Abal awoke feeling no better than when she had fallen asleep just a few hours earlier. Her dream was still fresh and she remembered all the details of her night in Paris with Michael. Looking back, the Paris she had created was nothing like the pictures she had seen. Somehow she had known that it was Paris despite the fact that they had only walked down a road and sat in a cafe. Now Abal looked up at the man with whom she had strolled through streets of France only moments ago, and he had no idea. When Michael saw that the second guard was awake he stopped tapping her. Abal pulled the sheets off her body and felt the cold air against her skin, she was dressed in her new clothes but knew that she would need a sweater soon. Michael took her hand and led Abal out of the room being careful not to wake his brother. Michael’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness so he walked in front as Abal groped the wall, her hand brushing over pictures and quilted passages from the Bible. When Abal felt her guide stop she held his hand tighter.
Michael turned around and whispered in her ear, “Be careful.”
They were at the staircase. The first floor was no brighter than the second, the moon was obscured by clouds and provided almost no light. Michael sat Abal in a chair that was set against a wall and faced the stairs. Michael turned back towards the staircase but the second guard did not let go.
Abal spoke with a soft curiosity, “That was a very unusual thing you did for James.”
Michael paused for a moment looking at her, she couldn’t see him, “Why is it unusual?”
“I mean unusual for you,” Abal said, Michael didn’t respond, “I’m glad you did that, just like what you did for me.”
The two remained silent for a moment. Abal could see the outline of Michael, his back was still turned to her, “Why did you do it?”
Michael said, “Because it was the right thing to do.”
“Or was it because Tyler wanted us to join. You are very protective of that boy, and you give him whatever he wants.”
“I don’t give him whatever he wants,” Michael hesitated a moment, “But he’s very smart. He can talk to people very well and can explain things in a way that makes people want what he wants.”
“He’s very wise for his age.”
“No, no, not that. He is still young and idealistic.”
Abal waited for more, she was expecting an explanation of why ideals and wisdom can’t coexist. “So in order to be wise people have to be pessimistic? Like you.”
“Tyler doesn’t know that there are purely bad things in the world, he would try and rehabilitate viral if I let him.”
“I don’t think you give him enough credit.”
“No,” Michael’s voice got louder, “He doesn’t know when to quit. Tyler wanted to sacrifice himself for every piece of trash dying in the city gutters. You and James are alright but before you he tried to help all the infected, dying bastards who called out from the side of the road. If they couldn’t walk he wanted me to stitch and bandage them. Recently he started asking me to kill those who were too far gone, that was a step up. I agreed the first time, but he kept asking me and we can’t spare the bullets. He wastes and he wastes, he has no idea what I do to keep him safe.” Michael backed away from Abal.
“You do a lot for that boy.”
“He doesn’t know or care,” Michael paused, his breathing returning to normal, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Michael,” Abal called after him but he continued up the stairs without acknowledging her. Abal lay her head backwards, she needed to think.
Abal awoke and jerked sideways, as if she had been hit by a taser, nearly falling out of the chair she had fallen asleep in. Her heart sped up when she found how light it was, the sun from a window had woken her up. Abal raced upstairs, she imagined blood and bodies scattered about the rooms where her companions had been sleeping. It had been her job and she let them die. Or escape. Abal looked into the first room and saw that is was empty, no people, no packs. The room James had slept in was the same. Abal raced back to the first floor and rounded a corner into the kitchen. The boys were sitting around the table, Abal smiled and wiped the sweat that had formed on her brow. But her joy faded when she had a moment to take in the condition of her companions. James looked like he had passed out on the table, there was some drool on the table under his open mouth. Tyler held his hands together and sat very still, watching his feet. Michael’s arms were in his lap, and his eyes were like battering rams focused on Abal’s skull.
He was the first to speak, “Sleep well?”
Abal fidgeted in her chair as Michael continued, “We were going to have you search for food, but thought that might be too hard for you. So we’re going to leave you here, think you can stay awake until we get back?” Abal didn’t respond.
Tyler’s voice was a weak, pleasant contrast to his brother’s, “That’s enough Michael.”
Michael responded without his gaze leaving Abal, “Shut up, we could have died last night.”
“It will never happen again,” Abal looked into Michael’s eyes, but turned away after a moment. She could not face his rage, but she was even less prepared when she saw tears in his eyes. His eyes stayed on her for a moment more before he pushed himself away from the table, knocking down his chair. He left the room and Abal heard the backdoor creak open and slam closed. Tyler caught eyes with Abal, a shared fear and depression passed between them, then he turned away and followed his brother. Abal lay on the table next to her starving companion, tears welled in her eyes.
Tyler imagined himself running up behind his brother and squeezing him with all the strength he could muster. Michael would turn around and be angry at first, but he would see tears in his little brother’s eyes and ask “What’s wrong.” Tyler would continue to cry for a moment, unable to get words out because he was so distraught. Michael would wait patiently while the tears subsided and the young Mackay could speak his mind. Tyler would explain that it was not Abal’s fault, she did not mean to fall asleep while being on guard, it was one time, she would be okay. Tyler would plead with his brother not to make her go away, that she was great, fantastic even. There would not even be any punishment because both brothers would be filled with understanding for each other. Michael might resist at first, like he always did, but the tears would win him over, the complete pity for Tyler would take over and there would be no more fighting, only apologies. In that world the pair would find food and matches along with a host of cooking implements after their embrace. Tyler licked his lips at the thought of meat with some seared edges, food so hot that it almost burned the roof of the mouth. In a perfect world there would never have been any viral.
Tyler didn’t cry, he hated crying. Even before the speech he had gotten from Michael he hated crying, but back then he had loved the effects his tears had on others. After crying, whatever Tyler wanted arrived before his eyes. After crying, arguments between his mother and father resolved themselves in an instant. After crying, the world became brighter to compensate for the gloom that had taken away his hope. Then one night when mom left and said she would never come back, Tyler began to cry, but the world stayed down with him. Everyday for a week the pain in Tyler’s chest made him cry for his mother, but she never came. At the end of that very same week Michael had sat Tyler down for the nicest speech that the older brother had ever given. Michael explained to Tyler how crying works. After the talk Tyler stopped crying for his mother.
“Weeping can make a problem disappear before your eyes,” Michael had told Tyler, “But the problem is still there. When you cry the people who love you will hide all the problems of the world from sight. You will see nothing but the brightest corner of the sky. The only problem is that clouds surround your patch of brightness, clouds you will never know about. Tears can get you whatever you want, but they solve nothing. Emotions will be hidden and problems kept behind closed doors. Once you are seen as weak, people will not burden you with knowledge. Bits and pieces of the world will crumble for reasons you are unaware of because despite what you see, the invisible problem is raging right below the surface.”
Tyler thought it had also been one of the most poetic rants he had heard from Michael, he wished he could remember it all perfectly. Tyler continued to force back his tears. He wanted to cry, he wanted all his emotions to be on the table for his brother to see and sort through and eventually fix. But Tyler had to grow up, he had to handle his problems like everyone else.
“Michael?” Tyler spoke even softer than he had intended.
No response. “Michael?” Perhaps his brother hadn’t heard Tyler.
No response. That had been loud enough Tyler decided, Michael didn’t want to talk.
“I think we should stay with Abal and I think that your treatment of her this morning makes more punishment a waste. We have both made that mistake and although it is a terrible one, she understands it. With four people we will all be getting enough sleep soon and there won’t be any problems with anybody falling asleep during their time anymore.” Tyler thought he could have worded it slightly better, but overall not bad.
Preparing for a long silence Tyler focused on the road ahead of him when Michael turned around on his heel. The tall man extended his body to its full height and glared at his small brother, “What we do with her is up to me, not you. She could have gotten us killed, you don’t understand the consequences while I have to. I’m the one who has to worry about both of our lives, I’m going to make sure we survive.”
Tyler stared up at his brother and nodded once, Michael turned back around and continued down the street. Now more than before Tyler’s brain and his tear ducts were in conflict. The surprise and fear of what had just happened made Tyler want it to all disappear in a rush of salty water from his eyes. But Michael was in a mood that Tyler had never seen him in before, and now more than ever he thought that this was the wrong person to cry in front of. Tyler snapped back into reality when Michael gave a sharp command to follow, Tyler felt his feet move. He didn’t know what was happening, but he did know that he really really wanted to be a kid.
Michael pressed the butt of his pistol against the window. His muscles began to strain as he put more and more force on the glass until it split with a dull crack. Michael then worked on the crack, tapping out small pieces of the pane with his gun until he could fit his hand through the hole. Michael then reached inside and unlocked the door.
The front room was open, no hall just wide doors from one room to the next. A sink was easily in an adjoining room, Tyler guessed it was a kitchen. Michael made his way straight for kitchen and Tyler followed. In the kitchen Michael began pulling open cabinets and Tyler followed suit.
“Check the fridge,” Michael said.
Tyler stopped working and looked up at his brother.
Michael stopped raiding the cabinets and looked down, “Did I say later? Get over there.” Tyler turned toward the refrigerator. “Hurry up.” Without a second thought he stood in front of the silver box, his hand wavered in front of the handle before he pulled it open revealing dry, empty shelves. “We check them from now on?” Tyler nodded. “Now look for a pantry.”
With a single step Tyler was in front of a door next to the empty silver box.
“I found it,” Tyler said, behind the door was a room like a closet, but since it was in the kitchen Tyler assumed it was what his brother had meant when he said ‘pantry.’
“Well search it, James can’t wait forever.”
Tyler obliged, he walked in the pantry and closed the door behind him. He then let his back slide down the door until he was on the ground. The only light that entered Tyler’s haven of depression was a thin slit coming from under the door. A quiet dark place to sit with thoughts and emotions and let go of restraint without fear of reprimand, so Tyler cried. There was no one to hold onto and make the pain disappear so Tyler hugged his knees. For what seemed like far too long the child sat in the dark and let his fear fall in light salty drops onto his hands.
The whole room was a light brown color with the amount of dust that covered the floor and shelves. Several brown cylinders sat on top of brown shelves, a brown container was in the back of the brown closet. Tyler pulled down one of the cylinders, leaving a circle of white on the brown shelf, with his sleeve Tyler wiped dust away from his find, it was peanut butter. Under the cap the seal was still unbroken, there had to be thousands of unspoiled calories in Tyler’s hand. Tyler continued searching the cylinders. Pickles, they would be rough of the stomach at the moment but Tyler enjoyed the taste, he set the jar next to the peanut butter. Two jars of tomato paste, they would need to find a can opener because the metal cans were solid.
By the time one cylinder was left Tyler had several jars of pickles and two containers of peanut butter.Tyler reached for the last container, it was larger than the others and he needed both hands to hold it safely. “Bacon wraps.” The seal was broken and the cylinder was only about half full but the little red-brown rolls seemed uncontaminated. Tyler reached his hand in and pulled out one “wrap” and held it up to his nose. He didn’t know what dog treats were supposed to smell like and still had no idea what he was holding but it was salty. Michael was sitting on the counter and he watched his brother emerge.
“Anything?” Michael asked.
“Plenty,” Tyler narrowed his eyes, “but I’ll need your help to carry it. Unless you have another plan where I can take care of everything.”
After a moment Michael responded, “We better get back to James.”
The boys stood in the coset and Michael inspected Tyler’s find.
“Should we take it all or just a spoonful of peanut butter to remind James of how hungry he is when he wakes up,” Tyler’s fists shook at his sides while he spoke.
Again Michael hesitated, “What did you say?”
“I asked if you were going to be smart or continue to be an unsympathetic jerk,” Tyler bit his lip, it was too late to go back now but he wished he had chosen a better insult than ‘unsympathetic jerk.’
Michael shoved the tomato sauce into Tyler’s chest where the little brother grabbed it with both hands. Of course the boy would want to bring food back only for the waste of flesh he had met two days before. Michael put a peanut butter jar in the dog treat container and shoved it towards the grimacing boy who held the tomato sauce. Michael had taken care of his brother when he was young because he was helpless, now the older Mackay had to make sure Tyler didn’t feed himself to the viral. Of course the martyr had no idea how much work it was to keep him alive. Michael grabbed the other can of tomato paste, the jars of pickles, turned and left the pantry without answering his brother’s question. Michael felt dark humor in the new meaning he had ascribed to the word work. Constant running, sleepless nights, weeks without food, disrespectful clientele, one wanted for position to fill a lifetime, must be willing to kill. Michael waited for his brother at the door, very disrespectful clientele. Michael could still picture the man who had wanted to kill Tyler. Michael remembered the satisfaction he had in ending that man’s life.
The brothers walked toward the kitchen where they had left the starving man and hungry guard. James was in the same position that he had been left, but Michael noticed that Abal was not at the table and with a furious burst he rushed into the kitchen. No sooner had he entered than he noticed he had a shotgun trained on him. Michael froze, his anger could not be expressed through action at the moment.
“Alert enough for you?” Abal said with a faint smile as she lowered the gun she had pointed at Tyler when they first met. Michael walked past her and sat at the table next to James. With two fingers and his thumb Michael grabbed the muscle between the neck and shoulder of James, who rolled away from the pain before waking up. Michael grabbed a half empty energy drink from his backpack and wrapped James’s fingers around it.
When Tyler entered Michael said, “Peanut butter first.” Tyler rolled the dog treats across the table to his brother.
“So the triumphant return with many gifts,” Abal said, getting a smile from Tyler and a grunt from Michael. Abal rubbed her forehead, the brotherly expedition turned out like she had hoped in terms of food, but the problem she had hoped would blow over was burning. Tyler’s smile lasted only a second before he returned to staring hate at his sibling. Abal sat back as Michael forced globs of brown into James’s mouth, Abal would give it the day and maybe the brothers would work things out on their own and be stronger for it.
“Someone find something to open the cans,” said Michael as he watched James slowly recovering.
“You guys found tomatoes, that’s great,” Abal said.
Neither of the brothers responded. Michael appeared to reading reading nutrient labels on the food, Tyler just looked down, rubbing his hands together.
“Whoever robbed this place might have left a can opener somewhere, I’ll start looking,” Abal said before backing away from the table.
The pickles were gone along with half the peanut butter. Everyone had tasted a dog treat, but no one could eat more than a few, Abal thought they would get used to them though, so she packed them up. The tomato paste was packed with a can opener into Michael’s bag. James was smiling and flexing his legs, after eating all that his weakened stomach could handle. The group moved out, Michael did not want James’s former group to loot the entire lakeside community. James thought the lack of words was comfortable, his face was not as pale. The silence continued until the group prepared to enter a tan cottage. Tyler gripped Abal’s wrist and tilted his head toward Michael. Neither knew how he was going to try and access the interior of the house, but as he walked, his feet snapping twigs, the pair was distracted by another noise.
Abal gave a hoarse whisper, “Michael,” when he turned around she pointed toward the side of the tan house. All motion stopped and a deeper silence fell, it bound the air around the survivors.