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 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.