BROTHERS IN SOLITUDE (c) Anthony S. Buoni 2016
To catch up:
No movements inside the truck or store.
Chad brushed his hand against the cold butt of the revolver. He'd put down plenty of rots since the outbreak's onset—killing wasn't killing when the targets were already dead. But he'd never pulled fired at another living person. Taking a life would cost his soul.
Drake swore under his breath.
"Let's get out of here." Chad stood. "It's not worth it."
Drake grabbed his brother's arm, pulling him back. "We're not going anywhere."
Chad, rubbing his arm, forgot Drake's strength. "If they're packing, startling them could get us tagged. We need to split."
"That's our store. If we let them rob it blind, there will be nothing left for us." Drake's words neared a growl, fire in his eyes glinted in the moonlight.
Chad's clammy palms found the revolver again. He had never seen his brother so tense and angry. "You think we should call out to them?"
Drake shook his head. "We don't know anything about these people. Can you see the thing from the fishing bridge yet?"
"You need glasses." The road behind them remained calm, still. "No, it's still too far back."
"Good. Looks like these guys have been humping it for a while. Their bed is filled with boxes, gas cans, and water jugs."
"Screw the lighter fluid. We can come back tomorrow night."
"I think I see someone in there."
Shadows shifted inside the store.
Chad's muscles tensed.
Run, run, run.
Drake drew his revolver, rose from behind the car, and pointed it at the store.
Chad hated feeling like a defenseless child. Drake always took control of the situation—something primal and unspoken about being the older brother forced him to react first, but Chad could hold his own. He jumped up behind his brother.
"Anybody in there?" Drake called out, stepping towards the door.
The truck's driver-side door opened, and a lanky, young woman with curly, dark hair cut short leapt out. Her pale skin almost glowed against her black sweater.
Chad could not remember anyone more beautiful.
She held her empty hands high above her head—she didn't appear much older than Drake. "Stop. We're looking for a place to crash. We're exhausted."
A silver cross dangled from a chain around her neck.
"How many people are with you?" Chad's voice cracked, shortchanging his intended toughness.
"Just me and my husband. We're from the Atlanta area, from a community called Ambertown."
Chad and Drake exchanged a glance. Whenever restless, Chad studied road maps and plotted possible escape routes from Port Wallace. Ambertown didn't strike any chords.
"Please. Don't shoot. We're good Christians in bad shape. We almost didn't make it out of Tallahassee."
Drake lowered his gun and exhaled.
The woman lowered her arms.
Chad's heart pounded. Blood roared in his ears.
"God bless you both. We're looking for a fortified city somewhere along the Gulf Coast," she said. "Slover. Ever heard of it?"
"No," Drake said. "There were rumors about safe zones when the outbreak began."
"What Rumors?" she asked.
"TV and radio had a lot to say back then. All communications went down a long time ago. As far as we know, nothing survived. You're the first living person we've seen in months."
A balding man wearing a black leather jacket and armed with a sawed-off shotgun flew out from the store, clearing the trash barrel with a graceful leap. He stepped between the brothers and the truck.
"Get away from her," he shouted.
Drake and Chad raised their guns.
"Tom, wait," the woman yelled. "It doesn't have to be like this. Honey, put your gun down. We can talk."
Chad's grip tightened around the trigger. Cursing the queen of hearts, he wished they had stayed in and played another game.
"Please, Tom. Stop."
Tom lowered the shotgun. "All right. All right. Let's play this easy."
Tom joined the woman, placing an arm around her waist above a large hunting knife sheathed in her belt. Red dirt covered the bottom of her blue jeans, as if they'd been wading in the muddy clay ubiquitous to Northwest Florida.
"Are you all right?" Tom rubbed her hip, his glare never leaving the brothers.
Tom looked to the sky. "Praise Jesus and the new dawn."
"Everybody cool?" asked Drake, still aiming at the couple.
"We don't mean any harm," Tom said. "I've lowered my piece. Your turn."
Chad lowered his weapon, tapping Drake on his back. "Ease off, man."
Drake slacked his gun.
"We need someplace to lay our heads. Thought we might be able to secure that broken door and pass some time."
"Not much left of those windows," said Drake. "If a handful of the dead figured out that you were in there, it wouldn't take much for them to come crashing in. Why don't you move along; pretend this didn't happen."
Chad envied Drake's endless cool. Where did he learn to be so goddamned smooth?
"Listen, kid," Tom said. "I've been awake for two days."
"That's not our problem," Drake said.
"Please. You're the first people we've seen since we hit the roads. It's bad out there. We found the rescue station at Fort Habel abandoned, and Tallahassee is swarming with reanimates. If you've got a place we can catch some Zs, even for one night, we'd appreciate it."
Other survivors meant trouble. The last one they encountered tried knifing Drake in a house on Mystic Lane. Drake had watched the lone man for two weeks as he looted their neighborhood before attempting contact, thinking they could make friends and trade supplies. Negotiations did not go well.
In the distance, staggering figure slowly approached, its footsteps dragging on the gravel echoed down Cappo Drive.
"Look." Chad pointed. "We've got company."
Tom chuckled. "Only one of them?"
"One is enough," said Drake.
"If you can't take care of one little slog on your own, I'll handle it." Tom rubbed the graying stubble dotting his chin.
Drake spit. "We can handle a whole army of those things."
"It's better to save ammo." Chad placed an arm on Drake's shoulder. This was no time for a pissing contest. "The noise will draw them out of the woodwork, and we like our privacy. My name is Chad. This is my brother, Drake."
"I respect where you're coming from." Tom tucked his shotgun in the truck. "Privacy is a good thing to have. The name's Tom, and this is Felix. My wife. We need sanctuary. We can trade supplies for a night or two's rest. Food, propane, gas—whatever you two need."
Drake holstered his piece.
"Once we catch our breath, we'll be on our way," Tom said.
As the approaching rot neared, its labored groans and tedious footsteps grew louder. Thorny vines clung to its swimming trunks and tie dyed T-shirt while an orange life preserver dangled from its arm. Bone protruded from its twisted right leg.
Chad ignored the death lugging itself closer.
He'd seen far worse.
Tom stood, open-palmed. "What do ya say, boys?"
Maybe it was the way Tom interacted with Felix, but something about the couple filled Chad with hope. They couldn't blindly trust the travelers; however, the crucifix she wore and their gratefulness to God eased his nerves. Meeting them also opened new possibilities. There was no telling what kind of supplies they could trade. If they were from a community, it meant others were pushing through the plague, too.
What did they knew about the rest of the world?
And where was Slover?
When Drake looked at him for an opinion, Chad nodded his head, hoping he hadn't made the biggest mistake of his life.
"All right, mister," Drake said, "we have a flat just a couple of blocks from here. If you need a place to catch your breath for a couple of days, we can put you up, but we want some kick downs."
The couple grabbed each other. Wordless oceans passed between them.
"Thank you," Felix said. "Like I said, Tallahassee was a disaster. Tom's uncle didn't make it."
Tom lowered his head and made the sign of the cross.
The rot reached the edge of the parking lot. Reaching out with crooked, chewed-up fingers, its mouth opened into a gurgling hiss.
"Load up in your truck and follow us." Drake motioned his head towards Swim Trunks. "It's feeling a little crowded out here."
Tom and Felix climbed inside the truck's cab and scooted over towards the passenger side, shutting the door. When Tom turned on the headlights, they illuminated three more approaching reanimates. The one in the middle, a woman in a tattered sundress, recoiled as the lights flashed across her red and yellow eyes.
"I hope you're right about this," Chad said.
Swim Trunks gurgled as it reached the opposite end of the Chevy.
Drake picked up his bike and hopped on. "Ready?"
"You could call it that."
Drake peddled around the car and stopped several feet away from the hungry ghoul. The creature turned and stumbled a few steps towards him, nearly losing its balance. Chad rode past it, and the brothers steered towards the fishing bridge, the truck following slowly behind.
After entering the neighborhood, the headlights cancelled the darkness shrouding Bearden Circle, eliminating the possibility of anything leaping out at them from the shadows.
Chad relaxed on the road for the first time in two years. Even though the newcomers might bring a bucketful of danger, the extra numbers of heartbeats offered casual safety.
Could more people be the key to some sort of permanent sense of security?
Drake motioned with his hand before they turned right on Lister, leading the tuck several blocks to their boarded-up house. Holding up a balled fist, Drake halted the truck in front of Old Lady Scott's house.
Tom rolled down the window and flicked on the cab's interior light. "This the place?"
"No," said Drake. "Before we take you in, we're going to need something to show you're serious about our trade."
"Fair enough." Tom reached around in the cab and produced two boxes of shells. "These should open the door."
Drake took them, inspecting the bullets.
"Fair enough. Our spot is near, but we want to make it seem like there's nothing going on in front of our house. Once we get on top of this roof, we'll use a system of ladders to cross from building to building. Pull the truck in the driveway and lock up. It's been deserted around here, so no one will mess with it."
"Can I bring my gun?" Tom asked.
Drake thought a moment. "One gun. As a sign of our good faith. But keep it on ice. I don’t want to see the motherfucker unless shit goes down."
"Do you two live alone?" asked Felix from the passenger seat. Her arched eyebrows and intoxicating brown velvet gaze sparked deep in his chest.
Chad, embarrassed for staring, focused on his sneakers. "We're the only ones living in there."
After parking, Tom shut off the truck and got out, offering a hand to Felix and helping her exit the cab. Tom whispered in Felix's ear before the two headed over.
Drake and tied the hemp ropes to their beach cruisers' frames as their guests pulled two sleeping bags and three large backpacks from the truck bed.
"We climb up here?" asked Tom.
"Yeah," Drake said. "The ropes are sturdy. See?"
He hoisted himself up and scaled the wall effortlessly, crawling onto the roof. After pulling up his bike, he tossed the rope back down. Tom tossed him the sleeping bags and two of the backpacks, slipping a large green bag over his shoulder.
"After you," Chad told Tom. "I'll make sure we’re clear while you get up."
"No." Tom pulled his wife forward. "Felix first. Lord knows, she needs to be safe before I make the climb."
Felix placed a hand on Chad's arm. "Help me up?"
"No problem." Chad's cheeks warmed. Thankful for the shadows, he handed Felix the rope. "Just tie it around your waist and Drake will hoist you up."
Tom nosed between Chad and Felix. "I'll help her."
Felix tied the rope above her belt and tugged. Tom stood behind her, placing his hands on her hips.
"I'll push." he said. "Just hold on."
She kissed his cheek.
When she reached the top, Drake helped her on the roof before tossing the rope back down. Tom and Chad climbed up together. Tom's agility and speed impressed Chad.
"Not bad," said Drake as Chad pulled up his bike and rested it by the chimney.
"I'm part of Ambertown protection," Tom said as he pulled up the rope and tossed it next to the boys' bikes. The group gathered Tom and Felix's bags. "At least, I was before we left. We need to be in good shape in case any of us find ourselves in trouble. Sad to say, that happens more than I'd like to admit."
Felix hugged Tom.
"The ladder is over here." Chad led the couple to the other end of the roof. "We go one at a time."
After setting the ladder into position, Chad crawled to the mansard roof and held the ladder for Felix. They traded smiles as she made her way over the gap. After everyone crossed, they repeated the process to their roof.
Chad returned the ladder to its place in the pile and cracked his knuckles. As Drake opened the plywood hatch leading inside, Chad realized these two were the first outsiders to see their secret entranceway.
"This is it." Drake lowered himself into the attic and flicked on his flashlight. "Home, sweet home."
Tom and Felix followed.
Chad held up the rear, closing and latching the flap behind him.
Inside the attic, Drake stopped their guests. "Look, we need to get some things straight. The windows are boarded and reinforced, so don't mess with them—we don't want any weaknesses. That goes for the front and back doors too. The door leading into the garage doesn't open. We nailed it shut so we didn't have to worry about the automatic door coming down. It's better if they don't realize we're in here, so we also don’t like a lot of noise."
"We won't disrupt your home." Tom placed a hand over his heart. "God's truth."
Drake lowered the extending ladder and led the way through the darkness with his flashlight.
"There's a large guestroom at the far end of this hall—you can crash there," he said. "It has its own bathroom. Believe it or not, the water still runs."
"You still have running water but no electricity?" Tom asked.
"Yeah. It's cold, but you can get a shower if you'd like. I think there's shampoo and stuff under the sink."
Tom cleared his throat. "But how—"
Felix tugged Tom's sleeve. "We really appreciate it."
When Felix smiled, her entire face lit up. Chad couldn't help but smile back in the dark.
"Things are bad out there," Tom said. "I've come across survivors while patrolling the areas around Ambertown, and they aren't as classy as you kids."
Tom held out his hand.
Chad shook, admiring Tom's firm grip. It had been ages since he touched someone outside his family. "Truthfully, we haven't seen anyone else in a while. I was beginning to think we were alone in this world."
"There's a lot of people still living," Felix said.
"Yeah," Tom said, "But it's not pretty. We had to leave our home."
"I'm anxious to hear about it," Chad said.
"Tomorrow," said Drake. "They're tired, remember? We should call it for now; powwow when everyone wakes up."
Felix leaned her head on Tom's shoulder. "Sounds good."
"We'll tell you all about it once we get settled in."
Drake pointed the flashlight beam towards the guestroom.
"Oil lamps are in every room with matches next to them," he said. "There's also battery-powered lanterns, but try to save the juice. Here's a flashlight in case you need it."
Tom tucked the flashlight in his pocket.
"Thanks again. God Bless." Tom turned, leading Felix to their room.
When they shut the door, Drake motioned for Chad to follow him to his room. Inside, Drake pulled Chad close.
"Listen," he whispered in his brother's ear, "these two may be trouble. That Tom guy might cut our throats the first chance he gets. We need to be careful."
"If you're worried, why did you even invite them up?"
"It's not like we store all our supplies in this house. Other than our board games, some comics, and a little food, we've got nothing in here."
"We got batteries. flashlights and lanterns.""That's beside the point. They, on the other hand, had a lot of stuff in the truck. We need every bit of help we can get. Maybe they also know of a better place. We can't stay here forever, Chad."
"I know. It's getting harder to find things."
"If they do anything funny, I'll waste them."
Chad sighed. "You gonna kill them in our house?"
"If I have to." Drake looked towards a poster of a busty woman in a bikini holding up a bottle of light beer and stared through her as if he could see beyond the walls and into the guestroom.
"How did the old man wind up married to her?"
"I guess you can't be picky at the end of the world. Take shifts sleeping while they're here?"
"Yeah." Chad yawned. "Who sleeps first?"
"You. I'm wide awake. Make sure you lock your door."
"If they're cool, we can really learn from them. I can't wait to hear their stories."
"Yeah. Sure. But don't let your guard down."