Garth dragged Leanne into the side hall while the men were still blinded by the sudden change in brightness.
“Yeah, I use’ta work in the cafeteria, a few years gone by.” Garth heard the armed man say as he quietly tried the nearest door handle. Locked.
“So you was a lunch lady?” another voice chimed in, rougher, with the timbre of someone who smoked a pack a day. The third man chuckled.
Garth tried another door, finding it locked as well. The particular hall they were in was a dead end, with no way to turn out of sight. Once the three guys with guns came to the intersection, Garth and Leanne would be smack dab in the middle of a straight shot. Fish in a barrel.
Leanne tapped on his side and wordlessly pointed to the detention room, door half open. He glanced back to the intersection, where he could hear the men’s brazen footsteps and loud chatter approaching. He didn’t want to go in that room, on the off chance that whoever or whatever took those heartstones was still in there, but they were running out of options.
“Shut’cher mouth.” The lead man said. “Anyway, due to ma perfect recollection, I remembered that they restock non-perishables at the end of the month.”
“Isn’t it the beginning of the month, though?” Garth heard the second voice speak again. A stunned silence hung in the air as they came to the intersection, and Garth saw them staring at their companion before he ducked inside the room.
“What happens after the end of the month, Roger?”
“Well, I-I see something!”
Garth cursed internally and stepped further into the room, trying not to let his shadow move in front of the door. Hanging above him was the dark, motionless form of a naked woman, seemingly glued to the upper corner of the room by her own flesh.
“Something moving, over there!”
Garth heard the sound of guns being raised, and his skin went cold. He looked around for places to hide. In the other corner was something fleshy, squat and fat with little nubs coming out of the sides, a huge, lumpy shape his brain couldn’t quite process. Against the far wall Leanne was trying to pry open a window, but it was locked and near rusted shut. At the front of the room was a lectern and against the hall side was a large, standing cabinet.
Garth ran up to her and dragged her silently to the lectern and shoved her under it before closing himself in the teacher’s standing supply cabinet.
A few sheets of paper fell out as he went in, with stupid little connect-the-dots pictures made by solving math problems. Garth didn’t hear them say anything, so he prayed they hadn’t heard it.
“It’s just one of them creepers.” He heard one of them say.
“It’s got a hole in it’s chest,” Roger said. “Looks like there were people here. Think they got the food already?”
“Roger, I’m gonna ask you to stop talking. Maybe take a page from Doug’s book here. everyone thinks Doug’s a goddamn einstein because he only speaks when he’s sure he’s right. Isn’t that right, Doug?”
Doug didn’t say anything.
“See? Anyway this only proves a person shot it, then something waited to eat the heart in the last twelve hours or so, then something moved it again afterwards. See there? I saw those creepers eat one of their own once, they go for the heart first to take the stone, then if they’re hungry they’ll eat the rest.”
“The thing I saw moving was further down the hall.” Roger said.
“Let’s check it out, make sure we’re alone here, then head to the cafeteria.” Their leader said.
“Doug, watch our backs.”
Garth waited in breathless silence, trapped in the cabinet while they approached down the hall, all the while assaulted by every way this situation could take a horrible turn that landed him with a bullet in his guts and slowly bleeding out.
If they caught Leanne, he’d have to try to talk them down, then they’d probably shoot him and cut out his heart while he was still alive. The letter hadn’t specified the heartsones being limited to Kipling, after all.
Thanks imagination, real nice.
“Hahaaa- Look what we got here! I always wondered what Jennifer looked like wearing nothing but a smile. I guess she ain’t smillin’ though. Hey you think it was one of these things you saw flappin’ in the wind?” Their leader reached up with the tip of his rifle and swung one of the woman’s pendulous breasts.
“Maybe.” Roger said.
“UURK!” Garth heard one of them heave.
“Jeezus, Doug, aim it in the corner, we gotta walk through here.” Roger said.
“Sorry,” Came a hoarse groan from Doug.
“Well, her chest’s got a hole in it too,” their leader said. “How about that one over there?”
“Feeder’s torn open too.” Roger walked deeper into the room, his feet coming dangerously close to the cabinet where Garth was hiding.
“Wanna check the cabinets?”
Ah, scenario number 5, found by the dumb one then riddled with bullets.
“Nah, whatever was here cut these things open did it hours ago, an’ we’ve bigger fish,” Their leader said. “Let’s get to the cafeteria. Best thing we can do now is to get the food and get out of here quick. Let’s be careful though. Doug, I want you to watch our backs as we go, I mean to have you lit’relly walk backwards and Roger, you hold his shoulder. I don’t want nothin’ sneaking up on us.”
“Yessir, Mr. Ex-Marine, sir.” Roger sneered as he turned away.
“Alright.” Doug gasped between throwups.
The shadow outside the cabinet went away as Roger went back to the doorway. In a few seconds, the gun-toting trio had left the room. Garth waited a silent minute to be sure, then peeked out.
Leanne crawled out from under the lectern as Garth stepped out into the room.
“What now?” she whispered.
“Is the library near the cafeteria?”
She shook her head. “The library is a straight shot down that hall, the cafeteria is to the left, on the far end of the school.”
“Alright, let’s go to the library.”
She cocked her head. “Now?”
“There are no guarantees in life. Let’s grab the book I need while it’s still there. This place could burst into flame or be swarmed with baddies for all we know if we wait for those guys to finish.”
“Fine,” Leanne said, “but then we’re getting something better than a chisel.”
“Deal.” Garth listened out the door for a moment before ducking his head out. No bullet to the face from Doug, that much was good. It looked like they’d already turned the corner.
The two of them stalked to the intersection, waiting for the chatter to dim behind a cafeteria door before continuing to the library.
The library sprawled out in front of them at the bottom of the stairs, a humble six shelves worth of books beside a few chairs to read them. At the end of each row was a window showing the bright, sunny day outside.
They crept into the musty library, darting around beams of light like skittish animals, until they came to the third row, where Garth found a thick book titled ‘Edible plants of north America, an Encyclopedia’.
“Holy crap, I can’t believe you found something.” Leanne said, shaking her head.
“It’s not exactly what I wanted, but I’ll settle for it.” Garth said, turning the book over in his hand. He’d hoped for some more technical books on all the plants of north America and their characteristics, but what did he expect from a middle school? He’d already hit a home run with the book by itself.
“Alright, let’s-“ Garth started to speak when the door slammed open.
“They got cart in here we can use to-“ The leader stopped and glanced down at Garth and Leanne standing in the middle of the room.
“Well, look what we have here. Looters.” He sneered as he leveled the AR-15 at them.
“Whoah, don’t shoot,” Garth said, his hands up, coming to stand in front of Leanne. What the hell was he doing? Garth’s first instinct was to run and hide, but he knew that would get him shot, so he tried to defuse the situation. As for why he stood in front of Leanne, that escaped him.
Maybe he was nobler than he thought?
Maybe if they think I’m willing to protect little blonde girls from harm, they’ll think I’m cool?
Garth was still muddling through his thought process when the leader spoke.
“Give me a reason not to.” He said, aiming the rifle at Garth’s chest.
“You can have our stone!” Leanne shouted behind Garth, holding out her pocketed rock. “We got one off a ghoul an hour ago.”
The leader’s eyes narrowed. “I could just take it off your corpses.”
“But,” Garth said, thinking fast. “You would lose the opportunity to take it again.”
“Think about it, back in medieval Europe, they didn’t kill knights if they caught them, they ransomed them back to their lords, pirates worked much the same. All of it with a minimum of bloodshed. There’s so few humans left in one day, can we afford to lose more? Right now, you’re establishing a precedent. If you and others just kill everyone you see, one day you’re gonna meet a bigger group of people who’ll gun you down.
“But!” Garth shouted, his adrenaline stating to make his legs shake as he stared down the barrel of the gun. “This can be civil, like old times. You take a ransom from us, send us on our way, then if you catch us again, you can take what we have again, no guns fired. We wave the white flag, everything’s civil. That way, when you finally come across a bigger group than yours, you can wave the white flag and get away alive, with lighter pockets rather than a few extra ounces of lead.”
“I see what you’re getting at.” The leader said, his grey eye flickering to Leanne peering out behind Garth. “Waste not, want not. Keep your guns on ‘em.” He raised his rifle and stepped forward, into the light of the library. The man had a bit of grey in his short cropped hair, his face showing maybe twenty years more than Garth. He had a scar running from his bottom lip up to a glass eye, and he looked like he worked out four hours a day, having the toned body of a twenty year old marine.
What the hell was this guy dong working in a cafeteria??
This was Garth’s first meeting with Harold Tucker.
“What’s your name, kid?” he said, looking Garth up and down, “and why are you purple?”
Garth didn’t feel like it was a good time to mouth off with two guns trained on him.
“Garth Daniels, I had a dream about a goddess and woke up purple.”
“Huh. My name’s Harold Turner, and I think you understand what kind of situation you’re in, Garth Daniels.”
“Pretty clear, yep.”
“So let’s be clear. When I ask you a question, I don’t want the short and sweet answer. I want you to spill your guts. Why. Are. You. Purple.”
Garth spilled his guts. He told them about the gods and goddesses, the extra letter he’d gotten in the morning, his rank as a one star iron soldier, the outposts, his weekly pay, everything he could think of.
Everything except for his blessings. Other than photosynthesis and temperature resistance, he kept quiet. Garth had a feeling if they knew he could make plants grow in a matter of seconds, they would hobble him like in Misery and use him as a portable food production device.
It’s what Garth would have done, had he been playing one of his role-playing games. Taking the evilest, most ruthless course of action was easy when the stakes were low, and there was nothing worse than hurt feelings and spilt soda, but in the real world, Garth realized how green he really was.
Harold, on the other hand, was not green. Something told Garth that the old marine was flipping that little switch in his head that made you not wanna kill people, psyching himself up.
“’know where one of these outposts is?” Harold said, inspecting the nude goddess stature hanging under Garth’s neck.
“No, I was gonna look for one after this.”
“Edible Plants of North America, huh?” Harold said, picking the book up from where Garth had dropped it. “Not a bad idea.” He handed the book to Roger. Garth didn’t know which of the two was Roger and which was Doug at first until he spotted a bit of vomit on Doug’s shirt.
Roger was a mildly overweight middle aged man with a heavy frame of muscle and fat, easily two hundred and fifty pounds, wearing a worn out carhartt jacket to ward against the cold outside. He sneered as he held a shotgun leveled at them.
Doug was a little younger, about Garth’s age, slimmer than the others, with a cleft palate, a blue sweater and an AK-47 leveled at them.
Harold listened until the end of Garth’s speech, then began to cross-examine him.
“So the-“ his voice turned sour. “’gods’ of these people that did this to us, rewarded you for burning down an apartment building and running like a bitch?”
“I guess so.”
“And what did you specialize in, when the letters came?”
“Intelligence.” Garth said.
Harold’s eyes narrowed before a burst of laughter came from Roger.
“Hah! What are you gonna do, think ‘em to death?”
“Shut up, Rog,” Harold said before turning his attention back to Garth. “So you think you can play the long game, hole away on the side of a mountain somewhere until things settle down?”
“The thought had occurred to me.” Garth said.
“You know what I hate worse than flesh eating monsters? A fucking coward. But even cowards have their uses. Give me the stone.”
Leanne handed the stone over, and Harold turned it over a couple times in the beam of sunlight from the window before tossing his head back and swallowing it.
“Now give me the gun.” Leanne handed that over too. In a swift motion, Harold loosed the clip and checked the chamber before putting the gun in the back of his pants. "You can keep your stick."
“Now give me the kid.”
Garth’s blood went cold. “What?”
“You told me yourself. People gonna be hard to come by in the coming years. You couldn’t fight your way out of a wet paper bag, what makes you think you could keep her alive? Manpower is gonna be valuable in the coming years, especially girls with a look like that.” Garth’s skin crawled.
“She’s not mine.” Garth said slowly. “You’ll have to ask her.” How the hell was he supposed to stop this guy?
“What do you think, young Ma'am, wanna learn how to handle a gun?” Harold said softly, a queer smile on his face as he knelt in front of Leanne.
Leanne looked at him with a scowl. “I can’t trust you.”
“What makes you say that?” Harold said, smile deepening.
“But you can trust me when I tell you that I’ll put something sharp through the neck of anyone who touches me.” Leanne said.
Harold broke into a grin. “I like ya. We’ll have to see how long you can keep your piss and vinegar.” His arm snaked forward and caught Leanne on the chin, rocking her head back. The girl’s eyes rolled back in her head, and her body went limp.
Garth moved forward to catch her when a fist caught him in his diaphragm, cutting off his air and dropping him to his knees. Harold stood, Leanne over his shoulder.
“Thanks for the intel Garth,” he said, looking back at Roger and Doug as he walked away.