We head down to the river. She seems a little uneasy about the plan but it’s how Elise trains Kate’s kids and they’re doing pretty well. I’m not too sure how much of a handicap the found glasses will be, but anything’s better than Kim not being able to see at all.
“They can’t swim,” I say, by way of explanation, as I throw my bag down on the ground and grab the megaphone, holding it out to her. She clasps it between her small hands and watches as I pull out a few guns. Nothing too fancy; the Beretta, the rifle I came here with and the shotgun I used the day I got bitten. I brought the suppressor for the Beretta too, but I keep it tucked away in my pocket for now. We don’t need it all the way down here. We need to draw a few of the infected out and, like I said, they can’t swim. Ammo needs to be conserved but Elise slipped me a couple of rounds for each gun. My knife is tucked back into my boot, but that will come later. "We'll be fine,"
I imagine this might have been a nice spot once. I rest the guns on an old bench that looks out over the river, towards the woody shore on the other side. The grass around us is overgrown now but way back, when it was well maintained and the world wasn’t so fucked up, you could have passed a few lazy hours here on a sunny day, completely at ease. I don’t remember the last time I was even slightly at ease. I used to come here and stare at the water and imagine how people would come here and go fishing and just be happy but I don’t do that anymore. You dwell on the past too much and you’ll lose focus, stop seeing what’s really important. It’ll make you sad. I’m not saying we’re not sad now. We are. But it’s a different kind of sadness. You think about the old days too much and you’ll get melancholy, start wishing for things to be better, start wanting to give up when they don’t. The way we are now? We’re resigned. Resigned to struggle. Resigned to fight on. And that’s entirely different.
I pick up the shotgun and load a couple of shells. I nod at Kim, who fires off the megaphone, pushing a button that emits a klaxon style sound that sends birds flying out of the trees on the opposite shore. We wait for a few moments, then the leaves start to rustle and two infected appear on the shore. We’re separated by the river, several feet wide and pretty deep in the middle, but Kim still tenses up. I don’t say anything to calm her, instead raising the gun and lining up a head in my sights.
The report from the shotgun is loud and the shot itself is clumsy, but these things aren’t great for long range anyway. I just have to show her what it can do. I miss the middle of the head, the bullet instead ripping through the right of the infected’s face, but it takes the target down regardless. The infected collapses on the ground, leaving us with just one to contend with.
I pump out the spent shell and hold out the shotgun to Kim. She hesitates, her grip tightening on the handle of the megaphone.
“It gets easier after this one,” I say, holding out my free hand for the megaphone. “I promise,”
She reluctantly hands over the megaphone but it still takes a second for her to take hold of the shotgun. The weight of it drags her hands down almost immediately, but, like with the John Wayne pistol, she somehow hauls it up and takes up a position that mirrored my own.
The infected on the other shore seems to be losing interest so I set off the klaxon sound again and regain its attention. Rustles from the woods beyond suggest a few more might be on their way, but I hiss at Kim to keep focused. She’s trembling slightly and I’m not sure if it’s from the weight of the shotgun or from the ridiculous situation I’ve put her in, but she doesn’t back down.
“Okay, these things kick like a mule and they’re inaccurate as fuck, so just do what you can, okay?”
She nods. I watch as she tries to stop shaking, taking a deep breath and looking down the sight, picking her target. Her glasses nudge against the gun and she’s in danger of knocking herself out when the gun recoils so I step forward and adjust her stance slightly, moving her head out of danger. I already know this bastard’s going to knock her flying, might as well minimise the injuries. I step back and a moment later she fires.
The bullet tears past the infected on the shore and slams into the tree beside it. The recoil from the gun knocks her off her feet and she lands with a thud on the grass. The infected roars at us but I ignore it and go to help her up. She pulls her arm out of my grasp and gets up by herself, glaring at me. I shrug and pick up the shotgun, releasing the spent ammunition as I walk back over to the bench and sit down to reload.
There’s silence between us, as three more infected appear from the woods, drawn by the loud sounds. Then she finally speaks.
“Why did you do that?”
“Make me use that gun first,” She’s angry with me. Probably embarrassed too.
“You know it was,”
I shrug and hold the gun out in front of me. I’m a few paces away from her so she has to move to collect it and, after a moment’s angry hesitation, she does, gripping it tightly.
“You never know what someone is going to push into your hands, Kim. You have to be prepared for anything,” I lean back against the bench. “Now, what happened last time?”
“The gun isn’t accurate,”
“So compensate. I didn’t hit my target exactly where I wanted, but I hit it. And I killed it. Aim for the head, right in the middle of the face. Gives you a slight margin of error,”
She raises the gun again and focuses on her target. I let her settle into it. She’s shaking less than before, determined to do better.
“Good. Okay, what else?”
“The gun is stronger than I am,”
“No excuse. It’s stronger than me too,” I see her eyes flick to the bandage on my arm. “Yeah, and before that too,” I reach for the rifle and start loading it. “That little cowboy piece of yours. I bet it’s got a kick too,” She lowers the shotgun and stares at me.
“So when you shot...” I trail off. I hadn’t meant to go there.
“Say it. It’s okay,” She looks away, across the river towards the infected.
I toy with the idea. I’m worried she only thinks she’s ready to hear the words actually come out of someone’s mouth. Everyone else has been tiptoeing around her, trying to avoid mentioning the incident. Even I’ve been watching what I say. I wonder if it’s like when I was trying to get her to come with us. If the one thing she needs to hear is the one thing no one wants her to. I say it.
“When you shot your mom,”
The tension in her shoulders relaxes suddenly. She just wanted someone to say it out loud. To acknowledge what she did. She knew it had happened. There was no sense in trying to act like it hadn’t, like it would somehow change her memory of it. I continue.
“You didn’t flinch then. The power of the gun, it didn’t move you. Why not?”
“I didn’t want it to,”
“That’s called intent. Purpose. The way you felt influenced the way you handled the gun. You have to want to do this. You have to want to control the gun, otherwise it’s going to do whatever the fuck it wants,” I rest the rifle on my lap and motion for her to raise the shotgun. “Okay, feet slightly apart. Plant them firmly. The recoil needs to travel through you and ground itself. The butt of the gun should be against your shoulder. Hold it there so it can’t move. The more of the gun that you can control, the less it’s going to come at you,” She moves to accommodate my instructions. “Now, find your target again,” She picks out an infected and aims. “Okay, when you’re ready,”
She still misses the target, but she’s much closer. And she’s also still on her feet. And, I tell her, taking the gun from her, that’s the important thing. She doesn’t look fully convinced but I can't waste any more shells so I don’t bother trying to push it further. She’ll remember the lesson when the time comes.
The shotgun is placed back on the bench. I sling the strap of the rifle over my shoulder and start to line up my sight for the next target. I settle for an infected milling by the river, all but ignoring us. I take it down quickly, straight through the eye. The crack of the gun refocuses the attentions of the others on us but they can only stamp their feet in the mud and moan at us from the opposite shore. I hold the gun out to her. This time there’s no hesitation.
We spend the next hour or so firing rounds at the infected that loiter on the opposite shore. She listens to my suggestions and I can see her improving. Until we find her some better suited lenses, I doubt she’ll be a crack shot, but she does well. More infected come shuffling out of the woods just as we’re coming down to the last few rounds of the Beretta so I take over and quickly finish them off, using the suppressor to minimise the sound and stop any more from coming to join the party.
All in all, there’s eight of them lying dead on the opposite shore. Now for fun part. I take off my coat and lay it on the bench, then sit down to unlace my boots.
“What are you doing?” Kim asks, watching as I pull out the knife from my boot and place it on top of my coat.
“We’re not finished yet,” I roll down my socks and tuck them into my boots then get back up and walk towards the river. “Pack those guns away,”
She does as she’s told, but I feel her eyes on my back as I wade into the icy cold water. God, it feels good though. The chill of the water almost makes me forget the fever that’s still raging through my body and the strength of the current takes my weight effortlessly, reducing the pressure on my limbs. But I can’t enjoy the feeling for long. Instead I strike out and swim the short distance to the opposite shore. I grab the collar of the nearest infected and drag it into the water, hauling it behind me. The effort required to drag the body up towards Kim drains me almost completely and I drop down beside it and take a few deep breaths. I motion towards the bag and she brings it over. The weight is a lot for her. Hell, it was a lot for me.
“Dump it on the body,”
She hauls it up and drops it unceremoniously on the chest of the infected. The corpse jolts slightly under the weight but this one is long gone. Damn good shooting, kid. She moves to crouch down beside me but I shake my head.
The look on her face said she knew it was coming but as she walks over to pick up the knife, I can tell she was hoping otherwise. Tough luck.
“Why do you people do this?” she whispers, pushing the handle of the blade into my hand.
“It’s just what we do,” I close my fingers around it, trying to summon the strength I know the job requires.
“But he’s dead,”
Her words send a shiver through me. He. Not it. He. I already decided I couldn’t think like that again. I can’t think like that. At the end of this week, I’ll be an it too and the second I start to forget that is the second I’ll start to struggle to pull the trigger at the end of day six and the second I’ll truly become a danger to everyone around me. More so than those drunks who turn at the Last Drop. More so than the lonely infected wandering the streets beyond the safe zone. Oh God, I hope everyone’s gone by then.
I grit my teeth. “Look, kid, it’s just... better safe than sorry, okay?”
“But you said they can’t swim,” The pleading in her voice is hard to bear. “We can just leave them on the other side of the river,”
She has a point. We could just leave them there. I could send her away and deal with this one alone and we can leave the others there. They’re not getting up. And English Rob already agreed to come down and finish them off. But no. We have our rules. Our traditions. And she has to learn them.
I shake my head and turn the handle of the knife towards her. She pushes my hands away but I force her to take hold of it.
“You have to learn. If you’re going to go with them, you have to do this,” My voice is cracking. What the fuck is wrong with me? Part of me is screaming that I shouldn’t be making her do this, but the rest of me knows that this is part of who we are, part of who she’s going to have to be. “This is how we do things here,”
Her hands grip the knife but she’s trembling all over. I let go and wait to see if she drops it but she holds on. Good girl. She clasps it between her small hands as I start manoeuvring the body so I can hold the head in place.
The question catches me off guard. I hesitate, one hand either side of the corpse’s head. “I already told you. Better safe than sorry,”
She stares at me and I know the answer isn’t good enough. I sigh.
“I’ll tell you why and you’ll get it done. Deal?” I hold out my hand and hope she doesn’t notice how much it’s shaking. “Deal?”
A moment later, her hand closes around mine. I’m almost relieved to feel she’s still trembling too. Disguises my own.
“Alright,” I reposition myself, kneeling at the head. “See this is why scavengers are supposed to go out in threes. One on the chest,” I wave towards the bag. “One to hold the head, just in case. And one to do the dirty work. That’s you,”
“That’s me,” She repeats the words in less than a whisper, her eyes moving from the sharp knife in her hands to the mottled, rotten flesh she’ll have to use it on. The first one is always the hardest.
“Okay, now listen up, because I don’t like telling this story,” I don’t tell her that by the end of it she’ll be absolutely dying to take this fucker’s head. “Once upon a time, I didn’t live here. I lived somewhere else. And then all... this happened,” She keeps her eyes fixed on the corpse. Good. Because I goddamn hate this story. “Anyway, eventually I meet Russell. He’s joined up with a few others. You’ve met Elise but the others... yeah, well. The person I was travelling with, he’d been bitten and he was coming to the end of his week. And I still hadn’t fucking done it. We’d made a pact, me and him. If one got bit, the other had to finish them off before it was too late. But I was drawing it out, I didn’t want to do it. I mean yeah, I didn’t want to leave it too late and him turn around and sink his teeth into me, but finishing him off. Finishing him off early. Jesus,” I glance at her. She’s still avoiding looking at me. “Russell comes across us just as my friend’s winding down. You know how it goes, right?” She nods. “We’d got through the hunger, just the Hell Hour left. And he’s writhing in agony and screaming and cursing me and he’s right to, because I shouldn’t have let it get this far. It’s him screaming that brings Russell over. You start to recognise those sorts of sounds, separate the living from the dying from the dead. He thought he was alone, thought he’d come put my friend out his misery. But I was there too and he stopped. I guess I caught him off guard,” I break off. Shit, this hurts. “We... we left it a moment too long,” Kim’s looking at me now, but I’m staring down at the corpse beneath us. I can feel her staring at me but all I’m seeing is his face. I try to shake myself out of it. Even manage to force a sad grin out. “There’s a reason I don’t tell this story much, kid,”
“You don’t have to tell it,” she mutters. “I’ll do it anyway,”
I shake my head. Translation: I’ve started so I’ll finish.
“So he turns. A few moments after Russell finds us. You know how fast it can happen. Eyes closed. Eyes open. And I finally do what I should have done and put a bullet between those eyes. He drops. We think it’s over,” I shrug and shift position a little more so we’re back in business. “It’s not,”
Kim moves a little closer, the blade pressing against the corpse’s skin. She doesn’t want to hear anymore. But she brought it up. She gets to hear this out.
“The reason why we take the head, Kim, the reason why we had to take your mom’s head is simple. Because sometimes, just sometimes, that bullet between the eyes doesn’t work. And shooting someone you love in the face is hard enough the first time, without turning back and seeing them coming at you for round two,”
She starts cutting.
Brave little soldier doesn’t even flinch when the skin starts to come apart and the smell gets ten times worse. She just carries on, forcing her way through the neck until, with a gentle tug, I’m able to pull the head away. I’m about to congratulate her on a job well done but she’s already on her feet, stalking over to the river and dipping her arms, bloodied up to the elbows, and the glistening red knife into the icy water. I put the head down and push it away from me, watching as it rolls down towards her, sliding off the bank with a small splash. She doesn’t react.
“Come on, Lady MacBeth,” I say, but she probably doesn’t get the reference and she certainly doesn’t stop washing. Not until I’ve picked up the bag and started to move slowly away. That’s when I hear the gentle splashing stop and the tears start.
She can keep the knife. My bet is she’ll need it more than me.
Hundred and five. Plus some change.