Mack reads my suspicious energy and raises his hackles accordingly. A low growl rumbles from his throat.
“Friend! Holy shit, friend! I swear on my life!” New guy can’t make the assertion fast enough, nor can he take his eyes off Mack.
“I’m sorry I have to do this -- really I am,” I reply. “You’re the first non-Viral I’ve seen in four years and I would love nothing more than for us to be friends. You can believe that, can’t you?”
“Of course. I haven’t had a conversation in about two years myself. I had hoped my next one would be much less stressful than this,” he says. His eyes meet mine briefly then flit back to Mack whose ears are cocked backward, listening for any command.
“I can’t bring you back to my place if I can’t trust you.” How do I figure him out? “What’s your story?” I decide to delve into his background. Maybe he’ll reveal something of his character that way.
“I’d be glad to tell you, but can we sit down or something? This Mexican standoff thing is stressing me out. There’s a picnic table over there.” He tilts his head to his left. “Bring your rifle if you want, but as a gesture of good faith, I’m going to disarm myself.”
Slowly, careful not to startle me, he rolls up each pant leg and removes a matching pair of throwing knives from their sheaths on the outside of his boots. He lays them aside and stands. Then, from the pockets on his cargo pants, he pulls out another pair of matching blades and adds them to his pile on the ground. These are longer, but they seem appropriate for hand-to-hand situations. Finally, he reaches over his head, beneath his shirt collar, and slides out a sword. What the shit? A fucking sword? He has a sword but decided a freakin’ baseball bat was the best weapon in the grocery store? It clinks against the knives as he lays it down.
I don’t think I’m hiding my shock very well as he straightens up and says, “Now, can we sit and talk like sane people?”
“Okay. I’m going to check on Allis first, then we can sit down. I won’t bring my gun, but Mack is joining us.” Sane people. Is that what we are? I open the car door and Allis thumps her tail in greeting. Her foot isn’t bleeding. The glass is working in her favor in that regard. She can wait long enough for me to talk with new guy, but I want to prevent infection. While Mack watches my back, I riffle through the medical supplies we picked up earlier until I locate the antibacterial ointment.
“You’re not going to like this,” I warn Allis. Sure enough, she yanks her foot away every time I get close. I have to straddle her and get her in a half-assed leg lock before I can actually apply the ointment.
“If you think I’m an asshole now, just wait until we have to take out that chunk of glass,” I tell her. She is not going to like me when we get home.
I turn back to new guy and nod. We walk to the picnic table with Mack in tow and sit down.
“Where shall we start?” I ask.
“If I recall, the custom is to introduce oneself first” he laughs. “My name is Felix Bellamy, and yours?”
“I’m...um…” Shit. What’s my name? I feel like I’ve just been dropped off a cliff. I don’t have butterflies; I’ve got vampire bats flapping and clawing and biting in the pit of my stomach. I haven’t had to introduce myself to anyone in four years. My name hasn’t even mattered for four years. It’s not like Mack or Allis or Belle ever asked. Come to think of it, even Jim never asked. How rude. Gah, what the hell is my name?! It’s on the tip of my tongue!
“Ayva!” I exclaim. Felix flinches. “M-my name is Ayva Quaide.” I jerk my head away because I can feel my face flushing with embarrassment.
“Well, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Quaide.” Felix offers a hand across the table. I put mine out and we shake.
“Why don’t you start from the beginning?” I suggest. He said he hasn’t had a conversation in two years. Does that mean he found others before me? I try not to get my hopes up as Felix begins his story.
“Well, I was born and raised in New York City. My family was pretty well-off. My father owned a popular restaurant chain.”
“Bellamy’s Bistro? You’re one of the Bellamys?”
“Yeah. The Bellamys.” He looks dismayed. “When the outbreak hit, I was taking a semester off from college. We waited it out for a few days while dad had a bunker built. It was stocked with a couple weeks’ worth of food and supplies. He thought they’d have it figured out by the time we had to restock. You can see how that worked out,” he chuckles. “My parents left to see if they could find more supplies. Three days later, they hadn’t returned and my sister and I were on the last of our rations.”
His eyes are unfocused now. He looks far away. “We had to go out,” he continues. “When we did, we were attacked. The city was crawling with infected.” He pauses. “She didn’t make it.”
“How did you get out?” I venture.
“Luck.” His voice is quieter now, barely more than a whisper, and his eyes are welling up. “Just...dumb luck.”
I decide to get him talking again. “How did you get all the way to upstate New York, then? It’s a hell of a walk.”
Felix seems relieved to change the subject. “Well, it took me nearly a year, but I’ve just been looking for a less populated place. The city is too dangerous.”
“Have you met anyone else along the way?”
“Not many. There are communities here and there, though they’re never more than four or five people. Sometimes, they’re more hostile than the infected.”
“Here I was thinking I was the only one.”
“How selfish of you.”
I glare at Felix, but lighten up when I see that he is grinning. “What about you?” He asks. I straighten up in my seat.
“Well, uh...I was born and raised here in Northton. My old house is actually just around the block. The outbreak hit here a little while after the city, right around mid-December.”
“Wow,” he interrupts. “It moved faster than I thought.”
“There was nothing slow about it,” I reply. “Like everyone around here we were poor, so no bunkers for us. We hid at my grandparents’ house. It’s in the middle of nowhere, so we figured there’d be less of a threat there. We were almost right.” I take a breath before continuing. “Inside a week, other survivors had the same idea and we all began competing for places to hide out. It seemed like I was the only one who recognized that if we worked together, we’d stand a better chance. Even in the apocalypse, everyone wants to come out on top.” Now it’s my turn to get quiet for a moment.
“Do you really think that’s what this is? An apocalypse?” asks Felix.
“I don’t know a better word for it.” I reply. “After a week or two, anyone who wasn’t a Viral had been shot. Somehow, I was still standing.” I can’t help but shake my head. There is no logical reason that I should have made it. I have never been able to wrap my head around it. I go on.
“Three years in, I found Mack and Allis. They were wandering the woods around the house, so I started leaving food out for them and now they’re my best friends. And that pretty much brings us to now,” I conclude.
We spend a few minutes in silent reflection.
“Well, what do you say? Friends or foes?” asks Felix.
“Tentative friends,” I say after a moment’s consideration. My gut is telling me I can trust him. Mack is lying down, almost asleep. I trust Mack and if Mack trusts Felix enough to take a nap and basically leave me alone with him, then I’m willing to try. “Let’s go. We’re burning daylight.” I swing my legs back over the bench. Mack jolts awake and jogs ahead to the car. Felix stops to collect his various blades.
“Why don’t you just use a gun?” I ask.
“Don’t know how,” he says. His sword makes a satisfying schik as he glides it back into its sheath. “I took fencing classes all my life, though. And I used to collect knives and swords.”
“I can’t believe you sliced and diced your way out of New York City,” I laugh.
“It would’ve been much easier with one of those smack-choppers. All the pieces come out nice and even.”
We laugh and I start the car. As we drive away, I’m fighting the urge to just trust Felix completely and be done with suspicion. I know I can’t just throw caution to the wind but for the first time in so long I feel -- what’s the word? Good? Happy? No, better than that. I feel normal.