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The Last One – Chapter 5
The sky trembles. My first thought is that it’s a camera drone, crashing, and this is something I want to see. I look up, raising an arm to block out the sun. Instead of a drone come undone, I see an airplane plowing through the high blue to leave a wispy white trail. It takes me a moment to process the sight, the sound, the sensation of having my small human presence overwhelmed so completely. This is the first time I’ve noticed a plane since taping began. I don’t know if this is because I wasn’t paying attention or because they weren’t around to notice.
Either way, this is important—it means they can’t control every aspect of my surroundings. A small assurance, but it inhabits me like a revelation. I feel my insularity retreating. For the first time in too long, I am not the but a. Just one person among many. I think of the men and women above me. The plane is huge; there must be hundreds of passengers seated up there beneath nubby air vents, napping, reading, watching movies on their iPads. One or two crying, perhaps, frightened by the enormity of the journey they’re embarking on.
I stand still, neck craned, until the airplane is out of sight, its contrail dispersing. I hope someone up there is going home. That there is at least one person in that plane who knows unselfish love and is returning to it.
The next few hours are easier than what came before, except that I’m wretched with hunger. I reach a brook a few hours before sunset and decide to make camp early to try to catch some protein. The pieces of the figure-four deadfall I carved during group camp are in my pack, and now that I have something other than pinecones to use as bait it might actually work.
I take the trio of sticks and set them under a tall tree. It takes me a minute to figure out which stick goes where, then I align the notches, balancing and steadying. Once I can keep the trap in its distinctive angular pattern by pinching the top nexus, I smear the end of the bait stick with peanut butter and lean a heavy log over the top to take the place of my hand. It’s a precarious piece of work, but it’s meant to be, and it holds.
I boil water in batches and build my shelter, glancing regularly toward the trap. The bait lies in the log’s shadow, untouched. The woods grow dim and I’m sitting at the fire, waiting, trying not to think the thoughts that come most readily. I hate it. I need to keep busy, so I decide to carve a second trap. I salvage appropriate-sized sticks—each about a half inch thick and a foot long—and start carving. It’s only four notches and two sharpened points, but they have to be aligned perfectly. Carving takes me longer than I’d like—the knife I was issued is so dull at this point I wouldn’t trust it to slice cold butter. By the time I’m done, my hands are aching, my fingers blistered. I drop the sticks at the base of a tree and head to the brook to collect a long flat stone to use as the trap’s weight.
I take off my boots and socks and wade in. Pebbles massage my feet, a small pain. As I pry up the rock, I think that I could never do all this if it wasn’t part of the show. This adventure I asked for, it’s not what I was expecting, not what I wanted. I thought I would feel empowered, but I’m only exhausted.
I heave the stone upright. It’s too heavy to lift, so I drag it out of the water and to the tree. The stone leaves a six-inch-wide trail through my camp. I remember a driveway much wider twisting through the woods, leading from a mailbox choked by blue balloons to a cabin with more balloons by the door. The cabin itself was blue too, maybe, I’m not sure. Maybe it just had blue trim. And there were so many balloons; every time I remember I remember more. The balloons weren’t all: a bottle in the sink, a handful of wrapped packages on the table. All blue. Even the bedroom light felt blue when I found him—found it.
I didn’t quit then. I didn’t quit when I got sick afterward, days of shivering and feeding the fire, boiling water constantly because I was losing fluids and I didn’t boil the tap water in the cabin and that must be what made me sick. Vomit and diarrhea, feeling so cold, endlessly cold.
I drop the stone by the tree.
Nothing can be worse than what they’ve already put me through. I’d never choose this, not again. But I’m here and I’m a woman of my word and I promised myself I wouldn’t quit.
I put my boots back on, then kneel to assemble the second trap. As I’m testing the fulcrum stick, there’s a soft thud behind me. I turn; the first trap’s been triggered. I think I see movement, but by the time I get there the squirrel is dead, its front half compressed into the dirt beneath the log. The thinnest sliver of black is exposed between its fuzzy eyelids. I’ve never been fond of squirrels; I prefer chipmunks with their racing stripes. When I was six or seven I spent an entire summer prone among the maples and birches behind my parents’ house, hoping a chipmunk would mistake me for a log. I wanted so badly to know the feel of his little feet on my skin. That never happened, but once one did scamper close, until we were eye-to-eye. And then he sneezed in my face and disappeared. Like a magic trick, I told my husband on our first date. Poof. A story I’ve told so many times I no longer know if it’s true.
Gray squirrels, though—I associate them with cities, with overcrowding and litter. Even so, I feel bad as I pick up the squirrel by its tail. Killing mammals is tough, even when it’s a squirrel, even when it’s to eat. “Sorry, little guy,” I say.
Cooper could field-dress a squirrel in less than a minute. We timed him once using Mississippi seconds. I was usually tending the fire. I’ve cooked squirrel, but I’ve never skinned one.
It didn’t look too hard.
I lay the squirrel belly-down atop a log. Cooper started with a slit under the tail, so that’s what I do, forcing my dull knife through the skin. I saw across the base of the tail. And then—this part astonished me every time I saw it, how easy it was—I cover the tail with my foot, stepping hard, and yank the squirrel’s back legs up.
Red spritzes through the air as the squirrel rips in half and I stumble backward. Unexpected motion makes my head float; I feel like I’m on a raft, rocking in a ship’s wake. Clutching the chunk of the squirrel that came with me, I take a knee and force three slow, deep breaths.
I don’t know what I did wrong. When Cooper pulled, the skin of his squirrel always slid right off, like a banana peel.
It doesn’t matter what I did wrong, I need to salvage what I can. I look at the carcass dangling from my right hand. A happy surprise—it didn’t rip in half. I’m holding everything but the tail. This is correctable, with patience.
I walk back to the log and see the detached tail sitting there, a fluffy gray-and-white lump. Memory brings me an image: Randy, his sweaty red hair puffing up anime-style, his bile-green bandana tight across his brow, a squirrel tail dangling over each ear. I see him dancing wildly around the fire, his tail-ears flapping as he howls a howl that is supposed to sound like a wolf but is purely a showman’s call.
I sit on the log and flick the disembodied tail onto the ground, trying to focus. Randy doesn’t matter. All that matters right now is skinning this squirrel. Maybe my cut was too deep or I pulled too fast, I don’t know, but I think I know what to do next. I creep my fingers along the muscle, separating the skin in tiny increments. It takes forever. I’m probably doing it wrong. But eventually the hide is pulled up to the squirrel’s front legs. I place the blade of my knife flat against the midpoint of a front leg, and then I lean over it, pushing. The bone snaps, and the knife digs through into the log; I have to jerk it free. I use less force for the next three legs and the neck. My hands are slick and aching, but I’m almost done. I just have to gut it now. I flip the carcass so it’s belly-up, then turn the knife so the blade faces me.
Don’t puncture the organs. I know that much, at least.
I ease the tip of my knife through the top of the chest, piercing. Then I bring the blade in tiny jerks toward myself, cutting through the skin from beneath like popping stitches. This time, I don’t fuck up. The underside opens and I dig my fingers in. I grab the esophagus and lungs and everything else I can curl my fingers around, and I pull. The innards come out together, a cohesive system I toss to the ground. The squirrel’s nubby spine winks up at me from inside the cavity.
I walk over to the brook and scrub the squirrel blood off my hands and wrists, digging into the dirt at the bottom for abrasion. Afterward I chop up the squirrel and set it to boil in my cup. I wish I had some salt and pepper, some carrots and onion. If I felt stronger, I’d forage for some Queen Anne’s lace, but I haven’t noticed any and I don’t trust myself to identify plants right now, especially not one with poisonous look-alikes.
While the squirrel stews, I gather its inedible parts and take them away from my camp. Not far, maybe fifty feet. I should bury them, but I don’t. I’m tired and they’re such a small amount, I leave them in a pile, then wash my hands again. I let the squirrel boil until the meat pulls away from the bone when prodded, then pull the cup from the fire and fish out a piece. It’s too hot and I hold it between my teeth until I can chew without blistering my tongue. The meat has little taste that I can discern, but it’s not peanut butter. There is, I don’t know, half a pound of meat, probably less. I suck down every thread and when the liquid is cool enough, I drink that too. By the time it’s dark, all that’s left of the squirrel is a pile of skinny bones, which I toss into the woods.
Full, I could sleep for a month. But first I stretch my arms and legs, stand straight and tip side to side, fulfilling my pledge. I pour water over my fire, crawl into my shelter, and hang my glasses on the top loop of my backpack. I drift toward unconsciousness, content.
I awake to a snuffling sound. For a drowsy moment I think it’s my husband’s breath. I move to nudge him, and something pricks my hand. I jolt to full awareness, remember where I am, see the twig that scratched me.
Something is moving outside the shelter. I focus on the sounds: a powerful, rooting huff, crunching steps. I should have buried the squirrel offal. A black bear found it and now it wants my peanut butter too. The animal sounds too big to be anything other than a bear. It noses the side of the debris hut; leaves rattle, and a skinny ray of moonlight peeps through near the entrance. I hate peanut butter more than ever.
But I’m not scared, not really. As soon as I make it clear that I’m not prey, the bear will retreat. I won’t have a problem unless it’s habituated to people, and even then it’ll most likely back off once I make myself big, holler a bit. Wild animals don’t like a ruckus.
I reach for my pack, slowly, quietly, creeping my fingers toward my glasses as my shoulder muscles pinch and ache, resisting.
A rumbling growl; hot, wet breath. A blurred gray-brown muzzle dripping thick white foam three feet from my face. I feel my next heartbeat like a hammer’s blow. Even in the dark, even without my glasses, the aggression and frothed saliva of disease are unmistakable. Perched at the only exit from my shelter is not a bear but a rabid wolf.
The only rabid animals I’ve ever seen before were raccoons and a few emaciated bats, and those in cages—or dead, awaiting necropsy. No danger, not really, not like this: a wolf the size of a bear, the size of a house. A dire wolf brought back from extinction for the sole purpose of ripping out my throat.
I feel terror like a hardening of my veins as the beast growls and ducks its huge head. A glob of slime drops from bared teeth and lands on my backpack.
I grab the pack as the wolf lunges toward me. I’m not a screamer. Roller coasters, haunted houses, a RAV4 running a red light coming straight at me—none of this has ever made me scream, but I scream now. My scream strains my throat and the pressure of the wolf against my pack strains the rest of me. I hear snapping jaws, feel wetness—my sweat, its saliva, not-blood-please-not-blood—and I see the black of my pack, flashes of fur and teeth. I’m compressed behind the pack, tucked into the end of the shelter, shoulders pressing against the roof.
The wolf retreats, only a step or two, and sways side to side, stumbles a step. It growls again.
And though I can hardly breathe, a thought pierces me: There is no way I can fight off a rabid wolf confined like this. There’s no way I can fight off a rabid wolf at all, but especially not like this. But I have to; I have to get home. I heave my pack at the wolf and shove myself against the wall of my shelter. With a yell, I push through. The garbage-bag liner resists, then gives, scattering leaves and twigs. As my shoulders break through, the debris hut begins to crumble around me—and I feel a tug, a violent pull on my leg.
The wolf has my foot. I feel the pressure of its bite through my boot, pinching. Like bait on a line, I’m being jolted down, down, down.
All I can see is the back of my tears. Starlight glints in the liquid, a magnification not of detail but of the ethereal splendor of a world I’m not ready to leave.
I kick. I kick and scream and claw at the earth. I fight through the rubble everywhere. My unhindered foot connects against skull; I feel the impact through the heel of my boot like striking concrete, and my other foot is suddenly free too. I scramble toward the expanse of predawn light, the patchy grass and gurgling brook. Behind me, the wolf thrashes as the debris hut collapses atop it.
I clamber to my feet and grab a thick branch, and as the wolf’s sharp muzzle appears from the leaves I bash at the emerging form. I feel the thunk of impact, hear the cracking of bone or wood, and I keep swinging. Over and over I swing, until I’ve lost my breath, until the leaves are dark and heavy. I swing for as long as adrenaline allows, an endless instant, and then my strength abandons me. I stumble backward, my club hanging between my knees. The remains of my shelter are fuzzy stillness and liquid glimmer.
I hurt, everywhere. Not soreness, real pain. Pain like death.
I collapse to the ground in my haste to check myself for injury.
My every nerve is screaming so loudly I cannot sense particulars, cannot separate fear from physical wound. Pawing at my leg, I feel prickling growth but don’t find any breaks in the skin. The hem of my left pant leg is tattered and wet, but not bloodied, I don’t think.
My boot has been torn from my foot. I run my hands over the wool sock that remains. Twigs and leaves poke my fingers. No holes.
If I were still in the habit of taking off my boots to sleep—no, don’t think about it.
I raise my hands to wipe at my eyes, and see that my fingers and palms are thickly wet with the wolf’s saliva, like a mucous membrane.
I launch myself toward the brook.
So many scrapes, so many tiny cuts through which the rabies virus could enter. I rub my hands frantically in the water.
And then I freeze.
Will rubbing my hands push the virus into a cut? Is that possible?
I don’t know the answer. I should know the answer; I work with animals, and this is the kind of thing I know. Except that I don’t.
I sit in the water, shaking. Sopping wet from the waist down, and cold, I’m not myself. I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what to do, what to think. All I know is where I am: alone, sitting in a brook.
In time I realize I do know one other thing: Wolves don’t live around here. The closest wild wolf would have to be in Canada, or maybe North Carolina. The probability of the animal that attacked me being a wolf is infinitesimal.
Whatever it was, I killed it. Not to eat, not cleanly with a trap. Animal-loving me, who has spent her professional life working with children to inspire in them a respect for—a love of—nature. Not for the kids’ sakes. That’s what everyone gets wrong. It’s not the teaching that I like. I think of Eddie the red-tailed hawk, Penny the fox. I’m not supposed to name the ones slated for release, but I do. I always do.
Eventually, I regain my feet and stumble out of the brook. My legs are numb as I return to the destroyed debris hut. Twilight has given way to dawn; squinting, drawing closer in tiny movements, I’m just able to make out the animal, the front half of which juts from the leaves. Its head looks like a boulder was dropped on it.
Is that what I am now—a boulder careening downhill, driven by inertia instead of will?
I pick up a branch and sweep the crimson leaves off the top of the shelter, then pry up the sticks covering the body. I’m still shaking and my throat is raw.
The animal is smaller than I thought—about the size of a collie—thin-legged, its bushy tail stained with excrement.
Not a wolf, but a coyote. The longer I look at it, the smaller it seems.
I’m sorry you got sick.
I’m sorry I killed you.
I dig out my boot and backpack from the rubble. Thick rents run through the toe of the boot. I poke it with a stick, which slips through easily to strike the inner sole. Some of the holes go all the way through the sole; the boot is useless. The front of my backpack is shredded too, and it’s several minutes before I find my glasses. The frames are twisted, both earpieces snapped off. Only one lens is intact, the other shattered where a tooth struck it like a bullet.
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.
Excerpted from THE LAST ONE by Alexandra Oliva. Copyright © 2016 by Alexandra Oliva. Excerpted by permission of Random House, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Alexandra Oliva was born and raised in upstate New York. She has a BA in history from Yale University and an MFA in creative writing from The New School. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband. The Last One is her first novel.