DL: Chapter 21

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.”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Why?” 

“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.

James nodded.

“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.

DL: Chapter 20

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.

Hammers.

“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.”

“Thanks.”

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.”

She nodded.

 

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.”

“No.”

“Lets go.”

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.”

“Okay.”

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.”

DL: Chapter 19

Mouse spat leaves out of his mouth.  When Christi and Max had told him they were going to put him down he had an idea of a soft landing.  Then his human crutches had gotten distracted, they let him fall the few feet from his knees to his face.  Mouse thought that as long as he was on the ground it would be a good time to sleep, so he did.  While his blood deprived body slowed into a state of rest, Christi and Max crawled toward the front of the house.  Max was in front and he approached a bush that had no foliage.  He would be able to see through it but hoped that it would be enough cover that he could stay hidden.  Max went prone and pulled his body behind his hiding place, he took tally as fast as possible before yanking himself back.  Woman, boy, James, pull back.  James?  

Max returned for a second look, they were humans.  And a man, Max added a tall, ropy guy to his tally of people, and James was definitely with them.  Retreating from the bush Max turned back to Christi and shrugged his shoulders.  She frowned and shook her hands, Max thought it was supposed to mean something in Italian hand gestures but he wasn’t sure.  

Max called out, “James?”

There was a pause, “Max?”

“Yeah, it’s me man, where’s Leo?”

“Dead.” Another pause  “Is everyone else there with you?”

“Only Christi and Mouse, the others are dead.”

“Jesus, what happened?”

“Later, do you need help?”

“What do you mean?”

“With those people who are holding you?”

A small laugh, “No they’re cool.”

Max stood up and poked his head around the corner to search for any sign of danger.  No weapons were drawn so he walked into the open.  James walked forward and held his arms out, prepared for an embrace, Max sent a fist into the traitor’s chest.  James stayed on his feet but lost his breath and took a step back.

“You’re lucky we believe anything you say after what you did.”

James’s shoulders were slouched, his earlier vitality had left him, “What happened?”

Christi walked out from the side of the house, “You left us.”

James stared from one to the other while Michael, Abal, and Tyler grouped together.  Max went back to tend to Mouse while Christi explained to James what had happened because he had not been there to warn them.  

Max shook the shoulder of his injured friend, “Time to get up Mouse.”  The heap of pale flesh didn’t respond.  Max slapped Mouse’s face, “Mouse, Mouse!”  

Max yelled around the house for Christi.  She was destroying the comfortable wall of ignorance that James had been hiding behind.  At the call they both ran to  Mouse and Max, Christi to see if she could help, James to see if he would be responsible for another death.  The three from the other group followed at a walk and stayed just within sight.  

“He’s not getting up,” Max explained the obvious, “Do you think he’s dead?”  

Max was willing to defer to Christi but he didn’t have to, “I’m not dead… ugh… Not feeling too good either.”  Despite Mouse’s comment being less than fully positive his two crutches were relieved, while James took in the sight of the damage he had caused.

“We have to stop his bleeding,” Max said to Christi and indicated towards Mouse as if the state of the man sealed his argument.

“It’s not going to do any good if we leave the bullets in him,” Christi responded

“I’m not as book smart as you, but sticking our hands into his open back wasn’t the best goddamn idea.”

“Max calm down, we can’t get angry.”

“All we did was make the holes bigger!”

“I’m not saying that we reach in with our hands in again but those bullets are as dirty as anything.”

The conversation was loud enough that the three standing by the front of the house could hear all the options and problems that the rival group had.  At the mention of cleanliness and the removal of bullets Tyler nodded toward his brother.  Michael pretended not to notice.  Since Michael was tilting his head away from Tyler he did not notice when his younger brother turned around and walked back out front to where they had left their bags.  Before Michael realized what was going on Tyler was walking past him with the first aid supplies.

“What do you guys need, we have plenty,”  Tyler was saying as he walked toward his new patient, “I think forceps will be first to get the bullets out.”  The blank and amazed stares of the three might have only lasted a few seconds but before the first moment passed without action Tyler spoke again, “If time is a factor, stop sitting around letting him die, lets do this.”

Again before the three could respond.  Michael spun Tyler around, “What are you doing?”

“I’m helping these people because they need something that we have and are not using.”

“What if we need it later?”

“We’ll find some more later but they need it right now.”  

Michael reached for the first aid but Tyler turned away, “They need this, I’m not letting you get in the way of what is right.”  With that Tyler turned around and opened up the first aid supplies.    

“There is only one thing that this man needs,” Michael said.  Tyler kept focused on finding the container of antibacterial liquid he hoped that his brother would not open his mouth again and whatever Mouse ‘needed’ would stay in Michael’s head.  Tyler tried to keep focused and wait for his brother to give up, but when he heard the click of a hammer being pulled back into the firing position he froze.  “This man will die, and killing him is the right thing to do.”

Tyler didn’t turn around, “Go away Michael.”

“But Tyler this is what you always want me to do, ease suffering.”

“He still has hope, go away, you don’t have to help.”

The last line struck something in Michael, “You need my help!  And that is exactly what I’m going to do.”

Tyler turned around to see Michael raising his pistol toward the bleeding but conscious man on the ground, “I’m not feeling that bad,” Mouse said, his voice was forced and pained.  Before the barrel reached the height of the intended victim’s head a barrier appeared in the sights.  The gun paused but it did not lower.

“Tyler what the hell are you doing?”

The young boy stood in between Michael and Mouse.  The other survivors were frozen, none of them had any experience with what they were seeing. 

“I’m stopping you from taking your power trip too far.”

“No.  You are once again throwing your life around like you don’t care about it.”

“I’m doing what is right.”

“You disregard yourself everyday so I have to take care of you, but you never stopped to see all that I do to keep you alive.”

Tyler was starting to see what his brother was trying to do, “I’m responsible for myself and you for yourself.”

“You have never taken responsibility for keeping yourself alive, without me you’d be dead.”

“That may be true,” Tyler said, “But you need me just as much.”

“You have no idea what I do for you!  You only see the pleasant surface that covers the reality of the hell that I have caused to keep you safe.”

Tyler’s fists were clenched at his sides.  Furious tears rolled down his cheeks before he could wipe them away.  Tyler did not have any intense emotion without tears and now was not a exception.  Tyler knew exactly what Michael was talking about,  “You killed him, didn’t you?  He was never bitten.”

“It was for you,” Michael said.

“Don’t you ever say you killed someone in my name.  I’m not helpless and his death was not my fault, it was all yours.  I can’t be your excuse forever.”  Tyler had to work past a lumped muscle in his throat, “You would not be alive without me because you would not be able to live with yourself without me.  You use me to excuse anything you feel bad about and then hold it against me.  You need me, I’m your balance, and right now I’m telling you that you have to put down the gun and help this man, because you’re not blaming this on me.”  Tyler and Michael each held their ground for a moment, the pistol still pointed toward Tyler’s sternum.  

“If you’re going to say that then I don’t feel responsible for you anymore.  If you are going to disregard your life, so am I.”  Tyler was caught off guard by the statement and even more so when an open hand collided with his temple.

 

Michael stood above Tyler, the martyr had finally gotten what he had wanted all along.  The strike had technically only been a slap, but with when your opponent is a third of your size it doesn’t matter how you hit them, they will go down.  Michael nudged Tyler with his foot, no response, he was out cold.  Michael did not notice his hand lowering and taking Mouse out of the line of fire.

“Roll over,” Michael said as if it was to himself.  No one moved.  The dominant brother used his pistol as a pointer finger and indicated toward Mouse, “Turn over, on your stomach, now.”

Mouse opened his mouth although he didn’t mean to, “Why?”

Michael put his gun back into his pants, “Roll over, now.”

With the weapon away Mouse revealed his back to the man he was not yet acquainted with.  It was a struggle for the injured survivor but no one helped him.  All eyes were focused on Michael as he took a pair of forceps from the first aid bag and placed them into a container of liquid.

“This is going to hurt, a lot,” Michael said to his patient, “It’s going to hurt more than you will be able to take without moving.  You will be held down so don’t move.”  It took all of Mouse’s strength to nod, rubbing his cheek against the ground.  “Raise your arms above your head, I’m going to take your shirt off.”  Mouse obliged and Michael slowly rolled the bloody article of clothing up to the shoulders and slid it off the arms.  The entire back was covered with blood but the two enlarged entry wounds were clear to Michael.

Michael said, “Alright, James and other guy come hold his wrist with your hand and put your shoulder on his shoulder, like this.”  When the men were in position Michael continued, “Abal and girl come here and get into a leg bar on each of this guy’s legs.  It is important not to go too hard or you could break his knee.”  It took the females longer to set up but once they were ready Michael thought that there was no way struggling was going to mess up his ramshackle procedure.  “You should never try to remove a bullet without proper equipment, they are clean, but now everything is contaminated,” Michael took his forceps from the antibacterial wash and steadied them above the left shoulder.  Michael closed the forceps and advanced them in the path that the bullet had carved in the muscle and bone.  He found a hard block in his way soon after entry, the projectile had been stopped by the layers of bone it had encountered.  The round was lodged sideways, most likely due to manipulation after the shot had been fired.  Michael opened his tool until he could slide it forward over the bullet.  With a tight grip Michael pulled and lost his grip as Mouse’s muscles contracted in pain.  

“This tool isn’t very strong, I’m going to have to go deeper, it’s going to hurt more,”  Michael said as he moved the forceps further into flesh.  Mouse tried to twist and torque but his restraints were tight and heavy.  Michael got a solid grip and pulled the lead slug out of the struggling body.

“One down,” Michael did not want to say anything else about the state of the operation.  His patient had been lucky with the first shot, but the second one was lower in the left side.  The entry had been between some lower ribs and from where the last one had been Michael thought it had been on an upward path, toward vital organs.  Michael started the procedure for the second bullet in the same way, but this time he had to push deeper, much deeper, and still he felt nothing.  The liver had been shredded by the piece of shaped metal.  One of Mouse’s lungs had either had a close call, or it had been hit.  When the impromptu surgeon found the bullet it was stuck behind the front of the ribcage.  Michael was sure it would become infected, but he could not risk dropping Mouse’s lung.  

“Calm down, calm down, it’s over, I can’t do anymore.”  Mouse nodded again but he was shaking all over with pain.  Mouse vomited on James who let go of the body he had been holding.  Michael did not have time to retract the forceps and when Mouse jerked with his free shoulder the open wound swallowed up medical tool.  Mouse released more of his stomach as James tried to return to his post.  With all his weight Michael pressed down where James had been holding and reached into the bullet hole, ignoring the continued retching, and pulled out his tool.  

“Get off him, I can’t do anything,” Michael said.  The three improvising nurses released Mouse who shook several more times before trying to curl up into a fetal position, but curling up stretched out his back so Mouse remained sprawled out on the ground and cried into his arms.

Mouse tried to vomit once more before saying, “Kill me,” and continuing to cry in his arms, “Please, just kill me.”

Michael reached for his pistol but hesitated, all eyes were on him and the only sound came from the man who was bleeding out between them.  Max nodded, Christi shook her head and grabbed Max’s collar so she could speak into his ear.  Christi walked toward Michael as if he was death itself and he had brought the unavoidable, it wasn’t his fault, just his job.  

She said, “Give me a minute.”  

Michael nodded, The man had lost too much blood, even if he wanted to live Michael doubted if he could.  Michael’s hands were covered in blood, failure, and the pain of an unnecessary procedure.

 

Christi bent close to Mouse, “I’m sorry.”

Mouse kept his eyes closed, “You’re safe?”

“Yes, yes I’m safe.”

“And.”

“Yes, very safe.”

“I’m sorry.”

Christi wiped tears from her eyes, “No, no why? don’t be, there is nothing to be sorry for.”

Every word from Mouse was a struggle, “No.  Father. Hard.”

“It’s not your fault, but our child will grow up and he will live in a world without viral.  He will not be afraid of them, because he won’t know them.”

“Love. You.”

“I love you too,”  Christi bent closer and kissed Mouse before drawing away and turning her head.  The sound of the pistol firing was quieter than Christi expected but as soon as the noise caught her ears she crumbled, whimpering, to the ground.  Mouse lay still.  Max crouched down, then moved to his knees, he put a hand on Christi’s shoulder who fell onto his shoulder and wet his shirt with the amount of liquid from her eyes and nose.  

She spoke through her tears, “Max, will you do the same for me.”

Max choked on his spit after her request, “No, no you’re depressed, this will pass.”

“It has to be done Max.”

“Christi you’re stronger than this, things will get better, you have to take care of your child.”  Max had not know she was pregnant until a few moments ago, but he thought it was his only option.

Christi sobbed harder, “No no no no.”  She thumped on Max’s chest with her fist to try and calm herself down.

“It’s okay, you’re go…”

“Shut up, just shut up,” Christi pushed Max away and her tears began to dry, “I don’t even know whose baby it is.”  Max was quiet, Christi broke down into Max’s arms again, “But it doesn’t matter.”

“That’s right because you’re both going to be okay.”

Christi pounded Max so hard in the chest he lost some of his breath, “Shut up.”  Her eyes were furious and fearful, “We’re both going to die.”

Max opened his mouth but remembered his reprimand and stopped trying to reassure the girl who was determined to die.

“I want to be shot because if I’m not you might die later.  When we were pulling the boat into the water yesterday and the viral jumped on us it got me.  I wanted to wait and see if Mouse would live before I told anyone.  I’m going to change so soon, so it doesn’t matter who the baby’s dad is, it has to die.  I have to die.”

Before he could respond a shot rang out in the air, Christi’s head jolted to one side then back again.  The body of the pregnant woman collapsed forward.  Max looked up to see Michael walking toward him.  The angel of death put away his scythe then extended a human hand toward Max.

“Get up, we don’t have much time here and I need help with my brother,” Max did not know if the voice was referencing him or not but his body responded.  Arms on his body helped to sling the limp body of a boy over the merciful murderer.  Max’s legs walked beneath his body but his mind was not controlling them.  The five people Max was watching from a distant planet moved onto the road and set off at a strong pace, but the man in front was a little slow because he was holding a pair of tiny arms around his neck.  The world Max watched was a terrifying and incomprehensible one, a single day had passed and five were dead, and one of the two that survived was the man that had caused the slaughter.  Another one had survived, but he was not long for the world that he was trapped on, Max watched him and wondered when he would pass like the others, and why he had been the one to survive, not someone stronger.

DL: Chapter 14+15

Chapter 14

The kayakers slapped their paddles into the water and pushed, dragging them off the shore.  The strokes were frantic, filled with power and noise; the craft sped from the shore while the sound of the paddles bounced around the silent lake.  The front kayaker’s  paddle was going deeper on one side and skimming the surface on the other.  With one stroke he missed the water and his oar swung, unimpeded, into the side of the boat.  The drum like sound of metal on hollow plastic froze the men in place.

Leo scolded himself and swore in his head, now they were given away.  He waited for viral to start swarming every inch of shore line and construct a decomposing bridge to them.  He waited for gunfire at the back of the boat when Bones figured out that they had deserted.  He waited for the lake monster, angry that its sleep was disturbed, to emerge from the depths and grind them to pieces.  Leo waited for a response to his action his eyes closing, maybe he would get shot in the head, then he could go back to sleep.  Leo floated across the water, his body gliding effortlessly over the calm.  Leo turned around to see James powering the flight of the passenger in the front.  First the noise, then not helping paddle to escape, Leo let himself wallow in self hatred for a moment before realizing he still was not helping to power the boat.  

The men sat near the middle of the lake.  The next decision was where to go.  Leo had hoped to make the choice while still on dry land but they were past that point now, the night sky gave little hint as to the shape of the landscape.  The boat was covered in darkness for the time being, but once the sun came up there was no telling who or what would be watching from shore.  Right across from the original location was thick forest, Leo remembered that much, otherwise it had all looked the same.  

“Perhaps the best place is the house furthest away from where everyone else is,” said Leo.

“I agree.  Do you have any idea where said house might be, my night vision is a little hazy,” said James.

“I remember where the forest was, and I have a pretty good idea of where the houses started.”

Leo indicated with his hand.  The two pressed their fatigued muscles to paddle.

 

The first time Leo indicated toward a point on the shore James remembered it and tried to keep the plastic vessel on a straight course, but it always drifted right.  Trying to compensate made the boat swing the other direction and the whole time Leo would stop paddling and make motions about where they were really supposed to be going.  The front passenger continued to make gestures James knew were unnecessary, so the man in the back reminded the front paddler of his competence by smacking Leo in the back of the head with his paddle.  Leo turned around and held the back of his head.  Without any trees overhead the moon provided enough light for Leo to see James mouth ‘shut up’.  The man in the front stuck out his tongue.  James waited until Leo was done then indicated towards the shore they were headed for.  

The short argument break had helped James’s muscles recover and the boat was now sliding over the surface.  The goal was a couple hundred yards away.  James thought a fast approach would be best.  If they landed on a beach or other gradual surface Leo could get right onto land and pull the boat up until his partner could get out.  They would not have to splash around in the water.  If the shore was steep, or rocky, the boat would bounces off with a bang, but then they would have to deal with the water anyway so the noise made by the crash would be unimportant.  James began to paddle faster.

The two were a half dozen kayak lengths from shore when they began to speed up.  Neither knew how little effort it took to get a kayak up to speed, after a second they had a good speed.  Leo rested his paddle in front of him as he steadied himself, preparing to jump out.  James was pushing his whole body into every stroke, faster, faster, land.  The boat hit a solid object, but they still had six feet until shore.  The kayakers were not prepared for a submerged rock.  The boat tipped onto its side, dumping James into the shallows.  The kayak righted itself and drifted sideways towards the bank, Leo holding on for dear life.  The dry escapee grabbed his paddle and turned to help his friend, but by the time the boat was around James was only in water up to his chest, he was coughing, but safe.  

When James fell he splashed water all over his relatively dry partner.  The satchel that had been sitting behind James was still dry, and Leo rubbed his temple not wanting to think what would happen if their food and weapons had fallen into the water with James.  Leo chuckled to himself as he watched James raise his arms out of the cold water and make his way towards shore.  James responded with a firm middle finger but raised his face to meet Leo’s with a smile.  The men locked eyes smiling and laughing under their breath for a single second.  Before the moment had passed the sound of leaves being crushed reached Leo’s ears and he turned as he saw James lose his smile and point towards the shore where they had just landed.  

A body flew at a full sprint out of the woods and fell off the shore mid stride, the boat flipped over, Leo, the satchel, and a viral all tumbled into the water, the two creatures wrestled under the surface while the bag sunk to the dark rocks below.

Chapter 15

Too early.  The sun was just coming into Max’s room and already someone was demanding he be awake.  Leo had already gotten out of bed and he had let Max sleep, the person on the other side of the door was in for a verbal beat down.  Max pulled himself to his feet and rubbed the sleep to the corners of his eyes. 

“It’s too early for this,” Max stopped, apparently someone in the next room was having the same thoughts he was.  The knocking was not on Max’s room, he was just hearing someone try to wake up Bones.  Getting up was the right choice, trying to get back to sleep never worked so Max stretched his arms and walked to the hallway.  He slipped his SW1911, a .45 caliber pistol into the back of his pants.  Max then opened his door, and when he did the pounding stopped.  In the hall was a woman in a torn blouse and jeans, she had cuts on bruises on her arms and stomach, and her face had the telltale red spots of broken blood vessels.  Max stepped back into his room and slammed the door as the woman ran towards him and thrust her body towards the entrance.  There were more footsteps outside.  

“Don’t come out of your rooms,” He yelled, “Viral,” the pounding on Max’s door nearly tripled in power and frequency after the announcement.  

“How many are out there?” Mouse’s question was almost drowned out by the pounding.

“Two or three, I don’t know, but they’re all on my door and its cracking.”

A loud slam from the hallway moved all the viral away from where Max was trying to hold out.  “If we keep changing them between doors we can buy ourselves some extra time,” Mouse shouted.

“Well what’s your plan then?”  Max held his spear that he had crafted and waited by the door.  The violent pounding continued from across the hall as Max waited for the idea Mouse had yet to think of.  

“Where is Leo?” Max’s words hung in the air, “Where is James?”

“He was the second guard, why the hell didn’t he wake us up or something?” Bones added.

“Bones you have to slam your door, mines getting busted down,” Mouse said.

“He should have just called out or something to get our attention.”

Max said, “Bones he’s dead, we have to figure what we’re going to do now.”

“I really need a distraction now,” As soon as Mouse finished Max heard a loud wooden crack followed by a string of curses from Mouse.  “They’re half way through someone please…” Mouse was cut off by Max opening and closing his door, more cursing came from Mouse.  Nothing happened to the newly slammed door.  The blast of gunpowder made Max jump back just before a bullet came through the base of his door and hit the ground several feet behind him.  Max jumped behind his bed before the second, third, and fourth shots were fired.  Two of the three passed through the closed door where Max had been standing a moment before.

“What was that shit?”  Mouse’s voice was closer now, in the hallway.

Max opened his own door, “I don’t know that…that doesn’t make any sense.”

“No, I’m talking about that,” Mouse said his finger pointing towards Bones and Edgar as they walked out of their room.  Edgar held his hands out in front of himself and shook his head, he pointed one finger towards Bones.  The now double accused did not acknowledge the two men prosecuting him with hand gestures; he examined the three bodies draped around Mouse’s door.  The men stood their ground for a moment more before Christi drew all the attention onto herself, emerging from her room gun drawn, fatigue in her face.

“What happened?” Christi lowered her gun.

Max started walking towards the stairs, “We have to go.”

“We would have to leave our weapons and food here,” Bones said

“Will someone tell me what happened?”

“We could take some stuff with us,” said Edgar, “We don’t know what happened, but Leo and James are gone, they might be…” Edgar drifted off, “Everyone get downstairs, they might be turning now.”

 

The group followed Edgar’s order and scanned the lower level for their dead or infected friends.  One window in the main room was already smashed and Leo and James were gone or otherwise well hidden.  The sound of glass cracking underfoot grabbed the attention of the silent search.  The four survivors stayed still, the glass crunching continued.  Bones snapped to get the attention of the group, then he led them back up the stairs.

Mouse stepped over the three viral into his room.  His bag was meant to be some sort of travel luggage, it was small and could be worn over one shoulder.  Mouse grabbed the bag and jumped back into the hall.  No one remained in the hall, Mouse opened each door in turn.  Behind the last door on the right, where Christi had been sleeping, Mouse saw her sitting on the bed talking to Bones.  Edgar and Max were looking in all the hidden spots the room had to offer.

“…think that it seems like the…”  

Mouse cut Christi off, “I’ve got plenty of food in this,” Mouse brandished his luggage, “Now let’s get out of here.”

“Bones wants to stay here,” Christi’s eyes were wide.

“But we can’t, that’s…”

“I know, he just…”

“Shut up,” Bones had his arms crossed, “We have to stay here.  After we deal with these viral we can board up the house and make it safe.”

“Bones, we can’t do that, there will be to many of them,” Mouse tried to keep his voice down.

“Where are James and Leo?” Mouse was not prepared for Bones’s question, “We are also missing two guns and some food.  Those two left us and they brought the viral here.  When we leave and take the monsters with us James and Leo will return and claim everything we left behind.  We can’t give in.”  Footsteps were making their way up the stairs, “We can reclaim human territory, we don’t have to be on the run.”  The creature was now in the hallway, more muffled sounds came from the first floor.  “We have to make a stronghold sometime,” Bones walked into the hall, pistol drawn, “Why not now?”  The viral had a limp, one foot was twisted and the run was slow, Bones raised his 9mm and shot once.  The two men in the room had stopped searching and were now drawing their own weapons, but no one moved out of the room.  Mouse looked around the room for answers, he felt too queasy to stand.  The rummaging downstairs had turned into a focused effort as feet pounded up the only staircase.

 

The first cartridge Bones fired at the new viral hit one in the upper chest, but the attacker slowed down enough that the second shot caught him below the left eye.  The next two viral were close behind.  Bones took aim at the second and with a, *click*…   not the sound Bones wanted to hear, “Defend me,” his voice echoed into the room containing four other armed survivors.  Bones made a long chop with his arm using the butt of his gun to smash the first viral on the top of the head.  The viral fell, but wrapped its arms around his legs.  Max blew open the other viral’s head and the other survivors followed him into the hall as more viral poured up the stairs.  Edgar took a few steps forward and grabbed the viral’s hair that was still holding tight to Bones’s legs.  Pistols and a rifle fired above the heads of the two humans on the ground.  Edgar retrieved his weapon and put the barrel against the head embedded on the knee of its victim, and fired.  

“I’m out,” Christi shouted. 

Now that Bones was safe Edgar could focus on the fight.  He pointed his gun at the staircase as four viral emerged in rapid succession.  Edgar stood up, into the lane of fire.  A shot from Max’s gun caught Edgar at the top of the shoulder.  The wounded survivor stumbled forward and was tackled by a pair of viral.  Bones and Christi had reloaded and their gunfire killed the two viral coming off the stairs.  Max rushed forward to destroy the two still clinging to Edgar.

“Oh shit,” Max searched up and down Edgar’s wounded body, his eyes watered, “I’m sorry, oh god, I’m sorry.”

“Get the hell off me,” Edgar pushed Max and stood to his feet, “None of this is too bad, stings like a bitch though.”  His body had scratches from fingernails, but the only wounds not already clotted were two shallow bite marks on his arms and the bullet hole in his back.  “Get yourselves ready,” Edgar disappeared into his room for a moment before reemerging with a long thin knife, holding both in the air he said, “I can handle them for a while.”  

When Edgar was down the stairs Mouse spoke, “We have to get out of here.”

“Don’t you dare,” Bones was still on the ground but his voice was strong.

“You’re not thinking straight, this place is done for,” Mouse noticed that the viral had taken a large chunk of flesh from above Bones’s knee, it was bleeding freely.  Mouse grabbed Christi’s arm and said, “Let’s go, grab a bag.”  Christi obeyed and went back into her room.

“And you would take everything from me,” Bones was still facing the stairs, not looking at the man who was pulling apart his imagined future.

“I’m sorry,” Mouse said, looking down at the former leader.

Max and Mouse walked passed Bones, Christi bent down to him, “I’m sorry Rob.”

Bones smiled, “And now Mouse is too.”

Bones extended his arm and squeezed the trigger, a shot rang out.  Christi jumped back at the unexpected sound.  Bones fired again.  Max whipped around, his gun drawn as the second shot was fired, he put one bullet below Bones’s nose.  The lead destroyed his brain stem, Bones was dead as the bullet left his skull.  

Both of Bones’s shots had landed in Mouse, one in the back of his left arm, and the other into his ribcage on the left side.  More gunfire boomed through the house from downstairs.  Mouse fell forward and landed hard on his right arm.  Christi covered her mouth while staring at the dead body, and began to cry.  Max got under one of Mouse’s shoulders, with a push off the ground the dazed man was back on his feet.  

“We have to keep going,” Max said, Christi stayed on the ground, “Come on girl, he’s gonna faint, come on.”  Christi looked through her tears at Mouse before pushing herself up underneath his arm.  The humans on either side of Mouse supported most of his weight down the stairs.  Two viral were laying motionless on the ground on the bottom floor, Edgar stood in the middle of the room, a fresh bite mark on his lower arm.

When the remaining three came downstairs he said, “What happened?”

“Bones shot Mouse,” Max said as he dragged the unresponsive survivor toward the back door.

“You’ll need more help than I can give,” Edgar’s body shook and he clasped his arms over his stomach, “But I’ll stay with you until I turn.”

Edgar regained his composure with a grimace on his face and Max grabbed his shoulder, “Thank you.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

 

Behind the house the group was beginning to shamble through the forest as best they could when Christi saw something on the water.

“Guys, guys wait,” Christi stopped their momentum, “Go towards the water.”  

“Mouse is in no condition to swim,” Max said.

“What’s that?” Christi pointed to a long floating piece of yellow one hundred yards from shore.

“I don’t know, why did we stop?”

“It’s a boat,” She said, “I think we should find one of our own.”