© Robin Kirk

 THE QUIET COMPANY  

It appeared on the third morning, beneath the outdoor basketball hoop. Flesh dripped off like a too-thick milkshake. I saw a gleam across the breast bone, raw and slick with blood: a cheerleader’s top like mine, emblazoned with the golden “V” of the Fighting Mustangs of Littlefield High School.

Katie.

“She’ll attract more,” Clay said. He carried a tyre iron from the equipment van. He still wore his track suit. Everyone else called Katie “it”. But Katie had been his girlfriend. Before.

A thunderstorm swept over the school. From the Media Centre’s second floor windows, I couldn’t see through the sheets of rain. Once the storm passed, though, there it stood, in exactly the same place. Water puddled red and black around Katie’s sneakers. During the storm, two more things had joined her: the janitor, in his green uniform, and someone I didn’t recognise. He wore a brown cowboy hat.

“We should kill them, April,” Gary said. He held one of the baseball bats the boys had taken from the locker room.

We had been returning from the championship game at Statesville in the equipment van. Mr Dobies was the first to see that something was wrong. An hour outside Littlefield, the roads emptied. In the twilight, we saw a few people standing: in fields or in the parking lots, as if wondering if they had forgotten to buy something on their lists. The school bus, with most of the players and the rest of the cheer squad and coaches, never arrived. At school, Mr Dobies pulled the van up to the front doors, and Clay and the other boys set the second-place trophy and the gear on the sidewalk.

My mother wasn’t there. No parents were. All the cars were gone. Mr Joyner, the principal, usually waited in his pickup truck until every student left. His parking space, decorated with red and gold paint, was empty.

Someone had propped open the glass doors. The halls were dark and strewn with books, pens, loose paper and backpacks. None of our mobile phones worked. The electricity was off, too.

Sun flares, Robbie said. I ignored him. He made stuff up.

“Let’s wait here,” Mr Dobies said. He taught health and sometimes substituted. “Someone is sure to come”.

With Desiree, I got blankets from the nurses’ office and brought them to the Media Centre. The boys barricaded the first floor doors with mop handles and the tire iron, just in case. We ate in the Media Centre, too: thawed pizza, chicken nuggets, burgers still in their cellophane wrappers and small cartons of milk. The walk-in refrigerator was warming up fast.

In the morning, Mr Dobies was gone. Then Katie died-on one of the couches in the Media Centre, while everyone else played cards or napped. Clay discovered her. She didn’t even have a cold. After an hour, Clay carried her outside, tears streaking his face. He laid her beneath a bush, planning to bury her once we found shovels. But when we found one and returned, the body was gone.

“Aren’t they supposed to go after us? Try to eat us?” I said. A mat of hair hung over Katie’s face. I could see the white bone of a forearm where the flesh had dripped off. Worst of all was the smell: the most putrid garbage ever, roasted in the sun, tied in a Hefty bag, soupy with rotted food and turds. Not even the vultures wheeling overhead got close.

“That’s the movies”. Clay had a blank look, like his mind could be anywhere. “This is real”.

“What are they, anyway?” Zombies give me the creeps, but this was different. All the things did was stand or walk aimlessly, disintegrating. Katie had been the smallest cheerleader. She had black hair pulled back into a shiny ponytail. She and Clay were well matched: Clay tall, broad and muscled and Katie short enough to fit under his arm, a flowering of barely contained acne on her nose and cheeks.

I could tell that he loved her. I can always see love in people’s eyes.

For their bats, Clay, Gary and Ricardo made holsters from nylon straps and plastic buckles from the backpacks. I had a hammer in the pocket of my track suit. I didn’t think I would use it, but I felt better with it close. In my other pocket, I had my mobile phone, which I checked often. Nothing.

“We’re not going to attack them,” Clay said. “They’re not doing anything to us”.

“Dozer,” said Gary, using Clay’s nickname. Clay could sleep anywhere, even on a school bus. “Man, we can’t hold out here forever”.

Clay was the quarterback and team captain. It seemed natural for him to be group leader, too. “They don’t seem to care about us. We’ll wait until help comes”.

“Is it in the food?” I couldn’t help saying. “The water? Maybe it’s the water. Or something we could catch if we get too close”.

“Those things weren’t close to Katie,” Emma pointed out. Emma was Jehovah’s Witness. She had a lip piercing she put in at school and at parties. Like me, she cheered.

The janitor and the cowboy didn’t really scare me. Katie scared me. Why her and not someone else? Why not me? She hadn’t seemed sick or weak. Katie’s mother was a biologist who taught at the community college. When Mrs Snyder drove us in her minivan, she always talked about the environment and clean water and pollution. The Snyders were vegetarians and had no television. Katie carried a small pink flask for water with a Fighting Mustang decal. The bottle still hung at her waist, covered in black flies.

Where was Mrs Snyder with her healthy snacks and sun screen? Where was my mum and my brother? Was my dog, Doughnut, still alive? Was anyone but us? Before the phones went dead, I texted. But no one answered.

“I’m going home to get my gun,” said Gary, turning away. On the way home from the game, we had kissed twice in the back of the van. A consolation prize, I told him, since the team lost 14-7, in overtime. I let him run his hand up my skirt. I liked his coffee skin and confidence. After graduating, he was going to North Carolina State on a football scholarship. We’d hook up, I thought, before he left Littlefield for good.

Every hour, Gary grew more restless. “Man, you can’t keep me here,” he said to Clay after lunch. We drank only sodas and Gatorade from the machine in the cafeteria, in case the water was bad. “I have to know where my family is. All they do is stand there, man. We need to get out of here. I’m fast. If they chase me, they can’t catch me”.

Clay chewed the inside of his lip. When Mr Dobies left, he took the van with him. There was no way to get into town but walk. Too far, Clay said.

“We stick together,” he said. “Someone will come”.

Gary and I slept together the second night. Once everyone was quiet, he crawled under my blanket. “April,” he whispered. His eyes were closed as his strong hands kneaded my hips and breasts. He urgently pulled my sweats down and pushed between my legs, thrusting against me. With a shudder, he came on my belly.

At dawn, Robbie shook me awake: my turn to stand watch. Gary was asleep under his own blanket. I could feel the sticky patch on my skin. As the sun rose over the tree tops, I saw that there were more, just as Clay had predicted. They stood still as photographs, except for the occasional smack of flesh as it hit the ground. One of them looked like Mr Marr, the Chemistry teacher. Another was clearly the police officer who worked Wednesdays and Fridays. We called him Officer Klepto, since he was always confiscating our cigarettes and gum. Officer Klepto wore a uniform. His face was blue and black and his hands were swollen. Otherwise, he was the same.

They moved like birds, with one leaning and the rest moving, as if they were all mentally joined. But they never went in the same direction. The movement reminded me of Freeze Tag, when one person is it and the others have to run without the person seeing them in motion. We ate breakfast on the roof, cold doughnuts from the vending machines and Dr Pepper. Ricardo threw asphalt shards at them. Even when he hit one, it didn’t react.

The smell was unbearable. With more of them, the smell would only get worse. Besides, the giant freezer where food was stored was now as hot as the Media Centre. There was only peanut butter, white bread and Dr Pepper to drink.

“Alright,” Clay said later that afternoon. “Let’s make sure we’re ready”.

Gary holstered two bats and grabbed the shovel. “You can’t kill them with football pads,” he said grimly.

Along with my hammer, I took the flag pole from the principal’s office. Desiree said she wanted the one from Social Studies, since it had a pointy brass tip. Her tight braids were starting to get fuzzy. When she was ripping off the flag, she pricked her finger on a long, jagged splinter. Clay, Gary and the others waited at the front door while I got tweezers, rubbing alcohol and a small bandage.

“I don’t feel so good,” Desiree said as I dabbed the wound. The splinter was lodged firmly under the pad of her index finger. Beads of sweat broke out on her forehead. Desiree swayed, then with a sigh dropped to the floor. She trembled once, and her mouth opened and closed. She was dead.

“Fuck,” said Robbie. “Fuck, fuck, fuck. It’s open skin. Anyone with even a small cut. It has to be. Fuck”.

With Desiree still slumped at my feet, I ran my hands over my face and neck, and then checked my thighs and ankles. Nothing. Katie had acne, I realised. I stared at Clay, whose skin was smooth. Gary, too, with the beginnings of a beard. Just to the right of Robbie’s nose, I saw the tell-tale red bump of a zit.

“Cover it,” I said urgently, handing him the alcohol and a pad of gauze. “This has to kill it. We have to be careful. Everything has to be antiseptic. No more shaving. Including the girls”.

Sometimes, I thought I might be a nurse like my mother. I had brochures for schools. I liked the clean, crisp pictures and the smiling sick people. As we loaded our backpacks with peanut butter sandwiches and soda, I wondered if nursing came naturally to me. I prepared plastic bags full of pre-soaked gauze pads and distributed them to everyone. With Robbie, I fashioned a patch over the zit, damp with alcohol and sealed with athletic tape. He looked like someone had taken a slice out of his cheek, but was calmer.

“We’ll keep that damp,” I said, like a nurse would do at school.

Judging by last night, hooking up didn’t cause it. The senior thing didn’t seem like such a great idea anymore, now that everything had changed. Maybe it had never been a good idea. I had this random thought: I bet Clay never left a sticky spot on Katie. I bet she saw his eyes.

We waited until late afternoon to start, when the heat eased. The roads were empty, with the things standing in odd places, like on road shoulders or next to plastic deer. Over the Acorn Ridge trailer park, a flag snapped in the breeze. Several times, we heard dogs bark. They were shut inside. Poor dogs, I thought. At Handee Hugo’s, the door was open. From the stocked shelves, we took more drinks and Cheezits and Famous Amos cookies. White plastic bags with some logo blew by the petrol pumps. Overhead, there were no planes.

By nightfall, we made it to the court house. To myself, I started calling the things the quiet company. All they seemed to do was stand or shift in flocks. Even their steps were quiet. In the square, I saw the Ray’s grocery store checker with a parrot tattoo on his arm. The sheriff with the pot belly who napped under the large tree outside the station. The bank teller with the white-blonde hair and orange spray tan. She still had on a purple leg cast.

That made me wonder: would Robbie’s gauze be enough? I glanced at him and saw that he was thinking the same thing.

We went to Clay’s house first, since it was closest. His dad was a judge and walked to work. The front door was open. Clothing was strewn across the kitchen floor. Clay’s cat, Meow, jumped up from the couch to greet us. Clay looked in every room: nothing. Before moving on, he took a bag of cat food from the pantry, threw it on the floor and slit it open with his knife.

Across the street, Katie’s house was deserted. Robbie, Emma, Gary: all of their houses were deserted. There was one good sign: the cars were gone. People packed in a hurry. They had to be alive somewhere.

From the garages, we took bicycles. We pedalled to my house, the furthest away. My father had built the house on the last piece of land his family had from their dairy farm. I lived down a dirt road and behind a hill covered in short, brushy pines.

Just like the others, the house was empty. I was glad to see signs that my mother had packed, taking pillows, the cooler and the cloth grocery bags. The Focus was gone. There was no sign of Doughnut.

Robbie opened the refrigerator. “Shit”.

Blue-green fungus covered the vegetables, lunch meat and cheese. There was a six pack of Cheer Wine and some long-neck Buds. Sometimes, my mother left me notes on a dry erase board in the pantry. She’d marked the game I went to and my grandmother’s birthday next weekend. There was one new note: CALL ME. She must not have realised that the phones wouldn’t work.

I felt like tearing the board down. Stupid mum! For the first time, I wondered if I would ever see her or my brother or Doughnut again.

For dinner, we popped open all the cans of tomato and minestrone and pot roast soup and mixed them in my mother’s pasta pot. I made a fire out of scrap wood in the back yard. We huddled around it as the soup heated, shivering despite the still warm air. We ate Saltines and cheese sticks, mushy but still okay. For dessert, we had dry cereal with our hands.

“We could go back to Statesville,” Emma said. “Maybe there are people there. There must be people there”.

“It’s more than a hundred miles”. Clay had an anxious look in his eyes. “It will take at least two days on the bikes”.

“We can take April’s car,” Emma said. My dad’s old Camaro had become my car when he died. I used it to go to school, except on away-game days. The car was parked in the driveway, just where I had left it the morning of the game.

“We won’t all fit. We shouldn’t split up”. Clay poked the fire with a pine branch that smoked where green needles were still attached.

“Some of us at least,” Emma insisted. “To scout ahead”.

“What about petrol?” I asked.

“Petrol stations, stupid”. This was Ricardo. He had a dark blue tattoo of lines and circles on his arms, like Mike Tyson. He chewed tobacco and his teeth were yellow. He claimed he was Lumbee, but to us he looked Mexican.

“Stupid,” said Gary. “There ain’t no light or haven’t you noticed? The pump won’t pump, dog. No pump, no petrol station”.

Ricardo glared at Gary, but of course Gary was right. What else wouldn’t there be? No hair dryers, no television. No computers or phones, of course. No hospitals, no microwave ovens. I would never be a nurse. I felt a panic rise up in my throat. No light at night. No hot showers. No electric blanket when the nights turned cold. No sodas. No food. Suddenly, I felt very thirsty. Stop, I told myself. People had to be somewhere. My family was somewhere.

“We’ll suck it from the tanks of cars”. Clay glared at the fire as if it had eaten all of the food. He was so practical. He and Emma would be a good match.

That night, the others used my mother’s and my brother’s bedrooms to sleep. Gary pulled me into my room and wouldn’t let anyone else share. He was on me the moment the door closed. This time, he didn’t say my name. He pushed my knees apart and thrust himself deep inside me. I wanted to wash after, but he had me clamped tight, his hands gripping my breasts. In the middle of the night, he pulled my hips to his and did it again, pushing my head face first into the pillow.

At dawn, Robbie shook me awake again. Gary snored beside me in the bed.

“You won’t believe who showed up last night”. His voice was high with excitement. My heart leapt. My mother and brother? Doughnut? As I followed him down the hall, I smelled her: Katie. She stood in the middle of the living room, still as a lamp. The front door was open. The quiet company stood in the front yard, facing in different directions. There were even more of them–the police officer, the bank teller, the janitor. Desiree. All of them.

“Shit,” I said. “How did they find us?”

Robbie thought for a moment. “Beats me. This is too weird”.

“Maybe we can push her out? Just don’t get too close”.

I got a broom and a mop from the kitchen. Together, Robbie and I prodded Katie toward the door. I had to be careful about where I placed the brushy part of the broom, since it sank into the soft places and came away with bits of rotted skin and black clots of blood. Her eyes were white, like mould on bread. Still, I felt like she saw us.

Outside, she turned and stared at the door. We shut it, propped the mop beneath the handle and slid in the chain for good measure.

Ricardo was in the kitchen eating dry cereal. He had lined up fives boxes on his side of the table. He ate from one after another, starting fresh when he got to the end. When Robbie reached for the last one, Ricardo slapped his hand away. “Dog, these are taken”.

“But that’s the rest of them. Man, we have to share”.

“I got here first,” Ricardo said. His eyes were narrow and glittery. The floor was littered with cereal: chocolate and apple-cinnamon Os, sugar-crusted flakes, my mother’s Kashi. “Get something else”.

“Ricardo, don’t be like that”. Robbie reached for a Captain Crunch.

This time, Ricardo stood and shoved him. “I told you, dog. These are taken”.

“It’s okay,” I said, laying my hand on Robbie’s arm. “Let’s go downstairs”.

In the basement, my mother kept the extras she bought at CostCo. There were several large unopened boxes of cereal, though none of them were Captain Crunch. Robbie took a corn flakes sullenly and ripped open the cardboard top. He pulled out the plastic bag, ripped it open and poured the cereal directly into his mouth, his jaws working the flakes angrily.

“He’s such an arse wipe,” Robbie muttered as he chewed.

I noticed that his gauze bandage was dry and coming loose. We returned to the kitchen for more alcohol. When I peeled his bandage back, I saw that the zit was an angry red colour. The white cap looked about to burst. I leaned over him to press new gauze over it. As I did, Ricardo got up and headed for the basement. Cubes of Captain Crunch and Os covered the floor.

“Whoa,” Robbie said, jumping up. As he did, he pushed me back, into the table. The bowl Ricardo had been using fell to the floor, shattering. Then the two boys grappled. Robbie was angry and I could see Ricardo was surprised. Robbie slammed him into the refrigerator. Then Ricardo, easily twice Robbie’s weight, slammed Robbie’s back to the floor.

“You can’t have it all,” Robbie was shouting.

Clay, Gary and Emma rushed in. Clay pried Ricardo off and he rolled away, cereal crusted on his shirt. “Man, man!” Clay was shouting.

Just then, I heard something crunch. Clay lifted his shoe: a bowl shard. The shard was tipped in red. “Fuck,” he said.

Ricardo looked up at him. “Ah!” he said softly. Ricardo blinked, then sighed. A spot of red seeped across his sleeve.

“What the fuck!” Gary was shouting.

“It wasn’t his fault!” I said, not knowing if I meant Clay, Robbie or Ricardo. None of them listened.

Gary and Clay dragged Ricardo out the back door, where more members of the quiet company were gathered. Robbie followed them, his mouth opening and closing. The quiet company didn’t react as Gary shoved Robbie and started screaming at him. Robbie covered his face. Then he looked up at Gary. The bandage was gone. I saw Robbie’s mouth open and close, just like Desiree’s, one last time. The zit had opened and pus dripped down his cheek. Almost gracefully, Robbie sank to the ground.

We laid them together by the shed. For several minutes, we watched through the kitchen window. First Ricardo, then Robbie stood. It was hard for me to feel really sad about them being dead when I knew that they would stand up again and join the quiet company. Soon, they would flock here and there, moving to some secret plan. With so many of them gathered in one place, the quiet company looked as if they were all attending a party. I was curious. Did Katie and Desiree remember me? Would the boys think back on their fight over cereal and feel bad? Does the world look mouldy white through their eyes?

Before, when I saw a dead bird, I felt sad. Then time would pass, maybe a half hour or so. By the end of the day, I would barely remember. Is this how I would think about my friends who had joined the quiet company? Maybe these things were just going to be a new kind of creature–not human, not animal, but their own separate things. Maybe we would never die. We would live in a different way, as humans then as members of the quiet company.

Emma, Clay, Gary and I packed the trunk of the Camaro with cereal and soda. No one said anything other than “Pick up this” or “Put that there”. We sat in the car as if we were covered in bubble wrap: not touching, not leaning. I put on a CD, then flicked it off. The air seemed rough, like sandpaper. I kept both hands on the wheel.

What would happen if I bit my tongue by mistake? Or skinned a knee in cheer practice? There would be no cheer practice, I reminded myself. I wasn’t accident-prone, but I sometimes picked at hang nails. That was something else I could never do again.

On the way out of town, I stopped at several cars so that Gary and Clay could suck out petrol. If we were lucky, we would make it to Statesville. But just outside Mulberry, the quiet company forced me to stop. So many of them stood on the road that we couldn’t get past. At first, Gary, Emma and Clay walked in front of the Camaro with branches to push them aside. Then I drove very slowly, and they parted like the geese that take over the school fields in the fall.

By nightfall, we were no further than Mulberry’s court house. We decided to camp in the fire station. Again, we mixed soup together from the large cans in the cupboard. There was a pan of uncut brownies, too, a little hard around the edges but still edible. After finishing the soup, we took the brownies and some blankets to the roof, up a small spiral staircase. There was a chill in the air. I sat next to Clay, with Emma on the other side. Gary was at the far end, curling the blanket end around his shoulder.

None of us wanted to say that we hadn’t seen any other living people all day. But that was what we all were thinking.

Then Emma spoke. “I don’t know how much longer I can last”. In the light of a crescent moon, I could see her face. She didn’t look upset, just tired.

“If we’re careful, we’ll be okay,” Clay said.

“That’s not what I mean. I mean, if there’s no hope, we should just end it. We should just do it, when we are together. Otherwise, it’s one by one”.

I had been thinking the same thing. Only I didn’t want to end up like them, like Katie. I don’t want to be walking around losing myself bit by bit. Maybe if we burned ourselves up in a fire. But that would really hurt. Did it hurt more to live or be one of them?

I squeezed Emma’s hand. “There have to be other people,” I said. “They just went somewhere. We’ll find them. We’ll find our families. I bet they are all together. Everything will be okay”.

“I don’t think anything will ever be okay again,” Emma said.

I couldn’t read her expression, but her words felt as empty as soup cans. If we lost hope, we would lose everything. There had to be a reason we were still alive.

“Don’t talk like that”. This was Gary, his voice raw.

Clay shook his head. “I don’t know, man. I don’t know. When I saw Katie..”.

“Forget Katie,” Gary snapped. “She’s dead, man. She’s dead. I’m alive. I’m going to stay alive. I’m not going to be one of them. No way, not me”. For a while, we sat in silence. Then Gary stood abruptly, letting the blanket slip off his shoulders. “I’m going to bed”.

Clay, Emma and I listened to the sound of rustling below us. Again, the quiet company had followed, collecting more and more members along the way. When I looked at the street in front of the fire station, I saw hundreds of them: standing, then moving as one, a crazy pattern of dripping flesh and white eyes that stopped as suddenly as it started.

The firehouse beds were narrow, made for just one person. Gary was a grey shape under his blanket. Clay took a bed across the room, and Emma joined him, small enough to fit under his arm.

Good, I thought. They have each other. I chose a bed on the far side of the room. I couldn’t get the memory of the quiet company out of my head. As we pushed them aside, they stared at us, seeing us but not seeing us, as if we were no more than wind. What happened when all of the body melted away, when only bone remained? Would the world be filled with skeletons flocking here and there, light as birds?

I felt a touch: Gary. “Come on,” he whispered. He was pulling me up.

“I don’t want to,” I said.

“You are coming”. He didn’t mean sex. His hand clamped firmly around my arm. He pulled me downstairs and out to the Camaro. The quiet company gathered around us, eyes glowing with moonlight.

“Get in”.

I couldn’t read his expression. “Where are we going?”

“Statesville. Winston. Anywhere. We have to go now”.

“We can’t leave them”.

“We have to. They want to die, April. Didn’t you hear them? I don’t want to die and neither do you. We have to go”.

“We can’t leave them,” I repeated.

“April, listen to me. You’re going”. His eyes were black and hard. I saw that he held a knife. “You have to come”.

“Put that down,” I said. I sounded calm, though inside I was shaking. “Put that down now”.

“I’ll cut you if you don’t get into that car. I’ll cut you here and I’ll leave you. I’m not going to let myself be dragged down. They’re weak. They’ll die soon, anyway. We won’t. When we find others, we can come back for them”.

I knew he was lying. We’d never come back. The white eyes were getting closer and closer as I opened the car door. Soon, the quiet company would surround us. They didn’t feel or know anything, I realised. They weren’t birds at all, just dead people who wouldn’t lie down. I didn’t want to be like them. I would never be like them.

I got in and took the keys from the coffee cup holder, where I had left them. Gary tried to swing into the passenger seat, but a dead woman blocked the door. He turned to shove her away. With a quick motion, I placed the key like a knife in my fist. I scratched Gary on the forearm.

“Ah!” he said, turning.

I curled up with my feet over the stick as if I was going to do a somersault. Then I shoved Gary out of the car and into the woman. Her white eyes were fixed on me as she stumbled. The others moved, feathers scattered by a sudden gust. Gary lay on the ground, gasping. It wouldn’t be long before he stood again.

I pulled the passenger door shut. Slowly, I cleared a path. I had always been a good driver. I would head north, to find the living. I would find my family. They had to be somewhere, I thought, as I accelerated.

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