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“Alright everyone gather round. We’re running a bit behind already, but that’s just how these things go when you need to keep cleaning all the equipment on a near constant basis.”

“Hey, it’s worth it though. At least we’re not getting sick, right Yuki?”

“Correct-a-mundo.”

“Although…”

“Hmm?”

“You’ve got all these awesome things down here. The Void, for example.”

“Mhmm. Yes?”

“And all the other projects you have going on in the background…”

“I’m sensing a ‘but…’.”

“The most advanced cleaning things you have here are the automated Febreze misters in the bathrooms and the Roombas in the lab and the house.”

“But my sanitizer spritzers…I just made these holsters for them. I can shoot down a fly in midair at twenty paces.”

“Think of all the work we could get done.”

“We’ll have to do the math on it. Time spent cleaning every day for the next couple years, versus the time spent on making the machines and get them up and running flawlessly.”

“After this excursion then?”

“Alright. Sounds like a plan. For everyone else tuning in. We have another pandemic story for you—GET USED TO IT! THIS SHIT AIN’T GOING ANYWHERE ANYTIME SOON!

“When people don’t clean up after themselves or take proper precautions lockdowns often happen in pandemics to keep the disease from spreading. Some dipshits won’t get vaccinated, or wash their hands, or clean up, or even a simple task like wearing a fucking mask.

“And that’s how tonight’s story starts: a small group of people who refuse to do the right thing that ultimately leads to a world of terror. I call this one:

***

The Price of “Freedom”

I.

“C’mon guys, hurry up!” Grant Kelly called back to the kitchen, crossing the living room with his full dinner plate. “Wrestlin’s on!” His heavy frame settled into his recliner with a groan and a creak.

“Almost ready!” Amanda Braun peered around the corner, spatula still in hand, and gave a pleasant smile despite Grant’s back being to her. She stepped back over to the stove and tended to the remaining burger patties and plated them her three other housemates standing by. Once they were loaded and on their way, Amanda grabbed a plate for herself then followed the lot to the warm glow of the television.

Leslie had her usual spot in the seat next to Grant, both already tearing into the food. This never ceased to be amusing to Amanda; a year ago you couldn’t have convinced Miss Wakefield to eat anything less than a $40 steak, let alone a homemade burger from a dingy kitchen in rural Greensboro. The fact that she was living on a semi-remote farm and not in her posh downtown apartment never ceased to amaze her.

Amanda herself never anticipated living with four other people she’d hardly known before it happened. She shrugged off the thought ad took a spot on the carpet next to Steven and Art. The two made room for her and kept focused on their food. Amanda considered herself shy, but compared to Steve and Art, she was one of these loud-mouthed buffoons in facepaint growling and screaming into a microphone. Not that she minded the pair’s demeanor, Grant and Leslie did all the talking and scheming for their group.

In fact, it was Leslie that suggested they all move in together after Grant had introduced them–almost two years ago–during “The Evictions”. Lucky for them, Grant had been eyeing this secluded property long before the rumbles of the Greensboro City Council looking in to displacing some of its citizens.

When the inevitable happened, they all had a place to go without having to blindly follow the local government mandate.

Grant interrupted her thoughts with a sigh. “Man, I miss being able to go to the Coliseum,” he said as a camera panned across a raucous crowd surrounding the WCW ring. “Maybe someday, I guess.”

“Don’t count on that anytime soon,” Leslie pointed out. “It’s getting harder to get inside the city limits to shop.” She stopped to take a large bite of her burger. “Some people have even been turned back just trying to pass through.”

“You’re kidding me,” Grant replied, mouth full.

“Not at all! Turning people right back and telling them to go around.”

Grant let that statement settle for a moment. “I mean, I don’t want to believe it…but yeah,” he sighed again, “with everything that’s been happening, I can.”

Art and Steven said nothing. They chowed down on the burgers, not letting a single drop of the juices escape them. Amanda regarded them with a sideways glance. It wasn’t the way they noisily ate; that didn’t bother her in the slightest. Both of them were glued to the television, probably unaware of the loud conversation behind them.

Unblinking, Art Morrison and Steven Johnson retained focus on the pro-wrestling match.

Amanda shifted her focus to the screen and grimaced. Grant was the only one that enjoyed wrestling. So why did they all compelled to watch? She never used to pay attention to the stuff. Art and Steven even rolled their eyes at the ridiculous antics between the ropes. Leslie sure as hell was vocal in her disdain for the sport.

What the hell was so engrossing about the show?

Amanda wasn’t able to put her finger on it. The action in the ring was supposed to be the center of attention, that went without saying. However, she was drawn to the crowd. So many people packed together–no space between them, breathing all over each other. As much as it made her shudder, Amanda could not keep her eyes off the thousands in attendance.

II.

Days went by, everything going more or less normal…as normal as it could be nowadays, Amanda thought to herself. Greensboro’s hard border went up, even to those passing through as Leslie had said. But that was no bother to her at the moment. The normal route to work went around the city limits completely, probably a few miles out at the closest. Route 62 was a pleasant drive that ran parallel to the southern border. Amanda’s brow furrowed as she came around the bend that crossed over one of the tendrils of Randleman Lake. A police cruiser was parked off to the side of the road, its lights going. Its driver stood on the asphalt and waved her over to the shoulder. The officer put on a mask and face shield and ambled over to her Volkswagen.

“Vaccination papers, please,” the cop said.

“I don’t have any.”

“Okay. License, please, and contact information.”

“I mean, you can’t look it up…I haven’t had the vaccine.”

“Oh. Well, there’s a hospital that has a ward set up–”

“Sorry, I’m not getting it.”

“One of those, eh? I’m afraid this is as far as you go.”

“What?”

“New border extension for the city limits of Greensboro. Put into effect by the governor yesterday.”

“Wait…how far out? We’re nowhere near–”

“Five miles removed from the city limits. You want to even so much as pass by, you got to get the vax.”

Amanda looked away from the cop and heaved a sigh. “Looks like I’m going further around.”

“We had a case too close for comfort a week back; almost made it in, too. I don’t wanna see anyone getting that bastard bug. Worse’n any dementia I’ve ever seen.” The cop offered a light grin and tipped his hat to her as she reversed and turned back.

Once the red and blue lights were no longer visible in her rearview mirror, Amanda picked up her Nokia from the center console and dialed work. Four rings later there was an answer.

“Hey! Thomas, do me a favor and put Sandy on? Okay, thanks.” Soft Muzak played into her ear for at least another mile before it cleared and her boss picked up. “Hello Sandy. Just a heads up, I’m gonna be running a little late today. I got turned around by the police and have to find another way around.” There was a pause on the line. “Sandy?” A sinking feeling started at the pit of Amanda’s stomach as her boss spoke. “What email? No, I didn’t see anything. Alright…alright…thanks. No, I don’t plan on getting the vaccine. Tell everyone I said “bye”.”

She hung up and held her cell a moment before she dialed Grant. He picked up on the second ring. “Comin’ home. Need me to get anything? Nah, can’t go in, border expanded last night. They’re behind the line now. Even if they weren’t, company needs a valid vaccination document to log me back into the system.”

III.

Weeks passed and Amanda was getting by on what little unemployment cam her way while she continued to look for a job. More and more cities in the area were adopting border restrictions for the unvaccinated, which limited her options The smaller ‘burbs that hadn’t signed on to the policies had nothing available–not even for flipping burgers at BK or Mickey Ds (that in itself, was a bit of a blessing in disguise…as much as she frequented the fast food joints in the past, the thought of working in one of them for eight hours at a time turned her stomach as of late…even the smell of the food made her want to heave).

Morbidly, she had assumed she’d been bitten by one of those ticks–or were they mosquitos?–that made you deathly allergic to red meats. It was only a fleeting panic that was debunked by the fact that she was still able to enjoy the meats prepared at home that Grant and Leslie provided. Maybe she lost the taste for the cheap bullshit meats the fast food places provided? Who knew?

Amanda’s stomach growled in anticipation for dinner and checked herself before she drooled down the front of her shirt.

She was grateful for her friends and how much they helped her get along. With what little she (and Steven and Art) could bring to the table, at least Grant could still get to his job and Leslie was still able to wire money from her parents. For all the talking the latter pair did, neither really went into detail of what they did for a living. Leslie was a spokeswoman of some sort…but she hadn’t so much as taken a selfie with a disposable Fujifilm, let alone go out on a professional photoshoot. Guess there wasn’t much glamor in rustic living. Grant, she was sure, was in the meat industry to some extent, and she figured that was how he was able to get his hands on so much quality meats. Nothing that entered the house ever came vacuum-sealed with artificial pink and red coloring. She’d have to ask him. Sometime.

IV.

More like-minded individuals joined their little group as the border restrictions tightened and more and more evictions took place. They did not move into the main house, much to Amanda’s relief; the sprawling property was now spotted with tents, cars, and camper vans. She found it claustrophobic enough living with four other people that weren’t family.

Steven interrupted Amanda’s train of thought, popping up out of nowhere, mouth full of food, saliva pouring from his lips. He ran by her and slammed his door shut. She lingered for a beat and stared at the bedroom door behind her. He was now muttering to himself and…growling? Amanda took a few steps forward and a similar sound came from Art’s room. It was a licking or smacking sound; that disgusting noise of a person eating and chewing with their mouth wide open. Maybe they were starting to crack? Neither of them ever left the property. As spacious as the house and farm were, she reckoned a lot of people would go mad if they were locked down to one specific place. Both were in their early twenties and without a driver’s license. It wasn’t as if one could relax outside anyway, what with all the campers around. Even from the inside, there was always the drone of conversation and hardly a moment of privacy.

Only Grant, seemingly, was allowed that with the run-down barn at the back of the lot–fair enough, it was his place, after all. No one was allowed on the back half of the property, past the cattle grate up a narrow dirt road. The old barn wasn’t yet fit for living for any creature. He must’ve been doing a hell of a lot of renovating, because he could disappear up there for hours with the sound of a buzzsaw or whatever cutting across the waves of conversation. The barbed wire fencing from the previous owners remained in place and required no maintenance. Grant often hinted about having cattle one day soon. It was a likely hint of the reason for the upkeep of the barn and refusal to let anyone stay in the section past the grate and fencing.

And the people staying there weren’t all totally bad. They were…alright…okay, they were alright at first. All the small talk and conspiracy theories floating above the rest of the mindless banter was maddening. The longer everyone stayed, the more incomprehensible the tales grew.

For Christ’s sake, she had her own reasons for not wanting the vaccine–people out there had had awful allergic reactions and some even died. There was no telling of potential long-term side effects of the shot. Why get a vaccine that had been conjured up in under a year’s time? The unknown reactions were a legitimate concern especially when she had no symptoms or hadn’t even the slightest cold since the whole business started.

But these fucking people…

Aluminum foil was not in short supply with these clowns: “The government has microchips in the vaccine so they can track us.”; “They want to see how much they can control us.”; “We’re human Guinea pigs for their experiments.”

On and on they went.

A number of the ramblings Amanda overheard were flat-out jibberish which she feared may have been symptoms of a stroke, but the people listening weren’t concerned in the slightest; in fact those nearest clung on to every undecipherable detail.

V.

The pressure to increase vaccinations kept on rising. The more people were pushed, the more people showed up on their doorstep. Cops came around a few times, but ultimately had nothing to charge the campers with as they were technically Grant’s guests. Amanda felt that wouldn’t last for long…there was bound to be an obscure law or ordinance on the books (or one they’d inevitable pull out of their asses and slap into law) that they could use against them.

In her case presently, it wasn’t any of the local law enforcement that hit her hard; it was the federal government. Amanda read over the email a fourth time, still trying to process the information. All unemployment payments the government doled out over the course of the pandemic would cease for those remaining unvaccinated. No income. Zero. Zippo.

No company so much as followed up with her application requests if she ticked “No.” on the “Have you been vaccinated?” line (clicking “Yes.” only brought up an attachment sheet in which she could upload her vaccination documents).

Fuck.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

Steven groaned through the wall. It was pretty much all he could do as of late. Art too…and a large portion of the squatters out in the yard. In the beginning, she thought it was just the campers who were mentally deficient. Art and Steven, dim as they were, hadn’t been like those slobbering wretches.

Her friends were sick, that was the only explanation.

Their living situation was far from normal and disease was probably ripe outside with the unclean. Amanda shuddered; she felt dumber every time she had to walk past all those idiots out there.

VI.

While the State was doing everything in its power to manipulate Amanda into a lifestyle against her will, the Feds were doing their damnedest to force it on her. Debates in Washington almost never ceased. Each time she tuned in to the news she got that sinking feeling in her gut. They wouldn’t be able to keep on living here the way they were forever.

What was she going to do?

Downstairs, something broke. Two voices rose through the floorboards and a shouting match ensued. Unable to concentrate on her own troubles, Amanda headed downstairs to see what all the fuss was about.

“–clumsy fucking idiot!” Art screamed.

“Wan’t my fault! I jus wan some food,” Steven fired back, slurring his words badly.

Amanda followed the voices to find the two boys standing nearly nose-to-nose with a shattered plate on the ground between them. “Woah, guys, calm down! Jesus, what happened?” She noted the blood all over the plate and tiled floor. A lone burger sat on the ceramic shards. “Who’s cut?”

“No one cut…Make food,” huffed Steve.

“Hungry,” concurred Art.

“Where the hell did all the blood come–” Amanda stopped herself as she noticed the source.

It was coming from the meat patty. Steven and Art were fighting over a raw slab of meat! They kept at each other’s throat and Amanda quietly backed out of the room. She had to talk with Leslie or Grant. Neither of them were in their rooms or around the house. Then she heard the rumble of Grant’s truck. Amanda ran outside and tried to flag him down. Nothing doing; he couldn’t see or hear from all the commotion out in the yard. They were really riled up today.

Amanda watched as the truck, loaded with materials under a tarp, carefully rounded the farmhouse and all the squatters around the property and drove out to the old barn a few hundred yards away.

She didn’t acknowledge anyone as she headed up the dusty trail. They paid her no mind either, not even when she started a panicked run up the path. Halfway there, Grant had already parked the truck and entered the shoddy structure. Up close, it didn’t appear to have the slightest bit of cosmetic work done to it. The door in which he entered was left slightly ajar and she slipped in.

Oh my god! What is that?

The scent was overwhelming at first. It crashed into her like a tidal wave and threatened to drown her. Amanda kept in place and let herself become accustomed to the smell. Honestly, it was quite pleasant once the intensity lessened. It reminded her of the Kellogg’s plant down I-73. The stretch of road almost always smelled of their cereals during the day and Eggos during the late night hours.

What she was smelling wasn’t baked goods. It was…

…She didn’t have a clue really. There was an air of unease regarding the whole situation; Amanda grew up in the suburbs, but she was sure that this wasn’t how a dusty old barn was supposed to smell. Some newer-looking walls had been put in on the interior. She crept up to the corner at the end of the corridor and peeked around the side.

Her eyes widened in terror and she drew in a breath. Human corpses dangling from hooks. Very few were still intact, most of them mutilated in varying degrees. Half a dozen tables were laid out with cadavers, torsos and abdomens open with the entrails piled up in bowls. In the far corner of the room, Amanda heard that familiar sound from the past several months. From inside, no longer did she hear a muffled buzzsaw, the large machine Grant stood next to shrieked like a coffee grinder, but echoed about the room as loud as a fucking jackhammer.

Grant poured the contents of the bowls, thick chunks and blobs of assorted gore and out they came as the familiar mince he claimed to have brought home from work.

Amanda chose not to hang about and made for the exit. She was shaking and confused, not entirely believing her eyes.

Grant’s truck was still sitting there, still loaded in the back with the tarp securing the load. There were bodies in there, of course. Morbid curiosity forced her over to the back of the pickup and she pulled the material aside. Dead bodies, of course. But she wasn’t expecting to see the faces of people occupying the yard.

And the worst part: the sight only made her stomach growl.

freedomburger

***

“Pity that Amanda learned too late that you should trust in science and stick to the health advice given by those that know what they’re talking about. Her mind may not be fried to a blackened crisp like all the others, but it’s already scrambled and beyond changing back now.”

“That…sounds like a really old reference.”

“Oh my god, kid. You’ve seen it at least a dozen times on those tapes we keep using for marathons.”

“So it is an old reference.”

“I’m not that much older than you.”

“You could easily be my grand–”

“Finish that word and this frying pan will put those brains on that wall.”

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