Mitch’s eyes eased open, pupils focusing in and out. They were empty, waiting for the light to flicker behind them. He blinked and suddenly there was life behind them again.
The haze in his vision sharpened into a ceiling fan whirling above him. A tiny gold chain dangled from a baseball sized light bulb at its center, lazily dancing to the twirl above. The fan blades hummed quietly as they spun round and round while the rest of the room focused.
The springs of the tiny twin bed underneath Mitch moaned as he sat himself up. The mattress was firm, not far from cardboard. His side burned and was a great deal stiffer, his head dizzy, like he’d been sleeping far too long.
Outside, the sun was setting. Cool blues washed through the window at the foot of the twin bed. A cluster of trees swayed lazily just outside the window, glistening with dusk’s light.
Mitch tried remembering what happened as he threw off the blanket covering his lower half to find he was in his boxer briefs. His face flushed, cheeks growing hot with embarrassment and wonder of who had taken off his pants.
He remembered being bitten, that chunk being ripped from his side, the other gas pump exploding, and phoebe saying something about a tractor but that was it? He had no idea where he was.
Phoebe, I hope you’re okay. Please, please, please be all right.
He slowly brought his legs around, gritting his teeth, sliding to the edge of the bed. His feet touched the soft blue carpet, wriggling his toes in it, noticing the clouds and rainbow wallpaper lining the walls.
I’m in a kid’s room?
In the corner of the room sat a navy blue dresser perfectly matching the color of the carpet. Small action figures posed atop in a frozen battle.
Mitch pushed himself onto his watery legs and fought his off balance equilibrium for a moment. The tension in his side ached when he put weight on his feet. The dizziness hit him, hard, and he sat back onto the bed with a firm creak. He took deep, slow breaths to ease the warmth bubbling at the bottom of his throat.
His pants lay in a wadded bunch by his feet, and when the nausea passed, he fumbled his way inside them, one steady leg at a time, using the bed for support, keeping the pain in check.
He felt hungry and weak, like his blood sugar had crashed, and his stiff hip wasn’t helping. He did his best to keep it straight, but as he bent to put on his pants, he caught himself grunting as pain pulsed.
He lifted up his shirt after his pants were on to check the missing chunk from his side.
Someone had bandaged it, and had done a pretty good job of it too. A length of gauze was wrapped around his chest, keeping the bandage safe and secure from slipping and movement.
Mitch hobbled his way from the kid’s room into a dark hardwood floored hallway, passing an old antique night table with a green stained glass lamp atop, a white lace doily underneath it. The walls were painted lime green, a harsh contrast to the cherry colored hard wood flooring.
The hallway took him by two other bedrooms, each clean and tidy and filled with the ticking of clocks. They looked unused, guest bedrooms perhaps, but Mitch thought the owner could be a neat freak.
Mitch rounded a corner and stood at the summit of a descending L-shaped staircase, matching cherry wood banister running the length.
At the bottom he could make out the faint, muffled voice of a man, older from the depth of his tone.
He got a good grip on the polished banister, still feeling weak at the knees, and took one step at a time. Halfway down, a savory trace of roasted turkey drifted into his nostrils, instantly growling his stomach, followed by the tangy aroma of garlic and potatoes.
Mitch wiped away the drool escaping down the sides of his mouth and shuffled down the rest of the steps.
The voice was clearer now, definitely a man’s.
Mitch walked through an entryway, passed what he thought was a front door, and into a kitchen with blue linoleum tiles.
“Hey, he’s awake!” an elderly man said from a kitchen table. He wore overalls over a red flannel shirt. Grey hair lay flat on his head, dark circles under his eyes, face riddled with wrinkles, but his smile was cheerful, youthful. Beside him, Phoebe tore into a mountain of mashed potatoes.
She looked up from her plate and leapt from her chair, running around the kitchen table and into Mitch.
“Mitch!” she shouted with a laugh. “I didn’t think you were ever gonna wake up!”
Mitch winced in pain while Phoebe squeezed the air out of him, but he smiled all the same.
“Neither did I,” the grey haired man said. “We thought you was in a coma. Not that I would know one if I saw it,” he chuckled. “The young’n kept askin bout you everyday, she did. This old man didn’t know what to tell her.”
“Everyday?” Mitch asked. He dipped in his brow and wrinkled his nose, confused. “How long was I asleep?”
“Six days,” The old man said, nodding his head. “You gave us quite a scare that first night. This little one didn’t leave your side until the day before yesterday.”
Phoebe let go of Mitch and ran back to her chair and grabbed her fork, continuing to shovel mashed potatoes into her mouth.
“These are so good!” she said, piling a forkful.
“We was just sittin down to dinner. Let me…” The old man rose from his chair and walked around to Mitch. He pulled out a chair and motioned for Mitch to sit then helped Mitch lower comfortably into it. “Hope you like turkey and mashed potatoes.”
“Smells great,” Mitch said, stomach grumbling again.
The old man grabbed a plate from a cabinet and silverware from a sliding drawer and scooped Mitch a gracious helping.
“Must be starved. I tried waking you up a few times to eat something, boys gotta keep up his strength, but neither hell nor high water could get you up. Your breathing was so shallow, for an hour or two the other day, we thought you were dead.”
“I can’t believe I was asleep for six days,” Mitch said, eyeing the plate as the old man set it in front of him.
“Well, sleep is the hardest thing to catch up on.” The old man laughed.
Mom said that THAT day, the day I went out. Immediately Mitch’s thoughts played the encounter between the two of them at the gas station.
Mitch felt his eyes watering. A lump formed in the back of his throat. He picked up the fork and scooped a fluff of mashed potatoes, hoping to shove the lump back down.
The old man grunted as he sat back down, opposite Mitch.
“I’m Lyle by the way. Lyle Witchett.”
“He saved us,” Phoebe said, kicking her legs back and forth underneath the table.
“That’s right, little missie, I did. Me and Reggie, the farmhand, we was out on the porch enjoying a pipe when I seen this orange explosion down there by the highway exit. From what I’ve seen, zombies too smart to do something so stupid, or too stupid to do something so smart, either way we took to my combine, Betty I call her, to check it out. Wham Bam, thank ya Ma’m. Here you are,” Lyle said. He cleared his throat and pulled a small wooden pipe from the front pocket of his overalls. With his other hand, he pulled a pouch of tobacco from another pocket and began to pack it.
Mitch set down his fork and swallowed a mouthful of mashed potatoes.
“We both owe you ours lives,” Mitch said, staring into Lyle’s watery eyes.
“Don’t get all butt hurt about it, now. No thanks needed,” Lyle said, lighting and puffing on the pipe. “We did what we had to. Not enough of that going around these days.”
Mitch started eating again. After a moment of silence, Mitch started talking again.
“So, you just hang out on the porch? You’re not afraid of zombies wondering onto your yard, or getting in to the house at night?” Mitch asked.
“Oh no. Ain’t been a zombie out here in, oh, two weeks I’d say. Seen em tearing apart ole Clifton, but they stay pretty close to town. Ain’t much food for ‘em out here I guess.”
Mitch sliced free an edible size of turkey from the breast on his plate.
“Where’s the other guy at?” Mitch asked.
Phoebe stopped chewing and looked from Mitch to Lyle then back again. Her eyes and face spoke no emotion. She set down her fork and stared into her plate.
Lyle exhaled a plume of cherry scented tobacco. He furled his chin upward. A thin film of tears glazed over his dark circled eyes. He cleared his throat and blinked away the sadness.
“Reggie…uh,” Lyle cleared his throat again, “he...Reggie didn’t make it.”
Mitch stopped chewing the. His eyebrows arched and lips turned down. He looked at Phoebe, who he could tell already knew. Of course she knew, he thought, she was there. I was the one who passed out.
He didn’t feel much for the man who was dead, the one he’d never seen but risked his life to save his. Mitch’s mind was on his mother, but from the visible battle behind Lyle’s eyes, he could tell Reggie must have meant a great deal to this old man, and that was worth something.
“I’m sorry,” Mitch said. “He must have meant a lot to you?”
Lyle smiled, eyes shimmering with fresh tears.
“Reggie was headstrong, a terrible quality to have nowadays. But, he was my friend and he cared about people, you know, doing what he could.”
Lyle wiped his eyes with his pointer finger.
“There were just so many of them.”
The group sat in silence, Mitch and Phoebe finishing off their plates.
Lyle walked over to the kitchen sink, twisted his pipe upside down, and tapped it against the rim, showering the drain with grey ash. He ran some water to wash it down while the cherry scented smoke drifted through the air. He turned around, leaning his back against the sink, staring at Mitch.
“The young’n told me what happened at the gas station before me and Reggie showed up.”
Mitch stared at his empty plate, watching himself shoot his mother in his mind.
“That wasn’t her,” Lyle said. “Your mom is in a better place. That shell left behind, that’s an abomination. A crime of nature. It ain’t right!”
Mitch slowed the replay in his mind, focusing on his mother’s grotesque smile, the menace behind it. It wasn’t her, but he had trouble disconnecting the feeling. His stomach felt empty, even though he’d just eaten his fill. His cheeks flushed and his eyes started burning with tears.
“Why is this happening?” Mitch asked. He folded his arms on the table and laid his forehead down. His body jerked and spasmed as he blubbered out the frustration and the sadness.
Phoebe walked over and hugged Mitch from behind. Mitch lifted his head and leaned it against Phoebe’s then looked at Lyle.
“Just what the hell is going on?” Mitch asked.
“Well, I don’t think it’s a virus, otherwise we prolly wouldn’t be having this conversation. ‘Sides, Reggie’d been bit and scratched before and nothing happened to him. Near as I can tell, you get back up after you die, cept it ain’t you anymore. You’re something else, something hungry that enjoys tearin’ apart families and lives, something that just enjoys the kill. And they’re smart too,” Lyle said, pointing his pipe at Mitch.
Mitch wiped his eyes dry.
“They used my mom as bait. I don’t know what they were doing, testing how many people were in the gas station, what kinda’ weapon I had, I don’t know. But, they used her while they watched from the ditch. She drew me out, and then…” Mitch said, letting his thoughts finish his sentence.
“They’re something else. Gives me the willies’ just thinkin’ about it to be honest,” Lyle said, standing up straight. He shoved the pipe back into his overalls pocket. “Eat your fill, boy. There’s plenty more left,” he said, pointing at the oven. Lyle turned on the sink, grabbed Pheobe’s empty plate from the table, and began scrubbing it with a crusty dish sponge.
Mitch ate a few more mouthfuls then stopped and set down his fork.
“Was it just you two out here?” he said, breaking the silence.
“What’s that?” Lyle said, turning off the faucet.
“Was it just you and Reggie here?” Mitch repeated.
Lyle wiped his wet hands with a towel then tossed it onto the counter beside the sink. He took a deep breath.
“Oh,” Lyle said, thinking back in time. Mitch could tell Lyle was thinking of the friend he’d lost, could see it in his eyes. “My wife Jeanie and me, we built this farm some,” Lyle said, squinting his eyes to remember, “oh wow, thirty years ago. She, ugh, well…”
Lyle hobbled past Mitch, scooping up his finished plate as he walked by.
“She passed two winters ago. She’d been fighting cancer for a couple years. She was a tough nut, that one,” Lyle laughed. “There’d be days when she’d have an extra kick in them heels, ya’ know. She’d get up, go pick some strawberries from the garden and make one mean-ass strawberry pie. Then there’d be days when she wouldn’t get out of bed at all. She’d lay there, and sometimes she’d cry. Jeanie hated me seeing her like that, said she didn’t feel sick ‘less I saw it.”
Lyle ran faucet water over the dish then set it in the sink. He leaned over the sink and stayed there for a moment, deep in thought.
Mitch sat forward, trying to see Lyle’s face. He wasn’t sure if he was crying or something else entirely.
“I didn’t mean to…” Mitch said, feeling awful.
Lyle waved his hand.
“Don’t worry about it kiddo’. It’s good to think about these things once n’ a while,” Lyle said, turning around. “Anywho, in the end, the cancer won out. That’s when I hired on Reggie and his buddy Bill Denningham. They’d done work for Birdy Farms out of Paxton the summer before.”
Lyle crossed the kitchen and sat across from Mitch while Phoebe sat on the floor, playing with her stuffed bear, singing quietly to it.
“Bill left last week with his pickup,” Lyle said, turning to face the pantry beside the fridge. “We’s been low on food for a while now. I tried to get to tellin’ him not to go, told him we’d figure something out, but that boy is just as stubborn as Reggie, if not more so. Anyway, he said he was gonna’ ransack the Walmart near Kankakee for some food stuffs. That was last Sunday,” Lyle said, looking at the tabletop with an empty stare. “Haven’t seem ‘em since.”
Mitch’s stomach dropped. This man had lost everyone in his life. Guilt began shoving itself to the front of Mitch’s attention. That story sounded oddly familiar. If he hadn’t left, he wouldn’t be here. His mom would still be alive. Lyle’s friend would still be alive. He wouldn’t be alone.
Lyle broke his stare and looked at Mitch with a smile.
“And here you are,” he said, shaking his head in some form of amazement. “Fate’s funny.”
Fate’s funny, Mitch repeated in his head. Ain’t that the truth.
Lyle rose from his chair and put his hands into the pockets of his overalls.
“If you don’t mind me bein’ a bit nosy, where was you two headin’ anyway?” Lyle asked, as though he’d been thinking about it for some time.
“I don’t really know,” Mitch said, thinking on it himself. Where were they heading? Where would they go? Was anywhere safe? Them Polacks’ got it right, Brian’s voice whispered, underground bunkers and all.
Mitch folded his arms on the table and rested his chin on the table top.
“We were just goin’,” he said. “Phoebe had to pee. Then all that happened.”
“Hmm,” Lyle said, straightening his posture. “Well, you’re welcome to my home and everything in it as long as you like. You two seem like good folks,” he laughed. “All I ask is that you help out with the chores.”
Lyle walked out of the kitchen and stopped just outside the doorway and looked back.
“I’m gonna’ turn in,” Lyle said, looking at the digital clock over the stove. “I know you been sleepin’ for six days ‘n all, got a lot of buildup to burn through, so try not to make too much noise, mmkay? You’re welcome to whatever’s in the fridge, just be mindful of others, yours isn’t the only mouth we gotta feed.”
Mitch nodded his head, agreeing.
“Thanks again,” Mitch added before Lyle smiled and headed up the stairs.
“G’night, Mitch,” Lyle shouted from upstairs.
“I’m sleepy too,” Pheobe said, yawning and stretching her hands into the air. She flopped them to the ground, yawn finished, and scooped up her bear. She shuffled by Mitch, pecked him on the cheek, then laughed as she ran up the stairs.
Mitch sat, fingers interlaced, folded on the tabletop, staring through the pitch black window.
Two weeks since he’d seen a zombie. Is it possible? Could it really be that easy? The countryside? Living out here wouldn’t be so bad.
He thought it could work, thought it just might be okay. Things may be looking up, for the first time in a long time.
When he saw a pair of headlights barreling up the road, headed to the house, beaming through the kitchen window, he thought wrong.
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