Folklore

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Chapter 6 - 11/10/2018

Matt wasn’t sure how long he had been staring at the ground for. Sitting sideways in the driver’s seat he could look down at a pool of dried vomit that had barely missed the jeep’s interior. If he craned his head to the left he could see the remains of Father laying out on the hot pavement. He didn’t want to look left.

There was a hand on his back. It had gently nudged him from his trace, and rested peacefully there. The size and unusual shape of it would have normally startled him, but he was too tired to feel much of anything. Instead he just kept staring ahead. Down the road away from Kingdom Animalia, where gentle stone carvings of animals lept over each other in excited glee.

“Are they all dead?” Matt spoke gently.

A finger slowly curled, and pressed into his back with a gentle tap.

“This is all my fault.”

Tap. Tap.

“It’s ok. You don’t have to lie. I know it is.” Matt sighed, closing his eyes while leaning his head back. “I thought I could just make a distraction. We’d sneak out in the chaos. Maybe steal a car. Quick and quiet, you know?”

Tap.

“There are still others here. We’ve got to go.”

Tap.

“Ok. Alright.” Matt twisted himself behind the driver’s seat and turned the key. “We just have one stop to make quick.”

Sam had already settled into the passenger’s seat. Unusual fluid mass pressed tightly into the confined space. Its arms were folded somewhere within a layer of rippling flesh, and Matt wondered how comfortable it was to sit in such a form.

The courtyard Kingdom Animalia was a nightmare of gore. Father’s hacked corpse. The bodies that had been twisted apart by Sam. Matt had to slowly drive around the colossal afflicted corpse in order to prevent spraying a wave of blood out from his vehicle’s thick tire treads. He would have preferred to ignore it all if he could, but a part of him wanted to experience this. There was no outrunning the consequences of his actions.

As they drove to the apartments Matt kept an eye out for anything that could threaten their quest. If the illusory woman had been broken free, how many other afflicted once more roamed the earth? How many were genuinely dangerous? His foot press the accelerator a little harder at the thought, and they reached their destination with a desperate urgency.

Matt pulled up to the back of the building, hopping out the driver’s door as he jerked the jeep to a halt. Dashing to the nearest bush, he glanced up to try and determine the arc of his late night throw. After several moments of searching he found the bag buried deep between two floral bushes. Not too far off from his original estimate.

The pillows stuffed within the bag had done their job. His copy of The Dawnblade was safe. Not even the plastic seal had broken in the fall.

Looking at the jeep he could see Sam watching him from the passenger seat. Or, he felt like he was being watched. Without eyes it was hard to tell where Sam was looking, but it seemed to have an extrasensory awareness of its surroundings. He brought the game back to the jeep, tossing it in the seat behind once he settled behind the steering wheel. He reached for the ignition key, then paused.

“It’s a game.” Matt turned to Sam. “A board game. I wanted to get it for a friend. A girl.”

A moment of silence passed between them. Matt coaxed the jeep to life with the twist of a key, then slowly turned them around to head back towards the park exit.

“I know it doesn’t matter at this point. I just feel like you should know how this whole mess started.” Matt paused as a hand began to slowly emerge from the sheen of flesh. It rested on his shoulder gently with a comforting squeeze.

Matt brought the jeep wide around the colossal afflicted corpse, avoiding much of the blood, bodies, and gore. This time he tried to avoid looking at it. Once they had driven far enough past he lowered the windows, trying to appreciate the fresh air. The automated shuttles moved lazily in comparison, and he drove closer to the center of the road to avoid their predetermined routes.

“Ok. We’ve got one more checkpoint to get through. After that I can drive us home. I’ll be back with the others, I can give Lu this game, I’ll take a nice long nap and you can go back to...whatever. Whatever it is you do.”

Tap

He smiled, appreciating the vote of confidence. “I didn’t really plan this far ahead, but seeing how the last thing I planned went really well I figure we should just improvise from here on.”

The main courtyard was coming into view. Cecilia was standing near an ambulance that had been parked strategically on the road. The back doors were open and a stretcher lay out, ready to receive a patient. Three armed guards stood near a black van, watching their jeep with weapons raised. Matt could feel Sam’s unnatural hand tense, and he quickly slowed their approach.

“No! No. No more killing. You stay there. Slink down a bit. Just play dead. Ham it up.”

Sam hesitated for a moment, then seemed to deflate. Its arm twisted back into its fluid mass just as Matt slowed the jeep to a stop a few yards away, making sure to clearly show both his hands raised on the steering wheel.

“It’s just me! I’m gonna step out, alright?” he called out, waiting for the sign that it was safe to exit.

“What happened?” Cecilia rushed over to his driver’s side only to step back with a gasp as he exited. “Oh my god, is that...”

“Yeah, it’s dead. Just, don’t open the door there. The skin is toxic or something. Don’t want it to splash.”

“Where’s Father?” one of the guards grimaced, peering into the passenger side window.

Matt frowned, looking back up the road to Kingdom Animalia. “They’re all dead. I think the one that wasn’t supposed to eat got hold of something. Grew huge and broke open a few other exhibits along the way. Kane and I got caught in the cave...but...”

He sighed. His eyes settled on the axe near the ooze. He tried to imagine how insane he must look, splattered in blood. There was no lie he could tell that would outdo the madness he had witnessed and he wasn’t a very good liar anyway. Instead he told the truth, omitting only certain details.

Kane saved his life trying to kill Sam. Father’s guidance and wisdom organized the others into killing the colossus. They were ambushed by another afflicted, which Father killed by hand...only to be attacked by the ooze. Matt managed to only just kill the monster with his axe, still covered in blood nearby. He didn’t know what to do. He waited for others, then decided to drive here.

The guardsmen listened intently, transfixed at the story. Gradually they lowered their weapons as he shared details of the encounter. Matt was happy to stay and wait if they didn’t believe him. The proof was only a few minutes away, scattered across the sanctuary grounds. Cecilia started to cry but held herself together. Instead she blew her nose into a clean tissue she pulled from her jacket.

“So that’s it? It’s over?” a guard said quietly.

“Like fuck it’s over. We’ve still got this place. We just need to clean it up. Call back the hunt.” another spoke with determination.

“That’s right.” Cecilia sniffled. “We still have this place. It’s secure. We can just get rid of the other captives, right? No more prisoners.”

“I’m leaving.” Matt said firmly. The others looked to him with consideration, and he swallowed hard to help clear his throat. He needed conviction in his voice now. This was his chance.

“With all due respect, I’m not a soldier. I didn’t sign up for this. I was brought here as a lab rat, and I did my part. You lost family here today and I get that. But my friends are out there. My family is out there.” he paused, cautious. “I did my part. I just want to go home now.”

The soldiers exchanged glances, then turned to Cecilia for guidance. She watched Matt carefully. Pursed her lips.

“He’s right.” she said. “A deal’s a deal. I think Father would have honored that.”

Matt couldn’t help but exhale a sigh of relief. “Thank you. I can park the jeep in the lot if you like. Or, wherever.”

“Just take it.” one of the soldiers gestured out the gate, stepping aside with the others. “You can park it and burn it, and whatever that thing is, once you get on the highway.”

As the others stepped aside Matt prepared to sit behind the driver’s seat when Cecilia gestured he wait. She picked up a nearby metal box, white and labeled with the universal symbol of a medical cross. With careful reverence she pressed the box of supplies into his lap, then stepped away with a sad smile.

“For your family. For everything you did for ours.”

Matt closed the door and turned the key, coaxing the jeep’s engine to life. Tears were welling in his eyes. He was afraid to say anything. Afraid he couldn’t keep up the facade any longer. Struck with the sudden urge to confess the truth he drove away from their small barricade, leaving the remaining inhabitants of Filheart Sanctuary to pick up the pieces of the nightmare left behind.


------------------------------------------------------


Sam continued to play dead long after they had left the sanctuary. Matt worried they may have scouts nearby, or perhaps even security cameras that could verify their duplicity. These were a well-organized and resourceful group of soldiers. Anything was possible.

After they reached the highway they both dropped the facade. Sam twisted and turned in what appeared to be an effort to better view its surroundings. Matt kept quiet -- until a curious thought prompted him to ask:

“Do you want me to talk?”

Sam reached out a malformed hand to the dashboard. With a large, oversized finger it replied, tap.

“I guess I just realized you probably haven’t talked to anyone in a while. You probably miss it.”

Tap.

“Uh, alrighty. So, I’ll just toss out some subjects and you can tell me if you want to hear about it or not.”

They talked about everything. Matt spoke of his friends, their building, and what his apartment looked like. He spoke of his hobbies in board gaming, his old passion for photography, the weather, and why his favorite animal was a manta ray. They had an argument when Matt had brought up film. Matt insisted that modern science fiction was in a better place today than it ever had been, but Sam would hear none of it. It slammed its large hand against the dash over and over while Matt yelled out reasons why Galaxy of Tomorrow was a way better movie than the book.

Matt spoke of Lu. The facts they exchanged, the board games they played together, and all the quiet moments of adoration he felt when they were alone. Sam was a gracious and polite conversationalist. It listened with intensity, only pausing to interrupt or ask for more information with a subtle gesture.

Their ride was smooth. The highway was littered with cars, but not so many as to provide a roadblock to their destination. Out of habit Matt signaled right once they reached the proper exit. He quickly turned it off, then sighed, chiding himself. Despite his company things had felt so normal for a moment. Did he deserve such a thing?

The pair grew silent as they drove into the city, passing a mix of unfamiliar buildings and human refuse. Sam drew its hand back into itself to sit quietly. Matt focused on trying to find his way back to a neighborhood he was familiar with.

Slowly, almost by accident, their jeep pulled up to the front of The Plaza. Matt brought them to a stop, then turned off the engine.

“I guess this is it. I wonder if my bike is still inside.”

Several hands slowly pushed themselves from under Sam’s liquid skin. It opened the door and crawled its way out. Matt opened his door as well, and he closed his eyes to appreciate the growing chill of the evening. He was about to speak when Sam waved an arm to beckon him closer, crawling toward the downward ramp that led to the Plaza’s underground parking garage.

Following close behind, Matt used the slap of Sam’s hands as a guiding beacon while his eyes adjusted to the dark. Unerringly, Sam guided him toward his bicycle. It lay on the floor exactly where he had left it.

“You saw me come in, huh.” Matt shook his head. “Where?”

Sam pointed above to ventilation system that worked its way through the garage ceiling, exposed and set along rows of colored piping. It wasn’t hard to imagine how a creature like Sam could slip so easily between that tight crawl space. How difficult it would be to find. The thought made Matt’s skin crawl.

“So, do you live here?”

Tap. Tap.

“Do you just kind of wander?”

Tap.

“Well.” Matt huffed out his nose. “I’d invite you to come with me but I don’t know if that would be a smart idea. I don’t even know if they’ll take me back...after everything.”

Sam placed a hand on his shoulder. It felt heavy and warm.

“Thank you, Sam. Will you stay in the city?”

Tap.

Matt smiled. He placed his hand on its own, and squeezed gently.

“Then stay close. We’ll see each other again. You won’t have to wander this place alone anymore. We’ll figure something out. I promise.”

The pair stood quietly in the dark of the garage for a few minutes, unsure if anything more needed to be said. Sam squeezed his hand with a gentle affirmation, then kept close by as Matt guided the bike onto a rack at the rear of the jeep. When Matt finally drove away he watched Sam wave goodbye in the rear view mirror, until his vehicle eventually turned a corner and pulled the afflicted out of sight.


--------------------------------------------------------


It had grown dark by the time Matt made it home. Slowly pulling up in front of the building, he wondered if it were better to arrive during the day. At night there would only be whomever was assigned to guard rotation -- and getting mistakenly shot at night by his companions seemed like an ironic way to end his journey.

Memories of his friends and a familiar bed urged him forward. He parked the jeep on the street just in front of the entrance, then grabbed his backpack and slowly stepped away from the car. Arms raised passively, he walked closer toward the front windows where he knew the guards would be able to better see his face.

“Uh, hey.” he said, stepping closer to the front of the building. “It’s just me. I know I should have waited till morning but--”

The front door flew open. Lu ran forward, shotgun in hand, tears streaming from her face. She kept the weapon wide when she threw her arms around him, her words muddled by a sobbing cry. Dante was close behind. He was followed by Chaz, who stood in the door dressed in second-hand military fatigues, adjusting a huntsman’s rifle in his grasp.

“I knew it.” she said. “I felt it in my heart, you know?”

Matt held her close. She felt so warm and smelled like fresh tilled earth. He wanted to close his eyes and stay in that moment, but was thankful when she began to recover from her initial shock. He wasn’t sure he had the strength to do the same. She wiped tears from her face with the sleeve of her shirt, laughing.

“We went out to look but didn’t know where to start. Dante and I took every watch we could. No one gave up hope.” she took a step back, looking him over. “Oh my god, Matt is that blood? What happened? Are you hurt?”

“No...” Matt shook his head as Dante approached, giving him a close embrace and a pat on the back. “I’m fine, really. It’s not...mine”

Dante and Lu exchanged a glance with each other before taking a step back from Matt to truly review his appearance. His hair was tangled with dark flecks of dirt and blood -- the same substance that coated his shirt and jeans in uneven sprays of filth. His shirt was torn. Scrapes covered his arms.

“It’s alright. You can fill us in later. You’re back now.” Dante said, pointing to the jeep. “I’ll take the bike inside. We don’t want to be out here long.”

“Yeah, definitely. I’ll help in a sec. There are some medical supplies too. Back seat.”

As Dante worked to remove the bike Matt unslung his backpack. Fishing out the plastic-wrapped copy of The Dawnblade from its fabric he passed the box to Lu with a smile, watching as she gently took the game in her free hand. Still tending to the shotgun she cradled the game expansion to her chest protectively.

“You went looking for this?” her brow furrowed in disbelief.

“Yes and no. I did at first. I was over at The Plaza when--.”

“Yo, what the fuck!?”

They turned to see Dante turning an automatic weapon over in his hands. Matt and Lu rushed over to his side, confirming his discovery. Both the bike and the box of medical supplies had been unloaded. In the process Dante had opened the trunk door, revealing a rear cabin that had been hidden under a thick blanket. A small pile of weapons sat next to boxes of ammunition. Underneath it all, in a hollowed out hub where a spare tire once sat, was a familiar black battery worn by one of the Federation laser weapon operators.

The trio exchanged looks, and Matt simply shook his head. It was too much to explain now. Without a word they began to unload the weaponry into the apartment as quickly as possible. No one questioned the supplies any further than the good fortune of their immediate existence. Perhaps it was the look on Matt’s face, or the fact that he was still covered in old, dried blood.

With the last of the ammunition brought inside Dante had just prepared to close and bar the front door when Matt stopped him. He needed to recover one more thing. Jogging over to the passenger’s side he reached in through the open window to pull out his axe. Its blade was tarnished with old gore, but streaks of a silver edge gimmered in the moonlight. From the front door the others watched him curiously. When he turned Matt caught a glimpse of their unfiltered expressions before they adjusted to his gaze.

Chaz gripped the rifle nervously, fear and uncertainty tracing his blue eyes.

Dante took note of the axe, then his friend. There was no judgement. No doubt. Just a subtle nod of support.

A sadness in Lu’s eyes nearly broke his heart. Matt knew that feeling all too well. As though she could have done more to help him. As if he had experienced a terrible personal loss, and she was to blame.

Matt knew then and there what he had to do. He would tell them everything. Filheart Sanctuary. Kane. Father. Sam. The afflicted both captured and set loose. The survivors. He would make them understand the truth of the world beyond their walls. Of the creatures that roamed in the darkest of places. Of monsters who acted as people, hiding in the light of day.

This place was his home. His family lived here now.

He would do anything to keep them safe.