Polaris Skies: Ch 2

Deck dragged out his hiking bag and bug-out bag and crammed two more sets of clothes into the bottom. Pilfering the back corner of his closet, he located the four-person all-season tent and sleeping bags. Sitting down, he let out a pent-up breath and wiped sweat from his forehead. “Think first, meathead. Grandpa would say think first. I need to think.”

His grandfather had, ever since the central states fell, drilled into his head the need to have a bug-out bag prepared. Deck hadn’t taken the time to update it since summer, and now he had to consider what he would need for winter. It would have been of benefit to have one ready and packed. He cursed himself in the quiet of his bedroom.

The grandfather clock chimed in the hall, pulling Deck out of his pity party. Setting his shoulders, he pulled out everything from the camping pack: old chewing gum wrappers, a roll of pre-fall quarters that still worked in the old campsite laundry machines, lint balls, bread bag twists, and bits of twigs and acorn caps.

First thing on the mental checklist of organizing was water cleaners and a canteen. Food he would have to get on his way out of the house. Clothing he laid out on the bag and made sure that they were versatile for both cold and warm weather. His tent, ground tarp, stakes, hatchet, guide wires, and sleeping bags were in decent shape. He had his pocket knife and a long knife. He threw in his honing stone with his toiletry and first aid kit. A flint lighter and two packs of matches found a tiny pocket for a home. A plastic poncho he had gotten at the amusement park last year made its way to the bottom of the bag. LED flashlights, an S.O.S. beacon, a small hand radio, and a pack of one-ounce gold and silver ingots were the remainder to be managed. Lastly, from his room, he carefully packed away a photo of his grandparents and himself.

The high school football player turned college business major shrugged on the pack, testing its weight. It was still pretty light, but it would get heavier when he got to the kitchen. He looked one last time at his room, at the trophies and mementoes of his youth. All of it soon to be gone, like snow at the edge of spring.

Deck tiptoed down the hall into the spare room where his grandfather kept the gun case. The lock was more decorative than functional. A bread bag wire popped it in less than two seconds. He extracted a four-in-one pocket axe that he added to his growing stash and gave a good long look at the stockpile of rifles and handguns. Scratching the back of his neck in frustration, he skipped the arms and went for the small compound bow and the knapping kit his grandmother had shown him how to use two seasons back for turkey hunting.

Distractions abounded on his way to the kitchen. He rummaged the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, pulling out soap and shampoo bars, ibuprofen and acetaminophen. A pair of camping towels that could be compressed into a couple of hand-sized bags were added to the stash. Out in the hallway, he pilfered the linen closet where he found the portable clothesline, pins, travel clothes detergent, and miracle of miracles, the spare set of parachute weight hammocks.

The creatures had made themselves comfortable on the rug in the dining room, where a modicum of light warmed the floor. Carefully, he circled around through the back of the house to get into the kitchen through the dining room. He ransacked the cabinets in the kitchen, throwing the lightweight camping cook set in on top of his clothes, a can opener, and a metal cooking spoon. He found the stash of freeze-dried food rations in the far back of the pantry.

Mouthing several words of thanks to the ceiling, he stood in the kitchen for a few more minutes, not sure what else to add to the pack. Pushing at the bulging seams of the bag did not bode well for his needs. He put on the bright orange bug-out bag, leaning under the weight. Dropping the pack, he leaned his head against the lemon-oiled kitchen cabinet and closed his eyes. “Gonna have to leave something out. This is too much. It can’t be the rations. It’s too cold to find food.”.

Deck upended his bag on the kitchen floor and stared at the contents. Essentials needed to stay. Every item was essential. Scratching at the back of his head, he groaned. Balancing the pack yielded marginally better results for how heavy the pack felt.

The sun slipped across his grandmother’s crystal catcher hanging in the kitchen window, sending shafts of rainbow prisms across the counters. “I’ve ran out of time.”

He found himself back in front of the full-length mirror, staring at his reflection. Pressure crept into the back of his head once more, and his eyes shifted from the ocean blue to the feral gold. He fetched a pair of earmuffs, beanie and gloves off the hooks near the mirror and pulled them on. The last items he grabbed were a pair of mini umbrellas that could be stuffed into spare cargo pockets.

One last look at the family portraits in the halls led to nothing but heartache. “Bye, Nan. Bye Gramps.”

He flew out the door and down the street to Nat’s house.

“Ready?” Nat opened the door for Deck to stumble in through. The scrawny man had packed a large khaki bookbag and a camo messenger bag. Both sat waiting at the end of the couch for his best friend’s signal.

“Not really, but I would like to know what’s going on.” Deck took Nat’s bags, dumped the contents across the living room carpet, and helped distribute weight.

“Do you have any sense of privacy?” Nat protested the upending of his personal effects.

“Only when it’s not an apocalypse.” Deck tossed aside playing cards and a pair of well-worn books. “I know they say bring something to entertain you when you’re in an emergency, but your essentials are already heavy and sorry, bro, but you’ve never benched more than two-thirds your weight and you can’t be more than one-forty soaking wet.”

“I am not one-forty soaking wet.” Nat followed Deck’s lead in rolling clothes.

“Alright, one-twenty.” Deck chucked a leather coat at Nat. “Wear it. Storing it ain’t doing anyone any good.”

Nat pulled the coat on over his hoodie. “One-fifty, ‘k? I’ve been working out.”

“Doing what? Shoveling snow?” Deck tossed a set of cooking tools and gave Nat back one of the books.

“I get Jules Verne back?” Nat carefully tucked the book into another shirt bundle.

“I’ve got better camp kit and it’s lighter, might as well let you bring something you can read to us. We’ve got Yeller, the bard. Might as well make it an act of it.” Deck pulled the bags closed and checked if Nat could carry them. After ditching another few items, he called it good. Nat nodded his thanks and pulled the door to his parents’ house closed behind them.

Ghastly red slashed the horizon, and acrid plumes of smoke caught up under the low hanging clouds. Nat slipped on a pair of earmuffs and a beanie as they headed over a block to Pak Sun Hee and Pak Benjamin Hee’s duplex.

“What did the dogs in your house look like again?” Nat puffed steaming breath into cupped gloved hands to banish the cold.

“One was grey with brown eyes, like normal dogs. The strange thing was that it had a bright red scar and no fur on one of its front paws.” Deck rubbed at his hand in sympathy.

“Why’s that weird? Dogs get into all kinds of trouble all the time.” Nat’s breath billowed in clouds around him.

“My Na got burned last year from a grease spill, remember? It was in the same place.” Deck’s eyes wandered the neighbourhood, searching the doorframes and cold cars.

“As I said, dogs get themselves into all kinds of trouble, Deck. Not like Barbara turned into a dog or something.” Nat patted Deck on the shoulder. His best friend’s sullen features prickled at the wiry man’s gut. “You honestly think Barb got turned into a dog? What about Walter? Was there another dog around you’d think look like your grandpa?”

“Yeah, a caramel-coloured fat one. Like Grandfather, fat. He did have that colour of hair too, beard and all. Never a grey whisker had crossed him.” They trudged up the front porch steps to Benj’s bottom floor apartment.

“Logically, just hear me out, logically humans turning into dogs isn’t possible. Maybe they went out for a walk?” Nat clanked the door knocker down on the red door. “Barb always takes up some kind of New Year resolution to get the weight off. She get’s Walter in on it and they go walk to get the docs off their back for about a month before both of them get grumpy about their medication contributing to them not being able to lose the weight. She probably just had them go down to the park.”

“No. Something’s off. She took a fall a couple weeks back, remember? She hasn’t been able to get herself out the door without a lot of fuss due to the ice. I’ve been salting the steps the last few days, but she refuses to go out. I’ve been doing grocery runs with grandfather and bills and that stuff.”

The door creaked open. A petite Korean woman yawned as she finished tying her terrycloth pink and floral bathrobe belt around her waist. Tiny pink bunny slippers on that stared up in horror. “Lexi! A little early, don’t you think?”

“Sunny, is Benj up?” Deck kicked at his heels, tugging the laces on his boots. He ended up tripping to the floor with his massive hiking backpack on while he took his shoes off at the entrance.

Nat dropped his bags on the carpet off the laminate tile and followed suit to get his shoes off. “Cold. Cold. Cold. Floors are cold, Sunny.”

“Then remember to leave a pair of slippers over here. I’ve told you a million times. And yeah, Lexi, Benj’s been up for an hour. The smell hasn’t agreed with him too much. You know, his allergies and all. I’ll be back in a minute.” Sun Hee’s hand went to the towel on top of her head, balancing its precarious weight as she manoeuvred the steep steps in her too-short bathrobe. Deck watched her on the way up until Nat brought him back to reality with a quick, solid punch to the arm with a snort as he led Deck to the den.

Benj was already up and bent over a desk piled with homework and microbiology textbooks. His oxford yellow shirt with a sweater vest and khaki slacks were wrinkled. The wire-rim glasses rested at the end of his nose as he studied his hand under a magnifying glass. His dark brown hair fell from its slick-back.

“Benj?” Deck tapped his shoulder. What looked back at him were slitted gold-brown eyes. Deck stepped back, swallowing. Benj’s hand beneath the magnifying glass shook, shrewishly thin, the nails thinned at the bed, coming closer together, like dog claws.

“Don’t look.” Benj hid the paw-like hand in his lap under the desk.

“What’s happening to you?” Nat shoved his hands under his armpits to will the fluttering icicles in his digits to still.

“It’s happening to you guys too.” Benj pointed them to Sun Hee’s makeup mirror in the corner of the living room. “Look.”

“Seen enough already, would rather not.” Deck waved off his friend.

Benj shrugged. “RWE bomb hit last night.”

Deck slumped to the armchair near the desk. “Yeah, saw the paper.”

“I’m betting this new chemical was a waste of testing on wolves. I read months back about new experiments on them to create the master breed, which could hunt longer, face bone-chilling cold far longer than any human, and kill with ten times the intensity. I’d bet you, if I’m changing like this, the waist was saved for this bomb, probably.” Benj pulled his hands out from beneath the desk to continue studying his hand, jotting down notes on a sheet of paper.

“We’re turning into dogs! You see, I told you, Nat!” Deck buried his face in his balled-up fists. His jaw audibly popped as it came back to its human alignment. Deck rubbed a thumb along the joint. Nat and Benj watched it move beneath the man’s skin as it rotated in and out without his consent.

Pressure in Nat’s head increased. Something crawled around within him. Gooseflesh raised the hair on his arms at the distinctive impression of a menacing creature howling for release below the surface. He shook his head, trying to deny the feeling. He looked at his hands, suspicious that they had joined in with the rest of his anatomy to turn him into something that was not entirely human.

His hands had not changed, but his ribs were killing him. They moved of their own accord: repositioning, forming into a wolfish rib cage, more accommodating for mutating organs. Blood rushed in and out of his heart as he fought to catch his breath past the pain searing through him.

Pain flashed through Deck’s cool blue eyes as a rib cracked in the quiet house. “Benj. What the hell is this?”

“There should be an antidote to this, somewhere. Probably in some research lab.” Benj pulled out his phone and pressed the power button. The screen blinked in the dim room. “What do you mean no signal? This is the most optimal house in the whole town for a signal?”

“What were you looking for?” Nat settled into the thin cushions of the green velvet couch.

“I was hoping to pull up that research article I read. I wanted to know where it was posted from. Maybe that could tell us where to go?” Benj flicked through his settings before rebooting the little device.

“It’s most likely in bloody no-man’s Europa somewhere!” Deck twisted, popping his back and his ribs. The pained expression on his face did not remedy itself for his efforts.

In her antique pastel-goth best with a cotton candy blue wig and black beanie, Sun Hee joined the men in the den. “Guys, what’s going on?”

“Sunny, don’t hate me. I know you spent forever getting that on, but would you take your wig off?” Benj refused to meet her eyes.

Her dark brown eyes flashed between her brother and Deck who watched her intently. “Why?”

“Please, do it.” Benj pushed at the fall of hair that had escaped his pompadour. Sun Hee huffed. Tugging at several bobby pins, she pulled the beanie and wig off. Under a wig-stocking were pointed ears. Her hair had changed to a burnished copper hue.

“Benj, what is happening to me? To you? Is this happening to Lexi?” She pulled on her wig and tucked in the bobby pins, hiding the ears. She didn’t meet Deck’s gaze.

“We’ll explain it on the way. Need to check on Zola and Yeller,” Benj shoved his chair away from the desk and got up to pull bags from the hall closet.

“You knew something was happening. This is why you were making all that racket and four in the morning isn’t it? You were packing?” Sun Hee’s eyes rimmed red.

“I know you don’t want to leave, Sun Hee. I know. But, the war is sitting at our door, and it’s not knocking nicely.” Benj pulled a thick black puffer over his sister’s small shoulders. She shoved her hands into the sleeves and waited for him to help her with one of the two matched grey bags before tugging on a pair of pastel blue mittens.

Sun Hee, Nat, and Deck followed Benj to the door, where they all pulled on their heavy snow boots. Opening the door, they were met with a darkening sky. Stomping through the snowpack, they trudged up the neighbourhood. Human shadows passed by on the wall, but something was different in their swift movements.

“What about your parents, your grandparents?” Benj asked Deck and Nat.

“I didn’t find them in the house, just dogs. They up and left, I guess. Couldn’t find them anywhere, and they left their cells.” Nat shrugged. Benj didn’t press too hard. Nat had a tempestuous relationship with his folks, and it had only gotten worse in college. They rarely talked to each other. The most they did was let him rent his old bedroom from them.

“I couldn’t find my grandparents either. Like Nat, there were some dogs in the house, but they wandered out when I left the door open. I don’t know where they’d have gone off too. Nan doesn’t have the strength to make it out in this ice, and grandpa’s wouldn’t leave her to her own devices.” Deck kicked a can down the street.

“Think they could have been those dogs?” Sun Hee’s quiet question sent gooseflesh across Nat’s arms.

“I wouldn’t wish it on Barbara or Walter, but my folks? I hope it’s karma.” He jammed his gloved fists into his pockets and buried his face into his hoodie collar.

“So, we’re turning into dogs. Maybe we can assume the dogs you saw in the house were them?” Sun Hee checked. The rest nodded mutely as they questioned the laws of the universe. It had to be a bad trip, and they’d all be waking up with a horrid hangover on someone’s couch soon. Dogs? Really? This had to be a shared dream. They couldn’t drop everything and leave their families behind. Their families, though, were nowhere to be found. Together, they went around and around in circles trying to logic their way out of the horror.

As the temperature plummeted, the snow stopped on their walk to Yeller’s bungalow. The air stung in its crispness, burning the lungs. Pungent smoke from the burning orchards wafted into their section of town. The squabbling caw of crows echoed in the vast emptiness of the neighbourhood.

“Where is everyone?” Sun Hee whispered to Deck.

“Maybe still asleep?” He tugged at the coat zipper on his chest where a twisted tooth stalled his hopes of a warm throat.

“No, it’s almost seven. There’s no one out, trying to leave,” she pressed. They tramped deeper into through alleys. Deck studied the duplexes and bungalows along the blocks. No cars warmed in the drives. No kids threw snowballs at each other.

“Maybe they left already, seeing the newspaper this morning? It’s going to sound like a broken record if I tack on ‘or they’re dogs’ to the end of everything. But, they could be dogs.” Nat ducked a fall of snow from a building that did not take kindly to the group’s vibrations.

Benj shook his head. “There’s no tracks. Look.” He pointed to the street. There were no car tracks to show a mass migration out of the city. The only thing they saw were animal tracks. Bird prints, cat prints…dog prints.

Nat knelt to inspect a colossal pair of canine tracks. An acidic stench wafted from the prints. The strawberry blond man left them quickly, finding the smell repulsive. He caught up to the group as they rounded the final corner to their friend’s bungalow.

Yeller met them at the door, his usual dusky blue eyes instead an intense gold. His green and black striped hair, dampened from perspiration, clung to his neck and dark sweater. He swayed, eyes glassy, on the verge of collapse. Nat caught his bulk, easing him to the threshold. “An bhfuil tú ceart go leor?[1]

Tá mé tuirseach.[2]” The emo Viking look-alike tried to wave Nat off.

“Like hell you are.” Nat led his friend to the couch. Benj, Deck, and Sun Hee pushed their way through to try and help Nat with Yeller.

Póg ma thoin[3],” Yeller spat back, but allowed Nat to push him to sit.

“Don’t tempt me.” Nat slapped a hand against Yeller’s forehead and his own. “Got a thermometer?”

Níl. Bhris an rud[4].” Yeller took Nat’s direction to lean back against the threadbare headrest.

“What’d he say? Is he okay?” Deck took the packs and stacked them up against the door in a pile.

“Yeah.” Nat shrugged, dodging into the open floor plan kitchen. He found a washcloth in a drawer, drained the last of the water from the tap, and came back around to lay it on Yeller’s forehead.

“Looks like the water’s been turned off already. Told me to kiss his ass for telling him off,” Nat added as an afterthought.

“Nat! Yeller!” Sun Hee cheeped, heat flushing her cheeks.

“Back off. I feel uafás[5].” Yeller’s deep voice lashed out like a whip. Sun Hee recoiled under the reprimand.

“Your parents and teaching you Irish as your first language. What were they thinking?” Benj rubbed his temples, the pressure building right behind his eyes.

“Says the Korean kid.” Yeller pressed the cold cloth into his eyes.

“Fourth generation and my grandmother was as white as your pretty ass!” Benj stomped toward the hall that would lead to the back of the bungalow.

“They thought it’d improve my academic standing being bilingual, and you know it,” Yeller bit out between laboured breaths. Bones cracked, and sinew snapped in the quiet of the house.

“Your cousin?” Benj pointed toward the hall.

Is cuma liom[6].” Yeller waved Benj to his devices. The young man dashed into the shadowed hallway. Zola lay in her darkened room, blissfully asleep, though her ears and hands had already made the shape change.

Tá tú slaghdán ort[7].” Nat took the washcloth from Yeller and tried to sop up what little of the cold water remained in the sink. Bringing it back, Nat handed it to his friend. Yeller grunted his agreement, his head splitting. He gripped the cool material, cold drops splattering on his cargoes as he waited for another wave of pain to ease.

“You’ve learned quite a bit.” Yeller’s sternum popped suddenly.

“You revert to Gaelic when you get moody. What else was there for me to do?” Nat reached for the wastebasket before Yeller was sick.

Tá brón orm[8].” He wiped his mouth. What he never wanted Nat to know was how much it meant to him that he had learned to speak Gaelic with him. No one else had ever bothered. Even Zola refused to speak it with him.

Ná bíodh imní ort faoi[9], Yeller.” Nat sat back on the worn-out couch.

It was a cramped room, Yeller’s drum kit taking up most of the floor space. They’d be leaving. When would he ever hear Yeller play again? Nat eyed the flaming orange electric guitar in the corner, and the acoustic hung on the wall. His heart ached. There would be no room to take any of it with them. He flicked a glance to Yeller’s necklace, a green pick with a hole in it threaded on a black leather cord.

Benj woke Zola, who took the transformation easiest. If anything, she was amused, excited to be experiencing an ‘anime adventure’ as she was want to call it. While Yeller fought the change, Benj and Zola put together packs for both her cousin and herself. Nat and Deck were able to get a heavy coat and boots on Yeller with only a few minor hitches. Yeller tried to ring his bandmates, but all that greeted him was a cut-line tone. After an hour, the group of friends made it out the door. They headed to a large clearing they often met at in the forest off the college campus.

[1]Are you alright?

[2]I am tired.

[3] Kiss my ass.

[4] No. The thing broke.

[5] horrid

[6]I don’t care.

[7]You’re sick.

[8]I am sorry.

[9]Don’t worry about it.

Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.

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