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If I Don’t Laugh, I’ll Cry

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Nick leans against the wall of a dimly lit bar called The Well, arms crossed, wearing his lucky Melvins T-shirt that was among the few belongings left behind in his house spared by who knows how many looters. He’s the last up tonight, his first time doing stand-up, and while it’s just a free Monday night show in a small town bar basement a few hundred miles southeast of Memphis, the place is packed and he’s getting nervous. The other acts, a mix of unknown newcomers and unknown ‘veterans’, had received mixed responses and made barely any mention of the ‘Walker Plague’, as it was being called, that had ravaged the world a little less than a year ago and wiped out nearly 60% of the population.

His show would be different.

The MC, also one of the bartenders, a middle-aged man named Darby with a vicious looking gash across the right side of his face and a two week strawberry blond beard, finishes up his between sets patter and starts introducing him.

“And last but no doubt not least, making his comedy debut here at The Well, please give a very warm welcome to Niiiiick Raaaaandall!”

Nick walks onstage to mildly enthusiastic applause and takes the mic, shaking Darby’s hand.

“Thank you everyone. Being here brings back some memories. I used to come here and get drunk sometimes, but that was before...” He pauses, surveying the crowd - half of them have their eyes on him, the rest are chatting quietly or looking down at their phones. “...They started up these comedy nights.”

Nick clears his throat. His nerves are killing him and the joint of his severed finger is beginning to throb. He holds his right hand up to the spotlight and peers through the hole where his middle finger used to be. More of the audience is staring at him, though they look unphased by the injury. He brings his hand back down to grip the mic on its stand.

“Yeah, so, uh, it’s been weird getting used to things. Like, it’s such a little thing, one finger, you know. You wouldn’t think it would make much of a difference, but it does. Typing is different, eating is different, shaking hands is a little weird, I have to remember to use my left hand to flip people off.”

He brings his maimed hand up again and fake-winces as he tries to give the crowd the finger. It gets a few chuckles.

“Jerking off is the most different, though,” he continues, and the laughs get a little louder.

“At first I though it’d be worse, right, ‘cause you have less grip, and I was about to switch to my left, when I realized, ‘hey, there’s a very conveniently placed extra hole here’.” At this, more people burst out laughing and Nick mimes his technique for a few seconds.

“So there’s a silver lining. But how did I get this, you may wonder.”

He pauses again, and the laughter has died down. No going back now, Nick thinks.

 

***

 

They’ve been walking for days on end and slowly starving. It’s just the two of them now, after the rest of the survivors left them at the cabin across from the frozen lake. Luke was in no shape to leave right away, and there was just no room in the car for all of them - Kenny, Jane, Clem, A.J., Nick, and Luke - with enough food and water. No way was he leaving Luke behind. It had hurt to part with Clem - she’d wanted them to all stay together somehow, but supplies were running low, baby formula was an urgent priority, and she and A.J. would have more chance of surviving in the car with Kenny and Jane than on foot with him and Luke.

Luke had taken another two days to rest and recover some from his sub-zero swim, and the various older injuries to his ribs and leg. Nick had been in better shape, but the gunshot wound on his shoulder - bandaged with a torn off strip of bedsheet - would take time to heal.

They had set out almost two weeks ago and had long finished what they could find that was edible in the cabin. Now they were subsisting on river water filtered through a piece of pillowcase and the occasional fish Luke could spear with his machete, or crawdad or crab either of them could whack with their gun butts. They were saving their bullets for walkers, who tended to roam around the area now and then in groups of around five to ten. Not that they saw any other creatures about, other than insects, reptiles, and birds. The mammals seemed to have all but disappeared. And the freshwater fish were growing scarcer and scarcer.

“We gotta find somewhere else to hunt, man,” Nick says at the end of a second day of dinners consisting of a few spiders and worms.

Luke sighs, looking gaunter than ever and uncharacteristicly glum. “I know,” he says, and spreads his hands. “But where? We haven’t seen any signs of civilization anywhere round here. And this is our water source.”

“Let’s just pick a direction then. We can toss a bullet, go where it points. I dunno.” Nick sighs and sits down next to the riverbank, head hunched between his knees. “I’m so fucking beat.”

Luke sits down next to him. “Yeah, me too. And my leg keeps spazzing on me when I put too much weight on it.”

He puts a hand on Nick’s back, pats it once. “But what do you want me to say? I don’t have all the answers.”

“Never said you did,” Nick replies, leaning back slightly, savouring the warmth of Luke’s hand. “Though you often thought so.”

“Well, that was then.” Luke lifts his hand from between Nick’s shoulder blades and tosses some sand into the water, watching the ripples form around it.

They sit next to each other silently for a few moments while the sky grows darker.

“I miss ‘em.”

“Me too,” Nick says.

“Becks.”

“Alvin.”

“Sarah.”

“Carlos.”

“Uncle Pete.” Nick swallows and chews his lip. He remembers being so helpless when it happened, so angry at himself.

“Jane.”

Nick smirks at him. “I’ll bet.”

“Shut up.” There’s a pause. “Sarita.”

“Sarita.... Fuck me, I even miss Florida Man.”

Luke giggles. “He know you call him that?”

“No. He called me Vanilla Ice, remember? Which makes no sense. Anyway, he is so Florida Man. If you googled Kenny I bet all these mugshots would come up with headlines like ‘Florida Man Illegally Docks Sailboat with Alligator Family of Five Aboard It’.”

“I miss googling.”

“I miss Clem.”

“Oh yeah. I really miss her.”

“Ya think she’s alright?” Nick asks.

“Yeah, she’s probably doing better’n we are.”

“We should, look for some bugs, or moss, or something.”

“Firewood. I’m starting to shiver and it’s only gonna get colder tonight.”

 

***

 

“I’m telling you, Florida Man was fucking out of control with this Russian kid, like he was auditioning for a Red Dawn remake, beating up on this scrawny little guy with cracked glasses, calling him commie and Russkie like my racist dad.”

Nick pauses for breath. He can’t tell how much the crowd is into this part, if his story about losing his finger had gone too dark and meandering, maybe too real for some of them.

“So GI Jane tries to get him to lay off, and honestly folks, like I told you, GI Jane is someone you don’t wanna get into it with. She shot Ferret Face’s dick off, remember? You don’t wanna say no to her. Luke certainly didn’t. ‘How’s about I ride you while you’re supposed to be watching the perimeter for walkers?’ ‘No problem, Jane. Damn, that was the best four and a half minutes I’ve had in months. Actually that was the only time I’ve gotten any in months.’ And this guy still gets laid ten times more than I do. You know, he’s /that/ guy, with the tousled hair, the charming smile, the machete strapped to his back like he’s Indiana Jones, all he’s missing is a whip and a fedora - girls swarm to him like flies to bullshit. And there I was, thinking, why didn’t she ask me, I wasn’t supposed to be doing anything important for these four and a half minutes, like making sure a horde of walkers wasn’t breaching the goddamn compound we’re all in!”

Nick pauses for another breath, many in the crowd are cackling now. He grins a little sheepishly. “Sorry, I got sidetracked.”

 

***

 

The next day, they gather what remains of their strength and hike deeper into the forest, away from the river. They hadn’t tossed a bullet, just decided they might have more luck foraging and hunting in there.

They find a dirt road about an hour in, and walk down it, hoping it leads to a park ranger station they can take shelter at. Eventually they come across a small stream down a narrow, rocky path a little ways, visible from the roadside. The remains of a campsite are scattered around it - a long dead fire pit with a roasting spit, empty bottles and cans, animal bones. Nearby, a large tire swing hangs from a tree branch, and not far from it an axe lies next to a wide stump with several long slices of wood on the ground next to it.

“Looks like they left in a while ago,” Luke remarks, peering at the label of one of the discarded plastic bottles. “This mineral water expired early last year.”

“Dibs on the axe,” Nick says, picking it up and feeling its weight. “You already have a machete.”

“We better find something to eat soon,” Luke says, sitting on the tire swing. He rubs a palm across his forehead. “I’m getting too lightheaded to walk much more.”

A bird flies overhead, emitting a harsh cry. Nick’s peers up at it from under the brim of his hat. “I may have an idea.”

 

***

 

“So my plan actually works - the slingshots we make out of twigs and tire treads keep us fed for the next couple days and we haven’t seen any walkers in ages. But of course good things didn’t last long back then, if they ever did, and on our second night there almost a dozen of them come through the trees, heading straight toward us.”

Nick takes a breath. There’s nothing funny he can think of to say at this point, but at least he’s still got people’s attention, more or less; the bar’s low lighting makes it difficult to tell.

“Luke shakes me awake and we grab our weapons and run. It’s still before dawn so we can hardly see where we’re going, almost crashing into trees and tripping over bramble, but we come to a large clump of rocks, almost chest level, and climb up ‘em, thinking we’ll be able to pick off the walkers from up there. It’s not a bad idea, and we shoot about half of them before another bunch shows up. Pretty soon we’re out of bullets.”

 

***

 

“Don’t worry, they can’t climb,” Luke says.

 

“You sure about that? This pile of rocks isn’t that high.” 

 

“Time to use that axe of yours.”

 

Luke pulls out his machete and kneels down to spear the closest walker in the eye, grunting as he yanks the gunk smeared blade out.

 

Nick swings his axe down at the one next to it, severing most of its head from its shoulders, but struggles to pull the weapon back out. He gets it on the third pull, but by then without thinking he’s slid his hands down the handle to try and get a stronger grip. The half decapitated creature claws at his fingers as he’s pulling the axe up and Nick feels the burn of skin breaking just above  the nail of his right middle finger.

 

“Fuck!” Nick drops the axe and staggers backward, clutching his wrist. He isn’t certain that the infection can pass through scratches, but he doesn’t want to find out firsthand. 

 

“Luke, cut it off now!”

 

“Shit, Nick!” Luke grabs his wrist and pulls them to the ground, pressing Nick’s palm to the surface of the rock, damp with dew. 

 

“Shit, shit,” he hisses, hesitating.

 

“Do it now or you’ll have to kill me - c’mon, dammit!”

 

The machete slices through skin and bone. Nick screams sickeningly as his finger is severed. Blood spurts out of the wound and he covers the injured hand with the intact one. He’s never felt so much pain in his life. 

 

Then Nick passes out.

 

When he wakes up, he’s lying on his back and Luke’s wrapping something around his hand. The wound’s throbbing like crazy and Nick’s dizzy and feels like he might throw up. 

 

“There,” Luke says quietly. “They’re all gone now. I got ‘em all.” He pats Nick’s shoulder. “Now there’s just you.”

 

Nick stares up at him and sees the sleeve of his sweatshirt is ragged and shorter on one side, where he’d cut it to bandage his hand with, he realizes.

 

He groans and rolls to one side. His chest heaves, but nothing comes out.

 

“Talk to me, tell me you’re still there.” Luke gazes at him worriedly, face drawn. 

 

“I’m still here,” he manages. “Minus a finger, anyway.” He grits his teeth. “Fuck it hurts.”

 

“That means you’re alive.” Luke’s features relax a little. “Anyway, we gotta get out of here. Could be more of ‘em coming.”

 

He helps Nick to his feet, and Nick examines his banaged hand, three remaining fingers sticking out of it.

 

“My guitar playing will never be the same.”

 

“Eh, you weren’t that good anyway.”

 

“Fuck you very much. And thanks - it could’ve been a lot worse.” 

 

“Just don’t scare me like that again.”

 

***

 

“You know what happens after you start eating bugs regularly? After you’ve become so hungry you just start eyeing every little thing with legs like it’s caviar? Once thing’s’re back to normal, you’re still in bird mode.”

 

Nick takes a sip of water and looks at the audience. He hasn’t given them anything to laugh at in awhile. Some of them have left, others are chatting quietly at the bar or sipping their drinks and staring off into space. 

 

He’d thought it’d be therapeutic to go onstage like this and talk to people about stuff that had happened to him during the bad old days. He’d thought it might hold back the nightmares a bit, tone down the panic attacks. But now he suspects it won’t make much difference. He doubts he’ll do it again. 

 

“Just the other night, I couldn’t sleep, as usual, so I got out of bed, went downstairs to see if I had any beer left in the fridge, and when I opened the door, this big brown spider runs out from underneath it, and I just grab at it, catlike, and squeeze the poor thing in my little three-fingered fist and pop it right in my mouth. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘What the fuck is wrong with me? Am I ever gonna be the way I was before?’”

 

***

 

They had followed the road in the forest to a highway, but by then had almost run out of food - Luke had nabbed a blackbird with his slingshot yesterday, and they had eaten some ants and a couple worms for breakfast. Animal sightings had grown rarer and rarer. On top of that, they were low on water. It hadn’t rained after they had filled up their bottles at the last stream they passed, and they had perhaps a day’s supply left. 

 

On the bright side, walkers seemed to also have become scarcer. Nick and Luke walked by the side of the highway, figuring it would lead to a city or town where they might be able to find some tinned food that was still edible and hadn’t been scavenged, and some humans, which they hadn’t seen for a long while, it seemed. 

 

Nick’s hand had been healing slowly, probably because they were eating so poorly, but at least it hadn’t become infected. It still hurt, but the pain, like their near constant hunger, was dull and often faded into the background like static.

 

“We’re gonna starve, aren’t we?” Nick says. It’s a shitty way to die, he thinks. Not as shitty as being turned into the walking dead, but still pretty damn shitty.

 

“Just keep moving,” Luke replies.

 

“Luke, I need to rest.”

 

“Just a little further, alright?”

 

Nick sighs. He feels like he’s gonna collapse any minute. He glances at his watch and realizes he’s forgotten to wind it. As he starts to twist the tiny knob, he wonders how much it matters, at this point.

 

They finally sit down at a telephone pole, the two of them leaning back against it at right angles. Luke surveys the dessicated landscape of dusty, reddish earth with clumps of rocks and sparse patches of dying shrubs. Vultures would not be out of place here, but it appears as though they have vanished as well. 

 

Nick sinks his head into his knees and clasps his hands over his face. After several seconds he starts sobbing quietly.

 

“Nick...” Luke turns to him.

 

“I don’t wanna hear it, Luke.” His voice, filtered through skin and shirtsleeves, is muffled and ragged. 

 

“Good,” Luke edges closer to him, “‘Cause I wasn’t gonna say it.”

 

He puts an arm around his trembling shoulders, bringing the other one to rest on top of Nick’s hands, one wrapped in a bloody strip of his sweatshirt.

 

Nick leans into him, close enough now to feel the pulse of Luke’s neck match the one in his thumb.

 

They stay like that for a few minutes until the air crackles with thunder and a vein of lightning divides the horizon. Drops begin to fall. It’s the first rain since they’ve been on their own.

 

“Fuck yeah!” Luke lets go of him and punches the air. Nick breathes a sigh of relief, but the shame of again showing that he’s the weaker, more emotional one, still lingers. 

 

They quickly swig what’s remaining in their bottles and hold them to the sky as the rain pours down harder. 

 

Hours later, they are still walking along the same unknown highway, and the rain shows no signs of letting up.

 

“Too much of a good thing, huh,” Luke remarks, wiping his dripping brow.

 

“A good thing would be finding a house with a well-stocked pantry along with Clem ‘n’ the rest of ‘em.”

 

“Yeah, well this road has to lead somewhere. Whole cities don’t just up and disappear. It just seems like it’s taking so long to come across anything ‘cause we’re on foot, and not exactly in the best of health.”

 

“I sure hope we don’t have to sleep in the rain,” Nick grumbles. “God, I’m so famished I don’t know that I could stop myself from wolfing down walker meat if we come across any more of those fuckers. I’m at the point where I wish we’d brought along my missing finger to munch on. No wonder they’re so goddam hungry for us - there’s nothing else left.”

 

***

 

Darby gives him the signal that he’s got about five minutes to wrap it up, and Nick’s relieved. He’s already tired of being under the spotlight, milking some of the worst moments of his life for free entertainment. And yet it’s admittedly felt good getting some of the hellishness of all those near death experiences off his chest, where they’d been festering like a particularly tenacious virus. 

 

He scans the crowd for Luke, who’d told him he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make his show, or make all of it, since he had a physical therapy group session tonight at Memphis General and he wasn’t sure how long it would run. Since Nick would now soon be exploiting the worst moments of his 

Iife for the audience’s amusement, he’s a little concerned about how Luke would take it, even though he was by far the cooler headed of the two of them. But it’s too crowded and dark back there to get a good look at people. Nick hopes Luke’s there more than he worries about his reaction.

 

“Yeah, so if any of you folks have, say, an ant problem or something like that, just give me a call, I’ll come right over, and you don’t have to worry about any cancerous pesticides with their nauseating fumes. Plus it’s completely organic and eco-friendly. Future forward and shit.” 

 

Scattered laughter. 

 

“But back to starvation highway, the rain still hadn’t let up, and it was now well into twilight. I caught a movement underneath one of the clusters of rocks ahead of us.”

 

***

 

“Did you see that?”

 

“No, what?” Luke says, looking to where Nick’s pointing.

 

“Something’s inside those rocks.”

 

“Okay, let’s have a look.”

 

They creep over to the pile of rocks, soaked through to their bones and trying not to shiver. Just then the rain finally stops, and they both breathe a sigh of relief and stare down at the rocks, which now seem completely still. 

 

Nick pushes at the one where he saw movement with the tip of his axe and nearly drops it when a rattlesnake shoots its head out and sinks its fangs into the wood right above the blade. 

 

“Shit!”

 

He twists the handle around, trying to shake it off, but before Nick can, Luke slices its neck clean through with his machete. Both parts of the creature drop to the ground, twitching.

 

“And we have dinner,” Luke says, smiling wearily. 

 

“Fuck, man, great reflexes.” 

 

“Great eyes,” he replies. Nick can’t help but smile back.

 

It takes forever to start a fire, with the few pieces of wood they’d taken with them from the forest too wet to be of much use till they can dry them off a little against the rocks and get the end of one of them to catch with their half empty lighter. By then they’re almost delirious with hunger and barely able to cook the snake long enough before plucking it from the flames and chopping it into toasty,  bite-sized chunks. 

 

“Tastes like chicken, right?” Luke says between mouthfulls.

 

“Mmm.” Nick licks his lips. “Maybe when this is all over we should start farming ‘em. If the other animals have really all died out, then snakes are gonna be the new chickens.”

 

“My next business venture.” He positions his hands to look like a sign. “Luke’s snake steaks.”

 

Nick chuckles. “Against my better judgment, count me in.”

 

Luke gets a gleam in his eye. “But first we need to take a vacation, get away from all this Survivor shit.”

 

“I’d suggest Vegas, if I didn’t fucking hate Vegas,” Nick remarks.

 

“Nope, we’re going to the tropics. Surf and sunshine. Passion fruit and Piña Coladas.”

 

“You sound like a fucking brochure.”

 

“Aruba, Jamaica, ooh, I wanna take ya,” Luke starts to sing, barely in tune, beating out a rhythm on the damp ground.

 

Nick cringes. “Oh fuck no, you’ve tortured me enough with that song in the car.”

 

Luke sways from side to side in a loose rhythm. “Bermuda, Bahama, come on pretty mama...”

 

“I’m gonna shove my axe handle down your throat if you keep going.”

 

“Aw, don’t be like that, sing with me,” Luke says brightly, and continues. “Key Largo, Montego, baby, why don’t we go?”

 

It had grown so dark and they had been so distracted by Luke’s rendition of ‘Kokomo’ that they hadn’t noticed the walker quietly creeping up behind them till it reaches its decaying arms toward Luke, rasping.

 

Nick spots it first. “Luke, behind you!” he shouts.

 

The walker, a tall, muscular tank of a man wearing a half shredded army jacket, grabs at Luke’s shoulders, drooling. He tries to roll to one side, but its thick, rough hands keep him pinned. It’s about to bite into Luke’s neck when Nick swings his axe into its face, knocking it backwards and releasing Luke.

 

They both stand up as the walker gets back on its feet, a section of its cheek hanging off the side of its face, but otherwise looking relatively unhurt. 

 

“Are you scratched?”

 

“No, but - shit, there’s one behind it too!”

 

A short walker, perhaps a teenage girl or boy - it’s hard to tell in the near darkness - staggers toward them a few paces behind the first one.

 

Luke pulls out his machete. “You take shorty,” he says shakily.

 

Before Nick can object - the tall walker looks like it’ll take the both of them to off it without guns - Luke runs toward it and hacks at its throat, eliciting a sickening squelching sound. It falls to its knees, clawing at the blade lodged in the side of its neck. Luke yanks on the handle, but loses his grip, and the machete slides out of the wound and clatters to the ground. 

 

Meanwhile Nick has lured the second walker away from them and swings his axe at it, but his aim is poor and he only clips its side, barely harming it.

 

Luke kicks the kneeling walker hard in the chest and it falls backward, but grabs his foot, pulling him to the ground. He cries out as he falls, and tries to kick his shoe off after he’s flat on his back.

 

Nick curses when he sees Luke fall and nearly forgets about the walker advancing on him. He swings at it again and catches it hard in the chest, knocking it over. 

 

Luke finally pulls his foot free, leaving the large walker clutching at an empty shoe as its partially severed neck leaks what must have at one point been blood onto the damp earth beneath it. Still on his back, he catches sight of his dropped machete within reach, and twists onto his side to grab it.

 

Nick stands over the flailing, rasping walker and realises it used to be a teenage girl. She looks like she could pass for an older sister of Clem, and he feels more than a little sick as he raises up his axe to decapitate her.

 

Machete now in hand, Luke starts to push himself to his feet, but the walker drops his shoe and reaches for his leg. Luke swipes at its hand, cutting off two of its fingers, but loses his balance in the process and falls down again.

 

“Fuck!” 

 

“Luke, you alright? I’m coming,” Nick calls to him, kicking the severed walker girl’s head away so he doesn’t have to see it a second longer. 

 

Just as he reaches the spot where Luke and the walker are struggling, he sees it grab at Luke’s foot again, now with only two fingers left, the other hand still clutching at its gouged, oozing neck.

 

“No,” Nick breathes as he sees Luke’s face twist with pain. The walker digs its thumb and remaining fingers deep into the skin right above his ankle. 

 

“Ahhh, cut it off, cut it off!” Luke yells as blood trickles down onto his sock. 

 

“Oh god, oh fuck,” Nick mutters. He takes a deep breath, swings his axe high, and brings it down onto Luke’s shin as hard as he possibly can.

 

***