Chapter 24- End
I was breathing heavily by the time I sprinted up to where Frankie and the others were monitoring the perimeter of our flaming walls. As for the pressing matter of time, I figured myself to be way behind schedule. Taking care of Lewis’s lesbian girlfriend had required a short period of time that I hadn’t factored in, and the clock was still ticking.
It had been awkward for both of us as I wrapped my hands around her neck. She’d fought, clawing at my wrists and wheezing harshly. She was only slightly smaller than I am, and fear had given her a surprising burst of strength.
I didn’t help her much, though. I’d given a sharp squeeze, and there had been an audible pop as her windpipe collapsed beneath my thumbs. Her wheezing turned to a high pitched whistle as she let go of my arms and began to claw at her throat, staggering backwards. She tripped over the coffee table and fell over backwards, her legs kicking out in spasms. She passed out within moments.
Great, I’d thought as I’d regarded her comatose form. Another problem.
Turns out, it hadn’t been too much of a problem at all. Of course, rapid action and problem solving had always been strengths of mine, and the two combined in that moment to give me a simple solution.
It took me less than half a minute to haul her by her wrists to the bathroom and get her into the bathtub. I straightened her limp limbs until she looked peaceful, and then cut her wrists open. I did it lengthwise between the Radius and Ulna of her forearm, the way I’d read you were supposed to do it. She may not have been conscious, but her heart was still beating, and the blood rushed from her wrists in steady spurts, coating and streaming down the sides of Nancy’s white bathtub in thick, crimson rivulets.
Suicide. Boom. Problem solved.
Part of me wanted to step back and take a moment to admire my handiwork. I mean, truly, given the circumstances? This had been tuned in, high speed thinking. I’d even finished off the scene by taking- Jassa? Jeanna?-’s pocket knife and dipping the blade into the blood and placing it next to her hand. I mean, seriously, this was art.
Another part of me- the part that I was starting to realize was the infection in my veins- wanted to bite into her thigh. Whether I’d liked her or not, she had great legs, and I thought about it very hard, very quickly. Ultimately, I’d decided that there was no time. Avery was still in the Goddamn truck, and I was behind schedule. I knew that Lew would be upset when he found out, but this was for the best. We’d talk about it, later. Jenson had never been any good for him, anyway.
Martin was at the base of the wall as I drew up and glanced around to take in the situation. Our newest member looked worried and haggard, ready to collapse in exhaustion at any moment. Lew was standing atop the house with his narrow back facing me, watching the movement of the deaders in the desert beyond Branberry’s walls. D’wayne was further down the wall to my left, his eyes focused on where I imagined the lifeless Dakota sat. Frankie was up on the wall itself, positioned at a vacant spot where the flames weren’t rising. His rifle was still clutched in his hands, and with the light of the flames in front of him all I could see was a black silhouette of shadow. It made him look like Budweiser's finest hillbilly Rambo.
The shadow turned my way, the grim features of his back lit face locking on to mine as I worked my way carefully up the staggered steps of the cinderblock to get to the wall.
“Gimme your sword,” I said as I drew even with him, forestalling any uncomfortable questions he might ask. I had my second bat with me, a dull silver aluminum number that I’d used for years, but for what I planned the sword would be better. It’d be quieter.
Frankie looked at me with confusion. Some part of my mind considered that it might have been because he was surprised, shocked at watching me run up the staggered brick wall with relative ease when I’d been limping so heavily such a short time ago. I very firmly told that part of my mind to shut the fuck up.
“Why?” Frankie asked. He was holding the rifle, but his trustworthy ol’ crossbow dangled on a strap from his back, and Samantha wasn’t too far from his feet. My brother in law’s eyes and voice were flat, lifeless, and I realized he’d already assumed the worst would happen and armed himself accordingly: Rifle for long distance. Crossbow for mid distance when his ammo ran out, and Samantha for when it came to hand-to-hand. He had his Glock on his right hip, but I understood Frankie well enough to know that those .45 slugs wouldn’t be for deaders. They were a last resort- a quick end- for the people he cared about if things went bad. It was an ominous sight, but if my plan worked right it would never come to that.
“I need it,” I said. “I’m going over for Avery.”
I didn’t wait for his approval. I just reached over and took the sword from where it lay next to his feet. He looked grudging, but let it go.
“Are you out of your mind?” Lewis damn near shrieked from the roof nearest us. Half his face was illuminated by the flickering light of the burning deaders. Maybe it was the putrid stench of the burning, rotten bodies, or the clouds of smoke depriving him of oxygen, but my best friend looked almost manic. I wanted to feel bad for him, but empathy had never been a strength of mine, and- once again- I simply didn’t have time to care. His face contorted in fury when I didn’t even bother to answer him.
“Here,” Frankie said, holding his rifle out to me as he shrugged the crossbow around his shoulder. “Take this.”
I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “I need you with it. Cross down the wall about fifty feet”- this would put him on Nancy’s back wall, where he’d surely see what I’d done, but I had to live with that- “and start taking down as many as you can. I need the noise. D’wayne! Martin!” I barked over my shoulder, “Stay with him on either side! Nothing gets over!”
“I’ll go with them,” a resolute voice said from over my shoulder. I cast a half glance to see that it was Mackenzie, my partner from earlier. She looked tired, and a bit vacant around the eyes, but still seemed eager and alert enough to do what needed to be done. I gave her a nod, and then pulled Frankie’s razor sharp pawn shop sword from the sheathe and leapt over the wall.
Pain is a funny thing. It can drag you down and completely incapacitate you if you let it. Or, you can almost completely ignore it if you put your mind to it hard enough. Of course, it comes with the cost of potential further injury, but you can ignore it.
When I hit the ground on the other side of the wall, I expected a debilitating, lightning strike eruption of pain from my tailbone- or coccyx, as Larry would have called it- and I was prepared to endure and grind it out. As it happened, I didn’t feel much of anything at all. I would love to say that it was the rush of adrenaline flooding my system that buffered me against the effects, but I’d learned too much to believe that.
As it was, I hit the ground running.
I wanted to savor the moment, to enjoy the soul lifting freedom of being allowed to do the job I loved, but I couldn’t afford to. There was too much at stake for me to wallow in the luxury. Avery needed me.
The first thing I’d noticed after I’d thrown myself over the wall was the intense heat of the flames rolling against me as I landed just clear of their edge. The conflagration didn’t touch me, but it was searing enough that my face felt scorched and I could feel blisters building on the ridges of my ears.
Wait, wait, wait, I thought sarcastically to myself. You mean to tell me that fire is still hot?
The back part of my mind giggled at my own wit, but the rest of me took a long second to take in my surroundings. Casting my gaze around, I realized that things were going better- or worse, depending on how you wanted to look at it- than I could have hoped.
The fire was doing exactly what I’d hoped it would do when I’d ordered the people of Branberry to light it: provide an effective barrier to the walls and burn down the “steps” of deaders that had fallen there earlier in the afternoon. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how many others had walked into the blaze, moving mindlessly like moths toward a really big candle and adding human fuel. Whether they were physically impervious to pain or not, these stupid things didn’t even have the sense to run away when they were on fire.
The bad side of it, though, was the sheer number of them. I hadn’t given much concern when Frankie and I had gone out scavenging earlier. It had been alarming as we’d made our way back to Branberry from the grocery store. It had been daunting when Mackenzie and I had taken the dozers out beyond the walls. But now? There were simply too many to possibly attempt to count. I could only assume that both packs had finally converged, drawn by the light of our burning walls and the calls of their fellows.
Based on the number of deaders in my immediate vicinity, I should have been swarmed with in moments. Many of them, though, including some of the “smart” ones that had so far held themselves back, had started to converge further east, moving quickly to where Nancy and her Scottish terrier lay lifelessly in the dirt. In the wavering light of the flames, I saw three of them tear the dog apart, yanking on it savagely until the torso split. I didn’t wait around to see what they did to Nancy. She was a hero for her sacrifice, and I wasn’t about to waste the time that she had bought us. I searched out the shadowy outline of the Dakota in the darkness, finding it just as I heard the first sharp crack of Frankie’s rifle. A smattering of other weapons discharging followed shortly thereafter.
I ran; I ran as hard and fast as I ever had. It would have been so convenient if the staggering, streaking deaders had provided me with a clear pathway as they had earlier, but right now that wasn’t the case.
I weaved, I bounced, I jived; I slid through the harsh dirt of the desert floor, slipping my way around as many as I could as I made a beeline towards the truck. I only attacked when I had to, and while I would have felt more comfortable using the bat tucked into my belt, I went with the sword, if for no other reason than that it wasn’t as loud. Simple as it may seem, I didn’t want the crunch of breaking bone to draw any attention my way.
When I did use Samantha, it was in quick sweeps and swipes that were only meant to throw the deaders off long enough for me to dash past. A cut to a hamstring here; a slice to an achilles tendon, there. Most took the debilitating wounds with a mindless sort of stoicism, turning their attention back to the burning bodies of their peers as I darted past.
I reached the Dakota much faster than I could have hoped. Heaving heavy breaths, I reached for the door handle. The molded black plastic handle lifted in my hand, but the door didn’t open. The doors were locked. In the space of a single thought, I blessed Avery for her foresight, and cursed her for the inconvenience.
“Avery,” I whispered urgently in a voice I doubted carried through the closed window. I tapped at the glass frantically with my free hand, hoping that she was still there to hear me. “Open up, c’mon, open up. It’s me, c’mon.”
It might well have been the longest few seconds of my life. I kept shooting furtive glances over my shoulder at the deaders that were streaming to where Nancy was, tapping urgently at the window the whole while. I was flooded with relief when Avery’s tear streaked, snot nosed face peeked up at me. I heaved an inward sigh of relief; I’d made it in time. The sacrifices had been worth it.
I gestured animatedly, yanking at the handle, imploring her to unlock the vehicle. It was more than a little irritating when she shook her flushed face in a resounding “no,” and unleashed a new gale of silent sobs as she pushed away from the window, climbing as far into the driver’s seat as she could go.
God dammit, we don’t have time for this.
Now, I’d always thought that it looked cool in the movies, but would be bullshit in reality. There was no way anyone could do that. I was on the precipice of decision, however, and was faced with two facts:
1. Avery wouldn’t open the door.
2. Larry had told me that my body would go numb.
The pharmacist had never lied to me before, so I trusted his judgement. Suffice to say, it hurt like a mother fucker when I punched my fist through the window of the passenger side door.
Maybe I’d gotten overconfident in the almost forgotten pain of my broken tailbone, but dammit, I hadn’t expected this. I felt something in my hand pop and splinter, and the skin of my knuckles split open from fine shards of glass. My entire hand felt like it had just been fed through a meat grinder, but I fumbled around on the inside of the window pane until I managed to pull the bolt lock up with a pop.
It was only after I’d withdrawn my arm and pulled the door open that I was forced to recall my words to Frankie earlier in the day: I have a bat; I could’ve just broken it. Part of me wanted to laugh uproariously, because, honestly, that’s just funny. The bigger part of me just thought that my hand hurt. Seriously, no joke; it didn’t feel good.
“We gotta go,” I hissed between clenched teeth as Avery inched away from me, shaking her head. “Now.”
Nervous of cutting the girl on the naked blade, I tucked Samantha into my belt. Instinctively, I reached out with my broken and bleeding hand with the intention of grabbing her by the ankle and dragging her with me. I realized immediately, however, that my swelling fingers wouldn’t have the strength to haul her out. Instead, I popped the bat out from my belt and transferred it to my bad hand. It was an unpleasant sensation to curl the fingers of my broken hand around the haft, but there was a familiar comfort, too.
I reached in with my good hand, grabbing Avery by the pant leg and pulling her towards me from across the center console. She squealed, but I didn’t have any time to spare for gentle words or consolations. This wasn’t the time to tell her that everything would be all right. I gave a final heave, and she slid out of the vehicle on her back. She would have fallen, crumpling in a heap to the dirt of the desert floor, but between the seat beneath her back and my own body standing in front of her she managed to stay upright.
I grabbed her roughly at the scruff over neck, tilting her chin so that her terrified eyes were forced to look into mine. I could feel her shaking in my hand, sad shudders that I could feel quaking through her entire body as fresh tears welled over the lids of her eyes. There was no way for me to tell if she was afraid of her predicament, or of me. I guess it really didn’t matter, and I’d never been very good at that type of thing, anyway. I felt bad, though...
There was no time to delve into the discovery of the notion. Desperate as it was, my mad dash out to the Dakota had held its own type of enjoyment. Now, though, it was time for the hard part: getting back. Not hard on myself, mind you; I personally didn’t really give a shit about what happened to me. But Avery wouldn’t make it back on her own. It was my job to get her there. There was no time to explain things to her in detail, so I had to keep it simple.
“Stay by me. Do exactly what I say or you’ll die.”
Avery’s eyes widened in new found terror, and I realized that I probably should have clarified my statement. I’m willing to concede that it was pretty open to interpretation on just exactly who would kill her: them, or me. I opted not to give her a chance to balk or respond. The fingers of my good hand were still wrapped around the nape of her neck, and after checking over both of my shoulders to make sure that our area was still clear I pushed away from the truck, dragging her beside me.
Guns and rifles were barking off to the east of our location in intermittent spurts, and the deaders continued to ignore us for the moment as they focused on the bait trifecta that I’d set up for them: visual light from the flames around the walls, sound from the cracking gun barrels, and the wonderful allure of fresh meat that wouldn’t attempt to fight back. Between you and me, I felt a brief flash of shame. I really did feel bad about Chartreuse; that poor dog deserved better than what fate had given it.
I ran forward, dragging the reluctant Avery with me. She slipped and stumbled, her gangly, gawky, pre pubescent legs fumbling beneath her. My grip was the only thing that kept her moving forward. We made it almost twenty yards before one of the deaders noticed us. It was a female in the ragged remains of a teddy nightgown. The stained and tattered hem dangled just low enough to cover the undoubtedly rotten remains of her lady parts, but when she turned her milky eyes on us I had to resist the urge to gulp nervously. She wasn’t a drone, or any random pack member; this was one of the thinkers.
I’m a bit ashamed to say that I froze up a bit in that moment, my momentum coming to a staggering halt as Avery gasped deep, frantic breaths at my hip. The female deader cocked her head at us like a curious sparrow before opening up the dark, rancid cavern of her mouth to bark. The gaunt mouth was filled with brown gums, and only a few remaining teeth that had turned black. Her lips pursed to call out to the rest of her pack.
“Broo-” she began, cutting off sharply as my silver bat took her across the jaw. Shriveled flesh split, dehydrated bone crunched, and her few remaining teeth flew from her mouth like a light hail storm. The damage had already been done, though. Abbreviated as it was, the first part of her call rebounded across the empty dome of the night sky. The movement of the deaders in our immediate vicinity slowed as they heeded the sound, creaking their unseeing eyes our direction and scenting the air in wet slurps. The gunfire from Nancy’s wall went silent for a moment, only to be taken up with renewed intensity.
God dammit I love you, Frankie, I thought gratefully as his rifle spoke up loudly over the rest in a sharp three round burst. Frankie was an amazing marksman, with a wealth of experience that he wouldn’t talk about. He was trained to make cool, calculated shots, one at a time. That three round burst was something else. It was a damn cacophony of gunfire from the end of the street, all designed to grab the attention of the deaders that had noticed us. Vacant eyes that had started to zone in on us turned back the other direction.
Avery shrieked from beside me, cupping her mouth as the female I’d felled rose to her feet. The deader’s lower jaw was hanging free from her skull on one side, suspended by a few strands of flesh as it swung back and forth like a rotting pendulum. Normally, a clean shot like that would have dropped a deader like a stone, no matter how big it was. But even with the new strength of the virus in me, my broken hand didn’t have the power to swing the way I normally would have.
I switched the bat to my left hand, holding Avery tight to my right hip, and swung as hard as I could at the deader’s ankle. The blow, weak as it was from my bad hand (or was it my good hand, now that my good hand was my bad hand?) landed with the sharp ting of aluminum cracking into bone. The female’s leg buckled, and she fell to the side with a loud woofing sound. It should have been a call, but since half of her face had been ripped away, it just came out like a loud burp.
This suited me just fine.
I’ll find you later, I thought to myself as I hauled Avery behind me, stepping out of the way of her reaching arms as we darted past. We’d just moved beyond her when I heard a crunch of feet in the sand behind us. I whirled, striking at a drone that had managed to close in on my back. Left hand or not, this time the blow landed exactly as it should have, right in the hollow of the temple, and the thing fell. No time for my natural elation, though. Before the desiccated body was fully prone on the ground, I felt a sharp pull at my waist, and then an abrupt loosening of the jeans around my hips.
I suppressed my panic at the unforeseen contact, and looked over to see Avery’s tear streaked face looking strangely resolute. It took only a scant second to realize what had happened: as I’d turned my back, Avery had grabbed the hilt of Frankie’s sword from my hip. The razor sharp blade had cut clean through the cheap leather of my belt, and was now held in her shaking hands. The little girl held the blade- which was almost as long as she was tall- as best she could, point tilted up towards the black sky.
There was no time for words or discussion. I made eye contact with the preteen, and she gave me a nod, the sword trembling only slightly. I cocked my head towards the burning wall of Branberry in a “let’s go” gesture, and she nodded once more.
I moved with urgency, pushing the quickest pace that Avery could keep. To be honest, she didn’t really do too much with Frankie’s sword, but I was proud of her for trying. I had to grab her by the shoulder to hustle her along a couple of times, but she returned the favor by thrusting Samantha’s tip into the ribcage of a deader to hold it still long enough for me to crack it across the back of the dome. My little stowaway didn’t even scream out when the shmagma of brain matter splattered across her chest. Good girl; I’d make an Exterminator out of her yet.
I felt an odd sense of pride as I thought this, but my enthusiasm was cut short when I realized that I wouldn’t have much time to teach her the trade. No matter how hard I fought, no matter how much I held the infection at bay, I was bound to be dead within the week no matter what happened.
Kind of a depressing thought.
My lips tightened in agitation, and I grabbed Avery roughly by the back of her armpit, ushering her further on. My head was swiveling this way and that, looking for threats, but we were so close to the wall I could feel it. I put down two more that came into our path, and Avery, brave girl, gave a hacking swipe of the sword at the hamstring of a male drone that was creeping up on my left. Her strike wasn’t hard enough to cut all the way through, but she managed to trip it to the ground where I took care of the rest.
Shots of gunfire continued to resound through the night sky, but deaders were starting to close in all around us, drawn from the bush towards the sound. There were too many to count, and mindless or not, they were bound to get to us. We had to make our move now, or everything was lost. We had to reach that wall. I pulled Avery up next to me.
“Run,” I hissed into her ear. “Now. Go!”
I feared a repeat of earlier. I waited for her to balk and bolt back to the truck, making this entire endeavor fruitless. But the girl did me proud. She didn’t argue or hesitate; she just ran forward as fast as her spindly legs would carry her, the sword bobbing awkwardly in her hands.
I snarled, slipping forward to land a few clean kill shots on a couple of deaders that might have blocked her passage. Left hand or not, the bat was light in my fingers and flew just the way it was supposed to. It was only when Avery began to scream out in wordless confusion that I realized something was wrong. I suppressed a long suffering sigh, but when I turned to look at her I realized the utter flaw in my plan; the plan that had worked so perfectly.
Deaders had gathered around the entire length of the wall, catching alight by those that were already burning. Those flames were what Avery was screaming at now; flames that covered the entire perimeter of Branberry’s wall. I may have been able to leap through them on my way out, but there was no place for us to climb back up that wasn’t covered in fire.
We couldn’t get back over.
Shit, I thought, well beyond irritated at the sudden inconvenience.
I’d been so proud of myself, so happy with how my plan had worked out- despite the unforeseen casualties- but now I was faced with the one aspect of my plan that I hadn’t taken into consideration. What was even worse was that there was no time to think or try to problem solve. My greatest assets were utterly useless right now as I drew up next to Avery, the sword wavering in her shaking hands. She was looking at me in panic, waiting for me to tell her what to do, and I didn’t have an answer.
The greater majority of the deaders were still moving past us, following the sounds of gunfire and the promise of fresh meat, but there were still more than enough that had broken away from the group to be a problem. And by “a problem,” I mean kill us.
Brief as it may have been, we’d been out here long enough that we’d attracted considerable attention. Scores of dead eyes turned our direction and began to amble our way, picking up speed as they focused on us. There was no place for us to turn. The wall was right in front of us, within arms reach, but the wreath of flame prevented us from getting over.
Something very much like panic fluttered in my chest. It was an odd sensation. After all, I don’t panic, ever. I simply don’t have the capacity for that depth of emotion. Yet, here I was, with Avery depending on me to keep my promise to keep her safe.
The flames were high, rising a couple of feet over the edge of our wall. The putrid stench of the burning deaders stung my nostrils. The ash and cinder was making my eyes water. My hand was broken from punching through glass in my foolish attempt at heroism. The pain in my knuckles hadn’t quite yet caught up to the numbness of my tailbone. I mean, hell, it had been a whole three minutes since it had happened. Maybe my expectations had been a bit too high. But I had to get Avery over that wall, and there was only one way that I could see to do it.
After all, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. The straight line to safety was just in front of us, on the other side of Branberry.
I’d already decided that I was going to do my best to hurl the girl over the wall. My high school algebra quickly deduced that if I wanted to accomplish this without burning her, I’d have to get her roughly twelve feet into the air. I estimated Avery’s weight at about eighty-five pounds. It was a tall task, but with the strength of the infection in me- broken hand or not- I felt like I could make that happen. The problem was that it left the girl with a twelve foot fall with nothing to catch her except hard concrete and rock.
“Lewis!” I screamed out to my best friend, knowing it was pointless but trying anyway. “I need you!”
I knew that there was no way that he could get there in time, even assuming that he’d heard me. I knew it in my gut. It was nothing but a last ditch, desperate hope. I needed someone there to catch her, since I couldn’t be there to do it myself. It still had to happen, though; it was the only way to ensure her survival for at least a little bit longer.
Her ankles might break, a cold, dispassionate part of my mind intoned. Maybe her arms, depending on how she lands. But she’ll be alive. At least for a little bit longer. Or should I just kill her now? Would that be a kindness? Put her out of her misery before she knows what misery is?
“I’m here!” a thready voice called from the other side of the wall, and for just a moment, I thought that Lewis had somehow miraculously heard me. It was hard to hear over the crackling whisper of flames, the constant pop of gunfire, and the grunting and barking of the deaders that were all around us, but my ears perked up, straining to hear the faceless voice on the other side of the wall. It definitely wasn’t Lewis. As a matter of fact, given the circumstances, that voice could only belong to one person, and it was possibly that last person (outside of Nancy, of course) that I would have expected to come to my aid.
I had my reservations, but there was no time to consider them. I knew that the aging nun was tough. I also knew that- tough or not- at her age, she was also liable to be frail, in body if not in spirit. The momentum of Avery’s plummeting body was liable to cause her physical damage, assuming Sister Tracy could catch her at all. Assuming I could even get her over the wall.
God dammit, I don’t have time for this. Too much thinking, not enough doing.
“Trust me,” I said, dropping my second bat to the ground as I pulled Avery over to me. Broken or not, I was going to need both hands for this. She squawked loudly with a mixture of surprise and indignation as I grabbed her by the ass of her pants with my bad hand- I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but yes, it hurt- and the back of her neck. Her arms flailed, and Samantha’s edge dragged across my shin. If it wasn’t for my jeans, it would surely have cut me. Caught off guard by my sudden movement, Avery’s arm whipped out instinctually. She lost her grip on the hilt of the sword, and it flew off to fall into the flames at the base of the wall.
When it rains, it pours. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about, Frankie was going to be pissed that I lost his sword.
Deaders were closing in around us at an alarming rate as I clutched Avery in my hands like a side of beef. She hung at my waist, parallel to the ground, before I hoisted her up to chin level like an Olympic power lifter. Ignoring her sudden squawk, my muscles bunched and coiled as I gathered every ounce of strength in me.
I love you. I’m sorry, I thought as I heaved with every bit of power I had, tossing the girl through the air. She screamed as she left my hands, twisting and turning through the black night, flailing like a cat that had been dropped from a roof as she tried to right herself mid fall.
She cleared the flames. I watched her hit the apex of the toss and then begin the descent over the other side of the wall. Fast as it may have happened, Avery still managed to pull in another breath to shriek as she rolled over in mid air, the shrill call cutting through the night more effectively than even the gunshots did. I wanted to stay and watch, to hear Sister Tracy’s affirmative response that she had successfully caught her, but in that moment- surrounded by deaders that had turned their full attention on me- I found that my instinct to keep living won out. I knew I had a deadline coming, but my survival instinct didn’t want that deadline to be now.
Turns out that being samurai wasn’t quite as glamorous as I’d anticipated. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have any time to dwell on my cowardice. More than a dozen individual deaders had zoomed in on me, and I had to move, now.
I dodged to the side as the nearest lunged at me, casting a longing glance at my bat lying in the sand, beyond my reach. The male deader was small, with the spindly arms of a teenager on meth, and it didn’t take much effort to shove him to the side and break his trajectory. The downside of the maneuver was that the force of my shove also propelled me back wards directly into the wall of flame climbing up the side of Branberry’s perimeter.
Physics; what a bitch.
The feel of the heat was shocking and instantaneous. Flannel and denim may have been an effective barrier against deaders, but it wasn’t nearly as well suited against flame. My contact with it was brief but undeniable. I rebounded instinctually, but was still there long enough that the left sleeve of my shirt caught fire. I couldn’t help the natural scream that ripped it’s way out of my throat. I may have always struggled with understanding or displaying emotion, but fear of fire is something that is ingrained in the DNA of every living being.
I slapped wildly at the flames licking against my skin as I continued to run forward, feeling fresh blisters growing against my skin. While the desert sand beneath my feet might have been a more effective means of smothering the flames, the concept of “stop, drop, and roll” didn’t seem particularly wise for this scenario. To tell you the truth, Late Night Buyer, I didn’t know what to do. My options were limited, so I did the only thing I could.
I ran away.
I had to run, you understand that, right?
Part of me wanted nothing more than to know that Avery was safe, but once she’d gone over the other side of the wall the situation had been taken out of my hands. I was no longer in control, and I kept telling myself that she wasn’t my responsibility anymore. I’d done everything I possibly could, and I’d gotten her home. The best thing that I could do now, for everyone, was flee.
I don’t know where I was running to; I just had to keep moving. I think most people would have had an natural inclination to stay close to the brightness of the flames, but as rational as the concept was it didn’t seem like a smart move to me. I reasoned that, despite the affinity that people have to stay in the safety of a lit space, this was where the deaders were most likely to congregate. That had been the point of the fire, after all; to draw them in. So I did the thing that nobody was supposed to do, the thing that I’d directed my people to never, ever, do.
I slipped out into the darkness, delving into the unlit blackness of the desert where the deaders would hopefully be as blind as I was. I kept the bright lights of the burning walls on my left as a marker, and did my best to blend in with the shadows as I made my way west.
I was afraid. That might seem to be a stupid statement given the circumstances, but you have to understand that fear is an emotion that I’m not accustomed to having. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I know when I’m supposed to be afraid- times and situations when normal people are afraid- but it’s an emotion that only rarely makes an appearance in my lizard brain (much like most emotions and sensations I’m supposed to have.) The “flight” option had always been strangely absent in my fight or flight mechanism.
But now I felt true fear, and it was a truly unpleasant sensation that left a sour taste in my mouth.
It took every ounce of fortitude I had to regulate my breathing in a low, even pattern as I huddled inside of a thorny picker bush. Remaining as still as I could in the shadowed alcove, I resisted the urge to scratch at the sharp thorns that were digging into my skin, remaining motionless as I watched a large group of deaders stalk past me. I couldn’t make out individual features. Their bodies were like a deeper, darker shade of night.
They were barely past me before I scrambled out of the meager safety of the thorny branches. I cast my eyes over to my left, where the light from the flames cast out its ambient glow, illuminating the area. Part of me- a big part, actually- wanted nothing more than to throw myself into the fray, to go hand to hand with the animals surrounding me until I was ripped apart. Even weaponless, I figured I could take down five, maybe six, before the end came. The better, wiser, part of me just wanted to make it home. It was in that moment that an idea occurred to me. It was a simple idea, one that probably should have occurred to me sooner, but better late than never. I ran a few quick, simple facts through my head.
1. Half of the perimeter of Branberry was still burning intensely. The logical step, then, was to find an area that wasn’t on fire. This, in turn, lead to the next issue:
2. The walls were high enough that I wouldn’t be able to scramble over them. As best as I could tell, our front gate was the closest section of wall that wasn’t burning, but it was also the highest point of our perimeter. I wouldn’t be able to get my hands over the edge without someone to help me up or something to stand on. I couldn’t use the crumpled bodies of the deaders the same way that I had earlier in this longest of days, so I needed something else to use as a stepping stone.
This was my “ah-hah” moment, and it sent my mind spiraling towards the next portion of what would be my solution.
3. Martin had said it himself earlier in the day when Mackenzie and I had taken the dozers out: “She wasn’t stupid enough to let the truck run out of gas,” he’d said. “Went down our street, pulled up next to the wall, and hopped out.”
If I could make it to the opposite side of Branberry, I could use the Chevy as a step to get over the wall; to get back to my people for as long as I could. It was a long shot, filled with risk, but it might just work. All I had to do now was make it over to Rocky Coast, the street that sat on the other side of Branberry.
Weaponless. Surrounded by hundreds of deaders. At night.
And here I thought I wouldn’t get my rush, today. I bit my lip with a surge of eagerness at the new challenge, and took off in a silent, loping sprint. I almost didn’t even notice that I’d bitten hard enough to draw blood.
It was only a football field of distance to make it to the gate, but it was a long football field, if you know what I mean. My timing had to be almost perfect when I made my dash, but I realized that I was also relying heavily on blind luck as much as anything else. The flames from the wall were still burning strong, and the light breeze in the air continued to pervade my nostrils with the hideous stench of the burning deaders.
The concussive sound of gunfire still reached my ears, but the time between shots had grown longer. I don’t know if it was because my people were trying to conserve ammo, or if it was because the Thinkers were all that were left, and that they’d decided to return to the tactic of holding back out of harm’s way. Either one was a losing option for the people of Branberry. The deaders either gathered in numbers, waiting for the flames to die down before they attacked and swarmed the walls...or my family and friends eventually ran out of bullets, and then the deaders attacked and swarmed the walls. Neither one was a winning scenario for the people of Branberry.
I moved in a low crouch, ducking and running when I saw openings. I was well beyond the cleared ring of desert that encircled Branberry, tip-toeing as quickly as I could around and in between the desert growth and debris. I pressed myself back into the painful bite of pricker bushes more than once, dropped down to lie prone in a gully, and literally stood perfectly still while holding my breath on several occasions as small groups and packs of deaders moved around me.
The shadows were my friend, but like I said, I was relying on blind luck as much as anything else. Yet, I wondered if that fickle lady had an eye for me in that moment. I slipped, moved, and dodged, standing still when I had to, and none of them noticed me. The hardest part of it was how strong the driving instinct to attack them was becoming. It almost felt like my need compelling me, but somehow wasn’t quite right.
I’d lived with my urges my entire life, and I knew the ebb and flow of them to the very core. This wanton recklessness in me was something else, and before I made my next quick dash to the last stand of desert shrub before reaching our gate, I cast a quick look at my left wrist. There was just enough ambient light from the flames for me to hold my arm out past the shadowed barrier of the desert tree I was currently hiding in. I twisted my arm around slowly, so as not to draw attention from any milky eyes that might have been turned my way.
The half moon ring of teeth marks on my wrist were puffy and inflamed, protruding up from the skin like a snake bite or fresh tattoo. I could see faint shadows of my veins crawling up my forearm. Maybe it was a trick of the light, but they looked like thin, black tendrils of tree root slithering up my arm. I swiped a finger across my forehead, and despite the cool night air, a thick sheet of sweat sluiced from my brow.
I slipped my arm back in, and then looked right and left. A trio had just passed me, barking and coughing, but all I saw was their backs. The rest of the area was clear for a moment, and I could feel Lady Luck winking at me. This was liable to be my best chance. I slithered between the sharp brambles of thorns as quietly as I could, and once I’d seen that the space was clear, I sprinted as hard as I could push myself. I expected to feel sluggish, but instead I blurred across the uneven terrain.
It was an odd sensation to be moving that fast. It might not have been the singular fastest sprint of my life, but given that both my hand and tailbone were undoubtedly broken- and, quite frankly, that I’d had a particularly long day- it was surprising. I noted distantly that my butt didn’t hurt at all, my hand felt manageable, and even the fresh burns on my arm were only mildly annoying. Hell, I wasn’t even breathing hard from the exertion. The only thing that really stood out to me- and it was demanding my attention more and more by the second- was that I was extremely thirsty. Seriously, like, throat hacking thirsty. My throat and tongue felt like eighty grain sandpaper.
I was at our gate before I knew it, huddling down on my haunches with my back against a pile of tires that we’d stacked near the entrance. I felt like I’d been dragged through the longest three hours of my life, even though I knew it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes since I’d thrown Avery over the wall. Still, it had been a long ten minutes.
I held my position, the small of my back pressed against the hard rubber of the stacked tires as I panted in air. It was more from my adrenaline dump than the sprint, but I once again forced myself to regulate my breathing. It was harder to do than it normally was.
Crouched down on my haunches, back pressed against the tires, I took a brief moment to take in my surroundings. There were groups of deaders straggling, prowling, and stalking in the distance, but there were none near me at this moment. Keeping my back pressed against the wall, my eyes darting constantly for a threat, I worked my way down the length of the cinder block wall until I reached Rocky Crest.
Their gate looked much like ours, but it was smaller, flimsier, and had been broken open. The hinges that had held it secure had been torn from the cinder block walls, leaving a wide breach. I slipped through the opening, my back hugging the wall, and even in the darkness of night I could see the carnage. Shadowed forms lay like splayed humps in the middle of the street. It was impossible to tell if they were deader or human, and in the lightless night, I guess it didn’t really matter. Dead was dead.
Doors and windows were shattered in jagged edges, like the mouth of a psycho ward patient with filed teeth. At the end of the street I saw a construction that had crumbled like a broken spider and I realized that it was a gazebo that had been erected for the wedding that they’d been hoping to celebrate. The tattered remains of streamers fluttered along the ground despondently, like the broken dreams of a dying child.
There were two other things I noticed within the first few seconds on the street: the Chevy that Mackenzie had been driving, parked haphazardly near the blank wall that separated our two streets, and the three dozen or so deaders meandering between me and the truck. None had noticed me, but I would have a hard time getting through them unscathed. I glanced around, looking for something, anything, that I could use as an effective weapon. That’s when I saw it. It wasn’t my bat, but I felt like it could get the job done: a loose length of chain that had fallen free when the gate had been ripped open.
I crept over, hunched down and with my eyes always on the deaders, and wrapped my hand through the links, coiling it around my wrist. Despite everything that had happened in the last twelve hours, despite the urgency of the impending threat to Branberry or my own descending death, I couldn’t deny the urge of excitement that flowed through me as the chain links clinked together lightly. While it probably would have been indiscernible at any other time, in the relative silence of night it seemed loud. I saw several sets of gleaming dead eyes swivel my way, their bodies outlined by the pervading glow of our burning walls. I could hear Frankie’s voice singing in the back of my head like a low thrum.
As much as I wanted to I didn’t attack them; I had to be disciplined. My only goal and focus was to make it over the wall, and the odds weren’t in my favor if I tried to take them all on. Still, blood had to be spilled if I was going to make it there, and I found myself humming under my breath as I moved forward.
The opening salvo to “Welcome to the Jungle” purred softly in my throat as I began to drip the length of the chain on the ground like a fisherman’s bobber. The steel links created a clinking sound that reminded me of Christmas. More eyes looked my way as I slowly walked around the perimeter of Rocky Crest’s broken walls.
That’s it, I thought in grim satisfaction as they all started to zone in on me. I’ve got your fun and games right here. They probably couldn’t see me, but they were attracted by the sound. They drew together with an eerie sort of grace, converging like a flock of birds, with a single male taking point. He was an ugly son of a bitch, but his shambling posture took on a decidedly aggressive focus as he stalked me. I had become his center of interest. The pack had opted to follow him, which meant I’d become the pack's center of interest.
This suited me just fine. They may not have been able to see me clearly, but they’d picked up on the sound and were growing more agitated by the moment. I knew it was just a matter of moments before their blood lust took them and they attempted to blitz me.
“Learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play,” I said under my breath.
Fuck this, I thought with a savage snarl, my patience and restraint evaporating like rain in a Vegas summer as I surged forward into the closely quartered pack, whipping the heavy length of chain back and forth as viciously as I could with my left hand.
Like I said, patience has never been one of my virtues.
Outside of cinema, I don’t think anyone in their right mind has ever considered what it would be like to hit someone in the face with a heavy gauge chain, but the damage was more than I could have hoped for. The weight of my blows had enough force to knock the deaders to the side, but even in the dim light I could see the links tearing through any of the rotten flesh they connected with, ripping it off in ragged strips. The stupid things were still streaking towards me with ungainly grace, but my sudden attack had thrown off the balance of their attack. A distant part of me was halfway amused to realize that I was still singing Frankie’s song. Yeah, you can take any ol' thing you want, I thought...
"But you ain't gonna take it from me," I hissed out loud, my voice a whisper slithering between my lips but gaining strength as my need took over.
I lost myself in the lyrics. The recesses of my mind provided the aggressive background music: the sawing guitars, the thumping bass, the clanging drums and hi-hats. I fell into a rhythm at the staccato beat, and my length of chain followed suit as it whipped back and forth as quickly as I could lash it. To my eye, the end of the chain seemed to be moving slowly, like a helicopter revving up, but when it made contact, the deaders were knocked to the side. They didn’t always fall, but they staggered like knock kneed drunkards stumbling out of a bar.
Centrifugal force, I thought, dredging up old terminology from my college physics class. I lashed out with the chain once more, cracking it straight forward from my hip like a bull whip. A deader collapsed like a pinata that had had its string cut, and I smiled to myself. I’ve always liked physics.
“If you want it you’re gonna bleed, but that’s the price you pay!”
A dim part of my mind recognized that I was screaming, but I didn’t care. I slung the rippling chain in heavy sweeps. The length of connecting links would buckle and collapse when I connected with a deader, but the bright side was that the deader would buckle and collapse, too- Score!- and I’d whip it back for another attack.
“In the jungle, welcome to the jungle!”
One managed to grab me by the right arm, biting deep into the sleeve of my flannel. The power of its jaws clamping together on my already wounded limb was excrutiating. Its teeth ground back and forth, bruising my flesh, but the flannel did its job, holding strong and stopping the teeth from sinking into my skin. Call me selfish, but- infected and dying or not- I had no inclination to being eaten while I was still drawing breath. Seriously; at least buy me a drink, first.
I drove the knuckles of my left hand into the side of its skull. I must have hit a soft spot, because I heard the crunch of breaking bone beneath my hand as it fell to the side, releasing its mouth hug on my other arm. I recovered, and the chain kept swinging. The Chevy was only a few more walking bodies away.
Shouting in wordless fury/ ecstasy, I whipped the chain low at the ankle of my nearest target. The links wrapped around the desiccated calf, and I gave a hard yank, snapping its feet out from under it. The deader landed on its back with a thump, floundering to regain its feet. Watching it hit the ground drove my need with a feverish frenzy. I shrieked out, my voice hitting a pitch that was maniacal to my own ears; Axl Rose would have been proud.
“Die” should have been the final word, but I cut off at the last second. I was focused on killing, doing the only thing I’d ever been good at, but in that moment I saw a clear path towards the Chevy. There was only one deader left in my immediate range, and I could already tell that it wasn’t going to be a problem. The bastard was streaking at me from my right, snarling and slavering, but both of its arms had been ripped off at the elbow. I didn’t even consider it a threat.
I wanted to finish Frankie’s song; truly, I did. I was in the zone, and- if I’m being honest- it was a really good song. But in that split second, cold reality reasserted itself, and this wasn’t the time for singing. If I could get this last deader out of the way, I had a clean line towards the Chevy. So I did what any rational person would do: I changed my level, dropping my shoulder, and barreled into it like a defensive linebacker with a clear shot at the quarterback.
I hit it right at the hip- the sweet spot- and the creature buckled like a book that had been slammed closed. The filthy soles of its shoed feet left the ground as it flew backwards to land in a squirming heap. It fluttered around, but without hands it couldn’t stand back up. That quickly, my path to the Chevy was clear, and I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity.
I was panting heavily from exertion, but I ran forward as fast as my driving legs could propel me. I let the length of chain slither from my wrist to the ground as I vaulted myself over the edge and into the bed of the pick up. My feet landed with a creaking thud that was loud in the dark night, and I heard the barking call of dozens of other deaders spring up at the sound of the impact.
Didn’t matter to me, though; they were all too far away to be a threat, and the lip of the wall to Branberry was practically within reach. I bounded up onto the roof of the cab, causing a couple more loud thumps of buckling metal, and then leapt out at the wall. My fingers caught the edge of concrete, sending a muted scream through my bad hand, and the skin of my palms scraped painfully as I scrambled. My feet fluttered for purchase against the sheer surface, but my grip held. I slung leg up over the ledge, and then -carefully, this time- dropped myself down over the other side.
I was home.
Somehow, against every ridiculous odd stacked against me, I’d made it home. I managed a few staggering steps, heaving in frantic breaths, before all of my adrenaline went out of me. It had been the strength that had kept me going, but when it dumped out, my body went with it. The strength left my limbs, and I felt an odd tingling in my fingers and toes. My vision waivered, turning hazy, and I suddenly found it hard to keep myself upright. My head felt heavy, and I considered it a minor victory that I managed to fumble my panic whistle out of my pocket. I didn’t get it to my mouth on the first try, and when I did manage it, I was only able to emit a short, piercing warble before I passed out and tumble to the ground.
My last thought before my eyes finally closed was about how thirsty I was.
The darkness whispered at me. I didn’t recognize it, but I felt like I should have. Something about it seemed familiar, sounded familiar. Wrapped in the velvety blackness of this endless abyss, I couldn’t quite grasp it.
“Cleet,” a voice whispered at me, the twanging tone worming its way through the darkest corners of my mind like the thinnest of serpents. I wanted to ignore it. I wanted to just sink back down into the black comforter of oblivion.
“Cleet,” the voice rang again, this time with more urgency, and I felt the rhythmic tapping of a hand against my chin. The contact drew me out of the comforting darkness, and the closer I got to the surface, the more acutely I felt the sting of the callused palm swatting against my cheek. My vision was blurry as my eyelids finally fluttered open to reveal the hazy lines of the face above me. The image blurred into two wobbly twins, but gradually coalesced into Frankie’s plump face looking down on me with concern. He was still wearing his FSU hat, but it had been darkened and dampened through out with sweat. Not too surprising, considering he was decked out in full BDU’s.
“Ungh,” I grunted, drawing in a pained breath. Fresh air sluiced down my gullet, and my throat and mouth felt like a stairway lined with razor blades.
“Get up, bitch,” my brother in law said, his voice halfway lifeless with forced humor as he pulled me by the arm into a sitting position. My mind was swimming through a fog. I vaguely felt my arm go around his shoulder, felt my ass lift from the ground, felt Frankie halt as he struggled to pull my weight up…
Strong as he was, Frankie was struggling with my dead weight. It was only when i felt another body press itself against my other armpit, hoisting me upright, that I regained any sense of lucidity. My vision was still fighting against me, refusing to focus, but I tilted my chin to my left to see a hazy shadow of pure blackness. Something in my lizard brain lashed out, associating the dark form that I couldn’t see with swarms of deaders trying to kill me. I started to thrash around, my limbs flailing weakly, and it was only as my swooning vision cleared that I recognized the diminutive figure helping to support me.
Sister Tracy, decked out in her full black gown and habit. The fabric of her smock looked rumpled, like it had been rolled up and tucked away for a long time, but was still as spotless and clean as anything I’d seen her wear. The old nun caught the dumbstruck look on my face, shrugging my arm further over her shoulder.
“There are times when the Lord is needed,” she huffed as she held me up, turning her steely, resolute gaze forward. “This seems to be one such. It’s my sacred duty to be here in his absence.”
“Avery,” I croaked. Speaking felt like it was harder than it should have been. Even aside from the wounds I’d taken- wounds that I couldn’t even feel, anymore- my skin felt taut, like dried parchment that had been stretched too far. My skin felt like a full bodied jacket. My jeans felt loose around my hips, and for some reason I was acutely aware of my ribs pressing against my skin.
“The girl is safe,” Sister Tracy said. “Scared, but safe. My shoulders and knees hate you more than my heart ever did, but you brought her safely back to us. You brought her home.”
The old nun didn’t say anything else, but she really didn’t need to. She wouldn’t look at me, and I could see that she was struggling beneath my weight, but there was something in her posture and blank stare. In her own way- whether she liked me or not- Sister Tracy was conveying her gratitude.
Part of me crumbled in that moment. Walls that I hadn’t known I’d erected tumbled to the ground, and I allowed myself to release a pent up breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.
Avery was safe. If I did nothing else worthwhile in my life, I could rest assured that, in this moment, I was in fact a good person.
“Where’s Lewis?” I asked, my dried voice barely more than the sound of glass shards grinding together. It came out as little more than a whisper, but I didn’t miss the way that Frankie’s already blank face hardened. His normally bluff features had been flat, but now they took on a lifeless tone.
“Have this,” a voice said, distracting me, and I recognized Larry’s voice as he strode forward. Forestalling anything that Frankie might have said, the pharmacist held a crinkled bottle of water out to me. The label was peeling, and I knew that the water was nothing more than what we’d been able to scavage. My reclusive house-mate looked rumpled and weary, but there was a certain, quiet, intensity to him at the moment. I almost didn’t even notice it; I was focused on his offering.
My eyes locked onto it with a mechanical intensity that I could almost feel, and I pulled my arm from Sister Tracy’s shoulder to grasp the rumpled bottle. The thin plastic compressed in my hand, sloshing water out over the top, and I slammed it hard to my lips. I swallowed again, and again, chugging the tepid fluid until the tiny container was empty.
I heaved in a jagged breath that had a little more of my normal voice to it. The water felt like a lead weight in my stomach, but it was also strangely invigorating, too. I could practically feel energy flowing back into me, and the constricting tightness of my skin seemed to loosen up a bit. I moved to hand the empty bottle back to Larry, but was surprised to see that he had disappeared, melting back into the shadows that cloaked Branberry.
“Where’s Lew?” I asked again, sounding almost like myself. I’d regained my equilibrium, and managed to hold myself up, slipping my arm from around Frankie’s shoulder. My brother in law still didn’t answer, and I took a closer look at his face; his dark, unreadable face. His expression- or lack there of- made my blood run cold.
Frankie wasn’t right.
I felt my heartbeat speeding up once more, but this time it wasn’t about adrenaline or exertion. There was an unpleasant sensation building in my gut, a cold feeling, and I didn’t like it. Frankie’s face remained utterly unreadable and impassive. He wouldn’t look at me, his gaze pointed straight towards the other side of the street.
“He ain’t here, right now,” he said after a drawn out moment, voice tight and terse. He was still pointedly not looking at me.
“What do you mean?” I asked, an edge to my voice, wishing I had more water. “Get him the fuck out here; we need to go over everything. It’s bad out there.”
Frankie didn’t answer, and I was surprised when Sister Tracy spoke up.
“Lewis is no longer with us,” the old nun said. Her voice was firm and stalwart, but it had the forced strength of a funeral director speaking to a grieving family. “His resolve waivered. He lost his faith, and committed the most cardinal of sins. He has refused salvation.”
My heart skipped a beat as my stomach plunged, refuting the implications. Wait, I thought, dumbstruck, what do you mean?
“Lew’s dead,” Frankie said into the silence, answering my unspoken question as he spit off to the side.
The words reached my ears, but didn’t make it all the way to my brain. My heart began to pound in my chest, and it had nothing to do with my recent activities, or the poison pulsing in my system. My heels stopped in their tracks, and I felt like an invisible, daunting weight had settled over me, forcing me down.
“Jamie-Lynn killed herself,” Frankie said, flatly, his voice as featureless as his expression.
That’s it! A part of me thought, and I had to resist the urge to snap my fingers together in satisfaction. Jamie-Lynn! The bigger part of me just wanted to refuse what I was hearing.
“She was taking care of Nancy,” Frank continued, his mouth twisted in distaste, like he’d bitten into something foul. He still wouldn’t make eye contact with me, his flat stare turned instead towards the burning walls that shrouded us. “Lew found’er. He went there to check on them after you went over the wall, and get them to the pool.” He paused before continuing. “He ate a bullet.”
Maybe it was my overwrought mind not working as fast as it normally did, but it took me a moment to register precisely what Frankie was saying, and then to translate it to myself. “Jamie-lynn is dead; Lew ate a bullet,” became “Lewis found his lesbian girlfriend- the girl he’s loved since high school- dead in a bathtub. After that, he put the barrel of his gun inside his mouth and pulled the trigger.” The flat, blank expression of Frankie’s face was the only confirmation I needed.
My best friend- my only friend- was dead.
“The guilt of her urges must have been too much for her to bear,” Sister Nancy continued, unaware of my lack of interest in her preaching. A detached portion of my mind was registering her words from far, far, away. The nun’s unintentional revelation that I hadn’t been the only one on Branberry that knew the woman’s secret was lost on me.
God dammit, Lew.
“I’ve been working with her, trying to steer her back to the path of righteousness, but the child’s guilt and perversion were too much for her to carry.”
You stupid son of a bitch; what did you do?
“The gift of life is a blessing from the Lord. To throw his gift away is the acceptance of eternal damnation.”
I knew that girl would be the death of you.
“We’ve lost two souls this evening.”
I won’t lie to you, Late Night Buyer; part of my world collapsed in that moment. Over the entirety of my life, there weren’t too many people that I could say I cared about; like, truly cared about. Oh sure, the people of Branberry were important to me, but that’s because I was their Exterminator. They were my responsibility, and they gave me a purpose. But truly care about? I could’ve counted them all off on one hand with enough fingers left over to flip you the bird.
Lewis had quite possibly been the most important of them all. He’d been a sibling to me in a way that Frankie, or even Lacy, never could have been. He and I had been equal and opposite; Yin and yang. Now- and I could only blame it on his foolish attachment to a woman that would never love him the way he loved her- I was Yangless, and it had happened in the blink of an eye. I hadn’t even been there to talk to him, to help him see sense.
Our fifteen year friendship flashed through my mind at warp speed: cackling laughter, insane stunts, the dares of childhood. Him standing at my shoulder at my parents wake, while Lacy cried against my hip. Holidays, birthdays, weekends; fights, scraps, arguments and debates. The good ,the bad, the ugly. The way that we’d worked together to build Branberry, when everyone else around us seemed to be dying as the world crumbled. It was all done.
I felt like I should have been feeling something more than the numb detachment I was experiencing. I owed him that. Instead, I was as tearless as the day they’d lowered my parents into the ground.
“You should also know,” Frankie spoke up, breaking my thoughts and Sister Tracy’s gospel, “that ol’ Nancy is missin’, too.”
Frankie turned to look at me for the first time since he’d helped me from the ground. His face and eyes were still flat and blank, utterly devoid of emotion. The movement caught my attention, drawing me out of my reverie. It was an expression I’d only seen on Frankie’s face a handful of times, and he only adopted it when there was killing to be done.
“Strange thing, that,” he continued. “Can’t imagine where that ol’ girl would’ve run off too.”
I can, I thought, and since I sent you down to her area of the wall, I’m guessing that you do, too. Did you see her, Frankie? Did you catch a glimpse beneath the pushing, grasping bodies of the deaders piling atop her, tearing her apart? Did you catch sight of her- an arm that had been ripped loose, maybe- through the scope of your rifle?
I returned Frankie’s bland stare and flat expression. Each of us was waiting for the other to give something away. A second or two of heavy silence ticked by.
“It’s a pity ‘bout Chartreuse,” Frankie finally said, breaking the silence. Sister Tracy had finally shut her mouth, looking on in rigid confusion. The nun might have been in the dark, but Frankie had just told me all I needed to know: he knew.
We stared at each other without blinking, holding an odd sort of speechless conversation as we both went through the mental calculations of trying to decipher what the other was thinking. My side of the wordless conversation went something like this:
He knows. How much does he know? Does he know about Jamie-Lynn? If he does, does he understand? Can he know that Larry helped me get the heroine to Nancy? I didn’t even want that garbage here; it was your idea to keep it, Francis. Not my fault if I found a purpose for it. You gonna kill me, Frankie? I’m probably close to dead, anyway. Lew’s dead; you can’t hold me responsible for that. That was his decision. I was only doing what had to be done. My clock is ticking. I got Avery back, but we aren’t in the clear, yet. Let me do what I can while I’m still able to do it.
Now, you’d have to ask Frankie himself, but I’d imagine that his thought process might have gone something like this:
What the fuck did you do, Cleet? Are you out of your Goddamn mind? How sick are you, right now? How deep has that bite gotten into you? I can’t trust you, anymore. We had a deal, but I don’t know if I can hold to it. I didn’t like Nancy none, but hell, man, she didn’t deserve none o’ that. What the fuck am I supposed to do now, huh? What about Lacy? What the hell am I supposed to tell her? She ain’t gonna understand. I gotta do what has to be done, and I lose either way.
I liked Frankie. Maybe even more than liked. In terms of care, he was one of the few people on my hand. More importantly, he made sure that my sister was taken care of. That mattered to me. Hillbilly or not, he protected her in a way that I never could.
Neither one of us could afford to kill the other just yet.
“Where’s Avery?” I asked in a level voice as Frankie and I continued to stand eye to eye. The soft question hung in the night air, and finally provided Sister Tracy with a reason to speak up.
“The child is with your sister,” the old nun said, her face tinted with a hint of confusion at the abrupt change of topic. Tracy may have been in the dark regarding the tension floating about us, but Frankie caught the nuance of what I was getting at. I could see it in his face, and it spoke to me like words written on a page. More so, I think he got the same impression from me.
I know what I did. I know that you know. It wasn’t exactly the way that I wanted it to happen, but I saved the girl that you took as a daughter by doing so.
Frankie scratched at his nose with the back of his knuckles, and twisted the sweat stained brim of his Seminoles cap back and forth over his brow. Was it just this morning that he’d found that? God, it seemed like so much longer. And when had he found time to put his greens on? His face was stained with soot, but he gave me a curt nod. I couldn’t have told you exactly where his head was at, but I took that to mean our deal was still in tact for the moment. I nodded back to him. It was the most emotion I could summon up, but Frankie grasped it for what it was worth.
“Where do we stand?” I asked. Now that Avery was home- and call me selfish, but since I’d somehow managed to survive, as well- it was time to get back to business. I wiped my broken hand across my forehead, swiping away a stream of sweat from my brow. The falling drops of perspiration left dark stains on the ground, and while Sister Tracy didn’t seem to take account of it, I didn’t miss the way that Frankie’s cool gaze nonchalantly followed the movement.
“Wall is standing strong,” my brother in law said at the same moment that Sister Tracy- in a solemn voice suitable for a funeral parlor- said “Would you like to see Lewis?”
Did I want to see Lew? That was a hell of a question. Ate a bullet, Frankie had said. Did I want to see my best friend with the top of his head blown off? See what was left of him? Or maybe it was selfish of me to even look at it from that perspective. Lew had been the leader and organizer of Branberry; did I want to see him lying stiff and cold? I’d never been squeamish at the sight of blood, but the answer to either question was a resounding “no.”
“Is he dead?” I asked. I wasn’t looking at either of them, but the question was directed at Frankie. My brother in law sighed before answering.
“Yeah,” he said, some of the tension seeping out of him at the admission. “He is.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “Seeing him isn’t going to change anything. Now let’s take a look at the perimeter,” I finished, walking forward once more.
I stood at the top most point of the roof, in the same spot that used to be Lewis’s perch, and watched the burning walls of Branberry. A part of me almost felt like I could still sense his presence, here.
The flames continued to crackle and flicker, billowing great clouds of choking smoke into the air. The deaders had provided most of the fuel, but it was starting to run down. Not because we were running out of deaders, but because the greater mass of them had decided- or finally learned- to hold themselves back beyond our reach at the edge of our desert perimeter. Even in the darkness I could see the glowing green glints of countless eyes, and I worried how many of the smart ones had played a role in that. I’d ordered everyone to stop shooting. We could have continued, I guess, but what would have been the point? Even if every bullet fired flew true, I doubted we had enough ammo to put them all down.
For now, we had to rely on the flames. That meant keeping them going, and since the deaders had stopped providing the fuel, we needed something else. The citizens of Branberry were busy breaking apart furniture to toss over the walls. Much of it had been pulled from the vacant homes, but here and there people lugged some piece of their own out. Everything could have served a purpose, but our current situation meant that the only thing they were good for was burning.
Table legs, couch cushions, battered TV trays; They were all tossed over the wall into the flames, spurring them to fresh levels. The flames crackled enthusiastically, fueled by polyester, wood varnish and lacquer, and the twined yarn of floor carpets rolled up into thick tubes. The flames welled up anew with an almost ironic intensity. Why would I call it ironic, you ask? Well, I guess because we were all taking the things we loved and destroying them so that we could survive until tomorrow, and if tomorrow ever came, we would all be bleaker because those treasured things weren’t there.
Me? I wasn’t doing well, and I knew it. It wasn’t just the loss of Lewis, or the guilt I should have felt over Nancy and Jamie-Lynn. No, those emotions had been locked away for another time that would probably never come. My concerns were of a far more basic nature. While standing atop Lew’s old spot on the roof made me possibly the most visible citizen on the street, it also afforded its own sort of privacy. It allowed me my own space of solitude to breath, to think, and I used that time to evaluate myself.
The bite on my arm looked bad. The wound itself was simple enough, the type of thing that should have required nothing more than a bandage. But this wasn’t a bite from your typical neighborhood mutt or toddler. The skin on my forearm was darkened and inflamed, the veins black and swollen against the skin like a heroin addict’s hardened vessels. My right hand was swollen like a water balloon, purpling around the edges, but at least I couldn’t feel the pain it should have been causing me. I couldn’t even imagine what my ass and lower back must have looked like. I hadn’t really had an opportunity to evaluate myself in a mirror, but fortunately I couldn’t feel that, either.
Small blessings, people; take’em where you can get’em.
There was a decent burn along my arm from where I’d crashed into the outside wall. Blisters puckered against my skin, trailing down my forearm. If they’d gone any further, they may have just cauterized the half moon ring of teeth marks. I’d barely noticed them until now, but once I had, they refused to be ignored. I could feel a muted sort of pain singing to me. I’m no pro, but I’m familiar enough with burns to know that, if I could feel these, then they probably would have been excruciating under different circumstances. None of this was the worst part, though.
The worst part, the most concerning part, was my fever.
It didn’t feel like a fever. I didn’t have body aches, there was no chill, but I knew the symptoms well enough to recognize it as such.
My hands- which had never once in my life trembled- were shaking like a leaf in a strong breeze. Sweat was pouring down my temples like a rainfall, dripping into my face and eyes. I couldn’t even shift my stance without a multitude of droplets falling around my feet. My face felt sunken and drawn, especially around my eyes. My skin felt like taut Ceran-wrap stretched across my face.
It was all an effect of the virus, and I knew it, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. I felt a heavy moment of self doubt. I’d promised Frankie that I could hold it at back, keep it at bay, but I was realizing that maybe I didn’t have quite as much choice in the matter as I’d originally thought. I was pondering all of this when I collapsed. I’d been swooning, and hadn’t even realized it, swaying side to side until I unbalanced myself.
The hard tiles cracking into my ribs- breaking my fall- jolted me back to awareness, and I scrambled at their smooth surface, scrambling frantically for a grip as the lower half of my legs slid over the edge of the house. I anticipated the impending fall, and was mildly surprised when I felt two hands press against the bottom of my thrashing foot. The pressure against my sole heaved, and while it didn’t stop my plummet completely, it was enough of a resistance that I was able to slow my descent and scramble to maintain my precarious position.
“Easy, easy,” a soft voice said from below me. “I’ve got you.”
The support of the hands beneath my foot sagged, and while I wouldn’t call my journey to the ground a gymnastic masterpiece, I could at least call it a controlled tumble or falling with grace. Against all odds, I managed to land on my feet, stumbling into the side of the house.
“You all right, Boss?” Larry asked from where he’d backed away to avoid my falling self.
“Yeah,” I panted after a moment, pushing myself away from the wall to stand as straight as I could. God, I was thirsty.
As if he’d read my mind, Larry picked up a plastic gallon milk jug filled with water from where he’d set it. My mind registered what it was before my eyes had fully focused on it. Same as earlier, I couldn’t tear my gaze away from it. I needed it. In that moment, if I had to choose between breathing and drinking that water...well, breathing is overrated, anyway.
“Here,” Larry said, bobbing the jug in his hand suggestively. I didn’t have to be told twice. The mouth of the repurposed milk jug was at my lips in an instant, and I chugged convulsively. I gulped as quickly as I could, taking mouthfuls so large that they made my esophagus stretch uncomfortably.
“It’s dehydration,” Larry said as I continued to inhale the water as fast as I could get it down my gullet. “Can you see that?”
I broke away from the jug, dragging in a sharp intake of breath. I guess my earlier conviction to not breath in lieu of the water wasn’t as stalwart as I’d thought. Thick streams that had leaked from my lips dribbled down my chin. I looked at the jug in my hand, and saw that half of the contents were gone.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, swiping a clean spot on my sleeve across my mouth. I wasn’t overly concerned about infection at this point.
“Water,” he said, placing emphasis on the word. It was hard to tell in the dark night, but our skittish pharmacist seemed particularly urgent. “I don’t know what it is that makes all of you change-”
It was funny to see how quickly I’d gone from being “one of us,” to “one of them.”
“- but it has to have something to do with water. Think about it, Boss. How dried out they are; how much everyone sweats before they turn. You just drank four pounds of water. It even suggests why they eat us. Our blood; the fluid it holds. They need it. Something about it keeps them going. Do you understand?”
Larry waited with urgent impatience, hands held imploringly at his sides.
“Wow,” I said, taking another, more controlled, sip from the jug. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say that much at once.”
Larry deflated like a balloon with a slow leak.
“I believe you, Larry,” I said to salvage his ego. “But it doesn’t matter.”
The old man started to protest, but I cut him off.
“You figured out a cure?” I asked bluntly. I didn’t have any hopes to get up, and Larry’s silence was answer enough. “Then nothing has changed,” I continued, taking one more swig from the bottle. “I need to get back up there.”
I took a step, and the world seemed to swim in my vision. I staggered to the side, and if it wasn’t for the house I was leaning against I would have fallen once more.
“No,” Larry said, a hint of authority coloring his voice as he pulled me upright. “You need sleep. I need some time if I’m going to figure this out. We’ve got the walls covered, and you’re going straight to bed.”
Oh, Larry, I thought with a hint of regret (another unnatural emotion for me,) You’re being a great guy, and I appreciate it. You’re good for my people. But how eager would you be to help me right now if you knew the truth? There are thousands of deaders around Branberry right now, but they haven’t killed any one of us at all. Nancy sacrificed herself, sure, but Janessa- Jenna?- was by my hand. Lewis killed himself, and that kind of falls on me, too, I guess. I know you wouldn’t hold me responsible for that, but how would you feel if you knew what I did to Nancy’s dog?
I was hard pressed to argue with him, though. Truth be told, I didn’t feel good at all, and sleep sounded like the best word I’d ever heard. I looked around the perimeter. The flames were running high, being fed by the last treasures of the people in my group. Not a single deader had gotten over the walls, and at this point no more were approaching. I could afford a few hours to recharge those ol’ dry cells, couldn’t I?
“Alright,” I conceded, and without another word Larry began to walk me to the house we shared. Everyone on the street was involved in their own tasks, and didn’t pay any attention to us as he led me up the driveway.
“Just give me some time,” he said softly next to my ear, and the proximity of his voice made me flinch. I was surprised to realize that the side of my face had dipped to rest on his shoulder. Maybe I did need to rest as badly as he suggested. “Hold on as long as you can. I can figure this out.”
It was a false hope. He may not have known it, but I did. There was nothing to say, so I didn’t. Larry got me into bed, and I couldn’t tell whether it was more a matter of him laying me down, or me falling off his shoulder as I slumped into bed. I have a vague recollection of him stripping off my top layer of clothing, his hands covered in blue surgical gloves, and his tired eyes going over my body in a methodical fashion, evaluating the extent of my injuries. He spent a few minutes checking the rotten bite mark on my arm, his brow furrowed. I couldn’t tell you how long he stayed. I was asleep within moments of my head hitting the pillow.
Have you ever had a dream that forces you to wake up immediately? Maybe of dying or falling? Or maybe not even a dream, but a loud sound in another room. The familiar cry of a child, the abrupt ring of an alarm clock or cell phone. Whatever it could be, but that sound that causes you to rocket from the deepest recesses of slumber into alertness? We’ve all had them, I’m sure, and I was greeted by that sound as I slept off the longest day of my life.
While most of those sounds are hard to place upon waking- your mind is foggy, your eyes are gummy, you’re trying to orient yourself- mine was damn near unmistakable, pulling me from slumber and forcing me to sit up in bed. It was a sound like no other; a sound that couldn’t be imitated, duplicated, or mistaken for anything other than exactly what it was.
It was the sound of a rifle clacking shut as a bullet slid into the chamber.
I was upright in bed before my eyes were even open. It wasn’t that I was unfamiliar with the sound of guns, but, well, when you hear that sound that close to you, it catches your attention. Part of my mind automatically assumed that the retort of a shot was bound to follow. As it turns out, I wasn’t too far off.
Frankie was standing at the foot of my bed, looking down at me with a rifle in his hands.
My brother in law didn’t say anything, but I saw the grim, flat look on his face. I knew why he was here: he’d made up his mind, and had come to do what needed to be done. In the early days, this had been my job, but given the circumstances I could see why he’d taken the responsibility on himself. He didn’t move, allowing me to orient myself and wake up fully. I decided to take my time about it.
Dim light was seeping in through my window, telling me that I’d been asleep for several hours. I estimated it to be around 6 a.m. After the rigors of the previous day, I expected my body to be nothing but one massive ache of squalling pain. The reality was quite the opposite. I felt nothing at all. My entire body was numb. Not the tingling numb of a limb that had fallen asleep. No, I felt no sensation whatsoever. Anywhere. I looked down at my arm, noting in a detached way that the sheets of my bed were saturated with sweat.
If it had looked bad last night, my left wrist was worse, now. My shadowed veins were swollen and bulging against my skin. The skin had lost the redness of inflammation, but had taken on a distinctively sallow, unhealthy sheen. Around the location of the bite itself I could see small mounds- like ant bites- that I knew from experience would eventually open up into weeping pustules and sores. I sighed, and looked past Frankie through my open bedroom door. Larry was standing in the hallway, peeking his head around the corner. The pharmacist looked sad and abashed, with deep circles under his eyes. I doubt he’d gotten any sleep last night.
“Sorry, Boss,” our bush doctor said in a regretful tone. “I couldn’t stop him.”
“It’s all right, Larry,” I said as comfortingly as I could. I don’t know how successful I was. “Don’t worry about it.”
The pharmacist bobbed his head in apology, and then ducked away. I reached over to my nightstand and grabbed the still half-filled jug of water from the previous night, taking a few huge gulps. God, it tasted good. I screwed the cap back on- which was more difficult than I would have thought, since I couldn’t feel my fingers- and looked up at the spectre over me.
“Mornin’, Francis,” I said amiably. My friendly demeanor had no effect on him.
“I gotta put you down, Cleet.”
“I know,” I replied, wobbling as I stood up. I had no sensation in my legs, so I had to guess when I had them in the right position. This was going to take some getting used to.
“You know I don’t want to, right?” he asked. His face may have had the flat eyed look he adopted when he turned his emotions off, but I could see a glimmer at the back of his eyes. I’d known Frankie a long time. We’d been in some rough patches together, and it was moments such as those that really taught you who someone was. He truly didn’t want to do this, but it was his duty. I didn’t fault him for it.
“I know,” I said, standing in front of him. I waited for my head to explode, wondering what it would feel like, but he didn’t raise his rifle.
“You’re dangerous,” he continued, almost like he was trying to convince himself of the necessity of the action. “You killed Nancy. I didn’t like her none, but G’dammit, she was one of us. We was supposed to protect her, that was our job! Your job!”
“I know,” I said a third time. “It had to be done, though. It was the only way I could get the girl back.”
Frankie’s lips tightened, but the barrel of the rifle still didn’t budge. This wasn’t working. Frankie knew what he needed to do- he’d done it before- but he was struggling, now. He needed an incentive.
“I killed Jaime-Lynn, too,” I admitted. I was glad I was able to remember her name this time. It would have seemed ingenuine if I’d forgotten, again. “She walked in after I’d helped Nancy find her purpose. I had to take care of it.”
Surprise flashed across Frankie’s face. So; he hadn’t known. Surprise quickly turned to horrified shock, and then to cold anger.
“That girl never did anything wrong besides put her face between the wrong set of thighs.”
Now it was my turn to be shocked. I thought that I’d been the only one to know about that little tid-bit. See, I told you Frankie was much smarter than he presented himself to be. But he still hadn’t raised that damn gun, yet. I sighed. I was going to have to take care of this myself.
“Let me help,” I said as gently as I could. Holding my hands out in front of me, making no sudden movements, I reached down slowly to wrap my fingers around the barrel of his rifle. A brief flutter ran through Frankie- it was ingrained in him not to let a potential hostile touch his weapon- but he didn’t resist as I lifted the muzzle. I guided it slowly, not making any aggressive movements, and placed the mouth of the barrel against my forehead.
“I killed Nancy. I killed Jaime-Lynn. Lewis killed himself over it. I gutted Chartreuse and fed him to the deaders.” Saying it all out loud, I almost felt like a Confession, like I was seeking absolvement. “I’m infected, and it’s burning through me faster than I thought it would. I did what I did for a reason, but I know that I never would have done it if I didn’t have the virus rotting my brain from the inside out. My time is almost up, Lewis is gone, and we have a hell of problem on our doorstep. You’re in charge now, Francis. Everyone is going to need you. Lacy is going to need you. Now is when you put your dip in your lip, and remind yourself that you’re a man; that you do the things that need to be done, whether you want to or not.”
“Do what you need to do. It’s okay.”
Frankie hesitated, but then his eyes went fully flat. He tucked the butt of the rifle into his shoulder, and his finger curled around the trigger. I looked up, saw him staring down at me along the sight, and then closed my eyes. It was time.
“Please don’t,” a soft voice whispered from the doorway.
Frankie and I both had the same knee jerk reaction, twisting our heads around to look towards the source. I opened my eyes, releasing the barrel of his weapon, and the muzzle drifted away from my head.
Avery stood in my bedroom doorway, garbed in a tattered night shirt that had seen better days. She hadn’t made a single sound that either Frankie and I had heard, but there were fresh tear tracks down her solemn cheeks.
“Don’t,” she whimpered, giving a sniffle. “You can’t.”
I didn’t know whether she was talking to me, or my brother in law.
“Get outta here, Avery,” Frankie said harshly, turning to look back down on me across the sight on his barrel. “Get back home to Lacy.”
“Go on, kid,” I said softly, echoing Frankie’s sentiment. “Do what your dad says.”
The word just slipped out. I hadn’t given it much thought, hadn’t meant to say it and put that mantle of both of them, but it was too late. Frankie didn’t seem to register it, but the effect on Avery was immediate and shocking.
“He’s not my dad!” she shrieked, her face contorting in sudden fury as her voice rose to a decibel level that only teenage girls and 80’s rockstars seemed capable of. “My dad is dead! And I’m glad! He only tried to kill us once, but he hurt us all the time! He hurt us every day, and if I tried to stop him, he hurt me the most! Mommy never did anything! She said it was our fault for making him angry, and then he’d hurt her, too!”
Huh. I hadn’t seen that one coming. Frankie and I both stood in stunned silence at the revelation. I hadn’t known her parents on more than a friendly wave sort of level, but until things had gone ass up, the five of them had been the picture perfect image of the idyllic family. The tears on Avery’s reddened face and her heaving chest told me the truth, though. She’d been protecting her younger siblings when I’d put her parents down, and was the only one that ever made eye contact with adults. With me. The new information changed nothing about the current circumstance, however.
“Avery,” I began, speaking a little more forcefully, “get out of-”
“No! No one ever helped us until you!” She screamed, refusing to be interrupted. She turned her puffy eyed, snot nosed face to my assault rifle wielding brother. “And you.”
I looked the child in the eye, and as my eyes squinted in understanding, I saw her, truly saw her, for the first time. Aside from the world she lived in, she was the picture of a typical teenage girl. Temper tantrums, sense of entitlement, overly emotional, tousled hair...but looking at her eyes- into her eyes- I saw it.
There was darkness, there, and it was a darkness I recognized. It was an unquantifiable thing, but I recognized it, nonetheless.
Avery was like me.
Maybe not yet, though. In this profound, poignant moment, I realized that she hadn’t gone over the edge yet. But the edge of the cliff was there, right beneath her toes, and it was a very real possibility. The type of possibility that would turn into a reality if, say, she watched the closest thing she had to a father kill the soon to be deader that she looked at as her own personal hero. But she was no Lois Lane, I was no alien from another planet, and this story didn’t have a happy ending.
I couldn’t let this happen. Not just for Avery, but for Frankie, too. I knew that I could eventually goad him into doing what he knew needed to be done, but the action would leave a scar on him. It would scar him in the act, and it would scar him to know he’d done it in front of his little preteen foster daughter. Furthermore, he’d have to deal with the fallout of my sister.
As for what it would do to Avery? There was no way of knowing if she would be as good at controlling and hiding it as I had always been. Frankie and I both knew that it had to be done, though. I accepted that.
The solution was surprisingly simple, and suddenly as plain as day. All ends could be met, and we could all win. Frankie’s conscience would be clear, Avery might continue to walk on the good side of sanity for a little while longer, and I could go out the way that I’d first wanted: as a samurai.
“Let me go back over the wall,” I blurted into the tense silence of the room. Frankie’s eyes flicked to mine. Avery stopped her whimpering, and her silence was somehow more dreadful than her shrieks had been.
“We both know I’m done,” I said, and once the admission was past my lips I felt like I had been unburdened. “I don’t know how much time I have left before I can control it, anymore. If you keep the fire going long enough, the walls should hold them back. I’ll lead them away, and do what I can. Hell,” I said, managing to force a chuckle, “I bet I can get at least two dozen taken care of for you.”
Frankie blinked, hesitating. He recognized the implications immediately. The barrel of the rifle started to dip, but then he jerked it back up to his shoulder. “How do I even know you’re still you?” he hissed. “How do I know you’re not gonna come at me the second I turn my back?”
“Don’t turn your back, then.”
At my quip, some of the tension seemed to seep out of him, but it was replaced by a profound sadness that I appreciated.
“The bullet would be faster,” he said. “Less painful.”
“Yeah,” I agreed with a nod. “But it would also just be a waste of a bullet.”
Frankie allowed me to go out the backyard rather than walk through my front door to Branberry’s gate. Call me selfish for the secrecy, but the only thing I’d ever really taken pride in was my work as an Exterminator. More than that, only two people knew about my current state, and I wanted to keep it that way. I didn’t want any of the others to witness my walk of shame. I didn’t want Lacy to see me like this. She’d figure it out eventually, but I didn’t want it to be right now.
Larry had managed to convince Avery to leave before my exit. The little girl had stared at me with blurry, red rimmed eyes, but hadn’t said anything before allowing Larry to shuffle her out. It was probably for the best, and I guess there was nothing that really needed to be said. I realized what she was now- but what I hoped she’d never become- and she knew that I was...fond...of her. That had been enough for both of us.
“Here, Boss,” Larry had said after the child departed, gesturing to a jug of water that could have been a twin to the one I was carrying with me. I held up my own quarter-full gallon in response, letting him know that I was set. The jittery pharmacist nodded. “I’ll put one up on the wall each day at dawn, just in case, you know, you need it.”
I gave him my thanks. While I had noticed that my fever had receded once I’d begun consuming the water, the result of the virus would still run its course. Besides, we both knew that it didn’t matter, anyway. The virus wouldn’t be what put me down, and I wouldn’t be coming back tomorrow morning for the drink.
That had been all the farewell between me and the first immigrant to Branberry before Frankie and I had headed to the backyard. I headed over to the corner of the cinderblock wall, preparing to climb over, the water bottle dangling from my right hand. My walking was still a little clunky, but I’d figured out how to place my steps quickly enough. Frankie followed me like a shadow.
“Give me a boost?” I asked him. Whether I was infectious to the touch yet didn’t matter anymore. After Frankie and I had reached our agreement, I’d changed into a new pair of jeans and hooded sweatshirt. I’d placed my expensive, borrowed shoes carefully in my closet, and then strapped on my boots, tucking the hem of my pants in before lacing them up. His skin wouldn’t come in contact with mine.
Frankie obliged, lacing his fingers together into a stirrup the same way he always had, and I stepped into his grip. He lifted, and I hoisted myself up until I could set the water bottle on the edge with one hand, and grab the lip of the wall with the other. Bracing my legs against the wall, I shimmied myself up.
“You sure you don’t want the Sig back?” Frankie asked as I stood. We’d made a pitstop in the garage before my little adventure, and he handed me up a gooseneck crowbar and long necked carpenter’s hammer.
“Nah,” I said. “You’re gonna need it more than I will, I’d imagine. Tell my sister I love her.”
Frankie nodded. There were no “man hugs,” this time, and I couldn’t blame him. I took a final gulp from the water bottle, and then poured the remaining contents onto the flames. It wasn’t enough to put them out, but they did sizzle and drop considerably for a brief moment, giving me enough of a space to not burn myself.
Taking the crowbar and hammer in hand, I jumped over Branberry’s wall for the final time.
I couldn’t really tell you what I was anticipating to happen when my feet landed on the other side. It had been a whole eighteen minutes since Frankie had woken me in such a jovial manner, most of which period of time I’d been distracted by other things. Not to say my coming excursion hadn’t crossed my mind. Quite the contrary; I’d run dozens of different scenarios through my head as I’d changed and gathered my things. None of them ended any way other than I expected, but all were vastly different. Only two of them really seemed to hold any traction:
Scenario 1(a): The deaders swarm me as soon as my feet touch down, and rip me apart moments after I hit the ground.
(This struck me as something very close to what would have happened on television. I don’t want to admit it, but given the circumstances, they might have been right.)
Scenario 1(b): My ankles break on impact as I hit the ground. I wouldn’t feel it, of course, but would still topple, nonetheless. Then, I’d be forced to crawl around in worthless humiliation until Scenario 1 (a) took place.
Scenario 2: I throw myself at the deaders. They turn their milky eyes to me and charge as one howling horde. I roar back, and run to meet them. I dash as fast as I can like a lone Ronin meeting the advance of an enemy clan. I’d proudly raise my claw hammer high, and take down as many as I could before the inevitable came to be.
Of all the possibilities I’d run through my mind, I far preferred Scene 2. Sadly, it didn’t come to pass. I kept my footing and the structural integrity of my bones when I landed, but found myself curiously devoid of the playmates I had anticipated.
It was still early in the morning- I checked my watch, which I’d strapped on as I’d gotten dressed, and the monogram said 6: 28- but the sun was high enough above the edge of Sunrise Mountain for me to have a clear view of my surroundings. Despite that I hadn’t been eaten alive yet, the circumstances were grim indeed.
It had been hard to tell during the night, but we’d all known that there were hundreds, possibly thousands, of deaders surrounding us. My clear view in the early morning told me that we hadn’t been too far off the mark. Now, I wouldn’t call myself an expert at counting large quantities of things in rapid moments, but looking out beyond the desert perimeter of Branberry- at the staggering number of zombies ambling around or standing transfixed- I figured that fifteen hundred or so fit the bill well enough.
I’m sure that doesn’t sound like too many. After all, there were three hundred and eighty thousand Axis troops defending the shores of Normandy, and the Allied forces still succeeded. The Battle of Gettysburg saw fifty-one thousand casualties, and the Union still came out on top. Hell, even General George Custer faced roughly three thousand Sioux tribesmen in the Battle of Little Bighorn.
But we all know how “Custer’s Last Stand” turned out.
None of this was the scary part, though. The scary part was how they had formed themselves up. Despite the fact that a great many of them were still shambling and stalking back and forth as we’d always known them to do, each and every one was lined up at the edge of the desert perimeter that had been cleared away from Branberry’s walls. None of them were going towards the flames, and they were well out of distance.
Most of them still seemed mindless. If they didn’t have something to attract their attention, they were little better than automatons, like a child’s wind up cymbal monkey. But even those that were still moving around stayed behind an invisible line in the sand that could have been drawn by a pencil.
The most truly terrifying part, though, were those that Frankie and I had established as the “thinkers.” These weren’t shambling; they weren’t rambling. They weren’t fighting; they weren’t biting. They did not like green eggs and ham; they did not like them, Sam I Am.
The Thinkers had gathered around the dusty Dakota from yesterday, but gathered was too loose of a term. They weren’t just in a bunch; no, they’d formed themselves into a rough triangle- rank and file- like a zombie version of Chinese checkers. Of course, I don’t ever recall the blue marble prepared to eat the red marble as soon as it had a chance, but I think you get my point.
They stood together, a mixed batch of males and females, not moving at all. It was like looking at a wax museum, if wax figurines could focus their lifeless eyes on precisely the same point. Each and every one was focused on Branberry. Even from this distance, I could hear one give a short, low bark, that was answered by another in their group. A second ticked by, and a third gave a low cough, only to be echoed by the female that was standing at the point of the triangle.
Don’t tell me how I knew, but they were fucking talking to eachother. They were communicating in that group, formulating some sort of gameplan, and no matter what it was, it didn’t bode well for the little cul de sac that held their focus.
If I was going to accomplish anything worthwhile, it was going to be there. It broke my emotionless heart to admit it, but Branberry was most likely doomed. If I wanted to give them as much of a chance as possible- whether to survive, or to flee- it would best be accomplished by doing as much damage as I could to that “Think Triangle.” The problem was, how I could get there? The dusty Dakota was well over a hundred yards away from me. If I tried to get that close to them, I’d be seen, and we all know how that scenario plays out. It was in that short moment of consideration, where I considered my best approach, that Lady Luck winked at me.
An unforeseen black shadow moved distantly to my right, at just the proper height to cut off the morning rays of the sun peeking over the mountain tops. I squinted at first, but the shadow cut off the beams of sun glinting into my eyes.
“Screeeech, screeeech, screeeech!”
The loud, ululating shrill cut through the morning like a butcher’s knife. As one, the eyes of every deader I could see looked towards the piercing sound. The unity that they showed in their movements was almost uncanny, and I was once again forcibly reminded of a flock of birds. My eyes followed the sound as well, and I saw that the half glimpsed shadow on the wall wasn’t a shadow at all.
It was Sister Tracy, standing atop the wall, still bedecked in her black habit and gown. She had her panic whistle tucked tightly in between her shriveled and puckered lips, blowing as hard as her aged lungs could.
Now, I thought, this is my chance. If I’m gonna take out the Think Triangle, this is my shot.
I ran towards the Dakota as hard as my numb legs would allow. The gravel crunched beneath my boots, and- gangly and awkward or not- I was shocked by how fast I was moving. I covered the distance between the wall and the Dakota at a pace that an Olympic sprinter would have envied. My hammer and crowbar dangled in my hands, and I wasn’t even remotely aware of the vertible rainfall of sweat dripping from me like a squadron of paratroopers.
Given more time, maybe I could have formulated a plan; found a way to be sneakier, more subtle about it. But I’d always approached deaders with the same mindset that an oncologist might approach cancer: you can tickle it with a feather, but smashing it with a hammer is generally more effective.
I dropped my shoulder, and barreled into the blind side of the rank of deaders like a bowling ball spinning into the four pin. The decrepit body I struck flew back, heels leaving the ground, stumbling into a few others in the process. Another single body toppled over, and then I was swinging the hammer and crowbar, in such a haze that I couldn’t exactly tell you what was happening.
I cracked skulls with the hammer; crushed ankles with the crowbar. I broke jaws, ripping rotten faces clean off as I screamed out every ounce of fury in me. Deaders were falling like wheat to a scythe, and I dimly realized I might just win my wager with Frankie. I, more than anyone else, knew how dire the circumstances were, but I couldn’t deny the savage satisfaction I was taking from this. My face and body were slick with sweat, but it didn’t bother me. This was my rush. I was alive, at least for as long as I had left before they recovered from my ambush.
Something was wrong, though, and my confusion set in as the shrill twill of the whistle stopped. I was in the middle of the field of Thinkers, surrounded on all sides, and waiting for the inevitable; waiting for them to converge on me.
But nothing was happening. Not a single deader was paying the slightest bit of attention to me. Beyond the ones that I had taken down and the others that had been forced out of position by the falling bodies of their brothers and sisters, none of the Thinkers had moved. Every single blank, milky eye was turned towards the lone nun standing atop the wall. Not a single one even seemed to notice me.
This pissed me off. I mean, here I am, making my last stand, waiting to die as valiantly as I can, and these things didn’t even have the courtesy to pay attention.
Dropping the hammer, I wrapped both hands around the crowbar and started swinging, heaving like a lumberjack chopping wood. Three more deaders fell, spraying me with ichor as they landed with the others on the desert floor. Still, none of them responded to me at all.
I was more than a little angry- this was my moment, after all- and I whirled about in the space of fallen deaders that surrounded me to glare at the old nun. Even at this distance, the details of her face were clear to me. Her features were as cold and hard as they ever were, and as we made eye contact it was clear that she had no love for me; she never had, and had never made too much of a secret of it. Sure, she’d helped me when I’d fallen back over the wall from Rocky Coast, but her concern had always been taking care of her flock. Even a wayward sheep like me.
It was in that moment that sudden epiphany hit me. All of the pieces of the puzzle- a puzzle that I hadn’t even realized was being put together- snapped into place, leaving me slack-jawed and stunned. I didn’t want to believe it; never thought I would, as a matter of fact, but coincidence can only stretch so far.
God was real.
I’d never really given more than a passing thought to the deity. If it was true, the Almighty was nothing more than an absent landlord, or a story to put children to sleep with at night. But in that moment, all the dogma I’d heard my entire life clarified itself into a tangible reality. The constant doctrine of believers rambled through my mind:
God is amongst us. Everything happens for a reason. It’s God’s will. God has a plan. Put your faith in the Lord, and he’ll steer you to where you are supposed to be. Let God be your guidance.
I had always discarded the varied credo of the Bible thumpers as quickly as most people did, but now I was forced to evaluate it in a new light, and it all suddenly made sense. It would be an easy concept to discard, but think about it: of the horde of deaders that surrounded me, not a single one had even deemed to notice my presence. None had even looked at me, as far as I could tell. Even when I’d gone into my suicide frenzy and started hacking them down, not a single one had laid tooth or claw on me.
The reason why seemed fairly obvious in that moment, and I was pretty quick to catch on. The bite on my wrist had infected me, and the virus had run through me quickly; quicker than normal, to be honest. But it was also what was keeping me alive for this moment, though. The deaders didn’t see or smell me as prey to be devoured. No; in their rotted brains they saw me as one of their own. You would think that enough of the Thinkers would have recognized me as a threat and banded together to pull me down, but Sister Tracy’s whistle was holding their attention.
My mind started churning. I’d always been good at problem solving, so I put a few facts together:
The deaders didn’t notice me because they thought I was one of their own.
The Thinkers had somehow managed to enforce their will on the horde, forcing them to remain behind the cleared perimeter of Branberry’s walls.
Every single one of the Thinkers around me was focused on the old nun standing atop the wall.
I let my arms fall to my sides, the crowbar hanging in my left hand. I don’t know where the hammer had ended up. Deaders were spread around me in a clear space like fallen stalks of grass, but none of the others made a move towards me. It was in that moment that I realized that this was God’s plan for me, and it had been designed to perfection. If Branberry was to be saved, there would have to be sacrifices. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, right? The world was a chessboard, and God had chosen me- me!- to be his knight.
Man, I thought, awe struck at the revelation. What an honor. I get to be a hero, a real hero, just like Nancy.
My entire attitude about everything changed in that moment, squealing around like a motorcycle that had made a one hundred and eighty degree turn. I am a hero. I am a samurai. I am a good person.
The sense of urgency- of impending doom- hanging over me evaporated like it had never been there. Like Daniel in the lion’s den, God was with me.
I strolled in and out between the deaders at my leisure, evaluating them with a speculative eye, and not a single one raised a hand to me. Wrapping my hands about the crowbar, I swung with all my might at the knee of a large male standing in front of me. The cold forged steel connected soundly, crunched, and ripped right through the joint. The now one legged deader flopped to the ground, its milky gaze never leaving the wall where Tracy stood. I felt a smile crack my parched lips. With God on my shoulder, I was obligated to test my luck a little bit, right?
Of course I was. So I did.
I started swinging the crowbar at their hands or ribs, just to see if I would get any response. Nothing. I even spent a few moments giving a half dozen swings to a male, right where the undoubtedly shriveled remains of his testicles should have been. Aside from some broken staggering, he didn’t even seem to notice me. Of course he wouldn’t, I thought with a chuckle. As far as they could tell, I was invisible, and they couldn’t feel pain.
Just like me.
The crowbar had just cranked back to swing again when a random flash of light struck my eyes, drawing me up short. Before this morning’s Revelation, I would have called it coincidence, but now I knew better: this was God’s will.
God was with me. He believed in me, he’d provided me with a purpose the same way I’d provided Nancy with a purpose, and now he was rewarding me for my dutiful service. The flash came again, glinting in the early morning sun. It was dull, cerulean, and half hidden by a layer of dirt and deader limbs. It was just over there, right next to a tire on the Dakota. I shoved a couple of the undead statues around me out of the way and walked towards it.
I reached down to the half buried source of light glinting from beneath the sand. I knew that shape, and I recognized the brilliant face that was looking back up at me. I dropped my gore streaked crowbar to the dirt and forgot about it immediately as I scooped the buried form up in my other hand.
“Ah,” I sighed in contentment. “Hey, buddy,” I said out loud as I looked into the black eyes of the smiley face sticker of my Happy Bat. I smiled at it, and the decal smiled back. I knew that it was proud of me.
This has been God’s plan for you all along, that face seemed to say. You did what he needed of you, and now, you’re the only one that can do what needs to be done to save your people.
That is the plan, I thought back, humbly. I just hadn’t realized. It’s my fault for not believing, but now I know better. Everything happens for a reason.
We have work to do, the yellow face of my friend said to me, giving me a wink with one black eye.
I know! I agreed, joyous. I took a deep breath, letting it fill my lungs, and when I exhaled I felt the stress and responsibility of the last two days go with it. I was still dying- of that I had no doubt- but I was at peace. Actually, it was better than being at peace.
My Happy Bat was in my hand, and whether I could truly feel the worn leather wrapping in my palm or not, it still brought me a sense of profound familiarity, which in turn brought comfort. I gazed around at the hundreds and hundreds of deaders that surrounded Branberry- none of which could sense me- and heaved a deep sigh of contentment.
‘Bout a mile, I thought as the shrill screech of Sister Tracy’s whistle resounded once more. I traced my eyes through the uneven field of deaders in front of me, gazing towards the freeway. There were dozens- scores, maybe- in my direct path, but that wasn’t going to be an issue. Not for me, at least.
Staggering thirst made the lining of my throat feel like it was lined with burrs, but somewhere up there- beyond yonder, as they say- was a 1987 Daihatsu Surprise with a mostly full bottle of Kentucky’s finest in the trunk, brewed from the recipe of Mr. Beam, himself. And to be honest, Late Night Buyer? If today isn’t a day for celebration, to indulge in a little bit of redneck good times, I don’t know what is. I checked the watch on my wrist, and the monogram read 6:36 a.m.
Shit, I thought, feeling a smile tugging at the corners of my lips. That’s plenty of time.
I sighed in contentment, whirling the familiar haft of my Happy Bat in my hand as I walked forward. I couldn’t hold back the joy in my heart, and my lips puckered as I began to whistle a jaunty tune. It wasn’t as good as Guns’ N’ Roses, but it was pretty close. I took a good grip on my bat, and lined it up at the unsuspecting deader closest to me.
Today was going to be a good day.
Here’s a little song I wrote,
You might want to sing it, note for note,
(Ba-dum-bump, ba-dum-bump, ba-dum-bump)
Be happy.-Bobby McFerrin
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