Chapter 5.6- Milk-Heavy Udders

4 Oct

Welcome back to another edition of Zombies and Yu. Okay so just a heads up guys, things might not be on a weekly basis anymore. I’ve hit a point in this story where it’s starting too feel more like work than like something fun to do, so I’m having a harder time getting into it. I think it’s mostly because I’m still figuring out how to write this upcoming stuff, so I’m just giving it time to stew in my brain for now. Point is, if posts aren’t weekly, don’t worry. I won’t leave forever, it’s just for a little bit. I still have big plans for the next three generations and rough ideas of the last two so I’m not just gonna quit now, am I?

Anyway, back to the story. If you don’t remember, Briony and Michael are currently visiting Michael’s sister Miranda, her husband, and their three kids. They live on a ranch and train horses to kill zombies, because fuck yeah they do.

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Briony’s favourite horse she’s met is little Arrow. Earlier that morning Miranda and Jonathan’s oldest daughter, Aspen, had taken Briony by the hand and led her out to the pen where Arrow and her mother were grazing. Arrow prances a playful circle around them and then stops for a quick nuzzle. Aspen explains how fearless little Arrow is already looking like she’ll be one of their best zombie killers one day.

Briony and Aspen spend the morning playing with Arrow while elsewhere, Michael and Jonathan introduce Roland to one of their best mares in hopes of getting them to mate.

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Later, everyone convenes in the grass to bask in the noon-time sun.

Miranda: Well that went well, and if everything works out we’re going to have a very well-bred foal running around in about a year.

Jonathan: And we’re going to need it with everything that’s been going on lately.

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Briony gives them a questioning look.

Briony: What’s been going on lately?

Miranda: The traps… there are hardly any zombies left in the wild these days, but we suspect it’s because someone’s rounding them up.

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Jonathan: Around the outskirts of town people have been finding them. You trip a wire, you lean on the wrong wall, and suddenly you’re in a heap of trouble. Mitch Haythorn’s son fell into a hidden pit and got eaten alive a few years back. These incidents are rare, but you sure remember them.

Briony quickly begins to explain her experience at the warehouses. Miranda and Jonathan listen intently, while Michael stares up into the sky with an unreadable expression on his face.

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She comes to the point of jumping off the cliff and pauses.

Miranda: See, that’s why we need well-trained horses that are bred to sense these things before we do. We’re trying to get one or two for everybody we know so that noone has to go through that again.

The conversation turns to other things, and eventually someone notices the sun is at its halfway point. They reluctantly pull themselves up off the grass and make the few necessary preparations for departure.

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Briony is surprised to find herself so disappointed to leave. She savors her hugs from all five members of the family, plus Arrow, and finally climbs up onto Roland’s back. They all take one last lingering look at the peaceful ranch behind them, and then Michael, holding Roland’s lead, guides them under a low-hanging tree and into the swamp lands.

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Briony spends the return journey listening to Michael tell her about all the families in their trading network. The trip is surprisingly short and before they know it they’re inside their own fence, where Janessa sits churning butter.

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Janessa leaps up and brushes past Michael to envelop Briony in a bony but warm hug.

Janessa: Finally you’ve got some colour in those pallid cheeks! Now I hope that boy didn’t make you walk through  the swamps, hey Michael?

Michael rushes to say that he didn’t, but true to her nature Janessa cuts him short.

Janessa: Go get that lead off poor Roland, look at him itching in the dirt!

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Michael rolls his eyes and complies. Once he’s out of earshot Janessa unleashes a barely intelligible stream of whispers into Briony’s ear.

Janessa: So? What happened? Tell me everything. Did that boy finally pluck up a shred of courage? Because if he hasn’t by now then I’m right about to disown him as his grandmother. No sense keeping it all balled up inside you for so long, I keep telling him it’s high time he cleared the air because every sentient being for miles can see it all over him. Well, go on then!

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Redness burns in Briony’s cheeks, and she suddenly sees why Michael was so quick to find something else to do.

Briony: I- no. I don’t know what you’re talking about, I mean-

Janessa: Oh, shame on him. Well, feel free to confront him about it if you get tired of waiting.

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Briony: I- I don’t-

But Janessa has already stalked off to her garden. Entirely oblivious, Michael jaunts over with a bored expression on his face.

Michael: Already putting you to work, is she? Sheesh, she’s a tough case. Don’t let her push you around too much.

Briony: I- she wasn’t-

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Michael bends down and plucks the three blue flowers growing at Briony’s feet, and then turns and runs into the house. Briony is grateful that he’s so preoccupied, because her cheeks choose that moment to again light up crimson.

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Things quickly go back to normal, with the only change being that Janessa seems much more tired this evening than before. She barks orders from a chair while Briony and Michael hastily try to prepare dinner to her exact specifications.

Michael: Maybe Gran, if you just slowed down a bit during the day you could-

Janessa: Nonsense, boy. It’s time you learned how to properly roast a rabbit anyways! It’s a dismal business, your cooking. No girl could ever live with a man who cooks like you.

She lets this hang heavily in the air, and seems to take delight in the awkward lack of eye contact and blushing cheeks it produces.

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It would be easy for Briony to despise Janessa for what she says, if it weren’t for it always being delivered with laughing eyes and a certain warmth hiding just below the surface. This in addition to her rapidly shrinking frame results in all her blunt comments and booming orders being met with eye rolls and doting smiles from both Briony and Michael.

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That night Briony lets out a long sigh as she shuts her bedroom door. Her feet ache from the journey and the work of the evening, and she closes her eyes as she wipes a sheen of sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand. She opens them again, and a new addition to her nightstand catches her attention. Away from Janessa’s prying eyes, Briony lets out a small smile at the gift, before climbing under her sleeping furs and blowing out the candles.

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Briony’s morning begins early. Her wake up call comes in the form of the two cows mooing loudly for her to come relieve their milk-heavy udders. This is one of Briony’s favourite chores. It’s rhythmic, mindless work perfect for easing her into the day, and she presses her cheek into the cow’s warm flank and closes her eyes.

Something flutters against her forehead, and when she reaches up to brush it away she finds a yellow stalk of straw. Looking down, she finds a few more floating in her milk pail.

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The cow shakes its head, annoyed at the straw now flying into its nose and eyes. A rustling sound nearby reveals the culprit.

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Briony: Hey! Get out of here and quit making trouble!

Michael: I’m not making trouble, just doing my chores.

Briony: Go find something else to do or I will personally ensure that there is hay in your milk, cheese, and butter for the next week!

He bounds away, snickering mischievously.

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Today Janessa seems much more exhausted, and the biggest effort she makes involves lugging her rocking chair out onto the grass amid Michael’s protests. She waves him away and settles down to holler orders across the yard.

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With Janessa out of commission, Briony recruits Michael to help her in the garden. He knows surprisingly little about how to grow anything other than apples, and sticks to digging potatoes while she tackles the more complicated stuff.

Michael: This was always Gran’s thing, she always shooed me away and found other stuff for me to do. Might have had something to do with the fact that I only ever liked to lay here and eat…

Briony: Yeah, I can see her having a problem with that.

Michael: You know, she’s tough on me, but I don’t know what I’ll do when I don’t have that.

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Briony: You rely on her a lot.

Michael: Yeah… my parents got killed by a bandit group when I was ten. Miranda was already living with Jonathan by then, so Gran moved in and made sure things kept running. I’ve never had to take care of things for myself. I feel like there’s so much I don’t know how to do still.

Briony: I think that might just be the scared little kid inside you telling you that. Sometimes the scared little cave girl in me tells me things I know aren’t true too.

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Michael: We should stop listening to them, shouldn’t we?

Briony: I think we should try. Because the Michael I know can take care of just about anything, and can figure out the rest pretty quickly.

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Michael: Wow… you know, the Briony I know is a way better gardener than me, and maybe she could help me figure that out.

Briony: I think I could do that, yeah.

She struggles and fails to hold in a smile, and leads him over to the peppers.

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Despite their perfectly grown and cooked peppers, Janessa snoozes through supper that night. Michael and Briony go in to check on her a few times, and she sleepily mumbles for water. They bring her water and some dinner which she nibbles at before falling back asleep.

This becomes the regular pattern their evenings follow, and they often sit late into the night with her before finally going to bed themselves.

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On her more restless nights they sit outside her door so that they can talk without waking her, while still listening to make sure that the increasingly raspy breathing hasn’t stopped. The first few nights they talk about the animals, the garden, and all the little jobs that need to be done. After that they talk about the people Briony’s met and the people she has yet to meet. Eventually they start to talk about themselves, where they’ve been, and how they got where they are. Every night they talk about Janessa’s health.

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Some days are better for Janessa than others. They will sometimes wake up to her busy cooking breakfast, while other days she’ll sleep late and then spend the rest of the day furiously scrubbing out all the cooking pots. Today she joins them in the afternoon to help pick apples. Briony notes the disapproval on Michael’s face at Janessa exerting herself, but they both know it would be futile to protest.

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Not surprisingly, she retires back into the house after only a few hours outside. Her walk is slow and shaky, and Briony hears Michael’s deep, sad sigh as they watch her totter away.

The door closes, and Michael and Briony silently resume their work.

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It’s near sunset when they finish with the trees. Michael is lingering in the orchard, and Briony suddenly feels awkward and unsure of what to do, so she fiddles with a leaf and tries to look occupied. Finally he breaks the silence.

Michael: Listen… thank you. For being here. I know you didn’t want to be, at least at the start. But it means a lot that it won’t just be me when Gran goes. At least, I hope it won’t.

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Briony: Michael, I’ll be here. I mean, as long as Miranda and Jonathan won’t adopt me as one of their children I’ll be here. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.

He lets a small smile escape, and then walks towards her. His expression is intense and serious, and Briony feels her heart start to race.

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He reaches out and gently runs his callused hand down her arm. Immediately her mind explodes into a blank jumble of panic and elation and maybe she should just walk calmly into the house now and maybe she could pretend she forgot to pick an apple over there and oh his hands are so warm and then her feet are stepping forward entirely of their own volition.

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Her mind is so frenzied she’s getting light-headed, and then he interrupts it and everything goes silent.

Michael: Briony.

He tilts her chin up and she meets his blue eyes. Her panic disappears, and she feels as if every cell in her body is aching, pulling itself off her frame in an effort to move towards him. Her eyes close and she melts into him, breathes him in, feels his rough cheek on her forehead.

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Michael: Do you want me to stop?

His voice comes out in a breathy whisper. She tells the scared little cave girl to go away.

Briony: Please don’t.

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When they kiss it is as if one single harmonic thought led them to do so, and Briony is overcome with the feeling that everything is exactly as it should be. Everything in this singular moment feels so entirely right that when they eventually break away and walk back towards the house it’s with dazed, giddy expressions and almost a feeling of drunkenness.

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That all ends abruptly upon walking into the house, where they are met with scrutinizing eyes crinkling up at the corners in poorly-concealed glee.

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A moment passes where everything is revealed, and then simultaneously they pretend as if nothing had ever happened.

Michael: Well, goodnight!

Briony: Yep, I’m off to bed too! See you all tomorrow!

Two doors are hastily closed for the night, and Janessa rocks in her chair, smiling to herself.

She be like

Later!

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