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 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 18

Abal awoke feeling no better than when she had fallen asleep just a few hours earlier.  Her dream was still fresh and she remembered all the details of her night in Paris with Michael.  Looking back, the Paris she had created was nothing like the pictures she had seen.  Somehow she had known that it was Paris despite the fact that they had only walked down a road and sat in a cafe.  Now Abal looked up at the man with whom she had strolled through streets of France only moments ago, and he had no idea.  When Michael saw that the second guard was awake he stopped tapping her.  Abal pulled the sheets off her body and felt the cold air against her skin, she was dressed in her new clothes but knew that she would need a sweater soon.  Michael took her hand and led Abal out of the room being careful not to wake his brother.  Michael’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness so he walked in front as Abal groped the wall, her hand brushing over pictures and quilted passages from the Bible.  When Abal felt her guide stop she held his hand tighter.

Michael turned around and whispered in her ear, “Be careful.”

They were at the staircase.  The first floor was no brighter than the second, the moon was obscured by clouds and provided almost no light.  Michael sat Abal in a chair that was set against a wall and faced the stairs.  Michael turned back towards the staircase but the second guard did not let go.  

Abal spoke with a soft curiosity, “That was a very unusual thing you did for James.”

Michael paused for a moment looking at her, she couldn’t see him, “Why is it unusual?”

“I mean unusual for you,” Abal said, Michael didn’t respond, “I’m glad you did that, just like what you did for me.”

The two remained silent for a moment.  Abal could see the outline of Michael, his back was still turned to her, “Why did you do it?”

Michael said, “Because it was the right thing to do.”

“Or was it because Tyler wanted us to join.  You are very protective of that boy, and you give him whatever he wants.”

“I don’t give him whatever he wants,” Michael hesitated a moment, “But he’s very smart.  He can talk to people very well and can explain things in a way that makes people want what he wants.”

“He’s very wise for his age.”

“No, no, not that.  He is still young and idealistic.”

Abal waited for more, she was expecting an explanation of why ideals and wisdom can’t coexist. “So in order to be wise people have to be pessimistic?  Like you.”

“Tyler doesn’t know that there are purely bad things in the world, he would try and rehabilitate viral if I let him.”

“I don’t think you give him enough credit.”

“No,” Michael’s voice got louder, “He doesn’t know when to quit.  Tyler wanted to sacrifice himself for every piece of trash dying in the city gutters.  You and James are alright but before you he tried to help all the infected, dying bastards who called out from the side of the road.  If they couldn’t walk he wanted me to stitch and bandage them.  Recently he started asking me to kill those who were too far gone, that was a step up.  I agreed the first time, but he kept asking me and we can’t spare the bullets.  He wastes and he wastes, he has no idea what I do to keep him safe.”  Michael backed away from Abal.

“You do a lot for that boy.”

“He doesn’t know or care,” Michael paused, his breathing returning to normal, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Michael,” Abal called after him but he continued up the stairs without acknowledging her.  Abal lay her head backwards, she needed to think.

 

Abal awoke and jerked sideways, as if she had been hit by a taser, nearly falling out of the chair she had fallen asleep in.  Her heart sped up when she found how light it was, the sun from a window had woken her up.  Abal raced upstairs, she imagined blood and bodies scattered about the rooms where her companions had been sleeping.  It had been her job and she let them die.  Or escape.  Abal looked into the first room and saw that is was empty, no people, no packs.  The room James had slept in was the same.  Abal raced back to the first floor and rounded a corner into the kitchen.  The boys were sitting around the table, Abal smiled and wiped the sweat that had formed on her brow.  But her joy faded when she had a moment to take in the condition of her companions.  James looked like he had passed out on the table, there was some drool on the table under his open mouth.  Tyler held his hands together and sat very still, watching his feet.  Michael’s arms were in his lap, and his eyes were like battering rams focused on Abal’s skull.  

He was the first to speak, “Sleep well?”

“I’m sorry.”

Abal fidgeted in her chair as Michael continued, “We were going to have you search for food, but thought that might be too hard for you.  So we’re going to leave you here, think you can stay awake until we get back?”  Abal didn’t respond.

Tyler’s voice was a weak, pleasant contrast to his brother’s, “That’s enough Michael.”

Michael responded without his gaze leaving Abal, “Shut up, we could have died last night.”

“It will never happen again,” Abal looked into Michael’s eyes, but turned away after a moment.  She could not face his rage, but she was even less prepared when she saw tears in his eyes.  His eyes stayed on her for a moment more before he pushed himself away from the table, knocking down his chair.  He left the room and Abal heard the backdoor creak open and slam closed.  Tyler caught eyes with Abal, a shared fear and depression passed between them, then he turned away and followed his brother.  Abal lay on the table next to her starving companion, tears welled in her eyes.  

 

Tyler imagined himself running up behind his brother and squeezing him with all the strength he could muster.  Michael would turn around and be angry at first, but he would see tears in his little brother’s eyes and ask “What’s wrong.”  Tyler would continue to cry for a moment, unable to get words out because he was so distraught.  Michael would wait patiently while the tears subsided and the young Mackay could speak his mind.  Tyler would explain that it was not Abal’s fault, she did not mean to fall asleep while being on guard, it was one time, she would be okay.  Tyler would plead with his brother not to make her go away, that she was great, fantastic even.  There would not even be any punishment because both brothers would be filled with understanding for each other.  Michael might resist at first, like he always did, but the tears would win him over, the complete pity for Tyler would take over and there would be no more fighting, only apologies.  In that world the pair would find food and matches along with a host of cooking implements after their embrace.  Tyler licked his lips at the thought of meat with some seared edges, food so hot that it almost burned the roof of the mouth.  In a perfect world there would never have been any viral.  

Tyler didn’t cry, he hated crying.  Even before the speech he had gotten from Michael he hated crying, but back then he had loved the effects his tears had on others.  After crying, whatever Tyler wanted arrived before his eyes.  After crying, arguments between his mother and father resolved themselves in an instant.  After crying, the world became brighter to compensate for the gloom that had taken away his hope.  Then one night when mom left and said she would never come back, Tyler began to cry, but the world stayed down with him.  Everyday for a week the pain in Tyler’s chest made him cry for his mother, but she never came.  At the end of that very same week Michael had sat Tyler down for the nicest speech that the older brother had ever given.  Michael explained to Tyler how crying works.  After the talk Tyler stopped crying for his mother.  

“Weeping can make a problem disappear before your eyes,” Michael had told Tyler, “But the problem is still there.  When you cry the people who love you will hide all the problems of the world from sight.  You will see nothing but the brightest corner of the sky.  The only problem is that clouds surround your patch of brightness, clouds you will never know about.  Tears can get you whatever you want, but they solve nothing.  Emotions will be hidden and problems kept behind closed doors.  Once you are seen as weak, people will not burden you with knowledge.  Bits and pieces of the world will crumble for reasons you are unaware of because despite what you see, the invisible problem is raging right below the surface.”

Tyler thought it had also been one of the most poetic rants he had heard from Michael, he wished he could remember it all perfectly.  Tyler continued to force back his tears.  He wanted to cry, he wanted all his emotions to be on the table for his brother to see and sort through and eventually fix.  But Tyler had to grow up, he had to handle his problems like everyone else.

“Michael?”  Tyler spoke even softer than he had intended.

No response.  “Michael?” Perhaps his brother hadn’t heard Tyler.

No response.  That had been loud enough Tyler decided, Michael didn’t want to talk.  

“I think we should stay with Abal and I think that your treatment of her this morning makes more punishment a waste.  We have both made that mistake and although it is a terrible one, she understands it.  With four people we will all be getting enough sleep soon and there won’t be any problems with anybody falling asleep during their time anymore.”  Tyler thought he could have worded it slightly better, but overall not bad.  

Preparing for a long silence Tyler focused on the road ahead of him when Michael turned around on his heel.  The tall man extended his body to its full height and glared at his small brother, “What we do with her is up to me, not you.  She could have gotten us killed, you don’t understand the consequences while I have to.  I’m the one who has to worry about both of our lives, I’m going to make sure we survive.”  

Tyler stared up at his brother and nodded once, Michael turned back around and continued down the street.  Now more than before Tyler’s brain and his tear ducts were in conflict.  The surprise and fear of what had just happened made Tyler want it to all disappear in a rush of salty water from his eyes.  But Michael was in a mood that Tyler had never seen him in before, and now more than ever he thought that this was the wrong person to cry in front of.  Tyler snapped back into reality when Michael gave a sharp command to follow, Tyler felt his feet move.  He didn’t know what was happening, but he did know that he really really wanted to be a kid.  

Michael pressed the butt of his pistol against the window.  His muscles began to strain as he put more and more force on the glass until it split with a dull crack.  Michael then worked on the crack, tapping out small pieces of the pane with his gun until he could fit his hand through the hole.  Michael then reached inside and unlocked the door.  

The front room was open, no hall just wide doors from one room to the next.  A sink was easily in an adjoining room, Tyler guessed it was a kitchen.  Michael made his way straight for kitchen and Tyler followed.  In the kitchen Michael began pulling open cabinets and Tyler followed suit.  

“Check the fridge,” Michael said.

Tyler stopped working and looked up at his brother.

Michael stopped raiding the cabinets and looked down, “Did I say later?  Get over there.”  Tyler turned toward the refrigerator.  “Hurry up.”  Without a second thought he stood in front of the silver box, his hand wavered in front of the handle before he pulled it open revealing dry, empty shelves.  “We check them from now on?”  Tyler nodded.  “Now look for a pantry.”

With a single step Tyler was in front of a door next to the empty silver box.  

“I found it,” Tyler said, behind the door was a room like a closet, but since it was in the kitchen Tyler assumed it was what his brother had meant when he said ‘pantry.’  

“Well search it, James can’t wait forever.”

Tyler obliged, he walked in the pantry and closed the door behind him.  He then let his back slide down the door until he was on the ground.  The only light that entered Tyler’s haven of depression was a thin slit coming from under the door.  A quiet dark place to sit with thoughts and emotions and let go of restraint without fear of reprimand, so Tyler cried.  There was no one to hold onto and make the pain disappear so Tyler hugged his knees.  For what seemed like far too long the child sat in the dark and let his fear fall in light salty drops onto his hands. 

The whole room was a light brown color with the amount of dust that covered the floor and shelves.  Several brown cylinders sat on top of brown shelves, a brown container was in the back of the brown closet.  Tyler pulled down one of the cylinders, leaving a circle of white on the brown shelf, with his sleeve Tyler wiped dust away from his find, it was peanut butter.  Under the cap the seal was still unbroken, there had to be thousands of unspoiled calories in Tyler’s hand.  Tyler continued searching the cylinders.  Pickles, they would be rough of the stomach at the moment but Tyler enjoyed the taste, he set the jar next to the peanut butter.  Two jars of tomato paste, they would need to find a can opener because the metal cans were solid.  

By the time one cylinder was left Tyler had several jars of pickles and two containers of peanut butter.Tyler reached for the last container, it was larger than the others and he needed both hands to hold it safely.  “Bacon wraps.”  The seal was broken and the cylinder was only about half full but the little red-brown rolls seemed uncontaminated.  Tyler reached his hand in and pulled out one “wrap” and held it up to his nose.  He didn’t know what dog treats were supposed to smell like and still had no idea what he was holding but it was salty.  Michael was sitting on the counter and he watched his brother emerge.  

“Anything?”  Michael asked.

“Plenty,” Tyler narrowed his eyes, “but I’ll need your help to carry it.  Unless you have another plan where I can take care of everything.”  

After a moment Michael responded, “We better get back to James.”

The boys stood in the coset and Michael inspected Tyler’s find.  

“Should we take it all or just a spoonful of peanut butter to remind James of how hungry he is when he wakes up,” Tyler’s fists shook at his sides while he spoke.

Again Michael hesitated, “What did you say?”

“I asked if you were going to be smart or continue to be an unsympathetic jerk,” Tyler bit his lip, it was too late to go back now but he wished he had chosen a better insult than ‘unsympathetic jerk.’  

 

Michael shoved the tomato sauce into Tyler’s chest where the little brother grabbed it with both hands.  Of course the boy would want to bring food back only for the waste of flesh he had met two days before.  Michael put a peanut butter jar in the dog treat container and shoved it towards the grimacing boy who held the tomato sauce.  Michael had taken care of his brother when he was young because he was helpless, now the older Mackay had to make sure Tyler didn’t feed himself to the viral.  Of course the martyr had no idea how much work it was to keep him alive.  Michael grabbed the other can of tomato paste, the jars of pickles, turned and left the pantry without answering his brother’s question.  Michael felt dark humor in the new meaning he had ascribed to the word work.  Constant running, sleepless nights, weeks without food, disrespectful clientele, one wanted for position to fill a lifetime, must be willing to kill.  Michael waited for his brother at the door, very disrespectful clientele.  Michael could still picture the man who had wanted to kill Tyler.  Michael remembered the satisfaction he had in ending that man’s life.

 

The brothers walked toward the kitchen where they had left the starving man and hungry guard.  James was in the same position that he had been left, but Michael noticed that Abal was not at the table and with a furious burst he rushed into the kitchen.  No sooner had he entered than he noticed he had a shotgun trained on him.  Michael froze, his anger could not be expressed through action at the moment.

“Alert enough for you?” Abal said with a faint smile as she lowered the gun she had pointed at Tyler when they first met.  Michael walked past her and sat at the table next to James.  With two fingers and his thumb Michael grabbed the muscle between the neck and shoulder of James, who rolled away from the pain before waking up.  Michael grabbed a half empty energy drink from his backpack and wrapped James’s fingers around it.  

When Tyler entered Michael said, “Peanut butter first.”  Tyler rolled the dog treats across the table to his brother.

“So the triumphant return with many gifts,” Abal said, getting a smile from Tyler and a grunt from Michael.  Abal rubbed her forehead, the brotherly expedition turned out like she had hoped in terms of food, but the problem she had hoped would blow over was burning.  Tyler’s smile lasted only a second before he returned to staring hate at his sibling.  Abal sat back as Michael forced globs of brown into James’s mouth, Abal would give it the day and maybe the brothers would work things out on their own and be stronger for it.  

“Someone find something to open the cans,” said Michael as he watched James slowly recovering.

“You guys found tomatoes, that’s great,” Abal said. 

Neither of the brothers responded.  Michael appeared to reading reading nutrient labels on the food, Tyler just looked down, rubbing his hands together.

“Whoever robbed this place might have left a can opener somewhere, I’ll start looking,” Abal said before backing away from the table.

 

The pickles were gone along with half the peanut butter.  Everyone had tasted a dog treat, but no one could eat more than a few, Abal thought they would get used to them though, so she packed them up.  The tomato paste was packed with a can opener into Michael’s bag.  James was smiling and flexing his legs, after eating all that his weakened stomach could handle.  The group moved out, Michael did not want James’s former group to loot the entire lakeside community.  James thought the lack of words was comfortable, his face was not as pale.  The silence continued until the group prepared to enter a tan cottage.  Tyler gripped Abal’s wrist and tilted his head toward Michael.  Neither knew how he was going to try and access the interior of the house, but as he walked, his feet snapping twigs, the pair was distracted by another noise.

Abal gave a hoarse whisper, “Michael,” when he turned around she pointed toward the side of the tan house.  All motion stopped and a deeper silence fell, it bound the air around the survivors.

DL: Chapter 17

The lake was not massive, but it provided a large amount of waterfront property with a thin river winding into, and out of, the lake.   Before the group reached any residences they came across a blockade.  Two SUVs and two jeeps  were turned perpendicular to the road, bumper to bumper.  Five bodies were partially decomposed on the side of the barricade that the survivors could see, three of the bodies were right next to the wall of cars.  There was a message spray-painted across the vehicles, it read, “ TURN AROUND! STAY OUT!”  

After Michael determined that the cars were free of viral the survivors crawled over the hood of one of the jeeps.  On the other side of the barricade there were more bodies.  There were two shotguns and a pistol laying on the ground, but none of them had any ammo, the survivors continued past the cars with nothing more than a few sighs of disappointment.

Tyler continued walking without comment and returned to staring at his shoes.  He had not said anything since throwing up.  Abal had remained silent as well.  She did not know what to say, she felt that she knew the brothers after a few days, but both had surprised her over the past half hour.  Abal turned her gaze to the younger Mackay.  Abal had vomited since she escaped the viral, once when she was sick and laid out in a basement for two days, and three or four times when her fear had gotten the best of her.  When Abal came out of her thoughts, she was walking next to Tyler.  She raised her hand next to his shoulder but lowered it when the young man glanced in her direction with a small smile.  Abal smiled back and faced forward, she opened her mouth, but even though her head was jumping with ideas her voice box would not respond.  After a debate in her mind, Abal squeezed the shoulder of the poor brother, when he met her gaze she gave him a smile.

“Don’t worry,” she said.

Tyler smiled and let out a small laugh, “The most impossible demand invented by man.”  Abal responded with a blank stare, Tyler’s smile faded and looked away from Abal, “I have had a lot of time to think this over, and telling someone not to worry is something that almost no one can obey.  If a person could follow that they probably wouldn’t feel bad to begin with.”

“What should I say?”

“I prefer the straight lie, ‘Everything’s going to be okay.”

Abal was unprepared for the dark humor, “Well, it might not be true that everything is going to get better, but we are going to be okay.”

“How do you know?”

“We are clearly not the last humans, we found James,” Abal indicated toward the man who was now following them by his own accord.  “All of us have survived on our own perfectly and now that we’re together we are stronger.”

Abal looked at Michael for help; he stared into her eyes, and shook his head.  It was not aggressive or annoyed, Abal thought he looked more sorry than anything.  Another silence fell over the group as they merged onto the road around the lake.  The road split three ways, two paved routes around the lake and a pebble driveway.  The brothers had a silent exchange of indications and shoulder shrugs at the end of which it was clear that nothing had been solved.  Abal began walking towards the house closest to the group, she was soon followed by James and the brothers.  The place looked relatively new, and aside from the chipping red paint, it was in good condition.  The front door was open and Abal untied the maul from her back pack before pushing into the house.  

James stood with one foot inside and one outside.  He changed his view from the brothers to Abal and back again.  James’s breathing was heavy, he would not have minded starving, but he did not want to see anyone else eaten by viral.  Abal walked out of James’s sight, it took him a moment of holding his breath before he made a decesion.  James leapt into the house and ran to where Abal had disappeared.  Abal met him at the entrance to a kitchen, axe trained on his head.  James covered his face and let out a small yelp; Abal scoffed.  

“Nothing to worry about,”  Abal said,  “Except stupidity,” she lowered the weapon.

“I’ll keep an eye out for it,” James gasped.  

Abal scoffed again and walked to the cabinets.  James followed and they began searching through rotten products for something that may have retained worth without human help.  The fridge was not worth checking.  When the Virus first entered the United States fridges and freezers had yielded some benefits.  The insulation kept the appliances cold for a few weeks and whatever was stored inside was usable.  But after the first month with no electricity almost all the food was spoiled and survivors learned to avoid the fridge.  Abal stood back to back with James, her maul raised, while he checked the cabinets.  

James heard footsteps enter the kitchen but did not turn because Abal stayed still, it was the brothers.  Besides dust and mouse droppings the cabinets were empty so James moved to the drawers starting from the bottom.  As he moved up he heard someone rechecking the cabinets.  James was not paying much attention when he got to the top shelf and did not feel  how loose it was, when he pulled the drawer came off the rollers and fell onto the floor.  Metal clattered and wood splintered as the force of the fall broke the shelf and scattered its contents.  James crouched and grabbed a steak knife off the ground.  

At the crash from the kitchen Michael took his brother by the back of the neck and ran with him to Abal and James.  A moment later he turned to face the front door and took the maul from Abal.  Michael held the handgun in front of Tyler until the boy took it.  The house was silent except for heavy breathing and fingernails scraping fabric as Abal worked to untie her shotgun.  The group waited in a ball of protection for a full minute before Michael turned around and forced the maul’s head against James’s chest breaking the circle of defense.

James bent backward over the counter as Michael advanced the blade toward his sternum.  When the ax stopped moving James looked up into a pair of angry, fearful eyes.  “That type of noise is as dangerous as running into a viral at random,” the mouth below the eyes said.

James did not have time to respond.  Until that moment Tyler had been focused on the nearest window, holding the gun in shaking hands aimed at the potential entrance.  But when he heard Michael, Tyler turned around and pushed the head of the maul away.

“What do you think your doing?” Tyler said.

Michael did not break eyes with James, “let’s search the rest of the house.”

“Fine, I’m with you,” Tyler said, “We have to talk.”

 

The brothers reached the top of the staircase to the second floor.  There were scratches on the wall, but no blood.  

“Do you want to tell me what that was?”  Tyler asked.

Michael kept quiet.

“It’s not going to be like that, we are going to start talking.  We have been meeting people and we have to decide what to do.  We can’t contradict each other all the time.”

“That’s a big word,” Michael said.

“What?”

“Contradict, I’m impressed, normally kids in your situation don’t have a chance to study.”

“Shut up, so what are we going to do?”

“I could give you weekly quizzes to test your vocabulary.”

“Come on, this is important.”  The brothers entered what appeared to once be a bedroom, but there was no mattress.  Clothes were scattered along with their hangers and a dresser was tipped on its side.  There was a window frame, but the glass was shattered, some of it was on the floor, but most of it was visible on the roof.

“What that idiot did down there could have gotten us killed,” Michael said as he kicked a chair over.

“That wasn’t his fault.” 

“Does it matter.”

Tyler righted the chair and looked under the empty bed frame, “Of course, everybody makes mistakes.”

“Never like that.”

Tyler sighed, “Yes, like that.  We can’t just kill someone every time that happens.”

“We won’t kill him, just leave him.”

“No, that is a bad idea.”

Michael stopped searching the overturned dresser, “Why is that a bad idea?”

“Because he is safer with us, and we are safer with him.”

“Why?”

Tyler didn’t respond.  The brothers entered the bathroom next, its condition was similar to the bedroom.

“He made one mistake, but he made it this far.  That means he has to be good in general, so having him around could only help.  And we help him because without us he would kill himself.”

“Why should we care about him, he’s not one of us.”

Tyler walked back into the hallway, there was nothing in the bathroom.  One more bedroom upstairs, then the brothers would return to meet the pair searching the basement.

“He is human, and right now that is all that matters.”

 

Getting into the basement had proven difficult.  James had led and he seemed convinced that something was waiting under the stairs to grab his feet.  The first minutes were spent in silence, both people searching through the tools on the floor.  Abal stole a glance toward James while they were on their hands and knees.  He moved slowly every thirty seconds he closed his eyes and took some deep breaths before continuing.

Abal said, “You were stupid up there.”

James stopped working, “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”

“You want something to drink,” Abal sat down and took off her pack, “You are tired.”

“You don’t have much left.”

“We have plenty,” Abal removed a bottle of water and rolled it to James, “And it’s our water, not my water.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“You’re worried about Michael.”

“I mean upstairs, what the hell was that.”

“He’s not as crazy as you would think.”

“Sure,” James opened the bottle of water and put it to his dried lips.  He gasped when the liquid hit his lips and tipped the bottle higher, letting it pour down the sides of his mouth.  Abal waited for him.  

“He didn’t do it because of the kitchen thing.”

James tore the bottle from his mouth, “Oh really, because when he was trying to push that thing into my heart it sure seemed like that was the reason.  And when he said ‘If you do that again I’ll kill you.’”

“That’s not what he said,” The two looked away from each other, but their gazes wandered back up.

“Same thing, anyway, don’t think I’m staying.  I would rather die than sleep with that guy watching over me.”  James put the bottle to his mouth again, his earlier restraint forgotten.

“He did it because he doesn’t trust you around his brother.”

James coughed and pulled the water from his mouth, “The kid?”

“Michael would sacrifice himself for that little guy.”

“They’re brothers?”

“Yeah, Tyler would never want Michael to sacrifice himself though.”

“A get out of jail free card, who wants to lose that.”

Abal stared at James for a few moments, “You’re right, maybe you should just go off on your own, keep the water.”  Abal stood and moved towards a work bench.

“I’m sorry,” James said, “That was insensitive.”

“Now some politically correct bullshit.”

James stood up and approached Abal, “That was stupid of me, is there anything I can do to make it up.”  The two stood a foot apart, Abal turned around and crossed her arms.  James got trapped in her eyes, he closed his own and leaned towards her.  A sudden force in his chest that caught him off guard, he stumbled backwards and fell on his backside.  

Abal laughed, “Let me tell you a few things, first off, don’t be such a little bitch.”

 

Tyler bounced on his toes a few feet from the basement door.  Christ, were they searching or getting busy together, the two survivors were taking way too long.  Tyler began pacing, he was not going to let them speak, the argument with his brother had worked out and a stupid death wish was not going to mess up Tyler’s plan.  Wood creaked to let Tyler know the pair were finally coming up the stairs.  James appeared in the entrance and Tyler was waiting, with a quick semi-loud exclamation, he jumped toward his acquaintance.  James raised his arms and stepped backwards into the door.  Tyler giggled as James stumbled trying to get his balance.

Abal walked up the stairs with a smirk, “You’re looking better.”

“Feeling better, thanks,” Tyler said, then to James, “How are you?”

“Frightened,” Tyler waited for more, but James kept his mouth shut.

“Anyway, we have to talk,” Tyler indicated toward a table, “Why don’t we sit.”

With the three positioned around the table Tyler prepared to speak but James cut him off, “Where’s your brother?”

Tyler pouted for a moment, his rhythm was broken before he even started, “He’s keeping watch outside,” Tyler said, then took a deep breath, preparing for his speech once again.

“Why isn’t he in here?” James said.

Because he doesn’t like talking,” Tyler sighed, “Can we….”

James did not let Tyler finish his thought, “So he knew we were going to be talking.”

Tyler threw his arms up in exasperation, “Yes, of course, that is what we planned and decided that I would do it while he waited outside.” 

James crossed his arms and smiled at Abal through the corner of his mouth, she sat with a smirk on her face.  James annoyed Tyler almost as much as Michael did, and Abal thought that was a talent only a few had.

“So he didn’t…”

Tyler cut off James this time, “We can continue this later, right now I have something that I want to say.”  Tyler did not wait for his fellow debater to agree, “Michael and I have decided that it would be best for you to travel with us, James.  You have to have some skills to have survived so long.  And although you have been by yourself it is nearly impossible to survive for very long that way.  My brother says he’s sorry for threatening you earlier.”  Tyler continued, “So if you would like to live for a while longer it would be best if you came with us.”

James kept his arms crossed, “If your brother wants to apologize he can do it himself.”

Tyler nodded, “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Abal decided it was time to make herself heard, “And what if I don’t agree to this.”

Tyler’s mouth dropped slightly and he turned to Abal like she was a ghost, “What? You, you don’t agree?”

“So what if I don’t?”

Abal winked at James, then she said, “I’m a part of this group too and I think that three is the perfect number.”

Tyler took a moment to understand what was going on before responding, “Oh very funny.”

Abal and James shared a soft laugh and then he said, “You know I would still like an ‘I’m sorry’ from your brother right?”

Tyler sighed, “Don’t be such a little bitch.”

James stopped laughing and shrugged his shoulders at Abal who began laughing harder.  “Doesn’t your brother want you to have a clean mouth,” James said.

“He hasn’t cared about that for years.”

The three sat in silence for a minute.  

“So how long have you been on your own?”  Tyler asked when he was tired of the quiet.

“Not long enough for you to have faith in my skills as a survivor,” James responded, his eyes still focused in the distance, after a moment he continued, “Go get Michael, I only want to explain this once and it is important now that we’re traveling together.”  Tyler nodded and walked out of the living room where they had been talking.  Abal tried to send a reassuring smile to James but he was looking down at his hands.  A moment later the brothers entered.  Michael stood at the table and glared at James until the new companion looked up and they locked eyes.  Michael gave a curt nod followed by the same from James.  Michael turned and dragged a foot stool to the table, when he sat on it he was the same height as Tyler.  

James looked at each person in turn, “I have only been alone for two days.”  James began his story from when the three had found him and worked backwards.  He told them about his old group; manpower, weapons, location, as much information as he had.  The only part James left out was Leo.  His old friend’s body was in the woods, only barely visible from the road.  Leo’s body had bruises around the neck, and a sharp rock in his temple.  James concluded his story without mentioning his late friend, although Leo’s blood was spattered across James’s shirt.

“So what your saying is that we have a problem,” Abal and Tyler turned to Michael.

James stood up, “What?”

“The people you left are still out there as far as you know, and they’re probably mad at you.”

“I guess so.”

“So what are we going to do when we find them.  Do you think they would be angry enough to kill you?”

“Kill me?” James asked, Michael nodded, “Well I don’t think so, there might be one guy we have to deal with but he’s not important.”

“He might be very important, but that can be later, so they won’t kill you.  What would you people usually do if you ran into other survivors.”

“Everyone usually joined us, if they were suspicious looking or gave someone the feel of the Virus we sent them away.  If someone was clearly infected we killed them.”

“So we aren’t dealing with pirates, that’s good to hear, how long until we run into them?”

James sat back in his chair and rubbed his hands together, “I’m not sure, the guy I mentioned we might have to worry about had been acting really weird.  They might have turned around and we won’t see them ever or they could have double timed it around the lake and we’ll see them tomorrow.  But my bet is that they are staying in a house across the lake, this guy, Bones, all the traveling was making him crazy, I think he wanted to settle into a house.”

“We should prepare for all three,” Tyler said.

“Yes,” Michael said and turned to James, “You’re tired, you need some sleep.”

“Actually what I could really use is some food.”

“Well we don’t have any, I’m sorry” James was struck by the change in tone in Michael’s voice.  “I’ll keep first watch, Abal you have the second and Tyler will have third,” Michael’s voice softened as he clenched and unclenched his fingers, “You need a full sleep Jeff, so that is what you’re going to get.”

James rapped his fingers on the table, “It’s James.”

“Sorry, James, is that okay with you?”

James nodded, “I’ll go find a bed.”

“You all should, we might have a lot to deal with tomorrow from what James tells us,” Michael said.

The three filed through the doorway out of the room.  Tyler looked back at his brother who was rubbing his temples.  The young Mackay wanted to stay awake and talk with his brother, but Tyler was exhausted, and he could tell that Michael was in no mood to talk.  

DL: Chapter 16

Michael shook Tyler by the shoulders.  

The boy blinked his eyes a few time, “Time to get up?” Tyler yawned and pushed himself up on his elbows, his eyes trying to adjust to the darkness, “Wait, what time is it?”

Michael smirked, “My watch is dead, I don’t know.”

“You know what I meant, why are we up so early, is the sun even out?” As Tyler waited for a response he lay back and shut his eyes, only to be shaken again a moment later.  Michael looked his brother in the eyes and rubbed his stomach.  Tyler’s hunger was growing in his stomach every day.  The longer they waited to trek to the city the harder it would be.  Tyler nodded and swung his legs off the side of the bed and sat up.  Content, Michael moved on to his next victim.  When Abal was more awake than asleep Michael set off around the house, double checking for anything he may have missed.  

By the time he returned to the bedroom the other two were standing and looked alive enough to travel, relatively.  “Let’s head off,” Michael said, Tyler got behind him with a slow five steps, but Abal stayed where she was.

“What’s the rush,” She responded, “I think we should wake up some more, and let the sun rise so we can see what we’re doing.”  Michael glanced at his brother, unsure of what was an appropriate response.  “Well whatever you decide to do I’m not leaving without some food first, you can join me if you’d like.”  

“Are you offering us something to eat?” Tyler engaged in conversation while Michael continued to stare.

“Yeah, so you’d better take it because you’re starving.”  At this Michael began to laugh.  “What’s so funny?”

“You,” he said, now Abal stared at him, “It’s not important, anyway what you got to eat?”

 

Tyler had protested at first claiming that they would never have done the same for Abal, she pointed out they already had.  While each person ate their own can of beans Tyler caught Michael’s eye, and with his brother’s focus, Tyler nodded toward Abal.  Michael sighed at first but Tyler was persistent.

“Abal,” Michael said, “My brother and I were wondering if you want to travel with us?”

“I am traveling with you,” she stated.

“And after we get off this road?”

Abal continued to eat her beans, her heart was beating faster, but she kept her breathing even.  “I thought we were going to stay together anyway.” 

“My brother was right,” Tyler was smiling wide, “You are funny.  So we will stay together after we get out of this place, sounds great.”

“So, so we are staying together,” Michael hesitated, “It’s decided.”

“Guess you’re stuck with me.”

“Yeah.” A silence followed while the group finished their beans and sat in a circle.  Tyler enjoyed the food and sat wondering if they would ever cook something they caught.  Abal wrapped her head around the idea that she had dodged a bullet she had not even known was coming, but calmed herself knowing that the previously unknown problem was solved. 

“Abal,” Michael said, his voice was a little too loud, “Are you ready for the city?”

“What are you talking about?” Abal prepared her mind for some test Michael was going to give her.

“I think you need something before we head out.”

 

New and broken in all at the same time, Abal was glad to leave her old blood soaked shirt behind along with the rest of her tattered outfit.  The dried blood around the shoulder had made her former shirt stiff and coarse, the bottom had been torn and it had felt like an insect was crawling up her stomach when the frayed fabric rubbed her stomach.  Now a concealing snug tank top adorned her torso.  Her pants had been tight, black, and semi-casual.  Now that the formalities could be dispensed with having lived with the boys for two days, loose jeans and a belt took over, Abal could not remember why she had stuck with her restrictive slacks for so long.  She changed out of sweaty socks but the sneakers remained.  The only pairs of shoes in the house in Abal’s size had been pumps, slippers, and other models not made for running.  Her recent lack in food had negated Abal’s need for a bra, but for comforts sake she wore one, luckily the women who had lived in the house had been starving herself or had had the metabolism of a hummingbird and almost everything fit Abal.  She thanked Michael after leaving the house, it had been a simple but perfect idea.

The boys continued on with the same clothes they had worn for weeks.  Nothing in the house fit either of them.  At one point Tyler had wanted to go with a long sleeved shirt that was too big for him, cut off the extra bits and it would be good protection.  It turned out to be a stroke of luck for Tyler that he had told Abal, and not his brother, about the plan for the new shirt, because Abal informed him that it was, in fact, a blouse.  Tyler decided that he really didn’t want any different clothes.  There were only a few miles left between the survivors and their next city, Tyler would be able to find new apparel soon enough.  

 

The group was in a tight formation on the road and covered in shadows.  The sun was rising, but below the tree line, enough light to see destinations and threats, but not enough to make the survivors feel exposed.  From a logical standpoint, Tyler knew that he was no safer during sunrise than he was at high noon, if they walked by the wrong point at the wrong time they were in trouble, it didn’t matter the time of day.  But the darkness did have a draw that Tyler accepted.

The beans from an hour ago already felt like they were past his stomach, his body had been grateful for the food, but it was ready for more. His organs bubbled and burned preparing for a grand feast.  It happened every time Tyler ate.  He knew that the food was all gone but his brain never told his stupid body to forget about it.  Tyler wished he would only have pain when he needed it, not when he already knew what was going on.    

They were still a mile or more from the city when Michael stopped.  

“Get back,” Michael said.

Abal followed Michael’s eyes up the road.  She could not find what made him stop, “There’s nothing there.”

“By the tree line on the left side,” Michael began to move forward as the other two adjusted their view.

“I don’t see anything,” Tyler whispered.

Michael remained focused forward but he smiled, “Grow a little.”

“A body?” Abal said.

“It’s still moving.”

“Where? What are you talking about? Should we stop?”

“Shut up, and give me the ax,” Michael said.  Tyler obliged, clenching his teeth to hold back his rebuttal.  The group advanced and the younger brother kept his arms crossed until a man with dirty blond hair came into his view; he was face down and his limbs were sprawled in the wet grass.  When Tyler saw the body there was a clear rise and fall of its back, it was breathing.  Michael jumped over the ditch and walked toward the body spinning the axe in his hands.

“Check if it’s human,” Tyler said.

His brother didn’t respond, “Michael, Michael, come on he could still be alive.”  Michael stepped over a kayak paddle a few feet from the body.  He had never seen a resting viral, but he had seen plenty of people pass out or fall asleep human and wake up spitting infected blood at other survivors.  

Michael put the axe an inch from the head and readjusted his grip.  With his back swing Michael prepared to concentrate his force into the blow, but Tyler made a split second decision and dashed forward.   The younger brother lowered his shoulder and rammed his brother.  Michael swung, but the axe missed the target and instead dug into the ground.   

“What if it’s human,” Tyler said, not meeting his brother’s eyes.

“No human would sleep out here, it’s suicide,” Michael responded, “Now get out of the way.”

Tyler took a step so he was standing over the body, “No.”

Michael looked down; his idiot brother had his feet an inch from the face of the probable viral.  Michael grabbed his sibling by the back of the neck, dragged him a few feet from the body, and said, “What do you want me to do?”  

Tyler stood up straight and said, “Get ready,” He hit Michael in the stomach and pulled away, Tyler then went to the body and kicked it in the ribs before retreating.  Michael reached for his brother but Tyler moved out of the way.  With a clear line of sight Michael prepared to split the skull of the now writhing body, but he hesitated.  The possible viral was rolling away from Michael, it would see him before it could even stand up.  Ax at the ready, Michael waited for the body to recover.  The body rolled on the ground, clenching its side, but it paused for a moment when it saw the large Mackay brother.  It crawled backwards on its butt and held one hand in front of its face.

“Do you have it?” Michael relaxed his grip on the maul, but it still remained in a potential striking position.

The man stopped backing up and lowered his hand, realizing that trying to stop folded steel with malnourished hands was not going to work.  He turned his gaze from the weapon to the man holding it, “No.”

Michael took a moment to lower his weapon but finally did and said, “Which way you headed.”  The man pointed in the direction that the three had come from, Michael looked back and nodded slowly, “Well then,” he said with a faint smile, “Have a nice life.”  With that Michael was back toward the road, handing the axe back to Tyler on the way.

The man was rubbing his forehead and his side while Tyler turned to his brother, “We can’t do that,” he said.

Michael stopped but stayed facing the road, “Why not?”

“It’s not right.”

Michael turned and started toward his brother, “He got off with his life, I’d say he’s pretty damn lucky, I’d say that we did more than we needed to.”

“I say we have to be better than that,” Tyler said, he let the head of the axe slide to the ground and folded his hands over the bottom of the handle.

She broke the silence, “So what’s the deal, this guy joining us.”

 Michael took a deep breath, “We’ll make it to the city soon, I suppose there isn’t too much he could steal for now.”  Tyler smiled and turned around.

Tyler crouched down so he was on the guy’s level, “So where did you say you were going again?”

The man took a second to decide if he was being asked a trick question before indicating with his head.  

“No, that won’t do.”

“Why don’t you tell me where I’m going.”

“You’re going to come with us.”

“Or else you’ll kill me.”

Tyler held his stomach and laughed like the man had just told a very smart joke, “No, that would be such a waste.  You’re coming with us because if you don’t you will die.”

“I don’t see a difference.”

“Well your idea was a threat, where mine is a fact.”  The man had time to respond but did not, so Tyler took his turn, “You have no food, there is no food until you reach the next town which is crawling with viral.  You will die if you don’t come with us.  We won’t kill you, but you will die.”

“Well, I’m still going this way,” The man pointed toward the death path.

“Why do you want to die?”  Tyler was ready for his last question to shock some sense into the desperate sap, but he was caught off guard when the man leaned back and looked off into the brightening sky.  “You want to die,” Tyler repeated.

“Look kid, you wouldn’t understand.  Life is different when you grow up.”

Tyler looked the man up and down, his clothes were stained with blood and his hair was around his ears.  He was barefoot.  “What’s your name?” Tyler asked.

“James.”

Before James could ask the same question Tyler continued, “James, you know what I think,” James smiled, ready for a view of life through the rainbow lenses of a child, “I think that you should not try and say I don’t know what life is like because I’m young.  I have seen the same shit you have.  Come on, you’re acting like a teenager who just had a break up.  There is no one else to replace the ones you’ve lost, really.  Why don’t we count?  And now you’re prepared to give up life.  That which your friends and family no doubt fought to hold on to is what you have, and you’re just going to give it up.  The human race doesn’t need any more suicides, we need survivors.”

James nodded, “Alright, see ya,” with effort he pushed himself up and walked to the road.  Tyler sighed, still squatting in the grass. 

The younger brother walked up to his companions and indicated toward the man ready to accept his death.  Michael tapped Abal on the shoulder and whispered into her ear.  Tyler smiled.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Michael was walking up behind James.

“Christ, how many times are you people going to ask me that?”

“If you go that way, you will die.”

James looked into Michael’s face with the eyes of a man about to reveal his darkest secret, “I know.”

Michael nodded in what appeared to be wise comprehension.  Tyler knew the truth; Michael was not considering what would drive a man to destroy himself, all he saw was a wrong decision that was selfish and foolish.

“That’s stupid,” Michael said.  It was not the reaction James had expected; he had no idea what was going to follow it.  Michael reached behind the man’s neck and locked his fingers into the pressure points.  James stood in shock for a moment craning his head backwards to try and relieve the pain.  James tried to grab the hand gripping his spine, but Michael took James’s wrist and forced it up his back, locking the joints in James’s arm.  After some additional twisting James was finally worn out.

“What the fuck man!” James said.

“As long as you stop struggling I won’t make it any tighter.” Michael said.

“This is your response to suicide.”

“You’re going to come with us to the city.”

“You can’t just make choices for people.”

“After we reach the city I don’t care what you do.”

“Answer me!”

“What’s your question?”

James hesitated, he didn’t have a specific question, “This is serious shit man, you can’t just man handle me and stop it.”

“You’re right, it is serious, so I will wait until you are feeling more mature to make a choice about it.”

“Are you kidding me?  You’re just…,”  James grunted with pain as Michael clenched his fingers tighter around the spine in his hand.

James bent and wrenched his body as Michael directed him down the road.  After a couple hundred yards James was breathing heavily and stumbling over every third or fourth step.  Michael considered questioning his captive but decided if James provided any information it would be useless and probably upset him.  No matter what information the group found out, they were going to the city, and they would approach with caution under all circumstances.  James gave another jerk, and Michael worked to keep him in place.  The older Mackay brother was burning through calories he did not have, but the man he restrained had less.  James looked like he was dying under his skin, and he did not have food when the three found him, he might have been trying to starve to death, how stupid.  Michael hated when people received beautiful gifts that they could not appreciate with their slow mental capacity.  

 

The walking was silent except for the occasional scuffle of feet or crunch of leafs.  Much of the foliage was moist, but some patches on the road had dried and crackled underfoot.  The first time a leaf splintered under Abal’s foot all four stopped and waited, but after it happened again the group ignored the noise and decided stopping would not help if something heard them.  The road had almost the same amount of fallen leafs that the forest did, a carpet of dead bio-matter.  Tyler moved away from his brother as James torqued himself and Michael had to readjust his position.  Tyler studied James’s unsteady gait.  No enjoyment, no friends, no hope, no life, Tyler’s stomach began to clench and his head swam.  There was no home to return to and there would never be another home.  Friends were all gone, and Michael was not who he had once been.  Tyler bent over, held his stomach, and continued walking.  The Virus was going to wipe out humanity.  Even if not everyone became infected it would not take much to become like the poor man that Michael now held in his hands.  Tyler began to cry, he knew what was about to happen and it only deepened his fear.  The boy in the back, the last of the four put his hands on the ground and knelt in the wet leafs.  Tyler wretched once and his crying became audible to the rest of the group.  Michael turned around and released the arm of his charge.  Tyler wretched again, he did not wipe the tears off his face, instead his arms remained under him and they shook with the effort of holding up his body.  Michael pushed James aside, and knelt next to his brother.  The partially digested food was slow coming up, and Tyler felt it burning every inch of his throat.  Michael had his hand on his brother’s shoulder and watched the skinny, shaking frame rid itself of the only calories it had.  The crying was only punctuated by vomit for the next several minutes.

When Tyler was finished and spitting up saliva he said, “I’m sorry.”

Michael’s voice was quiet, “It’s okay.”  

Tyler spat up clear liquid again, “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, we’ll find plenty of food in the city.”

Tyler calmed down and the tears slowed down.  He collapsed into his brother’s lap and held on with all his strength.  Michael patted Tyler on the back and moved his fingers through his brother’s hair.  

“What chance do we have if someone like that wants to kill himself.”

“It will be difficult, but it is not chance, it is all about us, and we are different.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know, but we’ll be okay soon.”

 

James had only moved a few steps since he had been released.  He did not think he was supposed to hear the conversation the brothers were having.  Their voices were hushed, but he heard them anyway.  A child he barely knew was getting sick over the idea that an almost total stranger was going to die.  Michael stood up and pulled Tyler to his feet, they walked past Abal and James towards the city.  Abal followed a moment later.  James stood in silence, they would leave him.  But they probably would not mind if he tagged along.