Smoke detectors had been designed to wake every member of the house no matter where they sleep or how heavily. The general message being sent by them was, “Get out now or you might die.” The effect was still the same amongst the three huddled around the small fire, but instead of praise for the warning system there were curses. If the alarm had sounded in the world in which it had been designed outside attention would have been minimal, but in a world deprived of electricity, devoid of cars or music, where only the rustle of wind through trees broke the silence, the noise was a beacon. The blaring wail was blocked by the forest in front of the house, but with a lakeside backyard the shrieking carried over the water without inhibition.
Michael turned over the warm pot and doused the fire. Now in darkness the survivors stumbled to the stairs, they stubbed fingers feeling their way forward and stepped on one another’s toes. By the time they were to the first floor a second alarm was going off and James was downstairs with a flashlight and pistol.
“What the hells going on?” James had to yell to be heard.
“Smoke alarm, we’re getting out of here,” Michael grabbed the flashlight from James and ran up to the second floor.
“Are we taking the food?” Abal shouted her question.
“Yeah, get all of it, and the weapons too.”
At the top of the stairs a second flashlight shined in Michael’s face, blinding him for a moment, “What happened?” The voice was barely audible.
“We’re leaving,” Michael shouted.
The startled flashlight jumped back at the order, then floated into one of the rooms. Michael grabbed a backpack full of cans and slung it over his shoulder, the weight staggered him for a moment. He cursed himself, since he knew they were ready to leave at any moment he had let his guard down and allowed the stupid fire. The anger continued to grow in Michael over the twelve seconds it took the group to gather up every last weapon, tool, and consumable. The alarms continued to screech.
“Is that everything?” Tyler asked.
“Yeah I think so,” shouted Abal.
“Doesn’t matter, we’re leaving now,” Michael said, he handed his bat to James, “Everyone follow me.” He drew his glock and flicked on the second flashlight.
Each pack weighed over fifteen pounds, Tyler’s muscles strained under the weight of the pack, . Max had his pistol, and Abal her shotgun, drawn with safeties flicked off. The sound from the fire alarm was so powerful that Michael thought he might have imagined the second noise that came from downstairs.
“Did you hear that?” His question was partially for his sanity, partially for caution’s sake, either way the answer would mean bad news.
“Yeah,” James said.
So he was not crazy. But there was an unwanted guest in the house. Michael supported his pistol hand with the wrist of his flashlight hand. He flicked the safety off. But when the group reached the bottom of the stairs the foreign footsteps were in a different part of the house. Michael pushed open the front door and covered the flashlight with his hand.
“Tyler hide your flashlight,” Michael said. The boy did so.
The pace on the road was as fast as the group could manage with the packs. With the alarm in the house to distract from their escape noise control was a non issue, but the small amount of light needed to see was still enough to announce their position to anything with eyes. Michael heard the first viral before he saw it. A quick shuffling through the leaves announced it had found them and was on its way. Michael turned his weapon and light toward the attacker. The face was grayish white, hunger and anger and lust mixed together in the visage to form a depressed and tormented emotion that pumped fear into Michael’s veins no matter how many times he saw it. The lead tore through the skull and the viral fell, Michael kept his light only on it long enough to see that his shot had landed.
Three more houses to go. Michael kept a controlled pace to his goal.
“Need light in the woods,” James said to anyone who would listen. Tyler responded with by sending a bright flash across the trees and found a viral pulling its way through branches. Max shot twice with one hand, the first bullet landed in the viral’s chest, the second missed entirely.
“Need light behind,” said Abal. Michael stopped and turned around to illuminate another face. Abal killed the viral with her first shot. Max finally scored a hit just above his viral’s left knee cap, it collapsed and began a pitiful crawl, no more immediate threat.
One more house. Michael leveled his pistol at what he hoped would be the last viral he had to kill before entering their hideout for the night. He watched the demented and diseased body get within a reasonable range. His finger began putting pressure onto the trigger.
The smoke filtered through the house and out windows. Viral swarmed where there had been humans only minutes ago. They trampled over ashes and some abandoned cans. The smoke detector no longer sensed the danger it had before.
A moment before Michael fired the smoke alarm turned off. The hammer fell on the blast cap and a metal explosion burst forth towards the viral’s head.
Another man was listening to the commotion while keeping an eye on his own fire. Guns had been going off all around the lake for a month or so, the man did not mind, the fools were attracting viral and drawing them away from his home. The man twirled a fully loaded hunting shotgun in his hands, he did not mind the hooligans shooting up other houses and looting them, as long as they never threatened the safe environment he was trying to create.
Tyler awoke when the first ray of sun reached his eye. He was still exhausted and sleep deprived but getting back to sleep was not an option. The bed sheets were wet with sweat from a nightmare that still clung to some part of his mind. Some terrible killer, a dark cave, a trapped woman, not much remained of the dream world Tyler had built. He only remembered seeing the woman, curled up on the floor of the cave, her whole body had different colors of bruising and blood dripped from one of her legs. Her voice was lost to his memory, but her words stuck, He won’t let me die. Tyler threw the covers off his body intending never to sleep again for fear that the woman would be there. It was only the second time Tyler had gotten any sleep in four days. The five had remained on the second floor of the sixth house. There were two rooms, two twin beds in one and a queen in the other but they were never all used at the same time. The first morning after the smoke alarm the group had counted the scattered viral the gunshot had attracted. Ten were visible on the first day. On the second day only three were wandering around the house. Two on the third day. Nothing had broken into their little hovel, the small protection offered by concealment.
Tyler peered out both windows that were in the room with the twin beds. He saw one viral, it was a different one from the day before. With no clear goal the infested had no focus, no balance, it stumbled from side to side. Tyler watched for a moment wondering how something that looked so childlike in its movements could suddenly break into a full sprint if it saw something it wanted. They ran faster and further than Tyler could, he had witnessed their speed on too many occasions. He had also seen that they were not as agile as a human, they would trip and fall over minor obstacles, but it almost never mattered with their speed. Tyler walked out of the room, leaving it empty. James, Abal, and Michael were all sitting down, hanging their heads. Tyler feared the worst. There had been no signs of the Virus in Abal and four days was normally too long a time for this particular disease to wait, but it was still possible. If she had merely gotten some blood in her nose or ear, even the Virus could take some time to show up, a week even. Tyler worried about what he would find inside her mouth were she to open it.
Saliva did not carry the virus, blood did. A bloody mouth was the end of a fuse, the beginning of devastation. Before that point a fever or fatigue could be mistaken, or even optimistically accepted, as another disease, but blood in the mouth was the beginning of the end. Within hours the victim would tumble into a restless comatose state, their breathing becoming irregular and their heart slowing. The pulse of the victim would waver so low that thinking they would come out of it alive was impossible. Then, when the heart was pumping at its weakest and slowest point, it would skip a beat. Or at its longest stop for up to thirty seconds. As if by a miracle the subject would start taking normal breaths and have a regular heart beat, but at that point they were no longer a victim, but a target. No one returned from blood in the saliva.
Tyler could not bare to look at the top of Abal’s head for fear of what he would see if she looked up. He decided to join in staring at the floor before speaking. “What happened?”
“We’re leaving,” James answered.
“Oh god,” Tyler breathed a hefty sigh of relief that drew the attention from the three in the triangle.
“We didn’t think you would be so thrilled to go back out there,” Abal said through a set of relatively clean and non-bloody teeth.
“I’m not,” Tyler said with a smile full of joy.
“You certainly seem happy,” James said.
Tyler could not drag his eyes from Abal’s mouth where the teeth were white and the gums a reddish pink, everything was where it was supposed to be. He stepped forward and wrapped his arms around her neck, “I thought you had the Virus.” After a moment Abal decided it was okay to return the hug. They released each other and Tyler drew himself up in front of the three, “How many viral are out there?”
“We only saw one,” James said.
“Was he out the window in that room?” Tyler indicated with his thumb.
“Nope,” James answered.
“Well then we might have two, are we waking up Max or letting him sleep?”
“I think he can sleep for a little while before we get moving.”
Tyler nodded with all the wisdom and approval he could muster for his age. He asked a few more questions about breakfast and learned he was going to be eating alone. He grabbed some pre-toasted bread that came in a plastic package and a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread. It was one of the most delicious meals he had eaten in his life, the only improvement would have been the addition of cold milk.
Michael watched his brother eat knowing that the young man had a certain tendency to be foolish with his emotions, with his love. Tyler had once cried over a stray dog that lay dying in the street after having been hit by a car. Michael thought and remembered all he could about his little brother to rationalize what had just happened between Tyler and Abal. Michael tried the best he could to hide his emotions from himself but he could not help but wonder. Would Tyler do the same if Michael was the one who was at risk?
Michael still sat against the wall while the other three made sure everything was ready to leave. Michael needed some time with his thoughts, the idea of Tyler going to Abal for comfort, for protection, was background noise in Michael’s head that he needed to confront if he was going to ever think clearly again.
Max awoke when his stomach churned and demanded food. He pulled his legs off the side of the bed and stood up feeling mildly uncomfortable. He scratched himself. He felt better. Now he had to make a choice for what he wanted to keep him alive today. A couple granola bars, and some water. Max was over hungry, after one granola bar he was feeling sick. Max finished his second granola bar only because he knew he would need the energy. James walked into the room. Perfect, just the man Max wanted to talk to.
“You okay?” James asked.
“Nope, I’m not doin’ too great, but I’ll be better soon.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Max please,” James didn’t want to deal with the same problem every couple of days.
“I’m not leaving you guys, but it might end up that way, and I’m not trying to die. I just can’t stand another damn day here. If we stay here any longer we will all go crazy, or starve, or freeze, something bad will happen. Our food won’t last forever and books can’t save our lives if we aren’t ready. I hate to be saying this but in order to be ready we have to do what Bones was trying to do. We have to set up a house that can last through the winter, no matter how crazy he was, he was right. So I’m going to leave because I can’t just sit here waiting to die.”
James was attentive the whole time, he suppressed the urge to smile as Max spoke. “It is a lot safer up here, our food will last us a while,” James said with a straight face.
“But how long will we last once snow starts falling and we have no way to warm ourselves. We’re going to be needing a safe place to make a fire, you know what happened at the last house. Blankets won’t keep us warm in a few months.”
James mused for a moment about how they still used weeks and months to calculate time. “We probably couldn’t make a fire up here.”
“It’d be impossible, we have to get out of here if we want to survive. I want to stay alive now and the only way we can do it is to find a place that will survive the winter.”
“You know what, you’re right,” James tried to sound as serious as he could, “Let’s go,” He stood up.
“What right now?” Max lost some momentum.
“Yeah, we have to get out of here if we want to survive and the sooner the better.”
“Well we should get ready first,” Max wondered if James wanted to leave the other three.
“No, let’s go, this time is as good as any, besides we’re mostly ready anyway,” James grabbed the piece of metal he had been fashioning. The tip was starting to look like a spike.
Max rubbed his forehead, this was not turning out how he had expected. Now James was the one pushing and he felt like he would have to be the nanny to hold back an overeager child. While he was thinking about what to say Abal poked her head into the room.
“You guys ready to go yet?” She asked.
“Yeah,” James said, “Get up man, time to go.”
Max turned slowly from one person to the other. He had never been to college but he wasn’t stupid, educated and uneducated survived on the same level after the Virus, but the unintelligent had been wiped out. “You bastard,” He said turing to James with a smile.
“It’s my job,” James responded smiling with his friend, “You came up with our plan all by yourself, congratulations!”
“Yeah, yeah, screw you,” Max laughed softly, “But thanks.”
“Well come on then, we actually are leaving now,” James said.
The brothers had packs strapped onto their backs and baseball bats. Michael was holding his modified piece of equipment that James had said looked like some antique witch hunting tool. James rolled his piece of metal around in his hands, it was probably easier to hunt witches, but he suspected a spike would be useful against viral as well. After wrapping his backpack around his shoulder he gripped his extended knife like an old horror movie killer would, after all he would be stabbing the viral, not cutting them. His only interest was in the thin brain case he needed to break through, the weapon would soon be taken on a test run.
Tyler was disappointed by his weak child’s body. The malnourished boy was between Max and Abal as they prepared to exit through the front door. He understood that his stature was a disadvantage and he would not be much use in clearing out danger when the group confronted it. Michael and James led the way outside. That was not to say he was helpless, he was incompetent with a firearm but with any blunt instrument he could take down a human or viral. Each enemy presented different difficulties, fighting another living person meant they could defend themselves and react to danger, but a shot to the neck, balls, or breasts (Tyler had fought two females in his life) left them in shock and pain. Michael went left and James straight ahead, they had each selected their viral beforehand. James had elected to go despite his hand. The other three remained at the doorway keeping a lookout, Tyler watched the two with a detached envy. He had learned how to fight viral, there were no tender locations only load bearing structures and vital targets. The nervous system of course took priority, that is how Michael and James destroyed their viral almost simultaneously, the crude spike did the job easily.
The brain was too high for Tyler to score a solid hit if the viral was standing and the spine was usually unreachable unless sneaking up was an option. Tyler was forced to find other targets, the kneecaps and ankles were strike-able and could leave the viral crawling because they lacked the awareness of damage to even limp, trying to support their full weight on a split knee and collapsing. The five gathered together and prepared to enter the neighbor’s house, Tyler was on full alert. Elbows and shoulders could be snapped or dislocated, but it was senseless to bother with the arms unless someone was being attacked. The house had some boards over windows and tables flipped over behind doors, someone had tried to defend it at one point. Tyler knew he would probably never grow to full height, paying attention in school had yielded some key knowledge, mostly from science. Tyler knew how certain parts of the body worked and how wounds were repaired. A full search of the house found no viral so the secondary search began, Tyler headed straight for the bathroom. Under Michael’s orders Tyler had stayed after school and received extra education. The teacher knew the relative situation of all the students, and thus many of the lessons were directed towards drugs and abuse and taking care of the delicate human body. Now Tyler stood in front of a mostly empty medicine cabinet, out of the four remaining bottles of pills he knew the effects of three. Tyler’s knowledge was general but he had an understanding of the bacteria the broad spectrum anti-biotic would kill, another bottle could be used for inflammation or general pain, and the third was for allergic reactions. Tyler took the ibuprofen and put it in his pocket, James was taking some for his fingers and the supply was running low. The bottle felt almost empty.
Tyler reflected on how fantastic his brother’s judgment had been in the past, and how it had been slipping since the start of the virus. Until Michael hit Tyler. Michael had returned to his old self. Tyler’s heart shrunk and he felt sick as the thought at how he was losing his brother crossed his mind. Tyler would not destroy the beneficial personality Michael had created. It would be foolish to make emotional demands from Michael for Tyler’s own sake. The boy suddenly felt sick at what he would have to do because it meant leaving his brother at a distance, forever. The internal organs in Tyler’s body were all fighting what his brain said it had to do.
Young people were often overly dramatic or concerned and usually ended up bringing the unnecessary emotional pain on themselves. So James just patted Tyler on the back when he handed over the bottle of pills even though the young man acted like some parasite was eating his innards. James emptied the seventeen pills from Tyler’s find into his old bottle, he had about fifty pills in total with three different brand names. They would be great for his pain but would do nothing for his stress. James rubbed his hands together against the cold, he wanted a cigarette. It was not an addiction, James was never a heavy smoker, usually only five a week, and sometimes not even that. His intake went up at parties or when he was stressed. James had smoked his last cigarette as he was watching the first newscast about viral in the United States. The smoke had left his lungs too quickly, James would have savored it if he had known how long he would go without tobacco. He had even considered breaking a machine once to get some nicotine, but in the end decided it would be too much noise. James wanted a cigarette, but his cravings were not as bad as they had been in the world before the Virus. The stress of survival was great but James found it much more straight forward than trying to live in a world of corporations and investment where millions of dollars could disappear in the space of two minutes, and that was if you were lucky enough to get a job. But nonetheless James had desired something to breath into his lungs for months. He found it.
After Tyler gave James the pills the man had continued to search a mostly bare room. The only real item present was a small dresser that James guessed was left because it would be useless in terms of defending entrances. With nothing else to do he searched through the tiny cabinet that contained mostly clothing. At the back right corner of the bottom drawer there was a clear baggie containing a parts of a certain plant. In the same corner there were papers for rolling said herbal material. James held the bag in the palm of his hand, around an eighth of an ounce. He put the baggie in his pocket, no smoking pot when doing something important, that was a rule. James didn’t know how the rest of the group would react to the green plant, but he was willing to share.