All Is Not Lost

[ZA competition] A bond formed over peanut butter and killer rabbits is a bond that can survive the apocalypse... Or so the saying goes.

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3. I'm a rabbit slayer...

    Maybe eventually, Kevin could look back on the happenings of the past hour as a relief. After all, he was starting to find Rowan a little too well-adjusted. Though that wasn’t to say he wouldn’t rather have a ridiculously well-adjusted kid by his side than the boy who was… well, perhaps it was worth backing up a bit. 

    For the most part, the walk was boring, tense, and uneventful. Rowan occupied himself by glaring at the ground, so Kevin was left to look anywhere but the other boy. Most of the time, he pretended to be scanning the underbrush for rabbits, even though he knew that they rarely attacked during the day. The virus may have made them hungry for flesh, but it didn’t do a whole lot to reduce their daytime skittishness. That was, as long as they didn’t feel threatened. Threatening one of those things would be almost as bad as coming across one at night, when all bets were off. What strange creatures. 

    Kevin was vaguely certain he would forever be terrified by all things small and fuzzy. And by forever, he of course meant the probably short remainder of his life. You feel for Little Albert now, don’t you? Jacob asked in Kevin’s mind. It was true, he did. Come to think of it, maybe Little Albert had the right idea being afraid of rabbits. Kicking at a stick, Kevin decided that it didn’t much matter either way; Little Albert was just as dead as everyone else.

    The silence became deafening about three hours in. It was weird being with someone again; at first, Kevin was glad to walk in silence, in the peace that he had become accustomed to. At some point, though, it became clear that the silence wasn’t the tranquil kind, but, rather, hostile in a subtle way. Kevin hadn’t meant to offend Rowan by asking about his past, and he suspected that Rowan knew that. Nevertheless, it was a stark reminder that they were but strangers, and they had no reason to act any differently. They both knew first hand that attachments led to pain, and they had experienced enough pain for a lifetime. 

    Nevertheless, Kevin needed some kind of conversation, now that there was a means for it besides himself and the voices in his head, and he would initiate it if he had to. “It’s almost noon.”

    “Closer to eleven,” Rowan grunted in return, after a pause. 

    “Same difference.”

    Silence. They plodded along for a while, leaves crunching under their feet, twigs snapping like fragile bones. Leave no trace. Only you can prevent forest fires. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Don’t be trashy, recycle. Kevin wanted to laugh. The Earth had gotten what it wanted; all the polluting humans were gone. Of course, they certainly left a trace, but with any luck, global warming would slow. Kevin wondered if it was in time; he wondered what would happen to the earth after he was gone and the bodies of humanity had rotted and turned to dust.

    “So,” Kevin began again, drawing out the syllable. “What’s your favorite color?” 

    Rowan shot a glare at his feet that Kevin was certain was meant for him. Unless those dirty Nike’s with the big toe worn through had done something to offend him. “Do you just like hearing yourself talk?” he snapped after a beat. 

    Kevin gave a half shrug. “It’s far more interesting when other people talk back, but if you’d like me to filibuster, I’m sure I could find something to go on about.” He tried to make light of the situation, but he was getting tired of his own thoughts. The need for conversation took root over the past few hours like a drug. A tiny taste, a few words, and suddenly his thoughts weren’t enough to keep him entertained. Not when he knew everything there was to know about himself, but next to nothing about the boy walking next to him. You’ve always got me for company, Jacob reminded him. Kevin ignored the voice. When his choices were between talking to himself or talking to the voice of his dead best friend in his head, he wasn’t sure which one made him more certifiably insane. 

    “Okay, well, in other news, I think I’ve seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off enough times that I can quote it line by line, so I’m gonna try.” Kevin took a deep breath. “Where’s my wallet?” he began in a deeper voice, then switched to one more feminine, “You idiot!” He switched to a third, saying, “Mom!” then a fourth with, “Shut up!” 

    Rowan ignored Kevin’s antics in favor of picking up his pace a little. Kevin matched it, still talking. As they walked, he continued to quote up to a croaking imitation of Ferris, saying, “I have a test today. I have to take it. I’m gonna get into college so I can have a good, fruitfu-“

    “Sweet Jesus, please stop,” Rowan groaned, halting in his steps. Kevin stopped too.

    “-L life…” he finished slowly, forcing Rowan to roll his eyes. “What, you don’t enjoy reliving this movie over and over? It’s one of my favorite to replay in my mind; that’s the only way I’ve remembered it for this long.”

    Rowan began walking again, and some of the irritation had eased from his voice when he said, “It loses something when you’ve never seen the movie.”

    Kevin gaped at him. “You… what? You’ve never seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off?” Rowan shook his head. “But it’s, like, the classic of classics. It’s a cinematic masterpiece. It’s… it’s…” He trailed off. “I have no words.”

    “Well, will you stop quoting it if I talk to you?” Rowan asked. 

    “Yes,” Kevin agreed. “Although, now I’m kind of tempted to keep going since you’ve never seen it. You should at least get to experience it in some form. That’s, like, a basic human right.”

    Rowan scoffed. “I don’t think that was listed in the Constitution.”

    “Well the Founding Fathers would’ve put it in if they were graced with its creation in time,” Kevin assured him. He pulled a branch out of the way of the trail they were creating and held it for Rowan to duck under. “It pains me even more that there’s no way for you to see it now. Guess there’s something to that whole YOLO idea, huh?”

    “No,” Rowan replied. He shook his head, the sun glinting off the slight sheen of sweat on his brow. It wasn’t until then that Kevin realized he, too, was getting hot as the day warmed up. He decided not to complain; it was better to be a little warm than to be freezing with only the t-shirt and bloodstained denim jacket he kept in his backpack. It would stay there until the cold was a matter of life or death as far as Kevin was concerned. Rowan added, “If you ever say YOLO again, I will cut you.”

    Kevin huffed a laugh; though Rowan was most likely serious, his anger seemed to be ebbing. The scowl had eased from his face, and some of the tension drained from his shoulders. Maybe he had just gotten tired. As Kevin had found out early on in the apocalypse, being angry was exhausting. 

    “You got a problem with people living their dreams while they’ve got the time?”

    “When that person is me, then yes. It’s a flawed saying,” Rowan reasoned. “You only die once.”

    Kevin let out a low whistle. “And that, my friends, is the mark of a hardened cynic.” 

    Rowan gave him a sideways glance. “You weren’t exactly the picture of optimism last night.”

    Feeling his face harden a fraction, Kevin forced himself to shrug. “The sun does wonderful things to a person.”

    “Like sunburn?” Rowan suggested. “Cause that’s what it’s doing to you.”

    Kevin punched him in the shoulder. “Hey, you’d be sunburned too if it weren’t for your natural dark-skin-sun-absorbing…stuff in your skin.”

    “Eloquent.” Rowan seemed close to a smile, but not quite there. “You wouldn’t be so burnt if you weren’t so pale.”

    “Excuse me, I’m pretty tan.”

    Rowan surveyed him. “Maybe now, but I’m betting you were pretty pale before this whole thing started. If you’d had a base tan then, you wouldn’t be burnt this bad now.”     

    Kevin huffed. “Since when are you a dermatologist?”

    “That’s my dream job. I’ve been researching it all my life.” Rowan’s gaze was focused far out in the trees, his face a mask free of emotion. 

    “Really?”

    “No.”

    “Oh,” Kevin replied. “I didn’t believe you anyway.” 

    Rowan nodded seriously. “Sure…” 

    They walked in silence for a few minutes before Kevin asked, “So what was your dream job?” He tried not to focus on how appropriate the word “was” was. 

    It was a long time before Rowan answered. If there was some kind of internal struggle going on, his expression showed no indication. Maybe he was training to be an actor, Jacob suggested. Or a mime.

    “I wanted to race horses,” Rowan said finally. “Kind of pointless now.”

    “That’s awesome, though,” Kevin assured him. “Horses are so underrated.” There was a long silence, and when it seemed like Rowan was content to let the conversation die, Kevin decided it was on him to keep it going. He volunteered, “I wanted to be an engineer. That’s how I made some of those traps. Stuff I learned in physics labs and from building those robot kits and stuff.”

    “At least your skill is useful in this environment.” 

    Kevin shrugged. “Who knows,” he encouraged, “we might find a wild horse someday. And you can tame it, then we won’t have to walk everywhere.” 

    Rowan looked contemplative as he gazed up at the sky through the reaching branches. “So you’re saying we should stick together longterm?”

    “Uh,” Kevin replied, surprised by the question. “I mean, as long as you’re not a psychopath who’s going to kill me in my sleep, I don’t see how it could hurt. They say two heads are better than one, right? That probably goes for all the other body parts too.” That sounded so creepy, Jacob pointed out. Wincing internally, Kevin had to give him that one.

    When Kevin looked over, Rowan was staring at him, his gaze unreadable. “You’re strange,” he declared. “But I guess a little insane is to be expected out here.”

    “Er, thanks?”

    “It was just an observation.” After a pause, Rowan opened his mouth to say something, and Kevin sensed it was going to be something deep or important. He could almost feel the weight of it. “Want to break for lunch?” 

    Kevin blinked. “Sure.”

    They settled on a log next to a little rock overhang. The jagged rock face was about fifteen feet tall, and plateaued in a level, grassy area. Kevin kind of wanted to climb it just for the hell of it, but he knew he shouldn’t risk getting injured for no reason. Also, he didn’t want to test the limits of Rowan’s patience more than he had already, so he settled for sitting on the log and sucking on a bit of peanut butter. 

    Rowan stiffened before Kevin noticed the rustle in the bushes behind him. In a flash, Rowan was standing, hunched behind the log, a machete that Kevin didn’t know he had already in his hand. “Where’d you get that?” Kevin hissed. 

    “Shh,” Rowan replied. He rounded the log, creeping towards the bush. The rustling stopped. 

    “Dude, if it’s a rabbit, let’s just g-“

    A ball of gray fur leaped towards Rowan, whose arm came down in a deadly arc. The blood that flew from the tip of his knife splattered the faces of the three other rabbits stirred from their nest. If Rowan had backed off then, he might have been able to walk away. For all their lunacy, the daylight seemed to sap some of the frenzy for human flesh that the night brought. In either case, they weren’t smart, and wouldn’t have faulted Rowan for the murder of one of their own. He could have walked away, but he didn’t. Threatened now, the other rabbits were emboldened by their infection, and eyed Rowan like a meal.

    Rowan lunged towards the nearest rabbit, which dodged his blade as the two others bared their huge white teeth. They could jump farther than Rowan’s extended arm’s radius, and he was forced to half step back to ward them off. Kevin finally got over his shock and dug his own knife from his pack on the forest floor. About to help Rowan, Kevin whipped around when heard a squeal, a spurt, and then a sickening crunch. 

    It was like a scene from a very strange, very disturbing comic book. If Kevin were the illustrator, he would have drawn Rowan’s eyes as glowing with red hatred and frenzy, a wild grimace marring his face as he whirled and swung and sliced, ending in a kneel with bits of rabbit and pools of blood soaking into the soil around him. His chest was heaving. One of the rabbit legs twitched, and he stabbed it an extra twelve times for good measure.

    Kevin stared. It seemed like the thing to do. Run, Jacob urged. This kid’s a psycho. Kevin almost listened, but at the same time, it wasn’t like Rowan had massacred a bunch of people. These were rabbits. Kevin himself had killed dozens of rabbits in the past few months. Sure, he usually did it less… maniacally, but the end result was the same. Blood and guts and nasty stuff. 

    Kevin probably could have rationalized the bloodbath, passed it off as a normal occurrence in these strange times. He could have assumed that this was just the way Rowan fought best; Kevin preferred traps, Rowan preferred machetes that he pulled out of nowhere? Kevin could have come up with some justification to tell himself so that he could sleep at night. 

    That was, if it hadn’t been for Rowan straightening, his breathing returned to normal, and calmly going about cleaning his blade with moss from the ground. He then gathered some leaves, doing the best he could to use them to wipe the blood from his face. In the end, it was his face that destroyed any hope Kevin had of assuming this was normal. His expression was so utterly calm, so blank and hollow, that Kevin did a double take. His eyes were those of a zombie, or a robot, or someone who had… broken. 

    It sent chills down Kevin’s spine. 

    Rowan finished cleaning, not saying a word. His shirt had a few splatters of blood, but in the end, that was all he took with him of the fight. He picked up his things and trudged off through the underbrush, saying as he passed Kevin, “We should keep moving.” Even his voice was blank. 

    Kevin stared after him, wondering if he shouldn’t just follow Jacob’s ghost advice and head off in the other direction as fast as he could. Rowan paused, looking back. “You coming?”

    His heart pounding, Kevin nodded. And he went. 

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