“I mean, there’s seven of them. Do we even have room for seven new people right now? The supplies?” Maggie McCarthy spoke carefully, looking each of the other eight council members in the eye as she did, one by one. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this!” Byron Lemming was suddenly on his feet. “These people need our help, and we’re talking about sending them back out the front door?” A murmur of solemn appreciation twinkled around the room. Maggie only stared at him, clearly calculating her next words carefully. But before she could speak, Brandon Hill rose up, hands placed resolutely on the large oak round table before him and spoke firmly to the congregation at large. “We need to help them.” He spoke, his eyes full of hope, and fear. “We need to, or they’ll die. Simple as that” Brandon held his gaze with Maggie for a moment before finishing. “This isn’t that place, and we’re not them. We need to help.”
“But how?” Otis Greens’ voice suddenly rumbled, deep from behind his decades-old beard. His eyes twinkled with light as he spoke, his voice firm, yet fair. “Maggie is right, isn’t she?” He looked around the room, seemingly sizing up his peers. “Seven people? How would we even do it?” The congregation muttered their assent. “Some nights there’s hardly enough to go around as it is.” He waved one thick, weatherworn arm towards the large bay window before them as he spoke - out towards the houses, and towards the walls. Towards the people. And towards them.
“No.” Byron Lemming spoke again, looking between Otis’s wise, dark eyes and Maggie’s shifty, calculating green ones. The two only gazed back towards him, waiting patiently for what was to come. “We could make it work, you know we could,” Byron spoke again, this time directly to Maggie alone. “We could plant more seeds, send out more hunting parties. There’s always a way, you know that, don’t you?” Maggie only smiled. It was genuine and kind, but there was a hardness to it, as well - there had to be, by now. “But that’s just it, isn’t it? More hunting parties, more work in the fields.” Her hands clasped in front of her for a moment, making a small pyramid of flesh and bone. “More danger for our people, in other words. For them”
“For our people?” Byron spoke, shock etched into every syllable he uttered. “They’re here now. They’re inside of our walls.” Fire blazed in the young man's wild eyes. “They are our people, now.” Maggie only smiled, that gentle hardness still playing carefully at the corners of her delicate lips. “No, they’re not.” It was all she said for a moment. They all waited for her to speak again. “Just like you weren’t Byron before we decided to let you stay.” She looked carefully into Byron’s steady, blue eyes. “You haven’t been here for long. There are things you still don’t know.”
A look of placid recognition was oozing slowly across Byron Lemmings’ smooth, vernal face. They all watched, breath baited. “So how long did it take?” Was all he said when he finally spoke again. Fred Bodsworth snorted. They all looked at him and watched as he turned a shade red, embarrassed. “Well…” The frail middle-aged man spoke at last. “Who would want to know a thing like that?” He looked into Byron's eyes as we drawled on. “Better to leave well enough alone, I would think young man.” He finished kindly, his toothy old man smile dancing in his one good eye. “Plus, you know we love you, man!” Jake Reynolds, the man to Byron’s left spoke up at once, looking purposefully into his friends’ wild eyes. “It was an easy choice with you, believe that.”
“Well, for some of us, maybe.” Maggie McCarthy uttered plainly, not bothering even to speak under her breath. She looked at Byron again, her smile much harder now than it was kind. “For other’s, it was a hard choice.” She blinked once, thinking. “For some of us, it always is.”
“But I was alone.” Byron gasped, the gravity of the realization finally hitting him all at once - like an errant boulder falling suddenly from a dangerously high place. How close they must have been to casting him out. “What would have possibly made you think -” Suddenly Ted Rheiner cut him off, his smooth voice melting it’s way uneasily into Byron’s steaming ears. “Not everyone’s gonna’ like you all the time, boy.” A twinkle of mirthless laughter echoed in his pale blue eyes. “Better you learn that now.” As the man spoke, his eyes drifted lazily towards where Maggie McCarthy sat, her hands still tented together before her bosom, her elbows resting carefully on the table before her. She looked again at Byron, and waited for a time, before saying. “I thought you were dangerous, I’ll admit it. For that assumption, I carry no shame.” Around the table, eyes shifted from one set of sockets to the next. Byron’s eyelids hardened and closed suddenly tight - snapping like that of some great prehistoric alligators ancient, and mighty jaws. Lids still cinched tightly around his shimmering, fearful eyes, he listened, until finally, they snapped wide again. “I still do.” Maggie finished, catching hold again of Byron’s now rabid, manic gaze.
From somewhere far away, outside the sanctuary of their great steel walls, a gunshot rang out - high in the still, mid-afternoon air, as if underlying just what they’ve all been thinking. To send someone out there, now, it was a death sentence. Whether they made it a day, a week, or a year - they all knew. Out there, one way or the other, eventually you were dead. The council looked uneasily towards the faces of one another. An uneasy feeling slowly but surely filling the still afternoon air, like some wicked miasma, slowly eeking it’s serpentine tendrils out towards each and every one of their collective minds. Byron Lemmings still stared into Maggie McCarthy’s face, eyes wide and full of terror. When he spoke again, anger dripped uneasily over every word, covering each of them with its pungent, acrid stench. “You would have left me to die?” His eyes wide, incredulous wonder dancing across them like fire, arcing high out into the sky. “And them? You’d leave them, too?” He began to shout again. “You’d leave them, to those things?”
And all at once the entire council save one member was on their feet. Voices raised, arms in the arm, eyes wide and full of passionate fervor. It was as if the calm demeanor that had resonated throughout most of the congregation thus far had suddenly shattered. It was clear, that neath it’s placid surface, the council was divided. Some members shouted for amnesty, that it would be tantamount to murder to send those men and women out there again. Others lamented the loss but insisted that their own lives, and the lives of the citizens of this community, were the most important thing and that they were what had to be considered now. For a time it was chaos. Tempers flared and fists were raised, shaken high and long towards the heavens above, as if in demand of justice - for whom, at this point, it seemed like no one knew.
It happened suddenly. One second Byron Lemmings was screaming his lungs out, red in the face, fury entrenched deeply in his wild animal eyes. The next he was still, the cool steel barrel of Maggie McCarthy’s snub-nosed Colt .44 placed firmly in his face. Every single member of the council suddenly stood stock still, as if some many eyes Gorgan had slipped in, in secret, and cast them all to stone. “I know you were dangerous then, and I know it now,” Maggie spoke, a cool determinism haunting her joyless eyes. “I won’t let you hurt my friends.” From beside her, apparently roused finally from his hitherto now apathetic slumber, Hunter Garnet finally began to raise is old and sparsely white-haired head. They all looked to him besides Maggie, who had eyes only now for Byron himself. A low guttural moan echoed forth from somewhere deep, hidden away beneath the skin of Hunter’s wrinkled, parchment-thin chest. One long, jagged and yellowing fingernail began to rise, slowly, towards Maggie McCarthy’s backside. “Maggie, look out!” Otis Green was yelling, panic suddenly lit ablaze it his old, wizened eyes. But it was too late - it was on her. The corpse creaked and scraped it’s bone over her flailing body, scratching into her, and biting greedily into the bountiful flesh of her left side, like some desperate, caged piranha, exposed finally to a shred of sopping waterlogged meat. Maggie screamed, her arms flailing wildly in the air, her shining metal snub-nosed Colt .44 revolver flying suddenly through the air.
There was a loud bang. And all was silent. All besides Maggie, writhing on the floor and screaming as she went, her blood already pouring viscously out from her gaping wound. “My God, Maggie.” Otis Green spoke, his own gun metal pistol hanging loosely now from his hand, smoke rising gently out of its barrel into the still, mid-afternoon air. The recently reanimated corpse of Hunter Garnet laying limply to the side of Maggie McCarthy, a gaping wound gushing from his head, bits of Maggie’s flesh still hanging loosely in his yellowed, aged jaws.
“He must have died in his sleep. Holy shit…” Byron Lemmings spoke, incredulity eeking out of every swing of his dry and quiver tongue. Suddenly, looking down, he saw it. Maggie's snub, the one that had just a moment ago been hanging directly in front of his face, lay solemnly now by his right foot, useless and ineffective on its own. As he bent down to pick it up, Otis Green grumbled, and half-heartedly raised his gun to the level of his hips, before lowering it again. “Hell, maybe it should be you.” He spoke, defeated and shocked at what this meeting had become. “Maybe that’s right.”
Leaning down now, by Maggie’s side, Byron moved in close, the shining steel of the Colt glimmering wickedly in the mid-afternoon sun - the other six remaining members of the Winterberry Council were silent, still shocked by what had so suddenly transpired. “I’m sorry Maggie, I never wanted this,” Byron whispered gently, directly into Maggie’s left ear. He raised the gun to her temple and cocked it at once. Byron said it again, more to himself this time than to anyone else, but out loud nonetheless. “I never wanted this.” But before he could pull the trigger, she spoke. Her herds waffled, coming to him so quietly it was impossible for Byron to hear her from where he now knelt. Leaning down closer, he asked her to say it again. Maggie’s hands began to reach out towards his neck, shaking with the fear and adrenaline of death as they moved. They clasped firmly around him, and pulling him close to herself, she uttered those words one last time.
Byron’s eyes grew wide once more - but this time, it was not rage that had prompted them. Fear was etched in every line of the young man’s face, as he looked for a moment into the eyes of the woman who had conjured it. Before he could speak, before he could pull the trigger before he even had time to think, she was on him - malice alight in her dazzling, barely alive eyes. As her jaws closed around his throat, as her teeth began to puncture this meaty flesh, he pulled the trigger at last. Desperately he pulled it again and again, the remaining council members covering their ears, and hiding their horror-stricken eyes from the grizzly scene before them. And then, it was over. Finally, they were still. From the floor, Byron Lemmings clutched at the wound now slowly bleeding through his fingers. He looked up at all of them, shock and wonder encompassing his entire visage. “She bit me…” He said, at last, shock and disgust hanging off of every word. “She bit me.” He said again. “You don’t think…” He looked up, his young, bright eyes meeting Otis Green’s old, wise ones. The man held out his gun again, firmly in his left hand. “I don’t know, Byron.” He said, sorrow apparent in every aspect of his self. “I just don’t know.”
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The story you just read was written by me, Matthew Munsey @matthewmunseyart
This is the second edition of this piece, hopefully finally error free for your reading pleasure!