Authors: Khel Milam
Tags: #Zombie Apocalypse
She knelt beside her pack eyeing him as she disassembled the bow with quick, practiced movements and placed the pieces in a case beside her. She shoved the case into her backpack and stood up, pulling it on. For a moment, she stared at him pinned to the ground by the dogs, her eyes narrowed and her mouth set, then she shook her head, almost imperceptibly, and glanced down at her wrist. She lifted the turkey and called to the cat and began moving off.
“Get’em off me! Come on, you can’t leave me like this! Call’em off, come on! Just please! I’m not going to do anything to you. I swear.” He was struggling to force his voice down. “You want some of this food? I’ll give you some. I’ll give you a whole freaking bag. You’ll be set for days.”
She kept walking. “I don’t eat grave goods.”
The mutt turned to follow first. The mastiff, its eyes on her back, hesitated, whining. It looked down at the man then back at her, then released him, jogging after her.
“What the hell does that mean?” He sat up, grunting, and examined his arms and legs. Looking up after her, alarm spread across his face. “You can’t ditch me.” He pulled himself off of the ground and frowned slightly at his bags before hauling them up. “Are you saying you don’t eat food if it belonged to dead people? If so, you must go hungry a lot. Leaving it back there would’ve been nothing but a stupid waste of perfectly good food. What in the hell were they going to do with it? It’s not like they needed it or something. They didn’t even want it.”
“How do you know?” She was still moving forward.
“’Cause they eat people, not canned goods.”
“I don’t know what they eat. I don’t even know if they eat anything at all.”
“Sure as hell looks like they’re eating something when they’re taking a chunk out of somebody’s neck.” He started to limp after her.
She stopped and turned back to face him, shifting the turkey’s weight in her arms. “But the chunk is all they take and they don’t seem to need it any more than they need canned goods. They keep going whether they get it or not.”
“That kid on the ground back there had more than a chunk taken out of him.”
“But I don’t think it’s because they were hungrier or anything. I think it’s just a function of how long it takes for us to lose our sense of self from a given wound. You know? Like how long it takes for us to lose our purpose for being after we’ve been bitten. And since belly wounds, like the one the kid back there had, take longer to do that than neck wounds do, they took more of him.”
“You lose a lot more than your ‘purpose for being’ when you’re dead.”
“But they don’t really leave us dead. Just kind of pointless.”
He stared at her as if he was not quite certain she was joking or not. “I’m pretty sure when they kill you, you’re dead.”
“Well, obviously not, since you can still die later.”
“So if you’re not dead, what the hell are you, then?”
“I don’t know.” She shifted the turkey’s weight in her arms again and turned away from him. “Soulless maybe? Maybe that’s the whole point.”
As she walked away, his eyes cast about after her. He blinked. “Seriously, how much farther do you plan to walk?”
• • •
He caught up to where she and the dogs were resting in the shade of a live oak and dropped his bags on the ground. Rolling his shoulders back, he exhaled loudly. He shook the heavy dampness from his shirt and watched as she glanced first at a disk attached to her jeans and then at the band around her wrist. He looked around, clenching and unclenching his hands, his face petulant and beaded with sweat. “It takes an hour to go five feet waiting for that damn cat every five minutes.”
“Well, it’s a good thing, then, that no one has to be anywhere anymore, or worry about being late ever again.” She met his gaze with eyes that were not altogether benign. “So I’m free now to take as long as I like getting to wherever it is I end up for whatever reason I want.”
“Yeah, well, you sure check your watch a lot for somebody with all the time in the world.”
“It’s not a watch.”
“So, what is it?”
“And that thing?” He gestured at her waist.
“It tells you how far you’ve come.”
“Yeah, I know what it does. You sure as hell act like you have to be somewhere.”
She smiled slightly at the tail picking its way towards them. “Not having to be somewhere doesn’t mean you have nowhere to go.” She bent down and slid her arms under the turkey’s wings, embracing it and lifting it off the ground, and she and the animals continued on.
He waited, shaking out his arms and staring after them, then he reached for his bags. “We better be running out of steps soon. Just saying.”
he oak hammock had opened up. The pines and underbrush were gone now—the mature live oaks having pushed out everything between them but the palmetto at the bases of their trunks. Through the broadening canopy, wide swaths of sky were visible and the full moon, faint in the hot afternoon light, could be seen between the clouds stretched into long, thin ribbons by the breeze.
He tramped along behind her with one eye on the mutt nosing along in front of him and the other on the mastiff ambling at her side. “It was stupid to tie that mutt to your pack to guard it back there. With that pack left out in the open like that, it was just asking to be taken. That dog was a sitting duck.”
“I didn’t tie him to my pack to guard it. I did it to keep him from rushing the birds.”
“It was still a good way to get him killed.”
“Most people who come across a strange dog in the woods try to put it at ease, not hit it with a stick.”
His face flushed. “Not if they want what the dog’s guarding, they don’t. And even if they don’t go after the dog, nothing’s stopping them from waiting around for you.”
“Maybe, but most people who won’t risk going after the dog, probably won’t wait around to go after its owner either.” She came to a halt and looked down at the mutt and was silent for a moment. “But you’re right. I put him in danger. I risked his life for a meal.”
He hesitated as if confused. “Well, I mean, you got to eat.” Then he shrugged. “And if it comes down to you and somebody else, you got to pick you every time. Especially if it’s a dog.”
“No.” Her eyes met his. “You don’t.”
“I don’t know how you’ve lasted this long, if you really believe that. You got to do whatever it takes to survive now.” He glared at the ground. “Whatever it takes.” There was a tiny pause before he looked up again. “People’d kill you for that turkey. They’d kill you for that pack. They’d kill you for the dogs if they needed to. They’d even kill you just to make sure you didn’t kill them first.” He nodded to himself, his eyes focused inward. “So, yeah, you got to do whatever you got to do. That’s just how it is now. Things have changed.”
“No, they haven’t. People used to kill each other for cutting them off in traffic and texting during movies.” A smile played at the corner of her mouth. “If anything, people have mellowed out a bit these days.”
He gaped down at her. “What the hell are you talking about? Nobody’s ‘mellow’ now. Only an idiot wouldn’t know that everything’s changed.”
“Nothing’s changed. Except that the dead don’t die. And no one knows or cares what day it is.”
Disbelief and revulsion swept across his face. “Joke about it all you want, but good people, decent people, lie, cheat, steal, and kill now. They do things now they’d never’ve done in a million years back then.” His expression was strange, almost secretive. “Things they got to do to survive ’cause everything’s changed. Everything.”
“There’s no such thing as good people and bad people. There are just intellectually honest ones and intellectually dishonest ones.”
He shook his head. “That sounds like something Lex Luthor’d say to Superman right before he blew up the fucking world.”
She laughed a little. “That’s because villains are always intellectually honest. It’s what makes them villains, not that they do bad things. Superman did plenty of bad things.”
“You think there’s no difference between Lex Luthor and Superman?”
“No. I don’t. I think dividing the world into Lex Luthors and Supermans is just a game we play so that we don’t have to take responsibility for our actions. So that we can still feel good about ourselves when we do bad things. Actions are good and bad, not people.”
“Yeah, well, I like my chances a whole hell of a lot better with Superman, than I do with Lex Luthor.” He shook his head again. “I don’t even know why the hell I’m arguing with a person who thinks things are exactly the same as before the world went to shit.”
“If Superman kills a million people to stop Lex Luthor from blowing up the world, he’s still killed a million people. And that’s still bad.”
He closed his eyes, inhaling slowly through his nose. “It’s not like he’d be murdering’em or something. It’d just happen. It’d just be one of those things. There’s a big difference between killing somebody as collateral damage and killing’em ’cause you’re a dick.”
“I don’t know. I think if you were one of the one’s that’s dead, you might disagree. The world has pretty much already ended at that point, as far as you’re concerned. So I’m not sure it would be much of a consolation knowing it wasn’t personal. That it was ‘just one of those things.’”
“Shit happens. If killing a million people saves a billion, it’s worth it. If you could’ve sacrificed a million people to stop this, you’d have done it in a heartbeat.”
“Would I’ve?” She looked up at him, meeting his gaze full on. “And if it didn’t work?”
“Doesn’t matter. You still got to try.”
“You’re okay with killing a million people, just because you hope it might save the world?”
He glanced away then shrugged. “Why not? If you do nothing, they’re dead anyway.”
“You don’t know that. You’re still alive. I’m still alive. They might still be alive, too.”
“The odds are against’em.”
“Low odds are better than no odds.”
“Yeah, well, you’d have to be a real dick to say there’s a chance you might live, so fuck everybody else.”
“But at least if all you do is refuse to be sacrificed for them, you’re not condemning them to death. You’re just saying that we’re all in the same boat, and that the only person who gets to decide if you get tossed overboard, is you.” She lifted the turkey and began walking away.
“Who the hell’s talking about sacrificing people? You got to play the hand you’re dealt. Life’s not fair.”
She stopped and turned back towards him. “People are unfair, not life. Call it whatever you want, but condemning someone to die in the hope that you won’t have to is just trying to bribe fate. It’s no different than slitting someone’s throat over an altar in the hope that the gods will favor you in exchange.”
Looking skyward, he shook his head. “Bribing fate? Slitting throats? What the fuck are you talking about?”
“What else do you call letting someone die so that you can live?”
“I call it making hard choices.”
“How hard is it to do something that helps you?”
“Really fucking hard. Especially when you don’t want to do it, but you have to ’cause you don’t have a choice.”
“You always have a choice. You just convince yourself you don’t so you can pretend you aren’t doing something bad. Because you’re a good person and good people don’t do bad things. Unless they have to. Whatever that means.”
“It means you have a damn good reason.”
“It’s funny how good reasons never seem so good when you’re the one the bad thing’s being done to.” She turned around, walking away from him once more with the sun behind her and her shadow running ahead of her on the ground.
He glared at her back, his mouth pressed tight in a narrow, rigid line, and threw his hand up after her. “It’s not like that.”
“Then what is it like?”
he and the dogs curved through the oaks onto a bank beside a stream flowing quick and shallow into a still pool before rushing on its way. Beside the pool, two ancient live oaks, gnarled and weathered and stained by countless floods, stood arching away from each other, framing the sheer cliff on the far side of the stream. And behind them, the trees stood out in sharp relief against the aqua-gold sky, their shadows stretching out over the sand towards the water and their leaves rustling in the warm breeze.
The dogs trotted over to the pool and began lapping up the water with large, rhythmic gulps. She set the turkey down and slipped off her backpack and arched her shoulders, rolling them back and stretching each arm over her head, pushing hard against the air as if it was a great weight.
Favoring his ankle, he entered the clearing behind the three of them, stopping to watch as she wedged the turkey into the lowest crook of one of the giant oaks. He let his bags fall to the ground and examined his palms, wincing as he worked them open and closed.
She climbed the oak closest to her, and half a dozen feet off the ground, braced herself against its giant trunk and fastened one side of a sleeping-hammock to it. Then she hopped down and pulled the other end up the second tree.
He flung off the crossbow and flopped to the ground and lie back, shooing away, every so often, the no-see-ums and mosquitoes swirling around him as he gazed up at the sky. The full moon, so out of place against the blue, was bright and all that was left of the clouds was a peach-colored, paper-thin band sinking into the horizon.
He sat up and yanked a soda bottle and a can of beans from one of his bags. He gulped down half the bottle in a single go and pried open the can, scooping out its contents with his fingers, the juice running down his chin and staining his hands.
Twigs and small branches began raining down on the bank from above, and the dogs, protesting, jumped up from where they were lying between the oaks.
“What the hell?” He raised his arms above his head and squinted up at her, ducking and fending off the debris falling on him. Then he bent over sharply, cursing and rubbing his eyes.
She climbed down and gathered up the wood and the dogs settled back under the trees.