Venison Episode 1: The Rock

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Crunch.

I almost peed my pants when I heard him right behind me. I did, however, spill my canteen all over me when I jumped, so I ended up with soggy britches anyway.

"Dangit, Callum, you scared me half to death," I snapped and aimed a fist at his leg as he walked by.

"You sure are cranky this morning," Callum said as he sat down across the fire from me.

"Yea, well, my iPod finally died. Who knows when we'll be somewhere with juice for me to charge it." I gestured toward the small device near my bedroll. The cracked touch screen still flashed the red low battery emblem.

"You listen to crappy music anyway, Gray," he said as he pulled a canteen from his pack. Callum was seventeen years old but usually acted about ten years younger. In fact, he was my best friend's little brother, and he often acted like a little brother. He kept his dark hair long, even before all this, and had somehow managed to remain a little husky, despite our life out here in the brush.

“Whatever man,” I grunted back and sipped what was left in my canteen. I started to pack my things for the days’ journey. After more than a week of hiking through the backwoods of Oklahoma, my supplies had dwindled quite a bit. At the bottom of my meager bag of supplies, I saw my wallet. I chuckled to myself, wondering why I was still carrying that around; it’s not like I would be needing that ever again.

I flipped it open and saw my old driver’s license photo looking back at me, the young face completely oblivious to the new world he was about to experience. I ran my finger over my old address printed under my name: Grayson Davis. As if names and addresses meant anything in this crazy world, anyway.

“What is today?” Callum asked out of nowhere. I could never figure out how his brain worked, he was always all over the place.

“August 3rd, I think,” I replied, stuffing my wallet back into the depths of my bag. I could afford to keep at least a little bit of normal. I looked up to see Callum counting under his breath and on his hand.

“The next Call of Duty is supposed to come out in a couple months, I think,” he looked up at me, face as serious as the apocalypse. “Do you think they’re still going to come out with it?”

“For real?” I looked at him, dumbfounded, for a few moments, before deciding I should just laugh it off. “Who knows what’s going on out there, but I wouldn’t hold your breath, man. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see normal again.”

“That’s dumb. I pre-ordered it and everything. The deluxe edition, too.”

I couldn’t help but grin, “It’s kind of ironic when you think about it.”

“What is?”

“It’s just,” I chuckled again, “you know, you loved to play zombies in that game. And well, now we’re pretty much living it.”

“I liked the game better,” he said soberly.

“I did too, man, I did too.”

We didn’t talk much more as we gathered our packs and sleeping bags together and readied ourselves to take on the day’s hike. It was still a little foggy, but it would likely clear as the sun rose. The foliage was dense but not as bad as it could be. The thorn bushes were the most annoying part. Although, occasionally we would stumble upon a patch of blackberry bushes. Although it was rare this time of year, some still had good, ripe fruit on the vine, and we would eat our fill.

We had been on the road for a good week or so, and honestly, we sucked at it. Callum was certainly not the outdoors type, but I had at least been camping a few times. That experience didn’t really prepare me for this, though. We ran out of food yesterday, so today might be interesting.

“I’m freakin’ hungry, man,” Callum broke the silence as we traipsed through the thorny underbrush.

“Me too. We should hit Stroud by lunch or so, hopefully, they aren’t suffering as bad as Purcell.”

“Yeah, forget that,” he said and kicked a small bush.

Purcell was our hometown. To tell the truth, it was kind of crummy. One of those small towns where everybody knows everybody and nobody ever leaves. Like Maybury, but with Andy Griffiths’ evil twin. On top of that, everyone in Purcell hunts. Our town was hit pretty hard, of course, when the sickness came. Most of Oklahoma certainly had a tough go of it, but the small towns are where things really escalated.

Really, Colorado was where it all started. Last December, reports started circulating about folk acting erratically. Dangerously. More states began reporting similar occurrences in January, and Oklahoma had started experiencing odd behavior by early February. Before March, we had already moved up to the city where there were very few infected. Unfortunately, that hadn’t lasted long.

“Do you know anyone in Stroud?” I asked as we plodded along slowly through the sticky midsummer heat.

“Nah man, we never really got out much.”

Purcell people never leave Purcell.

“Me neither.”

We continued on in silence for about half an hour before stopping for a water break at a pond on someone’s property. We eased through the barbed wire fence, careful to not make any noise. If we drew attention it would be one of two things: a really ticked off, crotchety old farmer, or an infected. I didn’t want anything to do with either option. One would kill us without question, and the other would run us down and eat our skin for a snack.

I shuddered as we walked down the embankment toward the water. As far as anyone knew, the sickness can’t be transmitted through water. According to the Center for Disease Control, the sickness—something they called CWD—is transmitted by actually consuming infected flesh. Even cooked. But the CDC had also initially said CWD couldn’t affect humans anyway, and look where that’s gotten us.

As we dipped our canteens into the murky water, Callum tapped my leg excitedly. I met his gaze and saw he was pointing across the pond to where a small buck was lapping up water. We watched as his eyes darted around looking for any signs of trouble.

“Do you think…” Callum whispered before he trailed off. I just held a finger up to my lips and gestured toward the gentle beast. As it drank, we could see his body jerking slightly. His legs muscles seemed to be restlessly clenching and unclenching as he held his head down.

After a few moments, the deer raised his head and took one last look around the clearing and then limped away into the trees.

“I never thought I would actually see one,” Callum said as he finished filling his canteen. I dipped my hand into the water and tried not to think about how disgusting it was before taking a drink.

“I just wish we could hunt it,” I replied after choking down the gritty water. “We’ll get hungry fast out here.”

“You’re too serious, you know that?”

“Yea, well, if you had to listen to yourself breathe all the freakin’ time, you probably wouldn’t be in a good mood either.”

“Hey, shut up,” Callum shot me a hard look and shouldered his pack. He was right, of course. I had been hard on him lately. It was too easy for me to see him as my friend’s kid brother instead of my only friend. I found myself parenting him, and it wasn’t healthy for either of us.

“Look, I know I’ve been kind of a jerk,” I started. He didn’t let me finish.

“Just drop it, man, let’s get going.” And with that, my only friend turned and headed back to the barbed wire fence.

We walked on for another half hour or so in complete silence; me taking up the rear while Callum used his machete to help clear a path for us. Neither of us had been boy scouts or anything, so we were pretty much making it up as we went. He had played a lot of video games, and I had watched a lot of movies. I guess that experience is better than nothing.

I almost ran into him when he stopped right in front of me. I had been deep in thought and pretty much on autopilot.

“We’re so stupid,” he said dramatically, turning around to face me. “We should have seen if there were any fish in that pond.”

“I’m sure there were,” I replied patiently. I wanted to bite out something sarcastic, but I knew I had already messed up once this morning. “But, how would we get them out? We don’t have any fishing poles, and I ain’t crazy enough to go sticking my arm up any holes.” Noodling, or fishing barehanded for fish with teeth, was a popular sport in rural Oklahoma. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to lose part of a finger to a snapping turtle or something in the muddy water holes.

“Oh,” he looked hurt as the reality sank in, “yea, I guess you’re right, huh?”

“Maybe we can find some more blackberries soon,” I offered diplomatically, “we can use all the calories we can get.”

A rustle in the bushes behind Callum froze the blood in my veins. Something big was moving. Another rustle a little deeper in the bramble was followed by a low, guttural grunt.

“Callum. Run.” He looked at me, hazel eyes wide with fear as if trying to remember how to move his legs. “Go!”

He broke into action and darted to his left just as something crashed through the foliage right in front of me. I screamed and jumped toward the nearest tree, trying desperately to grab the lowest branch as the creature barreled through the underbrush beneath me.

I pulled myself up, kicking at the air to try and gain some leverage. I looked down and saw it: a wild boar sniffing around, rooting at the ground. Five-inch white tusks protruded from his lower jaw and small, beady eyes searched for the disturbance. It raked its tusks against the bark of the tree in frustration. The animal was grunting and huffing noisily, turning this way and that. Finally, he turned his snout toward a vine cluster a few yards away, snorting. I could see Callum’s black Chuck Taylor shoe sticking out of the green vines.

“Callum, get out of there!” I shouted as the boar rooted in the ground, preparing to rush my friend.

Just as the boar sprang into a charge, a deafening crack thundered through the woods and the wild pig took a few lazy steps, and then keeled over. I could see blood seeping from a hole just over his left eye.

“You’re welcome,” a girl’s voice met the still air of the forest. I looked to where I thought the sound might be coming from and found a girl about my age walking toward Callum. She was wearing loose-fitting jeans, a blue T-shirt, and a green jacket despite the already growing morning heat. Her brunette hair hung in unkempt curls around her shoulders. In her hand was a black pistol, probably a Glock nine-millimeter. It looked like one I had shot with some friends at a range a few years ago.

I lowered myself from the tree and looked uneasily from the gun to her face as her green eyes turned on me. “Thanks, I guess,” I said, my voice just a little more out of reach than I wanted. “That was pretty intense.”

“You from the city, huh?”

“Not really, no, I just uh, never really went outdoors much.”

“You don’t say,” she said lightly as she helped Callum up from the vine cluster. “He’s not very big.”

“Hey, I’m right here,” Callum objected.

“Not you,” she said, looking him up and down, her eyes betraying her surprise that Callum could have mistaken himself for being small. “The pig. It’s not a very big one.”

“Oh,” I said, looking at the pig, “Can we eat it?”

“I wouldn’t,” the girl said. “They’re full of bacteria. Even when things were normal. we didn’t eat wild boar, but they’re also carriers for CWD.”

“Holy smokes,” Callum said, rubbing his forehead head nervously.

“You’re fine,” the girl placated him. She looked at me and finally introduced herself. “I’m Mallory.”

I took her outstretched hand and shook it, “I’m Grayson—Gray.”

“Grayson Gray, huh?” Mallory replied with a playful smirk. “I’m assuming he’s your brother?”

“No he’s—“

“I’m Callum,” he said before I could finish. “And you’re hot.”

“Not interested,” she said and pulled her hand out of his awkward handshake. She turned back to me, “Where y’all headed?”

“Tulsa, eventually. Cal’s dad lives up there, but we ran out of food yesterday. We were hoping to find some supplies in Stroud.”

“What do you guys have?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s a different world out here. Nothing is free. You best find something worth trading if you’re hoping to find some food,” she had a hard edge to her voice that told me just how serious this was.

“I’m sure we can figure something out, right?”

“We’ll see. Y’all can come back with me if you want. I’m from Stroud, I’m supposed to check back in this morning anyway.”

“Check in?” Callum asked.

“Yea, I’ve been out for a couple days now, seeing what’s around. Pretty much everyone in the area has retreated back to town.  Those who are left, anyway. You never know who or what is infected out here.”

“Oh, good,” Callum responded, clearly unsure of what to say.

“We’ve been on the road for about a week,” I offered. “Anything happen we should know about?”

“Honey, the whole world has changed this week.” With that haunting statement, she turned into the bush and stalked off to the east.

Her ominous revelation hung with me as we trudged through the humid undergrowth. What did she mean? How had the whole world changed? I desperately wanted to ask her, but she was keeping a brisk pace in front of us that said she wasn’t interested in talking. After close to an hour she finally slowed and crouched down a bit. Callum and I crept forward to meet her at the edge of the forest and my breath caught as I parted the undergrowth and looked at the clearing in front of us.

I saw a grey-blue haze rising up in the clearing just ahead. I could smell something burning and my nostrils stung with the offensive fumes. Following Mallory’s lead, we stepped through the last of the trees and bramble and found ourselves in a smoldering black field.

“Wait. Stop,” Mallory said as we walked onto the ashy clearing. I followed her outstretched hand to find it pointing to an old, orange, beat up Chevy Nova missing all the windows. Just over one of the doors, I could see the head and shoulders of a man resting a rifle on the chassis. The business end was pointed straight at us.

I reflexively ducked and stretched my arms out to pull my two companions down to the safety of the ground. Instead, Mallory brushed by hand away and pulled a red bandana out of her back pocket. She took a few steps forward and waved the bandana in front of her.

“Kody, is that you?” Mallory yelled across the burning field.

“Who else would it be? That you, Em?”

“Em?” I asked questioningly from the ground.

“There was another Mallory in my high school. She was more popular, so I started going by Em. I grew up here, you know.”

“Yea, sure. So are they crazy, or what?” Callum asked, laying flat on the ground.

“Well, everyone thinks their hometown is a little crazy. I guess the people here are crazy as anywhere else.”

“What does it say about the world if I say that actually kinda makes sense?” It did make sense. And that kind of scared me.

“Says whatever you want it to, I guess. C’mon boys, we’re clear.”

We started walking the fifty or so yards between us and the Nova, burned grass crunching under our boots. We got up to the car, exchanged introductions with Kody, who turned out to be a scrawny blonde in coveralls. His white name tag was still stitched to the front of the blue garb telling me he spelled his name with a ‘K’. He must have been a mechanic before this all started. At least his coveralls looked the part.

“It’s just about a mile from here, any way you cut it. You want to take a road or the woods?” Mallory asked after conversing with Kody for a few moments.

“I’m kinda tired of cutting down bushes and dodging poison ivy, myself,” I said as I swallowed a mouthful of brownish water from my canteen.

“Road it is then. It’ll give you a good tour of the town anyway, come on.”

Although situated on historic Route 66, Stroud was just a small town. We passed tattered houses and shuttered businesses. Occasionally we saw a grimy, blue banner or sign saying, “Go Tigers!” dangling from a window or laying in a front yard. We would be on the cusp of an exciting football season right now if the world wasn’t on verge of falling apart. Or maybe it had already fallen apart, judging by Mallory’s dark statement in the forest.

I jumped when I heard an engine rev loudly behind us on Main Street. I turned as a truck with a lift kit and large mud tires barreled around the corner and turned straight toward us. It didn’t show any signs of stopping. A shirtless boy around my age leaned out of the passenger window and hollered “Pig sooie!” and pumped his arm as they approached at a blistering speed. The truck growled with the sound of a glass packed muffler and the tires slapped loudly against the pavement.

“What the heck?” I yelled as I jumped to the side of the road onto an easement. Callum wasn’t far behind, but Mallory just stood her ground and stared down the cracked windshield. At the last second, the truck swerved around her with a hoot from the guys inside and veered off down the road.

“Screw you, Matt!” Mallory yelled as the brown, swirling exhaust engulfed her. “I hate that guy sometimes,” she said turning back to us.

“Who was that jerk?” I asked as I stood up crankily.

“That,” she said with a slight grimace, “was my boyfriend.”

“Sounds like a real charmer,” I said and glared at the truck turning a corner up ahead.

“You can do better,” Callum said in the most charming tone he could muster. “Like me.”

“Cal, stop being weird,” I pushed him and looked at Mallory. “So, where can we get some grub?”

“Just a bit more. You can kinda see it on the right.”

“Cool, do they have juice?”

“What do you mean, like apple juice or something?” Mallory turned and looked at me with a wry smile.

“No, like power,” I stammered, a little embarrassed. “My iPod died this morning. I’m tired of listening to this guy all day.” I jerked my thumb back toward Callum. I was being mean to him again. Why do I do that? The only friend I have right now, and I turn into a jerk again as soon as a pretty girl enters the equation. “Just kidding, bro.”

“Are you sure you aren’t brothers?” She laughed, the syllables of her humor melodic as they rose and fell. “Yea, we have some power. Generators and such. We’ll get you hooked up.”

“That would be awesome.”

Was it weird that I was almost more excited about getting my iPod back than about a hot meal? Maybe. But I didn’t care. This whole world was a little crazy now, so I could afford to be a little crazy, too.

We got closer to the brown building Mallory had pointed out. From here I could see now that it was actually made of a lot of huge stones mortared together. Outside, a half a dozen motorcycles were parked along the sidewalk. They were the big road hog type of bikes—Harley’s and stuff with a lot of chrome. I didn’t know much about motorcycles, but I knew the difference between these and the smaller, sleeker models. The sight of these bikes already made me a little intimidated and I’m not sure why.

“I’m gonna go around back and see what they’re getting ready. You guys can just go ahead in the front and say hi. They don’t bite. Probably,” she winked with a smile and turned to walk through the gravel parking lot around to the back of the building. Matt’s big truck was sticking out from behind the building taking up the whole alley. Watching her leave, I had an uncomfortable feeling about what we might find in the restaurant.

“That was kinda weird,” Callum said as we watched her turn the corner. “Aren’t these supposed to be her friends?”

“Yea, I know what you mean,” I said, looking like a wounded animal toward the glass door entrance. “Gah, I hate social situations.”

“That’s because you suck at them,” Callum offered. He had a knack for not being helpful.

“Yea, you’re not wrong,” I stalked toward the entrance reluctantly and opened the door. A bell rang somewhere as we walked through the door and all heads turned on us. Callum and I looked at each other uneasily as someone pulled the door shut behind us. We felt a presence behind us and we couldn’t help but move deeper into the building.

“Y’all ain’t quids are you?” An older man at the counter asked as we were ushered into the dim restaurant.

“What?” I asked, truly baffled.

“Quids. Crons? Infected? Whatever it is you prissy boys call it down in the city.”

“I—no, of course we aren’t,” I was taken aback by the man’s brash behavior. I shook off my alarm and gestured outside with a thumb. “It looks like a war zone out there, what happened?”

“How long you been outta the loop?” The man leaned back into his stool and crossed his arms.

“Like, a friggin’ week, man,” Callum offered before I had a chance to answer. I wish he hadn’t told the old man that. I don’t want him to know that we could be vulnerable or ignorant. I ribbed him with my elbow to show my disapproval.

“I see,” he said slowly as he scratched the stubble of his jaw. “You’ve missed a lot since then.”

“What? How? The world can’t have changed that much,” I said with more confidence than I felt.

“Oh, the world’s a mite different than you’d probably believe, I’ll tell you that. But things are sour.”

“Well, what happened? What did we miss?”

“Information like that is gonna cost you, son,” the man leaned forward in his stool to look at me severely. “Put your wallet away, boy, your money’s no good here. Food and bullets. Thems the currency here.”

“Actually, we don’t have any food, we were hoping to get some from you and be on our way.”

“Well, that’ll cost you too.”

“I’m sorry, we just don’t have much to offer,” I said uneasily.

“Oh, sure you do,” he stood up and looked us up and down with a critical eye. “Tell you what. I’ll feed ya. Clothe ya. Keep a roof over your noggins, and you just work for me for a little while.”

“Sorry sir, but we’re just passing through,” I took a step back, “do you know who might be willing to sell us a little food to get us down the road?”

“This here’s it, boy. Just come work for me, and we’ll take care of everything.”

“I—we can’t. We’ll just go, I’m sorry to have bothered you.”

“You might not want to make the mistake of thinking you had a choice,” the man said coldly.

I stopped dead in my tracks. What was going on with people? I felt, rather than heard, two large men step into place behind Callum and me. So this was it.

“Go ahead and set your bags down, boys,” the man walked around the counter, revealing a slight limp. “Welcome to The Rock.”