You wake up from your glutinous post-Thanksgiving haze to find Mamaw’s house deserted. You call and call, but no one answers. In the dining room, where once a great feast was laid out, now, there are strange red splotches — they almost look like slime trails. Or maybe they’re blood trails. You’re kind of freaking out. You try your cell, but there’s no service.
The last thing you remember was eating — the turkey and sides were great. The cranberry sauce was from a can, so you didn’t have any, but several other people tried it. Probably everyone; you don’t know. The pies were good, except the pumpkin, which was pumpkin. You sat in a chair in the living room and must’ve fallen asleep. And then, whatever this was happened.
You toast a frozen waffle as a hair of the dog breakfast and check the social media for news. except you can’t check social media for news, because the internet seems to be down. You were concerned before, but this really makes you scared. You fiddle with the TV for several minutes, trying to find an actual channel, and when you do, none of them is broadcasting. You vaguely remember that Mamaw has a landline in the kitchen. You tell it to call Mamaw, but that doesn’t work. Then, you remember that you have to actually pick it up and dial it. You’re not sure your fingers will even work that way, but when you pick it up, you realize it’s not working either. Assuming you were listening to the right end.
You decide to go outside. Maybe you can drive to a police station or a hospital or Facebook headquarters to find out what’s up. Outside, it’s pandemonium. There are red splotches everywhere and no sign of people. Smoke rises from fires you can’t see. Cars are overturned. It looks like some kind of war has been happening, and somehow you slept through it.
The door to the house across the street is open. You cross and knock on it, which pushes it further open. You call out as you step inside. The scene is just like the one you left behind: red splotches and those weird trails everywhere. No signs of people — until you see something under the table. It looks like part of the turkey fell under there. You squat down to look closer and realize it has fingers. It’s someone’s left hand. No ring, you notice. What a shame. It’s been a dry spell. You don’t know what to do with this information, so you go back outside to catch your breath.
Mamaw, Uncle Joe, Aunt Peggy, their kids Joe Jr. and Sue, your cousin Tony, that weird guy nobody seemed to actually know who was wearing khakis and kept talking about The Big Band theory; what happened to them? Maybe it was the weird guy, but he couldn’t possibly have done all this. Could he? You’re terrified, freaking out, and generally have no idea what to do. You go back across the street and get in the car but realize you have no idea how to get anywhere without a GPS. You go anyway, driving slowly down the street, windows down, looking for anything.
You’re cruising, panicking, looking all around, when you see movement. Somebody runs out in front of you. It’s the weird guy! He’s shouting something, but you gun it past him. You’re pretty much convinced he killed everyone, so no way are you letting him in your car. In the rearview, you can see him standing in the road. He looks around and then jogs back toward a house. A moment later, he runs back out, really booking it, toward your car, up the street, where you’ve slowed. As you watch, something huge and red comes out from the houses. It doesn’t seem to be walking but sliding, like a giant slug.
The weird guy gets in, yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” and hitting the dashboard. The red slug is moving up the road toward you. The weird guy shakes you, and you hit the gas, still watching the thing in the rearview. It’s only luck that you don’t slam into something. The weird guy screams, and your eyes snap to the road ahead just in time for you to swerve to avoid an abandoned car.
The slug is no longer visible in the rearview. You try to catch your breath. “What the fuck was that?” you say.
“It’s the sauce, man. The sauce,” the weird guy says.
You glance at him. “What?”
“The cranberry sauce!” He screams. “It’s eating them!”
“What?” You say again. “Eating who?”
“Everybody,” he says.
“Mamaw?” You say. “The kids?”
“All gone, man.”
“Did you…did you see it?”
He nods. “Yeah,” he says, his voice flat. “I saw it.”
His tone makes you not want to ask anything else, so you’re both quiet for a moment.
“What do we do now?” you ask.
The weird guy doesn’t say anything for a moment, then, “I think I know a place.”
He starts giving you directions. Every place you pass is completely deserted. You go by more overturned, smoldering cars, an occasional a big red splotch on the side of the road. There are more fires somewhere in the distance.
You’ve been driving for a couple of hours when the gas tank light pings on. You look at Weird Guy. “We’re going to need to stop for gas.”
Weird Guy grimaces. “Alright, but we have to be careful. After what I’ve seen…”
“Right, right. Hey, listen,” you say, “Can you at least tell me your name?”
“Yeah, okay.” He pauses. “Call me Tom.”
“Your name’s Tom?”
He looks over at you, “That’s right. My name is Tom. We good?”
“Sure.” Somehow, you liked it better when he was Weird Guy.
A gas station comes up on your left and you swing into it. You’re about to get out when Tom says “I got it. You stand watch” He jumps out, looking around nervously, heading for the rear of the car. As he spins the gas cap open, he also reaches over and lifts the nozzle off the pump and sticks it into the gas tank opening. Then he turns back to the pump and pulls a big screwdriver out of his pocket. What is he doing? Tom jams the screwdriver into the credit card slot and twists it. The gas pump starts binging. You look over at the gas station building. It’s dark inside. But there’s some kind of splotch on the window, and you shiver. At the top of the window it says GUNS AND AMMO.
“Watch for the stuff,” Tom says.
When Tom gets back into the passenger seat, you say maybe we should get some guns and point to the window. Tom sighs. “I don’t think that’s going to do a lot of good against cranberry sauce, do you?” His question hangs in the air. You start the car, neither of you talking any more.
You drive maybe two more hours and suddenly Tom leans forward and points. “See that road on the left up ahead? Turn in there.” You make the turn onto an unimproved road. The car bounces over ruts. There’s a wooden sign in the distance. When you get close you can read that it says “White Ridge Indian Reservation. Home of the…” and then you’re past before you can make out the rest.
“An Indian reservation?”
Tom nods. “Do you know how many native Americans celebrate Thanksgiving?”
“Uh, I never thought about it.”
“Uh-huh. Well, the answer is not a hell of a lot. It’s more like a national day of mourning.”
“Yeah. You can be sure that, either way, these folks are not going to have a lot of goddamn cranberry sauce on hand. I do have a couple of friends here, though.”
The road ahead is dirt, and has so many potholes you have to slow to a crawl. It cuts through the landscape with big cliffs on the left side that drop away to a ravine on the right. It’s time to get some answers.
You say, “Look, I don’t mean to be nosey, but who the hell are you? What were you doing at our Thanksgiving dinner?”
Tom nods. “Okay, fair enough. Your Uncle Joe and I were in the national guard together. I liked it, sort of, and went Army. But he and I kept in touch. I just got back from overseas about a month ago. I don’t have any family to speak of, so I called up your uncle and kind of invited myself over for Thanksgiving. I was hoping for a bit of, I don’t know, normalcy, even if it was some other family. That didn’t work out, did it? Jesus.” Tom gestures toward the windshield. “These guys I know, we were in Iraq together.”
“You were in Iraq?”
“Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen…”
“Yemen? I didn’t know we were in Yemen.”
“Ah, sorry. I meant Bremen,” he coughs, “On leave.”
You’re pretty sure now that “Tom” was something other than a regular non-comm. Maybe a Jack Ryan type. Or black ops. Whatever he is, he’s probably saved you from being eaten at least twice. So you drop it.
You come around a curve and slam on your brakes. The cliffs tower on either side, here, and someone has laid big logs across the road, wrapped with barbed wire and wooden stakes pointing out. The roadblock covers the road entirely, nestled between the cliffs.
“Maybe they already know about,” you say.
Tom shakes his head slowly, staring at it. “That won’t do any good against the sauce.” He adds, “But it will keep people out.”
You and Tom both get out and approach it. A gunshot rings out, kicking up dust in front of you. Tom’s hands jerk up, as do yours.
“We don’t want any trouble,” Tom calls out.
“Then you best turn around and go back the way you came,” a voice says.
“I’m looking for a couple people. Able Strange Owl and his brother Sherman,” Tom calls out.
The voice doesn’t answer for a moment. You can hear voices arguing but can’t make out the words.
“There’s nothing for you here,” the voice calls out.
“Do you know what’s happening?” You say. “Everyone is dead. Something…killed them.”
“Not everyone,” the voice calls out.
“Please,” you say. “We need help.”
Something thuds to the road. You can’t tell where it came from. Tom approaches it, hands up.
“A blanket,” Tom says. “That’s funny!” He calls out.
“Nothing funny about it,” the voice says. “I suggest you leave.”
There’s more argument. Tom meets your eyes and quickly shakes his head, once. You both stand and wait. After a moment, you hear something else. A ladder appears, dropped down over the barbed wire. A man appears and climbs down it, wearing a backpack. Tom approaches him and the two hug.
“Able!” Tom says. “What’s going on?”
Able glances up the cliff. You follow his gaze, but see nothing but trees.
“You’re alive,” Able says. “That means you ate the sauce.”
You look at Tom, who looks as confused as you feel. “Yeah,” Tom said. “I tried it.”
“Yeah,” you add.
Able nods. “It spared you because it saw itself in you. But it won’t last unless you keep eating it.” He takes the backpack off and pulls a can out. It’s cranberry sauce. You both step back. “It’s okay,” he says. “It’s inert when it’s in the can.” Neither you nor Tom will accept the proffered backpack, so he sets it on the road. “You only need to eat a couple spoonfuls every day. Keep the rest in the can. You can get more at the store. It’s all the same. They — we — got to all of them.”
Tom takes this all in. “Able,” he says, “how the hell did this happen? We’ve been eating cranberries since, well, to bring up a sore point, the pilgrims. Who weaponized Thanksgiving?” He looks up at the barricade. “You, ah, you all didn’t have anything to do with this, did you?”
Able shakes his head. “Nah, man. This is end of the world stuff. I have some theories, though. All the environmental deregulation and gutting of the EPA that’s been done in the last few years. Who knows what’s getting into the water these days, into the cranberry bogs? Chemicals, radioactive isotopes, biowarfare crap? So, yeah, don’t lay this on we noble indigenous, Tom. This is what the white man’s been doing since he got here.”
He turns back to the ladder. At the top, he turns back to Tom. “I’m sorry, man. That’s all I can do.” He stays there for a moment, looking like he wants to say more. Then he climbs the rest of the way up and over and pulls the ladder up behind him.
You both stare at the backpack for a long moment, and then Tom picks it up and gets back in the car. You follow, start it, and turn around.
* * *
It’s Tom’s idea to go door-to-door, looking for survivors. There are fewer than you expected. It seems like most people really don’t like cranberry sauce. You raid every grocery store you come to. It’s enough for now, but as you find more and more survivors, things start to look desperate. It’s Tom’s idea, again, to head to north and find a cranberry plantation. That next fall, you harvest a bumper crop. It feels good to eat them fresh, instead of out of a can, for once. That night, the remaining berries merge and mutate. The sauce monsters devour more than half of your people.
“The can,” you say. “Able said something about the can.” The survivors find a cranberry processing plant. The berries must be canned after they’re harvested. It’s a hard lesson, but one you won’t forget. When you’re safe, you can figure out why.
* * *
A few years later, you and Tom decide to journey back to the city, where it all began. Everything is dead, except the sauce monsters, who roam the streets freely. You ride out to the reservation. It’s still blocked off. No one shoots at you. Maybe they moved on. You’ve thought about that encounter with Able a million times. You don’t even know what you expected to find, here. Answers. You’re not sure that you’re willing to trespass, considering. You and Tom get back on your horses and head home. You have a family, there. A life. For as long as you can keep the cans full.