31 Mar Chameleon
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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
The clock had just struck two in the morning. It was what these two young men thought would be the end of another merry night off from the classes at Dourmsburg University. Leaving the small diner containing a translucent sheet of cigarette smoke, they were hardly aware of what waited for them in the whispering winter.
Hardly avoiding tripping over the last step out of the diner from a growing sense of fatigue, the buzzcut redhead giggled, “Whoops.”
Putting his black, weatherproof, fleece-lined jacket over his baby blue polo shirt, the other young college boy asked, “You okay there, Will?” He brushed off the snow that began to gently fall in his head of short, brown hair.
“Yeah.” The redhead in a matching coat, as if they were subtly members of a small cult, inquired back, “I’m just tired.” Stretching open his eyelids with his fingertips, he went on. “You know, Eddie, no matter how many times I crash, I never seem to learn my lesson.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow as the two of them walked through the three inches of snow along the parking lot, giving a tiny smirk. “From all the energy drinks?” He squinted at the few cars still sitting in the dimly-lit, snowy parking lot. “I’m not sure about the food we had though.”
“Why not? What was wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. The burger I got felt like it had a couple tiny, round, hard things in it.”
Will scoffed. “Dipshit, those are called sesame seeds.”
“No, like in the meat itself.”
“You didn’t say anything about it?”
“Those were probably just spices. I mean, I ordered one of their Atomic Burgers.”
The bricktop’s tone turned somber. “That still doesn’t sound normal to me.”
“I’ve had it in food from time to time, and nothing bad’s ever happened.” Eddie shrugged. “I doubt it’s a big deal.”
“Well, all right. You know your body better than I would.”
The only lighting nearby was from the glowing insides of the small Luke’s Diner. Although the “U” in the sign flickered as they stood on top of the snow, its buzzing, red neon light wasn’t potent enough to catch their attention. As that piece of the sign for the twenty-four hour a day restaurant watched apathetically at their confusion, the freezing wind blew harder. It wasn’t nearly to the point of inhibiting one’s sight, but strong enough to illustrate the harshness of the cold to the two boys.
Will, shoving his hands in his corduroy pant pockets, exclaimed, “Come on, we need to find the damn car already! We’re supposed to make it by morning!”
“We’re fine, all right?” He put his right hand a millimeter in front of his temple, shielding himself from the wind. Looking at the few cars still parked along the white-blanketed pavement, he spotted the one trunk not layered in snow. Although the parking lot hardly had any light to pierce through the angry, ebony sky Eddie noticed a glimmer from the blue paint of what he guessed was his trunk. He deducted that since the other cars looked a bit more like massive, white lumps, it was most likely what he was looking for.
Sprinting over to what he assumed was the new Hyundai his father bought for him, Eddie was followed by Will by proxy. The redhead rushed over to the passenger’s side. He clenched the lever to open the door, as though simply gripping the freezing piece of metal would make it unlock any faster.
The buzzcut redhead shouted as the bitter wind still managed to crawl up his sleeves, “Unlock the door already!” His flesh, although exposed to the winter cold for less than a minute since eating, shivered beyond control.
“Wait a sec, will you?” The ring of keys retrieved from his pocket, the brunet pointed a palm-sized, oval-shaped, electronic device at the car. He pushed one of the buttons on it, making the car cry a high pitched whoop.
Will was the first to climb it, frantically swinging the car door closed upon sitting down. There was a breeze of warm relief floating in his head at hearing his friend turn on the engine. The warmth spread out, melting the icy touch against his bony hands from hearing the heater starting to run. Still shivering, he turned his head to the left to see what would only provoke exasperation. “What the Hell are you doing!?”
Having just lit a cigarette, Eddie turned to his right with a slightly dumbfounded look on his face. The driver’s door still open, bits of white were flying their way in. In the rough wind, the door swayed back and forth by only an inch or two. The coat the brunet had on, however, wasn’t shivering nearly as much, and seemed to be thick enough for Eddie not to feel a thing that might be crawling along his back.
“What?” The driver shoved his lighter and pack of smokes back in his pant pocket. “I just want a cig before we head all the way towards Erie. You’re not exactly a fan of tobacco.”
“Then do it outside!” Facing away from his buddy, Will wrapped his arms around his torso. “Bad enough the weather’s like this. Now you’re bringing it in the car when we should be warming up.”
“Ugh, whatever.” Rubbing the tip of his cancer stick against the snowy ground, Eddie stuck the remainder of it back into the box it came from. He shut the door, and held his right foot against the brake.
Although he saw nothing that could’ve made such a sound, Will faintly heard a low hiss. Gripping his knees, the image of a snake having snuck in came into his mind’s eye. A small, jittering morsel of his brain projected this serpent to be hiding along the floor of the car, between his friend’s snow boots. While this limbless demon tasted the air around its head, it stealthily crawled over Eddie’s right boot. Its lifeless, grey eyes illuminated towards the redhead’s feet. There was a slightly louder hiss as the reptile’s ebony body snuck closer to his dress shoes. Approaching and swirling around his left ankle just once, the creature shook its tongue frequently. Despite the cloth covering Will’s leg, the reptile could taste the particles of salt coating the little hairs on his skin. It was intoxicating. Its dead eyes stared through the corduroy, and its forked tongue was tasting the air just in front of it by the second. The demon opened its mouth to the cold flesh waiting to be bitten into. Long, wet fangs dripped with molecules of venom, capable of dissolving muscle tissue on its own.
At the nanosecond it took for this animal’s venom to reach down to the tips of its upper fangs, the youth frantically shook his leg. With the realization of whether or not something really was crawling up his ankle, he finally managed to look down. Nothing.
Eddie was already looking to his right with his eyes widened. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I just… What’s that hissing?”
“Oh, just the heater. Why?”
“I’ve never heard your car make that sound before.”
“Well, yeah. The car’s bound to sound a little different during the winter.”
“You’re sure that’s it?” Not once during this conversation did he look back at the driver.
“Yeah? Is that why you were shaking your leg like that?”
“Um…” Will swallowed the little saliva remaining in his mouth. It would’ve made less sense to say “yes” than to tell him about the imaginary snake about to bite into his skin. “No. I just… I thought I felt something on my leg. That’s all.”
“Yeah, that’s the heater. I have it set to defrost the windshield, and blow against our legs.”
The buzzcut’s eyes went to Eddie, attempting to appear as normal behavior. “How far is Erie from here again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a little over two hours?”
“Oh.” He wrapped his arms around his torso even tighter than before.
“You’re not having second thoughts now of all time, are you? We haven’t seen our old roommates from school since they transferred from Dourmsburg. I mean, Brent’s staying at his girlfriend’s house, and that’s a drive away. If you talked me into it though, I’m not letting you back down.” He gave a tiny chuckle.
Shaking his head, Eddie smirked. “I still wonder how you talked me into doing this? Normally, I’d be back home, studying instead.”
“Like we both said though, it’s been a while. It’s Winter Break anyway. We don’t really need to study again until we’re back in class.”
“For someone so tense, you take college pretty lightly.” The driver looked away from his passenger, and to the tranny. Shifting it into reverse, he looked at the rear window, as though he could actually see through it.
“Oh, excuse me for having a B average. I doubt that’ll stop me from getting a good job after graduation.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
As they slowly pulled out from their parking space, the buzzcut looked at the remaining frost on the windshield. The windshield had to have been covered by maybe seventy-five percent. It wasn’t in much of a certain pattern either. The thin ice took on scattered shapes that more more than large and thick enough for the passenger to not be able to see much of anything.
“Um, shouldn’t we wait for the car to heat up a little longer?” He asked, looking at the mostly opaque frost.
“Nah, we’ll be fine.” Eddie, still with a frustrated expression, ducked his head by a couple inches. He squinted, looking through the parts of the windshield not layered in ice. “Besides, it’ll warm up faster while we’re driving anyway.”
“You sure you can see fine?”
“Yes. Relax, will you?” Pulling back a lever next to the steering wheel sprayed a miniature cascade of windshield washer fluid. It melted only a smaller portion of the ice coating the windshield, but enough for the driver not to lower his head anymore while moving down the dark pavement.
Reaching the highway, the speed of the vehicle crept up to a quivering fifty-nine miles per hour. The falling snow hit the glass barrier between the boys and barren black with more wrathful winds. Breathing against the metal harder than a terribly hungered maniac, the frozen wind sounded as if it were screaming muted words of warning.
Will could barely make out the signs himself, but the first green exit of their path sped up to them. It was the only quick exit back towards Dourmsburg, and its university. Upon passing the sign, and then the several buildings scattered in a disorganized circle like a sophisticated village, the buzzcut looked at them the entire time of passing them. He looked at the lights glowing in the black night from the inside of those buildings, pondering what sort of soiree his fellow students were having. He watched as the haven from whatever scornful dread the brutal cold had to offer disappeared into the black as they continued riding.
With the place of the buzzcut redhead’s future, as well as his careless pleasure lost in the ocean of night, he heard the hiss once more. Although he was certain it was the heater blowing along the car floor, a little bit of him thought his ears caught the sound from the back of his friend’s seat. Observing the tiny vicinity to his left, he looked around Eddie’s form. Just as before, he didn’t spot any extra rider with them. Even though his eyes caught no living creature in that spot, he silently swore that was where the noise spawned from. It would plague his thoughts increasingly along the ride. After all, how would the heater suddenly emanate hot air through only the driver’s seat? It was set for merely defrosting the windshield, and blowing heat along the car floor. He looked at the knob and the icons around it to show its settings. Yeah, it was only set for those two parts of the car.
The taste of paranoia only kept Will wide awake for the moment though. After several minutes further down the infinite highway, he began to nod off. Before all around him could transform into a lovely void of relieving sleep, the tires of the Hyundai gave a short, hideous screech. His eyes only really jerked open when the car swerved to right, tossing his body off balance. The force shoving Will onto his side, he looked towards his friend. There were howling images of what he imagined moments ago being true, and it having bitten Eddie.
Briefly ignoring the intense soreness in his left shoulder, he cried, “What the… Eddie!?”
With a startled expression, the driver looked back at him. “Oh, sorry about that. Wasn’t trying to wake you.”
“What was that? You okay?” His eyes frantically shifting around his friend’s form, Will saw no apparent harm done.
“Yeah. Sorry, almost missed the exit to 79 North.”
The redhead’s eyebrows and jaw dropped. “Really?”
“Jesus, and I thought something was actually wrong.”
“Oh no, we’re fine.”
“Yeah, except the roads are still frozen! Why don’t you make us crash before we get there!?”
Eddie’s voice turned much quieter. “Sorry.” For the next couple minutes, the only sounds were from the engine humming, the tires rolling along the snow, and the windshield wipers swaying at full speed.
“Whatever.” Will sat back up, and looked at the angry snowfall just outside. “Just be more careful.”
“Actually, um…” As he went on, the driver’s tone normalized. “I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”
“Hmm?” The passenger’s eyes shifted back to his friend’s face instantly.
“Have you been watching the news lately?” Eddie gently held his stomach with one hand. He gripped it as if it were falling apart, and his attempts to hold it in one piece were becoming more useless by the second.
“Can’t say I have. I mean, it’s usually all the same. Why?” Although it probably wasn’t going to be too concerning or pleasant, the passenger couldn’t help feeling a seeded curiosity. It wasn’t the sort of subject his companion would bring up often at all.
“Apparently, this breed of snake was just discovered.”
Merely at the word “snake,” Will dragged himself closer to the car door. “Oh?”
“Yeah, it’s called the ‘Chameleon Snake’, and a few people in Pennsylvania were just hospitalized and killed from its bite.”
“Really?” Will’s breathing turned heavy with the thought. “Where in PA?”
“A bit South of Dourmsburg, closer to Philly. The news report was saying that their reproduction rate is nearly that of the common housefly.” Similar to Will’s, the brunet at the wheel’s breaths were becoming heavier. However, they were far slower, as if trying to calm waving tides in his organs.
Raising an eyebrow, the passenger inquired, “You all right?”
A sickly belch forced its way up Eddie’s throat. “Yeah, just don’t feel too good. I’m a little nauseous. I’ll be fine.”
“If you need to puke or something, I won’t get mad if you pull over.”
“Heh, I’d hope not. Anyway, like its name, it can blend in perfectly with the color of its environment, and survive in both warm and cold temperatures.”
“How? Snakes are cold-blooded. It sounds like bullshit to me.”
“Typically, but this animal’s mesothermic. It can use its metabolism to heat up its body. The venom’s kind of unique though.”
It still sounded a bit too wild for the redhead to completely believe. Eddie was the biology major though, and Will noticed through rooming with him, the evidently sickly driver always did his research. “Why’s that?”
“Usually, a snake bite causes feverish symptoms: swelling, pain at the bite, blurry vision, numbness, nausea.”
Hearing “nausea,” the passenger’s paranoia transformed into being far sharper in taste. “Wait, nausea?”
The driver rolled his eyes. “For fuck’s sake, Will, I wasn’t bitten by anything. If I were bitten by something, especially a snake, I think I would’ve noticed. A snake biting you is definitely something you’d feel. I just have an upset stomach. It’s probably just a little food poisoning. Damn burger at Luke’s probably did it. I didn’t notice anything wrong with it at the diner, but I wouldn’t be that surprised. A friend of mine got a little food poisoning from their food a little while back too. It’s the first time it’s happened to me, but it was probably still a bad idea. Frankly, I’m surprised you’re not sick too.”
“No, just… Just a little scared. You sure you’re all right?”
“Okay. Okay. Sorry. What were you saying?”
“It’s fine. The poison is a little unique because it didn’t display any of those symptoms in the victims, except one of them. They just felt nauseated. No vomiting though. Everyone’s blood actually froze up from it though. The venom’s made up of a strange chemical composition. What makes it even scarier is that sometimes, it lays eggs in living flesh”
“Holy Hell… How would it do that?”
“Not sure. Maybe raw meat? I mean, uncooked flesh is still technically alive for a short time. The weirdest thing about the venom though, is how the composition changes.”
“Hold on, it changes?”
“Yeah. Scientists started experimenting with it to try to develop an anti-venom from it. They didn’t manage to do that, but found that the effects change from heat. When they had the venom at room temperature, the composition changed underneath a microscope. When it came into contact with a small, controlled sample of blood, the blood itself started boiling. The petri dish it was on started shattering from it.”
By that point, Will was as backed up into the car door as his body would allow. “Yeah.” He gave an insincere chuckle. “Just had to be goddamn snakes.”
“Sorry, not trying to scare you, but…” A more violent belch spewed from the driver. “I just got concerned, and I’m trying to tell people. I’m just concerned, you kn…” Eddie was panting. Breaths were going in and out of his body at a tempo of desperation. “Oh, Jesus, we need to stop!” Hitting the brakes fast enough to try not to puke in the vehicle, but gently enough not to slide too much, Eddie panted harder.
Although he gave what he thought was good judgment, the car still slid about half a foot while they slowed down to the shoulder of the road. Just barely avoiding hitting the guardrail to their right, the sick student forced his door open, and walked up next to the empty pavement. Bent over, the hot, bubbling contents of his stomach splattered out of his body. From his mouth, the somewhat acidic ooze melted through the ice just in front of him.
The passenger covered his ears at the painful groans from his friend. He waited, saying nothing. Even after Eddie was finished emptying his stomach, and spitting what remainders he could get out of his mouth, the redhead didn’t say anything. At first, he just sat there, startled not only at his friend’s apparent illness, but how Eddie gave it no further reaction.
He waited until Eddie continued driving, sighed, smirked, and said, “That feels better.”
“Christ… You sure about that?”
“Oh yeah. I just…” The confident grin dissipated from his visage. He stayed silent, staring directly forward. With the silence, the confident college student’s mouth gradually lowered, hanging and completely let go.
“Just what?” Will just sat there for a second, expecting his friend to say something back. “Eddie?” He gently shook the brunet’s shoulder. “Eddie? Hey, Eddie, what’s wrong?” He turned his head to face the same direction the driver was staring in, trying to find an object of attention. There was only the windy, snowy road that seemed to go on forever. He pointed his increasingly growing panic at Eddie, noticing that the driver didn’t even blink since the beginning of his silence. “Come on, Eddie, don’t fuck with me. This isn’t funny.” Another few seconds of thinking perhaps the driver was trying to pull some inept joke. Will’s vivid recollection reminded him that throughout the years of knowing one another, Eddie never did such a thing. “Eddie, what’s wrong!?”
Just as the passenger was taking out his cell phone to call for an emergency, he noticed the flux of the road before them. They were quickly approaching a slight turn to the right. The driver’s hands weren’t corresponding though.
“Jesus, Eddie, turn! What are you…” The brunet’s flesh had already grown unusually pale. The whiteness of his skin was nearly that of the snow outside of the Hyundai, speeding at a solid sixty miles per hour.
Just as the panicking student looked back through the windshield, all his eyes picked up was the guardrail. The front of the new car smashed and smoking against the edge of the highway, Will found himself lying against the airbag. His phone was anywhere near his hand, or his sight. A throbbing, crushing pain pulsed through his head and spine. He squirmed about, panting heavier than ever before. He found himself able to move his arms, neck, and head, but not without the sharp sting of pain. His legs were immobile though. As far as the passenger could tell, they had no feeling whatsoever.
That was only the concern for the moment though. He looked again to Eddie’s motionless form. Thinking that perhaps his friend simply went unconscious somehow, he grabbed the driver’s wrist. The feeling was cold, far more so than the touch of any human flesh his fingers have touched before. Nonetheless, Will pushed his thumb on his friend’s wrist. No pulse. Maybe his thumb was simply in the wrong spot. Several more attempts at finding a pulse, and there was still none.
The frozen husk was gazing into Will’s eyes. The corpses eyes and jaw were still open, as though trying to shriek in pain, or fear. Although he was dead, the passenger could hear something airy seeping from his mouth. It wasn’t the sound of a man’s breath though. The sound wasn’t nearly heavy enough. Tears starting to rise to the survivor’s eyes, he suspected that the sound was nothing more than a product of denial. He completely came to the conclusion that it wasn’t simply wishing that Eddie really was still breathing.
The focal point of his attention changed with the sound of the apparent breathing. It was indeed not that of a man. It was in fact a low hiss. As the passenger listened for a moment in disbelief, it only grew louder.
A narrow mass approached the edge of Eddie’s mouth, and began to poke out. A smack of hard confusion struck Will as to how his friend’s tongue was suddenly beginning to hang out. “E… Eddie?”
There was no response. The narrow heap of flesh pointed at the only survivor. Two dark, circular shapes, one at both sides of what was presumed to be the driver’s tongue, appeared. The dead-colored grey of them glared at Will, a small, forked tongue shaking in the air before it.
The clearly living mass showed much more length as it sunk from the corpse’s frozen jaw. At seeing the serpent, Will desperately whimpered against to the door. Unlocking the car door, he finally witnessed the end of the serpent drop from Eddie’s jaw as the creature drew nearer to him. Slithering to the crippled student’s seat, the serpent proved to have been a good three and a half feet in length. As the demon more frequently tasted the air before it, its color immediately changed from that of the corpse’s tongue to that of the car seats.
Opening the way back into the angry, frozen outside, something else sunk from the edge of Eddie’s mouth. Much smaller devils of the very same shape and changing hue of the snake approaching Will crawled onto the floor. Without a second’s hesitation, they followed their leader.
Well aware he wasn’t able to run or even walked, he dropped from the car to the highway shoulder. The wind was at its most furious. The velocity of the falling snow was nearly blinding the survivor. Moving at an unbearably slow pace, he put one hand in front of his face, blocking a fraction of the ice crystals. The other was only struggling to drag his limp body.
There were occasional headlights that made themselves visible at the black horizon. Will waved his arms about, but he didn’t see any of the cars stop. They didn’t even slow down, and the wind from them sliced into his face.
Between every rare chance at being picked up, he continued to drag himself down the highway. There were no exit signs anywhere near him though. Nevertheless, he squirmed along the frozen pavement as the group of snakes crawled up his legs.
Credit To – Dylon Winfield