Chapter 4:

One of the Living

A Boy and His ****

Next day the going was even easier and quicker. Flat grassland had that over forest. So we were talking more.

“What?” Ned was shocked. His bare gray feet crunched the grass as we walked. “Why are you ok with dying young, Max? I’m already dead, but I wouldn’t want to die again. I wouldn’t want to die for good.”

“I’m not ok with it.” He was misunderstanding me. I twirled my spear as it rested on my shoulder, trying to think how best to put my thoughts into words and not make it all come out like the braindeadest thing anyone ever heard. “It’s like… Think about it this way. You like your watch, right? You like telling time?”

“Yeah.” He spun it around his wrist once.

“Well then you already know time isn’t equal.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means some times are worth more than other times. Like night. You sleep at night, right?” He nodded. “Well you can’t do anything while you’re sleeping. You only do it cause you have to. So the time you spend sleeping, those hours of the day are only worthwhile in they let you be awake during others.” I rubbed my neck. I was starting to confuse myself. “So I guess the point is some hours of the day are worth more than others. And it’s not just days. That goes for your whole life. How old are you, Ned?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well you seem pretty young. I am too, pretty much. Right now I’m 18. But I already know something most 18 year olds don’t, and that’s that one second of being 18 is worth about a thousand times more than one second of being 20. And about a million times more than one second of being 30, and a billion for 40, if you get that far, and so on. So you see? Time’s all lopsided. It never adds up the way you think it will.”

“I think what’s not adding up,” Scratch added, “is your calculations. I think it’s about time I resumed teaching you math, once we get back.”

I just ignored him. “And the reason that’s important,” I explained to Ned, “is you have to make the most of the time that’s worth the most. Cause it goes by at the same speed as the time that’s worth less, and sometimes even faster, feels like. It’s like what Scratch just said. Math. Math isn’t worth the dirt stuck to the bottom of my boots.” Scratch blew some air out his nose at that, but I just kept ignoring him. “So if I want to learn it, better to do it when my time’s worth less too. You know, when I’m old and decrepit and half senile and can’t even blink without breaking 20 bones. See what I mean? Anyone who thinks too much about the future and tries to set themselves up for being cozy in the long run is a chump. Cause even if by some miracle the work they’re putting in now does pay off, what they’re paying for is time when they’re gonna be old and slow and stupid. And how they’re doing it is by cashing in the limited amount of time they have where their brain and their body actually work right. That’s the way I see it anyway.”

“You should probably practice what you preach then,” Scratch said. “Weren’t you the one who just took a 20-minute ‘bathroom break’ not long ago?”

“Aw, shove off.” I mimed kicking him, and he darted out of the way with a bark. “Ned, don’t listen to this old overgrown poodle. See his gray whiskers coming in? He’s just jealous.”


We made it to that pond with the treehouse, the one with the dead guy not far off, and decided to stay there for the night.

“See? S’all in the wrist.”

“You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?”

“Not a damn clue. Sorry, kid.”

“That’s ok.”

We were down by the water. It was still swimming with fishes. This time I had managed something remotely resembling an approximation of scaling and gutting some, and me and Scratch had both feasted. Meanwhile Ned just enjoyed the sight and sound of the slippery things turning to charred leather in the blaze.

The sky was deep purple with dots of white spilled all over, stars flicking to life. I had been trying to show Ned how to use my spear. But I guess he realized even I didn’t know how to use it right. So much for that idea. Maybe tomorrow I would go fetch the one I had hid in that tree over there and we could both figure out how to use these damn things together or something. Might be kind of embarrassing learning alongside a kid, but oh well.

Hey, wait a minute. Fetching sticks? Isn’t that what I had Scratch for? I scratched my head and thought better about saying that out loud. I didn’t think he’d take that one too well.

“Here. Take this.” I took the spear back from Ned. Instead I reached in my pack and pulled out one of my knives for him. The switch blade I had scooped up in the treehouse the other day. Kind of wanted to keep that one for myself, but the kid’s entire family was just done in. Figured he probably deserved some kind of present to make him at least a little happy. He looked like he appreciated it too. He held it like he was weighing it in his hands, like the thing was priceless. “Lesson number one on how to use it: fake.”


“Yeah. Learn how to fake like you can use thing. Learn it like your life depended on it. Cause someday it might. It’s easier to fraud you know how to sling a knife than it is with the spears.” I only said that part cause he had found me out so quick. “So if anyone tries to give you shit or shortsticks you, slice this sucker out” — I took the knife back for a second and showed him how to spring out the blade — “and fake.” I gave it back to him. “At least until you learn how to use it for real.”

“Cool. What’s lesson number two?”

“Lesson number two is I’ve been moving my legs nonstop since morning and I’m fucking sacked.” I yawned. “Time to hit it.”

“Aw! No fair!”

“Life’s no fair.”

“Still beats the alternative,” Scratch said from where he was curled up near our fire. We had one tonight too.

I started up the embankment to where Scratch was. Ned scrambled after me.

“You can say that again,” I said back.


“MD. Max.”

I woke up to the sound of my name and Scratch’s wet breath fogging into my ear.

“Max, get up. We have to hide.”


“Wake Ned up.”

“What?” I rubbed my eyes.

He started nipping at me to get me up. “Wake up. And wake Ned up. We have to hide. Now.” He nodded at the horizon. A blurry drag of dim orange was just starting to bleed over its edge, define the earth from the sky. It was dawn. Through the haze and my sleepy eyes, I could see a billow of dust or exhaust or something, coming over the horizon. And it was getting closer. Once I saw that, I was on my feet and awake in a second.

Scratch had woken up Ned, who was rubbing the sleep out of his nonexistent eyes.

“Hide? Scratch, are you insane? We need to run. We need to get the hell out of here,” I said.

“Too late for that,” he told me. “This distance, we’ll never outrun them. The only thing we have over them is we know they’re there but they don’t know we’re here. Shit. I guess they were still in the area after all.”

“Or they left and came back. Or it's a different bunch of 'em entirely.” I rubbed my eyes with my fingers, really ground them in there, like I could just blink the parade of death and devastation headed our way out of existence. “Maybe they’ll turn,” I said lamely.

“Max! They ain’t turning!” I couldn’t even remember the last time I heard Scratch really shout. “They don’t turn! They just drive and drive and drive and if you’re in their way you had best be prepared to eat hot rubber or worse! Usually worse!”

“Aren’t,” I said, just like he always corrected me. “Aren’t turning.”

“Would you shut the hell up and move?”


“Ned, get going.” Scratch nosed Ned in the direction of that treehouse. That was the only place there was to hide around here, unless we wanted to try and hold our breaths underwater in the pond, so it was where we were going. The kid obeyed wordlessly, seemingly confused by what was happening.

“You too, Max. Get moving. Now. And before you say anything else stupid, no, we can’t fight back. That’s why we need to hide. So hop to it!”

I bit my lip.

The treehouse stank even worse than it did a couple days ago. I could smell the decay of the once-human mound of filth and rot from the ground. We couldn’t hide up there. We’d probably gag on the smell and choke and cough and give ourselves away. And besides, it was too obvious. But we knew that already. The only reason we came over here was to hide in the trees. It wasn’t much of a hiding spot either, but it was better than sitting out in the open practically begging those freaks to juice us. Scratch was dead on. If we got seen, we were goners. I looked behind me at the cloud coming our way and it had grown considerably just in the time it took us to run over to the trees and I could even see some black-silver specks near the bottom of it now, shining on the horizon as the sun burned brutal morning heat into the earth. There was no way we had more than three minutes.

I just hopped to god they’d be coming on too quick and too crazy to notice us up there.

We started climbing. Scratch was ahead of me and Ned behind. I was making fuckall progress climbing while holding my spear, so I had to chuck it onto the landing outside the treehouse, hoping to god they wouldn’t notice it out of place from the last time they were here, if this was the same squad. If anything was still intact — if I was still intact — by the time this was over, I’d grab it back and the one I had hidden up in the trees earlier too. But that came after. For now, I just had to get as out of sight as I could and hope. My heart hammered. I kept climbing.

Then I looked back. Ned was still on the ground. He was standing still, frozen stiff. “What the fuck? Ned! What the fuck are you doing!” I yelled at him. But he didn’t move. Shit. Fucking. Not now, kid. Couldn’t he just fucking climb? “Why are you just standing there? Didn’t you just tell me the other day you don’t want to die again? Well if you weren’t lying, climb!”

“Max…” he muttered nervously. “Max, what’s happening? I’m scared…”

I looked back at the cloud. Massive now. I was even starting to hear their engines. Back to Ned. Frozen stiff where he stood. “Fuck!”

I jumped down off the tree and ran to Ned.

“Max!” Scratch yelled from a high branch shrouded by leaves. “Climb! Now! And make Ned too!”

“I’m trying, fleabag!” Then, to Ned, standing there sniveling: “Listen. Ned. Stop dribbling and listen to me.” He did like I said. “There’s some guys coming.” I pointed to the cloud. You could already fucking see them now, them and their huge brutal machines. Gross abominations on wheels, burping black billows of evil exhaust. Chaotic twisted metal mashed together without any sense or reason or purpose except to drive and kill. Ned nodded. He was listening. “Those are the guys who mulched your place. Ok? And if they find us, we’re fertilizer. So that’s why we have to climb these trees and hide and pray they don’t. Get it?”

He said he got it.

“Good. Now fucking climb.”

I ran back to the tree and started climbing again. But Ned still wasn’t moving. I ran back to him like the idiot I am. “Kid! Holy shit, what are you doing!” I was really screaming now. Had to. Voice wouldn’t carry otherwise. The growing noise of their insane engines pounded my brain, drowned out every other sound. “Fucking move! Fuck! Hide! Now!” I could have just left him there. Actually, it would have been better for me and Scratch if I did. They would have seen Ned and maybe been too preoccupied with him to notice us up in the trees. But I didn’t want to do that.

He looked at me, determination in his eyes, even though he didn’t have any eyes. “I don’t want to hide, Max.”


“I want to fight. I want to get that spear you just tossed and I want to stand and fight.”

“What the fuck?!?!?!?!?!?!”

“Max!” Scratch screamed, and then he just started barking at me. They were on us now. Practically right on top of us. I could hardly hear myself think above the oppressive roar of engines chainsaw-ripping my aching brain in half. I could hear the awful noise with my ears and my head and my heart and, worst of all, my gut. We had seconds.

“I want to stand my ground.” Meanwhile Ned was just standing there saying crazy shit that made no sense. “I want to fight, Max. For revenge.”

“You idiot!” I screamed. I felt like someone was ripping my face apart. “These guys will eat you for breakfast and pick their teeth with your bones! So move!”

You’re an idiot, Max! Isn’t it just like you said? Right now is worth more than tomorrow. If I wait for revenge, who knows if I’ll ever be able to take it? They might get us even if we do hide. And then what?”

In the first place, we weren’t even sure if this was the same pack that had done his family in. Most outsiders just went wherever they felt like going, no real set territory, nothing. This very well could have been a different band cruising through than the one that had caused all the mayhem we had already witnessed the aftermath of. But more importantly, we didn’t have time to keep standing here arguing. I could literally hear them now. Whooping and hollering and screaming and shouting and sounding like an insane death orgy, psychotic shrieks just as loud as their unholy metal steeds. We were lucky if they hadn’t already spotted us.

Then what, Ned had asked. Fuck if I knew. Because right then, I made a decision. Me and Scratch promised we weren’t gonna screw the kid over. And if we weren’t, nobody else was either.

I hunched over. In a second — one of the very few we had left — I had Ned over my shoulder, undead pot belly pressing fleshily into the ball of my arm. He was pounding my back with his small fists and fucked-up twisted fingers and screeching for me to put him down, for me to let him go so he could stand his ground and fight, but I wouldn’t. I just ran for the trees. Fucker was heavier than he looked. I kept momentum. If I lost it now, we were dead.

Despite Ned’s physical protests, I climbed, adrenaline and not much else fueling me up the twisted branches. When I found a spot big enough for us to hug a branch and even the smallest bit concealed, I stopped. Let Ned off. Tried to quell the shakes of fear shivering me down top to toe in order to make myself still as possible and watched as Ned begrudgingly did the same.

Scratch was nearby. I could see him bleeding past the green in the corner of my vision. Me and Ned, we kinda blended in with the bark. Scratch wasn’t as lucky. He was jet black and stood out like trying to hide gold bricks in a gutter.

I shut my eyes tight and didn’t dare even breathe. And, though I didn’t believe in god, I prayed.

They were here. Below us now. They had stopped. There went the hope that they might just keep going. If any one of them looked up and noticed us, we were fried.

I was scared. I was scareder than scared. I was scared for myself and for Scratch and for Ned. I was scareder than I had ever been in my whole life.

After a few hour-long seconds I was surprisingly not dead yet. I dared unclench my eyes but didn’t dare look down. If one of them sensed someone staring and looked our way I’d have no one but myself to thank for putting us all in our early graves. Not that outsiders dug their victims any graves.

Instead I looked at Ned. He was hugging a branch and looking at me. He was perfectly calm and still. Thinking back, I should’ve seen what happened next coming. The few days I’d had with Ned by that point were plenty for me to get inside my idiot skull who he was. What he was like.

Ned was like if you had spent your whole life living inside a box that you thought had the whole world inside of it and then one day someone took off the lid and you left the box and stepped into the outside world for the first time and realized the world was much bigger than you could have ever possibly understood except turns out the box was one the edge of a fucking cliff and now you were falling infinity-thousand feet into whatever was at the bottom.

Here’s an example. As we clung for life to the trees, Ned was still clutching the knife I had given him last night. He mouthed something to me that I couldn’t make out. And then he let go of the branch and jumped.