridge that was in disrepair.
Before the brothers could continue arguing the larger of the two had already set off. It was a small sort of town, and the pair had waited until the sun came up to venture into the remains of a small population. The boy quickly fell in line behind his big brother. The follower whispered “Michael, what if they are there?”
Michael stopped and turned around; abruptly stopping his follower “We just have to stay together Ty, OK.” Tyler nodded his head but looked down at his feet ashamed that he was so nervous. Michael sighed, “Do you remember the hand signals?” Tyler nodded again, without looking up. Michael had told Tyler that having fear only makes what you are afraid of more likely to happen. There was a lot more to be afraid of than there had been ten months ago, that was when the virus arrived in New York, and when the two brothers had seen their home for the last time. That was the beginning of the pair’s travels together through an increasingly nightmarish world. There was no shortage of things to fear in NYC, but now it was different, and Tyler’s protector had changed. Michael had lost about forty pounds since the start of their journey, his hair was cut by Tyler to keep it short.
Tyler and his brother reviewed a short list of hand signals that they had created. If luck was on their side there would be nothing left in the town, but as Michael reminded Tyler, luck was not something to count on. For a moment after the review the brothers faced one another, Tyler was tempted to grab his brother and pull him into a hug. But Tyler stayed frozen and Michael rested a hand on his younger brother’s shoulder and gaze a squeeze. Michael pulled his hand away and raised one finger to his lips for one of the first hand signals he had taught Tyler, “be quiet.” Nothing else was going to be said until they were inside one of the buildings.
It had to be around noon but clouds obscured the sky, Michael wanted the sun, in the city it had not mattered, but small towns and nature were not so foreboding in sunlight. The brothers stepped in between orange wooden barriers and sand bags that were set up on the bridge. Michael would have been more wary had they been trying to cross in a car, but on foot he felt secure. Two steps onto the structure and a loud crack sounded as chunk of the grey stone fell off the bridge and into the water. Both brothers froze, Tyler grabbed the back of his brother’s shirt, but let go after several more creeping steps got them off the bridge. On the other side of the bridge the road split three ways. Two paths went perpendicular to the bridge and stayed next to the river. The third traveled straight forward and was flanked on either side by shops and dealerships.
From across the street he had not been able to tell which side would yield supplies. Michael headed to the right. The only direction that did not present itself as an immediate choice was the center. Although he had never done exceptionally well in school Michael was not stupid. He would not risk a confrontation in an unfamiliar town surrounded by unknown buildings, and at least with a forest there was a chance of escape. The forest was a much better place to flee than an unfamiliar building, the pair had learned that lesson the hard way six months prior. It had been a pretty little suburb, the kind Michael hated, identical houses, with identical lawns, and identical bastard pompous residents. But the community had been ravaged by the Virus, and the brothers attracted no small amount of attention. Tyler and Michael had been running from a dozen or so viral, who seemed as if they could sprint for hours. The two young men on the other hand were tiring quickly and knew no good places to hide or hold up. Michael could hear his brother’s heavy panting as Tyler began to slow his pace; Michael reached out and grabbed his brother’s hand as he turned and ran towards a suburban development. The first house was over 100 meters away, not far, if they had just began their race, but sweat already stained their clothing. The footsteps of the brothers seemed to echo as they ran off the grass and onto the paved road. Before returning to another grassy lawn their footsteps were joined by a chorus of pursuers. The sounds of degenerated feet hitting the road were all that came from the viral, no guttural screams, no violent animals barks, just haste. Michael veered towards one of the houses off-white like all the others. The viral could not have been more than twenty feet from the warm flesh they desired, but the brothers were not going to submit easily. Michael let go of his brother’s hand five feet from the front door and grabbed the handle hoping the mechanism would not be braced by a lock. The door burst open as the knob twisted and Michael threw his full body weight at the door, Tyler fell into the house panting a second later as his brother jammed the door back into place and set the lock. The pair was in a wide hallway that had three doors off each side, it seemed more like an apartment than a house. From within the house Michael heard creaks and groans of bending wood. The sounds were more than that of natural wear, something was moving inside the house.
Tyler was frozen, but Michael urged him along from behind, he knew that the door he just closed wouldn’t keep even a half dozen viral for more than a few minutes. The brothers started a slow jog down the hallway, but stopped at the last door on the left side. The steps on the staircase were coming from the door and it sounded like only one pair of feet. Michael grabbed the aluminum baseball bat off a self made holder on his back and used it to knock on the door. The human creature on the other side started racing down the stairs after hearing the pounding on his entrance. The door at the bottom of the stairs opened and Michael was at the open portal with a powerful swing waiting for the viral’s skull. Right after the viral fell to the floor there was a sound from behind the third door on the right hand side. Michael turned to prepare himself again, but he was too late. One of the door’s hinges was snapped as anther creature burst through a door just two feet from the brothers. The door swung on its remaining hinge and careened into Tyler, the edge striking his temple. Michael reacted in a half second as he watched his brother collapse in a heap, but again he was not quite fast enough as the second viral’s weight barreled into Michael’s lanky frame knocking him to the ground and the bat out of his hands. One decayed hand grabbed the front of Michael’s shirt and the other gripped the back of his head. The human kept the viral off him by gripping the monster’s neck and holding its head as far away from his body as he could. Nails dug into the skin on Michael’s neck as the viral drooled blood onto his shirt dangerously close to his mouth. Michael closed his eyes and mouth as he pushed up as hard as he could, but suddenly a crack of metal on bone shook Michael’s eardrums and the viral stopped struggling. Michael pushed the non-moving body off of him and opened his eyes to see Tyler shaking, bat in hand. The left side of Tyler’s face was obscured by a mask of blood, bruises, and sweat. That image of Tyler’s pain had burned its way into Michael’s brain. He never wanted to see it again.
The former domiciles of humans usually appeared less tainted from a distance. Now that Tyler was up next to the buildings he could see they were not only broken and damaged, but stained by the acts of violence they had witnessed in their past. Spent shells and trash littered the streets, dried blood was streaked across the road and sidewalk. A body lay in the street, it was decayed, its facial features unrecognizable, only identifiable as a human by the form. Tyler studied it as he walked past, he remembered a time when his brother would shield him from corpses. Or even discourage him from regarding an animal’s remains on the side of the road. Tyler turned his gaze forward again as he walked past the body. He did not look back.
The first building the brothers could enter without having to break boards or glass was a small convenience store. The windows were all broken, some had boards sitting near them, but the boards had also been shattered, lying in splinters along the ground. The building was small and light crept in over the splintered barricade, although there was hardly any on the streets to spare from the overcast sky. Tyler took one step inside then turned his gaze to the streets again, he was the lookout. Michael stepped in through a window careful to avoid the shattered glass on the ground, not an easy feat with large boots. Once inside he did so he drew a knife. It was not a combat knife or a hunting knife, both of which would have been effective in survival situations. What he drew was a fourteen inch long gardener’s tool. A heavy smooth blade meant for cutting down weeds and small trees with a single powerful cut. It had many other applications the manufacturer had not intended, Michael made full use of its undiscovered potential.
The store was a single room, and it had been thoroughly looted. Michael opened a cooler at the back and grabbed three remaining sports drinks. He opened one and drank, not pulling the bottle away to breath causing some to drip around his chin. He brought the second half to Tyler. The other two Michael stored in a backpack. Turning back to the store Michael saw what had not been taken food wise had been eaten through by rats, or other small pests. He grimaced, they needed food, feeling back to his pack Michael caressed the edges of a large pack of raisins and a can of tuna. Michael moved empty containers around the shelves with his knife, noting the stench of rotten consumables. Nothing appeared of any value, but there was one more place to check. Michael went behind the counter and slid his hands underneath it for robbery protection, something to fight off criminals, but there was nothing. In this type of community one did not need a gun for protection. Well at least they never thought they would need the immediate protection a gun could provide.
Michael moved back to the front of the store getting ready to move on to the next shop when he heard a noise. It was metal falling onto tile in the building adjoined to the convenience store. Tyler and Michael moved backwards in the store, Michael stowed away his knife and pulled something a little more appropriate. Although his 9mm pistol would be considerably louder than a knife he already knew where the danger was and would not risk close contact. Scampering and another small crash came from next-door moving toward the front of the shop. Michael lowered his hand; he recognized the sound too well, vermin. Two mice appeared at the front of the store running toward the water, followed closely by a foot long snake. After humans had abandoned their dwellings nature took back over. It happened over the span of a few months, it did not take long for animals to venture into cities after humanity dispersed. The harsh noises that came from cities always scared animals away. After the sounds of cars died down a new habitat emerged, deer commuted down highways and bears policed city blocks as their new territory. In suburbia houses accepted new residents into their basements and attics, pests made themselves comfortable while slowly taking back turf for nature.
Tyler’s stomach rasped and coughed for food, he looked down, willing it to stop. Tyler focused down his hunger as he stared at the ground trying to concentrate. He hated the hunger, his stomach scraped away at itself, trying to find a morsel of food it might have missed. Tyler could have accepted the prospect of starving to death, but that wouldn’t happen. Tyler mused himself thinking of the morbid irony of being eaten alive on an empty stomach. He told Michael.
“You’re a sick pup you know?” Michael whispered over his shoulder at his little brother.
“Yeah,” Tyler spoke while looking at the ground, the corner of his lips curled almost to a smile, not even, almost to a smirk, but it faded fast.
Michael’s eyes hardened as he turned forward and looked into the next store. His abdomen rumbled with hunger as well.