As much as Abel loved his wife, the smell of roast pig in the sweltering Arizona summer air made him fall in love in ways he’s never experienced before.
The sun was strong and held the kind of power that conducted heatwaves to reach their twisting hands from the ground to the sky, cutting through stale air and red sunlight. Abel had been sweating in places he used to be sure he couldn't sweat; summer in Arizona does that to you, no matter how quickly you move through and how much water you douse yourself in.
“How many flies do ya reckon feckin’ wish they were us rie’ now, staring this poor ol’ piglet in the eyes as we got it cookin’ over’a spit?” Tobias seemed to salivate as he stared down the pig roasting over the fire, Calpurnia using a wood rod to turn it round and round and round.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal as beautiful as ol’ Hope here,” Micah replied, sighing with a smile.
“Hope?” Sabrina asked.
“The pig’s name. Hope because I ain’t never believed in God ‘til I saw this beauty runnin’ right into our arms like an oinkin’ lil angel.”
“What? You can’t name it, that’s so cruel.”
“Sab, I would personally go to this pig’s parents and inform them that in approximately four minutes I will be eating their son and absolutely enjoying it, so I don’t think the naming is the cruel part.”
God, they were starving.
As much as Micah was able to joke and Sabrina was able to maintain the facade of her moral integrity, this pig was the sole reason they weren’t dying today. Abel was happy that his children were able to remain brave, even when faced with the eyes of Death, but he felt like he hadn’t been able to do enough for them.
He had always believed that zombie apocalypses were reserved for cheesy movies, decent tv shows, and the imagination. And yet, there they were, starving and sweating and backpacking through Arizona to get to a safe house in California.
And they were dying.
“‘Bout a minute on either side I say, then I can cut her up and we can dig in!” Calpurnia usually had baby Cory nestled tightly against her bosom with her homemade baby carrier, but because she was cooking so close to the fire, she placed him down on a blanket so he could sit up and watch his surroundings. His eyes were bright and responsive, crinkling at the sides every time Abel and Cory made eye contact.
“Aye, feck I haven’t felt this excited since I found that pack of Coronas back in Texas.” Tobias rubbed his hands together.
“I’m going to gather more firewood to keep us warm tonight,” Abel said as he stood, kissed Sabrina on her head, and walked into the line of trees that surrounded the clearing they settled themselves in.
As he walked, he admired. Arizona was truly beautiful. The dense gathering of trees gave more shelter from the oppressive heat of the sun, and it almost became nice. He held his pistol slack to his side, softly tapping it against his thigh. The back of his mind reminded him to stay alert for any infected, but the forest’s beauty and the lofting smell of cooked pig lulled him into a comfort he hadn’t felt for months.
The past weeks had been difficult for the six of them, and yet at that moment, Abel couldn’t remember why he had ever been upset before. He couldn’t seem to connect with any of the negative feelings that had plagued his past at that moment, walking with the trees.
They spent winter the year prior in Shreveport, so as to say it was barely a winter at all. The calm weather made it easy to walk, as opposed to winters up north bundled in layers of coats and scarves and extra socks. Abel vaguely remembers their close encounters with the infected in that town, but he feels disconnected from such despair. Instead, his mind clears only for the memory of Cory’s birth, the miracle of Shreveport.
Calpurnia hadn't wanted Abel with her as it happened.
"My love, this ain't personal, but get out, I'm having our kid right now and I don't wanna punch ya."
A few wrung hands, touseled hairs, bit nails, and picked at wall paints later, Calpurnia was sleeping and Abel was holding his third child.
By the third time of most anything, Abel assumed he would've been used to the whole ordeal. And yet, holding such a small, vulnerable extension of himself, especially in a world which had hardened with tragedy so many months prior, felt contemporary.
With Sabrina, his oldest, he had felt like the highest skyscraper of New York placed in the most back-country town of the United States.
With Micah, he felt like he no longer had blood in his veins, but rather something more similar to the atoms of a supernova.
With Cory, especially with his naive preconception that his birth would be the same as remembering how to ride a bike, he felt as if each beat of his heart was the popping of a corn kernel on a hot stove.
Abel was positive that no one had ever been as happy as he was at that moment. Or any subsequent moments when he reminded himself that he may be living in the zombie apocalypse, but he had beautiful children, he had his beautiful wife, and somehow that was enough, four times over.
Cold metal against the base of his skull brought him back to a sobering reality, where a gun positioned itself just underneath his hairline and a calloused hand gripped the wrist where Abel's pistol lay limp at his side.
"The smell of what you're cooking sure is enticing," The growling voice whispered. "I would love if you offered to share a bit with my crew and me."
Abel was led back to the clearing by the man with the gun, along with an uncertain amount of others. As they walked, they passed a smaller clearing that just broke through the line of trees where a small fire had burnt out and ratty blankets surrounded the enclosing, creating makeshift beds.
They had been waiting nearby to overtake them. It seemed obvious that they didn't have as many guns as Abel's group did, or else they would've just used the element of surprise. Rather, they waited for one person from the group to separate themselves from the others so they could be used as a bargain.
So stupid of him. So very stupid.
The others didn't notice them immediately as they broke through the line of trees, all instead intently watching as Calpurnia cut into the meat, preparing to serve.
"Don't eat without us!" The gun-wielding man cried, and without hesitation, Tobias grabbed his gun and aimed at the sound of the unfamiliar voice.
"Shoot at us, and I kill him," The man said simply.
Calpurnia dropped the plate she had in her hand and pulled Cory to her hip. She made a move to step in front of Sabrina and Micah when Abel heard other voices further behind him.
"Don't anybody move!"
The man with the gun pushed Abel to his knees while keeping his gun's deadly aim steady.
"I think I would like big man over there to drop his gun," The man said, and Tobias gingerly placed his rifle on the ground. "And I would like the rest of you to get on your knees."
"Sir, please, we have food and minimal money, you can take what you needs and go," said Calpurnia.
"That pig smells mighty fine, dont'cha think so Barry?" One of the other men commented.
"Righty so," The man with the gun, Barry, replied.
"Then take it," Tobias said firmly, "And leave us be."
"We will take it since you offer it up so nicely." Abel could hear the grin in Barry's voice even if he couldn't see his face. He made a clicking noise to his accomplices, and they surged past Abel's kneeling family and took the pig, stuffing it down their throat as quickly as they could get their hands on it.
It's savory smell still lingered with Abel even as he watched the pig disappear.
"Oi! Save some for me lad," Barry said, "And check the bags."
They rummaged through their things, throwing Cory's toys and Sabrina's books to the side to gather what was left of their minimal rations and survival supplies.
Abel choked on his breath. They were dead.
They couldn't survive without the supplies they had- they barely could survive with it.
Abel glanced at the faces of his children as they watched their food being taken, their gaunt frames sinking under the hunger that just wouldn't let up. He looked at Cory, his silent eyes and sunken cheeks.
"Aye, toss me a bit of pig, would you?" Barry called. The gun's taut position against the back of his head slackened, if not only slightly, as he prepared to catch a bit of the cooked meat.
Abel dug the pad of his foot into the ground and spun, simultaneously ducking and using his opposite hand to push the gun away. A shot rang out in the otherwise still forest and birds cried, flocking together and flying away as Abel tackled Barry to the ground. His gun skidded to the left and Abel struggled for dominance, trying to pin Barry's legs and arms.
Behind him, Abel heard shouts and gunshots, with the crack of a pistol whip.
Barry slipped an arm free and grabbed a tuft of Abel's long hair, yanking it down to the ground and using the momentum to flip himself to the dominant position.
Abel clawed at Barry's face, drawing blood, and Barry landed two solid punches.
Calpurnia screamed, sending a shock up Abel's spine, and Abel punched Barry swiftly, yanking him off the top of him by the shirt collar and immediately standing to scan for Calpurnia.
Their blankets, which they slept on, had caught fire and one of Barry's men was engulfed in flames as he chased after Cory and Calpurnia. Singed flesh and fleece fabric mingled with the remaining savory smell of cooked pig, leaving Abel nauseous.
He grabbed their food crate and charged after the flaming man, knocking him over with a solid swing. He yelled as he continued to burn.
Abel surged forward and cradled Calpurnia's face for a moment.
"My love..." He said simply before she screamed. At first, it felt like a blow beneath his ribcage, but as Abel looked down he could see the point of a long dagger sticking out the front of his body, blood pooling around it. It began as a low pressure, building to a sharp, fiery pain that forced him to his knees once more. The blade was unceremoniously ripped out from the back of him and that force pulled him to the floor, ears ringing and vision blurry.
Blood seeped into his mouth; the metallic tang stinging his numb tongue as the sharp tendrils of sunlight streamed through his eyelashes and stabbed at his eyes.
After his hearing, his other senses started to go. He felt numb, his outline a static that buzzed and meshed uncomfortably with the harsh outside world. Colors blurred like a wet painting.
Serenity’s hand cupped the side of his cheek and sent out warm tingles like ocean waves. The sensation slid to the nape of his neck, then up to the base of his head, leaving a trail of warmth and addictive bliss. It crawled over his head and trickled down his face from his brow. Abel felt like he was suspended in air, sinking as a leaf would in Autumn. Blackness swallowed the world, first creeping up from the corner of his eyes but soon eclipsing the painful sun that streamed down on him. He could feel no longer.
His name came back to him first. Strange to his mind but familiar.
Air shocked his lungs as he breathed deeply and awoke.
Many names tinged the tip of his tongue, yet they felt as distant as a dream.
Yet he still felt pain in his lower ribcage.
"Finally, I've been bored out of my mind." An oddly familiar voice groaned. "How was the trip? First times are always crazy."
Ab- Tulav opened his eyes at last.
Above was not Arizona sunlight, but a decrepit warehouse ceiling.
A long, tubelike object pressed against his leg, most similar to a bong.
Memory struggled past the drug barrier in his mind but returned nonetheless.
He wasn’t on Earth, he was on Puk’irt. All of what he had just experienced was a figment of Puk’irt’s newest high; a drug called Vlepa. Remnants of its smell hung heavily in the air, redolent of tea leaves and cut grass. The earthy smell washed away the leftover savory smell that clung to the back of his throat.
“It was- good.” He coughed heavily, a dull pain building up where he was stabbed. Where Abel was stabbed.
“Murdered?” His friend, Zanzibar as he soon remembered, asked.
“Um, yeah.” His throat stung, “How about you?”
“I was a goddamn miscarry, can you believe that? A two percent chance that you get a miscarry and what do I get? A miscarry! Unbelievable. So, what happened in yours? A mugging gone wrong or what?”
“N-no.” Tulav struggled to make sense of his mind, the one with Tulav's sensibilities but Abel's memories. He thought of his family, his friend.
But it wasn’t real.
“Then what? I’ve been sitting here for a half-hour bored out of my mind waiting for one of you to come back, and I could use an interesting story to cheer me up.” Tulav saw three other people surrounding the fire; bongs in their laps with their eyes closed and mouths opened, facing the ceiling.
“Thirty minutes?” That couldn’t be, Abel was fifty-four. Tulav specifically remembered living for fifty-four lengthy years as a man named Abel.
“Dude, I get this is your first trip but get with the program; I told you all this before. The average trip lasts forty minutes, but it feels longer in your head. It’s all in the science.”
“But that was real,” Tulav whispered, barely audible. His throat felt as if it had been stuffed with cotton, and a dull ache remained consistent just below his ribcage.
Tulav stood, placed his bong to the side, and stormed out of the door. Names swirled in his mind. Tobias. Sabrina. Micah. Cory. Calpurnia.
“Bro, where the hell are you going?”
“I need to- I need-” He wasn’t sure what to say. What did he need? The feeling he had was inexplicable but urgent.
Zanzibar seemed to perceive some of Tulav’s ideas through his facial expressions because he gave a weary sigh.
“Tulav, it’s fake. Whatever you experienced, did not happen, okay? Just, chill out for a second, maybe you’re still a little high…”
“No!” Tulav surprised himself with his aggressiveness. His voice fell to a gruff, steady tone, “Look, I know what I saw, felt. It was real. It was real. I had- have a family out there somewhere, and they’re in trouble. They need help, and I can’t just-- I can’t--” He lost his breath mid-sentence.
Zanzibar’s four green eyes narrowed with interested perplexion. “How would we get to… wherever you say you were?”
The answer was already prepared at the tip of his tongue. “Earth. It’s in the fourth quadrant, seventh sector, third galaxy, first solar system, third planet from the sun.”
"The Milky Way galaxy?" Zanzibar asked.
Tulav nodded, suddenly feeling like he was wasting time.
“Well,” Zanzibar said with a pause, “It is school break and we’ve got a few weeks to kill, and Earth, as you say, sounds to be only, like, a quadrant and change over so… why not?”
Tulav was surprised. “Why not?”
“Yeah, why not? It’ll make up for my bogus trip anyway, it’s like the same thing.” Zanzibar began walking to his spaceship that was a few yards out.
"We have to hurry, there's not a lot of time."
“Why? What's the issue?"
“Looters. And the zombie apocalypse.”
“The hell’s a zombie apocalypse?”
“I’ll explain on the way.”