Introducing the new cover of Order of the Dead:
Thank you again GIMP, the free
and open source image editor that can be found here: https://www.gimp.org/
Probably just a bit of an
improvement over the old cover, although I did enjoy the leather texture of
that one, which is appropriate for a zombie novel featuring a cannibalistic
cult, but perhaps the text was too un-alive:
of the Dead on Amazon
Links to my books are in the sidebar, and the pages at the top of the blog contain more information and links to much of my fiction on this site.
Thursday, March 30, 2017
Sven the Zombie Slayer
Copyright 2011 by Guy James
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Matt Sarelson stared into the thing’s eyes, and he knew, with the most terrible of certainties, that he was about to die.
Nine minutes and fourteen seconds earlier, Matt Sarelson had parked his Toyota Highlander behind Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall. It was still dark.
His head began to nod, and he took another sip of his tepid coffee.
As part of his weekday routine, Matt made himself coffee every morning before he left for work. That morning, Matt had made himself a cup of strong Kona, but departing from his meticulous coffee-making practice, he had committed what he deemed a coffee preparation atrocity.
Matt’s coffeemaker had self-destructed a week earlier, and while he waited for its replacement to arrive, Matt used his trusty French press in the broken coffeemaker’s stead.
On that unfortunate morning, Matt was especially groggy when he forced himself out of bed at ten minutes past four. The grogginess led to an exceptional bout of clumsiness in the kitchen: the French press slipped out of his fumbling hands as he carried it from the sink, and though he juggled the press for a few turns, his circus skills did not save it from shattering on the kitchen floor.
Broken French press or no, Matt had to have his coffee, so he got out a small saucepan, in which he boiled some water. To the boiling water he added ground Kona, and he let the mixture simmer for a few minutes while he stirred it, distastefully, with a wooden spoon. Then he poured off the top layer of the mixture, striving to keep the grounds out of his cup.
But grounds had come, and now, as he sat in the parking lot in his Highlander, he felt the demonic grounds poking around his mouth, mocking him. He wondered how people had done it back in the day before coffeemakers. The thought made him shudder.
Matt swallowed the tinged mouthful and sighed a coffee breath sigh. Imperfectly prepared coffee was just another in the series of sacrifices he made for his job. Letting grounds run rampant in his coffee was bad, it was true, as was the broken French press, but today—getting in early today—was worth all of that.
He opened the car door, got out, and ducked back in over the driver’s seat. He retrieved his coffee mug and tucked his stack of marked-up deal documents under his arm. Matt kicked the door shut with a loafer-clad foot, took a deep breath, and crossed the empty lot.
At the entrance of the dark alley that connected the parking lot and mall commons, Matt paused. It was a creepy shortcut during the day—lined on either side with dim, cavernous recesses—and was even more troubling at night, especially with one of the two overhead lights having burned out. Matt wondered if someone was going to replace that light any time soon. Didn’t anyone work anymore?
Matt took long, tired strides through the alley, and then abruptly stopped in the middle. He had heard something…something that sounded too much like a scream. He couldn’t tell where the sound had come from, so he looked behind him, and, seeing nothing, turned back around and started for the mall again, quickening his pace.
By the time Matt stepped out onto the mall commons, he had put the sound out of his mind. He was too tired to concentrate both on that and on what he had to accomplish at work that day.
The mall commons were empty, save for a smattering of the sleeping homeless, and they were still dead to the world. The place was still.
As Matt walked past the familiar shops, he felt a sting of resentment. All of the shops’ owners and employees were in bed, and he should have been too—not with them but in his own bed—if it wasn’t for that lazy, no good—
He heard a cry, and spun around to face the direction from which the noise had come.
He peered into the distance.
The mall was empty.
Matt decided it had been a particularly disharmonious bird, or, even if it had been a person, it didn’t concern him. He had extremely important things to do that day.
He resumed his walk and stopped in front of the building, looking up at it. Bremmer Title Associates, it said to him—to everyone that passed.
But not forever, Matt thought, gripping his coffee mug tighter, one day, it’ll say Sarelson Title Company. It shouldn’t say “Associates” anyway. That was stupid—remarkably stupid. It was a company, and it should announce that fact to all of the potential clients that passed by it.
There were three residential mortgage closings on Matt’s desk that day, and he was coming in early because in his quite correct opinion, he was the only Bremmer Title Associates’ employee that could get anything done. Today was the day, Matt knew, that he would make Mr. Bremmer notice. Today was the day that Mr. Bremmer would finally see how talented Matt was, and how incompetent and worthless that suck-up Jon was. God, how Matt hated the two of them—Bremmer and Jon—always gushing over each other and following each other around while Matt got stuck with all the work. And to add insult to injury, Jon was Matt’s junior! But Jon’s father was a fancy so-and-so and la-di-da and—well, that wasn’t going to matter anymore, not after today.
Each of the three closings was to take place when Jon was out of the office on one of his usual three-hour workout and golf sessions—Matt had seen to that bit of timing. Jon would be dropping the ball—not the golf ball of course, the work ball—and Matt would rise up to save the day. And he would make damn sure that Bremmer noticed.
Matt took another sip of his lousy coffee, which was no longer even lukewarm, unlocked the title company’s door, and walked in. He locked the door behind him, flicked on the lights, and walked past the empty receptionist’s desk toward his own office.
He was beginning to replay one of his favorite fantasies in his head—the one where he beat Jon senseless with the lazy suckup’s own nine iron—when he saw a light coming from the back of the office hallway. He walked closer, and was startled to find that it was coming from Jon’s office.
Jon’s office was tucked away in the back of the floor, and Jon had had the privilege of picking it out because Mr. Bremmer loved him so much—so very, very, nauseatingly much. The position of Jon’s office let the lazy bum sneak in and out unnoticed, avoiding work and leaving Matt to run the business under Mr. Bremmer’s uninvolved and increasingly ungrateful glare.
God, how stupid they all are, Matt thought. That idiot Jon can’t even turn his damn light off.
Sighing in frustration, Matt put his coffee and documents down at his own office’s closed door, then crossed the length of the hall to Jon’s door.
Just as Matt reached his hand in to flick off the lights, he was overcome by a stench so overpowering that it felt like a punch to the gut. His head began to swim, and the shapes around him got fuzzy. He almost retched, but managed to keep his coffee—grinds and all—in his stomach.
So now Jon was keeping rotten food in his office?
That’s exactly something Jon would do, Matt thought.
It wasn’t even five in the morning yet and already Matt felt livid with anger. He clamped his fingers over his nose and resolved to dispose of whatever decaying matter he found within Jon’s office and get right to work. Even if no one else at Bremmer Title Associates did anything, Matt had a responsibility to the clients, and he was going to see it through. The work mattered.
Matt walked into Jon’s office, facing the divider that Jon had rigged up so that no one could see his desk from the hallway. When Matt came around the divider, he almost gasped. But the caffeine had started to do its trick and he remembered not to breathe in. Stifling his surprise-fueled want of a breath, Matt looked down, and had to revise his theory as to the source of the odor.
Jon was slumped face down on his desk. Looking at the pale-yellow, viscous fluid that was collecting at the left side of Jon’s head, Matt determined that the smell was vomit.
Great, he thought, now I have to waste my precious time cleaning up after this idiot.
Matt’s eyes darted to the corner of Jon’s office, where a letter opener stood, peeking out of a pencil stand. The letter opener seemed to wink at him, and he considered it for a moment. Wouldn’t that be nice? I could just stab him in the back of the head and end his misery.
Then Matt’s eyes shifted to the golf-bag propped up against the wall. Or, I could grab that nine iron sticking out of the bag, bring it up, and…
That was the better way to do it, he decided, flavorfully ironic.
Matt quickly walked out of the office, unclamped his nose, and took two deep breaths. Then he put his hand back over his nose and went back inside.
“Hey!” Matt yelled with his nose still clamped. “Wake up, it stinks in here.”
Jon moaned, but didn’t move.
“Come on, I have work to do and your stink is distracting. Jon! Jon, come on wake up you can’t do this in here.”
Jon moaned again, softer this time, and his head wobbled a little, then settled back into place. The puddle of pale-yellow fluid was spreading outward, making its way to the edge of the desk.
Then it’ll drip on the floor, Matt thought, and I am not going to be the one to clean it up. I am not.
Matt looked at the clock in Jon’s office and realized he needed to get started on his work. He couldn’t waste any more time trying to deal with Jon. Matt felt himself growing angrier, and the bit of stench that managed to seep past his fingers and into his nose was making him light-headed. He walked to the corner, picked the nine iron out of the bag, and not-so-gently prodded Jon’s shoulder with it.
Jon stirred, moaned, and in an apparent attempt to raise his head, fell off his chair, hit his head on the side of the desk, and landed in an awkward position on his back, with his arms folded together and in front of him, like he had fallen backward into a too-small coffin.
Matt had to stifle a laugh. Maybe Jon was now dead. Maybe his head impacting on the side of the desk had broken his neck. The vomit-laden fiasco may turn out to have a silver lining…no, a golden one.
After taking a shallow breath through his mouth, Matt poked Jon again, in the sternum this time, and hard.
That did the trick.
That did the trick in a way that Matt never expected, and in a way that he never intended.
Jon’s eyes shot open, and Matt stumbled backward, knocking something over and almost falling before coming to rest against the wall behind him. Jon’s eyes…they were…they were completely black, even where the whites should have been. It was a dull black, and it made Matt’s stomach drop to look into it, like he was looking into pure, unabashed evil.
Matt’s mind scrambled, trying to think of something to say or do, anything that might make those eyes look away from him, but no thoughts came. He began to feel a muddiness in his brain, and realized that the only thing he wanted to do was to get out of there, close the door behind him, and go back home. He could make some more bad coffee for himself and look for a whole new job—a different one. He decided that he didn’t like title work all that much anyway, the clients were arrogant and insatiable, and—
Before Matt could complete his thought, Jon’s mouth fell open, and a thick yellowish liquid poured out of it, splattering Jon’s button-down. It was a vile thing to see, and then Jon was trying to sit up, and Matt was trying not to breathe.
But he had been holding his breath for too long then, and he had to, he had to take a breath—a full one this time. The hand unclamped from his nose.
Matt inhaled. The smell had gotten so much worse, unspeakably worse.
The office began to spin around him, and a strange numbness began to nip at Matt’s skin, as if trying to find a way in. He continued to hold the golf club in front of him, pressing it against Jon, trying to keep Jon down.
“Don’t get up,” Matt said. “Please don’t get up, I’ll get someone, some help.”
Then Jon grabbed the end of the golf club and pulled, and then—everything was getting fuzzy and that smell—Jon gripped Matt’s elbow, and his grip was so strong, pulling Matt in.
It wasn’t just a numbness now, it was a debilitating, creeping paralysis. In spite of the relative lack of sensation, Matt felt something in his shoulder give way and pop, sending a terrible shooting pain across his collar bone and down the side of his body.
Damn you, Matt thought, damn you and your working out and—
Jon’s straining forearm stuck out of a rolled-up shirt sleeve. The skin of the forearm looked dry as paper, like it was crackling. Lines were forming lengthwise up the forearm, as if the skin was conforming to the muscle strands underneath. Then one of the lines of skin tore inward, and Matt could see muscle fibers ripping over paper-thin skin and—
Matt’s failing mind tried to think of something, something nasty, about how he hated Jon, but he couldn’t quite form the thought with the cotton ball fuzz that was now proliferating in his brain. And what about the forearm, hadn’t it just—
He blinked, and his eyes focused on Jon’s—Jon’s stale black eyes. That was when Matt knew, even through the fuzziness in his brain, that death was only another moment away.
Matt’s eyes were closing again as his dulled sense of touch felt the bite. They tried to reopen in shock, in pain, in anything…but they didn’t.
“You ready?” Lars was sniffling and rubbing his nose.
“How many you going for?”
“As many as I can get,” Sven said. “Just don’t drip any of your cold on me.”
Lars nodded, then turned away suddenly and sneezed. “I’m fine, must be allergies or something. Let’s go, you got it.”
Sven took a deep breath.
He squeezed his shoulder blades together and dug them into the bench. He fixed his grip on the bar one final time. Then, with a mighty heave, he lifted the 435 pound weight off the pins. Every muscle in his body tensed, his mind filled with a crystal clear focus, and the bar and its plates became a part of him.
Sven lowered the bar to his chest. He raised it. He repeated the motion, counting in his head. One. Two. Three. Four. Come on Sven. Five. Six. Come on, come on.
The bar began to slow. Sven strained under the bar, squeezing the hell out of it, squeezing it to death. Four more. Come on. Come on. Seven. There you go Sven, come on just three more. Let’s go. Eight. There it is, you got it, you got it. He felt his face flush with heat and a numbness begin to creep down his forearms. His breathing came in short, ragged gulps between clenched teeth.
He lowered the bar for the first half of his ninth rep. When he began to lift the bar again, it stalled three inches above his chest. Lars’s hands shot out at once, forming a shadow underhand grip under the bar, in case Sven’s muscles failed and the bar began to descend. It didn’t descend, but continued to hang in place, obstinate. Sven stared at it, willing it up with his mind. Just get it past the sticking point. Come on, let’s go. But the bar just hung there, motionless.
Sven dug his heels into the floor, pushed even harder, and found a few more untapped muscle fibers to contract. The bar burst through its sticking point to just short of lockout. Nine. He had conquered nine. That’s it. You got it. One more. Just one more.
Sven stared at the bar. I got this, this is all mine. Come on, let’s go. He began to lower the bar to his chest for the tenth rep. His arms shook and his chest burned. His head felt like it was about to explode.
It’s a good thing Lars is here, Sven thought, a great thing. And just as he thought it, he got the sense that Lars was moving backward, around the bench press and away from it. Sven couldn’t look up or around to check for sure, but that couldn’t have been happening, not when Sven was in the middle of what would probably be his final rep, and after having nearly failed on the previous one. Even if Lars had suddenly decided to spot Sven from the front, Lars wouldn’t be switching in the middle of a rep so deep into a set as painful as this one. Lars was too experienced and careful a spotter to do that.
Then the shaking spread from Sven’s arms and took over his whole body. He was losing control of the bar and he knew it. He was pleading with it now, trying to make his hands grip tighter, trying to recruit more muscle fibers by sheer strength of will.
Then Sven lost control.
The bar came down too fast, hit Sven’s chest, and knocked the air out of his lungs with a painful whoosh.
But that wasn’t supposed to happen, because Sven had a spotter! Lars had been there just a few seconds earlier, standing behind the bench press for situations just like this one. Lars was a veteran spotter, and he had never let anything like this happen before. Where had he gone? Why would he have gone?
Sven lay there, pinned and bewildered, as the bar began to crush him.
Jane took a sip of her coffee. It didn’t taste good. Maybe it was too much milk, or too much sugar, or maybe it was just too much coffee. She had begun to lose her taste for the stuff in the past few weeks.
Jane took one last, crunching bite of her sesame bagel, then tossed it in the trash. She emptied her half-empty coffee mug into the kitchen sink, shaking her head as she watched the vile stuff go down the drain.
Now came the moment she dreaded every morning—leaving for work. Jane liked her job well enough, and the hours weren’t terrible, but it all just seemed so pointless. Sometimes she wished a big pile of money would drop out of the sky and land in her front yard. She would collect the heaven-sent loot, count it, quit her job, and do some traveling.
It’s alright Jane, she told herself, there must be a few more corners to cut so that I can save up for a real vacation. Sighing, she reached for—
A pained moan came from the living room, interrupting Jane’s morning self-pity self-talk.
Jane walked out of the kitchen, through the foyer, and into the living room. Vicky was in the exact position that Jane had left her in before she went to fix breakfast—sprawled out on the couch, under two large, heavy blankets. There were two boxes of tissues on the floor next to the couch, surrounded by used, crumpled up tissues in various stages of sogginess. One of the boxes was empty and lying on its side.
Jane was beginning to worry. Vicky did get sick a lot, but her colds never progressed so rapidly, and they never appeared so suddenly. Vicky had started coughing at five in the morning, and now, only a few hours later, she was completely indisposed, burning up with fever and getting paler by the minute.
Jane picked up the glass of water on the floor next to the couch. It was cloudy and had nasty looking particles floating in it—probably backwash. She took the glass to the kitchen, dumped out the water with its host of floaters, rinsed the glass out, and refilled it at her Brita faucet filter. Jane brought the glass back out to Vicky, and leaned over her prostrate roommate.
“You have to drink this, really.”
Vicky moaned and turned away, trying to hide in the brown, woolen blanket around her shoulders.
“I’m serious, you’re not gonna get any better if you don’t drink your liquids.”
Vicky didn’t respond.
“Will you take it?”
Vicky still didn’t respond.
Jane sighed, frustrated. “I’m going to put some of that fizzy vitamin C in it—you know, the kind that you like—and set it by you. Just promise me you’ll drink it.”
When Vicky didn’t say anything, Jane said, “Okay, if you don’t say anything then you promise.”
Then Jane waited a moment for an answer, and when no answer came, she said, “There it is, you’ve promised to drink the water I bring out to you.”
She went back into the kitchen, smiling to herself and thinking how clever she had just been. But the smile faded quickly as her thoughts turned to her sick roommate. Vicky looked like she was getting worse, and Jane was beginning to think she should consider staying home to look after her.
Jane set the glass down on the kitchen counter and opened the cupboard. She took a raspberry vitamin C packet out of a box in the cupboard, then closed the cupboard.
She was about to rip the packet open when a noise from outside made her jump. It was a simple scraping sound, probably nothing more than a squirrel scratching at a screen door, but the way it broke through the quiet startled Jane. Then the scraping stopped. Jane went to the window over the sink and looked outside. The street looked serene, empty. Must have been a squirrel.
Jane went back to the counter, ripped the vitamin C packet open, and tipped it into the glass.
Sven could feel the droplets of sweat running off his forehead and down the sides of his angular face. It was an odd thing to notice, considering the circumstances. He couldn’t take a full breath, and the bar was squeezing the remaining air out of his already-burning lungs. He was pushing as hard as he could, but the bar wasn’t going back up, and he knew it wouldn’t. Sven was only keeping it from crushing the life out of him, and he only had a minute or two at the most until his muscles failed and the bar made him very, very dead.
I need Lars, Sven thought in desperation. Where the hell is he?
With the bar’s weight on him, Sven could only turn his head an inch or two in any direction, and there was a sharp, stabbing pain in the left side of his neck when he tried. Where was Lars? Why would he have walked away in the middle of the set?
Lars had been acting a little strange that day, sure, but he had just lost out to his arch-nemesis in the Virginia Beach Bodybuilding Pose-Off, so Sven hadn’t thought much of it. But leaving Sven in the bench like that? That was more than strange.
Trying to avoid the stabbing pain in his neck, Sven took in his surroundings by moving only his eyes. He turned his eyes up, to the left, and to the right.
Lars was supposed to be there, spotting! That was his function when Sven was benching, and one of the reasons the duo worked out together, for exactly this situation.
Spinning his eyeballs around had gained Sven nothing. Lars was nowhere in sight. Sven turned his eyes up again, looking behind the bench now. That was where Lars was supposed to be, doing his spotting duty.
A bead of sweat rolled off Sven’s forehead and into his right eye. He flinched at the sting, involuntarily relaxing his grip on the bar. The bar took the opportunity to sag further into his body, evoking a ragged, spluttering cough from the compressed strongman.
He managed a low rasp. “Lars…”
There was no answer.
“Lars…” He rasped again, a little louder this time.
Still no answer.
Each time Sven had called for Lars some air was let loose from Sven’s lungs, and the bar had sunk lower, deeper into Sven’s chest. His strength was failing, and his ragged gulps of air weren’t finding their way home. He was suffocating.
Dead bench-pressers flashed in Sven’s mind—the ones who died benching alone in their basements without spotters.
But that’s not me, Sven told himself. I have a spotter! That’s not my story. Where is Lars? Sven didn’t want to be remembered that way, as an idiot bodybuilder that crushed himself in his basement, all the people judging and offering their opinions on his stupidity. It was better not to be remembered at all.
Sven’s burning face pulsed, like his heart was beating out of his face, instead of out of his chest, as the expression properly went. Sven pleaded with the bar, pushing against it with all of his strength, but it went nowhere.
Then, as Sven continued to push, the bar began to move upwards. But it was only for a moment, and the bar immediately settled on Sven’s chest again.
He would not be racking the bar. There were only two options left—roll, or tilt.
If Sven could roll the bar down his body, he would avoid suffocation. Now accepting that he was alone and had to save himself, Sven pushed his chest into the bar as hard as he could. He loosened his grip on the bar and tried to roll it forward. It didn’t budge. Sven curled his back and tried to roll the bar again. This time, the bar rolled forward an inch, shooting pain through Sven’s body as it shifted. His chest burned, and it felt as if his ribs were about to break.
The bar was stopped, stuck after its too-short journey. Sven couldn’t roll it any farther. The weight was too heavy. If there were 200 fewer pounds on the bar, Sven could have done it with ease, if only…damn you Lars!
Stars entered Sven’s field of vision, popping and crackling about as a searing pain began to ripple up and down his body. He would have to try to tilt the bar off. That was it. The last option.
Milt sat comfortably at his custom-built battle station. He had designed it himself, so that he could sit behind it for hours at a time without having to get up. There was a time when Milt would have used the word bespoke to refer to the battle station of which he was so proud, until that rapper had ruined the word in that song…that song about dandy American lads prancing about. It made Milt shudder to think of it.
There were four bags of miniature Snickers candy bars on the desk next to his oversized monitor. A cooler filled with Coca-Cola bottles sat next to Milt’s furry-slipper-clad feet. They were the good kind of bottles, the old-fashioned, glass kind. Plastic bottles were not suitable for a warrior of Milt’s caliber. Those were for crass, stupid people—the losers. The only problem with the glass bottles was that they required a bottle opener, so Milt had three scattered about his desk. One of the bottle openers—the one he had used most recently—lay next to the unceremoniously torn Snickers bags.
The bottle opener’s most recent victim stood balanced atop Milt’s belly, which, over the years, had formed to become the most perfect of cup holders. The top of his belly became a stable, flat surface when he positioned himself in his battle station. Sometimes he had two Coca-Cola bottles set on top of his belly at the same time, and it could easily hold more. Right now, there was just the one bottle.
The front of Milt’s comic book and video game store was curtained and had no displays, so that most passersby wouldn’t dare to walk into the uncertain lair to disturb whatever inhabited it. For those that were adventurous enough to venture in, a huge neon sign greeted them as soon as they walked their unintelligent bodies through the door.
The sign read:
DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, NO MATTER HOW EXTENUATING YOU MAY INTERPRET SAID CIRCUMSTANCES TO BE, DISTURB THE OWNER AT HIS DESK—IN THE EVENT THAT YOU DO NOT HAVE ON YOUR PERSON THE EXACT CHANGE WITH WHICH TO PAY FOR THE ITEM YOU DESIRE, IT IS REQUESTED THAT YOU KINDLY AND HASTILY VACATE THE PREMISES.
There was a place at the counter where customers could drop off their money to pay for an item. Milt despised customers, but he was exceedingly proud of his store, so he submitted himself to the compromise of allowing the common people entry so that they may see—and covet—his collection, while prohibiting them from accosting him with their stupidity, which he believed to be contagious and transmittable through conversation.
Should a customer ignore the sign and attempt to confront Milt directly, Milt had two cans of pepper spray with which to remedy the situation. In the event of a confrontation, he could give the meddling customer a quick spray and get back to business without losing too much time dealing with the intruder. He had sprayed customers before, and it always got them to leave. Once, a sprayed customer had had the nerve to sue Milt for assault, or battery, or some such nonsense. The idiot judge had made Milt pay a fine, and that made Milt question whether he should keep his store open at all, but keep it open he did, figuring that all the other sprayings he had committed solved the problem without further incident of lawsuit, therefore future sprayings should, in all likelihood, not result in another dim-witted, though apparently legal, tongue-lashing.
Should nature call when Milt was engaged at his battle station, Milt had a way of dealing with that too. He had a way of dealing with everything, of improvising, innovating, and coming up with ingenious solutions to all kinds of problems. At his feet, in its own cooler, was an empty, liter bottle of Coca-Cola, with its top cut off. It made for the perfect urinary receptacle, and the ice in the cooler helped reduce the smell. There was also some raspberry potpourri in the cooler, and that helped the smell too. Notwithstanding all of these precautions, customers did sometimes ask about the smell. “Do you smell that?” the ninnies would ask. “Do you smell pee?” Milt always sprayed the urine-questioners, and got back to business. It was true that the store didn’t always smell like a magical fairy tale, but that was war, and Milt, when he was engaged at his battle station, was at war.
Milt was fully engaged at his battle station now. The war was on, and he was so close.
Milt smiled, picked up the half-full Coca-Cola bottle on his belly and gulped down its contents greedily. Then, without taking his eyes off the screen, he felt around on his desk until his pudgy hand found one of the Snickers bags. He smiled again as he reached into it, remembering how smart he always was to tear the bags open before his grand work began. His well-cushioned palm and fingers closed loosely around two miniature Snickers candy bars. Milt pulled the bars out of the bag, and in a single, deft motion of his fingers, he popped the bars out of their wrappers, launching them on a brief flight through the air and into his mouth.
He gave the bars a sloppy chew. Some of his chocolate and caramel-infused saliva dribbled out over his bottom lip, collecting at the left corner of his mouth, like it always did. It dripped now and then, staining the shirt he was now wearing at the left nipple. Each of Milt’s plain, white XXXL shirts was stained brown in the same place, at the left nipple. Milt knew this gave him character. The dribbling gave his mouth character and the staining gave his shirts character. Dried Snickers splotches of yesteryear decorated most of Milt’s clothing, his store, and his living space, underneath the store.
The fragrance of the Snickers splotches, mixed with the fragrance of flat Coca-Cola, urine, and raspberry potpourri gave the place a distinctive air—it was the way the lair of a deadly warrior would smell. Milt was this deadly warrior, and he relished all that came with it. With great power, Milt knew, came great responsibility, and of course there were what some of the unenlightened would call drawbacks, but Milt knew better. Milt refocused his strained eyes, fumbled around for a fresh bottle of carbonated refreshment, opened it, and stood it up in its rightful spot on his belly.
Then he returned to clicking his mouse in furious fits, reaching up every now and again to feel for pimples on his scalp.
Milt was dimly aware of someone wandering around the back of the store—a stupid customer, probably. But as long as whoever it was didn’t try to bother Milt by asking questions or trying to purchase something without the exact change to pay for it, Milt could ignore the wanderer.
Sven’s mind was frantic, and filling with thoughts of death. He tried to stay focused, but the tears that rolled from his eyes weren’t just tears of physical pain. They were tears of anguish. He didn’t want to die, and he was horrified that this was it—the end.
Sven closed his eyes and pushed his chest into the bar again. The bar had sunk lower, and it was in an even worse position. Though every movement hurt like hell, he kept pushing. He tightened the grip of his right hand, then slid his left hand around the bar, turning the grip to face him. Now his right hand was facing away from him and his left hand was facing toward him.
He pushed with his right hand and pulled with his left.
The bar began to tilt down to Sven’s left, the left side of his chest taking more of the weight. The pain became worse, more focused. The bar tilted some more, and, at last, the plates began to shift. Sven told himself not to get ahead of himself. He wasn’t out of harm’s way yet, and he couldn’t let himself get overexcited at the prospect of survival. There was still a lot of hard physical work to be done to get out from under the bar, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to do it if he let his mind think the struggle was over, or even halfway through. Mental pacing and preparedness were key.
Sven was able to take a shallow, uncomfortable breath now that some of the weight was off his right side. He knew that if he could shake a few plates off the left side of the bar, he could get out from under it. He kept pulling and pushing, imagining that as he did so, he distanced himself from becoming the subject of a humiliating headline: “Greased-Up Bodybuilder Lifts Too Much, Crushed In Own Basement.”
There were six plates on each side of the bar. Four of the plates were forty-five pounds, one was ten pounds, and one was five pounds. The heaviest were on the inside, and the smallest were on the outside. The two outer plates on the left side—the ten and the five—were the first to shift. They clanked to the edge of the bar and fell off. The sound of metal on metal bolstered Sven, but the four forty-five pound plates had only moved a few inches toward the left edge of the bar. Sven kept the bar on its tilt and wiggled it this way and that, moving it only a few inches in any direction, though his effort was enormous.
After one slow minute, one of the forty-five pound plates fell off. It clanked against the smaller plates. Sven didn’t notice. All of his focus was on shaking the next plate off.
Seconds later, after the second forty-five pound plate fell, the remaining weight on the right side of the bar finished the job. The right side of the bar was now 105 pounds heavier than the left, and Sven supported the bar as it was pulled around his torso to the right. The plates on the right side came off in a jumble, and Sven pushed the bar, with the two plates still on its left side, off him with a weak, grating roar.
He rolled off the bench to his right, almost knocking his head against the plates. Now that the bar was off his chest, the pain was much worse. His left side felt destroyed. The skin and muscle burned where the bar had been, and there was a dull ache deep inside his ribcage. That wasn’t counting all the muscles that had been pulled and strained in the struggle. But that was alright, because Sven had made it. The injuries would heal. He was going to live.
Sven’s vision was blurry, his ears were ringing, and he was ready to throw up. He put his face in his shaking, battered hands, then pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes.
And that is why, he told himself, you never, ever, use clips when you bench. If he had, he would be dead. He never used clips at the gym, and there were none in his basement.
Benching doesn’t kill people, Sven thought, clips kill people. He almost laughed hysterically, but anticipated the pain and stopped himself.
Crouched next to the bench, Sven was breathing in shallow gasps. He still couldn’t breathe all the way in, and he considered sitting up to help the air get in—and to remedy his painfully dry throat—but it was too soon to be straightening up. He still needed a minute or two to recover, to appreciate the fact that he was alive.
Suddenly, a sound came from the back room of the basement, like a box falling. Sven’s ears perked up. Maybe that’s where Lars is, Sven thought, messing around with the supplies in there. But why would he be doing that? Growing angrier, Sven listened for more sounds, but none came. If he hadn’t been in so much pain, he would have called out to try to find out what was going on in the back room.
After a few minutes, Sven’s heartbeat had settled to a level just below panic, and he lifted his head out of his hands. He sat up on his knees, straightening up painfully, and looked down at his trembling body to assess the damage.
There was a deep red line where the bar had rested on his chest. The left side of his chest was turning purple already. Sven poked at it. It wasn’t tender yet. He got up to his feet. More pain. The basement spun. He couldn’t make the spinning stop, so he sat down again. After a few more minutes of ragged breathing, he got up.
The room had stilled enough for him to walk. He walked to the door to his storage room. It was more of a kitchen than a storage room. There was a sink, a refrigerator, two coolers, and shelves filled with non-perishable food supplies.
It was good to have a kitchen in the basement so that Sven could make himself a snack after working out. It was also good to have it there because Sven’s basement doubled as a home theater. When friends were over, the storage room was the beer locker.
He walked with a hunch in his back, not due to a lack of back training, but because it hurt too much to straighten out all the way. It hurt to breathe. Sven reached for the door handle and saw the door was slightly ajar.
“Lars,” Sven called. “Where the hell are you? I almost died in here.”
There was no answer.
Sven pushed the door all the way open and walked into the storage room.
“Lars?” On impulse, Sven spun around to look back into the basement’s main room. It was still empty.
“Lars?” he called again, this time it was a whisper.
Sven looked back into the storage room. The refrigerator was open. Not all the way, but enough that Sven could see the light peeking out of it.
So, Sven thought, Lars tries to kill me and jacks up my electric bill. Great. Where is that jerk?
Sven walked to the refrigerator. He took out a bottle of water and drank all of it. Water had never tasted so good. He closed the refrigerator, turning the storage room dark. He set the empty water bottle down on the counter, and his hand brushed up against something.
A sound came from deeper in the storage room where he kept the cat litter for Ivan. Ivan liked to play around in the storage room.
He reached for the light switch and flicked on the lights. A half-eaten sandwich sat on the counter next to the refrigerator. Sven picked it up with his thumb and forefinger. He sniffed it.
Nasty, Sven thought, I don’t know how Lars can eat that crap.
He peeked around the refrigerator and in and around the shelves. No Lars there. No Ivan either.
Then he got some ice out of the freezer for his chest and some Burt’s Bees’ muscle balm off a shelf. He flicked off the lights, walked out of the storage room, and closed the door.
The sandwich was left alone, on the counter, in the dark.
Milt grinned, and a half-chewed Snickers peanut toppled out of a fold behind his tongue, landing in the open Coca-Cola bottle sitting on his belly with a tiny plop. Milt nodded in approval when he heard the peanut’s magnificent, sugary splash. He loved it when his two favorite energy-givers gathered together.
After taking notice of the plop, Milt blocked out his surroundings. He turned his peripheral vision blank. He focused all of his brain power on the screen. There was nothing but the battle for him now.
The Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael was almost in his grasp. Milt was slobbering now, but he didn’t notice that either.
For World of Warcraft artifact collectors, the Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael was worth a lot of money. There was only one Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael in the whole World of Warcraft, and Milt was sure that if he got it, he could get at least $15,000.00 for it on eBay. It would be his greatest conquest yet. He had only to destroy the idiot dwarf that called himself Bane Brisgold the Dragon Slayer, and the almighty hammer would be his.
Bane Brisgold the Dragon Slayer was a stupid name for a dwarf. How many dwarves slew dragons? Milt didn’t know any. Milt had a real warrior name. He was Miltimore the Sword-Wielder, an expert fighter and sword handler.
Milt had spent almost the entire month tracking Bane and the hammer, and now he had both of them ensnared in the next game chamber on his screen. All that was left to do was to go into that chamber, annihilate Bane, and seize the hammer.
It wasn’t a matter of money anymore. Milt didn’t need any money. He had been a well-compensated computer game developer in his previous life, and along with his savings from that job, he had stashed away close to a hundred thousand dollars from selling World of Warcraft artifacts on eBay. He had enough savings now that he didn’t have to worry about money or actually selling anything from his store. That was especially true because Milt was smart enough to live in the basement beneath his store, so he didn’t waste money on a house, above ground apartment, or anything stupid like that.
Milt was going to capture the hammer not for the money that it could bring him at auction, but for the glory of it. Milt was the best World of Warcraft player in the world—no, Milt was the best World of Warcraft player that had ever graced the planet with his wisdom. He was going to get hold of the hammer, play with it for a while, sell it, then win it back, and repeat the praiseworthy cycle.
A viscous slobber droplet fell from Milt’s lower lip and landed on top of his protruding belly, next to his Coca-Cola bottle. Because the droplet didn’t land at the regular droplet destination that was Milt’s left nipple, Milt noticed, and realized that it was time for one last refueling before he entered the next chamber. Refueling before a battle was of the utmost importance, and Milt made sure that his brain was infused with all the sugar and fat it needed to function. That was why it was so unreservedly imperative to eat at regular intervals. Milt was no novice.
Milt felt around on his desk for two more miniature Snickers bars, grabbed them, and popped them out of their wrappers and into his mouth. He grinned as he bit into their chewy insides, remarking at his own incredible skill with the miniature candy bars. After his conquest came to fruition, he would reward himself with several Snickers ice cream bars.
He made himself stop thinking about that, there would be time for that later, and now was the time to be focused. Milt’s grin widened as he thought about the hammer, but it could only widen so far, because the thick, sticky caramel, nougat, peanut, and chocolate paste in his mouth kept his grin from reaching its full magnificence.
He picked the Coca-Cola bottle up off his belly and gulped down the rest of its contents. That helped to clear his mouth of the goo. As he drank, the peanut that had gotten into the fizzy drink made its way through the mess in his mouth and lodged, most uncomfortably, in his throat.
Milt gagged and coughed and sprayed chewed Snickers bar fluid and Coca-Cola in a wide arc that covered all of his battle station. He sprayed and spun from left to right and back again in his chair until the evil peanut shot out of his mouth and plinked into his monitor. It didn’t bounce off, but stuck by virtue of some caramel and chocolate on it. Milt watched, red-faced and still gagging a little, as the peanut began to slide its way down his screen, leaving a trail of candy bar goo behind it.
“You evil-doing ruffian!” Milt yelled at the peanut. “You, no doubt, are in league with that damned hooligan Bane the dragon-loving dwarf. I know what to do with treacherous scum such as you.”
Milt waggled a pudgy finger at the peanut, wobbled some of his bulk in his chair to bend forward an inch or two, picked the peanut from the screen, and popped it into his mouth.
“Now I’ve got you where I want you,” Milt said with the peanut lodged in a fold in his left cheek. “Do you have any last words?”
The peanut didn’t respond.
“I thought not,” Milt said, and crunched the peanut in a rage-filled chew. Then he opened another bottle of Coca-Cola and washed down the peanut particles with the delicious beverage. The Coca-Cola took care of the scratchy feeling in the back of his throat. The debacle staged by the treacherous peanut was over.
Milt gave his desk a quick survey to assess the damage to his battle station. There were fresh masticated candy bar and Coca-Cola spots all over. Some of the spots were little bubbling puddles with small bits of caramel and peanut scattered in them. Milt nodded. This was how a real battle station should look, one that was well-used and inhabited by a true warrior.
He turned back to the screen, and was relieved to see that Bane and the hammer were still in his ingenious trap. Now it was time to poke at his moronic dwarf quarry.
Milt focused hard on the screen as he probed around inside the folds of his right cheek with his tongue. He found a chunk of nougat, flipped it out of its fold with his tongue, and began to suck on it.
Then it all began to go wrong.
Back in the basement’s main room, Sven thought that something seemed off. Everything looked normal, but there was a strange, unnerving smell in the air. Sven couldn’t place it, suddenly feeling confused at his own surroundings. Carrying the ice and muscle balm, he turned his back on the storage room and went upstairs. The air cleared, and the confusion left Sven’s mind, leaving no trace that it had been there.
Sven lived in a house on Lewis Mountain Road, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was the last house on the block right next to the University of Virginia Alumni Hall. The house had four bedrooms, not counting the basement. The floors were wood. There were four parking spots, not counting the front and back yards. It was a good old house, and like all good old houses, it had some character. It made lots of funny creaking noises, and it wasn’t good at keeping the cold air out in the winter…or at keeping the hot air out in the summer. The lack of weatherproofing wasn’t a problem, because the winters in Charlottesville were too mild to notice, and Sven tolerated the heat well.
Sven opened the door at the top of the basement stairs and strode into his living room. It was largely Spartan, but had all the basic living room stuff—a couch, a reclining chair, a bean bag, a TV, and a coffee table at the center of it all, cleverly positioned for the placement of food and drink items.
There was no answer.
Sven sat for a moment while he rubbed in some muscle balm. Then, putting the ice pack to his chest, he walked around into the dining room. It was empty save for the seldom-used dining room table and the equally seldom-used chairs around it. He walked into the kitchen—no one there either. At least the kitchen refrigerator was closed, unlike the one in the basement had been. Where could Lars be?
Sven went outside and stood on the porch. The front yard was empty. Sven’s SUV was parked in its spot. Lars’s car was behind it. Sven walked into the driveway, and peered into Lars’s car. Empty.
Sven walked around to the back of the house. There was no one in the back yard either. Sven walked back to the front of the house and stepped out into the street. He looked toward the University of Virginia grounds and up the street the other way. There were no cars out. That was normal. It was a quiet street.
Then he heard a scream—probably someone playing tennis or basketball across the street. As Sven surveyed the rest of his block, he saw some fast movement in his peripheral vision. He turned back toward the University of Virginia and caught the tail-end of a group of runners—no, sprinters—going north up Emmet Street. Sven thought it was a little strange that they weren’t dressed for sprinting. They were just wearing ordinary clothes and a few had backpacks. Maybe it was a student sprint.
Sven shrugged, turned back to the house and went inside. As he was closing the door behind him, he heard another loud tennis scream-grunt. Whoever it was coming from really took her tennis seriously, it was blood-curdling in its terror. Must be a tough set, Sven thought.
Inside, Ivan Drago padded up to Sven and greeted him with a meow. Sven had adopted the Russian Blue from a rescue shelter three years earlier, and according to Sven’s realty, the two of them were the longest-renting tenants in the house so far—apparently three and a half years was a record for the place.
Ivan hadn’t been fond of people at first, and used to run away from everyone but Sven. Ivan was especially afraid of long, cylindrical objects like brooms and rolled up magazines, and when Sven noticed this, he tried to do the sweeping and bug-swatting out of Ivan’s sight. Over time, Ivan had grown more comfortable with strangers and even with cylindrical objects, and had begun to act like a normal, contented housecat, but Sven still made an effort to hide the broom from Ivan. It had become routine.
Ivan meowed again, and Sven remembered something one of his college professors used to say: “When a cat meows at you, it’s not to say hello. It’s because he wants something.”
That wasn’t true, and as a cat owner, Sven knew it. Cats did meow to say hello. Ivan did it all the time. Ivan meowed for lots of other reasons too. He meowed when he wanted to go outside, and he meowed when he wanted to come back in. Ivan also meowed when he was pleased, and he meowed when he was displeased.
But Ivan was meowing now because he was hungry. Sven could tell because Ivan was meowing and trying to lead Sven into the kitchen. Sven obliged and walked into the kitchen where Ivan’s bowl sat on the floor. The bowl was empty.
“Did you eat all your food already?” Sven asked. “I gave you your full ration just an hour ago. How’d you eat all of that so fast?”
Ivan stretched, brushed up against Sven’s legs, meowed again, and then turned his green eyes up at Sven.
“You really like that liver huh?” Sven saw some of Ivan’s wet food on the floor around the bowl. That wasn’t like Ivan.
“Now here you go making a mess.”
“It’s okay. I’ll get you some more.” Sven petted Ivan, and felt a searing pain shoot through his chest and neck. He flinched, and slowly straightened up again. He was trying to remember to limit his range of motion, so that he didn’t end up any worse than he already was. Stupid Lars, Sven thought, I’m gonna have to ice myself and rest all week. What a waste of time.
That reminded him. Sven glanced at his watch and remembered he had a training session at eight that morning. It was already half past seven and the gym was a fifteen minute drive away. The session was with one of his most important clients—important because the client always paid on time—and Sven didn’t want to ruin a good thing. He would feed Ivan and get on his way, injured or not. Then, Sven told himself, when I get back later today, I’m gonna have some serious words with Lars.
Sven jogged painfully to the cupboard for some of the canned wet food that Ivan enjoyed so much. He didn’t mind giving Ivan some more food—the cat wasn’t on a diet, after all. Ivan was very lean from running about the neighborhood, and he could be trusted to eat until he was full and then stop.
“I spoil you too much,” Sven said to Ivan, who was padding around Sven and meowing. Sven opened the cupboard. There were no cans of cat food there. Sven thought he remembered the cat food being well-stocked, but maybe he was thinking of the shelves in the storage room. He wasn’t sure.
Looking down, Sven was surprised to see a smear of a cat-food-like substance on the counter beneath the cupboard.
“Looks like I’m making a mess too. I’ll get you a can from downstairs. Come on.”
Sven glanced at his watch again, feeling the stress start to build up. Lars was probably chatting up that girl at Mem Gym. What a good-for-nothing workout partner. She didn’t like Lars anyway, she liked Sven. Sven had meant to take her out or something, but he never knew what to do with her besides work out. I should’ve taken her to that polo match at King Family, Sven thought. Even better, I should’ve had her spot me on the bench today.
Sven started down the stairs into the basement. Feeling that he was being watched, he stopped midway down and looked over his shoulder. Ivan was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at him.
“Come on, Ivan. You come down with me.”
Ivan wouldn’t move.
“You want me to do your bidding while you chill out up there?”
Ivan didn’t answer, but flicked his tail along the ground.
Sven shrugged and walked the rest of the way down the stairs. The pain in his chest, side, and arms was getting worse. His back was tight in a way that suggested it would be in a lot of pain later. He must have tweaked it in his struggle against the bar. He hoped that nothing was herniated. Damn that Lars.
Sven walked across the basement and opened the door to the storage room. When he let go of the handle, there was something cold and greasy in his hand. Cat food. There was more on the doorknob.
Then Sven looked up and a chill passed through him. He had found Lars.
The vitamin C powder fizzed and bubbled as Jane poured it into the glass. She liked the sound. It was satisfying.
Jane got a spoon out of a drawer and gave the drink a bit of a mix. She took a sip of the vitamin C water. It was delicious.
Jane brought the water out to Vicky and stood over her.
“Okay,” Jane said. “You’ve gotta drink this. It’s gonna make you better, and then I really have to go to work, okay?”
Vicky didn’t respond.
Jane stood there, glass in hand, watching Vicky lie there on the couch. Vicky was turned away, her face against the couch’s backrest, gulping air in ragged gasps.
“Honey,” Jane said, “you have to drink something.”
Jane put her hand on Vicky’s shoulder. It felt as cold as ice. She pulled. Vicky didn’t budge.
Jane pulled harder on Vicky’s shoulder. “Come on, turn over.”
Vicky rolled over and looked up.
Jane shrieked and jumped backward, forgetting to keep her fingers tight on the glass.
The glass fell to the floor and shattered. The vitamin C water made a purplish puddle, punctuated by small shards of glass scattered in and around it.
The puddle fizzed.
Lars was kneeling on the cement floor of the storage room. He was in the back under shelves of protein powder and meal replacement bars. Lars had his back to Sven, and was bent over something on the floor in front of him. He was doing something to it or with it. To Sven, it looked like Lars was moving something back and forth on the floor. Sven heard an unmistakable sound—squishy chewing. Here was Lars, sitting in a dark corner and sloshing something about in his mouth, having left to sit there in the middle of his spotting duties? It made no sense.
Squish, squosh, squoosh. Squish, squosh, squish. Squish, squosh, squeesh.
There was a smell too, a strange, cloying odor. Sven began to feel a numbness inching up from his extremities, and a dizziness—
He shook it off. “Lars? What the hell are you doing over there? I was this close to being crushed in the—”
Lars turned, and the ice pack fell from Sven’s hand.
Sven stared at Lars in disbelieving shock. His workout partner’s skin was grey. His eyes were a dull black, and blood oozed from between his lips. A chunk of what could only be cat food tumbled out of his mouth and landed on the leg of his black man-tard. Small bits of Ivan’s wet food were strewn all over Lars, all over his skin and all over the man-tard. Cat food was all over Lars’s mouth—cat food mixed with blood.
Sven stepped backward, uncertain of the sight before him and feeling more lightheaded with every second.
Had Lars mixed weight gainer shakes again? But that hadn’t been this bad. Lars looked like he needed medical help. He looked extremely ill, maybe even on the verge of death.
“What happened? Are you okay?” Sven asked as he made himself reverse course and walk closer to Lars. Lars stared, black eyes unblinking.
The cat food-coated muscle man said nothing.
“Lars? Say something.” Sven walked close enough to see what was on the floor. Lars was kneeling before six cans of Ivan’s wet food.
There was cat food and blood all over the floor. There was cat food and blood all over Lars’s fingers, mouth, and lips. That’s where it was coming from—Lars’s fingers and mouth. Sven flinched when he saw that many of Lars’s fingernails were gone. Sven didn’t understand what he was seeing.
“Did you open those with your fingers and teeth? Dude we have to get you a doctor, you’re bleeding all over the place.”
Lars said nothing. His black eyes were fixed on Sven. Then Lars opened his mouth. Bloody cat food cakes rolled out. He must have cut himself on the cans, Sven thought, he must be really sick, I have to get him to a—
Lars groaned. It was a low groan, filled with what sounded to Sven like anger.
“Come on let’s get you up,” Sven said, but he didn’t walk any closer to Lars to help him. Something was keeping Sven back—Lars seemed wrong. Sven stood a few feet away from Lars. Then Sven made himself take a step forward. He had to help his friend. But his eyes, and his skin, what’s wrong with him?
Sven took another step forward, deeper into the wooziness that was now gripping his body. Lars kept up his mute, black-eyed stare. Sven put out his hand to help his friend. Looking at his own hand, he saw that it was trembling, but he couldn’t really feel it, it was as if the sensation in his hands and feet had been dampened.
“Come on,” Sven said, thinking that he might need a doctor himself if he kept feeling like this. Lars groaned again, then he raised his right hand and grabbed Sven’s arm just above the wrist.
“Alright,” Sven said, resenting the fact that Lars had thought it necessary to grab him that hard. Sven pulled. Lars’s body began to rise, but then sank back down. Lars was pulling hard on Sven’s hand, but he wasn’t trying to get up. Sven made a move to get in front of Lars for some more leverage, but he couldn’t do it. Lars was pulling on Sven’s wrist too hard.
“Let go, man. I can’t get you up if you don’t help me.”
But Lars wouldn’t let go. He pulled on Sven’s wrist with more force, and Sven had to grab hold of a shelf support to keep himself from falling down on top of Lars.
Sven felt like his wrist was caught in a vise. He tried to wrench his hand free but Lars wouldn’t let up. Then Lars’s gaze seemed to shift from Sven’s face to Sven’s forearm. Lars’s mouth opened wide—too wide—and he began to pull Sven’s forearm into his gaping mouth. Black saliva and bits of bloody cat food dripped from Lars’s mouth. The droplets landed on the floor in front of Lars and on the short legs of his man-tard.
Thoughts of rabid dogs flashed in Sven’s now unsteady mind. Sven pulled harder. He had to get free. Lars might have some kind of disease, and even if he didn’t, there was no sense in getting bitten. Sven pulled on the shelf support with his free hand. An enormous case of meal replacement bars tottered closer to the edge. Sven pulled again, harder this time. And then he pulled again.
Lars wasn’t letting up, but the case of meal replacement bars was getting closer to the edge. Sven’s muscles were beginning to fail, and it seemed like Lars could go on forever. The pain in Sven’s upper body from his near-death bench press encounter was agonizing.
Then Lars’s bloody, cat-food spattered teeth were less than an inch away from Sven’s forearm.
Sven braced himself for the bite.
Just then, the case of meal replacement bars fell from the shelf. It struck Lars on the side of the head. Lars’s death grip loosened and he slumped over onto his left side. Still pulling when Lars loosened his grip, Sven fell backward, sitting down on top of the cold ice pack.
Some of the feeling began to return to his extremities, the room stopped lurching. Sven’s heart raced. He was free.
Milt heard a commotion in the back of the store. It sounded like someone falling, and was followed by a plainly brainless moan. The back part of the store was full of ancient DVDs and even more ancient video games—a section of primordial classics. There was even a Commodore 64 computer back there to set the mood. Milt wasn’t sure if anyone had ever bought anything from that section, and he wouldn’t be surprised if not one item had ever moved from it. The common people had no taste, and couldn’t appreciate the rarity and wonder of the wares in the back of the store. The newer, more plebeian stuff was in the middle of the store, toward the front, and it moved better.
“Please refrain from physical outbursts,” Milt shouted without turning away from his screen. “Pretend that you are cultured. This is a sophisticated establishment. Please make an effort to recall your etiquette training, though I doubt you have had any.”
Milt belched some caramel and listened for a retort from the ninny in the back, who, Milt suspected, likely did not know what etiquette training was. He regretted not closing the store for this battle—so much pride hung in the balance. The fool in the back would no doubt only distract Milt, and leave without purchasing anything.
No response came from the disturbance-causer, probably because he was stumped by Milt’s clever words.
Milt blinked and retrained his eyes on the screen, choosing to forget the distraction for the present moment.
The time had come. Milt entered the chamber where the naive dwarf Bane waited, trembling in his magical video game boots.
“I have come for the Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael,” Milt clattered into his keyboard. “If you surrender it to me without incident, I shall consider sparing your pathetic life. I assume, of course, that you know who I am, as I am sure my reputation precedes me, and so I suggest that you do not attempt anything foolish.”
Milt had no intention of sparing Bane’s life, but it was nice to toy with his victims a little before dispatching them to the netherworld.
“Yes, I know who you are,” Bane’s character typed back. “But you will never defeat me, for I have the hammer, and you are naught but a thieving, dishonorable scoundrel.”
A pleasant outrage seeped into Milt. He was surprised by the dwarf’s audacity, but Milt loved verbal jousting, and he would best the dwarf in banter before dispatching him to the gates of hell.
Milt was about to type a taunting response to the knave’s foolish challenge when there came another noise from the back of the store—a loud rattle this time—followed by a crash of breaking glass and the scraping of plastic.
Milt couldn’t spare the time to get up and look back there. Instead, he yelled, “Stop that racket this instant or I will be forced to retaliate. You are on notice that I expect you to compensate me for all of the damage that you have no doubt inflicted on that most precious part of my store. The items in it are truly irreplaceable and invaluable. You stay right where you are and ready your cash reserves.”
Milt was angry now, and had to have two more miniature Snickers bars to refocus his energies on the task at hand.
Milt began to type a belittling response to Bane, “I know you are but what am—” when he noticed that Bane was no longer in the room with him. What? But how could that be? Did that coward sign off and think that he could escape that way?
Then Milt noticed that it was his own internet connection that had gone dead. But that was impossible!
Milt huffed and puffed and knew that it wasn’t impossible, for his internet provider was Time Warner, and of all the dastardly evil-doers that made up the internet provider oligarchy, Time Warner had no challenger as the worst.
Seething and gurgling nougat, Milt dialed Time Warner’s customer support, which he had on speed dial on his phone, and was preparing a barrage of insults when the whole middle aisle of the store was tipped over and came to a clattering, video game case-breaking crash. That put Milt at a point of infuriation that he wasn’t sure he had ever experienced before.
Milt put the phone down—he wasn’t getting a dial tone for some reason—put his hands on his desk and used them to spin his great bulk in his chair to face the long open room of the store.
Then he saw the man—was it a man?—the thing, that had caused the ruckus.
Hyperventilating, Milt forgot about Bane, and began to fish his inhaler out of his pants with his left hand while fumbling for another Snickers bar with his right.
The empty Coca-Cola bottle that rested on Milt’s stomach toppled as he panicked. It made a dull clunk on the carpeted floor beneath him, and did not break.
Ivan was sniffing around the kitchen, wagging his tail and looking for a treat. He liked treats. He liked fish treats most of all. Sven usually fed him by now. Why hadn’t Sven fed him yet? Maybe it had to do with the bad smell. The bad smell was bad. Some bad smells said stand and fight. But this bad smell said run and hide. It was a very bad smell. Ivan didn’t like bad smells. Couldn’t Sven smell it? It was getting stronger, and Ivan was finding it hard to focus on his search for fish treats. Ivan wasn’t even sure he still wanted a fish treat with that smell lingering in the air. Ivan hoped Sven would finish playing with his clanking toys and come up to give Ivan a treat. Was Sven playing with his clanking toys? He had been earlier, but Ivan couldn’t hear any clanking now. Sven liked to clank. He was probably clanking the toys. Ivan shook his head, and decided that if Sven didn’t come to feed him soon, Ivan would go downstairs and give Sven a good, hard bite.
Lars lay in a heap on the floor. Sven watched him, not knowing what to expect. A few moments passed. Lars groaned. It was a soft groan this time.
“Lars?” Sven said. His voice was a squeak, and he expected no answer.
There was none.
Lars gathered himself up on his hands and knees. Then he began to crawl toward Sven. Lars’s mouth was closed again. He made no noise as he crawled. Much of the blood around his mouth and fingers had dried. Lars had grown even paler, making the dried blood stand out more. There was a grey tinge to him now. It wasn’t a bad weight gainer that had done this to Lars. No, it was definitely no weight gainer.
Sven scrambled to his feet and took a step backward. Then he took another, and another. Lars was still crawling toward him. Sven took another step backward and bumped into the edge of the counter by the door. He felt for the doorway, and without taking his eyes off Lars for a second, Sven backed out of the storage room and closed the door.
He heard another groan through the closed door. He didn’t know what to do. He stood outside the door, unable to think. Sven’s mind wasn’t carrying its weight, but was flopping around like a fish on mud.
The door to the storage room didn’t have a lock.
Upstairs, Ivan hissed.
“Vicky?” Jane asked. Jane couldn’t believe what she was seeing right now. Vicky’s head looked like a popped popcorn kernel—a grey popped popcorn kernel. There was no color in her face, and her head bulged in places it shouldn’t bulge in, and sagged in placed it shouldn’t sag in.
“Are you alright? Hey, I’m gonna get you to the hospital, okay? Vicky?”
Vicky rolled off the couch and crashed to the floor, her arms at her sides and her legs together like a grey popped popcorn kernel soldier.
Jane bumped into the TV stand behind her and realized that she had been backing up all the while. She reached out with a hand to steady the TV and then looked back at Vicky.
Vicky began to flop over toward Jane, turning as she went. Vicky groaned and flailed one of her arms as she flopped. To Jane, Vicky looked like a diseased rag doll rolling its way across the living room floor.
The glass shards crunched as Vicky rolled over them. Then her arms were outstretched, reaching for Jane.
Jane shrank back farther, her body filling with cold terror. It was obvious that this was no ordinary cold. She knew that she had to help Vicky, but she wasn’t going to touch her. She couldn’t, there was something wrong about her…and the air—there was a funny smell in the air—a wrong smell. It smelled like spicy, rotten fruit jam. The room began to sway…or was Jane swaying? She couldn’t tell.
Jane felt a pang of guilt for not reaching out to help her friend, but something was stopping her. Jane began to edge around the TV stand back toward the kitchen.
Vicky’s groans grew louder and more frequent, and it seemed she might be trying to stand up.
Jane noticed, for the first time, that her own cheeks were wet from crying, and that her hand was outstretched in front of her, as if she were still holding that glass of vitamin C water.
She had just gathered her thoughts enough to know what to do next—it was hard with that smell in the air—when a not so faraway scream distracted her for a second.
Jane looked down at the thing that was crawling toward her, and as the room’s swaying became more violent, she forgot her next move.
He stood outside the storage room for a moment longer. Then, feeling cold, Sven picked up his shirt from the floor next to the bench and put it on. He stood in the basement and listened. Slow shuffling noises were coming from inside the storage room.
Sven dragged his bench press over and put it in front of the door, blocking it. He put the bar in place and, working through the pain, loaded it with all of the plates he had. Sven looked at what he had done. It should keep Lars in the room. But would it? Lars was so strong. Sven stood there a moment longer, his mind blanking again.
Ivan hissed, snapping Sven out of the sudden trance.
Sven went upstairs and found his cell phone. He dialed 911 and paced with the phone to his ear.
“Your call cannot be completed as dialed,” a robotic voice said. “Please hang up and try again.”
Sven dialed 911 again.
“Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again.”
Sven dialed 911 one more time, with the same result. He tried some of his other workout buddies, including Brian and Lundgren, each of whom was resourceful and would help in a tight situation. He tried his mom, his lawyer client, Memorial Gymnasium across the street, Gold’s Gym, his favorite online bodybuilding supplement retailer, Yuan Ho Chinese Restaurant, Asian Express Chinese Restaurant, Whole Foods Market, and Ivan’s vet.
None of the calls went through.
Sven gave up, and with growing agitation and discomfort, tossed the phone on the couch. He walked into the kitchen, trying to figure out what to do next.
Then he heard scraping coming from the basement, and—
He at last saw what had displeased Ivan. There was a man in the back yard. It was Sven’s neighbor, Bob. Bob’s house was behind Sven’s. Bob was a tennis fanatic, and sometimes he managed to drag Sven out onto the tennis courts. Tennis was not Sven’s sport—he carried too much brawn for it. But it was nice to watch.
Sven stared out of the kitchen window at Bob. Bob wasn’t moving. It looked like he wasn’t even breathing.
Sven unlocked his back door and stepped into the back yard. He noticed that Bob looked thinner than usual. He was wearing his tennis clothes, complete with head and wrist bands, and he was clutching a tennis racquet with both hands. He just stood there, like a statue, his grey skin much greyer than usual.
Then Sven knew—this was the start of a very bad day.
Jane watched Vicky stand up. It had taken a few minutes, and horror-stricken though she was, Jane couldn’t make herself turn away. She was frozen in place, staring, the whole time.
Vicky’s whole body had creaked as she made her way up from the floor. It took Vicky several tries, propping herself up, and then falling back to the floor, as if she had forgotten how to make her body work, how to coordinate her limbs in time.
Vicky was up now, and Jane found herself trapped by the cold, dark gaze of her roommate, who, Jane was now sure, was not exactly her roommate any longer. Jane’s body was rigid, and though she was willing herself into action—any action that would take her away from her transformed roommate—she could barely manage a shudder.
“Vicky…” Jane said, her heart pounding in her ears. “Vicky? What’s happening? What’s wrong with you?”
Vicky groaned in answer, and began to stagger toward Jane.
Jane drew in a breath and tried to move her feet. They were so heavy, as if they were glued to the floor…and that smell, it was making her want to throw up, like she was turning into mush on the inside and her body needed to expel it. She tried to get her legs to move, but her muscles were frozen solid.
Of all the stupid images she could’ve pictured at a moment like that, Jane was now picturing a frozen, unthawed chicken breast under warm running water. If her legs were the chicken breast, and her mind the water, the thaw would take too long and…and what? What was Vicky going to do when she reached her?
Vicky dragged herself to within a few feet from Jane. Vicky raised her arm, bumping it clumsily into Jane’s shoulder. Jane recoiled but still couldn’t get her legs moving. Vicky’s hand tried to grab, but the rickety, uncoordinated fingers closed on air.
Vicky shuffled closer. Her mouth opened, and a thin string of drool began to make its way from her bottom lip to the floor. The string broke when it reached knee level and plipped onto the floor a few inches from Jane’s foot. Jane still couldn’t get herself to move, the muscles in her legs were clenched so tight now that they burned. Run, she kept telling herself, run, get out of here.
Vicky’s head came to within inches of Jane’s face. Vicky’s mouth was snapping open and shut in violent motions, sending the whole of her body into seizures with each snap, as if Vicky had no control over her limbs at all.
When Vicky snapped at Jane’s neck, Jane’s instincts finally, mercifully kicked in. She reacted, falling backward away from the bite, and kicked out with her leg, striking Vicky in the knee.
Jane fell backward onto the floor. The air was clearer there, and the fog in her mind and numbness in her body let up. She remembered where she was, who she was, and she remembered that she had to survive. It didn’t matter what was happening, she was going to survive.
Sven had seen this movie before. He had an idea of what was going on, but he had to make sure.
“Bob,” he said. “Wake up Bob. You wanna hit some balls today?”
Bob said nothing.
There was a faraway scream.
“It’s a great day for tennis, weather’s perfect.”
Bob just stood there.
“Nice headband, where’d you get it?”
Bob still said nothing.
Nodding in understanding, Sven picked up a branch and waved it at Bob. It was a soft branch, so instead of poking Bob as Sven had intended, the branch only caressed the immobile tennis player.
After a few tender, leafy caresses, Bob raised his head. Sven jumped back, dropping the branch.
After Sven regained his composure, he retrieved the branch and resumed the caresses, aiming the branch at Bob’s face this time.
Bob’s eyes snapped open to reveal dark, glaring eyeballs in too-loose sockets—just how Lars had looked in the basement. Then the tennis player’s head tilted sideways, snapping his neck, and sending Sven tripping backward over his own feet to fall onto the grass of the back yard.
There was another scream, much closer now.
Bob’s mouth popped open, and he began to sputter and pop toward Sven, clicking and gnashing his teeth. Sven got painfully to his feet, ran around the chomping tennis player and went back into his house, locking the back door behind him. From the kitchen window, he watched Bob make his awkward way to the back door. Then Bob began to bump into the door. He kept at it, bumping the tennis racquet against the door over and over again. He never tried the knob.
The knee kick sent Vicky staggering backward several ungainly steps. Then she stopped, steadied herself, moaned and resumed her pursuit. As she drew closer again, her dragging feet picked up shards of glass and scraped them along the floor.
“Stop!” Jane screamed, unnerved by the scraping shards stuck in Vicky’s feet. “Just stay over there, and, and I’ll get help. Just stay on that side of the room. Okay? Don’t come over to this side, okay?”
Vicky groaned and kept coming.
Jane remembered her gun. It was upstairs in the bedroom. She wanted to get it, but she’d have to go around Vicky. What was she even thinking? She couldn’t shoot Vicky. Was Vicky still Vicky? What was wrong with her? What was with the biting? People with colds and even the flu didn’t try to bite other people…right? I don’t know, Jane thought in exasperation, I’m an accountant not a doctor!
Vicky was getting closer, her saliva splattering the floor as she went.
Forgetting that she could get up, Jane crawled backward without taking her eyes off Vicky. She crawled until she bumped into the wall behind her and had to veer left, into the kitchen. Once Vicky’s staggering body was out of sight, Jane found it easier to concentrate. She got up, shook herself, and closed the kitchen door. She looked around the kitchen for something to prop against the door. Her eyes settled on the wine refrigerator. That would have to do. She dragged it over and set it in front of the door. At least the door opened inward—that was something.
Muffled by the glass of the kitchen windows, Jane heard a faraway scream. It was unmistakable—pure terror.
Jane’s mind began to race as she stared at the small wine refrigerator in front of the closed door, and listened to Vicky’s dragging, scraping feet out in the hall. Jane knew she had to get out of the house, and she cursed herself for ending up in the kitchen with only the one door. She looked at the windows over the sink. She could try to jump out if it came to it. She began to look around the kitchen, thinking about what to do next. Her eyes came to attention when they fell on her 32-piece, stainless steel knife set. She walked over to it. Jane felt her heart beating in her chest as she closed her left hand around the handle of the largest knife in the set. The plastic handle was room temperature. She pulled the knife out and stood there for a moment, thinking. Then she opened a drawer and took out a long, two-pronged weenie fork.
Holding her knife and fork, Jane turned back to the door.
Sven locked his front door and then submitted his body to agonizing pain by pushing the couch up against the door to the basement. Afterward, he hobbled upstairs to his bedroom where he retrieved his backpack and gym bag. He put on a pair of nylon track pants, a loose t-shirt, and his most comfortable pair of cross-trainers—a pair of Asics. Sven took his emergency supply of protein bars out from under the bed and put it in his gym bag. Then he grabbed all three of his stainless steel water bottles and a portable water filter and threw all of them into the gym bag.
Sven didn’t pack any clothes—except for his man-tard, which he put in his gym bag by rote. Realizing that he had packed it made him think of Lars, in his now bloody cat food-coated man-tard in the basement. They had gotten their man-tards together. Lars had introduced him to the man-tard. Before Lars, Sven hadn’t known there was a male equivalent of a leotard. Man-tards made lifting so much better. The mind-muscle connection that man-tards enabled just couldn’t be matched. Sven was crouched over his gym bag now, clutching the man-tard. He nodded his head, and as he did so, a single tear rolled down his well-muscled cheek. The tear fell, landing soundlessly on the man-tard.
Sven pulled himself together and carried the gym bag and backpack downstairs to the kitchen. To the gym bag he added the first aid kit that he kept on top of the refrigerator. He filled the three water bottles and put them back into the gym bag. Sven opened his cupboards and cursed under his breath. He kept all the good stuff in the storage room downstairs. But he couldn’t go there now.
Out of the cupboard Sven took a small bag of dried pineapple and papaya, a box of oatmeal granola bars, and some uncooked rice. He put all of these into the gym bag. Sven looked at the bag that was now bulging. He took the rice out and put it back in the cupboard, figuring that wherever he was going, he wasn’t going to be cooking rice. Then he took a small bag of Ivan’s dry cat kibble out from under the counter and stuffed it in the outer pocket of the backpack.
“This is your ride,” Sven said to Ivan, pointing at the backpack. Ivan looked up at him and tilted his blue head to one side.
Sven took a pan out from under the counter and set it on the stove. He turned the stove on. Then he picked Ivan up and found an angle at which both he and Ivan could see Bob bumping and grinding against the back door.
Sven pointed at Bob. “You never liked him did you?”
“Smart cat.” Sven gave Ivan a smelly fish treat, which Ivan gobbled happily. Then Sven put Ivan back down, and put the bag of fish treats in one of the backpack’s small outside pockets.
When the pan was hot enough, Sven took out two ribeye steaks that had been meant for his post-benching meal. He seared each to perfection, all the while trying to silence the voice in his head telling him he better enjoy them, because they would be his last. Sven plated the steaks in overlapping slices, and carried the plate into the living room. Ivan followed. Sven sat down on the floor and began to eat the steaks. He started with a knife and fork, then put the knife and fork aside and used his hands. Sven devoured the meat while Ivan lapped at the steak juice that collected at the bottom of the plate.
It occurred to Sven to turn the TV on and see if the news had anything to say about what was going on. He wiped his hands, got the remote, and turned the TV on.
The first channel that came on was all static. Sven flipped around and saw that most of the channels were just static. Thinking that was all in a good day’s work for Time Warner, he nodded to himself as he chewed and kept on flipping.
The first channel that worked was Comedy Central. The caption on the screen read, “Strange Flu Outbreak Grips Commonwealth of Virginia.” There was a reporter on the screen. She looked uneasy and pointed behind her. She said, “The CDC is handling the matter and asks that if you reside in Virginia, you stay indoors until the matter is resolved.”
Sven gnawed on one of the rib bones. The reporter went on, “The flu symptoms are rather unusual but the CDC insists there is no cause for alarm. Special field units have been dispatched to—”
The channel cut out and the TV screen filled with static. Sven looked down at the bare rib bones in his plate. His stomach growled against the backdrop of Lars’s scraping downstairs, Bob’s bumping outside, and Ivan’s tongue smacking as he worked on the steak juice in the plate. Sven picked up the remote and flipped around some more. He found another working channel—the Oprah Channel. There was a news report on that one too, but with no caption on the screen.
The reporter said, “The Virginia flu outbreak has been traced to—” and the channel cut out. The TV filled with static once more. Sven had had enough of Time Warner and its static, so he turned the TV off.
Maybe he should have turned the TV on before he cooked his steaks. Maybe then he would have heard more about what was happening. He shrugged, walked back into the kitchen, and seared another ribeye.
It was clear that Ivan didn’t want to get in the backpack. Sven pleaded with him, but Ivan just wouldn’t listen.
“Come on, we have to get out of here,” Sven said. “Just get in and we’ll talk about it later.”
Sven pointed at the backpack in frustration. “Please? We really have to go. I promise we’re not going to the vet. Would I lie to you?” That was probably the problem. When they went to the vet, Ivan usually traveled in the backpack, and Sven figured that Ivan suspected this was a vet trip.
Ivan meowed in defiance as he danced around the backpack, hitting Sven repeatedly with his tail.
“Come on,” Sven said, still pointing at the backpack. “We’re really not going to the vet, and I won’t close the top of the backpack all the way. You can peek out as we go, so you can jump out and run away if something happens.”
Ivan turned away from Sven and waved his tail.
“Okay, okay, I’ll get you some beef jerky. How about that?”
Ivan got in the backpack.
“That’s all it takes,” Sven said, and he put on the backpack and picked up the gym bag. He got his car keys and made for the front door.
Something in the basement overturned as Sven was walking to the door. He stopped for a moment, and then he heard the screams.
Lorie was trying to finish her eggs. She knew she had to finish them, and the toast too. Her breakfast would be her fuel for the race. But she was too nervous, and her stomach wasn’t cooperating. Lorie always got that way before track meets, and today was the most important meet so far. She cut away a piece of broccoli omelet with her fork and stared at it.
Evan was next to her, eagerly lapping up spoonfuls of Fruit Loops. Lorie looked into his bowl. There were only three fruit loops left—one blue and two yellow.
“Do you actually like that stuff?” Lorie asked. “The milk doesn’t even look like milk anymore, it’s all blue and purple and orange in places.”
Evan looked up at her as he sloshed another milk-drenched loop into his mouth. “These are great. And blue milk is better than regular milk. It’s sweeter.”
“Milk isn’t supposed to be sweet, Evan. Everyone knows that.”
Evan picked up the bowl of cereal and slurped up all of the brightly-colored milk. He put the bowl down, turned to Lorie’s plate, and looked thoughtful. “It looks like mine is better than yours. At least I want to eat mine. You’re just playing with your green omelet.”
“Am not. I’m just not that hungry.”
“You shouldn’t play with your food.”
Lorie smiled. “I’m not playing with it.” It was good to have Evan around. It made for much less boring breakfasts, even though he liked those silly cereals that she had no taste for. Lorie also liked Evan’s dad, and Lorie’s mom liked Evan’s dad, and they all hung out together and it was fun. It had been a little weird when their parents first got married, but now it was starting to feel normal, a lot like things used to feel like back when Lorie’s dad had been around before he—
A shattering sound came from the living room.
Lorie was on her feet at once, calling into the living room. “Mom? Are you okay?”
Lorie began to walk toward the living room threshold. “Mom?”
“Come on,” Lorie said to Evan, and he got up to follow her.
Lorie’s mom and Evan’s dad had been taking their breakfast on the balcony off the living room. They often took their breakfast out there, outside and away from Lorie and Evan. They liked their privacy.
As Lorie was about to cross into the living room, there was another shattering sound, and Lorie was hit in the face with a rancid, too-sweet smell that stopped her in her tracks.
Sven realized that the screams were coming from the front yard. He looked out the window into the yard but saw nothing. The screams continued, unabated.
He could only get a full view of the yard if he went outside, and he had been on his way out until the screams began. Now he stood there, uncertain.
In the basement, something heavy fell, its sound adding to Sven’s uncertainty.
Sven turned to the door to the basement that was blocked with his couch. He turned to the front door. The screams seemed to be subsiding. Sven went back to his kitchen and looked out the window. Bob was gone.
“Here we go,” Sven said to Ivan, and opened the back door. Ivan’s head and front paws stuck out of the backpack, his paws perched on Sven’s left shoulder. Sven found himself thinking that it was a fun day to be a cat.
Sven walked out and shut the door behind him. The back yard was empty. He made his way around the back of the house and walked through the driveway. The straps of the backpack bothered his benching injury, but carrying the food-loaded gym bag bothered the injury more. Both were necessary, he knew, and grossly inadequate if what he suspected was happening, really was happening.
Sven let out the breath he’d been holding since he walked out of his house. His mid-size SUV was still there. From somewhere beyond the car, the screamer, though apparently losing steam, kept screaming. Sven put his bag down on the driver’s side of the car and rushed around to see what was happening.
It was Bob. His tennis racquet was on the ground and he was bent over something. Was he the one screaming? No, he was bent over someone…someone else.
“Hey,” Sven said, “what are you doing over there?” It wasn’t unusual for Bob to be in Sven’s back yard, since Bob and Sven shared a driveway and sometimes Sven saw Bob doing skinny guy calisthenics back there. It was weird, but it was alright by Sven. Sven got to use Bob’s three extra parking spots whenever he wanted, so he wasn’t about to complain about Bob’s back yard Pilates. But Bob was in Sven’s front yard now, and he wasn’t doing Pilates.
Bob turned, and when Sven walked closer he finally saw the screamer. It was Bill, the mailman, or at least what was left of him. Sven’s jaw dropped and he walked backward into the pokey hedge. Bob began to get up from his crouch over Bill and locked his dead black eyes on Sven. Bob’s face was covered in blood and gobbets of flesh, his arms were covered in gore up the elbows, and a four inch piece of intestine hung out of his mouth, suspended, apparently mid-swallow. Bob and the parts of Bill’s flesh that covered the cannibalistic tennis player began to stagger toward Sven in uncoordinated spasms.
Even while Bob approached, Sven’s eyes were drawn back to Bill, who lay in the gore of his own evisceration. Finally, his screams died down to whimpers, and the whimpers died down to nothing. Bill lay still.
It was so hard to look away from Bill’s destroyed body. The carnage was mesmerizing, even to the non-violent Sven, who, after much difficulty managed to unlock his gaze from the dispatched mailman and turn his head in Bob’s direction. Sven’s eyes narrowed and he gritted his teeth as he fought the creeping numbness that was suddenly nipping at him again, now that Bob was close.
“You bastard,” Sven said. “You killed Bill. But—but why? But what? What are you doing? And what’s wrong with you?”
Bob didn’t reply, his stupid, bloody grin didn’t move, and he kept shuffling across the lawn toward Sven, dribbling blood and bits of flesh.
Sven ran around the slowly-shuffling Bob to the tree in the very front of the front yard. It took Bob a few seconds to register that Sven was somewhere else before he began the fit of spasms that turned his uncoordinated body around. From under the tree, Sven picked up the E-Z Curl Bar that he used for biceps curls. When the weather was nice Sven liked to work his arms on the front lawn. He loved it when people passed by and admired his physique. Some would roll their eyes—the jealous ones. Sven knew that his arms were something to be shown off. And most importantly, Ivan approved, always keeping Sven company during the front lawn arm-pumping sessions.
Sven looked at the bar in his hand, then around at the bloody mess in his yard. The bar wouldn’t be enough on its own to make up for it. Sven picked up four of the ten pound plates on the ground and put them on one end of the bar. He clipped them, then let the bar hang from his right hand like a club. It swung at his side as he waited.
Bob shuffled closer. It’d be nice to swat at Bob with his own tennis racquet, Sven thought, but that meant touching it, and Sven didn’t want to touch anything Bob had touched. The bicep bar would have to do. As Sven patiently waited for Bob to shuffle closer, more screams came, some distant, and some not.
Bob was close enough now. Sven took a breath, steadied himself, squeezed the hell out of the bar, and swung. The plates on the end of the bar hit Bob square on the left temple. Bob’s head exploded into a shower of dry, grey flesh, covering the hedge behind him. The headless body stumbled on toward an open-mouthed Sven for a few dragging steps, then collapsed. The blow had left Bob’s headless body with a dry stump at the neck.
But why not a wet stump? Wasn’t it supposed to be a wet stump? Sven’s junior high school math teacher, Mr. Newman, had loved to threaten students by saying, “I’m gonna rip your head off and spit down the wet stump.” Sven didn’t understand the gravity of this threat until years later—until now.
Looking at the dry stump, Sven wondered what Mr. Newman would have to say about this. He had been a good math teacher—one of the best. Mr. Newman would know what to do with Bob.
Sven shook his head and retreated from the flashback of his junior high school math class, leaving young, puny Sven and his protractor behind.
The headless tennis player’s hands clawed at the ground and his legs still moved like the legs of those wind-up toys when they fall over. Then he was still.
Sven dropped his makeshift club and let out a ragged breath, feeling shaken and confused.
There was a faraway hissing, and then it was closer, and then Sven was back, stepping backward out of the body’s tainted odor. It was Ivan—Ivan was still hissing.
“It’s okay now,” Sven said, and reached back with his left hand to pet Ivan on the head.
“He’s done, his tennis days are over.”
Ivan bit Sven’s finger. Not hard enough to get to the bone, but hard enough to draw blood. Sven winced, pulling his hand away.
Something grabbed Sven’s ankle. He looked down at the hand and understood at once why Ivan had been hissing. It was Bill’s hand, but Bill had been killed, hadn’t he? Sven wriggled his ankle free and turned around, again getting a whiff of the syrupy odor, which a back part of Sven’s brain was starting to connect with the mind and body-numbing effects he’d been experiencing in the past hour.
Most of Bill’s torso was gone. There were exposed ribs and pieces of organs strewn about, but nothing that could hold Bill’s lower half and upper half together. But Bill’s top half was moving, moving away from his lower half! His hands were opening and closing, reaching for Sven’s feet. Bill’s mouth was opening and closing too, the teeth clicking much too hard against each other.
The bottomless mailman looked up at Sven, locking on with his one remaining eye. Like the others Sven had seen so far, the eye was a dull, empty blackness, and it was a relief to look away from it into the empty socket of the missing eye. The mailman inched forward, pulling himself along with his hands and chin, putting distance between the remains of his torso and his torn, motionless legs.
Bill’s mouth ate grass as it gnashed its way to Sven, who knew that it wanted more. It wanted flesh. It wanted Sven’s meaty calf. Sven could feel it in the black stare of the mailman’s remaining eye. Sven stared in utter disbelief as the disconnected top of the mailman kept coming, it was so sickeningly terrible, it was so—Ivan snapped him out of it with a frustrated meow.
Sven shook himself, patted Ivan on the head—to maintain his own grip on reality and not at all to comfort Ivan—and walked to his car. He unlocked the car, threw his gym bag on the passenger seat and set the backpacking Ivan down in the passenger seat’s foot well. Sven turned the key, and the engine started.
“Thank God for that,” Sven said, thankful that bit of horror movie cliché was not coming to pass.
“That would have sucked, if the car hadn’t started.”
Ivan didn’t respond, maybe because it was obvious, or maybe because he was a cat and was beyond such mundane discussion.
Sven rolled the windows down a few inches so he could hear the outside world—the now dying outside world? He didn’t want anything to sneak up on him. He pulled forward so that he could get out from in front of Lars’s car, backed out of the driveway and turned onto Lewis Mountain Road, putting the University of Virginia grounds behind him.
Killed Bill, who was not quite killed all the way through, kept on inching his way across the lawn, forgetting his legs behind him.
Jane didn’t have to wait long as she stood turning her knuckles white with the squeezing of the utensils. She had been in the kitchen for what seemed like only a few moments before the sound of dragging footsteps stopped outside the door. Something began to scratch at the door in short, fitful bursts, then stopped.
Jane swallowed, her eyes fixed on the door. Then she scratched the top of her head with her fork and wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of her knife-wielding hand. She looked at the wine refrigerator and realized that she wanted a drink. It probably wasn’t the best time for one, she thought, but then she changed her mind. It was the best time for a drink. How could there ever be a better time?
Jane edged closer to the wine refrigerator. The door of the little refrigerator was facing sideways relative to the door of the kitchen. She wouldn’t have to turn the refrigerator to get a bottle out. That was good.
She held her breath as she put the knife and fork down on top of the refrigerator. She kneeled in front of the wine refrigerator’s door and cracked it open, then listened. She heard nothing, so she opened the door a bit more. Then she listened again. She still heard nothing, so she opened the door farther, just enough to take out a bottle. There was still no noise from outside the kitchen.
Jane reached her hand into the wine refrigerator and closed her hand around the neck of a bottle. She lifted it, and began to pull it out, inch by tedious inch. When she had gotten the bottle halfway out of the refrigerator, the scratching came again, more frantic than before. Jane yelped and almost dropped the bottle, banging it against another bottle in the wine refrigerator. She cursed under her breath, pulled the bottle all the way out, and taking the knife and fork up again, she retreated to the back of the kitchen, clutching the wine bottle and her utensils.
The wine refrigerator sat in front of the kitchen door, its own smaller door ajar. Jane looked at it, but decided she wasn’t going back over there to close it. It was unplugged now anyway.
Abruptly, the scratching grew louder.
Jane set her knife, fork, and bottle down on the counter. She opened a cupboard, stood up on the tips of her toes, and reached in. She took out a large, long-stemmed wine glass, and set it down next to the bottle. Then she looked around the kitchen, trying to remember what came next.
She remembered. She opened a drawer and took out her favorite foil cutter and a corkscrew. The foil cutter was built into a skunk figurine. The corkscrew was an ordinary corkscrew. Jane used the skunk to cut the foil off the top of the bottle, then uncorked the bottle with the corkscrew. The scratching stopped in time with the pulling of the cork.
Jane looked at the skunk and sighed. It had been a gift from Vicky. She was going to help Vicky and everything was going to be alright. She just needed a drink first.
After filling her glass to the brim, Jane took two large gulps and sighed. Then she looked at the bottle. It was a semi-dry Viognier from a local vineyard. Jane thought it was a bit too sweet for semi-dry, but she was sometimes wrong about these things. At that moment, the wine tasted like the most wonderful thing in the world, despite any possible inaccuracies in its avowed sugar content.
Jane picked up her glass again and brought it to her mouth. She took another big gulp, and just as she was in mid-swallow, there was a loud bang on the kitchen door, and then another, along with a tearing, splintering sound. Jane choked, spluttering wine out of her mouth. Some of it went on the floor, some went back in the glass, and some went on her hand, which she had brought up by reflex.
Jane’s mouth dropped open in astonishment when she saw it.
Vicky’s hand was sticking through door, boring its way through a mess of jagged splinters. There were splinters sticking in Vicky’s hand and arm, but that didn’t stop the arm from thrusting in and out of the hole it had made, from turning and twisting and digging out a wider opening for itself.
Then the arm retreated back through the hole, and was gone. It left just a little bit of blood around the splintered wood. Jane was surprised there wasn’t more blood, because it looked like the splinters had cut Vicky up pretty good.
Hyperventilating, Jane picked up the bottle of semi-dry Viognier and began to pour herself a fresh glass. Then she stopped herself. What was the point of that? This was a serious enough occasion to obviate the need for all formalities. Jane brought the bottle to her lips and took a few healthy swigs. Some of the wine dribbled down her lip, and she wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand.
Then there came more banging, and two sets of Vicky’s fingers were through the hole in the door, pulling at the splinters and rough wood, trying to make the hole bigger.
I have to do something, Jane thought, feeling trapped and hopeless. She looked at the wine bottle for answers and took another swig.
Then she took up the knife and fork again, and took a step toward the door, careful to stay away from Vicky’s probing, excavating hands.
“Stop it Vicky,” Jane said. “Vicky? Do you hear me? You’re very sick, and you have to stop it. Okay? Can you hear me? Are you listening?”
A low, angry moan came through the hole in the door. Or was it a hungry moan?
“Seriously Vicky, I mean it. Stop it, or I’m gonna have to defend myself. I don’t want to hurt you. Don’t make me.”
There was another moan.
“Really, don’t make me. Please?”
Vicky tore a large piece from the middle part of the door. It wasn’t big enough to get through, but at the rate Vicky was tearing through the door, it wouldn’t be long until it was.
Jane knew she had to stop that from happening.
She was feeling the effects of the wine now, and slurred her words. “That’s it Vicky, I’m sorry but I have to.”
Jane brought the fork up and stuck it in Vicky’s left forearm. There was little effect. A drop of what Jane could only interpret as stale blood leaked down one of the fork’s tines, and dropped to the top of the wine refrigerator. Vicky’s hands kept on scraping away, as if Vicky felt nothing. Another chunk of door came away with a hollow rending noise.
Jane shook her head, withdrew the fork, and fork-stabbed Vicky again, in the other arm this time.
That also had no effect, so Jane withdrew the fork again, and fork-stabbed Vicky again, in the shoulder this time—the shoulder that was now peeking through the rapidly enlarging hole in the door. Vicky still didn’t react, and Jane didn’t try to get the fork back this time. She left it sticking out of Vicky’s shoulder, skewering its last weenie dog.
Feeling more light-headed than she should have from the wine, Jane backed deeper into the kitchen. “What am I going to do with you?” She picked up the wine bottle and took a panicky gulp. The wine was getting warmer, and didn’t taste as good as it had when it was cooled to its appropriate drinking temperature.
Jane picked up another knife for the hand that had previously held the fork. She didn’t know what to do next. Should she try to kill Vicky? Was Vicky still alive? And what the hell was that smell?
The knob began to shake, and the door rattled on its hinges.
“Don’t come in here,” Jane yelled, trembling. “Don’t you dare. I’m late for work and you’re making such a mess. I’m not gonna clean all of this up, that’s for sure.”
Jane looked at the Viognier, shrugged, and downed the last of it. Why not?
Then, with a rattle and the sharp splintering of wood, the door came off its hinges.
At first, Vicky tried to push past the dislodged door while it was still in front of her, jammed between her and the wine refrigerator. That wasn’t working, and after too short a time, seemingly by trial and error, Vicky staggered backward, letting the door fall outward, away from its frame, and away from the wine refrigerator.
Then Vicky reversed, lurching forward again, and shambled straight into the wine refrigerator. It was as if she didn’t see it in front of her. She bumped into it, backed up, and then tried to walk through it again, repeating the process.
“Now look what you’ve done with the door,” Jane said, brandishing the knives at face level. “Stop it, or I’m gonna cut you, I’m not kidding this time. It’ll be worse than that fork sticking out of you.”
Jane pointed a knife-wielding hand to the fork sticking out of Vicky’s shoulder.
“I’m gonna cut you right in the face.”
Vicky walked into the wine refrigerator again, and she was getting the hang of it. Each time she walked into it now, she edged it a little out of position. A path was opening up through which she would soon be able to stagger.
“Now don’t you come in here,” Jane said. “I’m warning you.”
Jane ran up to the wine refrigerator and pushed it back into position while Vicky was backing up from a bump against it. Vicky reached out and tried to grab Jane, but Vicky was too slow and awkward in her movements. Jane sidestepped out of the way and swiped at Vicky’s outstretched arm with a knife. It put a gash down the length of Vicky’s forearm. Vicky didn’t react, and no blood came out of the gash.
Vicky reached for Jane again. Jane backed up now, and began to look for a way out. Could she get around Vicky? It didn’t look that way. Vicky was slow-moving enough, but the space was too small to get around her without getting grabbed, and if there was one thing Jane wanted to avoid, it was Vicky’s grip and slobbery, diseased mouth—although the mouth looked much drier now than it had before…not that a dry mouth meant Jane was into it, of course. Vicky was trying to bite her, of all things. The gall of some people!
She and Vicky weren’t working out as roommates anyway, Jane thought, and wished there was a man around to help, someone bigger than Vicky.
Jane gave the empty Viognier bottle a sad look, picked it up, and threw it at Vicky’s head.
“Take that you beast,” Jane said.
The bottom of the bottle made a nice thunk against Vicky’s forehead. Jane was proud of the throw. I should’ve kept up with my softball team, she thought, and then wished there was a bat that she could swing at Vicky’s head. She gave a quick thought to retrieving another wine bottle and swinging that, but decided it was better to avoid getting too close to the wine refrigerator, where Vicky was now doggedly stumbling back and forth, intractable in her pursuit of Jane.
Jane backed yet deeper into the kitchen. She turned to the window, and saw her way out.
Lorie tried to shake off her sudden disorientation. She felt off-balance, like she was about to fall over, like the feeling she got when she stopped too suddenly after a sprint, only worse. She instinctively backed away from the entrance into the living room, bumping into Evan.
“Hey,” Evan said, “watch it.”
Lorie felt better at once. “There’s a weird smell in there, like…” but Lorie found that she didn’t know how to describe it. “I wouldn’t breathe in if I were you.” Lorie didn’t want to breathe it either, but she thought her mom might have been hurt, so she had to see what was the matter.
She pinched her nose, stared at Evan until he rolled his eyes and did the same, and walked into the living room. Two of the lamps by the sofa, one an antique, were smashed to bits on the wood floor.
Lorie felt a stab of regret on seeing the broken antique lamp. It had been her grandmother’s, and her grandmother had always tried to keep her from playing with the patterned beads that hung from the lampshade. But they had been fun to play with, and made a fun jangling sound when—
Then Lorie saw her mom, and immediately forgot her grief over the ruined lamp.
But it wasn’t that easy.
Jane pulled and pushed on it, but the damn window just wouldn’t open far enough for her to get out. It was hard to reach to begin with, being positioned above and behind the sink, and even when Jane climbed into the sink, she couldn’t get enough leverage to budge the old, stubborn thing open wide enough.
Deciding on an alternate course of action, Jane climbed out of her perch in the sink, and took out a heavy cast iron pan from under one of the counters by the stove. She swung the pan at the glass. The pane cracked and broke, but not completely, so Jane kept swinging at it. As Jane beat on the window with the pan, the wooden cross-hatchings on the window began to crack along with the glass, and Jane knew that given just a little more time to work on the window, she would be able to break out and escape.
But time wasn’t forthcoming. Jane heard a scrape, and turned to see that Vicky was now in the kitchen, having pushed past the wine refrigerator.
Jane reached for a knife with her non-pan hand, just as Vicky—much more deftly than before—grabbed for Jane’s reaching hand.
Vicky’s fingers closed over Jane’s wrist just as Jane’s fingers closed over the knife’s handle. With a strength that startled Jane, Vicky began to pull Jane’s hand up, toward her dry, gaping mouth, toward cracked, broken lips that resembled the lips of a person who had just come crawling out of the desert, lips too dry to bleed.
“Let go of me!” Jane screamed, struggling against Vicky’s grip.
Jane’s mind began to flutter off somewhere as she looked into Vicky’s eyes, as she couldn’t help but stare into them, powerless to resist the cold feeling that now washed over her.
No way out.
She began to scream, and barely heard her own voice.
Milt took a few puffs of his inhaler, then picked up the empty Coca-Cola bottle and held it in front of his belly like a shield. He gulped down some aromatic, battle station air, then belched in fright.
He had read enough comic books and played enough video games to know exactly what he was looking at right now. It was a zombie—one of the walking dead.
Milt wondered for a moment if the zombie had walked into the store that way, and if he had been too preoccupied with procuring the Twelve-Gemmed Hammer of Azrael to notice.
No, Milt thought, I certainly would have noticed a zombie walking into the store, wouldn’t I have? Milt thought it was more likely that the zombie had walked in as a man, and transformed into a zombie while browsing the store. That meant that there was a zombie virus running amok, and—wait a second, zombies? There was no such thing as zombies, this was just some idiot troublemaker trying to scare Milt—probably the landlord’s costumed agent. Milt was well aware of his landlord’s contempt for Milt and the comic book store, and this was just the kind of thing his landlord might do to try to intimidate Milt into leaving.
“I am afraid your crass tactics are not going to have any effect on me,” Milt said, fury filling his fat cheeks as he spoke. “You and that villain Mr. Trevena are going to have to compensate me for all of this damage. And let it be known that I shall never leave this place. It suits my temperament quite perfectly.”
The man in the zombie disguise moaned in response.
“Are you listening to me, you ruffian? Answer me! Are you unable to formulate a rejoinder on account of your trifling wit? Perhaps a higher concentration of mono-syllabic words is in order. I will not leave here. And that is a poor mask. Mr. Trevena would have made a better zombie au naturel than you do in your absurd makeup and thrift shop attire.”
Apparently, a rejoinder did occur to the man—part of his lower jaw fell off. It landed on the carpet and bounced twice before sputtering to a stop by Milt’s bursting furry slippers, which were straining admirably against the pudgy girth of Milt’s feet.
Milt reexamined the man’s mask and observed bite marks on the man’s face and neck. There were chunks of flesh missing, and with the piece of lower jaw now missing, Milt could see the man’s tongue hanging out and askew, raw bone and jaw muscle peeking out from behind it.
Milt considered this for a moment.
So it was not a mask. Milt’s mind found itself struggling for purchase, as his body put forth a commendable, though unattainable effort to recruit muscle fibers—any muscle fibers—into action for immediate flight from this obvious predator.
Milt had to do something quick, or the zombie was going to get him. It was lurching toward the battle station, getting closer with each rigid spasm of its legs. Miltimore the Sword-Wielder would know what to do, and in a timid, unbelieving sort of way, Milt knew what he had to do too.
A karate yell flew from Milt’s mouth.
It had no effect on the approaching zombie, so Milt struggled to his feet and lumbered his great body around to face the wall behind his battle station. From it, his shaky hands pulled his replica, 39 inch Conan the Barbarian Sword of Crom, which he had modified to resemble Miltimore the Sword-Wielder’s sword by coloring the hilt black and darkening the blade with charcoal, so it looked more like a sword that was used, and not one that just hung around for display purposes. Milt figured that Miltimore the Sword-Wielder used his sword, and its gleam would have dulled over time by way of contact with blood, bone, sinew, gristle, wine, women, and the countless other adventuring objects that Milt’s replica sword was never to encounter…until now.
The sword looked authentic, and it felt that way too. It was heavy, and it was a product of sound planning that Milt took care to eat well, or he might have more difficulty wielding the sword than he already did.
As the zombie approached, a quick realization dawned on Milt. For years, he had made a ritual of sharpening the sword with stones. He did this while he watched the Conan movies and polished off Snickers ice cream bars, usually as a reward for another glorious life conquest—in the virtual world. The last time Milt had done this was last month, when he set the record for the longest World of Warcraft continuous playing session at eighteen days, four hours, thirty-two minutes, and seven seconds. When Milt had woken up at his battle station two days later and realized the enormity of his accomplishment, he took his sword down into the basement, popped in the first of the Conan movies, got out his sharpening stones and ice cream, and set to work.
Now he knew there had been a reason for all of that. All the while, he had been preparing for this moment, for this day. The monster had leapt off the comic book page to confront Milt, and Milt was ready.
Milt raised the sword in front of his body in a shaky, awkward jiggling of arms. The zombie reacted to Milt’s sword-brandishing by moaning and hastening its stumble toward the battle station, its ruined jaw gyrating sideways, click-clacking as it swiveled.
Locking eyes with the revolting jaw gyration, Milt raised the sword over his head, feeling a sticky, chocolate-infused part of his shirt come unstuck from his body.
Then, when he judged the zombie close enough, Milt belched up some peanut shards, and brought the sword down with all of his sword-wielding might.
As soon as Sven turned out of his driveway, he saw them.
Lewis Mountain Road wasn’t a very wide street, but it wasn’t very narrow either. It fit four cars shoulder to shoulder.
Ahead of him, Sven saw bodies in the road, similar in complexion to the things he had encountered so far that day. The ones in the road stood, pale and deflated, and Sven knew they would be hungry.
There were four of them, scattered about the street. They didn’t look at each other, and they didn’t react when Sven pulled out, shifted into drive, and began to creep up the street toward them.
The closest one was Charlie, who lived three houses up from Sven. Charlie was 34 years old, and lived at home with his mother. The two of them owned a popular Scottish Pub on the Corner, called The Pub. Charlie liked to call it, The Pube. Sven thought this was very funny, but he also understood that most people couldn’t appreciate that kind of basic humor. It wasn’t crass like everyone said, it was just good, basic, caveman humor. You had to have a certain level of testosterone in your body to understand it, and Sven did. Poor Charlie, Sven thought, he had a lot of potential.
The next was Linda, a professor of economics at the University of Virginia. She had always been very nice to Sven, and when he saw her that way—the way she was now—he had to look away. Linda lived across the street from Charlie, and at the moment she was standing across the street from Charlie too.
The next grey bodies were farther down the street. They stood together, and Sven didn’t know who they were. Judging from their backpacks and relative lack of pudginess, Sven guessed they were college students.
Sven drove up the street at 10 miles per hour, being careful to…he wasn’t sure what exactly, just being careful. Ivan had found a comfortable spot in the passenger seat’s foot well next to his backpack, and was cleaning his face with a paw.
They passed Charlie and Linda first. Neither Charlie nor Linda moved. They both looked pale, emaciated, and very obviously in need of medical attention, if medical attention could do them any good at this point. Sven rubbernecked, overcome by a dreadful curiosity, then made himself drive past his now-former neighbors.
The two college kids were farther up the street, in the middle of the road. Sven saw that he would have to drive around to their left to avoid them, because there was a car parked on the right side of the street next to where they stood.
Unlike Charlie and Linda, the college kids did react to the car’s movement, and from a distance. They each raised their heads, locked their black eyes on Sven, and began to creep in the direction of the oncoming car.
Sven’s mind flashed on that movie, The Happening. Everyone Sven knew hated that movie, but he liked it. It made sense, it was about how people were screwing up nature and nature would come back to get them one day. It was bad to mess with nature. Sven had a feeling that whatever was happening that day, like in The Happening, was happening for a reason. Something was out of balance, and the illness that was now ravaging his street was probably there to restore the balance, except Sven hoped he wasn’t part of the balance restoration. Right now it was a matter of living long enough to find out.
When he drove closer, Sven saw that the college kids were an item. Their fingers were laced together and they wore matching outfits.
As he drove around the staggering couple without any trouble, he noticed their skin. It looked dry as paper, like they were all dried up, devoid of moisture. Sven glanced at the rearview mirror. The grey couple had begun to turn after him. Whatever joy they were sharing they would not spread to Sven, Sven was getting the hell out—
“Help!” a woman’s voice screamed. “Someone, please! Help me!”
Sven searched for the imperiled screamer, but saw no one.
“Sven!” the voice screamed, startling Sven into slamming his foot on the brakes. It was Jane.
“I’m trapped in here! She’s trying to…”
Sven took his foot off the brake and careened into Jane’s driveway. He hit the brakes, raised the windows all the way, and put the car in park. He could see Jane now, through her kitchen window.
He got out of the car, put Ivan in the backpack, and slung it on. Leaving Ivan in the car to roast—or worse—was out of the question. The sick people were unusually strong, and Sven was sure they could break into a car for something they wanted, maybe for a cat. As long as Ivan rode in the backpack, he would be able to make a run for it if something happened to Sven.
Sven leapt painfully from the driveway onto the front lawn, then ran to the window where Jane was. Seeing the state she was in made his heart drop. She was screaming, and flailing a knife and cast iron pan at her clearly diseased roommate, who looked just how Lars had looked, and was trying to bite Jane’s arm.
Without a word, Sven tore the screen off the outside of the window, then began working on the window itself, which he quickly realized was jammed.
It was designed like many of the windows in his own house, so that it could be pushed out from the inside. Sven pulled at the bottom of the window, but it wouldn’t move. It was stuck, and there wasn’t enough clearance for Jane to get out through.
Sven pulled hard on the left bottom corner of the window, ignoring the stinging pain in his chest. The corner came free, providing a narrow, slanted opening in the side of the window that still wasn’t practical to climb out through.
Jane screamed again, flailing harder with the pan and knife, inspiring Sven to redouble his window-pulling efforts. Jane had already begun to climb through the gap between the frame and the side of the window that Sven had managed to slant outward. Her right leg dangled out the window as she pushed into the frame with her shoulder, still flailing her kitchen gear at Vicky. They pushed and pulled together, Sven pulling with all of his weight, Jane leaning against the window with hers.
Then there was an awful tearing pain in Sven’s chest, and the window broke the rest of the way out of its frame with an impressive snapping of wood.
Jane fell from the window onto Sven, but she didn’t come down all the way.
Her left leg was caught.
Inside the kitchen, Vicky had hold of Jane’s calf, and was pulling it toward her open mouth. Most of the way out the window and supported by Sven, Jane swiped at Vicky with the knife, having lost the cast iron pan in her fall.
The knife lodged in Vicky’s cheek, but Vicky was dogged in her struggle for Jane’s prized calf. Sven wasn’t going to let Vicky win. He wrapped his arms around Jane’s middle and pulled.
They fell backward onto the grass. Jane was free, and her calf was whole. They lay there panting for a moment, Sven telling himself this was no time to lie down, pain or no.
Then Jane screamed again.
Vicky’s gnarled hands and raggedy parts of her forearms were still latched on to Jane’s shin. One of the forearms was detached from the rest of Vicky’s arm well below the elbow, and the other forearm was detached just above the elbow. The clinging body parts looked bloodless.
Jane’s eyes were half-closed as she lay panting, as if she could get away from Vicky’s detached hands and forearms by refusing to acknowledge their presence. She crawled backward, away from the house, but Vicky’s clingers remained.
Jane looked at Sven, her eyes pleading. “Get them off me, please.”
Sven reached for the twitching hands around Jane’s shin. Reluctantly, he began pulling on the fingers. When Sven pulled on one finger, the others would tighten, and when he let go of one he had pulled, it went back to its place, holding on to Jane’s shin.
Confused by this, Sven looked up. Vicky was looking down at him with sunken black eyes and a gaping, hungry mouth. The tattered stumps of her arms were pointed at him.
Sven swallowed and resumed pulling on the fingers. He was less delicate now, snapping the digits off one by one until the hands were fingerless and could be pried off.
When the hands were removed from Jane, Sven turned to find Ivan watching them from a comfortable spot at the bottom of Jane’s lawn. Sven felt his empty backpack. Ivan must have jumped out during the window-pulling.
Jane’s eyes were wide as she stared up into her kitchen, where Vicky stood framed by the broken window. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, wiping at her face. “Please, please let’s go away from here.”
Without a word, Sven put Jane in the car, set Ivan in her foot well, got in, and started the engine.
The sword stuck.
This kind of thing never happened to Miltimore the Sword-Wielder, Milt thought. He had barely been able to keep his grip when he sliced through the zombie’s head. Then the sword caught on something impenetrable at the base of the monster’s neck. Letting a shudder jiggle its way through his body, Milt knew he would never forget the slippery rattle that had made its way down the sword as it lodged in place.
The blade had hit the zombie’s head off-center, and had come down through the zombie’s right eye.
The right side of the zombie’s head began to fall away, exposing what Milt interpreted as dehydrated brain matter. It made Milt think of smoker’s brain, if there was such a thing. It looked like the analog of smoker’s lung—shriveled and brown and not healthy-looking at all.
The monster began to fall forward, and Milt was overcome by a wave of revulsion. He let go of the sword and stumbled backward into his battle station, stepping into the Coca-Cola cooler with one slipper-clad foot and knocking over his urine receptacle with the other. A smell hit him then—not just that of the urine pouring onto the floor or the iced raspberry potpourri toppling out, but a strange, curious smell that seemed to be coming from inside the zombie. Of course Milt knew that zombies were rotten creatures, and yet the smell wasn’t that of decay as Milt would have expected. It was…it was…well, it was wonderful.
Reflecting on the marvelous odor, Milt fell backward onto a Star Wars theme chess set, removing it from mint condition status with a decisive crunch. Milt’s body was pumping adrenaline too furiously to take notice of the jagged chess piece fragments digging into his padding.
Milt huffed and puffed and finally rolled upright onto his knees. He looked down at the twitching zombie with its head split open, lying in a pool of iced urine and raspberry potpourri. Then Milt proceeded to hurl as he had never hurled before.
As he expelled the contents of his voluminous, multi-compartmented stomach—a Coca-Cola-coated mass of partially-digested miniature Snickers bars—Milt remarked at the lack of blood flow from the zombie corpse. It was as if the zombie’s flesh were all dried out.
That made Milt picture bags of salted zombie jerky hung up for sale in the Wegmans meat aisle.
With that salty vision clear in his mind, Milt’s hurling hastened.
“Mom? Mom? What’s wrong?” Lorie walked into the living room to find her mom on the floor, slumped against the couch cushions. Lorie was holding her nose, and on a different occasion, hearing her own nasally voice might have made her think of those people on TV that inhaled helium and then talked like chipmunks—not today. Her mind was filled only with fear and concern for her mom.
Lorie put her hand on her mom’s forearm, and gasped at how cold the skin was to touch.
“Are you okay? Can you get up?” Lorie asked in her nasally voice.
Lorie’s mom didn’t respond, and Lorie looked over her shoulder for Evan. He was standing at the entryway to the living room, unmoving, as if under a spell. Lorie saw that he wasn’t covering his nose like she was. She pointed sternly at her own clamped nose, but he made no response, as if he didn’t see her or what was happening in the living room.
“Mom?” Lorie shook her mom by the arm, hoping for a response, but there was none. Her mom’s other hand lay still on the shaft of a shattered lamp.
She must have pulled it down when she fell, Lorie thought. Looking at her mom’s face, Lorie couldn’t believe how pale she was, and how loosely her eyelids hung open, as if her eyes had gotten smaller and retreated further into the back of her head. Lorie pulled on the forearm again, and there came a tearing, popping sound from her mom’s shoulder that made Lorie stop, aghast.
“We have to get help,” Lorie said in panic, looking over her shoulder at Evan.
Seeing that he wasn’t moving, Lorie began to get up to call an ambulance. There was something very wrong and Lorie needed to get help. As she was getting up from her crouch, she felt something cold. It grabbed and squeezed her wrist hard, very hard.
Surprised, Lorie took her fingers off her nose for a second, then replaced them as soon as she could smell that foul, too-sweet odor again. Feeling suddenly disoriented again and turning back to her mom, Lorie saw that it was her mom that had grabbed her wrist and was holding it tight, and…her eyes, her mom’s eyes, they weren’t right in their sockets anymore, they weren’t her mom’s eyes, they were…they were all dark, dull black, like dusty marbles, and they were wrong. They were so wrong.
Horrified, Lorie struggled to free herself from the ice-cold grip, but she wasn’t strong enough. She wanted to use her other hand, but she was too afraid of the smell in the air to take her hand away from her nose. So she dug in with her feet against the floor and tried to wrench her hand free, but it was no use against that grip. Then Evan’s dad was there, stumbling in from the balcony, and, and his eyes were black too, and he was so pale, and so uncoordinated. What was happening? It was like a nightmare, like her and Evan’s parents had become monsters.
This has to be a dream, Lorie told herself. What else could it be? She thought about uncovering her nose and taking a deep breath. Then she would certainly wake up. But something kept her from doing it. It all seemed too real to be a dream, and her wrist hurt so much—that was too real to be a dream.
Lorie’s mom began to pull on Lorie’s wrist, and Lorie wasn’t strong enough to resist. The mouth under the dull black eyes fell open, and Lorie understood what was to happen to next if she didn’t get away.
She began to struggle fiercely, kicking her legs and trying to pull her wrist free, but keeping the fingers of her other hand firm over her nose. It was no use. She was being pulled closer, and the muscles in her arm, shoulder, and back were burning, beginning to give out. She wasn’t strong enough.
Lorie looked up as her mom was pulling her hand into her mouth and saw Evan’s dad, now standing over her and reaching with two stiff arms for her, mouth agape. His hands brushed against her hair, grabbing, but not catching hold.
This is it, Lorie thought, not a dream and no way out.
Then she had an idea, and with the last of her failing strength, she resolved not to breathe and took her right hand away from her nose. With it she reached across her mom’s legs, grabbed the detached top of the fallen lamp, picked it up, and brought it around in an arc, smashing it on top of her mom’s head. The ice-cold grip loosened at the moment of impact. Lorie fell backward, and began frantically crawling away on her back.
Feeling her own body lurch violently into confusion, Lorie pinched her nose again, scrambled up, and tackled Evan, knocking him over and into the dining room.
“Wake up!” Lorie yelled. She took her hand away from her nose and began rubbing her bruised left wrist, which she now saw was beginning to swell up.
“We have to get out of here! Evan, come on, snap out of it. Something’s wrong, we have to go.”
Lorie shook Evan with her good hand, and he blinked.
“What happened?” Evan asked. “It was like I got lost and forgot—”
Evan stopped mid-sentence and his jaw dropped, face suddenly rigid with shock and terror. Lorie turned around to see what it was that had Evan speechless, though she had a feeling she knew what she would see.
Lorie’s mom and Evan’s dad were both at the dining room’s threshold. Lorie’s mom was on her hands and knees, staring up at Lorie, her head tilted up and back much too far. Evan’s dad was standing, his arms outstretched and lips parted to show a stiff, protruded, bloodless tongue.
Then both parents began to move into the dining room, and the foul odor hit Lorie and she was moving backward, stumbling, and falling over herself to get away from it. She grabbed Evan’s arm and pulled him with her. He let out a squeak and then they both turned and were running to the front door.
Lorie grabbed for her backpack and she and Evan went out the front door, and the daylight hit Lorie and she saw her street, and her apartment complex, and there were people running, and she began to hear screams, and the panic was tightening her chest, and—
Lorie took Evan’s hand, and they began to run.
Sven sniffed at the air and considered asking Jane if she’d been drinking. Thinking better of it, he pulled out into the road.
When he was most of the way to Alderman Road, his phone rang. Sven picked it up out of the cup holder and looked at it in astonishment, surprised that it was working. His mom was calling.
Sven picked up and looked at Jane. She had drawn her knees in to her chest and was looking down at Ivan.
“Hello?” Sven said.
“Sven! Sven are you okay?”
“I…yeah, I guess. I’ve got Ivan and Jane in the car. We’re—” Sven hesitated as he pushed a button to put the call on speaker. “Mom? Do you know what’s going on down here?”
There were a few clicks of static, then Sven’s mom’s voice was back.
“Sven I’m so glad you’re okay. I’m so glad you’re safe. I just about died when we heard what was happening.”
“We’re okay at the moment. Are you okay where you are?”
“Yeah, New York is fine, we’re not affected by this thing, so don’t worry about me. Just make sure you—”
There was a click of static.
“Mom? Hello? Mom?”
Sven was turning out of Lewis Mountain Road now, taking a right onto Alderman. He pulled over onto the sidewalk, hoping for better reception.
The phone clicked. “Yeah,” Sven’s mom said. “Are—there?”
“I’m here mom, what were you saying?”
“Sven, this—really important, can—hear me?”
“Yeah, what’s important?”
“Sven, listen—only Virginia—affected, you have—stay away from—”
Static took over the line again.
“Mom? Damn. Can you hear me?”
Some garbled noises came out of the speaker.
“What?” Sven asked.
“You—to stay away from—”
The line went dead.
Sven picked up the phone and tried to reestablish the connection. After six tries, Ivan whimpered, and Sven gave up.
“We’re gonna die,” Jane said. Her voice was calm.
Milt wiped at his mouth and tearing eyes with a trembling, pudgy hand. His stomach contents were on top of the zombie now, obscuring its nasty head fissure and helping to contain the strange, sweet and sour smell emanating from the insides of the dead creature.
Glancing about the disarray at his battle station as he shook the Star Wars chess fragments out of his back, Milt felt a powerful sense of pride filling him. If he was not now standing in the abode of a mighty warrior, there was no such abode.
The shop floor was covered with blood, sweat, Coca-Cola, tears, half-digested Snickers candy bars, raspberry potpourri, non-mint condition themed chess piece fragments, urine, and zombie—although there was hardly any blood involved—all of the aforesaid components chilling by virtue of ice cubes strewn at random, artistic counterpoints throughout the muck. It was a scene worthy of any comic book, and Milt had achieved it in reality, in real-time.
Milt stood up. His right foot sloshed into the main collection of urine in a depression in the carpet, but he paid little attention to the furry slipper that was now soaking up his reprocessed Coca-Cola. Milt found the hilt of his sword and pulled it up out of the filth-covered zombie. The sword must have dislodged when the zombie fell, or maybe I’m getting stronger, Milt told himself, and settled on the latter.
The sword was in desperate need of wiping. When Milt looked at it, he had to fight to suppress a renewed urge to hurl. This wasn’t a day to spend dry heaving. For one thing, he suddenly felt hungry—probably because his stomach was now empty for the first time in who knew how long—and for another, he was bursting to see how far the zombie infestation had gone.
Milt took ginger, dainty steps over the decommissioned zombie and tiptoed to the back of the store, as if the usual slipper-stifled thunderclaps that were Milt’s footfalls might wake the dead zombie in the battle station. The usual thunderclap series was absent today anyway, as Milt’s tip-toeing now went: thunderclap, slosh, thunderclap, slosh, and so on.
Milt almost dropped his sword when he saw what that damned zombie buffoon had done. The back of the store, which served as the entrance to Milt’s underground lair, was in a pitiful state of destruction.
An aisle of priceless, vintage video games on 5.25 inch floppy disks was knocked on its side. The rare disks were everywhere. Milt let out a panicky belch when he took this in—the disks were so priceless, no one had even dared purchase one yet, and now Milt might not be able to save them.
There were Xena: Warrior Princess DVDs strewn all about the floor, mixed in with the floppy disks, and—
“No!” Milt shrieked, and put a pudgy palm to his right temple to steady himself.
The Commodore 64—Milt’s prized Commodore 64—was in shattered ruins all over the floor. The zombie had destroyed one of Milt’s most-cherished possessions. Milt cursed the grotesque, mindless beast. He patted a piece of the Commodore 64 and said, “I am truly sorry that this is how you have met your end. We have shared some magnificent times together, have we not?”
The Commodore 64 didn’t respond.
Milt tried to choke back a sob, looking away from his destroyed friend. As the thunderous sob shook out of his body, beating Milt’s efforts to stifle it, something else came in to replace it.
It was the want—the need—for revenge.
Sven and Jane drove for a while and said nothing. They were too shocked to speak.
The roads were littered with cars—cars and the shambling infected. Sven was forced to drive slowly because of all the cars, and milling infected people, stumbling and reaching for Sven’s car when it passed.
The infected people’s resemblance to television zombies was striking, too strong for Sven to ignore. They were in a plague movie, he was sure of it.
He drove on the shoulder most of the time, and even that part of the road was interspersed with cars facing in all directions, making it necessary to zigzag all over the road to make progress in a single direction. The fastest Sven was able to drive was 25 miles per hour, and he could only maintain that speed for short stretches at a time.
Most of the infected that Sven passed were still in their cars. They sat there, bumping against their doors, ostensibly attempting an escape, and apparently having forgotten how car doors work. When Sven drove past, the trapped infected stirred, becoming more animated in their struggling, as if Sven’s passage had given them greater purpose to escape—to pass along their illness to Sven.
The infected that were in the road, out of cars, staggered and lurched in no ascertainable direction, at least until Sven drove closer. When he passed them, they too reacted to the car, beginning to follow after it until they vanished in Sven’s rearview mirror.
Jane broke the silence.
“What the hell is going on here? I mean what the hell?”
Sven looked over at her, then turned back to the road. He knew exactly what was going on.
“They’re zombies,” Sven said, as if it were the plainest thing in the world.
“Zombies, you know, like in the movies. They’re undead, walking dead, you know, zombies, monsters, trying to get us.”
“What? Zombies? Are you crazy? There’s no such thing as zombies. What is wrong with you? That was—that was my friend and she…she’s sick, that’s all, and…”
“Calm down. I’m not trying to make light of it or anything. That’s just what’s going on. I don’t know why, but they’re trying to get us, and I’m going to stay alive.”
For a few minutes, Jane said nothing. Then she said, “There’s gotta be a better explanation than that.”
She reached for the radio and tried to tune it. She couldn’t find any stations that weren’t static, but went on fiddling with the knob anyway.
“I mean,” Sven said, “it’s probably some kind of virus, a disease. It’s spreading and making people sick and rabid or something. How else do you explain the attempted biting?”
“Why don’t we have it? Do we have it?”
“I don’t know. We haven’t been bitten for one thing, right?”
Sven was relieved Jane’s flesh was still intact. “Beyond that, I don’t know. It might be in the air for all we know, or radiation or something. If we can outrun it, get away from it, hide from it, that’s what we need to do.”
Jane pointed to the other side of the road. “Look.” Sven followed her finger and saw there was a car moving there—not just moving, but being driven. Sven slowed and rolled his window down. He honked the horn and waved at the other car. The car didn’t stop, or even slow down.
“Maybe they’re in a bad mood,” Sven said. “We’re better off on our own anyway.” Sven sped the car up again, and was driving as fast as he could while avoiding the stopped cars and walking infected.
Ivan meowed and looked up at Jane. “He remembers you,” Sven said.
As if on cue, the cat jumped into Jane’s lap and purred. Sven looked over as Jane scratched Ivan behind the ears.
“Yeah,” Jane said. “I remember him too.” She wiped at her face. “Sven? Where are we going?”
“We need to stock up on supplies—food, water, weapons, gas—and then we need to find a place where we’ll be safe. Somewhere not very residential. I figure the worst place is around the University, with all the kids that live close to it. We’ll drive north on 29, get supplies, and find somewhere to hole up until this whole thing blows over.”
Jane seemed to consider this for a while. “Why did you say we’ll do better on our own?”
Then a loud, shrill noise pierced through the car, and Jane screamed.
Lorie was running hard, feeling her lungs filling with power and propelling her away from the terrible scene she’d just witnessed.
Lorie knew she was a great runner for her age. Or at least she knew that was what the track coaches always told her. She did feel like a great runner when she ran—the sense of surroundings flashing past, the air rushing against her, and her body working at its hardest all made her feel so alive. Whether or not she was as great as they said, she loved it.
Glancing over her shoulder, Lorie saw that Evan was far behind her, clearly having trouble keeping up with her pace.
“Come on,” Lorie said, glancing back at Evan. “You have to run a little faster. You can do it. We’re almost there.”
Lorie slowed down to let Evan catch up, and then he was alongside her, panting hard and flailing his arms inefficiently as he ran.
He barely managed to choke a few words out in between gasps and gulps for air. “I can’t keep up. I need to stop.”
“We’ll rest when we’re somewhere safe. We’re almost there, we just have to get away. Come on Evan.”
They kept running down Barracks Road toward Route 29. There were stopped cars everywhere, and—and the sick people were in them, moving and wriggling like snakes trying to get out. It was like they didn’t remember how to get out, though, and once Lorie had realized that she felt a lot safer, though still not very safe. Most of the people who would be out would be in their cars—Charlottesville was a driving town. A few of the sick people were on the street, but they were so slow that Lorie and Evan could easily run around them, and Lorie realized they would be alright so long as they stayed far away from the sick people and didn’t run into a big group of them…or became disoriented like what had happened earlier.
Lorie didn’t know what was happening, but she thought she knew a safe place that she and Evan could go.
They were almost there.
Ivan got up on his hind legs and licked Jane’s face. Sven hit a button on his watch, turning the alarm off.
“Can that thing be any louder?” Jane asked, visibly irritated. She was rubbing her eyes and petting Ivan at the same time. “You late to an appointment or something?”
“Sorry,” Sven said. “That’s my protein alarm. It rings every two hours.”
“Your what? I don’t remember you having a protein alarm.”
“Yeah, I didn’t back then. I’m more serious now. The alarm goes off every two hours, to remind me to have protein.”
Jane let out an exasperated sigh and stopped petting Ivan. “Are you serious? Stuff like that is why we didn’t work out. What kind of person thinks about protein when the world is ending? And why do you need reminding about protein? Isn’t that all you eat anyway?”
“I eat other things. It’s a reminder to have protein at regular intervals, so that my muscles don’t start to break down. Otherwise my body will eat its own muscle, you know that…it’s how I get work. And what’s wrong with thinking about that, even now? I don’t plan on dying, and eating at regular intervals can only increase our chances of making it through, keeping our energy up.”
“I think there are bigger things to think about than protein and muscle right now, that’s all.”
Sven sighed and didn’t answer. He looked at the road and tried to gather his thoughts. Taking one hand off the steering wheel, he reached over to pet Ivan. The simple movement sent a stretching, burning sensation across Sven’s chest and up his neck. He drew his hand back and put a tentative finger to his wound. He flinched. It hurt worse than before.
After a few minutes, Jane said, “I’m sorry, I know you just saved my life, I guess I’m freaking out, and it’s you and me, and all these things.”
“I know,” Sven said. “Can you hand me a protein bar? They’re in the backpack.”
“Sure,” Jane said. Her voice was calmer now, sweeter, obviously trying to make up for her previous outburst. She found the protein bar in the backpack, opened it, and handed it to Sven, who was waving his hand around toward her, grasping for the bar.
“I need to try to eat. I got hurt kinda bad this morning when…well, I think we’ve had similar enough mornings. It’s not a good day to start off injured.”
Sven took a bite. The chocolate peanut butter bar was chewy and filling, and unusually tasteless.
Jane looked over at him. “Are you alright?”
The pain was getting worse, and Sven wondered when he’d next be able to see a doctor about it. “I’ll be fine.”
Jane went back to petting Ivan, whose happy purring filled the car. If it weren’t for the gruesome, unambiguously apocalyptic scene through which they were driving, Sven and Jane could’ve been mistaken for a happy couple driving to a happy picnic, with a happy cat in tow.
She had to run away, what else could she do? It was run away or get bitten. Lorie wasn’t even sure if the people back in the house were still her parents, if the people around her were still people. They looked more like movie monsters than people now. They were saggy, deflated, and lifeless…and where were the ambulances and police? Where were the authorities to help?
Evan was with her, so that helped. She knew they were doing the right thing by getting away.
Then Evan was tugging at her arm, trying to get her to slow down again. Lorie looked at him. He looked so pale and out of breath. Obliging him, she slowed down to a walk and Evan gave her some grateful nods in between his gulps for air. They were close to Route 29 now, and none of the sick people were in sight, so Lorie figured it might be alright to walk for a bit and let Evan recover.
“Where are we going?” Evan asked when his breathing had become less ragged.
“To my coach’s house. She’ll know what to do. She always knows what to do. She’s just across 29. We’re almost there.”
“Why do you think she’ll know what to do? What if—what if she’s just like the others now?”
Lorie shook her head violently. “No, she’s fine. She wouldn’t be like that. I know she’s fine, okay? We’ll be safe there.”
“I don’t know. Maybe we should try to find some police. Or hide. Yeah, maybe we should hide until people come to help.”
“No. We can’t hide. Don’t you see how the…how they come after us when we pass, they’re gonna get us if we hide. I know it. We have to get to my coach’s house, she’ll know what to do, and she’ll keep us safe.”
Evan coughed. “What’s happening? Do you think it’s like a cold or something and they’ll get better?”
“I don’t know. I hope so.”
Lorie and Evan walked the rest of the way to the intersection of Barracks Road and Route 29 in silence.
“We just have to cross now,” Lorie said, “and then it’s a little bit farther, and we’re there.”
“I don’t know,” Evan said. “Look at all those cars stopped in the road, and the people inside them and wandering around. I still think we should try to find somewhere quiet and hide until help comes.”
“No. Help might never come. We’re going to have to cross. Come on.”
Lorie looked out across the street. She was searching for a safe route across through the tangle of stopped cars and wandering sick people. It didn’t look good.
Then there was a loud crash close behind them.
Lorie turned, took it in, and froze.
In her mind, she grabbed Evan, jerked him from the sidewalk and onto the street, then she started to run, pulling him along through the gaps between the cars.
In reality, the sight before her was so chilling that her insides seemed to congeal into a solid, immovable lump.
She stared at the car whose front end was now wrapped around a tree. Were it not for the tree, the car would have mowed her and Evan down, and that would’ve been the end. Lorie cursed herself for being so unaware of her surroundings as not to spot a car barreling down at them.
The driver was probably sick, she thought. The driver—
He had been thrown through the windshield toward Lorie. His body…what was left of it…it…Lorie found herself unable to look away from the destroyed man.
Both of the driver’s legs were mostly torn off below the knee, and what remained there hung by thin strands of skin and sinew. The rest of his body was more or less intact, but scraped and cut with shards of glass sticking out in the worst possible places. Lorie was focused on the shard of glass sticking out of his eye, an injury that seemed not to bother the driver at all.
Then the driver began to drag himself toward Lorie and Evan, rumbling out moans as he went. Lorie cringed as she watched the strings that connected his partially severed legs stretch thinner.
Lorie found herself becoming lightheaded as she watched, found herself becoming oddly numb, in addition to her feeling of being frozen by the carnage.
Evan nudged her, then forcibly turned her around.
Lorie snapped out of it.
“Run! Come on, we have to get across now!” she yelled, but she could still just barely make herself move.
Then she noticed that Evan too was stopped, standing there, staring at the crawling, ruined man. He stammered something that Lorie couldn’t make out.
“Come on, we have to go,” Lorie said, as she pushed Evan in the direction of Route 29. “Come on.” Why was he frozen now, after having snapped her out of it?
Then the driver—the once-human now who-knew-what—was too close. His lower legs were gone, left behind, the thinning strings having finally snapped. Lorie saw practically no blood, and no recognition in the driver’s face of the fact that big parts of his body had just come off.
The driver reached up, trying to grab Evan, who still stood stubbornly in place, ignoring, or not hearing Lorie’s shouts. The driver touched Evan’s sneaker, giving the laces a clumsy fumble, then withdrew its pale, shriveled hand. All this time Lorie was tugging at Evan’s arm, trying to drag him away, but he was bigger than she was, and his body, set on staying in place, along with Lorie’s sudden lack of coordination, made it a losing battle.
The driver reached out again, grasping for Evan’s ankle.
Then Evan must have snapped out of it, because he started to run, and Lorie, relieved that he was finally moving, ran after him.
They ran into the street. Evan was frantic in his clumsy run, and Lorie was trying to keep up with him and rein him in at the same time, so he didn’t run into something…or someone. They were now in dangerous territory.
“Slow down,” she said. “We have to be careful here.”
Everything looked so wrong. There were stopped cars everywhere, and there were no people out, except for the sick ones staggering about or sitting in their cars.
The ones that sat in their stopped cars, trying to walk out of the closed doors—trying to get out, to grab Lorie and Evan, they came alive as Lorie and Evan passed by, and then slumped back in their seats when Lorie and Evan got farther away. How could any of this be happening? How could this be real?
They were in the middle of the road and Evan was beginning to climb over the divider, when Lorie saw a group of the sick people staggering in her and Evan’s direction. There were six of them.
“Hurry up,” she said, starting to climb over the divider behind Evan. “We’ll have to run for it.”
The sick people were slow, but they weren’t slow enough that getting around them was easy. They tried to grab and their movements were unpredictable. Lorie understood that it was best to keep as far away from the sick people as possible. She wondered how far away a safe distance was. She decided that she didn’t know, but that she and Evan weren’t far enough.
“There’s a whole group of them over there,” Evan said, pointing to a different group of the sick people that Lorie hadn’t noticed.
“They’re still far away,” Lorie said. “We’ll walk up the road a little, and then come back once we’re across. I think we can make it. Just make sure to stay away from the car doors.”
Lorie began to cross the northbound side of the road, with Evan alongside her.
She kept the two groups of sick people in her sights.
“Can I have one more?” Sven asked.
He had finished the first protein bar and his amino acid tank wasn’t quite full. Sven knew that his wound healing would require more amino acids than he needed when he was uninjured, and he wanted to be as close to one hundred percent as he could get. He needed to be one hundred percent.
“I still don’t know how you can eat right now,” Jane said. She ripped open another protein bar and handed it to Sven.
Taking it from her, Sven thought he saw her suppress a smile.
“You remember?” Sven asked. “I was eating this flavor of protein bar when we met.” Sven smiled. “You looked very cute trying to do your stability ball chest presses or whatever that was supposed to be.”
“Of course I remember.” Jane smiled back. “You came over to me dribbling protein bar down the side of your mouth, offering to show me how to do a real exercise.”
“I wasn’t dribbling.”
“Yes, you were.”
“Well you didn’t let that stop you from seducing me now did you?”
“Me? Seduce you? Ha! You were all over me with your cheesy trainer come-ons.” Jane deepened her voice in imitation. “How about a free assessment? And I’ll throw in some free sessions too. How about it? You won’t regret it. I’ll put some muscle on that body, tighten it up some, yeah.” Jane resumed her normal tone of voice. “Like I needed any tightening up.”
“We can all use some tightening once in a while,” Sven said, a little hurt. “Was I really that awkward? I mean you did sign up, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, I did, didn’t I? Oh don’t worry about it, it was a cute awkward, and you know you’re a good trainer, I’m just teasing anyway.”
“Well, I wish I was back at the gym right now. In fact, I’m supposed to be training a client right now. He needs it, he’s tiny.”
“Let me guess, you put him on a squat routine?”
“I tried to, but the guy refuses to cooperate. He says squats are dangerous, says he read it in a lawyer magazine somewhere. Oh yeah, he’s a lawyer.”
Jane laughed. “Figures.”
“I don’t understand how anyone would hire a guy like that, you know? He looks like he’d blow over in a strong wind. No, not even a strong wind, any wind. He won’t listen to me either, but I guess as long as he keeps paying me I should be happy.”
“He hasn’t made any progress at all?”
“He’s put on maybe two, three pounds of muscle all year. It’s something, but he’s also gotten pudgier. He keeps telling me that he can eat more now that he works out so much. He read that in some lawyer magazine too. He doesn’t listen to me when I tell him to watch what he eats. Maybe I should—”
“Hey!” Jane said, interrupting Sven’s musings. “There are kids in the road!”
Jane pointed at two teenagers who were running down the side of the road, the same way that Sven was driving. The kids looked frantic, and the boy was having a hard time keeping up with the girl.
There were two groups of infected converging on the kids.
Sven nodded. “We have room…” He began to slow down, then hesitated. “Do you think we should pick them up?”
“What? Of course we should pick them up, why wouldn’t we?”
“Well…in movies like this, what usually—”
“In movies like this?” Jane interrupted harshly. “In movies like this? This is not a movie, Sven, what is with you, they’re just young kids! We have to help them.”
“Right, but they’ll slow us down, and lower our own chances of surviving. Like I was saying, in movies like this, the larger the group gets, the worse it becomes. The problems start, there’s infighting. Someone always ends up getting bitten. It gets bad. I just think we should be careful about picking people up. We can’t fit everyone in the car.”
Jane glared at him.
Sven sighed. “But you’re right, they’re just kids. We can’t leave them out here like this.”
“Damn right we can’t, pull over and let them in.”
Looking at the teenagers in the road ahead, Sven wanted to help them, but he had a bad feeling about taking them on, about opening his doors to outsiders, about having more people to worry about. There were so many possibilities, so many things that could go terribly wrong, and Sven was certain that the number of potential disasters increased in direct proportion to the number of people who clumped together to try to survive.
It was a thought worthy of an actuary, and though it was based on Hollywood-inspired premonitions, it held firm to Sven’s nerves, with no hint of release.
Now resolved to let the kids into his car, Sven felt the events of the day spiraling out of control. He thought it curious that an event as seemingly minor as taking on a couple of refugee teenagers caught in this strange plague could feel so off-putting. He tried to see the problems that the act presented in relation to the greater problem of the general zombie infestation, to convince himself that opening his doors to them was the right thing to do, but that didn’t work to ease his mind.
The events of the day seemed to be having a cumulative effect on Sven’s stress level, and he suspected that the day’s events would only get worse.
“Hey,” Evan said weakly, “look.”
He pointed to the road behind Lorie and she turned around. There was a car coming up the road, zigzagging its way around the stopped cars. Lorie could see two people in the front, and it looked like one of them was pointing to her and Evan. Instantly anxious, Lorie bit her lip.
“Well,” Evan said, “let’s go wave them down, they can help us.”
Lore hesitated. “I don’t know. We don’t know them, what if they’re not here to help? I think we should keep going. We can’t stand around here anyway, those things are getting closer.”
Both groups of sick people were closing in, dragging themselves toward her and Evan.
Evan nodded, and Lorie could see that he was still out of breath. Poor guy, she thought, why didn’t his dad make him exercise ever? Maybe he has asthma, yeah, it might not be his fault, or his dad’s fault, maybe he was just born that way. Lorie promised herself that at the end of all this, she would take Evan to the track and make him get some exercise. It would do him and his pale skin some good, that’s what her coach would say. Lorie hoped her coach was alright, but had begun to doubt that she was.
“I’d rather be with them,” Evan said, pointing at the car, “than on our own. They’re adults, and driving, they’ll help us.”
Lorie looked at the approaching car. The man and woman in it looked like they were arguing about something. That made them look more adult-like.
Lorie wasn’t sure what to do, but she understood that Evan had decided to try his luck with the car and the people in it. She didn’t want to leave Evan alone, so she stood with him while he waved the car over.
As it got closer, Lorie could see that a very large man was driving it. He wasn’t fat. He was like those people on TV, like a wrestler or something. The woman next to him was very pretty, though she looked as if she’d been crying. The woman smiled at Lorie as the car stopped in the middle of the road alongside Lorie and Evan. The big man couldn’t get the car any closer to the curb because of all the stopped cars lined up along the narrow sidewalk.
The woman in the car rolled her window down, and that’s when Lorie saw the cat, and thought maybe these people could be trusted.
“Come on,” Evan said, and ran eagerly up to the car.
Lorie followed, keeping her distance.
Jane couldn’t believe what Sven had just said about the kids slowing them down. He could be so cold and heartless sometimes. Of course it was true, but it wasn’t something to be said out loud. They were kids.
“Hi,” Jane called out to the boy, who had run up to the car. “Come on, get in, we’re going somewhere where we’ll be safe.” Wait, Jane thought, where are we going? That was an important thing to discuss at some point. She was sure Sven was taking them somewhere safe though—or at least he was trying to take them somewhere safe—and if he wasn’t she would make him.
The boy looked relieved and turned around. “Come on,” he said to the girl, who was still standing a few car widths away, “they’re gonna help us, see?”
The girl was hesitant, and she looked suspiciously at Jane and beyond her, at Sven. Jane couldn’t blame her, but there were two packs of infected people approaching, and there wasn’t time for too much suspicion.
“Hi,” Jane called to the girl. “We’re trying to get away too, maybe we can all help each other. How does that sound?”
The girl walked closer to the car and looked Jane in the eye. She looked like she was considering Jane’s offer, but she still said nothing. Jane could see the girl was in shape, like she was on a sports team, and she had a certain resolve in her eyes, like she was set on something, maybe just on getting through the day, and that was no small resolution.
The boy was now pulling on the rear door handle, without success.
Jane turned to Sven, making no effort to hide her frustration. “Can you unlock the back door please?”
“Okay,” Sven said, and clicked something.
The boy opened the door and climbed into the backseat.
Jane turned back to the girl, who was still standing in the road.
The girl walked a little closer.
“What’s your cat’s name?” she asked.
“Him?” Sven asked. “That’s Ivan. Ivan Drago.”
The girl let out a quick laugh, then put her suspicious face back on.
“Those things are getting pretty close,” Sven said, and put his hand on the gear shift.
“Sven!” Jane snapped, and slapped his big caveman hand.
Jane turned back to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Jane!” Sven yelled. “We have to go, now. Just get her in the car already.”
What was wrong with that man? He knew nothing about sensitivity.
Jane turned to Lorie. “I’m Jane, it’s very nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” Lorie said shyly, “and your cat.”
Then Jane felt a jolt, and heard the slam of the rear door. She looked backward, and saw that the pack of diseased humans behind them had overtaken the back of Sven’s car. They were walking into it repeatedly, shaking it in its suspension. The boy in the back must have snapped the door shut when he saw them get closer. Damn, Sven had been right, they did need to get out of there, and fast.
Jane turned to Lorie again, and it looked like Lorie was beginning to forget her fear of strangers. She came all the way up to Jane’s door, and Jane began to open it for her to get in, but then a diseased, rotten-looking arm reached out, clenching and unclenching its hand.
Lorie ran, cursing herself for not getting into the car when she had the chance. The woman seemed nice enough, and the man was scary, but he had a cat, so how bad could he be? Lorie liked the cat’s name. Ivan was a good name for a cat, and she totally got the Rocky IV reference.
Lorie glanced behind her. The car was driving after her, a sick person now attached to the back of it. Lorie felt like it was all her fault. She had let those things get too close, and what if the one on the back got in and got the cat, or Evan?
But they were strangers, and she knew not to jump into cars with strangers. Maybe today was different, because of what was happening, but maybe it wasn’t. Lorie’s mind flashed to all the kidnapping stories her mom had told her, to teach her by example she called it. Did kidnappers have cats? Some probably did, but the people in the car didn’t seem like kidnappers, and Evan was in there now.
That sealed it. Lorie had to help Evan, so she knew she had to get into the car.
Then Lorie heard the screech of brakes.
She stopped running, turned around, and stared. Lorie watched as the big man got out of the car and had a look at the thing hanging onto the back. He ducked his head back inside the car and pulled something out.
Panting, Lorie walked a little closer to get a better look, careful not to get too close to any cars with the flailing sick in them. The woman—Jane—opened her door just enough to peer out, then stepped out onto the street. She was saying something to the big man, but Lorie couldn’t hear what it was. Evan wasn’t budging, as far as Lorie could tell.
Lorie walked a little closer, walking around a few stopped cars with trapped sick people inside them. They were chomping and thrashing about, but they still had their seatbelts on. Lorie tried to look away, but it was hard not to look. They barely even looked like people anymore, how could this be happening?
She turned back to the big man. He was like an elephant. All muscle, but surprisingly fast and agile. Lorie could see what he had taken out of the car now. It was a jump rope, the leather kind. Lorie had one of those…back home.
The man was whipping the sick man on the back of the car with it. He was jumping forward, whipping, then jumping back and looking thoughtful, over and over. After one especially hard whip at the sick man, who did not react at all, the big man stood back and rubbed his chin.
“Don’t come too close,” Jane said, snapping Lorie out of it. “Just wait until Sven gets that thing off.”
The man’s name was Sven? What kind of a name was that? He did look like a Sven though, even though Lorie had never met a Sven before, she had a feeling that was what they all looked like. All muscle and brawn and jump ropes.
“I won’t,” Lorie said. “But how’s he gonna get it off with that rope? Doesn’t he have anything bigger?”
Jane shrugged. “I’m sure he’ll figure out a way.”
Lorie considered this, and turned back to look at Sven, who looked to be in some pain, seemingly thinking about how to get the sick man off. Why was the sick man still clinging to the back of the car, instead of trying to get at Sven? Maybe that’s what Sven was trying to puzzle out too.
Then Sven made a loop with the jump rope. Lorie thought she knew what he was about to do, and she was right. Sven lassoed the sick man’s head with the loop of the rope, careful not to get too close, and began to pull.
The sick man wouldn’t loosen his grip, and Sven pulled harder. There were some ripping sounds, and then a pop, and the man’s head went flying into the air in an arc toward Sven.
Lorie tensed in shock.
Sven stared the head down, backed up into position, and gave it a good, hard kick with his right foot. The head sailed away into the other side of the road—the southbound side.
Lorie was both horrified and impressed. That had been a pretty neat trick. She wanted to clap, but thought better of it. That probably wasn’t appropriate just then, what with it being disrespectful to the sick man. She gave Jane a weak smile instead. Maybe these people were alright after all. They were protecting Evan and—
“Look out!” Jane yelled at Lorie.
“What?” Lorie said, startled.
Lorie half-turned, but then it was too late.
One of the sick—a woman—had come out of nowhere, and now had taken hold of Lorie’s arm, and was bringing it up to her open, dribbling, broken-looking mouth.
“No!” Lorie screamed. “Get away from me!”
Then Jane was there with her, trying to pull Lorie away, to no effect. Then Sven was there, and he was pulling at the woman’s head to keep her from biting Lorie. Sven was even bigger up close, all muscle.
The woman’s head came off, with an odd, faint fizz instead of a pop.
Lorie made herself look away from the woman’s headless body.
Relieved for only a moment, Lorie’s body went rigid again. “Get it off, get it off me please.”
The woman’s hand still gripped Lorie’s forearm tightly, and it took both Sven and Jane working together to pry the fingers away.
Then they all ran into the car. Sven got in on his side and Lorie got in with Jane into the passenger seat. Sven shifted into drive and off they went, Lorie climbing into the back to join Evan, who was sitting still, looking pale and frightened.
A thought dawned on Milt as he crouched in front of the Commodore 64. This was to be a day of change, and he had to be brave. He stepped over the ruined relics on the floor, shuffled into his dim lair, and found a rag with which to wipe his sword. Milt held the rag in his hand and wiped the congealing crud off his weapon. He almost cut himself while he was doing it; the sword went through the thick rag like tissue paper. He had done a good job with all that sharpening.
Milt carried the filthy rag back into the store and threw it on top of the zombie, grimacing in disgust. He looked at the mess long enough to content himself that the zombie was no longer twitching, then went back into his lair to wash his hands with Star Wars disinfecting soap. When his hands were clean, he got two Snickers ice cream bars out from his emergency supply, sat down on his mattress in the basement, put the sword down next to him, and munched.
When he had finished eating, Milt got out the sheath and belt for the sword, sheathed the sword, and put it in the belt, which he then fastened around his belly. He had some trouble coordinating this, and the sword belt clattered onto the floor a few times before he got it right. The belt was tight around his big-boned middle, even on the last hole of the belt.
They don’t make sword belts for real men anymore, he thought.
In sheathing the sword and affixing the belt to himself, Milt had begun to notice that hefting the heavy, ten pound sword around was hard work.
He took two deep puffs of his inhaler, found his spare, and stuffed both into his back pocket. He put on his black trench coat and marched back up to the store.
Milt emerged from his store, a spongy, trench-coated, gargantuan would-be vanquisher, the sword dangling between his legs.
He had to shield his eyes from the bright light with a fat forearm, and he hissed a belch. He hated being outside in the light, but there would be so much to do now that the zombies were here, now that Milt’s time had come.
After a few moments, his eyes began to adjust, and Milt lowered his arm. He shifted the sword belt so that the sword wasn’t dangling between his legs but jutting out from his side.
Milt hunched over and began to creep, putting the soggy slipper-clad foot carefully in front of the dry slipper-clad one.
No, Milt decided, he wasn’t going to creep. Milt stood up a tad straighter—as straight as his atrophied back muscles would allow—and decided that he was going to stalk. Yes, he was going to stalk his zombie prey.
So resolved, Milt began to stalk, to hunt. He channeled his video game mindset into reality. He would be the hero of this world, he told himself, just as he was the greatest, most ingenious hero in the World of Warcraft virtual world. In the World of Warcraft, Milt could do anything he wanted. He could kill, and steal, and loot and plunder. Now…now that the real world had changed, he could do all of those things in real life.
Milt had one hand on his sword and the other on his back pocket where his inhalers were. He was thinking about how good it had felt to dispatch the zombie in his store, notwithstanding the remarkable bout of hurling that it had brought on. Milt decided that he would rule this new apocalyptic world, and that he would reward himself for each of his kills with his favorite movie watching, sword-sharpening, and Snickers ice cream eating ritual. Maybe he would even have to branch out and think of some new rituals. There were so many options now, so much to do.
For the first time in years, Milt didn’t miss his computer, although he was starting to thirst for some Coca-Cola.
Then the sword belt unfastened and fell, Milt’s feet tangled in it, and he fell into a sweaty, belching heap on the strip mall sidewalk.
Sven kept checking the rearview mirror as he drove. The headless man or zombie or whatever he was still clung to the back of the car, but at least he wasn’t trying to get in anymore.
It had been a close call with the girl just now. Sven didn’t like that. He wanted to avoid situations just like that one. But there was no one to blame. Jane was right that they had to help the kids and the girl must’ve been scared out of her mind. It wasn’t her fault that she hadn’t jumped into the car with them right away. She seemed to have snapped out of it now, and it looked to Sven like she was in higher spirits than the boy.
“So what are your names back there?” Sven asked, trying to be friendly.
“She already told us her name,” Jane said. “Remember?”
“What?” Sven asked. “Sorry, I must’ve been distracted by all the zombies trying to kill us. My fault.”
“They’re not zombies,” Jane snapped.
“They seem like zombies,” Lorie said.
Sven nodded. “Zombies it is, or infected, or whatever, so long as we get away to safety, it doesn’t matter.”
“My name is Evan.”
“Cool,” Sven said, “I’m Sven. Nice to meet you both.”
Lorie giggled at this, and Sven thought he saw the queasy-looking boy suppress a smile. Sven hoped the boy wasn’t going to puke in the car. Sven didn’t like to clean puke, and seeing as how the car was their only safe place right now, he didn’t want kid puke in it. He sighed. He would deal with that when the time came.
“Let me guess,” Sven said. “You think I have a funny name.”
The kids shook their heads, grinning broadly now. Sven looked over at Jane, who seemed happy too, all things considered. There was still a clinging decapitated zombie on the back of Sven’s car, there was that to consider.
“It’s Norwegian,” Sven said.
“He’s from Norway,” Jane added. “They like to work out a lot there.” Jane shot a smile at Sven.
“That’s right,” Sven said. “In Norway we lift weights six hours a day, starting in kindergarten.”
Lorie frowned. “No you don’t.”
“Yeah,” Sven said, “it’s true.”
“I don’t like to lift weights,” Evan said.
“Well,” Sven said, “if you lived in Norway, you’d learn to like it. You’d have to.”
Evan coughed and looked thoughtful.
“So do you kids go to school together or something?” Sven asked.
“Yeah,” Lorie said. “We just started high school together.”
“Oh,” Sven said, “that’s exciting. Is there a good gym in your school? Good sports program?”
“Sure,” Lorie said. “I run track.”
“I’m on the chess team,” Evan said, chiming in.
“That’s not a sport,” Lorie said.
“Sure it is,” Evan said.
“Is not, you’re just sitting down the whole time, how can it be a sport? There’s no running or anything.”
“It doesn’t have to be running for it to be a sport. There’s someone you’re playing against, an opponent. It’s a mental sport.”
“There’s no such thing. What do you think Sven?”
Sven knew that chess was no sport, but why hurt the kid’s feelings?
“I don’t know that much about it,” Sven said, “but maybe it is.”
Lorie shook her head, “He’s just trying to be nice.”
“Hey,” Jane said. “Are you guys hungry?”
“No,” Evan said.
“Kinda,” Lorie said.
“What kind of delicious treats have you brought on this trip?” Jane asked.
Sven was fine with sharing his and Ivan’s rations, but now they would definitely need to stop and pick up more along the way. It made him nervous.
“Well,” Sven said, “I’ve got jerky—elk and beef, granola bars, cat food, and protein bars.”
“Let me guess,” Jane said, looking back at the two kids. “You want the granola bars right? Definitely not the cat food.”
They nodded. Sven liked that Jane was good with kids, and that she was there. He probably would have picked the kids up if she hadn’t been there, but what would he have done with them? Jane was good with stuff like that.
Jane got some granola bars out and handed them back to Evan and Lorie. They thanked her, and proceeded with their munching.
Sven’s mind wandered back to the clinging zombie. When would that thing fall off? Would it ever fall off? Was it infecting them just by being so close? It had no teeth left now that its head was gone, at least there was that.
“Do you guys know what’s happening?” Lorie asked. She wasn’t smiling anymore.
Jane turned around to look at Lorie. “We don’t know yet, honey. It might be some kind of virus, like a flu. We’re just gonna try to avoid infected people and sooner or later this will all clear up…I hope.”
“Will the sick people get better?” Lorie jerked a thumb backward, at the shadow of the headless zombie clinger.
“I don’t know,” Jane said. “I…” she trailed off.
Sven knew the decapitated zombie was beyond help, but it was probably best not to focus on that. Sven saw that Lorie kept looking back at the headless creature, and he wished he could have gotten the thing off, but its grip was too strong, and Sven hadn’t wanted to get too close. The shaking and rattling of the moving vehicle was doing nothing to dislodge the zombie either.
They came to a traffic light and Sven stopped out of habit. The traffic light was off, and there was nothing to wait for. Sven looked left and right, and in all directions for any movement, but all he saw were scattered, stopped cars. They were yet to come across any other moving vehicles, after that first one that had ignored them.
Sven slowly pulled out into the intersection.
All of a sudden, Ivan let out a loud hiss. Sven looked over and saw that Ivan was up on the back of Jane’s seat, hissing in Lorie and Evan’s direction.
The brief moment that Sven had looked away from the road was enough.
They hit something.
There was a shaking, and Ivan skittered back down into the woman’s lap. He remembered the woman from before. She was a nice woman, and she belonged with him and Sven. Ivan knew that, and it was good. Ivan liked the girl in the back too. He didn’t know her very well, but she smelled nice, and maybe she could stay with them too. But the boy, the boy was bad. Ivan couldn’t understand why Sven and the woman had let the boy come with them—to come into the moving safe place. Why would they do that? Couldn’t they smell the bad smell? Ivan could see the smell, it was coming off the boy like the heat out of a radiator. Ivan liked radiators. They were warm. But the boy was rotten, and Ivan didn’t like that. The smell was so bad that Ivan didn’t even want a treat at that moment—not even a fish treat. He was a boy to run from, and to warn others to run from. Ivan bared his teeth and loaded up another hiss in the back of his throat.
As luck had it, Milt’s belly broke his fall, and he didn’t even so much as scrape his hands on the hot pavement—surprisingly hot for the late spring morning.
Milt floundered on the sidewalk for a few moments, as he struggled to untangle himself from his flowing trench coat and the sword belt. Maybe the trench coat had been a mistake, he thought. Maybe sunglasses would have been a better option. But the trench coat was good, Milt reminded himself, for protecting his tender flesh from the sun’s harmful rays.
There was no time to go back and change now anyway. Milt gathered his strength, and with a mighty heave, he rolled himself over, got to his knees, and stood up. He picked up his sword belt and refastened it.
By the time Milt caught his breath, his eyes had adjusted to the sunlight, allowing him to take in the state of the strip mall for the first time since he exited his shop.
It was a post-apocalyptic strip mall if ever Milt had seen one. It was like a virtual reality zombie apocalypse. Milt made himself blink. Except that it wasn’t virtual. It was real.
Zombies staggered about, bumping into cars and storefronts and each other. What idiots, Milt thought. They didn’t look or act much differently now that they were zombies than they had when they were people. They weren’t great warriors, that was for sure. Milt saw that there were many zombies still in their cars, turning from side to side and pointlessly flailing their limbs. They weren’t getting out. Had the idiots forgotten how to unbuckle their seatbelts and open their doors?
There were no walking zombies close to Milt. The closest ones were several storefronts away, and they weren’t reacting to Milt’s presence. Milt scanned the area until he spied the closest zombie. She was an old woman zombie, and she was in her car.
Milt looked down at the hilt of his sword and saw that his knuckles were white around it. He loosened his grip and watched as a bead of sweat squeezed itself out of his palm, slid down the hilt and then down the sheath of his sword. It dripped onto the pavement without a sound, leaving a tiny wet mark. Milt took a deep breath and waited for the droplet to evaporate.
It didn’t take long, and when all signs of the droplet were gone, Milt wiped his right palm in his hair and unsheathed his sword. He lost his balance as he drew it and had to step sideways to keep from falling. It was a heavy sword, as Milt noted each time he wielded it, and Milt was starting to feel a soreness in his forearm from handling it.
He plodded over to the car with the old woman zombie in it, licking his lips nervously as he went. The sword wobbled in his hand as he took heavy steps toward the car, and he sliced a wisp of hair off his head and almost cut himself before he regained control of the sword. Milt stopped when he was a few feet away from the driver’s side door, and peered in through the half-lowered window.
The old woman zombie looked back at Milt and moaned: “Bahhh.”
Milt jumped backward and dropped his sword. The clatter of the sword scared him even more than the old woman zombie’s moan, and he had to take a puff on his inhaler to recover his composure.
Before picking up the sword again, Milt pulled a miniature Snickers bar out of his back pocket and tried to pop it into his mouth in one swift motion, as he was accustomed to doing. The bar wouldn’t cooperate. Milt looked into his hand, confused as to why his deft Snickers popping hadn’t taken effect and the candy wasn’t in his mouth, calming him down. In his hand was a distinctive Snickers goo, with bits of wrapper mixed in—the unseasonably hot spring weather wasn’t helping Milt’s cause.
Milt brought his Snickers-covered hand to his mouth and licked off all of the Snickers goo and wrapper pieces. He sucked on the warm chocolate, nougat, and caramel until all that he could still feel in his mouth was the plastic wrapper. Then he reached into his mouth and pulled out the wrapper pieces, scraping the remaining globs of sticky peanut matter off the outgoing wrapper bits with his teeth. Milt felt much calmer then. The molten candy bar had worked its magic.
He took a deep breath, tugged on his pony tail in triumph, bent over, and wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword.
“Ow!” Milt yelped, and a quarter of a peanut spluttered out of his mouth, landing on the hot pavement next to the sword. The hilt had heated up in the sun, and it was hot to the touch. Milt wondered what to do next. What could he do?
He considered taking off his shirt to handle the sword, he considered going back into his shop for some water to pour on it, and he considered urinating on the thing. A warrior must do whatever is necessary to get the job done, he reminded himself.
But Milt wasn’t going to go the way of a shirt, or water, or even urine. He reached into his back pocket, and withdrew a warm, squishy miniature Snickers bar. He squeezed the bar between both of his palms until the sticky paste was all over his hands, then he rubbed the paste on the hilt of the sword, feeling the goo get warm and melt more completely as he did it.
It worked. Not only did the chocolate glop cool the hilt of the sword so that Milt could pick it up, it also enhanced Milt’s grip on the sword nicely.
With the sticky-hilted sword in both of his hands, Milt turned back to the old woman zombie trapped in her car. He raised the sword up in front of his body, pointing it toward the zombie’s head.
“Blah,” the old woman zombie said. But Milt didn’t drop his sword this time, he didn’t even flinch.
He focused a glare on the zombie’s throat and stabbed with the sword. He missed the first time, hitting the half-lowered window, but recovered his sword and stabbed again. It hit home this time, producing a faint ripping sound as it disappeared into the back of the zombie’s throat.
The old woman zombie stopped moving, and she didn’t say, “Blah” anymore.
Milt looked at the length of the sword that was still exposed. There wasn’t any blood running down it, as would be the case in the Conan movies. The zombie was dry as far as blood went, and that made sense to Milt. He wasn’t sure why, but it did.
He pulled the sword out of the zombie’s neck, and the zombie slumped forward in its seat, coming to rest on the steering wheel. The car let out a brief honk, and then was silent.
Milt took a puff of his inhaler, proud of himself for not upchucking this time. He felt like something had been lifted from him, and he knew he only wanted one thing. He wanted to slay another zombie. He could see now that zombie slaying was his destiny. And he was going to achieve his destiny.
The trench-coated, self-proclaimed warrior, one of his hands glued to the hilt of his sword and the other glued to his inhaler, set a course for the nearest wandering zombie.
Sven jerked his head back to look at the road, but whatever they had hit was gone.
What was left was a disgusting black and green residue, like slime that had sat out in the sun for too long, coating the hood and bottom portion of the windshield.
Satisfied that the car’s integrity was intact, Sven turned on the wipers and went back to weaving through the stopped traffic.
He shot a quick glance at Ivan, wanting to keep his mind from wondering about the nature of the crud now spraying from his wipers. “What were you hissing about Ivan? Those are our friends back there. Lorie and Evan are our new friends. Be a nice cat.”
Ivan hissed at the backseat again, but the hiss was more subdued this time. Then he settled back in Jane’s lap and looked up at Sven.
“Bad Ivan,” Sven said. “No more fish treats for you if you keep that up.”
“I think something has him spooked,” Lorie said, pointing to Ivan’s fluffed-up tail.
“I don’t blame him,” Jane said.
“Cats don’t like me much,” Evan said sadly. “Dogs either…or ferrets. Do you think it’s because I play chess?”
“No,” Jane said, “of course not.”
“Hey,” Lorie said, “what did we hit back there? Was it one of them?”
“Could be,” Sven said. “Whatever it was splattered pretty good huh?”
Jane grumbled something under her breath.
“Yeah!” Lorie said. “Take that zombie monster!”
Sven agreed. “If they keep taking it, we’ll keep giving it to them. We’re gonna get through this, we’re gonna survive.” Sven looked at Lorie in the rearview mirror. “You with me kid?”
Lorie gave Sven a conspiratorial grin. “All the way.”
“Okay,” Jane said. “That’s enough of that. This isn’t a game.”
Then Sven’s alarm went off again.
Evan screamed. Ivan bared his claws and hissed.
“Protein time,” Sven announced. “Has it been two hours already?”
“Sven…” Jane said, her voice accusing.
“Oh,” Sven said. “Sorry Evan, it’s just my protein alarm. It reminds me to get my protein so that my muscles keep away from catabolism—from breaking down, from eating themselves.”
“Oh,” Evan said, “like the zombies are trying to eat us I guess.”
“Exactly right,” Sven said.
“So now we’re all calling them zombies?” Jane said. “Just like that?” Jane sighed and turned to the backseat. “It’s okay Evan. I screamed a lot worse than you did the last time his stupid alarm went off.”
Evan looked relieved and puzzled at the same time. “How does that small watch make so much noise?” he asked.
“It’s a high-protein watch,” Sven said, and gave Evan a grin in the rearview.
Jane turned to Evan, shaking her head. “Never mind him,” she said. “He’s nuts. Here, look, I’ll give him some protein, and he’ll stop bothering us.”
Jane reached into Sven’s backpack, took out two protein bars, unwrapped both of them, and thrust them into Sven’s open mouth at the same time.
“See?” Jane said. “That shut him up pretty good.”
Evan laughed, nodded, and went back to looking out the window.
Sven bit a piece off both protein bars at the same time, gave them a contented chew, and considered.
“Can I have one?” Lorie asked.
Jane shook her head. “You don’t want one of those. They’re terrible. They taste like sand, and are impossible to chew up properly.”
“Here,” Sven said, handing one of the bitten protein bars to Jane, “break her off a little piece so she can try it.”
Jane took it, and looked back at Lorie. “It’s really not any good, you sure?”
Sven saw Lorie nod in the rearview mirror, and Jane broke a piece off for her to try and passed it back. Sven heard sniffing sounds, then chewing.
“So what do you think?” Sven asked.
“It is hard to chew,” Lorie said, “but I kinda like it.”
“You’re probably just starved,” Jane said. “I didn’t have time to grab any real food, what with…” she trailed off. “We’ll pick something up on the way, right Sven?”
“Yeah,” Sven said. “We’re getting there, it’s just gonna be very slow going, already is.”
Then Sven saw a break in the stopped cars and clear road in front of him.
“Looks like I spoke to soon,” Sven said, and hit the gas.
Speeding up, they took a half-blind turn. Sven had on a grin, happy not to be zigzagging at 10 miles per hour in and out of stopped cars.
“Maybe we should keep taking it easy,” Jane said. “We’ll get there in the end.”
“But this way,” Sven said, “we’ll get there a hell of a lot fas—”
Sven hit the brakes as hard as he could. The car fishtailed, and then began to skid. Because they had been in the midst of a curve in the road, two of the car’s tires came off the road for a moment, and Sven felt the car unbalance.
After a moment of perceived weightlessness, the car wobbled back onto all of its tires and resumed the skid.
Brakes and tires cried out for mercy.
The car was fast approaching a large group of zombies, who, by all appearances, were crossing the road.
Lorie held on to the seat in front of her while the car skidded, her eyes glued to the road ahead. She knew that Sven wouldn’t be able to stop in time, so she braced herself for the impact, but made sure to keep her eyes open. Lorie was right, Sven was unable to stop in time. They came to a halt within the zombie pack, knocking a dozen over, and setting the rest to banging and scraping against the car.
The car was suddenly dim, all but a few shape shifting patches of sunlight blocked by the churn and flail of zombie limbs.
Breathing hard, Lorie let go of the seat in front of her. She spun around to look at the mass of walking dead that now surrounded them.
What were they going to do now? How were they going to get out of this? The mass of zombies or monsters or whatever they were was so thick that Lorie couldn’t see past it to any kind of safety.
Then Lorie’s field of vision began to swim, the zombies’ banging and rubbing against the car disorienting her.
“What are they doing in the middle of the road like this?” Sven asked.
“What are they doing?” Jane repeated angrily. “What are they doing? Who cares what they’re doing? What are you doing driving so fast? And what are they going to do to us now?”
Sven turned around to look in the back of the car. He nodded at Lorie, who now had Evan burrowing into her back to get away from the monsters outside. Lorie nodded back at Sven, put an arm around Evan, and turned back to watch the staggering figures circling the car. Evan’s face was pressed into her shoulder, and it felt very hot. It felt wet too, like Evan was crying.
“You’re right,” Sven said, and to Lorie his voice sounded shaky. “I really messed this one up.” The zombies’ moaning and scraping were growing louder, and the car began to shake.
Lorie slid herself and Evan away from the windows so that they were huddled in the middle of the backseat. The figures outside were clawing at the car, but none of them reached for the door handles. It was like they didn’t know how they should be trying to get in, even though the doors were locked.
“Can you drive through it?” Jane asked. She was breathing hard, but Lorie saw hard eyes behind the panic, and it was reassuring.
“Yeah,” Sven said, “okay, let’s try that. Okay.”
The big man eased his foot off the brake and the car inched forward. The monsters became more frantic in their clawing and banging, and their moans became more agitated. The moans were dry, like chalk on a blackboard—not the point of a piece of chalk on a blackboard, but the broad side of a piece of chalk on a blackboard, like when you wanted to fill in the outline of a picture. That wasn’t how people were supposed to sound, all dried up like that.
The car stopped, settling into place.
“What’s wrong?” Lorie asked.
Sven looked confused for a moment as he looked down at the steering wheel, the gear shift, and back outside. Then he began to jerk at the key, apparently trying to turn it. He shifted the car into park, then tried to turn the key again.
“It’s dead.” He tried the key again, still nothing. “It must have shut down when we were out of control.”
Sven turned the key to the left, then to the right.
Lorie understood what was going on right away—the same thing had happened to one of her friends in the middle of a driving lesson. The engine had automatically shut off after her friend spun out. Then Lorie remembered the worst part of the story. Her friend’s engine hadn’t turned on again for several minutes. It didn’t look like they had minutes to spare.
“No, no, no,” Jane said. “Why won’t it start? This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening!”
The car was shaking harder now, and Lorie was starting to think that she might be at the end of the ride. It was no good to think like that, but she couldn’t keep the thoughts out. Those monsters would get in, and they would bite and tear and—
Ivan hissed at Lorie, and swiped a clawed paw in her direction. Lorie ducked out of the way, and Ivan hissed again.
But he wasn’t hissing at her, Lorie understood, he was hissing at Evan. Hadn’t he hissed at Evan earlier? Lorie wasn’t sure.
Lorie pushed the overheating Evan gently away from her and propped him up against the middle of the backseat.
Then she suddenly found herself entranced, watching the keychain that hung from the ignition, jangling in time with the car’s rocking.
Lorie began to feel faint, as if she were floating away, up, up, and—
The door was ripped open, and Lorie saw a gnarled, shriveled hand—no, it was more a claw than a hand—reaching for her feet.
Jane couldn’t believe the engine wouldn’t turn, and now one of the sick people had ripped the door open, and it was getting into the car with them. As hopeless as she thought their situation was, Jane had to help the kids. She wasn’t just going to let those things grab Lorie and Evan. She was going to go down fighting, and she was going to see to it that they all would.
She frantically glanced around the car for some kind of weapon, but found none. Before Jane realized what she was doing, her body was in action. She threw herself into the backseat between Lorie and the intruder just as its shriveled hand closed around Lorie’s ankle. Another one of the sick people was trying to push through into the car, but with the first intruder blocking most of the door, there was only room for the second one’s grasping arms.
The grasping arms were in Jane’s face, and Lorie was being dragged across the floor of the backseat, toward the flailing crowd outside.
“No!” Lorie shrieked as she struggled. “No! Help me!”
“Sven!” Jane yelled as she yanked on the girl, trying to keep her inside the vehicle. “Start the car, start the damn car!”
Lorie was trying to wriggle away, but even with Jane trying to keep the intruder out and Lorie in place, the girl was still being dragged out.
Then a grasping arm caught hold of Jane’s hair and pulled.
The pain was sharp, causing Jane to grit her teeth. She saw one of the grasping arms with some of her hair in its hand, then the hand opened, the hair fell, and the hand was grasping for her once more.
Ignoring the pain and the grasping hands, Jane made herself focus on Lorie. She had to save Lorie.
Jane leaned into the backseat with her back, putting herself between Lorie and the zombie.
The zombie? Encountering the dehumanizing term playing in her self-talk startled Jane, but now was not the time to reflect on political correctness.
Pushing the thoughts out of her head, Jane pressed her shoulders into the seat, brought her right knee up into her body, and kicked the zombie in the head. She did it in a pressing motion, connecting her heel with the bottom of the zombie’s chin.
There was a horrible snap, and the zombie fell backward into the grasping zombie behind it.
Bolstered by the successful kick, Jane got on the offensive. She kicked with her left leg, roundhouse-kicking the slumping zombie, propelling him backward into the zombie behind him. Then she got up off the seat in a crouch and followed up with a sharp side kick—the best she could manage in the cramped space. The first zombie and the grasping arms of the second fell out of the car, and Jane rushed forward, grabbing the door to shut it before more of the surrounding throng could climb in.
She pulled, but before she could close the door the grasping hands were back, clawing for her hair again. They were making it impossible for Jane to shut the door, and she found the door being wrenched open again by the crooked, lifeless hands of other zombies who were now stepping over their fallen, broken-necked comrade, kicking him under the vehicle.
The zombies were clamoring for a piece of the action, and Jane knew that she was going to have to oblige.
“We really need the car to start,” Jane said, and then she intentionally loosened her grip on the door, letting the zombies pull it open a little wider.
Sven was bent over the ignition, taking the key out, putting it back in, turning it, praying, turning it again.
He paused, took a breath, and told himself that this was going to be the one. He turned the key with a hopeful, frantic twist of his wrist.
Damn safety features, he thought, damn you all to hell.
Was there another solution? Sven tried to figure out what to do next, but being surrounded and breached by the mob of zombies, Jane’s karate-kicking in the backseat, and Ivan’s hissing to cheer her on, all made it very difficult to think clearly.
“Lorie,” Sven said, “are you okay?”
“Yeah, that thing grabbed me, was pulling me out, but I’m okay now. What do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You wanna try it again? It should come back on, if it’s like my friend’s car it should. I think it turned off because we spun and then kind of crashed.”
Sven groped for the ignition, about to turn the key again.
With his fingers sweating on the key, but just before he turned it again, a thought occurred to him. What if it didn’t work? What if this was it? If the automatic fuel cut-off was to blame, then the engine should start again. The back door always worked too, until one of the zombies had broken it open. What if the engine wouldn’t turn, and they were all devoured in the car? Sven shot a glance at his hissing, skittering cat and an even deeper sadness swept over him.
Sven gave the key one more twist. To his surprise, his worry didn’t materialize.
“I got it,” Sven whispered, in disbelief.
“I got it,” he repeated, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Sven twisted around to check on the situation in the backseat, aggravating the morning’s injuries.
Jane’s jaw was set and her eyes were brimming with rage. Sven had never seen her so powerfully angry—not even in their worst arguments with each other before they broke up. She looked really hot.
But what was she doing? Was she opening the door? She was about to let them in!
“Ja—” Sven started to say, but then he realized what she was doing, and though he knew he should begin plowing through the throng, he couldn’t look away.
Jane opened the door wide enough for two of the zombies to poke their heads in. They were trying to bite Jane, gnashing and clicking their teeth, but Jane leaned back to keep herself just out of reach.
“Give it to ‘em,” Lorie said, and Sven saw that the girl was massaging her red ankle. “Give it to ‘em good.”
And Jane gave it to them alright. Sven watched, unbelieving, as gentle Jane—the Jane that would pick up spiders with pieces of paper and let them out of the house rather than kill them—he watched as she opened the door just wide enough, then swung it at the zombies’ heads, bashing them repeatedly with the edge of the door. Sven couldn’t help but wince at all the cracking and crunching, but Jane continued to stare down the zombies as she crushed their skulls, her face showing no emotion but anger.
After more than enough bashing, the two zombies with their destroyed heads fell back into the throng, and Jane pulled the door shut, closing it with a crunch on eight or nine grasping zombie hands. Lorie was helping Jane hold the door shut against all the squirming, undead fingers.
Jane spun around. “What the hell are you waiting for? Let’s get out of here!”
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Lorie said. “Come on.”
Sven turned back to the dashboard. His body was locking up with panic now. He had taken his foot off the brake already. Why the hell wasn’t the car moving?
Think Sven, think.
Of course! Sven shook his head, this really wasn’t his day for being sharp, and it was exactly the day he had to be sharp. All of their lives depended on it.
They weren’t moving because the car was in park. Sven shifted the car into drive, and took his foot off the brake again. Mercifully, the car began to move. Sven floored the gas pedal. The car lurched forward, and began mowing down the zombies in its path. The zombies groaned as the car plowed into them, but the ones that hadn’t been plowed did not clear out of the way. They waited patiently for the car to mow them down and go over them, and it did. They were good zombies that way. Sven felt the snap of bones under the tires as he went over them.
As they gained speed, the mass of zombies began to thin out, and Sven spotted clear road ahead of them. Lorie must have spotted it too, because she let out a happy hoot.
After they broke away from the throng, Sven slowed and checked his mirrors to assess the damage. They were dragging four zombies with them—the ones with their hands caught in the door.
Without consulting anyone, Sven decided on a course of action. He spotted a cluster of three zombies who were milling in place and aimed the car so that the zombies hanging on to the right side of the car would be swept off by the zombies in the road.
“Get away from the door,” he said. “Now.”
Sven floored it.
The car shook as the hanging zombies made contact with the zombies in the road, bones crunching and shattering. Sven looked over his shoulder and saw that Jane and Lorie had moved away from the door, anticipating the impact. The collision wrenched the door open, and sent a spray of disintegrating fingers, palms, and forearms—brittle remnants of the infected—into the backseat.
But all of the clinging zombies hadn’t been swept off. There was still one hanging on to the open door. It wore a long-sleeved, black and white striped shirt, its legs dragging on the pavement as it held firmly to the car door.
Jane was kicking at the Waldo zombie but she couldn’t make solid enough contact to get the thing off.
“Hang on,” Sven said. “Get deeper into the car. I’m going to get that thing off.”
Sven looked back at the road. It was mostly clear now, except for a scattering of stopped cars, the vehicles on the road now thinning out. Sven could see the Waldo zombie streaming from the car in his right hand mirror. Sven gripped the wheel tightly with both hands and found his target—a stopped UPS truck in the road at the next intersection. He sped up and aimed again.
“Hold on back there,” Sven said. “I’m going to peel this one right off.”
There was a bone-crushing clunk, and the Waldo zombie was gone. All that remained was one striped-shirted zombie arm, streaming from the open car door.
Lorie was beginning to calm down. She crawled over to the open door, and with the toe of her running shoe, began to flick zombie pieces out into the road. Most of the bits were fingers and forearms; the zombie flesh was so dry and brittle that it barely seemed real, and the parts crumbled so much that it was hard to get all of them. How could they be so strong and so breakable at the same time?
Once Lorie had flicked all of the zombie parts that were large enough to flick, she looked at the smaller bits of zombie flesh that were now reduced to a powder, packed tightly into the grooves of the backseat foot well.
“Sorry Sven,” Lorie said. “I don’t think that’s gonna come out without a vacuum. They’re so…they’re so dry. Like crumbly cheese.”
“That’s okay,” Sven said. “We’ll figure something out when we have a chance. Good mental image by the way—the cheese I mean, disgusting. They are really dry. I wonder if that means anything.”
“Probably that they’re dehydrated,” Jane said. “Right? I mean what else would it mean and how would that help us?”
“I don’t know,” Lorie said. “Maybe it’s important.” She thought that it was.
“The first one,” Sven said, “the first zombie that attacked me this morning, he was my friend, Lars. He wasn’t like that. He looked like he was deflating or something, but he was bleeding. And the second one I saw, my neighbor, he wasn’t dry either.”
Jane nodded. “Vicky wasn’t dry like this either.”
Lorie shook her head. “But that was a while ago, maybe they’re all changing somehow. It’s like a cold or something, and it goes in stages. Now they’re all dry and crumbly, and maybe later, they’ll be all better and it’ll be over.”
No one said anything for a while, and Lorie remembered that her ankle hurt where one of the zombies had grabbed her. She poked at it. It was tender, but she didn’t think it would be a problem for her to get around. She wouldn’t be able to run as fast though, that was for sure.
“Are you okay?” Jane asked.
Lorie looked up. “Yeah, I’m fine. My ankle’s a little sore but it’s gonna be okay.”
“She’s a tough kid,” Sven chimed in. “How’s Evan back there?”
Lorie turned to look at Evan, and realized that she hadn’t heard him say anything for a while. Come to think of it, she didn’t remember him moving in a while. He was huddled in the left corner of the backseat, his face in his hands, his body turned away from Lorie and Jane. He wasn’t moving.
“Are you alright?” Lorie asked. “Evan? Are you feeling okay?”
Evan didn’t respond.
“He’s probably just had a bit of a shock,” Sven said. “We all have. It’s understandable.”
“Evan?” Lorie asked again.
Evan still didn’t respond, and he wasn’t moving.
Lorie slid over along the backseat and reached for Evan’s shoulder. Just when she was about to touch him, Ivan hissed, and Lorie turned to see that the cat had jumped on top of the front passenger seat’s headrest. Ivan’s tail was fluffed up and he was swiping at an invisible something in the air.
“Ivan!” Sven said. “What’s gotten into you?”
“It’s okay,” Lorie said. “I’m sure he’s had a shock too, like you said.”
Ivan hissed and swiped again. Then Sven swerved around something, and the cat lost its balance and skittered down the front of the headrest, making a deft landing in the seat. Then Ivan got up on the armrest next to Sven. The cat looked straight at Lorie.
“Hi,” Lorie said. “It’s okay,” and she extended her hand to Ivan. He sniffed at it, then rubbed his head in it.
“Good cat,” Lorie said.
Then Lorie turned back to Evan and was about to put her hand on his shoulder when she felt claws digging into her legs. Startled by the sudden pricks of pain, Lorie turned away from Evan to find Ivan balancing in her lap, hissing and shadow-swiping at her arm.
It’s as if he’s trying to tell me something, she thought.
“Ivan!” Sven said again. “Be nice. We’re all in this together. I’m sorry Lorie, he’s usually very nice. I don’t know what to tell you. He is a nice cat most of the time, really.”
“It’s okay,” Lorie said, looking at Ivan. She was half frightened and half curious. Cats had always liked her before. Maybe this one didn’t. There was a first time for everything. Or maybe he was trying to tell her something. It was a silly thought, and Lorie knew it, but she couldn’t shake it.
“Here,” Jane said, “I’ll take him,” and pulled the screeching cat off Lorie.
“Evan?” Jane asked. “Are you alright?”
Lorie turned back to Evan.
“Evan?” Lorie asked.
This time he reacted. He took his hands away from his face, resting them on the window, and began to push his slumped body upright.
Ivan hissed again, and Lorie turned to see that Jane was barely able to restrain the cat in her arms. Something obviously had Ivan spooked.
“Evan,” Lorie said, “it’s gonna be fine. We got away. We’re gonna find a safe place and we’ll be fine.”
Lorie put her arm on Evan’s knee as he turned to face her. She meant to comfort him. He was taking it worse than she was, and he needed a friend. She could usually make him feel better about things.
But when Lorie saw Evan’s face, she pulled her hand away.
Evan was pale-faced, shivering, and looked like he was on the verge of death. Jane didn’t like it.
“Lorie,” Jane said, taking the girl’s arm. “Go sit up front with Sven, okay honey? He needs all the help navigating that he can get.”
The girl nodded, and climbed over the armrest into the passenger seat. When she sat down, she looked back fearfully at Evan, seeming glad to be away from him.
Ivan began to calm down, prompting Jane to relax her grip on the cat that just a few moments before had been frantic with terror…or something. Jane had never realized how strong cats were, or at least how strong this particular cat was. She knew that if Ivan had fought against her grip a little longer, he would’ve gotten away and inflicted whatever damage he had intended.
“Evan?” Jane said. “How you doing over there?”
“I don’t feel that great,” Evan said. “Maybe I’m carsick or something.”
Jane nodded, suspecting motion sickness wasn’t it at all. What if Evan had the same thing that Vicky had—that all the zombies were afflicted with? Could they all catch it from him? They were all in the same car together, after all. Jane thought back to that moment earlier in the day when she had scolded Sven for being reluctant to take Lorie and Evan on. She began to think he had been right in a way. They could all be in serious trouble now, if it turned out Evan had the zombie flu or whatever the hell was going around turning people into monsters. Turning Vicky into—
Jane felt herself choking up with tears and made herself stop.
“Maybe we can stop soon,” she said, “and get you some Dramamine. Do you want some water or maybe a bite to eat right now? That might make you feel better.”
“He hasn’t been feeling well for the past few days,” Lorie said, turning around. “He has a cold.”
Evan nodded. “Yeah, but I was feeling better today and I was going back in to school and…” he trailed off.
“Okay,” Jane said. “Well, we’ll get you something as soon as we can. Maybe try to sleep for now, if you can.”
“I’ll try.” He put his head back in his hands and turned away to lean against the window.
He doesn’t have any zombie virus, Jane thought, feeling silly. He has a cold. He’s had it for days. The boy was going to be fine. She let out the breath she was holding.
He’s going to be fine, Jane told herself again, but in spite of the positive self-talk, she began to feel in her pockets for any sort of weapon. She didn’t have anything. The utensils she had used earlier in the day were gone, used up along the way. Her gun was in her bedroom, back on Lewis Mountain Road, now miles away.
“We have to get some weapons,” Jane said.
“That’s where we’re going,” Sven said, “we’re gonna stop at the gun store up the way.”
“Good,” Jane said. “I know the one.”
Jane felt unsteady and exposed, holding on to the door for fear that it would open again, in a car with two teenagers, one of whom looked to be on the verge of death, her bodybuilder ex-boyfriend, his cat, and no weapons.
Ivan looked up at Jane, tilted his head to one side, blinked, and licked her nose.
Sven saw the next wall of zombies in time. He tapped the brakes, and the car stopped well away from the gathering of infected, no out-of-control skidding, no screeching of brakes, no arrival in the midst of the zombies.
“Sorry,” Lorie said. “I didn’t see them in time, I guess I’m not that good at this navigating thing.”
“It’s okay,” Sven said. “I’m having trouble concentrating too. Probably getting low on protein, and I could use a nap.”
“How do we get around them?” Lorie asked.
Sven looked at the milling zombies and shrugged. There was no getting through this many of them. There were hundreds of them—many more than in the previous encounter—blocking the whole road with their aimless staggering.
Wait, no, now they were going somewhere. Or were they? It looked liked there was a subtle shift toward—
“They’re starting to come for us!” Lorie said. “Look, they’re turning.”
The girl was right. One by one, the zombies were falling away from their group and starting off toward the car. Others were joining the departing zombies and Sven got the sense that the whole mass of them would be coming for him soon, its zombie particles peeling off one by one, as if they were the many components of one collective monster.
Sven put the car in reverse. “We gotta get around them, and fast.” He began to back up.
He’d slowly backed up about fifty feet when Lorie said, “Over there,” and pointed to an entrance into a small strip mall that had a hibachi restaurant in it.
“Good call,” Sven said, and he shifted the car into drive and drove into the strip mall. “Maybe there’ll be a back way out.”
“I really hope there is,” Jane said from the back of the car, “I really hope so.”
To the left of the hibachi restaurant was a fireworks store. Sven made a mental note of it and drove around the back of the restaurant. Behind the restaurant was a hardware store, and beyond that Sven could see a road—a way out.
There was a field adjacent to the hardware store, and Sven could drive through the field to get onto the road. The only problem was that there was a ten foot tall, steel-reinforced fence blocking access to the field. There was a gate in the fence. Sven drove up to it and stopped. There was a large lock securing the thick chain that held the gate in place.
“I’ll be just a second,” Sven said, and stepped out of the car. It hurt when he straightened up, but that was to be expected after almost being crushed before breakfast.
“Where are you going?” Jane asked.
“I need to find something to open the gate with. If I’m not back in a few minutes…I don’t know, just try to drive through it or something.”
The cloying odor was there, stronger than before, turning Sven’s stomach and throwing his concentration off. The distant grunts and moans of the now approaching zombies seemed to add to his mental and physical unsteadiness.
“If you’re not back in a few minutes?” Jane asked. “What do you expect us to do? Why don’t we just try to drive through the gate now, or back around or something?”
Sven looked back toward Route 29, coughed, and then turned back to Jane.
“There’s too many of them over there, and I don’t want to risk damaging the car by driving into the fence. Then we’d be on foot, and…I gotta go, hold tight.”
Sven hobbled quickly into the hardware store, his chest and neck throbbing with pain at each step. There was no time to argue with Jane, the zombies were getting closer by the second.
A quick glance at the gate, the chain, and the lock had sent Sven spiraling into confused desperation. Why was there a reinforced gate, complete with a mean-looking lock and chain, blocking off an empty field…in Charlottesville, a town where people sometimes left their unattended cars running while they shopped? Getting the gate open might be a problem.
The lights in the hardware store were on. Sven looked to the left, then to the right, reading the aisle signs throughout the store. His eyes stopped on the sign that read, “Carpentry,” six or seven aisles away, and he limped off in that direction, trying to minimize the movement of his upper body.
The store looked and sounded deserted. The only thing that Sven could hear was the faint whirr of the overhead fans and the buzz of the fluorescent lights. There were half-full shopping carts and baskets strewn throughout the store, as if the customers had left in a hurry. Reminding himself that he didn’t have time to take in the sights, Sven began to limp faster.
He passed “Kitchens,” “Lighting,” “Home Projects,” “Plumbing,” and two unmarked aisles filled with nuts and bolts and power tools. Just as he was turning into the Carpentry aisle, he heard an unnerving plop.
Sven whirled around painfully, and saw the source of the plop right away. A little girl zombie was, as far as Sven could tell, feasting. She had long brown hair, wore a backpack, and resembled the zombie equivalent of a fifth grader on her way to school. Sven wondered what a kid was doing in a hardware store to begin with, and though this wasn’t a good time to reflect on minor details, Sven’s mind scanned through the possibilities anyway.
Maybe she and her mother had stopped here for some gardening supplies on the way to drop the girl off to school. Maybe that was her mother that the child was feasting on. Sven thought on this for the briefest of moments, and although there was no way he could know for sure just by looking, he felt sure that the cute little child zombie was devouring her mother.
Whoever the woman was, the zombie girl was eating greedily of her body. As he stared, shocked and unable to look away, Sven thought he understood where the plopping sound had come from. The woman’s heart was out of her chest, sitting on the tiled floor in an expanding puddle of dark blood. The arteries and veins were torn, and the thing looked like a mess—not like the hearts in anatomy books in school.
It was a ruined thing that sat there in its growing blood puddle. Sven felt nauseated, and then that terrible smell hit him again, and he began to forget what he had come in there for. Was he looking for someone? For something? Why was there a heart—
Sven staggered backward and regained some of his mental faculty. He realized that he needed to get something to protect himself from that smell, it was a dangerous thing to get caught in, like a putrid invisible netting.
They must have masks of some sort in here, Sven thought as he pinched his nose. Then as he was turning into the Carpentry aisle again he caught another glimpse of the heart, and again he stopped in his tracks, unable to look away from the disgusting scene unfolding before him.
Sven’s eyes went back and forth from the torn organ on the floor to the girl zombie gnashing her way through the flesh of the slumping woman’s neck. The zombie girl’s mouth and face were covered with gore, and she looked different from the other zombies that Sven had just seen, more like the zombies in the morning had looked. She didn’t look dry or brittle at all, didn’t look like she was made of crumpled paper. She looked strong and powerful in her disease, if that meant anything.
Why had she set the heart on the floor like that? What was so special about—as if in answer, the zombie girl turned to look at Sven. Her face was worse than anything he had ever seen. The black eyes shone like obsidian pearls from some other world—a world where carnage was all there was, and all that there would ever be. Sven felt a chill pass through him as he looked into those eyes. The blood and unidentifiable globs of flesh covering her face were nothing next to the eyes—the black, unpitying eyes.
Thankfully, mercifully, the girl turned down, averting her gaze. She looked down at the heart, picked it up, and squeezed it into her mouth with a violent slurping. Then Sven was retching, backing away as he did it, watching half-digested bits of protein bar and ribeye make their way out of him. He regretted losing that good food, that protein, but he couldn’t help it. The sight of that girl and the remains of what was probably her mother and the heart—it was all too much for him to take.
Sven turned away while trying to get his stomach under control, and ran.
Sven ran down the aisle, trying not to think about the girl and her backpack and the heart. He was looking for something, but it wasn’t in this aisle. He turned into the next one, breathing hard, his stomach burning. The acid taste of vomit tinged his mouth, and a dread was spreading through him that he couldn’t control. He began to think about Ivan, Jane, Lorie, and Evan. They were out there, they were depending on him. He got a hold of himself and made himself look harder.
There it was.
Actually, there were several.
He decided to ignore the price tags on the sledgehammers, and go for size. Price was not a factor today. He could have the most expensive one today, he told himself. Who was going to stop him? But that wasn’t the way to pick out sledgehammers anyway. He needed one that was heavy enough to get the job done. He needed one that could break open the lock on the gate.
Sven hefted each of the sledgehammers at a time, bouncing them in his grasp and weighing them by feel. Each bounce of the hammers pulled sharply at his injury, but he ignored it. Time was running out, and he had to get back to the car. He chose the longest, heaviest of the four, hefted it onto his shoulder, and began to walk out of the aisle.
He reached the end of the aisle, turned left toward the store’s entrance, and there she was: the zombie girl with the backpack and black eyes, who moments before had ravenously sucked down her mother’s heart.
The girl’s lips were parted in a sick, half-grin. She reached for Sven with a grasping hand and began to lurch toward him. Sven reacted in one swift motion, without thinking.
He tugged hard with his right hand, which had been holding the sledgehammer in place on his shoulder. The sledgehammer swung out in a diagonal, downward arc, and took the zombie girl’s head off. Though Sven felt no resistance in the shaft of the sledgehammer, it wasn’t a clean blow.
This zombie was not dry, and the splatter of blood, flesh, bone, and brain matter was a scene any zombie movie director would’ve been proud of, or, perhaps more accurately, would’ve gotten sick over. It made Sven sick, and he began to move past the standing, headless girl, toward the door. He thought about wiping the sledgehammer, and about getting another one altogether, but there was no time for that.
As he ran to the door, he shot a glance over his shoulder. He tried to keep himself from looking, but he couldn’t help it. The girl’s body still stood there, motionless and decapitated. How was it still balanced like that? And the part of her head…the part that was still jutting out of her neck, it was so wrong. Sven could feel the image tattooing itself into his brain. It hadn’t been a clean blow at all.
Sven burst through the door and was outside. He was clutching the sledgehammer and half-dragging it as he went, not wanting to come in contact with its now-tainted head. A wave of the sick, cloying odor hit him and his vision seemed to turn a shade of grey. He realized then that he had forgotten about the masks.
He trudged on toward the car, hoping everyone in it—everyone he was now responsible for—was still alright. The car looked as it had minutes before. The doors were all closed.
I could not have been inside for more than a few minutes, Sven told himself, but he wasn’t sure. Time seemed to fade and stop each time he encountered that awful smell, and when he stared into the girl’s black eyes, he felt as if he’d been snatched out of time altogether. But it could not have been a long time, because Sven saw that the zombies were just now starting to overtake the outside of the hibachi restaurant.
There was still time.
Sven positioned himself in front of the car. Looking into it he saw an expression of relief sweep over Lorie in the passenger seat. Ivan hopped up on top of the dashboard and wagged his tail. Jane nodded at Sven from the back of the car. Sven didn’t see Evan, but the kid was probably still asleep or passed out. They were all alright.
Relieved, Sven turned to the gate. It was held shut by a thick, gleaming chain, two of whose links were secured by an overly large silver lock.
He put his right leg in back of him for purchase and swung the sledgehammer up with both of his hands so that it was over his head and to the right, being mindful not to drip any of the girl’s head matter onto himself.
Trying not to breathe in too much, Sven focused through his increasing numbness and brought the hammer down. The head of the hammer struck the lock dead-on with a clank that reverberated up Sven’s arms and made its way into his injured chest. He winced from the pain and dropped the head of the hammer, resting it on the ground.
Then he looked up at the gate, and his heart sank.
The lock was bloody, but still intact.
The closest zombie that Milt saw was on the sidewalk, two storefronts over from Milt’s now-zombie-contaminated comic book shop. Milt waddled toward the zombie, and when he got closer, he saw that he knew this particular zombie—or at least he had known the human that the zombie once was.
The zombie’s name tag said, “Francis,” and his uniform bore the Hollywood Video logo. Milt thought it appropriate that the dying brand’s employee was now a zombie. Milt had never liked Francis. Francis was a know-it-all, always eager to barge into Milt’s store and show off his movie knowledge. Francis had always been too happy and energetic, and Milt was pleased to see that the self-styled movie buff was now stumbling, apparently unable to get his left leg to bend at the knee.
Francis moaned as he advanced, raising his right arm sideways, its fingers stiff and unmoving. Milt raised his sword at the awkward flap, jutting his belly out as he did it. Francis didn’t react to the sword in any way, and only continued to stumble toward Milt, eyeing him with dull, dark eyes.
When Francis was two feet away from Milt, the zombie’s mouth opened, and Milt brought his sword down as hard as he could, splitting Francis’s head in two.
The left side of Francis’s head peeled away from the right side and drooped toward the ground. Then Francis began to fall over, and Milt took a few plodding steps backward to avoid the zombie’s falling body. The body reminded Milt of a scene in Terminator 2: Judgment Day, in which the T-1000’s head was split in two for a few moments before it mended itself back into shape. Francis’s head wasn’t going to be mending itself, Milt remarked triumphantly.
He withdrew the sword with ease, taking pleasure in the fact that the sword hadn’t stuck this time. He looked at the sword, and then at Francis’s body on the ground in front of him. It did not bleed.
“If it bleeds we can kill it,” Milt said to himself, recalling the line from Predator. “But the converse isn’t true—this one doesn’t bleed, and yet I have killed it.”
Grinning broadly, Milt wondered why all these movie scenes were coming back to him now. Maybe Francis had inspired him. Maybe Milt had learned something from the know-it-all in the end.
He kicked Francis’s body in the ribs a few times until his hefty leg became fatigued.
Then he looked up, and for the first time since he’d left his comic book shop that day, Milt felt afraid.
Sven struck with the hammer again, and again, and again. Most of the blood, flesh, and bone fragments on the head of the hammer had sprayed off on the first blow, splattering the gate, fence, and ground around where Sven stood. He suspected it had gotten on him too, but he was too focused on breaking through the gate to stop and check, and he didn’t want to find evidence proving his suspicion.
Overcome by disbelief at the lock’s strength, Sven paused to rest the sledgehammer on the ground so that he could catch his breath. He was careful not to breathe too deeply, but the disorientation was getting worse. With it he began to feel a numbness nipping him underneath his fingernails, beginning to creep up his fingers.
On impulse, he whirled around to face the back of the hibachi restaurant, and there they were—three zombies apart from the larger cluster had set a direct course for Sven. There were two men and a woman, all dressed like office workers. They weren’t covered in any sort of gore, and but for the shambling gaits and the appearance of their pale, deflated bodies, they wouldn’t have looked that far out of the ordinary.
There was still a little time. Sven turned back to the gate and struck again.
From the corner of his eye he saw the beginnings of frantic movement in the car.
It was going all wrong, the zombies were getting too close.
In the midst of a backswing, Sven heard a creak and then the slam of a car door. He half-turned, almost dropping the hammer and twisting uncomfortably.
“What are you doing?” Sven asked.
“Buying you some time,” Jane said, and disappeared around the back of the car. “Don’t stop, keep going at it will you?”
“Right,” Sven said, and turned back to pounding the lock with the sledgehammer. After striking the lock two more times to no avail, Sven looked over his shoulder at Jane. She was crouched next to the back of the car on Sven’s side, rooting in the gravel. She was scooping up handfuls of it, apparently being selective in her scooping, and flinging the rocks at the three approaching office zombies.
The zombies reacted to the barrage of rocks by slowing in their tracks and groaning, but they didn’t give up their pursuit. At least she was slowing them down, and perhaps making them angry, if the groans were an indication of anything.
Sven swung at the lock four more times, but still it wouldn’t break open. He was in so much pain now that he wasn’t sure he could continue. It felt as if his chest had torn open, and the stiffness in his neck was getting worse by the second, and that damn smell was getting stronger, making things fuzzy, and the numbness was gripping his hands now, and—
Balancing with the sledgehammer, Sven wobbled around to face the approaching office zombies. They were getting much too close now, and though Jane kept up her gravel-flinging, she was backing up closer to Sven in her crouched position, balancing with one hand on the side of the car.
A heated frustration filled Sven’s body, turning his vision a muddy grey-red. Thinking went on hold.
Sven raced forward, oblivious to the pain in his body. He swung the sledgehammer back as he ran, then brought it sideways into the nearest approaching zombie’s rib cage. There was a horrible crunch, and the zombie folded over on its side and fell to the ground. Without stopping to look or think about what he was doing, Sven took another backswing, and then the head of the sledgehammer connected with the second zombie’s chin in an upward swipe. Sven took another backswing straight over his head, and brought the hammer down on the top of third zombie’s head.
Panting and regaining some semblance of conscious thought, Sven surveyed the damage in front of him.
The first one Sven had struck was crumpled, shoulder and hip touching like a crushed soda can. But the broken zombie still moved. The legs pushed on the ground and thrust the bent body forward, mouth snapping and tie trailing in the gravel.
The second one—the one Sven had struck on the bottom of the chin—was mostly headless, except for a piece of flesh at the back of the neck still connecting body and head. Sven wasn’t sure if that qualified as headless or not. The body twitched a little, then lay still.
The third one wasn’t crawling or twitching. Its head was smashed in at the top, and there was a dark, gelatinous ooze coming out of its ears, and—
Sven had to look away. The gore seemed to be accumulating in his brain, as if the more he saw of it the sicker it made him, with no reachable point of saturation. He shook his head and took a shallow breath, reminding himself not to breathe too deeply of the tainted air.
Then Jane pointed at the first one, still making its way toward them. Her face was pallid. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is just like the movies and you have to—you have to get them in the head. Sever the spinal chord or destroy the brain and all that.”
Sven looked at her. “What? So you were paying attention to all those zombie movies we watched? You always said you hated them.”
“Just because I hated them doesn’t mean I didn’t get the plot. It’s a simple enough concept to grasp, and yes, even women get it.”
Sven nodded, raised the sledgehammer, and brought it down on the crawling zombie’s head, flattening it with finality. The thing stopped moving and lay still.
Sven looked at the three dispatched zombies on the gravel path. These zombies were mostly dry, and that was alright. He caught himself in the unusual thought. No, it wasn’t alright, but it was better, better than that girl standing there with her backpack and no—
“I think they’re all dead now,” Jane said, moving toward Sven slowly and extending her hand to him. “Come on, let’s finish up with the gate, we gotta get out of here quick.”
Sven blinked and looked away from the three mangled office worker zombies. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but that damn lock won’t break.”
“I’ve noticed, there’s no need to get all snippety about it.”
“Put your legs into it or something, come on.” Jane smiled, but Sven could see she was forcing it.
“I guess if we’re stuck here,” Sven said, “then we’ll have to get in the car and try to drive through them, or go by foot.”
Jane shook her head. “Both very bad options.”
“Yeah, very bad.”
Sven was back at the fence, facing the gate. He raised the sledgehammer high up over his head, then he had a thought.
“Wait,” Sven said. “That’s not right.” He lowered the hammer to the ground and rested it in front of him.
“What?” Jane asked, but Sven was already in motion. He hefted the hammer off the ground in front of him, swung it forward, and then reversed its motion and swung it behind and around his body, gaining momentum and bringing it in a vertical circle that terminated at the locked gate.
Sven missed the lock, and hit the chain instead. The link he hit shattered, and the recoil from the blow shook Sven’s body so much that he let go of the sledgehammer and let it fall to the ground. The chain slid out of place and clinked onto the ground.
“Thank God!” Jane shrieked. “Let’s go, come on,” and she was already climbing into the backseat as another wave of zombies—five in this one—was gaining ground on the car.
Sven was so surprised that the chain had broken that he stood looking at it for a moment, until a honk broke through his idleness. He turned and saw Lorie’s hand on the steering wheel, then Jane climbed over from the back of the car and into the driver’s seat. Jane honked, lowered the window, and said, “Come on, come on, open it!”
Sven kicked the chain to the side, picked the vertical bar that held the gate in place out of its hole in the ground, and pulled. The gate began to move outward, then stopped suddenly, shaking in place.
This can’t be happening, Sven thought. He tried pulling again, then realized that the vertical bar had slipped out of his hands and caught in the gravel, restricting the gate’s movement. He raised the bar and pulled again. Cool relief swept over him as the gate swung open all the way.
There was another honk and then Jane drove through the opening. Sven dragged the sledgehammer after her and began to close the gate. He pulled it back into place, letting the vertical bar grind to a halt in the gravel, without replacing it in its hole. Maybe the zombies wouldn’t know how to work it.
They definitely wouldn’t, Sven told himself, they don’t even remember how to get out of their cars.
He threw the sledgehammer down and hobbled to the car as quickly as he could. As he was making his away around the back of the car to get into the passenger seat, the back door opened and the boy toppled out onto the field’s untended grass.
Evan began to retch in violent spasms, and Sven realized at once that they were all going to have a big problem. The kid was very, very sick.
Across the parking lot, Milt saw two separate groups of men and women—mostly men overall—running and screaming and breaking things. Many of them had baseball bats or clubs of some sort. Milt quickly retreated to his storefront, slinking into position before his display window—the window that housed the singular dark, dusty curtain that kept light out of the store.
He exhaled forcefully and pressed his bulk to the window, making his impressive warrior’s body as unobtrusive as possible. He peered over his shoulder at the looters.
Wait, what was he doing? This was Milt’s day, his time had come, and he would not cower. He would not.
Milt peeled himself off the window, and marched straight for the looters, who were riding shopping carts full of wares—stolen wares no doubt. He avoided the wandering zombies in the parking lot, and was careful to stay away from the cars in which zombie drivers sat and flailed in their stupid, undead misery.
Then he situated himself in an empty spot in the parking lot under the beating sun. He glanced over at a tree-shaded spot with a covetous eye, but that spot had cars under and around it, and the cars weren’t empty. Milt sighed, belched, and addressed the looting shopping-cart surfers, who had stopped in the midst of their illegal revelry to regard Milt in his full glory. Some were pointing at his sword, others at his belly. Milt swiped at his sweaty forehead with the back of his left hand, smoothed down his pony tail, wiped the back of his hand on the hip area of his t-shirt, and began his speech.
“Hear me anarchists and evildoers. This is not a time for petty theft. This is not a time for inconsequential rebellions against the establishment. No, this is a time for redefining yourselves. This is a time for waging war against the undead enemy under a proud common banner.”
Milt looked at the looters. There were twelve in all, one group of five and one group of seven. It looked like they might all be together, or familiar with each other, or something. It wasn’t clear what their relationship was, except that they weren’t fighting each other. There were three women and nine men. Two—a woman and a man—were Hispanic. The rest were white. They were all watching Milt with a wary attentiveness, and this bolstered Milt’s resolve.
“This is a time to unite, to remake humanity. It is a time for leaders to rise up. And here I am. I have risen, and I stand before you now, ready to lead you into the future.”
Milt thought he saw a few of the ruffians chortle, but that could not have been it. This was no chortling matter.
“And so, my disciples, I say unto you, come together under my banner—the banner of Miltimore the Mighty, Miltimore the Sword-Wielder!”
Milt raised his sword high up into the air and gave a fierce battle cry.
When he lowered his sword and wiped some sweat from his face—it really was a hot day for destroying zombies—the sniggers among the looters were unmistakable. But Milt ignored the chuckles, the looters were likely uneducated, and their crass behavior could be excused.
“What say you to this, my soon-to-be followers? It is clear that you are in need of strong, experienced leadership.”
One of the men, a lanky, hoodlum-type wearing a backward cap, baggy jeans, and oversized white t-shirt, stepped forward. Milt’s stomach fluttered.
The hoodlum spoke up.
“Oh yeah? And you have experience? In what?”
“Yeah,” the Hispanic woman chimed in. “Who are you? And why do you have a sword?”
Milt couldn’t believe the audacity of these people.
“As I said previously,” Milt began, “I am a sword-wielder, ergo I carry a sword. I am extremely experienced. I have gone on thousands of quests, and have slain numerous toothsome beasts in battle. Therefore, I have the requisite experience to lead you, and—”
The Hispanic woman pointed behind Milt. “Look!”
Milt lumbered around and saw a throng of approaching zombies. He turned back to the looters and began to plod toward them.
“Hey man,” the hoodlum said, “you stay away from us. You’re attracting those things to us.” The hoodlum was backing away, and backed into one of the shopping carts full of pilfered loot. “Some hero you are. You’re nothing but a nerdy freak.”
“Yeah,” the Hispanic woman said, “stick to slaying dragons or whatever it is you do. Just stay the hell away.” Then she took hold of a shopping cart that was resting against a car, pulled it back with a scrape, and pushed its clattering mass toward Milt.
Milt tried to sidestep, but he tripped on his own feet and fell sideways onto the hot pavement, dropping his sword with a resounding clang. He tried to get up by rolling onto his back and then rocking back up and over onto his front. It worked after a few tries, the hot pavement leaving Milt’s body unpleasantly seared. He slowly picked himself up amidst the laughter of the looting scoundrels, got to his feet, and retrieved his sword. The pavement sear had brought on a profuse bout of sweating.
“As you wish,” Milt said. “Go as you have come, leaderless and without hope. But heed my words, you are marching straight into a post-apocalyptic oblivion.”
Eye rolls, shrugs, and nervous chuckles made their rounds through the misguided raiders, and they took off, pushing and towing their shopping carts toward Route 29, where, Milt assumed, an escape vehicle awaited them.
No matter, Milt thought, they shall doubtless perish at the hands of the undead. They were too stupid anyway, he knew, and didn’t deserve the honor of his leadership.
There was a pressing matter at hand—the approaching throng. Milt lumbered back around to assess the situation so that he could begin to formulate his battle plan. He gulped at what he saw, and jammed a sticky inhaler into his mouth.
He took a few puffs, but then realized that he was doing it more out of habit than need. He could breathe just fine. In fact, he was breathing better than he had in years, in spite of all the allergens floating in the air, seeking him out to torment him. Maybe it was that wonderful fragrance in the air. It reminded him of the way his battle station smelled when he had been engaged in his World of Warcraft pursuits for more than nine hours at a time. There was always a magical shift in the air at the nine hour mark. But this smell was different, more complex, enhanced.
It seemed to be associated with the zombies somehow, and as the group of zombies staggered closer to Milt, the magnificent aroma became stronger. He remembered it from his encounter with that first zombie in his store, but the smell hadn’t been this concentrated. It had likely been diluted by the smells of his battle station, his store, and then of the vomit.
Then he understood what the scent was. It was his destiny’s perfume. Yes, Milt told himself, that’s what it is. That’s what it had to be. He smiled, raised his sword, and belched.
The zombies were gathering in around him.
Jane was outside in an instant, holding Evan’s body, probably so that the kid didn’t knock into anything and hurt himself while he was projectile vomiting. Sven watched, and noted that he had never seen anyone throw up with so much force before. He kept his distance from Jane and the boy, and looked down the length of the field to the road that he planned to drive onto if—no, when—the boy got better.
Sven looked back at the gate. There were zombies gathering at the other side of it now, but not all of the group of undead that they had just gotten away from. He could see eight at the gate, and the rest of the undead seemed to have lost interest in Sven and his group.
Maybe the zombies were attracted by the humans’ smell, or by noise, but whatever it was, it seemed they were not communicating, and they had certainly lost a good amount of their intelligence. As Sven had guessed would happen, the zombies at the gate weren’t even trying to open it, acting as though they had no idea that opening the gate was even an option.
Somewhat relieved and breathing clearer air, Sven turned back to the car and walked closer. Lorie was outside now too, looking worried, but—Sven noticed with a growing curiosity—also keeping her distance from Evan and Jane. There was something about that girl that reminded Sven of himself, as weird as that was.
“What’s wrong with him?” Lorie asked.
Jane shook her head, looking despondent. “I don’t know. Maybe all the stress of the day, and you said he wasn’t feeling well before.”
“He’s burning up,” Jane said. “We need to get him something for his fever. He’s barely conscious.”
Sven walked closer, and put his hand a few inches from the boy’s pallid forehead. Sven felt heat on his hand without even touching the boy.
The sounds of the zombies on the other side of the fence carried over to Sven, who found his ears suddenly tune into the sounds of gravel being kicked and stamped and turned over by the milling of the zombies’ feet. There were groans too, but his mind was drawn to the zombies’ gravel-kicking.
“I should’ve…” Sven began, but he didn’t finish. He looked at Evan, and then back at the gate.
“I’m not sure when we’ll be able to stop again, the way things are going,” Sven said. “And there’s a drugstore right there.” He pointed to the drugstore next to the hibachi restaurant.
“What? You can’t go back over there. How are you going to get through all of…all of them?” Jane paused. “You can’t, we’ll find another place, we’ll—”
“I’ll come with you,” Lorie said. “I’m not afraid, at least not anymore. Evan needs our help.”
Lorie began to walk to Sven, but Jane’s voice stopped the girl in her tracks. “You most certainly are not going over there with Sven, and Sven isn’t going over there either. We’ll have to find somewhere else. Come on, let’s get in the car.”
Jane was holding Evan, now limp, in her arms.
At least he’s done throwing up, Sven thought, but then wondered if an unconscious boy was better than a vomiting one. Probably not.
“I’m going,” Sven said. “Look, that large group isn’t interested in us anymore. There’s just a few of them at the fence, and I’ll be quick. Nimble even. But you—” Sven looked at Lorie, “—you have to stay here and help Jane and Evan. Okay?”
“I can be more help to you on the other side of that gate,” Lorie said, looking Sven in the eye.
“Maybe, but for now you’re staying here,” Sven said, and then he strode off painfully into the thickening stench, the sledgehammer poised on his shoulder.
Jane was yelling something in Sven’s direction. He was certain she was trying to call him back, but he couldn’t make out the words. He could hear them well enough, or at least the sounds of the words, but as he walked into that putrefying odor, the words lost their ability to hit home, didn’t connect to each other, didn’t translate into thoughts.
Sven remembered Evan though, he remembered he had to help the boy, and so he kept reminding himself to breathe sparingly. He took a few quick snorts of the cleaner air as he walked to the gate, resolving that once through the gate, he would close his mouth and take small sniffs at the air before determining that it was safe to breathe. Sven hoped he could remember to do all of this as he got closer to the fence. He would have to be quick.
By the time he got to the fence, the zombies had gone still. They were no longer milling and anxiously looking in his direction. They were standing on the other side of the fence, facing Sven, unblinking, unmoving, and otherwise seemingly transfixed by his nearness.
Sven made every effort to look away. By the time he did manage to avert his gaze, he had seen more than enough.
The zombies on the other side of the gate were all chewed up. There were nine of them there, not eight as Sven had previously estimated, and they were a sight almost as horrific as the mostly headless standing girl in the store had been. The nine zombies looked like they had been fighting with each other, and biting each other, and ripping off gobbets of each other’s flesh, and some were missing parts of limbs, and eyes, and one had a nose that wasn’t quite all there anymore, and—
Get a hold of yourself Sven, he told himself, and took a deep breath. He deftly stuck his fingers through a gap in the gate, grabbed hold of the vertical bar, and raised it from its stop in the gravel. He tightened his grip on the hammer, gritted his teeth, flung the gate open, and lost all control.
He was off the mark with his first swing, but that didn’t matter. The five inches of shaft behind the head of the sledgehammer made contact with the first zombie’s ear, the head of the sledgehammer hooking behind the zombie’s head. There was so much force behind the swing that the side of the zombie’s head flattened, and the ear came away like a clipped fingernail, flying up into the air.
The sledgehammer kept going, and smashed into the face of another zombie, pushing its nose into and through its cheek. Sven twisted with the swing, and the momentum was so great that he fell on his side and lost his grip on the hammer, losing it in the gravel.
He was on the ground now, and the zombie with the smashed face was next to him, staring at him with one leaking, exploded eye, as the numbness began to creep into Sven’s body, began to seep into his mind.
Then three zombies were on top of him—over him, clutching at his track pants, and, it seemed, trying to pull the pants off him. A primitive part of Sven awoke from its slumber, and he growled with so much ferocity behind it that the three zombies stopped their pulling for a second.
And a second was all that Sven needed.
He rocked up to a sit-up position and grabbed the hair of the two zombies who were on the outside of the group standing over him. He cringed as soon as his hands closed in on the wiry, matted hair, much of which fell away at his touch. But he had enough purchase, and he twisted, breaking one of the zombie’s necks, but not getting enough rotational force to break the other one.
The broken neck was an unexpected bonus, and not the maneuver Sven was trying to perform. He continued with his original plan, sweeping his arms across his body and toward each other in a brutal pectoral fly that brought the two zombie heads into a crunching, moaning collision with the head of their zombie compatriot in the middle. The three skulls dented, collapsing and spewing coagulated blood and other unidentifiable, too-dry goop.
Sven let go and let the three broken, crushed heads fall away from him. The three pant-pulling zombies, though dead, were still clutching doggedly at Sven’s track pants.
As his vision grew hazy, Sven crawled backward, holding on to the awareness that there were still more zombies around him. He kept crawling backward, but those damned zombies kept their firm grip on his pants. Reluctantly, and cursing the zombies under his breath, he wriggled out of his track pants, losing both of his cross-trainers in the process. He wanted to rip the zombies limb from dry, rotten, disgusting, putrid limb. And he would have, if he wasn’t dying to take a breath. But he knew he couldn’t breathe there, not yet.
He stood up and got his bearings. The gravel hurt, cutting into Sven’s socked feet, and he felt uncomfortably exposed in his boxer shorts among the zombies.
This would never happen in a zombie movie, Sven thought. Nothing is ever how it’s supposed to be in the movies.
There were only four moving zombies left, and they were blocking Sven’s path around the side of the hibachi restaurant, over to the drugstore.
Only four, Sven thought, and he would’ve spat had he not been holding his breath—the head-crushing maneuver had let out too much of his air already. He danced around the dwindling group of undead and picked up the sledgehammer.
Sven was consumed with anger, and he let it take control of him. There would be no more merciful headshots.
He didn’t see their faces, didn’t see their clothes, didn’t see the people they once were. He just swung.
The head of the sledgehammer found home in the first zombie’s rib cage, tearing through clothing and skin, and launching shattered, splintered bones into the air. Sven pulled on the shaft of the hammer, and as its head pulled out of the rib cage, the zombie’s sternum came with it, strands of dry flesh and sinew offering little resistance.
The zombie began to topple, and without waiting for it to fall all the way to the ground, Sven took a full backswing and connected the head of the hammer with the side of the next zombie’s kneecap. The zombie’s whole leg bent sideways at the knee, and in spite of the wild anger that had overcome Sven, he cringed. He could almost feel the unnatural bend of the leg, and the sight recalled the sound of nails scratching across a chalkboard, as unconnected as that was.
The zombie’s destroyed leg buckled in a series of sharp cracks, and Sven saw a jagged piece of bone rip through the top of the zombie’s thigh. The zombie fell over onto its side, then settled on its back, hands reaching up, trying to grasp Sven’s bare legs.
There were two left standing, and Sven’s lungs were burning now, crying out for air. He sniffed at the air cautiously, and then snorted all of it out, feeling the dizziness rush into him. The taint was there, as strong as ever. He would have to move faster.
Rushing forward, he swung the hammer diagonally and downward. The head of the sledgehammer smashed a zombie’s shoulder, and initiated a series of cracking that ended in the zombie collapsing onto its knees and then falling onto its face. It didn’t even twitch.
He struck the remaining zombie in its stomach with the shaft of the hammer, and ran around the creature while it was stumbling backward, off balance. Then Sven brought his hammer down again, on the back of the zombie’s neck. There was a snapping, tearing sound that was growing familiar, and the zombie fell forward.
Sven relaxed his grip and let his burning muscles loosen, but he didn’t let go of the hammer. He was still holding his breath and beginning to suffocate, but he took a brief look at the fallen zombies still clawing for him and the zombie parts strewn around him, dumbstruck at what he had done.
Then he ran back to the gate and shut it, being careful to lower the vertical bar into its proper place, and put on his shoes. As he did so, he saw he was bleeding through his socks, and hoped that one of the zombies that he had just destroyed was the idiot that decided to forego pavement in this part of the strip mall. It was unlikely, none of them were dressed like they had that kind of power. He considered the track pants for a moment, but there wasn’t time to pry off three pairs of dead zombie hands, so he left them.
Sven looked through the fence at Jane and Lorie and the unconscious boy. Their faces were hard to make out at that distance, and Sven wasn’t sure he wanted to see their expressions. He was sure they had been watching him, except for Evan of course, who even at that distance Sven could tell was out of the game.
He felt ashamed, and it wasn’t because he had lost his pants. Sven turned away and ran around the hibachi restaurant to the drugstore, dodging four zombies that tried to grab him with their gnarled hands. He shouldered the drugstore’s door open, burst in, and fell on his hands and knees, gasping for breath.
In the background, the door bing-bonged a welcome.
Jane watched Sven dispatch the zombies on the other side of the fence. She had feared for him, but once he passed through the gate, the fear left her. He had become someone else, something else.
It was not the Sven that she knew who fought on the other side of that fence. It was not the Sven she had once dated. It was a monstrous killing machine, a survival machine, a machine that was going to see that she and the two hapless kids they had met would make it through whatever sickness had befallen their city.
While she watched Sven reduce the zombies to pieces, she had a passing thought that she should cover Lorie’s eyes, or make her turn away, or something equally parental like that. She was holding Evan, who was a dead, unconscious weight in her arms, so he was in no danger of seeing the violence. She could tell Lorie to turn away, not to watch, but she didn’t. What was the use? In the world that had dawned this morning, this was the kind of thing that needed to be seen—by everyone, young kids included. There was no shielding Lorie from reality, and there was no shielding herself. The truth had to be faced. Jane had to face it, and Lorie had to face it too.
Once Sven had felled the zombies, Jane turned to Lorie, who was looking toward the gate. Jane heard a clanking sound and turned back to Sven, who was closing the gate behind him. That was good of him to remember. She had no idea Sven could be this resourceful, and so stupidly brave. Then Jane turned back to Lorie and saw what was in the girl’s eyes.
There was no fear in Lorie’s eyes, only concern—concern that must have been for Sven, and for Evan. Jane considered that she herself might be the only one in the group that was terrified. The girl was far braver than she, and the boy probably would have been too if he wasn’t—the boy…
Jane looked down at the unconscious boy in her arms. Was he turning into one of them? Into a zombie? Should she say something? How could they be sure until it was too late? She looked at Evan’s pale, drooping eyelids, and was ashamed that the first thought that came to her—her instinct—was to leave him behind.
But she resisted.
“Get in the car,” Jane said. Lorie obeyed, without a word. Jane placed Evan into the backseat, and was startled by Ivan’s hiss. That made her feel worse about everything. Ivan was right, her instinct was right, the boy was wrong, too much like Vicky had been, but how could she just leave him there? How could she just leave him there to die?
Jane held Evan’s head up as she put a seatbelt around him, then let his head nod down to his chest. It was a terrible mistake, and she knew it.
Then Jane closed the rear door, got into the driver’s seat, and backed the car up to the gate without getting too close. She put the car in drive, resolving to keep her foot on the brake while she waited for Sven to return.
Lorie put a hand on Jane’s. “He’s going to come back. I know he will.”
Jane nodded, but she wasn’t sure. And they were running low on fuel.
The air was amazing. Fresh, clean, and free of that sickening foulness.
But, Sven thought, what if it hadn’t been, what if it had been contaminated? He would not have been able to hold his breath any longer and he would’ve been…he would’ve been…what exactly?
There would be time to wonder about that later, Sven told himself, and scrambled to his feet. He began to jog down the first aisle. Too quickly, he was in half-darkness, and had to backtrack to the entrance to feel around for a light switch.
He felt around on the wall with his free hand, and when he couldn’t find anything, he gave up. There wasn’t time to search for the light switch. Sven reentered the first aisle, and started on a slow jog back into the dimness, scraping the head of the sledgehammer along the floor as he went, and hoping that the medicine he needed would be in a relatively lit part of the store.
Sven felt a hitch, a tug at his arm, and then he was sprawled face-down on the floor, his bare legs cold against the tiles. The sledgehammer had caught on a shelf-divider at the bottom of the aisle, Sven had been holding on tight, and had been pulled down with the hammer.
Exactly the kind of thing that doesn’t happen in zombie movies, Sven thought, exactly.
Reluctantly, he let go of the sledgehammer’s shaft and slowly, painfully pushed his chest off the floor, settling on his knees. He unhooked the head of the sledgehammer from the aisle, put the head of it on the floor, and used it to pull himself back up to his feet. Behind him, on the other side of the glass door, the four zombies that he had dodged were now congregated, and others were coming up to join them. That was bad.
The zombies locked eyes with Sven, and began to scrape at the door with their undead nails. There were six now, two up against the door and four behind them, vying for a closer spot. Then the four in back were pushing up against the two in front, and—
Bing-bong, the door said, and the zombies were inside.
Sven, wearing shoes and socks but no pants, began to retreat into the darkness. But what if there was something lurking in the back of the store? What if there were other zombies back there? There was no smell in the drugstore, but what did that really mean?
I should have tried harder to find that damned light switch, he told himself, but now it’s too late.
Moments after the six zombies entered the drugstore, it was filled with their stench. That didn’t surprise Sven. But then the zombies did something unexpected. They didn’t come at Sven in a mindless way—not at all. They split up. Sven hoped it was by accident, and was the result of the six-zombie bottleneck at the store’s entrance that formed when they stumbled in. But what if they were hunting him—hunting him and planning it out?
An image of the Pac-Man video game flashed in Sven’s mind, and that was what he was—Pac-Man. Sven brought the sledgehammer up to his chest and backed up into the aisle. Two zombies were coming at him, and two had disappeared to the left and another two to the right. It all seemed too well-rehearsed. He could hear the four zombies that were out of sight stumbling through the store all around him, but amidst his shallow, ragged breathing, the beating of his heart, and the stumbling, rotting creeps in front of him, he couldn’t place where they were. It was like a house of mirrors except with sounds and shambling, tripping noises coming from all around him.
Sven reminded himself to slow his breathing and made a conscious effort to breathe in very short sniffs through his nose. He had to get out of there, the air was getting worse with every second.
He did the only sensible thing left to do. He charged at the two zombies in front of him. There was no room to swing the sledgehammer from side to side in the narrow aisle, so he raised it and brought it down, aiming for the top of the nearest one’s head. Sven missed, and the head of the sledgehammer grazed the zombie’s forehead, taking off a sheet of rotten flesh and all of its nose. Because of the hammer’s momentum, when Sven missed, he was carried forward in a twisting motion, and almost fell into the zombie he had just grazed. Sven regained his balance, moving backward away from the two zombies just in case they had come within grabbing distance in his moment of vulnerability. He looked up, and in the dim light he saw that the nose-less zombie with the sheared forehead had fallen backward into the creature behind it, and the two were trying to get back on track in their stumbling toward Sven.
He rushed at them again, but this time, instead of swinging the hammer in the tight quarters, he jabbed with it, knocking each of the zombies in its head. There were cracks, twitches, and the zombies fell backward. They weren’t out of commission, but Sven took the opportunity to sidestep past them, being mindful to avoid their biting mouths and grasping hands.
Sven, now holding his breath again, ran to the entrance of the next aisle and searched the visible parts of the store with frantic turns of his head. He had to get what he needed and he had to get out of there. There were no more zombies outside the door and there was no more wretched bing-bonging, but he had no idea how many of the creatures were in the dark store with him, and with every step that he took, he imagined one of the things taking a merciless bite of his exposed calves, quads, or hamstrings. There was a lot to bite, and Sven couldn’t help thinking that him being pants-less was a zombie’s dream come true. But he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Jogging across the front of the store, Sven caught sight of two shambling zombies that must have been the ones who had split off from the group of six at the entrance. They were in the middle of the aisle he was looking into, so he ran to the next one, wanting to avoid a confrontation and get out of the place as fast as possible. Then he saw something. It wasn’t what he needed for the boy, but it would be helpful—to him and to everyone waiting in the car.
He took four packages of surgical masks from the shelf in front of him, ignoring whether each package held one or multiple masks. There was no time for counting right then, and the more masks the better. Sven tore one of the packages open, pulled out a mask, and put it over his face.
It helped. Sven was surprised by just how much it helped. He could breathe more or less normally without getting too much of the taint in the mask. The burning in his lungs cooled. Sven threw the open package away and tucked the remaining three packages under his arm. Then he had a thought, and grabbed a fourth unopened package for Ivan. Ivan certainly wouldn’t like having a mask put on him, but it was better than being eaten by zombies. He tucked the fourth package under his arm with the other three.
The packages were awkwardly shaped and cumbersome to carry, and they reduced Sven’s range and ability with the sledgehammer. That could be a problem, but there was no time to look for a bag now.
Sven, masked, a little calmer, and breathing in a steady rhythm though still shallowly, tiptoed to the next aisle. And there it was. For a second, as he stared at the acetaminophen pill bottles in front of him, he thought his luck was turning. Then, as he propped the sledgehammer up against the aisle and reached for the pills, something grabbed his left ankle. Sven fell, both from the pull and from his own surprise, dropping all the surgical masks and sweeping at least ten bottles of acetaminophen off the shelf.
He looked at his ankle, and, sure enough, a set of rotten fingers and the rotten hand to which they belonged were holding fast.
Apparently, the aisle hadn’t been empty when Sven tiptoed into it. A zombie had been lying in wait, and now it had snared its prey. As the thing began to pull at his leg, Sven stretched out his right hand for the sledgehammer propped up against the shelf. It was just out of reach.
Milt counted the zombies that surrounded him—a ragged mass of fourteen. He then proceeded to commend himself on his rapid counting abilities. Of course, as a former video game designer, math was one of his strong suits. He had always been good at it.
Milt’s arms were beginning to tire under the weight of the sword, so he carefully leaned the flat part of the blade against the front of his shoulder. Then he took a good look at the fourteen zombies. They were of all shapes and sizes, but it seemed they were nonetheless united in one common pursuit—Milt’s savory flesh. Of the fourteen, three were children—two boys and one girl, eight women, one younger man, and two older men, or older gentlemen, as they were likely to be called, and to call themselves, in the not-so-deep South of Charlottesville, Virginia.
They were shopper zombies, and though still quite piddling in Milt’s eyes, he felt more respect for them than for the looting hooligans he had so effectively made flee only moments before. An enemy—even a zombie enemy—was easier to respect than a gang of thieving scoundrels. Milt looked from black zombie eye to black zombie eye, and he resolved that their stumbling owners would not have even a nibble of the delicacy that was his tissue.
The zombies were closing in at a fast shamble, so Milt began to plan his offensive. He would pick off the weakest ones first, and he decided that the most logical way to go about that was to go from smallest to largest. His sword would build up momentum that way, and all fourteen would fall victim to his mighty blade. Milt wanted to make a quick job of it, because he was starting to grow hungry. He could feel the harbingers of his first stomach rumblings making their way up his esophagus, spurred on by the delicious aroma in the air, which seemed to grow stronger as the zombies drew nearer. There was no time to waste.
Milt picked out his first target—the smallest of the children—a little boy zombie. Little boy green, Milt thought he might call him, for the green tinge of his coarse zombie skin.
“Prepare to meet your maker,” Milt said to the staggering boy.
He began to heft the Sword of Crom from his left shoulder. A combination of the heat and low blood sugar must have been affecting him, because lifting the sword became a struggle, and his hands couldn’t keep it centered. The sword slid inward on his shoulder, and the blade came to a painful rest behind Milt’s ear. Milt lurched the whole of his massive body instinctively away from the source of the pain. The sword then came away from his ear, slid off his shoulder, ripped out of his hands and clattered to the pavement.
There was a moan, and Milt remembered the boy zombie. He looked up and saw that little boy green was closer than ever, and he was reaching up to grab Milt—but the smell in the air—it was so good, so enticing, so wonderfully fragrant.
Milt took a step back, away from the little zombie and put his hand behind his ear where the sword had cut him. The area stung when he dabbed it with his palm. Milt brought his hand down and looked at it. There was a lot of blood, and he was surprised the pain wasn’t worse. But there was no time for first aid, this was a battle, and Milt was a mighty warrior, after all.
He rubbed his hands together, rubbing the blood into his palms. Then he bent down and picked up the sword, his hands steadier with it after the brief rest.
There were more moans now, coming in twos and threes, and Milt had to take several steps back to avoid the slowly-grasping arms. He raised the sword, and right before he brought it down, an odd thought struck him. He was looking from zombie to zombie, and it seemed to him that they—the vile undead beasts—were looking at him with a sort of reverence in their eyes. It made Milt almost feel a sense of compassion, or was it kinship? No, that was ridiculous, these were zombies for Milt to dispatch to the netherworld. And so he would.
Milt brought the sword down with a ferocity that wriggled his fatty folds. Little boy green’s face split open, and the zombie fell backward, spluttering a viscous goop from his hacked, yawning mouth.
The remaining two children would be next, and they were very conveniently lined up side by side, moaning their child-like zombie moans as they dragged their feet closer to Milt. Milt drew his sword back over his right shoulder, heaving his belly out to counterbalance the ten pound weapon. Then he pulled his belly in and whipped the sword down and sideways, slicing clean through the two children.
After completing the slice, Milt scuttled a few steps away, shock creeping into his mind. This was more gore than he was used to…and it was so real. Video game violence couldn’t hold a candle to what he was seeing now. But in spite of what he saw, he kept his grip firm. This was all part of being a hero, humanity’s last champion.
The right top corner of the girl’s head was gone, leaving cleaved skull and brain matter exposed to the hot sun. She peered up at Milt through one half-broken eye that the sword had touched, as she tottered on her feet. It seemed the feet had forgotten how to drag, and her body was trembling.
The boy was in worse—or perhaps better shape, depending on how one looked at the situation. He was on the ground, unmoving. Milt’s sword had been lower to the boy’s body when it carved him up, and the top wedge of his torso, from left shoulder to right sternum, was detached from the rest of his body. Milt had a good view of spine and rib cage, but no blood.
Then the girl fell forward on top of the piece of her head, and she lay as still as the carved boy.
Only the adult zombies were left, and there were eleven of them, gaining ground. Milt stepped backward, clattering into a shopping cart that one of the uneducated hooligans must have left there to get in his way. He cursed them under his breath, and, regaining his balance, spotted his next two victims, who were at the rear of the zombie pack.
The two Southern gentlemen zombies were at the back of the undead group, their old legs struggling to drag on in time with the others. They were falling behind, and that made them vulnerable.
Milt grinned, and capered around a car to get past the adult zombies in his way. He noted that it wasn’t the lightest of capers, and the ground may have trembled under him just a tad. Nevertheless, there had certainly been an inspired bounce to his step.
When he was behind the undead throng, the whole group began to turn back toward him, pivoting in place by rocking from foot to foot. It was a slow process, and it gave Milt time to assess his overall situation in the parking lot.
Except for the group behind which he’d now crept, the lot was clear of other walking zombies. He saw some of the undead in slow motion flails inside their cars, but he ignored them for the moment. He could always go back and take care of them later, once he’d dealt with the shoppers now before him. Comforted that no other zombies were sneaking up on him, Milt refocused on his next victims.
The two Southern gentlemen were as they should be. They each wore seersucker suits—one a pale blue color, the other a salmon—and they each wore a bowtie, although from Milt’s current angle he couldn’t quite make out the patterns. Their moans were hoarser than those of the rest of the group, and they didn’t smell quite as enticing, but still slightly delightful. The two Southern gents were turning more slowly than the rest of the group, and Milt got the sense that they might end up at the back of the pack once more before they had even turned the full way around to face him.
He took a deep breath and raised the Sword of Crom, feeling the bloody chocolate-stickiness of his grip. He had a growing awareness of wanting to get out of the heat, to cool off, but he had to take care of the mess in front of him first. That was the life of a warrior. Sacrifices had to be made.
“How’d ya’ll like a mint julep?” Milt mocked in his best Southern drawl, which he knew to be superb.
A dry, enthusiastic moan came from the salmon-suited one, and two equally dry, but not quite as enthused moans came from the pale blue-suited one.
“Oh, excuse me kind sir in the blue, would you prefer a well-aged Bourbon whiskey, on the rocks?”
That made the pale blue-suited zombie turn faster and moan again. Milt had figured out their drinks of choice. He had a true knack for reading people, and, as it were, zombies.
Milt eagerly brought the sword straight across, with as much tiredness as eagerness. He was excited to see the damage it would inflict, and he couldn’t hold it in place any longer. Milt wasn’t going to take any more chances leaning the blade against himself, that was for sure. He learned from his mistakes, he was no fool.
His aim was true. The sword went through the necks of both Southern gent zombies in a single cut.
The pull of the sword’s follow-through was so strong that it brought Milt forward, staggering a few steps to keep from losing his balance, but his grip on the sword stayed firm. It seemed that the blood and chocolate on his palms provided for a better hold than chocolate alone.
Milt turned back to the Southern gentlemen and felt his soul light up as he watched the heads separate from the necks and slip off, the bodies crumple to the ground, heads and bodies falling into a heap. One of the heads—Milt wasn’t sure which one because the heads were now separated from the gentlemen’s garments—landed on top of both bodies and rolled off the heap in Milt’s direction. He stopped it with the tip of his sword and looked at it. This one looked even drier than the others had been. Were they all just dehydrated? What was going on? Milt gave the head a wobbly kick, sending it at the next closest zombie in the throng. He was impressed at his own deft kick. I could’ve been an athlete, he told himself, I could’ve been anything I wanted to be.
And then there were nine.
Milt apprised himself of the approach of the rest of the zombie pack and took a few steps backward, evaluating the group’s next weakness. There had to be another exploitable hole in their collective armor.
As he was backing up, Milt remembered to look down. He remembered that he wanted to see what kind of bowties the two older zombies had been wearing. He smiled when he made them out. The salmon-suited one had on a white bowtie with mallards on it, and the pale blue-suited one had on a brown bowtie with leaping salmon on it. Milt was impressed. These had been very dapper Southern gentlemen indeed. He had dispatched two exceedingly worthy opponents.
Then, in part because he was still looking at the critters on the bowties, Milt tripped on a jangling something and fell backward. His sword flew from his hands and clanged away from him, and he landed on his rear end on the hot pavement. The momentum of his voluminous body kept him moving backward, and he rolled onto his back, feet dangling in the air. It was a good thing he had a lot of bulk in his back to cushion the fall, otherwise he could have been injured. He felt a burning pain behind his ear and then he was staring up at the sky.
It was getting dark. By the looks of it, a storm was approaching. Milt considered how fitting it was for a storm to be gathering, in time with the zombie outbreak. The storm and the zombies together were a portent of great societal upheaval, and Milt knew that. It was the upheaval that would bring him to the top and make him the supreme ruler—once the zombies had been dealt with of course, and that would be like child’s play to a warrior such as—
Something grabbed his calf, and then something grabbed his ankle, and his shin, and his slippers—they were taking his slippers! The audacity of the creatures! And then Milt’s mental witticisms lost some of their steam as he tried to struggle away from the zombies. They were all there now, clutching and tugging at his feet and lower legs, which were still hanging in mid-air.
Milt twisted and turned and kicked his legs, knocking some of the zombies back. He rolled over onto his left side feeling nausea enter him as if through the hot pavement. Then he began to crawl backward, pulling with his left elbow, supporting himself with his right palm, and kicking away with his feet. His eyes searched for the sword, then found it.
“Damned be you denizens of the underworld,” Milt managed to splutter as he crawled away. He had spotted the sword, and the zombies had already overtaken it, stumbling dumbly over it while their gnarled hands reached for Milt’s body, while their mouths opened and closed, jaws creaking. That was the first time Milt noticed the creaking of their jaws, and he found it more than a little off-putting.
Then, obviously angered by Milt’s clever affront, the zombies clamored for him with more fervor, and then they had him.
The feel of the zombie’s cold, raggedy hand on Sven’s bare ankle was unsettling. Sven was wearing no-show socks and regretting it. Even a thin layer of sock between the tattered hand and Sven’s skin would’ve made it a little less uncomfortable, but Sven didn’t own long socks, ever since that day at summer camp when one of the counselors had explained that long socks, especially when they are pulled up, create a nerdy look—a look that invites teasing and bullying.
Well, Sven thought, the cool socks I’m wearing didn’t keep this bully away. Nope, not at all.
And the hand, it felt so horrible as he struggled against it, its skin stretched and crackled each time he tried to pull his leg away, and he imagined sinew and coagulated blood lumping up against each other and tearing. The hand just wouldn’t let go. The grip on his ankle was almost as vise-like as Lars’s grip on Sven’s wrist had been. Why did they always have to grab wrists and ankles? What was that about?
Sven struggled against the grip, twisting his leg in the dim aisle, pulling on the shelves with his hands, trying to get away. But the monster wouldn’t let go. As Sven pulled himself back, the zombie came with him, and to make matters worse, the zombie was pulling itself up, and its open mouth—Sven could see it was full of half-broken, shattered teeth—was getting closer to Sven’s exposed leg.
Then Sven heard the door bing-bong again, and he was sure it was all over. He couldn’t help but think of the ridiculousness of the scene, and of the fact that if he hadn’t risked his life trying to help Evan, he might have survived. But he didn’t regret a thing.
With an eye toward the open door, now bing-bonging out of control, Sven kept pulling.
The bing-bong caught Lorie off guard, and she paused in the drugstore’s doorway for a second. Then she heard a muffled voice say, “Get your rotting hand off me,” followed by a grunt. She tiptoed quickly over past two aisles until she found the voice’s owner. It was Sven, and she had come just in time.
For a moment, Lorie was too surprised to act, and it didn’t help that she was holding her breath and the lights were off. Why were the lights off? Was that really necessary? It was like one of those stupid movies where everything is always going wrong. She looked down and saw Sven—she was pretty sure it was him—on the floor, wearing a surgical mask, wearing sneakers but no pants, and trying to wriggle away from—
Lorie saw the zombie on the ground, and even in the weak light she could make out the thing’s smashed teeth, trying to find their way into Sven’s leg. Sven was reaching for something—the sledgehammer.
She picked it up—barely. The thing must have weighed a hundred pounds, and she had watched Sven swing it around like it was a tennis racquet. It took all of her strength to lift the sledgehammer just five inches off the ground. But, she decided, that was all the vertical lift she needed for what she was about to do.
“Lorie? Is that you? What are you doing here?”
“Saving your life,” Lorie said, and brought the sledgehammer straight down onto the zombie’s forearm, just above the wrist. She was using the sledgehammer like a plunger, smashing, bringing it back up, and smashing again. She made her way through the zombie’s forearm, crushing and splintering bones, and pulverizing the muscle and skin. It didn’t take long, even with the paralysis that she felt slowly seeping into her.
After six or seven crushing blows, the bones connecting the zombie’s wrist and forearm were crushed, and after another six or seven, the zombie’s hand hung off the rest of the arm by a few disgusting strands of skin and tendon. Lorie kicked them away, Sven stood up, and the two of them retreated from the crawling zombie.
Lorie was breathing in shallow huffs, and her arms and upper back were burning from handling the sledgehammer. It had gotten even heavier in her hands, but she wouldn’t let go, still holding it with the head facing down and in front of her.
She looked at Sven. He was staring at her, wide-eyed and unblinking, but she couldn’t read the rest of his expression behind his surgical mask.
“What? What is it?”
Sven blinked. “Nothing,” His voice was muffled from behind the mask. “Nothing. Let’s go, let’s get out of here.”
He reached for the sledgehammer and Lorie gratefully gave it to him. Then he picked up some packages from the floor of the aisle and a few pill bottles.
“Is that all we need?” Lorie asked.
“I think so, and it’s all we can manage right now. Come on.”
Lorie and Sven bing-bonged out the door, Sven in the lead. She couldn’t help but notice the man’s legs. They were humongous. Hugiferous is what the boys at school would have called them. His hamstrings and calves were thick with muscle. Especially his hamstrings—they looked like rippling, layered sheets of power. They weren’t runner’s hamstrings, but they were awe-inspiring. Lorie knew it wasn’t the time to be looking at such things, but she couldn’t help noticing how Sven’s legs looked like an explosion of muscle mass out of his boxer shorts.
No wonder the zombies want him, she thought, with all that protein he carries on his body. She stifled a grin, and followed the incredible hulk out. When she peeked out from behind him, she knew that they were still in deep trouble.
Sven was shielding the girl with his body. She had just saved his life, this little girl who couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds at the most. Her doggedness in freeing Sven was almost disturbing. Sven didn’t think he would ever forget the look on Lorie’s face as she pounded away at the zombie’s forearm, crushing it into a dry pulp. The unforgettable mental images were really building up that day.
And things had just gotten a whole lot worse. There were at least thirty zombies outside, and it was as if they had been waiting there politely, because they weren’t blocking the door to the drugstore, and they didn’t attack as soon as Sven and Lorie got outside. Instead, the zombies milled about in a wide undead arc that closed off the only two possible escape routes back to the fence—the way around the side of the hibachi restaurant, and the way around the side of the fireworks stand. Sven and Lorie were blocked in, trapped. Sven raised the sledgehammer menacingly, but he didn’t know what he could do with it against so large a group of undead.
“In there,” Lorie said, and Sven turned to the girl. She was pointing at the door of the hibachi restaurant with one hand and pinching her nose with the other. He thought about unwrapping one of the surgical masks for her, but they needed to get to safety first.
“Right,” Sven said, and he fell in step behind Lorie, who was already crossing the short distance from the still bing-bonging door of the drugstore to the door of the hibachi restaurant. From within the drugstore, Sven could see shuffling movement in the dark, and just before he and Lorie got inside the hibachi restaurant, the arc of undead began to move toward them, as if they had been waiting for Sven and Lorie’s next move.
Once Sven was inside, Lorie said, “We have to block off the door with something,” and she was right. Lorie began to pull on a table.
“Here,” Sven said, “put one of these on first,” and he put his surgical mask packages down on the table and gave one to Lorie.
She wrinkled her nose at the wrapped object. “I guess that’ll do better than me running around pinching my nose. It helps against the smell?”
Sven nodded, and pushed the table up against the door while Lorie fiddled with the surgical mask’s wrapper. When Sven turned back the mask was on, hiding most of her expressive face.
“Now we match,” she said, and that’s when Sven noticed what she was carrying.
“Have you had that with you the whole time?”
“What this?” Lorie pulled the thing out of her pocket. “I picked this up before I went in looking for you. Thought it might be useful.” The girl’s eyes seemed to be completing a grin beneath her mask. “Or at least fun. Just because the world is ending or whatever doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have any more fun, right?”
“Right.” Sven smiled under his mask. They were in a tight spot, but he was glad it was her in there with him. She had a sense of humor. Maybe later, when they got somewhere safe—if there were any safe places left—they could light up that firework that Lorie had grabbed and watch it explode, announcing their triumph over the zombies…or mark humankind’s passage into extinction.
“So,” Sven said, “now that we’re in here, what’s the plan?”
“Well there’s gotta be a back door or something. All restaurants have back doors.”
“Sounds good to me.” Sven pointed to the table they had put in front of the door. “The door opens out, so if those things suddenly remember how to pull on doors and climb over hip-high tables, we might be trouble.”
“I think we might be in trouble anyway.”
Sven turned around, and saw that some of the staff of the restaurant had joined the ranks of the undead. Two hibachi chef zombies were stumbling toward him and Lorie.
“Is that all?” Sven asked. “We can take them.”
Lorie nodded and said, “At least the lights are on in here,” and they began to approach the hibachi chefs.
A knife gleamed on one of the cooking tables. Sven picked the knife up, and with a whipping motion he flung it at the closest hibachi chef, mimicking the motion he had seen countless times in the movies.
The knife spun through the air as Sven had intended. The knife hit the hibachi chef in the chest, and that was where reality diverged from Hollywood fantasy. The butt-end of the knife hit the chef, and the knife bounced off and fell to ground, clattering.
“Not quite how they do it in the movies,” Sven said, and shrugged.
Then, before Sven could stop her, Lorie dashed toward the chef, picked up the knife that had fallen to the ground, lunged forward, and stabbed upward through the zombie chef’s throat, plunging the knife all the way in, up to its black plastic handle. The zombie fell backward, losing its chef hat and clutching at the air one final time.
Sven dropped the surgical mask packages and pill bottles, and under his mask, his mouth fell open. Jesus! Who was this girl? Sven didn’t know what to do next, he almost felt afraid of Lorie.
“But,” Lorie said, “like in the movies, you gotta get them in the brain. Good thing that was a long knife.”
“Uhh, beh,” Sven stammered. Good thing that was a long knife? He was speechless.
Lorie put her hands on her hips. “Well? Come on, let’s go.”
Sven picked up the things he had dropped and an idea occurred to him. “Hey, about what you just said—the having fun part.”
“How would you like to blow this place up?”
Jane stood next to the car stewing. She couldn’t believe that Lorie had run off like that. The girl was going to get hurt, or worse. Jane had run after her, trying to stop her, but Lorie was so fast, and then she was on the other side of the gate, running around those things, and Jane had Evan and the car to look after and—
Jane took a deep breath. What’s done is done, she told herself. She poured some of Sven’s water on some paper towels from the trunk and dabbed at Evan’s forehead. She had taken the boy outside after parking the car close to the fence, hoping the fresh air might revive him some, but it hadn’t. Now she was starting to think she should put him back in the car. She just didn’t know what to do with him, didn’t know how to make him better.
The paper towels seemed to fill with steam as soon as they made contact with his skin. Jane was worried about the boy, and she had already been worried about Sven, and now that Lorie had run off, well, she was worried about everyone. And all she could do was sit there and mind the car and the sick boy propped up against the rear door. She had to. Someone had to.
Though she was mad that Lorie had run off, Jane had to admire the girl’s bravery. Jane didn’t think she would have done that when she was Lorie’s age. Jane wasn’t sure she would do it now, but then again, things always seemed different when you were younger, and maybe this whole thing wasn’t that scary to Lorie, at least not the way it was to Jane. But that didn’t really make sense either. Jane decided that the girl had guts, and settled on that.
“Why aren’t they back yet?” Jane asked.
Evan didn’t respond, and Jane shuddered at the reminder of the non-responsive Vicky she had encountered that morning. She was still there—Vicky—still standing in the kitchen perhaps, looking out onto Lewis Mountain Road, in the house that they had shared. Jane didn’t think she could ever go back there now, could ever live there again after what had happened there, after what she had done. She had gotten drunk and fork-stabbed her roommate. Yes, it was true that her roommate had become a zombie, but gulping down wine and fork-stabbing her, had that really been called for? Who the hell did that—zombie plague or no?
She shot a nervous glance at the gas gauge. She had been eyeing the gauge constantly, watching the boy one second and looking through the rolled-down window at the dashboard the next. The car was very close to empty, the boy was surely dying, and Ivan was hissing at her like it was going out of style. Jane was sure that she had never been this stressed out before, and she wished with all of her being that she could rewind the day and go to her stupid, boring accounting job where the term “zombie” was a joke to refer to co-workers.
Jane had given some thought to turning the car off to save gas, but she had decided against it each time, telling herself that Sven would only be another minute longer. Then after Lorie had left, Jane kept telling herself they would be back any second, and it was certainly not a good idea to turn the car off at this point. She was afraid of running out of gas, and of the car not starting back up. But Sven and Lorie were taking so long. It had been over twenty minutes. What the hell were they doing over there? They were just supposed to get something to knock down the boy’s fever, and there was a drugstore right next to the restaurant.
The fact that they were taking so long meant that they were in trouble. They had to be, there was no other explanation Jane could think of.
The way Jane saw it, she had three choices, three ways to deal with the situation, and they were all bad. First, she could call out to Sven and Lorie through the gate. Maybe they would hear her, and maybe not. Whether or not Sven and Lorie heard, the zombies would, and Jane was sure they would be attracted to the noise. There was something that attracted the creatures to people. It could’ve been in the way non-zombie people smelled, or in the way they moved, or in the sounds they made. It could’ve been all three or some combination. Even if noise didn’t attract the things, Jane wasn’t going to risk it. If she yelled for Sven and Lorie, the zombies would come, and they would block the gate, and then Sven and Lorie wouldn’t be able to get to the car.
Jane had tried using her phone to call Sven, but that was no use, it just kept giving her that same stupid message about the circuits being busy, and she wasn’t sure he’d taken his phone anyway. It was good that she had kept his number in her phone though. She had thought about erasing it, to make a clean break and all that, but he did live on her block and she did want to stay friends. It wasn’t as if she was going to move away just because they broke up, and it wasn’t as if she was going to get drunk and call him just because she kept his number in her phone—although she had—but that wasn’t the point. It was good that she still had his number because at some point in this calamity the circuits might unbusy themselves and the phone could become a lifeline. Jane sighed. That point was settled, there was no way for her to contact the rest of the gang—that was how she was beginning to think of their little group, and she hoped there was still a gang to think of when this was all over.
Second, Jane could go searching for them. She could put Evan in the backseat, take the keys, lock the car, and go through the gate. But Ivan wouldn’t have that. It seemed the cat wanted to tear the boy apart, although he wouldn’t come close enough to do it. She was uncomfortable about leaving the two alone together even if that had been a real option, and it wasn’t. She couldn’t leave the boy. She had a bad feeling about him for all the obvious reasons, but she couldn’t just leave him to die alone, and—she caught herself being too dismissive—he wasn’t dead yet, he might still pull through. And she had no weapons. If she did get through the sporadic clumps of zombies on the other side of the fence, how would she help Sven and Lorie if they were in trouble? She would likely just make matters worse. No, leaving the boy and cat alone in their getaway vehicle was not an option.
Then there was the third option.
The only option.
Jane opened the rear door and placed the boy on the back seat, ignoring Ivan’s spitting protests and wondering why options always seemed to run in threes. She closed the door and stepped back into the field.
She looked up at the sky to the north, in the direction they were traveling—assuming they ever got back on track. There were dark storm clouds in that direction, and they were heading south, toward her.
She took a deep breath, opened the driver’s side door and climbed in. She closed the door and rolled up the window.
“Shut up Ivan will you?”
Ivan quieted his hissing.
“I’m sorry, I don’t want to yell, I just—it’s a bad day okay? Please be nice.”
Ivan lowered his head and meowed, making Jane feel even worse about yelling at him. She wished this nightmare would end. How could it even be happening in the first place?
Probably some damn government experiment in biological warfare gone wrong. Or a terrorist attack.
Damn people, she thought, damn them all to hell.
Jane put her foot on the brake and shifted the car into drive. Then she gently released the brake, and drove away.
This is it, Milt thought, the honorable death of the greatest warrior that ever graced the universe with his most generous presence.
Death at the rotten hands of the zombies. At least it was an interesting way to die. Then terror overtook him, and gone were his deliberations over the comparative merits of the various means by which a person may meet death.
Their hands were clamped so tightly, so firmly, around his ankles, and no matter how hard he kicked or pulled or tried to crawl backward, the undead talons that held him wouldn’t yield.
Milt was overcome by a sudden mourning when it occurred to him he might never consume another Snickers bar, or quench his thirst with the delightful sparkle of Coca-Cola. That was the worst thing of all, because whether he died or was transformed into a zombie, the worldly delights of food and drink would become forever off-limits. He was sure that zombies didn’t eat…that they couldn’t eat, except of humans. He figured that if they did still have the capacity to eat human food, they would be doing so now, instead of trying to eat Milt. If only they could still know the pleasure of sticky peanuts and nougat and caramel and if—
There was a thud, and then a crunch, and Milt’s eyes darted up to see a zombie’s head explode into a spray of eyes and nose and teeth and brain…desiccated solids but no blood. Then there was another thud and another crunch—crunchier this time—and another head turned into a vile spray of its shattered component parts. Milt recalled the destroyed Commodore 64 lying in its spray of electronic innards, and didn’t feel the bite of loss he had before. Then another head exploded, and another.
The pull on Milt’s legs lessened, and he saw that the zombies who were holding him in their undead grasp were all headless—headless but still holding on, relentless. No…wait, they were falling backward, away from him. They were dead, and they couldn’t let go because their hands weren’t working anymore. But what had made their heads explode? Was it divine providence intervening on Milt’s behalf so that he may live out his glorious destiny? It must—
“Are you okay?” came a voice next to Milt’s head. “Damn they’re still holding on, let me see if I can get the hands off.”
Milt turned in surprise to see that a man was there, and in his hands he held a baseball bat. The bat looked like it had seen better days. It was splattered with a generous coating of zombie gobbets of all shapes and sizes. Milt was quite confident that there was an eyeball on it, flattened down so that it looked like an imperfect square with a shriveled and twisted optic nerve hanging from the back. At the end of the optic nerve was a warped brain globule. Milt didn’t know if that was the right terminology for it, but it seemed correct enough. The globule stared at him, and made him extremely uncomfortable, but it also gave him an idea.
He waited until the globule was out of sight, along with the bat it rode in on, and then executed his plan. The man with the bat had lifted it over his head like a woodchopper ready to strike at the decapitated zombie’s arms…and, that was when Milt commenced his globule-inspired maneuver.
He pushed himself up on his left elbow as far as he could go and shifted the great bulk of his big-boned back to the right, trying to rock over onto his right side. It took two attempts, and he was there. Then, putting all of his strength into it, Milt pushed off his right side, twisting his body back to the left.
The maneuver went exactly as Milt had intended. His legs fluttered around as he rolled over, and the torque exacted on the zombies’ arms was too much for their brittle undead bodies to handle. There were snaps and cracks and a sound similar to that which paper makes when it is ripped, and Milt was free. He kept rolling until he came to rest against the side of a car.
The headless zombies that had held him now had torn bits of sinew sticking out where their arms and forearms had once been. The front of the zombie line was destroyed, and Milt was, at least temporarily, out of harm’s way.
The baseball bat man went at the rest of them, dispatching the remaining five zombies with precisely aimed blows to the head. They all fell, decapitated or mostly so, to the pavement.
And then there were none.
Milt propped himself up on one elbow. He looked down and was filled with disgust when he saw that around his ankles and lower shins, detached zombie hands still held firm to him. There were five hands in all—two on his left leg and three on his right—and two of the hands were barely hands at all, they were torn up to the point of only having two fingers apiece, and bits of bone and tendon where the backs of the hands and wrists should have been.
The other three hands were relatively whole, but they were coming apart in a fleshy, wiry mess. It was a revolting sight.
Cringing, Milt looked away and at the man with the baseball bat. The man had on flip-flops, blue shorts, a yellow polo, and a University of Virginia baseball cap pulled low on his head. He was panting, and his eyes were darting among the zombie bodies, as if looking to see if any of them still posed a threat.
“Are you in league with the damned, or are you as yet uncontaminated?” Milt shouted. “If you are in league with the ill-fated zombies, you shall meet the edge of my proud blade.”
That reminded Milt. Where was said blade? Milt looked around for it but didn’t see it. Then he spotted its hilt, covered in his own dried blood, the chocolate coating no longer visible. The sword stuck out from under a mangle of zombie parts.
“What? I just helped you get away from those things, of course I’m not with them. I’m human, not bitten or anything. See?” The man brushed his short sleeves upward to reveal his upper arms, then picked his t-shirt up, revealing a midsection devoid of any visible fat. “See? No bites, still human.”
What a show-off, Milt thought. “Well, that is fine, but be more careful next time, there are zombies about, as you may have guessed.”
“Yes, you are welcome to join me in my quest. You may be my squire. You may call me Miltimore the Mighty.”
Milt stuck out his hand to the man, who was obviously some sort of simpleton, but that was alright. It wasn’t a day to be exceedingly selective in one’s alliances.
The man looked at Milt’s hand and shook his head. “We’ll shake later, looks like you got a lot of blood there, and I’m not taking any chances today. Oh, and you’re bleeding pretty good from your head.”
“I am certainly not infected. What is your name, young squire?”
“My name is Brian.” Brian seemed to be speaking slowly, like he had some kind of learning impediment. “And you’re being really weird. I think you have heat stroke. Let’s get out of the sun and take care of that wound.”
“Very well. That will do. Allow me to retrieve my sword first.”
After getting to his feet, Milt trundled to the pile of destroyed zombies, eagerly inhaled their aroma, bent over, and clasped the hilt of the sword. He pulled, and with the sword came a spray of zombie bits, and with the spray, a resurgence of the wonderful smell.
Then Milt began to lumber after Brian, who was already walking toward a patch of shade underneath some trees at the edge of the parking lot. As he lumbered, Milt pictured himself an agile stalker, returning from a victorious battle in which he had saved his cowardly squire.
“I’ve got a first aid kid in my car,” Brian said. “I think there are bandages in there. Why don’t you sit down and rest for a moment?”
“I must confess that is not a bad idea.” Coca-Cola bottles were dancing in Milt’s head. “Do you have any means of carbonated refreshment in your vehicle?”
“Are you not aware of fizzy, carbonated refreshment? I believe in your world they sometimes refer to it as pop.”
“Pop? No, I don’t drink that stuff.”
“You don’t drink the nectar of the gods? What is wrong with you man?” Milt was beginning to huff and puff in disbelief, and he wanted to go back to the smattered pile of dead zombies, to prod and poke at them, and to be engulfed in their sublime aroma.
“You really need to try to stay out of the sun, and it’s understandable if you’ve had a bit of a shock. Just try to calm down, if you can I mean. I’m freaking out myself. I mean can you believe what’s going on? It’s crazy, just plain crazy.”
Milt pondered on that. “I stipulate that it is not crazy. I stipulate that it is the next stage in evolution.” Then Milt added with distaste, “Our evolution.” He knew it was really his own evolution to which he was referring, and not Brian’s. But even Milt had to admit to himself that he could not foretell what was to come, and Brian, in his role as squire, might grow to become an admirable servant.
“If you mean like a disease or something,” Brian said, “I guess you could put it that way, yeah. Do you think that’s what it is? A disease?”
“Perhaps, that seems to be a logical conclusion.”
Brian knelt beside Milt’s heaving body. Milt saw that Brian had gauze, a little spray bottle, and some tubes of ointment in his hands.
Milt was suspicious at once. “What are you doing?”
“I’m bandaging you up, remember? You’re bleeding all over the place, and for all we know that’ll attract more of those things.”
Milt didn’t feel like he was bleeding all over the place, but when he looked down he saw that the left side of his shirt was covered in blood. He turned his head to look at his shoulder and flinched at the pain. The left shoulder of his t-shirt was sopping with blood, and Milt felt light-headed at the very sight of it. The sudden wave of light-headedness made him realize that he had begun to get dizzy some time ago. Maybe the squire was right about the heat stroke. After all, Milt did try to avoid the sun at all costs. It had never been a friend to his particular constitution.
“Now turn your head and keep still for a minute,” Brian said. “I don’t think it’s serious, or even deep. The scalp tends to bleed a lot with even a small cut.”
Milt reluctantly obeyed. “Are you a medical man then?” Milt didn’t want a lecture about the size of his body. Doctors—back when he had gone to them—always lectured him about his diet and weight loss. But they knew nothing of his accomplishments, they were ignorant fools, just looking to be paid for nothing more than lecturing him.
“No, not really,” Brian said. “I used to be an EMT, so I’ve seen worse.”
“Worse than the zombie apocalypse in which we now find ourselves?”
“No, I mean worse than the cut on your head. Just hold still a minute.”
Milt felt a spray of water behind his ear and liquid dribbled down his head and onto his shoulder. Then Brian was dabbing warm ointment out of a wrinkled tube on Milt’s cut, and then the bandaging began. Milt watched as Brian ripped off a piece of gauze from its roll and brought it up toward Milt’s head.
“Ow!” Milt yelled, feeling a searing pain as Brian plastered the gauze into place on top of the ointment. “Please be more careful, I am quite fragile.”
“Oh grow up, it’s barely a nick.” Then Brian was unrolling a bandage. He began to wrap it around Milt’s head.
“Are you really going to wrap that thing all the way around my head? I’m going to look ridiculous.”
“Sorry, I gotta do it. The gauze won’t stay in place by itself.”
So Milt let Brian finish, but he wasn’t sure he believed the man’s claims.
“There,” Brian said. “All done.”
Then Brian plopped himself down next to Milt and began to hum a tune Milt found annoying, but Milt was too tired and his head pulsed too much for him to care to reprimand Brian.
Milt looked down and was again filled with revulsion, although the revulsion now seemed to be colored by a certain kind of respect for the zombies. Their very bodies were an example of doggedness—they did not let go even in death, even after their appendages had been severed from the rest of their bodes.
“Now, good sir,” Milt said, “if you please, would you be so kind as to remove those feelers from my lower regions?” He pointed down at the tattered, once human hands.
Brian chuckled. “You really must have had a shock. Yeah, of course I’ll help.” He began to pry off the fingers, and after a few minutes of struggling with the hands that seemed intent on holding on forever, Brian was able to remove them. He got up, threw the destroyed hands into the nearby woods, returned, and sat down next to Milt again.
“Thank you,” Milt said. “I appreciate your efforts.”
“You got it. Looks like we’ll be alright here for a little while. I don’t see any others coming.”
Milt was glad to hear that Brian was taking to his role. Brian was using the word “we” to refer to the two of them. Milt might whip his squire into shape yet. Milt told himself it was vital, in dealing with subordinates, to never run out of tasks to give them, so he began to rack his brain for an assignment to give to Brian. He didn’t have to rack long, as there was a whole slew of desires waggling their beckoning fingers at Milt.
“Will you be so kind as to fetch me a pop, as you call it? I am quite sure that yonder store has a most plenteous supply of Coca-Cola.” Milt pointed a shaking mitt at the Wegmans across the parking lot. He needed some Coca-Cola. That would help soothe the pulsing in his skull.
The squire suddenly smiled and said, “Hey, do you play Dungeons and Dragons or something? Is that why you talk like that?”
Milt gasped. “Excuse me? How dare you presume such a thing? I most certainly do not play Dungeons and Dragons or something. That travesty of a pastime went out of favor years ago. I am a World of Warcraft player—the greatest in the world. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I am called Miltimore the Sword-Wielder, but of course you may call me Miltimore the Mighty, if you so wish. I should add that I speak the King’s English, pity you have not heard of it…I can detect that quite well.”
Brian nodded. “Right. It’s all starting to make sense. You probably dress up and go to conventions and stuff. I’ve heard about people like you…my ex-roommate, he had a friend, and he would always dress up like this Greek god, or Roman, I don’t know, I forget the name, but he would wear a—
“I most certainly do not dress up. Please refrain from categorizing me alongside those lunatics.”
“Okay, okay. Tell you what. I’ll call you Milt, you’ll call me Brian, and we try to survive this whole mess. Then each of us can go back to our lives, and, to top it all off, we might be famous. Then your story will be told and known the world over. Milti—how did you say it?”
“Right, you’ll have your fame, we’ll be alive, and everything will be fine.”
“Foolish optimism, but that is forgivable in your case, you are young and no doubt misguided, as is the rest of the youth.”
Milt sighed. “Never mind, never mind. I suspect that you are simply bursting to regale me with your life story. Though I am sure it will be quite a stale account, you may nevertheless proceed.”
“My life story? No…but you’re lucky I woke up when I did. I was napping in here—” Brian jerked a thumb back at the car they were leaning against, “—and then there was all this noise, and I woke up, and there you were, on the ground about to get torn up by those zombies.”
“Excuse me? I most certainly was not about to be torn up by any zombies. I was doing just fine on my own. I was toying with them you see, and I was just about to banish them from this realm, and they…wait a second, you were sleeping in your car? What is wrong with you? Are you homeless or something? I am not sure that will do at all.”
“You’re worse off than I thought.” Brian opened one of his rear doors and began rummaging in the mess back there.
“What are you doing? I say now, apprise me of what it is you are searching for back there.”
“Here,” Brian said, handing Milt a bottle of water. Brian closed the car door and sat back down next to Milt. “Drink that, it’ll make you feel better. Just don’t drink it too quickly, you might get sick.”
“I most certainly shall not,” Milt said grudgingly, but took the bottle anyway, intending to use its contents topically, to cool his body.
“And no, I’m not homeless…I was just tired. It was a long night and I stopped by here some time around two or three in the morning, and—”
Milt couldn’t believe it. “You have been asleep in your car here since last night? We are well into the afternoon now. I must say, I do fear for my safety being in your presence. Do you have a home, or is your vehicle your regular abode? It is not even a trailer.”
“I have a place, I was just passing through, and it was late, and Wegmans has a great selection, I’m sure you know that…I needed some snacks. So I stopped, but then when I got out Wegmans was closed already, so I went back to my car, and then I got really sleepy and passed out.” He shrugged.
Milt looked at Brian dubiously. “You live around here then?”
The simpleton looked uneasy for a second. “No, not here. I was just passing through last night. I live in Charlottesville.”
Now Milt was suspicious. “That’s a long journey from here. What are you doing here?”
“I’m here on business.”
“And what, please be so kind as to enlighten me, is it that you do as your so-called business?”
Brian seemed to hesitate, not answering right away, and that added to Milt’s suspicions. “I’m a delivery boy I guess. It’s no EMT job, but I do alright. What do you do?”
“My spider sense informs me that you are trying to change the subject. We shall get to what it is that I do in but a moment. Please elucidate the nature of your delivery business for me. What sort of goods do you deliver, and to whom do you deliver said goods?” Milt’s stomach must have reacted to hearing him say the word “goods,” because he felt a pang of hunger at its utterance. The hunger began to gnaw away at his stomach, which at that moment could have had no more than a few remaining scraps of nougat and caramel to transfigure into the energy which Milt’s brain and body required to function.
“I deliver nutritional supplements—protein bars, protein powders, amino acids, acai, goji berries, cat’s claw, you name it, I get it and deliver it. Coconut water is getting really big right now—coconut water with acai in it too.”
“Nutritional supplements you say? A likely story. Would one of those nutritional supplements happen to go by the name of marijuana?”
“Weed? No, I don’t sell drugs, just supplements.”
“So you rationalize your crimes away by re-categorizing a drug as a supplement?”
“What? I don’t see what you’re getting at.”
“You mean to tell me you weren’t high on your weed when you stopped here last night for snacks? I’ve seen a documentary or three about people such as you. I know about the cravings.”
“Well, I didn’t say I never touched the stuff, just that I don’t sell—”
“Aha! I have caught you, you felonious scoundrel. But do not fret, admitting that you are a ravenous scourge is the first step in overcoming your darker nature, we have made a great deal of progress already.”
“I don’t sell drugs!”
“Liar! The untruth of your statement is plain. I can see it in your criminal eyes.”
“I’m not a criminal.”
“Oh,” Milt began to lament, “he states that simply because he has not been caught he is not a criminal. What a poor misguided wretch. It is obvious you have been sent to me for a reason. I will be your guide in escaping your dastardly past. This is the zombie apocalypse. It is a time for change if ever there was one.”
“Dude you need to lighten up, for real.”
“Don’t lose hope, my young ignoble squire, you will pull through. I have the utmost belief in you.”
That satisfied Milt. He had done his job to admonish the drug dealer, and at Milt’s incontrovertible mandate, Brian was sure to reform. Milt’s good work was done, and it was time to eat.
Brian was beginning to stammer something, but Milt cut him off. “Do you have any sustenance remaining in your vehicle that you would be so kind as to share with me? It seems that I am overcome by hunger, and yet I do not think it is the time to venture into Wegmans just yet.”
“Yeah, I got some stuff, I’ll check, nothing I like, no good Wegmans snacks anyway.” Brian opened the driver’s side door of his car, half-sat in it, and started rummaging around up front.
“Here,” Brian said, offering Milt a packet of sunflower seeds. “That’s all I’ve got—two packs of those and the other one’s for me. I need my strength too. They’re my emergency rations. I hate sunflower seeds, so I keep ‘em knowing I won’t eat them unless I really have to.”
Milt took the packet with a harrumph, he was certain he had seen Brian look disdainfully at his belly.
A judgmental drug dealer, Milt thought, how ludicrous.
“Don’t you have anything else?” Milt asked as he tore open the packet. “Anything with chocolate or peanuts…a Snickers bar perhaps? Or at the very least a Milky Way and a packet of salty peanuts?”
Milt began munching on the seeds, hoping that it would make him feel better. He hadn’t felt anything like this shade of terrible since the last time he ventured out in the daylight, and even then he hadn’t been outside this long. This was much worse, he needed to get inside into some air conditioning, but he wasn’t ready to move yet. His field of vision had begun to spin violently, probably spurred on by the tightness of the bandage around his head.
“No, I don’t eat stuff like that much, sorry. Let’s just go over to the Wegmans and we can get a whole bunch of stuff.”
“Not yet, let’s give it a few minutes.”
“Why don’t you wanna go into Wegmans now? It’s probably where we’ll be safest, no? The skies sure don’t look friendly right now, those clouds are fixing to soak us real good if we keep sitting out here.”
“I think the tree above us will do,” Milt said, spraying half-chewed sunflower seeds out of his mouth. “We should not go poking around the Wegmans just yet. I am still indisposed, and need my rest before we continue. Furthermore, there are sure to be more zombies inside the Wegmans. We need to formulate a plan before we go in there. I am familiar with that particular store, and its sprawling layout contains many hiding places for the flesh-hungry.”
Brian nodded. “Okay, I guess that makes sense. You actually think it’s safer out here though? I mean we’ll need food and water soon anyway, and we’ll have to go in.”
Milt was annoyed now, but he wasn’t going to tell Brian the real reason he wanted to remain seated. Milt’s head was spinning faster and faster. He attributed this to the sudden interruption of his feeding regimen, and until the spinning passed, he didn’t think he would be able to move his great bulk anywhere at all.
He swallowed the rest of the sunflower seeds, crumpled the pack, and threw it on the ground next to him. “You don’t see any of the damned wandering out among the cars, now do you? We will be fine out here, and we will move into the supermarket once I have formulated a way of doing so. You can trust that I am going through scenarios in my head at this very moment, and my calculations are not yet complete. If you desist in your interruptions, I stand a chance of finishing more quickly.”
“Alright, if you say so. I’ll keep a look out for the zombies…feels weird using that word to talk about what’s actually happening.”
Milt gave Brian a cold look, hoping to silence him. Brian shrugged, picked up his baseball bat, and began to pace while he kept watch.
At first, Brian paced back and forth in front of Milt, apparently ignorant of Milt’s annoyed glares. Then Milt found a sunflower seed in a fold under his tongue and spit it out at Brian, hitting Brian’s shorts. The seed stuck there, cemented by spit. Brian noticed, and rather than saying anything, he shifted his pacing over to the other side of the car.
Some time later, Milt began to feel better, a little bit more like himself. His head wasn’t spinning quite as much, and the pain behind his ear had lessened.
“I am well enough now, I believe, let us proceed,” Milt said, letting it slip.
“So you are ill! I thought so. Is that why you didn’t want to head over? You can’t get up?”
“That’s not the reason at all.”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Let us journey now.” Milt reached for the sword next to him, and tried to make his way up onto his feet.
“Here,” Brian said, offering both of his hands, “grab on to me.”
Reluctantly, Milt accepted Brian’s help, and just as Milt was most of the way to vertical, there was a blinding flash of light, followed immediately by a violent thunderclap. Startled, Milt fell backward, plopping to the ground, and bringing Brian down with him.
“Get off me!” Milt yelled. In addition to the discomfort of having the drug dealer wriggling on top of him, Milt felt a very uncomfortable change of pressure in the air, like his ears needed to pop.
Brian kept struggling, apparently trying to get off Milt, but whenever Brian’s hands pushed, they sunk deeper into Milt’s generous flesh.
Clearly the man is playing games, Milt thought.
Finally, Milt gave Brian a push and the squire flew backward, toppling to the pavement. Milt opened his mouth and yawned, but his ears wouldn’t pop, and the uncomfortable feeling didn’t go away.
“Thanks,” Brian said as he got up, “I was kinda stuck there.”
Milt nodded distractedly, because he was staring at the smoldering pavement not more than a few car lengths away.
Brian turned to look too, and he turned pale when he saw where Milt was looking.
“If we were on a wet field,” Brian said, “we’d be dead. Probably lucky to be alive at all. Zombies and lightning, how do you like that?”
“It is just a coincidence.”
“I don’t know.”
“That is just the drugs talking.”
“For the last time—” Brian began, but another flash of lightning and its accompanying thunderclap drowned out his words.
Brian ran back to where Milt was and crouched next to him. The lightning had struck farther away this time.
“Do not get too close to me now,” Milt said. “I am sensitive about physical contact.”
Brian sidled over a few inches. Milt looked over, and saw that his squire’s eyes were wide with what seemed to be horror, staring intently at the spot where lightning had struck moments before.
Milt thought about saying something to reassure the simpleton, but before he could formulate an uplifting speech, the rain began.
The sky opened up, and great sheets of rain hurtled downward as if catapulted to the earth by a great, water-launching giant.
“Now that,” Brian said, voice trembling, “that’s something else.”
Milt didn’t say anything, because he was watching the kind of deluge that he had only read of in comic books. Though he had told Brian the storm was only a coincidence, Milt knew that it wasn’t. It was another sign telling Milt that his destiny was coming for him, and he had a feeling that at that very moment, his destiny was gathering itself up to draw closer.
He gripped the hilt of the sword. The blood was washing off it now, made wet by the droplets that passed through the thick tree cover above. The droplets cooled Milt’s overheating flesh, and he felt overjoyed and more rejuvenated with each little plop of cool wetness.
He hadn’t known it before, but rain was quite a pleasant thing.
Milt closed his eyes, belched, and understood that he was a flesh and blood comic book hero.
“Would I?” Lorie said, her heart leaping up into her throat. “You pretty much read my mind! I’ll get some matches.” Lorie walked back to the restaurant’s entrance, thinking that this muscle guy really got her, picked up a few packs of matches, and put them in her pocket, but not in the same pocket as the firework.
Sven nodded. “Okay, let’s check to make sure we have a way out of here first, then we’ll turn the gas on.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“Your one hundred pound hammer for one thing, and that second chef zombie.”
Lorie watched Sven pick up the hammer, his legs flexing, and flexing and rippling even more when he lifted it over his head and smashed the second zombie chef’s head.
Maybe that’s how you’re supposed to do it, she thought, put your legs into it.
Lorie told herself she would remember to lift with her legs—she had heard the boys at school say that before—the next time she had to use a sledgehammer, if there was a next time.
The zombie with the crushed head fell against a wall and onto the ground. Lorie felt a tinge of regret at that. She had really enjoyed stabbing that first one. Or was it more appropriate to call what she had done skewering? It had been a long knife…a very long knife. She smiled.
Oh well, she thought, it was nice to watch too.
“So what do you reckon that’s called?” Lorie said. “Hammering? Sledging? Or sledgehammering?”
“Uhh, I’m not sure.”
“I like sledging. Can we call it that?”
“Yeah, okay, you got it.” The big man paused. “I need some pants.”
Sven pushed open the set of saloon-style swinging doors at the back of the restaurant and found himself staring into the kitchen. There was a CD player on, playing Asian-sounding background music. The music was complemented by the sound of simmering water and a soft, dull clanking noise. At first glance, the kitchen looked empty.
Lorie brushed passed Sven and strode into the kitchen.
“There’s no one here,” she said, tilting her head and throwing up her hands. Then she went around the kitchen island.
“The noise is coming from here.” She pointed to a pot. “Just a ladle boiling away in some soup. Guess they were in the middle of cooking up lunch.”
“Guess so,” Sven said, and heard a click. “What was that?”
“Just turning it off. No need to boil it too long. And we’re gonna blow the place up remember? Don’t wanna do it with us inside.”
“Right,” Sven said. The girl was a step ahead of him.
“That looks like the back door over there, come on.”
“Wait, shouldn’t there be more people back here—inside the restaurant I mean? How could there only have been the two chefs? Who’s running the place?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they all stepped out to smoke and they’re the zombies outside. Maybe they didn’t all make it to work. Maybe the two chefs always get the place ready by themselves. Who knows? Who cares? Let’s see what’s behind door number one.”
“It’s the only door. So I hope it’s something good.”
Sven put his hand on the doorknob, turned it, and waited, readying himself to jump backward at the slightest sign of the undead. He was holding the sledgehammer up and to his right, and he was starting to feel his muscles wearing out from lugging the thing around. Sven was a power athlete who focused on explosive strength in short bursts. Though he did his cardio, he wasn’t used to carrying heavy objects for that long, especially injured as he now was. Sven shook his head, and made a mental note to devote some more of his training to muscular endurance…if there was ever to be any more training.
“Come on,” Lorie said. “Open it already. I bet Jane is getting really worried about us. She was pretty worried about you before I went over here, and I don’t think she was thrilled that I went after you. If there’s something waiting for us behind the door, I’m ready for it.”
Sven glanced over at Lorie and saw that she had picked up a cast iron skillet and was holding it like a baseball bat, ready to strike.
“It’s a lot lighter than that thing,” Lorie said, gesturing at the sledgehammer, “and the girls at school would be proud.”
Sven laughed, turned back to the door, and pulled. The door opened a few inches, letting in some of the warm, moist, outdoor air, then caught. There was a thump, and the sound of wood scraping against the kitchen’s tiled floor, and Sven thought he heard something else, like the sound of another door, but somewhere farther away, behind them. He thought of the shoddy barricade they had set up in front of the entrance.
“Did you hear that?” Sven asked.
“Yeah. All the more reason to hurry. You want me to see what it is?”
“No. Stay here, I might need your help with whatever’s on the other side of this door.” It was half-lie, and he said it in part to keep her in the kitchen, away from whatever was now shambling about the restaurant behind them, but it wasn’t all lie, because Lorie really could help, she had proved that already.
Sven pulled on the door, scraping its bottom along the floor, cutting it into the tile.
“Guess they don’t use this door much,” Lorie said. “Or maybe those things have been messing with it today, trying to get in.”
“You trying to make me feel better?”
“Sorry.” Lorie changed her skillet hold, lowering the skillet and readying it behind her as if she were about to swing at a tennis ball with it.
Sven pulled on the door again, and not making much progress, he stepped to the side and peeked out through the five inch gap into the outside world. He couldn’t see any zombies, just gravel in some shade and a piece of the fence. He didn’t see any sign of Jane or the car, but then he didn’t see the gate either, so he figured they were too far over to see that part.
There was another thump from somewhere in the restaurant behind them, and then the sound of something clattering. Then silence again.
“I guess I should stop being so gentle.”
Sven looked over at Lorie, and she nodded. She looked like a funny little animal with that mask on her face, like a raccoon or something. On second thought, the masked face made him think of Ivan, and he felt a pang of worry. He wanted to know that Ivan was alright, and soon.
He lowered the sledgehammer and stuck its head around and behind the bottom of the door. The door was not a door. It was ajar. Sven hated that joke, but it always made its way into his brain, and for once, it came at an appropriate time. He thought about bringing it up to Lorie but reconsidered. It wasn’t the best time for jokes.
He pulled on the sledgehammer. There was a rending, grazing sound and splinters came off the bottom of the door and powdery bits of tile were scraped off. The door opened all the way.
Looking through the open door, Sven still saw no sign of zombies.
Lorie came over to stand at his side. “Looks like we’re good. But…but we should probably peek out some more.”
Sven nodded and raised the sledgehammer up, resting it on his shoulder. That made him remember his injury, and he realized how tired he was, how wound up.
“You ready?” Sven whispered. “We might have to make a run for it and forget about blowing the place up. If they see us and start coming, we need to get back to the car.”
Lorie dropped her head a little. “Yeah, that’s true.” She seemed to be considering something, then stretched her fingers and renewed her grip on the skillet. “Okay, I’m ready.”
Sven stuck the sledgehammer outside, waved it around in a circle, pulled it back inside, and listened.
Then he stuck his left foot out, wiggled it, pulled it back inside, and listened.
Then he took a deep breath through his mask, which was now moist, and poked his head out.
He looked to the left, to the right, and ducked back inside.
“We’re good,” he said, but something outside had been off. There were no zombies, but it was like something was missing, like—
There was a loud clatter from behind Sven and he spun around to find that a plump, female Asian zombie had wandered into the kitchen and was now shambling through some pots on the floor, oblivious to their rattle.
“We have to shut her up,” Lorie said. “She’s gonna attract more zombies.” And then the girl ran up to the plump zombie and swung the skillet.
There was a ping, a shallow pop, and the zombie fell to the ground on top of the clattering pots. Lorie stood over the Asian zombie, her arms and the skillet she held trembling.
“Like a tuning fork,” Lorie said. “Pretty cool huh?”
Sven swallowed and looked at Lorie.
“You…when I…I…I’m not sure who’s chasing who anymore,” he stammered.
“Let’s go turn that gas on. You promised.”
Lorie placed the skillet down on top of the dead zombie’s stomach, went out of the kitchen and into the dining area.
Sven followed, feeling unsure of himself—unsure of everything. He glanced back at the open door and saw the fence, but he wasn’t sure what he was trying to find there.
There were no more zombies in the restaurant that Sven could see. There were a good number gathered around the front entrance, staring in through the windows and slits in the front door. They alternately stood and milled about, peering in, walking around in a shambling circle, and then peering in again. It was as if they were waiting to be seated, waiting to be served.
Sven looked away and walked to the cooking table closest to him. He put the sledgehammer down and began messing with the gas knob. Once he was satisfied that the table was spewing forth gas at full blast, he moved to the next table, and visited each of the cooking tables in the dining room, turning up the gas all the way. He glanced at Lorie as he went, and though he couldn’t see all of her face, her eyes were hungry. The girl had been reluctant to get into Sven’s car just an hour or so earlier, and had seemed shy. Looking at her now, as he prepared to blow up a hibachi restaurant, he wondered what he had gotten himself into.
But he was glad she was there. She was cool, and as long as her bloodlust was focused on zombies, on the undead, how could he blame her for it? It was a survival situation, and she was being as cold and realistic about it as he was. So what if she was enjoying it? So what if she was enjoying it a lot? Was that wrong?
“Come on,” Sven said. “Let’s get out of here before we pass out from the fumes, and become zombie lunch.”
“I’d rather be caught by the gas fumes than that other smell. Their smell.”
Sven looked at the girl’s eyes. “Yeah. Me too.”
He gathered the remaining surgical masks and the pills, and followed Lorie, already blazing the trail, back into the kitchen. He watched as she turned the knobs up on the stoves like a pro.
“How we gonna light this all up?”
“I’ve never blown a place up before,” Sven admitted. “But I know we’ll have to do it from a distance. Let’s go.”
Sven stood at the open door, waiting for Lorie to join him. She looked unsure of something, then found a butcher knife, walked over to the zombie she had taken care of earlier, and picked the skillet back up.
Lorie turned toward Sven and he saw her eyes widen, and then she was springing forward and yelling, “Look out,” and Sven instinctively moved toward Lorie, away from whatever it was that she was reacting to, and stuck out the sledgehammer in the opposite direction.
He turned in the direction of the door in time to watch four zombies yank the sledgehammer from him. Two tried to bite it, breaking their teeth, and then all four let it slip from their collective grasp.
They were falling over each other to get in, and then they were inside.
Jane drove through the field, sniffling, tears streaming down her face. She was trying to make herself stop, but she couldn’t.
A voice in her head kept saying, “They’re dead. They’re not coming back.”
But they can’t be dead, she told herself, I can’t deal with all of this by myself.
Even as she thought it, she knew it wasn’t true. Though she was wiping her eyes and nose and that infernal voice kept talking in her head, she knew that she could deal with this by herself, and that if Sven and Lorie were gone—if they really were gone—she wasn’t going to die without a fight.
The car dipped and rocked a few times as Jane drove over some unseen divots hidden in the tall grass. She slowed down, preparing herself for the jolt, it came, and then she was over the curb dividing field and street, grateful that Sven had an SUV.
The street in the back of the field was almost completely empty. It felt deserted. There were only two stopped cars, and she figured the road was only lightly used, probably just by the locals. She was a local, and she couldn’t remember ever driving on it. From what she could see, it seemed that part of the road looped back onto Route 29 North, and another part branched off into some eastbound, wooded back road that Jane was sure she had never seen before.
As she felt the drying of tears on her cheeks, she decided that the coast was clear. She accelerated gently, turned onto the part of the road that she thought led back to Route 29, and pulled into the Exxon that was not more than a few hundred feet after her turn. Jane slowed after she pulled in and took a careful, deliberating look about the place, trying to see if there was any visible movement on the property. She saw none, and pulled up alongside one of the two pumps that were closest to the road.
She turned the car off and pressed the unlock button on the driver’s side door, hoping that would unlock the gas door, and slowly, quietly, pushed the car door open, listening hard for any noise.
Not hearing anything, Jane stepped out on her tiptoes. Her brain was going a mile a minute, and if she had made any mistakes, she didn’t know it. So far, so good.
It had been a short trip. From where Jane stood, she could see the field and the fence to which she had to return as quickly as possible.
“They’re dead. They’re not coming back,” that sadistic voice said again.
She almost responded to it out loud, then caught herself.
They’re not, she told herself, God help me they’re not.
The voice made it harder, because it had made Jane wonder. Was the voice sadistic, or was it the voice of reality? And was there a difference?
“They’re dead. They’re not coming back.” It came at her again, and Jane felt her head begin to spin.
Ivan meowed. He was looking at her, tilting his head in that curious cat way that Jane couldn’t resist.
Thank God for that, Jane thought, and almost started crying. The cat seemed to have snapped her out of the depths.
“I’ll give you a treat when everyone’s back safely in the car,” she whispered. “You’re a very good cat you know that?”
And everyone will be back safely in the car, she told herself. They will be.
“They’re de—” the voice began again, but Jane cut it off.
“No,” she said out loud in a hoarse whisper. “No they’re not.” And they would need gas for their escape, and it was best for her to get it now, while she could. They might not have another chance like this one.
Jane tiptoed two small steps over to the pump, took the nozzle, and pressed, “Pay Inside.” There was no sense in charging her credit card or paying for the stuff. Not on a day like this. And she didn’t have her bag with her anyway, and no bag meant no wallet.
She turned back to the car, holding the nozzle, and realized that she had forgotten to open the gas door. She didn’t even know if unlocking the doors had unlocked it.
Jane looked at the gas door for a moment. It looked like the kind you had to press in for it to pop up and out so you could open it. She bit her lip and pressed. The gas door popped up, and Jane sighed with relief.
At least something’s going right, she thought, and then she heard the moan.
She didn’t know how to react at first, so she just stood there, nozzle in hand, staring at the open gas door and the gas cap that she had yet to unscrew.
The voice in her head came back, and it had found something new to say.
“They’re dead. They’re not coming back. And I’m dead too. Actually, we are all coming back…as those things.”
Jane resisted the urge to cry out, forced her muscles to unclench, to relax a little, and unscrewed the gas cap with frantic turns of her free hand. She stuck the nozzle in and squeezed the pump handle.
“Come on, come on,” Jane said, looking at the fuel reader on the pump’s base. There was another moan, and Jane wasn’t sure if it was her imagination or if the sound had in fact gotten closer. Then the numbers began to tick away the fuel, and the gas was flowing…or rather, trickling. Jane gritted her teeth when she saw the absurd slowness with which the numbers on the pump were turning.
There was another moan, and Jane looked down the row of pumps, behind her, and at all the visible angles she could see behind the car. She took a quick glance back at the empty field. There was no one—no zombies, no Sven, and no Lorie—at least not that she could see.
Then the moan came again, along with a dragging sound, and it was unmistakable then, whatever it was had gotten closer. Jane put the pin on the pump handle in place so that she didn’t have to hold it while it pumped. That way she could walk around the car and assess the situation. If the thing was dragging along the ground somewhere, she might have enough time to fuel up, or maybe there was something she could distract it with and keep it away while the pump was working.
She took her hand off the handle and began to tiptoe up the driver’s side of the car, looking under it and around the front as much as she could. She had gotten as far as the front tire when she heard the click. She stopped, thinking that this couldn’t be happening, not on this day of all days. But then she turned to the base of the pump and saw that it was.
The numbers had stopped ticking away at 1.84 gallons. The pin had popped loose.
There was another moan, closer still, but Jane still didn’t see anything, and 1.84 gallons wasn’t going to cut it. She took a quick look back at the field—still no one.
She dashed to the nozzle—no use being stealthy at this point, she realized, the thing was clearly after her—squeezed the handle, and popped the pin back in place with a clack. She fixed it there with her thumb, willing the pin to stay this time.
Jane backed up from the nozzle and listened.
“They’re dead. You’re dead. We’re all dead.”
No, no, stop it, she thought, trying to stifle the panic. She was trying to listen for the thing.
“They die. You die. We all die—”
There was another click. Jane turned to the base of the pump. This time, the numbers had stopped ticking away at 3.27 gallons. Progress, but not good enough. Sven’s SUV held at least 15 gallons, and probably more.
She turned back to the field—still empty.
She reached a hand out for the nozzle, stepping forward to reach it. She squeezed the handle, put the pin back in place, and let go.
The pin clicked right away.
Jane replaced it.
It clicked again.
Cursing to herself, she knew she would have to squeeze the nozzle and hold it.
She did, watching the ticking numbers crawl by as the gas pumped. Why did it have to be so slow? Were the other pumps there faster? Had she picked the slowest one of all?
The ticking numbers were at 6.46 gallons.
“Dead but not. Rotting and walking. Just like Vicky. Remember Vicky?”
Jane fought to keep the image out of her mind.
She glanced back at the field and around her.
She tried to focus in on the fence, to see behind it, but it was too far.
As she was turning back to the nozzle, a moan sounded with unmistakable finality. She thought she heard an echo come after it, and then she felt something grab her foot.
Lorie had already planned for something like this. In fact, she was expecting it. She expected everything to go wrong now, and there was sense in planning for every disaster.
She was glad she had the surgical mask on, because she didn’t want Sven to know, to see, that she was smiling. Not only had she been prepared for this, but she had hoped for it.
Sven was backing up toward her and holding his arm out to shield her from the zombies, but she was too quick, and she ran around the big man.
“No!” Sven yelled, but she had already flung the skillet with all of her strength. The skillet spun through the air and hit the side of a zombie’s face with a dull thud. The zombie began to stumble, but before the skillet had even fallen to the ground, Lorie was airborne. She was in full flight, with the butcher knife held in both of her hands behind her head, ready to be brought down to slice the zombies into eternity. Her knees were bent and her feet were tucked behind her as she flew. She was gritting her teeth.
Lorie brought the butcher knife down, splitting a zombie’s face down the middle, lodging the butcher knife—she was sure—in the thing’s brain. It felt incredible, a rush better than any rollercoaster.
She fell on top of the destroyed zombie, and backpedaled to Sven before the other zombies could grab her. One down, she thought, as she bumped into one of Sven’s bare legs.
The big man seemed to be stammering something.
Lorie was transfixed by the blade of the butcher knife and the way it disappeared into the zombie’s face. But it was only for a moment, she knew the other three had to be taken care of, then she could have another look. She needed to have another look.
“Come on Svensky,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
The three zombies were through the door now, fully in the kitchen. They were beginning to raise their arms to grab at Sven, like those stupid zombies in the movies always did, and that gave Lorie an awfully wonderful idea.
“Lorie, we can just herd them in this way and run around the island to get out. We don’t have to fight them, we need to get out of here.”
She was rummaging through the knives, looking for something big, preferably bigger than the butcher knife she had just used. Not finding anything that fit the bill, she sighed, and took a butcher knife in each hand.
“Lorie! Come on, we have to go.”
Lorie couldn’t go, Lorie needed to do something first.
“Fine, yeah,” Lorie lied. “Let’s do that, let’s get them in on this side and then run around.”
She came over to join Sven, who was leading the zombies in, on a direct path from the door toward the swinging doors that led into the restaurant’s dining area.
A few more shambling steps and there would be enough room behind the three zombies for Lorie and Sven to make their escape.
Lorie locked her eyes on an undead elbow and bit her lip, once again glad that she was wearing a mask. Sven was already looking at her funny, and she thought her expressions under the mask might be a dead giveaway—or rather, an undead giveaway…
When there was enough room behind the zombies to get out, Lorie darted forward and chopped with both of the butcher knives. The butcher knife in her left hand cut through a zombie’s elbow with a crunch, and the butcher knife in her right hand came down into the same zombie’s shoulder, sticking in it.
She released her grip on the butcher knife that had lodged in the zombie’s shoulder and darted back, intending to take another swipe with her remaining butcher knife. She had liked the cutting crunch through the elbow, like the zombie’s bones and flesh were baked dry. It wasn’t like cutting through butter, or meat for that matter. No, not at all.
That was when Sven grabbed her, pulled her through the open door, and maneuvered her through a smattering of zombies to the gate.
He set her down and she stopped flailing with her knife arm, beginning to regain her composure.
Then she looked through the gate, and her heart sank, although not all that much, because she was expecting all kinds of disasters now, and what she saw, or rather, what she didn’t see behind the gate, was one of them.
Lorie looked up at Sven, who had slowed as he was pulling up the locking bar and was now looking into the field. He had spotted it too.
Jane and the car were gone.
Sven opened the gate, and she and the big man solemnly stepped through the opening before Sven closed it behind them. They walked a few steps into the field and then stood there together, in silence.
Lorie took her mask off and spoke first. “The air’s a lot better out here.” Sven didn’t react, so Lorie went on. “Do you think she’ll come back? You guys know each other right?”
He was looking into the distance, eyes searching. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “She’ll come back.” Then his gaze fell on Lorie. Sven took his mask off and glared. “What happened to the shy little girl from before?” he asked accusingly. “The one that wouldn’t even get into the car with me and Jane…and Ivan?”
She had to think about that for a moment, and stomped around Sven, setting dandelion seeds in flight as she went. Lorie didn’t know the answer to that question. She felt different, that was all—different from before, but like herself—like how she should feel.
“I don’t know,” she finally said. “We need to get you a new hammer.”
Sven shrugged, and Lorie hoped that he would give up on this line of questioning, it was making her a little uncomfortable. So what if she wanted to hurt some zombies? Was that really wrong? They were trying to hurt her, after all. They had already taken her mom, and…
“No,” Sven said, “I’m gonna need something a little more practical.”
Lorie nodded. “Okay. Hey, listen…I have to tell you something.”
Sven looked at her.
Lorie pointed. “The, uh.”
“Holy crap!” Sven said, and skipped backward in a most un-Sven-like manner, away from Lorie, but of course that did nothing to get the zombie hand off his ankle.
So he can be light on his feet when he wants to be, Lorie thought, and had to suppress a giggle when she noted how much like a ballet dancer he had just looked.
She had ignored the hand before, pretending that it wasn’t there and that it would fall off on its own. But it hadn’t fallen off, and apparently Sven hadn’t noticed it, so she felt like she had to bring it up. She wondered if she should have brought it up earlier, but quickly dismissed the notion.
Lorie’s mask hung down around her neck, and she wished she still had it on, because she couldn’t help grinning, and Sven saw it. She got the sense that he was judging her, so she said, “Here, I’ll help get it off,” and kneeled down to pry the fingers off.
It was harder than she thought it would be, and when she looked up at Sven watching her, she could see that he was enjoying her frustration. She could pull one finger loose, but then whenever she pulled on another finger, the first finger would grip again, so she could never pry off more than one finger at the same time. She tried to use each of her hands on one finger and pull at the same time, but that seemed to just make the whole hand tighten, like one of those Chinese finger traps. The fingers were cold and crumbly, and not exactly pleasant to touch.
“Hey!” Lorie said. “They should call this a zombie finger trap!”
Sven looked down at her, clearly not amused anymore.
“Okay,” he said, “let’s try this. You get the pointer out.”
Lorie pulled on the pointer, sticking it out with a crackle. That made the thumb that Lorie had just been pulling on retract and re-grip Sven’s ankle.
Then Sven reached down, put his massive hand around the zombie hand’s pointer, and pulled it backward. There was a tearing sound, and the pointer ripped off the hand, pulling up strands of flesh from the back of the hand with it. Sven gave it one more tug, snapping the threads, and threw the pointer into a patch of dandelions.
“I get it,” Lorie said, and pried another finger up, the middle finger this time. Sven tore that one off too, and tossed it into the dandelions as he’d done with the first. They did the pinky next, and after that, the hand came loose. Lorie took it and tossed it into a different dandelion patch than the pointer and middle finger and pinky had gone—just in case the thing could reassemble…not that she thought it would, but just in case.
“Thanks,” Sven said.
“Any time.” Lorie thought for a moment. “Do you think we’re gonna make it through this?”
“I think so.”
“Do you think there’ll be more zombies?”
He gave her a strange look, but didn’t answer. That was answer enough. Lorie bit her lip and tried not to smile. Her hand was giving the butcher knife handle a good coating of sweat.
Sven and Lorie stood in the spot in the open field where the car had been. Lorie could make out tire tracks in the grass. Jane had driven off, alright, and who could blame her?
When there were zombies, it was every man and woman for him or herself. True as that was, Lorie was glad Sven was still there, looking ridiculous as ever, pants-less and bending over to rub his ankle where the zombie hand had been.
Then Lorie looked up, and saw that the sky was darkening.
The first thing Jane did when she felt the hand on her foot wasn’t to look down. She knew what it was, and the voice in her head confirmed what she was thinking.
“Here it comes, dead, dead, dead. Just like in the movies. You’ll be famous. What a treat!”
No, she didn’t look down, and she didn’t loosen her hold on the nozzle, if anything, she was squeezing harder than ever.
The first thing she did was to look back at the base of the pump.
The ticking number read 8.12 gallons. That was better, but still not good enough. She was not going to fail at this task, she was not. The voice was wrong.
Then Jane looked down at her foot. She tried not to focus on the hand itself, but it was hard not to look at it in wonder—in horrified wonder. How could this be happening?
The flesh of the hand was ripped and torn, and there was dry blood caked across it. The fingers looked too thin to be those of a person, like the fingers of a skeleton that had been crudely wrapped with flesh-covered pieces of paper. The bone of the forefinger peeked through, the flesh that should’ve surrounded it scraped off. The jutting piece of bone winked at Jane, and she shuddered with revulsion.
There was another moan, possibly one of triumph.
“No,” Jane said, “you’re not gonna get me.” She didn’t understand how the thing had snuck up on her like that, but it must have come from the next row of pumps, and gotten under the car after she stopped. But she had been so careful, so discerning, that she couldn’t help but get angry at herself for not checking just around the next pump—not that she could know that was where it came from, but it seemed the most likely possibility.
Jane braced herself against the car with her free arm and pulled her foot back. It inched back, revealing some of the zombie’s wrist and forearm from under the car. But the zombie didn’t let go.
She looked back at the ticking numbers. 10.19 gallons. 10.23 gallons. 10.27 gallons. 10.31 gallons.
She looked back down at the grotesque hand. Its fingers were gripping the toe of her foot more tightly, and it hurt, like the sides of the front of her foot were being squeezed together and there wasn’t much give left.
Jane looked back at the ticking numbers. 10.91.
That would have to be enough.
In pain and overcome with a sudden surge of fury, Jane jerked the nozzle, gas still flowing out of it, from the car. She bared her teeth and thrust the nozzle down, stabbing the monster’s forearm above the wrist.
There was a moan that Jane interpreted as a whimper, and the torn fingers around her foot released their disgusting, excruciating grip. Jane pulled her foot back at once, and watched for a few seconds as the gas seeped from the thing’s forearm and hand, through small ruptures in its skin. Its flesh really was like paper, like ruffled paper, and in the moment that Jane watched the forearm with the nozzle sticking out of it fill with gas, she thought she could see the texture of the zombie’s skin change. Then the back of the hand and a spot above the wrist burst, churning out gas and small bits of crusty flesh.
Trembling, Jane opened the door and jumped back into the driver’s seat. She looked over to see Ivan curled up on the passenger seat, resting his head on his paws. On hearing Jane approach, Ivan picked his head up, meowed, then let out a resigned hiss aimed at the back of the car. He then put his head back down on his paws and closed his eyes.
A slight moan came from the back of the car.
Jane spun around, straining her neck a little, and saw that Evan was looking a little better.
He blinked his eyes and said, “Where’s Lorie?”
Filled with a renewed resolve, Jane turned back around, started the car, and pulled out of the gas station. She was sure she could feel the crunch as she drove over the nozzle-stabbed zombie.
It was a day for stabbing, she thought, and it had gone from fork-stabbing to nozzle-stabbing. She cringed, then remembered Evan’s question.
“We’re going to get her,” Jane said. She turned the car around, and hoped that the words she had spoken would come true.
“It looks like it’s about to rain,” Lorie said. “Let’s get this lit up while we still can.”
Sven watched as the girl took the firework out of her pocket and fiddled with it, propping it up on its built-in stand. She set it up so that the front part of the rocket peeped through the fence, pointing a direct course to the hibachi restaurant’s open back door.
“It’s nice this fence is here, huh?” Sven asked dumbly. He didn’t know what else to say, he felt a little scared of Lorie after what she had done back in the restaurant. It was a good thing she was on his side—was she on his side? He hoped so.
Sven’s ankle hurt, and his foot was numb. The zombie hand’s grip must have cut off all blood flow to his foot and toes. He was surprised that he hadn’t noticed it before, probably on account of all the adrenalin, and not having a moment to stop and do a self pat-down.
He wiggled his toes in his shoes and felt some movement, but it hurt to walk on the foot, like it was asleep. Sven put a tentative finger on his chest and pressed. It was getting worse, as was his strained neck, and the way things were going, he wouldn’t be surprised if the benching accident had popped some important blood vessels. He was racking up injuries that day, and that didn’t bode well for him as the day wore on.
Lorie looked up from her task. “Yeah, so what are we gonna do if Jane doesn’t come back?”
Sven didn’t know what to say. She had to come back. Why had she left in the first place? She wouldn’t just abandon him and Lorie like that, would she?
“Something must have happened, but she’ll come back, I know her.”
“It doesn’t look it,” Lorie said. “I mean it doesn’t look like anything happened. There aren’t any zombies here, what would she have been driving away from?”
Sven looked at Lorie, who was crouched behind the firework, making her visual measurements. She turned around and looked him in the eye, and he was sure they were both thinking the same thing. Jane had been driving away from them, not away from the zombies, but from them.
Lorie confirmed his thought. She said, “You think the fewer people are together the better their chances? You think we should be striking out on our own?”
“No. No, I think the group can get too big and get in trouble that way, but it’s probably better not to be alone. Then again, what am I relying on? I’ve never been in this situation before, and it’s not like we can really use what we’ve seen in the movies as examples of how to behave.”
Lorie gave a nod and smiled wanly. “Thanks.”
“What? For what?”
“For giving a real answer. I don’t know either, how can we, right?”
Sven shrugged. “I could use a steak right now, and a nap.”
“Maybe this’ll all be over soon enough.” Lorie turned back to adjust the firework, then back to Sven. “Okay, you ready to get in on this?”
Sven took a deep breath and sighed. “You bet.” He crouched down next to Lorie. She dug in her pocket and withdrew a book of matches. She ripped one out, folded the top of the packet back to wedge the match in the lighting strip, and, with a pull and a crack, expertly lit the match. She looked at the flame for a second, and Sven could see she was grinning. Sven felt he was grinning too, and was amazed that Lorie could make him feel a little bit like a kid, even while they were in the midst of an infection that might claim their lives.
She lit the rocket’s wick.
“Alright,” Sven said, “let’s back up a little.”
But Lorie didn’t react. She looked up at the sky, then down at the lit wick, then at the match that was slowly burning its way down to her thumb and forefinger. Then her grin grew into a broad smile. She brought the match to the rocket’s wick again, this time lighting it as far in on the exposed part of the wick as she could.
Then she moved to the side opposite Sven, giving the rocket about ten feet of clearance. At least she was moving backward with him, to get farther from the restaurant’s explosion. The fence was a good distance away from the restaurant, and Sven wasn’t sure how far they really needed to back up to be safe. Would there be a fireball? Would there be flying glass and cooking pots and shrimp? Would there even be an explosion?
“Why don’t you back up a little more?” Sven asked. He was giving the rocket at least fifteen feet of clearance. He didn’t feel comfortable around exploding things, but Lorie obviously did. She didn’t hear his request, and he figured she was far enough away…so long as she stayed put.
Then the rocket exploded off its stand with a loud pop, kicking up a clod of smoking dirt behind it. Sven saw the fire of the explosion glint off the blade of the butcher knife Lorie was clutching, and then he turned to follow the rocket.
It flew straight into the restaurant’s open back door.
“Bull’s-eye!” Lorie cried, and Sven couldn’t help smiling.
He resumed backing up, and he was glad to see out of the corner of his eye that Lorie was backing up too. He was bracing himself for an explosion, for the loud bang, for the rattling ground, for the shattering glass.
But nothing happened.
Lorie crossed over to Sven, eyes still locked on the building.
“I guess we messed it up,” she said.
To his own surprise, Sven felt disappointed. “Nothing in real life works the way it does in the movies.”
“Guess not.” Then Lorie’s face brightened. “We’ll have to try again.”
Lorie began to walk toward the gate, swinging the butcher knife in her left hand as she went.
“What? No, not—”
Thunder erupted from inside the restaurant, and for a moment, it lit up like an unimaginative, rectangular jack-o-lantern. Then the building was gone, and a dark cloud was moving up and out toward the fence.
Lorie tottered backward, dropping her knife, and Sven grabbed her and pulled her around. It seemed like it took forever as he tried to keep his balance on the shaking ground. Then he put his arm around her and pushed her down onto the grass as gently as he could, covering her with his own body. With his free hand he reflexively covered the back of his head.
Then it began to rain. But it wasn’t rain. Little bits of something stung at the backs of Sven’s bare legs, at his back, which wasn’t so bad because it was covered, and at the back of his hand covering his head.
He lay there, terrified, expecting to feel a big piece of something land on his back, or on his head, and end his day. He wondered if he should have picked the girl up and run, but falling on the ground had been his instinctive response.
No big piece of anything came, and the falling bits sputtered to a stop. Then Lorie and Sven both rolled over and sat up, coughing in the dust. Lorie helped Sven up, and they retreated toward the road, distancing themselves from the expanding dust cloud. They stopped at the edge of the field, and Lorie narrowed her eyes at where the restaurant had been.
“It looks like we got it pretty good,” she said, then coughed.
Sven wiped at his legs and the back of his neck, trying to get the coating of dust off and trying to avoid the small burnt spots on his skin. “I don’t want to blow anything up anymore.”
Lorie laughed. “You have to admit, that was pretty awesome. Look—” Lorie was poking in the grass with her toe, “—there are roasted zombie pieces all over.”
Sven looked, and when he saw that she was right, he shuddered in disgust. He disgusted himself further when he noted that the charred zombie bits reminded him that he needed to get some protein into his body to heal faster—definitely not zombie protein though, that was surely contagious.
“I don’t mean to ruin the mood,” Sven said, “but we need to start thinking about finding some shelter. Food and shelter.”
Lorie looked down. “So it’s just you and me now. I miss my mom. Sorry. I mean. She’s one of them now, a zombie. She and Evan’s father, they were together, you know, and, now…”
“I’m sorry. My best friend, he…”
“This is the worst huh?”
“As bad as it gets.”
Lorie turned away and wiped at her face. Sven felt about as bad emotionally, as depressed, as he had so far that day. It had come on so suddenly.
They stood in silence for a while.
Then Lorie turned back, her voice cracking as she spoke. “So where to Mr. Svensky?” She made her trembling lips into a smile.
He had no idea. “Okay, let’s think for a minute. There was a ton of them on 29 before we turned in here. We couldn’t get around them. We can try to cut deeper into the woods there.” Sven pointed into the thickening woods to the east, knowing he didn’t want to go that way. “Or we can loop around toward 29 and see if we can hole up somewhere. But we need supplies, and weapons.”
Lorie’s head perked up, and she jogged back toward the fence. She bent down to pick something up, and came back over to Sven with her butcher knife.
“Where will we get weapons?” she asked.
“There’s a gun store up the road. I drive past it all the time. It’s not that far from here now. And, I’ve only been in there once with one of my gun-nut friends, so I don’t remember for sure, but they have a lot of hunting supplies, so I bet they have some kind of survival food.”
“Locking ourselves in a place with guns seems like a pretty great idea to me. Let’s take our chances with that.” Lorie pointed to the woods. “I’m not going in there, we’ll probably get shot by a human, and wouldn’t that be a stupid ending to this whole zombie mess?”
Sven grinned. “It’d be appropriate. Have you seen Night of the Living Dead?”
“I’m really hungry. I’d love a—”
Then Lorie ran behind him, and Sven turned to see his car making its way down the winding road toward the field.
Read on Amazon
Read City Hall of Blood, the second book in the Sven the Zombie Slayer trilogy
Read Mayor of the Damned, the third book in the Sven the Zombie Slayer trilogy