"Do you remember when being hungry meant you skipped breakfast?" Karen thought back on every morning she ran out the door without eating first, distracted or late, and her empty stomach roared in indignation. Having food within reach and not eating it felt as fantastical as dragons or unicorns now. They could use one of those to make the miles easier on their feet. She voiced the opinion.
"If we find any, Matt and I can share the unicorn, and you can protect us by riding ahead and fire-breathing through the undead hordes," Foggy proposed.
Sounded about right.
Their supplies ran out two days ago after cutting their daily rations in half for the past week. Luck had been on their side before then. Well, no it hadn't. The world had ended, the undead were roaming around eating people alive, and most of the alive people they ran into seemed to be varying degrees of homicidal. However. They were still together. They always scavenged enough food to get by. They stopped screeching when people died and shot back up trying to eat them pretty early on. That counted for something. Maybe it wasn't luck exactly, but it was more than most people got.
That 'more' was running out. Their water was holding out for now, but that was it.
"I need food!" Foggy complained as they made their way down an empty street (every street was empty now) and stared into the window of a clothing store where the racks were toppled over.
Looting was fun in the beginning when a fresh meltdown came every two hours and popping a stolen fuchsia wig on Foggy's head could curb the hysteria and ease her back down to hysterical laughter instead. Right now, the only thing she wanted to steal was canned goods.
"I'm not saying I'm hungry enough to kill and eat one of you guys," Foggy said, pushing away from the window and catching up to them on the sidewalk. "But I am going to devour whoever falls asleep first. Don't take it personal. I will cannibalize you with love, I swear."
Karen didn't have the energy to laugh, but it felt good to smile.
"Maybe Karen and I should eat you, Foggy," Matt countered.
Foggy's shoulders bumped both of them as he wedged his way between them. "Why? Because I'd feed more people? That's sizeist, man."
Matt reached out and felt what Karen could see. Foggy's tummy was gone. Starving in the apocalypse could do that to a person. "I think a lion would pass all of us up for a squirrel right now."
They were all too worn down and thin. She couldn't wait for them to find an untouched grocery store, a food truck, or a field of pizza trees. She missed Foggy's belly and not curling up on her side at night with a hollow ache at the pit of her stomach. Matt was still strong, still Daredevil when they encountered the wrong group and he needed to be, but he wouldn't be able to maintain muscle mass for long if they didn't find protein. Or anything remotely edible. She would settle for radish at this point.
They were at the end of the street when Foggy stopped in his tracks and gaped up at the sign on the abandoned bar. "Matt, hunger is making me delirious. We're back at Josie's."
If only. Traveling south had been a decent plan. Less people than the populated cities, warm enough to survive the winters, but it made it harder to hold on to the memories of New York. The lights, the noise, the traffic. The city was alive. Now it was undead, just like everything else.
"It's not Josie's," she corrected. "It's Jose's."
"Tomato, to-mah-to," Foggy went for the door. "Let's go in."
"Sure," Matt agreed. "We could go in and play pool. Or we could keep looking for food and survive the week."
"Come on. We're not terminators. We need rest. Let's rest inside Josie's."
"Besides, there could be food in there. Matt," he whined. Karen didn't blame him. She needed a break too. Their last car died out fifty miles ago.
After a few moments of Matt reaching out with his extra senses, he declared the bar empty of people, alive and dead, and they went inside. It was empty. No food, but shockingly there was one full bottle behind the bar.
Foggy held it up and squinted up at the bottom. "No eel. Disgustingly, I think I'd fight you over it this time."
She was almost hungry enough to fight back. With nothing gross to play tug of war with, she excused herself to the ladies room and made her way to the back office when she was done. She rummaged through files and stared at the picture on the desk. Wondered if the woman with the bright smile and yellow sundress was alive somewhere, happy and full. Probably not.
"Karen?" Matt called from the front of the bar.
"We're going to check out the place across the street. Foggy says it's a pharmacy. Might be something we can use."
"Okay. I'll wait here." Hunger and fear were draining, and that was pretty much the only two things they never ran out of these days.
She heard the door close after them. An open door could get you killed. No telling what would wander in. Sitting in Jose's desk chair, she dropped her head back and closed her eyes. She missed a lot of things that were gone, things that would never come back: midnight showings that Foggy dragged them to in full costumes if they lost a bet, takeout, carnivals, that feeling that piling enough good things on top of each other might one day relieve the guilt of all the bad ones. But more than anything, she missed people.
Even so, she opened her eyes and was afraid when one was standing there. Why were the only wishes that came true double-edged? It was never a pizza tree, always a gun pointed in her face.
She looked between him and the weapon aimed at her forehead. "Hi."
He was just a kid. Late teens, maybe. Long hair, cowboy hat. And he held a gun like he used it before. She had a pistol on her hip but ran out of ammo weeks ago. Something told her that he would blow a hole through her head if she made a move for it now anyway. His eyes were sharp, and she knew that look now. Most people had it. I'm not dying today, but you might.
She wasn't looking to go out that way.
He didn't blink. There might not have been such a thing as 'just a kid' anymore. There were those who died and survivors. She could tell at a glance what slot he fell into.
"Hi," he said back.
"If you have a camp nearby," she tread carefully. "If I'm trespassing, if this bar belongs to you or your people, I'm sorry. I just needed some shade." She thought about Josie's, Hell's Kitchen, and everything lost to her now. "And maybe a good memory or two. You don't need to shoot me. I'll leave."
The look in his eyes was deadly, because it wasn't impulsive. It was calculating, assessing, rapidly determining the value of her life juxtaposed with his own safety. It was a sad truth of the new world that only a dead person could be trusted on sight.
"Are you alone?" he asked.
She thought about lying to protect them or herself if they needed the element of surprise to swoop in and get her out of this. It was the strength of his gaze, the sharpness of his assessment that stopped her. It wasn't the truth that mattered. It was not offering a lie when he was offering her a chance. His hand was steady, and she could be dead already. It meant something that she wasn't.
"No. I have two friends with me. We don't look for trouble. We'll leave." There were groups that liked that. There were others that preferred they stay. Those were the groups where Daredevil had to come out.
He stared at her. She stared at the barrel of the gun. It wasn't the first threat on her life. If she survived, it wouldn't be the last.
"One of them is blind, right?"
She was glad she hadn't lied. "Been watching us?"
His answer was a judgment. "You talk too loud. Especially the one who thinks he's funny. Your voices carry. You'll attract walkers. It's stupid."
"Sure. But sometimes it's better to be stupid than quiet." Without Matt and Foggy to be occasionally stupid with, she would have gone insane a long time ago. "Weapons keep me alive, but laughing keeps me going."
"Got a name?"
He didn't hesitate as long as she thought he would, but names didn't mean much anymore. "Carl."
"Hi, Carl. I'm Karen. It would be a lot nicer to meet you if you lowered the gun. My friend is Matt, and the one who thinks he's funny is Foggy."
"Hey, I am funny."
Karen's eyes swiveled to Matt and Foggy in the doorway. Matt was very still, eyes shaded by his sunglasses, listening to Carl's heartbeat, assessing the threat. Foggy was tense but not showing it much. They faced a lot worse than one kid.
The moment hung in the balance, and she could feel the balance tipping one way and back again. His gun was still up, but his finger was loose on the trigger. Matt wasn't the only one assessing the situation.
"Carl," Karen tried. "We'll leave. Simple as that. We don't want anything from you."
"That's not true," Foggy said. "If you have a feast on you by any chance, I'd love some. I will take your back pocket Brussels sprouts at this point."
"Foggy." Sometimes he needed a mute button.
But something in Carl's stance shifted. The gun lowered, hand ready to lift it back up at a moment's notice. The tension didn't break, but the air was breathable again.
"How many walkers have you killed?" Carl asked.
Foggy made a face. "A lot, man."
"How many people have you killed?"
Karen exchanged an uneasy look with Foggy. She felt the weight of the answer on her conscience and in her soul, down deep where she stored all the things that kept her up at night. "Three."
She wondered what Carl's number was when he asked, "Why?"
A small question with months of nightmares behind it.
It was Matt that answered. "Because we could carry three or be their three."
They didn't split the weight either. Each of them carried the full load every day. They left when they could. They fought when they couldn't.
Carl reached into his pocket. She had a second to wonder if they answered incorrectly, but it was just a stick of gum. He tossed it to Foggy who fumbled and caught it.
"Sorry," Carl said. "No Brussels sprouts." He started for the door and headed out. "We have food and a fence. Come on. If you try anything, my people will kill you."
She believed him.
They followed cautiously behind.
"I think we found our unicorn," Foggy whispered.
Outside the bar, a group of people, trained soldiers in the new world, looked to Carl and fell in line at his word.
No. This kid was a dragon.