The Clean Up Crew
The Truth Hurts
"The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window."
Mikey stopped yapping, leaving everyone with batted breath for the conclusion of his dreadful tale. taking note of everyone's stunned silence he replied with.
"Guys foods here! Ill finish after"
“Here's your hunk of meat, enjoy. shout if you need anything” I stared at the meat hunk for a minute, utterly disgusted with what I saw in front of me. A monstrosity of ground meat. I know I shouldn't be picky, I should just be happy with whatever I can get these days food-wise. I decided not to think about it. Instead, I drew my attention to the boy's chatter around the table.
Keebler was a docile quiet person despite his massive size and huskie physique. Strong and brave when he needed to be though. The chatterbox, loudmouth, was Mikey. He always had something to say or was always mouthing off. He's the one that came up with the nickname Keebler, he found it undeniably funny he named someone who was so enormous after the Keebler elf. Directly seated in front of me was Tanner. I suppose he was the group's proclaimed leader. He just had that quality about him. Excellent listener, great strategist, and even better decision-maker. Then there was me, Stacey Montez, always in my head, and always unsettled with the world around me. I was this way long before the world went to shit. Long before the virus took hold of mankind and turned the majority of the population into the undead. It had been years since the initial outbreak.
Chaos ensued as you'd imagine, lives were lost then reanimated wandering the streets hungry for human flesh. Governments nearly toppled. Desolation, rioting, and fighting took over the streets all across the globe. It was survival mode as the undeniable apocalypse was in full swing. All the while the barely intact government and associated scientists came up with a drug that would neutralize the spread. This drug changed the trajectory of the world as we knew it. Loose regulations and rules were starting to be enforced. I say loosely because you couldn't initiate law in a world that had become lawless. Sure the virus was neutralized to a certain degree, but there was still the matter of taking care of the stragglers. That's where we came in, we were the clean-up crew as they said. All former military, called to arms by whatever means necessary.
I was happy to answer the call even happier to be placed in this rag-tag group of fine gentlemen. Our job from then to the foreseeable future was to take back towns, streets, malls, what have you, that were overrun by the undead. This was all so the government could come in and claim the space for whatever they needed. Shelter for the masses, hospitals, work and research stations, military housing, things like that. They said because of our efforts we can start things anew, a new world as we once knew it. The hard work was ahead, but look where it already got us. Our food supply was back, medicine and antibiotics were being made and distributed, and small niche things like the restaurant we were in made a small whimpering come back. It was just nice enough to provoke nostalgia of the old world.
”What do you guys think this meat is made up of?”
“Uh, the meat?” Tanner said
“Yeah the meat, they say here's your meat hunk, enjoy every time, granted there's not much else on the menu.”
“Yeah, what are you looking for, a vegetarian option.” Mikey quipped with a snort, nobody laughed.
“No I mean like what is it, where does it come from, I know there herding and breeding animals but there's no way there's enough to go around like it is.”
Tanner looked me directly in my eyes, he knew how I could get. “Stacey you said it yourself, animal breeding is back on the rise thanks to us. I really wouldn't question it.”
Plagued with OCD and the ever-fiending need for answers to the ridiculous I couldn't let it go. “Hey, Rocco '' I yelled, grabbing his attention. Parked at our table with a towel over his shoulder and an apron that drapped over his big belly.
“What's up, Stace.”
Unwavering and determined I asked the question so bluntly it seemed to startle Rocco.
“Where's this meat from?”
“The meat!? I'm really not sure sweetheart, they come pre-packaged in these giant U-hals that say FDA Choice. Hauled in by the big guys in black, straight to my kitchen, then from my kitchen to you.”
The big guys in black Rocco was referring to were what I believed to be government pawns. I see them all over doing the bidding of the leaders of the new world, never talking, straight-laced, and precise. Fully suited in black, mask and all.
“ Listen, Stace, I'm just elated. We have something to eat other than dog food and acorns, and honestly you should be too.”
After dinner, we settled into our new digs.
“How are you doing Stacy?”
“Fine, all things considered.”
“Ok if you say so. I can't help but notice recently we've been losing you.”
I'm a little confused at this point. “Umm what are you talking about, I've been holding up my end, just the same as anybody else.”
Tanner responded quickly to dismiss my notion of not lifting my weight. “No, no I mean… you've been in your head a lot. It seems not interacting with the team, questioning everything, constant blank stares. I know you do drift off from time to time but not this much, and not for this long.”
I was slightly offended, why did it matter as long as I did my part? “I'm sorry Tanner I didn't realize, I'll try to be more present and hold up my end.”
For the second time during our conversation, Tanner backpedaled. “No, that's just it Stacey. I trust you, I've worked with you for so long I know your instincts are on point. Which means if you're questioning something, I have to summarize it’s for a good reason. So what I'm trying to say is don't hesitate to let me in. you shouldn't be in your head alone, I trust you, now I need you to trust me.''
That's the first time in presumably years anyone has ever reached out to me and even more importantly understood me, even when things were normal.
“Oh shit my medication I almost forgot.”
Parexarill, the notorious drug that saved the world, we were provided with a dose at the city's military headquarters instructed to take it every other day.
Tanner took a giant swig of water, turned off the lantern beside him, and nestled into his makeshift bed.
I was awakened by the static of the radio Tanner placed on the table in the middle of all of us. This is how most mornings went, grouped around the radio waiting for our orders.
“Team falcon, attend a clearance event at sector beta eight. And report to military base Charlie for medication and supply refill.”
“Team Aquarius, supply rendezvous at sector zebra two.”
They went through the list of teams and assignments accordingly, the same as they always did. Who'd go where, who'd do what so on and so forth.
“Team Dragon, attend clearance event at sector Echo eighteen, then report to military base Charlie for medication and supply refill.”
“Ok finally” Tanner unfurled an old map he had marked and scribbled on. “Sector echo..,” Tanner floated his finger over the map hunting for the appointed spot. “Here goes, the old Saybrook Public Library. ok everybody gear up, and let's head out.”
I was happy. An easy mission should be more than an hour or so. Then I can replenish my rations. Truth be told, I need more Parexarill. I lost some or took too many, not really sure. I do know I haven't been taking them for at least two weeks. I wasn't exposed, so no harm no foul right?
After our nice little afternoon stroll through town, we found ourselves at the mission checkpoint. Old Saybrook Library just in the distance you could see the giant metallic lettering amidst the dust and sand that kicked up in the mid-day wind.
“Ok me and Mikey will take point on this one, going straight through the entrance clearing our way upstairs. Keebler you're gonna be our one-man army and flank from the west side entrance don't think there will be too much opposition away from the main lobby. Stacey I'm gonna have you covering the perimeter.”
I nodded in compliance as did my fellow teammates, we grabbed our equipment and dashed off to our respective posts. I took position right behind a jersey barrier. I took the binoculars from around my neck and held them up to my eyes, establishing a location for my troupe.
I didn't mind being put in this position, it gave me time to think, and to be by myself, granted as of late I didn't know if that was the best idea.
As time went on I watched the boys go to work. Mikey and Tanner took out the first stragglers hanging out at the entrance with quick swift knives to the head. Everything seemed routine until Keebler decided to unload all the sculptures from the upper balcony’s art section onto the unexpecting enemies below. One by one marble statues of moby dick, and Frankenstein, along with a bronze bust of Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain came crashing down on the undead. I couldn't help but smile, a gentle giant with an appetite for destruction, that's one way to save ammo I thought.
Just then the radio around my hip went off. “Hey, Keebler, are you seeing this? Looks like the walkers are huddled around a bonfire made from books, I don't understand, are they cold… do they even get cold.” I zoomed in with my binoculars and verified what Mikey was saying: a group of ten or more undead around a fire barracked with bookshelves.
“Must have got to the people that were here, fled most likely, hopefully, they survived, anyway business as usual guys.” Tanner chimed in. I watched intently as Mikey and Tanner laid waste to the remaining zombies.
I must have been over enamored because a small whimper from just behind startled me. In one fluid motion, I dropped my binoculars, whipped out my sidearm, and dropped to one knee. All to my dismay, because I found my pistol directly pointed at two small boys and what I assumed to be their mother, all tightly huddled together wearing raggedy and patched-up jackets, I apologized and holstered my gun.
“I'm sorry I didn't know I thought you were a threat you never know these days.”
Tears flowed down the woman's face. “Why, why are you doing this.”
I was thoroughly confused at this point. I searched for an answer only to find none. “I don't understand, I don't know what you mean?”
“Why are you killing them, why? Why aren't they giving us medicine please tell me why?” The woman was almost incoherent at this point blabbering as she spoke.
“Mama we do it for you… We Are taking back what is ours, freeing space and liberating the masses.” Before I had time to answer the second half of the stranger's question, Keebler’s voice belted out from the radio.
“Stacey I'm getting run in from behind let's go. I need support, A.S.A.P.” I collected my equipment and sped over to Kibler's position.
Another successful mission.
I couldn't help but think about that lady and her kids. What were they so upset about, we were helping...right? I needed answers.
Finally, we came up to our destination. Military personnel lined up in rows while the men suited in all black passed out the drugs.
Something thundered out among the sound of quiet and distant chatter. The source of the sound was a man being dragged out from behind a truck, arms hooked on either side by the men in black, fighting and kicking all the while.
“YOU CAN'T MAKE ME TAKE ANYMORE, I CAN'T, YOU WON'T, I DON'T WANNA SEE THEM ANYMORE YOU CAN’T MAKE ME.”
All eyes were set on the distraught gentlemen, being escorted far off into the distance to where, I couldn't say for sure. Oddly enough, after all I've been through and all I've seen this caught me off guard as being one of the most disturbing. Of course just as I started my mental expedition of obsessive thinking, a relevant tragedy unfolds before my eyes. I couldn't help but recite the adage in my head. “When it rains it pours.”
“Yeah, I've heard about this happening recently.” For whatever reason, the kindly gentlemen to the right in the line started talking to me about things he's witnessed and heard as of late. “ My platoon officer said people were starting to hallucinate, seeing things that weren't there. Undead mostly. Enough to make you go mad.'' The gentlemen scanned the area for a moment carefully taking count of the men in the black suits in earshot. “If you ask me something's going on, they either changed the drug or were starting to see side effects.” Just as sporadically as that conversation started it ended, leaving a void of silence that created a turmoil of white noise, and anxious thoughts in my head.
“When it rains…. It pours.”
Later that night the same couple of things kept playing in my head, that mom and her kids, how odd it was seeing the undead gather around a fire, the strange incident with the madman, and the even stranger conversation that followed. At the very least I started to recognize a pattern.
“I'm gonna stop taking the medication.” I blurted out without notice.
To my absolute surprise, Tanner simply responded with, “ok.”
Didn't expect that, I thought he’d question it, or even give me a minor scolding but instead I got, “ok.”
“Stacey, what I said before is still true now, you have good instincts. If you feel like stopping the drug and seeing what happens I fully support it. Just as I said before, keep me updated ok?” Still perplexed but mostly relieved, I nodded in agreement.
The weeks and months that followed were pretty much the same. No major side effects to account for after going sans medication for the allotted time. No major side effects except for maybe one. My dreams. My dreams were always vivid and chaotic, most of the time colorful and trippy for no particular reason, or any I could find anyway. These dreams were different while still vivid; they followed a concise and distinct pattern, every night flowing like a story picking up where it left off each time I drifted off into sleep. It sequenced the memories and occurrences perfectly but the people I knew and loved were nightmarishly zombies. Even The distant memory of my father playing basketball with me for the first time was replaced with the Night of the Living Dead. All the sayings and teachings he had uttered that would replay in my mind in times of need, were no more than groans and growls.
Being that my dreams were the only thing affected, one would think it mild. But unfortunately, that was not the case; it had taken its toll. It seemed as if each pass account in my life was being replaced with nightmares. The trouble with that is during these times some of those wonderful memories were all I had.
After a couple of months, we had traveled all over creation. Squatting, sleeping. Working, moving in that order, day by day, week by week. I sat close to the dining room table after another sleepless night.
“Team Dragon, Clearance mission sector indigo seven.”
A clearance mission this was the first we had received in some time, the first we had received since my run-in with that mother and her kids. I didn't know how I felt about this, on edge, anxious, and a lack of sleep was a recipe for disaster.
Tanner took a brief note of today's location. “Wow Typhoons Stadium, I'm surprised they trust just one team to do the job,...ah well must not be that well occupied.”
Mikey is already halfway out the door. “Welp, there's only one way to find out boss.”
Trudging along I hung back a small distance from my team. I couldn’t help but feel emotional for whatever reason, tears welled up in my eyes. I continued to keep my distance, to not stir conversation over my mild waterworks. Finally, we had arrived just in time for me to balance out to somewhat normal
“Ok team all hands on deck for this one we charge in and stay close, move forward only when I give the signal.”
BANG I swiftly kicked the door swinging it open violently as I rushed in tactically inspecting my surroundings with the point of my m4; like I had many times before. Each of us took a turn shouting CLEAR as we marched ahead past the formerly known concession stands. More shouts of CLEAR as we advanced our way into the stadium field itself. Tanner was right about low occupancy, we hadn't seen any undead yet. All lined up on the endzone closest to the entrance we frantically looked for a sign of life for lack of a better term. Kibler, equipped with binoculars Shouted and pointed
Fire rang out and echoed all around the stadium. As me and my team advanced across the field. Popping off in all different directions. I still have yet been able to locate a target.
“Elusive little fuckers aren't they? '' Mikey yelled.
“Too many places to hide, '' replied Keebler.
Finally out of the visitor's team entrance ramp I saw a ghoul hugging the concrete wall. But instead of firing, I dropped my m4 as a wave of pain blasted me in the back of the head. I watched in front of me as the zombie began to become disfigured, well more disfigured than before. Bugs and worms began to wiggle in and out of holes in its body. Its head changed and deformed like nothing I've ever seen before. It began to resemble people I knew, Keebler, Tanner, Mikey, my father. Each iteration screaming and waving its arms at me.
“Don't shoot.. don't shoot.”
I stood there and watched as I trembled in fear hoping to wake up from this living nightmare.
Tanner grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me violently. “STACEY WHAT'S WRONG, WHAT'S GOING ON!”
I was staring directly at Tanner, but still, I couldn't move, completely shell shocked. Tanner motioned for Keebler to come over and tuck his head under my arm as Tanner did the same on the opposite side. Dragging my lifeless body across the field towards the exit ramp, while Mikey supplied protection as he fired off in the distance. I watched as shots ricocheted off the stands and concrete barricades surrounding us. I looked around watching all the undead scramble through the rows of seats in and out of tunnels in pure terror. All the while I watched as the infected transformed much like the one I had set my eyes on at the onset of this spine-chilling mission. But unlike the first ghoul, the hallucination started to settle in and every zombie began to utter real words, real living human words. And their bodies starting with their head began to emerge life-like. Just then like a shot from a baseball right to the forehead I blacked out remembering in flares of light and static all the pieces, and all the clues that brought light to the current situation.
‘Why are you doing this to us?’
‘I don't know, the truck just says FDA choice.’
‘Stop I don't want to see them anymore.’
‘We clear out space for the government,
‘CLEAR, SPACE, GOVERNMENT’
‘Somethings going on with the drug’
After a stream of information hit me like a flood from a broken dam it was chillingly clear to me. In my small moment of sanity, I screamed out.
“STOP THESE ARE REAL PEOPLE.”
My whole team stared at me in absolute confusion but Mikey kept firing. “It's ok Stacey you're gonna be ok, panic attack it happens.”
“NO STOP YOU HAVE TO STOP THERE REAL.'' With that last outburst, I wriggled free and slammed down on my knees to the turf below, panting and crying heavily as I tried to gather my thoughts. I looked up at Tanner hoping he would receive some type of non verbal cue relating that I spoke the truth. Thankfully he did.
“Guys stop… let's hear what she had to say.”
“Ok fine, but if one of these freaks comes near me I'm blastin them.”
With a giant gulp of air, I gathered myself to explain what I had witnessed to my friends. Still panting and sniffling I said “It's a hallucinogenic. Parexarilll...makes us hallucinate, these are real people, the drug makes us see them as zombies. I know because I haven't been taking it”
Mikey looked at me and almost laughed. “Ok honey, you've been going through it huh?”
“No! the government needs space, and they won't move so they make us move them, but we wouldn't in full conscience displace regular people, there the resistance we're the enemy.”
I saw Mikey and Keebler were still in disbelief but Tanner continued to stare at me with sad eyes. In a last-ditch effort, I pointed out in the stands.
“Look, they're not attacking.”
The team eyed the people in the stands as they huddled together and crouched behind seats only peering now and again.
“I gotta admit I've never seen them do that before, we always came in firing, we never stopped to look...eh just following orders ya know.”
Keebler intervened with a thought of his own. “You don't think, that's why they were huddled around a fire on our mission a while back, can't imagine the undead need warmth.”
“I don't know guys. Whatever it is, it's strange they haven't attacked us or even moved towards us for that matter. If I'm being totally honest they seem kind of...scared. Well, whatever it is Stacey you've opened our eyes to something worth investigating.” Tanner offered me his hand, shaking uncontrollably as I found my way to my feet.
“What do we do now bossman?” Mikey asked.
But before he could even answer a small army of men in black dashed in from entrances all around the stadium, as they rained hellfire gunning down the opposition. The same opposition that Tanner labeled as frightened. I watched as my world turned upside down once more. Everything that followed took place in slow motion. Welded to the turf with utter horror I was moved by a swift yank from two men in black hauling me away, screaming and kicking as I watched them do the same to my family. Large trucks backed in with ferocious speed into every entrance tunnel into the stadium's football field. The backs flung open and the men in black hurled the bodies of the victims into the trucks. The last thing I witnessed before I was thrown into the back of my truck was the writing on the side. FDA CHOICE is what they read.
Everything became clear at that moment from my first question, to my last. As the doors of the truck closed and I descended into darkness, my once lost memories came back to me like broken pieces of a shattered mirror, and side by side I saw them clearly, my father and Tanner saying the same thing to me.
“No need to overthink or question every single thing, sometimes it's best to leave things as they are.”