[Size14 Nolan stared at the display over the grocery aisle. It was a large banner with a pink cake topped with mountains of icing advertising “buy one get one half off” in colorful font. His first reaction was to wonder who needed that much cake. His second was wishing he [i had] that much cake. He knew the picture on the banner was really just dyed mashed potatoes and foam with some sprinkles. He had learned that from Lizzy years ago. It didn’t make the cake look any less appetizing.
“You gonna just stand there and drool or help me out here?” he heard, and turned to find Rusty perusing the shelves as if he were shopping.
“There’s nothin’ left. Just like I told you,” Nolan said, turning back to look at the banner.
“Hey, I found a can of corn. And I’m not gonna share it with you now.”
Nolan didn’t respond. He was so sick of Rusty. But when he ran into his former coworker three weeks ago, hardly getting by, what was he supposed to do? Just leave him to die? Not without lack of trying. But one thing led to another and now he had a shadow that wouldn’t shut the fuck up. Nolan was tempted sometimes to just leave him on a run. Or end Rusty’s suffering himself. But he was clearly going through some kind of withdrawal and if Nolan’s heart went out to anyone at all it was addicts.
“Keep your voice down.” Nolan headed over to the cash register.
“Dude, we don’t need money,” Rusty said with a strange laugh.
This Colorado town was incredibly small and Nolan knew many of them probably started packing heat before the very end, thinking they could outlast the virus. He reached under the counter and felt the shotgun duct taped there. He pulled it off in one swift motion. Rusty let out a little “oh” as he checked the chamber and found the nearby ammo.
It was a last resort. Any sound could bring the beasts down on them. But it was still good to have. He put the gun over his shoulder into the makeshift sling he had crafted for his weapons.
When he turned back to Rusty he was already opening his can of corn with his knife. Nolan was about to scold him when he shouted.
“Fuck! Dammit, I cut myself on the lid.” The blood flowed freely from the skin between his thump and forefinger. “Fuck, man. My corn! It’s got blood in it now, that ain’t good!”
“Quiet down,” Nolan said.
“My fuckin’ corn!”
“You’ll lose more than your corn if you don’t shut the fuck up.”
“Man, I am so sick of you. Always bossin’ me around. I got on just fine without you.” Rusty wrapped his bleeding hand in his shirt.
“Yeah, and I have no idea how. I didn’t ask you to follow me around,” Nolan replied, keeping his voice low and ominous despite the other’s shouting.
“You don’t know shit! We worked together, man! Doesn’t that mean anything?” They heard something fall from a couple aisles over. They stopped and stared at each other. Nolan took a step back behind the cash register again. This was different than his normal willingness to put himself in harm's way.
“Dude, what the fuck? You can’t be serious.” Rusty fumbled for his knife, but his hand was so bloodied that it couldn’t grasp it.
Nolan watched, expressionless, as the crazed human found the source of the shouting and the stench of blood. It was one of the slower ones. It would have been easy to kill, but Rusty was still fumbling with his knife and fear had taken over his body. The zombie grasped him like they might start to dance before its teeth sunk into his flesh.
Nolan stepped back into the shadows of the nearby break room. Rusty was torn apart. Consumed. When he was sure there was only one monster to deal with and that Rusty was dead, he emerged with his bat, striking it down easily. Like a machine, he removed Rusty’s backpack and searched his pockets for the cigarettes he knew he was keeping on him.
Then he left the two piles of flesh that used to be human and turned for the door. Before he left he turned and took one last lingering look at that pink cake.
Once outside he began the trek back to camp. Nolan liked to stick to small towns because it seemed all the excitement in the bigger cities drew the attention away from them. It was another hour before he got back to the small house. He made sure none of his traps were triggered before removing his backpack, then he walked out to the back porch and took in the view of the mountains. He had always wanted to live here. He just never thought this was how it was going to happen: alone.
He promised himself then that he would never take on the responsibility of another person. Not when those he cared about most were gone. Not when he could so easily watch a man he had worked with for ten years be pulled apart and not think twice about it.
He pulled out Rusty’s pack of cigarettes and lit one up, thinking about the things he had done to survive. Letting Rusty die wasn’t even the worst of it. That was just something he could do now because of the numbness. If Lizzy could see him now he knew she would not recognize him. She would fear him.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost He lived in a blur more so than he did before the outbreak. Everyday was the same shit. Wake up, kill, steal, drink, sleep. Kill, murder, rob, drink. All days a blur, smudged along with morality. Whoever the fucker was in charge of the releasing the virus, didn’t really care about the rest of humanity... or, as his drunken thoughts lead him to think, maybe it was to save it. Regardless, Patrick was alone and there was no one left to save him.
So why should he care about anyone else?
The blood dripped in a pool around his combat boots, fighting to catch his breath as he stared blankly at the white board. Someone had drawn an inappropriate male body part and scribbled some girl’s name beside it. Probably before the bastard was eaten alive. He probably would have had a good career, wife, kids. Maybe a dog. Pomeranian-
Something coughed behind him and Patrick slowly came out of his thoughts. Back into the classroom. Back into reality. Back to the motherfuckers who dared to mug him in daylight. He turned, eyeing the last human wheezing on the lilonium. Every breath was a gurgle making him seem like a dying fish out of water. Patrick tilted his head. [i That helped.]
Patrick lifted the shovel so quickly and with such ease, the man on the floor didn’t have time to scream. The skull popped with a satisfying crunch and Patrick felt a shiver of pleasure. That felt a little better. He brushed his clean hand through his thick hair before dipping into the pockets of the small gang of idiots who dared to fuck with him.
The young man exited the barricaded school with more than he expected. By now it was late afternoon, spending longer than he hoped in that pathetic excuse for a hideout. Taking the entrance stairs by two, he swung the shovel over his shoulder and briskly made his way through the suburban neighborhood hauling the overflowing gym bag in tow. It dragged heavily across the sidewalk but he wasn’t exactly worried about attracting the attention of undead visitors, not this far out from the city.
Factions claiming land in the capitals were just a bunch of brainless pride seekers. Making too much damn noise fighting amongst themselves for basic necessities. The zombs were eventually going to overrun them. In every town he visited, they always did...
Patrick continued his trek, walking through and past the modernized homes back into the surrounding park area that led to a hiking trail. Damian- no, Caesar- would have thought this was stupid. Living all the way out where no one could find him was like begging for abandonment, begging for death. Was that so fucked? He liked being alone.
The gym bag dropped heavily on the porch, Patrick unlocking the door and sliding the loot across the faded wood. He latched all six of the door locks before allowing himself a moment to relax. [i Safe]. The young man poured himself a hearty drink before unloading the weapons and putting away his newly obtained goods.
Patrick kicked off his military boots, peeled away the stained flannel and laid across the couch with his head towards the floor, staring at the dead leaves curling on the wood. As the liquor settled, he wondered not for the first time what it would be like to curl up like an autumn leaf and die.
Patrick shot up grasping his throat, his eyes frantically moving from the coffee table to ceiling beams to try and calm the surge that twisted in his chest. He closed his eyes and focused on calming his breath, frustrated again that his subconscious wouldn't let Caesar go. It’d been over a year, this was fucking ridiculous.
He pushed himself off the floor and checked the time on his watch. 11am. That was enough time to make it there and back for a new set of clothes.
[i Doesn’t matter what you wear.]
Patrick bit back the memory. He grabbed a water, popped an ibuprofen and made his out and down the hiking trail. The fresh scent of nature filled his nostrils, rejuvenating his mood from the dark reaches it often took. Caesar would have given up already.
The utility belt clanked against his side as he hurried down trying not to waste seconds of daylight. Maybe he would find something with a bit of color.
[i Black is your color.]
Patrick reached the town plaza at around one with only a few biters he greatly enjoyed chopping down to size. He stepped through the shattered glass of an Old Navy and glanced around cautiously. Choosing the hand axe as he crept forward, keeping every step light and his breathing softer. Then there past the men’s jackets was a tuff of brunette hair.
Patrick ducked down, feeling he was being watched. If that was the case it was human- not dead. This was not the time for an axe after all. He peeked through a few blouses, spotting the boots from across the department. He pulled out the pistol this time, choosing threat as the strategy for the day.
Patrick stood, flipping his long dark hair back and met gazes with the stranger. The man was rugged, built, a specimen worthy of taking Patrick on if he so chose. Time to start with a friendly introduction. “Hello fruit top,” he nodded, flashing a crooked smile. “Leave the mannequins be and I promise I won’t put in a bullet in that head of yours.” He nodded towards the broken display window. “Leave.” ]]
[size14 The next morning, Nolan woke with the sun as he always did, as he had for years before everything went to shit. He had only been here for about a week and he had yet to scout the rest of town. Without Rusty slowing him down he would make good time. Maybe he would even make it to the small shopping center he had seen on his way in. He thought about taking the truck to save even more time, but he didn’t want to waste any of the precious gas he had siphoned already. Besides, he realized it was the perfect weather for a walk. It was clear the cooler air was moving in. Fall was upon him, but he didn’t mind. He’d just have to find a decent coat.
His heavy worker boots sounded on the street as he walked into town. He could be silent when he needed to, but he wasn’t overly concerned most of the time. Not out here, anyway.
He beat the sun into town: something he wouldn’t have been able to do if Rusty were still with him. Nolan had already forgotten the sounds of his screams and the image of his flesh being ripped from his skin. He had done much worse to people before with his own hands, anyway.
He dipped into a few stores here and there. As usual, most of the food items were gone. Even the candy. He kicked in the door of a locked breakroom of some family-run pharmacy. He found the rotting bodies of three employees who chose to take the easy-or the hard way- out depending on how you looked at it. Inside Nolan found an untouched vending machine and he managed to break the plexiglass. He shoved everything that was left inside his bag and moved on. He still had some meat back at the house leftover from hunting (the only useful thing his father ever taught him), but life now was anything but predictable so he wouldn’t say no to expired Cheetos.
By the time he reached the end of the row of shops several hours had passed, but he was still making good time. It was lunch time, but he rarely felt hungry anymore. It was just another thing he did to survive. A far cry from licking his lips over the meals Lizzy would put in front of him.
He entered the Old Navy at the end, looking at the racks of clothes. He still had some of his old henlys and t-shirts, but he figured while he was here he should grab some new ones, especially since the shoulders were growing tight over his muscle. [i Brady was always saying he wished I’d care more about my health,] he thought with ironic amusement. Luckily, he found the jackets in one corner of the store. He pulled on a dark leather one, decided it fit, then heard the soft creak of something nearby.
It could have been nothing. It could have been his death creeping up on him. He didn’t hear the noise again, but he turned his gaze towards its origin. His hand moved towards his pistol. Before he had time to draw, he was being held up by a pair of large eyes and long, greasy hair.
Usually Nolan’s mind reeled for a way to get out of his predicament, scanning his environment for an escape or something to shove into his enemy's path. But he was so caught off by what this kid said that all he could do was [i blink] his dark brown eyes in shock. “Excuse me?” he asked. [i Fruit top?] Nolan shouldn’t have taken his eyes off the gun waving in his direction, but he had a feeling he was not going to be shot if he turned to look at the mannequins like he was directed to do. A raised an eyebrow. [i What kind of sick fuck?]
Nolan raised his hands. “Sure, alright,” he said, a slight southern accent marring the voice that seemed to come straight from his chest. He slowly started to side step towards the door. “You’re a silent little rat, you know that?”
He was debating if it was worth it to try and draw. There was plenty of cover here. He could duck before mannequin-lover got a chance to pull the trigger. It might be worth it just to see what he had on him. But just as he was thinking about it a screech pierced the air and he instinctively brought his hands up to his ears and turned towards the source. In the doorway stood one of the beasts he had only dubbed “the big ones”. It took up the entire doorway and oozed black pus from its nearly indestructible skin. But that wasn’t the worst part. They screeched to alarm their nearby friends of any prey they found like a damned dinner bell.
While he was well out of the danger zone in the bigger cities, Nolan still didn’t want to stick around to see how many zombies showed up for a meal. The only problem was that he was stuck between death by monster and death by rat.
The big one took a step and is shook the floor. Nolan made eye contact with eyes over the barrel of the gun. Then he ducked behind a rack of clothes and made his way for the emergency exit in the back.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost The southern drawl in the stranger's voice reminded him of a teacher he once knew who was kind to him. It sparked a sort of brief sentimentality that he crushed immediately with a single thought. [i He only cares about himself.]
Patrick couldn’t hold back a grin at the man’s comparison. Maybe he was like a rat. “Rat’s always find a way to survive,” he retorted. The brunette slowly made his way closer to the window, never breaking eye contact. But then he heard the crushing of glass from over his shoulder.
His breath caught and before he could turn, a screech ripped through the air, forcing Patrick to bring his hands to his ears before they could start ringing. Unfortunately, he knew exactly what made that sound. [i Mother Russia.]. His eyes widened, the enormous, overweight, black oozing zomb stood blocking the display window alerting all the undead in area that it was fucking supper time. [i How the hell did one of these get so far?] The two of them met gazes briefly.
Southern Bell was the first to book it. Patrick cursed under his breath, putting the pistol back in its holster as the creature screeched again, indicating a charge. Patrick was fast, he could cover the distance in seconds where this old man could in minutes... but the brute was swifter than he appeared.
Patrick slid across the tile, Mother Russia throwing racks of socks and t-shirts into the air as it barreled for the pair. Southern Bell was almost to the exit before Patrick dove and caught him by the ankle. They toppled hard, Patrick instantly feeling a zap of pain shooting up from the elbow but forcing himself back to his feet to throw open the exit door first.
It led to a very narrow hallway that he gandered connected to the storage rooms. He sprinted, bounding for the door at the end that when he reached it- was locked. “No, fucking way!” He lifted his boot and began kicking at the door, glancing briefly over his shoulder to see Southern Bell had made it through and Mother Russia reaching its tar like hands into the hallway slowly pushing itself in.]]
[size14 As far as Nolan was concerned, the rat didn’t exist anymore. It was him and that fucking door and the big one behind him parting everything in its path like the red sea. He was so preoccupied with getting to the back door that he didn’t feel his space being closed in on. Before he knew it was he being pulled to the floor by a grubby little hand on his ankle. He let out a surprised shout and managed to catch himself before his chin made contact with the tile. Before he could right his large frame he saw the punk’s shoes running past him towards the door.
Nolan didn’t have time to think up a revenge plan. The big one was closing in. He got back to his feet, ignoring the pain in his shoulder from hitting the ground, and ran like hell for the now-open exit door. He cursed when he found it didn’t open to the outside. He could hear the other zombies coming in through the front door having heard the dinner bell, so it would have been easy enough to slip away outside. He turned his attention down the hall where the little rat seemed to be having trouble with the door.
Nolan slammed the first door behind him before running down the hallway. It only held for a few moments before he heard it break off its hinges. He knew the big one was squeezing through now. He could feel its heavy steps under his feet. He didn’t slow.
“Get the fuck outta the way,” he shouted at the rat still attempting to kick down the door. He wasn’t going to get it open like that. He was kicking the wrong part of the lock and he didn’t have enough weight on him, anyway.
He cleared the space mere seconds before Nolan’s boot made contact with the door. If it were a normal wooden door, it would have nearly come off its hinges, but the thick metal only gave a little. Nolan kicked again and again, and each time it worked the door free. He felt the bloated zombie closing in on them, but he didn’t look. He didn’t even allow himself to think. He just kicked.
When he knew it was ready, he threw his whole body into it. The door came loose, popping open and propelling him through to the other side. “Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” There was no sun. Just another storage room. He had no time to question it. Whether the rat was through the door or not, he started to close it. The door was weak now and the latch hardly held. He pushed against it just as the big one made contact. He let out a grunt.
He trusted the door for only a moment as he went to grab a chair from the corner and shoved it under the handle. It would only buy him a couple more minutes. When he found that the kid was still with him, he pointed at a nearby pallet stacked high with boxes of merchandise. He didn’t say anything. If he wanted to help, then he would. If he didn’t, then he wouldn’t. And if he wanted to kill Nolan while his back was turned, then he could do that, too. Nolan had been ready to accept death long before now.
He gritted his teeth as he pushed the pallet across the floor. It was heavy and took a minute, but it eventually came flush with the door. He couldn’t imagine even a big one getting through now. But the problem he had refused to think about when he first surveyed the room now came to light: there was no way out. The only light came from a small window near the ceiling. Rat boy might have been able to fit through, but the only thing tall enough to get him there was now protecting themselves from the intruders at the door. He could stand on Nolan’s shoulders but… to what end? [i At least one of you could live,] came Lizzy’s voice like it always did when he was faced with a decision like this. He was ashamed that he did not always take her side. Perhaps that’s why he slowly stopped hearing her voice as time went on.
Nolan kicked a nearby paint can in frustration. This seemed to be the room they shoved all their unfinished projects. It was mostly empty save for the pallet, the chair, and several DIY repair kits. Why it had been labeled an exit, he had no idea. His eyes lifted to glare at the rat. He could kill him. [i He tried to kill you, after all.] But then he’d be stuck in here with a rotting corpse. [i You could bring up the window.]
Nolan shook his head at himself, at the thoughts that were his and the ones he pretended were not, if only to justify his morals. They were easier to dismiss that way.
Nolan took off his backpack and let himself sink down a wall. His breathing was only just starting to even out. Resting his elbows on his bent knees, he listened to the pounding at the door. It would be a long while before they tired of the hunt.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Southern Bell rolled in like a bull, big, demanding and ordering Patrick out of the way like he had better odds at opening doors. The young man studied him as he caught his breath. Well... sure Southern Bell had stronger legs, better form. Obviously he’s kicked down metal doors before or some shit.
It took him minutes but when the door finally fell through, Patrick was on his heels like a shadow, hoping that the storage room had the exit indicated and that he could get to it first. But... he twirled around, bunching his hand into his hair as he stared at the cement walls with a single fucking tiny window that you’d need a roof ladder to reach.
“Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me?” The other mirrored his thoughts. This was not good.
Southern Bell struggled with the door, first pushing a chair against the handle then pointing to a pallet of merchandise. No words were needed to trigger Patrick to help out of survival desperation- which was strange given his most recent thoughts lately. The men pushed till the pallet was in front of the door, heavy enough to keep Mother Russia at bay.
Patrick controlled his breathing as Southern Bell looked about the room with no avail. They were trapped with each other until the big one left and he hoped it wouldn’t be for more than an hour or so. He put his hands on his hips, recalling why the hell he’d been down here in the first place.
And he laughed. It was so ridiculous. “I was down here shopping for clothes,” he giggled, rubbing a hand across his face. “How stupid. I could break into any of those houses- any of them- and find something to wear but noooo. I had to come down here to fucking Old Navy.”
Patrick let the laughter exhaust him, cocky enough to know that if Southern Bell wanted to kill him, he certainly would have done so already. Unless... “Unless,” he looked at the brunette defeated on the floor. “Unless you’re not killing me cause you’re some sicko he eats people. You wanna keep me alive to the very last moment. Now that’s fucked up, Southern Bell.” He wagged his finger as if he was scolding him before starting to pace the room. Looking for what? He didn’t really know.
[i I bet you would be tasty.]
Patrick shook Ceasar out of his mind again, looking for something of a distraction since he didn’t have his go-to dependent liquid mechanism to lean on. The pounding continued and so did he, “Did you know that when one of those motherfuckers dies it emits a poisonous gas? You can’t see it but I saw one idiot walk up to one once and his face ballooned up.” He turned to the man, using his hands to emphasize. “His face filled till nothing but puss came out. Fucking gross. I tell ya.” Urg, He hated locked spaces.]]
[size14 Nolan didn’t care. He didn’t care why this kid was here. And yet he was still talking. When he didn’t respond he thought that might make him realize that he wasn’t exactly in the mood for conversation, but then he continued. He continued like he was picking up from the middle of a thought Nolan wasn’t privy to. Perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to lock himself in a room with an insane person, but he didn’t have much choice.
[i Southern Bell?] What was with all the name calling? Once again, Nolan didn’t reply. He just watched the kid pace around in a fit of anxiety. When he started up again, Nolan let out an angry huff. Now he was seriously debating killing this guy. He watched from under heavy brows as he talked about the poisonous gas and ballooning faces.
Before he could stop himself, he slammed his fist against the wall. “Do you ever shut up?” he asked. He didn’t shout, but his voice boomed nonetheless. “I don’t give a damn why you were here. I ain’t gonna eat you. But I [i am] thinking about letting in some of that gas just to watch your face puff up and leak if you don’t stop talkin’.” He punctuated every sentence with a gesture of his hand.
He shrugged off the new jacket and rolled up the sleeves of his henley before opening his backpack. He grabbed the first bag he saw and tossed it to his cellmate. “Now eat that and shut up.” He hoped if his mouth was full, he couldn’t talk.
Nolan stood up and looked around the room again. He didn’t know why. There was really nothing they could do. His two options were either wait or let the kid go and [i still] wait. He really had no reason not to do the latter. The rat couldn’t kill him and take his things since he would need to use his shoulders to step on to get to the window. And if he did get out, he might make some noise on accident and draw the zombies away, freeing Nolan in the process.
He knew there was no way the little rat would actually drive them away on purpose. Unless…
“Listen, kid. You think you could fit through that window?” He pointed and turned to make sure he was paying attention. “I can boost you up there. And you can run for it. Leave me to wait this out or die in here. Or… Or you draw them away with a distraction so I can get out of here, too. I got a camp not far from here. You help me and half my weapons are yours. I got a truck. That’s yours, too.”
After all, he was almost to his destination. He wouldn’t need most of his provisions after he reached it.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost “Do you ever shut up?”
[i Would you shut the fuck up, you lying piece of shit!]
Patrick gripped his hands into fists. In the empty storage, it seemed like Southern Bell had shouted though in reality only just loud enough to reverberate off the walls. He could feel the anger building in his chest, reminding him of the men he barely just murdered yesterday. How many were there? Five? Six?
The man tossed a bag of Lays across the floor and for some reason that pissed him off even more. He wasn’t some kid, he wasn’t some lost pet, he wasn’t the one on the side lines here.
Patrick began to imagine who he’d do it. Of course Southern Pain in the Ass would put up a fight. He was strong and fit but he had trained himself to be lean and fast. That’s what outran zombies. That’s what outsmarts giants. [i The neck.]
Before he could reach for the axe on his hip, Southern Pain in the Ass spoke again. He directed Patrick’s attention to the window suggesting that he could get him out. He almost laughed. The stranger barely saved his own life at a mere suggestion and on top of that he wanted [i his] help and was willing to barter for it.
This time Patrick remained silent as he thought. Sure, it would be nice to have more weapons even though he was more of a ‘hands on’ kind of guy but the thought of killing Southern Pain in the Ass in the intimacy of his own camp would be more satisfying... and there might be food. A man that big must be hoarding protein bars or something.
“Must be desperate to get out of here instead of waiting it out.” He smiled and nodded to the window. “You gotta deal. Let’s get this over with.”
Patrick dropped the pleasantries, completely over the situation and just fucking ready to go home. Southern Bell hoisted him up, Patrick putting the effort into making sure it was uncomfortable for the brute as much as possible. He hauled himself through, scratching up his hands in the process and was a little weary of the drop down. This was going to fucking hurt.
Gravity took hold of Patrick and twisted down, barely managing to take most of the fall to his left side. He bit his lip, waiting for the pain to roll through his body before attempting to stand. He surveyed himself briefly, content enough to believe that nothing had been severely fractured.
He should leave Southern Bell- no, he should release him if only for food rations. But he could get along fine with what he had. But a truck was always nice. He said the camp wasn’t far. Maybe he could find it.
[i Your sense of direction is terrible.]
[i Fuck you, Caesar.] Patrick started into a jog and slowed once he approached the front of the plaza. As expected, zombs were filling the department shop, huddled closely behind Mother Russia who was wailing on the door. Across from the strip, was an Ace warehouse and he smiled.
Within minutes, Patrick had managed to not only find a lawn mower but one used for a sale pitch display. Thank god the apocalypse started in the summer. He pushed the hunk of metal to the back door of the store, one with an actual exit, and began revving the engine. It took a few pulls and the screeching from beyond the building indicated that the sound was working. He let go of the mechanism and watched as it teetered down the street.
Patrick ducked back into Ace and watched as all the undead zipped past the window including Mother Russia and its big fat steps. Only once it was safe did he emerge, this time with pistol in hand in case Southern Bell had any bright ideas of betrayal. ]]
[size14 He waited as the kid weighed his options. Nolan wasn’t born yesterday. He knew he was really debating on whether to leave him here once he was out or perhaps waiting to kill him later, but he didn’t care. He would deal with everything as it happened, just like he had from the start.
[i Yeah, I’m fuckin’ desperate,] he wanted to say. [i It could be days before they finally leave us alone and I don't like the idea of surviving on chips and candy.]
When the punk finally agreed, Nolan just nodded. There was no sigh of relief because the future was unclear. “Alright, come here,” he said, kneeling and making a foothold for him. The younger man climbed up his body, sure to step on his bruised shoulder. His shoes got mud all over, but Nolan ignored the insult as he gripped his ankles to ensure the punk didn’t fall while he unlatched the window and climbed through. He heard the thump on the other side and felt a small sense of satisfaction that the landing hadn’t been soft.
Then he waited. The minutes ticked by and they felt like hours. He sunk back down the wall, conserving his energy. The bastard had really left him here. He knew that had been a possibility. The pounding at the door continued.
He could last a few days here. He knew that. He could make his canteen last and he could survive on vending machine food. Physically, he would be fine. Nolan was even good with being alone with his thoughts. The problem was being locked in a room with them. No way to escape the guilt. No way to make it up that damn mountain, either.
[i Sorry Brady. Looks like I failed you, too.]
Just then, Nolan heard a lawn mower coming to life. It had been so long since he heard the familiar sound that he felt transported back in time, not just to his house, but to his job. He had to teach Rusty how to use the riding mower. The tweaker had driven it right down a steep hill so he’d never have to do that part of the job again.
[i The little rat came through.] For his own selfish reasons, but Nolan didn’t expect anything more from people these days.
He heard the shuffling of feet away from the door. The big one stopped pounding against it and followed after the average undead. Nolan grabbed his new jacket and backpack, stood up, and waited a long moment before pulling one corner of the pallet away from the door, grunting. Just enough for him to fit through to open it. The hallway was empty. He readied his bat with the nails drilled into it as he made his way down the hallway and back into the store.
The hoard was making its way over to the Ace hardware. A smaller figure was off to the side, stealthily moving away from them. Nolan could leave him. He had promised himself he wouldn’t take on extra baggage again and that included people. But he imagined Lizzy’s disappointed face. He was so close to his goal. Is that why he kept thinking of her?
“Dammit,” he grumbled to himself, knowing her purity outweighed his will this time. He met up with the kid across the street and he eyed the gun. To make a point, he sheathed his bat. “Wouldn’t it make sense to kill me after you know where all my shit is?” he asked. Glancing over his shoulder, he could see the hoard was still preoccupied with the lawn mower, slowly moving down the street. “Come on.”
He didn’t thank him. His supplies would be thanks enough. That’s the only reason he had done it. He led the way back up the street, feeling the weight of another shadow- and gun- on his back. Once again, he told himself that he was fine if he died. He really was. He would just wish he managed to complete his one task beforehand.
Nolan was careful as they walked through town just in case there were any straggler zombies. He turned onto a gravel road that led up a nearby foothill. Halfway up was the cabin he had been staying at. He turned to face him on the front porch. “I got traps beyond this point. If you don’t trust me, kill me now. But you’ll die before you reach my stash. Or you can let me go get the stuff and bring it out to you, load up that 4x4, and send you on your way just like I promised.” [i And by the time he comes back I will be long gone anyway.]
Nolan took a step forward, his heavy frame shading the other from the sun as if [i he] were the one calling the shots.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Southern Bell didn’t bother with a ‘thank you’ which wasn’t expected in the apocalypse. In fact, he was met with an obvious comment about the gun. This was coming down to simply business even if Patrick day dreamed about the blood splattering across that bearded face.
The man was right, the walk wasn’t very far and the lawnmower seemed to have cleared any stranglers along the way as well. The gravel crunched under his boots until they reached the driveway of a cabin home, much like the one Patrick was staying in.
He paused at the front porch, holstering the gun since it seemed it didn’t have much effect on Southern Bell. “No I trust you’re paranoid enough to set traps,” he replied lazily, not at all intimidated by the man’s need to step forward. Who did that? That was such a dad-thing to do.
Patrick watched Southern Bell turn back towards the door and briefly caught a peek of the inside of the cabin, a rack near the doorway holding dried furs. It piqued his interest that maybe this was how Southern Bell kept the weight on him. God, he’d fucking kill for a steak but he was sure the stranger wasn’t about to [i give] him anything that valuable. And unfortunately, Patrick was sure as hell not going to kill him now.
He fiddled with his jean jacket, trying to come up with a decent barter for a new set of skills. That’s if Southern Bell was even remotely [i interested] in the offer. The cold nature of the brute sure gave Patrick the impression that he was a loner like him and if Patrick were in his shoes, he would have killed himself much earlier.
When Southern Bell emerged, he came back with a bag, he assumed, filled with weapons. “Hold up,” he held up a single hand. “I want to propose another trade.” Patrick flipped back his hair and nodded towards the doorway. “You’re a hunter. I would like to know the price for learning a few pointers.” He hadn’t had real protein in months and the salvia was pooling in his mouth at the mere thought of it.
“I’m asking for a couple days and I won’t come back to your cabin.” He patted his body. “I can trade anything I have on me, the goods you were going to give to me or...” He rolled his eyes and made a motion as if he was sucking on something. “Give ya that if you’re into it.” He shrugged. “Don’t have much at my place unless you’re craving alcohol in which case I can only give you a beer.”
His hazel gaze met Southern Bell's, keeping his tone serious as to not be mistaken for some joke. “What is your price?” ]]
[size14 The rat wasn’t intimidated easily, he could at least give him that. He was a far cry away from who he had been locked in that storage room, pacing about and talking out of nervousness. He ignored the backhanded insult and turned to step inside the cabin, expertly avoiding one of the many wires that set off his traps.
He went to the back room where the previous owners had a trap door installed. He unlocked it and climbed down into the cellar. Without much thought, he grabbed a duffel bag and loaded it with a revolver, the shotgun he had found the previous day, ammo to go with them, some grenades he had found on some soldiers some time back (maybe the kid would blow himself up), and a couple of hunting knives. Because it looked light, he added in another one of his bats he had constructed, all done up with nails and scissors and other sharp objects.
He could have given him some of the cans of food or dried venison lining the shelves, but he hadn’t promised him those and the punk didn’t really deserve them.
Nolan climbed back up and secured the trap door again before flipping the rug back over it. Then he made his way back through the house. He found the rat right where he left him. After closing the door behind him (and not without noticing his eyes wandering inside) he held the bag out wordlessly. He was met with a hand held out as if to pause the moment.
[i Is nothing ever easy?]
Nolan should have sent him on his way, this time without the weapons. But at least he was bartering. So he heard him out, expressionless. The rat could apparently tell he was losing because he doubled down, offering him anything on him. The only time Nolan’s expression changed was when he made that [i gesture] and it was just a slight draw of the eyebrows. “What is your price?”
Nolan thought. He really, [i really] didn’t want another shadow. He’d [i just] promised himself no more shadows.
[i Teach a man to fish, right?] He could practically hear Charlotte laughing with him about their father’s stupid southern philosophies he had tried to insill in them. As if he didn’t break every one of his own tenets. Lizzy might have found the principles endearing, though.
Nolan’s grip tightened on the duffel bag. His eyes landed on the other’s belt. He had needed an axe for some time. “Three days. In exchange for that axe.” He pointed. He knew he would have to sharpen it since it had probably been embedded in countless skulls by now and it wouldn’t actually be able to take down a tree, but that was easy work. “And turn out your pockets,” he gestured to a nearby picnic table on the large front porch. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. At least he hadn’t stooped so low to giving away hunting tips for head. “I’ll think about lettin’ you keep some of these,” he said, opening the door and locking the duffel bag back inside.
Then he turned back to where the manipulative little bastard was emptying his pockets onto the table. “If we do this, I need your name.” Names seemed like such a strange concept now. He hadn’t known half the names of the small group he traveled with in the beginning because it was pointless. They weren’t people anymore. And only people had names. But he would need his if this was going to work.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Patrick nearly rejoiced when Southern Bell gave him three days but just as fast as the elation was, it plummeted back down at the price. [i Ah, this one’s my favorite.] He caressed the handle of the axe gently. [i But a deal’s a deal.]
[i You never back down from a deal, right son?]
“Yes, sir.” He unlatched the axe from its slot and placed it on the picnic table, turning out his pockets as instructed and honestly not really remembering what was in these cargos. He was just as surprised to find various random things like nail clippers, a silver dollar, pocket knife, crushed pack of gum, a lighter- not that he had cigarettes, those were too rare-, a few paper clips and- what was that? A melted laffy taffy? It was all over that pocket. And of course...
“My house key stays with me.” He shrugged at Southern Bell’s expression. “I’m a hands-on kind of guy. I don’t carry bullets unless I need to.”
The young man put his hands on his hips and froze at the inquiry of a name, God, when was the last time someone asked for his god-damn name? Before the outbreak? Maybe not even that far. His memory was shit lately. “Brutus,” he replied, not giving the decision a second thought. It was best no one knew real names. Name’s have too much power over a person.
“If you don’t want me callin’ you Southern Bell, you better let me know yours,” he smiled crookedly and unwrapped a gum from the crushed pack on the picnic table. He took a seat and watched the man with the permanent scowl carefully. “Are there rules I need to play by for these three days?” ]]
[size14 Nolan watched as item after useless item came out of his pockets and tried to ignore the feeling of power that washed over him at the simple ‘yes, sir’. It wouldn’t do to feel too in control of the moment. When the lighter hit the table, he took it and tested it. It felt mostly full, so he pocketed it. Other than that, nothing was of interest to him and he sure didn’t care about his house key, so he waved a hand, grabbed the axe, and checked the head. It was notched and in poor shape, but he could do something about that.
Nolan glanced up from it upon hearing the name. “Et tu?” he asked, making the joke without a sign of a smirk or smile. “You gonna stab me when I least expect it?”
Nolan was not an educated man. He was supposed to take over his family’s farm so there was no need for him to go to college and when a man could do manual labor as well as he could, there was no need for a degree when he decided to be the family disappointment. But Lizzie studied her ass off and made him sit through all sorts of documentaries. He had no doubt Brutus was some kind of nickname and the last thing he wanted to be was this kid’s next Ceasar.
“Nolan,” he finally said. “Nolan Gray.” He wouldn’t play whatever name game it was this [i Brutus] was playing. “And yes.” He set the axe down on the table, a little harder than he intended. “First rule is no more name callin’. Nolan or Gray. I don’t care which, but you pick one and that’s what you call me.” He balled a fist and set it on the table. “Second: you do what I say, when I say it. Or the deal is off.”
He straightened. “We start tomorrow morning. Five AM. Meet me here. When we’re done we’ll go back into town and get some supplies for snares since I’m runnin' low and they will be the most help to you since you’re… ‘hands-on’,” he quoted back to Brutus.
He took the axe and made for the door. “If you’re not here by five, then I’ll assume you’ve changed your mind and I got a free axe.” He stepped inside his cabin and shut the door, locking out Brutus and everything else that might threaten to delay his trip up the mountain.
[i What the hell are you thinking?] he asked himself, pacing into the kitchen and slamming the axe down on the table. For the next hour or two he worked with the small whetstone, honing and sharpening the blade to a perfect point so that he didn’t have to think.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Patrick smirked at the small literary joke. He used to love classes like that but after a while it seemed that passion died somewhere along with other things he enjoyed, consumed by a black entity called addiction. Maybe he should stop by one of these suburban homes and hopefully they would have a literary work to peruse. No one of consequence was here any more after all.
“Nolan Gray,” he repeated, trying out the words on his tongue. They didn’t exactly have the ring that Southern Bell did- not that he would have used it anyway. Nolan set down the axe hard and Patrick wasn’t sure if he was doing it on purpose to try and project his dominance or if he was always a little bit heavy handed. Either way, it amused him.
And boy, did the brute have rules. Patrick already knew he was breaking the first one. He enjoyed the severed connection of not using Nolan’s name and found it even more appealing if it would piss him off. The apocalypse was so short on entertainment, especially without the internet.
The second just made Southern Bell sound like a complete control nut. Patrick could tell already that these lessons were all work no fun allowed kind of lessons. But this is what he traded for and he wasn’t about to give up his favorite axe for nothing-
“Five am?” he gwuaked, blinking at the man. Who the hell gets up at five am in the apocalypse? Why does he need to be up that early? Did he even have an alarm somewhere back at the cabin? Southern Bell seamlessly made it clear that there was no way out of this arrangement and left him sitting there flabbergasted as he slammed the cabin door shut.
Patrick spent the next couple hours of daylight panic shopping through houses. He acquired a solar powered clock which he cringed at the mere thought of, a jacket, some thermals, a Romeo & Juliet paperback (definitely was no Iliad) and luckily found five hour energy pills stuffed in some teenagers' sock drawer. He admired the dried blood and guts across the far wall and thanked it genuinely. He might just survive the next three days after all.
The alarm split through his skull and angrily, he threw it off the coffee table hoping that it broke. [i Fuck.] He still felt groggy and muddled from last night. He forced himself off the couch and peered through the boarded up window. It was still dark. Hopefully the brisk morning air would sober him up.
He slowly changed clothes and tied up his boots, choosing a can of hash to eat on his way to Southern Bell’s cabin from hell. He replaced the missing axe with a hammer and pocketed the energy and pain pills for later.
The early morning breeze did perk up his senses but glancing at his watch, he figured he’d need to push into a jog in order to make it there on time. Patrick finished the hash quickly before jogging the rest of the way to the incredibly [i long] gravel road and collapsing on the panic table bench. He was not feeling this. He was not in the mood at all. He pulled the hood over his head and leaned back against the table, waiting for the devil himself. ]]
“Yep. And you’ll be [i ready] at five. Not gettin’ your shoes on at five. Not combing that mop on your head at five. You’ll be standin’ next to the truck [i at five]. You understand me, boy?” Not Nolan. Not son. [i Boy]. “My pa took me when I was eight. You’re already two years behind.”
“I don’t want to hunt, Dad. Jeff and I were gonna check out the new arcade that opened tomorrow.”
“Well you call Jeff and you tell him that you can’t make it because you got more important things to do.”
“But [i Dad]-”
The back of a swift hand met his face, leaving Nolan there staring at the carpet, tears pricking his eyes. His father only pointed at the phone on the wall in response. Nolan swallowed hard and approached it. As he dialed Jeff’s number and twirled the cord around his fingers in shame, he saw his mother in the next room, watching him. The new bruise under her eye told him he hadn’t been the only one to receive his father’s wrath that day.
“You sound just like him,” she said.
“What?” he asked, but it wasn’t the youthful voice from his childhood that he heard. He glanced at his hand on the phone, now weathered and resembling his father's.
“You sound just like him,” she said again. “Even after I begged you to never grow up to be like him.”
He heard a soft voice on the other end of the phone. He brought it to his ear. “Nolan? Nolan is that you?”
“Brady?” He dropped the phone.
Nolan shot up from the bed drenched in sweat. He pressed the palms of his hands to his eyes and he realized he had been crying in his sleep. “Just a dream,” he said to himself. “Just a fuckin’ dream.” He checked his watch. Just shy of Four AM. Still dark out. The sun would be rising soon and that kid Brutus would be here.
He shoved the covers off him and changed into a flannel. He used some water to wet his face and hair, hoping to reset his mind for the day, but the dream still lingered like a bad taste in his mouth. He ate some jerky, then went down to the cellar to collect his father’s rifle and the hunting bow he had stolen months ago. Luckily his father had taught him to use both. [i Luckily,] he scoffed.
When he returned, he secured his pistol to his hip for emergencies, grabbed two hunting knives, and left the cabin to make his rounds in the woods, checking his traps. Sometimes he would find an undead mess to clean up, but it was better than a human who had found his dwelling. Most days he found nothing.
When he returned to the cabin, he wound around the porch to find Brutus sitting there with his hood up looking like this was perhaps the worst thing that ever happened to him. Nolan studied him for a moment before walking up to the table and setting the rifle and the bow upon it. He sat across from the brooding youth and waited for him to turn towards him.
“Rule three: no complainin’.” He slid the rifle across the table. “The best time to hunt is in the mornin’, right when everything is wakin' up. If you don’t think you have the perseverance to do that then teachin’ you to hunt is pointless.”
[i You sound just like him.]
Nolan swallowed. He heard it that time. “You apparently know how to shoot a pistol, but you ever shot a rifle before?” This time his words weren’t necessarily softer, but they didn’t hold as much hostility. His face remained the never-changing mask.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost The crunching of boots alerted him of Nolan’s presence, taking great effort to finally turn and face him once he was seated across from Patrick. He wasn’t in the mood for Southern Bell’s commanding bullshit already, throwing out rule number three as a fucking added bonus.
He reminded him of Caesar's father, how commanding and confident he used to be before cancer cut him down to size. Caesar never moved on from that which dragged everyone down with him.
Patrick tucked a few loose hairs behind his ear and gave Southern Bell no sign of comradery in his eyes. “I [i love] how you just assumed the worst of me even though I showed up,” he chimed, trying to keep the venom out of his tone. Nolan had a gun on the table and might as well be eager to use it. [i Huh, he might as well.]
His dark eyes held time with Nolan’s, demanding respect even though the farmer's boy mentality was oozing off of him. He wanted to stomp that shit right out of Southern Bell but knew this wasn’t the time to pick a fight. He was already feeling like shit.
“No, I haven’t shot a rifle.”
[i But you’ve shot a shotgun.]
“Is it much different than a shotgun? More bullets, less kick?” He popped an ibuprofen, now lowering his gaze to study the weapon on the table. He had one of these back at the cabin but just never bothered to try it out. Too risky to learn some things when gunshots was the last noise you wanted to try in a zombie outbreak.]]
[size14 “And longer distance, but yeah, that’s the short of it,” Nolan said. “This is a bolt-action rifle. Holds ten rounds, so I wouldn’t use it in a pickle. Every round you fire, you have to pull back on this handle to get the new round ready. I’ll let you practice with this one, but it’s older than anything you’ll probably find now.” He pointed at the tip of the barrel. “This is a suppressor. It silences your shots. Not perfectly. Not like in the movies. But it won’t bring a hoard down on you just for tryin’ to catch your dinner.”
He pushed the rifle further across the table. “Now pick it up and check the chamber. Is it loaded?” When he confirmed that it wasn’t, he slid the ammo across the table towards him. “Always check the chamber.”
It was strange, watching Brutus load his father’s rifle. The same rifle he had learned to hunt with. He had far too many bad memories surrounding that gun. What was one more?
“Now pull the handle to arm it,” he said. They both heard the bullet slide into place. Nolan nodded and met Brutus’s eyes. “Don’t ever put your finger on the trigger before you plan to shoot. Don’t ever point the barrel in the direction of anyone you ain’t plannin’ to shoot. That goes for every gun, not just rifles. When you’re on your own again surrounded by zombies, you can do whatever the hell you want. But I ain’t dyin’ for agreein’ to teach you how to hunt.”
He pushed away from the table and stood up. The birds were starting their morning songs. Nolan handed over one of his large hunting knives, the kind to clip onto a belt. “You’ll need this to skin and gut whatever we find.” Then he slung the hunting bow over his shoulder and began the trek out towards the back of the cabin.
“Go where I go. Don’t want you landin’ in one of my traps.” [i Or do I? Sure would make my life a lot easier.]
Once outback, he set up several targets for Brutus to get in some practice shots with the rifle so he really grasped how it felt. Then he led Brutus into the woods. It was an uphill climb for some time. “You can track deer, or you can wait for them to come to you. Waiting takes longer, but it conserves your energy.” Nolan really didn’t fancy waiting around half the day in silence with this kid, so he showed him the ins and outs of what to look for when tracking an animal. It took practice and a keen eye, something he didn't have until he was forced into hunting to keep himself fed. He didn’t really need any more venison yet, but for the sake of teaching, they followed the trail of a deer for nearly three miles until they came to the edge of a clearing.
Nolan nodded his head in the direction of the deer and waited to see what Brutus would do. Hitting a target with a rifle was one thing. Hitting an unpredictable animal was another.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Something in Patrick’s brain seemed to click with the lessons. Sure he was fighting himself to focus half the time but Patrick was always a fast learner. In fact, he excelled in most classes in school and was even on the road to a scholarship. He really couldn’t remember how he got into college at all when his grades dropped.
He followed Nolan’s instructions to the T, figuring it wasn’t as hard as he’d originally imagined. Loading a gun was nearly second nature at this point and for shits and giggles, almost played pretend to point it at Southern Bell... but thought better of it. He just got here. Better at least hear his first day’s lesson before contemplating murder again. “I know how to handle a gun, Nolan.”
Patrick followed Southern Bell up a trail around the cabin, allowing himself a brief sense of peace at the liveliness of the nature around them. He wished he spent more time outdoors like this when he was growing up. For some reason, he thought that might have changed aspects of his future from staring at bathroom floors to looking at mountains instead.
Upon practicing with targets, Patrick missed his first few shots figuring out the kickback and aiming technique. Three more shots and he was hitting the target every time.
They continued on onto an uphill incline into the depths of the woods. Thankful that it was a bit brighter now, Patrick was able to pick up on the signs of tracking but figured it would be some time before he could do it on his own. To be honest, shit all looked the same to him.
After about three miles and a pop of an energy pill, they finally came across a beast grazing in a clearing. Patrick felt the excitement build in his chest as he crouched low to try and aim... but the damn thing kept moving. He tried to stabilize his breathing as Southern Bell taught him earlier but all that was doing was frustrating him. Think. What did he do when he was shooting the 100 Meter zombies? He might have chosen a shovel or baseball bat but once he had to resort to a pistol.
What did he do then? He blinked, trying to recall the technique but couldn’t. All he remembered was the result. The gooey splatter result of a headshot across the brick wall. He was calm, disconnected, wanting to kill that zomb with every fiber of his being.
Just like this deer. He wanted to kill it with every fiber of his being. He wanted a god-damn steak.
Patrick closed one eye, found his target, exhaled a breath and pulled the trigger. It cut right through the neck at the deer, throwing it on its side. “Fuck,” he sighed. “I was going for the head.” ]]
[size14 Nolan watched calmly as Brutus aimed. Just as he suspected, it took him a long time to line up the shot, but he allowed him as much time as he needed. If something spooked the deer and it ran off, that would be a lesson. If he shot and missed out of impatience, a lesson. Hunting was a balance. It wasn’t like killing the undead for survival and he knew better than anyone that you had to learn by doing. He couldn’t tell Brutus when the moment was. He had to feel it.
He pulled the trigger. Nolan was surprised. He could have sworn he was going to miss after all that overthinking he was probably doing. But the bullet lodged in the deer's throat and sent it stumbling over onto its side.
“It’s alright,” he said, standing. The young buck was making strangled noises and its legs were moving slowly as if trying to run. He led the way over to it. The animal’s wide eye looked up at them in fear while blood pooled out of its neck. “Don’t waste another bullet.” Nolan knelt in front of the dying, screaming animal. “Get down in front of him- he ain’t gonna kick you- and get your knife at his throat. Right in the hollow there. Just stab and it should stop him sufferin’.”
Nolan remembered being ten years old and his father forcing him to end a struggling deer’s life. He was a crying, sobbing mess, begging to go home. His father slapped him around and let the animal cry until he finally did as he was told. Nolan felt like a murderer for weeks after that. The irony of it all… Now he killed left and right and he didn’t remember the people’s faces. But he remembered that first deer…
When the deed was done, Nolan got down in front of it. He trusted Brutus to watch as he made a deep incision from the neck all the way down its underbelly. He showed him what parts of the animal to keep, what to throw out, and how to wrap them in old newspaper. Then he worked his knife under the skin until it started to come free on its own and worked it off expertly, even showing Brutus how to remove the antlers. When he was done there was nothing left of the deer but a gory, hollow mess and a backpack full of raw meat and hide.
“Don’t store anything else in your hunting bag unless you want to get sick,” he said, handing the bag over to Brutus. “I’ll let you skin the next thing we catch now that you’ve seen me do it.”
They made their way back down the foothill. “Unless you got a generator and a freezer, the best way to preserve your meat is by drying and salting it,” Nolan explained. When they reached the cabin, he showed Brutus exactly how to do just that before bringing out a bowl to wash their hands in.
Nolan hated to admit that he was actually impressed. He hadn’t expected his student to be such a quick study. But he rarely had questions and when he did, they were good ones to ask. It was even easy to ignore his snarky comments half the time.
Nolan locked up their hunting gear, glad he didn’t have to waste any arrows this trip. On his way back out of the cabin, he stopped in the kitchen, grabbing something to eat. He stared at the venison in his hands as he chewed and looked out the window at Brutus pacing around, waiting for their trip into town. He didn’t know what compelled him. Perhaps it was because when he was learning to hunt he never got any positive reinforcement. Whatever it was, something made Nolan take out several extra strips of jerky. He handed them over to Brutus without making a show of it. Like he was handing over a stick of gum. He didn’t say anything. He certainly didn’t show pity or congratulate him.
Nolan chewed on his own piece and wiped his hands on his jeans before making his way off the property again, this time towards town.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Something changed in Nolan’s voice as he stood and surveyed the deer. Had Patrick not been paying attention, he would have completely missed the subtlety of it. He was prepared to use another bullet till the man told him otherwise. Instead he pulled the strap over his shoulder and followed Nolan to the beast, kneeling beside the body.
The deer reminded Patrick of the humans he’d killed in the last few months, how they squirmed and twitched as life slowly drained from their faces. Terrified. Lonely. This deer, however, wasn’t alone in its death. Didn’t it want to be alone?
Patrick was calm as he grabbed the knife from his belt, making the incision where he was instructed. This death didn’t make him feel better like killing humans or zombies did. It made him feel slightly sad, like maybe they had something in common but wasn’t sure what.
Southern Bell showed him the basics of skinning, what to keep, what not, etc. Every once in a while Patrick would ask a question to clarify an instruction but for the most part kept his stupid comments to himself. This wasn’t the time to be insensitive.
They packed the meat, which was a lot more time consuming than Patrick would have guessed, and left the remains in a gorey pile in the dirt. He stared at it a second longer before taking the bag from Southern Bell and following him back down the mountain.
“Yeah, no freezer or generator.” If Patrick were that lucky. The last time he’d had a generator was a few months back when he still lived in Arizona. That was an instant regret. Smelled worse in Phoenix when hundred degree temperatures were roasting rotting bodies. “Less you got one to loan me.” He and Nolan prepped the last of the meat properly before Southern Bell parted ways to store the equipment back inside the cabin.
Patrick yawned, feeling more himself now that they were back in civilization (so to speak). He glanced at his watch, realizing that nearly six hours had passed since their excursion and it was kicking his ass. He should have prepared better for the day. He was starving.
As if Southern Bell had read his thoughts, a few strips of jerky landed in his hand as if it was the most normal thing for apocalypse survivors. He narrowed his eyes at the back of the brunette’s head but said nothing... and absolutely enjoyed every bite of it all the way to town.]]
[size14 Nolan didn’t say a word as they made their way back into town. He was aware that they were probably going to have to get into the Ace Hardware and hoped that the undead were long gone. Where the mower Brutus had let run wild was, he couldn’t even begin to assume.
When they reached the main street, Nolan finally spoke. “I haven’t gone through this half of the street,” he said, gesturing. “We need to get back down to the hardware store at the end, but I ain’t gonna pass up good loot if I can find it. You can follow me or meet me there.”
Nolan hoped perhaps for a moment of respite from his new shadow. True, he had been less talkative this last hour and far less crazy than he originally assumed he would be given what he had seen when they were locked in that room together. But still, he had only just gotten Rusty off his back.
[i I used to like helping people.]
Nolan dipped into the first store, not looking to see if Brutus was following him. He scanned his surroundings to make sure there were no stray undead before making his way to check under the counter for ammo and weapons like usual. The small boutique seemed to have been hit hard. Glass was shattered across the floor and it crunched under his boots as he scanned the clothes. All superficial. All impractical. He moved on.
The next store was an auto repair store. He had been meaning to come here for some time. He had a good toolbox of his own, but he was lacking a few things that would be vital in case his old truck broke down. The problem was that others had the same idea, too. Everything he wanted was gone from the shelves. He found the back room was locked. Rather than throwing his bruised shoulder out even more than it already was after the previous day, he looked around for a key. He might as well since he had the time. He found one hidden under the cash register. Once inside he found some of the best items hidden away. Whether they were backstock or the employees were hiding them away for themselves, he didn’t know and he didn’t care. He put them in his backpack and carried on.
The next couple of stores were more clothing stores. Nolan grabbed what he thought he might need, but he was mostly well off now that he had a coat. This was the worst part of surviving. The wandering. The looting. Being forced to see what had happened to the world. He could remember shopping and hating every minute of it. He rarely tried on his clothes before bringing them home because he just wanted to be done with it. Now nothing mattered.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Overjoyed was a strong word, but Patrick was happy to be back in town. While nature seemed to calm him, the industrial life was always full of excitement and frankly, that’s the only thing he lived for nowadays. Scavaging, shopping and murder. Should be the title of a cheesy mystery book series.
They paused at the mouth of the street, Nolan expressing his goal for the hardware store again but opting for looting on the way there. As per his usual way, Southern Bell didn’t look at him when he made an offer to stay or split so Patrick took the opportunity to be alone in hopes of finding something he could possibly keep.
Patrick veered to the opposite end of the street, not bothering with the gas station since those were one of the first places hit in the outbreak. Beside that was a floral shop, where he managed to find a few razors and a knife. Then he came across a music shop. While he debated skipping [i Tuned In], a small part of him rocked on his heels before entering through the shattered display window.
Patrick kept his guard high, reaching for the hammer on his belt should anything try to- Teeth emerged from his left, Patrick stumbling back as a zomb fell forward, tripping over his own feet. Like the showboat he was, he flipped the hammer in his hand once before ramming it down into the shambler’s skull. He shuddered, retching the tool out with a satisfying squelch. [i Oh, yeah. That’s what I love.] Kicking the head one more time for a double tap, the raven hair continued exploring the shop.
Brushing his fingers along the few remaining guitars, he recalled Caesar’s desire for music. He had always been envious of Patrick’s own talent that he made it sound as if he’d stolen it completely at times... but he always said shit like that when he was drunk. He let his fingers fall, passing into the pressiusion department of the store where at the very end of the room was a piano.
[i Don’t. You know how I hate that shit.]
Patrick tightened his jaw, taking purposeful strides towards the dusted piano. His boots stopped before the frayed rug with the instrument and briefly wondered if it was safe. [i No.] He can handle himself and if Southern Bell gets caught in it then tough shit.
He ran his fingers along the edge and lifted the cover to reveal the keys in pristine condition. Patrick smirked, wondering if this was one of the eight grand models whilst taking a seat at the bench. His pale fingertips caressed the keys.
[i What did I fucking say?]
“You’re not here anymore, Caesar,” he whispered and pressed down on the keys. He played the first thing that came to mind, Moonlight Sonata. It was one of the first songs he mastered when he was ten and reminded him of his mother who wanted him to become something great. He let her down. He let everyone down... and somewhere in his chest he began to ache again then he began to crave. This was a bad idea.
He stopped, combing his hands through his hair to try and ease the urge to go back to the cabin, taking deep breaths. He had to at least see this through. It was part of the deal. ]]
[size14 Three stores later, Nolan’s pack had hardly anything to show for all his looting, but he had a bad habit of feeling like he would miss something important if he didn’t check every corner of every building. It was stupid, really, considering he had absolutely no will to survive after his personal mission was complete. But he desperately wanted to complete it, too.
[i And then it really won’t matter how many cabinets I’ve searched. Loot won’t do me any good when I’m dead. Maybe I’ll just let Rat Boy have it all. Why not? At least he showed potential with hunting. Better the asshole I know than the asshole I don’t.]
It was while these dark thoughts were going through his head that he heard it: the soft sound of a piano from the store next door. Nolan let his feet carry him outside through the busted side door of the small bookstore he was in and found the music shop. Its own side door was open and waiting for him and like a siren’s song, the piano pulled him in. He stopped in the doorway.
He wasn’t sure what he expected. Surely not some undead human sitting there playing a piano masterfully. But he hadn’t quite expected it from Brutus, either. His black hair hung in his face as he lost himself momentarily in the music. Nolan leaned against the doorframe, watching.
Nolan wasn’t cultured. He didn’t know Bach from Beethoven or Mozart. He couldn’t name the piece he was hearing, though he had heard it hundreds of times played by a smaller pair of hands with purple nail polish. He remembered pretending how good it sounded when she first started to learn the piano. The pride of watching her perform it perfectly at her first recital welled up in him now and he realized that he forgot.
He forgot what humanity felt like.
The music stopped abruptly and Nolan was brought back to the present. He blinked his red eyes. Music was not meant for this world and Brutus must have felt that, too.
[i Ask him to keep playing,] she would tell him if she were here.
Nolan cleared his throat, announcing his presence, and pushed away from the door. “I’m headin' to the hardware store.”
He stalked back through the door and up the street. He meant to say something cruel. [i If you want to serenade the undead, do it on your own time.] It was there on his tongue. Why didn’t he say it? The music had disarmed him. Remembering that people were complicated and nuanced had shaken him.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Patrick perked up at the sound, turning to see Nolan in the doorway. He announced that he was heading to the hardware store but said nothing else. He wondered briefly if Southern Bell had heard the melody though preferring that he didn’t. He was sure the other wasn’t into intricate things like that.
Patrick took another moment to breathe, forcing himself to concentrate on the sounds and smells around him. That seemed to ground him most of the time when he was craving. Just enough to get by till he could indulge in his bad habit.
Choosing to confiscate an electric guitar while he was there, he pulled it over his shoulder, strapping it to his back before catching up to Nolan down the street. The lawnmower seemed to have done its part by keeping the monsters at bay. Ace Warehouse seemed [i dead] enough it made silence seem too awkward.
Patrick cleared his throat. “So what are we looking for, boss?” He picked up a useless electric screwdriver. “Rope, nails, lube?” He glanced up at Nolan with a crooked grin. “You know, for the guns.”
He tossed the paperweight and kicked aside the dollar bills scattered across the floor with his boot. Damn, if money still had the same leverage...]]
[size14 Nolan walked through the decimated aisles of the store. It was clear that people thought they might find survival gear in a hardware store and they were not wrong. There were no shovels or axes or saws to speak of. But the people that raided the store apparently didn’t know that feeding yourself was just as important as protecting yourself.
He heard Brutus behind him. His shadow returned. There was a peaceful silence for once and Nolan thought for a moment it would stay that way before he opened his mouth. [i Boss?] At least it wasn't “Southern Bell”. At the suggestive list of items, Nolan stopped in the middle of an aisle and turned his head to look at Brutus, raising an eyebrow. It was probably the most expressive he had been the entire time they had spent together. “Right,” he replied, turning back forward to keep moving.
Damn kid had to be trying to break him or something. Get him to crack. And what was with the guitar? Nolan decided not to say anything. He wasn’t his damn babysitter.
“I was hopin’ for some better equipment for the cabin,” he finally replied. “But we’re mostly here for this.” He stopped in front of the coils of thin wire. No one imagined how important it might be when all hell broke loose. He held one out to Brutus and took one for himself. They weren’t very large, but they could be reused. “You can use any kind of string for snares,” he explained, looping through a few more aisles, not wanting to miss anything. “But wire like this is best. Less room for error.”
Nolan led the way back to the cabin then, explaining the basic mechanics of a snare. How the wire acts as a noose. A nearby tree acts as the anchor. He explained a hook trigger using his hands to demonstrate their function and use. “When everything started, I survived on rabbit alone for three weeks. Protein is the new five star restaurant. People will either try to join up with you or kill you for the meat you have when they figure out you can hunt. You’re the first person I’ve met to ever try to learn it for himself.” It was as much a compliment as Nolan could give.
When they got back to the cabin, Nolan showed Brutus exactly how to carve a simple hook and base and how to tie the knots he needed to. Then they ventured into the woods once more to set up a few snares and Nolan placed the bait. “We’ll come back in the mornin’ to see if we caught anything,” he said. “Don’t usually like to leave it that long, but I want you to see the whole process.”
Back through the woods and to the cabin once more, Nolan pointed to the picnic bench. “Sit,” he said, before disappearing inside. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that damned music. The notes he heard over and over while Lizzy practiced and messed up and started over and perfected the art. He never thought he would hear it again.
He told himself that just because the kid knew how to play piano didn’t mean he was a saint. He was still half crazy. But it added depth to him. Nolan had long stopped wondering who people were before the end. This was the first time that curiosity slipped by in a long time. He hated himself for it.
He returned a moment later with two glasses and an old moonshiner’s jug as well as a hearty meal of venison and canned vegetables. He placed a cup in front of Brutus and poured some of the amber liquid into it before doing the same to his own. “When I came upon this place, I found a cellar in the back. White lightnin’ after a hard day’s work,” he said, holding up his glass and taking a drink of the strong liquid. Then he pushed the plate forward. “Here. To remind you what you’re workin’ for. I'll see you at five again."
He stood up then, taking his glass and the jug with him. He would leave Brutus here to eat and leave when he was ready. He wished to be alone and he was sure his company did, too. But when he reached the door he turned back to look at Brutus for a moment.
[i You’ve shown enough vulnerability. Shut up and go inside.]
“That song you were playing on the piano…” [i Not a song. A piece. Sorry, Lizzy.] “What’s it called?”
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