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Chew (part 1)
By
verbal

Chew (part 1)

Series: Chew

Spend more. Want more. Need more. Own more.

Baby was hungry again.

Sara set down the baby bottle, opened the cabinet and counted the cans. Seventeen. Mostly refried beans, one of the few staples left after the supermarket got looted. Two cans of Beefaroni. Five cans of soup. Green beans. Corn. Peas. One lonely can of cranberry sauce, leftover from some pre-infection Thanksgiving and likely to be the last of the cans opened.

A low stack of boxes of baby formula sat on the floor next to the cabinet. She felt very lucky to possess them. Her ex had gone out and bought them, back in the first crazy days, when people were hoarding water and toilet paper and pasta.

She hoped he was okay.

A low, aching wail came from the room in back. Sara quickly surveyed the rest of the larder: baby formula, pasta, rice, lentils, flour, Bisquick, bouillon cubes. She didn’t bother to check the fridge, it hadn’t worked in weeks and was beginning to smell; she hated even opening the door. There was nothing in there but memories of easier times. She’d taken so much for granted.

They all had.

She’d need to make another trip outside soon for more food.

Another wail sounded from the back room. Sara closed the cabinet. She picked up the baby bottle. She checked to make sure both the front and back doors were locked before crossing the room to the closed door at the rear of the house.

Another wail.

Sara took a deep breath, put on her best smile and opened the door.

“How are you doing, my sweet little baby boy?” said Sara.

Her sweet little baby boy growled.

“Now, Baby, I know you’re hungry, there’s no need to get grouchy.”

The growl turned to a whimper.

“Let’s turn on the lights in here and get ready for the day!” she said brightly. Sara reached out and flipped the light switch.

Baby blinked his tired red eyes and looked up at her from the crib on the far side of the room.

“That’s a good baby,” she said. Halfway across the room she bent to swoop up his pacifier, which he’d flung across the room at some point during the night. The supple plastic of the nipple was ripped and mangled, teeth marks puncturing the rubber. Sara slipped it into her pocket and made a mental note to bring him another.

“Did Baby get tired of his lil binkie?” she asked in baby-ish tones. “Does Baby not like his lil binkie anymore?”

Baby didn’t speak yet--perhaps he never would--but he knew what the word “binkie” meant. A giggle burbled from out of his mouth.

“Does Baby want a new binkie?”

Baby yelped his approval.

Sara laughed at his response. She wanted to pick him up and hold him, but she needed to give him his milk first.

“Let’s drink our baa-baa first, honey,” she said. “Then we’ll have a little cuddle time. How does that sound?”

Baby again answered excitedly. Sara leaned over the crib, bottle in hand. Baby’s hands wrapped around the bottle and pulled it out of her hands. He sucked from the bottle greedily, the sounds of sucking and chewing and gasping and burping filling the air.

She never understood why he rarely gained any weight. He looked starved. The outline of his ribs clearly showed through the skin of his chest. His arms and legs were disturbingly thin, like slender branches of a sapling, bones and muscles and veins as visible as his ribs. Eyes and cheeks appeared gaunt, skin gray and bloodless.

Only his sharp teeth betrayed his vitality, shining bone white whenever he opened his mouth.

Sara sat next to the bed and watched him feed. She was careful not to get too close until he was finished. As she watched and waited, she ran her hands over the ragged wooden bars of the crib, exploring the scratches and teeth marks with her fingertips. He chewed at the wood all night long, enough so that the bars of the crib were beginning to splinter. She’d need to replace the bars, or sand down the wood.

She couldn’t have her baby accidentally get a splinter in his mouth.

#

The appearance of the Worm launched tens of thousands of conspiracy theories, but the set of variations that came to Lucas’ mind as he walked the interior of Ridgedale Mall was this: tracking chips in credit cards monitored and controlled the behavior of consumers and passed the data on to surrounding 5G towers. The specific behavior that the credit card manufacturers were interested in, of course, was the desire to produce goods, and consume them. So they attempted to program consumers to buy more. Spend more. Want more. Need more. Own more.

The plan worked a little too well.

Everybody wanted everything.

Money. Clothes. Shoes. Cars. Guns. Sex. Food.

Everyone was hungry.

Lucas walked the mall with a rifle and a grocery cart. His gun was unloaded; Lucas only owned seven bullets and really didn’t want to waste any of them unless he needed to.

He kept the bullets in his front pocket. He’d yet to fire the rifle. He’d brandished it a couple of times to Grayboys and looters, and the sight of the weapon had so far always been enough.

He didn’t feel comfortable carrying a gun.

Lucas picked his way up the broken escalator. Shattered safety glass crushed under his heels, as if walking through gravel, or packed snow. At the top of the steps he stopped, turned around, and surveyed the first floor of the mall.

Amazon. Nordsrom’s. Candee. Oysho.

Broken glass sparkled in the ambient light. Abandoned merchandise lay scattered across the floor. Televisions, computers, entire racks of clothes, food packaged in bulk left to spoil. Lucas saw very little evidence of recent human activity. Shoe prints. Half eaten meals.

A few bullet casings. Bullet holes scattered along the wall. No blood was visible.

Lucas scanned the shops of the second floor. He didn’t bother with electronics stores, clothing stores, jewelry stores.

He kept his eyes open for pet stores. He didn’t own a pet, and had stored a large cache of food in his home already. But pet store supplies were not in high demand among the Gray or anyone else, so he thought they’d be relatively untouched.

One of his neighbors let him in on a recipe for long-term storage food, made out of a combination of kibble, mixed nuts, and dried fruit. It sounded awful. But this would not be his primary food supply. This was a back-up cache of food. Emergency supplies, for when all the other food ran out.

Lucas turned a corner and saw a PetSmart. The front plate glass windows remained intact. He cautiously made his way toward the doors. He tested them, found they were unlocked, and let himself inside as quietly as he could.

Indirect light from the hallway spilled through the windows. The far corners of the store were draped in darkness.

Lucas checked the most well lit-area first, going down each aisle, searching for any items of use. He found nothing. Fish food, dog toys, kitty litter. Anything of value had already been taken.

Lucas ventured deeper into the store. He stayed close to the wall, alert for motion and noise. At his back were rows of fishtanks. All electricity was off in the store--in the entire mall, actually--so the water in the tanks was discolored and cloudy. Dead fish floated on the surface. The overwhelming smell of decay washed over him.

After the fishtanks came the hamster and gerbil cages. Open doors swung from every cage, but Lucas saw no sign of the animals in the cages, or on the floor or shelving. Had people actually stolen gerbils and hamsters? Surely no one would have taken them and eaten them.

He passed through the cages and reached the back of the store. Two doors punctuated the back wall.

Lucas heard a noise from the far door.

He froze.

He’d never fired the gun before.

He fished a bullet out of his pocket and loaded the gun as quietly as possible. He surprised himself by not dropping the bullet.

The noise sounded again.

Lucas stepped toward the door, trying desperately to remember how the cops did it on TV, back when there was TV. He aimed the rifle toward the door and walked straight toward it.

Just as he reached the door and was mentally preparing a strategy to open it, something hit him in the back.

He screamed.

A voice behind him said, “Drop the rifle.”

Lucas dropped his rifle.

“Don’t hurt me,” he said.

A woman’s voice responded. “It’s just dog food.”

“Huh?” said Lucas.

“Dog food. I threw a piece of kibble at the door to distract you. Then I threw a piece at you. You screamed.”

“Can I turn around?”

“You can.”

Lucas turned around.

He noticed the bow first, then the arrow notched on the string. The head of the arrow pointed straight at him.

“Don’t shoot,” he said. “I dropped my rifle. I’m just looking for food.”

“In a pet store?”

“Pet food. Dog food. You know, just in case.”

“Just in case what?”

“Just in case the regular food gets used up.”

She lowered her bow. “Regular food?”

“Regular food.”

She seemed intrigued. “Well, if you’re looking for dog food you’re in luck.” Lucas exhaled in relief, sensing he’d gained her trust. Behind her Lucas could see she’d built a bunker out of large bags of dog food, piled on top of each other like sandbags. Behind the wall of dog food bags he saw a cot with a pillow and a blanket piled on top. A pallet of water bottles sat at the side of the cot.

He wondered if she consumed anything other than dog food and water.

“Do you sleep back there?”

She nodded slowly, but said nothing.

Lucas gestured toward the doors. “Why don’t you sleep in one of the back rooms?”

“Because I can’t see the rest of the store from there.” She considered him, and seemed to relent a little. “And because everyone always goes back there first. Just like you did. They don’t notice this aisle because their eyes are on the doors in the back.”

“And so you throw dog food at the door to lure them toward it?”

“Exactly.”

“What do you do when you catch them?”

“Usually I kill them. You got lucky.”

He thought she might be kidding. “Oh really?”

“Yes. Really.”

“Then what do you do with the bodies?”

She smiled and nodded toward the door. “Throw ‘em in the back room with the others.”

She was probably kidding.

#

Mr. Hargrove considered himself lucky that he ordered Jeeves to electrify the fence long before he came to the conclusion Jeeves needed to be shot.

His real name wasn’t Jeeves; that started as a joke. He’d been hired as a butler, Mr. Hargrove started calling him Jeeves, and the joke endured for so long that Mr. Hargrove forgot his real name and continued to call him Jeeves.

He’d thought of Jeeves as a friend. He felt genuinely saddened when the man went Skinny and had to be killed.

No matter anymore. Jeeves was dead, left to decompose on the manicured lawn, outside the walls of the house but inside the fence. Mr. Hargrove didn’t bury him, too fearful of drawing the attention of the other Skinnies that lined the property.

When Jeeves first turned on the electrified fence, Mr. Hargrove watched with a mix of curiosity and fear through the video feed. The first of the Skinnies hit the fence about an hour later.

She wasn’t trying to get past the fence to break into the house. She simply brushed against the fence, while walking past the grounds. Hargrove saw a bright flash of light that momentarily overwhelmed the monitor. When the white screen cleared the woman was on the sidewalk, twitching. Her blouse smoldered from where it touched the fence, the edges of the material charred, sticking to her skin. Her chest continued to rise and fall. She wasn’t dead. Not yet anyway.

Seconds later she’d been eclipsed by the Skinnies drawn to the spot by the light and the sound and the movement. The first two or three touched the fence were thrown from it as their fingers brushed the metal. The same thing happened to them that happened to the woman. The hit of electricity flung away from the fence and into the crowd already gathering behind them, clothes smoking, hair asmolder.

After that the Skinnies maintained their distance. They stayed near the fence, but they’d learned not to touch it.

The Skinnies were not zombies. They were human. They could feel pain. They could die. They could learn.

The mainstream media called it a virus. Mr. Hargrove wasn’t so sure. These people seemed no different from criminals. Looters. Anarchists. Antifa.

Mr. Hargrove thought the Worm was a hoax. The government inflated the infection rates, and the reported death rate was so low as to be a joke.

Pre-Worm, Mr. Hargrove rarely left the house. Jeeves said that was the reason he never got infected. He didn’t need to go anywhere. Jeeves had stock-piled months of food. Pallets of bottled water sat down in the cool of the wine cellar, along with hundreds of bottles of wine. A hard drive filled with movies and TV shows and music could be accessed from anywhere in the house, and should the electricity fail, Jeeves had installed a generator in the garage and shown him how to use it. He devoted an entire suite of rooms to liquor and pills and powders and other chemical recreations.

When he ran out, he had ways of getting more.

If he needed sex, or even human companionship, it was difficult to get a woman to the house. But if you offered enough money or food, someone would come.

Everyone was hungry out there.

#

Baby was hungry again.

She’d fed him, then picked him up and rocked him as she walked the room. Baby loved to be walked. After he fell asleep she put him down in the crib and left the room. She locked the door.

Baby’s coughing awoke her. The sound came out in short, staccato barks.

Sara crossed the living room and gingerly unlocked and opened the nursery door. Baby heard the squeak of the hinges; his head turned as if on a swivel. Once he saw it was his mother at the door his growl changed into a cry.

What mother could ignore her own crying child?

Sara took up her baby in her arms and rocked him.

He could not be comforted; he coughed and wailed and moaned. His skin felt hot to her touch. She took him to the bathroom and fumbled in the medicine cabinet for the electronic thermometer, praying the battery still worked.

She found it, placed the sensor against his head, pushed the button, and sighed in relief as she heard the beep; the batteries still worked. Her relief turned to concern with the second beep when the temperature flashed on the little screen. 103.1 degrees.

The little bottle of liquid ibuprofen sat right next to the thermometer. She knew by heart already the recommendation of the What To Expect in Your First Year book: call the doctor before giving your baby ibuprofen. She’d looked so many times she could visualize the page.

The book was from a time when it was a little easier to get to a doctor.

She paced the floor with her baby, rocking him, cooing, singing, trying to get him to sleep. Inconsolable. His skin flushed angry red with fever and felt hot and clammy against her own.

His barking cough sounded increasingly hoarse and painful.

He bared his teeth with each cough.

She took his temperature again. 103.3.

She needed to do something.

She put on an oversized winter coat, then picked up her baby, careful to avoid his mouth and teeth, and wrapped the coat around both of them. She left the apartment, locked the three locks on the door, and headed down to the lobby.

She took the seven flights of stairs down, stopping for her breath at each landing. By the time she reached the ground floor she was panting, fully winded. Surprisingly, the trip calmed Baby; he snuggled against her shoulder, dozing comfortably. Thank God. He hadn’t slept in days.

The pay phone hung incongruously on the wall near the front door of the apartment building, a quaint pipe dream from an earlier time.

And yet, a few working pay phones survived the tumult. Built to be sturdy and reliable, and able to withstand the abuse of an entire city for years on end without breaking. The sound of the dial tone gave Sara a vague sense of hope.

Sara dug down into the cache of quarters she kept in her front pocket, careful not to wake Baby with her motions, equally careful not to drop any change. Pay phones had made quarters far more valuable than their stated worth.

She slipped four quarters into the coin slot and punched in the number she knew by heart.

Baby’s doctor answered on the second ring.

Sara sped right past hello and began listing the symptoms to Dr. Ward.

“Is he eating?”

Pause. “Doctor, he’s always eating.”

“I know. What are you feeding him?”

“Milk, nearly all I feed him is breast milk. Until I run out. He’s so hungry, I run out. I supplement it with the powdered stuff. My ex laid in several boxes of formula, so I’ve been adding some of that into the mix. Slowly. I have a lot, but I have to make it last.”

“Does he like it?”

“He loves it. Loves it. A little too much.”

“Do you breast feed him?”

She hesitated. “No. I tried. I mean….”

“I understand….”

“...I tried but he bit. He bites. He’s so hungry. It hurts. It bled. He bit me and broke the skin and I bled and I couldn’t do it anymore. He has teeth! Are babies supposed to have teeth?”

“Some do,” said the doctor, and it was his turn to hesitate. “I wish I knew more. I wish anyone knew more. The infection happened so quickly. It changed people’s brains, and people’s brains changed their bodies. Made them skinny, turned their skin gray. There isn’t any literature on the subject. Medical journals aren’t coming out anymore. But my own observations are that babies born with Gaybeaux’s Syndrome lately are more likely to have teeth. Neo-natal teeth. They used to call them milk teeth. It used to be rare. Like, one in two thousand babies. Now, it’s most of ‘em. I don’t have the numbers. But. Yeah. Most of them. Most babies have teeth now. Babies born with Graybeaux’s, anyway.”

They both fell silent. They listened to the loud hum of the phone line. She imagined the fraught journey of the doctor’s voice to her own, the miles between them--they were on opposite sides of the same city--running along underground cables, and the mindless chaos spanning the distance overhead.

“So,” she said, regaining her composure. “About the cough. About the fever.”

“The liquid ibuprofen is fine. Two milliliters. Do you have a dropper to measure it out?”

“Yes.”

“Keep him cool. Keep him hydrated. If you have an aspirator to suck the mucus from his nose, that will help.

“I don’t.”

“If you have a humidifier….”

“I don’t have one of those either.”

“Yeah. Who does? You can give him medicine every six hours. If he’s still like this in three days, call me back.”

“Why? What can we do in three days that we can’t do now?” She heard the note of despair in her voice.

The doctor sighed. “Sara. I don’t know. I wish I did. I’m just like you, just trying to get through this one day at a time. I have my own family here, I’m trying to keep them safe. I’m doing the best I can. And I know it isn’t nearly enough. I’m trying though.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry about. You take care of yourself. And take care of your baby. Call me in three days if things don’t improve.”

They said their goodbyes and hung up.

Sara pulled her coat tightly around her.

Baby nuzzled against her neck, cooing, as he awoke.

Sara smiled and cuddled him close. These moments of closeness between them were so rare. She’d always been so scared to hold him when he was awake. She needed to hide her fears, she knew. She needed to be a better mother.

As if in response, Baby reared back, then launched himself forward with every bit of strength his tiny body could muster, and sunk his teeth deep into the flesh of Sara’s shoulder.

#

The girl in the pet store was kidding, it turned out.

“No dead bodies in the back room,” she told Lucas. “I haven’t killed anyone yet.” A flash of fear shone in her eyes as she raised the bow and added, “That doesn’t mean I won’t. So don’t get any ideas.”

“Promise.”

She lowered her bow again. “You’re only the third person I’ve seen since I’ve been here. The first two got scared and ran away as soon as they saw me. You’re the first person who stayed.”

“How long have you been here?”

“I dunno. Not long. A few days. I got...caught here.”

In the silence he listened for the sound of others in the hallway outside. He heard nothing.

She said, “You said something about regular food.”

“I did.”

“Do you have regular food?”

“I do.”

“Like what?”

Lucas mentally surveyed the food that remained in his cabinets, and described what his mind’s eye pictured. “Mainstays mostly. Pasta and rice. Lotsa that. A big jar of bullion to flavor it with. And a reliable supply of water.”

He noticed the way her eyes closed as he talked, the way her head tilted upward, reliving the taste. He wondered how long she’d been eating dog food.

The next words out of his mouth were unfairly manipulative, but he said them anyway.

“Jiffy Pop,” he said.

He wasn’t lying, three unused packages of Jiffy Pop were tucked away toward the back of the cabinet, never eaten because it would take an inordinate amount of fuel to cook it. But he knew her reaction before he saw it, how the memories of the smell and the sound and the taste would cast a spell on her. Memories of life before the Worm.

He went on to list the other foods in his cabinet, skipping over staples like flour and salt and vitamins in order to get to the sexier foods, the ones he knew would evoke comfort and satisfaction, because they evoked those feelings in him. Pop Tarts. Spaghettios. Fruit Roll-Ups. Bugles. Goldfish Crackers.

Even as he spoke, he wondered if he weren’t behaving dangerously. He barely knew how to fire his rifle. He had seven bullets. His weapon was on the floor in front of him. The girl held a bow and arrow in her hand, and she knew how to work it. She had one arrow notched, and several quivers of arrows piled next to her.

How difficult would it be for her to take his rifle, force him to return to his squat, take all his food and whatever supplies she wanted? What would keep her from killing him?

“Bugles,” she said. “The ones that look like cones, right? Like little dunce caps?”

Lucas nodded.

“Did you used to put them on your fingers? To give yourself witch fingernails?”

Lucas laughed against his will. Would someone about to murder him ask if he liked to put Bugles on his fingers?

“Yeah. Everybody does that, right?” he said.

“Yeah,” she said. She lowered her weapon completely. Her voice took on a reflective tone as she said, “Tell me more.”

He recited the brand names like the words of a beloved poem, lingering on each syllable. “Hostess Cupcakes. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Chef Boyardee Beefaroni. Sara Lee poundcake.”

“And you really have these.”

“Yeah, he said. “I mean, not a lot. I keep them in the top shelf, where I won’t see them and be tempted to eat them. I’ll let myself have something special if I’m, you know, having a bad day, or I want to celebrate something. I ate a can of Hormel Tamales on my birthday.”

“Those’re good.”

“Mostly I eat pasta. Or rice. I flavor it with bullion. Garlic salt. A jar of that Montreal steak spice, that’s really good. Dump a can of something in with it sometimes, a vegetable, canned meat.”

“That sounds pretty basic.”

“I dunno, it’s about how I ate before the Worm.” He laughed, loudly, surprising himself. “I have pretty simple tastes. Not a lot of money for fancier fare.”

“It’s making my mouth water.”

He felt it was expected of him to ask the next question, though he knew the answer. He asked, “What do you eat?”

She nodded to the stacked bags. “Lately? You’re looking at it. Dog food.”

“Ouch. Now I feel bad.”

“Don’t.” She eyed him. “So you have access to water, if you are doing all that boiling.”

“Yes. I mean, I can’t go crazy, but yeah.”

“Do you have access to a bathroom? Like, running water?”

“Can I pick up my gun before I answer? I promise I won’t shoot. It’s not loaded.” Fear bloomed in her eyes. She nodded. He picked up his gun, opened the chamber to show her it was empty.

“Seven bullets, I remember.”

He slung the rifle over his shoulder. “There’s a few of us, in a block of warehouses, near downtown. Nearby water tower. The guys who maintain it seem to know what they’re doing. So we have running water. Electricity sometimes. Everyone pitches in. We stay out of each other’s way. We all have our own, like, territory. We’re just people helping each other out a little. The Worm didn’t get to us, for whatever reason. No one went Gray. I think most of us didn’t have the Internet, or didn’t use it.”

“You were lucky,” she said. Lucas did not pursue the subject.

She said, “My Mom got the Worm. From, I dunno, fucking Facebook, probably. Remember Facebook? Anyway, she bought a bunch of stuff on Amazon. Like, cleaned out our bank account, but I didn’t know that right away. I came home from work, she was passed out on the kitchen floor. In a puddle of milk. Refrigerator door open, food fucking everywhere. She ate so much she puked. Then she died. Just, like, ate herself to death.”

He lowered his head. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I haven’t talked to anyone in a really long time. I don’t know why I told you that.”

He wanted to make her feel welcome. He said, “My sister went to Hobby Lobby. She bought fucking everything. It was really pretty funny at the time. She got home all excited and yelled for us to help unload, and then she opened up the back of the mini-van and it was like a fucking clowncar, just packed from floorboard to roof, every available inch, stuffed with bolts of fabric and stacks of picture frames. Scrapbooks. Bird houses. These huge jars of sequins and glitter and buttons. Tons of glue. It was nuts. Like I said, it was funny. Until it wasn’t.”

He added, “She wasn’t on Facebook.”

“It wasn’t just Facebook. I heard the Worm was in movies too. Subliminal advertising. Trying to get people to buy popcorn and soda and stuff. Songs too, on the radio. Like, coded in the notes or something. We’ll never know, I don’t think.”

“I guess we were just lucky.” They looked at each other, the seeming absurdity in his words obvious to both of them.

“So.”

“So.”

They laughed. She said, “You have water, huh?”

“Yes.”

“And electricity.”

“Sometimes.”

She cocked her head. “So what would it take for someone to join up with your group?”

“It’s not really a group.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do.” He took a deep breath. “What do you have to offer?”

“Not sex. That’s off the table. Let’s get that clear.”

“It’s clear. We aren’t that kind of group.”

“I thought you said it wasn’t a group.” She smiled.

She lowered her bow and arrow, then dropped them to the ground.

“Propane,” she said. “I know how to get my hands on a bunch of propane. Those little camp stove bottles.”

“That will buy you a lot of good will. Anything else?”

“Yes,” she said. She smiled broadly. “A car.”

(end of part one)

 

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