Venison Episode 6: Reflections
I woke up with the intimate knowledge of exactly how many springs were in the mattress and where each and every one of them were located. I groaned as I rolled off the old fold-out couch and studied my surroundings. My eyes darted around the messy living room, hovering only briefly on the pictures of people I didn’t know.
The light brown carpet was dated and stained, the knotted pile having long since lost its fluff. The sleeper sofa was golden and orange: a style which suggested it was older than me by at least two decades. No wonder the mattress was terrible. I wandered my way from the den into the kitchen, nearly tripping over a pair of stainless steel bowls. I hadn’t heard a dog and the bowls looked like they hadn’t been filled in quite a long time.
The rest of the house slept in a heavy quiet and I didn’t want to disturb anyone, so I started rummaging as quietly as I could manage through the cabinets looking for a glass or a cup. I hadn’t hydrated well yesterday, so I was thirsty and trying to fight off a headache. I found plastic cups in the third cupboard and tried the sink. Running water. I never thought I would appreciate the magic of being able to turn a handle and watch fresh, clear water emerge, flowing aerated down toward my cup. Something so simple, yet always taken for granted.
I gulped down one full glass and filled a second. I decided I would take this one slower, but it was still so sweet. I scoured the pantry and found a box of Pop-Tarts. The breakfast pastries were well past the expiration, but what food wasn’t these days? I moseyed to the table, a heavy-looking, wooden round table, and dropped into a chair. I noticed a shoebox on the table with the lid haphazardly laying across the top and pulled it closer.
I slid the lid the rest of the way off and pulled the contents out. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I worried that I was perusing something private, but what I saw was too captivating to let go. The box was full of newspaper clippings and articles printed from news websites. Most of them seemed relatively new, not yet yellowed by the unforgiving passage of time. I rifled through clippings and print-outs until I found myself at the bottom of the stack.
I held the clipping in my hand, a small cutout of a brief article from December fifteenth of last year. My hand began to shake as I realized what I was looking at. This is where it had all began. Someone had kept track of everything that led to the end of the world as I had known it. I was fascinated.
The first article was a short description of a hunter acting strangely in Colorado. The article said the man, Thomas Watts, was a gentle soul, a deacon in his church and an avid deer hunter. One day, he started to go a little crazy and was arrested for beating his wife and kids. He was found the next morning covered in blood in his jail cell, having killed and eaten parts of his cellmate. Once the officers opened the cell to check on the dead prisoner, Watts had attacked them, and an officer shot and killed him in self-defense.
I put the clipping aside and pulled the next article from the bottom of the pile; this one printed from news channel four’s website. The date was December twenty-first and referenced a string of violent cannibalistic homicides throughout Colorado as hunting season came to a close.
I read through article after article and finally found February third of this year. That was the first day Oklahoma had reported similar aggressive and heinous killings. I still remember hearing about cases from the surrounding states, not ever really believing that kind of crazy news could happen in Oklahoma. I was so very wrong.
The next article I found was from just a week later. That was the day the Center for Disease Control released their official statement. There were four different articles about this one, from all different news sources. The articles summarized the CDC’s findings that a relatively new disease found in deer called Chronic Wasting Disease had mutated to be transmissible to humans. It was likely, the CDC suggested, that the disease was transmitted from consuming infected flesh. The disease appeared to have a four to six week incubation period before symptoms occurred. The article continued to say that the government agency estimates at the time of their statement, some twenty thousand hunters had been infected.
In just a couple of short weeks from that statement, that number would exceed one million and would reach far beyond just hunters who had consumed infected venison. CWD, it seemed, once transmitted to humans, would invariably mutate to be transmissible through blood and saliva. So, yeah, basically zombies.
The CDC had explained the cannibalism as the natural response to degenerating muscles. The more a person’s muscles began to atrophy, the more they craved muscle proteins. The more the disease made them aggressive, the more the infected wanted to eat meat. Eventually, the infected, or chomps as I called them, stopped caring about where the meat came from, so people became appetizing. As an unexpected benefit to the chomps, it seemed as if the disease seemed to slow muscle degeneration as the infected individual ate human muscle tissue. Good for the chomps, bad for us.
I picked up the next stack and my heart almost stopped when I read the date on the top of the first print-out: March second.
“I grabbed those from Daryl’s house last night before we called it a night.” Mallory’s sudden voice made me jump and drop the whole stack all over the floor. “Jumpy much?” She giggled playfully and bent over to pick up the papers on the floor.
“Yeah, well, with all—“
“I’m just kidding, sorry I scared you,” she said as she skimmed through the clippings. “My mom kept track of everything going on when things started to get crazy. She did a pretty good job, too, until…” her voice trailed off sadly. I wasn’t sure what to do in that moment, I had never been great at empathy.
“I’m sorry,” was all I could offer.
“That creature that attacked you—“ Mallory’s voice cracked ever-so-slightly. I could tell she was trying to be strong. “My mom and my brother were both outside when it first came into town. They were the first two people the creature saw.” She took a deep breath as if trying to dissolve the bitter memory. She didn’t continue, and I wasn’t sure if I should ask for more.
“Have you checked on Cal this morning?” I asked feebly. I desperately hoped that changing the subject was the right thing to do.
“No, I figured I’d let you do the honors,” she responded after clearing her throat. “How’d you sleep?”
“Terrible. That mattress is the worst. I can’t tell if I’m sore because of that stupid thing, or from being trapped in a chomp infested school yesterday.”
“Probably a little of both,” she laughed. “I’m sorry about that, by the way. Daryl means well, he just forgets to not be a psychopath sometimes.”
“Yeah, he seems like a real peach,” I said sardonically. “He’s not always that welcoming, huh?”
“After everything went to pot, he kind of took over as leader of the town. It’s kinda funny, he renamed our little village to The Rock, after that diner. He and grandma loved to eat there, and I guess he just kinda named it that because of her.”
“Did she die—I mean, did the creature get her, too?” I asked awkwardly, still unsure of how to address sensitive subjects.
“No, she died from cancer, shoot, about two years ago now, I guess.” Mallory idly toyed with some of the papers on the table.
“And here everyone always said that cancer was going to get our generation,” I chuckled at my own dark humor before I realized how offensive that could be. I looked up to see Mallory smiling too.
“I kind of like this new disconnected world, though,” she said, staring at nothing in particular. “Less expectations. Oh! That reminds me!” She stood and went into the living room.
I shifted uneasily in my chair at the table wondering whether I was supposed to follow her or not. To be honest, I was never really good at knowing when to follow someone or when to wait. It seemed like I always got it backward. I opened my mouth to ask but ended up just clearing my throat as she came back into the room. Not my best cover.
“I charged it for you.” Mallory held something out towards me. I looked into her hand and saw an iPod Touch with a cracked screen and a full battery.
“No way!” I took the device from her excitedly. I had almost forgotten that it died yesterday morning. It seemed like so much had happened, it could have been six weeks ago for all I knew. “Thanks, you’re awesome!”
“I know,” she said, smiling playfully. “I figured it was the least I could do since Daryl sent you on a suicide mission. Also, you have weird taste in music.”
“Weird good or weird bad?”
“G’morning peeps,” Matt said loudly as he barged into the kitchen and grabbed Mallory around the waist. “Sorry if we kept you awake last night, Gray, there were probably a lot of noises coming from next door.”
“I was having trouble putting a name to what I heard,” I said a little more bitterly than I had intended. “But I’ve finally placed it: disappointment.”
Mallory laughed and pushed away from Matt to look for breakfast. Matt simply stood and looked puzzled. Cream of the crop, this guy.
“There’s some ancient Pop-Tarts in the pantry,” I said. “If you’re into eating cardboard, that is.”
“Why don’t we just head to The Rock, babe. I’m sure you’re grandad has something goin’ on over there,” Matt offered.
“Step-grandad,” Mallory corrected. “You know what, that’s a good idea.”
“Well… sure,” Matt responded as if surprised at the validation.
“I wonder if Daryl has gotten through to anyone on the radios, yet,” Mallory finished her thought. “I’m going to get cleaned up, we can head over in about fifteen minutes. Gray, you should probably check on Callum.”
“Oh yeah, I’ll see how he is,” I said as she disappeared around the corner. Matt followed her shortly, after giving me a wink. I shook my head. I really didn’t like that guy.
I filled another glass of water and headed toward the guest room at the far end of the living room. I was nervous about Callum. He was pretty much all I had left, and I had taken him for granted. There were a lot of unknowns with this dumb disease, including all the ways it was transmitted. So far, it seemed that it was only transferable with bodily fluids after it incubated in humans. Thus, only humans could give the gift with a bite or potentially a scratch.
The problem was that no news sources had reported aggressive animals with the disease. So this was something new altogether. The creature had definitely bitten Callum and had drawn blood, but could it have transmitted the disease? Only time would tell, most likely. The disease had a four to six week incubation period in most cases, so it could be over a month before he shows any signs of the disease. Great.
I held my ear up to the door and listened for any noises coming from the room. Completely quiet. I touched the handle gently, preparing to turn it as quietly as I could.
“I can hear you, you dork,” Callum yelled from the other side of the door.
I opened the door and scowled at him. “Hey, forgive me for caring, jerk,” I said as I thrust the water glass toward him with a big, cheesy grin.
He took it and chugged it down quickly.
“Easy buddy, you don’t want to overdo it,” I cautioned him. “Have you checked under your bandages this morning?” Before we laid him down last night, we had wrapped bandages and gauze around his side to help protect his fresh wounds.
“Not yet, no,” he said as he stood slowly. “But I feel pretty good. Way better than I thought I would, actually.” He brushed his long hair back out of his face and started to pull the bandages off.
“Here, let me help,” I offered and started peeling at the adhesive.
“Don’t make it weird, man,” he said with a chuckle.
The wound looked a lot better than I thought it would. In the morning sunlight shining through the sheer curtains, what had looked like holes yesterday now appeared to simply be large scratches. Maybe all my worrying about him turning into a chomp was completely unfounded.
“Does it hurt?” I asked him.
“I mean, it doesn’t exactly feel good,” he chided. He stretched to one side and then the other, groaning with each push. “Yeah, it’s pretty dang tender. But I think I’ll be alright.”
“Cool, well we’re about to head to The Rock and see if Daryl has gotten anything on those old radios.”
“If that geezer wasn’t a hundred years old, I’d beat him up,” Callum said hotly.
“Cal, you’ve never fought anything without a Playstation controller in your life,” I replied. Not that I had any better war stories.
“Yeah, well, not that you know of,” he said, flexing a little bit my direction.
“I’ve known you since you were six,” I chuckled. “You’re helpless in a fight.”
“Hey, be nice, jerk.” He threw a jab toward by ribs.
“Yeah, yeah. Put a shirt on, we’re leaving in a couple of minutes.”
I left him to get dressed and went to find my shoes in the living room. I dragged the worn boots from under the fold-old frame and put them on with more effort than I liked, grimacing at the soreness I felt from bending over. I couldn’t remember the last time I hurt all over like that. Probably my brief attempt at middle school football. That was an awkward couple of weeks, playing tackle dummy for the starting squad. Athletics were never my thing.
I stood and stretched my back out, hoping to relieve some of the tension, and heard steps on the stairs.
“Alright, lunchmeat, let’s go find out what’s going on out there,” Matt said as he rounded the banister. I was really glad to hear that nickname had made it into everyday vernacular. I smiled sarcastically at him and headed toward the front door. Matt and I stood awkwardly on the small porch for just a minute or two before Mallory joined us, followed shortly by Callum.
As a group, we headed off toward downtown Stroud, or The Rock, or whatever I was supposed to be calling it. The sun was still fairly low to our right, so I guessed we were heading north. Most of the homes in this neighborhood were two-story townhouse style plans. If not for the trashed streets and yards, this would have certainly made a nice block to live on. As it was, the Bermuda grass was brown and overgrown after months of not being tended to followed by a hot summer. It was already in the eighties, and I guessed it was before nine. Gotta love August in Oklahoma.
We walked a couple of blocks and the crossed some railroad tracks. It had most likely been a few months since these tracks had seen any action. After crossing the tracks, we turned right past the abandoned city hall building and came up behind The Rock.
We crossed the small park and entered the cafe to find Daryl hunched over one of his newly acquired radios at a table near the wall. An extension cord ran haphazardly across the floor through the kitchen to where a generator was presumably hooked up out back. The old man had headphones on wore a grim expression.
He acknowledged our entrance with little more than a grunt and continued slowly turning the frequency dial while adjusting the filter with another hand. We all sat at the table next to his and watched him quietly for a few minutes.
“Have you found anything?” Mallory asked, breaking the silence.
“Hush,” Daryl responded shortly.
Before long, Brianna came in from the kitchen with a gray apron covering her dark shirt and pants. She smiled flirtatiously at Matt as she set a steaming bowl of oatmeal and a plate of toast on the table next to Daryl’s radio. The old man didn’t seem to notice as she sauntered off toward the kitchen again. Mallory scowled at Matt as he watched Brianna disappear behind the saloon style doors.
“We don’t get to order anything?” Callum said as if wounded.
“Hey, Daryl!” Mallory finally raised her voice toward her step-grandfather. He threw his headphones down on the table in a huff and leaned back in his chair.
“Nothing,” Daryl grimaced. “Not a darn thing.” He hunched over his oatmeal and began spooning it deliberately into his mouth.
“So there’s no news?” Mallory asked, impatience clear.
“I was able to get ahold of someone up north last night,” he said in-between bites. “Kansas. They’re not under quarantine yet. They’ve somehow managed to not have a single reported case, can you believe that? It’s just business as usual for them. Meanwhile, we’re in the blamed dark ages down here.” He took another spoonful of oatmeal, spilling the gray liquid on his chin.
“Who all is affected?” I asked, leaning forward in my chair.
“Just who you’d expect,” he said. “Us, Arkansas, Colorado, Texas. Get this, Pennsylvania is on lockdown, too. Virginia, Alabama. Anywhere quids have been reported, it’s stone ages for them. No communications, no contact, no nothin’. Most of the bigger cities in the QZs have been torched.”
“QZs?” I asked.
“Quarantine Zones. The states that are on lockdown. That’s what they’re calling them on the news I guess.”
“Tulsa?” Callum asked with an urgency in his voice.
“Don’t think so, we’d have seen the flashes from here, more’n like.”
“So now what?” Mallory asked.
“Who the heck knows?” Daryl responded flatly. “They’re estimating more than ten million quids out there now. Whole colonies of ‘em and everything. I doubt we ever get out of this mess.” Mallory moaned, vocalizing how we all felt. She leaned back in her chair, her face very much showing how we all felt.
“Wait, what are quids?” Callum asked. “I mean, why do you call them that?”
“Chronic wasting disease,” Daryl answered. “See dubya dee. Quid.”
“Oh,” Callum said as if a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. I was just glad one of us felt good this morning.
“What do they look like, the borders?” I asked.
“Not sure. Didn’t say. For all we know, they’re shooting ‘em dead, thems who try to cross.”
“This is heavy stuff,” Matt said, stating the obvious.
“Are there any relief efforts?” Mallory asked.
“Yeah right, them government jerks ain’t going to risk any skin saving us. If they’re torching cities, they know we’re a lost cause. Don’t hold your breath.”
“Well that’s positive thinking,” she shot back with an annoyed edge to her voice.
“I’m just telling it like it is,” he said emotionlessly. “All we got is each other in this crazy world. Now more than ever.” His gaze wandered to Callum and me. “Look, kids, sorry about yesterday and all. It’s just, I gotta look out for me and mine. Em here is about all the family I got left. And the people in this town are all I have. I have to put them first. You understand, right?”
I wanted to tell him that no, I didn’t really understand. I didn’t see what one had to do with the other, actually. Just because he’s looking out for some people, doesn’t mean he has to treat other people like expendable assets. I wanted to tell him that he was a heartless, megalomaniac who didn’t deserve an ounce of grace. Instead, I simply smiled and said, “No worries, I’m just glad we could help.”
Callum gave me a look that felt like daggers had stabbed me in the heart. Clearly, he felt the same way that I did. Mallory did too, because she spoke up.
“No, Daryl,” she said angrily. “There’s not an excuse for how you acted. You owe Gray and Callum a lot more than you have to offer, at this point. But at the very least, we need to put them up for as long as they want to stay. You’re going to make sure they’re fed, and when they’re ready to leave, we’re going to give them a car with a full tank of gas and send them on their way with more supplies than they need. You understand, right?” As she echoed his statement with that last sentence, she tilted her head in a sarcastic jab to accent her disdain.
Daryl’s face started turning some very creative shades of red and purple. He looked back and forth between Callum, Mallory, and me and stammered for a few moments, as if unsure of who to ream first. Finally, when I was pretty certain he was about to pop, he let out a long breath and his skin turned mostly back to the normal gray-peach pallor the old man wore.
“You’re right,” he said, sounding very much like the words were physically hurting him. “There’s just one problem with that: we’re almost out of gas.”
“What do you mean?” Mallory asked, agitated.
“I mean we’re dry, Em. If you kids want to leave,” he nodded at Callum and me, “we’ll have to fill up our reserves. Depew was abandoned by April, and I doubt anyone else has scavenged it for fuel yet, I’d start there. Mason will set you up with the empty drums and you can take Matt’s truck.”
“You just love keeping people under your thumb, don’t you?” Mallory scorned him. “Unbelievable.”
Daryl stared at Mallory for a long while, as if trying to read a distant sign, before finally answering. “It’s not like that and you know it. You’re an able-bodied bunch, if you want to leave town with a full tank of gas, then you’re going to have to help us get it. Is that too much to ask?”
Callum shook his head at me, long hair spinning around his neck, telling me that he didn’t want to go. Mallory stared razor blades into her step-grandfather. Matt, of course, kept glancing toward the kitchen to see if Brianna was going to come back out anytime soon. I, for one, wanted to get back on the road and leave this place behind. Except her. I wasn’t particularly interested in leaving Mallory behind, but I had just met her, and I would get over her pretty quickly.
“No, man, we shouldn’t do it.” Callum looked at me with a furrowed brow. He felt pretty strongly about this.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” I replied.
“Sure we do, screw the geezer,” he looked at Daryl, “no offense, man.” Daryl just grinned.
Even if we spent a full day filling up in Depew, a car with a full tank of gas could get us to Tulsa in less than an hour. Otherwise, it might take Callum and me close to a week to hike our way there. Longer, if we ran into trouble.
“Think about it, dude, I don’t really want to walk for the next week all the way up there. I don’t think you do, either.”
“I’d rather walk than trust these people,” he said. “We’ve been here like, less than a day, and they’ve already almost gotten me killed.” He gestured toward his side where the creature had scratched him.
I gave Cal a slight shrug, which he scowled at. I leaned forward in my chair. “We’ll do it,” I said with more confidence than I felt.
“I knew you would,” Daryl chuckled darkly and nodded toward the door.