Venison Episode 4: Search

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“Are you out of your mind, Daryl?” Mallory paced the restaurant, fuming. “I didn’t think you would actually send them in there, you lunatic!”

“Easy, Em, they’re not even from here,” Matt said from across the table. “Besides, they’ve been hiking all across Oklahoma, I’m sure they can handle their own.”

“Yeah, right,” she scoffed. “They may be from a small town, but they don’t have a spit of hunt in ‘em. They won’t last two minutes.”

“Now listen, Mallory,” Daryl finally spoke up. “We need those radios. We have to know what’s goin’ on in the rest of the world.”

Mallory paced the room and ran her fingers through her hair. She was glad there was no one else in the small diner at the moment. At least Matt wouldn’t be flirting with Brianna during all this. How could Daryl be so insensitive?

“Why do you even care?” Matt asked, leaning back in his chair. “We don’t even know them.”

“They’re human beings Matt, what’s wrong with you?” Mallory looked at Matt with burning, furious eyes. Matt just looked away and rocked on the back two legs of his chair. “And you, Daryl? What’s your excuse? What happened to, ‘we’re good folk around here,’ and ‘we haven’t lost our humanity,’ for cripes sake? You know what’s in there!”

That won’t be a problem,” the old man said, propping his leg up on a chair. “It’s sequestered in the gym. That’s the other side of the campus, and them doors are locked up tight. Trust me, they’ll be fine. Most of the quids should be about dead by now anyway.”

“It’s gotten out before,” Mallory said, her voice deadpan. Her eyes were a dark, blazing green that could ignite a forest. “Where were you, then?”

Daryl simply looked away, out the window toward main street. He chewed on his cheek and ignored Mallory’s burning look. Mallory, for her part, was glad he didn’t say anything else. She probably wouldn’t have been able to stop herself from ripping him a new one. She growled and stormed off toward the door.

“Where you goin’, babe?” Matt asked her as he let his chair back onto the ground.

“I’m going to save those kids from the hell my step-grandad threw them into.”

——

“Mason, just do it,” Mallory towered over Mason, the man’s overalls straining to cover his round belly as he arched his back to look up at her.

“Daryl gives the orders around here, not you,” he said defiantly and tried to back away. Mallory followed him until he backed into his toolbox.

“I don’t care if Daryl nurses you to sleep every night, you’re gonna give me what I asked for, and you’re going to do it now.”

“Cripes lady, if your grandma was anything like you, it’s no wonder—“ a slap across the face from Mallory cut off whatever he was going to say next.

“Don’t you dare, you little pig.” She stepped back and tied her hair into a ponytail. “I need three mags for my Glock. Forget the shotgun, if I get that close, I’m probably dead anyway. Give me something with a .223, and plenty of ammo for that, too.”

“Who are you, that chick from Resident Evil? Lara Croft or whatever?” Mason chided as he gathered the supplies.

“She’s from Tomb Raider you brick.”

“Whatever, what do you need all this for?”

“I’m going in the school after those outsiders,” Mallory said matter-of-factly as she checked the rounds in a magazine. “Because Daryl has apparently lost his ever-loving mind.”

“Are you serious? I mean, I was fine when it was those kids, for Lord-knows-where, but you gotta be kidding me.” Mason turned and looked at her, eyebrows furrowed.

“Don’t get sentimental on me, Mason, it doesn’t suit you.” Mallory allowed herself a grin, “even if you were my Sunday school teacher for a few years.”

“Yeah, a whole lot has changed since then, huh?” Mason chuckled and handed her an AR-15. “You know how to use one of these right?”

She grabbed the slide with two fingers, pulled it back and released it with a sharp crack and smiled at Mason. “I think I can figure it out.”

“You’re just as crazy as your step-grandad.”

“Screw you,” she said as she walked down the driveway with her gear. She turned up the street and headed for the high school with a determination she didn’t really understand. Why did she want to risk her life for some kids she had just met this morning? Kids, she laughed to herself. The oldest one looked about her age. But still, what was she doing? She wasn’t an action hero. Why was she playing rescue?

“Babe, what are you doing?” Matt met her on the sidewalk just a few blocks down from the school. “You’re not seriously going in there, are you?”

“Yeah, I seriously am, Matt.” She stopped and turned on him, the air between them cold as ice. “You can either help or get out of my way. They’re going to be in serious trouble if—” she stopped herself short and took a deep breath. “You know what’s in there. You know what it did to this town. Daryl is a lunatic for sending those boys in there. I have to do something.”

“How do you know it’s even still alive? It’s been almost a month, Em, nothing can live that long.”

“It can with a buffet of quids.”

For a long moment, Matt just stared at Mallory as if waiting for the proverbial nail in the coffin to his argument, but Mallory was determined to win. “Fine, I’ll get Dillon and we’ll meet you at the school, okay? I just don’t want you to go in there by yourself.”

“I’m not waiting on you, so you better hurry.” She left him standing there and turned back up the street toward the school.

Mallory was still unsure about why she felt so strongly about this. She was tied to the situation,  of course: she was the one who brought them into town. She had never considered that her own kin would take a dive in the deep end of insanity. Especially after everything this town had seen. But, Daryl did have a point. The town had needs. Mallory just wasn’t sure about the cost.

She started feeling nervous as she ascended the steps to the school. One of Daryl’s bouncers waited at the door, arms crossed, hammer still in hand. He looked more goofy than intimidating, but she wasn’t about to tell him that. His dark skin glistened with sweat in the August heat as he stared her down. She simply met his dark eyes with an immovable determination.

“I’m going in there, Michael.”

“Sure you are,” he chuckled back, “and I’m the tooth fairy.”

“And here I always thought the tooth fairy was more brains than brawn,” Mallory shot back without hesitation. Michael’s face soured and he opened his mouth, and Mallory braced herself to receive the biting insult. It never came, he seemed to think better of it. “Come on, just let me in,” Mallory pleaded.

“Daryl’s rules was clear, Em, no one in or out.”

“What about those two boys you locked in there?”

“They can come out soon as they show me the radios,” he said, his tone dry as a lizard’s skin. “Besides, they’re probably quid food already. One of those fools pulled the fire alarm about twenty minutes ago.”

“What? Why would they do that? Surely they would know better… Wait, and you didn’t go in to help them? What happened to this town, man?” Mallory asked, dumbfounded. “I mean, seriously. Where do we get off being terrible to people? Look, those kids have no idea what they’re getting into in there,” Mallory looked at the ground trying to decide whether or not to use all her ammo. She decided to go ahead and give it a shot. She made a show of looking at his golden wedding ring, exposed as he gripped the hammer close to his chest. “Do you want them to suffer the same way your wife did?”

Michael tensed and his eyes froze straight ahead. His dark hand gripped the hammer tighter, turning his knuckles white with the pressure.

“I don’t want them to have to experience what Tiara did, Michael. That’s why I’m here. I can help them. But only if you let me in. Do it for me?”

For at least two full minutes, Mallory stood silent as the still air around her, staring up into Michael’s unmoving face. She had struck a chord, but she wasn’t sure if it was the right tune. At last, he moved. He turned and began to pull the boards away from the door. After the second board, Mallory turned to meet the loud muffler of Matt’s truck as it pulled up to the school. Matt got out and pulled a long-barreled shotgun out and headed up the steps. Dillon hopped out of the passenger seat with an AR-15 and jogged to catch up with Matt.

“I’m glad you found a shirt, Dill,” Mallory said with a wry smirk.

“Yeah, well, I didn’t want to intimidate all the quids with these abs, you know?” Dillon joked with an arrogant laugh. He swept his dark hair back and nodded to Michael.

“And just when I thought you were cocky enough,” Mallory chided and turned to Matt. “So this is the A-Team, huh?”

“Look, Em, I don’t know about any A-Team,” Dillon interrupted Matt before he could speak, “I’m just here to bust some quid.”

“Yeah, okay,” Mallory turned away before he could say something even more obnoxious.

“Em, are you sure you want to do this?” Matt asked, with sincerity Mallory could feel for the first time in a long time.

“There are two boys in there who came to this town for help, and Daryl sent them in here to die. Yes, I’m sure I want to do this.”

“Good talk,” Michael interjected. “Now, get in there, I’m not taking any responsibility if Daryl gets his girdle in a curdle. I’m locking this up behind you, too.”

Mallory just stared at Michael again, her face painted with disbelief. “If I die in there because you locked me in, I will haunt you for the rest of your life.”  Mallory spat acid and pushed through the opening into the dark hallway beyond.

The first thing she noticed was a suffocating stale smell. The musty aroma was quickly swallowed by a sour, sickly smell that turned her stomach.

“Crap!” Matt yelled behind her as he stepped into the gloomy hallway. “What’s that horrible smell?”

“Shh, you idiot!” Mallory’s voice rasped in a loud whisper. “Do you want to tell all the quids we’re here? You can be so dense sometimes.”

“I say let ‘em come,” Dillon announced proudly as he stepped into the school. “I came here to blow crap up, anyway.”

“If you guys are going to be stupid, let me get a head start so that I don’t have to suffer for it,” Mallory stalked off down the hallway. The boys apparently didn’t want to go it alone and shuffled to catch up to her. As the trio pushed further into the hallway, the darkness became almost impenetrable. None of the fire alarm handles had been pulled in the hallway, which Mallory found suspicious. Where had they pulled the alarm, and why?

One of the classrooms in the hall had an open door. Mallory inched toward the opening with the boys in tow.

“Wait, let me,” Matt said. Mallory would have felt honored at his chivalry, but she knew that he just wanted to make a show of his manliness. Sometimes she wondered why she was still with him. But then she looked at Dillon and remembered that her options were limited in this place.

Matt inched toward the door and poked his head through. He stayed bent over and peered around the room looking for any signs of recent occupation. “Em, look,” he said and took a step into the room.

Mallory followed him in and Dillon took a stand at the door, presumably keeping watch for quids. At least, Mallory hoped that’s what he was doing. She looked around the room to find it ransacked as if something had been hunting. She took another step and felt a crunch under her shoe. A partially eaten mouse skeleton. Charming. So a quid had probably been living here. But where was he now?

She surveyed the rest of the room and smiled a little. She remembered this room. It was a social studies class. There were maps of the United States throughout the nation’s history on the walls and torn into pieces scattered all over the floor. A broken globe with holes chewed in it rested in the corner by the teacher’s desk. There were two windows in the room, on the far side. Both seemed intact, even though the blinds were ruined. Mallory found it interesting that the quids weren’t smart enough to break through windows. I guess she could consider herself lucky.

“The fire alarm.” Matt pointed to the wall by the door where a fire alarm handle stuck straight out from the wall. Pulled.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Mallory said as she stepped closer to take a look. Not that she could find any useful information from the handle, but it just felt right for some reason.

“Maybe they had to fight the quid off or something, and someone ended up hitting it,” Matt offered, looking around the room.

“Yeah, maybe…” Mallory shrugged, not buying it. “There was definitely something going on in here, but look, no blood or anything. You don’t get into a fistfight with a quid and not shed any blood.”

“Maybe we underestimated those dudes.”

“Yeah, and maybe I’m Conor MacGregor,” Dillon snickered from the hallway.

“Well, something happened,” Mallory conceded. “And why isn’t the fire alarm still going? Doesn’t the fire department have to come out here to reset it, or something? Dillon, didn’t you pull the fire alarm as a stupid prank junior year?”

Dillon just laughed from outside the room. His smugness threatened to suffocate her, even in the hallway.

“Remind me why you’re friends with him?” Mallory asked Matt with a joke in her tone, but all serious in her intent.

“We’ve been over this, Em. Dill and me have been friends since like forever. Longer than I can remember. He’s family.”

“Except you can’t choose family, but you keep choosing him.”

“Hey, that’s not—“

“Guys,” Dillon said as he backed into the room, nearly tripping over himself and the debris on the floor. He stepped backward, sliding his feet, face pale as if he had seen a ghost.

“Dill, what is it bro?” Matt asked, walking over to him. Dillon simply nodded toward the door and kept backing up. Matt held a hand up behind him, gesturing for Mallory to wait in the room. She was more than happy to comply. She looked over at Dillon and he met her gaze, wide-eyed. Then his expression softened and he flashed a playful wink. “I don’t see nothin’ man, what’s the—“ he stopped short as he felt the cold muzzle of Dillon’s gun on the back of his neck.

Mallory simply stared forward in disbelief for a few seconds.

“Gotcha!” Dillon cackled and dropped his rifle, giggling the whole way. Right up until Matt punched him in the jaw, sending him sprawling onto the floor.

“What’s wrong with you man? You got issues,” Matt yelled and kicked Dillon’s leg. Dillon scowled up from the ground and stared at his friend for a moment. Then he burst into a crazed laughter and jumped up from the ground, rubbing his jaw.

“You’re such a freak,” Mallory stated with full conviction. “Let’s keep moving.”

“Where are we going?” Matt asked, slinging his shotgun over his shoulder.

“We’ll head toward the cafeteria. The radios should be just across the hall.” Without looking back, Mallory left the room and turned down the dark hallway. The two boys hurried to catch up with her as she strode toward the end of the hall. The group stopped at the T-intersection and looked around.

“Anyone else smell something burning?” Matt asked, sniffing the air.

“I think that’s gunpowder,” Mallory observed. “If the shooting started here…” she trailed off and examined the walls in their immediate vicinity.

“Nah, I don’t see any bullet holes or anything,” Matt said, looking at the wall closest to him.

“Oh, grody!” Dillon exclaimed, winning Matt and Mallory’s attention. They met Dillon as he hunched over a spill on the hard floor. Mallory gasped with horror as she realized it wasn’t a spill—it was blood. A lot of it. Smeared, as if painted in broad strokes, off to the right, away from the cafeteria.

“Em, the door,” Matt said, nodding an open door by the blood.

In the darkness, Mallory could just make out the splintered and broken wood that indicated a bullet had shredded the material in that area. She pushed the door open a few more inches and it clanged against something just inside.

“Dillon, give me your flashlight.” She held her hand out behind her, peering into the darkness of the room. A moment later, her fingers grasped the cold metal and heft of a MagLite. She pointed it into the room in front of her and clicked the light on—she screamed as the light illuminated what was left of a human hand, wedged between a bulky ladder and the handrail. She fell backward onto Matt and dropped the flashlight into the pool of sticky blood.

“Aww, man,” Dillon said as he picked the metal tube up with two fingers. “Gross.”

“Forget it, man,” Matt scolded. “What happened here?”

Breathing heavily, Mallory just shook her head and inched forward on her hands and knees. She gasped a little as Dillon turned the light on again and pointed it toward the grotesque hand. She reached forward and moved the ladder out of the way. The hand fell to the ground with a moist plop. She heard Matt gag behind her. She pushed the ladder more and it scraped loudly against the concrete step it rested on.

“Careful, Mallory,” Matt warned, but the warning came too late. The weight of the ladder tipped downward, and the metal banged on every single step and the handrail on its way to crashing into the darkness of the room below. The percussive noise seemed to reverberate for hours while Mallory froze, still on the ground, waiting for the inevitable. It never came.

“We gotta be more careful than that unless we want to bring the whole house down,” Matt scolded.

“Maybe for you, I say let’s bring ‘em on. I wanna light up some quid.” Dillon made a show of racking the slide on his AR-15. It was already chambered, so a round flew from the weapon and down the stairs after the ladder. Dillon turned his flashlight to see where the bullet went—

Mallory saw it first.

A muscular quid at the bottom of the stairs investigating the ladder. The creature bellowed a raspy cry and leaped from the ground all the way to the top of the staircase, just a foot away from Mallory. She screamed and threw herself to the side, realizing too late that she had landed in the puddle of blood. She covered her head waiting for the monster to pounce on the easy prey she had presented and jumped at the sound of a loud crack. A rack of a slide told her Matt had fired.

A mere second later, and five quick, percussive reports told her that Dillon had joined the fight. She felt hot, sticky gore splattering her arms and legs, mixed with sharp fragments of bone. She screamed, “Stop it!” as she heard the sickening crunch of the quid falling to the floor, dead. “Do you want to announce us to the whole world?”

“Yes,” Dillon said, followed quickly by an “Ow!” in response to a punch from Matt.

“Dillon, since you’re so freakin’ trigger happy, go shine your light down there and make sure that’s the last of them.” Mallory stood up, trying not to think about the red liquid covering most of her back and sides. “That was way too close.”

Dillon grumbled something and stepped over the decimated body of the quid and panned his flashlight around the room. “Oh shoot,” he gasped as he peered down past the stairway.

“It’s not funny anymore, Dillon, this isn’t the time for your games,” Mallory said impatiently.

“No, seriously.” Dillon turned back to Matt and Mallory. “This is nuts.”

“I swear, if this is just a nasty joke, I might shoot you myself,” Mallory said and approached the room. Matt followed right behind her and they peered over Dillon’s shoulders looking for the cone of light from Dillon’s flashlight. Mallory gasped at the scene. Blood smeared almost every surface. There were four bodies strewn about the floor below them, in various stages of mutilation. Much of the wire that had been mounted to the wall and in conduit was either dangling from the ceiling or scattered around like as many snakes seething and frothing.

The large green boxes which had once occupied the middle of the room were dented and smashed, one of them even crumpled against the far wall. Piping and cabling jutted from the ground where the transformers had been like ugly fingers reaching for air. From a small closet opposite the stairwell, a yellowish liquid seeped into the room, mixing with the blood on the dirty concrete.

“Holy…” Matt croaked with a dry throat. “Do you—“

“Do you think any of them are your friends?” Dillon asked before Matt could spit it out.

“I… I’m not sure.” Mallory gazed around the destroyed room, pulse racing.

“I didn’t know it could do something like this,” Matt whispered, shifting his weight. “Wait, what are you doing?” Mallory had taken Dillon’s flashlight and headed down the stairs.

“I have to make sure,” she said, her voice shaking. “We need to know if they’re still in here somewhere. Stay up there and make sure it doesn’t come back.”

“What exactly do you think I’ll be able to do about it?” Dillon said with a snarky tone. All it took was a look from Mallory to capitulate. “Fine, Matt and I will stay here and die first. But you better believe I’m going to unload on that—“

“Just stand watch and stop talking.” Mallory descended the last step into the room and her foot slipped on the bloody floor.

“Easy, Em,” Matt said.

“It’s fine. I’m fine.”

She surveyed the room. It was somehow even more gruesome from down here. It didn’t take much examination to tell that the two bodies closest to her belonged to quids. The leathery, yellowing skin and ratty, torn clothes were easily identified. She knew there were two more bodies behind one of the closest damaged transformers. Those bodies had been mutilated severely and were covered in blood. She took a deep breath and strode through the gory landscape, her feet squishing with every step.

Mallory gagged a little when she rounded the box and saw the desiccation of the bodies. Each were missing limbs and covered in blood, but she could still tell these had been quids as well. Their clothes were far too worn and old to belong to the boys. She let out an exasperated sigh and looked toward the closet in front of her. She could smell a pungent odor coming from the room, but couldn’t quite place it.

She found a gaping hole in the back wall of the closet, roughly four feet wide by six feet tall. Through it, she could see a dusty old storage room, with old desks and chairs scattered in complete disarray. She shook her head and started to turn when she heard the sound of heavy breathing coming through the opening.