Authors: Khel Milam
Tags: #Zombie Apocalypse
He looked up at the hammock, slurping the last dregs from the can. “If the dead don’t kill you, the fall will.” He tossed the can into the woods and licked the juice from his fingers and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He pulled up his knees, wrapping his arms around them, and watched as she began scooping a pit out of the sand. He downed the rest of the soda and threw the empty bottle after the can. “You won’t get it lit. Wood’s too wet.”
Her hands continued shoveling.
“The cat ran off again.”
“He’ll be back.” The hole dug, she sat back and went through her pack. She pulled out a book and the bow case and a second pair of leather boots, and boxes of plastic baggies, aluminum foil, and hand wipes.
He watched each item as it was produced with a sort of befuddled fascination. “You got to be kidding me. You carry around all that crap, but you don’t have any food?”
“I have food.” She was wiping away the worst of the turkey’s blood staining her hands, arms, and chest. “It’s in the tree.”
“And you’d be shit out of luck if you’d missed.” Reaching out for the book, he read the title aloud: “
Light in August
.” He thumbed through it without interest and tossed it aside and grasped for the bow case.
She pulled the case to her beyond his reach.
“It was dumb to pack it up. What if you’d needed it?”
She shrugged. “I can’t shoot with my arms full, so whether I needed it or not was moot.”
Several more objects emerged from her pack—a bag filled with white packets and bits of something dark, a salt shaker, a bottle of lemon juice, a bar of soap.
He stared at the assemblage and grabbed the lemon juice, snorting.
In the pit, around one of the white packets, she arranged the branches and twigs and struck two small, black pieces of metal together over them. The packet caught fire instantly.
He scowled at the flames as they grew stronger, his eyes filled with a jealous sort of embarrassment.
She regarded him from across the fire for a moment and pulled another packet from the bag, handing it, and the metal fire-starters, to him.
He waved them away.
“Go ahead. Take them.”
“You need’em more than I do.”
“I have more.”
Looking away, he snatched them from her and shoved them into one of his bags. Then he wrestled another soda out of the bag and limped sullenly off to the stream and wedged it between two rocks in the water.
She spread the turkey on its back over the sand and unrolled a knife from the leather boots and made an opening several inches below its breast. Sliding her hand into the cavity with a kind of measured gentleness, she removed the entrails and placed them on a square of foil beside the bird.
He walked back from the stream and stood over her. “You’re supposed to pluck it first.”
“Are you?” She stood up and brushed him aside and carried the foil to the water, letting the viscera slide off into the swift current draining from the pool then she rinsed the foil clean, washing her hands with soap before returning to the fire.
Picking up the knife, she cut vents on each side of the turkey’s breastbone then rocked the knife slowly back and forth under the skin of its breasts and its back and its thighs.
The dogs sat at attention a short distance away, their eyes following her hands as they moved over the bird, their ears pricking at the crack of its wings and drumsticks as she wrenched them from the carcass. And with a well-mannered sort of dignity, each accepted the thigh offered to it.
He frowned. “You just wasted at least two days worth of food.”
“They have to eat.” She wrapped the wings in foil and set them aside.
“That’s what that crap you just threw in the creek was for.”
“That ‘crap’ wasn’t good for them.” She carved the breasts from the carcass and poured the lemon juice over them.
“Dogs’ve eaten that shit for millions of years.”
“They’ve only been around for twenty thousand.” She rubbed the breast-meat with salt and sealed it in foil and placed it in the pit.
“Yeah, whatever. That stuff was dog food before there was dog food. And they liked it just fine.”
“The lungs, gallbladder, and pancreas are inedible. And the liver, kidneys, bladder, spleen, and intestines are the body’s sewage system.” She placed the gore-covered knife onto the carcass and stood up. “Would you want to eat that?”
“If I was hungry enough.”
“Even if I had given it to them, it wouldn’t even have been enough food for one of them.” She carried the tiny abattoir to the stream and knelt down beside the water and sent it chasing after the entrails. She then rewashed the knife and her hands with the soap.
She unlaced her boots, still damp from the rain, and turned them inside-out, laying them in the sunlight still hot and bright by the water.
He was still lying there propped on his elbows on the sand watching her from across the bank. “You knew about this place?”
“I had a good idea it would be here.” She was working the soap into a lather over her jeans. “Or at least something like it.”
“It’s the kind of thing people let each other know about.” She focused on the soap in her hand as she rubbed it into the fabric of her bathing suit, and with her back to him, she washed her arms and her chest and her neck, closing her eyes to wash her face and the velvet fuzz covering her head.
He continued to stare at her with a strange, almost subterranean intensity from where he sat several feet away, his gaze never straying from her as she bathed.
The soap bubbles ran off her skin, coalescing into islands on the surface of the still waters of the pool. She splashed herself with water, her back still to him.
He slid off the ground sidling up behind her.
She stiffened, raising her head sharply and squaring her shoulders, staring straight ahead, focused on the space between herself and the water in front of her. And with one motion, she stood and turned to face him.
He reached out and touched her arm.
Stepping back, she glared at his hand and yanked her arm away and stared defiantly up at him.
He looked away from her then nodded at the soap in her hand. “Can I use that?”
For a moment longer she stared at him, her expression softening as she handed him the soap.
His eyes still averted, he took it from her, dropping it almost immediately, wincing and sucking in air. He fell to the ground and plunged his hand into the stream.
“Are you hurt?” She knelt down beside him reaching out for his hand.
He waved her away with a sharp, flicking motion. “It’s fine.”
“Is it blistered?” She forced his hand over revealing his palm. The skin, an angry red color, had been rubbed raw by his bags and was crusted with blood and grime.
He flinched at her touch and tried to pull his hand away.
With unexpected strength, she held it tight. “Are they both like this?”
He looked at his hand and closed it into a ball. His eyes were filled with shame and a vague sort of vulnerability that hardened almost at once into a mask of stubborn defensiveness.
She was silent for a moment, focused inward as if debating some great matter with herself. Then she sighed, staring at his fist. “They’ll have to be cleaned and bandaged so they don’t get infected. You need to take your shirt off.”
“We need a cloth to clean them with. And your shirt’s filthy. Every time you touch it, you’ll risk getting bacteria in your wounds.”
His eyes skeptical, he gingerly pulled his shirt over his head and placed it, bunched up, in her outstretched hand.
She submerged the shirt in the stream and with the soap worked it into a lather against itself. She wrung the soapy water from the shirt over his arms and began scrubbing them with it. She rinsed and re-lathered the shirt, and with an efficient, frugal rhythm, she alternated between wringing, scrubbing, rinsing, and lathering until both the shirt and his arms were clean. Her eyes never met his while she worked, only stopping to rest briefly on the water and the soap and his shirt and his skin.
Hands clenched tight and grimacing, he stared at the ground, jerking away from her whenever the soapy water seeped through his fingers onto his palms.
She turned his hands over and pried them open and wrung the water from the shirt over them.
He hissed through his teeth.
She hesitated, staring at his palms, then wrung more water over them and patted them gently until they were clean. “You don’t look like you’ve bathed since the beginning.”
“I’ve bathed.” He grabbed his shirt from her. “But it’s not like hot showers are easy to come by these days, or that I don’t have more important things to worry about, like staying alive and all.”
She stood up, her eyes unconvinced. “Make sure you rinse them off well. And try not to touch anything until we can bandage them.” She hesitated again, gazing at the dirt and grime on his face and chest, then she dove into the pool.
usk was settling over the bank now. The woods bordering it were already dark. And the air was loud with the sound of cicadas and filled with the warm smell of roasting turkey.
He was sitting cross-legged by the fire with his hands resting palms-up on his knees when she returned.
With water still beading her skin, she knelt beside him and pulled a first aid kit from her backpack and dabbed his hands with alcohol and ointment and wrapped them in gauze. After repacking the kit, she pulled out a can of bug spray and held it out to him.
“Jesus Christ, every damn thing but food.” He whirled suddenly around, his hand stopping halfway through waving away the can. A deep-throated moaning noise was coming towards them from the woods.
Howling through its clenched jaws, the cat walked up to them with a high-stepped action, dragging a tree rat by the neck over the ground between its front legs. The cat dropped the rat beside her and stared up at her with a sort of recognition-seeking pride and climbed up her chest, head-butting her forehead.
She pressed her forehead firmly against the cat’s then sat back and tossed the rat several feet away.
The cat leaped after it, throwing it in the air and tossing it to the side several times before stopping and gently patting the rat’s limp body with its paw as if trying to coax it back to life. Then the cat jumped on the rat and devoured it.
His eyes were filled with a horrified awe as he watched the cat eating its prey. “Little beast.”
She watched him watch the cat, her expression both proud and protective. “He lived indoors his whole life eating expensive cat food, using a litter box, sleeping on pillows. He’d never even seen a rat before we took to the road.”
“How’d you teach it to hunt?”
“I didn’t. He figured it out on his own. He was already catching his own food a few months after it started.”
“You should stop feeding them, too.” He nodded towards the dogs. “It’ll force them to hunt.” He reached out to pet the mutt, only to snatch his hand back as it growled and tried to bite him. “Then you won’t have to waste anymore food on them.”
“If a cat can hunt, a dog can hunt, too.”
“We bred the ability to hunt out of them.” She glanced over at the dogs. The mastiff was lying on its side on the warm sand beside the mutt that was still gnawing the drumstick it held between its paws. “We left cats alone.” She removed the foil pouches from the fire with a pair of tongs and laid them on the sand to cool.
“People’ve used dogs to hunt forever.”
“We’ve only used them to help us hunt. There’s a difference. Dogs that haven’t been trained won’t even try, and those that have been trained won’t try until a human tells them to do so.”
“No, they don’t. They scavenge.”
He lie back and waved away the bugs attracted by the flames, but sat back up again at the sound of the foil being unwrapped.
She sealed one of the breasts in a baggie with lemon juice, leaving the other uncovered in front of her. And the mutt’s eyes followed her hands as she unwrapped the wings and passed them to the mastiff.
“What’s with the lemon juice?”
“It’s to keep it from spoiling.”
“Does it work?”
“I don’t know. When I was a kid, my mom always used to rub the turkey at Thanksgiving with salt to clean it before she cooked it. So I rub everything down with salt.” She picked up the baggie, weighing it in her hand. “And since lemon juice is a disinfectant, I figured it might kill anything the salt didn’t, so I pour it over everything. And it can’t hurt.” She pulled a water bottle from her backpack and took a long drink and smiled. “I put it in my water, too.”
He rolled his eyes then cursed, rising with difficulty, and limped to the stream and pried the soda bottle out from between the rocks and held it up to her. “Almost forgot.”
When he returned, she sliced the remaining breast in two and passed half to him.
He stared at it lying in front of him, his face blank.
“It’s okay. Take it.”
He hesitated a moment longer then grabbed it, bouncing it between his bandaged hands, and almost dropping it.
They ate without speaking to the chorus of cicadas. The bank was dark now, except for the moonlight encircling it and the light of the fire emanating from the pit.
She wiped her hands clean and began repacking the items.
“You still got that bug spray out?”
Without shifting her attention from her backpack, she passed him the can.
He sprayed his exposed skin in a haphazard sort of way and chucked the can back at her.
She stood up and hauled her pack up the tree and secured it to the hammock and jumped down.
“Don’t trust me?”
“It’s not a question of trust.”
“Then what is it?”
She paused for moment. “Avoiding a rabid dog doesn’t mean you don’t trust it. It means you trust it to behave like a rabid dog.”
“You think I’m rabid?”
“No.” She gazed at him from across the fire with a knowing sort of pity. “Not rabid.”
His face was a mask of offended confusion as though he was unsure if he had been insulted or not. He frowned at the sand, his arms around his knees, then shook his head, his mouth tight and his eyes fixed hard on the ground. “You think you’re so smart, sitting around worrying about bug bites and food poisoning, pretending this is all just some picnic or something.” He looked up, scowling at her over the flames. “See how far bug spray and lemon juice’ll get you when somebody’s holding a gun to your head.”