The arrow struck the black spray-painted dot in the hay bale—dead center. Impact from the sleek shaft was accented by a solid thud. A slight vibration moved the fletching at the end of the arrow. Had it been a chest or an eyeball, death would have been swift.
Less than an inch away, the next arrow struck solidly in the hay. It was followed by a third, also dead center in a black dot.
Four bales stood lengthwise on a fallen refrigerator. The targets had only been missed eight times, and even they were close. But there were still nineteen more arrows for redemption.
Abandoned apartment doors were open allowing drab light to flow into the interior hallway of the empty complex. A few other doors were closed with broken off doorknobs. Dull, gray walls were striped with shadows, obscuring detail and distorting depth. Grampa loved this area for practice. He believed archery should always be done in bad lighting, so when conditions were good skill would elevate. For the last two years, Alex had shot fifty arrows a day. His father and Grampa made it part of his daily chore routine. Sometimes they showed up to watch, but since Grampa had become bedbound with his cough, Alex had practiced alone.
The silhouette of the teenager took his stance and pulled his tenth and final arrow from his quiver. He made a slow draw of the short bow, and brought the fletching close to his cheek. He found the sweet spot with his strong eyesight. His fingers moved an almost undetectable amount. The feathers gave a soft tickle across his cheek as the arrow raced to its mark.
From the corner of his vision, he saw a figure climbing through a window in the open apartment next to him. There was no doubt, no question, no hesitation. Alex turned and released a whizzing shaft of death. Since a very early age, he had been taught to assume that anyone who did not identify themselves before approaching was a cutthroat or a zombie. The town laws demanded the killing of them both.
Instead of finding an intruder’s throat, the razor-tipped arrow vanished through a waving tatter of former curtains. Mentally, he scolded himself for wasting an arrow, but he was really bothered for being distracted. The practice area was more quiet than usual. No collectors had come by to rummage for supplies. It always surprised him when they did though because the oldsters said the place had been picked clean of useful items decades ago. No one showed up today, not even the local kids that came to drink homebrew and make out. There was nothing to blame but his unfocused mind
Alex had developed his skill with the bow as a result of patience. He had loved every part of the process from making the string, finding the wood for the bow and arrows, as well as the hours of stance training and arm strengthening his Grampa insisted that he do before releasing his first shaft. This patience had filtered back into his life and given him great confidence, but today his nerves challenged his strongest attribute. The boy had to dig deep to concentrate.
On his way to the targets to retrieve his arrows, Alex passed several open windows. He could tell afternoon was hurrying to dusk. He had to get the last shots off. Grampa would ask, and he wouldn’t lie to him. His heart fluttered a little as he felt the pressure of time, but he did not rush. Alex was well aware that the choosing of champions was approaching, and if he wasn’t at his best, receiving a token was unlikely.
The young man had decided when he woke up this morning that today was the day to talk to Mr. Teeblum, but his practice was running longer than he expected, primarily because he kept running over the conversation in his mind.
Sir…I’ve known you for a long time, and you…No, that’s not it. Sir, we’ve known each other since I was a small boy. None of his thoughts found the right words.
He released the next ten arrows in sloppy succession, but half of them struck true. Torn between his duty and his heart, the final six arrows might as well not have been released. They were embarrassing considering the skill Alex had amassed. He was glad his Grampa wasn’t there watching. His teacher would have chastised him for the obvious distraction.
Mr. Teeblum, Sir, I have proven myself in the skills of men. I have learned the trade of my family. He felt he was getting closer. Alex just let the words keep flowing in his mind. I can provide for…
Alex was about to become a man. The first sixteen years of his life, all the time his father and his Grampa put into teaching him, his dreams for his true love, his confidence all burned inside of him. He was so proud. He was going to be a champion.
Finally, he released the last arrow. It missed the bale entirely.
Deflated and dejected, that single arrow, that solitary awful shot, suddenly became the omen for his dreams. His head sank, and he was glad he was alone. Tears pushed at his closed eyes. Alex knew how serious the competition was. Less than perfection meant failure and waiting another year, but in another year it wouldn’t be worth competing.
His meditation on self doubt was broken by a sudden scream that reeled him instantly back to the harsh reality of survival, of killing for supplies, and of the ever present danger of the cannibalistic undead.
Alex’s cool was a little shaken by the certainty of terror he heard in the voice. A final trip to the targets allowed him to gather his arrows. A tinge of confidence settled within him as he slid the shafts into position.
The scream came again. It was above him, but close enough that he was sure it was on the second floor. Alex cocked his head and managed to extract a word out of the muffling walls and the anxiety pounding inside him.
His doubts about himself gave way to his adolescent drive for adventure. Deftly he flipped one of his trio of shafts into position and applied a little tension to the string. Alex moved at a cautious pace to one of the open doors.
“Stephanie, Come Back! I’ve got to finish it!”
Alex turned into an empty stairwell. The concrete steps had been picked of anything useful, burnable, or salvageable long ago leaving them probably as clean as they had ever been.
Moving his gaze from behind him to in front him constantly, he made sure his path was safe or that a killing shot would be his for the taking. Once on the landing between the floors, Alex looked up to the next floor. There was no door at all, just an empty frame.
“Stephanie!” It was a man, and he was filled with desperation. Something was off about his voice, maybe he was hoarse. Alex could tell for sure that he was on the second floor.
At the upper landing, Alex paused. A wordless scream made him realize he was only a few doors away at most and brought to his attention that he was afraid. The excitement had buried the primal feeling, but now it coursed through his body like a drumbeat. He fought pulling back the string of his bow even further. His Grampa had drilled into a long time ago that a forearm kept tense for too long was apt to misfire, but the novice archer wanted to be ready to release at a breath’s notice.
The screams continued, but whoever it was wasn’t moving. The voice begged and pleaded that Stephanie come feed him. Alex listened motionless as the caller cried out to be fed. The boy had never heard anything like it. It was cruel. The unknown suffered whimpered and called out to God to be saved from the torment of hunger.
Alex wanted his legs to move, to carry him to do what he knew needed to be done, but the desperation in the man’s voice scared the teenager. He wished his father were with him. He always knew what to do.
He gave in and pulled his bow to a full draw. “Hello?”
The voice replied with a fresh charge of hope. “Hey! Hey! Help! I need help!”
Alex moved out into the hallway. It was dark. Most of the doors were closed. The failing light of dusk reached halfway down the corridor from an open door at the end of the stretch of apartments. The door to the outside was open enough that he could see out.
The screams started again with an unpleasant urgency. Alex felt even more frightened. He was afraid to see what sad human could make such heart wrenching pleas. “You can’t leave me! When the dead come they’ll eat me alive!”
Such things happened and Alex didn’t like to think about them. The stories of undead swarming a helpless man were gruesome. Even though Alex had never heard of a sighting in this building, he lifted his bow. Just talk of the cannibal, killing machines made him feel like he needed to defend himself.
“Please!” the unseen man begged. “Don’t let me die.” At the end lonely sobs of doom spilled into the hall.
Alex stood in front of a closed door. The number 217 was on it. He was torn between keeping his bow ready and turning the knob.
“I hear you out there,” the man spoke in a weakening voice. “I won’t hurt you. I can’t move.”
Slowly, he pushed the door open. The smell of death was thick in the air. Alex gagged and fought down a wave of stomach acid with a hard swallow. The sound of raspy breathing mingled with the buzzing of flies.
A dirty mattress dominated the center of the room. It stunk of feces and urine and was smeared with blood. The gaunt man on it was equally stained by filth, and a trail of dried vomit extended from his face down to his sleeveless shirt. His eyes were sunk deep in a face that was as much skull as Alex had ever seen on a living person. The skin was pulled tight revealing a labyrinth of dark veins. Clumps of hair, like the fallen fruit of a dying tree, stuck in the smears of blood. All that remained were nightmarish, gossamer wisps of hair plastered to his face and waving like flags surrendering to the most powerful enemy.
The man barely managed to wave before his slightly lifted elbow dropped back to the bed. “I’m too weak to move.” His voice labored through dry mucus and gore.
Alex stared in horror at the debris of life before him. Dark flies landed on the man and ate from graying patches of rotted flesh with no more bother than a breeze to a man working the fields. He didn’t even attempt to swat them away. The boy’s revulsion was the result of a hundred years of societal teaching. It triggered his muscle to draw his bow to capacity and aim for the man’s left eye.
Something leaned against the wall behind the mattress, and a bowl of black paste sat on the floor close enough to the man’s right hand that had he had normal strength he could have eaten.
Alex’s eyes were drawn to the two side by side, connected metal tubes about two feet long. They climbed up the wall from a curved piece of wood that the teenager knew was supposed to fit against a shoulder. The little lever caught his attention, the trigger. His Grampa had told him about guns, but this was the first time he had ever seen one. Apparently when the dead first rose mankind had had many guns, but the fight had consumed most of them. They were much rarer now.
Hurriedly, the man’s eyes went to the bowl. He had the energy to lift his head for speech only, then it dropped back to the pile of death-stained bedding “You have to feed me that medicine.”
Alex stared in sickening disbelief.
“Old woman Carter gave it to me.”
He had heard the name of the witch before. She lived near the forbidden zone. The adults talked about her medicines when people were gravely ill.
In anticipation the near corpse started flapping his mouth and probing outward with his tongue. “Hurry, kid,” he rasped. “I’ve been bit.”
The words shut Alex down completely with a nauseating fright. When someone said they had been bit it only meant one thing. Not a dog scavenging or a rabbit being hunted. When someone said they’d “been bit”, it meant they were dead. It meant they had to be killed so no one else got infected. It meant they had been bitten by an undead.
Alex’s fingers tightened on his arrow. The conscious part of his brain screamed for him to release this poor soul from his misery and protect everyone he loved. But the boy who had never even defended himself against an attacker could not dispatch a helpless innocent. The man mustered energy and shook his head in protest. “You gotta believe me. My wife got the medicine. The old woman said it would cure the bite.”
For a long moment Alex said nothing. His unresponsiveness angered the man. He tried to lunge forward off the mattress, but little movement occurred. “Come on kid!”
Conflict, panic shut down his ability to act. Alex started backing out of the room.
“You can’t leave me like this,” the man whimpered, “You know what’ll happen!”
And Alex knew exactly what would happen. The years of hard work by the town’s folk would be ruined. They had cleared out most of the dead, driving them to the woods and caves in the outlands. But if Alex did not perform his duty of disposing of the living dead, the scent of the rotten flesh would call to its brethren in the dark, in shadows, in the ruins of the old world, and bring them in numbers. The war could easily begin again.
The boy shook his head.
The grounded man flashed with animal rage, snapping his teeth viscously, shaking head. Gurgling moans pushed squirts of dark blood out of his nose and mouth. His head lulled, and the man regained a fraction of consciousness accented by the rolling whites of the man’s eyes. His muscles convulsed, and the final flood of waste emptied his body leaving the room in the fresh stench of rot.
Alex had heard about the fading of life in a diseased person, but he never expected to witness it himself. The man ceased movement. The terrified boy waited, bow still trained on the left eye. The building was silent. The man didn’t move again, but Alex knew soon that would change.
There was no longer a choice. The boy put down his weapon and grabbed a corner of the bloody sheet. Scared to be so close to the dead man, he forced himself to drag the remains of the man out to the concrete, stair landing.
He reached into his pocket. Alex wanted to believe it was right. He had been taught it his entire life, but now, that it was his turn. It felt completely wrong.
"A maiden in distress"
Dusk rapidly moved toward evening as Alex pedaled his bicycle down Oliver Street at full speed. In the old times the crisscross of streets lined with houses was called a neighborhood, but no one used that word anymore. It would have been viewed as a safe place where children could sit in the grass of their yards waiting for their parents to call them in for supper. But in the Age of the Dead nowhere was safe after dark.
In the back of his mind, common sense nagged Alex for not waiting until tomorrow, but he could not quell the feelings within him. Cora had been the love of his life since he was eight. His words had never been sufficient to describe the incredible elation he felt for her or the lighter than air feeling that overwhelmed him when they held hands. It was time to come forth with his intentions. He knew she had the fire of God in her, the whole town did, and he was aware there would be many other boys besides himself seeking her hand in marriage.
Alex had been delaying this important matter for too long. Black Friday was in a month, so he had to speak with Mr. Teeblum. God willing, the recent massacre at the hospital had made his competition pause just long enough to be too late.
The teenager didn’t expect to see him outside. He felt his courage dry up like the river in last summer’s drought. Alex slowed his pedal as he neared the man.
Black lace up boots ended just before the man’s thick calves began to rise toward his heavy tunic fastened by a leather belt. His head was shaved, and his face dark with stubble. Sweat of labor streaked his fit body like war paint.
Mr. Teeblum moved through the sea of weeds in his front yard. Adeptly he cut the waist high grass with his scythe. The majority of the work had been done, and in a few minutes, his two-story, house would return to the glory of a suburban lawn from any era.
The bouncing metal of the bicycle caught his attention. Every man who was still alive had heightened senses to his surroundings, especially as dark neared. He turned to see the bike skid in his driveway.
“Good evening, Mr. Teeblum, sir.” The boy’s voice shook despite his efforts to appear calm.
“Son, ain’t it late for you to be this far from home?” The man shook his head in disappointment. Young folk didn’t take the dead serious anymore. “I don’t think your father would approve, Alex.”
Alex got off his bike and laid it on the ground. He felt so stupid, but it was too late. There was no backing down, only silent enduring of the chastisement. “Yes sir, but I got to talk to you about something.”
Mr. Teeblum wiped his forehead and approached with his scythe in hand. “I’m sure this can wait til daylight when it’s safer out.”
The boy’s confidence was shaken. Maybe he should have waited until tomorrow. He was worried his disregard for the fears of the older generation put him at risk for being declined. Alex tried to correct the situation with a quick response.
“I won’t keep you long, sir. I have a very quick clear route home.”
“Alex, part of growing up is knowing these things. One day you’re going to be the man of a household, and you can’t be doing stupid stuff like this.”
If the mess he had created for himself could be salvaged, he had to take responsibility for his dumb idea. “I know sir, but I’m afraid I’ve waited too long.”
“What is it Alex?”
“I want to marry Cora, and I’m here to ask your permission to go on the suitor’s quest.”
The gathering gloom concealed the man’s features, but Alex felt Mr. Teeblum’s hard gaze sizing him up. “I love your daughter, sir. I want to marry her.”
His answer had an edge almost as sharp as a hunting knife, and cut Alex’s heart. “I ain’t worried about love, Alex. I want a man who can take care of my girl. I don’t think I need to remind you how special she is?”
“No sir, you don’t. I’ve known it since I was a kid.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he tossed the scythe to the ground and brushed the grime off his hands, “you know what I’m talking about.”
Alex nodded. He knew his love held the power of God within her.
“Does she know you’re asking?”
Anger flashed in the man. “Dam, son, she’s not supposed to know! It’ll break her heart if I reject your offer!” The man released a loud exasperated breath. “You’re not impressing me with your disregard for the rules.”
Alex shook his head. He was very aware of the rules. “Mr. Teeblum, we’ve been talking about this for seven years before I knew the chivalry rules.”
The man kept his eyes on the boy like he was waiting for a gunfighter to draw. “What makes you think you can survive on the other side of the wall?”
“I got four brothers who’ve successfully gotten wives. I know everything I can know without actually having been there. I’ll be in and out with the best stuff. I swear to you.”
His response seemed satisfactory, but the man continued his interrogation. “How are you going to support my daughter?”
“I’m good at raising crops, and some of my brothers moved to Nashville. We are going to start bringing fuel and supplies up here, to Bowling Green.”
Mr. Teeblum approved. “There’s good money in that since the government is loosening the rules.”
“Can I have your permission, sir?”
“Alex, you know the rules. Only one suitor at a time.”
The boy’s heart sank. “Yes, sir.”
“Then be here at sun up in three days. You’re going to have to prove yourself. Now you better be getting home before night comes.”
# # #
The window was open a crack, and a breeze whispered to the opaque curtain on its way to flicker the candle sitting on the table next to the neatly made bed. Cora turned away from the discussion going on outside and eyed the arsenal she had spread across her blanket. Her long red hair was gathered in a single braid hanging down the middle of her back. Her pink dress with a lace border at the neck and hem was in stark contrast to the 50 caliber Beowulf assault rifle that her fingertips glided across. Five, ten round magazines rested beside it with a black boot knife crowning the pile.
Hearing her father talk about her to Alex like she were helpless pissed her off. Cora didn’t need a husband to provide for her, and her father knew that. He trained her in secret weapons that the rest of the world had never seen. She could walk quieter than the dead at night to slice a man’s throat, and he wouldn’t be the wiser until his own blood rain down his chest.
In defiance, she lifted the gun, snapped the folding stock open, nestled it to her shoulder, and followed the red dot across the wall. Her frustration grew into a disgruntled, adolescent moan, and she dropped the weapon to the bed. She loved Alex and wanted to be his wife, but not like this. Cora never saw herself as a prissy princess in a tower. She was a warrior. Her dad knew that, and that was why her heart ached. She couldn’t contain her hurt feeling any longer, and tears streamed down her cheeks.
The girl flopped on the end of her bed letting her head sink. Her shoulders shook as Cora quietly sobbed. She didn’t look up when her bedroom door opened. Cora was in no mood to argue with her mother.
The bed moved beside her, and she was aware of her mother’s presence even though she didn’t speak. Cora wiped her face and quieted her sobs not knowing if this was going to be a conversation of support or another scolding.
“You think you’re a woman,” Shar’s voice spoke low but stern. “You think you know what’s best?”
Cora turned to her mother and stabbed a look of defiance with cold eyes. “I know what’s best for me!”
“I should slap that foolishness right off your face, little missy. God knows, we’ve ruined you by being too permissive.”
Cora’s expression stayed defiant and her eyes didn’t move.
“Do you know why your father trained you so well? Have you ever stopped to think about anyone but yourself? Do you know why he gave up his life to make you as fierce a warrior as you are?”
Cora looked away in shame. She knew her father loved her. Suddenly, she felt ungrateful. “No.” The intensity of her mother’s stare did not relent, and she was embarrassed to look up.
“Men will kill to own you, Cora. They believe you will give them children immune to the Dead Sickness. No man will be able to keep you safe.”
She looked up with disbelief in her eyes. “That’s not true. No one is immune to the Dead Sickness!”
Shar’s face softened, but her voice held its grave tone. “It doesn’t matter. The hordes of the stupid are as dangerous as the hordes of the dead.”
Some of it must have sunk in, for Cora struck a cautious tone. “I can cut my hair or color it with berries and bark.”
Her mother changed. All of the hardness drained away and worry covered her features. “You can for a while, Cora, if you take to the roads. All the men here already know.” She brushed a stray hair from her face. “But you’re beautiful beyond any girl I have ever seen. The men will flock to you. They will come for you.”
Cora’s eyes stared off into the room in front of her. The lessons of killing and wilderness survival meant something that she had missed. Her father had been preparing her to be a free woman. “Then I will fight.”
Her mother grabbed her hand. “Your father has a plan to get you away from here, so you can start over.”
“I love Alex, Mom,” Cora said trembling. “He wants us to have a family and be like you and Daddy, but it wouldn’t be that way.”
Shar squeezed her daughter’s hand lovingly. For the first time, she felt like she was glimpsing the woman she and Daniel raised. Her heart ached for Cora’s stolen innocence. Her daughter might never know the joy of being a mother or of running a good home for a family. She would have given anything to go back to sewing lessons and playing dolls. Maybe if Shar would have started earlier, she could have come up with real plan to allow Cora to have a normal life. There was no fighting the tears, but she let them flow in silence. “Put your gun away. You know you’re father doesn’t like them out.”
“So why are we pretending? If it’s dangerous for me to marry because the other men will want me, I can’t marry Alex.”
“It is the custom. When you are of age, you marry. Women are fewer than men. If our fragile world is to continue, we must pair.”
“I won’t put him in danger,” Cora said firmly, grabbing her Beowulf off the bed.
As if to remind her daughter of her place in the family, Shar snapped one last thing. “It is your father who will choose your champion, and if he survives, you will marry him.”
# # #
Daniel watched the boy pedal down the street and turn the corner. Alex was weak and didn’t have what a man needed to survive in the Dead Age. Hopefully he wouldn’t be back. Cora’s life was going to be hard enough. He didn’t want her starting it weeping over a dead pup.
Alex’s ride home was not how he thought it was going to be. He wished he never would have gone to Mr. Teeblum so late. It just made him look like an immature kid. Even though he had gone on corpse hunts with the men in the neighborhood, he had to show Mr. Teeblum that he was a man who could keep his daughter safe. He had to present a strong image to the other suitors or they would try and kill him.
He pedaled furiously down Cave Mill Road toward the abandoned Kroger. The last light of day would be coming soon. He could see headlights coming up behind him, so he pulled over. The lights followed him.
It was a dark pickup, but he couldn’t make out the color. He also couldn’t get a good look at whoever was driving.
“Get in, kid,” a woman’s voice said. “You act like you don’t know corpses come out at night.”
Alex picked up his bike and lifted it into the bad of the truck. He wasn’t stupid. Of course he knew the dead came out at dark, but people acted liked they were all over the place. There hadn’t been a corpse on this side of town in years.
“Shive Lane. The old elder house.”