DL: Chapter 23

Three days passed and nothing presented itself as an opportunity for breaking in the spiked club.  The community was an unspoiled haven for the five who had been starving for months without any semblance of security.  Between a couch and a variety of chairs sat a table adorned with a chess board.  The survivors rested.  James had asked if anyone wanted to play but the group was content to read, no one knew how to play save Abal and James, and if learning meant getting nagged by the self proclaimed master they were not interested.  So the five sat in a circle with their books, but two were not focused on their literature.  Tyler was not reading, occasionally he would turn a page, but Abal noticed that his eyes were not following the words, just focused between the pages.  

“I’m going upstairs to decide which food we should eat first, even though its all lasted this long it will go bad eventually,” Abal said as she stood up.

James put his book down, “You want some help with that, could take all night alone.”

“Yeah sure,”  Abal nodded, “Tyler you want to come help me?”

Through his daze he was aware that his name had been called and Tyler looked around to find out who wanted what. 

“Over here buddy, do you want to help me upstairs?”

Tyler shrugged and stood up.  Even though the day was little more than half over the group was not going back outside.  Clouds covered the sky, it was not cold enough to snow but ice cold raindrops were rapidly painting the soil a darker shade.  So the three sat and they read, in the twenty some years of Max’s life he had never been a book person.  When he met Paco the amount of printed word he took in increased slightly because his burly friend would have Max reading newspaper and magazine articles.  Paco had been up to date on current events and at least once a month found something that he thought his literature deprived friend needed to see.  Max appreciated the sentiment and on occasion he enjoyed the pieces Paco brought to him, but reading for pleasure or to pass the time never occurred to him.  But reading to save his life, Max had never thought of it that way.  James had taken care to find a book that had been popular, one he knew by name, and one that had very few if any metaphors or deeper meanings.  The kind of book that English professors would scorn as an inferior piece of writing.  James found a book for Max that was entertaining, and that had been the only criterion, because those were invariably the best.  So Max sat and read and for a few minutes, a few moments, his mind was only concerned with what the next chapter would bring.

 

“You collect things that will expire this year and I’ll collect things that expire next year or later,” Abal ordered.

Tyler did not know what year it was and when he told Abal she held back a snicker before realizing that she had to think about it before answering.

“I talked to your brother the other night.”

“Oh,” Tyler continued collecting.

“He appreciates the books.”

“Mhmm.”

“This is hard for him too.”

“Okay.”

“He really really loves you.”

No response.

“Tyler!” Abal hissed.

“Yes?”

“A few days ago you were all about getting to talk to your brother again and now you seem like you don’t care.”

“I do care, I just know what I’m going to do.”  Tyler continued sorting, about one eighth of the pile was already around him.

“So you have a plan?”

“Yes.”

“A new one?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not disappointed that the books didn’t work out as you had hoped?”

“Of course I’m disappointed, but to keep thinking about that won’t do me any good.”

Sometimes Abal forgot that she was talking to a kid. Abal remembered why she had brought him up in the first place, “You know Tyler you might not need that second plan of yours.”

“Oh?”

“Michael wants to things to be like before, he just doesn’t know how to start.  It may surprise your brother is human too, no one’s a super hero.”

Abal realized as soon as she spoke the lesson she had thrown in was foolish.  He knew his brother was human, he stood up to his brother and contradicted him, Tyler was no child looking blindly at an idol, just a young man who had lost a close friend.  

“What I’m saying is he might be the one who starts talking.”

Tyler nodded and continued sorting, Abal had nothing left to say.  When they finished Abal had two thirds of the sustenance on her side.  

“What will we do with this?” Tyler held a box of spaghetti.  They had found macaroni and pasta in almost every house that still had food.  

“I guess we will have to start making fire,” Abal said, “But not tonight.”

Tyler nodded and placed the long rectangular piece of cardboard among its numerous fellows.  

“We will have some warm food soon.”

“Guess so,  it’ll be a nice change,” Tyler said and then smiled, “Thank you.”  Abal returned the smile and they headed downstairs with an armful of what would be lunch.

 

The day was spent exploring the house and finding ways to keep the mind entertained.  With some inspiration from Michael’s creation James decided he was going to switch up weapons, he thought the aluminum bat was too light and wanted some force behind his blows.  Tyler gladly accepted the relinquished piece of baseball equipment and James searched the basement.  A plethora of rusted implements awaited, after a half hour James became bored and picked up an iron pole.  It was two feet and a couple inches long and had only a few patches of rust.  James thought there might have been some sort of abandoned project because there was a stack of them in the corner of the basement.  He only wanted a little practice swinging a weapon and getting a bit of a workout before continuing to look for a viable weapon.  It was a half inch in diameter and James made sure to place his hands away from any sharp rusted parts.  It felt like what James imagined a sword would feel like, maybe worse balance but the corrugated iron felt heavy and strong in his hands.  After a minute James continued his search, but he kept the piece of metal in his hands.  

“Why wouldn’t you just use a bat,”  Max said.  James was showing his desired weapon to the group, the pole with some rags wrapped with rubber bands on one end for his hands.

“This is stronger and, look.  At.  This.”  James struggled to pull a metal file out of his pocket.

“What’s that,” Tyler asked.

But Abal recognized it, “Great, so you’re going to have a knife at the end of a stick, why not just get a knife and tape it to the end of a stick.  Or better yet forget the stick and just take the knife.”

“I thought I would use it more like a spear.”

“And when was the last time you threw a spear?” Michael asked.

“Not to throw just to stab.”

“Yeah, like I said, an extended knife.”

“You know what, screw you guys, I’m going to make this work, I’ll take first watch by the way, I’m not tired and I’m going to work on this tonight so tomorrow you will see just how wrong you all are.”

“Okay you have first watch,” Abal said, “Don’t try and prove us wrong.  I’m being serious.  If you feel comfortable with what you have there use it, but don’t force yourself to use something just cause we were joking with you.”

“I feel comfortable.”

Abal nodded, “I’ll take second watch.”

 

James roused Abal from one of her few pleasant dreams.  She and Michael and Christi were on a beach on the little lake.  When she was out of the dream Abal realized how ridiculous the whole set up had been.  Why Christi was there she had no clue, but the beach was a figment of her imagination.  The dream lake only barely resembled the real lake, there were certainly no beaches on the real one.  As the dream was starting to fade in Abal’s mind, she remembered that she wanted to ask James about his little project, but he was asleep or very nearly so.  She crept downstairs and admired the moon from a window.  The sky had cleared up and the giant orb hung over the lake, splashing light on the surrounding trees.  The moon was full and Abal thought that no matter what happened on earth, it would continue around and around.  The universe itself would continue without a care to the little speck of dust that was being consumed by the worst plague of its short existence.  Abal tried to focus her mind on remedying the group’s problems, in particular the brothers’ separation.  It all depended on how they treated each other, she thought for the most part she would let them be, but if the talk was small and the air felt like divorced parents at a forced reunion she would jump in.  However her mind continued back to the state of the stars and their fate.  Abal stared at the water, its beauty only worsening her foreboding, the off white light shining through the leaves as they floated to the ground.  The gleam rippled with the movement of the water and it illuminated the shore.  When Abal was focused on where the water met the land she spotted a silhouette against the water.  The pace was uneven and the head lolled ever so slightly from side to side.  It stopped for a moment and watched something on the ground, then with a sudden leap the humanoid was upon the dirt and scrambled after a small animal.  The mammal ran up a tree and for a moment the viral gripped and rubbed and pulled on the bark.  Then sat down as if content to watch the tree.  The body tilted to one side then finally collapsed entirely, and there it stayed, waiting for its little morsel of nutrition.  

Abal thought about waking up everybody but figured that it would not do any good considering they would just be awake and have to continue to wait for daylight to do anything.  In a few hours she would wake Max, tell him what was going on and try to get some more rest herself.  Abal was wide awake, her fears of the universe and the pitiful state of humanity left her, she was only concerned with dealing with the viral.  They had finally started to fall into a day to day routine.  Now there was this creature that came along just to ruin the set up, Abal tried to calm her breathing, she did not feel tired, but soon she would have to try to get a few hours of rest.  Abal shut her eyes and hoped there was only one, she listened for the sounds of hunting.

 

Michael had the last watch.  He sat on Tyler’s bed, watching the door for his entire shift.  When the sun started to rise Michael tapped his brother’s shoulder.  Tyler shifted back and forth on his back then blinked his eyes open and sat up.  The brothers spent a minute in silence.  Michael stood up from the bed and extended a hand to Tyler and pulled him off the bed.  Michael lowered himself to one knee, wrapped his arms around Tyler, and hugged his brother.  Tyler hugged him back.

Early morning light was easing its way into the house.  Tyler sat on the top step watching the house below him and tried to ignore the light voices a few steps behind him.  If he had been a different kid in a different time he may have tried to eavesdrop, but Tyler was aware that his job was not just busy work meant to keep him away from the adults.  He would either be told what they were talking about or he would see the final plan first hand.  Michael passed by Tyler on the staircase clutching his bat while Abal tapped the boy on the shoulder and held a finger to her lips.  Tyler nodded and followed behind Max at the end of the line.  Abal looked out the window she had pondered the universe from the previous night, she saw nothing.  Abal shook her head towards the group and with Michael in the lead they continued to the front door.  There were five weapons between the members, Michael had his special bat and his pistol, Abal the ax, Max a bat, and James had a hammer.  His spear was not ready.  Tyler was unarmed.  Only Michael and Abal approached the door, the other three remained at the foot of the stairs.  After setting her ax aside Abal prepared to open the door with one hand, and with the other she held up three fingers.  Two fingers.  One finger.  She pulled the door and ducked behind it, Michael was ready to swing but there was no need.  There was nothing waiting on the porch and the survivors soon secured the position.  The four survivors moved as a tight square with Tyler at the rear.  He held onto Abal’s shirt and kept his head over his shoulder, making sure nothing snuck up on them.  The street curved away in both direction, there was nothing visible.  After Michael was sure that there was no immediate danger he started leading the group toward the water.  The houses were all about the same distance from the water creating a lane of vision for the survivors.  The trees were sparse and the ones present had few leaves, James tugged on Max’s shirt and pointed towards the house two doors down on his side.  A short, chubby viral, clad only in jeans, was close to the building, walking toward the water.  The group oriented itself in the proper direction, Michael left at a fast jog followed closely by Max.  The other three went back to back and held their position.  Michael was only focused on the viral ahead of him while his back up was checking left and right constantly.  Twenty feet away from his target Michael began to slow down.  The infected human turned its head at the sound of rustling leaves, when it caught sight of Michael it whipped around and tried to run towards the attacker.  The viral had taken two steps when Michael decided it was in range and swung his bat.  The nail closet to the butt of the bat hit only air, the second one caught the flesh of the check and some bone, not doing much damage.  The nail furthest from Michael was out of sight, completely embedded in the skull.  The force from the swing drove the viral into the ground and Michael hastily pulled his bat free from the head of the viral.  The three standing back to back hurried over the recent kill once they got the go ahead.

“All clear over there,”  Michael whispered.

“Yeah, but this isn’t the one I saw last night,”  Abal’s voice was as quiet as Michael’s.

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, he is too fat.”

Now Michael whispered to Max, “Does that look like one of the one’s that was chasing you with your old group?”

“I don’t recognize him,” Max responded.

“Best case scenario we have one left, lets find it.”

The team formed up again behind Michael and walked back to the road in formation.  The group walked wide circles around each house, after prowling around six houses the five turned around and headed back to their house.  They followed the same procedure in the opposite direction.  Four houses past where they had started Abal saw her viral, a lanky naked man, he was walking away from them.  Michael prepared to repeat the same procedure when he noticed another viral walking by the shoreline and two others face up in the dirt and leafs.  He turned around and held up four fingers to his company.  The two lying down were about ten feet apart and the walker was separated from them by about twenty feet.  It was not unusual to encounter groups of viral that had amassed at random.  One viral would make noise by falling into a window or wading into water then thrashing around.  Others would follow the noise and make some of their own.  Thus some areas seemed nearly deserted but were punctuated with heavy concentrations of viral.  James nodded to Max who pulled Abal, Michael, and Tyler in close.  James kept a constant watch.

“Be ready for more than four,” Max whispered, “Tyler keep vigilant and warn us if you see any more, don’t worry about noise.”

“We should choose our viral now,” Michael murmured, “I’ll take the one walking at the water.”

“Naked guy,”  Max chose.

The four broke apart and prepared to run.  Abal grabbed James by the shoulder, “We have the ones lying down, I’m left you have right.”

Michael held out a hand and lowered his fingers one by one.  Three.  Two.  One.  The group raced into the open and within a second Max was upon his viral, Tyler stayed close to him.  One swing of the aluminum club and the viral dropped, two more made sure it would not get up.  The other viral heard the thud of bone against metal and rustled themselves from apathy.  

“Two more, two more,”  Tyler’s shout reached all the survivors.  He grabbed Max who was searching for his next victim but was looking in the wrong direction.  Tyler pulled Max toward the shore where he was hoping the three other viral would soon be dispatched.  The two viral had been in the house and were in the process of falling out of a first floor window after hearing the commotion.  

James reached his viral first, his weapon was light and sprinting was not difficult, before the creature was even on its hands and knees James was upon it.  He dispatched it with two blows to the side of the head, but as his second blow landed one of the viral from the house reached him.  The viral grabbed his shirt and pulled, James twisted his body, but the viral would not let go, and both were thrown to the ground.  Abal and Michael reached their targets at almost the same time, her viral was in the process of standing up.  The head was craned back to watch her and she caught it just below the right eye.  It was twitching when she removed the blade so she struck again, ending the spasms.  Michael’s viral had up some speed when he reached it.  The viral ran with a variety of arm movements, for a second they would follow the form of the run, then would be forgotten about and hang at its sides, then back to pumping with its feet, but as the viral reached Michael it held its arms wide, prepared for a bear hug.  Michael’s timing was better than the first time, two nails caught the head and the viral tumbled forward.  Michael put his foot on the head and pulled his weapon free just as a viral from the house reached Max. 

“One, coming from the red house,” Tyler called just as Max turned around to deal with the viral coming up behind them.  Max did not have time to take a proper swing, instead he crosschecked the viral while sidestepping, not fighting the momentum coming at him but using it to throw his victim off balance and onto the ground.  At the same time James was struggling on the ground trying to hold his attacker at arm’s length.  The viral from the other house was racing towards Abal and Tyler, Michael was coming to support them but he had more distance to cover than the viral.  If a viral got ahold from behind it was too easy for it to wrap teeth around a shoulder or neck, after that point it would be all over for the survivor no matter what happened.  James was left to struggle alone, he fought and pushed and although the viral was too strong for him to push off he thought he could hold it for a minute at least.  One of his arms was holding the neck of the viral and his other was stuck between the two bodies to keep them apart.  The body on top of James snatched at his face and body, but James held on.  It was an energy consuming struggle but after the food James had been getting he felt strong, able to maintain the locked position, but the viral stopped pulling his shirt and instead grabbed the hand pushing against its chest.  Across the lawn several swings from Max’s bat finished the monster that had come his way.  He turned in time to see Abal strike a solid blow into the head of the seventh viral.  The ax landed just above the lower jaw, cutting flesh and bone, but nothing else the viral needed to attack.  The full weight of racing body plowed into her stomach.  

When the viral grabbed for James’s hand it lost enough grip on its subject that James was able to throw it off, but the viral grabbed the pinky and ring finger on James’s left hand.   James rolled got onto his knees trying to pull his trapped digits away from danger, but he could not get free.  James stood up grabbed his left arm with his right hand and pulled, but as he did the viral tried to wrench the fingers it held to its mouth.  James felt the sickening, unnatural range of motion before he felt the pain, he was not free, the viral had not gained any ground, but the item they were struggling for had given way.  

The viral was on top, and Abal was having trouble holding it off.  Blood from the viral’s shattered mouth was streaming onto Abal’s face.  Abal closed her eyes and stopped breathing in case any got near her nose.  Tyler noticed Tyler grabbed on of the arms that gripped Abal and tugged it away, giving the woman an advantage, but she was struggling to hold her breath.

“Tyler move,”  Max’s screamed, he was within striking distance of Abal but the boy’s head was in the way.

Tyler was only concentrated on Abal, “James, go help James,” He responded.  Max ran past Abal in frustration, he would not be any help if Tyler would not move.  When Max made it to James a second later he was just in time, the viral was pulling in the man’s arm and he looked pale trying to resist.  One strike and the hand was released, two more and the body would never move again.  Max turned around, ready to be in mourning for Abal, a prepubescent was fighting an fully grown infected man.  When he saw Michael standing over the three fighting souls his hopes rose, but soon it was clear the older Mackay was not going to do anything.  Tyler was still in the way.  Max felt like screaming at the boy, but he watched the malnourished young man from a distance, anything he did would be too late.  Tyler pulled the arm he had behind the viral’s back, then up behind its head.  The creature could not get any closer to Abal and seemed only vaguely aware that it might not be using both hands.  Tyler had the viral’s right arm and had it situated behind the head moving towards the left side of the body, with one quick jerk he popped the shoulder out of its socket and rolled the viral off Abal.  When it lay on the open ground Tyler moved away and let his brother finish the job.

 

There was a mild ache in James’s fingers.  It surprised him how little they hurt considering their current condition.  His left pinky and ring finger made an acute angle with the back of his hand.  They were dislocated and possibly broken.  James sat down, even though only his hand was damaged his whole body was starting to feel a cloud over his head and when he turned his head colors blended together.  James thought he was going to puke.  Michael was helping Abal toward the lake.  She continued to try and keep her face shut to the terrible disease that was sitting on her skin.  With one powerful burst of air Abal blew everything she could manage out of her nose, then took one tentative breath.  Michael guided her across the rocks by the water’s edge and into the cold liquid for for a few steps.  Once Abal was in up to her knees she leapt toward the water in a shallow dive and immediately began to scrub her face with open palms.  

“Is everyone alright?”  Michael asked.

“His hand is pretty fucked up,” said Max nodding towards James.

Michael made his way over to the wounded survivor.  Michael let his drift around the shivering man in the grass, letting his gaze come to a halt on James’s left hand, “Lay down,” He ordered James.

“What are you going to do?”  The man in a mild state of shock asked.

“We have to correct your fingers, it’s best to do it while your still a little hyped up from the fight, you won’t feel it as much.”

James nodded and put his back in the dirt, he had felt like lying down anyway.  Michael straddled him when he was down, James’s left arm was trapped between their bodies.  James realized he wasn’t going to be asked to consent to anything else, the man was going to do what he was going to do.

“What are you going to do?”  James asked the question with the most obvious answer, but there was no response from Michael.  One hand held his wrist and palm, another gently wrapped around his hurt fingers, they were tender and James felt pain to his wrist, “Hey, isn’t there a better way we can do this?”  The grip around his fingers tightened and the broken bones and swelling tissue in the hand created a cascade of bolts and pinches of pain all through James’s forearm.  James groaned, “Please, just let go and…”  Before he could finish his fingers were realigned back in their sockets.  James screamed and then cried a string of obscenities as a new pain bloomed in every joint of his two broken fingers.  When Michael got off James rolled back and forth holding his hand, he could neither bend nor extend his fingers.  

“What happened?”  Abal asked, she was still wet from her swim.

“His fingers were pretty bad,” Max answered, “Michael just tried to fix them.”

James stopped rolling on the ground, his eyes were closed, “That hurt a lot.”

“How are you feelin’?” Tyler asked

“Not great,” James slowly rose to his feet, Max was at his side prepared for him to faint, “But not terrible.”  He held his hand out for the group to admire, it was red and the digits were already mildly swollen.  Michael pulled his gun out of his pants.  The four others froze, “I’m okay, it’s not that bad.”

Michael held the pistol out and offered it to James’s good hand, “Take this, give me the hammer.”  James accepted and handed over the short carpenter’s tool with the thumb and pointer on his bad hand.  Michael picked his bat off the ground and offered it to Tyler, “You two get back to the house and pack up everything.  We’re going to search the houses now that they should be clear.”

“But Michael…”

“Now, go,” Michael cut his brother off.  Tyler would have been happy for the small amount of interaction if he liked the situation.  He wondered for a moment if the only time he would get to see his real brother was when they were in danger.

“Michael why would we do that?”  James asked, “Why would we leave?”

“We aren’t leaving,” Michael said, “But if something happens to the house and we have to leave we could lose all the food.  We need to be ready to get out of there at any moment.  So go!”

James nodded, realizing what Michael was saying, he and Tyler took off at a jog toward the road and back to the house.  The remaining three avoided the bodies on the ground as they walked toward a white house that looked like it had been boarded up at one point.  Glass and wood was shattered on the porch, it was the house two of the viral had come from.

“Why didn’t we pack up the food before if it was so important?” Abal asked.

“Because I didn’t think of it until now,” Michael responded with complete honesty that almost surprised him.

“We’ll be ready from now on,” Abal said.  Out of three people, including herself, zero believed her, it was impossible to be ready.

 

In the first house Abal found herself a change of clothes and tried to get herself as dry as possible after her swim.Two of the houses had makeshift defenses with tables and interior doors nailed behind windows.  Entrances were littered with broken wood, glass, and blood.  Some viral bodies lay decomposing on carpets or wherever they had dropped.  Early in the infection some survivors had tried to bury the bodies, the extra effort for an attempt at human decency soon died.  If the three ventured into the forested area across the street they would find twice dead bodies thrown on top of one another.  The other four houses were more or less abandoned with little to no viable food remaining.  The survivors were able to fit their finds into their pockets.  Abal scooped up two lighters and a half dozen cartons and books of matches.  Max found a half full pack of batteries he thought might work in one of the flashlights.  The survivors found little else.  They returned to the house with not much to show for their ventures hoping that their home and companions were in tact.  Tyler and James were almost asleep in the master bedroom.  All the food sat in the same place but now it was ready to move.  

“How are your fingers?”  Abal asked.

“Broken,”  James just wanted to get some sleep but his damn knuckles would not stop aching.

“That’s why we’re going to splint ‘em,”  Michael said.  James pushed himself out of the bed, it was clear he was not going to be allowed to get sleep anytime soon.

“Is it going to hurt as much as last time?”

Michael was already walking out of the room, “We’ll find out.”

James tried to fall asleep, maybe if he was out by the time Michael got back he would be left alone.  Abal and Max looked at him in pity for a moment before going to find some dinner.  Tyler was snoring.  Michael took his time getting bak and James thought that maybe if he had not been trying to fall asleep he might have.  Michael measured the fingers on the wounded hand with a wooden ruler.  He then broke the ruler into pieces and placed one part across three of James’s fingers and one part running parallel.  Some gauze and tape later and there was no more easy movement for the intended hand, a splint.  

“Now take these,”  Michael handed a bottle of aspirin to James, “Two or four.”

“Nothing to wash them down with?” 

“Your a man.”

“Not much of one,” James said, “But I can get it,” He moved to stand.

“No I got it,” Michael pushed him down, “You should be resting.”

 

After James was properly drugged up and Tyler was out cold from his day of intense action followed by monotonous boredom, the other three congregated downstairs.  The sun was brushing the tops of the trees and spilling an orange glow into the lake.  Michael was doing pushups in the elevated living room where he had a view outside but the windows were too high for visitors to get a clear view.  He finally had some extra energy to devote to strengthening his body, the gradually increasing tension in his chest muscles was an empowering feeling, one that he had been missing but never realized it.  Abal sat in a chair and James on a couch, all three watched the sunset.

“After swim today I could use a fire,” Abal said.

“Wrong time of day and the fireplace here is no good,” Michael responded pulling his weight off his hands and rolling onto his back.  In a room that faced the lake,  with one large window, and absolutely no cover was the fireplace.  Michael would not eat in there much less cook.

“We could have one in the basement,” Max said.

Bodies wanted the warmth, minds wanted the comfort, and bellies wanted the food, it was too much for Michael to resist.  “We just have to make sure nothing catches on fire unless we want it to.”  The three came to an agreement and scattered to collect wood and paper and whatever else would burn.  They brought a pot with water from the lake, and created three towers of cans to hold the pot above the fire.

A small stack of old newspaper and bits of scrap wood were arranged under the pot.  Neither lighter worked, but the first match lit easily and the paper was alight within moments.  The pot was already on its pedestal gathering warmth for the box of noodles that awaited.  Smoke rose around the pot.  Abal put her hands near the fire and finally felt some real warmth returning after her swim earlier, she breathed deep, the smell of burning wood calmed her nervous mind.

“Abal,”  Michael said, “We. umm. We should be careful.”

She had wanted him to be more forward, he was with everything else, “Because I might have it.”

“Yeah, we might be in trouble if it,” he paused and closed his eyes, “if it turns out you got the Virus.”

Abal was frustrated, “In trouble?”  If she had it she was going to die and all he could muster was ‘in trouble.’  “What do you want to do Michael, how do you want to handle this?  Just shoot me right now and get it over with or leave me alone to die?  I mean as long as I’m dying here we might as well be practical about it.”  

“You don’t have to do that.”

“Do what?  You want me to calm down?  Yeah, why not, by tomorrow I’ll probably be trying to kill you guys so why not enjoy the now right?  You gonna shoot me when my back is turned, keep you and your fucking brother safe?”

Michael and Max looked into the fire.  Tears of fear and confusion began to well in Abal’s eyes but she continued to glare at Michael.  With caution he slowly looked up towards her face, but stopped at her mouth.  With one hand he pulled down her bottom lip, she didn’t pull away, but she didn’t do it herself, so he continued.  Michael opened her mouth and looked inside.  He was searching for blood, but found none.  It meant very little except that she was not dangerous for the moment.  Michael pulled away and put his hand over the pot to feel for warmth, not much yet.  Max continued to watch the fire, he had wanted to say something about breathing in the smoke but the conversation had turned too quickly.  In a moment he would regret keeping his mouth shut.  The smoke drifted up and out of sight, where it was detected by an alarm still running on good batteries.  The food was not going to be cooked.

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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 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.