I broke a cardinal rule in the story below. But I’m hesitant to tell you what it is because I’d really like to know if you even notice.
So here’s what I’ll do. If you want to read the story without knowing what rule I broke, stop reading the intro after this paragraph. Just skip down to the story, see if you can catch it, and then come back up to the top when you’re done.
[skip to the story here]
Now, for those of you too lazy to look for my “mistake” on your own, I’ll tell you what I did. I flipped from the past to the present tense a couple of times, eventually settling on the present tense even though the story started in the past.
To be clear, there wasn’t a flashback. I didn’t change the setting or the time when the story was happening. Instead, as I wrote it, it morphed from feeling like something that HAD happened to something that felt like it WAS happening. And even though that means I broke a major rule of fiction, I went with it.
It works for me, but I’m biased. Which is why I’d like to know if it works for you. Even knowing what I did, do you care? Do you notice? Does it mess with the story? Or does it feel like you’re just stepping more in to the story as “was” changes to “is”?
Let me know in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading.
“So tell me.”
Pause for a beat.
“When did you give up?”
It was Nikolai. He was, I shit you not, wringing the blood out of his shirt as he spoke. The smug bastard didn’t even take it off to attend to the wound. No, he just grabbed the fabric near the tear and started twisting, crimson droplets splashing in the dust at his feet.
He was trying to look like a bad-ass. And he did. But I wasn’t about to let it rattle me.
“Fuck off,” I replied. He smiled the way you imagine Russian men smiling.
I was sitting on a rock by the river. Don’t ask me which river. I have no idea. I’m a city girl. I mean, I should know. There are only so many rivers in Texas, and we’re not that far from Austin. But we’ve been on foot in the hill country for days, headed mostly southwest, and I know we already crossed the Colorado.
The Guadalupe, then? Sure. Let’s say it’s the Guadalupe.
We’re low on ammo, which in and of itself seems nearly impossible. Not two days ago we raided a ranch house. Let me tell you, the good people of Texas take their right to bear arms seriously. That place was like a weapons store, complete with more rounds than we could pack out.
We thought about staying there, but then we saw the signs. We see the signs everywhere. Every time we find a house or store or factory or prison. There’s always something left behind. Food, or clothes, or weapons. Something useful.
And if I’ve learned anything since this madness started, it’s this. If there’s useful stuff just laying around, it means the people who were there got out fast. Or they didn’t get out at all.
Either way, Nickie and I aren’t sticking around to find out.
He hates it when I call him that. He sneers, like it’s an undignified perversion of his name. He’s a proud one, my Nickie, and no amount of insanity seems likely to break his pride. But I take irresponsibly great pleasure in tormenting him, so I rarely call him by his full name.
“What do you think, Nickie? Camp here tonight?”
I can hear the melodramatic sigh, but he doesn’t correct me. That, too, would be beneath him.
“Yes, but on the other side of the river.”
Now I’m sighing. I really didn’t want to go for a swim. The temperature is already chilly. Adding water isn’t going to help my cheery disposition one bit.
“We’ll make a fire,” he says. “You’ll warm up.”
Motherfucker. How does he do that?
But before we have a chance to wade in, we hear a noise behind us, back the way we came. It’s unnervingly rhythmic. People don’t walk that way. Heavy, slow, even steps.
But they walk that way. All of them shuffle like that.
Nickie signals and I take a position behind the rock. He moves silently to the side, behind a tree. Both of us wait, fingers on triggers, ready to once more spill the blood of the dead. Hey, it’s what we do.
But the noise stops. There’s silence for several seconds, and then we hear it, whatever it is, backtracking.
Annoyingly, this seems to confirm Nickie’s theory. He thinks they’re not quite mindless, despite appearances and modern folklore. On the contrary, he thinks they’re learning. Learning to hunt.
Without further discussion, we slip into the water and make our way across, splashing as little as possible. The water’s deep here, the current lazy. Even on the far bank, it’s an hour before we speak again. During the intervening time, we both steal glances at the opposite bank, waiting to see if our would-be visitor decides to make an appearance.
I’m the one to break the silence, quietly requesting a fire. We’re both shivering, still damp from our swim, but it’s a calculated risk. A small fire won’t be visible over a long distance, but it’ll serve as a beacon to anything near.
Ah, but this Russian has been in Texas too long. With a shrug, he begins to collect firewood, and before long we’re stripped as close to naked as either of us dares, basking in the glow of blazing cedar.
We eat dinner. We talk – about the day, our supplies, life before the world went crazy. Nothing too deep. He doesn’t tell me why he’s in America, and I don’t tell him about my former love life, or my personal aspirations, or even about my cat. God, I miss that little monster.
And yet, even as we avoid talking about the things most dear to us, the things we miss the most, I can tell our minds are tripping backwards, marinating in memories of better times. All the while we’re smiling, laughing easy, and generally enjoying the moment.
And then I see Nikolai tense. His eyes are on the far bank of the river, and I know what he sees even before I follow his gaze.
It’s there. The one that was following us before. It’s just standing there, swaying by the water, looking down at the river and then up at us. It would be licking its lips if it still had any lips to lick.
“Do we shoot it?” I ask.
“No,” he whispers. “We don’t know how many others are near. We’re faster and smarter. We pack up and keep moving.”
It makes sense. If we shoot it and 10 more follow the noise, we’re no better off. And I’m sure as hell not sleeping with that thing watching me. What if it decides to see if it can swim? What if it can?
We gather our things, don our clothes, and press into the brush, cutting a trail into the night. Behind us, I listen for sounds. Footfalls in the dark. A queer rhythm. The tale-tell groan.
There’s nothing. No sign. No hint. No signal.
And that worries me more than anything else. We can take ‘em out one at a time, even if they’re getting smarter. And we can handle a small horde, so long as they’re dumb.
But what do we do when they realize they can work together? What do we do when they push us, like that one just did…and we walk right into a trap?
I won’t tell you. I’ll only say we have a tentative plan. We made a pact, Nickie and I. Neither of us are going to become monsters. Not if we can help it.
Still, I’d kinda like to make it to the spring.