Authors: Khel Milam
Tags: #Zombie Apocalypse
Pulling the arrow from the ground, she cleaned it with a quiet, thorough deliberateness. “Can you see the next one?”
With dull eyes, he scanned the thicket ahead of him and swung his bag forward to the right, his body rocking back and forth with the weight of it. “Yeah, it’s up there.”
Focused on the flash of color in the distance, she nodded and lifted her pack and pushed into the brush. The branches snapped back into place almost before she passed them and she disappeared among the trees an instant later with the animals following close behind.
He took a deep breath and followed after.
• • •
He fell, crying out as his arms came down hard on the cans in his bags. He stayed on the ground for a moment with his head inclined as if in prayer, his forehead pressed against the dirt, damp with yesterday’s rain and thick with the smell of wet leaves. The trees grew so close together now they no longer cast distinct shadows.
Easing himself off the bags, he winced as rubbed his elbows with his bandaged hands. The next arrow was still some twenty feet ahead of him. On his feet again, he trudged forward, staggering, almost falling again as the crossbow snagged on the bramble.
As he caught up with the four of them, she slid the arrow into her quiver, glancing at his fists clenching the handles of his bags and the red spots that were beginning to stain the undersides of his bandages.
He stared past her at the fletching in the distance. “How much farther?”
“Just two arrows.”
“Two plus that one?” He nodded in the next arrow’s direction. “Or two including that one?”
“Two plus that one.” Her eyes dropped to his bags again. “Are they worth it?”
“It doesn’t matter.” He was still looking past her.
• • •
His bags slid from his hands. The arrow was in a small clearing open to the sky, cooled by the breeze and bright with sunlight. Sweat coated his face and stained his shirt and his hair was slick against his brow. He lowered his head, forcing down his labored breathing.
“We can rest here for a little while.” She was sitting against a tree in the shade opposite him on the far side of the clearing with the mastiff panting softly at her side, its tongue lolling.
Lifting his head, he surveyed the clearing, his attention drawn to the mutt as it nosed around some half-buried yellow thing on the ground. “I don’t remember passing this place on the way out.”
She took a long drink from a bottle of water, silently studying his profile as he watched the dog root through the detritus.
He looked back and forth around the clearing as if weighing options he did not quite understand, always returning to the mutt pawing the scrap of yellow peeking out from the damp leaves. “I’d know if we’d passed by here. It’s a perfect place to camp.”
She continued to study him, her eyes inscrutable. “It was a perfect place to camp.”
His eyes flashed towards her then down at the bags at his feet and back to the dog again. Recognition and shock and embarrassment chased each other across his face. He glanced at the tree where the smaller child had been bound. The child had already returned to the earth, washed away by the rain.
She called the mutt away from the tent. “I think the youngest child was probably bitten before they got here. The father probably ran ahead carrying him and tied him to the tree, while the mother followed with the older child.
“And the little child must have turned while his parents were still setting up camp, and the bigger child must have gone over to him when they weren’t looking, and got too close.
“So the father dropped what he was doing and rushed over and was bitten trying to protect the older child, but then he turned, and attacked the older child before the mother could stop him.
“And she must not have been able to bring herself to kill her children, so she killed herself instead.”
He toed the yellow fabric. “The food was already in the tent. The first one had to’ve got bit after they made camp.”
“But the tent was never pitched. The poles aren’t in it. Its fabric was just covering the food.”
“Nobody’d shove the food in first. You can’t set it up full of shit.”
“I don’t think they put the food inside of it when they started to set it up.” She pointed at the skeleton. “I think that one placed the food in there before she killed herself after it all happened. To keep it safe for anyone who came along and needed it more than she did.”
He stared blankly at the corner of the tent for a moment then he shrugged and sank to the ground and pulled a bottle from one of his bags. As he tried to open it, he winced and dropped it on the ground, cursing. He averted his eyes as she reached out and opened it for him. And with a desperate sort of urgency, he gulped down its contents never once looking at her.
She tilted her head back against the tree.
They sat like that across from each other without speaking for several minutes, just listening to the soft wind blowing through the trees.
“How’d you get the arrow over here? I was standing right there. Right in front of the tent the whole time.”
“I walked back towards the road, and then circled back around to the other side of the camp when you ran off into the woods.”
“How’d you know I’d run the other direction?”
“I didn’t. I thought you’d run back to the road. But you didn’t.”
“When you saw me go the other way, why’d the hell you turn back?”
She shrugged. “It seemed safer to keep you in front of us. To know where you were. We followed behind you for awhile. Until you veered off and we couldn’t see you anymore.”
He bent his face towards the ground and shook his head, laughing—a hollow and defeated sound. “I thought I was lost. I thought I was lost, until I spotted your arrow. I was afraid I wouldn’t even be able to make it back to the road.”
“Yeah.” She stood up. “We’re almost there. We should probably get going.”
He was still staring at the ground in front of his feet. “I didn’t even know which way it was.”
“It isn’t far now.” There was a vague sort of pity in her voice.
“Yeah.” He glanced at his bandages and took hold of his bags, pulling them off the ground as if he doubted they could be lifted. “Let’s go.”
Still facing him, she waited a moment before moving on. “I’m not going to stop at the next arrow. I want to get everything packed up on the bike as fast as possible, but I’ll leave it there for you.”
“Okay. I’ll bring it to you.”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to.”
“Yeah. I do.”
he last arrow was staked in front of a tree at the edge of the strip of vegetation running between the woods and the swale. He pulled it from the ground and shoved it into his bag with the other one. Then sinking onto the tree, he pressed his forehead hard against its trunk.
The bike was not there.
The road peeked through the brush line. A rhythmic, unhurried clopping of horses was advancing along it towards him. A wagon soon rolled into view, coming to a stop in front of where he stood behind the tree. The sound of two voices, one male and one hers, carried across the swale. He pushed himself off the tree, and staring at the ground, limped through the tall, dry grass in their direction.
A strange dog bounded towards him. Unbalanced, he rocked back away from it without resistance. He lifted his head. A young man was standing beside the wagon in the middle of the road gazing at him with measured and circumspect eyes.
She said something to the young man, who smiled at him and held up a hand in greeting, calling to the dog. It returned to his side without hesitation.
He stared at the young man’s raised hand for a moment. And without letting go of his bags, he raised his own half way in return with a heavy sort of slowness. He studied the young man’s bearded face, his eyes widening at its clean-shaven upper lip. Then he shifted his attention to her.
She knelt down behind the cart attached to her bicycle and filled a bottle with water from one of four five-gallon jugs stored within it. Close by, her two dogs lolled on the side of the road panting in the soft breeze, noting his presence without apparent concern. The cat was curled in the lap of a young girl sitting on the ground in front of the wagon watching him, her expression curious and untroubled. The comforting smell of horses filled the air.
“Oh no, your hands.” The young man, looking at the blood-stained bandages, extended his hand towards him. “Please, here, let me take those from you.”
He tightened his grip on his bags.
Lowering his hand, the young man hesitated then dipped his head slightly forward and returned to his horses, unhitching them. “Will you be continuing on your way, soon?”
“Yes.” She stood up and gazed down the road with a restrained sort of eagerness. Turning back to them, she handed the young girl the bottle of water and bent down again and began rocking an entire jug from the cart.
The young man smiled, reaching out to help her ease the jug to the ground. “I thought so.” He rubbed the neck of one of his horses. “We will stay here for a little while, I think, so the horses may eat and rest a bit before we go on. But not too long.” He gave the horse’s neck a firm pat.
She looked down at the jug of water and back up at the young man, placing her hand on the horse’s flank, and gently tapped the jug with her foot. “They’ll be thirsty, too.”
The young man’s face flushed, his smile deepening. “It will be such a kindness for them. It presses so hard on us when the horses go without. They are our angels.” The young man’s expression quieted as he gazed at his horses grazing in the swale, and he nodded to himself with something that was not unlike guilt, his eyes straying to the clothes and the rags scattered over the ground around them. “Without the horses, we would not be. It is such a kindness of you.” The young man lifted the water into the wagon with unexpected ease and turned back to her, holding out a box. “I hope you will not have to move on so soon that you cannot share lunch with us.”
Confusion and awe and joy flowed across her face in quick succession as she took the box, full of ripe oranges, from the young man.
Anchored by the weight of his bags, his arms stiff at his sides, he had watched their exchange with a jealous sort of silence. He frowned at the box. “You got a couple oranges for a few cans of soup?”
The young man nodded. “Yes, of course. There is plenty.”
• • •
Taking a drink of unwarmed soup, he studied the three of them from over the top of his can as they ate. The young girl offered him a spoon. He took it from her as if perplexed, as if he had forgotten what spoons were and no longer had the words to describe them. “Where in hell did you find oranges?”
The young man pointed down the road past where it forked. “About a week back down that way, there is a large grove full of ripe oranges in need of picking.”
“I don’t even want to know how much they cost you.” His gaze slid to the young girl.
“They did not cost us anything. Nothing more than the effort to pick them, that is.”
He scraped the spoon around the inside of the can. “Doesn’t matter. They’re all probably gone by now anyway. If it’s free, it’ll already’ve been stripped to the bone.”
Grinning, the young man shook his head. “That grove was planted to feed thousands. Those oranges will fall to the ground and rot and new ones will come out to replace them before even a tenth of them could ever be eaten.”
She looked up from her orange. “Even before, most of them probably just rotted in the stores unsold.” She looked at the young man. “If you keep heading straight the way you’re going, you’ll get to a reservoir. It’s about twenty miles away. The water there is pure.”
“Ah, that is very good to know.”
“Is that where you got all that water in your cart from?” He threw the empty can into the swale and ran the back of his bandaged hand across his mouth.
“No, I already had it.”
“Yeah, of course you did. What was I thinking?” Shaking his head slightly, he sighed as if beset. “What do the people who control the reservoir want for the water?”
“No one controls it.”
“There’s no way. Something like that would’ve been claimed in the first few months.”
She shrugged. “If it ever was, it isn’t now.”
“Is it hidden or something?”
“No. It’s clearly marked.”
“Yeah, well, sooner or later, somebody’s going to come along and take it. You can count on it. As soon as somebody’s strong enough to hold it.” He stared at her pointedly then glanced at the girl. “And they’ll get whatever they want for that water when they do.”
The young man considered him for a moment. “But why would they want to do that? They would have to stay in one place, then. We must all keep moving. Only the dead stand still.”
“Are you kidding me? They’d be able to get off the road for good. And never have to worry about water again. Or food for that matter.” He snorted, his face a mask of disbelief, then shook his head and looked away. “People will do a lot for a bite to eat, but there’s nothing they won’t do for a glass of water.”
She was studying the orange in her hands. “Even if someone was able to keep others out for awhile, they wouldn’t be able to keep them out for long.”
“Any place can be defended with enough manpower.”
“That’s never been true, not even before the dead stopped dying. But now, fighting over anything only leads to mutually assured destruction, since the dead don’t pick sides anymore.” She stood up and strapped her backpack to the cart and pushed the bicycle down the road past the wagon.
He waved his hand after her towards the fork in the road. “You got any idea what’s up that way?”
The young man squinted at the point where the road diverged. “If they are still there, there is a group of people that way, about five miles up the road.”
“We should make for’em. It’s close enough to make it before dark. And it’d be a good idea to get off the road before dark.” He tossed his head towards the young girl watering the horses. She moved with a sort of unconscious buoyancy. “The road’s no place for her. Especially after dark.”
The young man shook his head slightly. “If they are still there, the road will be blocked.”