The Ugly Beginnings
I ain’t no hero. I never thought of being one. When I was young, I didn’t dream about being a police or fireman. I never considered joining the military, even after 9-11 when so many others my age flocked to the recruiter’s office.
Hell, I was the guy who picked a desk in the middle of the classroom on the first day of school when all the Brains rushed for front row seats and the Jocks and Stoners roamed to the back. I didn’t play sports, at least not in any organized way. When sides were chosen (even if it was just a pick–up game with my buddies), I was pointed out someplace in the middle. Sometimes I would pull off a play in football, basketball, kickball…whatever, which was only amazing because it was me doing it.
I had my share of girlfriends. I lost my virginity my senior year. On prom night. To a girl who played flute in the high school marching band. Her name was Kerri or Kathy … or Kari or Cathy.
So you’re starting to get the point. Right?
I worked in an office complex after I graduated college … B minus GPA. Never married, but I was engaged a few times. My one bedroom apartment was small, but it suited me and my dog just fine. Well, that was until the horror movies jumped off the screen and landed right in the middle of an atypically unbelieving real world.
Some of the stuff about zombies proved to be true.
Most of how humanity was predicted to act was drastically underestimated. The best. The worst. Sometimes I wonder how in the hell we’ve survived as a species.
That will likely be answered definitively sooner than I would like.
It may seem corny, but no one I’ve met since it began could give me a solid answer as to how it all rolled into motion. Sure, there are theories; Government Bio-weapon gone awry, Super-virus, alien particles from space, demons from hell, and global warming. Each gets equal billing when you hear the topic come up. Maybe it’s a mix of all of the above. Or, maybe God got tired of us messing up his toy. And if you don’t believe in God…well then you can refer back to the list and pick your favorite. Honestly, I don’t give a damn. I’m too tired from running. How I ended up leading a band of survivors in this Romero-Hell is my new reality. The time for blame has long passed.
Since things began, I’ve seen…we’ve all seen…things best forgotten. Yet, I, as well as anybody still alive, know that forgetting is impossible. The best you can hope for now is sleep without the nightmares coming back to refresh those images you desperately try to shove in a hard to reach spot in your mind. There are some things that the movies missed, or could not accurately convey. The biggest would be the smell, that, and the psychological toll of hearing a person scream as they are ripped apart and fed upon.
** ** ** **
“…seem to see no pattern in what is being called The Blue Plague, due to the discoloration common in the final stages where it is theorized that the body is starved for oxygen.”
“Sars. West Nile. Crap. What’s next?” I turned off the television and tossed the remote onto a stack of unread magazines on my coffee table.
Pluck, my Bassett hound, twitched a big, floppy ear and closed his eyes in disinterest. I scratched him behind one of those ears, which earned one of those contented doggie sounds.
I got off the couch and made one of those habitual trips to the fridge. I popped it open knowing deep down that I didn’t really want anything. A thud from the living room signaled that Pluck was on his way, just in case I might produce some tasty treat that would undoubtedly be shared. I’m pretty sure Pavlov’s dogs are hidden somewhere in Pluck’s family tree.
As is often the case when I’m about to make a major life choice, this one being left-over Chinese take-out, or last night’s pizza, the phone rang. I passed Pluck just as his paws smacked the linoleum with a scrabble of clicking claws that were in dire need of trimming. His exasperated huff caused his thick jowls to flutter.
“Yeah?” No need for formality since I could see Bill Wright, a friend of mine’s name, in the caller ID on my phone.
“Steve, are you watching this?” My friend Bill was naturally excitable, but something in his voice was off.
“Is this sports related?” I made no attempt to hide how totally not interested I was. “Unless it involves a female gymnast losing some or all of her outfit-“
“Turn to Channel Seven now!”
The near hysterical timbre in his voice had me grabbing my remote before I realized it. I punched the buttons with my thumb. The green volume bar inched across the bottom of my screen as I tried to comprehend what I was seeing.
“…of the local police force along with a detachment from the National Guard have set up around the town’s perimeter. No contact has been established with any of the residents up to this point. Reports from the air indicate that there is an unlikely chance that survivors exist.”
The buzzing in my ear reminded me that I was still on the phone with Bill. Also, my arm was still extended towards the television. My hand was empty because, at some point, I had dropped the remote.
“Another 9/11?” I felt my chest tighten.
“I don’t think so,” Bill said. I could hear his keyboard rattling in the background. “This shit is all over the place. And not just in our country. It’s global!”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Straight-up horror movie shit!”
“Uh-huh.” My enthusiasm and interest began to recede quick.
“Dude, I’m totally serious! Packs of crazed people are going on rampages and just tearing people apart. YouTube already has like a thousand postings under “Zombie Attack” that show some twisted stuff. At least it did until the site locked up and crashed.”
“So you’re telling me that zombies are out there going all George Romero on the unsuspecting citizens of the world?” I was still watching my now muted television while sitting on my coffee table rubbing Pluck’s head as it rested on my knee. It wasn’t showing me any zombies, just a talking head and a caption that read: “Possible Small Town Epidemic”.
“If you saw any of these clips, you’d be grabbin’ a gun and headin’ to the nearest shopping mall!”
No, I didn’t believe Bill in the slightest. That was mostly due to the hours he and I and others spent imagining just such a scenario. Usually after viewing any of the ‘Dead’ flicks. Take your pick…Night, Dawn, Day, Land. Original. Remake. We’d seen them all enough to recite lines like Rocky Horror fans. It always led to the ‘what if’ conversation.
One of the oldest, most overused sayings is, “Be careful what you ask for…” You know the rest. So, I did what anybody else would do if their friend called to say that the zombies were coming. I hung up.
** ** ** **
Sometimes you will see something in life that makes you sad or think, “That’s just like that movie….” Or, if you’re the literary type, it could be in a book instead. I can say that I’ve read or seen lots of ‘zombiesque’ stuff over the years. I always thought it would be so cool. Of course I’d never go into that “dark place” that so many fall prey to. Plus, those zombies move so slow…at least until the British influence brought on the sprinting zombie. Man, am I glad they got that wrong.
** ** ** **
I went to bed watching Talk Show with Spike Ferensten. Overall, a normal Saturday night for me. Ironically, it was the utter darkness that woke me.
My eyes opened to that total blackness that modern man had grown so unaccustomed to. The first moments were disorienting. Usually there is a blue glow that filters through my curtains from a car rental place that casts its light on my closet door. I live near the airport, so I can count on two fingers the number of times I’ve lost power. Both times were due to terrible ice storms.
It was late April.
In the distance I heard sirens. That is nothing unusual near the airport at any time of day or night. So, I closed my eyes with the intention of going back to sleep. An unfamiliar growl signaled the change in my world…I just didn’t realize how drastic at that particular moment.
The growl changed register. Suddenly, my droopy-faced foot warmer of a dog began barking furiously. There was no mistaking the message.
I climbed out of bed and tried to creep to my bedroom doorway. If there was a creaky board in the floor that I missed, I’d be shocked. I peeked down the hallway. My front door was in a direct line of sight, and on the right was my living room window with the curtains closed. Through an arch on the left would be my kitchen and a much smaller window. My apartment was on the second floor and in the corner of the small thirty unit complex. Usually, at night, the big lit sign from the luxury hotel across the street shone brightly in my living room; even through closed curtains.
“Pluck!” I whispered.
I could see his dark shape, barely discernable against my front door in the blackness. The shape moved and was at my feet pushing against me with its bulky head. I reached down to scratch behind his ears and noticed that Pluck’s hackles were standing straight on end.
“What the hell?”
That was all I managed before something outside brushed up against my front door. In a flash my normally docile companion was lunging towards the door barking furiously. Not thinking, I ran after him yelling his name and that he quiet down.
A dull thud.
I moved my agitated dog aside with one leg and leaned over just enough to ease the curtains aside so that I could take a peek out my living room window. A man stood at my door. To be more precise, he was leaning against it with his back to me. That was the first time I got a hint of that smell.
I watched as one hand raised and brushed the doorknob. It fell listlessly back to his side. My first thought was that this guy had been hurt and was seeking help. He wore coveralls and a heavy utility jacket. I figured him to be from the power company.
There are moments in life that you never forget. Ones that never erase themselves from memory and end up in that permanent photo gallery your mind keeps. Some of those images blur over time. Others become glossier, as if they’ve received a bit of mental airbrushing. The first girl you kissed becomes a vision of pure beauty. That first car loses all the dents, dings, and rust spots.
Some memories do the opposite.
That body leaning against my door jerked like it was convulsing. The head snapped around so suddenly that I’m pretty sure I heard something pop…right before I screamed and fell backwards on my ass.
Something heavy struck my doorknob. That sound was like a slap on the face. I scrambled to my feet and did one of those stupid things I said I’d never do. You know what I am talking about. The person in the movie has to take that ‘one last look.’ “Of course that is usually when he or she gets their face eaten off.” So I pulled the curtain aside just enough to get that peek.
I know in my logical mind how dark it was that night. Over time, my mind has filled in the shadows. His name was Ed. I know that because it was embroidered on the left breast of his dark jacket with white thread. There was a milky film over his eyes that looked like a thin coat of Elmer’s wood glue. Black blood filled the vessels in his eyes which add a particularly nasty effect to that vacant soulless look that lets you know you’re dealing with a monster (oddly it is also a give away for somebody in the latter phases of infection.) The dark smears around his mouth are the bright red of arterial blood in my nightmares. Ed's mouth is open and his face is pressed against my living room window.
The apartments I called home for over a decade were not the greatest; leaky faucets, poor insulation, and cheesy carpet from an era that was long out of style way before I moved in. But back to the windows…they are thin enough that you can feel a cold breeze through them on a blustery fall or winter day. I knew seconds before it happened that the glass was not going to hold.
And just that quick, everything I knew, loved, did for fun…gone. My world had been shaken violently, and the pieces would never settle into anything resembling normal ever again.
Ed’s stench hit me hard. The smell was so thick that I could taste it in the back of my throat. Two things happened almost instantaneously; Pluck lunged at the body that was halfway through my living room window, and I puked. To say “vomited” or “threw up” would diminish the true nature of that moment. It was as if my stomach heaved so violently that my intestines reversed flow and joined in the event. My mouth and nose burned from the bile laced mixture that spewed from deep inside my guts. I staggered back, unable to see for a moment. Over the ringing in my ears I heard Pluck snarl and bark as he threw himself at the unnatural thing that threatened his master. I probably owe my life to that stupid dog.
His sudden yelp brought me back.
My eyes cleared, and I could see Ed holding something in his hands. It took another second to overcome the shock of what I was seeing. It held Pluck by a hind leg and his collar as it buried its face into that soft, warm, scratchable belly. When its head snapped up, long strands of skin and viscera pulled away. My best friend howled loud enough to drown out my own cry. But for a moment anyway, Ed was occupied.
God help me.
I scrambled for the door, fumbling with the lock for seconds which seemed eternal before I could yank it open, and I ran away. I ran away from my apartment. I ran away from all my stuff. I ran away from that smell of death, and blood, and puke. I ran away from Ed.
I ran away from Pluck!
At the bottom of the stairs was a small pink bicycle with training wheels. My mind held up a mental flash card of a tiny Mexican girl. She would ride that bike around the square inner courtyard of the complex. She always rang the little bell on her handlebars if she came up on somebody from behind. She would laugh.
So I ran.
I reached the parking lot and realized that I had never bothered to grab my keys. The stupid ones in the movies always go back. My mind flashed on that image of the Ed-thing taking a bite out of the middle of my dog. Every hero in the movies knows how to hotwire a car. I had no clue. I still wasn’t going back.
I stood there like an idiot for a moment then heard a low steady sound. The backside of my apartment complex’s parking lot is a steep tree-covered embankment. There is a wall made of river rock that forms about a five foot base before the earthen slope begins and rises up to the street above. That street is like a border between my apartments and a quiet residential neighborhood. Parked on the edge of that street, just through the trees that overhung most of the parking lot, was a big power company truck.
It was running!
Hoisting myself, and scrambling up the embankment I reached the road. Typical for this time of night (it was 3:42 am according to my watch) it was quiet. I sorta turned a slow circle to make sure all was clear. Farther down the road from me something may have moved in the darkness. I wasn’t about to wait and find out. Still, rushing to the truck without at least a little caution could be as fatal as a stroll down this road into the deep black shadows.
I moved out into the middle of the street so as to allow myself the greatest amount of open space, then crept towards the idling vehicle. A large dark smear marred the driver’s side door. I wondered briefly if it belonged to Ed…or worse…his co-worker. Just as I neared close enough to peer in the open window, a scream unlike anything I’d ever heard-before that night anyway–shattered the relative quiet. That piercing sound seemed to reach inside me and clamp down hard on my bladder.
Yeah. I wet my pants.
Now I realize that something like that never happens to action heroes. Well, I guaran-damn-tee that he or she never heard a scream like that before. Not for real anyways.
It sounded like a woman or a child.
I yanked open the truck door deciding it was time to move a little quicker. Thankfully, no surprises leapt out at me, and I slid into the cab. I took quick visual inventory; keys, big flashlight, clipboard, brown paper sack. Great.
I popped the column shifter into drive and stomped on the gas pedal while twisting the steering wheel hard left. Making a big U-turn, I raced to the corner, and did a bouncy power-slide left. Turning sharp left again, I dropped into the entry drive of my complex. I veered slightly left clipping a beat up Buick parked in the first tenant’s parking spot. The truck fishtailed the short length of the lot where an opening in the two-story building on my right indicated one of the entry breezeways. Slamming on the brakes, the truck screeched to a halt and banked right just enough to have the nose pointing into the void. I found the knob and pulled, turning on my headlights.
The scene in that dark tunnel-like breezeway threatened to cause another upheaval from my stomach. Ed, along with two more of those things were clawing at this short, pudgy, Mexican woman. One of them was tearing out a strand of intestine from a gaping hole in her abdomen. Another was jerking back with a chunk of left forearm between its teeth. Ed was on hands and knees chewing away at a thigh. Backing towards the steps was a little girl.
I struggled to remember the name I’d heard when her mom or dad had called for her. It was my little bicycle rider.
I leaned out the window and called her name. She spun, and I could see her clothing was splattered with blood.
Please don’t be a zombie.
The three things feasting on what I was pretty sure was her mom glanced up. Then went back to what they had been doing. Thalia, on the other hand, ran towards me.
Zombies don’t run. Right?
“Ayuda me, por favor! Ayuda mi mama, señior!”
“English, sweetie” I reached down and grabbed the tiny girl, yanking her rather unceremoniously though the window.
“Please to help my mama, Mister Steve!”
Her accent was kinda thick. “Mister” sounded like ‘meester’, but her family was the sort that worked hard at their English. Good thing, because my Spanish was limited to a poor Speedy Gonzalez impersonation.
She looked at me with large pleading eyes. I didn’t have time to explain. Besides, I felt that any help on behalf of her mama at this point would be useless. Mama was done. I shifted into reverse and backed out as quick, and still cautious, as I could. It would be really stupid to wreck now.
As the headlights drifted across that horrific scene, I took one more look. My mind was screaming that this could not possibly be happening the way I was seeing it. I slammed on the brakes causing Thalia to fly forward and hit her head on the dashboard. She started crying but I didn’t hear it. Creeping into the breezeway was a short squat shadowy figure.
I watched in painful fascination as my constant companion for so many years nosed into the body sprawled on the concrete. His head pulled back, and a flap of torn flesh hung from his mouth.
Slowly, I regained awareness of my surroundings. Tiny fists were pounding on my right shoulder. I glanced at Thalia in confusion as the sounds of her sobs poured into my consciousness. The blurred vision and burning sensation in my eyes made me realize that I was crying. But that wasn’t why the little girl was pummeling me.
A bloodless face stared at me through the closed window of the passenger side door. The mouth opened and pressed against the glass. My mind focused on the weirdest thing.
The window didn’t fog up! This thing’s mouth was all over the glass, and it wasn’t fogging up even a teensy bit. Crazy.
An equally pale hand with a chunk missing, and what looked like just a stub for a thumb smacked against the increasingly slime smeared window. I heard a rattle of the door handle. This thing was trying to open the door, albeit clumsily. Time to go!
I made sure I was still in reverse and goosed the accelerator. Our friend came with us as he still had a grip on the door handle. I swung around and brought that side of the truck almost flush with that rock wall. A gout of blackish fluid made a macabre Rorschach pattern on the glass. Thalia screamed again and was practically in my lap. Her arms clutched around my neck so that I had to crane around her to see. My head turned just enough so that I could see a shape rising in the shadows of the breezeway.
I eased the little girl down to my side and wrapped one arm protectively around her. She buried her face in my side and for that I am grateful. She didn’t need to see what was staggering our way. The thing outside the passenger’s side was not letting up in its effort to try and get at us, so I gave another tap on the gas. Gripping Thalia I hit the brakes and shifted back in to drive.
Directly in front of me was Pluck. Without any further thought I floored it. The time was long past to be outta here. The big truck lurched just a bit as our tag-along fell free and ended up under the rear wheels. Then the front sorta bounced like we’d hit a speed bump.
That ‘speed bump’ was the end of my boon companion. My best friend. My foot warmer. I looked in the rearview mirror long enough to know I’d crushed his head like a jack-o-lantern in November. My dog, good old Pluck, lay still in the middle of the Villa la Puerta apartment complex parking lot. I think in a lot of ways I was relieved.
One sentiment that popped up in most of the zombie books and movies was the desire to ensure friends and companions didn’t “come back.” I get it now. Not just the fact that I didn’t want him wandering around as one of them, it was much more. Honestly that thing wasn’t Pluck. It is just so vile to see somebody you knew and loved become a part of the cause. To think that his body would still be moving after his…essence?...soul?...whatever the hell you want to call it, is long gone. It just ain’t natural.
I pulled out onto the street just as I saw Thalia’s mom appear in my rearview mirror. I’m really glad that sweet little girl never saw what I did at that moment. What she had seen moments before, as well as what she would see in the next hours, days, weeks, would provide enough nightmare fodder.
I turned right. Away from the airport and towards the freeway seemed the best choice. A few blocks ahead I could see that the power was on! That held some definite plusses and minuses.
Plus – I could see. I did a quick look-over of Thalia. Not that I’m heartless, but I had to make sure. Thankfully, there were no bites or scratches. I was really hoping there weren’t any that I couldn’t see. Her face was nestled right in my side. If she turned…
Minus-I could see. Here and there, singles, doubles, and mini herds of those things were on the move. Or worse–feeding. Again, really glad Thalia couldn’t see this. A couple times I had to swerve to avoid one of those things as they wondered out into the street after the few passing cars. I saw no reason to play Death Race with…
Zombies. That’s it. That’s what they are, and I can’t avoid it. After Pluck and Thalia’s mom, I have no doubts that the dead, are in fact, returning. For whatever reason...instinct, anger, hunger...they are attacking and feeding off the living.
As I hit the I-5 South on-ramp it dawned on me to switch on the radio. A monotone, obviously recorded message, was repeating on every station I scanned to:
“The Emergency Broadcasting System has been activated. Please stay tuned to this local station for information…”
The message was on a loop. I tried the two-way radio. It came alive with all sorts of frantic chatter.
“...advised, we have lost contact with units seven, nine, twelve, and seventeen.”
“…came out of no place and just grabbed Duran…”
“…where the hell is anybody!”
“…damn lady just bit me! I mean took a chunk out of my arm!”
As I drove down the interstate listening to the insanity unfold, I passed a couple of cars that were pulled only partially off the road. In the opposite lane a few cars whisked past heading north. There was no way I would even consider heading into downtown Seattle. Within hours, if not already, that place would be a chaotic death trap. I was considering my options when a snippet of conversation caught my attention.
“…of people grabbed Ed. I heard him scream as they dragged him into the bushes. I stayed up on the pole. God forgive me, but I was scared to death.”
“Then what? You said you lost the truck. So what the heck happened?”
“A few minutes later…five, maybe ten…one of them came out of the bushes and took off with the vehicle.”
I turned off the two-way. There was nothing I could say or do now that wouldn’t take forever to explain or clear up in any manner. There was little doubt that that was my ‘Ed’ they were discussing. The problem being, I was pretty sure my explanation would not be very welcome. Not yet. If things held true to form, nobody would acknowledge or believe what this was until too late.
I reached over and opened the glove box. Thalia didn’t make any attempt to move away not that I blamed her. I wasn’t sure what I was lookin for. I rummaged keeping one eye on the road as I felt around. Two wallets! That was the same moment I realized that I left mine. For somebody determined not to make stupid mistakes, I wasn’t doing so well.
I spotted an off-ramp that advertised FOOD-GAS-LODGING. Veering right, I decided it was time to get just a little proactive. I made the decision that I knew what was going on, and it was my responsibility to this child beside me to start taking steps to prepare for the worst eventuality.
A fully lit service station was perched at the top of the off ramp. You know the kind. The mini-mart disguised as a gas station with a garage added as an afterthought that was good for nothing beyond a tire change. A small car was parked in a dark corner across the expansive asphalt lot from where the entrance was. Probably the on-duty cashier’s.
I pulled up to the pump station closest to the doors. No surprise, I saw no sign of an attendant...or cashier...whatever. My head was on a swivel, searching for any movement. Inside or out. I pried Thalia loose, and took her tear-streaked face in my hands.
“I’m gonna take care of you. But I have to get out of the truck for a minute. I will lock the door. Don’t open it until I say. Can you do that?”
“I will leave the engine running. So don’t touch anything. Okay?”
I looked around again. This was a bad time for any surprises. For now, the coast was clear. I climbed out, locking the door, closing it carefully, and checking it to be certain. So far, so good. I fast walked to the glass door and tugged.
Damn. Locked. Naturally.
Trying to watch everywhere at once, I scooted to another set of doors around the corner. Nothing was moving inside or out of the store. Yet. I could hear the occasional vehicle speed by on the nearby freeway. I think I heard gunshots from somewhere distant. I briefly wondered what I would do if another vehicle arrived with people having the same idea as me.
Damn! Damn! Damn!
Just a tiny bit desperate and a whole lot scared now. I looked everywhere for an idea. Turning my attention fully inside, I knocked on the glass. I don’t know if I wanted somebody to be there or not, but old habits die hard.
I knocked again. Louder. Still no response from within, or thankfully, out. That left me with what I saw as my final option; the metal ashcan sitting next to the door. I picked it up, dumped the contents on the ground, backed up a few steps and hurled it as hard as I could at the glass door.
I had half-expected the thing to come bouncing back at me. Lucky me. The entire door exploded inwards. Fine cubes of glass glittered like fake diamonds under the white glare of the fluorescent lighting.
Now it was time to be quick. I glanced back at the truck. Thalia was staring wide-eyed but calmly back at me through the windshield. I noted that pump nine was closest. Peering over the counter to be assured of no nasty surprises, I quickly climbed over and found the panel allowing me to turn on my pump. In no time, I had the nozzle in place and put the lock on so that I could tend to other issues while the tank filled.
Back in the store, I stopped at a rack of those burlap carry bags imprinted with pictures of Mount Rainier, the Space Needle, and other local touristy things. Grabbing a few I literally ran up and down the aisles scooping stuff from the shelves. The medicine aisle was almost empty by the time I finished. Mostly basic things, like allergy pills and aspirin mixed in with the basic first aid stuff, filled six of those bags. I grabbed food second which made me sorta proud that I was thinking clearly. Food would be easier to grab than medicine or hygiene as this dragged on. At least that was my logic.
I decided that milk would likely become a luxury. It would do good to get some while I could. I paused at the wall of the glass doored refrigerators when I came to the milk section. My hand grasped the handle and I totally froze, my heart pounding in my throat. I had found the clerk. Plus one.
Inside the refrigerated stock area, behind the tilted display shelves, stood two zombies. They were staring at me from the shadows, behind the orderly rows of beer, orange juice, and various name-brand sports drinks. A quick look behind them at the main door to the chill box helped ease my heart rate back under triple-digits. The big metal door looked shut.
I backed down the aisle a few steps away from the milk towards the soda. Sure enough, my ‘friends’ followed. I tapped the glass like you would an aquarium. They both lunged forward, tangling themselves in the shelving and each other. I bolted, popped the door where the milk was, grabbed a couple of cartons and headed to the exit.
I ducked out into the open lot to hear Thalia pounding on the glass of the driver’s side window. A quick glance confirmed that a small pack of zombies were crossing the asphalt towards us. They still had some ground to cover, and I transferred our haul to the truck pronto. That finished, I pulled out the nozzle and hung it up as I replaced the gas cap. I dashed around the front of the truck and Thalia opened my door.
“Please let us go now!”
“I totally agree, sweetie!” Climbing into the cab, I gave the approaching zombies another look. It was like the introduction to a dirty joke. An Asian, a naked lady, and two policemen walk into a gas station parking lot…
I revved the engine.
“Put on your seatbelt, señorita.”
Without a word, Thalia did exactly what she was told. I heard the ‘click’ and fastened my own. I pulled away from the pumps and made a wide u-turn. A glance in the rearview… then side view mirrors… along with a slight turn of the steering wheel to get things right. I shifted into reverse and stomped the gas.
I felt the impact and the ensuing bounces as I rolled over the bodies. Three of the four lay twitching on the ground. The fourth, Naked Lady, still stood. She turned towards me, arms outstretched, mouth open. Back into drive, and again I put the pedal to the floor. I swerved just enough to catch her with the driver’s side corner of the bumper. A satisfying thud and crunch rewarded the effort coupled with the body flying several feet. Down, but not…dead? I briefly pondered the idea.
Thalia exclaimed her surprise when I slammed on the brakes and flung open the door. All of the zombies were in varied stages of struggling to their feet. On their backs they are a lot like turtles.
I approached the first downed policeman and was disappointed. No gun. The second was my payoff though. His wide, black leather belt held several toys for me to examine later once I had more time. I grabbed a window squeegee as I closed in on my target. With one swing I brought it down as hard as I could. My blow found an eye socket which exploded in thick jelly-like fluid. This thing began thrashing, arms flailing, hands grasping. A second swing… and another… and another as the face shattered and the eye-socket hole expanded. Finally the brass and hard plastic squeegee broke through to something softer. The thing at my feet quit struggling. Instantly. It’s like hitting an off switch.
I worked the belt off the twice-dead while watching the others. The other policeman and the Asian were back on their feet, headed my way. Naked Lady was bent almost entirely backwards. She was trying to pull her unnaturally vee-shaped self along the asphalt. Yuck. Prize in hand, I made it back to the truck with relative ease.
Dropping the gun belt on the seat, I closed the door and headed for the exit. A car zoomed past, heading for the interstate presumably. A screech of tires sounded as it slammed on the brakes, then sped back to us in reverse.
The car, a sporty foreign model by the looks…what can I say, I’m not much into cars…halted directly in front of us. I considered our chances of ramming the little car without taking too much damage ourselves, but decided to wait a second and see what this person wanted. He or she could be just like Thalia and me. Still, no sense in being stupid. I pulled the gun from the holster and glanced to see if it was loaded. Check. Safety off. Check. I’m savvy enough to know it is a 9mm. I glanced in the rearview. The zombies were still a far distance away. Problem was that now there were seven. I had enough time to at least give this person in the car a moment. I wouldn’t waste time, but I also was not about to let my guard slip.
“Get down, Thalia.”
She obeyed without protest. Unbuckling her seatbelt, she slid to the floor on the passenger’s side, pulled her knees in tight, she wrapped her arms around them. Sort of like a tiny ball.
The door to the sports car opened. A tall, very attractive in an out-of-my-league sort of way, brunette emerged. My mind sped through several scenarios. All of which ended up with me as the hero and her falling into my arms. She proceeds to show her gratitude and admiration for my heroism...
“Thank god!” she screamed and ran to my truck.
I rolled down the window, seeing no reason to open the door. I mean seriously, there are a bunch of walking dead shambling this way. Sure they’re still a ways off and moving slow, but my mind is still trying to process what is happening.
“Ummm…you probably shouldn’t be out of your car.”
I am so smooth.
“Please help me! What the hell is going on?”
“You really shouldn’t be out of your car.” I glanced again at the group of undead closing the distance slowly and steadily. One of them was out distancing the others and had his arms outstretched.
“My neighbor did this!” the pretty brunette held up her left arm. Blood dripped from a shallow but jagged rip below the elbow.
My look must’ve given away something because she hastily covered up. Her expression was a crazy mix of fear, embarrassment, and confusion. Without warning, she lunged at my door, pulling wildly on the handle. I went for the lock, but a shade too late as the door opened and I tumbled gracelessly to the ground.
Scrambling up as quick as I could with the wind only partially knocked out of me, I had no idea what to do. Was this lady one of them? Maybe the newly turned are different. Perhaps the brain died slowly, and they kept certain functions for a while. I really had no clue where the movie stuff was right or wrong. Hell, maybe it was all wrong. All of that jumbled around in my mind like rocks in a dryer as I came to my feet.
She was apologizing over and over. Maybe she was sorry she had to eat me now. All I truly knew at that exact moment was that she was beside me with a viselike grip on my arm. There were several of those things about twenty feet or so away, and I was not ready to die.
I shoved her as hard as I could, sending my closest threat stumbling back towards the street. I snatched the gun from the cab where it had fallen to the floorboard in all this insanity. My finger curled around the trigger as I spun and fired.
She was in the process of climbing back to her feet. With an expression of astonishment, she looked down as a bloom of red spread across her blouse. Her eyes returned to mine in shock.
“Why?” she staggered sideways a step and fell…hard.
I still heard screaming. While I was shaking my head rapidly to clear it, something grabbed my shoulder. I whirled around face-to-face with the speed-walker of the bunch. It was a woman. Or had been. Her dark hair clung to her face, glued in place by dried blood. Most of the left cheek had been ripped away from her face. Grayish gums and blood smeared teeth greeted me in what looked like an exaggeratedly evil grin. I raised the pistol and fired. The bullet tore through its throat, jolting the upper body backwards. I felt the grip upon my shoulder tighten, and the head snapped back toward me with mouth open wide.
It’s strange, the little things that capture our attention in a crisis. I noticed that the flat, lifeless, black-blood veined eyes never changed expression. No anger, hunger, victory, desire, pain...just empty. Truly empty.
I jammed the barrel of the gun into the now gaping maw and fired again. The creature simply dropped. Again, it was as if the plug were suddenly pulled, like on a radio.
Without waiting for more bad things to happen. I jumped into the truck. Slamming the door, locking it, and rolling up the window seemingly all at once. I shifted in drive, and launched the big truck into the street, clipping the sports car enough to turn it a little sideways. My hard right turn aimed us back towards the interstate.
I’ve risked my life a whole bunch of times since that night. But at no time was I as stupid and out-of-control as I was in the way I left that gas station parking lot. Six more inches to the right, and I catch enough of that sports car to probably end our ride.
Looking in my rearview mirror, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. The zombies had fallen on the brunette. That could only mean one thing. Since they ignored, and even stepped over the zombie that I had just blown the back of its skull off, the brunette was not, at the time just before I shot her at least, dead.
Adding one plus one, I had just killed someone. My mind began to argue vigorously the varying points.
She was bitten.
It was only a matter of time.
You saved her much misery.
All the way to the interstate, and for the next several miles, my mind continued. It tried to offer me the solace no other living, breathing human being would if they’d seen what I’d done.
Eventually, Thalia fell into a fitful sleep. If things were as I suspected, and if they had just started… this was a bad beginning.
It would get worse.