Venison Episode 2: Enrollment

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I couldn’t believe this was happening. “Look, man—”

“What’s going on here?” Mallory said from behind us as she charged through the door.

“Ah, I’m just yankin’ your chain, kid,” the old man cackled in his gravelly voice, “Who do you think you are? Rick and his buddies traipsing through Georgia meeting the worst people on the planet? Listen, boy, the world may be coming to an end, but I sure as snipe haven’t lost my humanity. We’re good folk ‘round here.”

“Daryl, you’re the worst,” Mallory said pushing her way between the two monstrously large men behind us. “I’m not sure why grandma ever married you.” She smiled playfully and kissed him on the cheek. “You boys hungry?”

“Uh—” I started before Daryl cut me off.

“Of course they are,” he said gleefully as he shot me a wink. “These boys were just telling me about how they wanted to stick around awhile and help out, ain’t that right, uh, what was your name again?”

“I’m Gray,” I was still pretty uneasy. “This is Callum. And I didn’t—”

“Alright kid, let’s get you some food, I see you already met my lovely granddaughter—”

“Step,” Mallory said as she sat at an empty booth toward the back.

“Yeah, step-granddaughter. Well, that’s Em, anyway. C’mon, let’s get you sat and I’ll tell you about your first job.”

“Sir, we really—”

“Nonsense. Not another word ’til you’ve had your fill, unnerstand?” He punctuated that last statement with a stern look.

He plopped us down at the booth with Mallory and set at the head of the table. Within a few moments, food was brought out to us by a young girl who looked about high school age. I was surprised to see cooked chicken breast and a bowl of greens suddenly on the table in front of me. This would be about the nicest meal I’d had in at least a month. I tried not to act overzealous, but my face must have betrayed my excitement.

“Good, innit?” Daryl asked, staring at me intensely. “The Rock takes care of you. Not exactly hot off ol’ Bertha, but it’s about as good as you can get nowadays.”

“Speaking of,” I said, my mouth full of baby spinach. “What exactly happened this week? Why does everyone keep saying that everything has changed?”

“That’s still information that’ll cost ya, son.”

“Daryl, come on,” Mallory interjected. “We can tell him.”

Daryl stared at Mallory for a few long moments before turning back to me. “Okay. I’ll tell ya.”

Just then, our waitress burst through the double hinged door giggling loudly and scoffing in mock disdain. “Keep your hands to yourself, Matt, you are off the market!”

Right behind her came Matt, a tall, muscular guy with a buzz cut and a white tank top. He cruised through the opening, reaching out to tickle the girl as she squealed and backed away. He popped up, pretending he didn’t know we were there and sidled over to our table shrugging the waitress off. She gazed longingly after him while he ignored her and bent over to kiss Mallory in the most obscenely conspicuous way.

I shifted awkwardly at the much-too-long public display of affection, while Callum peered at the spectacle with a dumb expression. Finally, Daryl coughed and Matt broke away, looking at Callum and me to measure our discomfort. He apparently decided that he had done a good job because he winked and looked at Daryl with all the rebelliousness he could muster and just threw his head back in a nod.

“Who’s the fresh meat?” he asked as he plopped down into a chair at the end of the table, trying too hard to look like he couldn’t care less. “Sorry, old phrases are hard to break,” he said in my general direction.

“This is Gray,” Mallory said, holding her palm up in my direction, “and this is his brother Callum.”

“We’re not brothers,” I corrected and shoveled another bite of chicken into my mouth.

“I was just explaining to the boys about how they can help us with a little problem we have,” Daryl said, trying to take command of the situation again.

“I’ve told you old man, we don’t need those stupid radios. Dillon and I can handle things. We’ll just run up to Tulsa every day once in awhile to get an update, grab some grub and come back home.”

“Those radios might be the only way we can know what’s really going on out there,” Daryl insisted. “Besides, you know you can’t go to Tulsa after—” this time, Mallory was the one to interject with a cough and a nod in our direction.

“What happened in Tulsa?” I asked when I had swallowed my mouthful of chicken.

Daryl hesitated as if weight the cost, but finally sighed and turned toward me. “I’ll be honest, we don’t know. TV is done. Conventional AM/FM radio is done. It all happened Sunday, we haven’t had any updates since then.” He turned on Matt now. “That’s why we need those blamed radios. That’s the only way we’ll know anything about anything, innit?”

“You’re an old fool,” Matt said. I looked to Mallory to see if she would defend her grandfather. Or step-grandfather. But she seemed to be doing her best ignore Matt and everything else going on around the table.

“I don’t care what you think about me, you little brat, I run this place. I’m doing what’s best for me and mine and I couldn’t give a rat’s tail if you’re included in that or not. I’m sendin’ the boys in, and that’s my decision, do you understand?”

“What if we choose to not go?” I asked, feeling very much like I should weigh in on decisions that might affect my well-being. “Also, where are we going?”

Daryl turned to me and smiled warmly. “Why, we’d fix you up and let you head on up the road, of course.”

“That’s the sanest thing you’ve said all day, Daryl,” Mallory said. Apparently, she was listening after all.

“Honey, can you run and see if they have any more tea in the back for us?” Daryl asked her.

“Isn’t that what Brianna is for?” Mallory retorted, making it clear she was aware of Matt flirting with our waitress.

“She’s too busy ogling your boy-toy,” Daryl said with a derisive look toward Matt, who was simply smiling proudly.

“I can’t help it that my man is a catch,” Mallory said, putting an affectionate hand on Matt’s chest as she stood up. She headed off toward the kitchen, and Matt stood to follow her, running up behind her and tickling her in much the same way he had tickled Brianna just moments before. I could feel the bile rising in my throat. I knew his type. And I hated his type.

“Listen here,” Daryl said, breaking me out of my brooding thoughts. “You’re going to help us.”

“I thought you said we had a choice,” Callum muttered with a mouthful of lunch.

“Sure, you can choose to not help,” Daryl said as he leaned back in his chair. “But I’ll have you shot before you get a mile up the road, and that’s a fact.”

“Are you serious?” I said as my blood ran cold. I could feel my hands my legs trembling and my fingers went kind of numb. Nothing prepares you for a statement like that. I’d seen the TV shows and movies where humanity had degraded completely, but I wasn’t convinced that it would actually happen. But here we were. One year ago I was waiting tables much like Brianna, and trudging my way through community college. There wasn’t a “Navigating the Apocalypse 101” class or anything like that. I’m not sure I would have wasted credits on it anyway.

“We’re good folk ‘round here,” Daryl said soothingly. “I wasn’t lying on that bit. But I gotta protect my own, you see. Little Em back there, I’m all she got. Her parents—well, they’re no longer with us. Her little brat of a boyfriend is worthless. I gotta look after her.”

“You make it sound so sweet when you put it like that.” I could cut the sarcasm in my reply with a knife.

“You’ll come around.”

“So what exactly is this little errand?” I asked with a sharp edge to my voice. “Or is that information you’ll make me pay for as well?”

“I guess since you’re being so generous with your offer to help,” the old man said as Mallory came back to the table with a pitcher of sweet tea. She plopped it on the table and headed back to the kitchen where it sounded like half a dozen kids were hanging out. “Everything has been hellish here for about five months, you boys know that I reckon. They started watching the borders with a fine-tooth comb in April, but it didn’t seem that serious. Some could still come and go as they wished, for the most part. A couple weeks ago things got really bad—”

“Yeah, we know that. It’s why we’re on the road. The city got hit hard. We were out in Harrah, but we heard the rumors of stuff getting bad for a week or two. Then—” my voice choked a little. The memories were still so raw. “We could see the flashes all the way out there when they torched the city. Smoke was still rising when we hit the road.”

“It’s rude to interrupt your elders, boy. But that’s right. It’s only the half of it though. When they torched the city, they locked us down.”

“What do you mean locked us down?” Callum asked.

“Quarantine. We’re stuck here, boys. For good. Borders are sealed tighter than a turtle’s corn-hole. Everything is dead, too. No cell phones, internet, nothing. TV is gone, power is out, and there’s not a cracking thing we can do about it.”

“Holy smokes,” Callum said leaning back in his chair looking overwhelmed.

“Yeah, holy smokes,” Daryl agreed. “I’ve said stronger things. But this is where you kids come in. Ham radios are about the only way we can get any updates out here.”

“Oh hey Cal, didn’t your uncle used to do that?” I asked Callum. “You know, the crazy one?”

“Not nice dude. But yeah, he was kinda creepy. And he spent like three hours every night playing with his old radio.”

“Well, unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we had any crazies like that around here, believe it or not. The only hams we know of are locked in the school. They taught with them in the technical arts classes.”

“Okay, so what do you need from us?” I asked, still not understanding why we were so valuable to this situation.

“You’re going to go get them,” Daryl said emotionlessly.

“Why can’t you?” I asked pointedly.

“That’s the trick,” he said with a humorless chuckle. “See, when it all happened, we started locking the quids in the school. It’s central, easy to keep locked, and big enough to keep ‘em entertained.”

“Sounds like a terrible idea,” I countered.

“Yeah, in hindsight, it wasn’t our best move, but at the time it seemed right. There’s maybe a dozen or so in there, and they could all be dead by now for all we know.”

“How on earth do you think we’re qualified for something like that? We’re just kids, not exactly commandoes,” I scoffed.

“I could give a flying rip if you’re qualified, you’re expendable,” the way he added emphasis to that word made it sound so greasy and dirty.

“Crap, man, can you hear yourself?”

“Don’t you dare boy,” he snarled. “You’re going in. I’ll give you an hour to get ready, and you best not run off, or I’ll break your legs. Then I’ll shoot ya. Go see Mason in the garage around the corner, he’ll give you some guns or whatever else you want. We’ve been collecting them since all this began. He’ll show you how to use ‘em.”

Without another look, he stood and limped out the front door of the restaurant, leaving Callum and I absolutely terrified about what were getting ourselves into. Daryl’s meathead bouncers or bodyguards or whatever the heck they were stepped closer, illustrating clearly that we weren’t welcome to stay. Southern hospitality at its finest. As Callum and I stepped back out into the hot August heat, I wondered idly where Mallory had gotten off to. I had just met the girl, but I found myself worrying about her with that oaf Matt. I wouldn’t mind if I never saw that guy again. But Mallory… I shook the thought off and grabbed Callum by the shoulders.

“This isn’t a movie. They’re not going to shoot us, no one is that crazy. Let’s just go before they start to actually consider it,” I squeezed his shoulders firmly to try and bolster his confidence.

“We can’t,” he said, his tone practically screaming defeat. “Our bags are still in there, and we don’t have any food.”

I stared at him in disbelief. He was right of course. How had we come to this? I wasn’t quite sure how to process our situation, but I gritted my teeth and headed back toward the diner. I had to at least try to get our stuff. I pulled on the doors. Locked. Of course they were. I knocked on the glass and waited a moment. Nothing. I peered into the diner and saw one of the big guys just shaking his head at me through the glass. I pointed to my bags trying to tell him that’s all I wanted. He pointed to the sky with one rude finger and that was that.

“Okay, so we play hero, go get the stupid radios, then we’ll be on our way and at your dad’s house in less than a week,” I was trying to project confidence into my friend. It wasn’t working.

“Yea, if he’s even still alive,” Callum was digging his foot into the gravel despondently.

“Hey man, don’t worry. We got this.”

“I’ve played this one,” he looked up at me. “I know how this one ends.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Yea, Last of Us. Break into the school, get something important. Massive boss that is just a freakin’ grind to kill. Man, I don’t think this one ends well.”

“You know this isn’t a video game, right?”

“You’re telling me, in a game you get retries. We’re screwed, man.”

“Easy, bro. We’ll be fine.” I patted him on the back and led him around the corner where Daryl had gestured.

“Yea if you say so. I’ll probably poop my pants, though.”

“Why don’t you take care of that while I get the guns, sicko.”

Mason’s garage was pretty obvious. Even though I was expecting an actual business, it was hard to miss the house with chrome pipes and car parts strewn across the lawn just a block or so down. I could hear a man cussing and banging metal against metal as we approached the driveway. This could be interesting. A guy with anger issues being in charge of guns. I hope Daryl knows what he’s doing.

We rounded the back end of a beat up truck and saw Mason, a thirty-something redneck covered in grease head to toe. The short, portly man was rubbing his hands on a red shop towel. I had assumed he was yelling at something, but all we saw was a muffler on the ground and a few cans of refrigerant. So he’s a lunatic. This keeps getting better.

“Hi, um, Mason?” He jumped a little when I spoke, apparently lost in his own world of whatever he was doing.

“What’s wrong with you, kid?” He waved a hand around dramatically as he spoke, “sneak up on a guy, time like this. Good night. Who are you anyhow?”

“I’m uh, I’m Gray. This is Cal. Daryl told us you can give us some guns.”

“Oh did he now? So I’m deputy or something? Shee-yoot. What he got y’all doin’ then?”

“Uh, we’re supposed to go into the school and get some radios or something,” I said flatly.

Mason’s only response was to laugh hysterically for longer than I thought appropriate. “Son of a gun, you’re serious? Shoot, he’s serious? Alright, come out back then.”

We stepped through the steel door in his garage into his backyard. Or what should have been his backyard. The back fence was taken out, opening a shared backyard between Mason’s house and the house behind him. Where a swing set or trampoline should have been, there was a huge concrete pad covering most of both yards. The back of the other house was covered in a huge cinderblock wall, three or four blocks deep. It was impressive, if not an incredibly off-putting example of how crazy the world had gotten.

“Filled each block with sand, too,” Mason said, smiling proudly at the wall. “Four rows of blocks, twelve feet high, all full of sand too. This’ll stop a fitty cal point blank.”

Now that he’d mentioned it, I could see a lot of concrete fragments and chips littering the ground in front of the wall. This must be some kind of firing range, I figured. Not many of the cinder blocks had holes in them, so they must swap out the blocks pretty regularly. Seemed like a major pain to me, but the people in this town were apparently not sane anyway.

“You know how to use one a these?” I turned to see Mason holding a long black weapon. I wasn’t necessarily a gun guy, though I had shot a handful of different guns with my dad or friends at a range in Norman. This gun didn’t look familiar to me. It kind of looked like a pistol that had a really long barrel with pump-slide on the bottom. I watched as he unfolded a stock from the top of the weapon and gave the slide a pump. “This here’s a SPAS. It’s a twelve gauge, she’ll put hair on your chest.”

“Oh, good,” I said, rubbing my chest absently. “Uh, what’s it for?”

“I shoulda known.” Mason grimaced and shook his head. “Okay, it’s a shotty. Scattershot. Your aim doesn’t have to be perfect, and she’ll still tear your target to shreds. If you’re not careful, she’ll take your shoulder outta socket, too.”

“Oh, yay.” I wasn’t sure if sarcasm was appropriate here, but I was sure I didn’t care. The next thing I knew, he had shoved the weapon into my hands and pushed me towards an orange line he had spray-painted on the concrete pad. He slapped some red Ear Defenders on my head and gave me a pat on the butt. How did I end up here again?

I gingerly lifted the weapon up to my shoulder. The gun was way heavier than I had expected. I couldn’t imagine that people actually enjoyed carrying these things around. I peered down the sights and took a deep breath, trying to not make my shaking noticeable. I squeezed the trigger and the end of the weapon exploded, sending a shockwave through my shoulder to the rest of my body. My teeth clacked hard together and I found myself lying flat on my back on the ground wondering what just happened. My heart was pumping so hard, I wasn’t sure veins were made to hold that kind of pressure.

“Fun ain’t it?” Mason said as he appeared over me. He leaned down and picked up the shotgun grinning from ear to ear. He handed the weapon to Callum and told him to have a good time. Cal looked back at me and chuckled before turning on the wall. An Earth-shattering crack later and I heard Callum mutter, “Cool,” before handing the gun back to Mason.

After giving each of us a shotgun and a box of shells, Mason gave each of us a pistol and showed us how to operate them. We fired a few shots into the cinderblock wall to get a feel for the guns and then slid them into the holsters Mason had given us. He gave us each a canteen full of water and shooed us on our way, gesturing to the dead stadium lights about ten blocks away and muttering something about “boomin’ some quids.” I guess it was now or never.

We trudged on toward the school hoping someone would come and tell is it was all a joke. They never came. My inner voice surprised me by wondering if Mallory would come wish us luck or anything. We finally saw Daryl with a couple of his goons standing on the steps in front of the school. The red brick of the old school matched the red clay that Oklahoma was known for. One of the goons was holding a set of bolt cutters about the size of my arm. I figured that was for the chains around the doors. Hopefully.

Looking at the school dredged up memories of high school. Back then, just a couple of years ago, everyone was so convinced climate change was going to be the end of the world as we knew it. Man, we really missed the mark there. In their defense, it was really hot outside.

“Look at you,” Daryl sneered, “citizen soldiers in the flesh. Radios are in the lab across the hall from the cafeteria. If you hit the locker rooms, you’ve gone too far.” He nodded to the goon on his right, the one with dark skin and about a million tattoos. The large man effortlessly clipped the chain with the bolt cutters he had been carrying.

The chains slid off the door with a loud crash and behind me, a horn sounded at the same time. I would have been ashamed to say that I jumped then, but I was mainly terrified about going into that stupid school. I turned to see where the honk came from and found Matt in his giant truck with Mallory sitting in the middle of the bench seat. He honked again and Mallory shoved him. He put the truck in gear and leaned out of the window yelling, “Supper time!”

“I really hate that worthless dip,” Daryl said, shaking his head after the truck. “Anyway, try not to get eaten. You’ll understand if we board ‘er back up after you go in? Don’t want any quids gettin’ out, of course.”

“Of course not,” I wasn’t sure why I said that. That sounded like a terrible idea. I guess I realized that I didn’t have much of a choice. I gazed forward toward the ominous, gaping maw and felt my hands and feet start tingling a little. What was I doing? I was no commando. I could feel the pistol pushing against my pelvis in the holster and the cold metal of the shotgun resting on my forearm. I wasn’t ready for this.

I looked over at Callum to find a sickly pale face staring back at me as if waiting for me to wake him up from a dream. He was just a kid. He should be starting his senior year of high school right about now. He should be skipping class and going to football games and trying to get a girlfriend in halls just like these, not rampaging around like Rambo with a shotgun. Sure, high school is pretty crappy for everyone, but this had to be a record for the worst first day of school ever.

“Hate to interrupt your inner monologue, son, but I have a town to run. Go on, then,” Daryl cackled mirthlessly and limped down the steps. His two goons edged us in toward the door and we were helpless to stop them. The blackness inside the building seemed to be growing outward toward us even as we trudged ever closer. My breathing tightened as my foot planted on the smooth tile just inside the door.

The last sound I heard was a strong hand hammering heavy lumber into the door behind me.