#SampleSunday – After The Virus, Chapter 2:
Over the next 12 weeks I will be sharing a chapter of my novel After The Virus each sunday. Warning: for coarse language and brutal content. This is a post-apocalyptic love story. I hope you enjoy getting a peek. Feedback is welcomed and appreciated. If you are so inclined, purchase links can be found on the side bar. – Meghan
He wasn’t too sure how many bodies he’d lifted onto the pyre, but he was damn sure they weren’t going to burn like well-aged firewood.
‘Course, he’d never burned a body before.
He didn’t count. Didn’t want to count. He’d done everything he could before he’d dealt with the bodies. Cleared the cars, boarded windows, even swept the main street.
There weren’t more than 30 houses in the township, but they’d been prolific people. The bodies of the children particularly bothered him.
He wasn’t one of them originally, but he thought they might have accepted him eventually despite the twang in his accent and his permanent tan.
He’d never know now — every last one of them was dead or, if there had been survivors, they hadn’t stuck around.
He didn’t mind the quiet.
His life before hadn’t been so labor intensive, though he’d painted his father’s house one summer during high school: brown with brown trim. It still bothered him, not using a contrast color for the trim; ‘course it didn’t much matter, who knew if the house was even still standing.
But he enjoyed feeling his muscles stretch under his skin. He felt powerful here; this town was something he could control among the chaos.
It was getting warmer, so he had had to deal with the bodies. He was pretty sure that “immune to the virus” didn’t mean immune to everything, and he wasn’t interested in dying because he’d been too much of a coward to clean.
He didn’t like to think about immunity, because that just brought up thoughts of self-worth and why he was still here when others weren’t.
Others. What a nothing of a word to use, even in his own head. People. People, who he’d never loved, couldn’t love, like they’d deserved.
He stopped shifting bodies. He’d tied them all, one by one, in sheets from the homes he found them in, hoping that they wouldn’t break apart too badly on the way to the fire. The back of the pickup was almost empty. It wasn’t time for a break, but he could feel the darkness pulling him.
He cracked a can of cola, Coke, of course, though he couldn’t really tell you the difference. The bubbles always somehow lightened his mood.
He’d spent months dwelling, wallowing in wretchedness, hopping from survivor group to survivor group, until all the dead had finally died.
All the wants, needs, and desires of all the other Immune, even though there were so few of them remaining, crowded and controlled his own.
He grew tired of not knowing which woman had crawled into his sleeping bag and, come morning, the tense grins from their chosen protectors. As far as he knew, he never impregnated any of them. Their need to breed when surrounded by death was almost instinctual, but it wasn’t his instinct. Their eyes grew dim and sunken as each month passed. Hunger gnawed more than bellies.
When spring made mountains passable, he’d moved on from the final group. He thought they’d been sorry to see him go, his able body and all.
He crushed the empty pop can, but placed it carefully in the blue bin in the truck bed; you never knew these days what you’d need tomorrow. Though he couldn’t quite figure what he’d need a crushed soda can for, making the world worse than it already was wasn’t his first choice.
Thinking of needs, he wouldn’t mind a bit of conversation and a welcomed warm body in his bed. He shook his head and shouldered a corpse.
He turned and saw the three men. Two had their rifles, casual, on their shoulders, but one, the stupid-looking one, of course, had it aimed.
He heaved the last body on to the pyre. They just watched. His own rifle was in the truck, feet away. Not that it mattered against three.
“Coke’s cold,“ he offered, as he removed his Dallas Stars baseball hat and wiped his forehead, all the while watching Stupid with the rifle.
“Lower that, ya redneck idiot,” the big, hairy one ordered, his laugh definitely forced around the edges. Stupid listened, begrudgingly.
“You’re long way from home, Tex,” Big said, as he presented his hand. A handshake would force him to step further away from his rifle.
Now I make out if they’re actually friendly or just aching to kill. The shake might tell me, but the eyes are a better bet. Neither did.
“I think them Stars might’ve had half a chance at the cup this year,” Big considered in a way that made it clear he wasn’t talking hockey.
“Fairies dancing ‘round on ice,” Stupid bulldozed over the underlying tension, “that ain’t no mind skill, now football, that’s like chess-”
“You didn’t clean this place just for yourself, did ya?” Big, ignoring Stupid, asked.
“Yep,” he replied, knowing they’d think him lying. “Not halfway through the bodies, but I started with the hotel,” he hoped they missed mattresses. Then he upped the ante: “Got a stove working.”
The quiet one, the one he was damn sure was the leader, spit and spoke, “Hot food and a soft bed is a fine offer for strangers, thank you.”
He turned, expecting them to follow, and picked up his rifle from the truck bed. He heard no bolt slide in response, so he continued round the back of the general store.
“You got marshmallows?” Stupid asked.
“For the bonfire?”
He chanced a look back at them — they, stone cold detached, kept pace. To see all the dead, all piled there, was more than a horrifying sight, but, obviously, not to them. He was in trouble, the dying kind.
He was going to have to add them to the pile.
Killing was easier imagined than done. In fact, except for some angel-of-mercy deals, he’d never actually killed a person or an animal. No matter that they’d eventually figured out The Infected never healed. No matter that the dying didn’t always want to go in a painful puddle of puke and piss. Euthanasia, self-defense — it’s all still murder. Maybe he didn’t like where this life had dragged him, killing and screaming, but he’d do it.
He turned the corner onto Main Street. They’d parked dirt-crusted motorcycles by the hotel, so staying, at least overnight, was a foregone conclusion.
He glanced over at the general store and was happy to see they hadn’t smashed the remaining windows.
“We aren’t looters,” Big supplied.
“Am tired of canned shit, wouldn’t mind some fresh meat, in more than one way, if you get my drift, hey Tex?” Stupid liked to blurt agenda.
“I never was much of a hunter, and couldn’t bring myself to kill if I caught anyway,” he answered as dubious looks passed between the three.
The motorcycles were well ridden, and he momentarily thought he was wrong about their intent to stay, but then he saw that the hotel door was ajar.
“Saw you loading the truck, couldn’t figure what you was doing, so we looked about a bit, before we came to how do you do,” Big offered.
Who was the stupid one now? Overly secure in his remote location he’d been blasting the truck stereo and hadn’t even heard the motorcycles, and now they’d pretty much cornered him.
“The town is on a well, so there’s showers, cold, but still,” he offered as he crossed the three-story hotel’s old-fashioned veranda.
The lobby was shuttered against the heat, and the gloom did little to illuminate the velvet and wood décor he’d so painstakingly restored.
They’d dumped gear here, and chose to only carry rifles to meet and assess him, but it wasn’t much, so maybe there were only three of them.
“Kitchen’s through there. You’ll find food. Stove works, like I said,” he directed.
“Don’t seem like you live here regular,” Big judged.
“Yeah, you running a bed & bang, Tex?” Stupid actually clapped him on the shoulder.
The dull air dropped degrees.
Stupid removed his hand.
“Stop crowding the man,“ Leader instructed. “He’s solicitous, not accustomed to the company of fools. A personal choice, am I right?”
“Sometimes I don’t understand nothing that comes outta your mouth,” Stupid whined and, in that breath, Leader backhanded him to his knees. Instantly, Stupid began to blubber and grovel.
Big stepped back to avoid eye contact and association.
Leader caressed the blade in his belt.
Don’t react — but — if they start killing each other, they aren’t going to stop there. So, compounding his idiocy and assuring doom, he spoke.
“Just oiled the floors,” he drawled.
Leader tensed his shoulders, clenched the hilt of his blade, but then he cackled, like an actual madwoman.
“You got yourself a bonfire to light, Tex. Take the bitch out of my sight, and put him to work,” Leader ordered, “otherwise he’s worthless.”
Big and Stupid looked confused by, and then wary of, this suggested separation. Not that he was pleased with being ordered around either. They hadn’t asked his name, hadn’t offered theirs; a sign of disassociation, so said his useless psych class, but now he was walking away-
He sensed the knife seconds before it would have severed his spine.
He dived onto his hands and kicked Stupid in the gut as the blade sliced his leg.
Rolling to his feet, he saw that Leader was on the veranda casually lighting a cigar.
Stupid, who’d lost his knife with his fall, charged.
Jesus, he thought, as Stupid slammed a shoulder into his rib cage, it’s a God damn game.
As proof, Stupid grunted, “…only room for three!”
As he struggled with Stupid, warm blood flooded his leg. Damn it! Did he slash an artery? Could someone bleed to death from a calf wound? Then he remembered; he’d never had had any damn idea what a damn artery looked like, let alone where the bloody Christ one was in the body.
Stupid, without his knife, wasn’t up for twelve rounds. He was mean, but skinny and a little slow. A piece of siding to the head took him down. Winded and light-headed from blood loss, he stared down at the board in his hand. Damn, now I’m going to have to re-board that window. Stupid groaned and rolled over on his back.
“To the death, Tex,“ Leader cheerfully suggested, “you want his place, you kill him for it.”
“Not interested in your sick game,” he spat. He probably shouldn’t have sneered while saying so, because Leader had that psychotic glint again.
“Allow me to make it perfectly clear: it’s you or him,” Leader warned. Stupid started to cry, not blubbering like before, but silent shaking. He tossed the piece of siding away.
Leader raised and cocked his rifle, “You going to die for a man who would have willingly killed you? We are the chosen ones in this revitalized, reborn world, but here a man has to step up, has to fight for his existence. Fight or die.”
Christ, he’s one of those, those messiah complexes.
“Listen, the world that left us behind wasn’t half bad,” he offered. “Why ruin the-“
“Kill him or I will; he’s worthless to me now. Why sacrifice yourself if he’s going to die anyway?” Leader argued. “Prove yourself and live.”
“Boss, maybe-” Big began to beg, but faltered as Leader turned dead eyes on him. Stupid still silently wept; tears eroded his aggression.
He couldn’t stand by and watch a man be killed. Being stupid wasn’t an executionable offense.
“None of us survived because we fought some war; we all lucked out. Now, it’s a big, empty world, so you go play your game somewhere else.” He was insane, gambling with his life, but words continued to flow from his freed mouth. ”You’re no second coming. You. Just. Lucked. Out.”
Leader, his lips stretched across his teeth, aimed. No way to miss this close, so he waited for the bullet to carve through his skull. He heard the shot before he ever felt it, which was wrong, wrong sense order, wasn’t it? Though maybe a brain had no feeling nerves.
Leader slumped away from the gun that Big still held to his temple. Stupid scrambled to his feet to supplicate himself around Big’s knees.
“I…I…,” Stupid stuttered, his words stopped up with emotion.
“I know, I know, you’re welcome. Now you go on ahead, move the body before it stains Tex’s patio,” Big cajoled.
“You won’t mind the extra on your pile o’ bodies, will ya, Tex?” Big grinned. “You got a nice place here, but we’ll be moving on tonight.”
Still struck dumb, he watched Stupid haul the body back towards the bonfire. “It’s safer, safer to, to travel at night,” he finally offered.
“Yup,” Big agreed as he crossed towards the motorcycles and, straddling one, he turned to say, ”they don’t make ‘em like you anymore, Tex.”
“My name is Will,” he offered.
“Well, Will, thanks for the morality lesson. We won’t be seeing you again.” Big drowned out his own laugh with the roar of his motorcycle.
He watched until he couldn’t catch a glimpse of them on the horizon, then he scrubbed the blood off the veranda while the pyre burned.