Carson is surviving the zombie apocalypse just fine, thank you very much. His whole life was practically leading up to it: he already had over a decade of experience looking out for himself amidst a sea of morons and the brain dead.
While the situation had escalated and everyone else lost their heads, Carson had been busy preparing. He’d printed out instructions for everything from how to hotwire a car and pick a lock to lists of edible plants. He’d stocked his backpack with perishable foods and a makeshift survival kit, and despite taking up valuable space, he hadn’t been able to resist adding a few notebooks and pens. If he survives whatever’s still to come — and he knows he’s smart enough to — Carson is determined to be the first to press with his memoirs.
All the superior intellect in the world, however, doesn’t stop his ankle from twisting when he stumbles into a pothole at full speed. He’d just finished rooting through an abandoned gas station — turning up only a few packs of gum and a flattened candy bar — when three zombies lumbered into view at the end of the next block. He’d taken off at a sprint, around a corner and into a residential neighborhood, and right through a section of crumbling pavement.
Carson goes down hard. “Shit,” he hisses, pushing himself immediately back to his feet, but as soon as he tries to put any weight on his left leg, he crumples the ground again with a hoarse “fuck!” Pain spikes up from his ankle, but there’s no time, so he scramble-hop-limps into an open garage nearby, cursing the entire way. Luckily, he has enough of a head start that he’s able to find and mash the button to bring the door down just in time — it seals shut against the pavement when the zombies are halfway up the driveway. They start battering against it, and Carson watches anxiously, but from what he can see, it looks like it’ll hold — at least for a while.
He slides down the wall and spends a few moments just slumped over, his eyes squeezed shut while he sucks in deep breaths as evenly as possible. There’s not much in his stomach, but he’s dangerously close to losing what little there is because his ankle is throbbing and it’s making his skin go clammy as waves of nausea roll through his body. He clamps his jaw staunchly shut; food has been hard to come by, and he cannot afford to throw up his Slim-Jim-and-stale-graham-cracker breakfast. Carson’s flailing for his backpack — some of that gum was peppermint; maybe it’ll help — when a thump against the back of the garage brings his heart, pounding, to his throat.
There’s a door in the corner with a glass pane that clearly lets him see the zombie lurching against it. It’s a young woman — or it was a young woman — with half of her jaw torn away. She must be new, Carson thinks. He hates new zombies; for the first few months, they’re faster than they should be and they retain enough higher-level brain function to, say, circle a garage to try and find a different way in. Not enough to use a doorknob, though, and Carson’s grateful for that. He slides his pistol out of his bag, just in case, but he doesn’t take aim. He only has four bullets left, and although he’s a better marksman than he had been a few months ago, he’s pretty sure he can’t pull off a kill shot from this angle, through glass.
With his stomach finally settling enough for him to think, Carson considers his options. They aren’t great. He’s hesitant about taking on three zombies with four bullets; the margin of error is too small, and he can’t run on his ankle. Most likely, he’s going to have to go through the house and find an alternate means of escape. Or maybe he can just lie low for a while until they catch wind of something else. There might be something worth eating or stealing inside.
Carson zips his backpack and moves to heft it onto his shoulder, but he freezes when a gunshot sounds outside and something splatters unpleasantly over the window. A face appears behind the mess, a very anxious human face that only gets more concerned as the knob twists futilely and the door rattles. Carson has no idea who the fuck it is, but the middle of a zombie attack isn’t the time to look a gift horse in the mouth, or ask it its name. He grits his teeth, hoists his backpack on, and hobbles across the garage as fast as his ankle will allow.
When he tosses open the zombie-splattered door, Carson finds a guy about his own age with dark hair, a dirty t-shirt, and a rifle. “How bad is your ankle?” he asks without preamble.
“Bad,” Carson spits. He’s on the verge of puking again, so yeah, it’s bad.
“Okay.” The guy reaches for Carson’s left arm and slings it over his shoulder. “C’mon, we’ve gotta keep moving. All the commotion will probably attract more.”
Carson grunts. He’s not a big fan of close bodily contact — especially with strangers — but what choice does he have? They shuffle away from the garage and into the yard of the neighboring house at a pace that feels agonizingly slow. Carson manages a glance over his shoulder, just in time to see the two remaining zombies staggering around the corner of the building.
“Can you make it?” the guy grits out.
Swinging his eyes back ahead, Carson catches sight of their target: a beat up sedan parked in front of the house whose yard they’re currently stumbling through. “Yeah,” he replies with a grimace, redoubling his efforts to move quickly. Pain is shooting up his leg, but he sets his jaw and limps faster. The guy is half-dragging him anyway.
The zombies can’t run either, which helps. There’s enough time for the guy to shove Carson into the passenger seat, run to the other side of the car, and leave the zombies in the rear view mirror. Carson groans and leans over to bury his head in his hands as they swerve through the streets, avoiding abandoned vehicles and debris and corpses, both still and walking. “You okay?” the guy asks.
“Yeah,” Carson manages to get out without unclenching his teeth. He’s afraid that if he so much as opens his mouth, he’s going to be wearing his breakfast. “Ankle hurts. Making me sick.” He struggles his backpack off and digs for the gum again.
“Well, go ahead and puke if you need to. There are plenty more cars where this came from.”
While it’s nice that his companion is so unconcerned, Carson really isn’t interested in vomiting Slim Jims in front of some stranger, even though it had been a Saturday night ritual for most of Clover High. He pops a piece of gum and breathes through his nose, slow and measured.
“I’m Aaron, by the way,” the guy says after a moment of silence.
There’s a beat. “And you are?”
Carson sighs, but there’s really no point in withholding his name. “Carson.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Aaron replies, sounding surprisingly cheerful and normal, given the situation. “So, where am I driving you? Wait, you weren’t at the high school, were you?”
“No. I’m staying in a tree house over on —”
“A tree house?” Aaron interrupts him. “By yourself?”
“Of course by myself,” Carson snaps, but with only a fraction of his usual vitriol. “When people crowd together, it just draws more of them. Why do you think the high school got swarmed? Just take a left up here —”
“Yeah, no.” The car continues straight through the intersection, then veers around a refrigerator on its side, tilting off the curb.
Carson’s stomach lurches in response, but not quite as violently as before, so maybe the gum is doing some good. Either that or keeping his ankle as still as possible. “What do you mean, no?”
“How do you expect to get into a tree house with that ankle?” Aaron counters. “I saw you fall; you’ll be lucky if it’s not broken. Someone should take a look at it.”
Pulling his head back up, Carson cracks his eyes to glare across the front seat. “Do you know a doctor’s office that’s still open?”
“Nope,” Aaron says, steering the car around a corner. “But we’ve got an awesome first aid book. And plenty of food, if you’re hungry.”
“Who’s we?” Carson asks warily.
“There’s a bunch of us holed up on the second floor in one of the Riverbed Apartment buildings.”
Carson is shaking his head before Aaron’s even done speaking. “Oh, no. Absolutely not. Did you not just hear me say that I go it alone? There is no way I’m getting trapped with a bunch of panicky idiots who —”
Aaron cuts him off again. “Geez, Carson, will you relax? Just come on up, have lunch and let’s make sure your ankle’s not broken. I think we’ve still got some Tylenol or something too. Then you can go back to being the Lone Ranger, or whatever.”
Carson’s first reaction is to refuse again, but his self-preservation instinct kicks in before he does. He knows that the only things waiting for him at the tree house are a few more Slim Jims and some graham cracker crumbs. That plus the stepped-on Three Musketeers bar in his backpack won’t get him very far, and he is in no way above taking advantage of hospitality and generosity to get a good meal. Or one that’s better than beef jerky and crumbs, anyway.
“Okay,” he says.
They enter the apartments through a locked service door that swings open after Aaron throws pebbles at one of the second story windows. There’s a woman named Pam on the other side who looks like she’s in her late thirties or early forties, and she greets Aaron with a tired smile and Carson with quiet relief that there are still more survivors to be found. While Aaron helps Carson hobble up the stairs, she throws the heavy locks on the door again and starts barricading it with boxes and pieces of furniture. She’s surprisingly strong.
Upstairs, Aaron guides Carson into an apartment that’s exactly what he’d expected: threadbare carpet, dingy walls, and tiny rooms. In those respects, it’s not really much different from the house he’d left behind. Aaron deposits him on the couch with a quick “be right back!” and Carson settles into it with a hiss, propping his injured ankle on the coffee table. He takes the opportunity to look around, and finds that the apartment is sparsely furnished and even more sparsely decorated. Carson guesses that what little there is belongs to the previous tenants. It’s untidy, though not overwhelmingly so, and even smaller than he’d originally thought. He can see straight into the bedroom, which connects to the kitchen/dining room/living room with no hallway in between.
Carson’s just starting to wonder if he should be trying to figure out some way to make a one-legged escape when Aaron pushes the door back open and brandishes a thick, hardcover book. “Finally tracked this puppy down,” he announces. “Sorry it took so long. It’s practically a medical textbook though, so it’s worth it.” He slides the door shut and crosses the room to sit beside Carson’s foot on the coffee table. Without warning, he starts plucking at Carson’s shoelace.
“Hey!” Carson exclaims. He tries to jerk his foot away, but it just makes the pain flare again. “Ow! Fuck.”
“Okay,” Aaron says mildly, “or you can take your shoe off.” As Carson glares and starts unlacing, Aaron adds, “Sock too.”
Carson slides them both off, wincing and cursing the entire time, then he rests his foot gingerly back on the table. Ignoring how puffy and awful it looks, he levels Aaron with a baleful gaze and asks, “What now?”
Aaron’s nose is down in the book. “Well, the amount of pain you’re in doesn’t seem like a good sign. Can you move it?”
Carson shifts his foot back and forth. It doesn’t feel great, but it moves. Aaron asks him to push his toes forward and down too, and then to wiggle them, and Carson does.
“Awesome!” Aaron grins at him, and Carson cocks an eyebrow in response. “That means it’s probably not broken. I’m going to do one more thing to check though, okay?”
“What?” Carson eyes him suspiciously.
Instead of actually answering, Aaron carefully sets the book aside. “I’m going to have to touch your leg.”
Still glowering, Carson says, “Fine, whatever. Go ahead. Just make it quick.”
Aaron pats his own knee, and Carson grudgingly thunks his heel down on top of it, probably harder than necessary. It sends a fresh jolt of pain up his leg, but he just grimaces and waits. Aaron consults the book one last time and then frowns down at Carson’s ankle. “It’s pretty swollen.”
Carson shrugs. “I guess. Just do what you have to do.”
“’Kay,” Aaron says, and then he’s touching Carson’s leg, firm but careful. He cups a few fingers around the back of the bone on the outside of Carson’s ankle and presses in lightly. “Does that hurt?” he asks, looking up earnestly at Carson. He pushes the hem of Carson’s jeans up a few inches and prods more deeply, shifting up a bit higher on Carson’s leg, then back down.
“No,” Carson grumbles. He crosses his arms and averts his eyes. “Not really.”
Without letting go, Aaron lifts his other hand and circles his fingers around the bone on the inside of Carson’s ankle, pushing along the back of it. He glances up again. “What about that?” He drops his thumb and presses it against the top of Carson’s foot where it meets his leg. “Or there?”
Carson’s shoulders twitch up again. “A little, I guess.”
“Would you call it severe pain?” Aaron slides the hand on the outside of his ankle down to the side of his foot and applies pressure there too. “What about this?”
“No,” Carson says shortly. “Not severe.” It really doesn’t hurt very much, it’s just — strange. He’s not used to anyone touching him at all, unless they’re shoulder-checking him in the hallway. And something about the way Aaron is watching him is just making him feel even more weird and uncomfortable. “Are you done yet?”
Aaron gives Carson’s ankle a few final squeezes, then pulls his pants leg back down and carefully moves his foot back to the table. “It’s not broken,” he announces. “At least I don’t think so. Seems like you’ve got a pretty wicked sprain, though.”
“Wicked,” Carson mutters scornfully.
“What?” Aaron asks. He’s already distracted by the book again, scanning further down the text.
“Nothing,” Carson replies. “Just commenting on how gnarly my sprained ankle is.”
Aaron shoots him an odd look. “Okay.” He flips the page, and then says, “I think we should splint it. But I’m pretty sure we don’t have any gauze or anything. Let me go see what I can find.”
By the time Carson can say “all right,” Aaron’s already halfway out the door. He peeks back around it and asks, “Does it still hurt? I think there’s some Tylenol left. Or I’m sure Paul has some booze stashed somewhere if you’d rather —?”
“Tylenol,” Carson replies crisply, and Aaron is gone.
With a sigh, Carson lolls his head back against the sofa. He knows that first aid for his ankle is important, but he’s starting to hope that Aaron is going to make good on his promise of food soon. Instead, Aaron’s gone for so long that Carson has time to remember the stepped-on candy bar in his bag, daydream about it in a way that’s far too impassioned, and finally decide that he needs it at any cost. He’s hopping awkwardly across the room, supporting himself with one hand on the wall, when Aaron returns, juggling an armload of — stuff. “Hey!” he exclaims, spilling everything across the kitchen table and crossing quickly to Carson’s side. “What are you doing?”
He curls a hand around Carson’s elbow, but Carson shakes it off. “Starving to death. There’s a candy bar in my bag.”
Aaron determinedly takes Carson’s arm again and helps him limp back to the couch. “We’ll feed you in a second. This shouldn’t take long.” He grabs everything from the table and dumps it on the couch; there’s a bedsheet, a pair of scissors, duct tape, a ruler, a paint stirrer, and bottles of Tylenol and water. Carson helps himself to a few pills and the water while Aaron cuts strips of fabric off one edge of the sheet. He has Carson ease his sock back on, and then — referring to the first aid book the entire time — ties his ankle up with the fabric, using the ruler and the paint stirrer to stabilize it, and wraps a few rings of tape around Carson’s leg to hold it all in place.
“There,” he says when he’s done, proudly examining at his handiwork. “Just took a little improvising. Is it too tight?”
Carson wiggles his toes experimentally. “I don’t think so.”
“Does it hurt?”
“No worse than it did before.”
“Awesome. Let’s get you some food.”
Food turns out to be bland potato soup, but Carson wolfs it down eagerly straight from the can. It’s the closest thing he’s had to a real meal in weeks. He’s not really full when he’s done, but he feels almost like he is, almost like he’s content, and maybe that’s Aaron’s plan, because he chooses that moment to say, “All right, you’re probably going to be here for a few days, so let’s make you more comfortable.”
Carson stares at him blankly. “No, I’m going back to my tree house, like I said.”
“How are you even going to get into the tree house?” Aaron counters, nodding toward Carson’s ankle.
It’s a valid question, but Carson just scowls and grits, “I’ll figure something out.”
He’s starting to struggle back to his feet — well, his foot — when Aaron drops down onto the coffee table again. “Carson, come on. I know you don’t trust me, or any of us. There’s no reason that you should. But we’ve been here for weeks and we’re doing just fine. We’ve got a pretty good thing going, actually. You’re safe here for a few days.”
“Great,” Carson says, “but I don’t want to be.”
“Yeah, I got that,” Aaron fires back, but his voice is still, for the most part, mild. “And I don’t want you to be out there with that ankle, because I’m going to feel like shit if I find out something happened to you after I let you leave.”
It’s on the tip of Carson's tongue to snap that he’ll be fine, but the truth is, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t be when he can’t run and can’t climb and can barely fend for himself. “I’ll stay here overnight,” he finally offers, gruffly.
“We’ll start there.” Aaron pops to his feet, disappears into the bedroom, and reappears with some extra pillows. “Now, let’s make you more comfortable.”
He starts toward the couch, but Carson holds out his arms. “I’ll do it myself.”
Aaron relinquishes them without a fight. “Okay. If that’s what it takes.”
He’s smiling, but Carson ignores it.
Carson sleeps fitfully that night, too aware of every noise that he hears, from creaks in the hallway to Aaron turning over and heaving out a sigh in the next room. He tries to sneak out early the next morning, finds that he still can’t even stand up on his own, and grudgingly accepts that he’ll need to stick around a little longer.
The first few days are strange and make Carson feel like clawing his way out through the walls. He spends most of his time on the couch, and he shoos Aaron viciously away every time he tries to help. Very few of the other survivors come to investigate the new arrival. Carson thinks it’s weird, but he certainly doesn’t mind not having to make small talk with whatever unlucky collection of jackasses managed to stumble their way to the apartment building. The handful that he does meet don’t seem like they want to spend much time talking to him, which is just fine.
On day four, Carson sighs and flips the cover of his notebook shut. He’s spent the past few days scribbling down every detail he can remember since the start of the whole fiasco, filling in his notes and even jotting down a few ideas for the structure of the book he’ll eventually make out of them, but there’s just not much more he can do. Not without venturing back out of the apartment anyway, and he’s still on strict orders to stay off his foot — very specifically — most of the time.
Aaron, who’s lounging on his bed reading a magazine, looks up at the sound of the notebook slapping shut. “Bored?” he asks.
“I haven’t moved from this couch in three and a half days,” Carson shoots back. “Why on earth would I be bored?”
“Do you want a book?” Aaron asks, tossing the magazine aside. “I’ve got a couple. Or a magazine?” He retrieves his and holds it up. It’s Field and Stream.
Carson just stares at it dubiously.
“Yeah, I know, but it beats doing nothing,” Aaron says. He drops the magazine back to the bed and sits up. “We could play a game?”
Carson swings his gaze — still skeptical — to the pile of board games sitting in the corner of the living room. He’d definitely noticed them before, but he hadn’t really paid much attention. “Seriously?”
Aaron moves to crouch next to the stack of boxes. “Well, I didn’t carry them all the way back here for them to just sit in the corner. Monopoly?”
“Those didn’t come with the apartment?”
“Nope,” Aaron replies, shifting a few games aside. “What about Life?”
“That would be ironic,” Carson mutters. He raises his voice again and glares critically at Aaron. “So, instead of helping to carry food and supplies, you were dragging back Monopoly and Field and Stream?”
Aaron shoots him a look. “Of course not. I only took other stuff if there wasn’t any food to carry, or I went back for it. We’re stuck here for god knows how long, we might as well have shit to do. They’re getting plenty of use, too. If you’re too good for Battleship” — he holds up the box — “I think there’s a Shakespeare collection floating around somewhere.”
Carson glowers at it, and he’s well aware that he can tell Aaron to go find a 10-year-old to play board games with, but it’s barely past noon, and the thought of opening his notebook again is, frankly, disgusting. “Fine,” he finally snaps. “Battleship it is.”
Aaron’s eyes bug out a little. “Really?”
“Well, I don’t see Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit in that pile. Set up the boards before I change my mind.”
“D-3,” Carson guesses.
“Miss,” Aaron says. “So, are you from here? A-7.”
“Unfortunately. Miss. B-3?”
“I’m from San Jose. Originally, I mean. I was on my way to Santa Barbara via Modesto.”
“Fascinating,” Carson deadpans, “but I didn’t ask. B-3.”
Carson, who’s already got a red peg in hand, narrows his eyes at Aaron across their game boards. “That’s impossible. C-3 was a hit, so all the spaces around it can’t be misses.”
Aaron grins at him. “I’m just messing with you. B-3 is a hit. Still on the cruiser.”
“Are you seriously cheating at Battleship right now?” Carson snaps. He frowns and jabs the red peg into place on his target grid.
“I’m not cheating. I’m trying to get you to lighten up a little Carson, geez,” Aaron replies with a roll of his eyes. He fishes out a red peg of his own and marks the hit.
“By cheating at a stupid children’s game.”
“One that you seem to care about an awful lot,” Aaron shoots back with a smirk.
Carson ignores that. “Your turn.”
With a resigned sigh, Aaron drops his eyes to examine his board. ““Okay, okay, okay. Um… G-10.”
“Miss,” Carson says, barely pausing before he adds, “A-3” with a note of smug triumph in his voice.
Aaron twists his face into an overexaggerated grimace. “You sunk my cruiser.”
“Three down, two to go,” Carson points out. “Your turn.” Aaron sighs again, and it turns into a thoughtful hum as he looks over his board again. He takes so long to make a decision that Carson finally says, tersely, “Just guess. We’re playing a board game, not defusing a bomb.”
“All right, all right. F-3?”
“Miss. So what do you do in Clover, Carson?”
Carson looks up at Aaron, his eyes narrowed mistrustfully. “Just play the game. It’s your guess.”
“Answer the question and I will.”
“Fine,” Carson huffs. “Fine. What do I do in Clover? I try to survive.”
“I was talking about before the whole zombie thing.”
“So was I.”
Aaron’s eyebrows quirk up. “That good, huh?”
“Just play the game.”
Aaron groans. “Hit. Submarine.” While Carson gleefully marks the hit on his board, Aaron continues, “So, what? Lame job? I can certainly relate.”
“That doesn’t sound like playing the game to me.”
“Answer the question, and I’ll guess.” Aaron shrugs, his lips angled into another challenging tilt. “It worked last time.”
Carson sets his jaw. “I was in high school, actually. Almost got to graduate, but they closed school at the end of February.”
“I answered the question, now guess.”
“B-2,” Aaron says. “I’m just surprised, that’s all. I thought you were older. You look older.”
“B-2 is a miss.” Carson glances up at him and squints. “How old did you think I was?”
Aaron shrugs. “My age.”
“And how old would that be?”
“How old do you think I am?”
Carson points to the Battleship box. “Age seven to fourteen?”
Aaron looks like he’s about to make some sort of asinine quip, but he just pauses and then replies, “I’m twenty.”
Carson nods. He's itching to point out that they pretty much are the same age, but he doesn’t actually want to further their personal conversation, so he turns back to his board. “J-5?”
“Miss. J-5, right back at ya.”
“Hit,” Carson says with a sigh in the face of Aaron’s grin. “That’s my battleship.”
By the end of the first week, Carson knows that the little band of survivors really does have a good thing going. They have regular rotations set up for scouting, raiding, retrieving water, and disposing of trash. Thanks to Aaron, there are puzzles and playing cards and books. There are battery-operated radios, and twice a day, someone spins through the dial, hoping to hear something other than static.
To himself, Carson silently admits that it’s much better than the tree house.
For one thing, sleeping on the couch — even if he has to curl up so that he fits — beats sleeping with only a thin blanket between himself and the uneven floor of the tree house. It’s strange sharing an apartment, but Aaron tells him that there aren’t any empty ones. Carson isn’t even his first roommate. “There used to be a girl who slept on the couch in here,” Aaron informs him, “but she started hooking up with Luis down the hall, so she’s staying with him now.”
“Hooking up?” Carson is disdainful. “In the middle of the zombie apocalypse?”
“Why not?” Aaron says with a shrug.
“I think there are more important things to worry about,” Carson points out. “Like, you know, staying alive.”
“Are you having a hard time doing that right now?” Aaron glances up from his solitaire game to where Carson is sitting on the couch, reading a months-old edition of the US News & World Report that he’d found in a stack of magazines.
Carson shrugs and flips the page.
Aaron watches him for a moment more, then glances deliberately back down at the cards. “There’s enough bad shit happening; people should have something to enjoy. Who cares if it’s a puzzle or if it’s sex? Besides, it’s human comfort.”
“Human comfort,” Carson says slowly.
It’s Aaron’s turn to shrug, and they don’t talk about it any more.
Although they have their differences, living with Aaron is — not bad. He’s not always there for one thing, and when he is, he’s capable of carrying on a conversation that isn’t completely idiotic. So it could be worse, even if he makes Carson play stupid board games to pass the time. At least Carson had unearthed Boggle from the pile in the corner.
He knows, objectively, that it would be ridiculous to go back to living in the tree house. He also feels a stubborn knot in his throat every time he thinks about asking Aaron if he can stay. He’s going to have to say something soon or leave, though, because it’s been over a week and he’s barely limping anymore.
One day, Aaron asks him, “Pam asked me if your ankle’s healed enough for you to be put on the rotation.”
“My ankle’s good,” Carson says. He pauses. “I do want to go back to the tree house —”
“— to pick up my stuff. If that goes all right and my ankle holds up, you can add me to the rotation.”
“I’ll let Pam know.”
Aaron looks pleased, and Carson pretends not to notice.
“You were living here?” Aaron asks incredulously, shading his eyes and squinting, his head tilted back.
“It’s big for a tree house,” Carson retorts, feeling unaccountably defensive. It’s not like he built it. He scans the yard around them again, but thus far, the errand has been mercifully zombie-free.
Aaron slings his rifle around to his back and says, “Small for a place to live, though.” He boosts himself up to the fork of the tree, then up to a low-hanging branch, and then climbs up the rough ladder nailed to the trunk. “The apartment is way better.”
Carson follows him up and ignores his fishing. “It could have been worse.”
“Yup,” Aaron calls back cheerfully, crawling into the tree house. “Could have been turned into a zombie.”
It’s awkward trying to squeeze them both in at once. It is a big tree house, but it’s not tall enough for either one of them to stand up in — even Aaron, who’s a few inches shorter than Carson. They wind up sitting on the floor, bumping elbows and shoving Carson’s few remaining belongings into a garbage bag. When Aaron grabs a notebook from the floor, a single photograph falls out from between the pages. Carson goes to snatch it back up, but Aaron has it in hand almost before it hits the ground. “Awww,” he says, looking at it. “Is this you? How old are you here?”
“Eight or nine,” Carson replies, plucking the picture back out of Aaron’s grasp. He puts it in his backpack instead of in the garbage bag.
“And that was your — grandmother?”
“Yes,” Carson says shortly.
Aaron watches Carson for a second, then starts loading the few kitchen implements Carson had taken from his house into the bag. “Were you close?”
“She was basically the only person I was ever close to.”
They work in silence for a moment, and then Aaron asks quietly, “Your parents?”
“My dad left,” Carson says, flat and unemotional. “My mom and I didn’t really get along.”
“Are they still alive?”
“I don’t know.”
“Your grandmother?” Aaron looks up at him, worry written all over his face.
Carson tries to keep his answer brusque, his tone neutral, but he can’t help the note of sadness that enters his voice. “I don’t know.”
Later that week, Carson is walking down the hallway — his limp finally, completely gone — to retrieve some ammo from the group’s stockpile when he passes a half-open apartment door and stops dead in his tracks. “No fucking way,” he mutters.
“Oh my god,” a voice floats out after him.
Carson spins around, just in time to see Claire Mathews pop her head around the door frame. “Please tell me I’m hallucinating,” he snaps. “Please tell me I suffered a devastating head injury and this is all just a nightmare.”
She ignores him and shrills, “You’re the new guy who moved into Aaron’s apartment? You?”
“Yes,” Carson confirms, his voice flat as he crosses his arms over his chest. “That’s me.”
“Oh my god,” she repeats. “So we’re living in the same building now? I’d rather take my chances with the zombies.”
“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Carson says coolly.
Their standoff is interrupted by a strident voice. “Hey! So I see my new roommate is meeting my old roommate,” Aaron calls from the far end of the hallway, and Carson turns to see him walking quickly toward them. “What’s going on?” he asks pointedly.
Carson, meanwhile, is gaping. “Claire is the one who used to sleep on the couch?”
“Yeah, I —” Aaron starts, but Carson interrupts him immediately.
“Wait, so that means you’re the one who moved in with Luis. You’re hooking up with someone else already?” Carson says, rounding on Claire. “What happened to Justin and Colin? Or did you decide that two guys at once wasn’t enough anymore?”
To his surprise, Claire’s face flushes and her eyes go bright with tears. “Why don’t you shut the fuck up for once in your life, Carson!” she shouts, before turning on her heel, disappearing through the open door, and slamming it so hard the wall shakes.
Carson turns to find Aaron staring at him in shock. “What?” he mutters, before stalking back to their own apartment.
He’s hoping that Aaron won’t follow him, but of course Aaron lives there too, so there’s nothing that Carson can do when he does. “So, what the fuck was that?” Aaron asks after he closes the door behind them. He sounds more surprised than angry, but there's more of an edge to his voice than Carson’s ever heard before.
“Claire and I went to high school together,” Carson explains shortly. “We weren’t friends.”
“Yeah, I picked up on that last part,” Aaron says. “That was pretty harsh, though.”
Carson fixes him with a glare. “She was dating one guy and sleeping with his brother at the same time, so it’s not like she’s an innocent victim here. And she — and all of her friends, might I add, although cronies might be a better word — went out of their way to make my life a living hell.”
Aaron frowns. “She hasn’t told us much, but she did say her boyfriend died. She hasn’t had it easy, Carson. None of us have.”
Despite himself, Carson feels a little bad hearing it, but it’s easy to tamp it down when his anger flares over Aaron taking her side. “Yeah, well, we all know someone who’s died lately. Does Luis have any brothers living here? Maybe someone should warn him.”
“Carson, come on. Don’t you think you should maybe leave some of that high school stuff behind? We all have to work together to survive.”
And that puts a terrible thought in Carson’s head. “Oh my god, they’d better keep us apart on the rotation. She might shoot me. I might shoot her.”
“Claire isn’t part of the rotation,” Aaron says carefully.
“She doesn’t go out.”
“She’s free-loading?” Carson gasps. “That is such bullshit.”
Aaron shakes his head. “We don’t make her go out, Carson. She has her reasons.”
“What if I didn’t want to go outside?”
“If you had a valid reason, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
Carson stares at him blankly for a moment. “Oh my god, you slept with her too.” The thought makes Carson’s stomach turn. After all, how is he supposed to trust someone who would willingly have sex with someone as vile as Claire Mathews ever again?
It’s Aaron’s turn to let out a surprised, “What?”
“And now she’s got you wrapped around her little finger.”
“Uhh… no. She’s not really my type.” There’s something — telling — about his tone, and although Carson notices, he chooses to barrel ahead instead of dwelling on it.
“Well, that’s a relief,” he grumbles. “I’d never be able to sleep on that couch again. It’s bad enough as it is.”
Aaron sighs. “Carson…”
“Okay, okay,” Carson says, holding his hands up in defeat. “For now, at least. And as long as we can stay far, far away from each other.”
“I’m guessing that won’t be a problem,” Aaron replies dryly.
And it isn’t. Carson only really leaves the apartment when the rotation calls for him to do so, and since Claire isn’t a part of it — which still makes his blood boil — they have no problem steering clear of each other. Truth be told, he steers clear of most people. He’s had a few short, quiet, serious discussions with Pam, and he manages to work well enough with whoever he goes on missions with, but other than that, the person he has the most contact with — naturally — is Aaron.
He doesn’t really mind living with Aaron, which is bizarre if he stops to think about it. It’s probably some kind of fucked up Stockholm syndrome, but it’s the middle of the zombie apocalypse, and Carson can’t bring himself to get too worked up about it. They’ll all be either dying or going their separate ways in the end anyway.
Aaron talks a lot, and Carson learns that he was on his way to Santa Barbara to help caretake for his grandparents, because his family didn’t have the money to put them both in assisted living, and they swap stories about their grandmothers. He shows Carson a single photograph of his family, and Carson does a double take. “Are you — in costume? Why isn’t everyone?”
“Um —” Aaron flips the picture around to check what’s on it, like it might have changed “— no, those are just my clothes.”
“And your hair?” Carson asks incredulously, shooting a look at Aaron, at his flat dark hair lying flat on his head like Carson is used to.
Aaron shrugs. “That’s what it usually looks like. Obviously, I’m not going to worry about it at a time like this.” And Carson is actually really glad that he didn’t know that any earlier.
Carson finds himself giving up more and more details under Aaron’s constant, sometimes-intrusive questioning. He doesn’t plan to tell Aaron anything about his mother and their complicated relationship. He in no way intends to share any details about his father, or how he feels about having a baby brother or sister that may or may not have even been born (mostly confused). He definitely doesn’t mean to say anything else about the bullying he’d endured in high school.
But he does.
One day, Carson gets back from fetching water with Luis and Pam to find Aaron with a bottle of something open — a gift from Paul, he explains, because Aaron blew the head off a zombie that practically had Paul in its grasp. Carson eyes the bottle warily, and Aaron, who has a half-empty glass in front of him, asks, “You want?”
Carson’s not sure why he says yes. Drinking is something he’s always been apprehensive about, given the fact that there’s no question that alcoholism is in his DNA. It’s the zombie apocalypse, though, and why should he die without ever taking a drink? He’s still cautious though, accepting two and eschewing any others, despite Aaron’s offers. Aaron definitely has more than that, but thankfully he’s tired and he stays mellow. In truth, he doesn’t really seem that far gone, and he eventually flops out on the bed while Carson stays on the couch.
“What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you since this all started?” Aaron asks. He’s keeping up meandering conversation, mostly by asking random questions every time there’s a lull in it. They’ve been pretty ridiculous so far, but this one feels suddenly like something more serious.
Carson considers it. He feels a little dizzy maybe, and like his usually tight winding has relaxed, and it’s probably harder to find the answer than it should have been. “I don’t think it’s happened yet,” he finally says.
Aaron chuckles. “That’s deep, man.”
“No, I mean it,” Carson protests. “I mean, this whole thing has pretty much sucked, right? But I’ve always been afraid that…” He lets his voice trail away, because even with the alcohol, he’s not sure if he wants to say it. It’s the thing he tries to not think about at all.
“What?” Aaron eventually asks when he doesn’t continue.
“That I’ll run into — someone I know. As a zombie. There are some people that I just — couldn’t. Even if they were. Malerie, even my mom, or… my grandmother. Lurching up the street.” He frowns pensively at the far wall. “I kind of hope they’re all just — gone, instead.”
A moment passes in silence, and then Aaron says, “Shit, Carson.”
“Sorry,” Carson mutters.
“No, I’m sorry. I’m the one that asked the stupid question.”
“It’s not a big deal.” Carson blinks at the ceiling. He tries to let the thought go, to let the lazy feeling wash back over him instead.
Aaron finally speaks up again. “You should get out of town maybe. Go where they’re not so you won’t see ‘em.”
And Carson — laughs. “Getting out of this town has been the goal since I was five years old. The world is ending and I can’t even fucking get out of this place.”
“We’ll get you out of here,” Aaron says, suddenly sounding more focused than he has in an hour. “I’m not staying here either. We’ll both go. I promise.”
Carson’s not sure how to respond. Aaron sounds really earnest, but then again, he’s also been drinking. Maybe he won’t even remember that he said it in the morning. “Well,” Carson finally replies, “if you say so.”
Carson realizes with some horror that everyone else assumes that he and Aaron are fucking.
There have been a few off-hand comments and sly looks, but Carson had assumed that people were just making fun of him. He’d been ignoring it — how to ignore taunts is the most useful thing he learned during his interminable time in the Clover Public School System, after all. People treat them like a unit because they live in the same apartment, especially when they ration out supplies: Aaron and Carson’s share of dented cereal boxes, Aaron and Carson’s share of expired granola bars. Carson thinks, though, that it’s perfectly obvious that Aaron sleeps in the bedroom and Carson sleeps on the couch.
But then, it becomes shockingly clear that people see them as a unit. And it’s because of the stupid rations.
Carson’s alone in the apartment going through his notes from early on — trying to draft a compelling beginning to the story — when he hears whoops and laughter from down the hall. Sighing again at the fact that the group of survivors he’d managed to get attached to has chosen to hole up in the building with the cheapest construction in town, Carson tries to ignore it and turns back to his notebook.
Aaron opens the door a few minutes later, juggling an armful of Gatorade bottles. “Do you like blue, orange, or red?” he asks.
Carson grunts noncommittally. “No food? All we have left is fruit snacks and half a bag of chips.”
“Crackers,” Aaron announces, holding up the box. He spills everything he’s holding on the table, the Gatorade bottles and a tube of toothpaste and a handful of what look like —
“Are those condoms?” Carson looks at them in disbelief, and then switches his glare to Aaron, waiting for an explanation.
“Oh, yeah.” Unperturbed, Aaron cracks open a Gatorade and takes a swig. “Mmm, electrolytes,” he says as he recaps the bottle, clearly stalling. “Drew found a jumbo box or something and grabbed them. Everyone’s pretty excited.”
Carson frowns at the condoms again. “So I hear. Too bad he didn’t find a jumbo box of earplugs. You — took some?”
“It’s our ration.”
“They gave us a condom ration?”
Aaron unscrews the lid of his bottle again. “Yup.”
“Why would they think we need — oh, no.”
Aaron shrugs and doesn’t say anything, choosing to take another swallow of Gatorade instead. He’s not really looking at Carson, which means that he probably isn’t getting the full force of Carson’s glare. Or maybe he is — Carson certainly feels like it’s strong enough that Aaron should be able to feel it searing into his skin.
“And you didn’t say anything?” Carson asks, feeling his eyebrows shoot up.
“It was easier to just — not get into it,” Aaron defends himself, but he still looks like he’s trying to be evasive. “Everything was all divided up, and I just grabbed our pile. And hey, look at it this way: it’s fewer for everyone else, so that’s less that we’ll have to listen to, right? Anyway, I’m going to go read a little before the light’s gone.” He turns without waiting for a response and heads for his room.
Carson looks at the condoms. Then he scoops them up and shoves them in the junk drawer in the corner.
Out of sight, out of mind.
The problem is, Carson’s not dumb. And he’s also not blind. He may not have any experience with anything sexual or romantic (which is just fine with him, thank you very much), but he’s seen the way that Aaron looks at him — like Carson’s worth looking at even with his dirty, ripped clothes and his days-between-washing hair and his surly attitude.
It's definitely not something he's used to. It makes him feel awkward at first, uncomfortable and self-conscious and angry, but he doesn’t have any fucking clue how to talk about it, so he just ignores it. He figures it’s probably to stop anyway — people don’t generally like Carson much once they get to know him. But instead, Aaron gets to know him and he gets to know Aaron and they become friends – kind of. And Aaron keeps stealing glances at him with a certain glint in his dinner-plate-sized eyes.
When Carson determines that he doesn’t hate Aaron, something about it changes a little. It’s still uncomfortable, but there’s something dangerous about it, something almost powerful. And underneath all of it, there’s something else, something Carson didn’t expect.
Carson had certainly never planned on living a celibate life, but he’d always thought that he’d eventually be sleeping with women. He’s not even ruling that out in the future, despite whatever’s happening to him now. But they might all die, and Aaron’s at least moderately intelligent and he’s not unattractive and he seems interested — and Carson’s curious. So he finds himself looking back sometimes. Curiously. He knows that Aaron has noticed, and even Carson, with his limited experience, can feel the tension simmering between them.
Nothing happens, though, even though there are plenty of times that Carson feels like Aaron is going to... do something. It should have been okay, but instead it’s just increasingly frustrating.
So one afternoon, late when the sun is already hanging low in the sky, when he nearly collides with Aaron as they both try to circle the kitchen table on the same side and wind up face-to-face, Carson looks at Aaron and thinks most of the people I knew before aren’t even alive anymore. And he thinks about how he'd wondered whether he was gay because he hadn’t been interested in any of the female population of Clover High School. He'd decided no, because he hadn't been attracted to the guys, but it wasn't like there had been anything to recommend them either. And he thinks that he can be attracted to women, and still be attracted to Aaron too.
And he thinks we could all be dead tomorrow, and he thinks who cares.
“Just —” he starts, frustrated. “Just do it.”
“Do what?” Aaron asks, and it seems like he’s equal parts guarded and shocked.
“Kiss me. Whatever.” Carson doesn’t even wait for Aaron’s eyes to finish flaring wide — he’s already squeezing his shut as he darts forward and artlessly smashes his lips down over Aaron’s.
Carson is mostly clueless about what to do after that. He’s never given a lot of thought about how to do something like this, so he just digs his fingers into Aaron’s arm, pushes a little harder into the kiss, and waits. He half expects Aaron to shove him back off.
That’s not what happens at all.
Instead, Aaron’s mouth comes alive under his, tilting and shifting until their lips are slotted together differently — the way they’re probably supposed to, Carson thinks. It feels a hell of a lot more comfortable, anyway, and a lot less awkward. Aaron retreats shallowly, and then the pressure of the kiss starts to vary as he rolls into it again, and then again and again. He reaches up to hook his hands behind Carson’s elbows, and his mouth comes open as he sucks Carson’s lower lip in between his own.
It isn’t anything like Carson had expected. He’d always assumed that kissing would be a part of his life some day, but he hadn’t spent a lot of time pondering what it would actually be like. Like a hug with mouths touching, he’d supposed, but the reality was — different. More. Their faces are pressed so close together that it’s not just Aaron’s mouth he feels — it’s his chin and his nose and the whole side of his face, practically, down to the structure of his cheekbones underneath. One of Aaron’s hands is sliding up the side of his neck, and he can feel Aaron breathing, quick-heavy gulps of air into Carson’s cracked-open lips and against his cheek.
He’s surprised to find that his free hand is no longer free; apparently, he’d moved it to Aaron’s back somewhere along the way, maybe to steady himself because the way Aaron’s kissing him feels like an onslaught. So much so that it almost seems like he’s being pushed backwards — he is being pushed backwards, Carson realizes, as he connects sharply with the table, which skitters back a few inches. The impact rattles a gasp out of him, and Aaron presses in eagerly against his open mouth, dragging his tongue over Carson’s upper lip.
It all seems to jolt Carson’s brain back into gear, and he brings his hands to Aaron’s chest to force some space between them. The kiss breaks with a wet, embarrassingly loud noise, and Carson stares down, unfocused, at the front of Aaron’s shirt, trying to draw in lungfuls of stale air, and he can’t breathe. It’s too stifling, and he feels like everything is too close, from the air to his shirt clinging to his back from sweat, and Aaron. Especially Aaron.
“Carson…?” Aaron asks, and his voice is raspy.
“Yeah,” Carson says thinly.
“Do you —” he clears his throat “— do you want to stop?”
Carson glances up at him, sees Aaron’s wide-open, concerned eyes, and thinks again that it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have to stay here. He can do this — whatever this ends up being — and leave. Go back to the tree house, or better yet, hot wire a car and get out of town. He can do this because he wants to, and he can leave, and it doesn’t matter.
“No,” he says.
Aaron lets out a rough breath and tugs Carson suddenly forward away from the table, nudging him around the edge of it, where he shoves Carson back against the counter and kisses him again. Hard. His mouth is open, so Carson opens his too — it seems strange not to, and instinctively, he thrusts back against Aaron’s tongue when Aaron presses it eagerly between his lips. It’s really… wet. And really intimate. But it doesn’t feel bad. Neither do Aaron’s hands on his hips, and the muffled groan that works its way out of Aaron’s throat isn’t entirely unappealing either. Carson reminds himself again that he doesn’t need to feel self-conscious because it doesn’t matter — he could be gone before the sun comes up — and grabs Aaron’s shoulders, gripping them tightly.
It really accelerates then. Aaron slams forward into him, swiveling his head to kiss harder, softer, faster, from a different angle, then another one. He brings his hands to Carson’s jaw, drops them to his sides, touches Carson in a smooth line from his shoulders down to his waist, circles a hand around the base of his skull to tilt his head farther to the side. Carson feels the startled arousal coursing through his veins; he’s getting hard, and he can tell that Aaron already is.
There’s a part of him that wants to shrink away from the obvious evidence of Aaron’s arousal. It means that if he doesn’t put a stop to it, it’s going to be something different, more than just kissing against a wall.
He doesn’t put a stop to it.
Aaron crowds him farther and farther back, separates himself from Carson to kiss, wet and open-mouthed, along Carson’s jaw and neck, and his fingers dig into Carson’s ribs — until one hand falls down to the waistband of Carson’s jeans and toys and fumbles there, suddenly without intent.
Carson shifts, the sudden movement jarring Aaron back a little. “Carson, I —” he starts, but cuts himself off with a choked noise when Carson grabs his wrist and deliberately moves his hand so that it’s covering Carson’s dick. Which is now definitely fully hard.
With a moan, Aaron tumbles back down onto Carson’s mouth, and he cups Carson harder through his pants, then rubs him a little with the heel of his hand. “You want —”
“Yeah,” Carson breathes. Because yeah, whatever this is, it’s going to happen.
But somehow, he’s still completely unprepared when Aaron gives him one last, hard kiss, steps back, and drops to his knees.
Carson sputters. “You — you’re going to…”
Aaron’s hands are already undoing the button of Carson’s jeans. “Oh yeah. If it’s okay?”
He pauses and waits for Carson’s answer. Carson still doesn’t put a stop to it. He steels his voice and says, “okay.”
“Where did we put those condoms?” Aaron mutters as he works Carson’s zipper open.
“Don’t need them,” Carson grits out. He leans against the counter, reaching back to curl his fingers tightly around the edge.
Aaron looks up at him. “Are you sure?”
“Even better,” Aaron says, and then he’s taking Carson out of his pants, and Carson tosses his gaze to the ceiling because it’s too strange and intimate to watch. Aaron’s mouth around him punches the air out of his lungs, and Carson knows with sudden, startling clarity that it’s all going to happen really fast.
Because it feels good. No shit, he thinks dumbly, but it’s really good, and so different than what he would have ever expected. It’s not isolated; he feels it everywhere, from his swimming head to his heart thudding dangerously in his chest to the prickling heat building low down in his belly. It’s fast and enthusiastic and messy and after what seems like no time at all, Carson’s hands cramp around the counter and he makes a choked noise and comes.
His eyes fly open, but he blinks them back shut just as fast, slumping back against the counter. His dick is out of Aaron’s mouth now, and he can hear — something. There’s a pressure on his hip, too, and when he hazards a glance, he discovers that it’s Aaron’s forehead, because Aaron is tipped into him, his arm moving in a way that can only mean one thing. Carson’s relieved that he can’t see it, especially when Aaron shudders and lets out a low groan.
They both stay frozen in place for a few seconds, until Aaron leans away and reaches for a dish towel hanging on the refrigerator door.
“Okay,” Carson says, then clears his throat and says it again, because it didn’t really come out the first time. He tucks himself quickly back into his pants and refastens them, avoiding Aaron’s eyes when he looks up.
“Carson, I —” he starts.
“It’s fine,” Carson cuts him off. “It’s fine.”
Aaron climbs cautiously to his feet, and Carson moves quickly away so that they’re not standing face-to-face. “Is it?”
“Of course,” Carson replies. He manages to look over at Aaron and regrets it: it’s obvious. Aaron doesn’t look like he usually does; instead, he’s flushed and kind of rumpled. And he’s tossing a dirty towel onto the counter. Carson glances away again.
There’s a pause. It feels loaded, but when Aaron breaks it, he just says, “Okay, if you say so. We’re leaving early tomorrow to get water, so I think I’m going to go — get some rest. Read for a while or something.”
It’s way too early for either one of them to go to bed, and Carson knows it, but he doesn’t argue. “All right.”
Aaron heads into the bedroom and lies down, but he doesn’t pick up a book, and Carson’s pretty sure he doesn’t go to sleep for a long time because he’s awake too, his eyes open as the room fades to black.
As the night wears on, Carson considers slipping out over and over again, just disappearing, stealing a car off the street and driving away. He doesn’t, though, and he tells himself it’s because it’s dangerous outside in the dark and that he’ll wait until sunrise, be up and gone before Aaron even wakes up. With that plan in mind, he finally drifts off to sleep.
When Carson blinks his eyes open the next morning, however, Aaron is already awake. Not only awake, but out of bed, pulling a box of Golden Grahams out of a cupboard in the kitchen. As he pads back to the bedroom, he glances over at Carson and, when he sees that Carson is awake, extends the cereal box. “Breakfast?”
It’s weird. Well, Carson feels weird. It actually doesn’t seem like Aaron is all that uncomfortable. “Um, no thanks,” Carson finally mutters. “I just woke up.”
Aaron shrugs with an off-hand okay and drops into the armchair near Carson’s feet. He rustles the box open and starts crunching the cereal down dry. “I won’t eat it all,” he adds between mouthfuls. “So there’ll be some left whenever you’re hungry.”
“Okay,” Carson says to fill the silence. He hadn’t been worried; they always divide whatever food they have evenly. What’s more concerning is the fact that Aaron’s just sitting there, looking tired and rumpled and eating cereal like they hadn’t made out the night before. Like he hadn’t sucked Carson’s dick the night before, and the thought makes Carson’s face heat up even as he fights it. “So, should we — talk about it?” he finally blurts out.
“I don’t know,” Aaron replies. “You seemed kind of freaked out last night, so I thought you might want to just forget about it.”
“Wouldn’t that be better?” Carson mutters.
Aaron doesn’t rise to the bait. He just shrugs again, holding Carson’s gaze evenly. “I don’t know. Would it?” He pops another handful of cereal into his mouth.
Carson grimaces and looks down. “I don’t know.”
“I have to say, I wasn’t sure you’d still be here when I woke up this morning.”
And Carson doesn’t like it, that Aaron apparently knows him well enough to figure that much out. “Why did you think that?” he grumbles.
“Pretty standard one night procedure,” Aaron says. There’s another crunch of cereal. “I’m sensing that’s what this is, right?”
Carson doesn’t like how direct Aaron is either, and the way he’s willing to just ask that. So he deflects. “I’ve been living here for weeks.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Aaron retorts. “It’s okay, Carson. You can just tell me.”
With a twitch of his shoulders, Carson glances back up at Aaron, scowling. “How the fuck should I know? Yesterday was the first time I even kissed —” he cuts himself off abruptly.
“A guy?” Aaron asks wryly.
“Anyone,” Carson spits.
There’s a moment of stunned silence, while Aaron stares at him with wide eyes. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Carson feels unaccountably angry. He’s never been ashamed of his lack of sexual experience, and he’s not now, but he is angry at himself for getting into this situation. Especially because now he has to get himself out of it. “You couldn’t tell?”
Aaron’s eyebrows go up. “Ah, no. I mean, you seemed kind of uncertain at first, but I thought that maybe it was just because I’m a guy or — I guess mostly I was thinking wow, this is awesome. But, well — you’re a natural, for what it’s worth.”
It’s a little unexpected to hear, especially because other than his intellectual prowess, Carson doesn’t have a vast array of hidden talents, being neither an athlete nor an artist. “Oh,” he says dumbly, unsure how else to respond.
“But Carson, why you didn’t stop me?” Aaron asks. “It went way too far. You should have stopped me.”
“Pretty sure I started it,” Carson mutters. “If I remember correctly.”
Aaron nods. “Okay, that’s a fair point, but why didn’t you at least tell me? If you still wanted to, we could have done something different, or at least moved it to the bedroom. Nobody’s first time should be getting a blowjob in the middle of the kitchen.”
“I’m not sure,” Carson admits, and that much is completely honest. “I wasn’t really thinking, and I guess I just wanted to… know. I mean, we all still might end up dead. Or not-dead.”
“So,” Aaron says, his voice going strange and quiet, “now you know.”
“I suppose I do.” They sit in silence for a moment, until Carson props himself up and holds out a hand for the box of cereal, dangling forgotten in Aaron’s grasp.
Aaron passes it over. “And I guess that answers the one-night stand question.”
“Why do I have to answer it?” Carson grumbles. “There are two of us here.” He jams some cereal in his mouth discontentedly.
“Because both of us need to be on board,” Aaron says, “and I know I am, but I doubt you are.”
Carson looks at him warily out of the corner of his eye. “You are?”
“Um, yeah. Obviously I have been this whole time. You’re hot and I like you; why wouldn’t I be on board?”
Carson just barely manages not to choke, and he swallows slowly and carefully, the cereal dry and sticking to his throat. “Are you joking right now?”
“Not even a little.”
“I’m hot,” Carson says flatly.
Aaron’s gaze is direct, and Carson holds it for a moment before dropping his to pick at the edge of the cereal box. “I don’t know. This isn’t what I… I don’t know.”
After a beat, Aaron puts him out of his misery. “That’s fair enough. I’m going to get ready to go.”
“Hey, Carson?” Aaron waits until he looks up. “You’ll — still be here when I get back?”
Carson blinks at him and then nods. “Yeah, I will.” He’s surprised to find that he’s not lying.
Things slowly ease back toward normal over the next few days — or as normal as they can get, given the situation. Carson and a few of the others scout out a residential neighborhood and take out almost a dozen zombies along the way. He keeps avoiding Claire as much he possibly can. He finally gets bored enough (and also gets over himself enough) to challenge Aaron to Boggle. Aaron accepts, quietly happy, and Carson kicks his ass. They finally start talking to each other like normal human beings again.
There’s something different, though. Sometimes Carson finds himself looking at Aaron and getting — kind of turned on. It’s Pavlovian, he thinks, because Aaron is the only other person on earth who’s ever gotten him off. Carson locks himself in the apartment, then in the bathroom, and jerks off while Aaron is gone, trying to keep his thoughts on other things, but it doesn’t help as much as he’d hoped. He’s not sure if the same thing is happening for Aaron, but their eyes catch and hold sometimes and it’s — awful and Carson hates it.
He realizes that, in the back of his mind, he’s already trying to justify it to himself. What had happened in the kitchen had been satisfying in an entirely different way than getting himself off, and he figures that he has the same hormones as most other people his age, and it’s just sex. What does it really matter? It’s just an outlet. It’s just something to do. Like Aaron had said, it’s not really that much different than doing a puzzle to pass the time and have some fun.
That’s what he tells himself when he walks into Aaron’s bedroom one evening. Aaron’s just standing there, about to turn down the covers, but something in his face changes when he looks up and asks, “Carson?”
Carson could make up an excuse, say he’s looking for a crossword puzzle book. He doesn’t. “I’m on board.”
Aaron’s forehead creases for a moment, and then his eyebrows go up. “Oh.”
There are a few seconds of awkward hesitation, and then Aaron crosses the room, and then they’re just kind of on each other, and then they’re on the bed. It’s hot and close and fast, and Aaron eventually rolls on top of Carson and they rut together until it’s over. Carson expects that to be the end of it, but Aaron stays right there and kisses him again, slow and lazy, keeps kissing him until he rolls away and offers Carson the bathroom first. Carson shakes his head, and Aaron disappears behind the door.
Carson stares blankly at the ceiling, barely visible in the low light. It’s fine, he thinks. He’s a person who has sex now. It’s not a big deal.
Aaron reappears, and Carson takes his turn cleaning up. When he comes back out of the bathroom, Aaron is already under the covers. Carson starts to pass through the room, about to toss Aaron an off-hand good night when Aaron says, “You know, you don’t have to sleep on the couch if you don’t want to. I know you’re too tall for it to be comfortable. You can stay in here.”
Carson’s steps falter. “I —”
“There’s a whole half a bed,” Aaron points out.
Slowly, Carson walks over. It seems like a bad idea, but the couch always had been too short, so he tentatively lies down.
Aaron stays curled up on his own side, but he blinks his eyes open and Carson can just barely make out his smile. “G’night, Carson.”
“Night,” he replies, listening to the way Aaron’s breathing is quickly evening out.
Carson’s kind of worried that it might be more than just sex.
Carson had never really given much thought to living with someone, hanging out and playing board games and talking, and occasionally getting off together. That’s exactly what they do, though.
He’s surprised to find out that the getting off part doesn’t really take away from the rest of it or change it, once he stops thinking that it should. Some nights they play Aaron’s dumb board games, some nights they put their hands down each other’s pants, and some nights they do both. Carson sleeps in the bed, and he allows it when Aaron flops over next to him and they fall asleep like that. Sometimes they just make out. Carson doesn’t focus too much on what it all means.
There are enough other things to worry about. All the sources of food and supplies nearby have been exhausted, so they start driving to neighboring towns. It takes longer, it’s riskier, and too often, they come up empty.
And then, one day, Aaron and three others don’t come back at all.
A general sense of unease falls over the building as the sun sinks low in the sky — they always come back before dark; it’s an unwritten rule — that only intensifies as it dips further toward the horizon. Carson stays in the apartment, waiting, eventually staring blindly at his notebook when he can’t force himself to focus on the words on the page. He doesn’t move, doesn’t think, until he notices that there’s a muffled drone of voices coming from the hallway. Finally, he stands and opens the door.
He’s surprised to find almost everyone out of their rooms, lining the sides of the narrow corridor. The setting sun shines a bright orange stripe down the hall from the window at one end. They all go quiet when Carson appears, but he just holds his head up and leans against the door frame.
After a moment, Pam speaks up from the opposite side of the hallway, continuing whatever conversation he’d interrupted. “Johnna’s right. We can’t send a search party out in the dark.”
“There’s still some daylight left,” someone says from the other end of the assembled crowd.
“Hardly any,” Johnna pipes up. “And that shopping center is almost thirty miles away. It’s not enough time.”
“If they’re not back by morning, we’ll start looking,” Pam says. She glances over at Carson. Claire is standing next to her, Luis’s arm wrapped securely around her shoulders. Carson looks away.
They all stand quietly for a few more moments, and no one really says anything. What is there to say? Carson thinks bitterly. Everything’s going to fine — lie. I’m sure they’ll come back — lie. We’ll find them — lie. He can see people reaching out to comfort Liam’s brother, Isaiah’s roommate. Paul actually turns to hug Nick, who’s close friends with Gabrielle. Carson’s pretty sure that if anyone tries to hug him, they’re going to get punched. He turns away abruptly, goes back into the apartment, and closes the door.
He knew he was better off going it alone.
Carson hears the search party leave the next morning. They don’t knock on his door to see if he wants to join them, and he doesn’t open it to volunteer.
While the list of people he couldn’t stand to shoot in the face — zombie or no — is admittedly small, it definitely includes Aaron.
He keeps sleeping in the bed. The first night, he stands next to it and feels like he shouldn’t, but then he curses himself for being overly sentimental and climbs in. He doesn’t sleep much anyway; mostly, he just lies on his back and feels numb.
By the next day, he’s so tired that he falls asleep on top of the covers before the sun even sets. He’s awoken a few hours later by a knock at the door.
At first, he ignores it, because he doesn’t want to talk to fucking anyone. Then he realizes that it might be someone waiting to tell him — well, news, and he doesn’t want to rouse himself for that either, but it’s not like it’s going to be better to wait, so he finally pushes himself up, grabs a flashlight, and heads to the door just as whoever it is knocks for the third time.
When he swings open the door, he’s surprised to find Claire standing in the hallway, her face illuminated by the fat jar candle in her hand. Of all the people they could have chosen, of course it’s Claire. “What?” he says, keeping his face impassive despite the way his stomach is churning.
She watches him for a moment, and then finally blurts out, “I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“For what?” he says impatiently, just wanting to get this part over with.
“That Aaron’s missing.” She shifts her weight from one foot to the other and drops her gaze. “I hope he comes back. I know how hard it is to lose someone important.”
Carson feels a wave of quiet relief first, and then it mingles with wary surprise. There’s a part of him that still feels like he should dispute the claim that Aaron is someone important to him, but he doesn’t. “Um… thanks.”
“And I guess I wanted to see if you need anything,” Claire finishes, still looking down uncomfortably.
“Nope,” Carson replies. It’s not like there are many supplies to go around anyway.
“Company?” Claire asks quietly. She finally looks back up, and although her expression is tight and guarded, there’s something in her eyes that stops Carson from slamming the door to keep her out. “I thought it might be nice to not be alone. To be with someone you know.”
Carson gapes at her, because yeah, he knows her, just how he knows what it feels like to have food poisoning. It’s on the tip of his tongue to say so, but then he takes another close look at her face. And he’s not exactly sure why he does, but he opens the door a little wider, steps back, and says, “Sure, why not. I’m not getting back to sleep anytime soon anyway.”
She looks around the room, dimly lit by the glow of the candle and Carson’s flashlight, and Carson knows she’s not missing the fact that the couch is bare and obviously no longer a bed. Finally, she sets the candle on the tiny kitchen table and sits on one side of it. Carson gingerly takes the seat opposite. She stares at her hands on the tabletop and says nothing.
“Look,” Carson finally blurts after several minutes of awkward silence, “you really don’t need to do this.”
“You shouldn’t be alone at a time like this,” she mutters. “Trust me.”
That starts knitting a few things together in Carson’s mind. He takes another look at her bowed head and haunted expression and says, “Claire, I’m —” he takes a deep breath and forces the words out “— I’m sorry for what I said to you. Before. And… I’m sorry about Justin and Colin. That must have been — really hard.” It’s not the most sincere thing he’s ever said in his life, but it comes out all right.
“Thanks,” she replies, her tone indicating that she’s aware, but he thinks he detects a note of gratitude for the effort. “I got separated from my family early on, and I managed to make it to the Walkers’ house. There were a bunch of people there at first, but it got swarmed. Justin was — mauled. One of his cousins shot him right away.” She pauses to sniffle and clear her throat, but she doesn’t cry. “So he was never one of them, and he never knew about… me. I’m glad. He died loving his brother.”
Carson nods, but says nothing.
“A few of us escaped in a van. We lived out of it for a while, but it was dangerous. One day, we stopped at a grocery store to look for food and we were attacked. Colin took one of them on so that I could make a break for it. I know it got him, but I don’t know if he lived or — or changed. I was the only one who made it out alive. I just — ran. Aaron found me hiding in a tool shed. I hadn’t eaten in days and I probably would have died. I was too scared to go back outside.”
“I’m sorry,” Carson repeats, and he means it more this time.
“Everyone here has been really kind,” Claire continues after dipping her head briefly in acknowledgment. “And Luis. Luis has been — really kind.” A flurry of snarky comments fly through Carson’s mind, but he bites his tongue. “He may not be the love of my life, but he’s a good man, and it’s certainly better than being alone. Not that I owe you or anyone else an explanation,” she tacks on, looking across at him defiantly, sounding more like the Claire that Carson is used to.
“No,” Carson agrees. “You don’t.”
She blinks back at him, her expression equal parts surprised and mollified. “Thanks, Carson. It feels good to finally tell someone.”
“You mean you haven’t — ?”
“Nope. They know I have a boyfriend who died, but that’s it. Everyone — everyone has enough of their own problems to worry about.”
Carson arches an eyebrow. “And I don’t?”
Claire gives a twitchy shrug, and Carson thinks back to her saying to be with someone you know and realizes that maybe it’s what she wants. She changes the subject abruptly. “Are you worried about him?”
It’s Carson’s turn to avert his eyes. “I mean — of course. But if… something happened, there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
He knows that Claire is watching him, but he just keeps tracing a crack in the table’s surface with his fingertip. “Well, if it did, you’d be welcome to stay here, you know. But he still might come back.”
“Maybe,” Carson says, more to fill the silence than anything.
Thankfully, Claire seems to realize that he doesn’t really want to say much more, and she reaches out and grabs her candle. “I’ll let you get back to sleep.”
Carson stays at the table, because he’s pretty sure she can find her way out. “Okay.” Just before she opens the door he adds, uncomfortably, “Claire? Thanks.”
She gives him a brief, terse smile. “Thank you.”
And then she’s gone. Carson returns to the bedroom and gets back into bed. He’s not sure if he feels better or worse, but he stays awake for a long time thinking about it.
The next day, Carson knocks on Pam’s door and tells her that he’s ready to go back out on rotation. “I don’t want to be on the search team for the missing people, though,” he says quietly. “I don’t think I could…”
She squeezes his elbow briefly, and he allows it. “We’re going to start scouting out some new towns to the north this weekend. I’ll assign you to that. Get some rest in the meantime.”
He actually does fall asleep easily that night, but then he jolts awake when the bed dips next to him in the middle of the night. It’s dark, and he’s completely disoriented for a few seconds, until the other occupant of the bed huffs out a sigh, and of course it’s Aaron. “You’re back,” Carson says. He blinks into the inky space around the bed. “You’re alive.”
“I am,” Aaron confirms. His voice is dull, and he sounds exhausted.
It’s on the tip of Carson’s tongue to say I’m glad, but he can’t quite. “What happened?” he asks instead.
“We got stuck. Can I tell you about it tomorrow? I really just want to sleep.”
“Yeah, of course.” Aaron hasn’t moved since he hit the mattress, and he sounds half-dead. Carson cautiously shifts towards him, can barely make out the outline of his face in the faint moonlight from the window over the bed. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine. I just need twelve to fourteen hours of unconsciousness.” He rolls suddenly into Carson, pressing his face into Carson’s shoulder and getting comfortable along his side. “It’s good to see you. Figuratively speaking, since it’s pitch black in here,” he mumbles.
Carson stays still as Aaron’s breathing starts evening out. “You too,” he says. He doesn’t cuddle back, exactly, but he turns into Aaron’s body, lets his cheek rest on Aaron’s forehead, and closes his eyes.
He passes Claire two days later in the hallway. “So, I guess your boyfriend’s back,” she says. Her voice still holds an edge of the same snide tone she’s always used with him, but it’s quieter.
Carson’s heart accelerates defiantly as he replies, “I guess he is.” It’s not quite the right word for what they are, but it’s not exactly the wrong word either. Boyfriend. It’s strange to think about, but it’s not necessarily bad.
She nods. And then she adds, so quietly he can hardly hear her as they cross paths, “I’m glad.”
“Hey, Carson?” Aaron asks. They’re lying in the bed, staring at the ceiling. Actually, it’s more like they’re lying on the bed, because it’s hot and most of the covers are shoved off and half on the floor. They’re also not touching, because it’s too hot, and there’s no way to cool off.
“I’ve been thinking about when this is all over.”
Carson goes tense, because they work really well when they don’t talk about what it all means. “What about it?”
“Just that it’s going to take a crap ton of time to get shit sorted out and back to normal. Whatever normal is. I mean, we all kind of think about it and talk about it like it’s going to be over and we’re all going to go back to work or school or whatever the next day. But that’s not how it’s going to be at all. It’s going to be a totally new way of life.”
“Obviously,” Carson says, relaxing a little.
Aaron doesn’t seem take offense at the implied no shit Sherlock in Carson’s tone. He just lolls his head toward Carson to look at him. “So what do you think you’re going to do?”
Carson shrugs against the mattress. “Write my book and find a way to get it out there, I guess. Get in on the ground floor when they start rebuilding the news media. Missing out on Northwestern isn’t such a big deal anymore at least. What about you?”
“I have no idea,” Aaron replies. “I’m sure we’ll figure something out.” Carson blinks a few times at biggest crack in the ceiling, and then turns his whole head toward Aaron. “Right?” Aaron asks.
The pause doesn’t hang in the air for very long before Carson says, “Yeah, I guess we will.”
Aaron smiles, and then leans over to peck Carson before rolling away. “So, I found something at that house we raided a few days ago, and I was saving it until there was a dire need. And I think that time is now.”
“What is it?” Carson asks warily while Aaron fishes around under the bed. When he emerges, he proudly places a Trivial Pursuit box in the middle of the mattress. Carson cocks an eyebrow at him. “So, you’re looking to have your ass kicked?”
“Hey now, don’t be so cocky. I happen to be in possession of a vast amount of useless pop culture knowledge. More than enough to give you and your giant brain a run for your money.”
Carson sits up and pulls the lid off the box. “This is not the face of someone who’s surprised.”
He unfolds the game board and Aaron sits cross-legged on the other side of it. “Better than Battleship, though, right?”
“Almost anything is,” Carson retorts, but there’s not much heat behind it, and Aaron just grins at him as he doles out pie pieces.
And Carson thinks that for a new way of life, it could definitely be worse.