Part 5 - Seth Underwood
It was somewhat before high noon, but we were facing off against each other as if a gunfight was imminent. Barring the fact that we, at least, had no guns; and as I started counting heads, we appeared to be soundly outnumbered.
The vehicles were a mix, cars and trucks, old and semi-new; and the people were a mix too – men and women, old and young, some grey and grizzled, while some were a year or two older than Tamsin. But their faces weren’t soft, and there were no actual children amongst them. For the most part they just looked like people, the flotsam and jetsam of the apocalypse. They didn’t scream armed-band-of-thugs as such, but there was something about this guy in front that triggered a quiet warning at the base of my skull.
Seth – as we’d learn he was – stepped forward. He had a pistol in his belt but his hands were empty and presented for inspection. “We don’t come here looking for trouble. We weren’t expecting to find anyone here.”
Tristan came forward, “What brings you here?”
“Five cars, good luck, and a plan. I see you people have been taking care of the place.”
“You were here before,” I said, remembering the belongings we’d found.
“Yes, we were.”
Tristan said, “Well, we don’t want any trouble either, we’ve had quite enough of that for one apocalypse. We all came here in our dribs and drabs just trying to keep out of the way of the worst of it.” and I guess he could count just as well as I could, because he added, “You’re welcome here. We don’t have as much supplies as we’d like, but we’re willing to share. Our supply run went a bit pear-shaped.”
“Oh, we come with foodstuffs.”
“No trouble?” he said.
That didn’t mean that we were wholly comfortable with the invasion. I saw the look of fear that ran through Greg and Tamsin as the group moseyed on in. Both realising they couldn’t properly protect the other. And Todd, a look in his eyes that was part-curiosity, part-challenge. There’d been a new hard edge to that kid since his sister died, and what else could we expect of him, really?
“They come in peace,” I told Tamsin quickly.
“Are you sure?”
I lied, “Yes.”
She pressed a hand firmly on Greg’s arm.
I knelt over him, “how’s he doing?”
“I don’t know. Tired, I think. And still with all those internal injuries and stuff we don’t understand,” she looked apologetic, “Sorry, Greg.”
“It’s all right,” he murmured. “I’m… okay.”
“Yeah,” I said, “You’re doing a great impression of that. I’ve been where you are,” okay, sort of, “Just try to lie still, that’s all. It does get better. Like a breath at a time.”
“Some new people?”
“Yeah.” Well, probably.
His eyes slid closed. He was as tired as Tamsin said, and no surprise, given the pounding his body had taken. My eyes tracked cuts and bruises, along with his blistered, punctured face. I hoped he really would heal the way I had.
The newbies were bringing supplies in now, and it did look like an impressive collection. Boxes and boxes of food carried in and piled up.
I noticed Seth looking at me.
“Bit of a rash,” he gestured at my neck.
I tried to pull my collar up a bit and cringed at myself for doing it. “Yeah, must be allergic to something.”
“Hm,” as if he knew a great deal more.
“It’s not too bad,” I said, “there’s been plenty worse going on.”
He nodded towards Greg.
“Yeah. That’s an example.”
“He don’t look too good.”
“He’ll be okay.”
“Chloe’s a nurse. She could take a look at him.”
My immediate reflex of no, he’s fine was a stupid one, and I just managed to crush it before it came out of my mouth. “Sure,” I said, “I’m not sure she’s seen the likes of it before, but maybe it’ll help.”
“At you too, if you want.”
“I’m really okay.” and to divert him, mostly: “Which one’s Chloe?”
“Second on the right, over there by the wall.”
She was a red-haired woman, crowned by curls, maybe forty or so years old. She looked firm and sturdy, her face a mixture of freckles and farmyard tan. She looked like the sort of person who would survive an apocalypse. “We probably could have used her around here.” Not for Dinah though, it’d been too late for Dinah. Sooner or later somebody would ask about that cross and that patch of fresh, short grass, and then we’d have to tell the whole story. Somebody would.
Seth said, “We really aren’t the enemy, you know.”
“Yeah, I get that.”
“I don’t blame you being cautious, mind, the sorts of people out there on the road. I just want to put this world back the way it was.”
“Who doesn’t?” Although in all honesty, I was beginning to have trouble remembering the rhythms and practices of that ‘real’ world. It seemed like such a distant and impossible thing. It was hard to imagine living like that again; caring about those kinds of things again. Too much has happened to us. Hasn’t it?
“Is that your girl?” and he was looking straight at Zara.
How the hell did you know?
“Relax. I’m not setting my sights on her.”
“You’re a lucky man.”
“Yes. And you?”
“Not so lucky. She left me years ago. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead, or even which I would rather she was. Thank God we didn’t have any kids, right? But we’ve all had losses.”
“You probably have a lot you can tell us,” I ventured.
“And vice versa. We should probably all have a big ol’ chat after dinner.”
So maybe we did feast a little. We were celebrating our deliverance – Greg’s and mine – and crowding out our nervousness at this new turn of events. There was a borderline convivial atmosphere about the whole thing. And the food was good – I had to hand it these guys, they at least knew where to scavenge.
Zara sat close to me, her face rested against my arm. “It’s like some sort of rice-noodle pie, I swear I never saw this at the supermarket before all this shit went down. What’ve you got?”
“Pork buns. And a plate of chips covered in chilli sauce.”
She lowered her voice, “What do you make of them?”
My voice lowered to match hers, “Can’t decide yet. They seem okay. But…” and my ‘but’ was having trouble manifesting into anything clear. There was nothing overtly wrong with these guys, they were being generous, being friendly. But the tingle at the back of my skull wouldn’t let me be.
“Is it him?” she flicked her eyes at Seth.
“Maybe. He seems… too…” I couldn’t put it into the words I wanted.
“Too much in control?”
“Too… something. Maybe.”
We were eating dessert – lemon meringue pie for Zara, some sort of weird, sweet quiche for me – when Seth called us all to attention. He did it softly and subtly, but it wasn’t lost on me the way we all fell into line. The hush came over us quickly, and everybody turned to look at him.
He addressed us eight.
“None of you know me, or any of my folks here. So I appreciate how you’ve taken us all in, and treated us like family. I’m pretty confident we can all get along. There’s safety in numbers, and we can make ourselves useful. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about. There’s something else. Look, I said when we showed up that we’d come here with a bit good luck, and a plan. The plan is to fix this shit.”
There were murmurs of assent from his lot, raised eyebrows from ours.
“And I think we have a way. I don’t know what you think of the stretchy stuff. You think it’s unstoppable. Which I can understand, God knows. But it isn’t. We’ve come across a poison that works on these things. The flora and the fauna. You’ve seen the spiders?”
“Plenty.” Tristan said sourly.
“You’ve seen what they do.”
George and Penny simultaneously looked away, finding each other’s eyes in flinching from Seth’s words.
Seth’s eyes read: something I said? But he moved on, he was warming to some sort of theme here. “It’s a mess. But they’re not invincible.”
“We’ve killed some,” Todd piped up.
“They killed my sister. And we killed some of them.”
Tristan’s voice had sharpened, “his sister was six.”
“I’m sorry about that. That’s hard. I wouldn’t blame you for wanting payback. But this isn’t just that. We can make a difference here. What we’ve found out about this lifeform – invaders, actually, let’s use those words – is that they have hubs. They have nests, nurseries, where this gummy stuff is brewed up and where it spreads from. And there’s not as many of them as you might think. There’s even… this possibility… the nests may be linked to each other. If we’re right, wiping one out could have a chain reaction with others.”
Let’s go save the world then.
And where are you getting all this from? What’s your qualification, buddy?
“And what’s more, they’re vulnerable to poison. I’ve seen the notes about what it can do, and we’ve got enough of it now to really make an impact.”
Penny stood, she held up her hand. “It’s not that simple.”
“It could be though.”
“You don’t understand. We were there. My family and I, when they tried what you’re saying we can do. It went bad. They gum withered up, but it – they – something – killed everyone. We saw the bodies. All the people who died…”
“It fought back.”
“Yes.,” and I was nodding along to her, “it does fight back. And it killed those people from the inside out.”
Seth smiled. “Ah, but that’s where he comes in.” And he was looking directly at me. In the next couple of seconds so was everybody else in the room. The tingle in the back of my skull turned hot and itchy, it knew I was in for some serious trouble.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work