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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.