“Are you just going to leave them there?”
I looked at Hetch. “Close the door, why don’t you?”
My arms and legs shook. My clothes were soaked in gore and dried vomit.
The door clicked shut, but Hetch didn’t move away from it. Instead, he watched me as if he thought he was next on my list. His eyes were wild, and he constantly licked at his lips, which, for the most part was covered in a brown beard.
“What?” I asked.
“You’re just going to leave them out there to rot?”
I almost laughed at that, but managed to hold back. “In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve been rotting since they died.”
“You know what I mean.”
He went from scared to angry in a couple seconds. “You’re an ass, you know that?”
Living interaction. I wasn’t so sure I wanted it. It had been all too infrequent, and what little there had been, ended badly for the most part. Someone always ended up dead. So, maybe I was being an ass. Maybe I always would be. At least until I die.
Thinking on that now reminds me death isn’t that far in the future. Not many people stand a chance of living into the golden years now. And what type of life would that be? Could the world rebuild itself? Could people rebuild their lives? Maybe, but first they had to figure out how to get rid of the biters.
“I’m going to go shower,” I said. “Unless you have a problem with that as well.”
“You don’t get it, do you?”
That was it. I’d had enough. “Do me a favor,” I said.
“Open the door.”
“I said so.”
He was hesitant at first. I could see his thoughts in his eyes. He was inside, and probably in the safest place he had been in a while. Could he possibly step back outside, back out where the world was rotting away? After several long seconds, he listened.
“Now, step outside.”
He frowned, started to speak, but I guess he decided not to. He closed his lips tightly and buttoned them up as pretty as you could want. Then he stepped onto the landing.
“Now close the door.”
“Close the door.”
“Look, man, it’s not safe out here, and I don’t have any weapons, and…”
I drew my pistol, pointed it at him and took the five steps toward him. “If you’re still here when I get done cleaning up and changing, then we can talk. If not, goodbye.”
He said something else, but I paid him no attention. I slammed the door, and locked it. He wouldn’t be able to get in—the windows were boarded up and there were a series of four locks up and down the door, all of which I bolted.
It didn’t take him long to start beating on the door. I ignored him as I went down the hall to the bathroom and got undressed. One good thing about that house was it had a well and a windmill that provided power, and the well hadn’t dried up yet. I would never drink the water, but showering in it was a different matter. It was icy cold and my muscles felt like stone before getting used to the water and relaxing. I took my time, hoping Hetch would leave. In the short time I had known him, he struck me as high maintenance; someone who would question everything I did, and every decision I made. I had been on my own for too long by then to let a stranger question my motive.
I dried off, feeling refreshed. How long had it been since I took a shower? I didn’t know. I got dressed and went back up the hall.
I listened. Hetch no longer beat on the door. I waited several seconds, holding my breath, my hands clutched into tight fists. Then something happened, something I didn’t expect.
Panic took hold.
I was alone again, and being alone was not good for me. Humphrey had kept me sane after everyone else had died. But Humphrey chose to leave. She had been my anchor, and without her, I was nothing more than an abandoned ship with torn sails. I was adrift in an ocean of death, just waiting to sink.
Hetch’s screams had awakened me from a drunken stupor. Though he seemed difficult, he didn’t come off like most of the nutcases I had met in the dead world. If anything, I was probably the head job, with all those biters nailed to stakes out in the yard. What was I thinking?
The door was so far away, and each step I took felt like I moved backward instead of forward. I was having a nightmare within a nightmare, and I knew I would never wake up from it, especially if I were alone again. I slung the door open. I started to yell his name, and then stopped. Hetch sat on the top step, his elbows on his knees, hands dangling between his legs. He looked back at me.
“I’m gonna die,” he said.
He was right. He had been bitten, and not just in one spot. He would die and it would only be a matter of days. Maybe just a day.
“I’m gonna die, just like everyone else, and then I’m going to come back and…and…and…I don’t want to be one of those things.” He pointed to the bodies on the ground. “I don’t want to go through what my buddy, Dean, went through. It was hard to watch and he was delirious at the end…”
“You’re not going to die, Hetch.”
“Yes, I am.”
I waited a minute longer. His eyes were rimmed red. He was scared. So was I. I had a gallon of healing water—touched by God, so the Cherokee say—but did I want to use it on some stranger I may not even like after a couple days?
“Haven’t you seen what happens when someone gets bit? They die. They die a horrible death and then they come back.”
I nodded. “I’ve seen it, up close and personal. But, you’re not going to die.”
“I’ve been bit! What part of that don’t you understand?”
“I understand quite well. But I have a cure.”
“Where are you going?”
“You’re not going anywhere, and you’re not going to die.”
“Yes. I. Am.”
“Are you going to make me slug you over the head again?”
“You wouldn’t slug a dying man, would you?”
“Come inside. Now. We need to treat those wounds—the sooner we do, the better chance you have of surviving.”
Hetch climbed the three steps back to the landing, passed me and went inside. I followed, closing and locking the door.
At some point during the drunken haze I had been in, I must have done some reorganizing. All of my supplies had been put away, in cabinets, along the counters, and in bedrooms. The healing water had been marked as such with a black marker (from somewhere in the house, I presumed). It simply read, HEALING SPRINGS. I grabbed it and a medicine measuring cup from a drawer by the sink. A measuring cup wasn’t going to do the trick. I took another cup—this one from the cabinet above the sink.
I thought back to what Imeko had done for his granddaughter.
”Take your pants off,” I said.
His hands went up, defensively. “Whoa, now. I don’t go that way, man.”
“Shut-up, and take your pants off. You were bitten on the leg, right?”
“Take your pants off.”
He was reluctant at first, but finally unsnapped the button and pulled his jeans down. The wound was small, much like the one on his stomach, but it was nasty. The area around it was gray, turning black. The back of my hand went to it, felt the heat radiating off the skin.
I poured two tablespoons of water in the measuring cup, and put a rag under his leg.
“Any water that drips off, catch it with the rag—we don’t want to waste this stuff.”
“Okay.” He didn’t believe me. I could hear it in his voice.
I poured the water onto the wound. Some of it spilled down the sides of his leg, and Hetch made sure the rag caught all of it.
Another two tablespoons followed. I did the same thing with his stomach wound, and his knuckles just to be on the safe side. Then I poured him a cup of the water.
“Where’d you get this from?”
“A little town, well, near a little town, a place called Healing Springs.”
Hetch rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding me, right? Healing Springs? That’s just a myth. Every state has one of those.”
“It’s not just a myth. I’ve seen it. It works.”
“Drink,” I repeated.
As he downed the water, I worked on the wounds, bandaging them the best I could, the leg with a torn towel tied in a knot around his thigh, his stomach with a piece of that same towel and duct tape. Yeah, it’s funny when you think about it, but it was all I had, so it had to do. I poured him a second cup, trying to remember what Imeko had done.
“Let me guess, I need to drink this one, too?”
I worked on his knuckles next. It wasn’t a bite wound, but still it was a wound he received from a biter.
“How are you feeling?”
“Like I’m going to die.”
I glanced up at him. There were bags under his eyes, and sweat on his brow.
“Are you hot?”
“My girlfriend used to think so.”
I didn’t smile, though I probably should have. He was trying to make light of a bad situation. Why not indulge him?
“Do you have a fever?”
“I don’t know.”
I reached up, touched his forehead. He was hot.
“Well, do I have a fever, Nurse Walker?”
“I’ll nurse you, all right,” I said, this time humoring him a little. “And, yeah, you have a fever.”
A frown formed, and he inhaled deeply. “That’s how it starts. The fever. You get it and then you start throwing up and…and…”
“You’re going to be okay, Hetch.”
“How do you know?” He pulled up his pants, buttoned them.
We said nothing. I made him drink another cupful of water, and then took him to the back bedroom. From the looks of it, it had belonged to a girl at one time. A canopy bed sat along one wall–which was really the only thing feminine in the room. It was enough.
“Lay down. Get some rest.”
He shook his head. “I’m not going out lying on my back.”
“You should rest, let the water have a chance to do its thing.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Kill the rest of the biters, then take the others off the stakes. Burn the bodies, I guess.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No. You need to rest.”
“You mean, I need to die. If I’m going to die, then I’m not doing it in a bed.”
There was no need to argue with him. He wasn’t going to listen anyway. He thought he was as good as dead. Truthfully, I did, too. I couldn’t remember exactly what Imeko did to save his grandchild. I probably did something wrong. At least out there, I could just smash his skull with a rock or split it with the machete and not have to clean up anything in the house. Still, I wanted him to live. I didn’t want to be alone again. I believed that rest was the best way to get the healing water to work its magic…or miracle, if that’s what it was.
“You mind if I use this?” he asked and picked up a hatchet near the fireplace. It was caked in dried blood.
“No. Go right ahead.”
Two hours. That’s how long it took before Hetch threw up the first time. If I didn’t know better, I would have guessed it was because of the work at hand. Killing the biters, moving the bodies, making a pile in the center of the yard between the house and the road, dousing them with gasoline, then setting them on fire. The stench was worse than I thought it would be, like pulled pork that sat out far too long. My stomach rolled, but I didn’t vomit.
“You okay?” I asked.
The voice in my head, which had probably been the same voice that had given life to Humphrey, spoke. He’s dying. Of course he’s not okay.
“Yeah. I’m fine,” Hetch responded. “Just…” He pointed at the fire, and then threw up again. He held his stomach with both arms. His lips were pulled back, exposing blood-spattered teeth.
I walked over to him. At Hetch’s feet lay a mixture of who knew what, but the main component was blood. I took his arm, and helped him stand upright. His face was pale, and sweat spilled off him in waves. He was burning up.
“Let’s get you inside.”
“No, you’re not.”
Panic rose in my chest again, beginning at my testicles and working its way up to my throat where it caught like a lump. In the back of my mind I could see Hetch dead and rising, me shooting him in the head and then burying him, just like everyone else. Though I didn’t know him all that well, he was, in some ways, like me. He had survived that long, and he had lost everyone he loved. Now, he was going to lose himself. I was going to lose him.
I had to save him.
Hetch could barely walk—how he managed to swing the axe or pull the bodies to the pile for the fire is beyond me. He held tight to the rail as I carried him up the stairs. Once inside, I closed the door—always closing the door, always locking it. I didn’t believe they could climb steps, but why take the chance? Down the hall we went to the room with the canopy bed. I thought for a moment to pull the canopy off, but chose not to. If there was a little girl with intentions of coming home to this room, I didn’t want her to find it wrecked. Thinking about that now, it seems like an oxymoron. I didn’t want the room a mess, but I put Hetch in there, who was almost certainly going to die, rise and be shot right there in that room.
He didn’t fight as I put him in the bed.
“No problem.” His voice was weak.
The jug of healing water sat on the table. I took it, a towel, and a cup to the bedroom. My hands shook as I poured a cup. “Drink.”
“I can’t, Hank.”
I lifted Hetch to a sitting position. “Drink the damn water!”
I held the cup to his lips, just as I had seen Imeko do. Hetch opened his mouth, let me pour a little in. He licked his lips, opened his mouth again. “More.”
By the time Hetch finished the cup, the edge on my nerves began to ease. He was taking water, and as much as this may sound corny, I felt like I was taking care of one of my brothers or Jeanette…or Bobby. I lifted his shirt and pulled the bandage off. Hetch didn’t so much as flinch. The gray had spread up into his ribs and down into his waistband. Those nerves went back on edge.
I poured water onto the towel, then squeezed it onto the angry wound. I let it spill over his side and down into his pants. There was no time to worry with his pants. I put my fingers in the hole the biter had made and ripped the material until the pant leg was almost off. The other bandage was pulled off quickly, doused in water. Like the wound on his stomach, this one had stretched out along his skin, like long fingers reaching for something it couldn’t quite get to. The veins stood out beneath the skin as thick black lines.
“Forget this,” I said, and poured water onto the wound.
I filled the cup again. “Come on, Hetch, you need to drink up.”
“Let me die.”
It was a reaction. I swear. That’s all it was. I was angry with him, and I reacted.
His head snapped to one side when I slapped him across the face. His eyes popped open, his brows curled down in angry check marks. “What the hell’d you do that for?” His voice was a little stronger, but it still sounded terribly weak.
“I’m not letting you die.”
“Why not? Please, just put a bullet in my head.”
Why not? Why not? I thought about that. Why not let him die? I was being selfish. I wanted—no, needed—someone else in my life. I wasn’t afraid of the dead—that ended a while back, when I found out Jeanette had died. I wasn’t afraid of the living—not anymore, though the living were more dangerous than the dead these days. I was afraid of being alone, of having no one to talk to, of losing my mind, my sanity, my desire to live. I believed if Hetch died, I would not only put a bullet in his head, but probably drink myself to death, or at least get drunk enough to put a bullet in my own head.
“I’m not killing you.”
Tears spilled from the corners of his eyes.
“Hang in there, and drink another cup of water.”
“It’s no use.”
“Drink the water, Hetch.”
“Are you going to hit me again if I refuse?”
He drank the water like an obedient Jim Jones follower. The difference is he had already been poisoned by the Kool-aid, and hopefully, this was the cure.
I doubted it.
There was no cure. What I had seen was an abomination…or a miracle. Maybe the little girl lived because Imeko believed she would. He believed God touched the water, that it had healing powers. I wanted to believe, and I think I did before I needed it to save someone. But doubt is a powerful emotion. Almost as strong as love and courage, but it can destroy both of those just by coming to the surface of thought.
The bandage came off his knuckles next. The wound had puckered, the torn skin no longer covering the actual cut. It was still gray, but it hadn’t changed since the first time I cleaned it. Like the other wounds, water was poured onto it. And like the other wounds, this time I didn’t bandage any of them.
I poured him half a cup of water. By then there was less than half a gallon left—it went faster than I thought it would.
He didn’t argue this time.
“I’ll be back,” I said and left the room. He had settled down into the bed, his head to one side, his eyes closed.
Here’s a truth I thought I will take to the grave with me: When I closed the bedroom door, I went down in one of the other bedrooms and rummaged around a while. I found some rope at the top of one of the closets. From there, I went outside, taking my machete with me.
My heart was heavy—a feeling I was tired of having. There were several biters roaming the dirt road, but none of them had crossed the little ditch or walked up the easement toward the house.
I made my way to the backside of the house. Here the dead on stakes screamed in vivid colors. Arms hung down by their sides. Some of them were on crosses—how I managed those, I’ll never know. Wooden stakes, much like what they used in movies to kill vampires, had been driven through their chest. Their bodies were wrapped in wire from the fence, holding them in place. Their feet touched the ground. Each of them was missing portions of their heads. Flies buzzed around their bodies. I told myself I would eventually take the bodies down.
I passed the staked biters and continued up the hill, stopping at the woodshed that sat along the tree line. Inside were mostly smaller pieces of wood. I found the longer one sitting along the wall–a four-foot piece of 2X4. I tied a rope around it, grabbed a black toolbox that sat on the floor, and then headed back to the house.
Inside I entered the room across from the one Hetch lay dying in. I didn’t know how much time I had, so I worked quickly. With the toolbox lid opened, I found a thick-tipped screwdriver and a hammer. It took a minute, but I managed to drive the screwdriver through the door, whittling out a hole the size of a nickel. I ran the rope through it, then nailed the board to the inside of the door. I opened and closed the door several times before stepping into the hall and tying the other end of the rope to the knob of the bedroom door Hetch lay behind.
It wasn’t the soundest idea I’ve ever had, but all I needed was a little warning. If Hetch died and rose, he would try to open the door. When he did, the door opposite him would slam shut. The rope attached to the knob would delay him from getting out of the room. By then I would have my gun ready. I planned on sleeping in the main bedroom, the door locked, just in case.
I untied the rope, and checked on Hetch. He was asleep, his face pale and peppered with sweat. With the door closed and the rope tied back around the knob, I went outside.
I don’t know who first coined the phrase, ‘the world is a cruel place,’ but that person had no clue. Sure, it could be bad and difficult and people could be cruel, but the world itself? Not so much. Well, not so much back then. Now the world was nothing but cruel. I lost everything. So did almost every other survivor left out there. I didn’t know Hetch’s story, but he was about to lose his life after making it so long. The world isn’t cruel. No. The world is a real bastard.
There were more biters walking around. They were like vultures that could smell Hetch dying. I stood on the porch stoop staring down at them. They seemed to stare back at me. I went back inside, reached for the machete, then grabbed several pistols instead. Screw being quiet.
Back outside, the dead moaned. As I went down the steps, the moans grew louder. They worked themselves into a frenzy, but none of them crossed the circle of bodies. It was like a rotting corpse-laden force field. That was fine. They were about to join the barrier.
I remember the first shot. It split the side of a teenager’s head. I remember the last shot. It caused the explosion of an elderly woman’s face. The force of the blast sent her sprawling backwards. I don’t remember any of the shots in between. But the bodies told me I had wiped them all out.
And the sun told me it was near dark.
Inside, I sat with a lamp on. It was late. I thought about checking in on Hetch. Then decided not to.
At some point I fell asleep in the chair, one of the pistols in my lap.
The slamming door woke me.
My heart hammered my chest. My head buzzed with a bit of disorientation. The gun was in my hand, and near my head. I listened, heard shuffling from down the hall.
“Hetch?” I whispered.
It was dark in the house.
The shuffling stopped, then came another slam. The rope trick worked. Hetch was dead and had been stopped by the rope between the two doors.
I stood. My body shook, but not from fear—from sadness. I would put him down, and I would bury him. And I would be alone again.
I eased into the kitchen, and caught a glimpse of him standing in the bedroom’s doorway. His head was down, as if he were looking at the rope. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like one hand was on it, or maybe both of them.
He lifted his head and looked at me for a long few seconds.
I think I blinked. I think I stopped breathing. I think I almost pulled the trigger at the sound of his voice.
Biters don’t talk.
“Yeah, man.” His voice was weak.
The rope dropped to the floor. He had untied it.
“What’s with the slamming door rig?”
“You didn’t think I was going to make it, did you?”
A small part of me was ashamed at my lack of faith, but not ashamed at my will to survive. “Truthfully? No, I didn’t.”
“But I did. I did make it. I feel better. A lot better.”
I lit a candle, and held it up. He was no more than six feet from me. His face didn’t look so pale. He was no longer sweating.
“Let me see your knuckles.”
He held out the wounded hand. The wound was pink, the skin around it white. I checked the wound on his stomach next. The gray skin had reverted back to white. The bite marks themselves were red, but not angry looking any longer. His leg was the same.
“I can’t believe it. It worked.”
“I can’t believe it, either. I just knew I was going to die and…and…”
“Yeah, I get it. I was about to put a bullet in your brain.”
The smile faded from his face. One appeared on mine. My heart didn’t feel so heavy. There was a way to save those that were bitten. I doubted it would work after someone died, but there was a way to save them before they reached that point. We didn’t speak for half a minute. Maybe more.
“Why don’t you take a shower? You smell like death warmed over. I’ll make you something to eat.”
After he left the room, I lit a couple candles. The cabinets still had food in them, but not a lot. We needed to go on a food run eventually. But not tonight. Hetch was probably still in no shape to run from biters.
I pulled out a box of crackers that had expired two months earlier. They were still crisp and held no signs of going stale. Two bottles of water went on the table. My mouth was dry and I could feel my body wanting—craving—the alcohol I had lived off of for weeks. I didn’t know if there was anymore over at the other place, and I had no real desire to find out. My body, however, begged me to search. There had to still be some over there.
I held onto the edges of the table, closed my eyes and took deep breaths. In and out. In and out. In and out…
The urge passed and I sat down. I could see the jug with the Healing Springs water in it. There wasn’t much left—maybe a third of a gallon. I wished I had known about this before…
…before Pop died…
…before Davey died…
…before I sat in that warehouse holding Lee’s hand as he threw up and sweated and wasted away, greeting death with a touch of humor and a lot of tears and begging me not to let him turn…don’t let me turn…please, Hank, don’t let me turn…
A crushing blow sank my spirits. Hindsight and all that aside, my family was dead, and there had been a cure all along. Somewhere in the background of the world around me, I heard the sound of water running behind a closed door. I lowered my head to the table, the weight of truth crushing me all over again.