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To Pluck With Greed

By @Val

The Third House

Jude’s dark knuckles rapped on the hard wood of Mrs. Taylor’s front door. It was walnut or oak, or something of a sturdy build. Someone, sometime had put their sweat into cutting down the tree. They stripped and sanded the logs, cut them into paneling, measured each inch of wood until it fit into the Taylor House frame. This effort, this attention to detail, did not go to waste. All this time later the front door remained as strong as it was upon its conception, though visibly weathered. 

In the distant past, some unskillful hand had painted the door red. The uneven strokes were still visible between patches that had curled from the surface, peeling and falling away with the wind. The original wood showed through, just as well weathered as the house itself. The entire Taylor property had an appearance of age and elemental abuse, but it was the dismal nature of this once red door that held Jude in an uncomfortable state of displacement, as though he did not belong knocking on it. Not when it was so clearly abandoned. 

Each flex of his wrist dislodged small flecks of red as they sent empty knocks throughout the farmhouse. No sound from within gave Jude the impression that anyone was home. He waited only a short moment before striking the door again, this time with more urgency than the first. 

Knock, knock, knock. 

“Mrs. Taylor?” Jude spoke roughly, his voice still sounding of sleep and grogginess. He cleared his throat and repeated the call, but it felt wrong to beg the attention of a house he knew to be empty. Awkwardly, he added, “I believe you knew my mother, Amelia Forester.” 

Leaning his ear against the door to listen, Jude awaited a sound from within. A small voice, dripping water, creaks on the stairs, the clicking of cat claws on floorboards. Any sound to give him hope of life within. He was met with nothing but an unnerving silence. Slowly, Jude turned his ear from the door, letting his forehead rest against its wooden panels. This had been a hopeless calling from the start, and yet he met the silent house with more disappointment than expected. He gave one final rap, understanding already that it would go unanswered, and turned away. 

The house behind him, Jude’s eyes became fastened on four crows at play in Mrs. Taylor’s small pasture. They were all the life that remained of this place, pecking and fluttering about the unyielding soil. It was a strange thought to have, but Jude found himself reminded of a poem he once knew. It was distant in his memory, but a line or two still conjurable; 

-only starving crows pluck

what dangles here,

their stomachs thick with sorrow.

He was disturbed by the poem and whatever its macabre meaning may have been. It was written long before this time, before anyone could have known about the crows of Mrs. Taylor’s pasture and the lifelessness of the world that remained beyond it. Jude’s conscious told him to leave this place, to let what was dead stay dead, but he knew this would not come to pass. Not with Nora approaching. 

The day had only just begun and sweat already pooled around her underarms, creating dark circles in the pale fabric. A light sheen spread across her skin and wetted the small curls of hair that escaped her ribbons. They were not decorative ribbons that girls often wore in their hair, but plain and practical strips of fabric cut from old skirts. Nora did not often bother to tie back that long, knotted mop of hers, but the heat of August demanded her do so. Though completely uninterested in fashion trends and fancy decorations, Nora was fond of practical adornments. At her waist, she donned a belt and knife sheath. It was only a short hunting knife, but Nora carried it with a sense of pride that most women would have scoffed at. Jude thought it appropriate of her character, but more so, a necessity of life since she returned from her time as a nurse of war. 

“No answer?” His sister asked, though she needn’t bother. She was well aware of what lay beyond the paint stripped door. Nora asked only because there was no better way to address it. Neither she nor Jude were foolish enough to have believed their coming here would amount to anything. Perhaps at the start there had been some hope, some spark of purpose that drove them from their beds and onto Taylor land, but that hope was only a small and fickle thing. Jude did not bother to answer. He watched her climb the porch steps, oversized boots clunking against the wooden floorboards as she made her way to the railing. Nora perched herself there, drawing the slim knife from her belt as she looked over the fields. 

Taylor land was vast and overflowing with corn that needed tending. Nora had returned home to Billings months ago, and in those months not a single field hand had been found at their work, nor cattle master at their herd or maid out in search of wild herbs. They were afraid, she knew. Afraid of the horrors reported in their letters from those in towns and cities who had become familiar with Appereto long before it reached these isolated farmlands. Nora knew much better than them the disease’s nature, having seen it first hand in the soldiers she treated. She was a good authority on the devastation Appereto brought, and she knew these people had reason to be afraid. 

Nora’s pensive eyes, the same deep shade as the rotting oak tree she’d tied their horses to, scanned seemingly endless rows of corn. Morning rays reflected off the dewy stalks, creating an almost peaceful scene. The world was far too messed up for either of them to see it as peaceful. Instead they saw the vast, emptiness that had become their world. There was not a house close enough to see from where Nora sat on the porch railing. This sent an uneasy feeling through her body, one that Jude felt himself. He watched the corn sway against the blue horizon, knowing that home was miles away. 

“She’s dead then, isn’t she?” Nora asked, an unreadable expression on her face. It was hard to say whether she was hiding any grief for the apparent loss, or if she simply did not care for Mrs. Taylor’s life. Jude had always found his sister’s lack of emotion towards Appereto and its victims just as concerning as the disease itself, but in these past months that concern deepened with the growing number of empty houses and the unchanging nature of Nora’s apathy. 

“As far as I can tell from out here.” Jude’s eyes dropped to the ground, studying his boots rather than Nora’s stoney face. They were covered in mud from the last rainfall. That was almost a week ago and the clay had since dried and was beginning to crack away. He shifted his foot, letting small chunks crumble as he waited for Nora to say something. 

She kept him waiting, fussing with the tip of her blade. She used it to pick her dirt caked fingernails, and Jude began to wonder if she were thinking something profound. If so, the thought never crossed her lips. Instead, she slammed her knife into the railing and said, with the first hint of a smile Jude saw all morning, “Then we go in.” 

The same circumstances that terrified Jude seemed to excite Nora. She dropped from the railing, her skirt dragging after like a trailing snake, and positioned herself at the door. Jude did not protest, though the pit in his stomach felt as though it were caving in on itself. He could feel the organs within him twisting. Shifting. Churning. It seemed as though he would collapse inward, but the feeling of dread did not stop him from doing his job. Fleeing Taylor House was not an option. 

Nora procured a cut of fabric from her waist, tying it tightly around her face so that it covered both mouth and nose. Jude did the same with his own, pulling it up from where it lay loosely around his neck. Eyeing Nora, he waited for her signal. 

Quickly, she pushed and pulled to test the door’s security and was met with stiff resistance. Her eyes flashed to Jude, who was already positioning himself where the door would open. He took a deep breath. Then another. Once his nerves calmed, he nodded to Nora and she pushed into the door with all her strength. It took three rams, but the door gave way with a loud groan, opening inward just wide enough for them to push their way over the threshold. 

Light from the half opened front door was all that flooded the dark interior of Mrs. Taylor’s house. The windows were all small and in someway covered to block out light, though this they already knew from the outside. From inside the house, it created a more frightening scene. Jude took hold of his own knife, drawing it slowly from its sheath. The handle grew slippery with sweat, but he held it tightly as they inched forward. 

There were no decorations on the walls of the foyer, and nothing still when they entered the parlor. Only blank walls and blocked out windows continuing throughout each room of the house. Jude’s trepidation continued to grow, and it was with hesitant steps that he made his way into the kitchen where the first rays of light were filtering in through an unobstructed window. He found the planks of wood that once barred now hanging in splinters, the window itself shattered. Jude put a finger to the jagged glass, wondering what could have caused it. 

“Look here.” Nora spoke from a far corner of the room, her voice startlingly loud in the silence. Jude was startled, nicking his finger on the glass. It was hardly painful. So little so that he did not bother to acknowledge it. He observed the small bead of blood that fell onto the window pane, reminding himself to be more careful. He found Nora squatting, her bandana pulled down. The wall before her opened to what must have been at one point a cache of food. Now only empty jars lay shattered on the floor beneath it, remnants of jellies, oats, and other indistinguishable fares now overcome with rot. Nora fussed with something too small for Jude to distinguish. 

He knelt beside her. “What is it?”

Nora turned her fingers, revealing the small object in her hand. “Could be a tooth,” she said and rubbed blood from what now appeared to be just that. Holding it into the light, she studied it with fascination that robbed her attention from all else. Jude held no such interest, but observed the way this fragment of the human body captivated Nora. Her eyes narrowed in complete focus and her pink lips pulled back to reveal her own crooked teeth. They were not horribly distraught teeth, though the gums did reveal the canines high and her bottom teeth overlapped in one spot. Still, they were well maintained and quite contrasting to the yellow molar she held between thumb and pointer. 

“Are you going to be sick?” Nora asked as Jude rose. He promised he would not, extending a hand to help her up. She took it, a dry laugh escaping her lips. Nora had done a lot of laughing before the war, and in those days it was her smile and huffy breath of a laugh that became the most familiar part of her. But those days were gone, and now it was the presence of such a smile or laugh that Jude longed for most from Nora. To see it now, in such a dark place during such dismal work, Jude could not help but feel encouraged to reciprocate. 

“I’m not Charlie,” he teased. They were both keenly aware of their brother’s weak stomach. Were he more equipped to handle such things as fallen teeth and Appereto victims, it would be him at the Taylor house and Jude at home with Rosie. The thought of it made Jude’s smile waver. No one in the family dared speak it, but each understood where the Forester children divided. It was Jude and Rosie together, where Nora sided with Charlie. This is not to say he loved his younger sister the most, or that he was lacking in compassion for either Charlie or Nora. It is simply the way it had always been, even before Charlie went off to war and Nora followed.  

“Char was never good with this kind of thing,” Nora agreed. “Even before what happened to Francine.” 

With just six words Nora had changed the mood of their conversation. She took that lighthearted glimmer, the first they knew in months, and stuffed it out like the last embers of a dying fire. Jude lowered his eyes, his heart falling into the melancholy that existed in remembering Francine. He knew as well as the rest of the family that what Charlie had gone through was not something they would be able to help him with. Only Nora had the slightest understanding as to what it was like, though her time at war could not equal Charlie’s. 

“Go check upstairs,” he said, changing the subject. “I’ll keep looking down here.”

He tried to leave but Nora grabbed his sleeve, her face appearing tired as she too turned the subject. “Teeth don’t just fall out, Jude.” 

He nodded gravely before going on through the downstairs. 

Old floorboards creaked under his feet as he progressed further from the kitchen light and into the darkness. Nora could be heard upstairs, her heavy tread even louder in the silent house. She made quick work of the rooms overhead, passing from room to room with unwavering speed. 

Jude moved more cautiously. He found two doors in the long hall. One opened to a small closet, within which there was nothing of interest. Without bothering to search it any further, jude shut the door and moved across the hall to the next. All Jude had to do was push and it gave way to another dark room. He paused with the door half open, slowly running his hand across the jamb. It was splintered, as was the paneling around the handle. Jude held his knife firmly, proceeding with ever growing fear in his heart. 

The smell hit him very suddenly. It was strong, filling his nostrils and overpowering his senses. He retreated, pulling the door shut behind him and calling for Nora. She pounded down the steps at first sound of her name, finding Jude in the hall still grimacing at the smell. 

“You found her.” Nora was not asking. She could tell by the sick expression on her brother’s face and the putrid odor beginning to waft from the bedroom. Jude moved aside, allowing her to push the door in with her foot. The smell had traveled since Jude’s entry, filling the hall with the heavy scent of decay – to which Nora was unfazed. She entered the darkness, leaving Jude to watch only shadows until the room was all at once flooded with white sunlight. She had pulled the wooden planks from where they blocked out the window, blinding her unsuspecting brother who winced in surprise. Nora did not notice and did not pause until she found the source of the smell.

“Is it her?” Jude’s voice was strained.

Nora took a moment to respond, squatting by the other side of the bed to get a closer look at whatever gore she had discovered.

“It’s…” she paused, her brows furrowing as she reached to move something. Jude felt the urge to stop her, but he knew she would never listen.

“It’s what?”

Nora shook her head. “I believe it’s a dog.”

“A dog?” Jude couldn’t help but be relieved. Though he wished to spare himself the gruesome sight, he came to Nora’s side. What he found was a mangled compilation of spoiled flesh and fur, stained red with dried blood. Much of the anatomy was missing, which Jude knew was not a good sign. He could see bones and rotted organs that had been pulled through the skin, though very little of it could be described as canine. 

The hem of Nora’s skirt drew some filth from where it touched the once dog’s spoiled flesh. She seemed not to notice. Again her eyes searched the remains as they had the tooth, her face twisting with focus. She muttered to herself about the stages of Appereto and the state of the body. Jude meant to reel her back, physically at least if her thoughts were unretrievable, but the words to do so were cut short as they reached his lips. 

The closet door creaked, startling both of them where they hovered over the dissected dog. It was hardly an inch, but the squeak of old hinges was enough to paralyze them. They stared, eyes wide in horror and surprise as a withered gray hand slid out from the dark closet. Slowly came the rest of Mrs. Taylor, but Nora and Jude were already scrambling across the floor as fast as their trembling legs would carry them, taking no care of the rotting carcass they crossed in their flee.

Jude was backed against an old wooden dresser, its sharp edge jabbing him in the shoulder. Nora came beside him, her legs thrashing until her back connected with the wall. Jude maneuvered himself in front of her, throwing his arm out to hold her back. He could feel Nora’s hot breath on his ear as she panted, her heart beating fast while their wide eyes stared at Mrs. Taylor’s emerging torso.

What was probably just a matter of seconds felt more like minutes or hours to them before her body made contact with the bedroom floor. The impact seemed loud at first, but then the room filled with a far more deafening silence. Mrs. Taylor lay limply on the floor, Jude and Nora still gawking from where they crouched in the corner.

“She’s still alive?” Nora breathed.

Jude did not respond. He clambered to his feet and made his way to the closet door, knife drawn. The weight of what he was about to do hit him just as hard as it did at the last silent house. He had done this twice already, but that did not make it any easier. It frightened him to think of what he had become since Appereto hit. It frightened him more to think of what would happen in the future, but what frightened him most was that very moment as he slammed the knife down into Mrs. Taylor’s skull.

Everything went very quickly after that.

The resistance of bone caved easily under the pressure of Jude’s sharp blade. There was a crack. A slick sound as the blade slid in. And then it was over.

Just like that, Jude had ended a life.

Nora could be heard pushing back to her feet, the scuffing of her boots on the wooden floorboards giving away her every move. She planted her feet behind where Jude stood, rising to her tiptoes to see over her younger brother’s tall shoulders.

There was no doubt that she had been infected. Her jaw was locked open, even now as she lay dead and her muscles relaxed. Long strings of foamy saliva dripped from her swollen lips. Thick, black blood oozed from her skull as Jude withdrew his knife. The rest of her body was decorated with splatters of blood, though not the same black that seeped from her new wound. These specs and traces were old blood, from something other than herself. Something that had been alive when she dug her old, weathered hands into it. Jude pitied the dog and its vile end, now more than before.

There was a pit in Jude’s stomach where earlier there had been queasiness. It was not like when he first saw the dog or smelled the rot. This was the guilt of having killed yet another person. Part of him wished he would start to vomit so his eyes would be forced to look away, but his stomach was calm for the first time since entering Mrs. Taylor’s house.

“She was already dead, Jude.” Nora said, watching her brother with pitying eyes.

“She was sick,” he muttered, “dead is better.”

Nora nodded in agreement. There was a moment’s silence before she pulled her brother away from Mrs. Taylor. “Go back outside,” she urged him, whispering as though she feared Mrs. Taylor was listening. “I’ll take care of this.”

“No,” Jude muttered. “I’m fine.”

“Just look away.”

Jude complied, averting his eyes to the window. The once white lace curtains were only speckled with a light spray of blood, not nearly as grisly as what he had turned his back on. He pushed them aside, flipping the window latch and lifting the glass. The room needed air if nothing else, and though it was hot and stuffy outside, a slight breeze managed to stir the curtains.

“I’d say she caught it early on,” Nora said from where she positioned herself by Mrs. Taylor.

“Is there really any way of knowing?” Jude asked, leaning heavily on the window sill so that the fresh air could fill his lungs.

“From what I’ve seen in these past few months, all signs indicate that she’s been ill for some time.”

“Signs?” Jude asked, not sure if he wanted the details.

“Most of her teeth are gone,” Nora stated as she glanced inside the closet. Little light filtered that far into the space and so she felt around for something to prove her point. She found a small collection of bloody incisors. “There’s also the foam, paralysis of the legs, black blood-”

“That’s enough,” Jude hissed. He looked over the pasture between Mrs. Taylor’s house and the barns while Nora took the bed sheet and rolled it out over the open floor. Jude found crows once again pecking around the soil, though this time there were only three. 

-no creature dared touch

the blackened seed,

save the fat, fat crows

who plucked with greed.

“Jude?” Nora’s voice sounded like it came from far away. When he turned to face her she had finished rolling Mrs. Taylor in the bed sheet. Nora sat with her back against the bed, her knees pulled up and arms resting across them while she toyed with the folds of her skirt. She had pulled her handkerchief down as well, a pensive look on her face.

“Everything okay?”

“Don’t tell Rosie.” This was all Nora said, but her words were enough to shock Jude. He stared at her, mouth agape. He had never kept secrets from Rosie. Nora knew this as well as anyone. To ask such a thing, and regarding something so important as this, was no small request. 

“What do you mean, ‘don’t tell Rosie’?” Jude could feel himself becoming hot, hotter than just sweating in the warmth of August. Hot as in his face was growing warm and heart felt heavy. Lying to Rosie felt like betrayal. 

“Not just Rosie,” she added. “We shouldn’t tell mother or father either. They should not be worrying about this.” Nora looked sure of this, as though the third empty house was a sign of something horrible to come, though Jude could not imagine what horror could exceed the hell their world had already become in the grips of war and Appereto.

He shook his head. “You’re still going to tell Charlie though.” 

Nora did not answer, nor did she need to. 

“Nora why? It’s their world as much as ours. They deserve to know what exists within it, both good and bad.”

She was silent for a moment, her eyes growing impossibly dark. “You would do anything to keep Rosie from suffering, wouldn’t you?” 

Jude’s eyes pressed shut, his head beginning to ache. Nora knew the chord she had struck, and she knew the position she was playing. They sat in silence, both aware that if he acknowledged the truth of it he would be admitting his loyalties – the unspoken preference of Rosie over both Nora and Charlie would become undeniable. And yet, if he said nothing it would be just as damning. 

“You really believe she would be happier in ignorance?” 

Nora took a shallow breath, eyes locked on Jude’s with unwavering surety. “We all would be.”

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