“It’s amazing, isn’t it? Soon there will be houses out here with kids playing in the backyards.”
“Your kids playing in your backyard,” Maria pointed out with a smile. “Little Michael Junior and Felicity.”
Denman’s usually-sorrowful expression lightened significantly at the thought. “That would be heaven. Megan has an amazing green thumb. I can only imagine what she could do with a decent bit of land to cultivate.” Whenever he spoke of his wife, Denman’s face became absolutely handsome. The love he had for his family radiated out of him and made Maria happy and hopeful. Not only him, but her own future with Dwayne.
Bumping Denman’s arm with her elbow, she said, “Maybe we can be neighbors. Have cookouts in my backyard.”
They were fast friends now as well as sort-of co-conspirators in their pursuit of truth. It was Denman that kept her sane during the long days. They talked about their childhoods, their time in the service, Denman’s family, and anything else they could think of. She wished she could share Dwayne with him, but she never felt comfortable with doing so. Though she could easily imagine Denman and Dwayne sharing a beer and getting along, she couldn’t bring herself to talk about her love. The pain of their separation would become unbearable in that moment.
Denman became distracted. “I wonder what he’s up to,” he said, standing.
Maria turned her attention in the direction Denman was staring just in time to see Jameson slipping into the ruined remains of a pre-fab house. The squad was still gathered in the shadow of the carrier playing cards and chatting.
“I’ll go check on him,” Maria decided.
“He’s been a moody son of a bitch lately.” Denman stretched and fussed a little with his armor. After so many months, they were all tired of wearing it.
“I don’t think all of this lived up to his very unrealistic action adventure dreams,” Maria said with a light laugh.
“But he’ll have great stories to tell once it’s all over. He’ll get plenty of women then,” Denman joked.
Jameson was always trying to hook up with the women in the squad. He was always rebuffed. Holm called him a “deranged, horny little puppy.” Now Jameson was called “Horn Pup” and he was not pleased with the nickname.
Maria walked briskly toward the house, stepping around the patches of weeds and flowers. She hated crushing the greenery under her heavy boots. The new life in the valley felt precious. A quick leap carried her over the ruins of the old fence and she landed in an overgrown yard. The building had collapsed at some point, leaving only one section still standing. Ducking, she crept inside.
Sunlight sliced through the broken roof illuminating the destroyed interior. The elements had taken their toll on the house and its furnishings. Wiring hung from exposed sockets and she stooped under broken pipes sticking out of the walls.
Maria opened her mouth to call out to Jameson when she heard a sound that she had not heard in months. It took several seconds for her mind to even process what she was hearing. Finally, it registered. It was the sound of someone eating. The slurping, wet sounds of biting and chewing were emanating from a nearby doorway. Slowly drawing her weapon, she crouched and edged forward. If another Inferi Anomaly was in the building, Jameson could be in serious trouble or worse. She knew they had cleared the building, but maybe the Inferi Anomalies were smart enough to evade them.
Sliding along a sloped wall, she held her weapon before her, ready to bludgeon anything that attacked her. Her feet were silent on the cold cement floor as she approached the sound. She was glad for her lack of breath and her body’s inability to show the symptoms of stress. A sterile calmness filled her as she listened to the wet noises of someone gulping down food. Her thoughts flashed to what had happened to Ryan as she stepped through the doorway.
Instead of finding Jameson being consumed by an Inferi Anomaly, he was hunched over a kitchen counter shoving canned food into his mouth. Digging into the can in front of him, he pulled out a thick brown paste and thrust it into his mouth, eating ravenously.
“Jameson?” Maria lowered her weapon, confused by the sight. The Inferi Boon didn’t eat, nor did they grow hungry.
Swiveling toward her, he kept chewing, his fingers dipping into another can. Dragging out green beans, he stared at her as he stuffed them past his stained lips.
“Jameson, what are you doing?” she asked in a soft voice.
“I’m so hungry,” he gasped around the food he was eating. “I can’t stand it anymore!” Turning his back on her, he grabbed another can from a cabinet and pried it open.
Maria quickly accessed her wristlet. “Denman, you need to get in here. Something is wrong with Jameson.”
Pouring the contents of the can into his mouth, Jameson reached for yet more food. His body trembled as he fumbled with the cans.
“Kurt,” Maria said in a gentle voice, using his first name. “Kurt, you can’t be hungry. We don’t need food.”
“I am hungry!” he shouted. “I can’t stand it anymore. Being so hungry all the time!” He swept the cans of food onto the floor and fell to his knees. With trembling fingers, he pried the cans open.
Maria could hear Denman’s approach as he rushed through the ruined house. He burst into the kitchen and gasped.
“What the hell?”
Jameson didn’t even acknowledge them as he continued to cram food into his mouth. He wasn’t even fully chewing, just swallowing.
“He says he’s hungry,” Maria said, not able to comprehend what was going on before her.
“Hungry!” Jameson howled.
Maria and Denman froze, then both dropped into defensive stances. He sounded like Ryan and the first attacker.
“You can’t be hungry. We don’t need to eat because of the virus,” Denman said in a very calm voice as he approached Jameson.
Covered in bits of food, gravy, and syrups, Jameson continued to eat with a ferocity that was disturbing. Squatting beside him, Denman pulled out his scanner and aimed it at the young soldier.
Belching, Jameson fell onto his side, gripping his stomach. “Hungry!” he howled again.
Maria pushed a table away and cleared the area around Jameson. Fear was slowly uncoiling within her and she could see Denman was unnerved as well. He was close enough to get a reading, yet at a safe distance.
With a blood-curdling cry, Jameson doubled over and violently vomited everything he had consumed. Great sobs of despair filled the room as Jameson fell onto his side again. His body seized with terrible tremors and he vomited again.
“What the hell is going—” Maria started to say but was cut off by Jameson’s cry.
The soldier lunged at Denman, who scrambled out of his way. Jameson started to crawl after him but was seized by another spasm. Again he threw up. Instead of food, he vomited small pebbles and pieces of plants.
“Hungry!” Jameson cried again and hurled himself toward Maria.
Maria knocked him away with a powerful punch. Jameson fell into the kitchen counter and howled. Lurching forward, he screamed. Maria again hit him, knocking him to the floor. Denman grabbed one of Jameson’s arms and twisted it up between the man’s shoulder blades.
“I need restraints!”
Maria cautiously stepped forward as she activated her wristlet. “Cormier, bring me restraints immediately. I’m in the house.”
Maria felt her disquiet growing. Maybe Jameson had just mentally snapped, but the distress in his voice as he howled was too similar to how Ryan and the other Anomaly had sounded.
By the time Cormier arrived with the restraints, Jameson was incoherent in his cries. Denman secured his arms, then hauled him to his feet.
Twisting around in Denman’s grip, Jameson tried to bury his teeth in the man’s neck. Luckily, Denman saw the movement in time and brought up his arm, deflecting the bite. Maria grabbed Jameson and flung him to the floor again.
“Hungry,” Jameson howled.
“What the hell?” Cormier gasped, staring at Jameson in horror.
“What are we going to do with him?” Denman asked, stepping back from the raving soldier.
“Leave him here.” Maria heard the coldness in her voice, but she saw no other choice. Jameson was incoherent and they couldn’t drag him around with them. He had snapped, or worse.
“Leave him?” Cormier gasped. “What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s cracked,” Denman responded in a tired voice. “He’s mentally unhinged. There’s no point taking him with us.”
“We just can’t leave him here,” Cormier protested.
“Yes, we can,” Maria said in a firm tone. “He doesn’t need to eat or drink. He’s fine here. I’ll turn off his alarm and he’ll go into torpor. He’ll be safer here.” Maria regarded the growling man at her feet. “We can’t deal with what’s wrong with him right now.”
Writhing on the floor, Jameson’s incomprehensible cries and howls tore at Maria’s nerves. She knew she was right. There was nothing they could do for Jameson. They didn’t even know what was wrong with him. Perhaps it was a psychotic break. They had all been under so much duress with little to no time for anything other than killing. But she feared it was something much worse.