Dead weight hangs with every intention to succumb to gravity and fall to the ground. Tyler was sixty pounds of flesh and bone half-conscious on his brother’s shoulders, he faded in and out of wakefulness but that did nothing to help his brother carry him. Michael had not meant to knock Tyler out, merely get him out of the way. But the force of the blow had shocked Tyler, and he could not catch his fall, thus his second impact, this one with hard ground, had caused additional damage.
James was leading the group, he wanted to get several houses away before stopping. The gunshots were loud enough to have attracted any viral in the area. One, two, three, four, far enough, James turned and raced down a stone walkway towards the front door of a brick cottage that looked like a relocated castle. He grabbed the doorknob and twisted, it was locked. James shook the door for a few seconds before he backed up and prepared to kick it in. He had never kicked a door in before but people did it all the time he supposed, but as James launched his foot forward something crashed against the door from the inside.
James redirected his body weight, letting his foot fall to the ground and holding his hands out in front of him. James fell against the door, but it held strong, he commanded, “Next house, next house.” Abal and Michael were across the yard before James recovered but Max stood and watched him. The two men stared at each other for a moment, James said, “Thanks, lets go.” He expected Max to follow, but instead Max stood where he was left and watched the door as it shook. James turned around and ran back when he noticed he was alone, “You can’t stay here, the next house will be better, lets go!”
Max was staring through the door and saw his fate knocking on the other side, “Go away.”
James ran back and grabbed the last member of his original group by the collar, “I’m not letting you die.” James dragged Max by the shirt for a few steps before his feet began moving on their own.
James and Max rushed in the front door and Michael said, “Finally, alright, up the stairs, Abal leads.” The four jogged across the open room to a flight of stairs tucked off to the side. Tyler was sitting up against one wall, with some effort Michael pulled the boy to his feet and steadied him as they walked together. The hall on the second floor had four doors and Abal tapped on the closest one with her axe. She waited a moment before pushing the door open, revealing a bathroom, it was too enclosed. Abal repeated the routine on the next door, a bedroom. She motioned for Tyler to lie on the bed. Tyler blinked several times, as if trying to clear a mirage from his vision, but he did not approach the bed. He kept still, all the survivors kept still, save Michael who began searching the corners of the room.
“I’m sorry about your friends James,” Michael said.
“There was nothing else that could be done, you did what you had to.”
Abal spoke up, “I’m sorry you had to do that Michael.”
The three waited for a response, Tyler tried to lick his nose.
“You did not know them very well, but they would have been so glad that you did that for them,” James said.
Michael finished with a bedside table and moved to a dresser, there was no other movement in the room except for a glance between Abal and James.
“We are trying to help you know. You could acknowledge us,” Abal did not sound irritated, just confused.
Michael responded, “We should get some rest while we have some down time, he needs to sleep especially,” Michael pointed to Tyler who had one pointer finger in each nostril, “I’ll take first watch. While I’m up I’m going to search the room. You should all try to get some rest.”
Tyler opened his eyes for a moment before pain shot around his head and he closed them. It felt like his head was pushing out his eyeballs so Tyler covered his face with his hands and groaned with pain as he rolled back and forth on the bed. It was empty except for him and he was also the only occupant of the room. Tyler swung his legs off the side of the bed and rubbed his left temple, the right one hurt too much to even touch. Abal walked into the room, unnoticed by Tyler, and watched him for a few seconds.
“Glad you’re up,” Abal said without smiling.
Tyler was in too much pain to be surprised, his senses were all dulled, “What happened?”
Abal walked over to the bedside and sat down next to Tyler, “What’s the last thing you remember.”
“Standing in front of Michael, he was about to shoot that man. Is he dead?” Tyler’s question seemed like a distant formality as he rubbed his aching head.
“Yes.” Tyler focused on the ground but Abal saw the tears in his eyes. Without a word he rose and walked toward the door. “I was going to tell you what happened, sit down.”
“I don’t care,” Tyler was going to find Michael. The young Mackay started down the stairs, there were no plans in his head, only anger coupled with regret. There was a fiery beast on Tyler’s tongue waiting to be unleashed, but it would not have the chance. Abal chased after Tyler and put her hand on his shoulder.
“You have to wait, you have to know everything.” Abal walked Tyler up the stairs and sat him on the bed. She started with the worst details, the ones she knew would only make the monster in the boy smolder. Then, when Tyler seemed like he was ready to kill his brother, she told him the rest.
James was done searching. They had added two family packs of potato chips to their store of food and James felt as if his time would be better spent watching Max. He seemed disoriented, holding two carpenters hammers against each other and sitting on a couch. About once a minute he would separate the hammers and pound them together. James was convinced that everyone had to do things they regretted in the viral world and the only way to live was in a state of denial. Max had seen four deaths and he had only just been getting over Paco.
“What are you going to do?” James walked closer to Max.
The response was a click of hammers.
“I think you should stay with us, Michael may be a little strange but he’ll be better, I mean after what happened earlier.” James bit his tongue.
“We need everyone we can find. The more we have the longer we’ll last.”
“Where have I heard that before?” Max stayed focused on his hammers while speaking.
James stuttered a moment but was saved when Michael entered the room. Michael set one hand on Max and waited for him to turn around. Even though Michael was at least half a foot taller James thought he was trying to make himself smaller, more humble, in front of Max.
He enunciated each word clearly, “Thank you for helping me with my brother.” James immediately thought that Max had not really helped with anything, but he kept his mouth shut. It looked as if more was going to come, but Michael stayed silent and the men stared at each other.
“You’re welcome,” apparently Max had lost interest in the hammers, he was now focused on the man who was extending some sort of gratitude.
Michael relaxed, “Alright good, so that’s over, you’re coming with us.”
Max was still trying to figure out was going on but his silence was accepted and Michael continued without any input or verbal agreement, “Good, now, is the water in the lake safe?”
Max was still confused but now Michael was ready to accept his confusion, “The lake, is it safe to drink out of it?”
“I think so,” Max had consumed a small amount the other day just to try it out. Michael nodded and smiled at Max before heading outside. Max looked to James but only got a shrug. The interaction had done nothing to improve Michael’s image as normal, but it helped Max separate him from Bones in his mind.
Abal and Tyler walked downstairs and surveyed the room for Michael. They had new clothing and James complimented them when they walked over to him.
“Thanks,” said Abal, “Where’s Michael.
“He just went outside, he’s checking out the lake.”
Abal shrugged at Tyler when he looked up her, they had been talking about what the brothers would do in order to work past their problem. Tyler stayed a step behind Abal. The pair were walking outside when Michael surprised them around the corner. Abal yet out a little yelp and covered her heart. Michael had jumped as well, but he caught himself and hoped the pair had not noticed his little jolt. They stood facing each other for a moment, Tyler and Abal watched Michael. After waiting for a moment Michael said, “Do you guys want to come inside? I have something to say.”
Inside the house Michael made an announcement, “I like your idea Abal, we will all be needing new clothes soon, I suggest we start looking, but not here. We can still get to another house today and I’m sure no one else has been looking for clothing.”
The group nodded in agreement, Michael checked to see that everyone was nodding, but his gaze only darted over Tyler. “Let’s get our stuff and get out of here, James and I will take the hammers and Abal, are you good to stick with the ax.”
In ten minutes the bags were all packed and slung across shoulders. A line formed behind Michael at the back door while he peaked his head around the corner.
“We have one viral, should be no trouble. I’ll get it and you guys run to the next house, if the doors are locked break one in. If the backdoor is locked unlock it because that is where I’ll come in. We don’t have too many viral around here so whatever we attract should not be a problem.”
“There are some more across the lake,” Max commented.
“Anywhere near us.”
Michael pushed the door wide open and raced toward a bloody man crawling across the ground. When footsteps echoed into the rotting ears the viral turned, mouth open, toward Michael. Food running straight toward it, if the brain had any higher thought process it would not have been able to believe its luck. But a hammer crashed into it and before the viral could stand, its brain was pulped. Michael pounded a few more times until the legs stopped shaking then scanned the surrounding area for additional threats. There was one more viral, but it was wandering away from where Michael was heading. A hundred yard dash later the survivor with his bloody hammer stood in front of a locked door. He knocked twice, checked his back, knocked again, checked again. The third time the door opened and Michael rushed in past James who closed the entrance behind him. In a small room with several empty shelves, Max pulled a dead viral across the floor while Abal wiped blood from her ax, and Tyler was pacing between two rooms. When Max had disposed of the body, Michael again took the role of talkative leader and decided on a plan with the consent of the group. They were going to check the basement Abal had seen and then head upstairs all as a group. Once the possibility of surprise viral was ruled out, Michael would search the upstairs, Max and Abal the first floor and the other two would take the basement. Tyler followed at the back of the group.
The house was uninhabited, apart from the first resident that Abal had dispatched, so the pairs broke off and headed downstairs to their floors. In the basement the two stayed silent for a few minutes while they tried to figure out why they had been sent together. James hoped that it was more than random chance, he wanted to believe that Michael trusted him with the little brother. But more likely was that Michael did not want Max and James running off with half the supplies and he did not trust the new guy with his brother. Tyler’s train of thought was just as egocentric. Michael probably thought that he and Abal were getting too close and wanted to separate them. The silence was comfortable at first, but then Tyler started rechecking places that James has already searched. Did the little guy doubt James’s capabilities or did he just not remember where his partner had checked?
“I already checked there,” James said in his least confrontational voice.
“Oh sorry,” Tyler responded he stopped searching and did not know where to continue.
James pointed to a wall filled with tools, “See if any of those are not rusted.”
James continued his search but said, “How’s your head?”
“Better, thanks. How about yours?” Tyler could not help his automatic small talk response.
Max had been helpful, Abal was amazed and relieved. After seeing him breaking apart over the course of the day she was worried he would let a viral in without making a sound, but he seemed to be recovering. Max knew hiding places for guns, valuables, and money. Max had explained that in houses like this any guns would probably be for self defense, therefore out of the way. There were no firearms to be found, but like a good American family the previous residents of the house owned baseballs, gloves, and, most importantly, bats. In a closet filled with a variety of sports equipment Abal pulled out two baseball bats, one aluminum, one wooden.
“What do you think?” Abal showed off her find to Max.
“Not bad, anything else in there.”
“Nothing useful, but it will be nice to have something besides a hammer and an ax right?”
“Yeah, I think those will keep you alive a lot longer.”
Abal nodded and laid the bats against a wall before continuing her search. Basketballs, soccer balls and some hockey equipment was all that was left in the closet. The hockey sticks were too thin to be a weapon but they made Abal think about how cold it was going to get. The winters stayed far enough below freezing for long enough that the lake froze over. The group would have to either have to catch a bus headed south or get some serious winter gear. Abal’s new outfit included a long sleeved t-shirt and a light jacket, her waist down remained clad in denim and old shoes.
Max’s voice came from the kitchen, “Come check this out.”
Abal forgot about clothes for a moment as her stomach whimpered for food.
Max shook a box that rattled “If you guys ever get a fire going this could be perfect.”
Abal recognized the long green packaging, “Spaghetti?”
“Just a thought.”
“You know you can stay with us right? I don’t know what’s going to happen but it would be easier with an extra pair of hands to help out.”
Max sighed but did not speak so Abal continued, “Think seriously about it, and don’t just write us off, we’re not like your old team.”
He nodded and held his forehead. The two stood in silence, Abal waiting for a response and Max tried to think of one. After a minute a much wanted interruption occurred when Tyler and James appeared and announced they had found nothing useful.
“You guys find anything?” Tyler asked.
“A couple bats and some spaghetti,” Abal responded.
“Well good I guess we have something to go with the sauce now.”
“It would appear that way,” Max cut in, he was focused on the staircase and the rest of the group followed his gaze toward a beaming fashion monstrosity.
At the bottom of the staircase the older Mackay stood, dressed in a compilation of warm clothes he had found. The previous owner of the house had apparently been large around the middle but had not been blessed in the leg department. Thick sweatpants hung loosely before elastic at the bottom pulled them tight around Michael’s mid-shin. An orange sweatshirt sagged in the stomach but did not quite reach Michael’s wrists. When the eyes turned toward him there was a moment of quiet wonder before Tyler could not restrain a laugh and covered his mouth in an attempt to stifle his thorough enjoyment of what his brother had come up with when he was left alone. Michael did not turn toward Tyler but there was a falter in his smile.
Michael indicated towards the apparent thickness of his outfit. The judges were not buying it.
“You look like an old man,” the first rating came from Abal.
“You’ll still be cold,” an unexpected commentary from the new guy.
“There has to something that fits your ridiculous proportions better,” a double edged strike from James. Michael frowned, that was three zeros. He went back upstairs.
The five stayed in the house overnight, no one fell asleep on guard duty and Max was allowed to have a full nights rest. Michael had the last shift. He started by prowling around the first floor for an hour or so with the bamboo bat, studying the little nooks and crannies of the house. However, his mind was still bored, Michael lit a candle and made his way into the basement, he was going to find entertainment.
After calling his name several times, Abal finally woke Tyler up. When his eyes were open he pulled the covers over himself and curled into a ball, it was cold. Tyler sighed, he could see his frosty breath flow across the pillows. Even with a long sleeved shirt and sweatpants waiting for him Tyler did not want to get up, but having to be dragged out of bed would be worse so he exposed his mostly naked body to the freezing air. The four shuffled downstairs to see what their boss had arranged for the day. Three waited huddled on a couch while Max checked the house and outside for the night guard. He heard methodical sounds of pounding coming from the basement and assumed it was Michael, but just to make sure he checked. Max reported back to the couch to find Abal, Tyler, and James huddled together.
“Michael is in the basement working,” Max said, “And there is frost on the ground outside.”
The group was deep in thought and did not notice Michael enter the room with his creation, but when eyes finally began turning in his direction they were not mocking as they had been with his style the previous day.
“What do you guys think of my new toy,” Michael tried not to show how pleased with himself he was.
After a few seconds Max was the first to comment, “Looks effective.”
James and Abal nodded their agreement.
“Looks kind of scary,” Tyler said after observing Michael spin his tool in his hands,
“That’s just an added bonus,” Michael responded, but soon after he spoke his look of confidence was gone. James and Abal exchanged glances and Tyler looked up in wonder, his brother had just acknowledged him. Oh happy day. But soon both brothers were frowning when Michael realized what he had done and Tyler realized it had not been on purpose.
“I can’t wait to see you use it,” Abal hoped to break apart the silence by getting Michael excited again.
“I wish I would never have to use it,” Michael said.
The silence persisted for a few moments until James said, “Lets eat something.”
The survivors sat at a table in the dining room, Max had elected to collect water from the lake so the others had started without him. The dog treats turned out to be easily manageable with some peanut butter spread over them. There was still a fair amount of “Bacon Wraps” by the time the peanut butter was almost gone but the breakfast was over. Every stomach at the table grumbled for more, but when the eyes saw how little was left, overall and peanut butter wise, it was clear restraint was in order. When Max arrived back with water the group washed away the little remaining flavor in their mouths and began to pack up. The breakfast foods were left on the table until Max started packing them up without eating, he thought no one was watching.
Michael held his creation tight, he inspected the new weapon; three nails faced Michael they were spaced about an inch apart, two more sets were at a right angle to the first one and the fourth was opposite. Twelve nails in total, they all protruded an inch and a half out of the bat, a spiked club. Michael thought it looked like a medieval torture tool and, despite what he had said earlier, he was ready to try it out. The five were again lined up behind a door and prepared to leave, Michael pushed open the door. His strength and fury faded, nothing, he looked left, right, nothing, no need for a spiked club this morning.
“Is it clear?” James asked.
“Yeah,” Michael responded, he moved his hand up the bat to hold it just below the nails, he did not want to nonchalantly swing it into his leg. Abal kept her ax in a battle ready grip, James had his aluminum stick over his shoulder, Max and Tyler each had their hammer stored in a deep pocket. None of the weapons were going to be of any use throughout the day, the living and the semi-living never encountered one another. The first house was stripped of anything that the survivors could have used. It had not been ransacked, all the pieces of furniture appeared undisturbed before the group of five searched them, but it was empty. No food anywhere, no possible weapons better than the ones they already had, not even a great selection of clothing. The second house was worse than the first house. It was torn up with tables, chairs, and windows smashed. The group found containers of food on the ground but after opening them found out that some animal had beaten them to the punch. Clothing was torn into bedding for mice and rats which scattered when dressers were opened. It hurts more to have nothing after thinking you have something. You are no worse off than you were before, but worse off than you could have been.
Tyler kept himself going on the idea that they were the first ones to discover this city after the infection hit. Some houses may have been broken into by neighbors but he nurtured hope wherever he could find it. Since the first house was still in good condition, he reasoned, there had been no organized effort to plunder the houses.
Tyler made a short prayer to himself, he knew it was all chance, but he wished that chance would be on their side. The third house was blue and white with an odd roof that slanted in three directions with multiple windows pushing out through the sun bleached shingles, many of which were missing. The third house had not been looted and it looked as if the family had left without gathering up their things. The pantry had a few rats running around but they scattered when light entered their domain. Water, soda, junk food, good food, cereal, Tyler wanted to announce his find but he did not know what to say. But he could use this food two ways, and Tyler ran to find his brother. The best way to spread the information was without words and Michael would not be able to ignore what Tyler had to show him. But first off James had to know what was happening so he would not spoil the opportunity that had sprung up before Tyler’s eyes. One hand tugged at the confused man’s shirt and he followed his search partner to a closet door. When the treasure was revealed before James’s eyes he opened his mouth but a small fist landed in his stomach and shut him up. Tyler motioned for silence and then used his hands to tell James that he was to stay right in front of the door, and for God’s sake stay quiet. Tyler made sure his instructions were clear before he ran into the basement.
Michael noticed the intruder out of the corner of his eye but did not make any move to toward his little brother. Instead he continued to sort through a variety of rusted chisel-type tools, he did not know what they were used for but they could come in useful, effectively an eight-inch spike with a handle. The tip was not as sharp as a knife but it was dangerous, the only problem was that it could only be an attacking weapon. The ability to backup while still fighting and causing damage was almost zero, no defense and Michael decided that it was unsuitable to carry along. So far there had been a flashlight and some extra batteries, a good find but Michael was hoping for more. When he turned around to move on Tyler had moved closer but stood still, waiting for Michael to address him. It would be impossible to get the child to go away on his own so with reluctance Michael tipped his head toward Tyler and shrugged his shoulders. That was all it took, Tyler waved for Michael to follow him and started up the staircase. It took a moment but Michael followed and picked up his finds on his way out of the basement.
James was busy sorting the food into three piles: yes, no, maybe. The brothers saw the three stacks of food laying just outside the pantry, Michael gulped when he saw all that there was, and Tyler smiled and folded his arms across his chest. When Michael could see the whole closet he lost his composure again and gulped the excess saliva that was building up in his mouth.
“It’s going to be easier to sort this stuff with you guys,” James said.
“You found this,” A smile was forming on Michael’s face.
“Nope, your brother deserves the credit.”
The smile stopped growing, but it did not disappear, “What are the piles?”
“Good, maybe, bad,” James indicated to the three piles in turn.
For fifteen minutes Michael was forced to interact with his brother in a line of passing food. Tyler stood at the end and put more in the maybe pile than he should have. After the food was sorted the pile that was either rotted or had excessive damage was given one last check, then dumped outside. The three sat around the Maybe pile and began resorting, sometimes a taste test was in order, sometimes grubs and magots were found. The first time Tyler came across insect larvae he showed the others then put it in the discard pile. Michael picked up the half eaten box of cereal and reached in. He pulled out a squirming white worm like creature and held it in front of Tyler’s face before he tossed it into his mouth and seemed to contemplate the flavor like a wine connoisseur. Tyler frowned for a moment but continued sorting the food, after all he had eaten dog treats.
“There is a lot of stuff here, it would weigh a lot to drag it from house to house,” James said.
Michael grunted agreement, he was still working past the flavor in his mouth.
“What are you saying?” Tyler asked.
“We could make this house a sort of home base and bring everything back here, at least until we work through some of this food.”
“What if we find another house like this?”
“Then I will be very happy to lug all the food back here on my own.”
Tyler smiled then began to laugh at his question, he had asked it like it was the worst possibility.
“What if we have to abandon the house?” Michael asked.
Tyler frowned and James answered, “Then we would probably have to leave it here anyway.”
The young silent boy covered his ears, he did not want to hear his older commanding brother shoot down another plan because it was not his own, “You’re right, sounds good,” Tyler opened his ears and eyes, “We can sleep here at night and go out during the day to find more supplies,” said Michael.
The men finished sorting and admired the nourishment that would allow them to have a home for more than a night or two. Spirits only rose when Abal walked down the stairs with a rifle in her hands, Max followed with a small paper box.
“Lets get the hell out of here,” Abal said, she could not see what the three were sitting around and she did not care, she was standing at the door waiting.
“Come take a look at this,” James said in a calm voice.
Abal hung her head and shuffled as if the longer she stayed in the house the weaker she got. Max followed her with a distant look on his face. They both discovered what the three were sitting around at the same time. Max tilted his head to get a different angle in case he was just seeing a mirage.
James sat back proudly, “So what did you guys find upstairs?”
The response from Abal was immediate but she did not look up from the food tower, “Bodies.”
The boys sat a little straighter, “What?”
“Four bodies, three shot,” Abal shook the gun in her hands, “One hanged.”
Tyler’s voice was soft, “I think we should eat.”
“I’m not hungry,” said Abal.
“Me neither,” Max followed suit.
“James had a great idea actually,” Michael said, “He recommended we stay in the house for a few days.”
The shock Abal had received from the food faded slightly, “I’m not staying in this house any longer than I have to.”
“I came up with that before I knew that there were dead people upstairs,” said James.
Michael nodded as if he were an adult accepting a child’s apology for something he had known was foolish all along.
“But it’s an easy fix, we can just find another house and set up shop there.”
“That still involves toting all this food around which was what we were trying to avoid in the first place,” Michael said.
“Some people could go out and search while the others stay here with the food, then when we find a good house the whole group can help move the food.”
“And on the off chance that you run into something dangerous?”
“Everyone is going to have a weapon so if a viral shows up anywhere we can be ready for it.”
“Who’d you have in mind?”
James thought for a moment“Max and Tyler could come with me.”
Michael ground his teeth, “You and Max?”
“Yeah, but first I want something to eat, I haven’t had a soda in forever, this looks great. After Tyler and I get some energy we can head out and start trying to find a home without the family still in it.”
“Sounds like a plan.”