Chapter 15:

Locket

Han Hito: The Story of Patient Zero


As the final days of November passed, the world seemed to freeze. On the day of Murry’s deadline, it was snowing outside. He decided to play in it only after he knew he had survived. I was not in a playing mood- the only thing I wanted to focus on was researching the virus. I spent hours secluded from my family, only studying the difference between an uninfected fur sample from Murry and the feather from Sammy. Genetically, they bore high resemblance to each other, so if they weren’t human, they were certainly the same species as one another.

I noticed a few peculiar differences in Sammy’s cells with the minimal technology I had. Her cells all produced a special kind of protein, and when I mixed the protein and the virus, the virus was neutralized and could no longer infect other cells. I knew that protein was the key to her success, so I began the lengthy process of trying to determine which strand of nitrogenous bases was correlated to it. I didn’t fully understand what this immunity was or how she obtained it, but I knew it was my shot at redemption.

It was getting colder outside, and all the animals were going into hibernation. Sammy, for the first time, began struggling to find food. John and Tori now helped her hunt while Murry and I worked to defend the camp. No one was threatening us; the cold was getting to everyone. We mostly just passed the days shivering or talking. Talking was an overstatement, really- Murry did most of the talking. I didn’t want to speak, and I only responded if he asked me a question. He knew I was listening, though.

I never noticed Murry or Sammy say much of the dropping temperature. I assumed their fur was thick enough to keep it out to an extent, but the weather might have been in the negatives. That had to at least bother them a little. I liked to imagine that even if it did bother Murry, he wouldn’t say anything. He didn’t like complaining about things, I noticed. If we didn’t have any food and I heard his stomach rumble, he’d just go on a tangent about the science behind it. I already knew how it worked, but he always added some stupid analogy or funny story, so I would listen whenever he started bubbling over with useless facts.

I had many types of nightmares. Sometimes they were the average, run-of-the-mill displays of the grotesque, like someone without a jaw chasing after me, or a man without a head appearing out of nowhere to grab me by the throat. Those were the ones I could laugh at after- the sheer surreality of them made their once-repulsive sting mildly entertaining. Occasionally, though, I would get very vivid, wretched nightmares. I couldn’t even call them nightmares, because they weren't something my mind fabricated. They were flashbacks, recollections. I would relive the experience of finding Chloe stalking the forest, the moment when I realized my brothers were gone, the surges of emotion I felt. Those were the nights I woke up and never went back to sleep.

One day, presumably near Christmas, I woke up to find it strangely silent. Usually, the fire would be crackling, the winds would be hollering, and someone- often Sammy- would be sitting out, writing in a journal. This day, it was like time itself had frozen to the cold. The snow on the ground crunched under my feet as I made my way to the fire.

It had been stomped out. The fire, set by me and Chad almost four months ago, had been stomped out. Sure, we’d had to restart it a few times, but it was always in the same place, with the same gasoline, with the same lighter. We’d also just lost our best source of heat, and the snow wasn’t going to let us set a new fire any time soon. I was furious, and I wanted answers.

I eyed the footprints in the snow carefully and found that they were coming from Tori and John’s tent. I opened it up and found it completely deserted. Where were they? Had Chloe… I clasped my hand to my head and recoiled in anger. I couldn’t think about those things. I was shivering, but I couldn’t let them get to me. So I turned around and arrived in the medical tent.

Sammy was writing in her journal as always, but inside the tent- the fire had been stomped out, of course, so she’d chosen to stay out of the snow. She closed her book and looked up at me. “You saw the campfire?”

I nodded my head and clenched my fist.

“I’m mad, too. Whoever did it is gonna pay,” she replied, gritting her teeth. “Murry was complaining about it. Just splendid, really. I tried to tell him there wasn’t a thing we could do about it. He’s worried about you, too. Said your research wasn’t going so well. Is that true?”

I reluctantly nodded my head again and looked to the side.

“Nngh. Well, you’d best get to work on it, then. But don’t put too much effort into it. Lest you pass out in that cold, you’re good as dead,” she warned, opening her book again. She started scribbling again, and I mustered up the will to speak.

“Where’s Murry?”

She glanced up. “I forgot what your voice sounded like,” she scoffed. “He’s in Maya’s tent right now. Didn’t tell me what for, but I reckon it’s nothing foul.”

I left the tent without another word and walked through the cold to Maya’s tent. Sure enough, I found Murry talking to her.

“Welcome, Niko. As I am sure you are aware, our fire has been destroyed. We are in disagreement on how best to re-ignite it,” Maya explained. Her short wave would suffice as her greeting.

Murry shrugged. “Well, we’re not really in disagreement. M-more of just a stalemate. She says we should light it in here, and I keep telling her that’s a bad idea, and so we’re kind of locked…” he described.

“Why not? The tents do not allow weather inside, so they are perfect for lighting a fire,” Maya reasoned. I didn’t see a problem with it, but Murry did.

“Well, for one, th-the fire would burn up the material the tent is made of! And, uh, two, the smoke would collect in the tent and make it a fire hazard and impossible to breathe in!” Murry shot back. He also made a good point.

Maya looked up. “Just rip a few holes in the fabric. That would help the smoke escape,” she suggested. “It does not change the fire hazard issue, though. Niko, is this tent flame-resistant?”

I shook my head with uncertainty. I had torn off the tags, so I didn’t have any way to check other than testing it with real fire, something I didn’t want to resort to.

“Ah. Then there is our answer. I suppose we will have to determine some other method to relight it after it stops snowing,” Maya conceded. “Who had the nerve to put our fire out in the first place? We really should not have to be having this talk.”

I pointed out of the tent to where Tori and John had resided. Of course, they didn’t understand. “Tori and John,” I clarified quickly.

“Wha- why did they do that?” Murry asked. I shrugged, and he sighed. “Did you ask them?” I shook my head. “Why not?” I made an ‘x’ with my arms. “You couldn’t?” I nodded. “Why?” I pointed out the doors.

Maya caught on. “Are they not here? I thought I saw tracks leading away. Was that them?” When I nodded, she palmed her forehead. “How stupid of them. I wonder what their motives were.”

“Hey! They’re not stupid!” Murry defended. “They just have reasons we don’t know about! We should ask them once they get home!”

We waited for about an hour before I realized they probably weren’t coming back. At that point, I really did begin to wonder whether Chloe had gotten to them. I was too scared to check, so Maya did it for me while I wrote a letter to Aubrey. Murry watched me write and pointed out a grammatical error. In light of this, I threw my pen at him and walked away. If I could’ve spoken, I would have said ‘write it yourself, dolt’. But for some reason, I couldn’t work up the courage to. What was wrong with me?

I walked to what had once been Chad and Benji’s tent to study the virus. I made zero progress that day- I was so shaky that I couldn’t see through the microscope or feed the DNA through the sequencer. When Maya told me Chloe hadn’t been let out, I was relieved, but a lingering sense of dread remained until I fell asleep hungry that night. By then, it was clear Tori and John had run away. Where to, we weren’t sure. Civilization? Perhaps, but they would be put in the quarantine camps that used to be prisons. Surely they didn’t want that.

After Tori and John left us, our group was down to five. We did still put food through Chloe’s tent, but I was reluctant to associate with her. After all, she had killed my brothers and cooked them to be eaten. Who was I to trust her? If anyone ever asked- and rarely did they ask- I told them there were four of us. Best not to reveal the psychotic maniac we were holding captive.

When I counted it to be Christmas Day, Sammy tried to be as optimistic about it as possible. I could hear her humming familiar tunes throughout the day, and she even went so far as to sneak into the main city to steal ‘presents’ for us. She got Maya a fishing net- Maya first said, “Wow, giving the fishing equipment to the fish out of water. How benevolent of you,” before admitting she was kidding and expressing her gratitude.

She got Murry a heart locket which inside had a picture she wouldn’t let me see. I brought forth the courage to ask her why, and she replied, “They were our friends before we were forced out here. You wouldn’t recognize any of them.” She was quick to add, “The picture’s also from three years ago.” I swore to myself I would get Murry to show it to me one day, but at that time, it remained a mystery.

She got me a tin box. I was visibly confused, so she explained to me what it was. “You’ve been writing letters to your sister, have you not? I thought it’d be mighty appropriate for you to put them somewhere nice instead of leaving them in a stack in our tent,” she told me. It was then she pulled out another gift for me. It was another metal locket, but instead of a heart like Murry’s, it was a kite- not the children’s toy, but the geometric shape. I opened it up to find it empty.

I had to know why. “There’s… nothing in here,” I whispered.

She clicked her tongue. “Not yet there isn’t. After I take some photos with this bad boy-” she pulled a vintage film camera from her hoodie pocket- “you’ll have tons to go around. I reckon the hardest thing will be choosing the right picture!” I tried to give her an uncomfortable hug, but she was taller than me to the point where it was very awkward to embrace her. My face would have been somewhere I didn’t really want to place it, so I just sort of leaned to the side. She understood but laughed at me lightheartedly.

There was nothing for Chloe. We didn’t mention her at all. I wouldn’t let her ruin a third holiday in a row. Once, when I was walking by her tent, I heard her whisper ‘Nikkun’, but I ignored her.

Sammy started fervently taking pictures of everything she could. She snapped a shot of her holding a rabbit she’d hunted down, a shot of Murry, Maya, and I fishing in the near-frozen stream, a shot of me studying the virus, a shot of all four of us posing for the camera, etcetera. These were often taken without my verbal consent, but there was nothing sensitive about the content, so I didn’t really care.

I wore my new locket under my scarf so it wouldn’t crack in the cold. Murry wore his locket underneath his hoodie similarly- that was how I found out he didn’t have a shirt. He pulled it out once, and I noticed fur inside. I pointed under his collar.

“O-oh! I lost my shirt when I was fishing a while back. I was using it as a filter, but then a fish went flying through it and it took off with it, heheh. I’ve just been wearing my hoodie since then because it’s cold anyway…” he described. I snorted at the idea of Murry losing his shirt to a fish. “Why were you wondering…?”

I fetched an old t-shirt I’d worn before I made my own out of the fabric I stole. It was clean, but the holes and tears in its fabric made it unsightly. I threw it at his face, but he caught it before it hit him. “You wanted to give this to me? A-as, like, a present?”

“Yeah.” I found I was able to speak, which shocked me. “You’ll get cold without a shirt.”

“I mean, I- I’ve been doing alright…”

“Just take it,” I ordered. He reluctantly accepted it. He then began to rush to the medical tent to put it on. “Where are you going?”

He turned around. “Well, I have to put it on…”

“You can put it on right here.”

He flustered, stumbling back. “W-what?”

“Just take your hoodie off and put it on.”

“B-but it’s cold! I don’t wanna freeze!”

“If you’ve been doing fine with just a hoodie, you can handle taking it off. You’re not going to pass out from hypothermia if you get exposed to the cold for a couple seconds,” I pressed on.

He blushed and gripped the collar of his hoodie. “Why are you…”

“Just do it,” I commanded. He hesitantly pulled his hoodie up and grabbed the shirt he had set on the ground. He still had a strong physique- though his brown fur covered much of it, I could see some definition to his slender build. That was when I snatched his locket from his neck.

“Wha- Niko! Give that- give that back!” Murry wailed, flailing his arms at me in a panic. I dangled it just out of his reach with a grin. It was the first time I’d smiled in weeks. I backed away just enough so that I could open it without interruption. When I opened it, I found exactly what Sammy had described: a picture of her, Murry, and two other friends I’d never seen before.

At least, that’s what I thought at first. I looked more carefully at it while Murry struggled to put his new shirt on. There were Murry and Sammy, fur and all, smiling brightly. Well, Sammy was smiling brightly- Murry was sort of doing a head tilt with a forced smile. It seemed he was still enjoying his time, though. Both of them had their hoods on. I then looked at the other two. One was male, the other female, and they were holding hands. I laughed audibly at the idea of Murry going on a double date. The boy had short, light blonde hair, spiked up to the side a little. He also had cross-shaped earrings in. The girl had shoulder-length black hair with yellow highlights, and a yellow-orange patterned jacket.

Something about that girl struck me as off, though. I felt almost nostalgic, as if I’d seen her face before. I returned the locket to Murry, who had managed to put on his hoodie over the shirt. He tucked his locket under his hoodie and scowled at me playfully.

“Hey. Who’s the girl in the locket?” I asked him, still astounded I was speaking. I didn’t know whether it was some sort of temporary effect, but I’d forgotten all my fears, at least for a moment. I was strictly in a state of wonder and curiosity. I realized this might have been one of the effects of the virus, but I didn’t care. If I could have a good time again, I would die for it.

Murry tilted his head. “It’s, uh, Sammy. She had her wings tucked in her jacket, but it was her…”

“No, I knew that was Sammy. The other girl. Who is she?” I clarified.

Murry swallowed. “She was a friend of ours before we got forced out. I don’t know what happened to her after. For all I know, she’s… she might be dead,” he answered.

“What was her name?”

“Why do you want to know her name…?”

“I feel like I’ve seen her before.”

Murry tilted his head like he had in the photograph. “There’s no way you would’ve. I mean, she used to live near Serpho, she told me, but there’s no way you could’ve-”

“Just tell me her name,” I cut him off. He stammered for a moment, then sighed.

“Her name was Arufa.”

So that was how I knew her.

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