Despite his initial hesitation, 10k was glad that he had loitered around long enough to be offered a lift by Doc. He knew that there was a certain safety to be found in numbers: having someone to guard your back while facing a horde of Zs; help scavenging resources that were then pooled and rationed. But he also knew that this was only true if every member was working for the benefit of the group. All it took was one person looking out for themselves… That was a lot of trust to place in a stranger.
And why 10k avoided staying with groups for too long.
The most unexpected benefit, however, was companionship. After three years travelling largely solo, the kid had forgotten what it was like to be surrounded by other still-living beings for extended periods of time. Not that he had too much experience in that regard, seeing as he grew up with only Pa for regular company. Even as a child he had never been the most social of creatures, preferring to avoid his uncle when the man had come to drop off Pa’s latest gun order, and keeping his distance from most of the other kids during the occasional venture into town for supplies.
This group, though. They gave him space and let him to be the one to approach them. Yet they didn’t exclude him or treat him like an idiot, and they shared their food without a second thought. He was invited to group discussions, and Doc had even asked for his opinion. The one time that he had offered advice unsolicited – that they should avoid places of worship when navigating Philadelphia as they would have few supplies but a lot of dead – he wasn’t brushed off. Garnett had even taken it into consideration and drew up an alternate route. They treated him like he was a stray dog they were trying to befriend. And he was fine with that. If they were too open and accepting, then they were idiots who wouldn’t last long; if they were too eager to gain his trust, then he should be the one suspicious of them.
As a unit, the group functioned well. Each had their own role and their own skills. One person’s strengths covered another’s weaknesses. With how they trust each other so effortlessly, 10k can tell that they have been together for quite a while. And following her performance back at the refinery, Cassandra had quickly found her own place within the group. 10k would be lying if he said that part of him wasn’t jealous.
He wasn’t the only broken cog in an otherwise well-oiled machine, however. That honour also befell Murphy. The scruffy man didn’t fight, didn’t forage. He just sassed and sulked, letting the others take care of everything for him. Doc had told 10k that they were on a mission, on orders to escort Murphy to a government lab. That Murphy had survived some zombie bites and held the key to a cure. Being bitten so many times then left for dead sure would explain his fear of Zs. Although the kid was curious at how the scruffy man had ended up immune in the first place, the fact that this mission was on orders from the Government didn’t sit right with him. With all their shady dealings pre-apocalypse, 10k wouldn’t put it passed the Government to have started this zombie outbreak themselves…
As for Murphy, being considered an ‘asset’ meant that he was not treated as a companion, but rather a prisoner. He never gets space, Warren choosing instead to roughly drag him around like luggage. He was ignored during the discussions to plan the group’s next move, and any input he had was pointedly disregarded. This only led to him making snarky remarks or complaining about every little thing he could. Like an overlooked child doing anything to gain the attentions of a disinterested parent. His comments often only succeeded in widening the chasm between Murphy and the group, however, as his near constant grumblings made it easy to see him as arrogant. But to 10k, the man just seemed lonely.
Loneliness is something the kid knows well.
But if he plays this right, it could lead to his advantage: if 10k decides to stay with the group for a little longer than he usually would, then befriending the scruffy man could help justify his continued presence. By drawing Murphy’s attention towards himself, 10k could allow the rest of the group to function more efficiently without the man’s distracting tirades. Like a nanny or a babysitter. No, that doesn’t feel right to the kid. But he’s hesitant to aim for anything more personal, as he doesn’t want to get attached to the man – that would only make his inevitable departure more… difficult. Murphy will be a means to an end, not a friend.
10k hasn’t had a friend since–
“You alright there, kid?” The question pulled him out of his own head and towards the old man sitting opposite him. Doc’s eyes, kind but concerned, drifted from 10k’s face, landing instead on his chest. Glancing downwards, the kid saw that his fist was clenched onto his scarf, the knuckles a deathly white amidst pale blue. Loosening his grip, he allowed his hand to fall once more into his lap. Doc still watched him, so many unasked questions swirling in his eyes. 10k hates questions. They only draw people in closer. And he needs to keep his distance.
“Is that really the Liberty Bell?” At Mack’s words, 10k lurched up, startling Doc. The Liberty Bell? It can’t be. Their planned route wouldn’t take them passed the Liberty Bell Centre.
Slamming his door, Garnett strode towards the flatbed upon which a bell was secured. “‘Proclaim liberty throughout all of the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.’ Yeah, that’s it.”
Oh, heck. It really is! Jumping down off the truck and leaning next to the window that Murphy was draped out of, 10k stared on in awe. His Pa had taught him all about it.
10k flinched when Doc leaned on his shoulder for balance as the old man slid off the truck bed. With a small squeeze and an apologetic smile, Doc shuffled towards the Bell. “Three years of Zombie Apocalypse, you think you’ve seen everything.”
Warren was making her own way towards the flat bed, heading for the driver’s cab instead of the Bell that everyone was gawking at. “Well, when everything went bad, they probably tried to save a little history.”
Beside him, Murphy huffed in annoyance. “Yeah, well, they should’ve known that the only thing that you can save is yourself.” At 10k’s short snort of laughter, the man just rolled his eyes before turning back towards Warren. “C’mon, let’s go!”
Studying him from the corner of his eye, 10k couldn’t help but smile at how the scruffy man was full of contradictions. Should Murphy truly believe that someone can only rely upon themselves, then why does he allow himself to depend so heavily on the group? If the argumentative attitude is just some kind of self defence mechanism, then 10k thinking the man is lonely was right on target.
“God bless the human race,” Doc sighed. “Ninety-nine percent of them dead. But there is still one jackass alive with a spray can.”
Spray can? Pushing up off the side of the truck to see what Doc was talking about, a snarl stops 10k in his tracks. A Z had jumped out of the driver’s cab, heading straight for Warren. 10k moved without thinking, pulling out his slingshot: killing was more than just second nature by now. It was his reason for living. The memories of everything he had killed to ensure his own continued survival had etched the repetitive motions into every fibre of his being. It was more than just second nature. It was who he was. Who he is.
Only once the Z was down, its head split open and brains exposed, did he notice the tightness upon his arm. Glancing to the side, he saw fingers gripping his grey camo sleeve. Murphy. The man really is scared of the Zs. Moving slowly so as to not startle the man further, 10k lay a hand over Murphy’s, rubbing gently at the bone white knuckles and tight fingers. He hopes it’s a comforting gesture. “Dead now. One thousand seventy-five.”
Murphy jerked his hand away with a scowl, rubbing at his fingers as if it would erase any trace of 10k’s soft motions. With a self-conscious clearing of his throat, the scruffy man nodded at the weapon hanging loosely in the kid’s other hand. “What is that thing? A slingshot?” Raising it enough to allow a closer inspection, 10k watched the as man’s eyes narrowed with curiosity. “Of course, you made a toy into a weapon. Don’t tell me you have a potato gun stashed away, too… What do you even fire from it, anyway?”
A slight frown tugged at 10k’s lips. What was the man going on about? Food can be scarce enough as it was without it doubling up as ammo. “Small stones. Ball bearings. Gears. Not nuts, though…”
“Not accurate. Wouldn’t wanna hit the wrong target. Again”
As Murphy shot him a wary look and leaned back into the car, 10k slipped the slingshot back into his pack. The man was still watching him. Thinking the kid wouldn’t notice. But he could feel the eyes lingering on his back as he walked away from the truck. 10k smiled: getting closer to Murphy might be easier than he first thought.
While he understood why the others were working on getting the flatbed started – Garnett said it would be better if they all rode inside instead of being exposed and out in the open – the prospect was unsettling to 10k. Sure, riding inside meant cover from Zs and shelter from the elements, but it also meant a harder escape. If something goes wrong, if the others turn – or turn on him – he’s trapped. He long ago learnt that survival meant knowing who was safe to depend on. But trust was a two-way street; if he wanted to receive it, he would also have to give it… If he keeps his guard up, conceding some ground now would allow him to regain more later.
With some time to kill and Murphy hiding in the truck, 10k decided to allow himself a small indulgence. After all, he doesn’t know if he’ll be passing this way again – might as well check out the Liberty Bell while he can. Pa had taught him all about it: how it was commissioned for the anniversary of Pennsylvania’s Constitution; that it was originally named after the State House in which it was hung… Never told him how it cracked, though. Since he had first learned of it, 10k had always wanted to see the Bell. Never thought he’d actually get to, even pre-Z. Pa hated big cities: too many people; too many cameras. It wasn’t safe, not with how easily the dense crowds made it for the Government to hide their surveillance… But, since he was able to see it against all odds, a celebration of some sort would be good. Rummaging into the bottom of his pack, 10k pulled out an Oreo. As it was the last one left from the backpack that he had managed to grab a few weeks ago, he had been saving it for a special occasion. It was already stale, so waiting a little longer to savour it hadn’t been too big a deal. All that was left to do was pick off the little bits of fluff.
As he raised the Last Oreo to his mouth, the back of 10k’s neck prickled. He hesitated. Dropped his hand. He’d felt this before: at the school where he first encountered the group; while riding in the back of the truck; when slipping away at the refinery. He cast his eyes to Murphy as the scruffy man stepped up to his side.
“Never understood this countries fascination with landmarks. Just a load of pseudo patriotic bullshit.”
Why was 10k so conscious of this man? So aware of his approach; of his gaze. Hyperaware. Did Murphy feel it too? Was that why he spotted 10k slipping away? How he seemed to know how badly the kid wanted to kill Cassandra’s stalker?
Does Murphy know why 10k is travelling with his group?
“Always drilled it into our heads at school, too.” The scruffy man chewed softly on his thumb nail before waving the hand towards the Bell. “This was one of the big ones they always harped on about. Made to celebrate the Revolution. Overthrowing the British–”
“Wasn’t.” 10k hadn’t meant to speak. He preferred to stay quiet, blend into the background. But with the quizzical look Murphy was giving him, the kid decided he might as well continue. “Made in 1751. Before the Revolutionary War.”
“What? Then why is it called the Liberty Bell? Pretty stupid name if it had nothing to do with freeing people from tyrants.”
“Renamed in the 1830’s. By Abolitionists.” Murphy was staring now, light blue eyes drilling into him. Inspecting him. Trying to pull him apart. See underneath. 10k’s gut tightened. He looked away, dropping his gaze to the Last Oreo. Absently, he picked at a speck of lint he must have missed. “Symbol of anti-slavery. Of autonomy.”
At the man’s scoff, 10k looked back up. Murphy was glaring at the Bell now, his lips curled, brows creased. Gentle footsteps announced Cassandra’s approach before her voice did. “Ten Thousand’s right, you know.” That made Murphy turn, his eyes pausing on 10k before meeting the girl’s. He looked affronted. Or annoyed. 10k decided to go with both. Cassandra raised her hands in mock defence, a smile curling her lips. “Don’t shoot the messenger, Murphy. Anyway, the kid was in school more recently than you.”
“Didn’t go to school.” He knew that was a mistake as soon as the words tumbled out of his mouth. They were staring at him. Had questions. He knew his circumstances were… unusual. Would only draw unwanted attention. But something about Murphy makes him want to talk. To share. Open up. If the scruffy man wasn’t his best in with the group…
An engine roared to life, Garnett’s voice chiming in soon after. “Murphy! You get in here with Warren and me. Everybody else, follow in the pickup. Stay close.” Saved by the bell.
10k watches Murphy, sees how the man instantly deflates. This small piece of freedom over, he was back to being just a prisoner once more. Distracting himself from the man – 10k cannot afford to be too sympathetic – the kid regards the Last Oreo. The moment may have been ruined, but the cookie was mostly free of lint. Would be a shame to push it back into his pack, to let it get fluffy once more. He eagerly raised it up–
And Murphy snatched it away, shoving the whole thing in his own mouth with a grin.
10k had been saving that. He was going to savour it, take his time. Enjoy it. It was his Last Oreo. He loved Oreos. Had worked hard to get the pack that one was from. And Murphy had just… His Last Oreo…
“Oh, cheer up, Psycho-Boy. Sharing is caring!” And with that, the scruffy man sauntered towards the flatbed where Garnett was waiting.
Psycho? Is that really what Murphy thinks of him? 10k didn’t pout. No, he was just trying to soften his glare, to not let on how close the man had been. Ignoring Cassandra tugging at his arm, trying to get him to follow her to their truck, he instead trailed after Murphy. The kid’s footsteps were light, falling in time with those of the Oreo Thief. As the man reached the passenger door and climbed in, 10k leaned in after him – just enough to grab the canteen that had been placed in the back seat.
Staring as innocently as he could into Murphy’s eyes, he raised the canteen to his mouth and took a large gulp. Then a second. Fighting to keep the satisfied smirk off his face, he slowly licked a trickle of water from his lips. Pale blue eyes tracked the motion before darkening with rage.
“That’s mine, you little shit!” Dodging back from Murphy’s grabbing hands was easy, and 10k quickly screwed the cap back onto the canteen. Would be senseless to waste even a drop of water over the scruffy man’s pettiness.
“Murphy! Let it go.” Warren’s sharp call from the front seat pulled the man back from the doorway. He didn’t stop glaring at the kid, however.
“Hey, Ten Thousand! Saved you shotgun!” Turning to see Doc waving at him from the driver’s seat of the pickup, the kid decided not to push his luck. Trying to ride with Murphy right now would only serve to antagonise the man further, and he was trying to lure the man closer, not get himself kicked to the curb. That doesn’t mean 10k had to ignore that the man was tracking his movements as he retreated, though. Throwing one last glance over his shoulder, he met Murphy’s gaze. The man’s face was unreadable, the brows low, mouth pressed into a thin line. It was quickly replaced with a scowl, however, as the door was slammed shut.
Sliding into his own seat and cradling his rifle between his knees, 10k turns the canteen over in his hands, thumbs tracing the brushed steel, cool to the touch. Behind him, Mack clears his throat. “So, what was that all about?”
Unable – or just unwilling – to meet the curious gazes of his travelling companions, 10k turns his eyes out of the window. He shifts down in his seat, getting comfortable. Maybe riding in a vehicle will be nice, for a change. “Murphy said ‘sharing is caring’.”
The ringing of Cassandra’s laughter tugs a smirk onto 10k’s lips once more.