There’s a hole in my stomach. Actually, I think there are two. They remind me of something. “Hey, do you two”—it hurts to speak—“remember that story.”
“The one about the soldier.” It’s hard to keep my eyes open. I swear I’m widening them as much as I can, but the edges of my vision keep getting darker. I’m dying, aren’t I? “That one soldier in the American Civil War.”
My body’s heavy. I think Vlad’s applying pressure to my stomach. I don’t think that’ll work. The hole is two ways, through the front and back.
“Which soldier, Bern? Stay with us.”
The soldier? Right, the soldier. “The one with the hole in his stomach. About digestion. There was a doctor; he tied meat to a string, lowered it into the hole, found out about digestion that way.”
“I think I heard about it.”
“Do you remember if he survived?” It doesn’t seem likely. The poor guy was used as an experiment on his deathbed. “At least he contributed to society upon his death.”
“He lived, Bern.”
Did he? “Are you sure?”
“Yes. He absolutely survived.”
“You’re saying that to make me feel better, aren’t you?” How can someone survive with a hole in their stomach? It’d leak stomach acid into places stomach acid shouldn’t be. Not to mention the internal bleeding or the problems with digestion. “He was on a battlefield, wasn’t he? The risk of infection with a gaping wound in an unsterile environment….”
“Nothing that couldn’t be washed away with a little bit of vodka.”
It’s bright. Did Vlad lift my visor? My eyes are open, but I can’t see. Something cold, metallic, touched my lips. A cold liquid entered my mouth. But it burned when I swallowed. It tasted familiar too. I drank a lot of this when my wife divorced me. I wonder how she’s doing. Did she survive the initial outbreak?
“Don’t you wash the wound with alcohol?”
That’s Perry. Just a second ago, he was standing. I think the smart infected was shooting at us. Did Perry give it more arrows?
“I’m washing the insides too. It’ll numb the pain, don’t you think?”
“If it doesn’t leak out of him. Pass me that? An arrow grazed my hand, tore my glove too.”
“There’s rubbing alcohol in the kit.”
The cold sensation disappeared from my lips. I drank a lot. It seemed like a lot, at least. My stomach burns. It usually burns after drinking, but it’s different this time. I think the vodka’s seeping out of the hole in the back, into the ground. “That soldier, was there only one hole?”
“One, two, it doesn’t matter. You’re going to make it, Bern.”
“How old was he, do you know?” How old am I? Birthdays don’t really matter once you’re older than forty. But I have to be at least sixty. Maybe sixty-five. What year is it? I doubt anyone still knows with the outbreak and all. “Younger people are sturdier. Us old folk, we fall down once and our hips break.”
“I, I think there’s a problem.” Something splashed on my hand. Perry?
“Other than the obvious one in front of us?” My stomach felt heavy again. Vlad was using both hands to apply pressure. But my wound isn’t one that’ll stop bleeding by adding pressure. If the hole were anywhere else, it’d work. Blood clots form in tight spaces, stopping the bleeding, but the stomach’s a cavern. Blood won’t clot there; the bleeding won’t stop.
“The arrow I used to kill what I thought was the smart infected, I, I think that’s the one that scratched my hand. Washing it with alcohol should’ve saved me, right? Right?”
“There’s an axe in my bag.”
“Your hand or your life. Pick one.”
The pressure disappeared again. Something hit the ground beside me. I think it was Vlad’s axe. Was Perry going to cut his hand off? “Why did this happen?”
“Abundance of misinformation. We didn’t have anyone scout ahead. It was the caltrops at the start. If Brett had watched where he was going, he wouldn’t have stepped on one and shouted. The smart infected wouldn’t have shot at us.”
“D-do I really have to do this?”
“If you want, I can cut it off for you. The longer you wait, the lower the chance it’ll work. The infection might be traveling through your bloodstream right now.”
“That’s not what I meant.” I know why we failed. It was my fault. If only I hadn’t been so eager to hunt down that infected. “I meant why did the infection happen? Why did it spread? The world, why did it end?”
“Then I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvelous, seven angels who had seven plagues, which are the last, because in them the wrath of God is finished. Revelation 15:1.”
“I didn’t know you were religious, Vlad.”
“I’m not. Someone was shouting that at the start of the outbreak. Are you cutting your hand off or not?”
“With only one hand, do you think I’ll be able to live from now on? In this kind of world?”
If the arrow was infected like you thought, you’re certainly not going to live even with both hands.”
“The smart infected did it. It’s still alive. Look at it, it put us in such a shitty situation, there’s no way it’s not sentient.”
“So, what? You want to become like it? A monster that eats humans?”
“Who says infected have to eat humans? If I die and retain my sanity, I won’t eat humans. I’ll hunt and eat animals like a normal person.”
“How many infected have you seen? Hundreds? Thousands? Now, among those, how many were smart? One. And you think that could be you?”
“My, my mom always said I was a bright kid.”
“I bet your mother called you handsome too, but have you seen yourself in a mirror?”
“That’s … asshole.”
“Don’t … me for … right.”
Their voices are fading. I can’t see anymore, not even the unidentifiable brightness. It’s dark. I’m cold. It’s the only thing I feel. Is this what Brett meant? He said he was cold, didn’t he? Like frost traveling up my limbs, stealing my warmth, stealing all sensations. Wasn’t my life supposed to flash before my eyes? Instead, there’s just … nothing.