Venison Episode 13: Skeletons

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Every single day since the outbreak, every morning since the world I once knew was ripped away from me, I have woken with the same question on my mind: "Would today be the day I die?" Part of me knew it was coming. Part of me welcomed an end to the interminable suspense. Most of me felt relief in knowing it wasn't my time yet. When I opened my eyes, I felt relief. Blinding light stabbed my retinas and threatened to ruin that calm, but I knew the question would rattle around in my head for a little while yet. And that wasn’t nothing.

A shadow covered the intense white that blanketed my vision. I blinked furiously, forcing my eyes to adjust. Slowly, they did. Highlighter marks streaked across my vision as the shadow took form. Brown, almost black eyes peered down at me, surrounded by yellow. Dark, leathery skin framed the eyes. A ravenous open mouth carved into the hollow face. Yellow teeth dripped pungent saliva as the chomp with the black overcoat and long black hair loomed over me.

I screamed until my throat burned raw, but no sound ever came. The chomp lowered his head toward me, the putrid, sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh assailed my nose. I reached my hand up to push him away, only I couldn’t move. I poured everything I had into raising my hand, but my arm lay dead at my side. It might as well have been an anvil.

Terror gripped my core, my breath threatening hyperventilation. The realization that I was utterly helpless broke me.

I stared into the rancid maw and tried to calm myself. If this was my end, I could face my fears. The chipped, yellow teeth transformed as I watched them, becoming long needles, razor sharp and designed for ripping flesh. They didn’t have that on the news. Venom dripped from the points onto my skin, burning in a dozen places. Calm would never come. I tried to squirm, to move. Anything. But nothing worked.

I lay completely helpless as the teeth tore into my neck, just above the color bone. Pain lanced through my body as I felt nerves and blood vessels rip apart. The chomp came back up, blood dripping from his chin, eyes yellow but brow furrowed. He brushed his hair behind his ears, somehow shorter now, and began to call my name.

I screamed as he reached for me, and this time my voice came.

“Gray, wake up, you’re just having a nightmare.” Mallory shook me and I found myself screaming in her face, trying to push her away.

“Wha…” I looked around the room. Matt’s house? Callum sat snickering in a corner. “What’s so funny?” My heart still raced in my chest.

“It’s just,” he said between laughs. “You were squealing. I wanted to help you, I really did, but man. That squeal got me.” He roared with laughter again and rubbed his eyes.

“Have I told you lately that I hate you?”

“There’s the Gray we all know and love,” he said with a wide grin that slowly crept into a chuckle again before standing. “I’m gonna go over to Mason’s and grab breakfast. You guys coming?”

“Yeah, I’ll help Gray get up and we’ll head over,” Mallory said.

Exhaustion consumed me. I laid my head back down on the pillow and winced. Something stung the back of my head. I reached my hand back to feel for it but found a large bandage.

“You must’ve hit your head when you landed,” Mallory explained. “That’s mostly my fault, I’m sorry.” She ran her fingers through her hair sheepishly. It looked different today.

“Did you cut your hair?” I asked, trying to put a pin on it.

She pulled a strand out as far as it would go, which wasn’t very far, I noticed. It was shorter than Callum’s once I started looking at it. “It got burned pretty bad. I never thought I’d be a girl with short hair, but here we are.”

“I think it looks nice,” I said. I meant it.

She responded with a warm smile. “Look, about all that stuff… all the drama—” she spared an awkward smile now “—I’m sorry. It was stupid. I don’t… I guess I just got caught up in the power of it all too.”

“So maybe you’re not that crazy after all?” I flashed a wide smile, she chuckled playfully.

“I’ll let you be the judge of that.”

“Well, Callum will be happy. He might even put you back 0n his hot list.”

“Great, that’s exactly what I need.” We exchanged laughter. Genuine laughter. How long had it been since either of us had that?

I peered out the door into Matt’s living room. It was empty. “Where’s Matt?”

“Matt’s, well, he’s burying Dillon. He wanted to do it himself.”

“Oh,” I responded slowly. I had never been able to figure out how to answer that sort of thing. “That’s kinda grim. He didn’t even want you there, huh?”

Her face dropped. “Sorry. And no, not really. We kinda broke up. We’ve been together since middle school. We’ve pretty much been defined by who we are together by now. Matt said he wants to be someone else, someone new for the new world, and he can’t do that with me. I guess I agree. It’s time to move on. I shouldn’t have said those things to him, and maybe I was too comfortable to notice it.

“You know, it’s funny. Before this mess all started, we were talking marriage. I know we’re young, but small towns are like that. I guess, in a way, this crap worked out for the better.” I shot her a look. A lot of people have died, including my family. She caught my meaning. “Well, you know what I’m saying. Anyway, it sucks, but it was mostly mutual.”

“Well, I guess that’s something then.” I honestly couldn’t tell if I was still interested in her. Sure, she was attractive, but who was she, really? I’d seen so many different sides over the last week. Week? “Can you believe it’s only been like, a week since we met?”

“Holy crap, you’re right. A lot’s happened.”

“Man, that’s heavy.” I stared up at the ceiling, letting that thought linger for a moment. I was drained. Emotionally, physically, mentally, you name it. I had a sick feeling that whenever I got up, I’d have to deal with Daryl too. Assuming he made it out alright, that is. “Wait, how’s everyone else?”

“Well, you heard Cal, Mason’s cooking breakfast. You feeling up to a trek?”

“Yeah, I think so. So Mason’s still kicking, huh?”

“It’ll take more than a zombie apocalypse to get him out of the fight.” She chuckled, eyes genuine. “You’ve got a lot of catching up to do, boy.”

“What about Daryl?”

Her eyes darkened. “He’s fine. Sore. Not as young as he used to be. He’s not happy with me.”

“Why? What happened this time?”

She looked out the window as she answered with a sigh. “Apparently he was pretty attached to The Rock. Didn’t take kindly to me blowing it up.”

“Yeah, so what the heck happened there? I feel like I got hit by a nuke.”

“Apparently when the gasoline blew up, fire caught what was left in the natural gas lines and the whole building went up in smoke. Stone walls and ol’ Bertha are still standing, but everything else is toast.”

“Bertha?”

“The oven, remember? She’s historic around here. I thought we told you about her when you first came.” I shook my head. “Oh well. She’s not much use anymore. That’s the second fire she’s survived. But I don’t think she’ll survive being useless.” Her voice carried a lot of reverence for an oven. Small town people are weird.

“So what do you think he’ll do?”

“Oh, he’ll rant and rave. Try and get us to build a new restaurant probably. I’m hoping someone else will step up now, though. Daryl’s leadership isn’t exactly inspiring.”

“You, maybe?” I suggested with a smirk. I was only half joking.

“No, I think I’ve been a little too power hungry already. It doesn’t suit me. Mason is who I’d vote for.”

“Yeah, me too.”

She looked at me with a raised eyebrow. “Yeah? Does that mean you’re sticking around?”

“Not if I can help it.” I grimaced as I sat up. “No offense. It’s just… Cal and I need to get to Tulsa and see if we can find his dad. It’s all he has left.” And he’s all that I have left, I added silently.

“No, I get it. You guys need to stick to what you’re doing. Besides, it’s not like we left the best of impressions anyway.”

“If you’re expecting me to argue, don’t get your hopes up,” I said with a snicker. I twisted my feet off the bed and onto the ground, pausing to make sure I wasn’t too dizzy. Mallory helped me to my feet, my balance held.

Whoever had moved me to the bed had apparently decided against changing my clothes out. I couldn’t decide if I was thankful or not. Mallory caught me having a little laugh at myself.

“What’s so funny?”

“It’s just, even in the middle of all this mess, the biggest battle I’m facing right now is between modesty and hygiene. I’m glad nobody stripped me down, but man, I feel disgusting.”

“You’re so weird,” she said, but she laughed with me. She helped me toward the bathroom until I felt like I could walk on my own. I told her that I’d like to grab a quick shower before we go. She joked about staying in the room with me to make sure I wouldn’t get hurt again. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t blush at the idea.

Nonetheless, I showered quickly, and after a few minutes, we walked the humid street toward Mason’s house.

“How’s the rest of the town?” I asked, looking for any signs of the recent struggle.

She walked silently for a long time before she answered. “We lost a lot of good people. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. When they came, people fled toward downtown, so the neighborhoods are mostly unmarred. Some people went to the library across the street from the high school to bunker down.” He voice caught in her throat. “They were massacred. I think Mason said he just going to torch the whole thing. I hate it. I get it, but I hate it.”

We turned left to head toward Mason’s, walking just south of downtown, and I began to see signs of the attack. Broken glass, torn clothes, and spent bullet casings at first. Then the bodies appeared. A chomp here or there at first, then people. Faces twisted in horror telling the gruesome story of their last few moments.

Here and there, loved ones and other townsfolk carried bodies and supplies to and fro, faces lost in a fog, dazed from the terror of the day before. The familiar face of the apocalypse, asking how this sort of thing could happen. I tried to avoid eye contact as much as possible. I was never very good at empathy.

“Did someone take care of Brianna?” I asked.

“I did, in a way.” Mallory’s eyes remained straight ahead. “The explosion. There weren’t many bodies left. Those that were, pretty much husks.”

“Oh, right.” The thought of Brianna’s lifeless body consumed in an explosion rattled me more than I felt like it should’ve.

The sound of metal scraping met us as we approached Mason’s house. We rounded into the driveway and found him sitting at a table, cleaning a rifle. Looked like an AR-15. “Well, good mornin’ sunshine,” Mason said with a hoarse voice. It looked like he hadn’t bothered showering since the attack. Dried blood clung to his unshaven face, grime and filth darkening his skin in grungy streaks. The faint smell of onions filled the garage.

“Hey Mason, have fun yesterday?” Fun? Why would I say something like that?

“Heck of a time, really. I mean, it’s a piece of sadness, what happened to the boy. But,” here his round face split into a wide grin, “that flame-cannon was something. That’s what I’m calling it. Something between a flamethrower and a cannon. You’ll have to shoot it sometime.”

“You know, I’ll probably pass.”

“Your loss.” He turned his attention back to running a corkscrew wire brush down the barrel of his gun.

“Hey, so did you get it?”

“Get what? The beastie? Naw. Scared the thing half to death, I think, though. Singed it pretty good. Couldn’t save Bethany though. She was gone by the time I got there.”

I gulped. “You mean that thing is still out there?”

“I reckon it is. Just don’t go traipsing through the woods on your own and you oughta be alright. Oh, Cal’s inside. He just finished breakfast. There’s not much, but some deer jerky and grits.”

Mallory and I both stared at him, bewildered.

“Kidding, it’s bacon. Go on, eat up.” He nodded toward the door and resumed his cleaning.

Mason’s house was surprisingly tidy. I wasn’t sure what I had expected, but it certainly didn’t fit the bill. Each surface entirely clean, except for only the necessary serving dishes from breakfast. Every cup, bowl, plate, and utensil had a specific place and rested perfectly there. Not what I envisioned from a man who beat a muffler with a hammer for most of the interactions I’d had with him.

“Oh hey man,” Callum said from a recliner in the living room adjacent to the kitchen. “How you feeling?”

“Like I got hit by a very hot bus.” I settled into a kitchen chair, mouth-watering and ready to eat. Plates were in a neat stack on the table next to the bacon and grits. I filled my plate and began devouring the food, letting Cal fill me in from yesterday. Most of it I already knew from what Mallory had told me.

As I finished eating my fill, Matt and Mason walked in from the garage, laughing about something. “Oh hey, lunchmeat—I mean, Gray. Sorry, bro. Old habits,” Matt said as he spotted me at the table. He nodded at Mallory and shifted his eyes, an uneasy smile taking over his face.

“Mason, how do you keep your house so clean?” I asked. “I mean, what’s the point now? It seems like there are way more important things.”

“It’s more important now than ever. Gotta keep some humanity ‘round here, y’know. Besides, Mae always loved to have a clean house, so I figure I do it for her, too, in partial.”

I snorted a laugh, unable to mask my amusement.

“What’s so funny?” Cal asked from the living room.

“It’s just, Mason and Mae. C’mon, that’s adorable.” Mallory shook her head slightly. Almost imperceptibly. Too late. A rubber spatula hit me in the side of the head, cutting off my snickering.

“Shut up about my cat, she was the best friend I ever had, and she was gone too soon from this world,” Mason shot at me with a stern finger pointed my way. I would have never pegged him for a cat person.

“Oh, uh, sorry then.”

“Dang straight, ‘sorry then,’” he said, reaching into the oven and twisting a valve on a propane tank he had rigged under there. I had wondered how he cooked all of this.

A rapping on the door caught all of our attention. Sounded like someone was banging a stick on the door.

Mason grumbled something under his breath and stalked to the door. He opened it just enough to see who it was, and then closed it again, but a cane thrust into the opening, barring him from shutting it. “Alright, come on.” He opened the door and waved his hand dramatically.

Daryl walked through the door, face set in a grimace, annoyance radiating from him.

“’Spect none of you are surprised to see me,” he said, looking at each one of us in turn.

“Actually, believe it or not, we were all kind of enjoying not thinking about you for awhile,” I said. I hadn’t planned to actually say this aloud, but sometimes it happens. Mallory shot me a complicated look. Stern eyebrows telling me I made a mistake. Soft smirk telling me she was proud. I can live with that.

“Nothing good has happened ‘round here since you lot showed up.” He waved his cane at Cal and I. “We tried to be good to ya, tried to help as much as we could, but you abused it.”

“That’s bull,” Mallory whispered.

“And you’re just as in the wrong for taking their side,” he looked at her for a long moment. “Both of you.” His gaze met Matt. “Y’all are responsible for setting that thing loose. It killed at least a dozen last night. That blood’s on your hands. I hope you don’t forget it. You wasted all the gas in Depew. Then you brought that quid back to us. Led a whole mess of the cursed things with him. Got my friends killed. Never found Mike’s body, that’s on you. It’s a long list you brats have conjured. Brianna, Dillon—”

“Don’t you dare,” Matt half rose, face red, corded veins popping out of his neck.

“Down boy,” Daryl said, unflinching. “Then you blew up The Rock. The only thing this township really got left. Mallory, shut up, I didn’t ask if you had a good reason for it. I want you gone. All of you.”

“Daryl, don’t do that to ‘em, they’re just kids,” Mason said, taking Daryl’s arm.

“You can go with ‘em if you like.”

“If you kick them out, you can darn sure consider me gone. I’ll have no part of it, and you would be next to helpless without me.”

“I’m willing to give it a shot,” Daryl said, turning back to the group. “Gone by lunch, y’hear?”

“Daryl, you can’t do that!” Mallory stood, knocking her chair over. “I grew up here. Matt too. This is our home.”

“I guess you’ll be hunting for a new one, then.”

“But… I’m your granddaughter.”

Step-granddaughter. Step aside Mason, I can see myself out.” With that, Daryl walked out of our lives.

“I say screw the old guy,” Matt said, drumming his fingers on the table.

“Easy, Matt.” Mason pulled out a chair and sat across from Matt.

“You would just get up and leave? Just like that?” Mallory looked at Matt, eyes piercing. Searching for something that wasn’t there anymore.

“We’ve had nothing but problems for the last week. Even longer. It’s clear we’re not wanted here, and honestly, I could do with a change of scenery. Em—Mallory, what if we did just go? You and I could both use a change. Something new. We’re in a new chapter here.”

I shifted uncomfortably. I really hated fights between couples, and the last thing I wanted was to be trapped here with this now.

“Maybe you’re right,” Mallory said, surprising me. “I think new would do us some good. Besides, that quid is still out there. Matt, you told me the explosion didn’t get him. If he was able to do this once, what’s to stop him from doing it again?”

“You’d leave your granddad to that?” Mason asked. “Everyone else here you know and love?”

“Not like I’d be able to do a lot of good here if I stayed. I’m just a girl. Besides, you heard Daryl. He doesn’t even consider me his granddaughter anymore.”

“You can obviously come with us, if you decide to leave,” I offered. Callum watched me carefully. We hadn’t talked about this possibility. So far, it had always been the two of us. If I knew him, he wouldn’t be eager to change that paradigm. But in the last week, these people had become something to me. To us. Like it or not, we’re all in this together now. He would get used to it. Hopefully.

Matt stood enthusiastically. “I’m in. Let’s do it. I’ll head back to the house and pack up the truck, then…” he trailed off. “Except my truck is totaled in Depew. I guess we’re hoofing it.”

“Unless Mason was serious,” Mallory said. “About leaving if Daryl kicked us out, I mean.”

We all turned to Mason to see what he had to say. He looked at each of us for a long moment, as if weighing each option against whatever plan he was concocting in his head. “I’ll do it,” he finally said. “But I’ll not have you kids doing anything stupid and gettin’ us killed. When we’re out there, you need to listen to me. It’s not my first rodeo. I know how to survive. Do as I say, and we can all get through this together.”

Matt whooped in excitement. Mallory allowed herself a small smile, but she wore the worry in her eyes. Ours met for a few moments, a silent exchange of anxiety for the future. Matt left to go pack up any supplies he had at his house, I told him I’d meet him over there in a few and help. Plus, I still had to get my own things. Cal, too. Mallory rushed off to Daryl’s, presumably, to get her necessities. We agreed to meet back at Mason’s in half an hour. We would be in Tulsa by lunchtime.

On the walk to Matt’s, Callum finally spoke his piece. “Are you sure you wanna do this? Bring everyone with us?”

“I think it’s best. We’ve grown pretty close to these people. And more is safer. Plus, we can drive. That’ll save us a week at least.”

“I mean, yeah, that’s a good point but,” he stammered, hunting for the right words. “It’s just always been us. I don’t want that to change.”

“Nothing’s going to change between us. We’re brothers in this. I know I can’t ever take the place of Curt—” My voice disappeared. I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry for everything. I haven’t treated you the way I should. I don’t mean to always condescend, but it’s just…” I had always come up with excuses. But there are no excuses for the way I’d been treating him. “Look, I’m just not very good at this. I love you like a brother, I just suck at showing it.”

We walked in silence for a dozen yards before I heard a sniffle next to me.

“Are we good?” I asked, stopping.

He stopped in front of me and turned around, head down, sniffling. “Yeah man, we’re good.”

“Good. I’ll do better, I promise.” I patted him on the back as I started walking again.

After another couple of blocks, Callum broke the silence. “When did you get so sensitive?”

“Shut up. And if you ever tell anyone, I’ll call you a liar.”

“Deal.”

We packed up quickly at Matt’s house. I tucked my iPod into my cargo shorts and rolled up the few clothes I had. As I stuffed everything into my backpack, I noticed my wallet in the very bottom. I pulled it out and looked at the old picture. Just a week ago I’d decided to keep part of my old world with me. Today felt so much different. Today was the time to let the old world be old. I tossed my wallet on the kitchen table and zipped up my bag, ready for the trip.

We all got to Mason’s around the same time, and he’d packed his truck like a doomsday pepper. MREs, guns, and ammo filled the bed, along with camping gear, fishing poles, and extra gasoline. This guy didn’t mess around. One small corner of the bed had been cleared for our things, so the four of us crammed our gear in and hopped in the cab.

We all sat silently as we passed through Stroud. Those who were out and about watched us with forlorn expressions. We didn’t wave. We didn’t speak.

Once we hit the turnpike, we started opening up. Conversation flowed freely as if we’d all been old friends. We joked, we laughed, we played games, and just forty-five minutes later, we crested a hill and looked out at Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Concrete barriers blocked the interstate directly in front of us. In front of the barriers, five-foot-high sandbag walls stood guard. Beyond the roadblock, the city crumbled in ruin. Shattered remains of skyscrapers loomed in the distance, like the skeletons of old giants hunched over a long cold fire. Everything was gray and ashen, even the clear sky seemed colorless above us.

“I don’t… understand,” Callum said, stepping out of the truck.

“I’m sure he’s fine Cal, we’ll find him,” I said, getting out behind him and placing a hand on his shoulder for comfort.

A scraping noise came from behind one of the sandbag walls and Matt and Mason raised their guns to the defense.

“Easy.” A middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair and gray stubble adorning his soft chin stood up from behind the sandbags, hands raised. He looked at each of us in turn before his eyes settled on Callum.

Silence filled the road. I shifted uneasily as the familiar man bore into Callum, hazel eyes dripping unbelief. Callum, for his part, stood with his face contorted somewhere between confusion and shock. The man took a step forward, before taking stock of himself, as if to make sure he was really there. I’d never been sure about coincidence, but this was weird. He looked at Callum once more, this time with warm eyes fraught with concern and broke the awkward silence. “Cal? What are you doing here?”

“Dad? Gray and I have been trying to find you, we—”

“No. You shouldn’t be here. You have to turn back.” The man looked around, down the road both directions, nervous eyes darting quickly.

“But we just got here. Dad, we—” An engine started in the distance. The rumble of something big growled. The sound grew. Whatever it was, it was coming toward us.

Callum’s dad shooed us with his hands, directing us back the direction we came as the engine’s roar intensified. “Listen to me. You can’t stay, it isn’t safe. Go. Now.”