It was three weeks, maybe, before he stopped rushing awake, moving to get back on his feet before he took in the maple and menthol smell of the air and remembered, remembered. For much of the time the act of jumping to stand created a stab of spine-anchoring pain his sleep had let him drown out.
Sometimes the doctor, a seasoned military medic named Greg, had drugs for him, but mostly he had advice. If Ray rested up right, he could at least get by with the body of someone a good deal older than himself, living as one who had aged half a year for every gunshot he'd heard on the Walk for instance, give or take. But if he was too reckless, or too restless, he'd be in trouble.
“You've got to treat these pups,” he said, pointing at Ray’s feet which were plump red potatoes on a stack of pillows, “like prize show dogs, if you want to walk on them out of here.”
And when would he be getting out of here, he might ask?
“That's up to them. I'm here to keep you alive.”
So far “them” only consisted of two women and two men that Ray could identify from the whirlwind of harsh help he'd received since the ambush, when a shocked bundle of Walkers had been spirited off into the trees by the force of different guns and smoke grenades and insistent hands grabbing them into the unfathomable.
The memory was a drowsy flash: packed away in the night in the back of a station wagon under a wool blanket, Ray had still believed the rifle’s trajectory would somehow find him, the watching eyes would see and take aim. He’d flailed and thrashed to get back walking, until someone shot him with a sedative. He'd woken somewhere that smelled wet and thoroughly rural, feeling sick enough to be dead, but slowly and finally aware that he would live for the time being.
Thinking back on it again and again, he was sure there had been a hand grasping his arm in a panicked instinct, not one of the fighters but someone trying to keep him and Ray linked together in the confusion before they were quickly pulled apart.
It had been days—too afraid of asking, too protective of his hopes, and too in need of sleep—before he'd started asking about who else.
It had been five altogether. Collie Parker, one, and Danny Frerichs (Ray vaguely remembered him as a small olive-skinned boy with a crew cut) had been “sent down another railroad” and then rushed to different safe houses, already many miles away. These weren't permanent destinations. There were several different contacts, outside of the States, and Ray could only wait for confirmation of whether he'd be more likely to end up in Toronto or Tijuana or goddamn Amsterdam.
On the fourth day Ray found out about Baker, and then spent hours staring at the ceiling wanting to know not much else ever again, wincing as Greg checked once again the places that still pulsed with angry swelling. He'd been in much the same listless state when he first heard the familiar voice downstairs, an angry growl of protest splintering against all the rustic calm.
Though the place echoed widely the boards were also thick, and he could only recognize the tone and a very occasional word of the argument. Nothing that would help him pinpoint what was going on.
"Why’s he carrying on like that?" he asked, voice roughened, the first thing he'd said to Greg in a couple hours.
"I don't know much of what it's about," Greg answered with his usual disclaimer of ignorance, but Ray saw past some of it this time, the kind eyes downturned with embarrassed regret.
He realized the obvious. "They don't want him to see me."
Greg became almost furtive, checking the door for Ray’s sake. His voice lowered. "Listen, Ray. I'll tell you this because I don't think Mike or Holly will know just how to say it. You…you really may need to start trying on the fact that no one with whom you are currently acquainted is in your near future, if they're in your future at all...I'm sorry, kid. As far as I can see that's the total truth of it."
Acquainted? Ray’s head had snagged on that word choice.
“I do hope that you can find a strength of spirit to know how lucky you are to be alive. Your life from before is over. Your life even as it looks right now is going to change in ways you can't imagine.”
He means everyone. Everyone I know. Ray felt a painful spasm in one of his thighs, a recurring cramp, but it was getting less intense. What the fuck, ‘acquainted.’
It was a matter of sour annoyance that this felt like a revelation, because he had already known. There was something in Greg’s eyes too, like the man knew that it would be a while still before he accepted the situation.
He’d take Greg any day over Holly, who finally came to speak directly to him for the first time. She gave him splintering images of recognition, memories of her face mostly covered in a flannel handkerchief at that smoky crux of gunfire, her eyes cracked at the edges and burning at the center. In actuality she looked small in the way of old women, though she couldn't quite be sixty.
Her voice, though, had a kind of youth, a confidence in her own bluntness made slightly sing-song. "You can say goodbye to McVries before he's sent off, but what you need to focus on for now is resting and healing.”
"But I don't get it," he stammered. "Greg said he needs even more downtime than I do—why can't we just leave together—”
"I explained. We have people who are willing to take you away, but nobody who is willing to take two at once. As for McVries, he's been...negligent in helping his own recovery, and it would be a waste to push any drugs on him that would help him get the rest. Part of the reason we're reluctant to put the two of you together.”
"He would calm down if you weren't treating us like…” He gulped away a cramp that seemed worse with his fervency. “If I could just see that he's okay…”
"Now, Mister Garraty...I’m thinking it would be cruel in a way to indulge this ideal of brotherhood with your fellow walker.” Some ire in that last word, her deepest disgust made polite. “I suppose he is a friend, but you'd had a smattering of words with him, no more. It's common in traumatic situations to feel an intimacy with those you shared it with, but going forward, you can't expect such a positive connection. You would even find that you probably don't have much in common. You could begin to annoy and eventually resent each other.”
A bitter laugh was all that could color Ray’s words: "I'm sure he's done plenty to annoy you."
"You're sure of so much about him,” she said, brisk. “You're an adolescent. You couldn't guess at half the dangers in yourself, much less in him.”
With that she was done with him for the late afternoon, getting up for an exit.
Greg had called the likelihood of it when Ray came suddenly down with something that roared fever through him, dulled and slurred everything except for the pain. It was just some routine flu—not the usual season for it but not unexpected in someone so weakened.
It was Holly’s brother Jake who came in to check on him when the doctor couldn't be around. In Ray’s state he thought there seemed something angrily taciturn about the guy, but he could be gentle, and he didn't give him any shit. Ray felt helpless and drowning and utterly exhausted for the couple days of roughing the worst of it, but then finally he was left alone for long enough at a time that he guessed he must be a little better.
Unless they just couldn't be spared to check on him.
The cabin had transitioned silently out of the weekend, warming up with late spring smells that felt discordant against his aching and sleeping. The air felt stale and swerving despite the fresh atmosphere. Deep in the night he woke up once to promptly vomit into the prescribed trash bin, and as the fit of sick abated he became aware of the wood creaking under footsteps in the room with him, and a voice approaching from the chair in the corner said, “I'll get rid of that.”
Ray gulped, suddenly dizzy. "That's you. Come here."
Seemingly he was ignored; the steps sounded out of the room and down the stairs. He thought they came back up again and he thought he felt, in his near-sleeping state, a dipping of the mattress, a sitting or even lying next to him. But through that groggy sludge of drugged exhaustion he wasn't even sure, upon waking, that McVries had been in the room at all.
The next argument he heard from downstairs sounded like Jake and Holly in the kind of dispute that had nothing to do with each other and everything to do with cussing at some shared frustration. Too long defeated at the attempt, Ray had abandoned trying to get meaning out of what he overheard aside from the tone, but that was definitely the tone.
Once Greg got him upright for an examination, Ray realized he felt able to get out of bed, and the doctor confirmed he was looking good, adding that it was a relief, because he didn't know when he'd be able to come by again.
"With any luck of yours, we won't meet again," he said, patting him finally on the shoulder. Ray felt a childish surge of anxiety at this oncoming deprivation of a kind presence, and acted accordingly aloof for the rest of Greg’s pleasantries.
Finally it was Mike, and some other woman with a voice Ray vaguely placed hearing before, who appeared in his room first, ignoring him as they checked under the bed and in the closet, tossing reports at each other that they weren't finding anything interesting. The room was soon crowded by two more, one of them Holly who stopped by the head of the bed to say, “You just need to agree to it. I don't like it, but as long as it doesn't lead back to me when they find your corpse out here...”
He was trying to parse if she didn't even realize how out of the loop he was when he noticed McVries, that tall presence sturdy and quiet just leaning into the doorway, and there was no making sense of the words. If McVries was here that meant he was just getting in his goodbye, wasn't that what they'd said?—and Ray had just been kidding about sleeping on that fact, sitting with it like there was any preparing for it or enough fighting against it. He had been too tired to accept or deny, and now it was too late, his chest tightening and his stomach going sick until Greg sat down with him and touched his arm and was asking him something in his careful way, against the cloud of louder voices.
"Hold on," Ray got out, overwhelmed, and asked, “What?”
"Do you think you can handle being here alone for a while?" Greg asked, seemingly repeating a question more slowly. "Just the two of you?”
"They want to know if you can heat up a can of beans in your fragile state," came Pete’s voice, snide and probably trying to provoke previous debate with its simplifications. And sure enough Jake had something to sternly say, about how there was more to staying alive out here when you had to avoid being noticed by campers and hikers, that they would have to be relied on to responsibly medicate themselves when needed, that there was no guarantee of when anyone would be able to come check on them again and they would be without any real emergency contingency for the immediate future. Greg avoided gazes when it was pointed out that since his wife was back in town he would be risking her getting in on the intelligence if he put himself on call in the way he'd been this last week.
All of this Ray heard, but at the same time he was amazed at Pete’s color of relative health, the look of him closer to the memory of meeting him in that parking lot from what felt like years ago than to any of those later events jittering at his vision like flies. He rubbed at his eyes. Everything was too bright and threatening to go dark.
"You could still take the ride we’d arranged for him," Holly said, shrugging in Pete's direction, resigned. "We could maybe have you out of the country within the week. But that guy’s only taking one, he was very clear on not wanting or having room for two, and this idiot passed on it.”
Ray searched for Pete's eyes and got his solemn slight nod of encouragement: Take it if you want it. His knee which was mysteriously worse than the other started to ache more sharply as he looked uncertainly at the rest. "What if I don't?"
Jake seemed to suppress a deeper reaction of frustration, and made Ray sit through his hesitation. "You’d have to wait here for a while as we see what we can find. No promises, no guarantees.”
Ray thought a short moment, nodded. "Thank you.”
"I'm not fucking around about what I said earlier," Holly put in. "If either of you shit-for-brains has got some smart idea about hitching home to your mommies and daddies, it's not just us who have reason to worry. Any word you've got to deliver to any of your folks that they'd need to hide from the authorities puts them a few steps closer to making the hangman lick his chops.”
"This one likes to mix her metaphors,” McVries muttered.
"I could see you were a real poet before we showed up,” she sniped. "Going somewhere, a real inspiration.”
"Alright, alright,” the other woman finally interjected, impatient.
Ray hesitated, through their further explanations, to look over and see how McVries looked specifically in reaction to his own decision, if that could possibly be gauged. But he only did look when he heard a creak of floorboards and glanced over to see him disappearing, his steps sounding dully to the staircase.
He had the run of the place—he’d had it the whole time, if he was thinking like McVries—but still he took to staring out the window, cracking it open to hear a faint trickle of a creek off to the south. He heard almost everyone leave.
The woman who wasn't Holly stopped into the room later, surprising him with her candid expression even before she spoke.
"They took my boy. Four years ago.” She shared this in the tone of words numbly rehearsed. "He took himself, of course, but...I looked at you from way off the road, just before, and I saw something I once saw in him...The disease is the antidote, or however they get it to work down into your minds.”
He was searching for words only to feel she didn't expect a reply. She was reaching into a backpack hanging from her shoulder.
"I'm not brave or stupid enough to tell you my name. But I made you something.” From the pack she produced a length of knitted wool. As it was handed to him he realized it was a navy blue scarf, awkwardly finished but nice, hefty.
He stared down at it, feeling it against his hands.
She cleared her throat. “I hope the color’s okay. I realize winter’s more than a while off, but I hate doing socks…You like it okay?”
"Fuck," he said. "Do you realize it's almost the only thing I own?”
Her brow crumpled, shortly, and then she seemed to realize this was a kind of thanks. Something sad pressed a crease into her unfeeling affect. "I'm sorry all of this happened to you.”
He shook his head.
A shift through this change of sentiment: her peacemaking blunted into honesty. "It's your friend I'd worry about. I'm not sure he's lost that look, you know. It's not my place to try to do anything about it...but maybe it's a good thing he doesn't want to leave you.”
He wanted to say he had no idea how to carry all of this, like he had any business expecting advice from her. It was crazy to have almost nothing and too much to lose. And it was senseless to pine for somebody's wisdom; it was only Ray and the boy echoing around downstairs who had a clue what it was like.
"Hunting doesn't get big this time out here, but there are a lot of families making their way to the summer houses. Try to stay out of sight." With that, the woman nodded and turned to leave, and Ray was alone in the room again.
McVries blew him off for a while. There wasn't much of another way to describe it, his hiding out in the smallest bedroom claiming to be sleeping, though Ray was almost sure he was barely sleeping at all. He definitely hadn't caught him in the act when he knocked and entered in the morning to shakily offer him a late breakfast. McVries had just been staring at the ceiling, a paperback book gone words-down in a limp grasp on his chest. For lack of anything obvious to say, Ray had asked what he was reading. (“Nothing.”)
Silence should've been more than comfortable between them, but the alienation threw things off. He'd been told that when people were in a lot of pain they could only take a limited amount of even the most mundane stimulus. But he'd known McVries in pain. He'd grown his own scarred extensions around those few days to the point that everything was seen through that agony, even now. They should be less apart, in the mere bruised aftermath of it.
McVries at least showed up to share meals most of the time. Ray learned to avoid certain bigger questions as to what McVries had done or said to be allowed to stay here, or if any of that was to some ends he was still in the dark about. For this he would get some scowling reply to the effect that these people didn't own them and none of them really had the size or nerve to force McVries anywhere, which he guessed was true.
After one long silence, finally, McVries was the one to ask something. "Did you hear how it ended?”
That got Ray’s surprised attention.
“Greg told me.” He shook his head in some numb bewilderment. "Stebbins got it, but he conked out almost right away. Fell over dead in front of everybody.”
“...Stebbins. I should have figured."
"The motherfucker,” McVries said, but it was almost rueful.
"Still, it's not the outcome they'd like. Right? No mystery around what he gets as the winner, I mean."
"I guess that's true.”
The real meaning of the outcome filled the silence. No survivors. Ray’s mind was sorting through the faces of who'd been left. Pretty soon he would have a hard time remembering most of them.
"After losing a few Walkers, and not being able to cover it up?” McVries added wryly after some consideration. "Yeah, I'd imagine the Major feels like stomping on his cap right now.”
Having started to lethargically search for a change of subject, Ray was examining one of the paperbacks that had made it to the kitchen table, a faded pulp anthology with cover art of a woman in a sort of bikini spacesuit getting abducted into the ocean by a swarm of tentacles. He caught Pete’s smirk; “Seriously, what is this shit you're finding?”
“Some John Carter knockoff sci-fi smut. The basement’s lousy with that stuff. On top of the actual porn, I mean."
McVries gave a little huff. "What's illegal? By the time they send a squad to search a place, they've already decided they're going to say they found something. That's as much as I said to Holly when she tried to guilt-trip me about endangering the owners of this little castle in the woods. I said honey, if they have half of a clue where we are then you haven't done your job right and it's not my problem.”
Ray wanted to say that McVries should be more grateful, but he didn't want to know what McVries would say next, so instead he got up from the table and earned a jeering noise as he made to explore the basement.
McVries hadn't been kidding. What he found down there behind the staircase was less someone’s shameful stash of pornography and more like the prized menagerie of someone with a kind of nerve Ray wouldn't volunteer to approach. Just from carding a little bashfully through the Bankers Boxes full of books and magazines and postcards, he could see it was such a varied library as to say much more about a general interest in the illicit than any individual proclivities.
The variance between straightforward nudity under a coy pout on a porcelain face, and the uninspired or more profound statements on what goes where, to whom, with what and how—it hit him in a shaky place, and he'd only been expecting a cheap stroke to his curiosity. He was thinking about that one Walker (Gerber?—no, Gribble). Death by blue balls. Hanging his dumb ass on the line for a last chance at skin. It had been a terrifyingly relatable frenzy at the time and the fucked up thing was that it still was. Having landed headfirst into his new chance at life, the dizzying desire to clutch it harder, harder till his blood ran into white, was still the charge he was feeling.
He felt it at night, his open eyes sewn to the ceiling in fear of the nightmare trembles, the lively and paralyzed feelings existing in perverse tandem. He'd wanted to take himself in hand, but the yearning would be even worse, he thought, so pathetically punctuated by isolation. It was something deep, weak inside of him right next to the place that wanted to cry for days on end.
The other thing about the basement was the bar. It was a shoddy, spare lumber kind of setup in the corner with two mismatched stools, but one step behind it and he saw the supply of gleaming glass looked like a colorful assortment.
McVries agreed that they were guests, and had real experience with hard liquor judging from how he shook his head and reached to correct and guide whatever Ray was experimenting with. Ray thought that the Ocean Spray they found upstairs splashed into Irish whiskey sounded more like a senile accident than a drink, but he shut up after the first couple sips. Long after they could have sensed if not seen that the sun was going down, their spirits had managed a good masquerade of normalcy. He found himself spilling details about Jan, as if they were just two weekend friends sneaking out of church group to talk about getting to the bases and she was going to be waiting to hold his hand in the school hallways on Monday morning.
Ray soon noticed that McVries was somehow participating in this party with his eyes half open, giving all the signs of painful exhaustion while carrying on about the time he was hiding in the bathroom while he overheard his dad getting it on with a voice he thought he recognized as his former babysitter. He'd been favoring the walls and countertops, showing that it still hurt to be on his feet, but in this precarious nocturnal state he was flippant with his body. He'd been disappointed at the record collection sitting next to the turntable but then put on a fairly scratched Golden Hits of Lesley Gore once he was a couple shots wasted and kept doing only the most sarcastic of snaps and shimmies, apparently reminiscing about how overplayed the stuff had been at one of his jobs.
Finally when McVries dropped and shattered a glass, tried to right himself from stepping on the pieces and only took a hard fall to the floor, Ray groused, “Jesus, go to sleep.”
"Fuck, man," he said through a blurred cackle.
"I'll help you up to the couch," Ray said, moving.
“No you won't.”
"Come on." He was leaning over him. "We've—”
"Would you fuck off?” came the sharper answer, McVries swimming on his elbows with no obvious direction. Ray sighed and went over to turn off the record player.
He walked back slowly, finding McVries stretched out on his back with a defeated blankness on his face.
"I can't sleep,” he admitted, voice low. "I mean I don't want to. I can't."
They both understood why. Ray hesitated, tried again. "If you could just get a few hours."
Pete's eyes slid up in his direction, more lucid, hardened. "Why are you trying so hard?"
“You'll barely talk to me,” Ray said, irritably, “I figure maybe you'll listen if you're drunk enough to forget to avoid me.”
At that, McVries very slowly pushed himself up and back so that he was sitting against the side of the bar. He waited, or just wished for the room to stop spinning, until Ray talked.
"Holly was good at sounding like she knew what she was talking about.” Ray was now sitting on the floor too, leaning into one of the stacks of boxes. “I guess I thought you'd be the last person to listen.”
"I’d say obviously you're gonna be the last one to listen.”
He closed his eyes, swallowed. It took a moment for his hurt to build into anger. "I don't get why you fought them so hard if that's the way it's gonna be. What's the point of us both being here if we're not looking out for each other?"
"Hey, you chose to stay here when you had a ride out."
"Just like you—”
"How do you think this is going to go? For how long, I mean? We manage to stick together as far as we can; but what about when we're seen somewhere, somebody recognizes us? We'd have to split off in different directions just to have the best chance. You can't slow down because of me. There's no better chance together, there's just swapping time with each other."
"Just like it's been from the beginning," he said, and it was bitter, stagnant.
McVries sighed. "Look, I don't mean—”
"Yeah, you do. It's fine.” He was getting up. "That musketeer bullshit was just something to jaw about anyway, right?”
He had to pause to steady himself at the bottom of the stairs, briefly, but he wouldn't look at McVries before he went up.
There was a mild breeze out on the balcony deck where Ray had pulled out a musty futon, leaving the door open. He was wrapped in a crocheted blanket, sort of rocking himself. It wasn't yet sunrise but the sky was bruising into that true deep blue, the birds just beginning to call.
A couple creaks in the wood told of McVries hesitating just inside, before he emerged onto the balcony and slowly came to sit beside him. For a while they sat in silence while the wild purred and changed around them.
Finally he asked flatly, "You okay?”
Ray’s breath shook, and it took him a few seconds to manage the words. "I panicked, in the back, after they snatched us. I had to be knocked out and...Art died right next to me, Pete. It was some kind of hemorrhage. Greg mentioned his blood was all over me later, Jesus, if I had just been awake—”
McVries reached for his shoulder as a long overdue sob finally ripped through him. He gave him a shake. "Come on, you know there's nothing you could've—”
"He wouldn't have died alone,” Ray whimpered. "He wouldn't have been alone."
"He died thinking there was a chance,” McVries decided.
He sniffed, stared out at the trees until his thoughts came back clearer. Finally he remarked, "You don't think those people give a shit about us.”
"Of course they don't," McVries said. "They're after something bigger than us. We were just the right chattel to steal to make their point. Couldn’t expect them to like us when we were part of it willingly.”
It wasn't that simple, but it was more or less true. He didn't feel like fighting on the finer points. And he wanted some of that to be right: if these people weren't just taking on the Walk but the big picture, what it stood for...that was his only chance of ever getting to see his mother again. But he had to push the thought away. If there was even the slightest chance he would ever get to go home, it would probably be an achingly long time.
Musingly now, he just looked and took in the woods coming out from the darkness in the slight brushes of sun, the way the isolation of the cabin was daring him on in some ubiquitous way. "What if we just ran for it?" he said, ridiculously. "We could say fuck off to these guys, take our chances hiking and camping and hopping trains.”
McVries was up for this game. “I bet we'd make it. There's hunting gear here, we could take it."
Smiling in amazement, he asked, "You think we could shoot our food?”
"It's not like it would draw attention. And there's plenty to hunt out here even if you can't really track. Squirrels, rabbits…”
With a cringe he despaired, "I don't think I could kill a rabbit."
"Fuck you. That little thing where they wiggle their noses.”
Pete's laugh was sudden, mostly soundless, until it broke out over the wind. "Ray,” he gasped, shaking his head and bending into it.
He muttered, “Right, uh-huh,” reached up and shook Pete by the neck, hoping he felt caught out somehow, sniggering like that from the center of all his gloom.
Pete's laughter abated, becoming one or two sighs, then becoming something else. Ray's hand was still moving on his neck, in slower squeezing touches; he'd been doing it without thinking. Transfixed, he realized slowly the vague yet definable waves of yearning coming off of Pete, that slight buzz perceptible through the weight of his breathing and the way he closed his eyes as if to sink into the touch. Recognized it as all too close to home.
He brought his hand up to stroke through his hair for a small moment, then brought it lower down to his spine, and around the side of his neck to massage idly into the hollow above his collarbone. His breath would be hot and hard now, the way it was sounding, and Ray imagined that breath moving the hairs on his own neck, his own eyes closing.
Pete must have reached some cusp where it was either too much or not enough; his hands scrambled up in his lap without obvious intention, and because Ray thought that might be him about to make an exit, he strengthened his touch and reached over with his other hand and pressed it to his chest. Pete stilled, eyes open and meeting Ray’s as Ray passed his hand down to his stomach, feeling there too, then stilling carefully. He knew, he could tell without looking that Pete would be hard when he swallowed and dropped his hand lower, finally, finally getting that groan out of Pete when he palmed at his pants.
“Shit,” Pete hissed in shocked pleasure, eyes flitting down briefly, then avoiding looking at Ray. He babbled, “You don't have to kiss me or anything.”
Ray was leaned over for the reach now and he unconsciously bit at Pete’s shoulder, listening with concentration to every small gasp or vague syllable that he let out. Right now there was no shame in him; he felt closer to the parts of himself he could have thought he was abandoning or betraying—he could remember how it had felt to make the life he’d realized so late he wanted to keep—than he had since he'd been able to wake up safe, and defiant towards everything he wanted to forget.
Eventually through his clumsy eager movements, he rubbed down under Pete’s waistband, finding soft hot skin, making him tense as if agonized. He watched intently Pete’s half-lidded eyes which were still looking down.
“I would let you,” Pete started after a while in a low seething revelation, eyes closing, bucking up greedily into Ray’s hand. “What your girl wouldn't let you do—I think I'd…”
Ecstatic, agitated, fearful all at once, Ray said, “You wouldn't let me. You don't let anybody.”
"Ray,” Pete said, and he leaned into a coil of motion that knocked down Ray’s hand. He had Ray’s face in his hands and he put his mouth on his. The declaration was soft, insistent. Trembling, Ray returned it.
It was easier now, speaking a simpler language. Coming closer, aligning along their bodies, it was more together.
“Another hour,” Pete mumbled, when Ray tapped him, kept touching him. He rolled over, curved into Ray's conceding embrace. They slept.