[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?”
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Southern Bell was no fun. He barely reacted to his joke and went back into his comfortable conversation of spewing information and teaching. Patrick rubbed the bridge of his nose as he focused on the wire and eventually made it back to the cabin to learn how to create snares for rabbits.
Nolan briefly explained how the mechanism worked along with the value of this type of trade which made Patrick smirk. That was self explanatory. No one needed to tell him that trading all of those weapons and goods for hunting lessons was a good idea. Protein was such a rarity in the apocalyptic world, he knew better than most of the dumbasses surviving nowadays. “I’m no idiot,” he simply replied.
They set up a trap behind Southern Bell’s cabin, opting to wait till tomorrow morning to see if anything triggered. Fuck was he exhausted and thisty. He glanced at his watch. It was past the time he would have returned to his own camp and the dryness in his mouth was urging him to call it quits with Nolan.
Patrick nearly said no but by the time he turned back to Nolan, he had disappeared back into the cabin. [i What the fuck was it now?] The itch for liquor was beginning to bother him and his mood quickly became sour. He heard the door creak open again and turned to explain that he wasn’t Nolan’s bitch but the words never left his mouth.
Southern Bell placed two glasses down with a moonshiners jug and plate of meat and vegetables. This time he felt relief, heavily sitting on the bench and reaching for the glass as soon as the liquid was poured. It was bitter, strong, just exactly what he needed. “Lucky man,” he said, wishing he had that kind of luck with his home looting.
Nolan remained there long enough to tell him to be back at the same time, same place and turned to leave. He wasn’t much of a people person. Nolan reminded him of a robot, existing to do his programmed job. Patrick took a bite of the venison, salvia instantly pooling in his mouth gratefully.
“That song you were playing on the piano… What’s it called?”
Patrick looked up from over the glass. So... he had heard it. “Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven.” And with that said, Southern Bell had disappeared behind a wooden door.
The drink hit him quicker than he imagined and he enjoyed the meal on a strong buzz till he cleaned the plate. Leaving the dishes, he made his way back to his own camp and wondered about the strange southern man. What was his story? Why was he here of all places? Why did he share his precious rations with a kid that wanted to kill him?
[i You’re not worth it.]
“I know.” He dropped the guitar in the living room and twisted open another whiskey.
While the alarm clock awakened him mid-nightmare, Patrick wanted so much to break the shit out of that clock, to crush it under his boot till it was nothing but tiny pieces. [i One more day. One more day. One more day...] He groaned.
Two popped pills later and a hood over his head, Patrick was out in the cold air on his way to the devils house again. He slumped onto the bench, five minutes early and rested his forehead as his arms.
Once he heard the door creak closed, he looked up at Southern Bell with tired eyes. “Can’t imagine how you stay sane waking up so god-damn early.” Yeah fuck his third rule. He’ll complain if he wanted to. ]]
[size14 [i Moonlight Sonata]. How could he have forgotten? The next morning he awoke to the sound of Lizzy in the other room playing those first few bars over and over again. Her small hands had trouble making the first jump and she would mess up, go back a few lines, then continue until she got it right. He laid there, listening to the haunting sound until he realized it was just his mind playing tricks on him in his half sleep. Her hands had grown and long perfected that jump and she had given up the piano for tastier delights, forcing Nolan to watch his weight. He could have sworn he smelled cinnamon and sugar. When he opened his eyes, he half expected to be back home. He would get up and walk down the hall. Lizzy would have a warm breakfast waiting for him, served with strawberry drizzle like she was a chef at a five star restaurant.
But all he saw was the molding wall. All he felt were the uncomfortable springs in the bed that was not his own. And Lizzy was dead. Was it because his days were drawing to a close? Is that why he was thinking of her so much lately?
He climbed out of yesterday’s clothes and washed himself down with an old towel and some of his water. It would have to do until he could get back to the stream. He ate a little something and left the cabin. He hoped Brutus didn’t expect any breakfast, because dinner last night was the exception to the rule.
And there he was, looking exhausted. Brutus’s eyes had dark circles under them which were only accentuated by the hood he had drawn up over his face. Nolan couldn’t decide whether to ignore the breaking of his third rule or not. Had the kid never had a damn job? Did he never have to dedicate himself to anything?
“Maybe I’m not,” he decided on. [i Are any of us sane, anymore?] “Come on. Let’s go check that snare.” He held out his arm as if to say ‘after you’. He would need to learn to navigate the forest and remember where he left his snares if he truly wanted to learn the trade.
Nolan brought with him the rifle and bow, just in case they stumbled into more deer. He also had the newly sharpened axe on his hip this time.
He followed Brutus to the snare. They had caught a rather fat rabbit which wasn’t very stiff yet, so it hadn’t been there long. Nolan showed him how to remove it without cutting the noose so it could be set again. “We can skin him back at camp. Then I’ll show you how to wash hides so you can use them.”
The walk back didn’t take long. It was only when they were almost to the porch that he heard the voices approaching through the trees. Nolan stopped, holding out an arm to silence his shadow.
“Don’t know why you insist on searching every house. Gonna get us killed one day.”
“And this could be the house with the bunker full of weapons. Or food. You never know. Now shut up.”
Nolan grabbed Brutus’s jacket, pulling him across the porch and to take cover behind the house. The footsteps became louder as they approached from the back. It sounded like there were at least half a dozen of them, if not more. He exchanged a glance with his pupil. There was no time to exchange words. Not without being overheard and blowing Nolan’s chance of getting the jump on them. Still, he waited.
“Dude, watch out I think there’s a-”
A blood curdling screech as one of the intruders activated one of his many traps. He heard a round of cursing. “Watch where you step! Fuck!”
“We should turn back.”
“Are you kidding me? This means there’s loot here.”
The steps got closer. Nolan pulled the axe from his belt. He hadn’t really planned to use it for this. They were rounding the corner of the cabin. He pulled it back.
The axe made contact with the first face he saw. He didn’t even feel the spray of blood before he was onto the next one. A bat swung downward and Nolan blocked it painfully with his forearm before sending the sharp axe through his leg, severing it almost entirely.
“You fucking bastard!” He heard the gunshot, but it must not have hit him. Nolan drew his pistol from his side and took down the man still aiming at him. He turned to see how Brutus was doing and hoped that all the sound wouldn’t bring any undead down on them, too.[i If we can get inside, we’ll be okay.]
[i We?] Since when did he care? He had watched Rusty’s throat get torn out by a zombie. Why should he care about some kid he just fucking met?
Several bodies surrounded him, proving he was good in a fight, and he was locked with what appeared to be the last remaining intruder. Or he thought as much until he felt a rib crack and side stepped. Some bastard behind him wielded a chain as a weapon. Nolan felt his knees give. The chain came down and pulled back against his throat, cutting off his air.
He pulled at the chain, but his fingers couldn't find purchase. Brutus was still locked in his own fight and Nolan knew there was little hope of rescue. He reached back and elbowed and scratched, but his assailant did not relent.
The view of Brutus in his dance of death began to fade. His head became light. [i Not like this. I don't mind dying, but not like this.] The panic tightened in his chest. He wanted to fight. Every muscle in his body wanted to jerk in protest. His lungs ached to draw breath. But the world was becoming still. He had no power over his own limbs.
His eyes slowly started to close. [i Not like this.]
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Pleasantly surprised that Nolan didn’t have a smarter remark, Patrick pushed himself from the table and led the way back to the trap they set the day before. At first in the dark, it was hard to locate, making him anxious that if nothing was caught he might actually step in it. Lucky for him, there was a pretty sizable rabbit body amongst the foliage. He knelt beside it, watching carefully as Nolan removed the creature without compromising the trap at all. Very impressive.
Patrick rubbed his eyes as he followed Southern Bell back to the cabin, wishing that the energy pill would kick in already, when he suddenly ran into Nolan’s arm. He stiffened, listening to the voices just around the opposite side of the cabin. [i This early? Were they psychopaths? Even he wasn’t an idiot to think that looting in the dark-]
Patrick stifled back a gasp as Southern Bell dragged him down to take cover. Despite the bite of annoyance, he wasn’t going to risk revealing himself just to be petty. They shared a brief glance and Patrick knew that as soon as those fuckers rounded the corner, they were dead. Dead with what?
He patted his utility belt. Hammer, wire, knife, razors from yesterday... Damn, he wished he had that guitar right now. How satisfying would that be? He might have to acquire a weapon, which was an easy task once the first was down for the count.
A scream. One wounded.
Patrick felt the adrenaline building in his chest. The anticipation of the thrill made his knee ache to bounce. Nolan stood, pulled back the axe- [i his] axe and [i squelch].
The hammer stylishly flipped in his hand before he swung it into the ear canal of axe face’s comrad. It stuck and Patrick wretched the man down into the ground, climbing over him to retrieve the idiot’s weapon of choice. The shovel. His favorite.
Flipping back his hood, he ducked just in time as the pistol went off and cursed. [i In the dark, shooting a gun?!] Patrick held the handle firmly as he swung at a pretty blonde, slamming the arm then shoving the shovel’s point right under the chin. The smile seemed to glue on his face, intoxicated with the power to end a man’s life.
He withdrew just in time for another brute to dive, slamming him down to earth with a slight bump to his skull. He shut his eyes, raising his shovel in protection till the dizziness passed. Patrick blinked, twisting his vision as the brute crawled over him. He lifted his leg, his knee finding the balls he was looking for. The man howled and he twisted, catching sight of Nolan just across the way.
Nolan’s mouth was agape, his eyes fluttering... He was going to die.
[i Leave him, behind you.]
Patrick swung blindly, catching the nut-busted square in the face as if he had just hit a home run. He breathed heavily, turning back to the chain wielder. If Nolan was dead, he could claim the loot.
[i And die a peaceful night alone with the good stuff.]
If Nolan was alive, he’d have to owe him.
[i Maybe more than a glass of moonshine.]
He smiled. He wondered what a life was actually worth...
Patrick had crossed the space faster then the man could lift Nolan’s body as a shield. He swung for the neck, throwing the guy into the side of the cabin. His grip loosened on the chain and Patrick kicked aside Nolan’s body to roll him out of the way.
[i Two hands.]
He dropped the shovel, grabbed the man’s skull and smashed repeatedly till there was nothing but warm swishy bits running down the side of the cabin wall. He took a breath, feeling that euphoria rush over him as the blood dripped down his fingers.
Patrick didn’t know how long he stared at that wall but eventually a bird’s song brought him back to reality. He [i dragged] Southern Bell’s dead weight body to the foot of the porch. A pack of cigarettes slipped out of the pocket once he hulled the man to an upright-ish position. Shrugging, he dug further into the pocket finding a lighter and lit up his first cigarette in almost a year.
He could feel the blood seeping in his hair and he brushed it back as if it was styling gel. His cold gaze followed down to Nolan’s body as soon as he started to regain consciousness and laughed. “Oh Southern Bell. I think you owe me a bit of gratitude...” He inhaled the cigarette deeply, turning his gaze back to the gravel driveway, keeping an eye out for zombs in case their scuffle backfired.]]
[size14 The last thing Nolan saw before the darkness clouded his sight was Brutus rooted to the spot, looking between him and his attacker. Nolan’s heartbeat in his ears slowed to an almost painful thumping as if to count the seconds. Brutus still hadn’t moved by the time the shadows covered his vision.
In his half-consciousness, he felt his body jerk sideways. The chain around his neck came loose, but he couldn’t remember how to breathe. Someone rolled him over, interrupting any effort he might have put into filling his lungs. The wheezing that escaped him was hardly enough to bring enough oxygen to his brain to make him function again, but just enough to keep him alive for the next few minutes.
He was only vaguely aware of being dragged and maneuvered like a ragdoll. It was only when he was being propped up that his lungs finally remembered what their job was and he pulled in a sharp, deep breath, causing a coughing fit. He wheezed and tried his best to gain control over his body again, finally able to bring a hand up to his neck. He would have bruises there for a week. He’d be lucky if his windpipe wasn’t damaged.
He heard laughing next to him and glanced up as he continued to spit and cough. The rat was holding [i his] pack of cigarettes. [i His] lighter. And he didn’t even have the strength to do anything about it. “Oh Southern Bell. I think you owe me a bit of gratitude…”
Nolan stood up awkwardly, grabbing onto the railing of the porch and looking far older than he actually was. His beathing sounded odd, but at least he was breathing at all. His rib was cracked and it shot pain through his whole body, but it would heal. He looked at Brutus smoking his cigarette, covered in blood. Beside him, a gorey mess decorated the side of the cabin and a corpse of a man with no head left to speak of beneath it holding one end of a chain.
Nolan reached over with a shaky hand, taking Brutus’s cigarette. In any other instance this might have seemed like a threatening move a man might take to prove his dominance over another he hardly knew. But in this case, Nolan could hardly breathe, let alone look threatening. He could hardly function enough to breathe. He was acting on impulse and self-preservation.
He brought the cigarette to his lips and took one long drag. His throat wheezed through it, but he didn’t cough again. In front of them, two beings came stumbling through the tree line, investigating the sound of gunfire. The undead were joined by others and Nolan knew he wouldn’t have it in him to fight anything else. He let the smoke go, then handed the cigarette back to Brutus.
“I told you,” he said hoarsely. “No nicknames.” He turned towards the cabin and opened the door. It was reinforced well enough that the zombies wouldn’t be able to get inside. Hopefully they would just eat the dead and move on. He opened the door and turned back towards Brutus. He could leave him out here. Forget the whole thing. But Nolan knew he would never forgive himself. It didn’t matter if it was for selfish reasons or not. Brutus saved his damn life.
“Come on, then,” he said and nodded his head towards the inside of the cabin. He couldn’t believe he was letting this monster inside…
When Brutus was in, Nolan closed the door and latched it before adding bars for reinforcement. When the cabin was secure, he rounded on his guest. “Don’t touch anything. I gotta disarm some traps so you don’t lose a limb.” His voice came out more as a whisper than anything. His adams apple bobbed as it tried to reestablish its place in his throat. He coughed some more as he went through the house, disarming the traps he left for unwanted intruders. It was only when he was finished that he allowed himself to collapse on the sofa in the living room.
By now they could hear the shuffling of a large group of undead outside. One of their attackers must not have been completely dead because there was quite a bit of screaming before he was silenced. Several of the zombies were pressing themselves up against the wood siding and Nolan realized it was where Brutus must have bashed his assailant’s head against the wall. They were fighting each other to lick up the last drops of brains scattered against the wood.
“Why do I keep getting stuck in buildings with you?” Nolan grumbled. His voice was a little stronger this time. Maybe he would heal from it after all.
At least they had food this time. They would be able to last a long time should they need to. Or want to. Nolan had more than enough hidden away here.
Nolan winced at his rib as he adjusted himself on the couch. He kept remembering Brutus standing there, watching him die. He had hesitated. He weighed his options. The worst part is Nolan couldn't even blame him.
"You still got that rabbit?" he asked him, expecting the answer to be no. But who knew.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost To his surprise, Southern Bell reached down and plucked the cigarette from his fingers. Had Nolan not just been wheezing and coughing, he would have assumed this was a rude gesture but the fucker took a long drag out of the nicotine stick and handed it back to him. After a pause, he finally spoke... and it was about the fucking nickname.
Patrick smirked, sucking the smoke back into his lungs as he watched Nolan climb the few steps up to the front door and swing it open. He nodded his head. “Come on, then.”
The cigarette nearly fell out of his mouth. He’d saved lives before but none were dumb enough to invite [i him] into their camp or safehouse. Either Southern Bell had some small inkling trust in him or the idiot had a concussion.
Patrick wiped the dirt off his pants and stood, waving briefly to the shamblers before entering into the warm cabin. He paused in the entryway, narrowing his eyes briefly as Nolan passed, ready to attack in case this was some kind of trap... but it wasn’t. The old man shuffled around, disarming all the hazardous security. He sounded rough too, apparent that the chain had played its part in the fight.
Only when Nolan collapsed on the couch did Patrick let his guard slowly down. Urg, he didn’t like being in enclosed spaces with people. He’d have to keep a lid shut on the rambing he usually did when he was nervous. Can’t show weakness in another man’s camp.
He took another long drag before putting out the bud in an ashtray on a side table. His boots clomped heavily as he crossed the small space and took a seat in an armchair. The sounds of the undead clambering brought a smile to his face but the feeling was quickly cut short.
“Fuck,” he sighed, sinking into the chair. “Of course the first thing on your mind after I save your life is the fucking rabbit.” He raised his dark eyes to Southern Bell. “How about our situation? I don’t trust you and you obviously don’t trust me.” He gestured in the other’s direction. “How old are you anyway?”
Nolan was looking like a man in his early forties dying on a couch. Granted it was obvious he was injured but it was still important to him in the grand scheme of things. “You think the zombs are just going to hang around for that long? I can’t stay here all day, Nolan.” The thought of being trapped made him sick.]]
[size14 The answer he received was just what he expected it to be. He met Brutus’s gaze, letting him rant a little from his place in the armchair. It gave him an odd feeling. Nolan didn’t meet people’s eyes much anymore unless he was intimidating them. He used to. Before everything went to shit. But he was realizing now that he had been purposefully avoiding the younger man’s gaze for some time. Usually they were too busy, anyway. Looking at him now made him uneasy.
He thought about the man’s crushed head against the wall. Nolan had been brutal before. When everything first went down, after Lizzy and Charlotte… He lost it. That was his first descent from man into monster. But after he made those devils pay he became more numb than anything. Now he killed just to survive. He hadn’t been that brutal about it unless he had to be. And something in Brutus’s eyes told him he didn’t have to be. He wanted to be. [i At least the name makes sense now.]
Nolan didn’t answer him at first when he asked about his age. He remembered Brady getting like this sometimes and the best thing to do was simply sit back and wait for the kettle to stop screaming. At least then they could talk rationally. He remembered being stuck in that storage room together. Brutus was talkative then, too. Angry. When he continued it became even more apparent that he was anxious about being locked up together. Or at all.
“I can’t stay here all day, Nolan.” At least he used his name this time.
“Why? You got an appointment to keep?” he asked him flatly. “I ain’t stoppin’ you from leavin’. But it sounds like there’s about two dozen of them out there and it would be stupid to risk a fight when we’re perfectly safe right here with plenty of food and water. So just try to relax.”
As if to reiterate his point there was a loud thump against the front of the cabin as two zombies got into a tussle over a corpse. Nolan pointed to the kitchen. “I got plenty of that moonshine if you need to take the edge off. Help yourself to some food.”
He stood up slowly, grunting. He started to walk down the hallway, holding his rib, but stopped and turned towards his guest. “Why don’t you guess how old I am. I’m interested to see how insulting you’ll be.” He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the hallway.
Something he learned with Brady was that distractions were often key. He was aware there was a brashness and an almost playful challenge to this approach that Brutus hadn’t seen from him yet, but he was willing to try anything to make sure the kid didn’t lose his cool in his home.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Patrick rolled his eyes at Nolan’s comment, adjusting himself further into the cushions of the chair. He fiddled with a frayed edge, twisting the string between his stained fingers as Southern Bell continued to sell the safety of the cabin. As if to reiterate his point, a tussle between zombs banged against the wall outside.
Patrick pursed his lips and wondered cautiously about the broad man across the room. Sure, maybe he was being friendly because they were stuck here or maybe the injury had him feeling weak and less inclined to put up a front. The thought made him feel slightly safer. He was possibly the strongest one in the room.
Southern Bell pointed to the kitchen. “I got plenty of that moonshine if you need to take the edge off. Help yourself to some food.”
Patrick felt the saliva pool in his mouth. Food [i and] alcohol? Not too shabby for the price of life.
[i You know how I feel about day drinking.]
Patrick stood with Nolan almost impatiently, awkwardly waiting as the other shuffled over to the hallway. He felt the smile creep up again at Nolan’s question. “I wanna say...” he rubbed the edge of his chin. “Late thirties.”
His boots were heavy across the wood, casually squeezing beside the Southern Bell and lifting his hands. “I’ll take that drink but I need to rinse off these fingers.”
Taking the brief directions, he boldly patted Nolan’s bicep and stepped into the bathroom. He dipped a towel in the small pool of water in the sink, rubbing his hands clean. He glanced up into the mirror and frowned. Wow, he looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Patrick leaned in, studying his angular face before deciding it was best not to keep the host waiting... especially for vanity.
His reentry wasn’t subtle and fell heavily into the seat beside the petite dining table. “So was I close to the age? You wear your years like a fine wine but if you want me to be further insulting I can certainly do that too.”
God, it’d been months since he talked to another person so casually let alone be slightly forward in the process. He hoped that wasn’t as off putting for Southern Bell. Patrick wasn’t exactly impatient to rejoin the undead outside before he got a good buzz off the secret stash of moonshine. The need was starting to grow again.]]
[size14 Nolan watched his guest get up and join him in the hallway. Was he a little close for comfort or had it just been that long since Nolan shared space with someone he even remotely trusted? He wouldn’t have put his life in Rusty’s hands and while he knew Brutus had hesitated and likely only saved him to get something in return, he at least had that going for him.
Once again, Nolan was noticing things about the younger man he hadn’t before. His dark eyes were nearly level with his own, but he stood so defiantly he felt like they were the same height. The circles under his eyes were so dark Nolan had to wonder about his sleeping habits.
Brutus guessed his age. Nolan felt the makings of a smirk on his lips. Any observer might not even notice the change, but it had been so long since Nolan grinned that it felt like a beacon to him.
“Bathroom’s on the right. Put some fresh water out recently,” he said and looked down at the hand that patted his arm before it disappeared. He shook his head. Damn rat was getting far too comfortable already, but he supposed it was better than whatever had been going on in that storage room.
When Brutus returned he walked over to the dining table and fell into one of the old wooden seats. Was he going to make Nolan serve him, too? He was surprised he wasn’t searching every cabinet for himself. That’s what he had expected and frankly, what he had hoped. Nolan’s throat ached and his rib was screaming at him. The last thing he wanted to do was cater.
Still, he hated how nice it felt to have someone to talk to. He slowly walked into the kitchen, keeping a hand on his side. Defeated, he pulled out some glasses, the moonshine, some water for himself, and some canned peaches they could share. They could break out the meat later if they needed to.
“So was I close to the age? You wear your years like a fine wine but if you want me to be further insulting I can certainly do that too.”
Nolan set the items down on the table and sat across from him. A soft bark of laughter actually managed to escape him. He sure hadn’t been expecting a compliment. He poured Brutus a glass of moonshine and handed it over while shaking his head in amusement. [i Well, there goes your whole purely stoic thing.]
“No, that’s alright. You’ve caught me off guard, enough,” he began, taking a sip of his water before stabbing a peach slice with a fork. “This ‘fine wine’ is forty-two. And feels every year of it, even if he doesn’t show it.” He winced, straightening his ribs. “Although, I’m showin’ it right now,” he muttered, more to himself. He put the peach in his mouth and chewed for a moment before pointing the fork across the table at Brutus. “What about you, hm? You even old enough to drink?”
Nolan knew he was. He guessed mid to late twenties. But he’d been poked and prodded by the little rat so much he was itching to do the same.
[i Your mask is slipping,] he told himself as he ate another peach slice.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost The younger man felt a tinge of guilt watching Nolan shuffle around the small kitchen. Sure, he could have done it himself but it just felt strange rummaging through someone else’s cabinets when they were standing right there. Guilt? That was an emotion he hadn’t felt in a long time.
This feeling dissipated instantly however when the glass and jug were set upon the small table, Southern Bell taking his seat across from him. Then he laughed, utterly startling Patrick where his muscles instantly tensed. He raised an eyebrow, taking the glass passed to him. So... he was more than a desensitized survivor. Cautiously, he wondered what other things the broad man was hiding under that robot facade. It could be fun chipping away at it.
“So you are a human man,” Patrick mused, swallowing half the glass of burning liquid. Oh yeah. He felt much better already. “You’re in your prime, I’d say.” He fiddled with the fork in his free hand, waiting a little longer before stabbing a peach. “I’m twenty-five. Nearly half your age and probably half the experience too.”
He chuckled softly. “Old enough to drink.” [i Been hooked for a while.] Patrick glanced down at the glass in his hand, envying that he didn’t have moonshine back at his place. Homemade stuff was definitely better than the shelf shit. He could already feel the lack of breakfast aiding the brain into its buzzy lull.
“You grow up in the south, Southern Bell, or somewhere in the plains? It’s hard to ignore that...” He twirled his fork in Nolan’s direction. “That macho, I’m a tough man persona. Not that it's off putting.” Kinda sexy in an annoying kind of way.
Patrick could see that the pair of them were radically different. How they were sitting across from each other having a casual conversation was intriguing to him. He finished his drink, letting his shoulders relax for the first time since he got here. ]]
[size14 [i Human man.] Nolan almost laughed again. He sure didn’t feel like it most days. On his best days he felt no better than the living dead. [i In my prime? Now I know he’s pulling my leg.]
Nolan watched him stab a peach. So he’d been right about his age. It was hard to tell with those dark circles. He hadn’t been expecting Brutus to humble himself, though. He assumed it was hard enough to ask for help with hunting, but then again, he had been a great student, so maybe he had the wrong read on him. “You seem to be doin’ alright,” Nolan said softly.
There was a short silence as he regarded him. Getting a read on Brutus was much like trying to read a foreign language. One moment he was sure the rat was going to kill him. The next he was perfectly happy eating peaches together and paying him compliments. What’s more, Nolan knew harmless flirting when he heard it. What a strange feeling. Stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock being murder and the hard place being attraction. Strangely enough it reminded him of a bully he had in the seventh grade.
Brutus was the first to break the silence, surprising him yet again. Nolan decided that in order to keep the peace they had going at the moment, he wouldn’t call him out for the nickname this time, no matter how much it irked him. Oddly enough, the mild flirtations almost made up for it.
“Texas,” Nolan replied, tapping his fork against the table. “Hard to not be infected with it down there.” He remembered his father’s old ways of thinking. His hostile masculinity. He supposed it was coming in handy now, even if he was far from his father’s son. “Though it never really stuck. Moved over the state line into Arkansas when I refused to take over the family farm. If you think I’m bad you shoulda seen my father,” Nolan said, letting out a breathy chuckle.
He lifted his eyes to look at Brutus again. He was already giving away too much information, but it had been so long since he had spoken to anyone about anything other than life and death.
“What mosh pit did you crawl out of, anyway? You from around here?”
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Texas. That was the typical answer he would have guessed but at least he wasn’t an entire stereotype. He popped another peach. “The accent is not that bad,” he mused. “I’m just glad that my assumption of you being a farm boy was just a figment of my imagination.”
Patrick smirked at Southern Bell’s follow up question, amused that he was hitting the personality traits right on the nose. “I’m not from here,” he answered, pouring himself another glass of liquid gold. “Nevada. The place where every night’s a party.”
He raised his gaze to study the man, wondering just how Arkansas decided he wanted to be in Colorado of all places. He was from the country and this rocky state could get pretty “big” city here. “Mosied on down from Nevada to check out A.Z. and hated it so I’ve made my way north and found a place here.”
Patrick lowered his gaze back down to the cup, wondering if sharing any more information was an ill idea. He was the one who lied about his name. Why should he share anything?
[i Because it’s the end of the world and a lonely mind goes to dark places.]
But people who knew too much always used that information as a weapon. He didn’t know Nolan but it sure wouldn’t help Patrick if he fed into his addiction at a strangers dining table. Though... he guessed... so what if Southern Bell was going to kill him? It was fun to poke the bear.
“Don’t feel the need to share just cause I’m nosey,” he smirked. “Not much else to do when we’re stuck in the same cabin.” [i I mean, I could think of a few things.] But then they’d have to break off the rest of the lessons. “I’d ask [i what] you’re doing here but I’m sure you’ll bring back Mr. Stoic and I ain’t much a fan of him.”
His gaze stared blankly at the cabinets lining the kitchen. “We don’t have to talk anymore. I don’t have anything interesting to share.”
[i He doesn’t want you here anyway and you know it.] ]]
[size14 Nolan knew that he and Brutus were far from similar, but it was becoming glaringly obvious now. Not only were they made of completely different stuff, but they came from completely different worlds, too. Nolan had never even been to Nevada or Arizona.
Nolan got the sense that Brutus was more of a nomad and loner than he ever was. Nolan always had Charlotte. She didn’t always agree with him and she certainly didn’t want to move away from Texas, but she did what was best for Lizzy. He always tried his best to do the same, too. And meeting Brady in Arkansas changed everything. He was always surrounded by people he loved. He wondered if Brutus could say the same.
[i Brutus,] Nolan wanted to scoff. He couldn’t bring himself to say it. Not that he had to. They felt like the last two people alive. Still, he knew it was a lie the kid used to protect himself. What the hell had he been through?
Nolan leaned back in the chair, letting his eyes light upon his guest again as he spoke. His smirk was the devil’s grin and Nolan had been seduced by less in his youth. He returned it, shaking the thought from his head. [i Mr. Stoic] was at least better than any other nickname he’d been given so far.
Brutus was right, though. It wouldn’t be a fun conversation for either of them. His smile fell and his eyes glanced back up.
“Sure you do,” Nolan said. “You saved my life and you want somethin’ in return. We’ve already established we operate in deals. So do you wanna cash it in now or later?” Nolan’s friendly nature was mostly gone now, but he was by no means threatening. He knew it was best to stop beating around the bush and get to it. He was already teaching him how to hunt. What more could he want? The rest of his shit? His camp? A blow like he offered him when they made their first deal? Brutus was so unpredictable, he really had no idea what to expect.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Patrick raised an eyebrow at Nolan, bringing the cup to his lips as he mused silently on it. He wondered what the limits of such a deed were worth to the man since everyone had a different idea of the value of mortality.
“Cash it now... cash it later...” He was beginning to flow on the buzz from the moonshine and honestly felt that if he suggested [i anything] that Nolan would actually agree with it. Which was honestly, no fun. He looked at the glass. Well, he could ask for this if nothing came out of the conversation.
Patrick licked his lips. “What do [i you] think a life is worth? What would you ask for?” He tilted his head slightly, the black hair falling out of its blood gel from earlier. He studied Southern Bell from across the table, noting the chiseled features and rugged beard of someone who lived in the apocalypse without a care.
Hm, these thoughts were getting out of hand. He shouldn’t humor them should his mouth become too loose with the hard drink.]]
[size14 As Brutus pondered, Nolan drained his glass of water then poured himself some of the moonshine deciding that perhaps he would need some of the liquid courage after all, if only to get him through whatever Brutus asked of him. He finished half the glass before looking at him again.
Nolan should have known this wasn’t going to be easy or simple. He felt his eyes on him, even through the shroud of black hair. There was a weight to their gaze and suddenly he felt like he was under a microscope. He returned their look as he took another drink.
What [i would] he ask for? He wasn’t sure he could answer that. If not for the unique circumstances of their meeting, Nolan would have probably tried to kill Brutus. Nolan didn’t save people anymore. He would never be in the position Brutus was in to begin with. After a long silence, Nolan set his glass down.
“Nothin’, I guess,” he said. He kept his eyes on Brutus’s, swirling his glass in his hand. “But I ain’t really the one to ask. You see, I came here to say goodbye to someone. And when I’m done, I plan on shooting myself.” Nolan spoke so smoothly, so nonchalantly, as if he were talking about the weather or how the peaches tasted. There wasn’t even the ounce of angst one would expect from someone admitting they were going to commit suicide. He didn’t know what compelled him. He had never said it aloud before. He dropped his gaze and took another sip.
“So I wouldn’t really need anything. I’ll be dead in a week, anyway.” He paused and looked back up at Brutus. “I could give you all my things when I’m gone. The bunker of moonshine, the weapons, the cabin. Is that worth my life even though I plan on ending it so soon?” He sounded like a man closing a car deal. "And I'll finish teachin' you to hunt, so don't you worry about that."
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Patrick didn’t know what kind of answer he was expecting. Maybe security, weapons. Surely a man who enjoyed his own company would want to keep it that way... but that wasn’t it at all. In fact, he wanted to erase himself from the picture completely. Yeah... he’d been thinking about it too.
[i Remember when [i Le- ✵꛵꘍؟ζ] Socrates killed himself? He was always thinking too much. Overwhelmed himself with the problems of the world that he decided he didn’t want to live in it anymore. Suited him. It’s much better without him anyway.]
Patrick felt the drop in his stomach. Why was killing people easier than hearing someone else kill themselves? He knew his name. He knew where he came from. He knew what the inside of his cabin looked like. When Patrick killed, it was on his terms, his choice, his burden to carry. He made that decision they didn’t have to in this fucking sick world.
Socrates didn’t have to die.
[i Yeah, but you know how I feel about you too.]
He let his gaze pull away from Nolan back to the kitchen cabinets. He finished his drink, ready to just fuck it and get drunk here anyway. What was left to live for anyway? What the hell was he even doing? Sure, he liked being free in this world but for what? To get black out drunk every night and do it over and over again. The nightmare still feels real.
“Should have let you die,” he said finally. “Feels like I wasted a magic wish or something.” Patrick turned and poured himself a third glass. He wasn’t feeling the pleasantries anymore, almost felt like being back in his own cabin where the life was sucked out of the room and there was only him. Nolan was only a temporary reprieve from the day to day.
[i What exactly did you expect?]
He chuckled. “I don’t know what I was expecting. Maybe I thought you were on a righteous mission to find some lost loved one or bury someone you knew. That’s too bad. Disappointing even. I thought you’d be better than me.”
Patrick stood, stretching slightly. “But hey, why make a huge spectacle of it? Plenty of suicide oppurtunuties just right outside the fucking door.” He shouldn’t have known his name. He shouldn’t have said anything.
He took the glass and made his way back to the living room, falling heavily back onto the arm chair. [i Why am I such a fucking corward?] ]]
[size14 Nolan didn’t know what he expected. Perhaps feigned indifference. Brutus didn’t seem like one to care much about where Nolan ended up, how [i or] why. His sudden change in tone and demeanor made him regret saying anything at all. Now he had to fix this. [i Dammit.]
He watched Brutus pour himself another glass. The liquid disappeared soon after and was followed by some rather insensitive words. Nolan could have bitten back with the classic [i I never asked you to save me], but that would just be counterproductive. He also wasn’t a genie that could hand out wishes, that was for sure. Instead, he waited for the words to slow.
Brutus wasn’t finished. His words hit home. Not because they were true, but because he had misread the entire situation. Nolan had a habit of being vague to protect himself. But perhaps that wasn’t the move, here.
“I thought you’d be better than me.” The statement surprised him. He assumed Brutus was beyond moral character. But maybe there was still a piece of him that longed for a bit of humanity, just like him? “But hey, why make a huge spectacle of it? Plenty of suicide opportunities just right outside the fucking door.”
Nolan kept his eyes on his glass as his guest stood up and circled back around to the chair in the living room. He couldn’t quite understand why he was so bitter about Nolan’s choice to end his own life. It’s not like they knew each other well enough for him to be upset about him in particular. Unless he had just begun to attach some kind of morality to Nolan that he didn’t quite deserve.
“I am,” Nolan said, a little stronger than his usual speaking voice, just to establish that he wasn’t going to take any more of this. Brutus had no fucking right guilting him out of a decision he had made almost a year ago now. “I [i am] going to bury someone.”
Nolan forced himself to be calm. As much as he wanted to shove his grief in this punk’s face to prove a point, he knew it would only come back and bite him in the ass. So he took a deep breath instead, winced at the pain, then stood and took his place back on the couch.
“I wouldn’t call it righteous,” he said, softer now. “He died before the world ended and I told him I would spread his ashes at his favorite spot. He had to choose up a fuckin’ mountain. I’m trying my best to get him there, but if I die before I can, then I die. And if I get him there, then I’ll finally complete what I set out to do, and I don’t see much else point of livin’. Not without him or… Anyone else I’ve lost.” He paused a long moment, picking at a nail. “But I won’t kill myself until I say goodbye. And maybe that’s just my brain’s stupid way of convincing me to stay alive, I dunno.”
His eyes rose and locked with those behind the curtain of black hair. “But I ain’t gonna sit here and listen to you judge me for my choices. I just offered you everything I own. What more do you want from me? To stay alive? Kick it with you for the rest of our unnatural days? Be your personal chef? After you hesitate to save my life, now you want me to give it to you?” Nolan sounded surprisingly calm, even to himself. He wondered if perhaps there was a part of him that wasn’t ready to die yet. Maybe he wanted to hear the words.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Patrick listened as he sunk deeper into the chair, trying to calm the sense of morality that had come over him with the liquid in the glass. He offended Nolan. He could see it written across his face despite how hard he was fighting to control his temper. He didn’t care. He [i shouldn’t] care. People he loved died all the time from much less impressive means.
“Do whatever the hell you want, Southern Bell.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “You shouldn’t really care what [i I] think about your sob story. I’m a footnote in your...” He gestured in Nolan’s direction. “Epic tale of self destruction.” Oh, that was good. He should write that down.
“I don’t want anything from you that I couldn’t take later. You admitted to a stranger- a murder- that you’ve got nothing to live for.” Patrick shrugged. “What the hell do I say to that in ‘polite’ conversation? Sorry bud? We’ve all lost people. Sorry you don’t have the balls to stick it out anyway?”
Patrick wondered if he should stop while he was ahead. He was already feeling tipsy enough that his mouth would keep running if he let it... but his mind went into that creative bit where it sometimes lingered in the middle of the night. And... talking made him feel like he wasn’t going insane. “You know, I think shooting yourself is too easy. I always imagined just a hoard.” He made a gesture with his hands indicating something large. “You know dozens of zombs. I would be like, I dunno, two- three stories up and just fall right into them. All the teeth, all the pulling and mangling. It would be fucking painful.”
He mused for a second. “But hey, you do you. Spread those ashes, bite that gun. Don’t let a kid tell you what you can and cannot do [i especially] if he hesitated on saving your life. No decent humans are left anymore. I get it.”
Caesar had finally quieted in his head. [i That’s a relief. Now to get through this conversation.] Nolan obviously wasn’t going to listen to a plea of ‘oh no, it’ll get better’ bullshit. Maybe acting like it [i was] normal was the best thing to do. ]]
[size14 As Nolan listened to the long-winded, angsty rebuttal he actually felt an amused grin come to his face. He could tell Brutus wanted some of the words to sting, or at least he wanted to sound like he didn't care. But Nolan knew if that were the case he would metaphorically back into the shadows as silently as [i he] had when it was time for Rusty to die. So the smile lingered on his face.
He waited, as patient as they come, for Brutus to finish. It was cute that he thought Nolan would seek his approval for his end-of-life plan. Nolan thought about putting him in his place. It was Brutus after all who pulled the information out of him. Brutus who hinted at wanting Nolan to be moral. But he got the sense that the kid needed to feel like he had the upper hand right about now, so he kept those thoughts to himself.
Again, he was reminded of Brady's drunken arguments. In the beginning they would go around in circles. Often he would forget his initial point and trample all over it when he came back around. Nolan would try to point it out to him, but it only made him angrier. That's when Nolan realized all Brady wanted was somewhere to put his anger. So Nolan would sit in silence and wait. In the following years, Brady felt heard enough to get a hold on his addiction. Nolan wondered if that's all Brutus wanted right now. In a world where they were forced to go it alone, what were the chances that he was just mad at everything, not just Nolan?
When silence took the room again, Nolan looked back at Brutus and let it hang for another few moments. Then he said, "All done?" The words should have been rude, but the way he said them was strangely gentle. He gave a curt nod. "I'll leave when we're finished hunting. I'll disarm all the traps before I do so you don't accidentally set one off. I'll leave a detailed map of where they all are and how to set them for yourself."
Nolan didn't care what Brutus thought of his plan. It shouldn't bother him that he would prefer a hoard tearing him apart to a bullet in the head. But it did.
Nolan thought back to that night a year ago to steel himself as he often did when he felt himself going soft. That monster was still inside him and he could bring him back out whenever he wanted to. He pictured their faces. Every one of them was burned into his memory. Mangled and grotesque from what he had done to them. Because of what they did.
He looked at Brutus. He tried to imagine torturing him, too. But he couldn't. All he could imagine now was a sweet release and a forest floor to catch the brains he'd scatter across them. His own, this time.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost It didn’t work. It didn’t fucking work. Be against suicide? Be for suicide? Nolan didn’t want any of that bullshit. He didn’t want to hear anything he had to say about it. Just a simple nod would have done it. Patrick was an idiot. He read the entire situation wrong and got himself hung up over a complete stranger.
Nolan just reiterated it.
“Fine,” he said, turning in the armchair so that his feet dangled off the armrest. He finished off drink and set the glass on the floor. The zombies were still thumping at the walls, soothing his swimming mind into a quiet lull that he always searched for. He pulled the hood back over his head and laid his head against the back of the cushion.
As he closed his eyes, he imagined Southern Bell walking up a mountain, shotgun slung over his shoulder. He would walk to the edge of a cliff side, throw the ashes of his friend into the wind and then settle the barrel underneath his chin. Southern Bell was on a journey that led to self destruction which reminded him of another sad Greek myth.
Patrick smiled to himself. Why did his brain get stuck with Romans and Greeks anyway?
At some point he managed to doze off, arising from his nap at around 4:30pm according to his watch. The thumping had stopped. Patrick rubbed his eyes and turned, looking for the other man in case he was waiting for his uninvited guest to leave instead of free loading in his camp. He flipped his legs back around, feeling the buzz still sitting in the back of his skull. “Nolan?” ]]
[size14 Nolan could tell that something still didn’t sit right with Brutus. Whether that was Nolan’s own life plan (which was frankly none of his business), the way he handled the situation, or the fact he was still stuck in this house, he couldn’t quite tell. He watched him make himself comfortable, slinging himself sideways in the chair and pulling his hood over his face as if to close off any further discussion.
Nolan had to admit he was relieved. He didn’t exactly have it in him to fight, which is why he avoided it in the first place. When Brutus closed his eyes, Nolan stood up and went to the bathroom. When he looked in the mirror he realized he still had blood on his face and in his beard, so he washed it away. The red mark around his neck was already turning purple and it looked worse than he even imagined. After taking some painkillers, he shuffled across the hall to his room to change out of the blood-spattered shirt. Among the other scars he gained from the past year alone another bruise was growing over his broken rib. He winced as he pulled a new shirt on and buttoned it over his broad chest.
He spent the next few hours in the bunker with a pad of paper and a pen, cataloging everything he had to his name. He didn’t feel the need to babysit Brutus upstairs, especially after he spotted him sleeping. It was a wonder he survived so long with such a weak sense of aspiration.
[i That’s your father talking.]
Nolan packed up everything he thought he might need for the trip up the mountain in one bag. He had been preparing for this for a long time. Longer than was necessary. Then Rusty appeared and Nolan felt a sense of obligation to see him safe somewhere until it became clear that he was more of an anchor than anything.
When Nolan returned to the living room Brutus was still asleep. The noise had stopped outside, so he crossed over to the window and peaked between the blinds. It never failed to amaze him how quickly these monsters could consume human flesh. All that remained of the men they had killed were a few hunks of meat and the blood-soaked ground. He checked a few of the other windows and it appeared that the hoard had moved on. There were only a couple stragglers, gnawing at leftover legs or heads of the dead. Not wanting to get another shirt bloody, Nolan retrieved his compound bow and stepped outside, shutting the door quietly behind him so he didn’t wake his guest.
After killing the three remaining zombies and retrieving his arrows, he collected the bodies and the leftovers and hauled them to his campfire around back. The trees overhead kept the smoke from giving away his location to anyone else as he burned the bodies. He didn’t want them to attract any more undead and he certainly didn’t want them rotting away outside.
When it was clear they would burn well on their own, he returned to the cabin and stepped inside, pulling down the kerchief he had tied over his nose and mouth to keep out the nauseating smell of burning flesh. Brutus looked like he just woke up.
“Good nap, Sleeping Beauty?” Nolan asked, crossing over into the kitchen to dampen a cloth and start washing his bloodied arrows.
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost Southern Bell came in through the front door to his surprise, pulling down his makeshift mask. It appeared he had found some time from the last they spoke to find a change of clothes and clean up. Made him wonder how unsightly he looked in comparison- not that it mattered to Nolan any bit.
“Hey,” he replied bristling at the nickname. “I’m going to call it. I’ll meet you tomorrow for our last day of lessons.” Patrick dug in his pockets and tossed the pack of cigarettes and the lighter on the side table before leaving without another glance at the broad shouldered man.
He shut the door behind him and sighed gratefully. [i Out in the open again.] Patrick stood alone on the porch for a minute before taking the steps down. He rounded around the side of the cabin, studying the blood soaked spots and a small fire going in the distance. Hm. He’d never take the time to go that far with disposing of the undead.
The walk back to his cabin wasn’t as treacherously long with his mind occupied and the buzz flowing it along. Patrick didn’t want to put too much effort towards the Southern Bell anymore but he knew perfectly well that he couldn’t survive on a single day of lessons. Today was lost so he’d have to make the most of tomorrow and keep his mouth shut.
Caesar seemed to be in full swing this morning after hours of drunken silence. He wondered, if psychiatrists still existed, if he would be deemed ill- not that murder wasn’t a red flag already. Funny how the apocalypse seemed to excuse every sin when there were very few of them left.
Stifling a yawn, the young man waited for Nolan outside by the bench, chewing on a pack of very stale crackers. One thing was for sure, Patrick was greatly looking forward to the food inside the dead man’s house. [i Maybe once I’ve exhausted that...]
[size14 Nolan saw the small twitch in Brutus’s demeanor at the nickname. [i Oh, so you can dish it, but you can’t take it.] He couldn’t help a small smirk as he nodded at the response. Without another word he watched the younger man leave before stepping from his work and over to the side table to take back his cigarettes with thoughtful slowness. If he was trying to make him feel guilty, it was working. If he wasn’t… well then he was feeling guilty anyway.
He thought about smoking one, but only got as far as the door before tossing them back down on the coffee table. “Just one more day,” he reminded himself.
The next day arrived too quickly, as it always did. Nolan dragged himself out of bed, filled his belly, and headed outside to find his protege in his usual place.
“Let’s hope today goes better,” he said, handing Brutus his compound bow.
The day was long. The cool breeze helped cool their sweat. Brutus handled the bow surprisingly well and got used to the tension faster than Nolan imagined he would. Despite his lack of diet, he knew he wasn’t just skin and bones under there.
After he managed to hit the makeshift targets, they moved on to prey. He taught him the difference between the small game arrows and the normal ones. Since they didn’t need another entire deer, he had Brutus shoot a few smaller animals. It wasn’t long before Brutus could skin and prep a rabbit on his own.
Nolan fed him again one last time, offering him a good amount of meat and water. He didn’t want to offer him too much moonshine too late in the day. The sun was going down and the last thing he wanted was to be responsible for his dull senses.
“Everything worth anything nowadays is in the cellar,” Nolan said out of the blue as they ate. “The padlock code is 318.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. “I’ll, uh… I’ll be gone in the mornin’. I’ll leave the truck, as promised. But I might take some of the gas to fill up a ride. At least to get me to the trail head. That, my pistol, and my rifle are all I’m taking. The rest is yours.”
He stood up from the picnic table and extended his hand. “Thanks. For savin’ my life and all.”
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost The lessons with Nolan proceeded as if he was sitting in a high school classroom. Patrick’s hands were moving, eyes responding, but his mind was elsewhere. Listening to Caesar scratching at the back of his mind with every action, every perfect shot not even close to good enough. Small creatures impaled by the last of his arrows all twitching to Caesar’s great pleasure. He was always a bit of a sick fuck but Patrick wasn’t sure he was strong enough to fight back today. [i Tired.]
At some point, they returned to the cabin for the last time as a pair and surprisingly, Nolan was feeling soft enough to feed him again despite their tension from yesterday. Patrick ate quietly with small regard to the lack of alcohol on the table. He listened with a single eyebrow raised, noting the information the broad man shared seemingly out of nowhere... making very clear his intentions for tomorrow once again.
Patrick straightened his posture as Nolan stood, holding out his hand as if he was doing Patrick some huge favor by offering him some kind of closure to their brief relationship. Who shook hands anymore? What were they- fifty?
Regardless of the morbid circumstances, the young man smirked, lifting his own hand to take Nolan’s and push it into a fist. Then he bumped it with his own.
[i You’re so fucking cliche.]
“Hope your aim is true,” he said.
Patrick blinked, staring at the dirt stained floor of the cabin. He felt like shit... more than he usually did. He rolled over onto his back, biting his lip as he felt cool air brush over the new incisions on his left arm. He must have passed out after the last one with how sticky the floor felt.
Begrudgingly, Patrick pushed himself off the hardwood, kicking away the discarded knife and shuffled over to the kitchen to rinse off. He supposed he should figure out what’s next. He didn’t feel comfortable raiding the dead man’s house till later in the afternoon so he’d have to wait it out till then. Too early to drink? Possibly. He glanced at the watch on the counter, reading just past ten am. Nolan was probably dead by now.
[i Lucky for him. We have the world to ourselves again.]
[i Myself,] he corrected. [i I have it to myself.]
Changing out of his soiled clothes and lacing his boots, Patrick unlatched the door and stood staring down the overgrown pathway that led to the cabin. There was a bit of frost still left over from last night which gave away the sloppy bit of footprints rounding about the house. A zombie this far out? What are they migrating in the fall now?
Taking a long swig from the flask in his jacket pocket, he stepped back to retrieve his shovel and started scoping the perimeter. Maybe a good murder was what he needed to feel better anyway.]]
[size14 As Nolan laid his head down to sleep for the very last time, he tried his best to forget all about his recent guest. Brutus. It was probably for the best that he never learned his real name. He closed his eyes and remembered the way the little bastard turned his hand shake into a fist bump. [i Hope your aim is true.] Was that supposed to be comforting or goading? What a dick.
Sleep claimed him far too easily for a man who was going to kill himself in a matter of hours. Perhaps the fact he had been planning it for so long put him at ease. In the morning, he rose like it was any other day. He rinsed his face and changed into fresh clothes. He didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if he wanted to look good for some god he was about to meet.
He went about tidying the place up for Brutus. He lined everything up on the counters, poured new water in the bowl in the bathroom, and checked on the drying meat. When all that was finished, he grabbed his bag and left the cabin. The action was nonchalant, yet held finality. He would not be coming back.
He rounded his old truck. His father’s truck. After grabbing one of the containers with gas, he made his way over to one of the other old cars in the drive to replace the gas he had originally siphoned from it. When he was ready, he looked up at the nearby peak.
He had originally chosen this cabin because it was close to his final destination. Nolan was just glad that Brady had chosen a mountain he could drive part way up. He was exhausted. The entire detour with not only Rusty but with Brutus as well had him ready to get this over with as quickly as possible.
When he got to the trailhead, he set off at an easy pace. The sun was only just starting to warm the air around him. The previous night had been the coldest yet. The gravel under his feet took him back to his regular hiking trips with Brady. They had never made it out this far. Brady grew up out here and had always wanted to show Nolan, but by the time they were making plans for things bigger and better, Brady was wasting away in the hospital.
Every step Nolan took was another day he relived. Brady’s crooked smirk. Charlotte convincing Nolan to take a fucking chance for once in his life. The three disastrous dates that followed. The three amazing nights that kept them from calling it off… Brady’s alcoholism. Nolan’s pleas to get help. Driving him to AA. The happiness he found after sobriety. Introducing him to Lizzy. The first time she called Brady her uncle like she knew he was going to be around for a long time. When she got him into cooking, so much so that Nolan couldn’t go a day without a healthy, home cooked meal. Brady in hospital. Brady losing weight. Brady telling him to love again. Nolan telling him that was impossible.
The ring weighing heavy in his pocket.
The urn weighing heavy in his backpack.
The emptiness. The emptiness. [i The emptiness.]
His boots met wood steps. When had he reached the summit? His eyes had been downcast the entire time, watching his footing. Had that been how he lived his entire life? Too focused on his next steps to enjoy the view?
He looked up and was greeted with blue sky, sparse clouds, and the rolling mountains and valleys. He couldn’t find his breath as he climbed the couple of stairs to stand on a balcony over an outcropping. He could see the small town he had come from. It looked like a town for ants, now. The road that spanned through the center looked more like a river flowing through in one direction, the asphalt catching the morning sun.
Nolan slipped off his backpack and knelt beside it. Safely packed away was the fist-sized urn with Brady’s ashes inside. The rest of him was at his grave, per his parents request. Brady hadn’t wanted any of his ashes in some graveyard. He didn’t want his burned body to be split up like this. But his parents had more control over his body than Nolan did, unfortunately. If only he had asked him to marry him sooner.
“I’m sorry it took so long,” he said to the urn. “I had to take care of the girls and then the world ended.”
He pressed his lips to the lid before unscrewing it and leaned over the railing. Vertigo took hold and made his head spin as he looked down into rocks and trees.
Nolan upturned the urn and flung the ashes as far as he could. He watched them rain down to the earth below. He was grateful Brady had been cremated. He wasn’t sure he could handle the thought that his decaying corpse was out there, clawing at a casket, trying to get out of a fucking grave.
When the urn was empty he let it go, too. It went tumbling down the rocks below and Nolan realized his cheeks were wet. His knees buckled and he grabbed the railing, lowering himself down as the grief washed over him in one massive wave he had not allowed himself to feel since Brady’s passing. He had had to look after Charlotte and Lizzy. He couldn’t afford to break. But now they were gone, too. All because of this new world.
What did he have to live for? All his life, Nolan had felt needed in one way or another. Alone, he had no purpose.
He reached for his pistol and checked the chamber. He was oddly calm for someone about to blow his brains out. He aimed the gun upward into the roof of his mouth. [i Brady. Charlotte. Lizzy.]
He closed his eyes tightly, but the last image he saw was imprinted in his mind. That glinting asphalt road and its blinding reflection of the sun interrupted by the hoard making its way toward town. Nolan’s eyes flew open and he removed the gun from his mouth. [i Why should I care?]
[i Brutus is down there. And if he hated waking up early to train, he’s probably still asleep. He has no idea.]
Damn his conscious.
Nolan put the gun back into his mouth and closed his eyes again. It wasn’t his responsibility. It wasn’t his job to save the damn rat. [i Let him die like you let Rusty die. You’ve done worse.] He squeezed his eyes closed. His finger twitched on the trigger.
He held his breath.
“Dammit!” The gun was gone again and Nolan was getting to his feet.
[i You can always kill yourself later.]
Being here, at the end of it all, knowing that both Brady and Lizzy would have wanted Nolan to do the right thing was too much for him to take. Damn them both. He flung the bag around his shoulder before he began to book it back down the trail towards the car. He assumed he had probably another hour before the hoard got to the heart of town. That’s about how long it would take him to get there. The only problem is that he wasn’t sure where Brutus was. With any luck, he might have already moved into Nolan’s place. If not, he was going to have to get creative in alerting him.
Maybe he could die a hero’s death. Two birds, one stone.
He tossed his bag into the car and threw it in drive before making his way back down the mountain at a dangerous speed. The curves were easy enough for him to handle in the small car and when he met treeline and lost sight of the town, he only became more determined to achieve his new goal.
[i His new goal.]
Could it be that he didn’t want to die after all? Had he only used Brady’s ashes as an excuse to feel some kind of purpose when all meaning to life was gone?
[google-font https://fonts.googleapis.com/css?family=Jost] [size15 [Jost The tip of the shovel was wedged perfectly into the zombie’s neck in a way that made Patrick pause in admiration. He stared as it squirmed, gripping at the dirt to no avail and gurgling through its salvia. He put the arch of his boot down on the metal and pushed, popping the head off expertly. The body twitched but after a few seconds went still.
Patrick leaned against the side of the cabin, taking another drink as he studied the zombie mildly. Rarely did they shuffle in singles anymore and he was fairly confident that more were scattered about near the cabin. Some idiot must have set off an alarm or something overnight to have the zombs back in this rural part of town.
Screwing the cap back onto the flask softly, he carefully listened, making his way back to the porch and down the pathway. On cue, three shamblers banged softly on the neighboring homes. Three were nothing compared to the hoards in Arizona but just as he finished bashing the last head, he looked upon the street horizon and saw dozens more emerging silhouetted against the pale sun.
Panic wasn’t a feeling Patrick felt often but he knew never to doubt that instinct. He booked it back up the incline, ignoring the strain in his muscles as he approached the cabin. He threw open the door and scanned the room for his pack, throwing in everything he could for the few minutes allotted to him. The knife by the couch, the full bottles of liquor and the pills from the medicine cabinet. He’d have to try and make it to the dead man’s place. That home was certainly more fortified than his was to keep him safe from a horde tsunami. He’d been in one of these only one other time and then he nearly starved.
Patrick grabbed the guitar, happy it wasn’t going to waste after all, and hurried as fast as he could across the few blocks to the empty estate. The shamblers were coming in faster now, alerted to the fresh meat sprinting across the neighborhood streets.
He gripped the shovel and swung, teeth cracking as the zomb stumbled back. At least for now, there weren’t any abnormals. No Mother Russia’s. No Olympians. No Boot Munchers.
The young man approached the gravel driveway, cursing under his breath. At this rate, the few closest were going to catch up. While he was skilled enough to hold his own, they did have strength in numbers... and the gun on his hip was all but useless.
Patrick turned, slamming the tip of the shovel into the gravel and pulling off the guitar, holding it like a bat.
[i Come on, babe. What are you waiting for?]
He swung, cracking the instrument across a zomb’s face into a another and crushing the stem into a spine.
[i What are you waiting for! Let them take you!]
“Shut up!” he yelled, shoveling more black blood across the dirt.
[i Join me, you fucking coward!]
“Shut up!” He removed the pistol from his hip and began firing, moving slowly up the incline to the sanctity of the cabin.
[i You’re not going to make it.]
He shook his head, angry tears on the verge of his vision. [i I’m not going to make it.] ]]
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