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Fred

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There are two-hundred sixteen stitches on a baseball. Its inner core is either rubber or cork. The baseball is wrapped in yarn that, if stretched, can reach up to a mile in length. The outside core that covers the tightly wrapped yarn is usually leather, sometimes plastic in the case of younger children.

Former US presidents John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover had pet alligators, Calvin Coolidge two lions, and Theodore Roosevelt a badger named Josiah who had the unfortunate habit of biting people.

Interesting, albeit useless, information.

When it’s just you and one other person, trapped within a cramped apartment for seven straight months, this is what happens. Boredom invades your mind and you cling to anything anything anything that cuts through the monotony.

Of course, this was before the electricity went out, taking away Google and Wikipedia.

Fred isn’t helping matters. We’ve been best friends for a long time (longer than I can remember), and we used to talk about anything and everything. But ever since the monsters came and the world moved on, he rarely opens his mouth. Right now he’s sitting across the tiny living room of our three-room apartment. One of his elbows leans against the chair arm, his head propped on top of his fist as if bored. Well, duh, of course he’s bored! I am, too!

So why won’t he talk to me anymore? Why does he ignore me?

“Fred,” I say. No response. “Fred!”

His head slips and now lies on top of his flabby arm. I can tell he wants to sleep. That’s all he does anymore, nothing but sleeping and ignoring someone he once called his best friend. I don’t care. I’m beyond caring. It’s hard to care when you don’t even have a life anymore.

“Forget you, dude,” I say, rising from the sofa.

I’d left the window open that day, the unbearable chill of winter still several weeks away. The smell of some kind of cookout latches onto my nostrils. Before I realize it, drool trickles down my bearded chin. Downtown Cincinnati is quite bare of life, but from my position on the twelfth floor of the apartment complex, I see a fire in the distance. A bonfire, at the intersection of I think 5th Street and Vine Street, across the street from Macy’s. Are there people down there? I can’t tell, but there has to be. Who else would have started the bonfire?

Though teasing to my taste buds, I know this smell. It’s not a slab of sweet, baby back ribs from Morton’s Steakhouse, or a big juicy Baconator from Wendy’s.

Charred, human flesh.

Cannibalism is a subject Fred and I haven’t discussed just yet. Honestly, though, I don’t plan on bringing it up. I’ll never let it get that far. Even the deadbrains out there who aren’t human anymore, I wouldn’t even eat them. I’m sure we could maybe kill the infection by burning the flesh… but… that’s just so sick. There’s no way I could do that. I’d sooner put a bullet between my eyes than eat another human being. It’s too bad I don’t have a gun, though.

Plus, I’m pretty sure Fred is a vegetarian. Strange, too, given his… well, given him.

I turn back around and find Fred slouched forward, almost to the point of falling out of his chair altogether. He’s fast asleep. At least he doesn’t snore, so I guess there’s that to be thankful for.

The day is slowly drawing to a close, taking away what little light we’d had on such a cloudy day. I scan the supplies strewn about our room. There’s a lot of stupid little things that are of no use, but very little food: only a can of baked beans, a half loaf of stale bread, and a single bottle of water. How in the world did we let our food supply dwindle without realizing it? I’d done well after the initial breakout, taking supplies from the apartment rooms of those who’d fled the area (or who’d killed themselves rather than brave the streets), but that was seven months ago. We’re almost out, and that means I’ll have to go outside and find something.

I don’t want to, though. I’m… I’m scared. Fred’s still asleep but all I want to do is shake him, shake him until he finally wakes up and apologizes. I want him to apologize for not helping me gather food and I want him to apologize for not helping me barricade our door from the monsters outside.

But most of all, I want him to apologize for stop being my friend.

“You were my only friend,” I whisper, loud enough for only my ears. “Why did you have to change?”

But maybe I’m being unfair. The outbreak… it’s affected me, too. Or at least that’s what Fred told me. He tells me that I continuously scream out my family’s names while I sleep, an eternal bully of a nightmare that won’t stop picking on me. As far as I know, Fred didn’t have any family (or at least he’d never said so). My family was all the way in Chicago. I’d called them and texted with them after the initial outbreak, but after a few months they stopped answering. Do you know what it feels like to essentially know your parents are dead, but have no proof of it? You keep telling yourself they’re alright, they’re probably locked up safe and simply can’t call back at the moment. Then you keep telling yourself this for four months straight as if you believe it. Lying to yourself… that’s what you do.

Let me tell you something about lying to yourself: it doesn’t work. I just hope they’re not one of… one of them. One of the monsters.

I look up and see that Fred is awake. “What are we gonna do about food and water?” I ask him. Still no answer. “Fred, dude… answer me.”

I’m trying to keep myself from shouting (from attracting the deadbrains outside if nothing else), but it’s so difficult. Why is he doing this to me? I just want to lash out and… and…

Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. That’s what I have to do when I want to keep myself from becoming angry. My psychiatrist once told me that exhaling slowly was a great way of releasing stress, to keep yourself from doing something you knew you’d eventually regret. I think she was right, but only to an extent.

I sit back down on the sofa and exhale as deeply as I can. And, oh, what do you know! Fred’s asleep again! Before I even realize what’s happening, I’m out of my seat and standing directly in front of Fred, an empty glass bottle of Coca-Cola in my hand. And then I… then I… slowly lower my arms. Was I… was I really going to hit him? Ashamed of myself, though thankful Fred hadn’t witnessed what I’d nearly done, I sit back down on the sofa and let the bottle fall out of my hands and onto our carpeted floor.

My best friend! I was going to smash his face in with a glass bottle! What is wrong with me? My head is in my hands and I’m crying. Softly, though. I don’t want to wake Fred up. I can’t let him see my cry. I’ve gotten pretty good at crying quietly and he hasn’t caught me yet.

But now I’m so hungry. I can’t even concentrate. The food… there’s not much left, but there it is, on the floor! I could eat it… I could eat it, and when Fred wakes up and wants to know what happened to the food, I’ll just tell him there never was any food. I’ll tell him we went out three days ago. All he does is sleep, so I’ll just tell him he dreamed that we still had food. That’ll work, right? Right

But as I get on my hands and knees and quietly creep over to the food… there’s actually nothing there.

The can of beans is empty, the bottle of water is empty, and the loaf of bread is nonexistent. I… I dreamed it? That can’t be, though. There’s no way I saw a loaf of bread unless it was actually there. But! But… there’s nothing in front of me. I can’t eat the plastic bottle, and I most certainly can’t eat the tin can! What to do, then? What to do?!

As if answering my cries, a shriek from outside raises the hair on my pale, skinny arms. If I want food I’ll have to leave the room. Worse, I’ll have to leave the apartment altogether. I’ve already scavenged what food was left within the other rooms before the monsters chased me back inside, forcing me to barricade the door. What if they’re still out there? What if they’ve been out there all these months, just waiting for me to make the mistake of coming back out? I don’t even have a weapon! A hammer and a baseball bat, maybe, but that won’t do me any good when a horde of undead has surrounded me!

But I’m not ready to die. I’m not ready to find out what happens on the other side.

The food, though… I’m so hungry! If I could just–

My stomach rumbles as an idea hits me. Maybe I have a source of food after all. It would be easy to catch. It doesn’t move and it’s sitting right across from me, fast asleep.

“Please forgive me,” I whisper, rising from the floor and grabbing the Louisville Slugger to my right. My hands are shaking and my teeth are chattering and I just and I just want to eat eat eat and I don’t care if he’s my best friend. I know told myself it would never come to this, but… but I can’t go outside. I just can’t do it. Can’t do it, no, can’t do it. And there’s food, right here in front of me! Right here! Right here!

The baseball bat is inches away from Fred’s face before I notice something. Are his cheeks red? I feel his forehead and find it deathly hot. “No, no,” I whisper, kneeling beside him.
“Fred?” I say, but of course he doesn’t respond. “Fred! Fred, wake up! Please wake up!”

He still doesn’t respond and I know I’ve almost lost him. And I also know what I have to do. I have to scour the apartment for medicine. Something to battle the fever, anything! He’s been sick this entire time and I didn’t even know it!

“Hold on, buddy! I’ll be right back! I’m gonna get medicine!”

I shove aside the filled bookshelf that had been leaning in front of the door, along with two nightstands. Books are falling every which way, hitting me in the face and shoulders, but I ignore them as I open the door and rush into the hallway with my baseball bat in hand. Should Death await me, I say let him come. I won’t sit idle and let my best friend die without a fight.

Fred still sits slouched in the chair, stuffing seeping out from under his left armpit, and the black button of his right eye dangling by its last thread. If I can just find a spool of thread and a sewing kit I know I can save his life.

 

* Jeffery T. Ford currently attends class at Indiana University Southeast, where he is majoring in English-Writing with the objective of eventually becoming a professor of Writing and Literature.

 

 

 

 

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