by atarashii merle (新思メルル)
illustrated by lihsa
Sam had always thought he’d be doing something more thematically appropriate when the dead started coming back to life. Like walking through a graveyard, or getting trapped in a mall, or even waking up in a hospital after the apocalypse had already happened — that was a popular one. He thought it would at least happen at night, or during a storm, or maybe in a deep, atmospheric fog. Instead, it’s three o’clock on a brilliant July afternoon, and he’s trying to get his hand down his boyfriend’s pants.
“Boys, come out here, something’s happening on the news,” says Emmett’s mother, through a door that had been closed for good reason.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” mutters Emmett, shifting a little under Sam’s weight. “She has, like, the worst timing ever.”
“Seriously, come on. She’ll come in here,” Emmett says, a little less sure but still maddeningly resolute. His hand slides between their chests, unsticking them where the summer heat has melded their skin together. The backs of his knuckles brush lightly against the tented front of Sam’s jeans, then pull away.
Sam nips down to worry Emmett’s lip between his teeth. “Fine,” he says, muffled as he peppers Emm’s face with short kisses, over the column of his throat, into the flexing dip of his collar as he moves to roll away. “Later, though,” he says, then flops over on his back to watch with amusement as Emmett’s self-conscious gaze follows his line of his body, skin dark from the summer sun already.
“Yeah, later,” replies Emmett, pulling his t-shirt over his head to hide the way his face lights up, still a little ashamed. Still a little new, as fragile as an eggshell after it’s been cracked. Sam reaches out for his hand and turns it to kiss his palm. Like he knows what he’s doing, either.
They file into the living room a few minutes later, imagining themselves inconspicuous as they stand a family-safe distance apart. The room is dark, too masculine for a house with four women in it: the ghost of fathers past. Emmett’s mom and three sisters are already there and clutching each other on the couch. Sam feels his stomach do a little flip, the kind you get when you’ve just realized you’re asleep, and you’ve dreamed up something you’re horrified came from your own brain.
THE DEAD COME TO LIFE, reads the television news channel headline.
“–has released a report detailing the spread of the phenomenon,” says the anchorwoman, looking more earnestly concerned than usual. “Though initial studies of this unknown and highly contagious illness have been inconclusive, the CDC’s plan of action is similar to that for viral outbreaks. The public is advised to stay indoors, avoid contact with the infected, and report all new incidences to the hotline on your screen–”
Behind the hotline, the network plays shaky footage of a crowd forming around a small group of ashen-looking infected. The crowd stands frozen, cow-like in their curiosity and too slow to move, as the infected moan like dying things and lurch into them. The camera jerks wildly, screams distorting the sound feed.
The video changes to a man in a suit, addressing the camera before a cloud of anxious-looking scientists. “We’re asking for the public’s help in gathering as much information as possible. If you or your loved ones experience pain localized to recent wounds, fever, cramps, vomiting, or aches after coming into contact with someone who may be ill, please call the CDC hotline as soon as possible.”
“Have there been any deaths from the disease?” someone off-camera asks.
“I’m sorry, what?” asks the man in the suit, face pinched tight and looking like the wrong side of a long day.
“Has anyone died from this mystery illness?”
A babble of voices on and off camera threaten to drown out the man’s next words: “The numbers are still unclear. Previous we reported what appeared to be deaths from the disease. However, these patients seemed to enter, and recover from, what we believe to be… to be a… a death-like state. Er, physical recovery, that is, with diminished mental capacity, and still highly contagious. It’s still unclear–”
“Is this a joke?” Emmett asks.
Mrs. Dawson-Baxter shakes her head without saying a word. She is clutching a tissue in her hands and staring at the television even as the channel starts in on amateur videos: broken windows, screaming, cars on fire, glassy-eyed people shuffling through the streets.
“It’s on all the channels,” says Emmett’s youngest sister, cell phone open in hand but the screen dark, forgotten for a while. “On Twitter, too.”
“Oh,” says Sam, and the room goes quiet and tense again as everyone watches the television as if committing it to memory.
Emmett’s hand finds Sam’s and squeezes. Sam clenches back just as hard, almost afraid to turn and look at Emmett, at the expression he would find there, at the sharp military-approved haircut he’d worn since enlisting in the Reserves before their graduating year.
“I’m going to fight zombies,” Emmett breathes, barely loud enough for Sam to hear.
Sam swallows, watching stock footage of troop deployment play on CNN. “Me too,” he promises.
The next few months are not as bad as expected. Informed by decades of zombie movies and primed by influenza hysteria, the world proves surprisingly well-equipped to deal with an actual undead crisis.
Airplanes and highways close almost immediately, stopping the spread of the disease and keeping it contained even in the big commuter cities where the threat would have been most dire. The CDC issues multiple timely warnings. The news continues to repeat safety tips and evacuation information. People turn themselves in to the authorities rather than linger with their loved ones and put them in danger. The military quarantines the worst hit areas, and their barricades become fences, to eventually become concrete walls. The infection is contained before it becomes a true pandemic, hidden away from the public in tidy little islands of dead city centres.
Unlike any story ever told about the pandemic that would take down civilization, this one simply… doesn’t. Never let it be said the human race is anything but resilient.
The irony machine grinds into motion. Soon, pretty girls are posting zombie-inspired make-up tips on YouTube, joining amateur video of self-styled samurai wading into slow-moving hordes with mall-bought swords and frat boys in Hummers careening down the streets with baseball bats. A few people try to seek shelter in malls or pubs, and meet with varying degrees of success. The ‘pray for the undead’ movement comes and goes on the wind of a wildly successful charity auction.
The world survives, the news cycle continues as it always does. Gradually the attention of the world focuses on other things, other tragedies. Another oil well erupts in the Caribbean, and in the winter a Middle Eastern regime has some sort of cataclysmic meltdown — Sam knows he should care more, but it’s on the news while Emmett is packing for deployment so he doesn’t much remember the name or the details.
Deployment. It sounds so strange, and then Sam feels guilty for finding it so strange — like, how could the undead still be a threat if they hadn’t been a trending topic for weeks? But people had died in those quarantined areas by the thousands. And they had come back to life, just as numerous. The barricades protected the rest of the world, but behind those walls the undying still choked the streets, and it was a grim task to set soldiers to flushing them out and reclaiming the cities for humans.
So, Emmett goes off to war. He laughs at the phrase, and at Sam’s pantomiming the army girlfriends in the old movies they’d watched together. He isn’t even leaving the country, how could it even be war, it’s practically a video game — but under the laugh, a brittle anxiety keeps them both too taut. Emmett’s mom and sisters fill the spaces in their conversation with tears and smiles and awkward laughter, smoothing over the ways they’re too afraid to touch, to kiss goodbye in the parking lot of the army depot where three yellow buses wait to spirit the reservists away.
Emmett’s face is pale and solemn behind glass, distorted by distance and the foreign feeling of tears Sam can’t let come to the surface. As the bus pulls away he looks at the bright morning sky filled with cheerful little tufts of pollen, feeling frustrated and ambivalently angry at a world that steadfastly refuses to recognize the gravity of his situation.
Inside, the recruiting officer asks him if he’s sure. He thinks of Emmett and says he’s sure enough.
Thirteen weeks of Basic Training teach him quite a bit. Like: while the physical entrance requirements look no worse than gym class, their purpose is to lure you into a false sense of security. Like: it’s possible to pull literally every muscle in your body and still find a way to hurt yourself even more.
How to shoot something in the head from five hundred meters away. How to choke down two thousand calories of lasagna in one sitting while someone is yelling at you. Troop movements. How to find good cover. Multiple impressive but increasingly paranoid ways to enter a house. How to shower in a room full of naked men without getting an erection. How to drink a truly astounding amount of beer and still manage to make muster the next morning. How to miss someone so badly it makes you physically ill.
At night he turns his identity tag over in his hands, feeling the neat, punched out letters now familiar under his fingers: S J GALLAGHER, NRE, AB/POS, CDN FORCES CDN. He thinks of Emmett, of his hands, his sweet smile and the way he flushes when Sam needles him. His solemn face when they put his good-for-nothing father in the ground, and the way he only cried when they were alone afterwards.
Sam graduates Basic in acceptable standing but with exemplary marksmanship, a skill he attributes to far too many hours playing Resident Evil with Emmett. After an additional five weeks of intensive training he qualifies for a sniper position, and shocks his parents by requesting a transfer to the west coast — to Emmett’s last known base — rather than the more local quarantined zone. His mother goes on a tirade more Japanese than English. His dad, who had already given Sam the awkward ‘look what I found in your browser history’ talk, just gives him a knowing look. His transfer is approved, and a few weeks after graduation he’s on his own bus to the front, to Emmett.
Travelling from southern Ontario to the Vancouver containment zone is an overly complex affair, involving first a bus, then an airplane, then another airplane, and finally another bus. The last leg is longer than it should have been because the previous regional army base had long since been overrun. The new transfers fly into a residential airport well past the suburbs and board a refurbished school bus to take them the rest of the way.
Sam spends the entire trip in and out of a fitful sleep, finding the novelty of military travel worn off after the first few interminable transfers. Still, the late summer sun is only just beginning its descent by the time the bus rumbles up the forest highway to the new base, a collection of buildings that used to be an international college. It’s ringed on all sides by tall trees, and the previous chain link fence around the periphery is supplemented by a second, taller fence that looks electrified. A deep trench rings the base even further, a further precaution even this far out from the quarantined zone.
He doesn’t expect it to be so easy to track down his erstwhile boyfriend, but surprisingly it’s the easiest thing to happen for him a long while. They’re barely off the buses and past the guarded gate of the base before a familiar-looking face holding up the brickwork makes Sam stop in his tracks and cause a minor foot traffic collision behind him.
Emmett turns his head to the sound, looking a little annoyed, eyes scanning the group until he sees Sam. He looks good, Sam thinks, broader in the shoulders and leaner everywhere else, his dark hair grown out a little. Shock registers in Baxter’s eyes for a fleeting moment, vanishing as quickly as it came. “Private Gallagher,” he replies, voice cool. “It’s Corporal Baxter, here.”
“Baxter?” Sam echoes. Up close, it looks like Emmett’s shrunk a few inches; maybe it’s the hunched shoulders from holding up the wall.
Or, as he turns fully towards Sam, it might be all that empty space where his left arm should be.
Sam’s mouth is moving even before the words have registered in his brain. “Holy fuck! What happened to your arm?”
Emmett narrows his eyes and his mouth drops open to respond, but not before the voice of Sam’s transportation handler rings out over the crowd and makes them both snap to attention, Pavlovian: “Gallagher! Get back in with your group!”
“Piss off,” Emmett finally manages, practically spitting with disdain. Sam feels his stomach flip a little as his memory of Emmett is drastically shoved aside by this bizarre, cold reality of Baxter. “What are you looking at?” he sneers. “Get back in line.”
Sam does, feeling even more bewildered than his first day of boot camp. They file into rank formation on the green, where a collection of officers wait to welcome them to the base.
He listens with only a portion of his attention, the rest of it focused on bizarro-Emmett, who hangs around the edges of the group like a wolf. The staff sergeant yells at them for a good long while about respecting the history of the place they’ve co-opted for their impromptu base.
They’re finally let go with orders to take the rest of the evening to sort out their bunks and get some sleep before the real work begins, and they file off of the field green where Emmett and an assortment of other senior members wait to show them to the barracks. As they march through the small compound, the more experienced soldiers take turns telling the knot of new arrivals about the various rules of the base, locations of different buildings, the daily itinerary and times for muster and lights out. Emmett doesn’t say anything, just marches at the rear of the group to keep them moving along.
When they are dismissed to find their own way to the commissary for bunk assignments, Sam hangs around to talk to Emmett.
“Corporal Baxter?” he asks when the group has dispersed, feeling ridiculous for the formality.
One of the other corporals is talking to him, but Baxter nods him away as Sam approaches. “I’ve changed my mind,” he says, with a look in his eyes that dares Sam to challenge his judgement, “Just Baxter is fine, if no one else is around. You know, considering everything.”
“No, I meant… Baxter? I thought you weren’t going to use your dad’s–”
“Don’t talk about my dad,” Emmett cuts in, eyes narrowing.
“…Okay,” Sam manages, drawing out the O in disbelief. It tastes like confusion and loneliness in equal measure. He remembers with acidic clarity the drunk who wouldn’t let him play with Emmett until he apologized for Pearl Harbor.
Emmett — no, Baxter — makes a sound of derision, cocking his head to the side and looking Sam up and down like someone would look at a car they weren’t sure they wanted to buy. His eyes rest on a freshly-sewn patch on his shoulder.
“Sharpshooter,” he says, curiously. The look in his eyes goes from measuring to proud, if only in increments. “That’s good. You don’t want to be on a ground unit; they call themselves the chum team for a reason.”
“That’s what I heard,” replies Sam. “I was a lucky shot.”
“A skilled shot, more like it. I’m…” Baxter pauses for a split second, then changes tack. “You’ll be safer, off the ground.”
“Are you a sniper…?” Sam’s eyes drift down to the Baxter’s empty sleeve. “…I mean, still?”
Baxter presses his lips into a fine line and nods.
Sam, irrevocably, decides there’s never a time like the present. “Are you going to swear and pull rank on me again if I ask you how it happened?”
Baxter has the decency to look a little amused before he nods again, but his eyes are hard still. “Tragic boating accident.”
“Okay,” Sam says, crossing his arms.
They look at each other in stony, awkward silence for a few moments. Before Basic, Sam had nurtured military-flavoured fantasies about tracking down his boyfriend and abolishing their respective virginities, a noble project which had been put on hold by the end of the world. And during Basic, there wasn’t enough room any thought other than how badly he wanted to be warm and stationary for longer than six hours at a time. After graduation, he went right back to fantasizing about Emmett with the vigor of someone who’d spent the last thirteen weeks eating, sleeping, and being comfortably — and sometimes uncomfortably — naked around more fit guys he’d ever seen in his life. And now, standing in front of Baxter, all he can think of is… that he expected this to go a lot smoother, honestly.
Sam clears his throat. “I don’t think there’s a Starbucks around here, but we should… make time for each other, or something. It’s been over a year.”
Baxter laughs. “I don’t think that’s going to help.”
Sam feels his eyebrows knit together, confused for not the first time that day. “Help with what?”
The only response is silence, Baxter refusing to meet Sam’s eyes.
“Come on, with what?” Sam presses, stepping closer to Baxter than strictly professional.
“Don’t make me say this–”
“I didn’t ask you to follow me,” Baxter bites out, his mouth tight.
“You weren’t exactly telling me not to!” Sam hisses right back, acutely aware that they’ve chosen the worst place in all of history to have a lover’s quarrel. A pair of technicians peers at them curiously as they pass, and Baxter goes even more rigid.
“I’m not the same person I was a year ago,” says Baxter, quietly.
“That’s kind of obvious,” replies Sam. “In more ways than one.”
“We’re not stupid teenagers anymore. This is real, this isn’t like being in school — people die out here, and they… come back to life… and I’ve seen…” Baxter trails off, scrubbing his hand over his face. “This can’t happen. We can’t do this, not here.”
Sam doesn’t even have anything to say to that, so Baxter continues, “That’s not who I am anymore.”
Sam feels a weight drop in his stomach. “What, like, you’re not… you’re not gay, or whatever, anymore?”
“No,” Baxter responds, too quickly. “I’m not… I’m just not the kind of person who can… I’m not like you.”
“What the fuck does that even mean?” Sam explodes, a little more loudly than anticipated.
Baxter pushes Sam back a few steps, hand coming up as if to cover Sam’s mouth but stopping short of touching him. “Fuck’s sake, keep your voice down. I mean, things are different. I’m different.”
“And…?” Sam prompts, with the dire determination of someone ready to flog something until it stops moving. “So am I. I told you I would come with you, so now I’m here.”
Baxter looks Sam right in the eye as he soldiers onward: “Well, I don’t want to be with you any more. Too bad you came all this way for nothing.”
Sam resists the abrupt and alarming impulse to punch him in his stupid mouth, clenching his fist and breathing through his teeth until the creeping shock of hurt condenses down into a sick pit in his stomach.
He leans over to pick up his duffel bag, heaving it on to his shoulder just to have something for his hands to do that isn’t grabbing Baxter and shaking him until he relents. “I won’t ask if I’m dismissed, then, it’s pretty clear,” he mutters, not meeting Baxter’s eyes. His face feels hot and red from either embarrassment or anger, though probably both. He turns and starts climbing the steps into the barracks.
“Sam, wait–” he hears, though he doesn’t turn around. “…Uh, how’s your mom?”
Sam feels the bitterness rise in his throat, decides at the very last minute that telling a corporal to go fuck themselves would probably not end well, no matter how much they deserved it. He pretends he doesn’t hear Baxter as the barracks door shuts behind him.
Thoroughly rebuffed and still smarting, Sam spends the next day covertly trying to learn more about the man Emmett Dawson-Baxter’s become.
“He’s a squad killer,” says a cagey-looking corporal over a game of low-stakes poker. “Like our own personal Thunderdome. Ten men enter, one man leaves.”
One of the mess hall ladies tells him that Baxter ate only vegetable broth and toast for two weeks after his injury, until one day he asked for three pieces of meat as rare as they could make it. “Where does he think he is, his mother’s house?” she said, hands on her broad hips and creamed corn splattered on her apron, “He can eat it when it’s done.”
“Unless you’re here to donate marrow, you can piss right off,” says the chief medical officer.
“His shooting accuracy is off the charts, even one-handed, and he’s still the best eye in the business,” says the quartermaster. “He might not be my first choice for rifles, but he’s a damn fine soldier. Wouldn’t keep him around, elsewise.”
Sam corners one of Baxter’s bunkmates and really lays on the hangdog but he’s my only friend in the entire world expression. “He’s an okay guy,” she says, finally exasperated, “Quiet, keeps to himself. I don’t hear him snoring at night, and that’s fine by me. Picture-fucking-perfect soldier, except for the arm thing. Why do you care?”
Sam isn’t sure why he still does.
Eventually, it’s his mom who gives him the idea. All the soldiers get a half-hour of phone time a week, and while Sam looks enviously at people calling their boyfriends, girlfriends, anyone who is not his mother, he knows better.
After the requisite ten minutes of nodding redundantly into the phone and throwing in the occasional ‘yes, mom’ and the more common ‘I will, mom’, the topic gets on to Baxter.
“Samui, that next-door boy, is he there with you? His mom come over yesterday, she say he not called in months.”
Sam closes his eyes tightly. Emmett– Baxter was the last person he wanted to talk about, especially with his mother, who even after twenty years in Canada still felt the need to harangue her son as if a silent audience of her grandmothers were grading her on it.
“He’s — he’s fine, mom,” he hedges, “He’s here, mostly.”
His mom does that thing she does where she beams her impatience directly into his brain. Sam cringes a little, surprised it works even without direct line of sight.
“He’s… a little different,” he wavers, “He lost his arm.”
His mother makes a noise of disbelief. “No! They send him home!”
“Not really,” Sam answers, shifting the phone on his shoulder. “People don’t really get injured here and, uh, survive, normally, and no one wants to come here voluntarily, so they keep you if you still want to fight. It’s his left arm, so… I guess he’s still useful?”
“His mom not tell me? He not tell his mom? Why you not ask him?” she asks. “You still friends, right?”
Sam pauses, mouth hanging open trying to conjure up a concise answer, and then closes it again. More than friends. “Um…” he stammers, “it’s more complicated than that. And he… he’s not really the type to… share.”
“You two inseparable,” replies his mother, half incredulous and all reprimand, “You find him, tell him he stupid. And tell him too, call his mom.”
“Actually, tell him, first call his mom. Second, then tell him he being stupid. Then, tell him he lose arm, no reason to be stupid.”
Sam pinches the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefingers. “Okay, mom.”
And that’s that.
They all share the more menial tasks on the base, making sure the laundry gets done and the vegetables get peeled and the vehicles get washed. Sam checks the duty board and finds Baxter scheduled for overseeing the kitchen receiving for that day.
He gets turned around a few times, ending up in a labyrinth of back rooms. The dishwashers send him down a winding hallway that comes out in a nearby weight room, and when he backtracks they have a good laugh at his expense and send him in the right direction. He walks through the kitchens to the loading bay, which has a bunch of boxes piled up at the open garage door. The dolly is missing, though, so he just tries nearby doors until he gets to something that both looks like a storeroom and is unlocked, and figures it’s close enough.
The storeroom is huge and dark, significantly colder than outside. A few fragmented beams of light filter in from a line of small windows tucked up under the roof. All Sam can see are rows of shelves, like the world’s best-stocked hurricane shelter. The dolly is just inside the door, which is a good sign.
“Emm?” he calls, but there’s no reply.
Sam starts walking down the length of the storeroom, peering down the rows of shelves. There’s no noise but his footsteps for quite a while, until somewhere between the tinned tomatoes and the sacks of dry beans the silence is broken by… well, Sam doesn’t quite know what it is, exactly. It sounds… wet. And then there’s a clatter, like something metal hitting the ground.. His heart leaps into his throat.
He grabs the handle of the knife in his belt — they don’t carry sidearms in the base, though Sam finds himself sincerely wishing for the comforting weight of one as he pads carefully around the shelves of dry goods. The sound gets louder, wetter, and soon Sam can hear something moaning along with the squelching. Please let it be people having sex, Sam thinks uncharitably. Please don’t let me be the first person to die in an army storeroom.
He puts his back to a shelf and peers cautiously around it, pulling his knife out of its sheath. He catches a glimpse of someone’s back, hunched over at the end of the row. The sound of ripping flesh is getting louder.
Sam swallows, willing himself not to freak out. “Emm?” he tries again. Nothing. “Baxter?”
The wet noises stop, as does the weird, rasping moaning. Sam clenches his fingers around the hilt of his knife and steels himself as the hunched-over figure turns and steps out of the shadows.
It’s Baxter. Of course it is.
Sam lets out a breath and relaxes minutely. “Don’t do that to me, I already got hazed by the dishwashers today, I have a limit–”
He stops, squinting into the dusty gloom. “What’s up with your face? What’ve you got–”
The rest of his words die in his mouth.
Baxter’s got a lump of fur and guts dangling from his hand, the rest of which is smeared across his face from chin to cheekbone. Blood drips freely from his mouth, cakes his hand to the forearm. As they stare at each other for something like a thousand horrifying years, the rat carcass drops from Baxter’s hand and lands on the floor with a wet plop.
The look in Baxter’s eyes tells him everything — the guilty, fleeting look of someone who knows they’ve been caught doing something completely irredeemable and is watching every excuse strike out in real time. “Sam,” he groans, voice breaking on the vowel. “I–”
“What. The fuck,” is Sam’s eloquent answer to that.
“Sam–” Baxter tries again. The inside of his mouth is red and gory like a wound.
Sam claps his hands over his face and recoils, “Don’t even. Jesus. Christ. What the fuck, Emm, Jesus. What the fuck is wrong with you?!”
Baxter takes a few short steps towards him but Sam jerks backwards like being repelled by magnets. “Don’t get any closer, you — what–”
Sam shakes his head wildly and presses himself as far against the shelves as he can get. “No. No. Fuck you. I don’t know who you are or what the fuck you’re doing, but no.” He scrambles along the shelves until he gets to the main row, and tries to make a dignified exit without turning his back on the bloody-faced horror with the face of his first boyfriend.
“Sam! Please!” he hears after him, but Baxter doesn’t make any move to follow him through the shelves. He throws open the door and runs outside, slamming it behind him and leaning on it. He feels like he’s going to be sick, stomach in his chest, hands shaking so badly he can hardly sheathe his knife. He starts walking, anywhere, he has no idea. Just away.
He is halfway down the hallway when a pang of regret stops him in his tracks.
Memory is a funny thing that way.
“Fuck… fuck…” he mutters to no one in particular, hand to his forehead. He thinks of his eleventh birthday, a Superman-themed party, a cake with terrible buttercream icing that turned everything it touched blue. They had made monster noises at each other in the mirror for an hour, wagging their blue tongues around and terrorizing Emm’s sisters.
And later, huddled together with a flashlight under a perfectly-erected birthday fort, Emm asking him in hushed tones, So you like my sisters or something?
Sam remembers making the kind of face only made possible by true revulsion, Emmett laughing at him until Sam got fed up and tackled him into the fort pillows. Rough-housing until they got tired, collapsing into the exhausted giggles of boys up too late past their bedtimes — too old for bedtimes, at all of eleven and eleven-and-seven-months.
I don’t like any girls, he remembers saying. Do you?
And Emmett’s sombre face looking up at Sam, the way he shook his head a little sadly. I don’t think I like girls at all, he whispered, like imparting the secret of the cosmos.
Then I don’t like them either, Sam had said, flopping down to rest his head on Emmett’s shoulder. It’ll just be us forever.
The plaster wall makes a satisfying noise when he turns and smacks his palm against it. “Fucking — dammit!” he curses, then leans heavily against the wall with his head pillowed on his forearm.
Fuck it, Sam thinks, so my boyfriend drinks the blood of rats. It’s not like there aren’t stranger things happening, like the fucking dead coming back to life.
He steels himself with a few shaky breaths. Yeah, I can work with that. That’s okay.
When Sam slips through the row of shelves again, Baxter is still standing in the same place, looking down at the broken rat corpse on the floor. There’s a red smear across his face and the back of his hand, like he’d tried to wipe the worst of it away.
“What?” he says, eyes narrow and defensive.
Sam needs to swallow and take a deep breath before he can continue. What he expects to say is something magnanimous, like I miss you so much, or I’ve loved you since we were kids and I’m not stopping now, or maybe something like if I survived your father, there is nothing on this earth that can drive me away from you. He would have settled for even a what’s a little rat’s blood between friends?
Unfortunately, what comes out sounds a little more exactly like, “At least you’re not a zombie.”
Baxter looks blank for a second, then squints like he can’t decide whether Sam has just said something offensive. “What do you mean?”
“I — uh,” Sam stammers, momentarily thrown off his groove. “I mean, so you, uh, drink blood. I didn’t sign up to fight vampires. Just zombies. So, it’s a good thing you’re not a…”
“I’m not a vampire,” Baxter interjects, flatly.
“And that’s good! Great, even. So, what I mean is, this doesn’t have to be…” Sam clears his throat, “Emm, I’ve known you since Boy Scouts. And this is just… this is just the fighting, and you lost your–”
Baxter makes a disgusted noise.
“–So if you, uh, if this is your way of getting through it, that’s… I can handle that. Because I can’t imagine a world where we’re not…” Sam swallows, the exact words for what he wants to be to Baxter stuck in this throat. He remembers, suddenly and vividly, all the times when they’d snuck out together at night as kids to ride their bikes around the neighbourhood, which somehow effortlessly became all the times they’d done the same only to smoke a joint and make out, giggling and lazy.
“…I just … miss you,” he finishes, lamely.
“Huh,” Baxter says. “Really.”
Sam runs a hand through his close-cropped hair. “Yeah, really. So I want to get a reset on this boyfriends thing.”
Baxter smiles in a way that doesn’t quite reach his eyes: fragile, wary. His teeth are a little shiny in the dim light, red around the edges with wet blood.
Sam’s carefully-constructed bravado falters a little. “Just remember to brush your teeth,” he laughs, remembering a little too late to keep his tone light.
Baxter’s expression shutters again, pursing his lips back into a distrustful line. “Fine,” he bites out, “Meet me in the barracks in five minutes.”
Sam nods and leaves, feeling dismissed, heart tight and uneasy in his chest.
Sam has his doubts about the privacy of the barracks, but when he arrives there the building is quiet. The barracks are the old school dormitories, small spaces made even smaller by the addition of bunk beds, six to a room intended to board two.
Baxter is waiting for him in his room, the collar of his jacket wet from when he must have washed his face. They stare at each other in silence for a while, until Baxter stalks forward and reaches around Sam to turn the lock on the door. It brings them into proximity: Sam’s back to the particle board door, nearly chest-to-chest with Baxter, Baxter’s arm braced in front of him on the door.
Sam wets his lips unconsciously and looks down at Baxter, who still looks defensive. He lays his hands on Baxter’s shoulders and they just stay there a moment — then Baxter moves forward and lays his head in the crook of Sam’s neck, inhaling deeply.
He can feel Baxter’s lips moving and the vibration of words press into his collarbone, but they are too muffled to hear. “What?” he asks.
Baxter shakes his head and withdraws. “Nothing,” he mutters. “Are we gonna kiss, or what?”
“Uh–” Sam responds, eloquently. “Yeah, I guess? I mean, we did before?”
Sam’s hands are still on Baxter, so he supposes it falls to him to bring their lips together. It’s not exactly a proper kiss at first; Baxter is slow to respond, arm ramrod-straight against the door, subtly keeping their bodies apart. Sam slides his hands down Baxter’s sides, pulls him in by the belt loops until Baxter’s elbow buckles and brings them flush.
The startled noise Baxter makes gives Sam enough room to deepen the kiss, flicking his tongue across the open seam of Baxter’s lips. Not to be outdone, Sam supposes, Baxter catches up and meets Sam’s tongue with his own. He kisses like it’s a dare.
Together they walk backwards until Baxter’s knees hit the bottom bunk, which is at about the same time as his head hits the top bunk. He makes a disgruntled sound into Sam’s mouth.
“Sorry,” Sam says as he pulls away, a little breathless.
Baxter grunts and shakes his head. “Whatever.” His hand comes up around Sam’s neck and then he’s pulling him down to the mattress, shuffling backwards awkwardly. Sam plants his knees on either side of Baxter’s skinny hips and leans forward, taking them haltingly down to the bed.
Sam presses Baxter into the hard mattress with his body, running his hands over his face, down his neck, following the trail with his mouth. When he strokes his hands from Baxter’s chest to his shoulders, and then down his arms, he is momentarily stunned again by the sudden termination of Baxter’s left arm, the rolled-up cuff of his jacket.
Still as he is, he can feel Baxter tense up underneath him. “Get off,” he growls, pushing Sam’s hands away.
“It’s okay, I just–”
“I don’t like being pinned down,” Baxter mumbles, looking away.
“Oh,” replies Sam, feeling a little small. He scrambles backwards, watching impotently as Baxter struggles to right himself and move over on the bed, leaving enough room for Sam to lie down instead.
They end up in much the same position as before, only reversed. Baxter is leaning over him, supporting himself on his arm, and Sam keenly feels the absence of a second hand as he arches against Baxter through too many layers of clothing.
The initial thrill of kissing his boyfriend wears off and Sam tries exceptionally hard to not think about the flavour of Baxter’s mouth, but it’s inevitable. He tastes almost entirely like toothpaste, mingled with the slightly bitter smell of military issue soap clinging to the skin of his face.
And underneath, earthy. A little like metal. Sam pulls back a little, keeping his tongue inside his own mouth. If Baxter notices, his only reaction is to pull back as well, setting himself to sucking on Sam’s lower lip.
Sam tries even harder not to feel frantic when he feels Baxter’s teeth tugging on his lip, finds himself pulling back a little more. He turns his head and buries his face in the slope of Baxter’s neck. The bitter soap smell is even stronger here, and this time the association makes him recoil completely.
“What?” Baxter snaps, raising his head.
“I– I just, um,” Sam says, “Let me take off my shirt.”
Baxter leans back, vaguely unimpressed, and Sam strips off his undershirt. His hands go to his belt and he looks up at Baxter, who regards him with one arched eyebrow.
“By all means,” he says, mawkish.
Shaking off the feeling he’s the butt of a joke he doesn’t understand just yet, Sam unbuckles his belt and unzips. Baxter shuffles on his knees to the end of the bed, pulling on one pant leg as he goes. Sam has to bend to get the other one himself, avoiding Baxter’s eyes as he does so.
When Sam lays back he’s almost fully naked aside from his boxers, contrasting sharply with Baxter who still has everything on, including the heavy woolen jacket with the sleeve pinned up. He feels like he’s on display in an operating theatre, aside from the way his cock juts up from his body and tents the soft material, leaving a dark grey wet spot.
Baxter smirks and runs his palm over it, making Sam hiss and arch into the touch. He wastes no time on teasing, just slips his hand inside the elastic of Sam’s boxers and pushes them out of the way with his wrist, closing his fist around Sam’s cock and stroking firmly.
Sam groans in encouragement, all thoughts of copper-scented blood pushed out of his mind by the sweet insistent pull of his boyfriend’s hand on his dick. He throws his arm over his face and breathes into the crook of his elbow. This is familiar.
So, he’s taken a little by surprise by a sudden wetness on his cock. He looks down to see Baxter’s lips working his cockhead, tongue stroking earnestly as his hand gently urges the foreskin back.
Sam makes a sound then he couldn’t put words to if he tried, his head thumping back against the pillow. Baxter makes a self-satisfied noise and takes him a little deeper, hand stroking down his shaft, working lower and lower until Sam’s whole length is disappearing into Baxter, and he can feel himself butting up against the roof of his mouth with every thrust.
It’s warm, and wet, and close around his cock, unlike the familiar dry comfort of his hand. Baxter’s teeth are tucked against the flesh of his lips but still present, scraping down his shaft. Every so often, they catch against the ridge of his head.
For one horrifying moment, Sam thinks of rats.
“A-ah, fuck!” he cries out, pushing Baxter off his cock with both hands. He goes, mid-suction, with a wet pop and a noise of dismay.
“Seriously?” Baxter says, supporting himself on his knees so he can wipe his mouth with the back of his hand.
Sam exhales and shakes his head, trembling a little in adrenaline-soaked fear. “Yeah, I just… I need a moment,” he says, squeezes his eyes shut and waits, unable to face whatever emotion Baxter is undoubtedly covering up with stoicism. The inside of his eyelids are the colour of blood.
Baxter waits a few seconds, but Sam refuses to open his eyes. He can feel the bedsprings shift and creak as Baxter swings his weight off of his legs and then off the bed entirely, leaving Sam’s rapidly softening cock wet and cold out in the open, like a worm after the rain.
“I’m sorry,” Sam says, turning his face to the wall to escape the feeling of Baxter’s gaze dissecting him, finding him to be a callous prick. “I just… I can’t… it’s–” he starts, trying to tuck himself back in his underwear self-consciously.
“Fuck you,” interjects Baxter, but without venom. He sounds resigned.
“I’m sorry,” Sam repeats, and when he turns his head away from the wall and opens his eyes, Baxter is gone.
What happens the next day is inevitable.
“Buffet section,” reads the staff sergeant, “Air support and medic: Simpson, Kaur; snipers: Baxter, Gallagher — good luck, rookie; forward culling alpha: Fialkowski, Yarrow…”
Sam sneaks a glance at Baxter, standing with the other section leaders beside the staff sergeant at the front of the room. His eyes are blank as they look out over the crowd of soldiers — even when they pass over Sam — and heavy-rimmed with dark, sleepless circles..
The members of his section stand and file out of the room, marching silently to the airfield and the helicopter which will take them into the containment zone.
“Buffet section?” one of the other soldiers says to Sam, under his breath. Sam recognizes him vaguely, one of the other members of his graduating class who had been sorted onto the culling team. Sam thinks a quick thanks to whatever higher power that kept his shooting accuracy high enough to merit his sniper training. He doesn’t much envy the ground units.
“One of the vehicle sections is called Meals on Wheels,” Sam replies, just as quiet, and turns back just in time to see Baxter watching him with narrowed eyes.
“I don’t do inspirational speeches,” says Baxter, with a look like he dared someone to contradict him, “So don’t expect one. Sniper team will drop first, on the north shore. Chum team alpha will start at the stadium, chum team bravo will start at the hospital helipad. Both areas are cleared every time we go in, but don’t let your guard down. We’ll converge at a central location, marked on your maps, by approximately twenty-two hundred tonight.”
“Survivors are the first priority,” he continues, “Not like you’ll find any, but they make me say it. So if you find anything with a pulse, radio for immediate evacuation. Other than that, culling teams sweep towards the area where Gallagher and I will have secured a location for evacuation, taking out as many walkers as possible without bringing in undue attention. The louder you are, the sooner things get unmanageable and we need to evacuate.”
“Sergeant Bronson asked me to say a few words about field safety and keeping injuries down. Injuries mean more than death here; more often than not we have one more walker to hunt down and put out of its misery — you.”
“So here’s a few words about field safety,” he continues, sounding more than a little put-out at the orientation-level subject. “In the field you’re going to be up against an enemy whose bite will kill you, whether it rips out your throat or takes off the tip of your finger. Wear your shin and arm guards at all times. If you’re going to be an idiot who tries to block a zombie with your forearms rather than shoot it in the head, you may as well survive to tell the story.”
“On the plus side, some of us need them less than others,” Baxter deadpans, looking out at the group with dire humourlessness. The hair on Sam’s arms prickles in second-hand embarrassment as the focus of the group shifts to Baxter’s rolled-up shirtsleeve. Someone starts to laugh, eager to ingratiate themselves with a corporal, then immediately stops as Baxter shows no sign of breaking into a smile.
Baxter’s eyes light on Sam for a moment, and Sam holds his gaze like one would with a wounded animal, to make sure it’s not going to bite. Baxter huffs, unimpressed, “Let’s go for at least overnight this time. Hooah.”
“Hooah,” echoes the unit, and Sam looks down at his shoes in shame.
The helicopter takes them and chum units across the inlet to the containment zone. Sam and Baxter are dropped off first, half a kilometre in from the fences that demarcate the loose boundaries of the zone, where the railways skirting the old industrial sector come together.
After the helicopter takes off and they regain their sense of hearing, Sam turns to Baxter with a faint grin. “I think this is where you’re supposed to say something badass to the rookie, like welcome to hell, or something.”
The look Baxter gives him in return could turn sand into glass.
“Never mind,” Sam mutters. So much for nerves.
They walk along the railway tracks until they cross into downtown, passing a hollowed-out Starbucks and a warren of tacky souvenir shops. The streets are silent, streetcar wires swaying overhead. “Fucking creepy,” Sam breathes. Baxter hums in agreement, eyes sweeping the long, cloister-like streets. “Like a movie.”
“I hear that a lot from rookies,” Baxter replies without looking back. “It’s not.”
It’s only a few blocks uphill before they see their objective, a half-block of rolling grass and trees, stubbornly overgrown with life in the middle of the quiet city. A white stone cenotaph hugs the intersection on one side of the park, dead wreaths littering its tiny courtyard. “Pick a building near here,” Baxter says, regarding the open space with an air of distrust. “It’ll be easy to pick off anything coming.”
Sam looks around and picks the building he most likes the look of, a regal-looking stone structure of middling height. “This one, come on.”
The lobby is cool and smells like mildew, dim except for the light coming in through the door. Sam brushes his hand over a plaque between the elevators, sweeping away the dust. “Hey, Emm, this was the tallest building in the British Empire when it was built.”
Baxter narrows his eyes and look at the directory. “It’s got thirteen floors.”
“Is that good, or bad?”
Baxter exhales slowly, like he can’t believe Sam made it out of preschool. “Bad. Unless you want to clear eleven floors.” He kicks the staircase, a thing made out of marble and wrought iron and built right into the wall. “Can’t destroy this thing without taking out half of the building, anyway. They don’t make them like this any more.”
Sam feels his face heat a little, but sets his jaw. “Fine, where would you pick?”
Baxter squints through the dust-specked light filtering through the lobby doors. “Across the street, there’s a two-storey. I think it’s the community college.”
They cross the park and are in luck when they enter the lobby of the second building: the escalator’s already been deactivated and gutted by some other team, leaving a deep chasm in the floor and a slick, impossible-to-climb ramp. The rest of the doors in the lobby are chained shut, meaning they only need to climb to the second-floor landing and clear the floor.
“Turn around,” Baxter says. He digs through the tactical bag Sam is carrying, pulling out a rope with a carabiner on one end.
Sam watches in rapt attention as Baxter throws the rope straight up, where it swings around an exposed ornamental beam — “God bless postmodern architecture,” mutters Baxter when it catches and holds — and back down to him, where he loops it through the carabiner and pulls it tight.
“Nuggets still learn the basics, right?” Baxter says, tugging on the rope to bring it closer to the landing.
“Uh, yes?” responds Sam, slowly.
“Good. Watch the floor, then,” replies Baxter, who then jumps a fair ways up the rope, wraps his legs around it, and deftly inches his way up the length one-handed. Sam watches a little dumbly until Baxter gets to the top and swings over to the landing, then shimmies up after him.
The second floor is much like the first: in good need of a vacuuming, heavy with the wet smell of moldy drywall. There’s no power anywhere, but natural light filters in from the grimy windowed ceiling overhead. Their boots kick up clouds of dust, choking out the sunbeams and refracting into thousands of snowy particles.
Most of the doors swing open to empty rooms, and they give each one a cursory glance before moving on. Sam is on alert, humming with rookie adrenaline, but Baxter seems almost bored with it. Someone else has been here before, Sam rationalizes, if the escalators are anything to go by. It couldn’t be all that dangerous.
While clearing the floor they find a room that is more or less intact on three sides, with the outermost side blown out and crumbling to the elements. Steel and rebar twist up from the rubble, still supporting the ceiling overhead. It looks like it could have been a common room: sagging, moist couches and study carrels, a refrigerator quietly mouldering in the corner.
“This will do,” Baxter grunts, unclipping his backpack and heaving it off his shoulder. It hits the hardwood and the ground erupts into a flurry of dust motes. They both swear and cough, waving at the air like lunatics.
“Someone fire the janitor,” Sam says, pulling the collar of his jacket over his nose.
Baxter huffs from behind his own collar. “You’ll be hanging your head out the window all day anyway, what do you care?”
Sam supposes he shouldn’t care at all, perhaps even deserves this brittle treatment for a while, but it doesn’t stop it from smarting as he puts himself to setting up the sniping position.
“28 Days Later.”
The noise Baxter makes is one of disgust. “Those aren’t actually zombies, it doesn’t count.”
“Fine, what’s yours?”
“Night of the Living Dead.”
“Is that the one with the zombie baby, in the mall?”
That makes Baxter tear his eyes away from the binoculars. “Don’t even. That was Dawn of the Dead. Night of the Living Dead is a classic.”
“Not everyone has seen every zombie movie in existence,” Sam mutters, turning his eye back to the sights of the sniper rifle. There’s a shambling someone-or-other in a suit tripping up the slope of the park towards them. Sam exhales as he squeezes the trigger and the corpse jerks backwards and collapses on the grass. “You missed that one,” he says.
“I was busy being appalled by your lack of culture,” is Baxter’s reply. Sam finds himself grinning despite himself, and sneaks a look over at Baxter. The corners of his mouth are tilted upwards, but when he sees Sam watching, his face goes stoic again.
He drops the binoculars and levers himself up, stretching out his back. “Forget it. I’m gonna take a piss,” he says, scratching the back of his head. “Don’t exacerbate the end of the world while I’m gone.”
Sam huffs and waves him away, pointedly not watching Baxter’s retreating back. Without the sound of Baxter shifting beside him, the city feels even stiller. There’s the occasional bird call, and the even more sporadic tattoo of distant gunfire barely audible through the buildings, but otherwise the city sleeps under a heavy calm.
He blinks his eyes a few times, vision going a little blurry from being unused to staring down a rifle’s sights for hours at a time. Assuring himself there’s no walkers coming up on the horizon, he sits back to rub his eyes with the heel of his hand.
He unscrews his canteen and takes a long pull of lukewarm water, looking out at the park with disinterest. The first few hours had been relatively exciting, but boredom set in at about the third. Isn’t like the movies, indeed. Baxter had insinuated that it would get exciting later, when the sounds of their gunfire brought in the interest of larger groups. Hence destroying the staircase, so they wouldn’t have something come up behind them.
Sam drains the first canteen, shakes it out and tosses it over his shoulder just to hear something make noise.
He doesn’t hear it at first… which is odd, because there’s precious little in the room that wouldn’t make noise when hit by a small metal projectile. After a moment, what he does hear from behind hims is something more akin to a… moan? A growl?
Sam’s almost refuses to turn around, like rejecting the very principle of it could make it untrue. In what feels like slow motion, he turns his head to meet the eyes of the zombie staring at him from the doorway. It’s wearing a pair of coveralls and a striped shirt, both worn thin and stained nearly black. The tag on the coveralls reads ‘Sanjeet’. It squints at Sam, regarding him with hungry curiosity — then it opens its mouth and the worst sound he’s ever heard comes out: a rattling, raspy moan that bubbles up from deep within that unbreathing chest.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Sam exclaims, propelling himself backwards clumsily. At the same time, the zombie launches forward with the improbable speed of something going in for the kill.
Sam swears even louder, barely able to get his arms up in time to protect his face as the walking corpse slams into him, sending them both skidding across the dusty floor. Up close, the zombie’s face is even more terrible: sallow, wax-like skin, eyes oozing opaque yellow liquid, little spots of lichen dotting it like freckles. Its lips peel back and Sam catches a glimpse of sharp yellow teeth and gums seeping viscous black blood. It gnashes wildly above him, sending flecks of red spittle flying into his face. Sam nearly gags at the smell of it, rotten and reminiscent of the time he left a lunch in its Tupperware container over the summer, only this time trying to kill him in a much more literal sense.
They tussle a few seconds, Sam in a position of great disadvantage under the dead weight of the thing on top of him. Their legs are tangled together, and no amount of kicking dislodges Sam enough to get any sort of leverage.
A clammy, bony hand wraps around his left wrist and Sam pulls back with all the strength of someone fighting for his life, adrenaline singing a battle hymn along every nerve lit up in distress Every time he diverts enough strength to pull his arm away from those teeth, it seems the zombie gets even closer to his face, all gnashing teeth and terrible rotten stench. It’s a losing battle on both fronts. Sam gets his other hand free and slams it up into the zombie’s face, perilously close to its drooling-red maw; the impact makes a sound like a splitting melon and ratchets its head backwards, too late, too late–
Sam feels the slide of teeth along his attacking hand with perfect clarity; those sharp yellow teeth indenting the skin above his wrist. Sam turns his head away and cries out, closing his eyes so he doesn’t have to watch, but nothing saves him from the feeling of a ragged chunk of flesh being separated from his body and the blood spilling forth in a hot rush of pain.
Sound tunnels in and fizzes out of existence, everything going fuzzy around the edges in the terror and agony of it, so much so that he almost misses the sharp crack of gunfire and the sudden jerk of the dead thing holding him down. Warmth splatters his face and he pulls his limbs in, curling into the fetal position and cradling his arm to his chest as the zombie slumps against him, no longer making any noise at all.
“Sam! Sam!” he hears, distantly. There’s the clatter of something hitting the ground, then two heavier thumps as something significantly bigger and more alive kneels in his field of view.
“Emm–” Sam moans. He clamps his hand to his arm just above the wrist, where it feels like someone has dropped him in lye and then set him on fire; he can feel his own too-warm blood seeping through his fingers from a deep, roughly oval crater in his flesh. “I think–”
“Shit; shit–” Baxter curses, grabbing the zombie by the scruff of its tattered coveralls and pulling it off of Sam. Its blown-open head lolls like a rag doll. “Take off your jacket– your shirt–” he says as he unzips their tactical kit and starts digging through it.
“Oh fuck, I’m dead,” Sam says, feeling numb. It’s only through his very recently acquired, military-honed obedience that he even manages to unclasp his grip long enough to struggle one arm out of his jacket; the other one’s a lost cause as the pain shooting through his arm locks his hand into an unusable claw.
“You’re not dead, you’re not going to die,” Baxter replies through gritted teeth, pulling a black strap out of the kit. Sam recognizes the strap from his too-short classroom section on emergency first-aid, but barely. He holds out his arm as Baxter slips the strap — a tourniquet, he remembers — over the meaty part of his bicep.
The first attempt at tightening the tourniquet results in the buckle spinning around under his armpit, and Baxter bites out a string of creative curses as he pulls it back into place. His hand is shaking, Sam notes, feeling distant, like already watching his body from above.
It’s a few breathless seconds of Baxter tightening the strap and using the adhesive side to stick it to itself, fumbling as his shaking intensifies, like his whole body is quivering towards Sam’s fearful gravity.
“I can’t– Sammy–” he says, finally looking up at Sam’s face. He looks terrified, expression cracked open and raw. “Help,” he whispers.
“Yeah, okay,” Sam replies, snapping back to reality. Sound rushes back in with the pounding of blood in his ears. Together they spin the toggle that tightens the internal string, cinching it tightly around his arm. It hurts almost more than the bite: living tissue and nerve screaming as the tourniquet compresses his whole arm. It starts to pulse immediately, virus-laden blood thick and throbbing behind the tight band.
They look at each other for a few moments — the whites of Baxter’s eyes show all the way around his irises, pupils shrunk to pinpricks from the sun and the sudden terror of death imminent.– before Sam watches all the colour quite literally drain out of Baxter’s face. Baxter crumbles, pitching forward to support himself on his hand, his head nearly on the floor. He is trembling, all over, big panicked breaths racking his body, just this side of sobbing.
“Fuck– fuck,” he says between gulping, shuddering breaths.
Sam lets his head fall back against the wall as he strokes Baxter’s back with his good hand, running his fingers over the knobs of his spine until he strops trembling.
They don’t talk about it.
When it’s clear nothing else is coming for them, Baxter radios the air support.
“Charlie unit to Bravo air, man down, requesting immediate evac southeast corner Pender and Cambie, over,”
Radio silence stretches between them, punctuated by Sam’s wet, laboured breathing.
“Bravo air, copy. Is your location secure?”
Baxter laughs, convulsively. “Charlie, affirm location secure.”
“Bravo air, copy. Are your wounded stabilized?”
Their eyes meet again and Sam can’t help but laugh this time too, a sad, abortive thing that actually winds up leaving his throat more like a groan.
“Copy,” Baxter says, slowly. “Wounded is stable.”
“Bravo air, request Charlie unit hold location, tend to wounded. We’ll retrieve the chum teams and be back around in forty-eight hours, four-eight, for evac of Charlie unit.”
Baxter bares his teeth, grimacing. Holding his thumb away from the radio, he mutters, “Of course, jackasses.”
“It’s okay,” Sam says, voice hoarse, “I’ll be okay… it’ll be okay.”
Baxter blows out a long breath before engaging the radio again. “Four-eight hours, wilco. I’m going to hold you to that. Charlie, clear.”
“We’ll see you soon. Sleep tight. Bravo air, clear.”
Baxter drops the radio and scrubs over his face with his hand, making a growling noise that somehow manages to rhyme with ‘fuck the fucking fuckers’. Sam suppresses a smile. That much hasn’t changed.
“Two days,” Baxter says, a little muffled from behind his palm.
“Two days,” Sam echoes, letting his head thump against the sun-bleached linoleum. The exposed girders of the blown-out wall swim in and out of focus, and he blinks his eyes to clear them. “They don’t want to bring a zombie home.”
Baxter is quiet again for a while, and Sam is content to sit and feel his upper arm pulse in time with his heart, blood stymied by the tight band of the tourniquet. He runs his fingers against the band, the bulge of his flesh on either side; his lower arm is already growing cold. He imagines it withering and falling off, like a plant you forget to water.
“I’m not leaving you here to die,” Baxter says abruptly, then winces as the words leave his mouth. “So don’t even start thinking about being all self-sacrificing.”
Sam opens his mouth to reply, but just closes it and nods, tilting his head away.
The rest of the afternoon passes excruciatingly slowly, punctuated only by a solemn lunch of foil-wrapped energy bars and water. Sam catches Baxter jumping at every sound, but wisely keeps his observations to himself after a pigeon flapping in the rafters makes him want to leap out of his skin. After lunch, Sam reinstalls himself in the windowsill and stays there a few hours, sniping zombies until his head starts pounding so badly he thinks he hears bells, then helps Baxter set himself up in the same spot.
The shadows are starting to stretch out when Sam finally lies down, resting his head on his pack and crossing his good arm over his chest. He was panicked, earlier; now he just feels tired, worn out from the fear. The adrenaline has ebbed, leaving the looming itch of a headache that promises to be a world-ender, and– “I think I’m going to be sick,” he mumbles, turning over.
“Probably,” Baxter replies, without looking up from the rifle’s sights.
Sam is sick, shamefully, spitting up acid and pain into a nearby garbage can. It smells sour, like meat. Warm. He spits to empty his mouth, moaning, and a wave of overwhelming nausea makes the world heave two great stutter-steps to the left, taking his arms out from underneath him. He barely feels his head hit the ground. He blinks, then Baxter’s strong arm is rolling his body onto his side so that when Sam vomits again, whimpering and gagging, it spills harmlessly onto the floor.
His stomach roils to no avail as his orientation changes; Baxter has wrapped his arm around him and is hauling him away from the foul trashcan and back to his kit. He’s talking, too, but if he’s speaking English it’s not in words Sam understands.
He suddenly feels wet all over, clammy in his clothes and cold everywhere. Sweat beads on his lips, his eyelids. His eyes begin to sting from it, and without thinking he raises his hand to try to wipe it away.
Fire lances through his arm as he remembers, too late, that his dominant side is necrotizing. And as if not to be outdone, the pain in his temples intensifies; it radiates from his eyes up past his hairline and down his jaw, his body clenching sympathetically. His stomach turns over, empty and painful.
“Oh, God,” he moans, “Oh, fuck, it hurts.”
Baxter’s hand on his forehead is preternaturally cold, unreasonably strong as he keeps Sam from thrashing his head. Sam twists his body instead, writhing all over as his muscles shudder and contract of their own will, feeling a great dark wetness bubble up from his stomach and lodge in his throat.
“–fever — let it happen — let your body fight it off –” he hears, before sweet cool unconsciousness takes him. He doesn’t even dream.
When he opens his eyes again, it’s to darkness. He panics again, momentarily afraid the fever has blinded him, but then a shadow moves across his vision and it brings the room into focus: weak moonlight coming in from the window, a flashlight with a red filter lying on the floor next to his head, Baxter’s undefined silhouette over him. The blown-out room is quiet; where there would normally be the sound of traffic, there is only the very distant echo of moans reverberating off the tall, empty buildings.
Sam takes in a breath to speak, but his mouth is dry and swollen inside. His lips stick together when he parts them, trying to wet them with a tongue that feels like leather. Bloated leather. Imprinted with the insides of his teeth.
Baxter passes a cold cloth over his face, dripping water on him before pressing it to his forehead. The water seeps into his hair like glacial melt. “Hnngh,” he manages. The sound reverberates through his skull, which feels like it’s been emptied with a melon scoop and stuffed with cotton. He hurts all over, in every muscle in his body and in some places he doesn’t even have muscles, too.
“You’re still alive,” replies Baxter. He doesn’t sound surprised, or relieved — just matter-of-fact, in case Sam has mistaken the lingering ache of his entire body and the sour, dead taste of his mouth as some sort of heavenly reward. “Don’t talk,” he says, as he moves the cloth from Sam’s forehead to his lips.
It’s a little disgusting the way Sam can’t stop himself from sucking the moisture out of the cloth, tasting strongly as it does like his own manky sweat and sickness.
“That’s gross, come on, get up,” Baxter says, the grimace audible in his voice even if Sam can’t see his face. It takes a few tries, but between the two of them they manage to get enough arms working to reorient Sam into something like a sitting position. “Drink this,” Baxter commands, holding a canteen to his lips.
Sam does, haltingly at first, but when the warm water hits his throat it could, quite possibly, be the most delicious water he’s ever tasted. He drinks until the canteen is dry, then he exhales wetly as Baxter guides him back down to the floor. His little excursion to verticality makes his brain feel poisonous.
“You were out for three hours,” Baxter says, wetting the cloth with the other canteen. He dabs at Sam’s forehead, pressing gently at his throbbing temples, the soft hot skin of his eyelids. “That’s not bad.”
Sam groans, trying to tilt the sound up a little at the end so it sounds like a question.
Baxter’s hand pauses and Sam can hear him take a long breath before he starts moving again. “I think I was out for at least four when I was bitten.”
Sam hums and tilts his head into the cool cloth. They’re both still for a while, acknowledging. It doesn’t feel right to be shocked, so he isn’t — he just lies there, and Baxter drops the cloth and replaces it with just his hand, running it through Sam’s short hair.
“Were you scared?” Sam asks, quietly.
Baxter’s hand doesn’t stop moving. “Yeah. I was terrified.”
His tongue feels heavy when he tries to swallow. “I don’t want to die.”
“I’m sure fate will take that into consideration,” Baxter says, solemn and irreverent at the same time. Sam’s mouth twitches up into a smile: typical Emmett. “You probably won’t. I didn’t. Most of me is still here, that counts for something.”
Sam’s eyes drift to the stump of Baxter’s left arm. How did he miss that, before? He must have taken his jacket off while Sam was asleep. It looks smooth, inoffensive. Completely unsurprising. He lets himself look at it: the chapped knob where the bone ends, the thin white spiderwebbed scars puckered together like someone had pulled a drawstring. “I’m going to lose my arm, aren’t I?”
“Yeah. You are. It’s not the end of the world.”
“The army… they can’t know. They don’t know about you, do they?”
Baxter shakes his head. “I didn’t know if they’d even let me live if they knew. And I didn’t want to be a science experiment if they did. I had to….” He stops and looks away, blinking a few times. “My partner was dead — he’d been bitten too, decided to end it before it got bad. I had the idea to try the tourniquet, to see if I could beat the virus,” he continues, voice thick. “And when I didn’t turn, I amputated my own arm in the field. They did the rest at the base. I told them I’d been trapped under debris.”
“That’s….” Horrible, Sam’s mind supplies.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Baxter continues. “It’s… your arm is already dead. I wanted to wait until the fever passed before we did it… so you’d know.”
“Oh,” Sam says. Like that makes perfect sense. Like tomorrow, if he’s lucky, he won’t have an arm and that’s the least of his worries. He lets out a big breath, a little struck down by the triviality of every moment before this one. “I’m sorry I said… everything. About your arm. And the… fuck, the rats.” He cringes as all the pieces fall into place, right down to the inexplicable craving for raw meat. Everything he’d said. “I’m so sorry. I was such a–”
Baxter makes a shushing noise, hand drifting down Sam’s cheek. His thumb strokes down the bridge of Sam’s nose, the delicate dip in the bow of his upper lip. He ghosts over Sam’s lips so lightly it could have been a hallucination.
“Emm–” Sam chokes, pressing his lips to that thumb like the most fervent penitent. His eyes well up and tears spill down his cheeks, unbidden. “Fuck, I’m so sorry….”
That’s as far as he gets, because Baxter leans down and replaces his thumb with his lips, kissing Sam so incongruously sweetly it feels chaste. It’s not perfect; their lips are dry, sticking together a little when Baxter pulls back. He wets his lips, almost shy, bumping noses as he slots them together again, and then — oh, that’s right.
Sam knows, academically, that this should be the worst kiss in the world. He still feels hot and aching, mouth dry, he might lose his arm, he might even be dying, fuck, but Baxter’s lips are gentle, his hand on Sam’s face steady and comforting, fingers spanning the fragile juncture of neck and skull, and the prospect of ‘maybe later’ doesn’t even cross Sam’s mind.
“I’m going to be here for you,” Baxter’s murmuring against his lips. “You’re going to be okay.”
Sam feels himself nodding. “Yeah,” he says repeatedly. “Yeah,” like a promise.
They kiss for what feels like an endless amount of time, tentatively at first, until Baxter licks cautiously at Sam’s lower lip. Then it’s on, tenderness rejected in favour of getting as close to the other as physically possible. Baxter’s lips are weathered from being outside all day, but warm and soft all the same, and the taste of him is exhilarating– just the taste of mouth, of spit and teeth and breath, but where it repulsed him before it feels different now, intoxicating. Just the slide of their tongues is enough to send thrills of excitement through Sam’s body, and he writhes under Baxter’s weight. He feels… hungry. Hungry.
“Come on– I wanna–” Sam starts, pushing himself up on one elbow. Baxter gets the hint and helps him up, squirms out of his t-shirt while Sam watches, inexplicably fixated on the subtle protrusion of Baxter’s ribcage. He runs his hand up Baxter’s chest, pushing gently, and Baxter lies down with a self-conscious laugh. Sam grins and leans down to kiss away the faint creases of panic between his eyebrows, the tight edges of his mouth. He settles between Baxter’s legs and lowers himself to stretch out above him, chest-to-chest. “This okay?”
“Yeah,” Baxter breathes, tilting his head up to sneak another kiss where Sam would have given it willingly.
Sam grins and nips Baxter’s lower lip, tugging it between his teeth until Baxter groans and follows him, bringing their mouths crashing together again. Their teeth clack, eliciting huffs of breathless laughter as they relearn each other’s mouths. Sam sticks his tongue in Baxter’s mouth far enough to make him recoil in exaggerated indignation, and retaliate with a flurry of short, sharp kisses that quickly become longer and more heated.
Sam kisses his way from Baxter’s mouth, across his cheek and down the strong tendon of his neck, nips lightly on the well-defined muscle where his shoulder begins. Baxter’s legs sprawl open on either side of Sam, and a calculated roll of his hips brings their unbearably clothed erections together. Baxter goes taut, spine arching improbably as he takes in a stuttering breath, lets it out in a rush. Sam grins into his skin, pressing his teeth there, and does it again just to hear Baxter swear under his breath.
Sam rubs his face down the slope of Baxter’s shoulder, slipping on the sweat-slick skin to mouth at his chest. “Please, I just wanna– I wanna… put my mouth on you,” he mumbles into the soft skin there. Somewhere above him Baxter groans, arching his back to rub against Sam’s slack lips.
That’s all the permission Sam needs — all he’s willing to wait for, anyway. He bites down on a ridge of pectoral muscle, trapping a comforting mouthful of flesh in his teeth — his blunt, ineffectual human teeth — and laves it with his tongue, pulling until Baxter breathes in sharply and seems to want to twitch away and towards him convulsively. He presses his nose and lips to the wet spot left behind, warm from the sudden superficial trauma of his teeth, the skin red but unbroken, then moves to do it again on the other side, then again, lower, and again, mapping a trail of reddening bite marks following the line of Baxter’s abdominal muscles past his navel to where a bit of dark hair trails messily into the waistband of his pants.
They somehow get Baxter’s pants open and out of the way, though Sam doesn’t much care how. He’s forgotten everything about being sore, being sick; even the fear is deadened, quiet under the heady insistent need thrumming under his skin, telling him to bite down just that little harder, claim that pound of flesh for himself.
He presses his mouth to the dark hollow where Baxter’s thigh joins his torso, breathes in the scent of him and feels light-headed: sweet like skin, bitter like soap, sour like the scent of old sweat, all trapped in thick dark curls of hair. He runs his tongue along the crease of his thigh, drinking the sweat where it pools there: salty, thick, human. He sucks at the thin flesh, and, oh — how it makes Baxter’s cock jump where it lays, laden and red, against Sam’s cheek.
He bares his teeth and runs them along the delicate skin of Baxter’s hip, moving lower and taking the corded inner muscle of his thigh in his mouth. It makes Baxter’s whole leg kick, a beautiful reflex; Baxter whines and presses his fingertips into Sam’s scalp, directing.
Sam goes in the intended direction but does not arrive at the destination, getting sidetracked by the soft, wrinkled skin of Baxter’s sack, the fragile organs within. He breathes in, chasing the sweet salty smell with a broad tongue. He takes one heavy ball in his mouth and Baxter makes a wounded, fearful noise — but does not move his hands on Sam’s head, and so Sam does the same to the other one, laving them both with his tongue when Baxter’s noises subside and his legs relax open.
He draws back only enough to take a look at the entirety of Baxter’s pale body: the speckling of freckles everywhere and the light dusting of hair, the way his legs strain up and out in supplication. The subtle torque of his feet, toes curling into his discarded pants; the way his chest rises and falls quickly and evenly, efficient even under duress; the pale pink flush of his face and shoulders, the bright red and white where he’s bitten into his lip.
And all throughout, the presence of him, the blood pounding through his veins; Sam can almost hear his pulse if he listens hard enough. The smell of blood and flesh, of growth, and rot under all that sweetness. It must have driven Baxter crazy with need, desperate enough to sate it with rodents. He understands, now, the hunger. The need to put your mouth on things, to consume them.
He licks the head of Baxter’s cock, smearing the bead of salty pre-come there, and Baxter’s grip gets tighter with a breathy moan. Sam looks up, pulling back by only the greatest exertion of will, a silver sticky thread connecting his tongue to Baxter’s flushed, glistening cockhead.
Baxter swallows thickly, locking eyes with Sam, then nods. “Yeah,” he says, simply.
Sam drops his gaze with a grateful moan, enclosing his whole mouth around the head and sucking without preamble. Baxter jumps and makes a startled noise, one that quickly turns pleased instead. His cock is heavy in Sam’s mouth, unyielding when Sam drops his head to take the rest of it in his mouth..
Sam suckles messily, with little technique, but with an enthusiasm which only grows as he takes more in his mouth. When his teeth catch the dimpled corona of the head, which they do often, Baxter makes more of those wounded noises and Sam echoes them, unconsciously. He can feel the sound of it echo into Baxter, the way it makes his fingers tighten on Sam’s head and press him downward ever so slightly.
Sam goes, more than willingly; alternating broad, flat swipes of his tongue around the head with long, lingering sucks, taking the occasional choking mouthful every so often that Baxter twitches and groans at it, at the unconscious clench of Sam’s throat.
He is struck dumb with the desire to consume Baxter whole: to keep him in his mouth, swallow him, keep him inside forever in any way he can. To tear off chunks of his flesh with his teeth and drink the body-hot blood from the wound, to put his hands inside his torso and grasp living tissue, the delicate inner workings of his body. Like a phantom limb, his deadened arm clenches into the solid muscle of Baxter’s high, fingernails digging little crescents into the skin.
It hits him so hard that he aches for it suddenly, a moan bubbling up from somewhere dark within him, and he presses his teeth into–
–Into the flesh of Baxter’s thumb. Sam pulls his head away in thwarted alarm, but Baxter goes with him; his hand is cradling Sam’s jaw, fingers curled under the defenseless skin of his throat. His thumb is bent just so inside his mouth, between his molars, keeping Sam from closing his mouth.
Sam looks up at Baxter’s face, unsure whether to feel relieved or infuriated by the intrusion. What he sees there is startling: Baxter’s face is flushed, yes, eyes a little unfocused, but his expression is complicated. Sam feels dangerous and confined, the combination of which makes more tears prickle at the corners of his eyes.
“Shh, I know,” Baxter murmurs, tilting his hand so he can cup Sam’s cheek, thumb still inside his mouth. His fingers reach up to smear the traitorous tears across Sam’s cheekbone. “I know. You can’t, though.”
Sam moans again, and it reverberates from that place deep in him that still craves that hot spurt of blood, the feeling of ripping into Baxter’s flesh. He moves his tongue against the thumb, feeling with his teeth the solid bone under the muscle and tendon. He sucks, experimentally, breath rattling in his chest.
Baxter’s eyes darken at the noise and he shudders, cock twitching and bubbling up a fresh trickle of pre-come. Sam lurches forward, drawn to it, oh god, how he wants to put his mouth on it, lick it clean, suckle it until Baxter is spent and softening.
“Fuck, yes,” Baxter says, drawing Sam’s head closer. “Open your mouth.”
Sam does, not even rebelling against the hated thumb; he is rewarded by Baxter rubbing the head of his cock against Sam’s lips, smearing them with spit and pre-come.
“Be good for me,” commands Baxter.
Like he would ever want anything else. He feels himself grow heavy, languid, moaning out that ravenous desire as Baxter slowly bullies his way into Sam’s mouth alongside his thumb. He bottoms out before pulling back a little, and Sam chases it with his head, lurching forward, but Baxter catches him with that hand around his jaw and keeps him there. “No,” he says.
Sam whines and works his lips, applying what little suction he has; Baxter retaliates by pulling free with a pop. “No,” he repeats, and Sam breathes out through his nose, indignant… but at the same time it feels as if his muscles are unhinging from his brain, and he sags into Baxter’s grip. Baxter hums in satisfaction as he rubs his cock over Sam’s lips a little more before shoving in, sharper this time; he pulls out again just as Sam feels him brush against the back of his mouth. Sam shudders forward, helpless to contain how much he wants it, and the next thrust does in fact slide down his throat.
“Hnnghrr,” Sam encourages, finding his jaw go lax of its own volition. He tilts his head the right way and is prepared for the next slide, and then Baxter is fucking his throat in earnest. He closes his eyes and leans into the hand on his cheek, breathing staccato through his nose as Baxter uses Sam’s slack throat to urge himself closer to the finish.
It’s not long before Baxter’s breathing gets more erratic and he starts crying out a little on each exhale, biting down on something much louder. His body goes tight under Sam, thighs trembling, until he thrusts forward one more time and comes with a strangled groan. His hand slackens and Sam presses forward eagerly, licking and sucking as hot, salty come fills his mouth and drips down his chin. He laps up what he can, tonguing the underside of Baxter’s cock until Baxter jerks and half-heartedly edges himself away from Sam’s greedy mouth.
Baxter’s hand drops to the side and Sam shimmies forward, pressing wet open-mouthed kisses to Baxter’s cock as it softens, then flops forward to rest heavily on Baxter’s heaving chest. The insistent thrum of his blood in Sam’s ears is quieter now, or maybe his senses are just dulled. He works his jaw back and forth as an ache settles there, earning a sated laugh and a quiet apology from Baxter.
He waits what seems like an eternity for Baxter to get his breath back, but when that’s long in coming he rolls his hips down insistently, bringing a grin to both their faces. They shuffle a little so Baxter can get his hand down Sam’s pants, but when his hot palm slips into his underwear, they’re both shocked to find Sam quiescent, as completely soft as if he was never hard at all.
“What– I didn’t even…” Sam stutters, unsure whether to laugh or be mortified.
Baxter shrugs, giving Sam a friendly squeeze before pulling his hand out. “It was like that for me for a while. But I guess you got what you needed,” he says, with a fond smile. “Wait, you’ve got a–” He reaches out to catch a dribble of come before it rolls off Sam’s chin.
Sam chases Baxter’s hand with his mouth, and Baxter obliges by scooping the errant wetness into Sam’s mouth to suck away. “Guess I did,” Sam mumbles around the mouthful of fingers.
It’s true, though; he feels tired more than hungry, no longer captivated by Baxter’s smell or overwhelmed with fantasies about biting into his flesh. His whole body feels heavy, limbs loose; the ache from earlier is gone and even his skin feels cooler. Baxter, by contrast, seems unbearably warm, especially when Sam’s head droops down to rest on his chest.
They laugh, endorphin-drunk, as they reposition themselves so Sam is nestled under Baxter’s arm as they lie back on the floor. After a few minutes of pregnant silence, Baxter pets Sam’s hair and leans in to kiss his forehead.
“You’re still going to be okay,” he says, serious.
Sam hums, unconvinced but at the moment too tired to protest.
“It’s going to scare you to hell for a little while, and when you get hungry — really hungry — you’re going to wish you died instead. You’re probably going to hate yourself for a little while, and it’s going make you act like a jerk to the people you love.”
He leans forward a little more to kiss Sam, a sheepish meeting of lips and noses. “It’s a good thing they love you enough to wait,” he murmurs, and Sam knows he’s not talking about him.
The sunrise sees them in much the same position. At some point in the night one of them pulled a sleeping bag over and it’s trapped the morning’s dewy condensation on their skin, a pleasant chill for all the warmth between them. At first the sunrise is just a haze of lighter blue until suddenly the first brilliant rays turn the sky all kinds of pink and yellow, reflecting in the few intact eastern-facing windows of nearby skyscrapers. A mist creeps out of the trees in the square like breath on a winter’s day, partially obscuring the still corpses on the grass. It’s almost idyllic.
“There’s this parasite,” Baxter says, apropos of nothing.
“What?” Sam mumbles into Baxter’s shoulder. There’s a little spot of wetness where his mouth has formed to the shape of him.
“There’s a parasite, the trematode,” Baxter repeats. “It lives in lake snails.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because it’s interesting, so listen.” Baxter takes a deep breath and considers his words for a while before continuing: “Trematodes can’t reproduce while they’re inside the snails. So instead, they use the snail’s body to send out these spores. The spores burrow into fish and latch onto their brains, making them want to swim upside-down underneath the surface of the lake. The scales on the undersides of fish are shiny, so they’re more attractive to birds. In the digestive tract of the bird, the trematodes mature and lay eggs. The bird shits out the eggs, the eggs land back in the lake, larvae hatch out of the eggs, and the snails eat the larvae.”
Sam hums, pleased as he ever was to hear Baxter talk.
“So the trematode’s whole life is to be eaten and shit out by stronger animals,” Baxter says, a little quieter. “It has a good run and gets a few animals killed in the process, but when it boils down to it, it’s just a stupid parasite.”
Sam considers this for a moment. “What does that have to do with anything? Which one are we?”
Baxter shrugs, pulling Sam in a little closer. His body is warm and humming with blood under the surface. “I’m not sure yet.”
Thanks for reading! Gentle reader, please remember to comment on lihsa‘s incredible art — she worked way harder than I did.
Expanded author notes and a bonus zombipocalypse soundtrack here. Happy Hallowe’en!