Yes, I am late with Chapter 4: Feast For All. I know :P it's actually quite a challenge to write roughly 30 pages every 7 days. I'll try to keep up! Plotting is taking so much longer than necessary. Curse thy perfectionism woman! (Keep in my mind that my formatting is off because I copy/paste this from Word, where I originally write it, so sorry for the lack of paragraph jumps and separation :P)
Enjoy, leave a comment or feedback :) I'd love to read it.
“How many?” Olivia asks. I strain to hear her voice, which muffles against the fabric of her mask. “About a dozen Biters over on the left side, near the gate. I don’t know how many are over by the entrance. They’re all muddling together.” Benjie replies. He pushes himself off the ground and back behind the grassy ditch, checking his ammo as he kneels. I crouch closer to the ground, dirt dragging underneath my nails as I peer over to pin point where they are.
“I’m counting between fifteen and twenty, but he’s right. They’re jumbling the count.” Cassie adds. More than a dozen Biters. That’s what they call them. Biters. Not the most creative name I’ve heard yet, but it is accurate.
Scanning over the outskirts of the school, I spot them all. An entire pack of Biters press up against the entry, and surround the gate’s perimeter. One of them pounds at the thick glass with its fists, not making much of a dent. They’ve attacked it with no breakthrough the whole time we’ve sat here watching, but never wavering in effort. Over and over. Olivia pulls herself up to her feet and begins checking her ammo, grasping and ungrasping the knives that she has in hidden compartments. I don’t believe what I’m seeing. They can’t be that cocky…or dumb.
“You can’t be thinking of doing what I think you’re thinking of doing…” I say, the words coming out of my mouth before I can hold them in my hands and formulate them. Violet and Benjie look confusedly at me with guns hovering in mid-check. I close my eyes and shake my head clear of the jumbled thought. “I mean, you can’t honestly be thinking that going in there with only three of us is a good idea. ‘Cos it’s not, if that wasn’t clear enough already.” I say, hoping that they can hear me from underneath my mask. My exhaling is warming up the inside of the fabric, making it a slight effort to breathe. It’s clammy against my skin. I think of taking it off but a gust of wind causes me to pull it even higher.
“Good thinking. I was expecting us to go up there, crack some sarcastic jokes, maybe charm them a little with my sharp wit-” I stop listening. Instead, I crouch back down on the dirt to scout some more. Missing a vital bit of information, like a barricaded door or a bloody trail that looks fresher than usual, could come back to bite us if we decide to go through with it.
It’s just your average school. Except for the rotting Biters, blood smears, and carnage, it’s still standing. A school bus is parked near the exit around the side of the building. A mess of duffle bags and backpacks lie near it in tatters. Someone was hoping to escape, but didn’t make it. Windows are smashed in, wooden boards nailed in in a vain attempt to secure the openings.
And the blood. There’s an unnatural amount of blood everywhere. Smeared on the walls, smearing away or towards the entrances and exits, through the windows and on the doors. The Biters are coated in it, like they stood underneath a bucket of it. Whenever the pack hit – when this place got entirely run over – it must have been recently. A day, a week perhaps. But where there has been a massacre from a surprise swarm, there are supplies packed away being unused and unguarded. Supplies we need.
“With just us, we won’t even make it to the playground before they spot us. Unless you’re all Olympic runners…” I say over my shoulder to them. I scan over one more time, looking for anything out of the norm.
“She’s right. It’s not an option today, but it is an option our group needs to consider. I reckon we head back, tell them what we saw and make a plan. One that involves the least amount of bullets and sound.” Cassie suggests. Sensing it’s time to go, I push off the mound and wipe my hands together to dust off all the dirt that clings to them.
Benjie checks the time on his watch and gives us the gesture to leave. “Good idea. The sun will start setting before we get back.” He says and gives one final glance over to the School. I double-check all my belongings, to make sure nothing fell out. Knife and gun. Check. Pocketknife. Bag with supplies. Watch. Flashlight. It’s all there.
I fall in line behind Benjie as we walk the trek back to camp. His shadow keeps the sun from beating down on me. Talking is kept to a minimum, to keep an ear out for any sounds of biters, although Violet is not beneath adding some commentary here and there. She reminds me of a squirrel looking for nuts, or a dog stopping every five seconds to listen for phantom echoes. One minute she’ll be talking about how she misses food and starts labelling off every dish known in existence that she wants to eat, and then she’ll go off on a tangent before returning to her original food thought.
“I just find it weird how they didn’t think of stocking up on toilet paper, but grabbed cake mix. Like it was an absolute necessity. Who needs cake mix but doesn’t need toilet paper! This is why there were toilet paper ads on TV.” Violet says. Benjie sighs, but then chuckles soon after.
“Only you, man…only you.”
“I’m sure Cassie noticed too, didn’t you?” Violet catches a glimpse of Cassie shaking her head behind her. “Ava?” Not knowing why, I lie and shake my head too. An entire mental list has been saved in my head of all the random items found in other Survivor’s stashes. People, in a panic, chose the valuable Xbox over things like water or edible food. I don’t want to talk, or converse with anyone though, so I look back down at the path.
The grass crunches underneath our shoes as we trudge back through our agreed route. It’s a sickly brown but reaches up to my knees. At least one thing is thriving and gaining something out of this whole situation. When I glance back to double check and keep alert, the trampled grass leads a path straight back to where we were in the ditch. The wind picks up and my hair goes flying around into my eyes. Even when tied back, it finds a way to strike at my corneas.
We enter in at the forest line from the dirt pathway. It’s the big x mark on the map that Violet stuffs into her pack every few moments after double and triple checking where we are. It’s littered with cross marks, large red circles over buildings, and others have writing near them that are illegible. I don’t ask to see it, or ever make an effort to lean over and point at it like Benjie does, but I catch glimpses. It irks at me to take a better look, to scan over and see what they’ve been doing and searching for their survival, but I choke the urge down. Three days is hardly long enough to start snatching items and demanding to know everything.
Violet and Benjie are at ease, casually discussing and waving their guns around like it’s an extension of their own hands. Cassie, on the other hand, scans her surroundings in a rhythmic manner. Behind – to the sides – above – and back again to in front of her. It’s unnerving to have her look over in my direction and expect her to say something when she’s actually scanning for danger past me.
The path is uneven and filled with jutting rocks that make it hard to watch anything else but each step I’m taking. I’m careful to not stray too far off to the side to avoid possibly hidden Biters who I visual reaching out and grabbing at me with its blackened and bloody nails. I bump into Cassie slightly as I veer into the path more. I’m shot a look that’s mixed between neutral and irritated.
“I’m sure Carter will agree.” Violet says, causing my ears to perk up. The past few days haven’t only been filled with the tension that my presence has caused.
“You haven’t seen him when I’ve brought it up. He gives me that same look each time. The ‘I’ll-think-about-it-but-not-really’ look. I swear, next time I’ll just wipe it off with a good old knee to the face.” Benjie declares while Violet stays quiet and nods politely. I need to awkwardly clear my throat, but not wanting to disrupt their conversation, I hold it in.
“He isn’t a bad guy. He’s just stubborn.”
“You think I don’t see that? I wouldn’t have an issue if he’d just give it some thought. At least see that, in our position, he doesn’t have much room to argue, but he’d honestly find a way to argue about the way you wear your jacket if he could.”
“You know him; taking every detour instead of the straight and easiest path to reach the same destination. You’re not the only one in mid argument with him – Wait, what’s wrong with the way I wear my jacket?” Violet slows down, a surprised look daring him to say the wrong thing.
“So Ava,” Cassie starts, turning towards me to avoid appearing to eavesdrop on them. “How old are you?” she looks down at me over her shoulder, seeming to inspect me to guess my age. “You don’t look that old, but I can’t imagine a sixteen year old surviving alone for this long.” I grip the strap of my gun somewhat tighter, and adjust it further onto my shoulder to distribute weight.
“Nineteen.” I say over the noise of Benjie and Violet bickering back and forth. It’s not nearly loud enough to alarm nearby Biters, but it’s not just them I’m worried about hearing us.
“Wow, nineteen. What a craptastic time to be living in this type of world. Your whole future…” she makes a whistling noise and drops her thumb down towards the ground. I feel like I should be a little offended, but she has a point. I chuckle to make sure she knows that I’m not angry.
“I mean, I’m twenty five. I’ve had my time to mess around in the world and check it out. You never even got to travel,” she looks down at me for confirmation. I nod.
“Too bad, hey? Now you get to hang out with people you don’t like and kill things that aren’t living. How fun.” she says as she lowers her gaze to the path. The sun is setting over her head, casting a warm pink glow that sends Cassie’s hair illuminating a fiery braided rope down her back. The sunset will only last another hour before the light evaporates and darkness will swoop in. Violet and Benjie have stopped talking and walk side by side. I sense no tension or the aftermath of a disagreement, only the quiet agreement to keep an eye out and conserve energy.
The wind continues to pick up and sends a chill over my exposed skin. The nape of my neck prickles with goosebumps and I hitch my coat collar higher. While I do want to return back to the camp’s thawing blankets and brief fire, the barely acknowledging grunts and glances from those who are not in agreement about who joins under what circumstances make the time pass unbearably. Every opportunity to scout, or leave for a few hours is a welcome escape. The morning after my dramatic entry was met with reluctant greetings and wary movements. Most introduced themselves in an overly trying manner as they pushed past the tension that hovered above us, waiting to drop like heavy rainfall and coat everything in its wake.
Olsen, a towering giant of a man who carried a gun like it grew as an extra appendage, introduced himself with a quick nod of his head and a firm handshake. With nothing else to say, he went back to scouting. I rarely saw him, except at meal times and when he’d come to share something with Carter.
He was often partnered with Nicholas, the crudely mannered man who toyed with the idea of invitation-or-death. Wanting to start off on the right foot, and not get mine shot off from accidental firing, I offered my hand and introduced myself. He took it by force, and made sure that I knew when a challenge was being put forward. The kind of stare that says, ‘I know better. You’re not who you say you are.” Since then, not a word has passed between us.
The real shock came when a little girl came trotting out of one of the back rooms, her little baby-face startled me into silence and I watched her wide eyed. Her black hair bobbed up and down until she reached the woman named Karina, and started speaking in Spanish. They looked like a split image – one young, one old. I rarely saw the child who I heard from Violet was named Leah. The group’s protectiveness of her was rendered through hiding her in rooms, and arming her with a knife whenever new people, like myself, were around. They never spoke of her. I never asked. It was the first nail in the line of red flags.
The thing that plays over and over in my head is of escape. Anyone else would be thinking of escaping when the chance comes. To grab whatever you have on you and book it. There are moments where it’s deathly silent, I’m falling behind them, and I realise that I could just dart off into the woods and leave. I doubt why I choose to stay with a group I barely know, some of whom didn’t vote for me to be there, but I continue on, telling myself that I’ll give them a few more days.
“Stop,” Violet hisses towards us and looks around into the rapidly darkening woods. Benjie raises his gun and tilts his head to listen. The blood coursing through my body is doused in an icy sensation, terror kicking and threatening to punch its way from my stomach up to my throat. I lean closer to ask her what she saw, or heard, but her hand abruptly rises into the air signalling for us to pay attention. Something was close. All of us raise our guns into the air and slowly scan, listening to all the distant cracking of branches and echoes of animals on the prowl.
A branch snaps from the trees behind me. I spin around, half aiming my weapon and half squinting into the fading light.
“Formation. Quick. Don’t shoot if you don’t have to.” She whispers sharply. Our backs press against each other’s, creating a circle of guns and eyes pointed outwards from the center. Silence heightens the paranoia, little sounds now appear more menacing and life threatening.
Time passes; light draws past the hills and shadows drag further out.
I’m about to open my mouth to speak when the words are stolen right out and placed into Cassie’s.
“Vi. What was it?”
“Groans. Soft, but close.” She says, her voice emptied of all jokes and sarcasm. It’s low and every word is pronounced. The terror beats at the walls of my gut, causing a spur of butterflies to erupt and tickle my ribcage. I squint out into the darkness. Nothing but trees. Line upon line of trees, progressively getting darker and darker as it goes deeper under the canopy of branches. What could be in there, staring back at me and deciding what its plan of attack is?
“There. In front of me. A pack.” Benjie blurts out, his words mumbling together in the moment. One by one, we turn to look over at where he is pointing, squinting and hoping our eyes adjust. Cassie doesn’t turn but keeps the flank secure. It takes me a bit of scanning before I see them low to the ground. Their slow movements don’t call attention, but their noises betray them. “How many?” Cassie asks quietly from behind me. They move like one being, synchronised in their actions and working together.
“Four. They are huddled around something though.” I respond when neither Benjie nor Violet answer back.
“What do we do? We can’t jump them. It’s too dark.”
“We can’t make noise to draw them. Who knows what else it might draw out there?”
“Are you sure there is four? There aren’t any hidden ones?”
“I counted four! Do you want to count them yourself?”
“Everybody shut up! You’re going to alert Biters miles from here.”
It goes quiet. Uncertainty swirls around us and I glance at each of them to catch who is going to speak first.
“Cas, did you bring the flashlight with the LEDs?” Violet asks, a tinge of sparking excitement in her voice. There’s rustling of fabric, a zipper being yanked down, then stirring through its contents. “Here.” Cassie pushes the flashlight into Violet’s sight. No one takes their eyes off the pack.
“What’s the plan?”
“I’m going to flash this light on them. Just for a second. It’ll blind them, then we go in. Use your knives.” Violet explains, slipping her gun over her shoulders by the strap and pulling out her knife. I check Benjie and Cassie, and sure enough, they sling their guns over their shoulders and pull their knives out of their holsters. My gun rattles against my pack as I unsheathe my knife.
“You watch the back,” Violet gestures to Cassie and rolls the flashlight around in her hand. Cassie nods and braces herself facing the other way. My jaw clenches. Violet lifts the light up and holds it steady, looking at Benjie, then at me.
Tip toeing closer to the sounds of groaning, my nose turns up at the wall of stench that emanates from the pack. It hits the back of my throat and I steady my breathing to low controlled draws.
The munching sounds of teeth against meat pounds terror in each heart beat, smashing against my chest. For a split second, the thought of eating a juicy steak flicks by. It unnerves me so surprisingly that I pause in step. Violet hesitates; exchanging a look that asks all the questions she can’t say out loud. What’s wrong? What are you doing? Don’t freak out now. I shake my head, put my hand up to dismiss her, and look ahead to continue on.
The Biters draw closer with each step, and their appearance reveals slowly as my eyes adjust. Like a blanket being pulled slowly, fear jabs at what looms underneath waiting to jump out. The torn clothes bounce and writhe against the movement of bones that grind and crunch with each jerk. When the sounds are close enough to make me question that they are almost on top of me, Violet halts and gestures to stop. Benjie and I watch her every move, waiting for her to signal that she’ll lift the flashlight and we dive in.
She jumbles for a second, rearranging an item in her palm and counts down from three.
I squint into the dark.
My palms sweat as I tighten my grip.
The bright LED light fires open and I blink it away quickly. Raising my knife over my shoulder, I spot the nearest Biter that peers over its shoulder in slow motion. Stunningly red goo drips off its mouth, its hands resembling scarlet gloves let go of what it had been feasting on. I charge it in one swift step. One hand shoves the Biter down and the other slams the knife down straight into its crown. Movement stops and the Biter’s body collapses to the ground. Glancing up, Violet catches my eye as her Biter is shoved down, colliding its body into the nearby tree. Blood is splattered across her chest and jacket, but she doesn’t notice as she steps over the body and advances onto the last Biter that has pulled itself up on partially broken feet.
I body check for Benjie and Cassie. Benjie is kneeling beside one, pressing it down to the ground and stabbing its head repeatedly. The echoes of skull collapsing on itself replay with sickening accuracy in my ears. Cassie dispatches a Biter I did not see, and throws it aside before it can collapse on her. “I’m good.” She calls out as she scans the surroundings.
Before I can suggest dragging the corpses aside to double tap them, a lone figure lying completely still and at awkward angles silhouettes in the moonlight. A dark pool circles it from top to bottom. Violet sees it at the same time that I do, and we exchange another look. Moving closer towards it, the gore dismisses any previous questions but brings new ones. The pack was feasting, but this kill is fresh. The blood continues oozing out of the body, further broadening the circle.
“Is it…new?” I ask to no one, hesitantly looking between the three who now stand close and gaze down at the body. The face has been torn off, skin left in tatters and strips, smeared in blood. The halo of hair that surrounds the bloodied face has patches missing. Not a few pieces of hair, but full clumps like someone grabbed a fistful and tore it out along with bits of skin. Biters don’t rip out hair…a voice in my head points out. Her ribcage split a part messily, cracked open like a like it was no effort at all. Guts are spread in the dirt, half chewed.
Benjie kneels beside the mess, inspecting and moving bits of fabric and flesh. When he jumps back up to his feet, a look of concern makes the air around me seem heavier suddenly.
“How fresh is fresh?” Violet asks as she slides her knife back into the cover.
“Looks like less than an hour. Something is weird though…”
Cassie and I lean further into the small forming circle, occasionally glancing over our shoulders and scanning.
“What’s weird? She probably got lost and couldn’t defend herself.” Violet offers, raising her eyebrow at what Benjie considers weird.
He frowns at her, “Her fingernails are torn out. I didn’t think anything really was that weird – she was probably defending herself from those Biters. But the bits of skin that wasn’t touched by them yet, they had markings on them. Kinda like tally marks.” There’s silence while everyone tries to make sense of it. Tally marks?
“So you’re saying she tallied her arm? How many tallies? Perhaps it was just a way of counting the days or something…” Violet offers without much effort, a hesitance in her voice.
“In every bit of skin that wasn’t touched. On just one hand there was like a hundred. It was covered.” Benjie shirks at his last sentence and runs his hand over the nape of his neck as if wiping away the goosebumps. I catch a quick exchange of looks between Benjie and Violet, a conversation speaking the words they don’t dare say out loud. Everyone wants to play naive and oblivious. I keep quiet.
I see the body out of the corner of my eye. Curiosity tugs at me to inspect for myself, and possibly check it for anything she might have been carrying on her. I put my hand up to indicate that I’ll be back, and Violet gives me a hesitant flick of her head. I kneel down close and pull out a small flashlight from my pack that’s set aside for emergencies. Over my shoulder, Violet and Benjie are heatedly trying to fill in the holes of what happened here while Cassie stands nearby, listening and scouting out.
My hands hover over the body, repelling at the idea of touching the blood and guts. I didn’t loot bodies initially. It was on my ‘This-is-not-humane’ list of things I’d shun at. But choices had to be made, and survival could depend on something as small as a pencil looted from a nobody. My nose turns away to the side, avoiding the smell as I dig my fingers into the pant pockets. At first, I don’t feel anything and consider trying the other one, until my fingertips graze against something hard and flat. I reach deeper and pull it out, hoping that Violet and Benjie think that I’m simply mourning over the loss of an innocent life.
My hand comes out with a small folded note, the creases run deep and the paper is wrinkled with time. It’s been unfolded and folded repeatedly. I juggle the idea of quickly slipping it into my pocket to read later, or just opening it now and risking Violet exposing me, like a rat hiding food. It’s not that I don’t trust them – It’s the fact that information gives you leverage. If it’s crucial, I wouldn’t hesitate sharing it with them, but for now I check once quickly and see that Violet is taking a drink of bottled water and Benjie is talking with his hand on his chin. Cassie is nowhere to be seen.
Unfolding the paper slowly, making as little noise as possible, it blossoms and widens before my eyes with each unfold. Words that appear jumbled and scratched rigidly into the paper, bubbling around other side, don’t make sense just yet. No key message lurches out. I open the last fold and my eyes scan. It’s a page of a journal, or a letter of some sort. A date appears on the top but is smeared by some sort of liquid that has since dried. I fear Violet or Benjie walking up behind me, so I scan read for key words or messages. Some are horribly written in cursive that I can’t decipher it.
I don’t know anymore.
Today, I will –
It’s happening tonight and I want to be –
They can’t keep me safe when I’m around her b-
The screaming won’t stop. It won’t make it stop.
The last message sends shivers down my spine. Please, help me. They’ve all changed.
“She’s not one of ours?” I hear Violet’s voice nearing, the rocks crushing to powder underneath her feet. I shove the note into my pocket to further decipher tonight, and hop to my feet. Benjie and Violet are walking up to me, arms both crossed and blood smeared on their dirtied skin.
“Nope. Her clothes are different. No jacket in the cold winter? Definitely not ours.” He explains back to her, as if it’s basic knowledge. The conversation doesn’t make sense to me. How would they not know if this was someone from their group? I shuffle uncomfortably on the spot and find Cassie standing slightly off in the distance. She doesn’t speak except for the frown that etches slightly.
“Let’s go. We can’t spend time trying to move them. There might be more of them around.” Cassie says coldly, pointing at the corpses with her eyes, then starts moving back towards camp. It makes sense, but I look back. Someone had one bad day, and it costed. She won’t even get a proper burial. I brush past Violet and Benjie without a word, touching my mouth slightly as if overcome by emotion, and catch up to Cassie.
She doesn’t acknowledge me at first, but out of my peripheral I see her glance back towards the rest of the group. Keeping my head down, I almost miss when she turns to me and whispers, “It wasn’t just a random lost girl, was it?” I only turn when her eyes keep locked on me. A sense of urgency glints in her eye, and I find myself speaking without prior thought.
“Would a random lost girl have tally marks and patches of missing hair?” I hint, keeping her gaze and returning the feeling. She nods, her mouth forming into a grim line, and watches the road ahead.
Arriving back to the Camp riles up a stir. Travis sits absolutely still, the cobwebbed chair creaks under the pressure. He is barely visible when he stands up to aim his gun at us. I’m exhausted, hungry, and the grime sits atop my skin. Being well beyond the mood to deal with his banter.
“Good to see you made it unscathed,” he says behind the rifle, peering through the scope.
“Not now. Where’s Carter?” Benjie steps right in front of the barrel. Violet walks straight past and through the front door. I expect Cassie to follow her through, but without notice she walks towards the back of the house alone. Her braid bounces with each step and the gun leans against her shoulder. I stand and watch her until she disappears around the corner.
“He’s in the back setting up the tins-” before Travis can finish, Benjie is already pushing past him towards the screen door. A hand flies towards Benjie’s chest and holds him back.
“Hey hey hey. You can’t charge through looking for him. He’s busy. Just chill out for a second.”
“You focus on keeping watch.” Benjie goes to push past against but Travis holds his ground.
“Something happened, didn’t it? You’ve got blood on you…” he pieces together, lowering his gun and trying to peer into Benjie’s face for deeper meaning. His hand pushes Benjie a step back, forcing him to either reveal or not pass. Benjie runs his hands over his face from weariness, smearing more blood and other substances carelessly.
“It’s just Biters. We ran into a small pack, no big deal, but I need to check with Carter on what’s been happening while we were gone.” And with the nod of a head, Travis accepts and moves aside for Benjie to pass. I linger a second longer at the bottom of the steps, actively looking away from this brotherly encounter. Small tins on a thick line of string create barricades on the tree line. An alarm created by Olsen for when Camps have to be at abandoned houses that risk being surrounded. The screen door creaks open, and boots thud through them. With each creak, I imagine an invisible storm of rust and dust falling off it.
“If you want to listen in on other people’s conversations, then maybe it’s best that you don’t stand right where they can see you.” Travis’s voice rips through the silence of the night. It’s low, gruff, and with no hint of friendliness. Heat rises to every part of my body, targeting my cheeks as its final destination.
“If you think I care enough to bother listening to your sad attempts of intimidation, then perhaps it’s wise you put all your brain power to use by keeping watch,” I stride up the stairs, keeping eye contact with him the whole way.
“You’ll need it.” I spit the words as I close the gap between us. He stands almost eye-to-eye with me, but has the advantage of a few inches of height. I puff my chest, raise my chin and watch him closely. He rolls his tongue over his teeth and shakes his head.
He is riling up, the bottles contents being rattled and needing to disperse. He gets so close I almost flick my head back, thinking our noses are going to smash into each other.
“Nobody actually wants you here. Only Carter and Violet. You think you’re all that - that you’re so badass - you don’t even know how much of a pain in the neck you are.” Bits of spit hit my face but I don’t wipe it away. I channel my anger and annoyance into one final glare, hoping that he’ll realise that the feeling of having a pain in the neck is mutual. “You know what! You-” Carter’s high pitch whistle sends me off mid sentence. It must be time for a group meeting. I flash him an uninterested smile and push past him forcefully. He stumbles backwards slightly and glares at me, but doesn’t move until a secondary warning whistle cuts through the air.
In the lounge, Karina sits nearest to the door leading to the other side of the house. Leah must be in the other side, either sleeping or playing. She folds her arms, one of her fingertips rubbing back and forth on the inside of her bicep. She stares at the ground, lost in thought. Violet and Benjie are whispering close together, while their bodies speak of something intimate, the look on their faces betray the image. They must have already told Carter about the girl and pack of Biters. At the thought of them, my hand slips to the top of my pocket slightly. It’s still there.
Nicholas and Olsen stand together, not actively talking but occasionally murmuring something to the other one. Observational comments, or reminders of tasks. Sometimes it’s a joke and they chuckle before returning back to their poker-faces. Travis scoffs behind me with a breath down my neck and passes me, making a beeline towards a lone corner. It’s a small lounge, smaller than the last place we cooped up in. There’s one couch, one coffee table, and a smashed apart TV. Everything else has been shoved out, or cleaned up enough that there’s a place to sleep without fearing glass shards.
Carter stands at the front of the forming circle. With his legs apart and arms folded, he reminds me of an army general rounding up his troops. His stubborn chin points almost like a finger to those who need to step back in line. I sit besides Karina, who acknowledges me with a soft smile. It’s a distracted one that spares only a second before running back to her thoughts.
The clear of a throat grabs my attention. “Okay. This isn’t a meeting; it’s just a head count to make sure everyone is here. We’ll eat, and then clear off for the night.” He explains, ending his speech with a flick of his hand and dismisses us. Everyone returns back to talking with whoever was next to them, and I lean on my knees, relaxing for the first time today.
“Long day, huh?” Karina asks, her voice squeaking out in a daze. When I go to make eye contact with her, she is still looking at the ground and picking now at her arm.
“Yeah, you could say that. How was camp?”
“Oh, the usual,” she shrugs her shoulders.
“Olsen and Travis kept watch. Carter and I had a look for supplies.”
“Find anything good?”
“A few cans, most spoiled though. Some kitchen knives, tissues, books. The usual things people leave behind. There was some medication in the bathroom but I couldn’t make out what it was. Neither could Carter. It’s so frustrating, because it might be something useful but you just don’t know.” She lets out a noise of frustration and pushes the wild bits of hair back.
There’s a moment where I think I’m meant to pat her on the back and encourage her for her work, but I instead continuing leaning my elbows against my knees and put my head down.
“You could run it past everyone. Maybe one of us would have heard of it or know what it is. Don’t ask me though. I refer all medicine as just medicine so I won’t be much help.” I say. Small portions of food passes around to each person, some taking it with a fierce look of gratitude and others apathetic and eating without a second thought. Karina and my portion comes around and I say thank you to Cassie, who has sprung out of nowhere to hand out food. My eyes follow her as she continues handing them out. Where she went and what she did out the back is a mystery, and one that no one is questioning or even observing. Her quiet and frank nature unnerves me, but I keep these thoughts to myself for fear that this paranoia will lead to nowhere. Perhaps it was a simple case of a call to duty out in the woods, after a long trip.
The food in hand is a weak looking meat substitute. Being one of the last to be served, I was given a can and a spoon to eat from. In the dark of night only lit by a few candles, it’s hard to tell what it is which I’m glad for. Everyone eats in silence to savour and taste every single bite. Fear of this being the very last bite of food I might have for the next few hours or even days stares back at me with every spoonful.
The taste is an insult to my senses. It’s bland, and reminds me of the smell that accompanies dog food. The consistency feels like it too. I choke down each bite, thankful that the hunger is waning but wondering if later it’ll come back up for a second try against my will.
My spoon hits the bottom of the tin with a ting noise. Unsure, I squint inside further to see if perhaps I just misaimed. Karina’s tin sends of a ting to indicate that she too is finished.
“Looks like we’re getting less portions,” Karina gets up with a slight grunt and pushes off her knees. “Less portions? Less than what we already have?” I ask in disbelief. She gives me a look that suggests for me to follow her into the kitchen, so I do. Violet watches me over Benjie’s shoulder, her tin in hand and stirring her meal distastefully.
Karina plonks her tin down on the bench and places her spoon in a small container. It’ll be washed and dried before we pack up and leave in the morning. You never really think about how hard it is to eat until you don’t have the basics, like a spoon or a knife. Unless you want to become one with your inner beast and use your bare hands, mixing whatever you’ve killed with whatever you’re about to eat, it’s not the cleanest or safest option. I place my tin besides Karina’s and lean against the bench, sheltering her view to the lounge.
“Today, the portions were dished out a quarter less. Not enough to leave you hungry for the night, but enough so that you’re still picking at whatever is around you.” She explains, her voice low like she is sharing the latest gossip about someone in the other room.
“A quarter less. Interesting…is there a problem with the stash? I thought Carter said we were good for a few more days…” I lower my voice down too. The idea getting out that we have no food left might start sparks flying wildly and chaotically.
“We were – we are, I mean. But that doesn’t mean that those fully grown men in there don’t complain about every little meal. Three weeks ago, Carter cut the rations down a quarter. Now another quarter? If this keeps happening, we’ll be left with one spoonful each for the entire day. No one will even have the energy to lift themselves up, let alone fight off a Biter.” She says, bunching her hair up into a ponytail and beginning to cut two holes in each tin with a nearby knife.
“Has this group ever had no rations left before?”
She puts down the knife and places both palms onto the bench.
“Once. A group must have already gone through each house that we searched, because it was wiped clean for miles. It caused a pretty riotous group. Some thought they were going to starve,” she laughs and shakes her head.
“But Carter is smart. He always finds a way to provide even though there are so many obstacles in the way.” She smiles. I can tell she admires him. The respect she carries for the man who provides for this group without rest is unwavering. I can relate.
“But it’s not all Carter, of course. He sends you guys out in groups to search. He rations out each bit of food you find, you know?” she says while returning back to cutting the holes. My instinct tells her to put the knife down, that she might cut herself, but the tins outside bound together by line reminds me that she isn’t about to lob off her own hand.
“Speaking of food searches, did you find anything while you were out? You were gone awhile. Almost started to worrying that something dreadful finally happened.” She tilts her head towards me, indicating my turn to speak. I’m hesitant, but being a listener either scares or excites people. Karina is the type to give-and-take.
“It went well. We scouted out a nearby school. It was like every other single time we go out – we saw Biters, lots of them, and killed some while taking notes of the places on the map – but we couldn’t go inside. It was overrun.” I explain, leaving out key points like the dead girl and her last note. The note that lays hidden in my pocket. She nods and makes a quick jab at the tin. I watch, forgetting to speak. It’s a precise procedure, but one that doesn’t take much skill. She makes a small circle incision and pulls out the knife. The scratching and screeching of the blade against the tin material grates on my ears.
“And that was all? Just an overrun school that you might go search through if it’s agreed on?” Karina hints at me. While her friendly and motherly nature pulls me into a sense of familiarity of family and small talk, I don’t trust where she is trying to hint at.
“Yup. It might take a bit of planning, but there’s a good chance of supplies in there. Worth a shot”
She stops cutting and turns to face me.
“Sweetie, I’m not talking about the school.” I stand up. What is she getting at? Panic erupts in my throat like a lodged lump and I try to swallow it down. Does she know or suspect the note? Did Violet see and say something that she overheard? I pull my best pokerface and flatten my voice.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You all came in different from the usual trips. In your eyes. Something happened, but you’re keeping it quiet,” there’s a ferocity in her eyes, like a mother bear about to kill the prey that’s trying to harm her young. She’s only slightly taller than I am, but I don’t doubt that she will grab me in a chokehold and drop me like a brick.
I almost want to reach into my pocket and pull out the note for her to read and tell me what she thinks. I want to look at anything but her gaze. Words bubble around in my head. Body. Girl. It. Biters. Feasting. The Note.
Minutes that feel like hours pass, filled with silence, but she rips her gaze away and returns to pulling the rope through the tins. The chokehold has been released on my brain.
“Look, Ava. I’m not trying to interrogate you – if it’s something you four decided to tell Carter about the school first, that’s fine with me. I’m not worried about that. I just thought that perhaps you all saw something you’d much rather have not seen, and that worries me. You understand why, right?” she asks, not bothering to look up at me for confirmation.
“I do. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s about the school.” I lie through my smile. She smiles back and gives me a nod of understanding. When she smiles, the crows’ feet near her eyes pull together. She smiles often, by the look of how deep they run. It also means she is older, but I’m not sure by how much.
“That’s good. Thank you for telling me. Now I can focus on other matters, like rationing the drinking water and my little girl.” She knots the last bit of the line and holds them up in the air.
“Okay, time to get the rest of the tins and work on those!” she says excitedly as she walks past me and into the lounge.
Tiredness drags me down like a weight on my shoulders. My eyes burn for sleep, and my feet are already beginning to slide when I walk. With each passing day, this group reveals more and more red flags, concerns of breaking seams and broken people. Perhaps being alone was better than living with people who make you feel alone.