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Mortality Culture (Depths of Hell 2/40)

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It was another long day. I'd asked mom when school would start up again, and she told me that Fi and I wouldn't be going to school for awhile, which I didn't mind.

Fi made a big fuss about it though - said that she didn't want to stay cooped up in our house, just the three of us. Mom put on one of her scowls, the kind where you could see the stains on her teeth letting us know to keep quiet. "No arguments," she said - and Fi went all quiet.

Even though she was five years older than me, Fi was trying to hide her worry. Worry at the harshness in mom's voice, the way mom was holding onto her cup too hard, the way her eyes were set in stone. Mom seemed to realize she'd made us scared, even if Fi was trying to hide it. The iron melted away and she walked over, not saying anything. We just held hands for awhile, Fi mumbling that she was too old for group hugs like this. But I didn't mind - everything was going to be okay.

The next day, mom asked me to cut wood with her. She wouldn't let me use the axe, but I get to haul the wood to the side, and pile the bad guys onto it. Mom whistled as we worked, and we worked until the midday sun was hot and heavy in the summer air. Mom said we couldn't go to the store to get sunscreen, but the trees kept us cool enough.

Looking at our work as plumes of smoke rose into the air, mom gave one of her enigmatic smiles and ruffled my hair. She told me it was good work - and asked if I wanted to learn how to gut a fish. I didn't really want to, but mom said we weren't going to be able to get any food besides what we could grow or hunt - and I wanted to keep impressing her. Removing one from our ice chest, she scaled it first, letting me 'trace' the motion as she went - the callouses on her hands making them seem somehow smaller.

It was that day that the man from across the sea arrived.

He smiled all the time, and he said he was a lieutenant, but he pronounced it Left Tenant, which Fi and I thought was funny. Mom didn't like him at all, but he had nowhere else to go and so mom said he could stay with us. He kept on thanking mom, but she didn't once take her eyes off of him, and he never once stopped smiling.

I liked him because he smiled and I thought maybe he could make mom smile, too - she said I couldn't ever be alone with him, and I always had to stick with Fi when mom was away.

Fi always came back late, though. She was always off on her own, but mom just let her go. I asked why Fi didn't stay with us, and mom said that Fi was looking for other people who hadn't become bad guys. I remember the Left Tenant stopped smiling just then, just for a second. Said that they weren't dead and they weren't alive. He went all green in the face, and he reminded a lot of kale, and I realized we hadn't had kale for days, and I wanted to cry.

Mom shushed me gently, but her eyes never strayed from Left Tenant, who was rocking back and forth a little. After a while, he smiled again. Mom eased up a bit, the glint of dull metal no longer in her eyes or reflecting off the blued gun barrel over her back.

Later, after the sun had died down and we'd all had some lemonade, mom and Left and I all went to the field and practiced shooting. Left didn't have a gun anymore so he just put his finger in the air and made gunfire noises, which I thought was funny. Mom made sure I focused and I even hit a bad guy in the face. His face looked pretty funny too, but I didn't feel so good after looking at it because it reminded me of Left a few minutes ago and mom said we could go back home, so we did.

When Fi came home that night, she was happier than she had been in days. She asked to talk to mom alone, and the infectiousness in Fi's optimism must have been contagious because mom did. They both stepped outside, and it was just me and Left inside the house alone. Left was smiling a lot.

"Do you want to run away?"

He asked, still smiling. Outside, the sound of the grass rustled and I felt tired, so I shook my head. I wasn't scared of the bad guys, and mom had always told us that if they left the city and came up this far in force, we'd just go into the cellar and wait it out. So I told him I didn't want to.

"It's okay, you can run away."

It wasn't a question, and I was aware of everything in that moment - that Left had moved several feet closer in the span of a few breaths, that he smelled like alcohol, that he looked terrified and disgusted and uncertain.

Mom and Fi came back in and the moment broke. Left turned away and put his smile back on - neither of them seemed to notice he hadn't been wearing it earlier, maybe because they were grinning so much themselves. I had forgotten what mom's smile looked like so her happiness made me happy and at the time I forgot how strange Left had seemed.

"They're falling back!" Fi exclaimed, and even Left smiled genuinely. "Apparently, the military got finally got its act together. They should be reaching us pretty shortly... Redd told me that they'd already reached Rutland. Apparently they can't fight worth a damn once the big guns are out!" Fi feigned embarrassment as mom told her that ladies shouldn't swear, but mom's heart was never in it.

"Was there any news about Britain?"

We'd almost forgot Left was there. Whatever awkward things he'd been saying earlier I'd already forgotten, at the time. Now, we were all suddenly aware that he was with us, in our house - and very small, and very alone. Fi paused for a moment, biting her lip and not looking like she wanted to say anything she couldn't prove.

"It -"

Left closed his eyes.

"There's no proof, but it sounds like they've pretty much stopped outside of most urban centers. London's still swamped, but most other areas are clear."

A deep, slow sigh escaped from Left, and it sounded a little like the noise the bad guys made when we burned them. Then, as if a great weight was off his shoulders, he smiled - a big one, this time - and said that was good.

Mom made us all cocoa, and took out her banjo, and we spent most of the night playing cards and telling stories.

When I woke up, it was to the sound of gunfire.

Fi was already up, boarding up the windows. Left was gone - he'd disappeared in the night, taking food and water and bullets. Mom was outside in the second trench we'd dug, and she was surrounded by the dead and the dying.

I wanted to run outside, but Fi held me back with her arm and a look.

Eventually, mom staggered back in. She was cut, and her right eye was bruised and it didn't fit quite right. Fi tried to help socket it back in, but neither of us knew what to do. Mom asked us to leave, her voice all calm, and we did.

When mom stopped screaming, we tentatively went back in. Fi cut her an eyepatch out of gauze, and mom told us it was fine, that was the worst injury she'd suffered, and that it was her own damn fault.

Fi smirked and said that ladies shouldn't swear, and then went pale, and then started apologizing until I couldn't even tell what see was saying- but mom cooed, and held her close, and said it was fine. That we were fine, for now at least.

At the time, a lot of people from the cities were worried that if you got bit, or if you got scratched, you'd become one of them, but we already knew that wasn't the case, though we didn't know why. I was going to tell mom to rest, that we could do the burning - when I suddenly realized the power had flickered back on, and that the distant sound of treads over flatland could be heard.

So we all walked out in one procession, mom leaning on Fi and wearing a badly cut eyepatch, Fi suddenly conscious of how dirty and haggard we looked, and me not sure if I should be happy or scared. The soldiers were walking slowly, and laughing amongst themselves. They weren't dirty, and they weren't wounded.

Mom stared, and something clicked. She walked over to one and started yelling that the military had been driving the zombies towards us, towards her children - the soldier said something, and something else that sounded like an apology, and something else and mom went white. She asked a question, and another soldier gave a nod. Then they gave us some new clothes, and told us that television and phone service would probably be back on by the time we got home.

We wanted to ask the soldiers more, but mom told us we were going home. She refused any attempts for medical treatment and seemed shaken enough that I think the army must have just decided it wasn't worth the effort. I didn't understand why and thought she was just being stubborn. She was, but it wasn't because of us or them, I realize now.

That evening, for the first time since the thirty-three days had come and gone, we sat around the television, quietly. Every station showed the same thing - as the shambling hordes were surrounded and it became apparent that there was no hope of winning...

Members slowly stood up straight, embarrassingly - sheepishly - put their hands into the air, and asked for surrender.

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