Afternoon was fading into evening. The sky turned gold without much fuss. Wooden fences became chainlink fences. Cute suburban domiciles became boxy concrete stores. Many of them were boarded up, and not because of zombie attacks.
Tamara had to grip the wheel tight to stop her hands shaking. She had just seen a person being eaten by other people. This was not an image she ever thought she would witness first-hand. It was the most unnatural thing she had ever seen. She thought of a mind, a thinking being, but alien…
She was distracted slightly by Caleb’s constant chatter. He told her what he had heard from Frankenbogart and discussed the cannibalism as if it was theoretical. The experience in the gas station was more like a strategic advantage as far as he was concerned. Must be something about men, she thought. Or maybe something about Caleb himself she had never known before, because their relationship up to now had been based in a sane world.
“They were real people once,” she said abstractly.
“Honey,” said Caleb, apparently taking it as criticism. “Forewarned is forearmed. I just want to help you survive.”
“Help me survive? What about yourself?”
“You know about that. Don’t start going all Denial on me. I don’t want to have to smack the sense back into you.” She laughed, though it wasn’t easy.
“I love you no matter what happens,” she said. It came out quite suddenly.
“I love you too, Tam,” he said. “And when it comes down to it, I’ll love you till the last second. The last second. Look in my eyes and you’ll see it.”
She glanced over at him and saw something resilient and angry in his expression. She tried to think of something to say. There was nothing. She grabbed his hand and squeezed it. Neither of them let go.
Then Caleb said, “And when that last second has passed, promise me you’ll run like fucking Hell.”
They moved out of Varsity into its own little suburb, a pathetic attempt to make Varsity itself appear on paper like a city. There were poor architectural efforts which looked like postcards of southern style. In a park, they saw a bunch of people playing some game. Tamara stared as they passed. They had somebody tied up.
“What are they doing?” she asked Caleb, reluctant to know the answer.
There were four of them, plus the prisoner. The prisoner was a Wreck. It was splayed on the ground, its limbs tied to a playground climbing frame. It looked like it had been burned. The living were all early twenties, hyped-up douchebags. There was stuff scattered around the ground. Tam was reminded of some TV show, like a cookery demonstration.
As they watched, the excited boys stepped away from the Wreck and pulled scarves or bandanas over their faces. From about twenty feet, they threw a large jar at the Wreck. It shattered and showered the prisoner in something that started instantly smoking.
“They’re testing different substances on it,” Caleb said flatly. “Try to find its weaknesses.”
Tamara was angry and disgusted. The teacher in her wanted to pull over and shout at them. “Doesn’t take long for people to turn Medieval,” she said.
“Is it that bad?” said Caleb, his voice deadpan. “Everybody needs to know how to fight them. No point waiting for some ‘expert’ to come and tell you. Might as well find out. What if their weakness is salt water? This’d all be over in a day.”
Tamara thought about it. She knew by his tone that he didn’t really dig that explanation completely. Those guys weren’t conducting a science experiment for the benefit of mankind; they were using the circumstances as an excuse to throw a jar of acid at another person to see what it did to them.
“Pepper spray! Fucking pepper spray!” Caleb shouted, and Tamara nearly veered off the road.
“The fuck?” she blurted. Caleb’s face glowed with excitement, enlightenment and wonder.
“The bacteria hate chillies,” he said, grinning. “First chance we get, we’ve got to get our hands on some pepper spray.”
“Holy shit,” said Tam. A little bit of wonder passed through her, too.