Venison Episode 11: The Fan

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“Where’s my gas?” Daryl said, his cane knocking against the floor as he walked toward the table. My soaking clothes dripped on the stained concrete floor after Brianna accidentally dumped ice cold water down my back, but the chill I felt now was something different altogether. This man had become an omen of bad news, and though my day had already been rough, I had a feeling it was about to get much worse. I exhaled a mountain of relief when Mallory spoke first. “It’s all over the ground in Depew, soaking into some dead quids right about now,” she said sharply, turning to face her grandad, or step-grandad or whatever. “We got ambushed. Matt nearly died. Dillon is still just hanging on by a thread. Shoot, Daryl, we all could have died!”

“Don’t you talk t0 your grandfather that way, you little—”

“Step-grandfather. And when my friends and I almost die, I think I earn the right to say some hard truths.”

“Here’s a hard truth: no one is goin’ anywhere until you get the gas you owe me.”

“Owe you?” Mallory shouted. “Owe you for what? This is bull.”

“You said it yourself from the beginning, Em, didn’t you? You told ‘em the rules: nothing’s free.” Daryl sat down and scrutinized Mallory. He had a slight smirk that betrayed his satisfaction at the game. For her part, Mallory opened her mouth but ended up just working her jaw, stumped. The room silenced as we all individually worked out what Daryl had said. I was the first to speak.

“What does he mean, Mallory?” I looked at her, serious as a heart attack.

“Gray, don’t you remember, man?” Cal slapping my shoulder. “When we first met her, she told us that nothing is free. Probably some sort of stupid code these people live by. Man, why does the hot girl always have a dark secret?” Callum sulked back into his chair, defeated.

“Em, that is pretty dark,” Matt agreed. “I don’t think we should be blackmailing people.” So there was a heart in there. Interesting.

“So, what are we going to do to make this right?” Daryl asked, looking at each of us in turn.

“First, I want to give Mallory a chance to explain herself,” Matt said. “Em, tell Gray and Callum you didn’t mean it—that you’re not blackmailing them or whatever.”

Mallory glared darts at Matt in response. I shifted uneasily watching the scene in front of me. The tension filled the air, thick as butter and I hated conflict. Finally, Mallory turned to me and spoke softly. “I didn’t mean anything by it. We just… have needs.”

“Why do I get the feeling that you’re not telling me something?” I looked from Mallory to Daryl and back. “What are we to you?”

“I don’t know what kind of answer you’re wanting, Gray,” Mallory said, her voice soft. “We’ve only known you for a few days. You’ve been a great help, and I think we could be friends. But you and Cal aren’t sticking around.”

“It’s not personal, you know. We—Cal has family. We’re just trying to find his family. You know that. Why is it so bad for us to ask for help? Just because everything has apparently gone to pot, it doesn’t mean we can’t be decent to each other.”

“We get it, man,” Matt said. “It was just a slip of the tongue, right Em? We want to help. Look, I’m sorry about all the lunchmeat stuff and for kinda being a jerk. There’s just so much going on here.”

“You trust this guy?” Cal asked with a little more bite in his tone than I would’ve expected. “He’s like, Flash Thompson, and you’re like Peter Parker. There’s always a punchline—usually you getting punched.”

“I almost died yesterday,” Matt said. His expression was sincere and I found myself believing him. “I almost died, and Dillon—” his voice faltered, “—well, you start to think about some things, you know? Maybe you’re right, Gray. Everything has changed now. We don’t have to be—well, I don’t want to be the guy I was anymore.”

I was speechless. I stared straight across the table, expression probably reflecting the stupor I was feeling. This was a guy I could get along with. I really could.

“Oh, now the jock goes soft.” Daryl’s harsh voice cut the sincere moment like a dull pocket knife.

“Daryl,” Mallory started—

“No, that’s all good and sweet. Now that you’ve all had your heart-to-heart Oprah moment, can we actually get to what needs tendin’?” He looked around at each of us to make sure he had our attention. “Our biggest need right now is gas. We have cars to run. Not to mention the generators. I can’t run this town without gas.”

“Can we drop the gas for just a minute,” Mallory scolded. “It’s not important.”

“Not important?” Daryl shot back. “Why don’t you tell the boys here whose idea it was to go to Depew anyway? Yeah, you got your rocks off playing the innocent flower yesterday, but you were the first to suggest it.”

“What the—Em, what’s the old man talking about?” Matt shook his head and scooted his chair forward to look at her. “What’s going on? I think—”

“You think? Since when do you think with your brain?” She glanced downward subtly to drive the point home. “Since when do you think for yourself at all?”

“Hey, what are you—”

“You think I don’t notice the way you flirt with Brianna?” Mallory started to whimper and looked down at her hands. “How could you be that way with me?”

“Em—Mallory. Look, you know—”

“Whatever.” Mallory was relentless. It was clear that Matt wasn’t going to get a word in. I couldn’t decide if she was playing him right now just like she had apparently been playing us. What was I supposed to do with that? And here I was, actually feeling bad for Matt. The guy I had pretty much loathed a couple days ago.

“Look, Cal and I don’t want anything to do with this,” I said, shaking my head. “Haven’t we helped enough?”

“You kids are something,” Daryl chuckled.

I hadn’t enjoyed his silence nearly enough. Just another missed opportunity to add to my list. I need to start learning from those mistakes. I made a mental note to stop taking blessings for granted. A pang of guilt rocked me when Callum sat forward and caught my attention. Speaking of taking things for granted, good friends were hard to come by anymore. Here was the best and I had treated him like crap yesterday.

“Helped enough, you think?” The old man had a way with words. A way of making me want to punch things. “I welcome you into my town. Feed you, water you. Put a roof over your heads. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were ignoring my hospitality.”

“Hospitality? We’re staying in Matt’s house, and Mallory and him are the only ones who seem to be looking out for us by any stretch of the imagination, and now I’m not even sure if we can trust that.” I looked to Matt apologetically. “No offense, man.” He shrugged and looked back to Mallory as if staring might reveal some piece of that enigma.

“All by my hand, boy. Best not to forget that.” Daryl’s smugness threatened to suffocate me. I could sense Cal’s growing impatience next to me as he bounced his leg. He always bounced his leg when he was nervous or annoyed.

“Gray, what are we doing here, man?” Cal looked at me with pleading in his eyes. He just wanted to get away and back to some sense of normal. I couldn’t blame him. This place was getting old, and it was wearing me thin.

I opened my mouth to say something snarky to Daryl, but something flashed past my vision outside across the street. I didn’t want to believe what I had seen. Not here. “Don’t you have people watching the borders of the city?” I asked, still gazing out the window, searching for confirmation.

A part of me had wished that what happened yesterday could’ve been a dream. Smart chomps leading armies and such. That’s not real. At least, I didn’t want it to be real. But what I saw—or thought I saw—across the street nipped that notion right in the bud.

“What’re you looking at?” Callum asked, following my gaze. “It’s just a boarded up shop.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, still looking. Nothing. All I saw across the road was the stoic, if rundown, houses abandoned by the terror of the apocalypse. Maybe it had been a bird or something. We were in the heart of Stroud, surrounded by a few blocks of city on all sides. The odds of a chomp being here were slim. I could live with that. “I just thought I saw… never mind. Look—”

“Are you serious?” I turned back to see Mallory boring holes right through Matt with fire in her eyes. I hadn’t noticed Brianna standing between Matt and me. Sneaky thing, her. “Even after all this, you can’t stop staring at her.”

“Mallory, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…” Brianna trailed off in a soft voice, taken aback by the outburst. “I don’t know what you think might be going on here, but there’s—”

“Save it,” Mallory snapped and stood. “I’m gonna go for a walk. No, Matt, I don’t want you to follow me.”

“Just wait, Em, come on, you know there’s nothing going on here.” Matt was reeling, in full defense mode. “Brianna I’m sorry, it’s just, you know.”

“Mallory, don’t go,” Brianna pleaded. She seemed innocent enough, if naive. I could see the look of someone who very much didn’t want to get involved in any drama. I recognized the look because I wore it at the same time.

“Can you just please figure that out later,” I interjected. “Cal and I have helped you guys a lot, but we just really want to be on our way. Can we borrow a car to take to Tulsa? It’s early, we could make really good time.”

“Borrow? As in, you’ll be bringing it back?” Daryl cackled. “I ain’t givin’ you nothing until you get us some gas. You can go on foot, and I’ll give you a head start before I have Michael try and shoot ya.”

“What the heck old man?” Matt snapped.

“We wouldn’t last a day out there, not with that chomp,” I said, ignoring Matt. I let my eyes drift out the window again, searching. I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

“What? One of them quids?” Daryl asked, suddenly serious. Mallory froze at the door.

“There’s, well, there’s something different out there. I think he’s like a leader or something. I don’t know what to make of him.” I looked around to the others. “We all saw him, right?”

“We don’t know what we saw, Gray,” Mallory said, turning back to the table.

“Bull,” Callum said with a glare in Mallory’s direction. “I know what I saw. He commanded the other chomps. He counted our bullets, man.”

“He?” Daryl said. “Quids aren’t people anymore, kid. And they can’t count.”

“This one can,” Callum corrected.

“There’s never been any proof of anythin’ like that, it just doesn’t make sense,” Daryl said, shrugging the idea off.

“Maybe something’s changed. Maybe there’s a reason everything went dark like a week ago,” I countered. “Maybe you should check on the radios again and see if anyone else has seen anything like this.”

“Bah, those radios are next to useless.” Daryl waved his hand dismissively. “Just a bunch of quacks. I can’t get anything useful out of them.”

Stifling the desire to point out that Daryl was hardly the standard for normal, I scrutinized the older man. “I’m glad to hear that Cal almost died for nothing.”

“It’s not like that,” Daryl said. “We needed them at the time, o’course. We needed to know what was going on out there. And they’ll be handy to have around.”

“So which is it? Are they useful or pointless?” I felt my face growing warm and knew I was probably flushed. “Why can’t you people keep things straight? Why manipulate? Daryl, you’re power hungry. Mallory, you’re manipulating everyone, and I have no idea why. Mason is probably the most trustworthy person in this stupid town, and he’s freakin’ insane.”

“You have another ‘no offense’ in there?” Matt looked hurt. Actually, that was surprising. Why would he care?

“Yeah, whatever.” I was on a roll and I didn’t want to stop for much of an apology. “And no, Daryl, we’re not going on foot. Not with that thing out there. Get up Cal, we’re gonna find a car and get out of this stupid—” I stopped, jaw slack. There was no mistaking it. I stared out the window, certain of what I saw. There was something out there.

“Did you see something?” Callum asked, peering outside.

“Yes. Look, right behind that gray building. Just barely blending in with the trees.”

The rest of the group turned to look, even Daryl with a skeptical eyebrow raised. A chomp stood staring at the cafe we were in. Not just staring at the building, staring inside the building. It was hard to see from this distance, standing in the late morning shadow of a large tree, but it was unmistakable now.

“Kid, maybe you were onto something,” Daryl admitted, squinting across the street.

“I’ll put an end to this,” Matt declared and ran into the kitchen. He returned just a few seconds later, shotgun in hand. He sprinted out of the building, knocking over a couple chairs on the way. I almost knocked my own chair over when I jumped up to follow him.

“Gray, where are you going?” Callum shouted, jumping up to follow me.

Matt was almost across the street by the time I got out the front door. I reflexively looked both ways down the street before I crossed, though I knew I wouldn’t find any traffic. Matt had his shotgun raised, walking toward the back of the building as I approached.

“Where’d you go?” Matt growled as he crept forward, looking down the barrel of the shotgun.

I crunched a rock under my foot as I neared Matt. He snapped around, bearing the shotgun down right at me. “Hey, it’s me, it’s me!” I shouted, ducking away from the maw of the heavy gauge weapon.

“Crap,” he exhaled. “I almost blew your head off.”

“I’m pretty glad you didn’t.” Callum and Mallory came up next, looking past us into the shadow of the tree behind the building. Empty.

“Where’d it go?” Callum asked.

“It can’t have gone far,” Matt said. “Wait here.” He shouldered the shotgun again and jogged off around the corner. I met Mallory’s gaze, we locked eyes in silence for a few moments. I tried to read what was going on inside her head, but she wasn’t giving any ground. I was about to ask what she wanted when Matt called from around the corner. “Guys, come here.”

Mallory and I broke eye contact, a million things left unsaid and headed around the corner with Callum. The first thing I noticed was a buzzing sound. It didn’t take long to find the source.

A brown bundle of something rested on the ground at Matt’s feet. He stood staring at it, holding his shotgun at the ready. The three of us stepped closer to Matt and the bundle, and I realized it wasn’t a bundle at all. It was a dog. Mallory gasped as she realized what we were looking at. Callum turned around and headed back around the building, the sound of gagging creeping around the corner.

“It’s half eaten,” Matt announced, nudging the dog with his foot. Fur and meat and blood mixed on the grass, congealing into a paste that attracted flies by the dozen. The sight threatened to pull my stomach straight out through my throat. “It must’ve been that quid. It’s gotta be close.” He looked up and peered around, there were a plenty of places for a chomp to hide. I looked around, too. Anything to take my attention away from the bloody carcass at our feet.

“There.” Mallory spotted it first, standing between a fence and a house, across an empty lot.

“Does anyone else feel like it’s playing with us?” I asked. It was a different chomp than the one from the night before, but the rules were all different now.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mallory objected.

“I wouldn’t be so sure, Em. Something is fishy about all this,” Matt came to my defense. “I was pretty out of it last night, but even I have to admit something weird was going on. And now look at it: it’s just staring at us.”

“Hey, what do you want?” I yelled at the chomp. It didn’t respond. It may as well have been a statue. Lifeless. I had to chuckle a little at the notion. Lifeless had hardly been an adequate description of every zombie experience I’d had so far. Undead, my foot.

“Come here so I can shoot you,” Matt called as if maybe they’ll start taking orders now. Matt raised the shotgun to his shoulder and stalked toward the chomp. I couldn’t help but follow him. Before we had gotten closer than about twenty yards, the chomp darted backward, disappearing behind the house. Matt lowered his gun and gave chase. I ran behind him, my shorter legs pumping to keep up.

Matt disappeared around the back of the house, disappearing from view. I heard a scream and almost ran into Matt as he fell around the corner onto his back, the shotgun sliding away in the grass. Before either of us could take stock of ourselves, the chomp dove on top of Matt.

The snarling zombie snapped its yellow teeth again and again, hoping for a stray finger or something to find a way into its mouth. Matt held the creature at arm’s length, one hand around its neck, the other pushing on its chest. The chomp scratched and flailed its arms trying to find a hold. I was thankful on Matt’s behalf that these zombies couldn’t infect by scratching. Mallory’s scream met us from across the lot, being very helpful.

“The gun!” Matt shouted between grunts, snapping me out of my sarcastic musing. “Get the gun!”

Right, the gun. The shotgun had slid to a stop just a few feet away from me. I jumped on it, rolled over, and pulled the trigger—nothing happened. Great, of course Matt’s gun wasn’t loaded. There’s just a zombie apocalypse going on around us each and every day. Why keep the shotgun loaded?

“Rack the slide, Gray!” Matt had a foot on the chomp’s abdomen. He thrust his leg and the chomp sprawled on the grass a few feet away from him. Swallowing my stupidity, I racked the slide, adjusted my aim and fired.

The chomp’s upper body became hamburger meat, casting a red mist onto the grass and the side of the house. The gun flew from my hand and landed somewhere behind me, but I didn’t care because my shoulder had just been punched by a heavyweight champion.

“Great shot, Gray!” Matt said, helping me up. I tried to look like it wasn’t a big deal, but I couldn’t hide the grimace from the pain in my shoulder. Maybe I should’ve listened to Mason a little better. I bent over to pick up the gun with my good hand. No sooner had my finger touched the cold metal, than another shot rang out. This time from a few blocks south, behind The Rock.

Matt and I looked at each other dumbly. Two more shots tore through the hot August air and then the screaming started.

The four of us darted back across the street, a de facto militia running to the defense. We rounded the side of The Rock and—straight into a seething mass of yellow teeth and cracked fingernails. Three chomps sprang up from the ground at us, leaving something squirming in the dirt.

I jumped backward, straight into Mallory, knocking her from her feet. Cal dove to the side as Matt brought his shotgun up and racked the slide in one fluid motion. An ear-splitting explosion later, and the closest chomp disappeared from the waist up. Gore burst outward, covering everything around us. I took another step backward and accidentally stepped on Mallory’s ankle. She yelped and I cursed as the ground met my back with all the subtlety of a car crash.

Matt fired again, and once more bone and flesh splattered all around. One more chomp to go. The zombie closed in on Matt, hunger in its jaundice eyes. Matt fumbled with the new shell, missing the receiver and dropping the valuable shot on the ground. The chomp lunged and Matt brought the gun up sideways between himself and the zombie. Withered fingers grabbed the cold steel and Matt struggled to push the creature off.

I jumped to my feet, unsure of how to help, so I did the only dumb thing I could think of: I charged. My shoulder caught the emaciated frame of the chomp square at the sternum. We both toppled. I rolled to my right on to gravel next to the chomp before his chattering teeth could find their home anywhere on me. I rolled twice before bumping into something soft.

To my left, Matt swung the butt of the shotgun down on the distracted chomp’s skull as the creature clawed toward me. His head caved in like an egg under a heel. Matt screamed a bloody war cry as he pounded the zombie’s skull over and over. Callum finally grabbed his hands and gently eased the weapon down.

It was easy to get lost in the brutality of the thing. The chomps barely looked human and certainly no longer acted that way. How easy it was to check humanity at the door and let the rage take over. The survival instinct.

I caught my breath on the hot gravel, trying to wipe my memory of the gore and the violence. I tried to roll onto my back, but once more something soft stopped me.

“Gray…” Callum looked at me, face white as the gravel under my back. Matt’s face twisted into something I never thought I’d see from him: tears. Even Mallory’s eyes shimmered as she looked at the ground behind me.

Terror filled me, made me swell with a horrible anticipation of what I might see. What new horror had this world cooked up for me? My mind already bubbled over with horrible images I could never erase. More than ever, I yearned for something pleasant to see, but the dread in my friend’s eyes told me all I needed to know.

I could hide no longer. I took a deep breath, watching Callum’s teary eyes.

Following his gaze, I turned my head and met the lifeless eyes of Brianna.