Authors: Khel Milam
Tags: #Zombie Apocalypse
“You can say that for just about anything when someone’s holding a gun to your head.” She sat up and moved to the fire and covered it with sand leaving the bank illuminated only by the blue-white light of the moon.
In the absence of the fire, the moonlight was brighter than it had been and everything was clearer now and they were no longer just two dark silhouettes on either side of the flames.
She sat down between the dogs and leaned back against the tree. The cat settled itself upon her lap and she watched her hand as it ran over its back. Raising her head, she regarded him silently with neither curiosity nor reproach. “About a hundred years ago, some Norwegians raced a group of Brits to the South Pole. The Norwegians won and every single one of them returned home alive and well. Not only did the Brits lose, they all froze to death, starving in a tent eleven miles from food and supplies.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Uh, okay.”
“Back then no one even thought that was a possibility. Everyone just expected the British to win. They had this huge empire and teeny, tiny Norway had only just won its independence from Denmark. And the Brits were experienced. They’d already tried before. They knew what to expect. Their route had been mapped out to within ninety miles of the Pole.
“The Norwegians’ route hadn’t been mapped at all. They had no idea what they would run into. They won because they prepared for everything they could. Everything that was within their control. They even went so far as to carry those little compact mirrors—like the kind women used to keep in their purses—so they could check for frost bite while they skied. The Brits just winged it. They never knew what they were going to do until they did it.”
“How many got eaten?”
“No one got eaten.”
He picked up a twig and began poking the extinguished fire. “Well, that’s boring.”
She ran her hand over the cat’s head. “Do you want to know what they blamed their failure on?”
“That it was fucking cold?”
“They blamed it on bad luck. They blamed everything on bad luck.”
“Yeah, well, dying eleven miles from the finish line sounds like pretty shitty luck to me.”
“Their luck was only bad because they were desperate. But they were only desperate because they hadn’t brought enough food. And their clothes weren’t warm enough. And they had to pull their own sleds, because they refused to use sled dogs.”
“Forty below is no different than a gun to your head. They’re both out of your control. All you can do is try to make sure you’re in the best position possible to cope with them when you run into them. And the only way to do that is to make sure you’re not desperate when you do. Because when you’re desperate you make bad decisions.”
She was staring at him intently. “And you’re more likely to be desperate if you’re dehydrated from food poisoning or suffering from West Nile Virus.”
He pulled his eyes away from hers and poked the ground with the stick again and threw it aside. “Dropping dead eleven miles from safety means something pretty bad must’ve happened.” His mouth curled up at the corner, petty and mocking. “You know, like something out of their control. ’Cause if you’re that close, you’d keep going if you could. Especially if you’re desperate.”
“They didn’t drop dead. They just stopped and sat there until they died.”
“Yeah, well, I guarantee it wasn’t not having bug spray that kept them from getting there.”
“They didn’t try to get there, they just gave up. That’s what desperate people do.”
“Didn’t try? Or couldn’t try?”
“Didn’t try. Their leader decided they were already doomed, so he wouldn’t let them go. The strongest of them, the last to die, wanted to, but he wasn’t allowed.”
“If I’d been him, nobody could’ve stopped me.”
“Then you probably would have been court-martialed for disobeying a direct order.”
He snorted. “At least I’d be alive.”
“If you didn’t end up committing suicide or drinking yourself to death.”
“Why the hell would I do that?”
“There are few things worse than being rejected and ridiculed for the rest of your life. And you would be. People don’t like people who don’t go down with the ship.”
“I’d have been a hero whether they all died or not.” His voice was level, but he was looking away from her and his eyes were filled with a strange, almost secretive uncertainty. “Just for surviving.”
“Only if you were on your own from the start. If you were a member of a group like he was, not just part of a random team like the Norwegians, or just some guy hanging out with a bunch of other people, but a member of a real group, one that identified itself as a group, one that was part of your own identity, like the members of the British expedition—who weren’t just carrying their own reputation but the reputations of the British Navy and the entire British Empire—people would never let you forget that you were the one who lived. And not in a good way.”
There was a quiet contempt in her voice. “It’s okay if the whole group fails, because then its failure seems inevitable. But if one member doesn’t fail, it just makes everyone else look bad. And the first rule of every group is to not make the group look bad. If they die, you’re supposed to die, too. Unless it looks like it’s sheer dumb luck that you didn’t.”
“No group makes you die for it.”
She sighed. “I think every group makes you die for it in one way or another. Perpetuity isn’t cheap.”
“What does that even mean?”
“That groups only exist to exist.”
He rubbed his temples with both hands. “Can you even hear yourself? Groups exist to protect people and keep’em safe and get all the stuff done that nobody wants to do so it doesn’t all just fall to shit.”
“But they don’t. All they do is convince people that the worst thing imaginable is not being part of the group. That you can’t take care of yourself or survive without it.”
“You can’t survive on your own. You need other people.”
“Needing other people and not being able to survive without a group isn’t the same thing. It’s just propaganda. It’s what they need you to think.”
“You make it sound like some kind of freaking conspiracy or something. Like there’s some kind of evil master plan: ‘Oooh, let’s get a bunch of people together so we can brainwash’em and ruin their lives by keeping’em safe.’”
“It is a conspiracy and all the members actively participate in it, even if they don’t know they’re doing it. Groups don’t take care of us. They pit us against each other. They make some of us more secure, more important, than the rest of us, so everyone is always jockeying for position and no one ever really feels safe or able to trust anyone else, especially anyone outside of the group who could replace them.”
“If that was true, nobody’d stay.”
“It’s the only way they get anyone to stay. They can only continue to exist by exploiting desperate people.”
He glared at her as if she was willfully refusing to understand. “They keep people from being desperate.”
“They make people desperate. They make us believe people are inherently dangerous. That we are our biggest threat.”
“Hate to break it to you but people are inherently dangerous and other people are your biggest threat. It’s human nature. Look around you. It’s every man for himself. That’s why you need a group. Groups control that. They protect you from it. That’s why they exist. Not some stupid conspiracy.” He nodded his head, staring at nothing in front of him. “There’s strength in numbers. You don’t survive on your own. You sure as hell don’t survive on the road on your own. Everybody knows that.”
“If we’re inherently dangerous, how can surrounding ourselves with each other make us safe?” Before he could answer, she slipped on a pair of ear phones and lie back on the sand and stared up at the night sky, crowded with the glowing moon and a devastating number of stars.
he full moon rendered everything varying shades of blue, all but the sand on the bank, which was a bright, cool white. The moonlight was strong and they and the animals and the trees were all clearly visible within it.
He was looking down, watching his finger carve a furrow through the sand.
Still wearing ear phones, she was lying on the ground across from him as if unaware of his presence. The mastiff was pressed close against her side.
He glanced over at her then scooped up a handful of sand and watched without interest as it slipped through his fingers and was carried off by the breeze. He turned his hand over and let the rest fall to the ground. He lie down then sat up again, rocking back and forth with his arms around his legs. His eyes cast about the bank then returned to her, boring a hole through the pale, blue-white light as if demanding that she acknowledge him. He began drumming his hands against his knees. “What are you listening to?”
She did not sit up or turn towards him or remove her ear phones. “You wouldn’t like it.”
“How do you know?”
She did not respond.
“It’s probably not even on.”
She continued ignoring him, and in the lengthening silence, the unceasing drone of the cicadas grew steadily louder.
“How do you keep it charged?”
“With a solar charger.”
Another long moment passed.
“Don’t you get sick of listening to the same songs over and over again?”
“There are over a thousand on it. I don’t even remember all of them.”
“With those things on, you’re just begging for something to creep up on you. And you’d never even know it till it’s too late.”
She slipped off the ear phones and sat up, patting the mastiff’s flank. “But he will.”
“How long have you had him?”
“Since about two months after it started.”
“The way he acts, I figured you had him all his life.”
“Nope.” Rubbing his massive head, she looked down at the dog. “I found him locked in an empty house without even a window cracked. He was trapped in there. He had no way to get out at all.” She pointed at the mutt. “He’s the only reason I even went to the house. It’s like he knew he was in there. Like he knew he needed help.” She stroked the huge head again. “He was almost dead.” She paused, her eyes focused inward. “He could barely even pull himself up. He’d eaten all the food they’d left and drunk all of the water in the house, even the water in the toilets.
“The house was disgusting. The floors were covered with feces and urine. And the doors had deep gouges all over them where he’d tried to claw his way out.” Her voice caught and she paused again, looking away. She breathed deeply and exhaled slowly. “We had to stay there for awhile till he was strong enough to travel, camped out in the back yard, because the house smelled so awful, and because once he got out, he wouldn’t go back in. He hasn’t gone inside any building since.”
“That’s a pretty big hang-up. Not being able to go in buildings.” He stared at the dog. “Not much use for keeping you safe when you want something to eat or a roof over your head.”
“You didn’t seem to think he was so useless a few hours ago.”
His face became a mask of angry embarrassment. “You would’ve let’em kill me. You didn’t even try to call’em off. I can’t even believe that. They could’ve killed me.”
“I didn’t need to call them off. I knew that they’d follow me since you weren’t fighting back.”
“And if they didn’t?”
“Then I wouldn’t have been able to call them off of you anyway.” She shrugged, speaking through a yawn. “It’s never a good idea to threaten something that can’t be reasoned with.” She made a short derisive sound. “Actually, it’s never a good idea to threaten anything.”
He picked up a stick and began jabbing it into the sand in front of him. “You’re just lucky they’ve won all their battles with the dead for you so far.”
“There aren’t any battles. They’ll let the dogs rip them apart and not even try to fight back. They just keep trying to shuffle towards you through the dogs until there’s not much left of them. They don’t seem to have any sense of self-preservation.”
“If you’d ever had to fight one off, you wouldn’t say that.”
“Everyone’s had to fight one off.” She yawned again. “But I don’t even think they’re really fighting back. The only thing they seem to care about is tormenting the living. I think they just can’t help themselves. That they can’t stop once they start. But the dogs can only handle a few at a time, so I try to avoid them anyway.”
“Good luck with that. They’re like locusts. You can’t avoid’em if you try.”
“It’s not that hard. Just avoid crowds. They’re mostly just in places where a lot of people are congregated. You don’t usually find them anywhere else, except for when they’re moving between haunts.”
“So, yeah, in other words, they’re everywhere you want to be. Anywhere with anything you need, that’s for sure.”
She studied him for a moment. “You can get almost whatever you need pretty much anywhere now. And even sometimes things you want, too.”
He snorted. “You make it sound like everything’s just lying in the middle of the road, waiting for somebody to come along and pick it up.”
A grin flashed across her face. “Some of it is. There were three hundred and fifty million people in this country when it happened. Seven billion on the face of the planet. That’s a lot of stuff. And it’s all yours now. Anything you ever wanted.”
“Yeah, anything but food or water or bullets. Or a good night’s sleep. You’re shit out of luck when it comes to those things.” He kicked one of his bags. “Unless you get lucky.”
“It takes more work to get food and water than it used to. But it’s not like you’ll starve to death or die of thirst or anything.”
He glared at her. “Why don’t you say that to all the people who’ve already starved to death? To all the people who had to sit around and watch’em die?”
“How does someone sit around and watch someone starve to death?”
“It ain’t easy.”
“No, I mean, wouldn’t they both be starving? There’s enough food for one but not for both?”
He looked away.
“I see hungry people every so often. I mean, we all get hungry. All our cupboards get a little bare from time to time these days. But the only people I’ve ever seen who were starving were what was left of one of those groups that had hoarded as much stuff as they could in the beginning, and then walled themselves up and ran out of food when the dead hemmed them in and they couldn’t get out. All of those compounds are death camps. And not just because of the dead. No matter how bad it gets in them, they all just stay there. It’s crazy. Even the ones who get kicked out just want back in again.”