Chapter 39: Counterpoint
Eli sat on his knees as a strange man stood in front of him, shotgun on his shoulder, staring placidly back at him. Eli couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s mouth, which steadily moved up and down like he was a cow chewing cud.
“You know,” Eli said, “prolonged use of chew tends to lead to very disgusting sores and abscesses in the mouth and there aren’t really any doctors around anymore to help with the pain.”
The man did not skip a beat in his chewing motion, but his eyes narrowed into a look of confusion. He stepped forward and kicked Eli straight in the gut hard enough to double the young man over and leave him gasping for air.
“Shut the hell up,” he snarled, eloquently. He spat a streak of thick, red saliva down near Eli’s knees as if in defiance. He turned and continued down the line to Amber. He looked her up and down, a smile spreading across his lips. Her face, inversely, was a mask of sheer disgust. She look ready to punch the man in the face, and probably would have if her hands, like the hands of everyone in the group, weren’t tied behind her.
He continued on, next to eye Aliyah, which put a similar expression on his face as the one he’d had for Amber, and then on to Gabriel. When he came to the preacher he walked around him, looking him up and down, and even squeezed his arm as if testing the thickness of it.
“It’s like they’re sizing us up for the slaughter,” muttered Amber.
“I’m pretty sure they want more than just a meal out of you,” whispered Eli back. She turned and narrowed her eyes at him dangerously. He shrugged.
The entire group, like Eli, were down on their knees just off to the side of their SUV, while men from the stranger’s group went through it or held various guns aimed at their captives. One of the men popped out of the SUV and tossed a couple bags onto the ground. “Looks like that’s all of it, Bob,” he said to the man with the shotgun.
The first man nodded, as if this all made some kind of sense to him. “Well, well,” he said. “Blankets, clothes, guns, and gasoline. Seems like you were prepared for a trip. Where were you headed?”
No one answered. Jay, Eli, Amber, and Gabriel simply stared jaw set and steely eyed at the man. Aliyah looked like a panther ready to pounce. Daina had not stopped crying since she had been pulled from the vehicle. Mac just looked bored, as though this was not any more inconvenient than standing in line at a grocery store.
The man pulled his shotgun off of his shoulder and placed the barrel up against Aliyah’s temple. He pushed it into her, forcing her to lean back. “I said, where you goin’?”
“Home,” Jay said quickly. “Just home. We’re just all trying to get home.”
The man – Bob – didn’t look like he bought the answer, but he did pull the gun away from Aliyah’s head. “Ain’t no planes for China right now, boy.”
Jay just looked incredulous. “Do… do I sound Chinese to you?”
Bob walked casually over and smashed Jay across the side of the face with the butt of his gun. Jay bent over, bobbing up and down and grimacing in pain as Bob leaned down close to him.
“If I want your opinion, boy,” he said, “I’ll give it to ya.” He stood straight and cast an angry glare across the group before him. “You all seem to be under the impression that nothing has changed. Let me make this clear to you. You are no longer you. You are ours now. You will say what we tell you to say, do what we tell you, and when we tell you.” He smiled at Amber and Aliyah and added, “All of it. Your survival is ours to give you. Your life is ours to give you. You. Are. Ours.”
He scratched at his thick black beard thoughtfully. He spat to the side and then turned to face one of his men. He pointed at the man and then motioned to Eli and the rest with his thumb. “Okay, throw them in the back of the truck. We’re gonna take ’em to Red. I’m sure he’ll be happy to see our catch.”
The man nodded and he and a couple others hurried over and started pulling their captives off their knees and lifting them up into the bed of a nearby truck.
“What do we do about their vehicle, Bob?” the man who had spoken earlier asked.
Bob tossed the man the keys to the SUV and said, “Bring it. No sense in letting it go to waste.”
Once they had all of Eli’s group up in the truck bed, they quickly set about moving the fallen tree out of the roadway, and then a moment later they were all on their way. The vehicle with Bob in it took the lead, followed by the truck with Eli and his group, and the rest of the vehicles fell in line behind them.
Aliyah looked around as they bounced along the road and frowned. “I guess they’re not too worried about us jumping out and running for it,” she said.
Eli shook his head. “It probably wouldn’t be too smart an idea. There’s zombies wandering around, it’s getting dark, and our hands are still tied behind our backs. We’re not gonna stand too great a chance if we jump.”
“What is wrong with these people?” Daina demanded. She looked ready to cry again. “Don’t they know we should be working together? Zombies are the only enemy now!”
“Yeah, anyone else get a big Deliverance vibe off of these wacko’s?” Jay asked.
“More like Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” said Amber.
“You’re both right, I think.” Eli grimaced at his own thoughts. “I mean, just look around you. How much wildlife have you seen? I think survivors like us have become just another source of meat to these people. And women… women are probably nothing more than seed bearers.”
“I still don’t see why zombies aren’t the bigger threat to them,” argued Daina.
Eli shook his head. “I think we’re dealing with a group of preppers.”
“I don’t know, man, they don’t seem like any prep I remember from high school,” said Jay doubtfully.
“What? No. Not ‘preps.’ Preppers. As in… doomsday preppers. Survivalists? Don’t you people watch TV? It’s like… a movement of people who have been expecting the world to end so they’ve spent their lives learning how to survive in post-apocalyptic landscapes. They probably have homes buried out in the woods somewhere with radiation filters and bank vault doors for entry.”
“Well, it looks like they were right,” Gabriel said.
“Yeah, no. I mean… yeah, I guess. But what I’m saying is, these are people who always lived on the fringes of society. Who already removed themselves from the living. People so worried about dying in some theoretical apocalypse that was supposed to be coming that they never started living.”
“Are you really one to criticize, Eli,” Amber asked, her brow furrowed skeptically. “Just… how long was it again before you discovered the world had come to an end?”
“That’s… it’s… it’s not the same,” Eli protested meekly, but clearly her words had gotten to him. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a minute. “Look, fine. Okay? Maybe I don’t have room to judge. But my point is: even when there weren’t zombies, all these people cared about is their own little community of survivalists. All they’re interested in is their own survival. To the point that even when there was no real indication an apocalypse was coming they lived their lives entirely around self-preservation. Now that they’ve finally been proven right? Yeah, the rest of society is nothing more than a means to an end.”
Everyone in the group exchanged grim expressions.
“We have got to find a way to escape,” Aliyah said.
Eli did his best to shrug his shoulders. “I’m open for suggestions.”
They rode on in silence. Around them, the world continued growing darker. Before long, the woods began to give way to another neighborhood, this one filled with much nicer looking houses than the one they had raided.
The caravan pulled up to a gate, and the lead driver entered a code into a panel. The gate’s swung open and they pulled on through.
“Electricity?” Jay asked, surprised.
“Fancy neighborhood like this, probably has its own generator.”
Once through the gates they followed the road uphill until they came upon a particular house with a few more cars parked around it and the interior lights on. The vehicles all pulled to a stop. The men climbed out. Some went to pull Eli’s group from the bed of the truck while the others walked off in one direction or another.
“Full moon,” said Jay, as he came down on the ground next to Eli. He nodded with his head off past the house far to the east, where the moon was just beginning to peak out over the tops of the trees.
“Just perfect,” grumbled Eli. He wasn’t sure, but at that moment he could have sworn he heard a wolf howl in the distance. He strained his ears to listen for it to come again, but didn’t get the chance.
“Get moving!” one of the men snapped, shoving Eli toward the front door of the house. The young man stumbled, having difficulty maintaining his balance with his hands tied behind his back the way they were. Somehow, he managed to stay up on his feet and began walking slowly toward the house.
Eli stepped inside and couldn’t help but let out a whistle of appreciation. The front entrance was massive, with most of the ground floor being just one large, interconnected room. The house had a rustic aesthetic, with wood floors and ceilings and plenty of stone walls. Golden chandeliers hung here and there from the ceiling, providing all of the illumination. The first room, opening out to their right, was a living room. The floor was dotted here and there strategically with couches, most the size of Eli’s bed back home. Or larger.
“Well, well, what have we here?”
From out of one of the side rooms stepped a big, heavy set man. He was older, probably in his sixties, with a bushy beard that hung down to his upper torso. The hair of his beard, and what little remained on his head, were mostly a faded gray, though here and there specks of red still shone through the mist. Eli ventured the guess that this man was the person named “Red” that Bob had referred to earlier.
“Found them headin’ north outta the Glades,” Bob said, stepping into the room behind the group. “They say they’re ‘headed home.’ I say, like hell.”
“Home, eh?” echoed Red. “And, uh, where exactly is home for you folks?” No one responded, but it didn’t seem to bother him any. He shrugged his massive shoulders and smiled. “Well, no matter. Doesn’t matter at all. Wherever it was, I can tell you this: there’s nothin’ left. There ain’t nothin’ left of nowhere but right here. So this’n here is where you’re stayin’.”
“We’re not your enemies!” Daina blurted, panicking. “We’re not! The zombies are! We should be working together!”
“Zombies?” Red looked confused. “Is that what you’re calling the yellow eyes?”
“I told you they was zombies!” another man said, looking over from one of the couches.
“What did I tell you Danny?” snapped Red. “Just shut the hell up.” He looked back to the group. “Hell, it doesn’t matter anyway. Whatever you call them, they’re all just the damned of God’s wrath. All they are is a test – a test to survive.”
He stepped in close to Eli, leaning so close the young man could smell his foul breath. “In order to survive, of course, you need to have the skills to do so. Tell me boy, do you have the skills?”
Eli frowned but said nothing. Red smiled. “It seems to me that none of you have any use but as meat.” He stepped over to Amber and ran his eyes up and down her body. He reached out a hand and pushed up her chin. A wicked smile spread across his lips. “Well, maybe some we can find other use than meat for,” he added. “My men do need some… entertainment.”
Amber smiled back at him, and then spit in his face. “Touch me again and I’ll kill you!”
She tried kicking at him, but he backed away and laughed. He wiped away the spittle from his face and said, “I do like a spirited one. Don’t you worry, sweetheart. We’ll have plenty of fun breaking you.”
A chuckle went through the survivalists of the room, followed by a brief silence, which was punctuated by the lonely howl of a wolf.
Bob looked around, as though he was expecting to see the source of the sound, and frowned. “Those wolves sure seem to be getting closer,” he said.
“They’re attracted to the yellow eyes,” said Red dismissively. He was busy individually eyeing each member of the group, rating them much as Bob had done less than an hour earlier like a butcher might rate slabs of meat.
There was another howl, this one closer and from a different direction.
“That don’t sound like no wolf I ever heard,” Danny said, sitting up stock straight on the couch.
“Probably a coyote than,” said Red, pronouncing it like “kai-yoat.”
“Ain’t no coyote, neither,” Danny argued.
“Danny, what the hell did I–”
He never finished his sentence.
From somewhere nearby, there was the sound of shouting, followed quickly by gunfire, and then even more quickly that was followed by a blood-curdling scream. A few more rounds of gunfire sounded off against the night, and then there was silence.
“What in the good lord’s name is going on out there?” demanded Red.
There was another howl of a wolf, this one sounding as though it came from right outside.
Without a warning, the front door burst open. Everyone spun to face the source of the unexpected sound. In the open doorway stood one of Red’s men. It was the one who had driven the group’s SUV, but for a long moment nobody there recognized him.
He was covered from head to toe in a thick layer of blood.