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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.