Michael shook Tyler by the shoulders.
The boy blinked his eyes a few time, “Time to get up?” Tyler yawned and pushed himself up on his elbows, his eyes trying to adjust to the darkness, “Wait, what time is it?”
Michael smirked, “My watch is dead, I don’t know.”
“You know what I meant, why are we up so early, is the sun even out?” As Tyler waited for a response he lay back and shut his eyes, only to be shaken again a moment later. Michael looked his brother in the eyes and rubbed his stomach. Tyler’s hunger was growing in his stomach every day. The longer they waited to trek to the city the harder it would be. Tyler nodded and swung his legs off the side of the bed and sat up. Content, Michael moved on to his next victim. When Abal was more awake than asleep Michael set off around the house, double checking for anything he may have missed.
By the time he returned to the bedroom the other two were standing and looked alive enough to travel, relatively. “Let’s head off,” Michael said, Tyler got behind him with a slow five steps, but Abal stayed where she was.
“What’s the rush,” She responded, “I think we should wake up some more, and let the sun rise so we can see what we’re doing.” Michael glanced at his brother, unsure of what was an appropriate response. “Well whatever you decide to do I’m not leaving without some food first, you can join me if you’d like.”
“Are you offering us something to eat?” Tyler engaged in conversation while Michael continued to stare.
“Yeah, so you’d better take it because you’re starving.” At this Michael began to laugh. “What’s so funny?”
“You,” he said, now Abal stared at him, “It’s not important, anyway what you got to eat?”
Tyler had protested at first claiming that they would never have done the same for Abal, she pointed out they already had. While each person ate their own can of beans Tyler caught Michael’s eye, and with his brother’s focus, Tyler nodded toward Abal. Michael sighed at first but Tyler was persistent.
“Abal,” Michael said, “My brother and I were wondering if you want to travel with us?”
“I am traveling with you,” she stated.
“And after we get off this road?”
Abal continued to eat her beans, her heart was beating faster, but she kept her breathing even. “I thought we were going to stay together anyway.”
“My brother was right,” Tyler was smiling wide, “You are funny. So we will stay together after we get out of this place, sounds great.”
“So, so we are staying together,” Michael hesitated, “It’s decided.”
“Guess you’re stuck with me.”
“Yeah.” A silence followed while the group finished their beans and sat in a circle. Tyler enjoyed the food and sat wondering if they would ever cook something they caught. Abal wrapped her head around the idea that she had dodged a bullet she had not even known was coming, but calmed herself knowing that the previously unknown problem was solved.
“Abal,” Michael said, his voice was a little too loud, “Are you ready for the city?”
“What are you talking about?” Abal prepared her mind for some test Michael was going to give her.
“I think you need something before we head out.”
New and broken in all at the same time, Abal was glad to leave her old blood soaked shirt behind along with the rest of her tattered outfit. The dried blood around the shoulder had made her former shirt stiff and coarse, the bottom had been torn and it had felt like an insect was crawling up her stomach when the frayed fabric rubbed her stomach. Now a concealing snug tank top adorned her torso. Her pants had been tight, black, and semi-casual. Now that the formalities could be dispensed with having lived with the boys for two days, loose jeans and a belt took over, Abal could not remember why she had stuck with her restrictive slacks for so long. She changed out of sweaty socks but the sneakers remained. The only pairs of shoes in the house in Abal’s size had been pumps, slippers, and other models not made for running. Her recent lack in food had negated Abal’s need for a bra, but for comforts sake she wore one, luckily the women who had lived in the house had been starving herself or had had the metabolism of a hummingbird and almost everything fit Abal. She thanked Michael after leaving the house, it had been a simple but perfect idea.
The boys continued on with the same clothes they had worn for weeks. Nothing in the house fit either of them. At one point Tyler had wanted to go with a long sleeved shirt that was too big for him, cut off the extra bits and it would be good protection. It turned out to be a stroke of luck for Tyler that he had told Abal, and not his brother, about the plan for the new shirt, because Abal informed him that it was, in fact, a blouse. Tyler decided that he really didn’t want any different clothes. There were only a few miles left between the survivors and their next city, Tyler would be able to find new apparel soon enough.
The group was in a tight formation on the road and covered in shadows. The sun was rising, but below the tree line, enough light to see destinations and threats, but not enough to make the survivors feel exposed. From a logical standpoint, Tyler knew that he was no safer during sunrise than he was at high noon, if they walked by the wrong point at the wrong time they were in trouble, it didn’t matter the time of day. But the darkness did have a draw that Tyler accepted.
The beans from an hour ago already felt like they were past his stomach, his body had been grateful for the food, but it was ready for more. His organs bubbled and burned preparing for a grand feast. It happened every time Tyler ate. He knew that the food was all gone but his brain never told his stupid body to forget about it. Tyler wished he would only have pain when he needed it, not when he already knew what was going on.
They were still a mile or more from the city when Michael stopped.
“Get back,” Michael said.
Abal followed Michael’s eyes up the road. She could not find what made him stop, “There’s nothing there.”
“By the tree line on the left side,” Michael began to move forward as the other two adjusted their view.
“I don’t see anything,” Tyler whispered.
Michael remained focused forward but he smiled, “Grow a little.”
“A body?” Abal said.
“It’s still moving.”
“Where? What are you talking about? Should we stop?”
“Shut up, and give me the ax,” Michael said. Tyler obliged, clenching his teeth to hold back his rebuttal. The group advanced and the younger brother kept his arms crossed until a man with dirty blond hair came into his view; he was face down and his limbs were sprawled in the wet grass. When Tyler saw the body there was a clear rise and fall of its back, it was breathing. Michael jumped over the ditch and walked toward the body spinning the axe in his hands.
“Check if it’s human,” Tyler said.
His brother didn’t respond, “Michael, Michael, come on he could still be alive.” Michael stepped over a kayak paddle a few feet from the body. He had never seen a resting viral, but he had seen plenty of people pass out or fall asleep human and wake up spitting infected blood at other survivors.
Michael put the axe an inch from the head and readjusted his grip. With his back swing Michael prepared to concentrate his force into the blow, but Tyler made a split second decision and dashed forward. The younger brother lowered his shoulder and rammed his brother. Michael swung, but the axe missed the target and instead dug into the ground.
“What if it’s human,” Tyler said, not meeting his brother’s eyes.
“No human would sleep out here, it’s suicide,” Michael responded, “Now get out of the way.”
Tyler took a step so he was standing over the body, “No.”
Michael looked down; his idiot brother had his feet an inch from the face of the probable viral. Michael grabbed his sibling by the back of the neck, dragged him a few feet from the body, and said, “What do you want me to do?”
Tyler stood up straight and said, “Get ready,” He hit Michael in the stomach and pulled away, Tyler then went to the body and kicked it in the ribs before retreating. Michael reached for his brother but Tyler moved out of the way. With a clear line of sight Michael prepared to split the skull of the now writhing body, but he hesitated. The possible viral was rolling away from Michael, it would see him before it could even stand up. Ax at the ready, Michael waited for the body to recover. The body rolled on the ground, clenching its side, but it paused for a moment when it saw the large Mackay brother. It crawled backwards on its butt and held one hand in front of its face.
“Do you have it?” Michael relaxed his grip on the maul, but it still remained in a potential striking position.
The man stopped backing up and lowered his hand, realizing that trying to stop folded steel with malnourished hands was not going to work. He turned his gaze from the weapon to the man holding it, “No.”
Michael took a moment to lower his weapon but finally did and said, “Which way you headed.” The man pointed in the direction that the three had come from, Michael looked back and nodded slowly, “Well then,” he said with a faint smile, “Have a nice life.” With that Michael was back toward the road, handing the axe back to Tyler on the way.
The man was rubbing his forehead and his side while Tyler turned to his brother, “We can’t do that,” he said.
Michael stopped but stayed facing the road, “Why not?”
“It’s not right.”
Michael turned and started toward his brother, “He got off with his life, I’d say he’s pretty damn lucky, I’d say that we did more than we needed to.”
“I say we have to be better than that,” Tyler said, he let the head of the axe slide to the ground and folded his hands over the bottom of the handle.
She broke the silence, “So what’s the deal, this guy joining us.”
Michael took a deep breath, “We’ll make it to the city soon, I suppose there isn’t too much he could steal for now.” Tyler smiled and turned around.
Tyler crouched down so he was on the guy’s level, “So where did you say you were going again?”
The man took a second to decide if he was being asked a trick question before indicating with his head.
“No, that won’t do.”
“Why don’t you tell me where I’m going.”
“You’re going to come with us.”
“Or else you’ll kill me.”
Tyler held his stomach and laughed like the man had just told a very smart joke, “No, that would be such a waste. You’re coming with us because if you don’t you will die.”
“I don’t see a difference.”
“Well your idea was a threat, where mine is a fact.” The man had time to respond but did not, so Tyler took his turn, “You have no food, there is no food until you reach the next town which is crawling with viral. You will die if you don’t come with us. We won’t kill you, but you will die.”
“Well, I’m still going this way,” The man pointed toward the death path.
“Why do you want to die?” Tyler was ready for his last question to shock some sense into the desperate sap, but he was caught off guard when the man leaned back and looked off into the brightening sky. “You want to die,” Tyler repeated.
“Look kid, you wouldn’t understand. Life is different when you grow up.”
Tyler looked the man up and down, his clothes were stained with blood and his hair was around his ears. He was barefoot. “What’s your name?” Tyler asked.
Before James could ask the same question Tyler continued, “James, you know what I think,” James smiled, ready for a view of life through the rainbow lenses of a child, “I think that you should not try and say I don’t know what life is like because I’m young. I have seen the same shit you have. Come on, you’re acting like a teenager who just had a break up. There is no one else to replace the ones you’ve lost, really. Why don’t we count? And now you’re prepared to give up life. That which your friends and family no doubt fought to hold on to is what you have, and you’re just going to give it up. The human race doesn’t need any more suicides, we need survivors.”
James nodded, “Alright, see ya,” with effort he pushed himself up and walked to the road. Tyler sighed, still squatting in the grass.
The younger brother walked up to his companions and indicated toward the man ready to accept his death. Michael tapped Abal on the shoulder and whispered into her ear. Tyler smiled.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Michael was walking up behind James.
“Christ, how many times are you people going to ask me that?”
“If you go that way, you will die.”
James looked into Michael’s face with the eyes of a man about to reveal his darkest secret, “I know.”
Michael nodded in what appeared to be wise comprehension. Tyler knew the truth; Michael was not considering what would drive a man to destroy himself, all he saw was a wrong decision that was selfish and foolish.
“That’s stupid,” Michael said. It was not the reaction James had expected; he had no idea what was going to follow it. Michael reached behind the man’s neck and locked his fingers into the pressure points. James stood in shock for a moment craning his head backwards to try and relieve the pain. James tried to grab the hand gripping his spine, but Michael took James’s wrist and forced it up his back, locking the joints in James’s arm. After some additional twisting James was finally worn out.
“What the fuck man!” James said.
“As long as you stop struggling I won’t make it any tighter.” Michael said.
“This is your response to suicide.”
“You’re going to come with us to the city.”
“You can’t just make choices for people.”
“After we reach the city I don’t care what you do.”
“What’s your question?”
James hesitated, he didn’t have a specific question, “This is serious shit man, you can’t just man handle me and stop it.”
“You’re right, it is serious, so I will wait until you are feeling more mature to make a choice about it.”
“Are you kidding me? You’re just…,” James grunted with pain as Michael clenched his fingers tighter around the spine in his hand.
James bent and wrenched his body as Michael directed him down the road. After a couple hundred yards James was breathing heavily and stumbling over every third or fourth step. Michael considered questioning his captive but decided if James provided any information it would be useless and probably upset him. No matter what information the group found out, they were going to the city, and they would approach with caution under all circumstances. James gave another jerk, and Michael worked to keep him in place. The older Mackay brother was burning through calories he did not have, but the man he restrained had less. James looked like he was dying under his skin, and he did not have food when the three found him, he might have been trying to starve to death, how stupid. Michael hated when people received beautiful gifts that they could not appreciate with their slow mental capacity.
The walking was silent except for the occasional scuffle of feet or crunch of leafs. Much of the foliage was moist, but some patches on the road had dried and crackled underfoot. The first time a leaf splintered under Abal’s foot all four stopped and waited, but after it happened again the group ignored the noise and decided stopping would not help if something heard them. The road had almost the same amount of fallen leafs that the forest did, a carpet of dead bio-matter. Tyler moved away from his brother as James torqued himself and Michael had to readjust his position. Tyler studied James’s unsteady gait. No enjoyment, no friends, no hope, no life, Tyler’s stomach began to clench and his head swam. There was no home to return to and there would never be another home. Friends were all gone, and Michael was not who he had once been. Tyler bent over, held his stomach, and continued walking. The Virus was going to wipe out humanity. Even if not everyone became infected it would not take much to become like the poor man that Michael now held in his hands. Tyler began to cry, he knew what was about to happen and it only deepened his fear. The boy in the back, the last of the four put his hands on the ground and knelt in the wet leafs. Tyler wretched once and his crying became audible to the rest of the group. Michael turned around and released the arm of his charge. Tyler wretched again, he did not wipe the tears off his face, instead his arms remained under him and they shook with the effort of holding up his body. Michael pushed James aside, and knelt next to his brother. The partially digested food was slow coming up, and Tyler felt it burning every inch of his throat. Michael had his hand on his brother’s shoulder and watched the skinny, shaking frame rid itself of the only calories it had. The crying was only punctuated by vomit for the next several minutes.
When Tyler was finished and spitting up saliva he said, “I’m sorry.”
Michael’s voice was quiet, “It’s okay.”
Tyler spat up clear liquid again, “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, we’ll find plenty of food in the city.”
Tyler calmed down and the tears slowed down. He collapsed into his brother’s lap and held on with all his strength. Michael patted Tyler on the back and moved his fingers through his brother’s hair.
“What chance do we have if someone like that wants to kill himself.”
“It will be difficult, but it is not chance, it is all about us, and we are different.”
“I know, but we’ll be okay soon.”
James had only moved a few steps since he had been released. He did not think he was supposed to hear the conversation the brothers were having. Their voices were hushed, but he heard them anyway. A child he barely knew was getting sick over the idea that an almost total stranger was going to die. Michael stood up and pulled Tyler to his feet, they walked past Abal and James towards the city. Abal followed a moment later. James stood in silence, they would leave him. But they probably would not mind if he tagged along.