“Call me Ishmael again, and I’ll break your face,” I warned the middle-school moron towering over me. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised the idiot had made the literary reference. Considering his schoolyard vocabulary and his frequently vacant expression, I thought he’d taken one too many blows to the head during his tenure as the pack’s alpha male.
You might think the top dog in this schoolyard would be an adult, but in my neighborhood you’d be dead wrong. Literally. His strength, agility, and ability to make almost anything into a weapon had helped him survive, but I had outrun scarier things than him in my single decade of life. Still, it was usually safer to travel in groups. Loners were picked off quickly.
Buster’s cronies hung on his every word, shoulders hunched, tensed for the coming assault. “You think you’re so tough. ‘Lot o’good your books will do you when we feed you to the dead.”
I knew it had been a mistake carrying my copy of Moby Dick around with me, but when I’d found the book during a recent supply run I hadn’t been able to resist. Was it my fault Buster’s parents had been eaten before they taught him to read?
Taking a stand had been poor judgement, but I’d always been small, and old habits died as hard as the dead themselves. I glanced at the putrid mob outside the fence, decaying fingers curled around its wire, hungry for my flesh. Then I focused on my human enemies inside the fence.
Sure, Moby Dick was famous enough that even this lumbering turd was familiar with it. People still told stories, after all, though reading and writing were quickly becoming lost arts. A thought suddenly struck me.
Screwing up my courage, I walked over and punched him in the nose. “My name is Stu.” His henchmen gasped and retreated as one.
Buster stood his ground – gods, he was built like a mountain! – but he wiped blood from his nose and there was murder in his eyes. “Oh, you’ll be STEW alright, when I’m done with ya’!” Gripping my shirt, he pulled me so close I inhaled the stink of his breath.
Nose to nose, I seized my opportunity, whispered my offer. “I’ll teach you to read,” I said, voice low. “No one has to know. Just don’t kill me.” He paused, fist drawn back for the punch. How could he take advantage of my offer without backing off in front of the others?
Now was the time to save his face as well as my ass.
I held my hands up to ward off the blow. Cowardice was more necessary at the moment than bravado. “Please don’t hurt me! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” A beating was coming, as inevitable as the fact that the dead always rose to come after the living. I could take a beating, then remain in the relative safety of the pack.
He threw me to the ground, smiling; his right hook found my nose, which soon was bleeding more profusely than his had been. He enjoyed each punch, raining blows upon my prostrate form, my cries music to his ears. As stupid as he was, he knew enough to not damage me too badly; I couldn’t teach him if I died. Meanwhile the dead shook the wire barrier, incensed by the violence and the scent of fresh blood.
Ours would be a mutually beneficial arrangement. Protecting me would ensure his future literacy. He bore me no love, that much was evident, but when the day inevitably came when I was of no further use, I had one final card up my sleeve.
They say that knowledge is power. I knew that the bulk that gave him strength also slowed him down. When the day eventually came when he turned on me, I would see it coming. I would outdistance him, leave him for the dead, and escape while they feasted on his ample frame.
Moby Dick wasn’t the only book I’d ever read, after all.