BROTHERS IN SOLITUDE (c) Anthony S. Buoni
to catch up on the story:
Gasping, Chad sat up straight. He couldn't remember the nightmare, just fragments of clawing hands and jagged teeth snapping at his shielding arms.
Ever since the failed Megacenter raid, Chad hated sleep, the bad dreams it brought.
He his legs free from the sweat-soaked Empire Strikes Back bedsheets and pulled on a Bad Apple T-shirt, listening for any trace of their guests.
Waves crashing on the beach a few blocks away.
The normal, comforting sounds of the apocalypse.
When he unlocked and opened his bedroom door, fresh coffee seduced his nose.
The smell reminded him of Sunday mornings when Dad got up before everyone else and cooked deer sausage omelets from their hunting trips. By the time breakfast was ready, Mom would have the table set so they could eat together as a family. Little touches like rotating the dining room tablecloth so it matched the season were important to her. She made the brothers write thank you cards for every gift they received, and their clothes were always washed, folded, and tucked in their drawers when they needed them.
Chad never realized how lucky he was before the dead returned to life and ate the living.
Was he still?
In Drake's room, he found his brother on a wooden rocking chair, his head cockeyed on a red fuzzy pillow.
He'd fallen asleep despite taking first watch.
And left his door unlocked.
Chad shook his head and headed downstairs, lured by flickering lights and the rich coffee aroma.
The brothers had helped Dad board up the bottom floor of the house in the early days of the virus. The old man had nailed and screwed the house's doors, lumber from his garage workshop, the kitchen table, and mom's curio cabinets over every possible downstairs entrance, barricading his family from the outside world. Dad's craftsmanship paid off. Even when the occasional rot tried to get in, the barriers held true. On the downside, little light penetrated the home, even during the middle of the day, so they illuminated their lives with candles, lanterns, and glow sticks. Resources needing constant renewal.
Chad paused halfway down the stairwell—it wasn't too late to get a gun or knife for protection. The couple could be waiting for them to spring a trap and take over the house. Maybe…
He swallowed his fears.
Drake had insisted that they keep their guns stashed. It was only fair to leave his behind, too. If they were going to build a relationship with these survivors, they needed to trust them.
Maybe the universe would finally cut them a break.
In the living room, Several candles burned on the end table. Felix sat on Mom's plush recliner, holding a steaming coffee mug.
Chad's mouth watered at the intoxicating aroma.
Her face brightened when she noticed him.
"Morning," she whispered.
Felix's full lips and arched eyebrows reminded Chad of a classic Hollywood actress. Her grey sweatpants and a matching tank top showed off her curves. Braless, Chad fought to ignore her cleavage, the outline of her nipples pushing against the fabric.
"Morning. Smells wonderful."
"Want a cup?"
"That'd be great."
"We brought some food up with us last night." She lifted a steaming kettle from a propane burner and filled another mug, one of Dad's favorites from a local coffeehouse. "Mostly rations, but we also wanted to say thank you with some luxuries. We were surprised when you said you had running water. It's pretty rare nowadays. Shame that the power doesn't work."
"Got any hot chocolate?"
"Sadly, no. Sorry."
"It's all good. I had to ask." Chad accepted the drink. "We drank all of our cocoa a long time ago. The coffee around here didn't taste good after a while."
She handed him three sugar packets, two creamer cups, and a spoon. "Whole beans only last a few years, even if they are sealed. Instant coffee like this doesn't spoil."
He combined the ingredients with the dark liquid, stirring them together.
The brown liquid burnt the roof of his mouth. Delightful. The taste of a world long gone.
Chad sat across from her and positioned the mug in his lap. The ceramic, almost too hot, warmed his palms and legs.
"Did you get any sleep?" he asked.
"A little. I just couldn't keep my eyes closed anymore. Tom's going to be out of it for a while. He hasn't rested since we left Ambertown."
"When I get bored, I study maps, but I don't recognize the name."
"It was an indoor shopping mall, three stories tall." Felix held her hands up, illustrating the height before shifting in the recliner and crossing her legs. "Amber's Galleria. A group secured it and began taking in survivors. I came early on. My pops was a truck driver and heard about it on CB radio."
"We have one, but there hasn't been any chatter for a while. We gave up listening."
"There's a hand held in the truck. After passing through Enterprise, we stopped hearing Ambertown's patrols. Hasn't been any sign of life for miles."
"We haven’t seen anyone in long time." Chad didn't care to relate the encounter on Mystic Lane, the seizing terror when Drake shot the man as he charged with the serrated kitchen knife. "We were surprised to see your truck at the store."
"Have you two been on your own long?"
"Yeah, since our parents died." Chad's insides turned.
"My pops died when our people began fortifying the area around the mall. They made a wall of abandoned vehicles. Cars, trucks, school buses—you name it. We took whatever gas and supplies we could from them and began building. Pops was good behind the wheel. He was one of the few people in our group who could operate heavy machinery, so he always went out on those missions. One night he didn't come back."
Felix's eyes watered. She dabbed her tears with her fingers.
"He was a good man. He would do anything for anyone."
"How old are you?" Chad wanted to change the subject. Seeing her pain stirred emotions he wasn't comfortable with.
"Seventeen. I'll be Eighteen next September."
Surprised, Chad bit his tongue. Her husband looked much older.
"How about you?" Her eyes still watered.
"Sixteen. But I'm almost seventeen. Drake just turned eighteen." He sipped the coffee, savoring the flavor. "How many people are in Ambertown?"
"A hundred, give or take. Every year you gain some, you lose some. Lately we're gaining less and less though."
"Lots of people, fortified walls. Sounds like you guys had it pretty good up there. What made you come to Florida? Are you trying to reach out to other survivors?"
Felix fidgeted with the mug's handle, picking at an imperfection in the indigo paint. "It's a long story."
"I've got time."
"Tom thought it was best for both of us. Sometimes he has a quick temper, and he and the Serene Pupala had come to a disagreement. That riff drove us out."
"He's Ambertown's leader and spiritual anchor. He helped organize the community and keeps God in our lives."
"Like a priest?"
"Sort of. I don't know of many old world priests with the military training, but he definitely kicks ass and saves souls. Anyhow, even though we were getting by, we've had our share of ups and downs. We've been attacked by other survivors. We've dealt with internal power struggles, sickness, insanity. Tom wanted to move on before he lost me."
"Yeah. His time with me was up."
Chad didn’t understand. "You're not sick are you?"
"No, it's more complicated than that. Can we talk about something else? Do you have a working radio? I love music."
"We try to keep quiet in here. Besides, radios kill batteries. We have books."
"I like books. So long as they aren't scary."
"We've got all kinds of books. Mom was a hell of a reader. How about historical fiction?"
"Do you have any poetry?"
"Afraid not. If you like dragons and unicorns, I have some fantasy. Mom loved romance novels."
Felix chuckled. "It's OK, really. I'll survive."
"We've got board games." Chad stood and started for the stack of games beside the recliner. "Do you like Monopoly? How about chess?"
"It's insane, isn't it?"
"We're so awkward with basic conversation that we're racing to distract ourselves. I wonder if people who just met were as awkward before the masses went corpse."
"Probably. I was never great around new people. Drake is much better suited to entertain."
"Were you born here?"
"Yeah. Born and raised. Mom missed the Big City, but Dad loved boats and getting lost in the woods. He taught us how to fish and hunt early on. Guess it came in handy."
"Looks like it."
"I've never really been anywhere else," Chad said, a little embarrassed at the confession. "Other than vacations, that is."
"Trust me, you're not missing much. I tell you, it’s a goddamned fairy tale out there."
"What's so funny?" Tom asked from the stairs.
Felix stood up and rushed to Tom's side. "Hey, honey. Did you get enough rest?"
"Enough for now. What's going on down here?"
Chad wasn't sure, but the tone in Tom's words teetered on accusation. They were talking, nothing more, having a conversation that lowered his stupid guard.
He held his breath, lamenting not bringing a gun down.
He needed to trust.
"I had trouble sleeping." Felix hugged him. "Got up early and came down for some coffee. I used the boys' running water and refilled our containers. Chad just came down and joined me. I figured you'd be out for a while."
"Is that so?" Tom asked. A large knife hung from his belt. He looked Chad up and down. "And why is that?"
"I just—" She rubbed his neck. "I thought I'd let you rest. We went through so much, and—"
"We covered this when we left Ambertown. We're not safe out here. Anything can go wrong at any moment." He ran his fingers through her hair. "I can't let you out of my sight."
She pecked his lips.
"Tom, you know I can take care of myself. Sit down, have some coffee."
Chad hated that Drake was passed out. Damn him for crashing on watch. If their roles were reversed, Drake would never let him live down such a blunder.
A quick scan revealed how few defenses their living room possessed. They were totally unprepared for this situation, made complacent by their shelter. How could they have been so reckless?
Tom's eyes never wandered from Chad as he and Felix took a seat across from him.
She refilled her mug, mixed another cup of instant coffee, and handed it to him without adding milk or cream.
He sipped the steaming liquid.
"Thank you, babe. It's delicious."
She leaned in, resting her head on his shoulder. A loose tuff of hair fell in front of her eye.
"I need to repeat how much we appreciate this," Tom said. "I knew we started off on the wrong foot, guns pointed at each other and all, but I really am grateful for your hospitality. Thank you."
Chad raised his mug.
"How long have you been holed up in here?" Tom asked.
"Since it started. This is…was our parents' house. When the plague took them, we decided to stay."
"Did you board up the windows yourselves?"
"No. Mom and Dad were still alive when we went under lockdown. We did it as a family."
"It's amazing you two made it on your own. God has blessed you during this new dawn."
Chad fell silent. He didn't like talking about the early days of the virus. Mom's fear the night everything changed was still as red hot as the blood that poured from her fatal bite wound, before anyone knew that such injuries led to infection.
Please, Drake, saunter down the stairwell and steer the conversation to something lighter or more constructive. Drake was always the better talker, more at ease in a crowd.
If anything went wrong, Chad was outnumbered.
That knife. He'd have to get Tom's knife away from him first.
"Anyone want more coffee?" Felix asked.
Had she'd sensed his apprehension?
Play it cool. Handle the situation like Drake.
"That would be awesome." Chad realized that he was already feeling the effects of the first mug. Were his fears nothing more than a caffeine buzz?
He took a deep breath, settling his nerves.
Felix filled their mugs and passed around more sugars and creamers.
"Tell me about Ambertown. How can a mall support so many people?" Chad asked. "Seems like supplies would run out fast."
"Ambertown is big," Felix said. "We have a garden on the roof."
"Brilliant." Chad had never thought of growing on their roof. The neighbors' fruit trees and gardens still produced, so they had year-round access to oranges, peaches, pomegranates, figs, and pears. Wild blackberries were also common to the area during the spring and summer. Once in a while, the brothers would skin the purple fruit from the prickly pear cactus and eat it as a treat, but the more exotic fruits and vegetables like pineapple and mushrooms came from whatever cans they salvaged.
"You'd be surprised what a civilization leaves behind," Tom said. "There are a lot of grocery stores still loaded with goods."
Chad nodded. "We have a big one here, but it's infested."
"Is that so?" Tom rubbed his stubbly chin. "How are the waters here?"
"Fishing is good. We cast lines off the bridge by the Treasure Ship and a pier that juts out into the lagoon nearby. There's a state park on the point, and a lot of deer wander out, so we get to have venison often."
"Thank God those rotting bastards don't have a taste for animals. There's tons of game around Ambertown. Lots of good eating."
"If it's so damned great," Drake said as he joined them, "why did you leave?"
"Drake," said Chad, wondering how long his brother had been listening, "be nice."
"I'm being nice. I'm just having trouble understanding why they would give up security and community."
Drake joined his brother on their worn couch and crossed his arms.
Relief washed over chad. His brother needed more than fresh coffee to lower his guard. Had he already told Felix too much?
"The guy running things and I had a disagreement," Tom said. "Sometimes you realize it's best for everyone to pull up stakes and move on. I've heard rumors about Slover, another fortified community along the Gulf Coast. We thought we might try our luck somewhere else."
"I can't imagine leaving here." Chad patted the armrest. "This is home."
"If we had to run, we would," said Drake. "For now, we have what we need."
"Which brings us to business." Tom scooted forward. "We promised supplies for sanctuary, and I am a man of my word."
"What are you offering?" Drake asked. "And, more importantly, how long do you plan on staying?"
Drake knew how to hustle. Like luck, wheeling and dealing came naturally to him, the necessary skills ingrained deep in his DNA. Growing up, Chad watched him scam neighborhood kids out of their trading cards, comic books, action figures, and video games but never picked up on the conman impulse for himself. Material things weren't important to him back then.
Now they mattered even less.
"Felix, go upstairs and grab the bag."
"Which one?" she asked.
"The green one."
"It's a little heavy," she said. "I could use a hand."
"I'm talking business right now." Tom flicked his wrist. "You can handle it."
"I'll help." Chad stood. Might as well be a good host.
"Fine." Tom cleared his throat. "Looks like big brother is handling things anyway."
Chad cringed. He was just as important to the decision making process as Drake. Being reduced in the social standing rubbed him the wrong way, but he bit his tongue and trusted his brother. They'd have plenty to talk about as soon as they were alone.
Felix led the way upstairs. Though the second story lacked the lower floor's barricades, thick curtains prohibited daylight from pouring in and prevented their flashlights from being seen from the street after the dark.
He flipped on his light and followed her to the guestroom, unconsciously checking out her ass as she walked down the hall.
A flash of guilt washed over him, and he quickly shifted his gaze to the floor.
In the guestroom, Felix turned on a battery powered lantern sitting on the dresser. A photo of his parents standing outside an amusement park hung on the wall beside an old wooden crucifix. Memories of visiting relatives raced through Chad's mind, and he pushed them aside as he entered.
"I'm glad we got to talk earlier." She crossed over to the bed. "Tom usually doesn't let me be a part of the conversations."
"Why is that?"
"He's the alpha male type. Has to be in charge of everything."
"Sounds like Drake."
Felix picked up the large green bag beside the bed and handed it Chad. Surprised at its weight, he slung it over his shoulder, suppressing a grunt. She didn't need to think him weak.
"I'm still not sure about leaving Ambertown. It wasn't perfect, but at least there I felt safe."
"You're safe here."
They locked eyes. Something weird fluttered inside of his chest.
"Tom thinks I'm his property, but I'm not."
She gave him a card depicting a flaming cross interwoven with two roses and their thorny stems, a strange symbol connecting the crossbar's intersection. Writing filled the other side, but before he could read it, she closed his hand around the card.
"This is between me and you. No one has to know."
Confused, Chad stuffed the card in his pocket and followed her out of the guestroom, flipping off the lantern before shutting the door. Now he couldn't take his eyes off her as they descended the stairs and rejoined Drake and Tom in the living room.
"Took you long enough," Tom said.
"Here," Chad said, handing Tom the bag and praying the man couldn't smell the embarrassment on his face.
Tom set the bag in his lap and unzipped it.
"We're going to have company a few days," Drake said to Chad.