Authors: Khel Milam
Tags: #Zombie Apocalypse
Her hands stopped abruptly at the sound as she struggled to untangle her quiver from a sapling.
He came up behind her. “If you’d been smart, you’d have taken off down the road when you had the chance. It was stupid to run off into the woods like you did. You could get lost out here.” With his free hand he reached over the mastiff towards the quiver. “Or stuck.”
The giant dog turned on him. He yanked his arm away, stepping back. The two of them, man and dog, glared at each other for a long moment then he wrenched his gaze away. “So what’s in that pack? You got any food in there? And what’s so goddamn important that way?” He raised the crossbow, motioning with it in the direction she was facing, both dogs growling until he lowered it. “What the hell do you think you’re going to find out here? There’s nothing out here. And it’s not like you can hide, I’m right here. So you might as well just stop, ’cause I’m not going anywhere.”
She turned, and for the first time looked him full in the face, engaging him in a battle of looks. Another clap of thunder exploded through the air, heavy with the odor of ozone and dead leaves. She raised her face to the sky. The clouds were thick overhead now and the strengthening wind was blowing a fine mist into their faces. She pulled a poncho out of the side pocket of her backpack.
“You got to be kidding me. If you got a freaking poncho in that pack, you can’t tell me you don’t have any food in there.”
She waded deeper into the underbrush. “Yes. I can.”
• • •
The downpour was hypnotic, suspending time, and so loud it drowned out the sounds of their footsteps and their breathing and the snapping of the branches and twigs as they passed.
She halted, glancing down with a detachment that seemed to negate his existence, and wiped the water from the face of the disk attached to the band around her wrist.
They had not spoken since having begun their march.
His shoulders jumped as the thunder sounded again. “How much farther are you going to go, goddamn it?” There was a hard, almost desperate petulance in his voice, but even shouting, he was barely audible over the rain. “You better figure out where you’re going and get there pretty damn quick, ’cause we’re not doing this anymore.”
Blinking the water from her eyes, she peered through the gloom behind her, her gaze straying when the cat caught up to them to the crossbow slung across the man’s back. The dogs stood next to her, eyeing him.
Then the mutt spun to the side, alert and growling, its hackles raised and its eyes boring into the grayness in front of it. The mastiff quickly angled itself with an unexpected agility between her and whatever held the mutt’s attention, pressing tight up against her, focused with its whole body on the thing ahead.
She squinted through the trees and the brush in the direction the dogs were facing. Everything was obscured by the rain.
“What is it?” His words were muted, despite the force behind them, as if coming from far away.
She raised her hand, motioning silence, her head cocked to the side, her face a mask of concentration. The sound of the dead wailing—hollow and unmistakable like an accusation—was there just under the roar of the rain.
Cursing, he fumbled the crossbow and it slipped through his hands to the ground. He picked it up, stood it on end, racing to wind the crank and pull back the string and cock the bolt, his eyes shifting from his bow, to her, to the dogs, to the noise in front of them. He aimed the crossbow over her head.
She crept with a delicate silence towards the sound, her face sharp but her bow hanging slack in her hand.
Still aiming the crossbow over her head, he did not follow. He shouted over the rain. “You’re supposed to walk away from them, not up to shake their hands.”
She kept moving gently forward. “It’s best to keep them in front of you.”
They were almost yelling now, their muffled voices carrying no farther than a foot or so ahead of them.
“People who don’t want them behind them.”
He hesitated, cursing again, then shook his head and followed.
• • •
The dead were in a clearing close by. She stood at its edge, her face quiet, gazing at them. There were only two. Both children. And neither able to harm anyone.
The smaller of the two was tied to a tree, straining hopelessly against a frayed rope that had worn through to its backbone, threatening to cut it in two. The larger child was lying on the ground near the tree, disemboweled, its limbs struggling feebly to raise a body that lacked the architecture to support it.
Remnants of clothing were lying like a bridge between them, and not far from them on the opposite side of the clearing, a dirty, white skull peeked through the gloom, a ragged hole just visible on the top of it.
He moved slowly into the clearing behind her, surveyed the scene and gave a short, hard laugh. Shouldering the crossbow, he picked up a stick and began taunting the dead.
She nocked an arrow without responding.
He gaped at the bow in her hands and dropped the stick, reaching for the crossbow. “Put it down. Now.”
She lowered the bow and stared at him flatly. “Let me release them from their misery.”
“They’re not miserable. They’re dead.”
“The dead condemned to walk the earth have always been miserable.”
His lips pulled back with a dismissive sort of disgust, but bowing in an exaggerated, permissive way he stepped aside.
She paused for a moment, gazing at the children, her expression somber. She wiped her hand across her eyes, and then against her thigh and loosed an arrow at the little corpse bound to the tree, and then another at the larger one trapped on the ground. Both collapsed with a sudden, abrupt lifelessness, like puppets when their strings are cut.
He re-slung the crossbow over his back, surveying the sad tableau once more with something akin to bored disdain and pointed at the child on the tree. “That little kid must’ve got bit first, and then it bit that pile of clothes, who must’ve eaten the other kid. And then clothes-one got taken out by the crypt keeper over there, who offed himself to top it all off.” He snorted, shaking his head. “Wouldn’t have happened if they’d just shot that first damn kid in the head to begin with.”
She was staring at the child on the tree. The rain caught in her lashes as it sluiced down her face and streamed through the creases of her poncho to the ground. “Maybe it’s not that easy to shoot your kid in the head.”
“He didn’t have a problem blowing away his wife.”
“What makes you think the suicide was the husband?”
“’Cause women don’t have the balls to shoot themselves in the head.”
“But women don’t usually have the strength to tie knots strong enough to last this long.”
He shrugged and swept his dripping hair from his forehead and went over to the skeleton and knelt down beside it, rooting in the detritus surrounding it.
Still looking at the smaller child tied to the tree, she watched the water carve channels through the dust-turned-clay of its skull. She slowly pulled her arrows from each child’s head. The voids left behind were like deep gouges in blocks of modeling clay.
Chortling, he brandished a dirt-encrusted gun. He checked the clip and cursed, punching the ground and pawing through the leaves, failing to uncover anything but the yellow fabric of a collapsed tent. “Fucking figures there’d be no bullets.”
Her eyes inscrutable, she watched him through the rain as he rummaged through the dead family’s possessions on the far side of the clearing.
His back to her, he crawled halfway into the tent, whooting and exclaiming every so often as he shoved the cans and bottles lying inside it into dirty plastic bags. “This much food, they must’ve croaked right after it happened.” He laughed. “God bless dumb-asses.”
“Dumb? Or merciful?”
She stared at him a moment longer then looked away, scanning the clearing. She glanced at her wrist and at the dogs beside her and at the cat behind her and slipped backwards into the woods. Her footsteps were quieted by the soft soles of her boots and the sound of the snapping twigs was drowned out by the rain.
He called to her. The silence stretched out. Cursing, he struggled as he extracted himself from the tent’s rain-heavy fabric. Once free, he rocked back on his ankles with a clumsy sort of haste, reaching out, steadying himself, as he peered over his shoulder.
Scrambling to his feet and whirling around, he surveyed the entire circumference of the campsite with the rain pounding down upon him, his expression harried and anxious, like that of a chess player staring at the board, realizing the game has been lost, but still grasping for some winning move.
She was gone.
He cursed again, balling his fists. He raised his elbows, pressing them tight against his head, and berated himself. He stalked around the clearing, scouring the ground with his eyes. The wet leaves were smooth and plastered to the ground, leaving no trace that he or anyone else had trod upon them.
He yanked the bags from the tent and ran to where they had entered the campsite, slipping over the ground’s oily surface. Encumbered by the overstuffed bags, he fell twice, hard, and cried out with an impotent sort of rage as their contents spilled out around him. “Where the fuck are you going to go? There’s nowhere to go, goddamn it.”
He re-stuffed his bags and clambered off the ground and broke through the undergrowth bordering the clearing. And with the rain flooding his eyes, he glared into the woods. The only things ahead of him were trees. And rain.
Hesitating a moment longer, he looked around, exhaled and plunged into the thicket in the direction they had been heading before stopping at the camp. His heavy bags caught and snagged on the bramble as he swung them wide, clearing a path.
• • •
There were no arrows in front of him or to either side and the arrow behind him had disappeared into the brush. Red-faced and panting, he set his bags down and exercised his elbows, clenching his fists open and closed.
Standing there alone in the woods in the rain, he shook his head and stared down at his hands as he massaged his palms. When he looked up, the rage in his eyes had been replaced with disgust. He turned in each direction, cursing under his breath at her and himself and the rain.
Then, sighing, he picked up his bags and resumed pushing his way through the scrub, angling sharply to his right.
• • •
The drone of the rain still drowned out all other sounds, but the spaces between the scrubby pines had begun to widen as more and more of them were replaced by gangly, young live oaks. His bags weighed down his arms and pulled at his elbows, and their handles cut into his hands. He stopped and let them fall to the ground and surveyed the area around him.
He flicked the water from his brow and squinted at a flash of blue fading in and out in the distance. He stared hard at it then snatched up his bags, his face victorious and eager, and began walking towards it. And as he closed the distance between himself and the blue feathers of an upturned arrow’s fletching, the rain began to slacken.
he rain had stopped and steam was rising from the ground now, mingling with the sunlight between the trees. A dog was alone ahead of him, tethered to something, straining against the weight of it, and barking at him with a rapid, intense mixture of anger and alarm.
• • •
The unearthly sound of wild turkeys calling to each other filled the air around her. A tom, some fifty yards ahead, was staring at her, its tail—red and amber and white-tipped—fanned-out behind it like a war bonnet. The bird held up its turquoise head, proud and defiant, and the sunlight glinted off the blue and copper iridescence of its chest feathers.
Standing side-on to the turkey she nocked an arrow, breathing with a slow, quiet deliberateness, gauging the distance as if there was nothing else in the world but her and the turkey and the space between them. She raised her bow and inhaled deeply, exhaled, and loosed the arrow.
The shot was creditable, knocking the bird back and sending the heavy, dull hens skittering upwards through the branches with unexpected lightness and grace.
As he sank to the ground, the tom regarded her for a long moment then his head dropped to his chest, resting on it as if sleeping, and his body slumped to the side, motionless.
With the mastiff rising to follow, she walked towards the turkey without haste, her expression pained, almost as if ashamed. And balancing the bow awkwardly over her shoulder, she knelt down beside the bird and ran her hand over its head. She lifted it off the ground and hugged it tight against her chest, locking her arms under its wings.
She turned her head at the sudden sound of a dog barking and started running towards the noise, the mastiff bounding off ahead of her. She struggled to keep hold of the turkey and clear of the bow knocking against her legs as she ran.
The agitated barking grew increasingly louder. When she reached the dog, she stopped dead, almost losing her grip on the bird.
The man was standing over the mutt with a stick raised high above its head as it struggled to reach him, fighting to pull free of its leash tied to her backpack. The man’s hair hung lank over his eyes, and his shirt, soaked through with sweat and rain, clung to him beneath the crossbow.
She faltered, leaning back, away from him.
Without lowering the stick, he shifted his attention from the mutt to her. Then his eyes widened and he began scrambling backwards waving the stick in front of him like a sword as the mastiff rushed towards him.
The mastiff planted its forelegs in the ground and grasped the stick between its jaws, shaking its head back and forth with a large, powerful, sweeping motion, and wrested the stick from his hand.
She ran to her backpack and loosed the mutt and it sprinted towards the man.
He stumbled back and fell against the base of the tree behind him, cowering in a ball under the mastiff snarling on top of him, and shying away from the mutt’s teeth jabbing at him.
“Call’em off!” His arms were wrapped around his head and his chin was pressed into his chest, muffling his voice. “I could’ve killed that mutt, but I didn’t. Anybody else would’ve. Then taken the pack and gone after you.” He was almost crying now with a desperate sort of rage. “I could’ve done it, but I didn’t. Call’em off goddamn it!”