It's a hot, muggy July day in the small town of Muskgrove, Arkansas. Eddie has been home for just over a month, give or take. Everything was going bad before, but in the span of time he's been home it's gone straight to hell in a hurry. The National Guard has abandoned most of Central, Southeastern, and Southwestern Arkansas. A small enclave is being set up near the University in the Northwestern most portion of the state, where the Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas National Guards are conscripting all able-bodied persons. Sheriff Departments statewide are deputizing everyone they can, but they just keep losing people. Pretty soon, there will be no one left to deputize.
Eddie and Buckley heard all this over the radio last time they went out foraging. This time, they brought Jimmy along to tell him the news. It's a hard decision, but Jimmy is going to have to take Dad to the University. Eddie and Buckley, however, cannot go; the radio reported all deserters are being summarily executed.
Deserters. That's what he and Buckley had become. No matter, though. Protecting the family was most important. To know his brother and father were safe made everything worth it. And, eventually, he is sure a blanket pardon will be given once everything returns to normal. And if it never again is "normal"? Well, then he won't need a pardon.
On their return home, Eddie stops, sets the t-shirt full of blackberries down, and sits against a fallen tree. He motions for Jimmy to do the same. Jimmy looks at his little brother, seeing heartache and a grim determination set on his face. He looks to Buckley for some insight, but sees nothing on the stoney exterior that has become his nature now.
It was not always so. Once upon a time, Buckley was the coolest kid on the block. Always quick with a joke, and always pleasant to be around. Jimmy long thought Buckley was the best thing that happened to his little bro; truth be told Eddie was quite the hell-raiser as a kid. Buckley kept him in check, and watched out for him. Over the years, Buckley became family. So when the tragedy struck it was no big surprise he came to them, nor was it a surprise they welcomed him with open arms. He has certainly changed since then. Losing your family can do that, Jimmy reckons.
So he sits. Next to Eddie, leaned up against the tree, he sits. Buckley scans the woods with the .22 caliber rifle, but stays within the circle.
An awkward silence descends upon the group.
After a spell, Eddie breaks it.
“Jim-bo, we have something to tell you.”
“Yeah, bud, I figured that.”
“No man, seriously. This isn't getting any better. It's spreading. These... people-”
“Patients,” Buckley interjects. He coined the term after hearing his parents referring to the infected patients they had at the hospital, before everything went South.
“-Patients... whatever you want to call them. They're not people anymore.”
“What do you mean 'not people anymore' Ed?”
“I mean exactly that. You know. They're dead, they just don't know it. Like rabies or some shit. There's no cure.”
“Ed, there's gotta be a cure. The Guard is going to come through and hand it out when it's been tested, and everything's going to go back to normal.”
“Jimmy, there is no cure. There's no Guard, either.”
Jimmy's words are met by a blank stare.
“Justin and me... we heard it on the radio last time we were out. They've abandoned most of the state, bro. It's game over.”
“What do you mean when you say abandoned? They can't just leave. They're the National Guard, for Christ's sake! This is what they're here for!”
“The area they were trying to cover was too large. They lost too many to the infection. They're regrouping and consolidating up North. Around the University. A compulsory conscription is in affect, but that's to be expected. They are taking in civilians, though.”
The blank stare is wiped away as quickly as if it had been slapped of Jimmy's face. “THAT'S GREAT NEWS!”
“Shhhh, shhh. Not so fast, bud. They are taking in CIVILIANS. Dig what I'm saying? Civvies. Uninfected civilians.”
“No shit, man. I don't want to be around anybody that's got that shit. I mean, I don't agree how they've been handled so far. Even with AIDs we don't just go around killing people.”
“No, but this isn't AIDs. And you do go around putting down rabid animals, right? Same same. Regardless, you're missing the point I'm trying to make here, Jim.”
“Well what is your point then, Eddie? Seriously, I don't want to sit out here all day. I cannot wait to tell dad! Sure, it'll be a bitch to hike all that way, but we've got at least a half a tank of gas left in the old truck so that should get us halfway there. Fuckin'-A boys. We're going to be Ok!”
Eddie glances up at Buckley who, to his credit, is hiding his growing agitation very well. He looks back at Jimmy who is now almost beside himself at the thought.
“Buckley and I will go with you and Dad to the outskirts of the encampment, but we can't go in. Deserters are being executed on the spot.”
Jimmy's face goes slack. Not blank, exactly, but all joy has been wiped away.
“What do you mean, exactly?”
Buckley butts in, “If I have to listen to you say 'what do you mean' one more fucking time I swear to GOD I will junk punch you. Do you really not get it? Me and Eddie here are AWOL. We deserted. If the government gets a hold of us, we are to be put down. Shot. Executed. Patient food.”
“That's enough, Buckley! Jimmy, he's right, though. Once they scan us in they'll have complete access to our records. They'll see. They may let us slide by, or they may make an example out of us. The radio said to date no deserters have returned, so I don't know what they'd do in that situation. But truth be told, both of us are lucky to have gotten away when we did. We can't go with you guys. We can make sure you get there safe, though. That's the whole reason I came back when I did. To make sure you guys were safe. Dad's been going down hill ever since his surgery, and you won't make it out there on your own. You don't know the first thing about tactics, bud. You're a hell of a hunter, but not the best soldier I've ever seen.”
He was aiming for a chuckle, but after the blow of the news, the joke rings hollow.
“Ed, Dad doesn't know does he?”
“No. That's why we wanted to bring you out here. We figured you and I should tell him, rather than Buckey and I telling both of you.”
They sit in silence a moment longer. Jimmy reaches into the rolled up t-shirt and pops a blackberry into his mouth. Chewing on it much longer than any reasonable person would, he grabs another before standing up.
“Alright. Let's go, little bro. Let's go break Dad's heart.”
That's when they hear the scream.
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