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.
“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.”
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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.