Status: this is an INCOMPLETE FIRST DRAFT, and has only undergone minor edits. if something seems weird just leave it be


Song of a Dead Man

Lee’s feet thumped on the ground as they ran. They had told themself they wouldn’t repeat what had happened yesterday, the crazy revels in their freedom. They had been a damned liar. Even now, Sarah puffed to catch up with them. It was insane how good it felt to be out here mostly by yourself. And god, Lee fucking loved it. They kept themself quiet, and kept their eyes peeled for signs of trouble of course, but that did not mean they could not have fun with it. They just had to rein themself in enough to not cause anyone any trouble. They would manage just fine. But lord, how they wanted to just get a running start and climb up as far as they could. It was so very tempting.
A few times, Lee had tried it, to run up a tree a few feet and catch some kind of outcropping in the bark. Each time, they’d landed on their ass in the dirt. And each time, they were surprised they didn’t sustain more of an injury than a scratch on their arm or knee. It was definitely something to be proud of.
But something felt off today. The forest seemed more sinister than it had before. Perhaps there was a storm coming, Lee could feel it building in the air. They had always had a love hate relationship with that electric charge before a lightning storm. It was powerful and freeing, but with it came the worry that someone’s home would be struck down. It had happened several times in Sequoia history, and twice in Lee’s own lifetime.
If a tree near them was struck, what would Lee do? It gnawed at their thoughts as they walked to catch their breath. Sarah came up beside her, silent and steady. She was good at what she did.
And absorbed in thought as Lee was, it was no wonder that Sarah saw it first. She caught Lee’s attention with an elbow in the ribs, using her gun to point. “What do you think that is?” she asked.
Lee followed the direction her gun was pointed. A great, dark mound sat unmoving on the forest floor in the distance. Lee frowned.
“I dunno,” they said. “But I’m curious.” They started toward the mound in a slow jog so Sarah could keep up easily. But as they neared it and their lights revealed more and more, Sarah stopped dead in her tracks, stiff.
“Lee, I don’t think this is a good idea,” she said, glancing about. What had gotten into her?
“What?” Lee asked. “Why not?”
Sarah’s eyes darted to the hulking shape. “Lee, that’s a bear.”
Well, shit. That wasn’t good. But something seemed wrong. Lee continued to walk, slowly and carefully, to the side. They needed a better angle at this. “Sarah,” they said quietly. “Don’tcha think it woulda noticed us by now?”
Sarah said nothing.
“It ain’t breathin’,” Lee observed. “It’s dead, Sarah. We’re safe. Come on, I wanna see this up close.”
They didn’t wait for her to respond, creeping up to the bear’s side. It was stone dead, Lee was sure. Trembling, they reached out to touch it. Its fur was soft. Lee reached further, touching the skin underneath. It was dead. Very dead. They exhaled slowly, flooding with relief.
The thing was fucking huge.
“Lee,” Sarah called hoarsely from the other side. “You might wanna use that mirror of yours.”
Lee’s head snapped up and they carefully rounded the bear. A grisly sight welcomed them. A large branch stuck out of the bear’s neck. Its dead eyes stared into nothing and its jaws were closed around a mangled hunk of meat.
And the whole corpse was settled on top of a man lying on his side on the ground, facing away from them.
And Sarah the brave knelt down to get a closer look at him. Lee only stood there frozen in fear. They’d shot zombies from afar before, but this was something completely different. Now that it came down to it, Lee didn’t know if they could do this. They watched helpless as Sarah prodded around at the corpse.
“Lee… Lee, oh my god,” Sarah said, standing up.
“What?” they croaked.
Sarah looked them in the eye, her expression pained. “He’s alive.”
“No way.”
Sarah nodded. “Flas the mirror. Get us help in getting the bear off him. We might be able to save him yet if we can get him back to camp safely.”
“Better idea,” they said. “He’ll need medics. I dunno how crushed up he is under that thing. Moving him might kill him.”
“So what’re you going to do?”
“You’re gonna stay here,” Lee said firmly. “You got flares that work better than any of our mirror tricks. I’ll run back to camp alone, tell ‘em what we found. I’ll bring back a cart and some doctors. He’ll need ‘em.”
Sarah looked apprehensive. “But protocol, Lee.”
“Fuck protocol,” Lee spat. “If breakin’ rules saves this poor fuck’s life, we’re breakin’ all the rules we can.”
And with that they darted away. They had enough in them to run all the way back to camp. They hadn’t gone far, and by now the group would have moved enough to have caught up a little.
And Lee had a life to save.

Sarah’s flare led the team Lee had gathered straight back to the right spot. They had brought Millie, Doctor Rebecca herself, and two incredibly alert groundguards that towed one of the sick carts with them.
Millie knelt down by the man, feeling for his vitals under Doctor Rebecca’s watchful eye. They were weak, she said, but they were there. This man needed help. And so, Lee and the three groundguards set to rolling the bear off the man’s body, straining under its incredible weight.
Lee ground their teeth and pushed hard, and after what felt like hours of toil, the bear flopped over.
There was blood everywhere. So much that it took them all a shocked second of staring to locate the shredded mess where his right foot should be. And blood gushed from the wound.
“Put the bear back on!” Doctor Rebecca said urgently. “Stop the flow with the pressure. Applebottom, you start a fire and heat the saw!”
They all rushed to their tasks. By Applebottom, Rebecca had meant Millie and not Lee, who helped the groundguards pull the gargantuan carcass back into place to keep the man from bleeding out. He’d lost so much already it seemed a miracle he’d pulled through this far.
He might not make it anyway, Lee thought grimly as the giant furball settled into place.
Lee leaned against one of the nearby trees and sighed, wiping the sweat from their brow. They watched Millie work, her fire flickering to life. She blew on it to encourage it to grow, then held a wicked looking saw over the flames.
And Lee understood. The man’s stump was too mangled, and it had likely contracted some kind of infection or rot. It needed to be cleaned up and cut down to size. They wondered if Doctor Rebecca was going to make Millie do it herself. It seemed unlikely, but the woman seemed like a harsh teacher. She tapped her foot on the ground impatiently, watching Millie like a hawk.
The man stirred. His hand moved an inch or so across the leaves. Lee thought they saw him move his head a little, too, but he was too weak to even look up. Poor thing, Lee thought. Whatever he did, he don’t deserve this.
It must’ve been hard out here all alone. Lee themself was terrified at the thought.
Since there was nothing else to do but wait for the saw to heat up enough, Lee went back to the man’s side and squatted down. His hair was wild and matted and fell over his face, half of which lay in the dirt. His single visible brown eye stared glazed over and unseeing in their direction. The reached out to pull some of his hair back and clear his vision, but when they stretched out he whimpered. It was a hoarse, unhealthy sound and it was barely audible.
They pulled their hand back, instead resting it on their knee, not taking their eyes off him. In the brief moments of lucidity that flickered through his feverish state, he seemed so scared. It broke Lee’s heart. They wanted to comfort him somehow.
The only way they knew how, without touch. Lee’s mother had sung them and Millie a morbid little lullaby when they were small. Lee’s voice was nowhere near the finest, but they doubted the man would be a musical critic, especially not in this state.
And so they raised their voice.

“My love, he was a gentle man,
But now he walks alone.
He’ll walk until his feet fall off
And there’s nothing left but his bones.

My love, he was a gentle man,
We dreamed of growing old.
But now he walks away from me
And his lifeblood’s all run cold.

He knows no pain, he knows no fear,
His laughter sounds no more.
And in his stride he takes with him
All that I had adored

And so, I’ll go, I’ll walk with him,
I’ll turn my heart to stone.
We’ll walk until our feet fall off
And there’s nothing left but our bones,
And there’s nothing left of our bones.”

A verse in, Millie had joined, singing a quiet harmony seemingly more to herself than to anyone. It was still a terrible rendition, but the man’s fitful breathing had seemed to even out. His visible eye was closed and Lee thought he had lost consciousness again, until his hand moved shaking to their foot. He set it on top, one of his fingers hooking around one of Lee’s boot laces.
They wanted to cry.
Doctor Rebecca’s voice pierced the moment. “Applebottom. The saw,” she staid stiffly. Lee watched Millie hand the thing-- almost white hot from the fire-- over. Rebecca gestured that the bear be shifted off the man’s foot again, but only barely. The two groundguards Lee had brought with them moved to do it. “Hold him down,” Rebecca told the other three.
Millie and Sarah gripped the man’s arms, pinning them to the earth and leaving Lee with his good leg. Lee could feel the heat radiating from the blade as Rebecca set her jaw and bore down.
A ragged scream tore from the man’s throat and he convulsed, straining against their grip. Lee struggled to hold him down. Despite how starved and worn down he was, they had to give him this-- he was strong.
It was likely the only reason he was still alive.
He stopped struggling. Lee looked over with concern, watching Millie shift his arm so she could check his pulse again. She nodded silently, then looked to Rebecca.
It was done. “Load him into the wagon,” Rebecca ordered. “Applebottom, you ride with him. Bandage his wounds and watch over him as we go. Make sure we don’t jostle him too much. I’d like to stay here, but he made too much noise for it to be safe for long.”
The man’s limp form thunked on the wooden bed of the cart before she was even done speaking. Millie hopped in lithely to sit next to him and attended to the cauterized stump without a word, and a moment later the cart trundled along back to camp.
Lee walked in silence next to Rebecca. The woman cleared her throat. “You, Applebottom,” she said.
“Me?” Lee asked.
“Yeah.” Rebecca turned to face them even as they walked. “You did a very smart thing,” she said. “Another few hours and I fear he’d have died.”
Lee nodded grimly. “How long do you think he was there?” they asked.
Rebecca shrugged. “Hard to tell,” she said. “No more than two days, I don’t think.”
“That long?”
“His circulation in the leg was almost completely cut off. He was bleeding out still, but very, very slowly,” Rebecca said. “We’re lucky you found him.”
“Thank you,” Lee said. “Who do you think he is?”
“I don’t know,” came the response. “Likely a refugee like your mother, who got hit with a stroke of bad luck.”
That seemed reasonable enough. “Poor fella. I hope he pulls through alright.”
“We’ll do our best,” Rebecca said. “On another note,” she continued, “you came back to camp by yourself and left your guard alone out there. Don’t think it went over my head.”
Lee felt a stab of guilt. They could’ve gotten Sarah killed out there. “I know,” they said. “It felt right.” It wasn’t much of an explanation, but it was an honest one. They hoped that counted for something.
Rebecca only smiled back. “If they give you crap for it,” she said, “I’ll vouch for you. Saving a life is no small feat.”
Lee bowed their head. “Thank you,” they said again.

When the tired team trundled back into camp, a great cheer rose up around them.
Lee didn’t know about anyone else, but they were far too exhausted to enjoy the hero’s welcome. It seemed the trek had stopped while they were out on their rescue mission. A ripple went through the crowd, letting them know that the expedition’s leaders had decided to stay here. Lee was grateful for it. While the people flocked around the others tending to the wounded man, a greater portion began striking up cookfires.
Lee found an empty spot for their bedroll and collapsed on it, falling asleep easily despite the tremendous noise surrounding them.