HE SHOULD have known better. Under normal circumstances, it was a stupid move, but right here, right now, “stupid” didn’t begin to cover it.

Duncan glared at his leg for another moment, then leaned his head back against the wall. He needed to keep moving. It hurt like hell, but he had to keep going. It wasn’t going to get better on its own. The gash needed to be cleaned and bandaged, and even if the break wasn’t bad, it should at least be braced. And it wasn’t like he could call an ambulance. Or even go into an emergency room.

Well, he supposed he could go into an emergency room, if he was in the city. But like a lot of other people, he avoided the cities whenever possible. And when it wasn’t, he stayed as far on the edge as he could. But even there, it was a dangerous risk. As corrupt as the cities were now, the price of anything was higher than most could pay. He’d heard rumors that, in some of the worst cities, people simply got shot if they couldn’t pay what the thugs in power wanted. It was all rumor, but rumor he wasn’t about to ignore.

So he did his damnedest to stay away.

He’d been stupid to jump off the ledge. Even at only a couple of feet higher than he was tall, the risk hadn’t been worth it. He’d have thought, after nearly three years, he’d learned how to be more careful and not take those kinds of risks. It wasn’t the first time he’d fallen and hurt himself—though, thankfully, the last one hadn’t involved a broken bone. Maybe it should have; he might have learned his lesson then.

“Really fucking stupid, Dun.”

Duncan steeled himself and pulled to his feet, grimacing when the sharp pain shot up his ankle and through his leg. “Fuck,” he muttered, breathing hard through his nose. When he finally focused past the pain, he looked up and noted the position of the sun, the only real indication he had for the time, and figured he had another good hour or two of light. If he was right about where he was, he wouldn’t need all of it. He tucked the stick he’d found under his arm, grimaced when it dug into the soft flesh, but then leaned on it and hobbled along again.

 

 

MARK FROWNED as he squatted down to dig through another shelf. He couldn’t believe the place hadn’t been looted before, but it might have simply been missed. The little pharmacy was on the edge of a tiny out-of-the-way town. So maybe there simply hadn’t been enough traffic. He’d only stumbled across the place himself by accident. He’d turned off the highway when he realized how close he was getting to the city. An hour after that, he found himself on the short main street.

Whatever the case, grateful didn’t begin to cover his feelings at finding the full shelf of medication.

He opened his backpack and grabbed boxes of ibuprofen to put into it. He realized pretty quickly, however, that he was going to have to empty them and combine bottles to make them fit. He wasn’t about to complain, though, and promptly dropped down to sit on the floor.

Before he got through three boxes, he heard a noise. He set down the bottle he held and reached under his shirt at the small of his back for the gun he hated to carry but knew better than to leave behind. Carefully shifting his bag to make as little noise as possible, he worked to get silently to his feet.

When he spotted a shadow against the far wall that stretched to the top shelf, his throat dried and heartbeat sped up. Shit. They picked now to come by.

He straightened and eased back, hoping to at least just get out of the store unnoticed. With any luck they wouldn’t take all the painkiller and he could come back. It wasn’t probable, but he could hope. He glanced at his backpack and paused for a few seconds, wondering. Hopefully, they wouldn’t come looking for someone when they saw it and assume it’d been left behind a long time ago. He decided the possible noise he’d make picking it up wasn’t worth drawing attention and left it sitting, taking his chances that they wouldn’t come after him.

He turned back to consider which direction to go and started toward the rear of the store, hoping for a back door. When he moved around the end of the shelf, he stopped and stared. Even in the deep shadows of the sinking sun, he could tell the man at the opposite end of the aisle wasn’t likely to be much of a threat. He still could be—Mark was no fool; the stranger towered over him by about six inches and though Mark wasn’t exactly a weakling, the man at the other end of the aisle had a decent amount of muscles on his side, too—but it was doubtful the man could do much. Skin too pale to be normal, sweat that didn’t belong in a Tennessee December, and a shake in the hand holding the stick told Mark enough. So even though the other hand held a pistol of some sort—Mark had never paid enough attention to those things—he wasn’t as worried as he probably should be.

“Put the gun down. I don’t want trouble.” If it weren’t for the immediate danger Mark was in, he’d have savored the deep bass tones in the voice instead of simply noticing them.

“I don’t either. You okay, man?” Mark took half a step forward, but the gun in the other man’s hand steadied.

“Fine. I just want a few things and I’ll go. Just… don’t make a move.”

Mark paused and considered the other man for a moment, but right as he was about to back away, the gun hand shook again and he started forward instead. “You need help.”

“I’ll be fine. Haven’t you learned not to challenge people?”

Mark actually chuckled. “Yeah, I learned that right after things started to go to hell. But man… if I sneeze on you, you’re gonna fall over. What’s wrong?”

The man didn’t speak for a long time, and Mark thought he wasn’t going to, but then he said, “I think I broke my leg. I need bandages and painkiller.” The words held a sharp edge of pain that Mark hadn’t heard before, too focused on his own survival. He cursed under his breath for letting himself miss it and moved.

The man raised his gun again, but Mark ignored the movement, tucked his own back into the waistband of his jeans, and kept moving. After another couple of steps, the other man lowered his gun too… and promptly swayed.

Mark hurried forward and got under the arm not holding the stick. “I’m Mark. And I can help you.”

“Don’t need help,” the man said, his voice now slurred. “Just need—”

“Yeah, yeah, just need bandages and painkiller. My ass.”

“Haven’t seen your ass yet,” the guy muttered, and Mark looked up at him with raised eyebrows, but the eyes were glazed and it was obvious the pain was getting to be too much.

“Come on. Let’s get you over here. I saw a bench. Got a name?”

“Duncan,” he mumbled.

“Nice to meet you, Duncan. Now, let me help you.”

The next words came out so garbled Mark couldn’t make them out, but he guessed they included something along the lines of “don’t need help.” He ignored them and focused on getting Duncan onto the bench. Mark pulled the pack off Duncan’s back and set it aside, then eased him down until he was lying flat.

Mark considered the leg in question, but he didn’t think he could move Duncan enough to get the jeans off without hurting it more. And though they were torn, it wasn’t quite far enough to finish the job by hand. He took a chance Duncan wouldn’t fall and dashed through the store for supplies. He grabbed a pair of scissors from office supplies; found gauze, bandages, peroxide, tape, and a box of latex gloves in first aid; a small sewing kit, the last bottled water and a small bottle of soap from households, then finally hurried back.

He set the supplies on the chair next to the bench and looked over the jeans one more time. “I have to cut the jeans,” he told Duncan, though he had no idea if the man could even hear him at that point. There was a mumbled response but nothing coherent.

Mark fell back on training, cutting away the jeans and peeling back the denim. “Could be worse,” he murmured more to himself than Duncan, “but not by much. Not too dirty outwardly. Jeans protected it pretty well. Bone’s not protruding, so if it’s broken, probably hairline or stable. The gash’s gotta be cleaned, though, and that’s gonna hurt like a bitch.”

Duncan only grunted.

Mark looked up at the pharmacy counter but could see at least some of the prescription medications had been looted. He suspected it was the harder-hitting painkillers, but it wouldn’t hurt to look. “Don’t move,” he told Duncan, who, again, only grunted, and he hurried behind the counter. He threw a disgruntled look at the setting sun and pulled out his flashlight. He moved along the shelves, fingers ghosting over the shelf labels, bypassing cold medicines, antidepressants—he thought most of the population could probably benefit from those, these days—asthma inhalers, diabetes medications, blood pressure. When he saw antibiotics, he paused, considered the options, and snatched a bottle off the shelf, then kept moving.

But, of course, when he stopped at the prescription pain killers, the shelves were almost decimated. Not that he expected there to be anything by this time, even with a relatively untouched pharmacy. Those would have been the first to go, back when the town still had a population. Even knowing it was unlikely, he had to try. And Mark knew, three years out, they might have absolutely no potency whatsoever. But that wasn’t a guarantee, and it was still better than nothing. He found some prescription-strength naproxen, which wasn’t enough, but, hopefully, might help a little, and hurried back to Duncan, pausing to grab a metal adjustable cane on the way.

“Duncan? Can you hear me?”

“Do I have to?” Duncan asked, making Mark laugh.

“Good. Do you have any allergies to medicine or latex?” Mark asked. Duncan shook his head. “Okay. Here, take these.” He held out two of the naproxen and the bottle of water.

“Trying to kill me?”

“I’d just shoot you, asshole, if I was going to do that. And I certainly wouldn’t care about allergies.”

Duncan peered up at him for a few seconds, then nodded. “Good point.” He took the pills, grimaced as he shifted enough to swallow them, then lay back down.

“They won’t kick in before I do this, but hopefully they’ll help a little after.” Without waiting for a reply, Mark turned and yanked a nearby garbage can over. He dumped water on his hands, soaped them the best he could, then rinsed, again into the can, and turned to get started.