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— Excerpt from Malkoris’ Journal

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I really don’t know why she keeps doing it.

I used to be an artist. I was nobody noteworthy, nobody you’d ever have heard of, but I made a good enough living at it, and you might’ve seen my name in the credits of a computer game or the occasional TV show. You know what’s not useful in a post-apocalyptic zombie dystopia? Artists. At least, not my type of artist. Sure, musicians might still have some value in raising morale or driving emotions during a fight, or creating synchronicity between riflemen. Compelling artwork might be useful for propaganda, but I can paint the most cruel picture of a zombie out there and it’s not going to suddenly change anyone’s opinion about them, especially not the zombies.

“What the fuck is in this?” she demanded.

I rubbed gently at the bridge of my nose, pinching a little to try to ease the headache she was giving me, “Just drink it. It’s good for you.”

“Then you shouldn’t have any trouble telling me what the fuck it is,” she replied. Funny thing about her: She has the mouth of a mercenary. I swear, she thinks everyone’s as foul-mouthed as she is, too. As if the onset of the end of the world as we know it is rationale for everyone to start acting like barbarians. Then again, in a way she’s right.

I answered her, “Crushed up Tylenol, ice, raspberries, and blueberries. Fresh ones.”

“Doesn’t crushing Tylenol up make them less effective?” she asked.

I replied, “How would I know?” It’s not like I’m a doctor. That’s something we could really use. Beebles and I both know some first aid, but it’s hardly pharmacy or surgeon-grade.

She grunted and started slurping the drink down.

I winced, “You’re going to get—“

With a growl, she smacked her good hand up to her forehead, “Shit! Shit, shit, shit.” Yeah. I didn’t finish the sentence, since the brain freeze had already settled in. Instead, I sighed and started to work at bandaging up her injured hand. Next time, just strangely-flavored fruit juice for her, since she apparently can’t handle a smoothie.

“So where are you headed to, next?” I asked. I wanted to keep her mind off of the fruit. It’s good, local fruit, and I really didn’t want her asking where it came from.

“Back south,” she said, “over the border again.” As if there was still a border in place. Sure, the border crossing markers were there, but any real concept of nationality was only held in the minds of those who wanted it.

“Got a trade in a couple of days ago for a pair of nice shotguns,” I replied, “so make sure you take one.”

I saw her nod before having some more of the smoothie. She paused and looked at it suspiciously. Damnit. I knew those assholes didn’t get the berries legitimately, but I don’t care. I’m interested in keeping the four of us alive, keeping the four of us safe, keeping the four of us fed and clothed and free from raiders and scavengers. We can’t all live in the ivory tower she’s in. Some of us have to do the filth trudging, some of us have to flush the sewers, or the ivory tower gets backed up in shit.

“You don’t always have to go racing off, y’know,” I said, trying to redirect the fight before it arrived. I added, “You’ve put the word out there. Let other people deal with it.”

She glared at me. If you haven’t seen her glare, I suggest that you do. It’s a good way to put the zombies in perspective and realize that they just don’t have the imagination to truly torture a man the way an infuriated woman can.

She said, coldly, “Other people are helping. It’s not just me. And it’s got to be done. You know that.”

“Why?” I asked.

The glare continued. “People are dying,” she replied.

“No,” I said, “people are killing themselves with the deranged delusion that it’s a rational decision.”

I could actually see her nostrils flaring out as she says, “People are being tricked into killing themselves, into giving themselves over to a fate worse—“

I waved my hand, “—than death, yeah. I know. So let them. If they’re so stupid—“

Do you know what’s cold? Crushed Tylenol, raspberries, blueberries, and ice. It’s cold. It’s cold down your shirt, I’m sure, but colder still down your pants. She was storming out and away before I had a chance to get my pants off before my plums turned purple. She was back on a motorcycle and off down the broken road before I had a chance to apologize. “Fuck!” Why does she have to mother the entire fucking world? And then she had me talking like a wastleland barbarian. Great.

 

I can never decide how I feel about silence. As I laid there on my pallet, staring up at the ceiling overhead, there was silence around me… or, at least, as much as there ever is. I could hear the soft hum of the refrigerators running in the cafeteria, and a faint scrabbling of some rodentia somewhere in the walls. I could hear a soft pattering of rain against the ceiling and walls of the building.

Left with my thoughts, I could lay there and reflect on everything that had happened. I could think on the lost, the dead, the damned, the walkers. I could think on those who searched for loved ones, could think on those who searched for nothing. I could wonder about the mercenaries, the raiders, the rapists, and the crusaders, the defenders, the heroes; the filthy and the clean. I could reflect on the irony that those who are filthy often have fewer blemishes on the soul than those who are clean. I could think about her out there, risking her life day after day for people who would never know, who would never care, who may never even realize when she’s killed for her efforts. When no one is yelling, when no one is screaming, when there’s no clear, immediate problem, and when the course of action is ambiguous, the world settles in around you and there’s just nothing but the sounds in one’s own mind.

I can only hope that tomorrow I wake up to screaming.

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— Excerpt from Malkoris’ Journal

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“Trust me, it’s fresh,” he said. Why wouldn’t I trust him? No doubt the scar below his eye was from a zombie attack, not an infuriated trading partner who’d learned that his produce was drek.

I continued to poke around through the various crates and sacks, mostly ignoring his comment. It’s good to know what you’re getting in a trade but, more than that, I wanted a little more time to check out how interested he and his friends seemed to be in me. There were five of them. Five serious-looking, vile guys were sitting on a collection of Mad Max-grade vehicles, staring at me as I looked through the produce. Who the Hell thinks it’s a good idea to ride around on a dumbass, desert hopping dune buggy with corrugated metal welded to the side when you can just grab a proper SUV or a motorcycle or a freaking armored truck, if that’s what spins your prop?

“Brought it straight up from the Colony, it’s good,” he says, “but doesn’t mean your shit is. Come on. Let’s see it.”

It was possible, I guess, but unlikely that this came up direct from the Colony. They’re down in L.A. The produce that these asshats were trying to trade was primarily berries: Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries. There were some vegetables and the like in there, but I know what the Colony produces and I know what you can get near Terry Fox; this stuff was local. It wasn’t surprising that they didn’t want to admit it. These guys weren’t farmers.

I gestured for the guy to follow and said, “Have your guys bring it up to the side of the building. Come on, let me show you the goods.”

“Yeah,” he said, “how about we get your shit first. Then we’ll move this shit in.” Oh, the eloquence. Would you like shit with your shit? I don’t give a shit about this shit. What a shit that shit did shit! Just once, I want one of these Neolithic flatliners to spew out Stevenson or Dickens or someone similarly refined just for the raw surprise of it. At this point, I’d even be thrilled with some Tolkien or Asimov.

I could live a long time without hearing another stupid Martin quote, though. “When you play a game of thrones you win or you die” or “fear cuts deeper than swords.” Ugh. Just because something’s written down, it doesn’t become a masterpiece.

As we walked down the school’s labyrinth of lockers and stucco ceiling tiles, the sound of conversation in the distance echoed around. It’s impressive how the sound of just a few dozen people talking in one room can echo in a place like this. The long hallways, the metal lining the walls, the slightly bouncy, not quite perfectly flat linoleum of the floor, all combine together to create an unexpected acoustic magnificence… and a vaguely nauseating smell, sometimes. I really have no idea what’s in each of those lockers. We’ll get through them all eventually. So far, they’ve mostly been textbooks, backpacks, and marijuana. Anybody can grow weed. Backpacks trade well, but Chy’s got this thing about going through the lockers, says it’s one step removed from graverobbing and that we shouldn’t resort to it until we need to. I think it’s a stupid argument: We kill zombies and take what they have, on occasion, which is the same damn thing as graverobbing. Still. No reason to make waves.

“You got a lot of people holed up in this shithole?” he asked.

I shrugged, “Enough.”

“What,” he said, “like you’re overfull or some shit?”

What do you say to something like that? “Yeah,” I answered, “who isn’t?”

With a snort, he muttered out, “Yeah.” Thankfully, the conversation didn’t get too much further until I got him to the trade pile. I’d already pulled out what I was willing to trade if the food was good. It was good. Chy wasn’t going to like that the raiders had stolen it from a local farmer, but I also wasn’t about to tell her.

“Oh, shit,” he said, unsurprisingly, “yeah, that’s the shit we need. All of it, right?”

Nodding, I confirmed, “All of it.”

“Where’d you get this much of it?” It’s the type of question you don’t answer honestly.

So I didn’t: “Truck one of our scroungers found, just up around Mission. Lucky find.”

“I’ll say,” he said, patting one of the packages. He then gestured. Three of his five goons had followed him in. They moved forward and I tensed, wondering if it was a smart idea to have shown up at the door without my blunderbuss. Beebles should have been hiding up in the ceiling infrastructure with a rifle pointed down, but there was no way she’d be able to take out all four of these guys without them doing something nasty in the meantime.

Instead, they each grabbed up an armful of the packages of toilet paper that I’d brought them to, a tiny fraction of the stuff kept in the various storage and maintenance places in the school. As the first one started to head out, I said to the one speaking for them, “So we’re good, then. We’ll bring your end of it in after you’ve had a chance to clear out. Try not to tarry outside, alright? Some of my guys are a little, you know… off.”

He grunted, grabbed a few rolls himself, and then was off. I waited until they were done, looked up and around until I saw the glint of the barrel that our librarian had trained on all of us, and let out a heavy sigh of relief that she hadn’t had to use it. She’s getting better with a firearm, but she still hesitates, even against the corpses. She says she doesn’t like shooting things with eyes. I’m not sure why you’d need to shoot something without eyes. Die, broccoli! I wonder if she’d shoot a potato.

I gave her a thumbs-up and made my way to follow the last one out. After watching them drive off with whoops and hollers of triumph about their new acquisitions, I set about grabbing one of the bigger boxes of raspberries. Little bastards weigh a freaking ton, you know. Lugging them back into the cafeteria, I put them up into one of the big refrigerator rooms.

By the time that was done, I was pretty sick of the constant nattering in the cafeteria. I went in and flipped the damn switch off on the recorder. The P.A. system no longer worked quite right from the main broadcasting area, but more than well enough to fool a few jackasses into thinking this place had more residents than me, an accountant-turned-librarian who can’t shoot straight, a dirty – literally, most of the time – and foul-mouthed teenage girl, and occasionally a chatty transient crusader chick with a lack of any alcohol tolerance.

At least we now had fresh berries.

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— Excerpt from Malkoris’ Journal

Have you ever woken up to the sound of screaming?

In this changed world, this apocalyptic wasteland of walking corpses and lost civilization, screaming is oddly bereft. The walking dead don’t scream. When they make any vocal sound at all, it’s a mixture of air slowly escaping the body or a hideous moan or unsettling gasp. Screaming erupts when someone’s suffering from true terror.

I’ve woken up to the sound of screaming. I did this morning. In my mind’s eye, had you asked me how I would have reacted, I would’ve told you, “quickly, immediately, without hesitation.” I would’ve meant it, too. That’s how I react when I hear people screaming. Sometimes, it’s a matter of quickly bringing up a firearm and lending assistance. Sometimes, it’s a matter of grabbing the screamer and running with him or her. Sometimes, it’s a matter of ending the suffering; one quick shot and the screaming stops. Quickly. Immediately. Without hesitation.

Bullshit! It was like waking up to an alarm clock. I came up and out of slumber slowly, sluggishly, as if a quick smack would shut the sound off. By the time I was fully awake and able to think, the screaming should’ve stopped. It didn’t. I grabbed my gun, the wide-muzzled bastard that I keep near the pallet where I sleep, and barreled out and down the hallway.

I’m normally careful when I go running down a hallway. It’s not like zombies are normally all that stealthy, so you don’t have to worry about them hearing you coming, but it’s not just zombies in the world. It might be easier if it were.

I ran through the old gym, the floor tacky, the air reeking with that unpleasant scent of long-dead lacquer and rotting bleachers, and through one of the rear doors, hanging at a split angle on broken hinges. Had I been more awake, I would’ve known better. Had I been paying closer attention, I would’ve stopped.

The shampoo bottle that Searlait threw at me left a bruise that stung for days. If the little wench didn’t want her hair washed, she should’ve avoided Beebles better. I’m a guy in a compound with three women. I’m a guy in a compound with three women, and the worst they have to worry about is me rushing to help them when they’re screaming, even if it’s just because they’re having a forced hair styling.

What a great way to start the day.

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