Venison Episode 8: Hike

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Our progress was slow. We had been trudging along the shoulder of historic Route 66 for about four hours when Matt collapsed. By my guess, we had walked about six miles, maybe seven. It was miserably hot, and this time of year it would stay hot long after dark. The sun was just starting to slink behind the tall trees on the side of the road, but with no wind, the heat was nearly unbearable. It was the kind of heat I had only ever experienced in a sauna. In junior high, my family took a vacation to Florida, and the hotel we stayed in had a sauna right next to the pool, my friend and I thought it was fun to play in the hot, wooden room. There was nothing fun about this weather, though. It was the kind of weather that only made me grumpy.

I started to get impatient at Matt for not getting back up when Mallory touched my elbow. “We need to rest. Matt is dehydrated. Dillon is shivering like crazy. We need to think of something.”

I gazed up at the sun through the trees, as if I could actually get any information about the time from that. I was no boy scout. I hadn’t even passed Webelos. “We can rest for maybe half an hour. But I think we still have a couple hours to go, at this rate, and I don’t want to be out here when the sun goes down.” I looked around with darting, uneasy eyes. “I already feel like something is watching us.”

“You forget, I’ve scouted these woods a lot over the last few months,” she said, looking at me with a sharp expression. “I know my way around, and I know how to survive out here.”

“Yeah, but there’s five of us, and two of us are injured,” Callum interjected. “This is when things start to get crazy on Discovery Channel.”

“Fine,” she said with a sigh. “We’ll see how they’re doing in thirty minutes. But if they’re not up for it, I think we should stay put.”

“Let’s just see,” I said, and plopped to the ground, leaning against a mile marker sign.

Callum sat down next to me and tried to brush his long hair out of his face. He was unsuccessful. The hot, humid air had soaked his hair. The mats stuck to his forehead and neck. Frankly, he looked miserable.

“I gotta cut this,” he said, struggling again with managing the stubborn locks.

“I’ve been saying that for years, you know,” I chuckled as he made face at me.

“What’s y’alls’ story?” Mallory asked after she got Dillon settled on the ground. “How long have you known each other?”

“Seems like forever,” I said as Cal nodded his agreement. “I moved a couple houses down from them when I was in second—no, third grade. Cal was in Kindergarten at the time.”

“There weren’t many kids on our block, so Curt and I pretty much smothered him the day he moved in,” Callum added with a big grin.

“Curt?” Mallory asked, looking back and forth between us.

“Yeah, Curtis is—was my brother,” Callum said slowly, looking at me with glistening eyes. I looked away, my own eyes stinging from the bite of the first small tears.

“Was? What happened?”

“He, uh—“ Cal’s voice choked, Mallory scooted closer and put a hand on his knee. “He—when it all happened, Gray and Curt were picking me up from school. I didn’t have a car yet, so Curt had to get me every day. They closed the schools down early, y’know, so Gray ended up driving. When they got to the school, some of the infected were already attacking, so Curt, he came to look for me…” Callum trailed off, wiping tears from his eyes. Mallory was patient as we sat in silence waiting for Callum to resume.

“He didn’t know that I had skipped school that day. Neither him or Gray,” he said slowly as if each word was a knife in his own heart. “He went into the school…” Callum trailed off again, his voice growing weaker.

“The next time I saw him,” I said with a raspy voice, “he was being dragged out by a chomp. His throat was ripped open and most of his body had already been chewed on. So I—I left him. I went to their house to find Cal sitting on the couch just—” I could feel the warm tension building behind my eyes. I didn’t want to be talking about this. I couldn’t bring myself to look at Callum, whether from anger or shame, I couldn’t place. Curt had been like a brother to me. In many ways, I almost felt like we were closer than he and Cal had been. “That was March second. That was the day everything changed for me—us,” I corrected myself.

How selfish was I? Of course, he and Cal were close. Cal was just my friend’s kid brother until that day. I took him under my wing for Curt more than anything. I realized it was shame—shame was the reason I couldn’t look at Cal in this moment. Because he felt more like a burden than a friend. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see him any differently. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mallory looking back and forth between us, slowly.

“We’ve all lost people in this crazy world,” she finally said, after a long moment. She opened her mouth as if she wanted to say something else, but closed it again with a slight shake of her head.

“Gray lost his whole family,” Callum said somberly. “The same day I lost my mom. It was just a couple days after—we were all still mourning Curt and trying to figure out what to do when Purcell was completely overrun. We fled up to the city, but the highway was jammed. We ended up stuck on thirty-five, nowhere to go. It was just like in the freaking movies. All five of us packed into Mister Davis’ truck, Gray’s dad, with nowhere to go.

“They started swarming the highway. It was horrible. Like a tidal wave of hungry, gnashing teeth. There was so much screaming. Men, women, children. I—” his voice finally broke and he wept. I wasn’t in a much better place. I could still hear the cries, the mothers crying out for their babies, helpless to stop the onslaught. Fathers screaming for their families, but impotent to put an end to their suffering.

“By some miracle,” I said, finding my voice, “Cal and I made it out of the massacre. We made it up to the city and stayed with some friends for awhile. My buddy lived in the dorms at the community college. The place was packed out, people looking for refuge from all over. We eventually got ahold of some of Cal’s family in Harrah.”

“What about your family?” Mallory asked me.

“The rest of my family, they’re all in Texas,” I said. We had all learned just this morning that Texas was in lockdown, too. Was that really just this morning? If there was one thing I would never get used to in this terrible apocalypse, it was the length of the days. So much happened in so little time, it made the days seem to stretch out forever. As I looked around at the slipping sun, I realized this day was slipping by a little too quickly. “We need to try and move them.”

“Bull,” Mallory said, “I don’t think they can go anywhere, Gray. Honestly.”

“I don’t think we have a choice. You saw the chomps. They were smart. Coordinated.”

“Yeah, but we got ‘em,” Callum said.

“I counted. We missed a couple. Including,” I added with a scowl, “the leader.”

Mallory leaned back on her hands. “So you think the stories are true, then?”

“You remember what the news said when all this mess started: devolution takes time, and even then, continued consumption of human flesh slows the process. That could very well be a fully-functioning man out there, leading a pack of human hyenas. You saw the way he was directing them. The one in the black overcoat or whatever? There’s something there.”

Mallory shook her head. “I guess so. But still, you think they followed us this far? It’s not like they can have vendettas or something.”

“I’d rather not find out.”

“I’m kind of with Gray,” Callum added. “It’s only going to get creepier out here, and if those things are that smart, I don’t want anything to do with them.”

“I wonder…” I stood up and looked toward the slowly creeping sun. “Do you think we’re close enough to send up a flare or smoke or something and have someone come pick us up?”

“From Stroud?” Mallory followed my gaze. “I doubt it. They’d have to be watching for it, and we’re still pretty far away.”

“Wouldn’t that also just let the chomps know where we are?” Callum added. “If they’re as smart as you say they are, anyway.”

He was right, of course. I racked my brain trying to think of something. Matt was asleep, lying on his back in the weeds to the side of the road. Dillon was awake, but curled up in a ball, shivering his guts out. Mallory was right, too: they were in pretty bad shape.

Matt had never been quite himself on the hike. His face was bloodied, and he stumbled with a limp. We had to slow down a lot as he suffered from dizzy spells. For once, Dillon was quiet, except for the occasional teeth chattering. I only knew about health from doctor shows like House and Scrubs, but I felt like he might be in shock or septic. Possibly both.

“We have to try,” I said, gazing absently at the two injured members of our party. “We’d be sitting ducks out here with them, and I don’t like our odds. Is there anything between here and Stroud?”

Mallory sighed and collapsed into herself. “Nothing. We’re close enough that we’re just a few minute’s drive away. But far enough that we’re about a forty-five-minute walk, healthy. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it would be better to not take any chances.”

“Gray hates taking chances.” Callum ribbed me playfully. I shot him a scowl as he chuckled.

We spent the next couple of minutes rousing Matt and getting Dillon to his feet. Dillon was weak and his skin lacked all color. His white lips quivered, his teeth chattered in his mouth, and he held his arm close to his hunched body. Matt, on the other hand, repeatedly told us he was fine, despite his unsure balance. He regularly held a hand out to steady himself on someone else’s shoulder.

It was in this fashion that we slowly progressed along the road. The pace was maddeningly tedious while the three of us traded off supplying a sturdy shoulder for Matt. As we walked, the sun sank ever lower on the horizon, the light around us turning from a warm gold to a murky green. Despite the heat, an occasional shiver made a cautious fault down my spine.

“So what took you to Harrah?” Mallory asked after about ten minutes of trudging along the gravelly shoulder.

“Well, as tends to happen when a lot people congregate in one place, everything hit the fan.” I shrugged and plodded forward. “Some jerk tried to take control of everyone and call the shots, but he was an idiot. A few people starting leaving, but Cal and I wanted to stick around and see how it played out.”

“What happened?” Mallory asked.

“Well,” Callum said, “Spencer, that was the jerk’s name, pulled a gun on someone trying to assert his authority or whatever. He forgot this was Oklahoma I guess, and well, four or five other people had a gun out and pointed at him within seconds. Dummy. We all kind of came to a consensus and told him to leave. He didn’t get twenty yards out of the dorms before we heard the screams.” Cal slowed, out of breath. The amount of walking was taking its toll on the husky kid.

“Of course we sent a few people to help him,” I said, picking up the story. “But it was too late. I hate to imagine being desensitized to this stuff, but he kind of had it coming.”

“The problem,” Callum jumped back in, “was the people we sent after him, Mike and Sarah. Sarah got bit, almost lost her hand over the whole thing.”

“Oh no,” Mallory said. “Don’t tell me…”

“Yeah, you’re on the right track,” I said. I offered to take Matt from Callum to help my friend catch his breath. “Remember how all the reports said there’s a long incubation period? They’re right. We thought Sarah was going to be out of the woods. It had been almost a month since she’d been attacked. Her hand had pretty much healed and she was back to normal: helping out, running errands and stuff. She and Mike had a thing going, I’m pretty sure.

“Well, one night, Mike comes screaming into the lounge with blood running down his face. Something about Sarah biting him. Naturally, it freaked us all out, but before we had time to do anything, Sarah came into the room with a friggin’ gun, babbling like a crazy lady. I’ll never forget what she looked like, blood running down her chin, eyes yellow and crazed. We all ducked for cover before she started shooting. Lucky for us, her crazy just made her a terrible shot. She put a few holes in the walls and the ceiling, but someone was able to tag her before anything happened. Just like that, another friend lost.”

“Yeah, it’s easier to cope with when their crazy and they try to kill you though,” Callum chimed in with a dark tone. I hate all this. This isn’t how my life was supposed to turn out. I should be in high school playing obscene amounts of Call of Duty right now.”

“Oh, you’re one of those,” Mallory said playfully.

“Yeah, he never got out much,” I chuckled. “So, the next day, Mike ends up going nuts, too. When Darion found him in his dorm, he had apparently chewed a hole in his own cheek from where Sarah had bitten him. That’s why I’m pretty sure they had a thing: Sarah must’ve infected him early on. And you gotta remember, we had a bunch of us living in tight quarters during this time. We locked Mike in his dorm so he couldn’t infect anyone else, but other people starting getting crazy, too. Who’d have thought? Share a drink with someone, and you could end up a zombie in a month.”

Mallory shook her head, eyes distant.

“Once people started going chomp,” Callum said. “Something weird happened. It was like the rest of the chomps in the area knew there were more in the dorm. They started surrounding the freakin’ place. At night, all we could hear was the dang chomps trying to get into the dorms. It was miserable. We were running out of friends, too. It was getting harder and harder to keep the infected quarantined. Finally, we had enough.”

“We managed to get out to the parking lot and jack a car.” I shrugged again and pulled Matt’s arm higher on my shoulder. “It was nothing short of a miracle, really. But then we hopped on the road to Harrah because Cal had some family out there.”

“Wow, you guys have had a heck of a ride,” Mallory said soberly.

“No joke. Just a couple months later, they torched the city. Apparently, it had gotten too far overrun. We could see the flashes all the way out in Harrah. Crazy, man. All those people…”

“It’s something you never think about in games or movies,” Cal said. “It’s easy to talk about sacrificing the few for the many, but when it comes to it—I don’t think I could’ve pushed the button.”

“You do what you have to,” Mallory said with a surprising edge. I wondered at the new harshness in her voice. Who was she, really? “So why’d you leave Harrah?”

“Well, when they bombed the city, it drove them out—the chomps, I mean. Any zombies who survived took to the small towns like Harrah. We—” I stopped when I heard Callum sniffle next to me. “Well, we had to leave. We should leave it at that.” I nodded silently toward Cal as I said it.

“I’m so sorry,” Mallory said again. “You guys have had such a tough road. And then Daryl treats you guys like that. It’s not right, but you have to understand that he’s just doing what he thinks is best. After everything that’s happened in Stroud, he’s the only one willing to take up the mantle, you know?”

“Yeah, well, he’s a jerk,” I said plainly. And I meant it. The guy really sucked.

We walked in silence for a long time again. The cicadas started their rousing cry, their incessant song resonating everywhere. I did love the sound of Oklahoma in the summer time. Nothing could beat it, in my opinion. Crickets started their chirping even though it wasn’t really that close to dark, yet. Under the trees, it was growing a little dim. Out of my peripheral vision, I could occasionally catch the spark of a nearby firefly.

One benefit to this new, scary world where people and creatures were always trying to eat you was the quiet. Sure, the bugs and the wildlife were pretty raucous, but there were no other sounds. No airplanes flying overhead, their rumbling engines splitting the sky and leaving a pulsing roar. No low drone of the highway as cars sped back and forth, compelled by their owners and their busy lives. I sometimes wanted to just stop and listen to the nothing. It was soothing, in a way, knowing that the world had slowed down in so many ways.

It was certainly simpler in many ways. I hadn’t thought about paying a bill in months. Sure, I had rabid people trying to tear the flesh off my bones at every turn, and terrible dictators running small towns trying to assert their dominance. But no more telemarketers. We could all be thankful for that.

On the flip side, I had been really excited about the next Star Wars movie. I guess I’ll probably miss that one. I did wonder what was going on outside our borders. If the quarantine was really as absolute as Daryl had made it seem, was the rest of the world just carrying on like normal?

I smiled to myself, imagining politicians and pundits arguing about the political ramifications of so many states rendered useless by the infection and loss of life. Fox News was probably blaming CNN for the disease, and CNN was blaming the Republicans for not acting fast enough. As if any president could have stopped it. But, there’s always a finger to point, I guess.

Perhaps Hollywood hadn’t been affected at all. Celebrities were just living their charmed life, outside of the turmoil in middle-America. Maybe the next Star Wars movie would come out anyway. They were probably politicizing this, too. Setting up charities and fundraisers that they knew nothing about to help people in ways that would never matter. In a few months, there might be an impassioned Oscar acceptance speech about the work that needs doing to cure the infection or something. Thanks, Leo, for all your help.

Still, the song of the cicadas thrummed ever on in my ears as the road grew dimmer and dimmer. We must have been close by now, maybe a mile or two away. Hopefully, we would make it before it got too dark.

“Oh hey, that would make a good walking stick!” Callum picked up a large, straight cedar limb from the ground.

I chuckled at the simple joy my friend had found. “What are you, a Hobbit?”

“Nerds.” Mallory smiled and kept walking.

“Shut up,” Callum said and tossed the stick aside. “You know what I wonder? What if this stuff is like, in the water. You know? Like, what if we’re all infected?”

“Wouldn’t we all be showing signs right now?” Mallory asked.

“Yeah, I mean, maybe. But also maybe not. Maybe it’s a light enough dose that we’re all just getting a little crazy, but a gradual change so we don’t notice it.”

“That would explain why Daryl is a complete—”

“Guys,” a voice croaked behind us. Matt. The first he’d spoken since the crash. We turned to look and found Dillon collapsed on the ground beside him.

For the first time since we’d started hiking, he was completely still. No shaking. No whimpering. In fact, I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. We rushed to his side and rolled him over. His lips were chalky white, white as his eyes rolled back in his head. Sure enough, he wasn’t breathing. I didn’t know much about trauma, but I didn’t think a broken arm could do this.

Mallory acted faster than me, mumbling something about lifeguard training and the Bee Gees. She moved his good arm to his side and cautiously, carefully lowered his other arm. That one looked about the size of my leg and was a deep purple. She brushed her hair back behind her ear and looked up into the sky, trying to remember something, her lips softly counting without a sound.

She gave a confident nod and made a ball with one fist and placed it on Dillon’s sternum, covering it with her other hand. She leaned all of her weight over him and began to pump, counting. She only got to two before Dillon screamed a sickening yelp and rolled over, startling Mallory enough to send her sprawling. He started coughing a deep, wet cough peppered with weak, raspy inhaling.

“What does that mean?” I asked, watching blood dribble down his cheek as he lay on his side heaving for air. I knew for sure a broken arm couldn’t do that.

“Man, he’s making a lot of noise.” Callum shifted nervously and looked up and down the road.

“We’re pretty close to the city, quids don’t usually come this close, I wouldn’t worry about it.” Mallory shifted her gaze from Callum to Dillon. “Now, about you…” She rolled him back onto his back and pulled his shirt up revealing a large black and blue nebula covering his entire right side.

“What in the world is that?” I asked, trying not to let my panic show in my voice.

“I think he may have broken some ribs. And he’s coughing up blood. I wonder if he punctured a lung or something.” Mallory looked up at me. “Gray, he can’t walk like this. We can’t move him.”

“Yeah, I think that’s pretty clear,” I agreed. I looked around and realized it had gotten dim pretty quickly. I couldn’t believe we had been walking nearly eight hours. If that was the case, Stroud must have been pretty close. “Do you think we can build a fire or something that they can see?”

“Not with all these trees, no way.” Mallory shook her head.

“Maybe I can hoof it. I’m no athlete, but it’s gotta be like a mile, maybe less. I can be back here in less than fifteen minutes.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea,” Callum said with a shaky quiver.

“I really think I can make it,” I said, looking up the road.

“No. You can’t.” Callum’s voice hardened. I tried to meet his eyes, but his gaze traced away, across the road toward the edge of the trees.

Toward a dark figure in a long coat, with long black hair hanging around his shoulders.