Two - A Necessary Distraction

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Cullen

I'm awoken by a loud bang. An explosion of sorts. As my eyes adjust, I realize I am still inside our hideout, high up in the trees. My side hurts with every intake of breath, but as I look down, it appears as though Ike has bandaged me up as well as he possibly could. My eyes scan the inside of the treehouse, but he is nowhere in sight. I can feel my heart begin to beat faster as I slowly lift myself to my feet and shakily head to the door.

Smoke is billowing in the distance, and I know it is coming from the main road. I cast my eyes downward toward the hanging Degenerate. Besides a couple of stragglers, most of the biters have begun making their way toward the smoke. The Degenerate is not moving anymore, and it's clear he is dead. I make my way back inside and slip my shirt back on along with my hoodie, being very careful and precise with my movements.

When I make it back outside, Ike is climbing the ladder to meet me. "What the hell happened out there?" I ask, motioning with my head toward the main road.

"We needed a distraction to pull the biters away from here, so I created one," Ike answers simply, eyeing me down. "How are you feeling?"

I shrug. "I feel like I was stabbed."

He nods stiffly. "We are going to need to lay low for a couple of days so you can heal. But soon, we are going to need to find a new hideout."

I shake my head dismissively. "No. Phoenix and Rian are still out there."

"If there's one thing I've learned, it's that Phoenix can take care of herself," Ike replies. "We will find them, but you're going to need your strength first."

"We don't even know where they took them," I mutter, defeated.

"You're right. But they aren't shy and they aren't afraid. They are going to show their faces sooner or later and when they do...we are going to kill them," Ike says matter-of-factly.

Ike advises me to get more rest, which pisses me off to no end, but I oblige. He says he is going to find us some food. I haven't eaten in close to two days. If it weren't for the obnoxiously loud sounds my stomach is making, I wouldn't have even remembered. Too much has happened.

Ike returns shortly after, carrying a couple of cans of food. I can't sleep any longer. Not with the notion that Phoenix is out there. I know if it were me out there, she would never stop looking. The guilt is eating me away.

Ike secures the door behind him before heading straight for the two-person table. I follow him silently, attempting to get a better look of what he brought. "So we've got kidney beans and corn. Take your pick." I grab the corn and pop the lid off before walking it to the small sink and draining the water. He opens his own can and dips his fingers in, scooping the red beans into his mouth.

"Where did you find these?" I ask.

He looks at me through tired eyes. "A house a few miles out. It was bare besides these. It looked like it had already been hit."

I nod as I begin shoveling the sweet corn into my mouth.

As we continue to eat in silence, I look over at my longtime friend. He looks worn down and tired with bags under his eyes. His wrinkles are more noticeable and I wonder if the overall chaos has aged him. "You know, I never got a chance to say I'm sorry about what happened to Robyn and Asia."

Ike immediately stops eating and locks eyes with me. I can tell I've struck a nerve. He swallows a few times before beginning to blink rapidly. He sets the half-eaten can of kidney beans on the table and stands. He is out the door moments later.

I know losing his family wasn't easy on him, but we've never spoken about it. It's just never been the right time. I remember our countless deployments overseas where Asia and Robyn were the only things that kept him going; the only reason he held onto hope. I don't know how he's been able to hold it together so well, but I envy him. I barely know Phoenix and being away from her has been like torture. The fact that she may never know how I feel about her, kills me inside.

I finish off my can of food and then make my way outside. The moon is illuminating the dark sky and there is a slight breeze. Although it's nearing November, the nights in Tennessee aren't too cold. Ike is leaning over the railing of the rope bridge, his head held down. I hesitantly make my way toward him, and it's the first time I've ever seen him cry. I'm not sure how to act, what to do. I feel guilty for bringing up such a grim subject.

"Look, I'm sorry man, I didn't mean to..."

He cuts me off before I can finish.

"It was all my fault." His voice is shaky and staggering. "I'm the reason they're dead."

I inch closer, my voice low. "You're being too hard on yourself."

"Am I?" he asks, turning his face toward mine. "I knew my wife was infected. I just didn't want to believe it. I went to bed next to her like any other normal night. We saw firsthand what that virus did, and I just looked the other way. I should be dead. I didn't protect Asia. I was a coward."

His words shock me. I've always looked up to Ike. I've never heard him sound so weak, so defeated. I open my mouth to speak, but close it when I realize he's not finished.

"When I woke up and she wasn't in the bed...I knew. And then I found my daughter bleeding out in the living room thanks to my wife. Do you want to know the first thought that ran through my head? Relief. I was relieved that they wouldn't have to know the horrors that I knew were to come. I was relieved I wouldn't have to protect anyone but myself. Can you believe that? What kind of a sick bastard does that make me?" His voice is rising, but we are so high up, I don't stress too much about it. It's obvious he's needed to get this off his chest for a while.

"It makes you human, Ike." I sigh, breathing in the clean air. "They knew you loved them."

"A father is supposed to go to the ends of the earth to protect his family, his kids. I practically killed them myself." He is distraught with tears trailing down his face.

My heart hurts for him. I never knew how it all went down. I think part of me didn't want to know. Ike has always been the levelheaded one out of the two of us. Finding out that he isn't as strong as I thought he was, has always been a fear of mine. I reach out my hand to his shoulder and give it a reassuring squeeze. "I can't imagine the pain you feel, but I want you to know that I am here for you. I'll always be here for you."

Ike nods stiffly, sniffling.

I can only hope his family has found peace. It's the least of what they deserve.

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