Nico leaned against the doorframe in his room, yawning and wiping the sleep out of his eyes.
“Who is it?” he asked, knowing damn well there was only one person in the Biddies who would pound on his door at the ass-crack of dawn.
“Mike. Come on, Big Man. We’re going hunting.”
He’d been calling Nico Big Man since the mall. Mike seemed to like it because he got to poke fun at Nico being in charge and his weight at the same time. To be fair, Nico was a big guy. Didn’t make calling him that any less of a dick move.
Oh, how he wished he could just ignore Mike. No, his first wish was that Mike wasn’t here. That he’d found some other poor unsuspecting community to wiggle into and stick to like a burr. But if he couldn’t have that, than he at least wished he didn’t need to be around him so much. The Biddies weren’t big, but there was always something to do. Oh, Mike is helping with the bikes today? Guess I’ll go help with the canning. Mike is raking today? Guess I’ll go out with the resources crew.
Mike pounded on the door again. “Wake up, Big Man, it’s time to feed the faces and you’re one of the best I’ve got.”
And that was why there was no going back to bed. The people at the Biddies had come to rely on him and Mike and Paula for protein. And every time Mike said something that made Nico want to step on his foot, he went and said something like that.
Of course, something Nico had known even before the world ended: nothing is easy.
Sometimes you and your friends want to go to Dragoncon all dressed as Marvel superheroes and it doesn’t matter how much you want to be Thor, you’re the one Black guy so three guesses who everyone else wants you to be.
Sometimes you meet a girl and have that ‘love at first sight’ thing tearing up your heart but it’s really ‘love at first chat’ and it turns out she lives in the Philippines and neither of you have the energy for that long-distance thing.
And sometimes the crotchety, grizzled, sort-of racist POS you’d rather avoid at all costs is not only the best hunter in your little post-collapse community, he’s also somehow a really good teacher. And one of the second-best hunters in your little post-collapse community turns out to be you.
“You’re holding it wrong. You hold it like that the recoil is going to bite your nose off. Here…no, watch what I’m doing and copy it, get a feel for it. You want it to fit snugly…yes, right there. Wow. You figured that out fast. You’re smarter than you look.”
Before he found the Biddies, Nico had never held a gun in his life. He had been a modern twenty-first century man. Born and raised in Atlanta, he’d been a programmer doing back-end production for Coca-Cola’s internal websites for close to three years before the shit hit the fan. He’d had a small but nice apartment which he’d kept tidy and organized. A Hyundai he had almost paid off and drove only in the city except to go to his parent’s place out in the suburbs for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Juneteenth. He’d had his outside life, and his life online. He saw at least one movie a week and spent his Sundays streaming COD with his friends on Twitch. They were actually starting to get something of a following – over one hundred viewers the very last time they played together.
Nico was only in Denver for a work conference. Half the plane had been wheezing and sneezing and Nico distinctly remembered pulling out three packets of Emergen-C and dumping it all into the little half-swallow of orange juice they had served and eating the resulting Tang-colored sludge with a spoon. Everyone had known about this weird flu going around for two or three weeks, but the week of the conference was when its true, deadly nature began to spread. The last day of the conference was cancelled. Nico was on the train two miles away from the airport when his and everyone else’s phone went off. All air travel grounded until further notice.
He was already sick. Only a stuffy nose and a mild fever, but by then he’d seen what it could turn into. Nico really only wanted to go back to Atlanta to die in the comfort of his own bed. Never made it to Atlanta. Never died, either. He’d been one of the Lucky. His fever and stuffy nose had cleared up and that had been the end of that. Which meant that, instead of dying in an unfamiliar city, he had to survive the post-apocalypse there.
Nothing is easy.
“The two of you really surprise me,” Mike said as they cut through the woods. “I can’t believe a woman shaped like you can hold a gun, let alone skin a deer. And I can’t believe how quiet you are, Big Man.”
Paula and Nico exchanged looks behind Mike’s back.
I could kill him. Pretend it was an accident.
Nah, we might need him for food later.
They should have been done by now, where the fuck were the deer? Back in his other life, Nico hadn’t really believed all that talk about hunting deer to keep their numbers down. Sounded like exactly what any gun-happy carnivore would say for the chance to shoot more deer. It was one of the things he’d been the most wrong about in his life. Without humans, deer were everywhere. The woods. The crops. Walking up and down Main Street in Broken Hearts, nosing at the windows like they wanted to get in. Usually when they went out hunting in the morning they had a kill or two within the hour. Then they’d field dress it and then Nico didn’t have to be anywhere near Mike for a few more days.
They’d already been out here for a couple hours by now, according to his watch (thank God for lithium).
They hadn’t seen hide nor hair.
Paula smiled at Nico, a smile Mike definitely wasn’t supposed to see.
“I’m surprised you’re doing so well out here, old man,” she said.
Nico saw Mike stiffen and suppressed a snicker. Mike was in his forties but had apparently spent his teens and twenties on a motorcycle, soaking up all the sun and smoking up all the cigarettes and sopping up all the booze he could find. He looked closer to sixty. And he hated it.
“Yeah, man, how are your joints holding up? They starting to ache? I got some Motrin here,” Nico said.
After some sputtering, Mike half turned and spat, “How are your joints, Big Man? All that extra weight.”
They’d gotten under his skin, so his shitty little comment barely stung.
“I’ve been telling you, I’m not overweight, I’m just big,” Nico said. “You do remember me telling you that, right?”
“Oh, no!” Paula said, clutching her temple. “His memory!”
“My memory is just fucking fine and dandy, thank you!”
“Mike, you’re going to scare the deer.”
“Oh, fuck the deer! Where the hell are they, anyway? You’d think-”
Mike cut off and put his arms out, stopping the others.
They were in the woods northeast of town. This was their territory, and the knew every inch of it. Just beyond Mike and his outstretched arms was a small clearing, choked with thin grasses packed thick. They had breakfast here a lot, savoring Leo’s biscuits and jam while sitting on large stones across the way.
Currently, there was a bear standing near those stones.
Nosing through the grasses, large paw covering the stone Nico usually at on.
“Must not have heard us come up,” Mike muttered.
“I don’t see any cubs,” Paula said, glancing around.
Nico grunted. “Doesn’t mean there aren’t any. We need to-”
That’s when the bear stood up, and all three hunters shared the same epiphany.
Just like with the deer, ever since the humans had faded away the bears had begun to take back their territory. They had stared at this bear, bent over with its face in the grass, thinking it was one of the local black bears. Sure, its fur was brown. But that didn’t mean much. Black bears could have brown fur. Apparently, bear things were very confusing.
What wasn’t confusing was the bear’s height. Without speaking a word, all three of them were able to agree that this was the largest bear any of them had ever seen, communicated through hissed inhales and tightening muscles. Then Nico was noticing other things. The brown color wasn’t the same. It was too light, almost sandy in some spots. And there was a shape on its back, a hump, that he hadn’t seen before.
In real life, anyway. He had most certainly seen it online.
“That’s a grizzly,” he said.
“Grizzlies don’t live around here,” Mike said, his low voice wavering.
“They do now,” Paula said. “We need to go before-”
Too late. The bear was looking at them now.
“Maybe it’s a friendly bear from the zoo?” Paula asked.
Its roar was not friendly.
“I read about this on the internet,” Nico said in soft tones. “Don’t play dead. And don’t-”
He didn’t even have the r sound out of the word ‘run’ before Mike had turned around and pushed through them, screaming, “Scatter!” as he hustled through the grass and trees as fast as his tired legs would take him.
Nico may have been a modern twenty-first century man, but he knew enough about bears to figure he was dead. Mike ran. The bear grew even more pissed off than baseline. Paula and Nico took one look at the bear, one look after Mike, and one look at each other before turning around and running in opposite directions. Because Nico knew nothing in life was easy, it didn’t come as a surprise when he realized the bear had chosen him to follow. His placid resignation was swallowed whole by his fear of also being swallowed whole.
That Mike yellow-ass piece of SHIT. He’s killed me.
There was a barn nearby. John or Birdie could tell you who it used to belong to, but Nico just thought it of as the dookie barn thanks to its ugly color. Through the trees, a quarter of a mile at the most. He’d been on the internet a lot when everyone was suddenly obsessed with bears. Grizzlies could run thirty-five miles an hour. Whatever the top speed of a human being was, there was no way in fiery hell Nico was achieving it. The bear was gaining behind him. Its massive paws were slapping the ground and making tremors run under Nico’s feet. What, exactly, would happen if (when) the bear caught him was ineffable. He tried to picture it and found his brain wouldn’t allow it.
There was only one thing that might save him.
Just as the bear felt impossibly close, the musky smell of it washing over him, Nico reached the barbed wire fence. With one hand on a wooden post he vaulted over it easily, tripped a little as he hit the ground, and then kept running.
The bear hadn’t seen the fence at all and ran straight into it. Nico heard its angry huffing and snorting turn into a confused whine.
Relief dared to enter into Nico’s heart. He fought it. Looked over his shoulder.
The grizzly bear had half climbed, half fallen over the fence.
It had not lost sight of its prey.
But Nico had lost sight of the ground, and was terrified but not surprised when his shoe hit a rock and brought him tumbling to the ground, six feet away from the barn doors.
He almost turned around. Then decided he didn’t want to watch the jaws of death reach him.
He closed his eyes.
BAM. BAM. BAMBAMBAMBAM.
A shocked, inhuman groan.
“Okay, okay, nice shooting, Tex! I think you got him.”
Carefully, slowly, inch by inch, as though any faster and the spell would be broken, Nico turned around.
The bear was in a heap on the ground. If the barn door was six feet away, the bear was only three. It was face down, wasn’t breathing, and surrounded by a growing pool of blood.
Still, Nico looked up to Paula and Mike for proof.
“Deader than the world, Big Man,” Mike said.
The sky began to grow dim and Nico realized he was holding his breath. He released it with coughs and wheezes, panting as he picked himself up.
“I thought you were long gone.”
Mike shrugged as he laid his gun across his shoulder. “Needed to get some distance on it so I could shoot it. Didn’t know who it would follow.”
“You used me as bait.”
“I used all of us as bait, didn’t you hear what I said? Jesus, use your freaking ears.”
With an outstretched arm, Paula poked the bear with the end of her shotgun. “Can we eat bear?”
“Huh,” Mike said. He spat. “I guess the first question is ‘can we get it back to the Biddies?’”
Nico was still brushing himself off. Twice in his life, now, he had been one hundred percent positive he was about to die. Maybe he couldn’t. Maybe he was immortal.
And if he was, that wouldn’t be easy, either.
Suddenly Mike was next to him. Looking him over. And was that concern in his eyes? Or the glare from the sun?
“You okay? I mean, really?”
Nico blinked. “I think so.”
Nico looked down where Mike was pointing to find his pants ripped and the back of his calf red.
“Must have not cleared the fence as well as I thought.”
“That was good thinking, coming this way. That bear hit that fence and didn’t know what to do.”
“You saw that?”
“I told you, I just needed space to shoot. I wasn’t going to leave ya’s.”
Mike. Stupid, selfish, mean-spirited Mike. Easier if he could just walk away from him. But sometimes he said things, did things, that showed this other side of him, and-
“For some unfathomable reason God gave me you two idiots as the best hunters, and I ain’t keen on trying to teach nobody else at the Biddies to do what you two idiot savants could do with your eyes closed.”
Nico closed his eyes and counted to ten, something Wendy had taught him.
No, nothing was easy.