Authors: Khel Milam
Tags: #Zombie Apocalypse
He was still looking away from her, picking at the sand. “You make it sound like it’s an easy decision. But shitty is better than dead any day.” Staring straight ahead at nothing for awhile, he seemed locked in his own thoughts. Then he nodded towards the mutt. “So where’d you find that one?”
“Somebody was giving away puppies?”
“No.” She coaxed the mutt closer and scratched its muzzle. “The owner asked me to watch him, but he never came back for him.”
“Dog’s lucky you didn’t dump it in the pound.”
“I’m not sure the pound was still taking pets at that point. It was right after it started. Right at the very beginning. The first week, or the second week maybe. I didn’t even know it was happening at that point.”
“Then you were the only person in the world who didn’t.”
She smiled wryly. “I was only there to get birdseed.”
“I know, go figure, right?” She and the mutt looked into each other’s eyes. “He belonged to the store clerk there. The guy had loaded up his car with so much water and propane he didn’t have any room left for his dog. He said he lived nearby and that he’d be right back, like in ten minutes or so. He made me lock the door behind him and told me not to let anyone in until he got back. He begged me to stay with his dog. He was almost crying.” She paused for another long moment. “I waited for almost three hours but the guy never came back.”
He drew a spiral in the sand with his finger. “Yeah, a lot of people never came back.”
“The clerk was the one who told me about fire-starters.”
Suddenly, the cat sprang from her lap, sprinting up the tree. The dogs jumped to attention and stared into the woods, their hackles raised.
She stood up quickly reaching out for the lowest branch of the tree.
He cursed under his breath, fumbling for the crossbow with his bandaged hands. And favoring his ankle, he struggled to his feet and fought to maintain his balance as he bent over pulling on the bowstring, gasping as it cut into his hand. The crossbow fell to the ground.
They stood absolutely still peering into the woods past the circle of moonlight, holding their breath and straining with the animals towards a heavy-footed shuffling, growing louder as it drew nearer.
In one fluid motion, she pulled herself onto the lowest limb of the oak, turning back in the direction of the noise almost as soon as she was in the tree.
Unsteady on his feet, he glared up at her balanced on the branch, her hand resting at the ready on the one above her. His gaze shifted back to the darkness beyond the bank, grasping towards the sound ahead. The shuffling came to a stop not far from them. Then moving off, it lumbered away.
The tension evaporated from the dogs, and now at ease, they sunk back down onto the warm sand between the trees.
He was still staring at where the sound had been. “What do you think? A haint?”
“Maybe, but there should have been more than one. They don’t like being alone.”
“You think there’s somebody out there?”
“It was probably just a bear, or even a cougar maybe.”
“There aren’t any around here.”
“They’re coming back.”
He eased himself to the ground shoving the crossbow out of the way. “It’s going to take a lot longer than this for’em to figure out we’re gone.”
“How long does it take a prisoner to realize his cell is open?” She climbed up to where the hammock was strung between the oaks some six feet above the bank and crawled onto it, squeezing past the cat lying anchored in the middle of it.
He swiped his hand over the sand. “Whatever it was, would’ve been nice if you’d had your bow out.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to see whatever it was until it was very close. Too close for me to aim fast enough to hit anything without luck.”
“Would’ve been better than nothing.”
“Unless I missed and lost my only chance to get away.”
“What about my chance to get away?”
She turned her face to the sky littered with so many stars their whiteness was almost as prevalent as the blackness between them.
And with his arms under his head, he too lie back and stared up at the ocean of stars. “Not everybody had a tree to run up.”
They stayed like that for awhile, gazing up at the sky and not speaking, surrounded by the sounds of the cicadas and the stream and the rustling leaves, and that silent stillness that only exists in the space between two people.
He yawned loudly. “You act like you don’t miss anything, but I don’t buy it.”
“There was a lot back then not worth missing.”
“You just say shit like that to make yourself feel better.”
“I miss air-conditioning. And fruit. I really miss fruit.” She was silent a moment. “What was so great back then that you can’t live without it?”
“Then, you must have been independently wealthy.”
“Yeah, I wish.” He paused. “Wouldn’t make any difference now though.”
“Well, if you weren’t rich and you miss everything, you must at the very least have had the best job in the world.”
“No, it sucked.”
“What did you do?”
“Bullshit paper-pushing.” He yawned again. “Watching the clock all day like everybody else.” He gave a short, hard laugh. “I’ll tell you what I don’t miss. I don’t miss my boss. Hope that bitch was first in line to get her throat ripped out.”
“Why didn’t you just quit?”
“It paid the rent.”
“Yeah. There wasn’t really a plan B back then.”
“Like there’s a plan B right now.”
“I don’t know. Where I used to work, there was a lady who got fired because she helped another employee. It was one of those ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ sort of things. The guy had totally screwed-up. But she got blamed for it.
“She was fired right after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Our manager knew she was sick. But he did it anyway. I heard that she wasn’t able to find another job.” There was a hardness to her voice as she laughed a little. “I guess there wasn’t much of a market for employees with cancer. Anyway, apparently, she couldn’t afford her treatment and died.”
“What kind’ve job was it?”
“A soul-killing one, just like yours.”
“Was probably for the best. That lady dying. She’d already be dead now anyway. Would’ve got eaten, if the cancer didn’t get her first. It’s not like she’d get any treatment now, that’s for sure.”
“But at least it would have been on her own terms. At least she wouldn’t have been humiliated in the process. That’s basically the only reason anyone ever got fired, when you get down to it.”
“Like anybody gives a shit about being humiliated when their life’s on the line.” He snorted. “So much for the meek inheriting the earth.”
“They did inherit it. That’s why everything was the way it was. The world was theirs right up to the end when they were finally disinherited.”
“They didn’t inherit anything. The strong ruled the world before, just like they rule it now.”
“No one rules the world now.”
• • •
Looking up at the night sky, she had let the silence settle between them again. “I never knew this was how the sky was supposed to look. It was so empty before. It looks so different now. I don’t know how we ever told the stars apart back when we named them all. It’s hard for me to even find the ones I know now.”
“You know them?”
“Only Sirius and the stars in Orion.”
“What’s that super bright one over there?” He pointed towards one of the stars, large and gaudy, like the one that had appeared on so many Christmas cards for so many years but would never appear on any card ever again.
“That’s probably Jupiter. It’s too bright to be a star and it’s not twinkling.”
“They don’t really twinkle, do they?”
She laughed a little. “Yeah, they really do.”
“How can it be too bright to be a star?”
“Stars are very far away. Jupiter’s not.” She was quiet for a moment, scanning the sky. “You can compare it to Sirius over there. It’s the brightest star in the sky.”
“Just to the right of the moon.”
His eyes swept across the sky. “I don’t know. They all look the same to me.” He yawned again.
“Do you see the red star a little ways above the moon to the right?”
“Red star?” He paused, searching, his brow furrowed. “Yeah, okay, I’ve got it.”
“That’s Betelgeuse. It’s the ninth brightest star. If you angle down to the right, you’ll see three stars in a line close together pointing diagonally at the moon.”
For moment he said nothing then he nodded. “Okay, yeah, I see them.”
“Keep following them down to the moon, until you see a very bright star just before you get to it. That’s Sirius.”
He drew a line with his finger down the stars of Orion’s Belt to the moon. “Got it.” Quiet, he studied it for moment. “That’s the North Star right?”
“No. The North Star is Polaris. It’s not even as bright as Betelgeuse.” She scanned the sky, yawning. “I’ve never been able to find it.”
They did not speak again for some time, both still gazing upward.
“Why’s that ‘Beetlejuice-one’ red?”
“Because it’s dying.”
“It’s going to explode?”
“Yeah.” Her voice was wistful, almost sad. “It rushed into existence and used up all of its fuel too fast. Just a blink of an eye in the life of most stars. And right now, its winds are crashing against everything in the galaxy, even us. And eventually it’ll collapse in on itself and explode outward and there’ll be nothing left. No star. No black hole. Just empty space. As if it had never been there at all.” Her eyes closed. “It’ll have had just a short, brilliant life that extinguished so much with it when it went.”
“When’ll it happen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it already has.”
he sky was bright and cloudless overhead when he awoke. And in the absence of the humidity, everything around him—the bank and the stream and the trees—stood out in sharp relief against it. He released a loud, sighing yawn and sat up, arching his back and reaching out wide with both arms. “Days like this almost make you glad you’re still alive.”
“They always did.”
He pushed his hair, oily and lank, from his face, watching her as she laced up a dry pair of boots, and then give what remained of last night’s dinner to the animals. He yanked a can from one of his bags, pried it open and gulped it down, wiping the juice from his chin with the back of his bandaged hand.
She stood up with her backpack beside her, the sleeping-hammock bundled beneath it and the damp boots she had worn the day before draped over the top. She glanced at his bandages, encrusted now with tomato sauce and sand.
His shoes were water-logged and he struggled with his injured hands to pull them over his bruised and swollen ankle. And like a much older man, he eased himself to his feet then sat back down.
Her face was sober, but there was a distant sort of kindness in her eyes. “This would be a good place to stay for a few days. There’s water and cover.” She looked down at his bags. “And food.”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, too. We could stay here. Chill out for a couple days.”
She paused, still looking at him, and swept her arm in a small arc that encompassed her and the dogs and the cat. “I didn’t mean us.”
“Oh, yeah, no, I’m good.” Grimacing, he rose again. “Yeah, okay, let’s go.” He dusted off the sand coating his stiff clothes, and reaching for the crossbow, lost his balance.
She steadied him and slid the bow over his back and held his bags out to him.
He glared at them, hanging there in her hands, with something like exhausted reproach.
“Why not leave them?”
“No.” He shifted his grip on their handles, clenching them tight enough to make his knuckles red.
She nodded and slipped on her pack and went over to the arrow that marked the spot where they had entered the bank. The sunlight was streaming ahead of them through the wide spaces between the trunks of the live oaks. She peered through the trees until her eyes came to rest on a yellow fletching in the distance. She turned back to him. “We’ll wait for you at the arrows, if you fall behind.”
“Yeah, okay.” Visibly in pain and as if afraid to move, he stood very still, staring straight ahead at nothing as if detached from everything around him. He tossed his head horse-like towards the woods. “Go on, if you’re going.” Watching the four of them walk away, he waited a moment, clutching his bags as if he carried his whole life within them. And then, his face set, he limped after them, laboring.
• • •
The oak hammock was unrecognizable from the one he had traveled through the day before. It had a vibrancy now that had been smothered and obscured by the thick, steam-filled air.
The four of them were under a tree and already rising to go when he reached them. She pulled the arrow from the ground and shouldered her pack, studying him, not unkindly. “Are you okay?”
He slumped against the tree, red-faced and sweating. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
She nodded, running her eyes quickly over him again, and resumed walking in the direction of the road.
He stayed like that against the tree a little while longer, breathing hard. And then, rocking off of it with effort, he hobbled a few steps forward and whirled around, almost knocking himself over with the weight of his bags as they swung about his legs. He had been resting against the tree where he had pled for mercy only a day ago, pinned to the ground under it by the dogs.
• • •
The sun was almost full overhead now and the underbrush was encroaching on the hammock, competing with the palmetto and making the going more difficult. Favoring his ankle and watching his feet, he swayed and stumbled as he walked.
Looking up, alarm briefly filled his eyes until they caught hold of the next arrow, hidden slightly in the wall of brush at the boundary between the oaks and the thicket of pines where he had picked up her trail chasing after her in the deluge.
Panting hard, sweat streaming down his face, he halted, clinging to his bags. She and the dogs were hidden by the underbrush and he startled slightly when they stood up. He looked away, avoiding her gaze.