75. Hope Versus Expectation

Food was brought out and served. Various people came up and introduced themselves and asked questions about where we’d come from and where we were going. Well, they asked the others. After my faux pas, I was ignored.

I sank into the background, which I happened to be very good at, and hoped everyone would forget I was there (another of my great talents). 

They didn’t get many visitors and news of the outside world was hard to come by for them, so there was a lot of interest. The kids especially weren’t used to new people and shyly hung around the table as we ate.

You might think having an audience of zombers watching while you eat would be a bit off-putting, but even though they looked like monsters, their appearance quickly lost its shock value. The children in particular were hard to see as anything other than kids with an unfortunate affliction.

The food was quite good. It was like a mushroom stroganoff and pretty spicy. I finished in record time and would have licked the bowl clean if I hadn’t felt self-conscious in front of the crowd.

“That was really great,” said Jenny. She didn’t have the problems speaking to people that the rest of us had, and even had a zomber toddler sitting on her lap. “Thank you.”

“Oh, don’t mention it,” said Jespert, all flustered by the attention of a pretty girl. It occurred to me that even if I couldn’t have Jenny, she could still be a useful tool. Yes, a dickish thought, but better that than us all winding up dead. Evolution, after all, was built on the survival of the dickish.

More food was brought out and everyone else started eating too. Jespert picked up a large, grey mushroom. 

“This is a fungus we grow in the caves below the crypt. It’s a staple of our diet and very versatile. You can even eat it raw.” He took a bite out of it. 

The fungus cap was about the size and shape of a human brain. Maybe that’s where the ‘eating brains’ thing came from. Then again, did people in this world even know what a human brain looked like? In any case, it was far more disturbing being able to see him chewing it through the holes in his cheek.

“Now,” said Jespert, “I should tell you how to get to Dargot through the tunnels, but you probably want to rest. Perhaps I could speak with one of you while the others get some sleep. Is one of you the leader of the group?”

“Yes,” I said. “Her.” I pointed at Claire.

“Eh?” said Claire.

Jespert showed us to a part of the crypt that was uninhabited—well, not by the living—and left us to sort ourselves out while he went off with Claire and Maurice to explain how to get to Dargot. 

There were a number of rooms, lined with shelves all filled with stone urns. I assumed they were full of ashes, but there were no name plaques or any other way to identify who was in there. The rooms also had beds. They were small cots with wooden frames and no mattresses, but they were certainly more comfortable than the ground. 

Everyone gathered in one room and chatted away merrily. When things looked dire, attention was directed towards me, but when life returned to some semblance of normality, I was generally overlooked. Which was fine by me. 

I slipped away and took up residence in a small room at the end of the passageway. It was covered in cobwebs and the urns in this room were cracked and broken. Human ash lay scattered here and there. Housekeeping had apparently missed a few spots. 

Nobody would want to stay here, so I was sure they wouldn’t mind if I claimed it.

There were two cots, one of which looked like it was about to fall apart. I took out a blanket and spread it out on the slightly less flimsy bed and stuck my bag underneath. I lay down facing the wall with my head resting on my arm, but even though I was tired I found it hard to sleep. Something was bothering me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. 

Still, it was quiet and nobody bothered me, so eventually I drifted off. Dead people make the best roommates. 

I don’t know how long I dozed for—not very, I would guess—before I felt a weight settle on the other end of the bed. “Uh?” I said without opening my eyes.

“We spoke with Jespert,” said Claire. “He drew us a map. It looks pretty straightforward.”

There was movement and something was placed in front of my face. I opened one eye. It was a crudely drawn map of tunnels.

“The X at the bottom is where we are,” said Claire. “The exit at the top right is where we come out. Dargot is the big circle on the left.”

I opened the other eye to see the rest of the map. “Why don’t we use the tunnel on the left. Wouldn’t that bring us out nearer to the city?”

“Yes,” said Claire. “But Jespert said we should avoid that part of the map because of the trolls who live there.”

“Trolls? That doesn’t sound good. I don’t suppose they’re tiny with big blue hair.”

“No. They’re huge with skin like rock. Jespert said they aren’t a problem as long as we don’t bother them, but they can be a bit cheeky, so we should stay out of their way.”

“What did he mean by cheeky?” I asked. 

“I don’t know. It didn’t sound good. If we take the tunnels on the right, we won’t have to find out.”

“Right tunnel it is, then. Good work.” I closed my eyes again.

“There is another option,” said Claire. “They seem like decent people and they have plenty of room. I’m sure if we asked, they wouldn’t mind if we stayed here for a while.”

It was a reasonable thought. Anywhere that was safe and provided food and shelter was worth considering as a place to stay. But I finally realised what had been bothering me. Why was there so much space? Or to be more specific, why were there rooms made up with beds when they rarely had visitors?

Did there used to be more of them? It was possible some had passed away, but there were a lot of empty room, each with at least a couple of beds in them. What happened to the former occupants? 

“Have you ever seen ‘The Walking Dead’?” I asked Claire.

“Ugh. Colin, please, they aren’t reanimated corpses… They’re just people.”

“I don’t mean that. Whenever the people in ‘The Walking Dead’ come across a community that’s found a way to survive, they always think they’ve found a haven from the apocalypse outside, but it never works out. The dead are never as big a problem as the living.”

“Colin, that’s a TV show. This isn’t.”

“Actually, it’s a comic book,” said Maurice from somewhere over by the doorway. I could have opened my eyes to check, but who has the energy?  “A pretty good one, for the first hundred issues, anyway. After that it got a bit repetitive. Colin’s right though, whenever they joined a seemingly settled community, things always screwed up sooner or later. Often because their presence upset an already precarious balance.”

“Mmm, exactly,” I said sleepily. “Where have we been where trouble didn’t find us eventually? Staying here might be good for us, but will it be good for them?”

Which was all true, but there was another aspect to take into consideration. A community like the zombers was bound to have problems of its own—an enemy, an impending disaster, a looming threat—and guess who would be dragged into helping?

But we can’t leave all the zomber babies to die…

And so the battle against a foe we had nothing to do with would begin.

“I get what you’re saying, both of you,” said Claire, “but it won’t necessarily be like that. It can’t always end up with us having to fight for our lives.”

“It can and it will,” I said. “There’s always the chance things go your way, but you can’t assume they will. You know what they say, expect the worst, but hope for a blow job.”

“Nobody says that,” said Claire.

“No? Must be just me, then.”

There was a pause, but the weight on the end of my bed didn’t move. “Why did you tell him I was the leader?”

“Because if anything happens to me, you’re going to have to take over. Best you get some practice in while you can.”

“Are you sure you didn’t just fancy a nap?”

“Chance would be a fine thing,” I said, yawning.

The bed rocked a little as Claire rose. She said something to Maurice I couldn’t make out and their voices drifted away.

A few seconds later the weight returned. 

“Something else?” I said, eyes still closed.

“I never got a chance to thank you properly,” said Jenny. “Thank you. If there’s something I can do for you in return, you only have to ask.”

Beautiful girl wants to repay me for saving her life? I’m sure you can all think of a number of ways for her to pay off the debt. Sure. Because it always feels good when you use extortion to get sex from a girl, right? I might hope for a blow job, but I wasn’t going to ask for one.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “If a large, black man ever tries to rape me, just return the favour then.”

“Okay, will do. And thanks for healing me. The others won’t talk about it so I guess you told them not to say anything. Don’t worry, I won’t say anything either. I don’t know how you did it, but I think you probably saved my life. One day I’ll pay you back, I promise.”

I didn’t say anything. There didn’t feel like there was a need. I felt her rise.

“By the way, I think you’re right. It helps to expect the worst, means you’re prepared at least. But even if things do go horribly wrong, I think it’s important to remember one thing. There’s always hope.”

I opened my eyes and turned to look at her. She was standing in the doorway. She winked at me and then was gone.

What the fuck did that mean?

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