His lungs burned in the cold night air as he took another drag on the cheap cigar. The little girl slept inside, curled up on the couch in the living room with blankets he had found rustling around upstairs. He had forbidden her from venturing up there. The bodies of the home’s previous occupants were still decomposing in the master bedroom and he knew she had no business seeing that. Bodies, as they were, in the street were one thing, there was some context to lend to that, but there was no way he wanted to explain the two elderly people in the bed. Curled up, hands clasped together, they would have made a sweet and romantic scene if not for the the shriveled, decaying bags of meat they had become. The bottle of pills they downed were still on the nightstand with a few left in the bottle. Tyler had pocketed a few of them before leaving the room and had crushed up a small portion of one in the girl’s cereal before putting her down for the night.
The grass rustled in front of him, small clusters of dead leaves scattering across the lawn. It was getting cold and he would have to start thinking of a place to bed down for the winter. Carrie would freeze to death if he failed to find a place. He would check around this one more later, see if there was a wooden stove or something he could use. Even a space heater would work for a few months, just as long as he could keep her fed and positive about everything. Her attitude was the hardest part of it all, but they were working on that.
Working well within the limits of sanity was all he could ask for these days. Sometimes the girl still seemed to shiver in memory, a frightened thing he had found in a home south of Chicago a few months back. Her parents had told her not to leave the house and not to talk to strangers, but she had not seen them in days and was desperate for someone to talk to. Precocious little thing though she was, he had gone through hell just convincing her to come out from under the sink in her parent’s bathroom. Not that she had any reason to trust him; he had broken into her home using a rock.
Ashing out the tapped cigar he left it in the tacky, glass ashtray he had set on the railing and turned into the house. The screen door creaked a bit and he slowed, desperate not to wake Carrie. The old house creaked everywhere, and the tiniest gust of wind worried him but the pill should be enough to keep her out. He had told her what he was giving her. she had put up no fight. They had grown to trust each other and he liked that, seeing it as a triumph he had never been able to achieve in the before.
He went to the kitchen and grabbed one of the decomposing couple’s water glasses. The water that spewed from the faucet was brown. He dumped it. Opening the fridge proved more profitable and moments later he was sitting in the living room sipping water from a plastic bottle. A second one stood on the floor beside the little girl, the perspiration forming a dark ring at the bottom that contrasted to the rest of the hardwood floor.
He finished the water and plopped down in the rocking chair. It squeaked. His eyes shot to the child on the couch, silently begging whatever entity was listening to let her just sleep. He could hear his heart thundering in his ears but then her slow, even breathing cut through and he settled into the chair, closing his eyes. He sighed to himself, as content as could be expected. This was nice.
A gust of wind howled outside, and he opened his eyes to glance warily out through the front windows. Large, paned glass gave way to a field of rustling buffalo grass, the green dancing out to mix with the brown of dying plant life. And there, about thirty feet from the front porch, stood a massive oak tree. It was alone in the grass, no other trees stood near the house for almost a mile. With so few leaves left it looked almost skeletal, the bark nearly stripped to reveal the white underneath. In the sun it had been blinding, reflecting the sun but in the moonlight it was barely visible.
It occurred to Tyler that he had no idea how long the tree had been there.
The girl’s house south of Chicago had been a wreck, but it appeared to have been nice at one point not long before his arrival. Walking up to the door he’d had to step around one body that had fallen right in the path down from the house. He stopped, touched it a bit as though to reassure himself of what he was seeing. The epidemic was baffling and it was still early. He had no idea what happened or where it came from but had watched a few deaths and clued in early. There seemed to be no natural immunity, no one spared from it, and it spread quickly.
The body in front of the decimated house was interesting. It seemed that the spread had hit the neighbors almost simultaneously. Looking up and down the street he could see that many had fallen making a beeline for driveways or streets as they tried to put physical distance between themselves and what was happening.
It had not worked, and it looked like none had really survived.
Securing the mask over his face he turned down to his hip to check the oxygen level. He had time to go in the house, but he would have to be fast. Kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms, then out. No time to stop and browse the books or movie collection, he had to get back to his hole by dark. Not that the time of day made much of a difference, but the whole thing seemed more eerie at night.
Interior design fascinated him and he stopped for a moment to appreciate the house. Besides the damage where the house had broken there was not much in the way out outer decor, the porch lacking a hammock or chairs or even the courtesy of tackily-hung plants with vines that hung nearly to the wooden boards covered in chipped paint. The inside was nicer. Antiques had been brought into the living room, a colonial spinning wheel placed in the corner as furniture. The wainscoting was a lovely oaken color with what appeared to be hand-etched leaf patterns in it. Off to the side, a tree grew out of a split couch. He noticed that it had been suede leather and felt a small part of him ache for it, the lovely wine-red color balancing perfectly with the browns and dark greens in the room. Someone had loved this place. They had probably died in it. That tree was what had decimated the front of the house, or so it seemed, the ceiling and roof broken open by the thick fir.
Creaking seemed a more common occurrence without anyone around. No cars drove on the streets, no televisions and screaming children in yards could cover it, and so as he ascended the stairs he was aware of each and every sound his footfalls made. The upper floors held little. The first floor had held less, the cupboards ransacked before he had arrived.
Rifling through the medicine cabinets had felt wrong the first time he had done it, but it had grown on him. Besides experimenting with drug usage after everything had started, he had begun to use it as a way to get to know the people whose homes he tore through, stripping for necessities before leaving as tombs. This family had an asthmatic, a diabetic, and someone who took Xanax. He pocketed this last one and was about to leave when he heard a whimpering.
Spinning, a bowie knife appearing in his hand, he had looked around the bathroom. The noise did not come again, but he knew there was something there. Finally a small clatter had sounded from beneath the sink. He whipped the doors open and reached in, grabbing what felt like a jacket and hauling on it. A little girl had popped out, no older than eight, and had sprawled on the floor before him. She was shivering. Crying. She looked up at him, her eyes yellowed and golden in the dim light. The sign of infection.
That had been three months ago, and he had not let that broken child out of his sight ever since. Now, as she slept on the couch next to the chair he sat in, his eyes stung with tears. It would happen eventually. It always happened, they had seen people go before. The girl had watched as her parents succumbed to it along with dozens of people on her street. Once, on her birthday, they had broken into a pharmacy to find something for her. He had brought out a card table from the back and a couple of rolling chairs from behind the counter and they had eaten dinner. Standing a candle in her can of baked beans, he had sung to her. “Happy Birthday” had been crooned. After she blew it out a stuffed monkey had been presented, a fuzzy little capuchin that he had found when they were near a toy store. He had snuck out in the night to grab it for her and she had glowed when it was handed over. Granted, that may have been the lukewarm beers he let her have, but she had been excited nonetheless. It rested in her arms now.
He had never had children of his own, but given his work with Carrie it occurred to him that he could have been a decent one if he had tried. She was a revelation to him, a sign of what he still had a chance at. She would go like the others, everyone did eventually, but while he had her it was going to be the time of her life if he had anything to say about it.
He heard a shuffling from the couch and looked. Carrie was scratching, a rough dark patch visible on her wrist. He shot out of the chair and over to her. The noise brought her awake, her small body shooting up and bracing, afraid that they had been found by someone else. They had learned together not to trust anyone but themselves, and she was instantly in a mixture of panic and fear.
He whispered kind things to her, hugging her tight. He told her that it was ok, it was going to be over quick. She questioned him, but he had already seen the sign. It was happening now, they were out of time.
The realization dawned on her and she began to shake, quivering as she began to cry into his shoulder. He pulled her closer and held on tight, feeling the tensing of her muscles as it began. The rough feel of her skin began to scrape against him, grating against his flesh. Carrie’s arms and shook, shooting out from her as her legs began to stiffen.
“Look at me,” he said. “Look only at me and I’ll go with you as far as I can. Remember, I love you. I love you and I’ll be with you all the way.”
With this he released her, stepping back. Fingers splitting, her hands bleeding, the process began in earnest. Her shoes split, roots driving into the floor. The small girl let out a blood-curdling scream but kept her eyes focused on him, questioning and begging him to help her. The yellowed irises locked onto his and he wanted nothing more than to look away but he kept his gaze on her, smiling and whispering over and over how much he loved her. As the leaves began to grow out of her fingernails he began to cry as well.
Her jeans and jacket split open as the trunk formed, the gnarled bark twisting upward as she grew. It was horrifying and magnificent. Tilting her head back, she spewed more branches out of her mouth as her throat split and the cries abruptly stopped. Her life eked out of her as the tree grew. Plaster rained down on him from the ceiling and his breathing grew painful, harsh with the dust. Wood broke and tiles from the roof rained down around him as she split down and through the floor, through the foundation, and took root in the ground.
The gurgling stopped as she died, her skin absorbed into the trunk of the oak as it rose out of the house and into the sky. The wind shook her leaves as they flourished. New trees were always green, but the weather would soon turn her to glorious gold and brown with the chilly fall weather. He shuffled back to avoid the falling debris.
The rumbling stopped and she stood before him. In a knot on the side of the trunk he thought he could make out her face, the eyes and button nose still visible through all the rough and twisted wood. She was still alive and kicking somehow, stored inside what she had become. He got up, walked over, and looked at the knot. He was sure it was her, it had to be. He placed his hand on the trunk of the tree and leaned his head against her, crying. In the branches above him, trapped in the tangle of them, her stuffed capuchin was tightly clasped.
“I love you, Carrie,” he whispered, trying to be reassuring. “I always will.”