Read The Last One Online

Authors: Alexandra Oliva

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Literary, #United States, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Suspense, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Literary Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Psychological, #Dystopian, #TV; Movie; Video Game Adaptations

The Last One (9 page)

Fear distinct from the fear I felt during the attack drifts over me. An equal, opposing fear. A slow fear. My vision isn’t bad compared to a mole’s, but it’s bad enough. I haven’t gone a day without corrective lenses since fourth grade.

“I can’t see,” I say, turning around. I lift my chin, hold up my ruined glasses, and directly address the cameras for the first time since Solo started. “I can’t see.”

Help should be here by now. An EMT should be sitting me down, handing me the ugly backup pair of glasses I entrusted to the producer the day before we started. I look at a bright red scratch that runs across the back of my right hand, dotted with pinpricks of drying blood.

“I need the vaccine,” I say to the trees. My heart is speeding. “Day zero and day three, post-exposure.”

They required us to get rabies vaccinations before we came. It was one among a plethora of requirements: a full physical, a tetanus booster, proof of a whole host of other shots that I already had for school and work. Rabies was all that I needed to meet their requirements.

“I’m not immune,” I call. My voice cracks. The rabies vaccine is atypical in that instead of creating immunity, receiving it pre-exposure only decreases how many doses one needs after exposure. I hold up my hand and turn in a circle. “I have a cut, look. I touched its saliva. I need the shots.”

There’s no answer. I stare at the blur of leaves, squinting, searching for a camera mounted on a branch, a drone hovering above. It must be there, it
must
be. I think of the boulder, of Heather’s taxidermy bear and the first prop splattered at the base of a cliff. I think of the doll, its mechanical cries twisting through the cabin’s suffocating air. My fear begins to morph, to sharpen, and even as I wait, I know no one’s coming.

Because they planned this.

I don’t know how, but they planned this and now my glasses are broken and I can’t see.

I feel as though my anger will split my skin, flay me alive from the inside.

I can’t fucking see.

6.

The host projects his voice as though onstage. “For our first Team Challenge you will be working together to find edible plants,” he says. He slept well. The contestants did not, except for Tracker, who sleeps better outdoors than in. “Whichever team collects the most different types of edible plants in half an hour wins. However, that doesn’t mean you can go picking flowers all willy-nilly.” The host wags his finger, and Carpenter Chick’s eye roll makes Zoo laugh. Both action and sound will be cut; this is a somber moment. “For each incorrect identification your team makes, one point will be deducted from your score.” He hands each team leader a brightly colored tri-fold pamphlet. “You’re playing for something very important—lunch.”

Tracker woke before dawn to check his traps, and a rabbit became breakfast for his team. Biology also shared her protein bars, though she was no longer obligated to do so. The eight contestants outside their team are famished, and the host doesn’t know about the rabbit.

The next several minutes are compressed to an instant. The teams are ready, and the host shouts, “Go!”

“I bet Cooper knows all this stuff,” says Carpenter Chick to her teammates. “One of us should just follow him.”

“I’ll do it,” says Waitress, wishing she were on his team.

Zoo doesn’t like this idea. All her life she’s followed the spirit of the law as well as the letter. “I know some of these,” she says, looking at the handout. “And I think I saw Queen Anne’s lace yesterday. We can do this on our own.”

“I agree,” says Engineer. Yesterday, he wondered at his luck, ending up on a team with three women. He didn’t know if it was good luck or bad. He’s thinking good now. He likes how Zoo’s mind works; he thinks they have a chance.

“Whatever,” says Waitress. She’s hungry, but this is a sensation she’s used to. Her current crankiness stems more from fatigue and a caffeine-craving headache.

Zoo hands her the guide. “Some of these are easy. We can all look for dandelions and chicory and pine, but how about we each focus on one or two of the others?”

“You’re the boss,” says Carpenter Chick.

Tracker’s team is off to a strong start; Biology has already collected a handful of mint. She found the patch last night, chewed some this morning after finishing her portion of rabbit. In addition to teaching life science, Biology advises a gardening club. Between her and Tracker, her team has an obvious advantage.

Air Force’s ankle hurts more today, and is swollen enough that he can barely fit it in his boot. “You should rest,” says Black Doctor. “We can handle this.”

Cheerleader Boy lurks behind them, hair mussed, eyes red and exhausted as they run over the pamphlet. “What’s a basal whorl?” he asks, trying.

“It means coming from the base,” says Black Doctor. “So all the leaves or petals would be coming from the same spot on the base, not scattered along the…” He pinches his thumb and forefinger and runs them up and down in the air, as though drawing a short line.

“Stem?” supplies Exorcist.

“Like a dandelion?” asks Cheerleader Boy.

“Exactly,” says Black Doctor. “What do we have to find that has a basal whorl?”

“A dandelion.”

Exorcist laughs and slaps Cheerleader Boy on the back.

And now, a montage:

The teams trekking through the trees, searching.

Air Force sitting with his foot in the icy water of a small brook, poor wounded bird.

Banker crouching by some growth at the base of a mossy boulder. “I think this might be purslane.”

Zoo tearing a leaf, sniffing it. She holds it out to the others and says, “Smell this.” They pass it around. “Smells like…” Engineer cannot decide. “Carrot,” chirps Carpenter Chick. “Bingo,” says Zoo.

In the bottom corner of the screen, a timer races from thirty toward zero. Some believe that time is its own dimension—a sequential continuum—others argue time is an incalculable, untravelable construct of the human mind—a concept, not a thing. The producers and editor care little about physics, or philosophy, and they will travel the half hour, leaping so that minutes disappear in irregular chunks. They will bring the viewers with them.

Cheerleader Boy swats at a needled branch. “All these plants look the same,” he says. Exorcist grabs the same branch and tells him, “Pine.”

“Pine,” says Carpenter Chick.

“Pine,” says Biology. Her statement came fifteen minutes earlier but will be presented as a triangle’s third side at nine minutes remaining.

Tracker leads in silence, pinching leaves, smelling his fingers, searching.

“You can really eat this?” asks Waitress, holding the bit of root that Zoo handed her. “I think you’re supposed to cook it first,” Zoo replies.

A gong echoes through the woods; everyone stops to listen. Five minutes blinks the timer.

“I guess we should head back?” says Banker.

“We don’t have them all,” says Biology.

“We have enough,” Rancher answers. Beside him, Tracker nods.

Air Force’s team collects him. “I found mint by the stream,” he says.

Black Doctor helps him up. “Great. We didn’t have that one.” Even though they did.

The teams reassemble in the field. The host is waiting, and he’s not alone. At his side stands a large bearded man who needs only an ax to look like a Halloween lumberjack.

The Expert.

He nods his massive head without smiling and looks over the contestants. His flannel shirt and red-tinged beard flutter in a gust of wind. Zoo barely suppresses a laugh—the giant has descended the beanstalk, she thinks, and he looks like he’s choosing whom to roast as his next meal.

The host lists the Expert’s credentials, which slide over the contestants just as they will slide over viewers, simultaneously impressive and obscure. He’s a graduate, an instructor. He advises law enforcement and emergency rescue teams. He has survived for months alone in the Alaskan wilderness, much harsher than here. He has tracked panthers and bears and endangered gray wolves, as well as humans of both the lost and homicidal variety.

In short, he knows his shit.

The team leaders present the Expert with their collections. Zoo is first.

“Dandelion, sure. Mint, pine. You got the easy ones,” says the Expert. His voice is gruff, but not unfriendly. He projects an ultimate confidence that doesn’t cross the line into hubris. He has nothing to prove. Tracker feels the simultaneous push and pull of shared characteristics.

“Chicory,” says the Expert, “very good. Burdock. Hawthorn. Queen Anne’s lace. And…what did you think this one was?” He holds out a large, glossy leaf.

Zoo looks at her pamphlet. “Mayapple?”

The Expert
tsk
s lightly. “This is bloodroot.” He indicates where the rhizome was torn. “See the red?”

“Toxic?” she asks.

“In large doses. Mayapple leaves are more umbrellalike and glossy in their prime. It’s one of the first sprouts to come up in the spring, so this time of year they’ll be wilting, and you should be able to find small yellow-green fruit.”

Zoo’s team loses a point, for a total score of six, but she has learned something.

Tracker’s team earns an easy seven with no incorrect identifications, including a hard yellow orb that proves to be mayapple fruit. The Expert is impressed. Tracker is caught between pride and embarrassment at his pride.

Air Force presents his team’s collection without knowing what it includes. The Expert ticks through the plants. “Pine, mint, burdock, purslane, dandelion, chokecherry.” There’s one more. If it’s correct, Air Force’s team ties for first. If it’s wrong, they come in last.

Insert constructed drama: long pauses, a close-up on Black Doctor’s eager eyes. Cheerleader Boy shifting, his mouth curled. Exorcist smiling like a mannequin. Air Force standing strong, showing no sign of his discomfort now. The Expert reaching into the bag, huffing a breath that rattles his beard. He extracts a hollow, purple-splotched stalk topped with a cluster of small, papery brown nubs that were once tiny flowers.

And now—a word from our sponsors, and whoever else has paid for a few moments to hawk their goods and services. Some viewers will groan, but they’ll be back; others endure only a staccato hint of advertising and the show returns. The viewer too can manipulate time, for a fee.

The Expert holds up the cutting and wrinkles his nose, letting the viewer in on the plant’s rankness. Air Force sucks in his cheeks; he knows something is wrong. “Queen Anne’s lace?” the Expert asks. Air Force doesn’t know; behind him, Black Doctor nods.

“No,” says the Expert. “And if you ate this, it could kill you. Anyone here heard of a man named Socrates?”

Thus is hemlock revealed.

The host steps forward, flourishing his hands to music he will never hear. He doesn’t care about the differences between hemlock and Queen Anne’s lace. He turns to Tracker’s team.

“Congratulations,” he says. “It’s time for your reward.”

7.

I clean and bandage my hand using the small first-aid kit issued to me at the beginning of the show, and then I start walking. I’m missing a shoe and I’m angry. Every branch I brush is a whispered reminder of the coyote’s snarls. If I try to focus on something more than a few feet away, I start squinting, which doesn’t help much and gives me a headache. So I don’t focus. I drift, moving through the leaves with creeping steps. And though I feel the stones and branches beneath my shoeless left foot, my vision reduces all texture to fluff. Separate objects coalesce. The forest floor is a great carpet, green here, brown there, a Mother Nature theme.

As I walk, I hold the surviving lens from my glasses in my jacket pocket and rub my thumb along its concavity. The lens has become my worry stone—more than that, my anger stone, my thinking stone, my I-can-do-this stone.

The coyote couldn’t have been real. It
couldn’t
have been. Now that the heat of the moment has passed, the attack feels distant and dreamlike. It was so dark, so quick. I concentrate, remembering and seeking flaws. I think I remember a mechanical stiltedness to its movement, maybe a flash of metal in the moonlight. I
know
I remember an electronic buzz announcing inauthenticity in the doll’s canned cries; maybe that sound was there beneath the coyote’s snarls too. I was so scared, I couldn’t see, and it happened so quickly, it’s hard to be sure.

Ad tenebras dedi.
Three words and it’s over. All I have to do is admit defeat. If I’d been thinking straight during the attack, I might have done it, but now the moment’s passed and my pride won’t allow me to quit.

Pride,
I think, walking through the abstract blur of my surroundings. I have only a few memories of the catechism classes my mother made me attend throughout elementary school, but I remember learning about the sin of pride. I remember old Mrs. Whatshername with her dyed red hair and baggy floral dress sitting the six of us at her kitchen table and pointing at an opal pendant I was wearing.

“Pride,” she said, “is feeling prettier than other girls. It’s wearing too much jewelry and looking in mirrors over and over. It’s wearing makeup and short skirts. And it’s one of the seven deadly sins.”

I remember sitting there at the table, fuming at her words. I hated being used as an example, and I hated that the example was so grossly inaccurate. The pendant had belonged to my dad’s mom, who’d passed away a few months before. Wearing the pendant didn’t make me feel prettier than other girls, it reminded me of a woman I loved and missed and mourned. Besides, tomboy that I was, I’d yet to even try putting on makeup.

We had graham crackers as a snack that day, and when I reached for a second I was warned against gluttony. This particular memory sparks a sour laugh in my throat as I shuffle along the pavement.

What else?

I remember kneeling in a church pew as the teacher asked us a single question over and over, my mind spinning—why isn’t anyone answering? Tentatively, I offered an idea, only to be shouted back to silence. I don’t remember the question I wasn’t supposed to answer, or the answer I wasn’t supposed to give, but I remember my shame. I learned that day that no matter how demanding a person’s tone, no matter how many times she asks something, she might not actually want an answer.

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