He could still feel it sometimes. It was always disconcerting when it happened. Anytime he scratched the bridge of his nose, Jason felt a tickle on the palm of his right hand. Every time it happened, he would look down, expecting to see his right hand still there. But it never was. It felt like a cruel trick his own body played on him. A part of him was disappointed every time. Half because his hand was gone. The other half was frustration at himself for allowing his hopes to be raised.
It had been two weeks since he had to cut off his own arm, a few inches above the wrist. It was his only option. That or let himself turn into one of those things after an infected had bitten off two of his fingers. Two weeks he had lived knowing his right hand was gone. But he still fell for it every time. He should know better by now. Then again, two weeks was nothing compared to the thirty-three years he’d lived with it.
Jason continued to stare down at his non-existent right hand, manipulating the muscles that normally would have turned it over. He kept contemplating everything that led to that moment. The moment that was forever branded into his mind. The knife slicing through his own arm, severing muscles, nerves, ligaments. Tearing the last fibers of flesh as he pulled his hand free from the rest of his body. All his thoughts led back to Sam. If it wasn’t for her, he would still be whole.
A loud grunt nearby jostled Jason from his fixation. He looked to his right, just off the highway. An infected was quickly making its way toward him from the forest of pine trees. Jason glanced around his surroundings, making sure there weren’t any others that had snuck up on him. Just the one. The infected planted its foot on the metal barrier and leapt over it. He spotted the tire iron in its clutches.
Jason’s right arm instinctively moved to grab the knife on his hip. As his imaginary hand grabbed nothing, he looked down in surprise. Disappointment hit him yet again. How could he have forgotten so soon? The infected closed in as he pulled his knee up to his chest. He thrust his leg forward, landing a front kick square into the chest of the infected, sending it staggering backwards.
It bought him enough time to grab the knife he had relocated to his left hip and unsheathe it. The infected charged again, arm cocked back, ready to attack with its own weapon. As it brought the tire iron down, Jason dodged to his left and slashed, slicing the upper arm of the infected. It screeched as blood dripped from the wound. It swung the tire iron back towards Jason. He went to catch the attack with his hand. Instead, the metal collided with his ribs. He stumbled backwards as he tried to refill his lungs with air, but the infected pressed forward, swinging the weapon wildly.
Jason kept retreating backwards, doing his best to avoid more blows. He was mostly successful, only taking another hit to his upper right arm. As the infected swung the weapon at Jason’s head, he planted his feet and ducked the blow. He surged forward, plowing his right shoulder into the infected’s gut. Wrapping his arm around its back, he lifted it off its feet and drove it into the pavement on its back with all his weight coming down through his shoulder.
The tire iron bounced from the infected’s grip with metallic clangs. Jason climbed on top of the infected and sunk his blade into the center of its chest. The infected squealed and grabbed Jason’s hand, pinning the knife into its body. He struggled to pull the knife free as the infected snarled at him and leaned its head forward, trying to bite Jason’s hand.
Jason reeled his right arm back and brought his elbow down on the infected’s head, sending its skull bouncing off the asphalt. Its grip loosened as he pulled his arm back and brought his elbow across its jaw, knocking it unconscious. Jason pulled the knife from its chest and stabbed it through the infected’s eye. He pulled the blade out and wiped the blood off on its shirt before standing up and sheathing the knife.
“Welcome home,” he told himself with a few deep breaths as he turned around, facing the outskirts of Flagstaff. He started on his way back into the city.
Jason stood on the sidewalk. There it was. His house. The place he’d spent the past three weeks trying to get back to as quickly as possible. So why couldn’t he move forward? As he stared at the white walls and stone outlining of the house, anxiety grew inside of him. Why? He wanted to go right in, kiss Sarah and get on with his life. But he was frozen. Nervous. He took a breath, trying to calm himself. He stepped into his overgrown lawn. His boots gently clomped against the wooden porch and stopped in front of the door.
His stomach was in a knot. He hadn’t felt this nervous since he first worked up the courage to talk to Sarah after her show, when he felt like he needed to win her approval. Why would he be feeling that now?
He raised his right arm to knock on the door and paused, staring at his missing hand. An overbearing sense of guilt, humiliation and despair rested over Jason’s heart. Negativity coursed through his brain.
The deadbolt unlatched with a muffled thunk. Jason looked to the door and quickly hid his right arm behind his back. The door opened, revealing a watery-eyed Sarah. Her inner eyebrows slanted upward in a sorrowful manner, a stark contrast to her tight lips, which held a frown. Jason’s head tilted down as he looked to the floor, shame overcoming him. Sarah stepped to him and reached up, wrapping her arms around his neck in a hug. She rested her head against his shoulder, face turned towards his.
“I am so pissed at you,” her voice whispered through the lump in her throat. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” was all that Jason could eek out as he began getting choked up.
He placed his arms around his wife and squeezed her. He felt only his left hand holding her. A sharp pain shot through his heart, followed by a heavy weight pulling it down. It was starting to sink in, just how much of a toll losing his hand had on him. How shattered and inadequate it made him feel. He couldn’t even hold his wife the way he used to. How could she want to be with someone that couldn’t do something so simple?
As Sarah felt Jason’s arms on her back, she noticed the heaviness in Jason. She pulled back, hands resting on his shoulders, and stared into his face. He avoided her eyes.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. He didn’t respond. “Jason?”
Finally, he looked into her eyes. Her hands drifted down his arms to hold his hands. Her left hand reached the end of his right arm. She looked down, seeing the scarred tissue.
“Oh God, Jason, what happened? Are you okay?” she asked as she held his arm in her hands. She looked back to him as his eyes turned away. He hid his arm behind him again.
“I’m fine. I was bitten. It was the only way to keep from getting infected.”
He looked back into her face, trying to read her through his bleary eyes. Guilt poured into his soul. How could he have done this to her? Abandon her and then return to her so broken?
“Sarah, I am so sorry. I never should have left you.”
She watched the tall, strong, confident man she’d known and fell in love with shrink in front of her. His shoulders slumped, and head lowered. She’d never seen him like this before. Her heart ached for him as she watched tears fall from his downcast face.
“Do you still… want me to stay?” he asked with trepidation.
Tears instantly brimmed and poured from Sarah’s sorrowful eyes as she caught a glimpse of the pain inside her husband. She swallowed, loosening her tight throat.
“Of course I do,” she said.
She placed her hands on the sides of his bearded face and lifted his head. Her eyes bounced back and forth between his as a tender smile came across her face. She passionately kissed him as she wrapped her arms around him again.
Jason opened the linen cabinet and grabbed a towel, unfolding it as he flipped it to rest on his shoulder. He walked into the bathroom and opened a few cabinets. Not finding what he needed, he closed them and left, shutting the bathroom door behind him. He walked into the living room and looked around.
“Sarah?” he called out.
There was no answer. He glanced out the window and saw her in the backyard, carrying a small bucket. He stepped over to the glass door and slid it open, stepping out. He saw her walking towards a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot homemade chicken coop. It was pretty bare bones. A bunch of two-by-fours nailed together to make a frame and wrapped in chicken wire with a rickety looking door attached. A few roosts sat against the back while six chickens roamed around. It didn’t look fancy, but it did the job. Jason observed the new structure as he walked to Sarah.
“Where’d this come from?” he asked.
She turned around, seeing him admiring her work. “I made it,” she smiled with pride.
“Get outta here. You made this? When?”
“Probably about six months ago.”
“Huh. I guess I didn’t see it when I first got back.”
“Well, you didn’t stay long.” The words stung Jason. His mouth tightened a bit as he looked down. Sarah realized how that came off. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… I just meant that you didn’t really have a chance to see it since you left so quickly.” That didn’t sound any better. “I’m not trying to… you know what, I’m just going to shut up now,” she said, slightly embarrassed.
“It’s okay, I understand,” he said as he reached out and placed his hand on her back, rubbing it. “So when’d you learn to make a chicken coop? And where did you get the chickens?”
“I read about it. You have a lot of time on your hands when you’re trying to survive. I went to the library and grabbed a bunch of books, and this was in one of them.”
“And the chickens?”
“I traded for them. Well, for eggs. I came across a guy up on Lockett road, over around Bushmaster park. He had his own chickens before. It took a while for him to trust me, but eventually he was willing to trade. He needed car batteries, and I happened to loot an auto repair shop, so I had plenty. Have plenty, actually.”
“You looted a repair shop?”
“Yeah. It was pretty much the first place I went. I figured everyone would be going for food, so I could grab batteries first. Anyway, I’d prepared everything ahead of time, so I kept the eggs warm, brought them back here, hatched them, and that was that.”
“Smart. That’s my girl,” he said as he leaned in and kissed her. “Hey, where’s the soap. I’d really like to get this layer of dirt off me.”
“Over here, I’ll show you.”
Sarah set down the pail of chicken feed and led Jason to the side of the house next to the gate. She grabbed a small, mesh shower caddy holding various bottles of shampoo and body wash.
“Here you go.”
“Thanks. And where and how do you…”
“Oh, I’ve just been going over to the lake.”
“Yeah. Beats hauling enough water back to bathe here.”
“Yeah it’s awkward, but you’ll get over it after a few times. Take your swim trunks if you’re too shy.”
“Hey, since you’re going there, would you mind bringing back water?”
“From the lake?”
“Yeah,” she said as she reached down and picked up two empty, plastic, gallon jugs. A length of rope was tied around each handle. “Just fill them up when you’re done.” She picked up another pair of jugs and put them both over Jason’s left shoulder.
“Fill them with water after I’m done bathing in it,” he said, trying to see if she understood how disgusting that was.
“We don’t drink it, dumbass,” she retorted with a smirk. “It’s for the chickens and the garden. They haven’t complained about it yet, so I really don’t think they care.”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No, I can handle it.”
“Okay. Well, just keep an eye out. Those things like to attack when you’re vulnerable. And being naked is a pretty vulnerable time. Always have a weapon within reach.”
He thought about it for a second. “Have you been attacked there?”
“Not for a while. Just go, you’ll be fine.”
Jason walked down the street carrying his supplies. He adjusted the jugs on his shoulder as he saw the shore of the lake come into view. He stepped off the road and strolled through the overgrown grass. When he reached the edge of the water, he slid the jugs and towel off his shoulder and set them on the ground. He kicked his sandals off, pulled his shirt over his head and let out a quick breath. He took a step into the water.
“Woo, chilly,” he said as the cool water lapped against his ankle.
His body tensed up, fighting the cold as he waded further in until he was waste deep. Jason took a breath before dunking himself into the waters and reemerged, water pouring from his body. He wiped the water from his face and looked around. It was dead silent except for the occasional bird chattering away. He eased himself into the water and kicked his legs up, floating on his back, gazing up at the blue sky.
His eyes turned to his surroundings. The lake was pretty much surrounded completely by trees. Only the occasional house backed up to it. The water wasn’t the cleanest, but it was still a nice shade of blue. With the tall pine trees towering over the lake, it felt isolated from the rest of the world. Hidden. Safe. As he floated weightlessly, he began to relax for the first time since… he couldn’t remember.
Jason sat up, letting his feet touch the muddy bottom of the man-made lake. He unstrapped the shower caddy from his wrist and pulled out a bottle of shampoo. He opened the cap and instinctively went to pour it in his right hand. He paused, just before squeezing the bottle and thought for a moment. Reaching up, he poured a stripe of shampoo from the back of his head to the front, capped the bottle and placed it in the water.
The bottle bobbed up and down, lightly drifting away as he rubbed the shampoo in his hair into a lathery foam. He took some of the suds and worked it into his thick beard. As he ran his fingers into his beard, he thought he probably shouldn’t let it get too long. He’d been growing it for about six weeks and it was already almost an inch long. He’d always been able to grow thick beards pretty quickly, something he chalked up to his Greek heritage. If he gave it a couple more weeks, it would be a good length.
Jason dunked himself under the surface of the water and vigorously raked his fingers across his scalp, clearing his hair of the shampoo. He resurfaced and wiped the water from his eyes. Turning around, he located the shower caddy and shampoo bottle as the floated away. His hand reached out and grabbed them, pulling them back. Looking through the products, he located a bottle of body wash. He flipped the cap up and again thought about how to proceed.
He placed the bottle in the crease of his right elbow and positioned his left hand under it. As he tried squeezing the bottle with his arm, it slipped out and hit the water with a small splash. A frustrated sigh emanated from Jason’s lips as he picked up the bottle. He stuck it under his armpit and squeezed it, dumping a dollop of the blue soap into his left hand.
As his hand moved over his body, spreading the wash, it released the sharp, clean, fragrance. It had been a long time since he smelled it. It was a wonder that Sarah had kept his favorite body wash. He dunked himself again, rinsing the foam from his body. Jason let out a contented sigh. He felt better. There was nothing like getting clean to make a person feel reinvigorated.
The water sloshed around his legs as Jason made his way out of the lake. He picked up the towel and began drying himself off. The process was made longer and more difficult without his right hand. He awkwardly flung the towel around his back, trying to dry the places he’d normally get with his other hand. And still he didn’t get everything.
He put his t-shirt back on and picked up the four jugs. He took a few steps back into the water and one by one, submerged the jugs. Air bubbles glubbed to the surface as water filled each one. He took them back to the shore, screwed the caps on, and slung them over his shoulder. He stepped over to his sandals, stuck his feet in them and started back home.