Crossing his arms across his scrawny chest and almost sunken in belly, Spencer wailed softly from, what looked a lot like, intense hunger pains. Considering the fact that I’ve barely spent much time with him when he wasn’t eating…that was an eerie development indeed. And NOW he’s talking about a hospital being on fire.
With a bit of a nervous fluttering building wildly in the center of my stomach, a mild panic caused me to maybe reconsider telling Dr. Vega what was really going on here. I really didn’t want to, but the mistake of not saying something could make for much worse consequences for the entire shelter than maybe alerting him to know what I knew of Spencer’s strange behavior.
I guess it all depends on how much I can trust Dr. Vega to be on our side in all this. You know…with us being these radical, highly unpredictable, ‘teenagers’ and all. To say that there was an immediate and unshakable prejudice working against us than we didn’t earn or deserve would be a bit of an understatement.
“Body temperature is fluctuating…” He mumbled to himself, continuing to check Spencer’s vitals while lightly petting the top of his head to keep him calm and hopefully soothe some of the aches and pains running through him. “Hot to cold and back again. Much more rapidly than anything that I’ve ever seen before. It doesn’t seem to be stabilizing.” He walked over to his little work station and took a fresh needle out of its package, filling it with an injection. “Ok, Spencer…this is what I’m going to do, alright? I’m going to give you a small dose of a very mild sedative that’s going to help you sleep, and maybe balance you out a little bit. Is that ok?”
“Is it gonna hurt…?” Spencer whimpered, his bottom lip quivering.
“It’ll just be a little pinch, and then it’s all over and done with. You’ll hardly feel a thing.” Dr. Vega told him. “I’m going to do a few studies and see if I can make you feel better, but we have to keep your vitals from jumping all over the place first. It’s going to make you a little dizzy at first, but I’ll get you some blankets and a pillow, and you’ll sleep like a baby. Maybe, by the time you wake up, I’ll have some answers for you. How does that sound?”
Spencer looked over at me, his eyes a bit red and misty as he tried not to look too scared about the needle. But then he nodded silently, and offered Dr. Vega his arm for this scary ‘pinch’ that he was talking about. “M’kay…” He said, just above a soft whimper.
The doctor tapped him for a vein, and did what he could to distract him from actually watching the needle go in, before piercing the skin and using his thumb to inject the fluids into his bloodstream. The effects were almost immediate. By the time he had used the alcohol swab to clean the intrusion, Spencer was already wobbling and leaning and ready to be laid down again on the counter top. And that’s when Dr. Vega took me by the arm and backed me away from him so that we could go and get the blankets and pillows that he had promised. He made sure that Spencer was balanced and stable where he was, and then locked the classroom door behind us as he led me over to a different room that was just a little further down the hall. Not by much, though. There was, maybe, one empty classroom between us and Spencer, but he made sure to play it safe, nonetheless.
As he was unlocking the door to nearby makeshift lab, he asked me, “So, Jacob…are you going to fill me in on what the big emergency was about, or what?”
There was that flutter again. Alarms went off inside of me. Half of them telling me to lie, or simply keep my mouth shut. The other half…telling me to speak up and maybe trust Dr. Vega to do the right thing in this situation. Even if I had to beg. Otherwise, we may find ourselves having to search for a way out of this place before the other soldiers see us as enough of a major threat to put us all on lockdown.
Ugh! What are you getting ready to do, Jake….?
“I’m…a little worried about him.” I said softy, having to clear my throat so I spoke up a bit more.
He led us into the room and turned the lights on. “Worried about what, exactly?”
“He’s been acting…weird. I dunno…”
Dr. Vega walked over to an empty hospital bed type of thing, and reached down to unlock the wheels so he’d be able to roll it out of there if he needed to. “This Spencer…is he a close friend of yours?”
“Ummm, I guess. Not really, though.” I told him. “He’s…Officer Logan’s son. I agreed to look out for him for a little bit.”
“Ahhh…I see.” He told me. “Say, go over to the freezer and grab me an ice pack from the back of the cooler, will you? As well as two or three bundles of those blankets over there. I might need those.” He went through the cabinets, turning bottles of medicine around to make sure that he could read the labels and grab the exact ones that he was looking for. “So, you’re babysitting for Mr. Logan, eh?”
Trying to correct myself, I stammered, “Well, I…I don’t know about, like…babysitting or anything…”
“It’s quite alright, Jacob. In times like these, I often find it an important adjust to make new friends. Find your own private community, even among strangers. It helps to pad the blow of harsh circumstances.”
“It does? Really?” I asked.
I saw him putting stuff on top of the bed with wheels on it so we could possibly use it to carry it all back into the other room all at once. “This shelter really isn’t all that big, Jacob. It’s big enough for all of us to coexist and manage some level of civility, sure…but this so-called ‘sane’ environment that we’ve been trying to maintain won’t last forever. It’s more a rapidly fading collection of habitual behaviors than anything else.” He looked at the other end of the room and said, “Grab me a couple of those towels, and a few rolls of gauze, will you?”
I did as he asked, and then wondered, “Habitual behaviors?”
“Yes. People spend so much of their lives on autopilot, living their day to day lives without really having to put much thought into it, that they it simply becomes a daily routine. I’ve been watching the people in this shelter over the past few weeks…and they’re beginning to run out of personal distractions. Which is a full blown threat to a majority of civilians here. They’re getting restless already. I can tell. They’re already trying to invent reasons to go back outside. Or grab something from home. Or complaining about how unfair it is to trapped in this building when they’d rather just get back to their mindless robotic habits and forget any of this ever happened at all.” Then he said, “There should be a few bottles of Hydrogen Peroxide down there as well. Grab me two of them.” I looked around for a moment, and he said, “On your right. Lower right. Top shelf. Yes, those are the ones.”
I brought them over to put on the bed as well. “But they can’t just leave the shelter, right?”
“Well, Jacob…to be honest, I can’t really see what kind of force we could possibly use to stop them. If they really wanted to go back out into the city neighborhoods and the like…we’d pretty much just have to let them go.”
“But…isn’t that, like…suicide? That’s the stupidest thing that I’ve ever heard of.”
“Aspirin, please.” He said. “Top shelf, on your left. I can use that as a blood thinner.” I grabbed him what he asked for, but when I gave him a look, he decided to answer my question. “Isolation frenzy. That’s all that it is. People get scared. They feel boxed in and out of control. It causes a great deal of psychological discomfort. Even to the point where they’d be willing to put themselves in harm’s way to gain a few fleeting moments of being in charge of their own situation for a little while.”
“But…they DO know that there are literal zombies outside of the gates, right? That thousands of people are dying each and every single day. I mean, what is it that’s so important and so restless about being safe and maybe not getting devoured alive by a horde of undead cannibals? I don’t get it.”
“Well, it’s a defense mechanism, Jacob. What’s going on outside the walls of this place is absolutely unprecedented. On a level where the world may never fully recover from it, ever again. It can be a lot for some unpracticed minds to handle.” Dr. Vega pointed to bundle of freshly folded up sheets on top of another counter, and I walked over to add them to our pile of supplies. “Bottom line? The longer those people are asked to obey a certain set of rules, the faster they run out of distractions or move away from their daily habits…the more they’re forced to deal with the enormity of it all. The absolute horror that exists in not having any control over the situation, nor the ability to ignore and deny that it’s really happening at all. They need an escape. They need to feel like a participant in their own lives again. So far…we’ve been lucky.” He said. “But the fragile balance that we’ve got going on here won’t last for much longer. Isolation fatigue will set in, people will begin to take risks they shouldn’t take…and, yes…some of them will die because of it. But there’s not a whole hell of a lot that we can do about that.”
Feeling a shiver run through me as Dr. Vega put the last few items on the bed and began rolling it towards the door, I asked him, “Do you think…all of us are going to end up like that? Just…rushing to go back out there all alone…to die?”
He stopped and turned to walk over and put a hand on my shoulder to look me in the eye. “Hey…listen to me, ok? Nobody here wants anybody to die.” I looked away from him, but he did his best to get my focus back. “You know how human beings survive, Jacob? We adapt. We find ways to deal with whatever nature decides to toss our way, and we fit into each new reality the best way we know how. We can’t control it, we can’t force it, and we can’t ‘hurry it along’ to make it more convenient for ourselves. Your a smart boy, Jacob. Don’t numb yourself to what’s going on out there. Stay sharp. If you can learn to adapt to your current situation and adjust accordingly, you’re going to be just fine. Alright?”
I nodded. “Ok…” And he motioned for me to hold the door open for him so he could wheel the bed and the medical supplies out into the hallway. I helped him to steer as he pushed the bed forward, and as I thought about it, I said, “I think…that maybe I’ve been doing a bit of what you were talking about too.”
“And what’s that?”
“You know…distracting myself. Maybe pretending that none of this was really happening or…that it wasn’t that big a deal.” I said quietly. “To be honest…my older brother Cain and his friend, Jamie, came in with one of the other caravans recently. I was kinda hoping that my mom and dad would be with them.”
Dr. Vega’s eyes met mine for a moment, but I could tell that was trying his best not to show any emotion that might possibly discourage me from holding out any hope for their return. “The city’s, pretty much, been turned upside down lately. It’s hard to get any steady communications in or out of the facility. Maybe you should give them another week or two. Just to see what’s what.”
“I guess so…” I mumbled. “My friend, Alex, is looking for his parents too. They were near downtown, I think. No word from them either.”
It was clear that Dr. Vega was getting uncomfortable with the conversation. Who knows? Perhaps he was looking to avoid the ‘enormity of it all’ in his own way. Just like the rest of us. “I’m sure the military is doing everything that thy can to bring everybody in, safe and sound. A lot of damage was done before they were able to fully organize their efforts, but…they seem to be on top of it all. No need to worry yourself silly about it.”
Moving closer to the door and swinging the bed out so he would be able to angle it in there, I moved forward to reach for the handle and open it up for him so he could push it inside.
And that’s when he paused…
“How did you do that?” He asked.
He moved around the bed and walked closer to me. “This door was locked just a few minutes ago.” He was holding the keys in his hand. I had completely forgotten about that.
We both peeked into the room…and noticed that Spencer was ‘missing’.
“Where did he go?” I asked, stepping into the room to look around. “Spencer? Spence? Dude…where are you?” It’s not like the room was all that big, so there wasn’t a bunch of places that he could use to hide from us. But even if he could…why would he?
I walked around to the other end of the counter to see if maybe he had rolled off and fell to the floor or something…but he was just…’gone’. There were no closets, no windows…and as small as Spencer was, i highly doubted that he could have fit himself into one of those tiny cabinets down below.
“I thought the door was locked…” I said.
“Then, how could he have gotten out?”
Dr. Vega pushed the bed the rest of the way through the doorway into the room and scanned the same four walls that I was looking at. Getting the same result. “It’s a high school. The doors are designed to keep people out…not keep them in. So they only lock from the outside.”
“You mean…Spencer just got up and left?”
“He shouldn’t have been able to do anything more than sleep.” He said. “That sedative that I gave him acts fast. At the very least, he should have been out for an hour or two. This doesn’t make any sense.” With his wheels spinning, Dr. Vega asked me, “What were you two doing before you came to find me, Jacob?”
“Ummm…we were pretty much just lounging around, half asleep, in the cafeteria.”
“Ok. You start there and get back to me when you can. Chances are, if he’s wandering around the halls somewhere by himself, he’ll probably be in a daze. Almost like sleepwalking. For all we know, the soldiers on patrol might have guided him back to bed by now.” Then he looked for a small flashlight in one of his desk drawers. “Is there anything else that I should know? Any places where he might go to when he’s not thinking straight?”
I didn’t know what to tell him. Honestly. I wasn’t just holding back this time, but outside of finding him eating raw meat in the freezer…something I REALLY didn’t want Dr. Vega to see for himself…I’ve barely seen Spencer go much of anywhere at all in this place. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, we’ve only been gone a few minutes, so he couldn’t have gotten very far. Check the cafeteria, and I’m going to walk the halls to see if I can find anything. Be careful with how you approach him though, ok? Just come get me if you catch sight of where he is.”
We went our separate ways to search for Spencer in the darkened hallways, but I couldn’t help but to wonder how or why he would have left that room in the first place. What the hell was he thinking? The more I try to give that boy the benefit of the doubt…the more I doubt my reasoning for doing so.
On my way back to the cafeteria…I cautiously peeked over at the kitchen where Alex and I had found him before. Another shiver crept over my shoulders. Please don’t be in there. Please, oh please, don’t be in there.
I just remember the helpless look on his face as the red meat was smeared all over the outside of his lips, large chunks of it wedged in between his teeth. Such a quiet and innocent kid. I didn’t want it to be true. I just…I don’t know if I could handle that. God only knows what Officer Logan would do if HE found out!
My legs felt numb as I slightly drifted off course, getting closer to that kitchen door. Please don’t be in there. Come on, Spencer…hang in there with the rest of us. Please don’t be sick. Please?
I crept closer, and had to take a deep breath as I slowly opened the door.
There was only only light on in the whole room, and it was coming from outside the freezer. I could hear some rumbling and shuffling inside, immediately tensing all of my muscles up from head to toe…the hairs standing up on the back of my neck…as I took one cautious step after another towards that freezer, almost certain that I’d find him in there again. Giving in to his weakness. Surrendering to his never ending hunger. And as much as I didn’t want to believe it, I just knew that I had to see it for myself. Just to be sure.
It hurt me to think that I might have to be the one to report him to Dr. Vega, and possibly to the other soldiers as well. I don’t even know where they’re keeping the other teenagers that they pulled away from the general population…but I’m willing to bet that it’s a place where Spencer wouldn’t survive long on his own.
There was some more rattling inside the freezer, and I kept moving forward. Baby steps…but steps forward, nonetheless. This isn’t going to go well for him. I’m going to have to totally give Spencer up. It could mean a corruption of our whole system in the shelter if I don’t. After all of the horror stories that I had been hearing about Hillside…Spencer wasn’t leaving me much choice.
Closer. Closer. And closer still…
And then, “HEY!!!” Came a loud, bullhorn of a woman’s smoker voice from behind me, nearly making me jump a mile high in the air while trying not to friggin’ PISS myself!
I spun around to see this red headed older lady giving me a dirty look. “Jesus, lady!!!”
“What are you doing in here? Scram! Kids aren’t allowed back here in the kitchen!” She grumbled, and then yelled over my shoulder. “Yo, Jimmy! What’s the delay? Sun’s coming up soon! We need to get breakfast started before the ‘cattle’ start stirring around and looking for their morning coffee!”
Out of the freezer, came a guy who looked to be about my dad’s age, carrying a huge tray full of link sausages and about three dozen eggs. “What do you want from me, eh? I just got up myself. I’m working on it.”
It might have been the biggest sigh of relief that I’ve ever experienced before in my life. Thank GOD, it wasn’t Spencer this time! It was hard to get my heart to stop pounding from the moment that I thought that it might be.
“What part of ‘scram’ are you not understanding, pee wee?” The lady said. “Out! You get in line and get your breakfast just like everybody else. Go on. Beat it.”
She shoved me back out of the door, but I couldn’t be happier about being wrong this time. Maybe Spencer really did go back to the cafeteria and just go back to sleep on his mat or whatever. Hell, for all I know, he’s probably cuddled up under one of Donovan’s free arms right now and just resting until his sedative wears off. And that would be a huge weight off of my shoulders, if that’s all it was.
His little vanishing act had me on edge…but as far as being able to trust him to be ok on his own…the fact that he wasn’t chowing down on ice cold, uncooked, beef was definitely a point in the win column.
Maybe he’ll be ok after all…