Chapter 2: The Treehouse
The picture showed a much happier time. Five goofy faces were staring back at me. I smiled with a mixture of happy sadness. I gently caressed the surface of the photo with a fingertip.
Mother had been the epitome of the southern woman. She was refined, sweet, polite, and always welcoming. Father was as much her opposite as he was her match. I remembered him being head and shoulders above the rest of the men in town with chiseled features, sun stained from years of hard work on the farm. They were standing behind us kids. The love and pride I saw captured in their eyes made my heartache.
Eric was the oldest. He had the same tall form of our patriarch, yet much leaner. His hair, dark like mammas, always seemed to stick up in the back no matter how he cut or combed it. I traced the cowlick with a fond gaze. My breath caught in my throat when shifting my fingertip and gaze to our little sister. Rebecca stood between us. She’d been the baby of the family in every way. Everybody had loved her. I used to tease her that she was not really our sister, but a fairy child we had found in the woods. With her soft features, sun-kissed hair, and crystal blue eyes, she had been our ethereal baby.
As I gazed longer and harder at the picture, I found myself lost in memories of our lives. Had only a few months passed since then? Since that night when I…
My reverie, broken, by a soft cry of panic. The picture fell from my hands as I reached for my crossbow. I realized it was just the girl having a bad dream. I felt myself frown. I tucked the picture away, shifting my weight so I could nudge her.
“Hey… hey… wake up.”
It felt like a ghost looking at me when her startled eyes flew up. I lifted my hands and tried to smile to let her know I was not going to hurt her. She nodded slowly, clutching the bag she carried with her closer. She shuffled against the floor, scooting until her back was against one of the rough walls. I gestured towards a bucket as I stood up.
“Fresh water’s in there.”
She mumbled a thank you. I watched her for a moment before turning away toward the aperture that served as my lookout. The window gave me a 180 degree view of the north side of the land around the treehouse. Crouching down in front of it, I rested the crossbow against my leg. I closed my eyes to allow myself the use of my other senses. I knew this area almost as well as my farm — plenty of summers had been spent here before the dead started shuffling around. If I moved the branches out of the way a little more, I could make out the burnt husk that used to be the McKenzie farm.
A distinct gurgling sound caused me to turn around. The girl, watching me, hadn’t moved from the spot against the wall. I gestured with a flick of my head toward the crate I’d brought from the house earlier.
“Eat. Stay here. I’ll be back.”
I slung the crossbow over my shoulder. Long-legged strides brought me to the hatch that would lead me down. Dragging it open, I got down on my belly and peeked through the hole. Left. Right. Back. Front. Then I shifted into a sitting position. Swinging my legs around to put my feet on the top rung of the ladder. I hesitated.
“I’m Alesia.” I said to the girl.
“Ranea.” Came the whisper.
Starting down the ladder, I closed the hatch. Jumping down with only a few steps left, then taking my gaze to every angle I could. The crossbow already at attention. The visit from this morning still affected me.
I set off northward through the trees, wondering, as I often did, how the birds could go on singing and the squirrels chittering when there was such chaos around. It wasn’t far to the tree line, but I was spooked. Every noise had me on edge. I glanced behind me at the treehouse thinking: I should go back but I knew food a scarcity. I had some, but with another mouth to feed… I sighed.
The pond looked untouched by the events unfolding in the world around it. Even the slight ripples in the water from the fish under the surface looked unbothered. I plucked the fishing pole out of the ground where I left it. I wasn’t worried about anybody stealing it. Poking around in the soft dirt, I procured a worm for the hook. I hoped I’d catch a bite today.
Rolling my shoulders, I attempted to adjust the strap of the crossbow. I liked it better than the shotgun because it was quieter, but it was also heavier. I’d been carrying it a lot today. The ache between my blades was attributing to the pain between my temples. Removing the strap to rest the crossbow against my leg, it was still within drawable range.
I watched the line weave and bob in the water. A light afternoon breeze came up to brush across me, ruffling my hair and the grass in turn. It felt good. I allowed myself to enjoy the moment. My eyes closed while I took a deep breath. Right here, I could forget everything. The fear. The hunger. Their screams.
My head jerked up. I spun around, dropping the fishing pole, and jerking up the crossbow. I felt my stomach drop. The zombie was too close for comfort. I’d been lost in my thoughts for so long, I didn’t hear it shuffle up behind me. He – no it – couldn’t have been dead very long. I couldn’t think of them as “he” or “she.” The once formal suit and tie it was wearing was covered with the dirt from the grave it had crawled out from. Its skin was tan. I shivered. Their eyes, bright, but feral, always got to me. I remember putting a dog down once with that look in its eyes. If it wasn’t for the eyes and the way they shambled about, I’d mistake them for alive and well. But I’d seen what they do when they got ahold of you. They didn’t move that fast, but they were strong. I remembered limbs being torn into, the popping and sucking sound as it ripped them from their sockets.
All of this flew through my mind with lightning speed despite feeling like I was molasses slow. Firing the crossbow, the creature screeched and lunged causing it to go wide. Worse than that, I didn’t have a good enough grip on the crossbow, so it caused me to fumble it into the grass. Several choice words left my mouth while scrambling to my left side and drawing my knife from my belt. I almost tripped over the damn fishing pole, skirting the bank while backing up. I kept the zombie entirely in my line of sight, trying to keep enough distance between me and it. I had a decision to make: try my luck with any water moccasins in the pond or deal with the zombie before me. The zombie forced my hand by lunging again. I didn’t have time to think. Using the knife in my hand, I plunged it into the side of its neck. Blood sprayed everywhere. It screamed again, but instead of coming for me, it was trying to get the knife out. While occupied, I veered to my right trying to put some distance between us so I could get my crossbow. I’d only have one chance and I would take it.
The creature screamed again. I was moving as if my life depended on it – reaching for the crossbow, running forward, then spinning around. Taking my eyes off my target, I shoved my foot in the stirrup at the front of the bow. Wincing as my fingers dug into the crossbow string, I dragged it back until the barrel cocked. My fingers, slippery from the blood almost caused me to drop the bolt. My heart slammed against my rib cage. I had to make this shot! I’d loaded this crossbow hundreds of times yet I felt like I’d never touched it before. The arrow nocked securely into place and I lifted the crossbow, my target back in my sight. I placed my finger on the trigger. Before it could scream again, my finger pressed the trigger. Thwack! It was silent on the ground. My bolt was sticking out of its forehead.
I waited for several eternal minutes before creeping closer. Its eyes were still open, with a glazed-over look of true death. With a low grunt, I pulled the bolt from its head. I’d gotten up close and personal with the zombies only a handful of times. The lack of smell struck me. I’d expect the undead to smell, well, dead. But there was nothing except the aroma of blood. I looked around for my knife. I wiped the blood on my pants then sheathed it.
My heart still pounding as I made it to the tree line and into the wooded area. I didn’t bother to clean my hands down here. I would do it once I got back inside the safety of the treehouse. And I’d need to change my clothes. I angrily swiped my face with the back of my hand to bat the tears away. The crossbow heavy at my back while taking the ladder up to the treehouse. I pushed the hatch open.
“I’m ba…” The rest of the words died on my lips. I froze as I tried to decide my next course of action. The click and the location of the gun decided for me.
“Crossbow,” the stranger said.
I unslung it from around me. “Slowly,” came the response. With a frown, I carefully set it down on the floor and took a step back. My attention entirely on the stranger and the location of the gun. If it were on me, I might have taken the risk. Ranea’s eyes were wide and full of tears.
“Good. We understand each other.”