“Good shot Zoe.”
“I’m running low.”
“I got the .38 not the .45.”
“Sorry. Fuck -- HERE! NATE!”
“I’m ok Jim. I -- DUCK!”
“Shit. MOIRA… HELP!”
“Got it… COME ON YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!”
“This is what we get for hiding out on a fish farm.”
“Stop complaining and shoot something!”
“I AM! …fucking merpeople.”
My dad used to tell me growing up is about learning what you can’t do. Being young means you can do anything you want, be anything you want, that sort of thing. But getting older, assuming a person gets wiser, is all about finding out not only what you can’t do but learning to live with the fact.
I guess that’s what all this is about. I don’t mean that the universe fucked up the whole world so I could learn a lesson I should’ve picked up when I was fifteen. The idea of a global apocalypse so one prick can learn a life lesson, meanwhile thousands, if not millions, possibly even billions are dying -- it’s the height of narcissism. What I mean is this story, so I suspect I should get to the point.
It’s pretty clear by now I didn’t care for Jim. Something about him always seemed phony. He did alright in a shootout, though he tended to spray&pray, firing a cloud of bullets in the general direction of his target. Let me put it this way: based on his stories, Jim was a better shot right up to the moment we met him; and the things he kept telling us about himself sounded too close to bad action movie plots. I swear to god he implied Walking Tall, about a sheriff using a two by four to beat the corruption out of his town, was loosely based on his life. For all Jim’s survival training Moira was the only one pragmatic enough to remember to scavenge for first aid supplies. But whenever I pointed these kinds of things out, well, everyone just got pissed.
Then one day, somewhere in Utah, I got all the proof I needed.
We spotted the crows before the town. Hell, we could hear the damn things a mile off. Not sure if the crow population was just booming or if something unusual was going on, but needing to hit up the town for any food and gas there might be a scouting detail got sent out. Now, Matty and Zoe are our best scouts, but Jim always insisted we make things fair. So everyone drew straws. On this particular occasion, Jim and I got the duty.
As per his routine camouflage, Jim took off his shirt then streaked dark mud over parts of his face and torso. Properly painted, he led the way towards the soaring murder of crows.
It took us about an hour to get near the town. Anytime crows went into the sky we hid in nearby bushes.
“No sense chancing they might see us,” Jim said.
A year ago I’d’ve thought he was an idiot. It’s funny how time, experience changes the way things look. My old instinct, probably just six months prior, would’ve been to ask how we’d check if the crows were indeed supernatural. However, I knew the safest move was not taking the chance either way -- assume everything in the world now possessed the intention of killing you. As such, it took two hours to sneak into the town.
I’d stopped noting the towns’names. Too many looked the same. Sure, the layout changed but not the pattern: corpses rotted to gel and bones, burnt out homes and businesses, car wrecks littering the roads, blood stains decayed to black, lawns looking like prairies, crude handmade signs begging for help, though their makers were long gone, either dead or moved on; everywhere the proof nothing would ever be the same again. The only thing I wanted to do was grab what we could and get out quickly. We managed to scrounge up a few gallons of gasoline, though not much else. With the crows in the sky, and slim pickings in the town, there was no point bringing the whole group down.
“Better than nothing,” Jim said on our way back to the caravan.
Hmmm I grunted in agreement.
“Maybe the next town’ll be better, yaknowhuamsayin’?”
Mmm I grunted in disagreement.
Whenever he and I got alone together he never shut the fuck up. Jim fired off one line after another, a quick sentence here and there trying to spark off something like a conversation. He probably wanted us to be friendly if not friends. Maybe he figured one might lead to the other. I only know I didn’t give a fuck. I made it a point not to speak to him.
We were walking single file, Jim a few steps ahead of me. Our attention on the crows, neither of us noticed the figure crouched in a nearby tree. We detected it the moment it pounced on Jim. My first reaction: “There is a god, and she loves me.” I recognized the creature right away. Skeletally thin with long greasy silvery hair, eyes like polished tin, ivory skin: vampire. It knocked the gun out of Jim’s hand the second it hit him. I’ve seen people get hit by cars with less severity. I heard the sickening crunch-crackle as its jaw unhinged exposing a mouthful of crooked needle teeth. The night terror hissed at me, and for a moment I thought, ‘Why do anything?’ It would’ve been so easy to simply let it kill Jim. Done. Problem solved. Fuck him anyway. But when I looked at Jim I didn’t see anything defiant. There wasn’t a hint of the unflappable action hero he so often claimed to be. Instead, he looked scared out of his mind. So I shot the vampire in the face, blew its jaw clean off. The bloodsucker ran off into the woods howling. Still, the damage was already done.
When the vampire pounced on Jim it broke most of his ribs. Two snapped right into his lung. It was only a matter of time before he either bled to death or drowned in his own blood. He tried sitting up only to collapse back in agony. Then Jim cried. I don’t mean a few tears quietly fell. He turned into a blubbering fountain twisting in the dirt moaning, “Oh god. Oh fuck. Oh god. Oh shit. Shit. I’m… I’m fucking dying man.” Every trace of his gravely voice gone, he sounded more like a teenage boy barely into puberty. Puppies make less pitiful sounds.
And I won’t lie. I wanted to laugh. Aren’t heroes supposed to die with dignity? I even got down on one knee all ready to gloat. Then he grabbed me by the wrist. I’ve never felt someone grab me like that -- literally holding on for life. He coughed blood up across his face, and I thought about Amy back when this all started. Because of her I recognized his expression, a mingling of desperation and terror.
So I said to him, “It’s going to be alright.”
He shook his head, “All my training… Call of Duty…”
“I like that game,” I said, wiping his face clean with my shirt sleeve.
“I love it,” he gasped, “Love it…” He shivered due to a spasm of pain. Feeling his grip on me slacken, I took hold of his hand. Eyes shut Jim whispered, “Fake it till you make it.” He coughed, gargling up a fresh coat of red. I cleaned him again. He said, “Fake it till ya… that’s what Mom said… I couldn’t survive… not this… I had to be… not me… anyone but me…”
“We’re still alive because of you,” I said.
Jim smiled briefly. He stopped crying. Then he said, “Don‘t tell… Moira.” And those were his last words.
I carried his body back to the caravan. The walk gave me time to think. I considered telling them all the truth. Giddily, I envisioned every which way their faces would fall apart when they realized their hero was anything but. I imagined growing a three foot schadenfraude-boner to bludgeon the burgeoning legend of Jim into the dust… and then what? some part of me asked. Well, obviously the group would have nothing left to believe in, so logically depression would inevitably envelope them all to the point they simply either shutdown to a suicidal degree or made stupid mistakes with the intention of dying. In other words, the loss would kill my friends. It didn’t matter what Jim was as much as what they thought of him as. He made survival seem possible; and it dawned on me for the first time in a year that maybe they all saw through him too, but his determined optimism, inspired by a lifetime of action movies and video games, actually made the others believe there was hope; Jim gave them permission to ignore reality. All I ever did was try to drag them back to the grim truth.
So, when I got back to camp, I told them all the story of how the vampire attacked me from behind. Then Jim spun around. Shooting from the hip he blew its jaw off right before the bloodsucker bit me. Wounded but not dead, the vampire went after Jim. Jim cut out the fiend’s black heart with his knife (which I took the time to stain with Jim’s own blood for a measure of authenticity), however, as he did so the nosferatu hammered his chest with punishing blows. I told them he only just collapsed on the edge of camp, having walked over a mile while his lungs filled with blood, never once uttering a complaint.
The next morning Nate asked, “So what do we do now?”
I glanced at Matty, “What do you think we should do?”
She shrugged, “Jim kind of talked sometimes like maybe we should go to Alaska.”
“Yeah,” Zoe remembered, “He said there would be fish and animals to hunt and not a lot of people.”
“What about the cold?” Moira said.
I said, “We’ll figure it out. If Jim thought it was a good idea then we should give it a try.”
“Hell yeah.” Nate punched me in the shoulder.
Moira cast a sidewise glance my way. She shook her head but agreed,“Fuck it. It can‘t be any worse than anywhere else.”
Aliens in flying saucers firing green death rays at anything that moves. Nate is starting to wonder if the silent siblings are actually ghosts (and I think he might be right). Trolls roam the north woods. Sharks swimming through the desert sands. Bloodthirsty Sasquatch, lizard people in Las Vegas, goblins along the western Canadian coast, rumors of dinosaurs in plate armor, and last week we ran into a zombie-werewolf-vampire. But we’re going to make it. Like Jim might say, “It’s only weird cuz you ain’t used to it. Tomorrow, it gets everyday easy, yaknowhuamsayin’?”