“You’re doing it again,” Lacy said from where she paced next to me. Her head was a few feet below me, and she had to tilt her chin up to look at me. It was perfectly natural, considering that I was walking across the top of the brick wall that ringed Branberry. My bat dangled absently in my hand, bouncing and clanging against the lip of the wall as I turned my gaze towards my sister. Avery- eldest of the three siblings that lived with my sister- walked at her heels, not making eye contact with me anytime I glanced her way.
“Doing what?” I asked absently, allowing the bat to ping against the wall with each step that I took. We’d erected a platform around the perimeter of the wall for people to move across if there was a need, but I was walking the narrow width of the block wall. I’d done it so many times that it was easy, barely more than a thought, but the potential ten foot fall on either side of me was liable to be the biggest rush I got today. My rushes- my brush with feeling alive- were becoming harder and harder to come by.
“Trying to find a deader,” Lacy responded, reaching an absent hand out towards Avery. The little preteen took the bait, and clasped my sister’s palm easily enough, but kept her eyes on the ground while I was looking their direction. I’d found that I was starting to grow irritated with the way that Avery and her younger siblings wouldn’t look at me. It was frustrating mainly because I’d done them a solid when I’d rescued them. I cared about all three of those kids in my own little way, and none of them seemed to appreciate it. I didn’t respond to Lacy as I continued my patrol, but that didn’t slow her in the least. I cared about my sister, but she’d never known when to let something go.
“How many days has it been?” she asked, looking up at me with her eyes crinkled against the glare of the sun. She’d always been a stubborn one, never knowing when to stop. I wasn’t going to answer her, but then figured, what was the harm?
“Four,” I said.
Lacy didn’t respond, but continued to trail me, the despondent Avery following in her footsteps. My sister weaved around a yellow fire hydrant that stood like a silent sentinel in the sidewalk; a sentinel that was useless, worthless, and couldn’t help us even if it wanted to. It was nothing but a fallen monument to a fallen civilization.
“Have you talked with Lewis?” Lacy asked a couple yards later, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder. At the age of twenty five, the ponytail was one of the few things that Lacy had kept since childhood.
“Lew doesn’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” I replied. It was true; Lewis was my best friend, but in this broken world we had very different views on what was best for Branberry. When we had decided to fortify our street, I’d let him to take the lead. Lew was pragmatic, while I’d always loved living in the moment. He’d had goals and objectives, while my view point had been much simpler.
Lewis had felt that we should stay holed up, venturing out only if we needed to, and keeping to ourselves. I had wanted to bring in as many people as we could to our little street; bring in as many of the stragglers that roamed beyond the safety of our walls. It’s not like we didn’t have room to spare. This was one area where Sister Tracy and I had agreed.
Plus, there was also the matter of my growing…needs; Needs that most in our meager group had started to recognize. I can’t say that everyone approved, but most respected it. My needs had kept them safe and they knew it.
In the end, we’d all reached a compromise. I’d gone out on my own and cleared out the homes on the neighboring street. I was very careful, very thorough, and it took me the better part of the day. Don’t misconstrue, though; I enjoyed every second of it. At the end of that day our pact was honored: Any survivors that we found could stay there for as long as they wanted. Whether it was for the night, the week, or for the long haul, it didn’t matter. We’d found any number in those first couple of months, and- if deemed worthy- we brought them back to their new homes. The other street was doing very well, now, thank you very much.
But right now, in this moment, we were on my street.
I hopped off the wall, pivoting in the air at the last second to grab the lip of the walkway and break my plummeting descent. My sneakers landing with a slight scuffing sound. I was well aware that there was a time and place for heavy boots, but sneakers served all purposes and were better suited for speed when it was needed. My current sneakers were expensive, the type that I could never have afforded before the outbreak. But wouldn’t you know it? Some of the shoes from Avery’s parent’s closet fit me perfectly. Score!
“I know that,” Lacy said as I landed on the ground, drawing me out of my reverie and reminding me that we’d been in the midst of conversation. She seemed at a loss for words- which was unusual for her- and pulled a crumpled plastic water bottle from her back pocket to take a swig. The old, thin plastic was crinkled and almost formless, but it still served a purpose. I’d never had any use for it before, but the term “recycling” had a helluva lot more value to it now. We had to make do with what we had at our disposal. Lacy offered the bottle to Avery, and the little preteen let her hand go to gulp at it. I watched as the little girl swigged, noting that she had a habit of backwashing into the bottle. Gross. While she engrossed herself in hydration, I took a moment to observe her.
Avery had been holding her brother and sister- Troy and Bree, respectively- crumpled against the wall with her arms curled protectively about them as I’d put Shawn and Diedre down. I’d used my bat, of course, the way that I always did if I could. The bat was effective, but not very glamorous. I’d been focused on the two deaders in front of me, but I’d still caught glimpses of the three children huddled in the corner.
Troy- four- and Bree- seven- had been wailing and shrieking so loudly that their eyes were squeezed shut. They would have bolted any direction that they could go if it hadn’t been for the arms of their “Big Sissy” curled around them. Avery had been screaming too, but her eyes had been wide open. She had watched me put her parents down with nothing more than a blank expression on her face. She had been the only one of the three to actually witness what I had done. If any of them truly had a reason to hate me, it was her.
That’s why I was surprised when she looked up at me, shifting bangs that had grown too long and dangled in her eyes, out of her face.
“Why do you do it?” she asked in a flat voice. It wasn’t the question that caught me off guard; it was the way that she asked it. There was no judgment in her tone; it was a truly honest question. I wasn’t used to her speaking to me directly, though, so it took me a moment to respond. The socially acceptable answers and reasons- all of which I knew by heart- were too many to count. I opted to go with the best response: the one that was mostly the truth. I always tried to be truthful. After all, out here? What was the point of lying?
“Because it keeps you safe,” I said, looking her in the eyes. “It keeps everyone safe.”
Avery didn’t budge or bat a lash as she took another swig- and another backwash- from the crumpled bottle of water.
“Do you like it?” she asked.
I didn’t have to think about it this time. Like I said; why lie?
“Yes. I like it a lot.”
“Why don’t you just use your gun? It would be easier, wouldn’t it?”
“Probably,” I said, opting not to tell her that I took a greater pleasure from getting up close and personal with my bat. “But guns make too much noise. We don’t want to do anything to draw their attention to Branberry. If they don’t know we’re here, then they just walk on by when they happen to come our way. We have to be careful to make sure that they don’t know where we are. That’s why we don’t use the guns.”
Avery considered this for a moment in silence, and then held the crumpled water bottle out to me, offering a sip. I thought about her backwash; that thin, invisible layer of filth that I could almost imagine I could see swirling through the clear water that we filtered ourselves. Eh, why not? I thought to myself. While I’d never been a fan of the “five second” rule, I considered myself to be utterly pragmatic. God made dirt, and dirt don’t hurt, right?
I took the offered bottle with my free hand and raised it to my lips. Yeah; I could taste her spit. I’d just finished the single swallow I could force down when Avery said “Can I come with you?”
Lacy and I both said “no” at the same time, but I’d imagine that it was for much different reasons. Avery looked pouty and crestfallen, but she didn’t object, although I did notice that from beneath the overhang of her bangs she had a considering look in her eye.
Lacy looked at me, and I could see her emotions warring on her face. Next to Sister Tracy, Lacy probably objected more than anyone else to what it was that I did. But she was also my kid sister. She loved me, looked up to me- I don’t know why- and understood that I had to do it. I needed it.
“We’re out of zip ties,” she said, sounding half disgusted with the admission. Her eyes tilted incrementally away from me, not meeting my gaze. Avery was watching me, though. My ears perked up.
“Yeah?” I said, trying to suppress the sudden eagerness in my voice. “D’wayne had a full case just a couple of weeks ago.”
“No,” my sister said with a shake of her head. “They’re the wrong size. We need to tie up the fence posts for the animals, and I need the big ones.”
Lacy was referring the big backyard of the vacant house where we kept our “livestock.” We didn’t live anywhere near a farm, so we had scrounged up anything that we could find or trap. Exotic pet shops had been a boon in the early days; no one had been thinking about bringing home a new puppy when the outbreak hit our area. Consequently, we had gathered up a little den of tasty, edible creatures that we used to sustain ourselves. The fad of “mini pigs” in particular had proven fruitful, but we also had coyotes, snakes, and even a big horned sheep that Francis had brought back. Don’t ask me how he got it.
Lacy’s request might have been a legitimate need, or maybe she was just trying to give me a reprieve. Next to water/ shelter/ food/ medicine, zip ties, duct tape and superglue were some of the most important things that we used. After all, if you can’t fix something with any of those, you have a hell of a problem.
“Just do me a favor,” Lacy continued. “Bring Frankie with you; he’s itching to get out.”
I gave her a nod that was little more than a cursory afterthought. I’d already started to walk away, twirling my bat in my hand. Lacy called out after me.“But talk to Lewis first!”