Dead Meat: Day 4
“Bet you never imagined this would be part of your enlistment, huh?”
Oskar laughs, showing the gap between his front teeth, his freckled face glowing pale in the twilight.
Martin tries to smile back, but the grimace turns into a stifled yawn. For some reason, he always yawns when he’s nervous. Of course, it could also have something to do with the fact that it’s 1:00 AM.
“Still tired?” Oskar asks, handing him the thermos.
“No, thank you,” Martin says, wrinkling his nose. “I don’t know how you can drink coffee in the middle of the night.”
Despite the hour, the sky above them is only dark blue and the air is still warm and humid—and their uniforms don’t exactly make it any cooler. It’s the first time Martin is wearing full gear outside of training; they even told them to bring helmets. The gun is very heavy, too. And it’s full of live rounds. He sure hopes he won’t have to fire it.
“You kiddin’? I can always drink coffee,” Oskar says, proving his statement by downing a large gulp, followed by an exaggerated: “Aaaah!” Then he looks around the nearly dark, empty highway, nodding. “Yeah, it’s like I always say: nothing’s good for your soul like being on zombie patrol.”
Martin can’t help but smile. “You’re a true poet. I can’t believe you’re taking this so lightheartedly.”
“What, am I supposed to cry about it?”
“No, but didn’t you see the sarge’s face? I’ve never seen him so serious. And we’re not even supposed to be on active duty all alone like this; we’re conscripts!”
“They’re short on men, that’s all. Soon as the reinforcements from Copenhagen get here, they’ll send us back home. I’m sure we won’t even get to see the sunrise.” “They said we might need to be here until this thing is under control.”
“Which I’m sure it will be in a matter of hours.”
Martin pushes back his helmet and looks at Oskar, who’s only two years older than him but always acts like he could be his father. “What makes you so confident they’ll get it under control? I mean, it’s zombies! Those things aren’t even supposed to exist outside of movies and video games.”
“I know, I know,” Oskar says, nodding. “And in the movies, the world always ends, right?”
“In most of the ones I’ve watched, anyway.”
“But this isn’t a movie, Martin. It’s real life, in case you hadn’t noticed. We know about zombies, okay? People have seen the same movies you have. I’m sure even one or two of those dusty old politicians have seen a zombie flick back in their teens. That’s why they’re acting so fast. That’s why they’re already sending in us: they know to take it seriously.”
Martin nods, feeling somewhat reassured. It makes sense, after all.
Yet he can’t really shake the feeling of being trapped in a movie with no guaranteed happy ending. He discretely gazes up and down the highway, but neither sees nor hears anyone approaching.
Not yet, at least.
Stop that, he tells himself. You’re just scaring yourself. There are hundreds of posts all around the area, and they told us most of them won’t see any action at all; we are simply precautions.
Then again, wouldn’t that be exactly the right thing to tell them, whether it was true or not? Simply to keep everyone from panicking?
“How do you think it started?” he asks, deflecting from his paranoid thoughts.
Oskar kicks a pebble, which goes flying into the bushes next to the road. “Probably some nasty experiment in a lab somewhere. Isn’t that always how it goes? A secret branch of the government trying to create super-soldiers from corpses or whatever.”
“Yeah, but—the Danish government? I mean, we’re more concerned about windmills and electric cars and stuff like that. Wouldn’t super-soldiers be more like something Russia would be doing?”
Oskar shrugs. “You may be right. But who said it started here?”
“They didn’t say anything at the briefing about the problem being anywhere else.”
“No, but they may not be aware of it yet. If shit is going down somewhere else in Europe, in some obscure country like, I don’t know, Kazakhstan or wherever, their government may be trying to cover it up.”
“I was thinking it could also be terrorists.”
Oskar looks at him. “Terrorists? Like, a biological weapon?”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t that be the perfect way to attack your enemy? Release some crazy string of altered virus which kills people, then turns them into zombies?”
Oskar nods slowly. “I like the way you think, dude. You could become a great screenwriter, you know. Who do you think did it then? The Taliban?”
“I have no idea. Could be anyone.”
“More likely the Chinese,” Oskar muses.
“The Chinese? Why would the Chinese attack Europe?”
“Probably some diplomatic crisis or whatever. Or maybe because we don’t buy enough of their cheap shit anymore. It could be a form of extreme negotiation.”
Martin eyes him for a moment. “You didn’t take economics in school, did you? I really don’t think killing your customers is great for business.”
Oskar is about to answer, when they both notice the headlights and turn in unison. A car is approaching from town.
“Holy shit,” Martin says, clutching his rifle. “Someone’s coming!”
“Relax, it’s probably someone from division coming to check on us.”
But Martin can tell from the headlights it’s a civilian car approaching. It moves fast and is soon close enough for them to tell it’s a Ford.
“It’s not from division,” Martin says. “What do we do?”
“We do as we were told,” Oskar says, putting on his serious face as he steps out in the middle of the road. “Just follow my lead.”
Martin positions himself next to Oskar. The highway is narrow enough for the two of them to effectively block it—even though the jeep is already parked across the road behind them.
Whoever is driving the Ford is really gunning it, and although the car is less than a hundred yards away, it has barely slowed down.
Martin glances at Oskar. “What … what do we do if they don’t stop?”
“They will,” Oskar says, stepping forward and raising one arm.
And luckily, the Ford does finally slow down and comes to a halt right in front of them. Martin squints against the headlights.
“Turn off the lights!” Oskar shouts. “And stay within the vehicle!”
Martin feels a great sense of relief at seeing Oskar take control of the situation. For all his bravado, Oskar is able to act with surprising authority when he needs to.
The headlights turn off, but the engine stays on. Martin can see a couple of faces through the windshield: a young man with glasses—who’s driving—and a young, blonde woman in the passenger seat.
Oskar strides towards the car, the rifle at his side in an almost-casual way. He stops next to the driver’s side, and the window is rolled down.
“Hey, buddy. We need to get out of town,” the man tells Oskar, smiling somewhat nervously. “Could you let us pass?”
“I’m afraid not,” Oskar says, looking in at the driver and his passenger. “No one is allowed to go in or out of town right now.”
“Oh, fuck!” the guy says, tapping the wheel in frustration. “It’s just that … you see … we really need to go. We’re going to see my fiancée’s dad, he’s in the hospital, and we just got a call that he’s taken a turn for the worse.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Oskar says, his tone cool and professional. “But you’ll need to wait to go see him—only until the situation is under control.”
“How long will that be?” the girl asks, leaning towards the open window.
Martin can’t quite make out her face from here, but he recognizes her voice.
Is that …? Could it really be …?
“Hard to say,” Oskar says. “You’ll just need to keep an eye on the news. Please turn the car around and head back for town.” He steps back and gestures towards the tiny gravel rest stop at the side of the road.
Instead of turning the car around, the driver unbuckles and gets out. “Listen,” he says, smiling that nervous smile at Oskar. “My name is Peter. Peter Lindholm. I work at the bank here in town—you probably know me, don’t you?”
“I’m afraid not,” Oskar says. “And I need you to get back in the car.”
The guy reaches out his hand, and Oskar steps back.
Peter—who evidently only meant to shake hands—bursts into shrill laughter. “Calm down, buddy! I’m not contagious. I just want to talk, that’s all.”
“We don’t have anything to talk about,” Oskar says, raising his rifle slightly. “And I’m not your buddy, buddy. So please, get back in the car and head back to town.”
“It could be days before the curfew is lifted,” Peter goes on. “By that time, my father-in-law could be dead!”
“I can’t help you with that.”
“But we’re not sick,” Peter says, throwing out his arms and nodding towards the car. “We haven’t even been into contact with any of the contaminated. You can check us if you want.”
“I’m not going to check you. And even if you aren’t sick, you’re still not allowed to leave town. You’re not even allowed to linger here.”
Peter scuffs. “Of course I am! I can linger wherever I want. It’s still a free country, isn’t it? This isn’t private property—it’s a highway.”
“And who owns the highway?” Oskar says, suddenly raising his voice. “The government. And who do you figure I represent? Now, I’m not going to tell you again: get the fuck back inside that car and get out of here!”
Martin—who has been trying to get a closer look at the girl—realizes Oskar is about to lose his cool. He might even do something stupid if the guy keeps pushing.
“Listen—” Peter begins.
The passenger door opens, and the girl steps out. “Martin?” she says, disbelief in her voice. “God, is that really you?”
Martin manages a smile. “Hi, Dorte. I thought that was you.”
Dorte is dressed in sweatpants and a tiny top, which might very well have been the clothes she was sleeping in when they got the call from the hospital and decided to leave in a hurry. Her skin is perfectly tan from the summer sun, and her blonde hair is loosely held back in a ponytail. She looks even more stunning than he remembers.
“What are the odds?” she smiles, as she comes to hug him.
Martin doesn’t know what to do, so he simply stands there, feeling awkward in his uniform as Dorte puts her arms around him. The smell of her hair almost makes him dizzy with déjà-vu; she’s wearing the same perfume she used back then.
“You’ve grown taller,” she says, eyeing him.
“Nah, it’s probably just the boots,” he says, looking down shyly. “But your hair has gotten longer.”
“I know,” she says touching the ponytail. “I like it like this.”
“Me too. Look, I thought you moved to Aarhus to study medicine?”
“I did. I graduated last year.”
“Wow, that’s cool. So why are you back here?”
“I came home to see my family for the holidays.”
“Excuse me,” Oskar says, staring menacingly at Martin. “I hate to break up your little reunion there, but these people need to get back to town. And you shouldn’t be touching her.”
“It’s okay, Oskar,” Martin says. “I know Dorte. We used to be neighbors when we were kids.”
Oskar obviously can’t help but give Dorte a once-over with his eyes. Then, he looks at Martin again. “That’s lovely, but it doesn’t change anything. They need to go back.” “My dad’s sick from cancer,” Dorte says, apparently talking to Oskar, but looking at Martin. “It could be a matter of hours.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Martin says. And he really is. He remembers Dorte’s father well; a tall, broad guy with a booming voice. He can hardly imagine him on his deathbed.
“Could you please just let us pass?” she asks, looking at Martin pleadingly, tears forming in her eyes now. “This will probably be my last chance to see him. I really don’t want him to die alone.”
“Can’t you just FaceTime him?” Oskar suggests.
Peter—who has been keeping quiet since Dorte got out of the car—now turns on Oskar with a horrified look. “How insensitive are you?”
Oskar is about to approach Peter, when Martin—still staring into Dorte’s eyes—hears himself say: “I’m sure we can make an exception.”
“The fuck we can!” Oskar bursts out.
“You both wait here a minute,” Martin says, looking from Dorte to her fiancé. “Don’t move, okay? We’ll just talk it over.”
He gestures for Oskar to follow him back to the jeep, and Oskar only hesitantly obliges; his eyes are constantly going back to Peter, as though he expects him to make a run for it.
“Have you lost your fucking mind?” Oskar hisses, the smell of coffee on his breath. “This is a matter of national security—fuck that, global security! And you want to breach the border just because your ex-girlfriend shows up and looks at you with teary eyes?”
“She’s not my ex,” Martin says, keeping his voice low. “We were just friends.”
“All the sadder,” Oskar scuffs.
“I know her, okay? She’s a good person. Her dad is, too. And she lost her mom to suicide when she was very young. You really think she would fake her dad being terminally ill just to get out of town?”
“People will do anything to save their lives.”
“They’re obviously not sick, either of them. So even if they just wanted to get out of town, they wouldn’t bring the virus with them.”
“Symptoms can take up to an hour to show themselves, if it’s from a minor scratch,” Oskar says, reiterating the words from last night’s briefing.
“All right, then we check them. Ask them to strip down and show us their skin. If either of them have any fresh scratches, we send them back. Will that work for you?” Oskar shakes his head. “Why are we even discussing this? This isn’t our call.” He makes to head back over to Peter and Dorte, but Martin grabs him by the arm, feeling a sudden rush of anger.
“It is our call. I don’t see anyone else around, do you?”
Oskar blinks at him. “Let go of me, man.”
Martin lets go, but doesn’t take his eyes from Oskar’s. “It’s on me, okay? If anything happens, I’ll take the fall. But I’m telling you: she’s not lying. I trust her.”
“No, you’re in love with her,” Oskar mutters. “That’s the exact opposite of trust.” Before Martin can answer, he goes on: “But fuck that, if you want the world on your conscience, I’m not going to fight you.”
Martin takes a deep breath. “Good. Let’s go check them, then.”
To his surprise, Oskar shakes his head. “We won’t find anything. They’re not contaminated. Look at them. They’re way too calm. If one of them got bitten or scratched, they would be panicking.”
Martin looks over at the couple. They’re standing close to each other, talking. Dorte is rubbing her bare arms. Peter puts his arm around her waist, trying to console her. “Then why did you—”
“Because I don’t trust him. He’s a sleazebag. Didn’t you hear him? He works in a bank. You can’t trust anyone who works in a bank. I bet you he’s hiding something.”
“I don’t know. But you should check the trunk.”
“Come on, man. There’s no—”
“That’s the deal,” Oskar cuts him off. “If you check the trunk and they aren’t hiding something, then I’ll look the other way as they pass.”
Martin throws out his arms. “What would they be hiding?”
“The fuck should I know? A zombie, maybe.” He stares at Peter, who takes off his glasses and wipes them on his T-shirt. “I’m telling you: he’s hiding something.”
Martin shakes his head. “Fine, if that’s what it takes.”
“Just be ready, okay?” Oskar gives him a meaningful look. “When you open it.”
Martin tries to smile. “You’re paranoid.”
“Paranoid people tend to live longer,” Oskar says, no humor in his voice.
Martin goes back over to the couple. “Okay, listen.”
They both look at him hopefully.
“We’re going to let you pass …”
“Thank you!” Dorte exclaims.
“Thank God,” Peter sighs.
“If,” Martin goes on, “you let us check the trunk of the car.”
Dorte’s smile fades somewhat.
Peter’s relief turns to suspicion. “Why? You think we’re hiding something?”
“We don’t know; that’s why we need to check.”
Peter looks to Dorte. “I thought you said he would trust you.”
The words ignite something in Martin’s stomach. He can’t help but feel good at the thought of Dorte trusting him to trust her—even after all these years. Even though they never became more than friends, Martin has always felt a special connection to her, and what Peter just said confirms that Dorte has always felt the same way. Dorte looks at him, and her smile returns. “There’s nothing in the trunk, Martin. I promise you; we’re not hiding anything.”
“I believe you,” Martin says, smiling back at her. “But my partner is kind of … paranoid.” He sends Oskar a glance, but Oskar apparently doesn’t hear him; he just stares at Peter. “We agreed to let you pass on that one condition; that you let us see the trunk of the car.”
Dorte looks at him for a moment, then she looks at Peter and shrugs. “Okay, fine. Open the trunk, hon.”
Peter shakes his head as though reluctant to oblige, but he still goes around to the back of the car. Martin follows him, the rifle feeling heavy at his side.
“This is really not cool,” Peter says, low enough that only Martin hears him. “We’re wasting time. Dorte’s dad could be dead when we get there.”
“All the more reason to hurry up and show me that trunk,” Martin says.
Peter shakes his head again, then grabs the trunk and opens it.
Martin realizes just how tense he had gotten as he sees the empty trunk. His shoulders sink down an inch.
“See anything, Martin?” Oskar calls.
“No, it’s empty.”
“Just like we told you,” Peter adds. “Can we please go now?”
“Backseat!” Oskar calls out.
Martin looks over at him.
“Check the backseat.”
“Come on!” Peter exclaims.
Martin goes and looks in through the window in the back door. A bunch of clothes are thrown on the seats. “Nothing,” he calls to Oskar. “Just some clothes.”
“Satisfied?” Peter says, eyeing him with a sour look. “Or you want to check the undercarriage too?”
“No, that’s fine,” Martin says. “You can go now.”
“Thank you.” He immediately heads for the driver’s side door. “Let’s go, hon!”
“I’ll move the jeep,” Oskar says.
Dorte makes her way around the car, passing Martin on the way. She stops briefly and smiles at him. “Thank you, Martin. I won’t forget it.” She squeezes his arm; even through his sleeve, the touch makes him jittery.
“Sure. Say hi to your dad from me.”
They look at each other for a brief second, then the connection is lost as she heads for the passenger side door. Martin suddenly feels a sting of panic at the thought of her leaving. He might never see her again. He feels like he needs to say something, anything, just to keep her a moment longer.
“How’s Rikke doing?” Martin asks, just as Oskar starts up the jeep.
Dorte looks back and smiles. “She’s fine; she’s with Dad.”
“She is? I thought you said your dad was alone.”
She frowns. “No, I don’t think I did.”
“Oh. Okay. Well, I’ll see you around.”
“See you, Martin.”
He steps back as Peter turns the headlights back on; they’re almost redundant now, as the morning has grown lighter in the few minutes since they arrived. Oskar moves the jeep out of the way, and Peter drives forward.
Martin looks in through the side window at Dorte. He is hoping for one last smile, but Dorte doesn’t look out at him, she just stares straight ahead. Instead, another pair of eyes meet his, as a pale face peeks out from under the pile of clothes on the backseat.
It’s only a split-second.
But Martin recognizes Rikke’s face.
Then Peter floors it and races past the jeep, headed out the highway at full speed.
Martin just stands there, glaring after them, thoughts going back and forth in his mind, as Oskar backs the jeep out into the middle of the road once more and shuts off the engine.
He jumps out, slams the door and says, as he walks over to Martin: “I could have sworn that guy was hiding something. Maybe I was wrong after all. I just still have the feeling that … Hey, Martin? What’s up?”
Martin doesn’t answer. He barely hears Oskar. All he hears is a rapid replay of recently spoken lines.
“I thought you said your dad was alone.”
“No, I don’t think I did.”
“Check the backseat.”
“Nothing. Just some clothes.”
“I promise you; we’re not hiding anything.”
“I believe you.”
“You’re in love with her. That’s the exact opposite of trust.”
Oskar snaps his fingers in front of Martin’s face.
“Hey! She’s gone now. You can stop staring.”
Martin blinks and comes to. The car is just a couple of tiny red lights in the horizon now.
“What’s up with you?” Oskar says, eyeing him.
“Nothing,” Martin manages to say, shaking his head. “Nothing, I’m fine.”
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