Thursday, March 9, 2017
Jane stopped the car next to the field, without going over the curb. She left the engine running, rolled the windows down all the way, and stepped out of the car. She was trembling, and her stomach was in knots. She could still feel where the zombie had squeezed her foot, and it felt like it wasn’t going to go away. She glanced down to make sure the hand really was gone. It was.
Sven and Lorie were there, walking toward her, and they looked alright, thank God for that.
Then Jane heard a scraping sound, and she whirled around to see what it was, but it was only Ivan, who excitedly leapt past her, through the car window. He landed gracefully in the grass and drew near to Sven and Lorie, sniffing at each of them with a cat’s head-tilting curiosity. He must have finally smelled something that satisfied him, because he began to meander around the two, rubbing against their legs and purring.
Jane turned to Sven. “Did you get it? Did you get something for Evan?”
“Yeah,” Sven said, and he showed her a bottle of pills. She took it and looked at the label. It was what they needed, at least as far as getting the boy’s fever down.
“Okay,” Jane said, then took a bottle of water from the front of the car—the one that she was now reserving for Evan—and opened the rear door to find Evan lying on his side across the seat. He looked a little better. His skin wasn’t quite as sallow, and he was awake.
“How you doing?” Jane asked.
“My throat hurts.”
“Let me see how your fever is.” Jane reached out and touched the boy’s forehead with the back of her hand. She was dimly aware of Sven and Lorie watching her as she went about looking at the boy. They weren’t saying anything.
Evan was still hot, and his face was slick with sweat.
“Here,” Jane said, popping the pill bottle open and taking out a pill. “Take this and wash it down with as much water as you can drink. It’ll make you feel better, then in a few hours—four to six I think—we’ll give you another one.” Jane knew the pills, and she remembered taking them herself when she was sick—which had been most of the time when she was growing up. The package hadn’t been as shiny back then, but the pills even smelled the same way they had years ago.
“Okay.” Evan nodded and obeyed, gulping the pill down with a loud swallow.
“Now lie down and relax. I’ll keep the door open so you can get some air in here.”
Jane backed out of the car, careful not to bump her head on the way out, then she turned back to Sven and Lorie, who were eyeing her curiously. Sven was covered in dust and there were little black, sooty marks all over his legs and shirt. He looked ridiculous standing there in a shirt, his boxer shorts, and sneakers. Lorie seemed to be keeping tabs on her surroundings. She looked from Jane, to Sven, then spun around, looking in all directions while brandishing her large knife. Then she looked back to Jane and started her cycle again.
Nothing will sneak up on her that way, Jane thought, maybe not even a zombie underneath a car. How had it gotten there? How had—Jane shook her head.
“What happened to your pants?” Jane asked, trying to lighten the mood. She was surprised at how much her voice shook.
“The zombies got ‘em,” Sven replied, then he walked around to the car, screwed in the gas cap that was still unfastened, and shut the gas door.
Jane nodded. “Yeah, I saw the whole thing. It would’ve been funny if you weren’t almost killed.”
“Look,” Lorie said, pointing to where the restaurant had been. “We blew it up, and a bunch of zombies with it! I kinda hoped there would be fireworks coming out of it, but I guess we just used that one and it wasn’t enough.”
Jane gave Lorie a searching look. Lorie was acting strange, but then, considering the circumstances, who wouldn’t be? They were likely each going crazy, making all kinds of mental leaps to deal with the reality of the situation.
“You guys did that? I thought there was an earthquake or something, but then I saw the dust, are you sure that was such a good idea Sven?” Jane looked at the pants-less giant, still as immature as ever.
He shrugged. “Sorry?”
“I think it’s time we had a pow-wow,” Jane said, “a serious discussion.”
“About the restaurant thing?” Sven asked. “Come on, I mean there are more important—”
“It was my idea!” Lorie burst in. “It’s not his fault, I made him.”
“Enough,” Jane said, and she must have said it effectively because it got both Sven and Lorie to stop interrupting each other with explanations. “I mean I think we should talk about what’s happening, and what we know so far, so that we have a better chance of making it through this. For all we know, the whole planet is like this now. We need to think about what to do, about how to act.”
“But,” Sven began, “my mom said that only Virginia was affected.”
“Only Virginia?” Lorie asked. “That sucks.”
“Yeah,” Sven said, and was beginning to say more when Jane interrupted him.
“Just because your mother says so,” Jane said, “doesn’t make it so. Things may have changed already. Let’s start at the beginning, okay? We talk, then we go.”
“Alright, alright,” Sven said. “Way to take charge.”
“Sorry, I don’t mean to yell,” Jane said. “I’m just freaking out, obviously, and I’m not gonna let them get me…one of them, when I was getting gas…”
“You got us gas?” Sven asked.
“Filled it up most of the way before I had to go.”
“Good stuff, thanks.” Sven looked thoughtful. “Actually, no offense, but let’s talk while we drive. That mass of them could be making its way farther up 29, and then we might be blocked in here. I think regardless of what we decide is happening, we’re gonna need weapons, right?”
“Right!” Lorie said. “Weapons!”
Jane looked down at the girl and saw for the first time just how big the butcher knife was, comically so in Lorie’s grasp. Jane was about to say something, but then thought better of it.
“You’re right,” Jane said. “I’ll drive.”
They all got in the car, Jane turned it around, got on Hillsdale Drive, and off they went.
Jane decided she was going to set the tone for their discussion, so as soon as they were on their way, she began.
“Okay, first, since you brought us all face masks, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the smell.”
“I think that’s how they get you!” Lorie cried, sitting up excitedly and gripping the back of the passenger seat in which Sven now sat. “It’s like they hypnotize you or brainwash you or something, and you can’t move and you’re confused and then you’re dead!”
“I think you’re right,” Jane said. “It’s part of their disease or whatever they have, like a cloud they travel in.”
“Yeah,” Sven said. “It smells pretty terrible.”
“So we wear the masks when we’re around them,” Jane said, “and try not to be around them in the first place.”
Sven nodded. “Yeah, also, it sometimes sneaks up on you, I mean it’s snuck up on me, so maybe we should try not to breathe too deeply while this is going on. I mean test the air—” Sven made sniffing noises, “—to make sure it’s okay before we breathe in too much.”
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” Lorie agreed.
“Okay,” Jane said, “and I guess that brings us to what is actually happening. What do you guys think?”
“I don’t feel so good,” Evan said. “Sorry, I think I’m going to throw up again.”
“Lorie,” Jane said, “there are some bags back there, can you help Evan?” Jane hoped the girl would agree, because it wasn’t a good time to stop, there were shambling zombies about, and Jane wanted very badly to get to the gun store without any more stops.
“Okay,” Lorie said, sounding reluctant.
Jane tried to ignore the retching sounds from behind her and went on. “So it’s some kind of illness? That’s what it seems like to me, my roommate was very sick before she…well…you know.”
“It’s a virus,” Lorie said, with a note of eagerness that Jane thought was a little odd considering the girl was holding Evan’s vomit bag. “But we didn’t get it, and so long as we stay away from the zombies, we won’t get it. Right Sven?”
“I think she’s right,” Sven said, “exactly right. As unlikely as all of this is, it’s happening, and it’s just like in the movies, more or less.”
“Yeah,” Lorie said. “You have to get ‘em in the head and everything.”
“If it’s just like the movies,” Sven added, “getting the spine might work too.”
As ridiculous as all of this sounded to Jane the accountant, she had to admit, “It is too much like the movies. And they are trying to bite—maybe that’s what spreads the infection.”
They all sat in silence for a while. Evan’s vomiting let up, and Jane saw Lorie roll down her window and carefully toss out Evan’s bag.
“So we have to not get bitten,” Lorie said, “get weapons and food and go somewhere safe.”
Jane heard a voice ring out in her head, and knew it was referring to the girl: “Some people are built to survive.” She was a strong one, like Sven. They were so much alike it almost seemed too much of a coincidence that they should have ended up together like this.
“We’re going to do just that,” Sven said, and Jane saw him begin to rustle in his duffel bag under the seat.
“I know,” Sven said. “I’m hungry too,” and he got something for Ivan and something for himself. Jane glanced over to see that Ivan was wolfing down something crunchy, and Sven was starting on a new protein bar.
“Hey,” Jane said, “what was it your mom said? When we were just starting out?”
“I don’t know,” Sven said, “there was too much static.”
“Right, but she was telling us to stay away from something, she said stay away from, and then the static would come on. Stay away from, and then nothing. What goes in the blank?”
“Probably the zombies. Stay away from the zombies, don’t get bitten. That makes sense with the smell too, so stay away from the zombies to keep from their stench, and stay away to avoid getting bitten.”
“Yeah…” Jane said, “I don’t know. I think there was something else to it. It was in the way she said it. To me, it sounded like even though she was saying, stay away from blank, the way she was saying it, I heard it as her telling us not to do something, something internal to us, and not the zombies.”
“What?” Sven asked. “I don’t get it.”
“I’m not sure I do either,” Jane said. “It’s just a feeling anyway, probably nothing, but it keeps coming back to me as something that’s important. I don’t know, maybe it’s just the stress.”
“What if it has something to do with protecting ourselves?” Lorie asked. “Like garlic and crosses against vampires. Wait no, I mean protecting ourselves by not touching the infection. Maybe it’s something around us. Maybe people are getting it from doing something.”
“That could’ve been what my mom was trying to say,” Sven said. “But I don’t know.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Jane saw that Sven was gobbling down the rest of his protein bar and fiddling with his cell phone, while Ivan sat in Sven’s lap and looked on. “My phone still isn’t getting a signal. Probably everyone is trying to call everyone and tell them what to do. You’d think at least the radio would work. I don’t know enough about these things.”
“Me neither,” Jane said. “So what if you’re right Lorie, what if it is something that we have to stay away from, besides getting bitten? What if it’s like pollution or cell phones or a TV program or something?”
“The cell phones aren’t working,” Sven said.
“And there’s no TV to watch right now,” Lorie said. “Then again, my mom and Evan’s dad, they…they weren’t doing anything like that. They were just on the balcony, and then—hey! Maybe it’s the leaves or pollen or something, like hay fever. My mom gets hay fever every year, and…” Lorie trailed off.
“I don’t know,” Jane said. “My roommate had taken sick all of a sudden, and then she turned.”
“Lars,” Sven said, “the first one I encountered, my friend, he was sniffling, but he wasn’t that sick before he became a zombie.”
“Vicky was really, really sick,” Jane said.
“Neither my mom nor Evan’s dad looked sick at all.”
“What does that mean?” Jane asked.
“Maybe not a whole lot,” Sven said, “just that the virus—if it is a virus—moves at different speeds in different people, or has different effects in different people. I guess that’s possible, but it doesn’t help us much.”
Jane turned onto Route 29. They weren’t far from the gun store now. She was trying to make sense of all of this, to fit it into a neat mental box. But zombies weren’t that easily categorized. She didn’t have a box to put them in at all. She tried to stuff them into the diseases box, but it didn’t quite fit. Jane had a feeling there was more to them than just a plague. It was as if they were bad, the worst thing in the world so far. She wanted to talk to Sven about it, but she didn’t want to bring it up in front of Lorie and Evan—Evan…she hoped the kid got better soon. He had been better for a little while, but now he looked bad again. Jane recalled some of the movies she had watched with Sven, but she still didn’t know how to deal with the boy. She didn’t want to think about it, but it had to be brought up.
When we get to the gun store, she told herself, I’ll pull Sven aside—but not too far away from Evan and Lorie—and raise my concerns.
“Sven, look,” Lorie said. “You were right.” Jane glanced in her mirror and saw the wave of zombies that was shambling north up 29. They were moving slowly, but in another half hour or so, it looked like they would be blocking the inflow road that Jane had just taken. It was good that she had listened to Sven, and that they hadn’t remained in the field to hash out their understanding of what was going on.
“Are they anticipating where we’re going or something?” Jane asked. She was feeling paranoid all of a sudden as she weaved in and out of stopped cars and avoided the shambling zombies in the road. Every now and then, Jane glanced back at the mass of zombies that was slowly disappearing from sight. She was glad of that.
“I think there’s something else,” Lorie said, “something we’re forgetting.” The girl paused, as if waiting for her words to sink in. “Why do they get so dry? Some of them are like burnt wood or something, all crackly, and—I guess just dry, that’s the best way I can think to put it.”
“Yeah,” Sven said. “We’ve seen a lot like that, some don’t bleed much. Some don’t bleed at all. Maybe that means something.”
“Vicky wasn’t like that,” Jane said, remembering the spittle and leaky nose of her former roommate.
“Neither was Lars,” Sven said.
“But Vicky was kind of dry,” Jane said, reconsidering a little. “I mean I got her pretty good with the knife and fork I had…that I was defending myself with, and she didn’t really bleed like a person would. Her blood just kind of oozed a little and then stopped.”
“I bet,” Lorie said, “I bet it goes in stages. They start like us, then they start to dry out for some reason. And I bet some take longer than others, just like some take longer than others to catch the virus.”
Or to succumb to its effects, Jane thought, and stole a glance at the rearview mirror at the prostrate boy.
“Hey,” Sven said. “Maybe there’s a way we can turn that to our advantage—the dryness I mean. It certainly makes using blunt weapons against them easier. Their heads and limbs pop right off without the wet stuff holding them together. Maybe that’s not the best term for it, but they are less held-together than we are.”
Jane nodded. “Yeah, it’s true. I wonder if they’ll just dry up and go away. They might just turn to dust if we can stay away from them long enough, and then we’ll be in the clear, we’ll have made it.”
The prospect of survival didn’t exactly fill Jane with hope. There was a dread to it, asking what would come later. What would there be left with all of these people gone? With all of her friends—she wondered how many of them were still alright—gone? It was like those old black and white movies, where all the people die except for two or three, and then at first they’re excited to inherit an empty world, but then they go crazy, kill each other a little, and then go crazy some more. It all just felt so bleak, like Jane was sinking into an inescapable depression.
“I think,” Sven said, “that we’ve covered just about everything. There’s so much we don’t know, that we should focus on the things we can control.”
Always the pragmatist, Jane thought. He was always focused on things he could control, always cold and calculating. She didn’t know why, but what he had just said reminded her of how much Sven cared for Ivan, and Jane had always felt, back when she and Sven were dating, that he loved the cat more than he loved her. It was a strange thing to remember at that moment, but that was what Sven’s statement made her think of.
“There are things,” Sven went on, “that we can have planned out, so we know how to react when they happen, when things go wrong, and the way things are going, I’m sure we’ll be coming up against more problems.”
“Yeah!” Lorie said, bouncing off her seat violently enough for Jane to notice. “We have to plan for things going wrong, that’s the best way to stay ahead of those things.”
“For one thing, we have to know what we’re gonna do if we get separated, like we almost did back there in the field. We have to have a plan for that, for a meeting point or…”
Jane thought she heard hesitation in Sven’s voice.
“You know,” Sven went on, “the meeting boint.”
When Jane heard that, there, driving through the human hell that her city had become, there in that car with the silly man she had never stopped loving, with his cat, and with the two teenagers she now felt responsible for, when she heard that, it all came back, and she had to look over and smile at him. In spite of everything, she felt pulled back to a different time, before all of this had happened—a hopeful time.
Years ago, when they were still dating, Jane and Sven had gone on a trip to Egypt together. She loved to travel, and though Sven hated flying, he capitulated, and they picked Egypt. She remembered how Sven had told her that he had wanted to go to Egypt ever since he was a little boy, fascinated by the pyramids. She wanted to go just about everywhere in the world, and Egypt was close to the top of her list. So they had gone.
Their tour guide there was a man named Mahmoud. Jane wondered if he was still alive, or if he was like them, one of the dry infected. He was a great tour guide, a really nice guy, and when he gave Jane and Sven and the three Australians that made up their tour group free time to explore, Mahmoud would always set a meeting “boint” for the group to return to, after a designated amount of wandering time. Mahmoud seemed to be unable to pronounce the letter “p” in general, substituting it with the letter “b.” Not that she was taking issue with Mahmoud’s English, which was close to impeccable. It wasn’t like she could ever learn to speak Arabic.
Ever since that trip, Sven sometimes had “meeting boint” episodes where he would imitate the way Mahmoud spoke. Sven really went overboard, he could be childish at times, and it took him an unreasonable amount of time to become bored with a joke that he particularly enjoyed. Though it had been annoying on more than one occasion, Jane wished she could go back to that place of annoyance—simple annoyance, simple, zombie-free annoyance.
“Why did you say boint?” Lorie asked.
“Yeah,” Jane said, ignoring the girl. “We need to have a plan for that, but we should try to avoid getting separated at all costs.”
“Why boint?” Lorie insisted.
“It’s one of Jane’s favorite accents,” Sven said. “My imitation of Egyptian English. I’ll tell you the story some other time. For now let’s figure out this separation thing.”
“We all need to be able to go on our own,” Lorie said. “So we each need masks against the smell, and we have those now, and we need water and a little bit of food, and weapons…definitely weapons.”
Jane glanced back to make sure that Evan was still asleep, then she said, “Yeah, that’s good in theory and all, but one of us has to stay with Evan, so the separation thing kind of falls through, we can’t leave him alone.”
“And,” Sven began, “what the hell is a safe place with zombies roaming the streets? When we find a safe place like that, you can bet we shouldn’t be leaving it. But if something happens, I mean, maybe…” Sven trailed off.
Jane sighed. Everyone was trailing off. Everyone else must have been thinking dark thoughts too, of getting separated, of no safe meeting boints, of being surrounded and overwhelmed, slowly bitten to death by those flesh-hungry, unashamed monsters.
“We stick together until Evan is better,” Lorie said firmly.
Then Jane saw Woodbrook Drive in front of her, and began to look for somewhere to turn in.
“We’re here,” Jane said.
She spotted the familiar gun store’s parking lot and drove into it, very slowly. “Look safe to you guys?”
“Looks quiet,” Sven said.
“Yeah,” Lorie said.
It did look quiet.
Jane parked in front of the store, then reconsidered, pulled out, and backed up to the store’s entrance. It wasn’t a parking spot, but she didn’t think anyone would mind that day.
Sven put Ivan into his backpack. The cat gave Sven an unhappy meow, but didn’t try to jump out. Sven wasn’t going to leave Ivan in the car, not now, and not anymore. There would not be any more separation among the group members.
Sven saw Jane watching him as he packed up Ivan and a water bottle.
“We’re all gonna stick together from now on,” he said, then jerked a thumb at the back seat. “The kids too. And we can’t leave the car running, or unlocked either. We can’t have someone come along and steal it, leaving us stranded. That’d be game over.”
“Okay,” Jane said. She turned the car off and pocketed the keys. Was Sven comfortable with that? With her having the keys? He told himself that he was. Then he turned around to look at Lorie and Evan. Lorie looked chipper, and Sven was sure she was excited to get into the gun store. She would probably try to make off with half of the weapons in there. Evan looked pale and sleepy, but at least he wasn’t throwing up anymore.
“Now don’t go grabbing any guns,” Jane said to Lorie. Her shoulders slumped and her gaze fell to the floor, looking beaten.
“But how am I supposed to defend myself?” Lorie asked. “From the zombies?”
“Guns are very dangerous, Lorie,” Jane said.
“So how come you’re getting some for yourself?” Lorie asked.
“I’ve had training,” Jane said. “I’ve been shooting for a long time.”
“Training?” Lorie asked, excitement creeping back into her voice. “Then you can train me, right?”
Sven wasn’t sure how to deal with this situation. Yes, there were zombies about, but did that mean they should let high school kids arm themselves with guns?
“Let’s stick to blunt objects for now,” Sven said. “You were really good back there with the pan, and with the sledgehammer too.”
“I was better with the knives,” Lorie said. “And I’m not going to give up this one.” She reached down for her butcher knife. Sven saw that she had been resting it on the floor, with one of her feet pressing down onto the blade. She was being careful, he had to give her that.
“I’m not gonna fight you for it, that’s for sure,” Sven said.
Jane looked like she was on the verge of saying something, then didn’t.
“Evan,” Lorie said, “are you well enough to come out with us? We’re just going into the store to stock up on things.”
Evan looked unsure of himself but nodded. He seemed to be turning greener with each nod. “Yeah…I’ll come. I’m okay.”
“Let’s go then,” Sven said. “Before all those zombies behind us catch up. Any sign of those things?” Sven surveyed the parking lot in front of him and turned back to look through the dimmed rear window toward the gun store. It was hard to make things out back there.
“The undead?” Lorie asked. “I don’t see any around here. The store entrance looks all clear, but I can’t tell if any are inside.”
“We look good from what I can see,” Jane said. “Just don’t get too close to any of the cars. They could be under the cars too.”
“Ready?” Sven asked.
“Ready,” Jane, Lorie, and Evan said. Ivan meowed, and if Sven had to interpret it, he would’ve interpreted the meow as, “Not ready, I don’t wanna go.” But it wasn’t up to the cat.
“Sorry,” Sven said to Ivan. “It’ll be okay soon. Lots of fish treats, I promise.”
Sven gripped the straps of the backpack from which Ivan’s head peeked out. He opened his door, and stepped slowly out of the car. His troupe followed, all moving carefully, to the gun store’s entrance. Sven realized they must have looked odd—two adults, a cat, and two teenagers, sneaking into a gun store in the middle of the day. The thought made Sven look up. Actually, it didn’t look much like the middle of the day anymore. The clouds were coming in strong.
“Let’s make this as quick as possible,” Sven said. “The zombies are coming, and it looks like a storm is too.”
“It just keeps getting better,” Jane said, and gave Sven a wry smile. She put on her mask, and Sven, Lorie, and Evan followed suit. Then she pulled open the door and went inside.
Sven walked in quickly after Jane, slinging the backpack with Ivan in it onto his back. Jane had begun to move a little too fast for Sven’s liking, and he was trying to keep up with her to make sure she wasn’t walking into a zombie-infested store, while also keeping Lorie and Evan in sight.
The gun shop looked deserted. It would be a huge bonus, a huge relief if it was, but there were aisles, and Sven could see a corridor behind the counter leading somewhere—probably to a storeroom, and there was likely a basement—so there were lots of unhappy possibilities lurking in the unknown.
Then one of these unhappy possibilities emerged into Sven’s field of vision. Evan gasped and Jane stopped in the midst of her mad dash to the gun display. The zombie had appeared from behind an aisle, and it was wearing plaid and overalls that did little to contain its immense belly. The face looked dry and misshapen, and Sven guessed that the thing’s belly had been even more massive before it got infected and dried up. As if to confirm that it was drying up, a piece of the zombie’s earlobe fell off as the zombie lurched toward Jane, who stood watching it, frozen in her tracks.
Ivan hissed, and kicked Sven in the back a few times through the backpack.
Then Lorie was running, and she left Sven’s field of vision.
“No,” Sven said, “where are you going?”
But the girl was gone. She had left Evan standing close to the store’s entrance, still wearing his shocked, pallid expression.
The zombie was getting closer to Jane, and she must have snapped out of it, because she climbed over the counter and began to rummage through the guns in the display. When Sven saw her do this, he noticed that most of the display was empty, and there was a lot of empty space behind the counter too, as if people had gone through the place already and cleaned it out. Sven and his gang were late to the party.
Then Lorie was back. She ran out of the bow and arrow aisle wielding her butcher knife. She made straight for the plaid zombie’s left, overall-covered leg and swung hard. The knife cracked something and stuck deep into the top of the zombie’s calf, but it didn’t go through. The plaid zombie lurched to the side, off-balance, and then was overcome by the weight of its great belly. It fell sideways, thundering to the ground with a terrible crunch as the leg that Lorie had chopped bent sideways below the knee.
On the floor, the zombie floundered back and forth around the mass of its belly, then lay relatively still, though it still made small flailing, clutching motions with its hands. The hands looked tiny relative to the rest of its body, making Sven imagine a tyrannosaur in its death throes.
It was such an odd sight that Sven had trouble looking away, and Lorie’s eager ferocity to dispatch the plaid zombie hadn’t broken Sven’s curiosity at the thing, because he’d already been exposed to her overactive fighting spirit.
What did break his concentration, however, was the gunshot.
He had been watching the great, undead flailing beast on the floor of the gun shop, when, all of a sudden, a black hole formed under its eye and the top left side of its head fell away, as if its skull were a misshapen fortune cookie. The movement of the tyrannosaur-like arms stopped, and the zombie lay still.
Sven turned to the counter, where Jane stood, holding a gun in both hands, still aimed at the plaid zombie’s body. Lorie and Evan were watching Jane too, and their looks were somewhat apprehensive behind their masks. Sven was surprised that Lorie looked apprehensive after she had just sunk a butcher knife into a zombie. Maybe he was wrong, and that wasn’t Lorie’s apprehensive look. Maybe it was her admiring look. It was hard to tell behind the mask.
“I see you’re still a good shot,” Sven said.
Jane began to do something with the gun, then she picked up a shoulder holster from somewhere behind the counter and put it on. She holstered the gun and gathered up some boxes of ammo and a few magazines.
“Do you shoot a lot?” Lorie asked, wide-eyed.
“A couple times a week,” Jane said. “Sometimes more. Are there any bags back there Lorie? Good ones? We’re gonna need some durable packs to carry this stuff.”
“I’ll go look,” Lorie said, and disappeared into the aisle from which she had run like a crazy mini-butcher.
Sven looked around the store, but he had no idea what to pick up here. He wasn’t into guns, and knew next to nothing about them. People always assumed that because he lived in Virginia he went hunting or at least shooting all the time, that he owned guns, and that he took pride in owning them. But none of those things were true, and he knew he’d have to defer to Jane’s expertise on the matter.
“Any advice on what I should pick up?” Sven asked.
Lorie came back with three sturdy-looking, camouflage duffel bags and two travel backpacks—the kind with water reservoirs connected to drink tubes with bike valves.
“Are there any more of the camel water backpack things back there?” Sven asked.
“Yeah, plenty,” Lorie said. “They’re kinda heavy though. I’ll get the rest.” Lorie disappeared back into the aisle.
Jane began filling one of the duffel bags with the boxes of ammo and the magazines. “Well, if you still shoot the way I remember, we need to get you a shotgun.”
“Thanks,” Sven said, then added, “I wasn’t that bad, was I?”
Jane raised a dubious eyebrow at him. “Let’s find you that shotgun.” Then she reduced her voice to a whisper, “Of course, this is the zombie apocalypse, so if you want to try some of these handguns, I’m not gonna stop you. Just warn me before you try to shoot them.”
Sven harrumphed. He could shoot a gun if he wanted…kind of. But Jane was right, a shotgun was a better idea, so he began to look for one.
“What about me?” Evan asked. “What should I do?”
Sven was about to tell the boy to look for some granola bars and water, but before he could say it, Jane said, “Why don’t you help keep watch at the door? That’s really important right now and we’ve been neglecting it already.”
“Okay,” Evan said. “I can do that.” He walked toward the front of the store.
“Psst,” a voice whispered.
“Psst,” it came again. Sven turned around and saw that it was Jane, motioning for him to come over to her.
Sven walked over to her. “I thought I was supposed to be finding a shotgun.”
“And you will,” she whispered, “but I want to talk to you about something…in private.”
“Alright.” Sven looked down into the display case and saw that it hadn’t quite been picked clean—not all the way. There were a few guns left, and there was a very long knife that caught his eye. Jane began to say something, but Sven kept looking at the knife. The metal was mottled, like it needed a good shining. That made Sven wonder if the knife was sharp. He peered down into the case, and saw that the label under the knife said, “Machete, dating back to—”
“Are you listening to me?” Jane asked, looking annoyed.
“What? Oh, sorry I…sorry, what were you saying?”
“The boy! I think he’s got it, the sickness.”
“You mean…you mean he’s turning into—”
“Not so loud!”
“Sorry.” Sven lowered his voice. “You mean he’s turning into a zombie?”
Jane nodded. She wasn’t packing anymore, and she looked dead serious.
Sven couldn’t believe it. “Evan?” he asked.
Jane nodded again.
“No,” Sven said. “That doesn’t make any sense. He just has a cold or something. It’s been too long for it to be that.”
“I thought you might say something like that. Yes, okay, it’s been a long time, but maybe it’s just taking longer in him.”
“Lars turned very quickly, and I haven’t seen any sick people out, just zombies. I don’t think he has it, but even if he does, what are we supposed to do? Leave him behind?”
“No we can’t leave him, and maybe he doesn’t have it. Of course I hope he doesn’t have it, but he’s very sick, and we should be careful.”
“Did you tell Lorie about this?”
“No. Maybe it’s better if we don’t.”
“Yeah, it’s probably better that way. What do you mean by being careful, tying him up?”
“No, nothing like that, maybe just not getting too close to him, not sharing his food and water, watching him closely.”
“Okay. Sounds reasonable enough.”
“Okay,” Jane said, and went back to peering behind the counter.
“What are you looking for?” Sven asked.
“The right kind of ammo, there’s not too much left to choose from.”
“Okay.” Sven was glad she knew what to look for, because he certainly didn’t.
Then Sven was peering into the display at the machete again. There were two of them, each lying on top of a leather sheath. They both looked old and authentic to him, the blades stained by age and use, even though he didn’t know how old and authentic machetes should look. He came around to the counter to join Jane and knelt behind the case where the machetes were. The sliding plastic panel was unlocked, and whatever knives or guns had once kept the ancient machetes company were now gone. Whoever had been through the display earlier that day must not have thought the big knives were worth the trouble.
Sven pulled out the machetes and their sheaths, stood up, and lay the treasure on top of the counter. Then he was holding a machete in each hand and looking at them, turning from hand to hand, feeling wonder sweep over him.
All of a sudden, Sven was in a jungle, with vines, and a tiger, and a beautiful, sun-tanned woman clad in animal skins. She had a strong, lithe body that had an unmistakable power to it…she was the most alluring woman that Sven could imagine. She winked at Sven, then disappeared behind a wall of vines. Sven stepped forward, and then he was opening the wall of vines with the machetes, and she was—
The sound of a throat clearing brought Sven out of his reverie. His heart sank to find that the jungle had gone. He turned and saw that Jane was watching him with a concerned look on her face, arms crossed.
“Is there something you want to tell me Sven? You’re on the verge of slobbering.”
“I…uhh…sorry, I…” Sven stammered, feeling confused. The jungle had been real—much more real than this.
“I like them,” Sven finally said when he got his brain back on track. That was an understatement. He liked them a lot. He may have loved them. He felt about the knives the way he had felt about his basement gym when he had first set it up, like there had been a hole in his life until that moment, except the feeling about the knives was stronger.
Sven looked up to see that Jane was now watching him with a puzzled look on her face, no longer looking as concerned as before.
“Okay,” Jane said, “fine, keep them, just don’t hurt yourself.”
“I won’t,” Sven said, and looked down at the knives again. He liked the weight of them, the way he could feel the muscles in his forearms and biceps flex when he held them. They felt like natural extensions of his hands, and Freddy Krueger with his knife hands popped into Sven’s mind. Freddy’s gloves had always made Sven think of garden shears. But the machetes he now held…those would never be mistaken for garden shears. They were so glorious and full of character and—
“Why don’t you go see about some pants?”
“What?” Sven looked up at Jane again.
“Pants. Pants. Maybe there are some lumberjack pants in the back or something.”
“Oh,” Sven said, and he looked down at his bare legs and understood. Pants were a good idea, that was true.
“Nice knives,” Lorie said, appearing out of nowhere. “And yeah, there are some pants back there. I think there’s a pair that’s just for you actually.” Her eyes twinkled, and Sven got the feeling he wasn’t going to like these pants one bit.
“Well,” Lorie said. “You gonna let me show you your new pants or what?”
Sven nodded, reluctantly sheathed both machetes, and placed them on the countertop. Letting go of them was uncomfortable, like there was pull of electricity that he felt in his wrist from the knives’ handles when he let go. It felt like something was being wrenched from inside of his forearm. It didn’t feel good.
“Are you coming?”
Sven looked up to see that Lorie was already walking away from him, motioning for him to follow. He tried to figure out what to do with the machetes—he wasn’t going to leave them on the counter—and when he realized that he couldn’t fasten the sheaths to his boxers without his boxers falling down, he took both machetes in his left hand and followed Lorie.
Lorie led Sven down an aisle and around into another one, until she stopped and pointed to a shelf that was full of garments. Sven glanced around and saw that the aisle was dotted with hunting jackets, boots, hats, backpacks—all kinds of outdoor gear. But there wasn’t that much of it. Whoever had been through the guns had also been through this part of the store, and had made a mess of the place. Hats and mismatched boots were strewn about the floor, and there were bare spots on the shelves that Sven assumed hadn’t been bare earlier in the day. Then again, he hadn’t been to the store in a while, and maybe the bare spots were now a fixture.
Lorie pulled something off a shelf and offered it to Sven.
“Here they are,” Lorie said.
“What is it?” Sven asked.
Lorie rolled her eyes. “Pants, remember? The pants. These are the pants.”
Sven thought she sounded frustrated—probably picking it up from Jane. That was all he needed—a mini-Jane on his hands poking fun at him. He remembered the pants now, and of course he did need some, he was just getting a little distracted, that was all.
“Are you sure these are the rights ones?” Sven asked, looking at the pants dubiously.
“They have to be.”
“Well, they’re totally you, and they’re the only ones left. So it works out.”
Sven looked at the pants that Lorie was holding and took a step backward.
“How do you figure that they’re totally me?” Sven asked. The pants were a dark green—it seemed that all the hunting gear was either camouflage or dark green—and they were decorated with ducks. Sven saw the pants’ label and had to correct himself—they were mallards.
“They’re ducks!” Lorie cried, as if that explained everything.
“They’re mallards,” Sven corrected her, feeling very witty indeed. He had acclimated to Virginia life enough to know what a mallard was, though his first instinct was to call all ducks, “ducks.”
Lorie frowned. “Whatever, they’re…protein! And you love protein, so there you go.”
Sven nodded. “Duck is delicious,” he had to admit, “fatty and delicious.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll take ‘em. If they’re the last ones what choice do I have?”
He took the pants from Lorie, unfolded them, and without letting go of the machetes, began to put them on. That didn’t work because Sven hadn’t taken his sneakers off, and his left foot got caught in a pant leg. After he shook off the pants and his stuck shoe, he removed his remaining shoe and put the pants on properly, all the while keeping a firm hold on the machetes.
The pants felt puffy and ridiculous, but Sven couldn’t deny that the mallards were making him hungry. They looked happy and delicious swimming around on his pants. The pants were especially loose on Sven at the waist, but they had a drawstring at the top, and after Sven tightened it, the fit was workable.
Sven attached one machete to a belt loop on the right side of the pants, and one machete to a belt loop on the left side of the pants. Then he checked the buckles on the sheaths and the belt loops to reassure himself that they were solid and that the machetes wouldn’t come off. He thought about jumping up and down a few times to make sure the knives didn’t fall off, but he didn’t want to aggravate his injured, and now somewhat-singed body.
He looked up and saw that Lorie was watching him approvingly. “We’ll call them Sven’s duck pants,” she said. “Maybe it’ll start a trend.”
“Mallard pants,” Sven corrected.
Lorie looked suddenly upset, so Sven said, “No, no, we’ll call them duck pants, like you want, okay?”
“No,” Lorie said, “it’s not that. I mean, will there be anyone left to follow in your duck pants trend, to even know about this, or about us? What if no one’s left? What if we’re the last ones and even we don’t make it?”
“We’ll make it. Don’t worry about any of that right now. We’ll make it and we’ll find others and this whole thing will end. It’s bad, but there’s a way out of it. There’s gotta be.”
“What if it’s the end of the world?”
“Well then we’ll go out in style.” Sven pointed down at the pants, and Lorie looked. “Right?”
Then the girl hugged him, and he hugged her back.
“Sven,” Jane’s voice called from behind him. “I’m about ready, let’s see about that shotgun and go.”
Lorie let go of Sven and walked away, turning left at the end of the aisle. Sven thought he heard a sniffle.
He walked back to the counter, where Jane was going through the bags and kits Lorie had brought up.
“I’m trying to make sure we don’t have anything we don’t need,” Jane said. “We need to bring as much as we can that’s as useful as possible, and doesn’t weigh us down too much.”
“You’re right,” Sven said. She was very right, and seemed much less distraught then before, except that she was patting the gun in her shoulder holster every so often as she spoke.
Then her eyes dropped to the floor and she picked something up from behind the counter.
“Here,” she said, “I’ve got one for you. The shotgun stand was about empty, and this was the only pump-action left. I hope it’s not damaged or anything. Looks new to me.”
Jane turned the shotgun over in her hands, checking it over for something. She made some of the moving parts click, then nodded.
“Yeah, looks fine. All you do is load the shells in here.” Jane pointed to an opening in the shotgun that hadn’t been there a moment ago. “Pump and shoot, and pump and shoot. It’s really very easy, and you don’t have to get close like you’ll have to with those knives.” Jane nodded at the machetes strung on Sven’s belt and he covered them defensively, protecting them from her look.
“I’m not gonna take them away or anything,” Jane said. “I’m just saying.”
“Here.” Jane handed the shotgun to Sven and he took it, the metal cool against his palms. He turned the shotgun over and peered into the barrel.
“Sven! Don’t do that!” Jane grabbed the gun and spun it around so it was facing down. “Always away from your body and down.” Then she put the gun down on the counter.
“Sorry. You look good with that thing,” Sven said. “Real serious, like that Resident Evil chick.”
“Maybe you were right to make me watch all those movies with you.”
“I liked the movies, but I didn’t exactly see this coming. I’ve gotta say though, after this—if there’s an after this—no more zombie movies. I’m done, gonna make a clean break. Just vampires and killer robots.”
“You won’t get any argument from me.”
Sven wondered if Jane was referring to a future in which she and Sven were together, but he didn’t ask her. It was strange to be wanting that now, in the situation they were in.
Then she looked away, and the moment was over.
Sven looked back at the shotgun. He flipped his mask off and leaned over the weapon, inspecting it. It looked good as new, if a lack of scratches was any indication. He looked at the label. “Benelli SuperNova 12 Ga. Pump-Action,” he read under his breath, with very little idea of what it meant. It certainly looked like a tough man’s gun.
It was big, and black, and—he picked it up off the counter—had a nice weight to it. In his mind, he saw himself clubbing zombies with it, and occasionally shooting it, if he could figure out how that worked. The image pleased Sven, and his grip on the shotgun tightened. He began to fiddle with it, turning it over, touching the parts, playing with what must be the pump part of it.
Then he took the gun in both hands, put it across his body, and struck a pose.
“What do you think?”
Jane looked up at him and it looked like she was trying to suppress a smile, but the smile won out in the end.
“That’s very you,” she said.
“Thanks. I thought so. What do I put in it?”
Jane looked at Sven for a second, as if considering something, then turned around and picked out some boxes from the shelf behind the counter.
“These,” she said, and began to stack up the boxes on the counter in front of Sven.
He began reading the tops of the boxes. Some of the boxes had a picture of a wolf on them, and were called, “Wolf Power Buckshot.” The boxes said something about nine pellets. The other kind of boxes were called, “Black Magic Magnum,” and had a picture of a roaring bear on them. Sven shrugged, figuring that the animals meant business, and began packing the boxes into the duffel bag that Jane wasn’t using. When he was done stacking the boxes of shells, he put the shotgun into the bag too, making a mental note to read the small owner’s manual that hung from its grip.
Then Sven’s hands went down to the machetes. A glimmer passed through the air, but he wasn’t transported back into the jungle as he’d hoped.
“You okay?” Lorie asked. “What are you smiling about?”
“What?” Sven said. “Oh, I don’t know, just hungry I guess.” He hadn’t realized that he was smiling.
Lorie rolled her eyes, said, “Okay then,” and ran back into the aisles.
Lorie needed to find something fast. Sven and Jane looked like they were almost ready to go, and Lorie still hadn’t had the chance to hide anything away. She liked the crossbows she saw, and she had thought about sneaking one into the duffel bags, but that wasn’t a good idea. Jane would find it and forbid her from bringing it.
Jane hadn’t said anything about the butcher knife though, Lorie remembered, as she walked to the front of the store and looked down at the dead fat zombie that lay there.
His head wasn’t all there, and his leg was all messed up and bent out of shape, and there was her butcher knife, sticking into a nasty looking gobbet of flesh that was no longer part of the zombie’s leg, It looked like it had detached and fallen away from under the knee, so it was probably part of the zombie’s shin and calf that she was looking at, but it looked misshapen and malformed and it was a nasty pallid yellow on the inside.
Maybe the yellow is the fat, Lorie thought, a fat calf.
She reached for the handle of the butcher knife, but stopped before grabbing it. She didn’t want the thing now that it had the zombie’s stuff all over it. It could be infected, and it was just gross anyway.
Sure it was a nice big knife, but why should she settle for a contaminated butcher knife when she was in a store filled with other knives that were just as good, and maybe even better, like the ones that Sven had found?
Lorie straightened up from the zombie and looked up at Sven. He was standing by the counter, talking to Jane. They looked like they were discussing what to pack, and Jane was showing Sven something with the guns and ammo they were packing.
Those really are good pants, Lorie thought, and she smiled to herself when she remembered how she had cleared the shelves of all the other pants and hid them in the next aisle over. She had almost been unable to hide her delight when Sven believed her tale about the duck pants being the last pants in the store. It was a good trick, and Lorie was sure Evan would be impressed when she told him about it.
She walked to the entrance where Evan was standing.
“What are you up to over here?” Lorie asked.
“Keeping the watch,” Evan said, then he sneezed and wiped his hand across his nose.
“See any zombies yet?”
“No, but it’s getting really dark out there, and that can’t be good.”
“No, it can’t be good, that’s for sure. You feeling better at all?”
“Yeah actually, much better. It all seems like a dream, doesn’t it? Today I mean. Just a bad dream and we’re gonna wake up any second.”
Lorie looked down at the threshold. “I don’t think we are gonna wake up. I think this is it.”
Evan didn’t say anything. He turned around and went back to looking out at the darkening parking lot. Lorie got the sense that she shouldn’t bother him anymore, and she turned around and walked into the first aisle of the store, reminding herself that she needed to get something good that wasn’t a gun or a crossbow, and to get it fast.
As she walked down the aisle, her eyes were again drawn to the stuffed fish sitting atop their special shelves on the walls, and hanging from the ceiling. They were everywhere, and they had troubled her from the moment she walked in and spotted the first one sitting next to the cash register.
They were all bloated and shiny like they were about to explode in a fountain of fish guts. The mental image made Lorie cringe in a way that the zombie carnage didn’t. The latter had little effect on her, but the swollen painted fish on the walls pointed at her with their stuffed fins, and some of them had spines, and their eyes seemed to be following her, watching her—
Lorie looked away from the fish, and resolved to avoid making any more eye contact with them. They were just dead fish, after all, and Lorie ate fish all the time. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, and it shouldn’t have been creeping her out as much as it was.
There was nothing in the first aisle worth grabbing. There was a lot of birdshot and two-way radios and stupid-looking hood ornaments, most of which were of an overall-wearing man holding a rifle in one hand and a beer bottle in the other. Lorie wondered for a moment if they were scented, but decided not to discover if they were—they probably smelled of beer, or gunpowder, or both. Then she wondered if beer or gunpowder were Harry Potter jelly bean flavors. Beer must have been, but gunpowder? Lorie wasn’t sure, but she kind of wanted some jelly beans now.
“Stop it,” Lorie muttered to herself, “stop getting distracted by these stupid things and get something sharp!”
She turned into the next aisle.
This one was filled with scopes and sights, replacement magazines, rifle cases, and weird-looking binoculars and goggles. Lorie went up to a shelf and picked up a pair of binoculars, examining it. The binoculars looked cool, and they were priced at $343.69, so Lorie figured they were worth taking. She ripped the tag off and powered them on, then put them to her face.
Everything looked the same, except it was now a dark shade of green, then she made out the user display, which showed that the internal battery was half-full. She began turning slowly, but she still couldn’t make out Sven or Jane or Evan through the aisles. That’s when Lorie realized that night vision wasn’t the same as heat vision, and called herself stupid under her breath. She took the goggles away from her face, put them back on their shelf, and ran over into the next aisle.
There she finally found something useful.
Lorie picked up the package of throwing stars and unclasped its top. She reached in and plucked out two of the stars. They were small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, lying on top of each other. She looked at the remaining stars in the package—there were five left. She put the package back on its shelf and began to examine the stars in her hand. She took one in each hand and patted the points with the tips of her fingers. They were sharp, but not even close to as sharp as the butcher knife had been. Each star had eight points, and it looked more like a circle than a star, but Lorie figured that was alright.
With a star held loosely between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, she walked to the back of the store. There she picked out her first target and drew back each of her arms across her body. Then she rethought the motion, deciding to throw one at a time, and let her right arm fall to the side.
She flung the first star with her left hand, and missed. The star stuck in the wall with a reverberating boing.
Then she flung the second star with her right, and it hit home. It sank deep into its target, and there was no reverberation, no boing, just a thunk.
“What was that?” Jane’s voice called from the front of the store. “Everything okay back there?”
“Yeah,” Lorie called, “I’m fine. Just looking for more survival stuff.”
That must have satisfied Jane, because she didn’t say anything more.
Lorie walked up to the star that was sticking in the target, reached up for it, and changed her mind. It was almost halfway into the bloated fish, and when she thought of pulling it out, she got the image of the fish deflating rapidly and shooting fish guts out at her. So she left the star in the fish and went back to the package of throwing stars. She picked it up, looked at it, picked out one more star, then put it back in its package.
They weren’t practical, she decided. They wouldn’t go deep enough to get the zombies in their brains—assuming that was what you had to do to get a zombie—and her aim wasn’t that great with them anyway.
Lorie sighed and walked into the next aisle. As soon as she stepped into it, she knew that this was the one. She had been wrong about the stars, but this was so much different. She found exactly what she wanted, and put it carefully into her back pocket, then pulled the back of her shirt down as far as it would go to cover the bulge and the part of the thing that stuck out.
Her spirits were now officially lifted.
Then Lorie decided to get something for Evan. He was just guarding the door, and she was sure Sven and Jane weren’t finding him weapons. Evan needed something to fight with just like the rest of them did. Lorie half-skipped into the next aisle and picked out two small, aluminum baseball bats—“Home Defense Bats,” their tags read—one for Evan and one for herself. The bats were light but felt very solid, and Lorie was confident they would make a very nice cracking sound against the back of a zombie’s head.
She tried to put her skipping under control and walked out of the aisles and over to Evan, with the two baseball bats behind her back.
“Evan…” she said, “oh Evan…”
Evan turned around. “Hey, what’s that you got behind you?”
“You get three guesses.”
Evan frowned. “Oh alright. Is it for me?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t count as a guess.” Now that Evan was turned away from the parking lot, Lorie found herself glancing behind him to make sure nothing snuck up on them.
“A chess set?”
“A chess set? We’re in a gun store. That doesn’t even count as a guess. You still have two more.”
“I dunno, maybe there are deer chess sets or gun chess sets or something. There are all kinds of chess sets, you know, with all kinds of different figurines.”
“Okay, okay, but that still doesn’t count as a guess.” Something about the air had changed, and it was making Lorie feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t the zombie smell, definitely not that. But it felt like the pressure had changed or something, although Lorie wasn’t sure what that meant. Her body felt stiffer than it had only moments before, and she had become impatient with Evan. “Come on already.”
“Uhh, is it a…is it a knife?”
Lorie shook her head. “Nope, not a knife, guess again.”
“Uhh, okay, is it a…is it a…”
Then Lorie’s eyes moved beyond Evan, and she was staring out into the parking lot. She forgot all about keeping her arms behind her back and they fell to her sides.
“A bat!” Evan said triumphantly and sneezed. He took one of the bats from Lorie as she was backing up from the door.
Evan’s smile faded. “What, what is it?” He began to move toward Lorie as he turned around, but of course he must have heard it now. Sven and Jane must have heard it too.
The sound was almost deafening—no, that wasn’t the right word for it, the sound drowned out everything else.
“Wow,” Sven said, coming up from behind Lorie and stepping in front of her. “That’s some rain.” He was shaking his head and had his hands on the knives on his belt. “Guess we better get moving right away.”
Jane joined him in front of the door. “Don’t you think we should wait this out? This kind of rain can’t go on forever, and we won’t be able to see anything if we drive out in it.”
“What if it does go on forever?” Lorie asked. “Everything else has been going wrong today.” They all turned to her, and she went on. “We have to leave. We have to leave now, they’re coming for us, I know they are. We can’t wait for it to end.” Lorie was surprised at the sobs that suddenly tried to choke their way out between her words. She didn’t know why she had lost her composure at the sight and roar of the rain.
“I’m with her,” Sven said. “We’ll just have to take it slow and be very careful.”
Evan nodded and raised his baseball bat over his head. “Yeah,” he added.
Jane sighed. “Okay, let’s go then.”
Jane and Sven went back to the counter where they’d been packing.
“I’ve never seen rain like that,” Evan said.
“Yeah,” Lorie agreed. “There’s something wrong about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s just wrong.”
Lorie watched as sheets of rain fell onto the pavement and cars in the parking lot, sending watery explosions in all directions. Then she looked down and saw that the rain was beginning to seep in, under the door. She backed away, gripping the thing in her back pocket.
The Beretta 92FS that was now slung at Jane’s side made her feel significantly safer. Racking the slide and squeezing off that first round into the hunter zombie’s brain had changed everything. The bit of recoil from the sleek, silver and black gun in her hands and the zombie’s death rattle had given her hope—hope that they could all live through this.
“Come on,” Sven said. “We gotta get moving again. With this rain, we’ll be going even slower.” There was Sven, always in a rush.
The skies had darkened so much that there was now more light in the store than outside. They were waiting for her at the door—Sven and Ivan, Lorie, and Evan.
“I’m coming,” Jane said. “I just need to check I’ve got everything.”
The dark camouflage duffel bag that she had taken for herself had two spare magazines for the Beretta in it—one that held fifteen rounds and one that held ten—they were the only two left, besides the one in the gun that held fifteen.
At least the magazines hadn’t all been ten-rounders, she thought, and thanked God there had still been plenty of boxes of 9 mm Luger ammo. She had taken them all.
She had her gun now, heavier than the Walther P99 that she kept at home for self-defense. She had shot the Beretta before, and was comfortable with its feel. She had also packed a Swiss army knife and some flares just in case, though she didn’t know what she would ever need the flares for.
“You guys have the survival kits?” Jane asked.
“Yeah,” Lorie said, “two. They’ve got batteries, flashlights, a fire starter, emergency blanket, whistle, mirror—” Lorie laughed after that one, “—water purification tablets, and first aid stuff.”
“Okay,” Jane said. “Let’s get some of the compact sleeping bags too. It doesn’t look like we’ll be sleeping in beds tonight.”
That was good there had still been some left, and that everything was packed and ready to go. Jane arranged four sleeping bags on the counter. They hadn’t been able to find any gas masks, so they would have to work with the surgical masks Sven had found.
Jane was still rummaging behind the counter, but she couldn’t find the last thing that was on her mind. She gripped her Beretta, reassuring herself that it was still there, and then zipped up her duffel bag and came out from behind the counter with it. She walked briskly up and down three aisles, picking up four ponchos, and finally, spotting the knife sharpener she’d been looking for, grabbed that too.
“Okay,” Jane said. “I’m ready, let’s go. Just maybe put this on first.” Jane handed Sven a poncho, he looked at it, shook his head, and handed it back to her. Jane guessed he didn’t want it, fine, whatever. Just for that, she would tell him how ridiculous he looked in those duck pants, when they got to safety.
“I’ll check to see if it’s all clear,” Sven said. “When you see me start up the car, all of you come out and get in.” He picked up his duffel bag, which was bulging with the shape of a shotgun in it, along with the irregular shapes of the boxes of shells they had packed with paper and plastic bags to protect them from the rain.
Jane, Lorie, and Evan nodded to him, then he glanced over his shoulder to look at Ivan. “You might wanna duck,” Sven said to his cat. “You’re likely to get wet out there.”
Sven opened the door, and as he strode into the rain, Jane saw Ivan drop down into the backpack, and out of sight.
Then Sven disappeared too, lost in the thick rain.
Jane stood there with Lorie and Evan in silence, feeling on edge while she put on her poncho. She considered wrapping up her Beretta and putting it in her duffel bag, but she didn’t want to take it off. She needed it there, against her body, and she wasn’t shy about wearing a poncho. They were taking excessive precautions with the ammo anyway, it would have to be submerged in water for a while to be ruined, but then again, it had been a disastrous day already, and the wrapping was a quick and worthwhile precaution to take, however unnecessary.
“Now you guys put these on too,” Jane said. “Don’t let him lead you with his bad example.”
To Jane’s relief, the kids obeyed and put the ponchos on. Why that made her feel relieved she didn’t know, but it did.
It seemed that Sven was taking a little too long to get the car started, and that made Jane nervous. She began to glance back toward the far end of the counter, wondering about who or what might still be lurking deep inside the “Employees Only” section of the store. They hadn’t checked back there, and she didn’t want to be surprised by any zombies.
“How you feelin’?” Lorie asked Evan.
“Not bad, kinda dizzy, but okay.”
“Maybe you’re hungry,” Lorie said, and Evan began shaking his head in protest.
Ignoring his head-shaking, Lorie proceeded to pull out one of the granola bars she had found in the back of the store. Then she made Evan take it.
“Come on,” Lorie said. “Eat it, it’ll make you feel better.”
“Maybe if I only have half…will you split it with me?” Evan asked.
“Sure,” Lorie said.
“No!” Jane cried, the word escaping from her mouth before she could stop it. “I mean, I mean you should eat a whole one, and you Lorie, you get your own whole one. You’re both hungry and can’t be sharing food like that…because Evan you need all the strength you can get, so eat it all.” Jane paused. “Understood?”
The boy gulped, nodded, and began to unwrap the granola bar. Jane ignored Lorie’s bewildered stare, but kept a sharp eye on the eating boy to make sure there was no sharing. Sven had reassured her about their situation, and Jane now thought that the boy did only have a cold or flu or something regular—something that wouldn’t end with him becoming a zombie—but she was still going to play it safe.
The car’s park lights finally came on, shining a fuzzy red through the downpour. It was a downpour worthy of being called a torrent, not that Jane would ever use that word in real life, it wasn’t a word that people said, but when Jane read books and saw the word “torrent,” this was the kind of rain she pictured.
“Okay,” Jane said, looping her arm through the straps of their remaining bags and herding Lorie and Evan toward the door. “Try to keep the plastic tight around you.”
Jane held the door open and watched the kids run out. Lorie opened the right rear door and Evan opened the left. Then they were in the car. Jane was relieved that Sven had remembered to unlock the doors. It was an easy thing to forget under all the pressure they were experiencing.
Then she stood there.
The rain was starting to pick up sideways, and her feet and the bottom of her poncho were beginning to get wet. She let the door close a few inches and kept standing there, looking at the car as it was washed clean by the pouring rain. Jane took a breath and her mind moved forward, toward the car, but her body stayed in place. She thought she heard a honk, but it was hard to hear anything through the noise of the storm.
Then a thick flash of lightning cut through the sky, and a few seconds later there came a loud thunderclap that jolted Jane into action. She ran to the car and got into the front passenger seat.
She knew why she was having such a hard time leaving, and it wasn’t because she was hesitant about going with Sven, Lorie and Evan. There was something she was leaving behind, and she didn’t know if she could.
Jane put her bags down in front of her feet and Sven began to pull out.
The windshield wipers were on full-blast but they were doing a poor job of creating visibility. They weren’t really helping at all, it was as if the windshield was under a never-ending stream, and Jane had to try to understand the shapes in front of the car from behind a current.
Then they were moving through the parking lot. Sven drove slowly, carefully, looking stressed. Jane didn’t blame him, she didn’t know how he could see much of anything at all.
“Stop!” Jane yelled.
Sven hit the brakes hard, and it jolted Jane forward. Her foot hit something hard in the duffel bag in front of her and something clunked, probably a box of ammo.
“I have to get something,” Jane said. “I’m sorry, I’ll just be a second. I’m sorry.”
Jane opened the door and was out of the car, running through the downpour back to the gun shop. She had to use her hands to find her way, placing them on the trunks and hoods of cars to keep from bumping into them. It felt like she was swimming, and the rain was so thick that it was hard to breathe.
Her squinting eyes found the “No Parking” lines on the pavement where she had parked Sven’s car and she lunged forward, sighing with relief when her hands hit the glass of the gun shop door. She pulled the door open and burst in, a drenched, poncho-wearing disaster.
But she had to come back. She just had to. Why she hadn’t just taken the thing in the first place was beyond her. It was a day for taking, and she wanted it bad.
Jane took sloshing steps behind the counter, leaving a trail of water as she went, and slipping part of the way until the strip of carpet behind the counter stopped her. She walked over to what she had left behind, and felt the carpet become sopping wet under her feet in an instant.
She pulled it out of the display in a sudden movement, and banged her wrist painfully against the display’s plastic sliding door.
“Ow!” she yelped, but forgot about the pain as soon the cry had left her mouth.
It had been worth it to come back…so worth it.
She shuddered as she looked at the Smith and Wesson .460 XVR Magnum Revolver in her hands.
“Single action…” came a deep, slow echoing voice in her head.
It held five rounds.
It was massive. Mostly silver with a wooden handle.
Without letting go of the gun, Jane began to dig around in the boxes of ammo for something suitable. She wanted at least Colt 45, and that was all she got. She turned over all of the boxes looking for .454 or .460, but Colt 45 was all there was. At least there was that, and a decent amount of it—six boxes of twenty rounds each. That would last for a little while. That would do some real damage.
“That’s not a gun for a woman,” another voice said, startling Jane out of her munitions-fueled euphoria. She knew this voice. It was her second shooting coach, the misogynist—Matt. He had been so nice at first, such a perfect gentleman. Then, after a few shooting lessons and a few dates, he had shown his true self.
A woman’s place is at the stove, cooking me breakfast, he would say.
Sure, he would say, a woman should be able to shoot a gun, but a woman’s gun, and never, never, a man’s gun.
The relationship hadn’t lasted very long.
For a moment, Jane wondered what had become of Matt, if the zombies had gotten him. Then she realized she didn’t care. He had only wanted her around to showcase, and to cook and clean and protect his house with her woman’s gun.
To hell with you Matt, she thought, and an image of a well-bitten Matt-the-zombie popped into her mind. She wouldn’t hesitate if she saw him like that. The coldness of the thought struck her, and she opened a box of Colt 45 and loaded the revolver. It was heavy, but she could handle it. There was no such thing as a man’s gun, or a woman’s gun.
Jane reprimanded herself for all the voices she was hearing in her head. It wasn’t like her to hear voices. Psychologists had a name for that. Jane thought it was schizophrenia but she wasn’t sure. That wasn’t her, her head was supposed to be screwed on nice and tight.
At least none of the voices belonged to Vicky, at least not yet. Jane wasn’t sure she could handle Vicky’s voice in her head. Poor Vicky. What had Vicky ever done to anybody? Sure she left crumbs about the place sometimes and had an aversion to using coasters that would have made any man proud, but she didn’t deserve, didn’t deserve to be—
“A woman can’t handle a gun like that! It’s too big! Recoil’s too strong!” she heard Matt’s voice shout. “You don’t have enough muscle in your arms for that one!”
“Shut up!” Jane screamed, cocking the gun. It shook in her hands as she raised it, pointing down the aisle she was facing.
Who was he to tell her anything? He was probably still stuck at that dead-end job where he would never stand up to anyone, no matter how badly they treated him. She wondered if he really had been treated badly at all, or if he was the one doling out abuse. He had certainly made her feel bad…about everything.
“Shut up you—”
But she didn’t finish because a rasping groan came at her from the “Employees Only” section. Jane froze, listening. She heard another groan, this one more guttural, and then she could hear the shuffling of feet. They could only be zombie feet, she decided, and she turned to the “Employees Only” section with the gun held out in front of her body.
She saw him, or rather, it. This zombie wasn’t wearing overalls, but a pair of stained, well-worn jeans and an equally stained and well-worn t-shirt. The zombie’s clothes had more holes than the holiest cheese. But it wasn’t as funny as it could’ve been, because through the holes Jane could see dry, grey skin that flaked off with each of the zombie’s shuffling steps.
Another groan came from the thing, and its hands rose up to stomach level. They opened, and began grasping at the air.
That’s when Jane saw the hip holster with a revolver sticking out of it, hammer cocked. This man—back when he had been a man—took his Second Amendment rights seriously.
Jane took a hesitant step back with her right leg and bent her left leg at the knee. There she stood, in a lunging position, as the zombie approached. She aimed, cocked the revolver, breathed in, aimed again, breathed out, and squeezed the trigger.
The shot ripped through the air and most of the zombie’s head disappeared. It had been a clean shot, removing the top half of the zombie’s head above the jaw line. Jane saw teeth and a shriveled tongue, and a disgusting jumble of flesh and bone where the throat and spine must have been.
It made her think of her high school biology class where she had dissected earthworms and frogs and fetal pigs. Only this smelled much worse. Jane pulled on her surgical mask and stepped backward from the still shuffling zombie.
She watched as the shuffling slowed and the zombie began to totter forward. Jane was quick to react and poked the zombie’s chest with the tip of her gun, pushing it backward, away from her. The zombie tipped backward and fell, arms still outstretched, hands grasping.
Jane’s ears rang and she could feel some soreness in her palms from the revolver’s recoil, but it was still in her hands, and her aim had been perfect.
So much for it being a man’s gun, she thought, putting the notion to rest.
Jane leaned forward over the zombie, and she could see yellow-grey splotches all over its shirt and jeans. When she looked closer, she saw more of these splotches on the thing’s exposed arms, neck, and the small part of its head that was still intact. The splotches looked like the dried remains of a thick liquid, and they made her shudder.
I have to go, she thought, they’re waiting for me.
Jane regained her composure—which was becoming easier to do as the day wore on—and gathered all the boxes of Colt 45. She took a large paper bag from beside the cash register and put the boxes into it. She thought about taking the zombie’s hip holster but decided she didn’t want to go through the process of unfastening it. That required getting much too close for comfort.
She took another shoulder holster down from the rack behind the counter, took her poncho off, and slung the holster over her shoulder, on top of the shoulder holster with the Beretta in it. She stuck the revolver into the new holster.
Reluctantly loosing her grip on the .460 XVR, she let it hang at her side. There was too much weight on her left side now, but she would just have to deal with that. She put the poncho back on, then crumpled the top of the paper bag with the ammo in it, setting it on the counter.
Then she ran down an aisle, looking for some unopened ponchos. Not finding any, and feeling that she was running out of time, Jane grabbed a hiking pack and brought it up to the counter. She took a second paper bag and put it over the one with the Colt 45 ammo in it. Then she put the covered ammo in the hiking pack. That would have to do.
Jane ran to the door clutching the treasure. She was pounds heavier with the revolver, ammo, and additional holster, but she felt light as a feather. The .460 XVR had that kind of effect on her. She pushed the surgical mask down, tucking it once more under the plastic of the poncho around her neck.
“Single action,” she whispered to herself. She loved those two words. Though the .460 XVR also worked in double action, Jane knew that the lighter trigger pull in single action would afford her better accuracy with the impressive weapon. All the men who used the .460 XVR in double action mode were fooling themselves, patting themselves on the back, and missing every target.
Jane shouldered the door open, bolted through it into the rain, and dashed to the car. The rain had let up just enough so that she didn’t have to grope her way along the parked cars.
She wrenched the passenger door open and climbed into the car.
“What the hell was that about?” Sven asked, looking angry.
It didn’t shake Jane out of her high spirits. “I forgot something, sorry.”
“You got something good, didn’t you?” Lorie asked.
The girl must have seen it in the way Jane was carrying her parcel of ammo.
Jane turned around. “Maybe.” She smiled at Lorie, and Lorie smiled back.
Sven clicked the doors shut. He shifted the car into drive and they pulled out of the strip mall, onto Route 29.
As they left the gun store behind them, Jane began to think about the awful splotches on the zombie whose head she had just blown off. Though she wasn’t conscious of it, her right hand was under her poncho, squeezing the grip of the revolver.
Sven had a hard time seeing where he was driving. The rain was coming down in great sheets, and he could only drive a short distance at a time before having to stop and wait for the rain to let up enough to drive on. He was angry with Jane for running away like that, she could’ve been hurt in there by herself, but he made himself focus on the washout that was the road in front of him.
“You guys need to help me out a little,” he said. “I can barely see anything, so if you see something, let me know as soon as you do.” He had already scraped against several cars when he pulled away from the store.
Only moments later, Sven hit the brakes and just missed colliding with a mailbox. He had veered off course and driven onto a sidewalk at the edge of the road. No one had noticed in the dense rain.
Then there was a blinding flash of light and the car filled with screams. Everyone screamed but Sven, because his heart had jumped too far up into his throat for him to make a sound. A thunderclap followed immediately behind the flash, and the screams made another round through the car.
“It’s just thunder,” Sven stammered, “and lightning…thunder and lightning.” The lightning had struck just across the road, on the southbound side of Route 29. Sven looked over to see that Ivan was hiding behind Jane’s legs, ears twitching. “Poor Ivan.”
“Isn’t lightning only supposed to hit tall things?” Lorie asked. “That’s what they tell us in school. That hit right in the road over there.”
“You can’t believe everything they tell you in school,” Sven said. “My mom always used to tell me that too, about lightning, probably because she was told that in school, or by her parents. But yeah, it’s not true. Lightning can do random things I think. And there’s not really anything tall in the road here, it’s wide open.”
Sven backed up to give the car the minimum amount of clearance it needed to make it around the mailbox. Any more would have meant risking backing into something—the visibility in the rear was non-existent. “Okay, in this rain it might be more dangerous to go than to stay, so maybe let’s wait a few minutes and see if it gets any better. I still want to get as far out of town as possible to get away from the residential areas. There’s gonna be less of them the farther out we go. Here they’ll find us—they seem to have a way of sniffing us out—and might get us just by outnumbering us.”
“They’re the ones that smell,” Lorie said.
“Maybe we smell a certain way to them,” Evan said.
“They smell awful,” Lorie said.
“That makes sense,” Jane said, “what you said about going somewhere with less people, somewhere farther out. Who knows how long the outbreak will last? Do you have a particular place in mind or are we just gonna drive and drive?”
“I know a place.” Sven was growing more nervous. Was the rain never going to let up? It was a miracle they hadn’t gotten into an accident already. “The Wegmans way down 29. We’ll have food and supplies there, and if it’s safe we can lock the place down and stay there. If not, then at least we can get supplies and keep going from there. We can go farther out somewhere to some farmhouse and take it over if we have to.”
“I hope we don’t have to stay locked up too long,” Jane said. “Remember your mom said only Virginia is affected, then they’ll be able to come in here and take care of it right? I mean the government, they’ve gotta be doing something about this.”
“The radio’s still no good,” Sven said. “I tried it when you went back inside the store. And we don’t know that’s still the case. For all we know the whole country is like this…for all we know the whole…” he trailed off, not wanting to air that particular thought. If the whole world was affected, then maybe running was pointless.
“Wegmans is a great idea!” Lorie suddenly blurted. “I’ve been there. It’s huge, and they have all kinds of stuff to eat. We can probably stay there for weeks, maybe months…as long as it’s not…” the excitement was fading out of her voice, “as long as it’s not full of zombies.”
“I think it’ll be alright. We’re already doing much better, in terms of getting somewhere less populated. I can’t tell if the zombies are wandering around us in this rain, but there are a lot fewer cars on the road.”
“I think the rain is getting lighter,” Lorie said, “right Evan? What do you think?”
If Evan responded, Sven didn’t hear it.
Sven thought the rain might be getting lighter, but he couldn’t tell. A cold sweat was seeping from his palms, coating the steering wheel and making him even more nervous.
Then his protein alarm went off again, and he shut it off with an annoyed slap.
“You don’t want a protein bar?” Jane asked, sounding concerned.
He shook his head. His throat felt like it was locking up, and he wasn’t breathing as deeply as he ought to have been—he couldn’t. It felt like he had over-trained and under-slept. Sven’s body wasn’t happy.
“Evan?” Lorie’s questioning voice came from the backseat. “Evan? Evan?”
Evan didn’t respond.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sven saw Jane turn around.
“What’s wrong?” Jane asked.
Sven didn’t hear Evan respond. Jane and Lorie were whispering something to each other, then Ivan let out a loud, angry hiss.
“I know,” Sven said, “it’s some creepy rain out there, but we’ll be okay. You can have all the cat food there is at Wegmans. You can pick out whatever it is you like best and eat just that. How’s that sound? I bet they even have some delicious raw fish for you to tear into.” Sven was surprised to find he was repulsed by the mental image of fish, and of food in general. His appetite was unusually absent, and he felt none of his usual enthusiasm about eating. None at all.
“Sven,” Jane said, “any chance you can drive any faster? Evan’s passed out again, and I’m sure the car ride and noise of the rain isn’t helping. We need to give him liquids and soup and all that, and let him rest.”
“I can try,” Sven said. “We’re most of the way now, but we need to get there in one piece. We’ll get there, hole up, and hang out until this whole thing blows over. Evan will get better, and everything will be fine.” Sven wasn’t sure who he was trying to convince.
Ivan hissed again, looking as agitated as he had so far that day.
“Jane,” Sven said, “can you try to calm him down? Maybe give him another treat or something?”
“Yeah, I’ll try, he’s been acting really weird.” Jane gave Ivan a snack, which seemed to appease him. “Sven…about holing up at Wegmans, isn’t that what people usually try to do in the movies?”
“Yeah,” Sven said, but that made him think. It never worked out in the movies. Holing up with supplies and trying to wait out the zombie contagion usually ended in disaster. Wait, was it usually or was it always? Sven tried to think of a movie where it worked, but he couldn’t. Then again, trying to fight the zombies usually ended in disaster too, unless you happened to have super zombie-fighting powers like the Resident Evil woman. “We’ll see what the situation is, rest, stock up on supplies, and then take it from there.” He wasn’t sure where they would take it from there, but he was sure they needed rest, and they needed food and water.
“If the movies are any indication,” Sven added, “we need to be on the lookout for people taking advantage of the crisis. We need to be on the lookout for them as much as for the zombies…if not more so.”
Cooled by the rainwater, Milt was feeling much better. Actually he was feeling quite good—as good as he felt after a moderate World of Warcraft pillaging victory. The pulsing in his head had calmed, replaced by the knowledge that the day’s strange events heralded his impending rise to power, and perhaps even to fame, as the simpleton squire had suggested.
Leaning into the squire’s car, Milt felt around his jaw line for a lump. He found one, and squeezed it greedily, until the pimple popped.
There was a painful prick, and Milt knew that he had pushed some of the infection deeper. That was good, because that meant there would be more to pop later, and it was more likely to be yellow and bloody and maybe even a little greenish. Those were the best, the most interesting of bodily expulsions.
He brought his thumb and forefinger up to his nose and sniffed at it. The smell was nothing special, and, bemused, he brought his fingers up for a closer inspection. The product of the pimple was pasty, but there was no hard, little kernel in it as Milt had hoped.
Next time, Milt thought. There was always a next time, and he relished the anticipation of it. He loved the sense of accomplishment that came with the pop. It was glorious. Milt wiped the pus on his jeans and smiled.
“So, any new ideas?” Brian asked. “About what’s going on? Like maybe it’s just a virus, or maybe some kind of radiation. I guess it must be some kind of infection, what with the biting and everything. Then again maybe it’s pollution. People really are screwing up the planet pretty good these days, and I think what goes around comes around, you know?”
Milt felt his smile fade as he turned to Brian. Brian was growing increasingly pathetic. He kept asking about what was happening and why it was happening and what they should do about it and so on. He was a whiner, a childish whiner. He didn’t understand things the way Milt did. But what could Milt do about it? It was so hard to find any kind of help that good help was most assuredly out of the question.
It was obvious to Milt that why and how the zombies had come didn’t matter. It didn’t make one modicum of difference. What mattered was that the world had changed, and the balance of power was shifting…shifting to people like Milt, people that had the guts, and the intelligence, to take control.
Brian might be mostly worthless, Milt thought, but I can lord over him for a while until he outlives his usefulness.
As simple as Brian might be, he might have a role to play in Milt’s ascension. It wasn’t Brian’s fault that he was dumb, of course, and Milt did appreciate that the guy had bandaged his head, albeit a little too tightly.
Milt sighed. “No, no new clues.”
“I sure would like to know what’s going on,” Brian said.
“I am sure we will find out presently,” Milt said, responding to the drug-dealer turned squire. Brian had tried to play off the drug-dealing by saying he was in sports nutrition or something equally laughable. Not only was Milt combating the zombie infestation, but he was cleaning up the community by rehabilitating its criminals. He felt pride in having such a positive effect on the people around him.
Now they were waiting for someone else to come. Brian was convinced that there would be more survivors, and that they would come here. As much as Milt didn’t want to admit it, he agreed with Brian. This was the place to go, it wasn’t densely populated, and there were supplies. There was just the matter of clearing out the diseased monsters that were there.
“You gonna keep on using that thing?” Brian asked, pointing to the sword. “Don’t you think that’s a bit dangerous, you know, with how you’re not feeling well and everything? You might cut yourself again. Maybe a blunt object would be better, or a crowbar or something. I’ve got a crowbar, do you want it?”
Milt tightened his grip on the hilt of his Conan the Barbarian replica sword, and looked at Brian. The squire looked so stupid with his muscles and lean body. What was the point of all that? Milt knew that sports rotted the brain. He knew that even before he met Brian, and Brian was yet another confirmation of that fact.
“Yes I will keep using my Sword of Crom, thank you very much, and I will have you know that I did not cut myself. I do not question you about the silly body sculpting routines in which you obviously engage, or about your perfectly ridiculous use of that baseball bat as a zombie-dispatching device. Therefore, please refrain from questioning my own zombie slaying and life choices. Oh, and I should add that I reject your offer of your crowbar, which is no doubt rusty and tetanus-ridden.”
“I was just trying to—”
“Enough! Let us sit here in peaceful silence so that I may calculate our next move. That way we will be ready at a moment’s notice. Why don’t you listen to the pelting that the rain is giving the pavement and ponder the ecosystem, or something equally inane.”
A few minutes passed, and Milt began to feel more at ease. Brian was, it seemed, actually capable of sitting still without making a sound.
But then, to Milt’s great chagrin, the silence didn’t last long.
“Hey!” Brian suddenly yelled. “Look over there!” He pointed into the center of the parking lot, the area where Milt had encountered the horde of shopper zombies.
“Yes, very good. That is the parking lot, and we shall cross it and enter the Wegmans when the rain has ceased. Now let us please resume the nice tranquil silence that we were enjoying before you just now decided to speak. I suggest that you pretend you are a monk of an order that requires taking an oath of silence as a condition of membersh— ”
“No! Look! They’re moving!” Brian jumped to his feet, and started hopping up and down, pointing to the center of the parking lot. “The zombie parts from before, the dead zombies, I mean the zombies without heads or whatever, they’re moving! Look! Look!”
“That is utterly preposterous,” Milt began, but when he looked where Brian was pointing, he wheezed out a gasp and then he was furiously pulling up the back of his jeans so that he could reach into his back pocket and get his inhaler. His bothersome alveoli had become uncooperative at the very instant Milt saw the writhing mass of undead, their limbs flailing without purpose under the heavy downpour.
Then Milt’s ears filled with the sound of his own wheezing breaths, and everything went black.
Lorie held the long, serrated hunting knife at her side. She’d taken it out of her back pocket as she climbed into the car, knowing that it would be impossible to sit with the knife in her pocket.
She was sure nobody had been looking—Evan was lying down and Sven was cursing at the pouring rain. Lorie slowly put the knife beside her, between her leg and the door, where nobody would be able to see that she was holding it. She didn’t think Sven would care much about her having the knife, but it seemed Jane hadn’t wanted Lorie to arm herself, and Lorie saw no need to inform anyone that she had found herself a notched knife to play with. It was nowhere near as big as the butcher knife, but she was happy with it all the same. She was looking forward to breaking it in.
Now they were slowly driving up 29, farther up than Lorie ever went, except when her dad used to pick her up and take her back to Arlington with him. Lorie’s mom and dad had separated when Lorie was six, and then Lorie’s dad died of a heart attack when she was eleven.
Her mom told her it had to with his stressful government job. Lorie didn’t know that much about her father, and she was always working up the courage to ask her mom about him. Now she realized she might never know more about him than she already did.
Concentrating, Lorie gazed out the window and made the memory flit out of her mind and into the storm. She knew it would visit her again, but now wasn’t the time to be a gracious host.
It had been years since Lorie was last up this way, and she didn’t recognize anything. The rain was finally getting lighter, and through the breaks in the downpour Lorie caught glimpses of large expanses of woods, punctuated occasionally and briefly by strip malls.
The scenery they passed made her feel lonely and cold, even though it was a warm day and the storm hadn’t brought more than a few degree temperature drop with it. The panorama they passed made Lorie feel cold all the same. She was grateful to be in a car, in some relative safety, with people who were as determined as she was to survive. That made her think of something, something that she recognized had been bothering her at some subconscious level of understanding.
“Hey,” Lorie said, uncertain of where to begin, “so I keep thinking about all the bad stuff that might happen, all the stuff that can go wrong…not in a depressing sort of way, but to be ready for it. I think we should be prepared for anything right?”
“Right,” Jane said, “of course. What’s on your mind?”
“Well,” Lorie said, “I think maybe we should talk about what we’ll do if something goes wrong with the car. What’s the backup plan for going on foot? Where would we go and what would we take?”
The silence that followed made Lorie uncomfortable, so she spoke again to fill the quiet. “I mean I think it’s doable, we should just be ready for it, like if we split up the food so each of us has some, or if we just have everything in bags and ready to go, and…well,” Lorie’s voice changed to a whisper, “what are we going to do with Evan? We can’t leave him, and I can’t carry him.”
“Jane and I will carry him,” Sven said.
“Of course we will,” Jane said, “we’re not gonna leave him behind, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Lorie looked over at Evan. He showed no reaction to their talking about him.
“Okay,” Lorie said, “good. We can’t leave him behind, I just want to put it out there that with the amount of stuff we’ve just taken, we won’t be able to carry everything on foot. We’ll be too slow, and…”
“You’re right,” Sven said, reassuring Lorie. “People come first, before weapons and ammo. If we get caught and have to leave the car for whatever reason, we leave the heaviest stuff behind and go on with the bare minimum that we need to eat and defend ourselves.”
“I’m going to fill my pockets with extra ammo,” Jane said. “So that if we have to ditch I’ll have some to work with.”
“I can take Evan over my shoulder,” Sven said, “and Lorie, can you take Ivan in his pack?”
Lorie nodded eagerly, happy at the acceptance they had given her fear of going on foot. “I’ll take him.”
“See?” Sven said. “Ivan agrees with the plan.” He laughed, and then Jane and Lorie joined in. Lorie’s laugh felt as forced and uneasy as Sven’s and Jane’s looked.
The plan worked for Lorie, and helped to set her mind at ease. She needed to know what to do in the eventualities that she could think up.
Luck favors the prepared, Lorie thought, as she lightly stroked her knife’s serrations with the tip of her thumb.
The rain was getting lighter still. Through the rear window, Lorie saw some streaks of light peeking through the storm clouds. Turning back around and looking in the direction they were traveling, Lorie didn’t see any reassuring streaks of light, but the rain was calming down all the same. The ominous sound of the pounding rain on the roof of the car had lessened to a smoother, somewhat less threatening background noise.
“We’re just about there,” Sven said. Lorie was glad to hear his voice. The car had gotten way too quiet. “How’s Evan back there?”
Lorie was reluctant to check on him, for reasons she couldn’t place. “I’ll see how he’s doing.”
“No!” Jane snapped from the front, spinning around in her seat, looking like she was about to keep Lorie away from Evan by force if necessary. “I mean…” Jane seemed to be trying to make up for her overreaction. “I mean we should let him rest. We’ll be able to stop soon, and then I’ll take care of him properly. If he’s able to sleep through this, we ought to let him.”
“Okay,” Lorie said. She held eye contact with Jane for a few moments, and found herself inexplicably sliding into the corner of the backseat, closer to the door, and farther from Evan. She watched him, thinking he must be really sick to be able to sleep at a time like this.
For a while, they rode in silence through the gloom.
Then the rain stopped, and Evan’s eyes shot open.
Twinkle, twinkle, the twinkling twinkles twinkled.
Milt opened his eyes all the way, and comprehension dawned on him. He was staring at the water droplets collecting at the bottom of a mud flap. He squirmed sideways, and saw that the mud flap belonged to a tire. He squirmed farther, and saw that the tire belonged to a car.
Then Milt turned his head to the left and screamed.
“It’s alright,” Brian said. “It’s just me. I think you had a panic attack and passed out.”
“Hogwash,” Milt said. “Men such as myself are not prone to panic attacks. A heavy branch must have fallen from the tree above me, crashing into my skull and rendering me unconscious.”
“Actually, I think it had something to do with that.” Brian turned and pointed.
Milt looked, and he began to wheeze again, groping for the top of his back pocket.
“I’m all over it,” Brian said, and handed Milt an inhaler. “I got it out of your pocket when I saw you trying to get it. I gave you a few puffs, and you came to.”
Milt was infuriated at the invasion of privacy to which he’d succumbed while unconscious, but that didn’t stop him from grabbing the inhaler and puffing on it.
The cold, medicated puffs felt magnificent in his lungs. The seditious alveoli unfurled and relented. Milt kept puffing as he turned back to the implausible sight in the parking lot.
It couldn’t be! How could it? They were moving, grasping, clutching at the air, kicking their legs, and contorting their faces into masks unseen even in hell’s lowest rungs.
He could even see the faces of the decapitated zombies twist and warp and snap their teeth as if chomping on imaginary hunks of human flesh.
Suddenly cold, he looked with surprise at the inhaler he still held in front of his face. His hand was pumping it violently, and Brian was clutching at his hand and the inhaler, trying to wrestle it away.
The squire was saying something, but the churn of the zombie parts had jolted Milt out of his regular bodily awareness, and so the squire’s voice was far away and hard to make out, if it was there at all.
Then Brian wrenched the inhaler free, and Milt snapped back into himself at once.
“Take it easy on that thing,” Brian said. “You’ll OD.”
“Yeah, they’ve been doing that for a while. I think it’s got something to do with the rain, but they haven’t put themselves back together or anything like that. They’re just moving in their broken pile.”
“They w—won’t ge—get us?”
“No, they haven’t come any closer. Pretty damn creepy though, huh?”
Milt made a gurgling sound.
Brian pointed up at the sky. “At least the rain stopped.”
“M—may I ask why you s—said the thrashing had t—to do with the rainwater?”
“Because it didn’t start until the rain began. Then the more rain there was, the more violently the parts moved. It was a lot worse than this while you were passed out. Then, when the rain began to let up, the thrashing let up too. Now the rain is gone, and the movement is dying down. I think maybe the rain feeds them. You see how dry they were before, the way their heads exploded when I hit them? It’s as if they’re made of sawdust. I bet they’re not as dry now, I bet if we go over there and prod at the parts or hit them, they won’t turn to dust, they’ll be more like regular people parts.”
Milt calmed, and his sense of self returned. “Preposterous. Truly and undeniably outrageous. How could you have seen or measured the degree of their undead rattling from your position here, and through the substantial rain? I am afraid it is impossible.”
Brian looked crestfallen. “No, no, I’m pretty sure I saw it. The rain was thick, but that kind of thing is unmistakable. I’m not seeing things, no, I’m not.”
Milt felt a pang of regret for ridiculing Brian. He had to admit that Brian had played a role in his revival, and in the prevention of a possible Ventolin overindulgence, sweet though that may have been.
“Although I am certain there is no relationship between the bizarre thunderstorm and the twitching parts, I commend you on your creative vision.”
Brian shrugged, looking even more dejected. “I’m gonna check it out, and see what’s going on in the store. I’ve had enough of sitting out here. I can’t see any more zombies around, and you shouldn’t worry about those dead ones, I don’t think they’re gonna put their heads back on and come after you. Try not to faint again, okay?”
“I did not faint, and you are not to leave at this moment, I forbid it. The time has not yet come for reconnaissance.”
Milt wasn’t going to admit as much, but he was fearful the zombie parts would reassemble, and begin to make their way toward him. Though he still looked forward to more zombie slaying in his immediate future, he most assuredly did not want to deal with any kind of zombies that could reconstruct themselves after being hacked to pieces. That was not a fair zombie game at all.
“Hey man, I’m hungry too, and I’m way too anxious to sit in one place. If you need me, yell.” Brian began to walk away, carrying the baseball bat.
Milt felt his control over the squire slipping. That wasn’t how the day was supposed to be going. “Wait, if you must leave on your wayward quest, please fetch Coca-Cola and Snickers and deliver the same to me, while I keep watch here.”
Brian gave a wave without turning around, but didn’t respond.
Shocked by Brian’s rude temper tantrum, Milt clambered to his feet. The cut behind his ear throbbed slightly, but the throbbing wasn’t nearly as bothersome as the bandage, which made Milt feel like he was trapped in damp fuzz.
He picked up his sword and sheathed it. Then he narrowed his eyes and watched the disobedient squire saunter off toward Wegmans, walking in a wide arc around the jumble of zombie parts.
The thrashing of the zombie parts was diminishing, and Milt’s initial astonishment at the sight had passed. The zombies’ death throes were markedly different from those of humans, but that was all the thrashing was—the dead zombies’ equivalent of human corpses’ twitching.
Milt continued to watch as Brian circled back to the center of the parking lot, now beyond the untidy heap of dead zombies. Brian was tiptoeing now, and he continued tiptoeing all the way up to the Wegmans entrance and stopped.
The doors slid open. There Brian stood for a few moments, peering into the store’s entryway. Then the doors slid shut, and Brian must have been startled because he jumped backward a few steps, still on the tips of his toes, like a tap dancer doing an awkward jig.
The doors slid open again. This time, Brian quickly tiptoed inside, and then he was gone.
Milt harrumphed. The birds were starting to sing again, and there were now small patches of blue in the sky, letting in too much sunlight for his liking. He wanted to get inside too, but he would let Brian come back with his scouting report first.
Hungry though he was, Milt wasn’t ready to go venturing into a sprawling supermarket, where zombies no doubt hid in dark corners. He decided that the shade of the trees in the parking lot outskirt where he sat would have to do for the present.
Milt got up and circled the car once, performing his own brand of reconnaissance. He looked in all directions and listened in all directions.
Nothing—nothing except for the light scraping and tapping of the zombies that were trapped in their cars. It was an odd thing to ponder: humans had climbed into the cars, and then, as if by some magical action of the cars, the humans had been transfigured into zombies, as if the car were some kind of zombie-producing device—a zombie-chamber of sorts. That would make an interesting comic book.
Then Milt slowly rumbled around, throwing pudgy-handed karate chops in all directions, to ward off any undead that might be stealthily advancing toward him.
Satisfied that he was alone, Milt walked over to the car’s hood and scrambled up on top of it. Given his large frame and ample accoutrements, it was a challenging feat for Milt to accomplish.
When he had conquered the hood, he sat atop it, beaming with a plump pride that he was certain would strike fear in the undead hearts of zombies the world over. The world over? That was something else to ponder.
How far did the outbreak extend? Based on the state of the facts before him, could Milt reasonably conclude that the outbreak was confined to this strip mall and its immediate surroundings? In that case, what if Wegmans were the source of it all?
Milt shook his head. No, that can’t be it, he thought. That scenario assumes too much—that for some reason Brian and I are not affected, even though we were here when it began. Would that make us immune? Why would that be?
He shrugged, gave a moment’s thought to tuning Brian’s car radio, then dismissed the thought. That would require climbing down from his regal roost, and that was no frivolous undertaking. That is quite a nice turn of phrase, Milt thought, complimenting himself.
The term “regal roost” was quite worthy indeed, and Milt was impressed with himself for coming up with it. The zombie apocalypse seemed to be making his mind sharper.
There will be plenty of time to determine what is happening, he thought. Knowing the cause wouldn’t change what had already happened, and if he hadn’t caught the undead influenza already, he was confident that it wasn’t going to happen at this point.
The zombies had come, and it appeared to Milt that the outbreak wasn’t localized. He didn’t have proof of that, and he wasn’t going to go adventuring outside of the strip mall yet, but he had a feeling that this type of event couldn’t be localized.
Milt pushed the investigative thoughts away. He cleared his mind, and sought a state of battle-readiness. He closed his eyes and let his awareness spread through his expansive body, now resting on the slick hood of Brian’s car. The car emitted intermittent groans under Milt’s weight as he sat. Milt felt his body find a point of balance, and he brought his plentiful legs up to sit like a Buddhist monk in meditative repose.
Well…not exactly a Buddhist monk—a Buddhist monk probably wouldn’t be clutching a sharpened replica sword that was now tinged with fetid zombie flesh. That was where he transcended the ordinary Buddhist monk. Milt knew that once a sword had been used to slay the undead, it instantly became more valuable, and more venerable.
Yes, Milt thought, the sword is a thing to be worshipped now, as am I.
The car’s suspension let out a creak, and the hood dipped suddenly under Milt, before settling into a lower equilibrium with a clatter. Milt didn’t lose his balance though, no, he was in the zone, and remained in position atop the car, with his sword piously laid out across his lap.
The rain was good, he decided, refreshing. It helped take the heat out of the air, and Milt felt rejuvenated, in preparation for the next round. There would certainly be a next round, a next chapter in all of this, he knew that.
For a brief moment, Milt was so at peace with himself that he didn’t even want a Snickers bar, whether in standard form, miniature form, ice cream form, frozen standard form, or frozen miniature form. He didn’t even have Coca-Cola on the brain.
In the perfect serenity of his repose, Milt recalled how he loved basements. It was the dankness of them, and the darkness too. If storm clouds could always be in the sky the way they were now, reminding him of his basement lair, he would venture outside more often.
That was a completely reasonable, normal thing—his love of the dank. It was cool and nice and he needed the dark humidity to think. Other people didn’t understand it. They thought it was weird.
Well, the other people, they didn’t matter now, because the world was changing for Milt, not for them. They were gone, they were zombies now, a throng of carnivorous sheep…and Milt…he stood alone, unique, the hunter, the predator…the zombie slayer.
An other-worldly groan floated up from the back of the car. Jane was frozen in place by its ghostly tenor, and she had to will her body into action. She had been expecting this moment, trying to prepare herself for it, visualizing how she would react to it, but now that it was happening, she was locking up, just as she had with Vicky earlier in the day.
That’s no way to be, Jane told herself, that’s no way to be on a day like this, that’s exactly the kind of thing that spells the difference between life and—
She jolted herself into action, making her muscles move by sheer force of will. Of course she knew he was only a boy, an innocent little boy who liked to play chess and probably never hurt any—
She pulled hard on the gun, pulling it clean of its holster. By the time she realized that it was the .460 XVR, it was too late.
In one swift motion, Jane had cocked the revolver, twisted her body, and extended the revolver at Evan.
The boy made a noise, and Jane thought it wasn’t quite right, there was something off about it but she—
The large gun obscured most of Evan’s head from Jane’s line of sight, but she knew that shooting him in any part of the head, from this distance, with that gun, would be fatal.
“Jane!” Sven shouted as he hit the brakes, jerking the car to a stop. Jane’s body hurtled against the dashboard, but she kept the revolver trained on the boy’s head.
“Jane!” Sven shouted again. “What the hell are you doing?”
Out of the corner of her eye, Jane was aware of Lorie moving deeper into her corner, but of staying very focused on the action, readying herself to pounce.
Then the boy made a noise, the same noise that he had made before, and Jane realized that it was a scream, not a zombie moan. He was still screaming. Zombies didn’t scream, did they?
“Jane,” Sven said in a calm, slow voice, “it’s okay, it’s just Evan. Let’s put the gun away.”
Jane’s finger quivered on the trigger, if she only pulled it a little farther, then…
The boy began to cry, his tears adding some streaks of color to the pallid skin of his face.
“Please don’t shoot me,” he said through trembling, tear-soaked lips, “please, please.”
The boy covered his face with his hands and began to sob.
The gun stayed where it was.
Jane was appalled at her next thought. To her own disbelief, she found herself wondering about the splatter of blood and brain matter that would soil the car’s interior if she did pull the trigger, and now that the boy was covering his face with his hands, pieces of his hands and fingers would be among the mash of blown up flesh.
These things are better done outside, she thought, the gun trembling in her hands. These things are better done outside? What kind of person thinks that when she’s holding a gun to a boy’s head?
He’s a boy, she told herself, not a zombie, a boy, just a sick boy.
Jane made herself open her mouth, letting the air flow in. Her face was hot and she felt like something was sticking up into the back of her throat.
She pulled the gun back, emptied the cylinder into her hand, lowered the hammer, and put the gun away. She put the four live rounds into one pocket and the empty shell into the cup holder beside her, watching her trembling hands as she did it.
Ashamed and disgusted with herself, Jane said nothing, and thankfully, the unease in the car was so great, that no one else said anything either.
Jane was incredulous at what had just happened—she had felt so sure, and yet she had been so wrong.
Sven eased his foot off the brake, and they drove away in silence.
Some minutes later, when Jane had her breathing and mind under control, she turned to Evan. “I’m really sorry Evan. I was just startled that’s all.”
Evan nodded meekly, his tears still drying on his cheeks. “I know.” His voice was snuffled.
“Are you feeling better? Your cold?”
He wiped at his nose. “I feel about the same. I had a bad dream I think.”
Jane got a napkin out of her pack and handed it to him. “Here, use that.”
“Thanks.” He took the napkin and blew his nose.
“Soon we’ll have a place to rest, to sleep, and no more bad dreams.”
Evan nodded, but Jane didn’t think he believed her. She didn’t believe it either.
Milt heard a fluttering, and he looked up to see four little birds alight on the branch above him.
Damn that Brian, Milt thought, parking under a tree into which birds eagerly flutter.
Milt hated birds. He didn’t know what kind these were, but he knew he despised them. He had no doubt they were the ones that snuck up to his tiny basement window each morning to wake him with their terrorizing chirps and cheeps.
The chirps and cheeps were already beginning, and Milt felt the throbbing in his head instantly increase.
But I’m the zombie slayer now, he encouraged himself, surely I can take care of a few little birds.
Milt drew his sword from its scabbard and raised it, pointing it directly at the birds. They stopped singing and regarded him in a way that he interpreted as bewilderment, followed rapidly by cool indifference.
The birds resumed their song.
Thoroughly brimming with anger, Milt waved the sword at the birds, hoping to frighten them out of their perch.
The twittering birds refused to budge, and seemed to Milt to twitter with more resolve each time he whirled his sword at them. There was only one thing he could conclude—they were mocking him, and the birds, unreachable as they were, quite literally had the upper wing.
Milt continued to wave the sword about his head until his arms grew tired. He stopped, not having waved the sword for very long, and jammed it back into its scabbard.
Frustrated and out of breath, Milt decided to rest for a few minutes before continuing with his bird-flushing.
He was catching his breath from the sword-waving when the birds’ chirruping took on a more frantic tone, and Milt was convinced the sound was hell-born. He had no doubt these creatures were harbingers of the damned: perhaps they themselves were the very cause of the zombie plague.
Milt decided to throw something at the branch, and not having anything suitable within reach, he would have to climb down from the hood of the car to find a throwing object.
He began to mentally prepare himself for his dismount, and he knew that even if he didn’t find anything to lob at the birds, he would have to get off the car anyway, for he had to escape the infernal birdsong one way or another.
As he was sliding his great rear toward the front of the car, Milt lost control of his jiggling body and slid forward on the hood’s slippery surface. He landed painfully on the car’s front bumper, then toppled to the wet pavement.
The sword clattered to the ground next to him, and he jerked away from the noise, trying to avoid being sliced.
The car made several clanging noises, and Milt was uncertain whether they were noises of gratitude, defiance, defiant gratitude, or just a vehicular death rattle.
Milt got up onto his haunches, slamming his lower back painfully into the car’s bumper as he tried to balance himself, then struggled to his feet.
He picked up his sword and cursed at the birds. The four little birds drew themselves up, flapped their wings at Milt, and flew away.
“Taunting devils,” Milt muttered in disgust. At least, he decided, he could take pride in the rapid-fire way in which he had gotten up. That was an unusual accomplishment for Milt, who usually took upwards of half a minute to heave his great body up into a vertical position.
As he rubbed his lower back, Milt considered that perhaps he was being too hard on Brian. After all, the car’s location was quite fortunate given the rain.
Then again the spot was an obvious bird attraction.
And yet again, parking without tree cover meant an overheated car to return to.
And yet once more, Milt remembered, Brian had done the parking at night, so the tree wasn’t likely to have been a consideration then.
Brian had likely not been in a thinking state at all. He’d probably been strung out and high and all he could think of were snacks, or “munchies,” as the marijuana tokers liked to call the packaged sweet and salty treats that marked a good high’s progression.
In the munchies’ context, the car’s position was a testament to Brian’s stupidity, in parking so far away from the Wegmans, at the far end of the parking lot.
Milt shrugged, admitting to himself that there may be other reasons that tokers take into account when parking their vehicles—reasons of which Milt had no knowledge. Perhaps there was no winning with this one, and perhaps Brian deserved no blame for his car positioning at all.
Finding himself suddenly empathetic, Milt resolved to be nicer to the baseball bat-clutching simpleton, whether he was a drug dealer or not. Milt decided that people deserved second chances, especially in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. He and Brian might be the last people on Earth, so Milt told himself he should make an effort to get along with the man.
Milt coughed at the mental image, realizing that he didn’t want that at all. To be left alone with Brian as the final remnant of humanity: it was horrible to even consider as within the realm of the possible.
Still, Milt knew he’d been too hard on the aspiring squire, and, oddly enough, Milt was anxiously awaiting his return.
It wasn’t only for Brian’s quick return that Milt wished, but for the arrival of more company—of more uninfected human company, to be precise.
Wishing for company was an odd thing for Milt, and he knew it. He had always been comfortable with his reclusive lifestyle, and he was more comfortable alone than as part of a group. Being secluded, to Milt, was always preferable to social interaction. Until now? Milt needed—desperately wanted—more people to join his party, more people with whom to adventure in this wondrous post-apocalyptic world that was now ripe for conquest.
He didn’t fully understand this feeling, but after a few moments of hands-on-hips introspection, he concluded that his new desire to interact with others must somehow be related to the restructuring of the social hierarchy brought about by the zombie apocalypse. Milt knew that he was a natural born leader—at least based on his video game abilities—and now the time had come for him to lead in real life, to lead the remaining uninfected humans.
Then, as if placed there by divine providence, Milt spied an SUV. He watched as the car slowly snaked its way through the stopped traffic of the access road into the strip mall, coming from the direction of Route 29. As it got closer, Milt could make out that there was a man and a woman in the front. The man was driving, and he looked big.
“Hey!” came a man’s voice.
Milt snapped his head over toward the source of the noise to find that Brian had emerged from the Wegmans, and was jogging over to where Milt stood.
“A car!” Brian yelled. “Milt, do you see it? A car! People!”
Then Brian was beside Milt, panting with his hands resting on his knees.
“Well?” Brian said as he pointed to the SUV, “do you see it? I’m sure it’s not zombies driving.”
“Yes I see it,” Milt said, containing his excitement. It was as if his wish was being granted. How strange, he thought, strange and delightful.
“Well aren’t you excited, or at least happy to see there are other people still?”
Milt cleared his throat. “To be sure, your alacrity is misplaced. We know nothing of these newcomers, or of their intentions, which may very well be malevolent.”
“What? No. People stick together in situations like this, to help each other.”
“Unless they having pillage and plunder on the brain.”
“Well, yeah, but…” Brian shrugged. “I guess we’ll know very soon what they’re up to.”
The car was winding through the parking lot, driving away from Milt and Brian.
“We should go after them,” Brian said. “They might not see us.”
Then, as if hearing Brian’s words, the car stopped suddenly with a screech of tires. It slowly began rolling again, and turned around a row of cars to face Milt and Brian.
“It seems,” Milt said, “that they have now ascertained our whereabouts.”
Brian nodded. “Here they come.”
The car began to advance slowly toward the shaded, far end of the parking lot, as if its occupants were examining Milt and Brian from afar.
Milt scratched at the sticky spot around his left nipple, which was no longer as sticky after the rain. Then he took two cold puffs of his inhaler, and sprang forward in barely-contained anticipation.
From a distance, he looked like an enormous, rapidly advancing Jell-O Pudding Snack.
Lorie sat at the edge of her seat. Her elbows were on the divider between the two front seats, and she was peering through the windshield as they slowly drove toward the far end of the parking lot.
She couldn’t believe what she saw there. She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and looked again. But it was still there.
An enormous blob of pudding was jiggling toward them.
Lorie blinked and looked again.
The pudding was wearing a trench coat and fuzzy slippers.
The pudding had a pony tail.
“Is that a pudding or a person?” Lorie asked.
“What?” Sven asked.
“Right there, next to the guy we spotted with the baseball bat.”
“Oh, oh God, right. I didn’t make that guy out at all.”
“So you’re going with person?”
“You should sell him some sessions,” Jane said weakly. “Not that the money will do you much good if the zombies take over.” Jane let out a frail laugh, and Lorie could tell she was trying to make up for what had happened before, with Evan and the gun.
Lorie understood what that meant of course. She understood what Jane was thinking, and she hoped that Evan did not. Though Lorie had said nothing, she hoped that Evan interpreted the whole thing as an overreaction on account of Jane’s understandably frazzled nerves. That was not an unreasonable interpretation given the way the day was going. Lorie fervently hoped that Evan was not…was not suspecting that he was…even if he was it would probably be better not to know, and—
“That,” Sven said, “is not someone I can help.”
“Why not?” Lorie asked. “Wait, look! He’s got a sword. A sword!”
“How do you know it’s a he?”
“Maybe we should go somewhere else,” Jane said. “I don’t like the looks of this guy.”
Lorie wondered why Jane should be worried about a guy with a sword when they had so many weapons with them now.
“No, this is good,” Sven said. “Real good.”
Lorie thought she heard something strange in Sven’s voice, and she looked over and saw that he was smiling. “What are you so happy about?”
“I know that guy.”
“No, no, not the pudding, the other one, the one with the baseball bat, that’s Brian.”
“Hey, I think I remember him,” Jane said. “He’s the…he’s the delivery guy right?”
“Right. Gets me my protein and supplements when I’m in a jam. He’s a life-saver, a great guy too.”
The car was now pulling up in front of the two strangers. Lorie watched, bewildered, as the pudding man waddled out in front of the car, the soft parts of his vast body joggling with each step. Then he put up his hand, palm facing the car, in a signal of halt.
Lorie stared at the hand, trying to make out fingers, but all she could see were weakly differentiated protrusions of pudge, emanating from the remainder of the pudding’s arm. She decided it was a mitt, and not a hand at all.
“That pudding guy is creepy,” Lorie said. “I don’t like him.”
“You haven’t even met him,” Sven said. “He might just be quirky.” Sven sighed. “Then again, what’s with the hand in our face?”
Lorie had a bad feeling about meeting the portly pudding. “I don’t like it.”
“We’ll do our best.”
Sven stopped the car and Lorie watched him put it in park and remove the keys.
“Wait,” Lorie said, “are you sure you don’t want to leave the car running?”
“I’m sure. We’re digging in.” Sven put the keys in a pocket of the duck pants and put his hand on one of the machetes. Lorie watched him staring ahead at the pudding, as if looking through the scene into another world—but that was silly.
Then Sven was getting out of the car. Jane opened her door next, and then Lorie scrambled out, clutching her knife at her side. She ran around the back of the car and helped Evan wobble out. Then she and Evan joined Sven and Jane, who were already standing in front of the car.
The pudding spoke first. “Halt I say! Please elucidate your intentions. As you may have discerned, there are zombies afoot.”
Lorie could see the pudding clearly now, and though she understood that what he had just said could be interpreted as funny, there was something so weird about him that she couldn’t laugh. It was clear he didn’t mean it as a joke anyway, he was serious.
There was a bandage wound around his head, and it made his face bulge in places. To Lorie it looked like his neck had thrown up to form the blob of his head, and then the top of his head had thrown up downward at the line of the bandage to form his face.
The pudding wasn’t a pretty sight, and he made Lorie think of the computer geeks at her school. The resemblance between some of them and the man now in front of her was striking.
“Ahem,” the pudding went on with an air of importance. “I repeat, please apprise me of your intentions.”
Sven looked at the pudding for a moment, then turned to the other guy, the one that he said was named Brian.
Brian was walking toward Sven. “I can’t believe it. Sven? That is you right?”
“Thank God,” Brian said. “It’s just been me and Milt so far—” Brian gestured at the pudding, “—and I wasn’t sure we’d be seeing anyone else.”
So the pudding is called Milt, Lorie thought, makes sense.
“Excuse me!” Milt bellowed, raising his sheathed sword and shaking it at Sven and Brian. “I am in charge here, you will address yourselves to me.”
Brian looked at Milt and shook his head sadly. “Milt, it’s okay, these are friends. I know Sven from way back.” Brian turned back to Sven. “Sorry, he’s had a shock I think, he’s alright though.”
“We’ve all had a shock,” Sven said, offering his hand to Milt. Sven’s gesture reminded Lorie of her general unease, and she began glancing around the parking lot, making sure none of those things were approaching them.
“Oh very well,” Milt said, and shook Sven’s hand.
Lorie watched as the adults all made their introductions, quickly relating a summary of their respective day’s experiences. Brian pointed and asked about the surgical masks, and Jane explained their experiences with the zombie odor so far.
Then Lorie and Evan were introduced. Lorie watched Milt’s eyes grow wide after looking her and Evan up and down, and she wondered what it was about her and Evan that Milt was reacting too. She couldn’t know that, but she did know that she didn’t like him, and she wasn’t going to trust him. He was the kind of guy to keep an eye on, even if the other adults dismissed him as just being “weird,” or “having had a shock.”
Lorie cleared her throat and spoke up. “It is very nice meeting you and all, but shouldn’t we be getting inside? Evan needs to rest.”
Sven nodded. “That is why we came here.” He turned to Brian and Milt. “Have you guys been in the Wegmans? We were planning on holing up in there for a while until we know more about what’s going on.” He paused and looked uneasy. “Is there a reason you’re out here and not in there?”
Brian looked like he was about to say something, but Milt beat him to it. “I concur, we do need shelter, and evening is fast approaching. Before your troupe arrived, I sent Brian on a reconnaissance mission into the Wegmans. He had just returned and was about to give me his complete report when you pulled up in your vehicle. Please Brian, you may proceed.”
Brian rolled his eyes. “You didn’t send me, Milt. Remember? I left. You didn’t want me to go because you were afraid that those—” Brian made eye contact with Lorie and stopped mid-thought. “Never mind. Yeah, there is a reason we’re out here and not in there, and I was about to tell Milt about the Wegmans when you guys got here.” Brian smiled. “Damn it’s good you’re here Sven. You too Jane, it’s been a while. And the kids too, of course. This is a real good sign. We’re gonna pull through this. You guys have some mean-looking weapons and…we’re gonna get through this right?”
“Please,” Milt said, “put your blubbering under control and commence your report.”
“Milt,” Brian said sternly. “Relax, you need to sit back down in the shade. You have heatstroke.”
“I have no such thing!”
Brian turned to Sven. “Do you see what I’ve had to put up with here?”
Sven shook his head and sighed. “Yeah. So what’s the deal with the Wegmans? We need to rest, and Evan—” Sven pointed behind him, “—he’s not feeling so good.”
Brian glanced at Evan, who had by now sat down on the wet pavement. He was seated, and looked wobbly.
“Okay,” Brian said. “I imagine you all know what’s going on with the zombies…well…there’s zombies in there.” He jerked a thumb at the Wegmans. “A decent amount. I counted twenty-one, but I think there are a few more than that.”
“That reminds me,” Milt said. “Where is the Coca-Cola that you were supposed to fetch for me?”
Brian ignored Milt.
“Okay,” Sven said. “Let’s clean it up and lock it down. You in?”
“Of course I’m in,” Brian said. “I’m sure as hell not gonna stay out here all night.”
“Very well,” Milt said, “I will lead you into battle.”
“Maybe you should take it easy,” Lorie said, locking eyes with Milt. “Aren’t you hurt?”
“Thank you for your concern, little girl, but I am quite well.”
“Someone needs to stay out here with the kids while we do this,” Jane said.
Lorie was angry at once. “What do you mean stay with the kids? I was pretty good back there with those zombies in the restaurant, and in the gun store! Why do I have to stay out here?”
“Because,” Jane said, turning to Lorie, “it’s dangerous, and, well…you’re kids.”
Lorie pouted. “The children are our future and all that?”
Sven shrugged. “Lorie was really good with the knives back in—”
“Sven!” Jane hissed. “You’re not helping. Look Lorie, if you stay out here and help to look after Evan, I’ll give you a short shooting lesson. How does that sound?”
Lorie was speechless for a moment. “Yeah? Really?”
“Let’s shake on it.” Lorie extended her hand to Jane, and Jane shook it.
“We have a deal,” Lorie said.
“We do,” Jane agreed.
“Alright,” Sven said, “let’s go.”
He began to walk toward the Wegmans entrance.
Jane took a few steps after him. “Do you wanna leave Ivan with me?”
The cat’s meowing head was resting on Sven’s shoulder, the rest of its body hidden in the backpack.
Sven turned around. “No, Ivan stays with me.”
He turned back to the Wegmans and took to walking again.
“Hey tough guy!” Jane yelled after watching him for a while.
He turned around.
Jane put her hands on her hips. “How would you feel about loading that shotgun, and maybe learning how to use it?”
Sven looked dumbstruck. He hung his head and walked back to Jane. “That’s a good point. I’m getting a little ahead of myself.”
Lorie looked on as Jane showed Sven how to load the shotgun and how to use it. Milt sniggered and pontificated the whole time, going on about the Queen of England and using what Lorie assumed was video game jargon. The guy was too much, and Lorie wished he wasn’t around. She also didn’t like the way he looked at her, her serrated knife, or Evan. Come to think of it, she didn’t like the way Milt looked at any of them, like he was better than all of them.
After Jane had finished with him, Sven started off toward the Wegmans again, looking far less confident than he had before.
“Hey,” Brian said, coming up behind Sven, “watch out for that area over there.” He pointed to the middle of the parking lot. Lorie looked where he was pointing and saw a mass of zombie flesh, bodies and parts strewn about, soaked by the rain.
That’s interesting, she thought, maybe Jane and I can do some target practice.
“Let’s go around this way,” Brian said, and he began to lead Sven around the perimeter of the parking lot toward the Wegmans entrance. Sven and Brian strode toward the store at a quick pace, and Milt trudged behind them, struggling to keep up.
Lorie watched as Sven and Brian disappeared into the Wegmans, and watched for a few moments longer until Milt disappeared too.
Then she turned to Jane. “I think it’s time for my lesson,” Lorie said, and grinned.
The vegan with the handlebar moustache was hobbling down the road. He had two cartons of Luckies tightly clutched under his left arm.
At random intervals throughout his hobbling, he shot feverish glances over his shoulder, and took long pulls on his cigarette.
They’re coming, he thought, the shambling, unstoppable servants of Satan.
The vegan stuck his cigarette in his mouth and took a hard drag, feeling his cheeks form deep dimples. While the cigarette hung from his mouth, he fingered the golden cross that dangled from his neck, a gift from his long-deceased, exceptionally pious grandmother. She had put the fear of God in him, and she had warned him that a day like this would come.
It is all in God’s plan, she had said, and apparently, it was.
But what about me, the vegan wondered, what’s in God’s plan for me? He knew what his grandmother would have said, that the meaning and logic of God’s plan were only for God to know, and humans could do no more than marvel at it.
Feeling a slight inspiration at the memory of his grandmother, the vegan let go of the cross, took the cigarette out of his mouth, and hobbled faster.
A few feet from the next intersection, the vegan stopped to pant through his cigarette, his bloodshot eyes searching for shelter—for a place to hide.
Nothing. Just another bare intersection.
I’m hobbling like a hobo, he thought, looking for a hiding place…true homeless behavior. He squeezed his wounded thigh and felt the pain rush upward through his body. It was terrible, but it wasn’t ghoul-inflicted.
The vegan took his cigarette in one hand, and he reflected on the events of the day, feeling nicotine and pain course powerfully through him.
It had been such a wonderful morning. He had gone to work, and he and his co-worker, Rainee, had picked up their shipment of avocados, the bulk of which were destined for the Charlottesville Whole Foods, the balance to be delivered to Kroger. The vegan proudly refused to transport any animal products, and liked to call himself The Vegan Transporter. He relished the title.
He had felt incredible that morning. It was his ninth day on a fruit and vegetable juice fast, and he knew that for each day on a juice fast, he became one month younger, biologically. It was a miraculous process.
The vegan had just polished off a bottle of carrot and ginger juice in the avocado truck when they hit traffic—standstill traffic, no more than a few miles out from the loading depot. Then, as if on cue, Rainee passed out, slumping onto the steering wheel.
Rainee was a tiny woman, bigger than the vegan, and not a vegan herself, and he was depending on her to drive while he saved his strength for the heavy avocado lifting and unloading later in the day.
As the vegan was reaching over to tap her on the shoulder, Rainee rose from her slump, turning to the vegan. Her eyes opened wide, and…and he jumped out of the truck and ran, starting up the road the way they had come.
It didn’t take him very long to realize what was happening. The stopped cars around the truck were no longer inhabited by their early-rising owners, but by what the vegan could only interpret to be ghouls.
It was the apocalypse. The dead were walking the Earth, perhaps in atonement for their flesh-eating sins—not that the vegan harshly judged the flesh-eaters in his normal life, but on this apocalyptic day, the thought occurred to him.
So he ran, and when he was too tired to run, he walked. As the day wore on, he noticed that the ghouls grouped themselves, and when he passed the groups, they began to shamble toward him.
Even in his spent state, it was easy for the vegan to keep away from them. They were slow, and he was very light and nimble.
The ghouls were not the ones that had hurt him.
It had happened after he had dared to sneak into an Exxon for some cigarettes. He smoked constantly as he made his way up the road, and when he saw the Exxon, he didn’t want to waste the opportunity to stock up. The place looked deserted, and the nearest ghouls were more than a block away, shambling toward him at a snail’s pace. It seemed like a good idea. What could go wrong?
So the vegan crept under the portico and around the pumps, pushed the door of the Exxon’s convenience store open, and nervously walked in.
His suspicions had been correct. The place was empty.
Bolstered by his apparent good luck, he climbed over the counter into the attendant’s spot, and found his preferred brand of cigarette—Lucky Strike—the only brand worth smoking. He was just tucking the second carton of Luckies under his left arm when the sound of shattering glass startled him, and he was covered by a sideways spray of shards.
He flinched, instinctively raising his arm to cover his face, but the sharp spray abruptly ended. The vegan inspected himself, and found that the glass-breaking had left him unscathed.
With his heart pounding and an unknown culprit lurking somewhere close by, the vegan climbed back over the counter as quietly as he could, trying to avoid cutting himself on the shards of window glass that were scattered everywhere. He set himself down and began to tiptoe to the door, wincing at every scrape of glass under his feet.
The vegan had just placed his hand on the door when a gruff, drawling voice called from behind him.
“Hey you, skinny boy, where do you think you’re going?”
The vegan turned and saw a tan, obese man, clad from head to toe in leather. His fat, bald head was covered with a bandana that bore a burning skull featuring fiery eye sockets.
Confused and unsure of how to respond, the vegan just shrugged.
“Don’t you know stealing’s wrong? Just because the world’s about ended don’t make it alright. Don’t you know nothing?” The leather-clad man’s voice contorted with each word, and the vegan found himself growing more and more uncomfortable with every twitch of the man’s leathery face.
The vegan resolutely pulled the door open and stepped through it, out under the portico. “I just…”
The leather-clad man began to trudge toward him, at a surprising speed given his size. “You just nothing. Now hand over those cigs.” The man extended a fat, leather-gloved hand that seemed to want to burst. The vegan now saw that in the harasser’s other hand was a tire iron, probably the thing he had used to break the window. “Now if you had taken some Twinkies or beef jerky or something, I might look the other way. You ever eat? You could use some food. But cigs…especially those—” he pointed a pudgy finger, “—those are for real men.”
The vegan clutched the Luckies tighter and began to back away.
“You stay right where you are,” the leather-clad man said, raising the tire iron in a menacing gesture.
The vegan wasn’t going to do any such thing. He quickened his backward steps, and he was just about to turn and run when his right foot caught on the raised curb that led into the convenience store.
He sprawled onto the ground, twisting on his back. The vegan got his feet back under him to spring up and begin running, but the leather-clad man was already there, apparently having trundled over at a blinding speed.
The tire iron came down in a flash of tarnished silver, and the vegan felt it strike his thigh above the knee. There was no crack, but the dull pain shot downward, creating an agony of feeling in the vegan’s knee, shin, and ankle.
Terrified, but still clutching the cigarette cartons, the vegan crawled backward to get away from the man and his tire iron. He got to his feet through the pain, and began to run.
“Yeah you better run,” the man called after him. “You better be faster than that if you want to live through the day. You ain’t no real man.”
The vegan shot a glance backward to make sure the man wasn’t coming after him, and he wasn’t. The harasser stood there in his leathers, continuing to bellow at the vegan, but not leaving the shade of the Exxon’s portico.
The vegan turned back and kept running until the man was well out of earshot. His leg hurt like hell, and although there had been no crack on contact, the vegan felt the pain of the blow in his bone.
After running a few blocks, he slowed down and settled into a quick limp that lessened the pain considerably. At least he still had the cigarettes, which he could easily have lost in the encounter. He wasn’t sure how he’d held on to them, but apparently his body knew its priorities and had put the cigarette cartons into a death grip, and had kept the death grip even in the face of a tire iron attack.
That was some consolation. The vegan continued to look back throughout his journey, watching for the hefty trundle of the man in leather, but it never came. After some time, the vegan decided that the ghouls had taken care of the man, and the vegan fingered his cross once more.
The vegan shook his head. And now here he was, at another inauspicious intersection, exhausted, hungry, hurt, and with nothing to look forward to except the cigarettes. But that was as good a nothing as there could be, so long as it could be enjoyed in safety.
He looked both ways before starting across the intersection, noting that he wasn’t looking out for the flow of traffic, but for ghouls and hidden human miscreants.
The ghouls, he had gathered so far, had no penchant for trickery. Seemingly unable to hide or stalk their human prey, the ghouls made their presence known far in advance by their obtrusive moans and odd, uncoordinated gaits.
He felt a familiar stinging pain in his fingers as he was crossing the intersection. The cigarette, which he had smoked down to the filter and forgotten to throw away, had burned down even further, down to the vegan’s well-stained, cigarette-heat-tempered fingers. He flicked the cigarette away without a second glance.
As he crossed, he kept a watchful eye out for the cars nearest him, most of which held ghouls, apparently and inexplicably trapped in their cars. They stirred as the vegan passed.
They probably want me to let them out, he thought. Fat chance of that…although, if the man in the leathers were here, I might just do that…let them out and see who was faster. But the vegan knew the fat man would probably escape. He was shockingly fast in his movements.
The vegan crossed all the way and looked back. He didn’t have a watch, but he knew by the sun’s movement through the sky that he’d been walking most of the day, except when the sudden downpour had forced him to stop. It had truly been a storm of biblical proportions, and the vegan had ducked into an abandoned strip mall coffee shop in which he cowered and smoked until the storm passed.
I’m limping my way through hell, he thought, and wondered if there was going to be an end to all of this. Was he in purgatory or in some undefined sort of limbo? If this was hell, why wasn’t anyone around to give him a tour? The vegan remembered Darren, a taunting meat-eater who always said, “Vegans go straight to hell,” and, “Vegans are in league with Satan.”
Having gone through the two packs he’d started the day carrying, the vegan broke in one of the boxes of Luckies, as he wondered if Darren had been right.
The vegan started in on his third pack of the day and resumed his northbound limping.
With his left eye and right corner of his mouth twitching in time, he tried to guess how far he now was from the Wegmans up the road. His home was too far, but the Wegmans…that might be a good place to hide for a while.
The door slid shut behind Sven.
The shotgun pulled at the muscles in his right arm and upper back. It would have been alright, but his chest and neck were throbbing, shooting fresh bolts of pain into him with each step. He tried steadying the thing with his left hand and repositioning it in front of his body, but that only changed the direction of the pain.
On the day he needed it most, his body wasn’t cooperating. He had been just about crushed, of course, but he expected some more adrenaline in a situation like this, something to dull out the pain and help work through it. Apparently, Sven’s adrenaline supply was spent.
Now, walking into what he knew was a zombie trap waiting to be sprung, the adrenaline wasn’t kicking in…and what if it didn’t kick in when the zombies showed themselves? That wasn’t something Sven wanted to think about, and it wasn’t something he would allow.
“They’re all over the meat section,” Brian said. “It’s really disgusting. They’re…well…you’ll see.”
“Give me a second,” Sven said, not daring to imagine what Brian was referring to. “Just give me a quick second.”
“I too must gather myself,” Milt said, resting his great body on some sacks of red potatoes. “The air conditioning in this facility is quite refreshing.”
Sven nodded in his direction. The man was acting strange, but he could be forgiven under the circumstances. Milt, after all, had come in to help with cleaning out the inside of the Wegmans, and that earned him the benefit of the doubt in Sven’s book.
The three men faced the expanse of the produce section. A long row of checkout aisles, accompanying cash registers, and shopping carts were to their left. The deli section and in-store cafe were to their right. The aisles that made up the bulk of the store were sectioned off to the left of the produce section, and Sven could only see their entrances and wonder what lurked within them.
“I’m fading,” Sven said, feeling the day’s exertions sapping his strength. Then he saw what he needed.
Sven did all he could to avoid stimulants. As a bodybuilder, the elevated cortisol levels and adrenal fatigue that came with stimulant use were things to be avoided, except in certain, very precise pre-competition stages.
But he made exceptions. One was long drives for which Sven needed to keep his mind alert. Another, apparently, was a zombie outbreak.
Sven strode to the cooler that marked the entrance to the first checkout aisle. He put all thoughts of muscle breakdown out of his head and pulled the cooler door open. It was full of energy drinks, as he had expected. He glanced at the variety in the cooler with distaste.
There was Red Bull, Surge, Amp, Starbucks and a number of other products Sven wasn’t familiar with, except to the extent that he knew to avoid them. He considered resigning himself to drinking cold water, but that wouldn’t give him the zombie-killing jolt he now needed. Sven’s eyes settled on a drink, and he pulled it out of the cooler.
He rested the shotgun on top of the cooler, then opened the drink. Sven took a sip of the Starbucks Double Shot. Then he took another. Then he gulped down the remainder of the can’s contents and withdrew a second can. He downed the second one in three gulps, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
Ivan meowed, apparently disapproving of the beverage.
Sven put his surgical mask on.
“Would you be so kind as to fetch me a Coca-Cola beverage?” Milt asked. “I trust there are some in yonder miniature refrigerator.”
Sven nodded, pulled out a bottle of Coca-Cola, and tossed it underhand at Milt. Milt clasped his hands together in an attempt to catch it, but missed the bottle completely. It hit the ground and rolled away from the big man on the red potatoes.
“Here,” Brian said. “I got it.” Brian got the bottle and handed it to Milt, who was muttering strings of long words about his failed attempt to catch the bottle.
While Sven waited to feel the energy drink’s effects, Brian visited the cooler, withdrew a bottle of water, and drank it.
“Still keeping healthy?” Sven asked. “Even today?”
“Always,” Brian said. “Especially today, gotta be at my best.”
Sven began to feel a jittery energy work its way through his body. He felt slightly less depressed now, and his mind began to click away at a rapid pace. It was time to clean this place up.
He picked up the shotgun and rested it on his shoulder, completely disregarding one of the main points of Jane’s gun safety lecture. “Let’s get this over with.”
Brian led the way, taking them up to the end of the produce section, which terminated into a bread section. Between the end of the produce section and the bread section was a gap that looked out onto refrigerator islands and wall refrigerators filled with dairy products.
“There,” Brian said, and pointed to the right, past the dairy islands, “they’re all in the meat section down there.”
Sven looked, but couldn’t see any zombies from his angle. There were noises coming from the area to which Brian was pointing—sloshing, churning, and ripping noises, and Sven could easily imagine what they meant.
Now feeling the full onslaught of adrenalin from the energy drinks and his fear, Sven took the shotgun off his shoulder and held it diagonally in front of his body, pointing up and to the left. “I’ll open up on them with this…and…” Sven wasn’t sure what came next.
“And we’ll have your back,” Brian said, giving the baseball bat a swing.
“Agreed,” Milt said, removing his ridiculous-looking sword from its scabbard.
Sven’s only consolation at that moment was the presence of the machetes on his belt. If he got into a jam, or if the theorized shotgun assault didn’t take care of business…there would be the long, wooden-handled, wondrous—
He shook the thought off and walked out through the gap between the produce and bread, making no effort to conceal his presence…and then he saw them.
Sven understood at once what the noises were. The zombies were chomping, munching, crunching…
It was utterly disgusting. Sven felt the Starbucks beverages rumble in his stomach as he stood there, transfixed by the zombies and their attack on the raw meat.
“That is a decidedly revolting vision,” Milt said, coming up behind Sven. “If I may be permitted to say so.”
“Yeah,” Brian said. “Disgusting. Just how I left them.”
Sven didn’t want to come any closer, but he made himself approach so that he would have a better shot. He drew nearer, measuring his steps and raising the shotgun at the same time.
There had to be at least twenty of them, huddled around the meat refrigerators, ripping at all the raw flesh they could get their gnarled hands on. They pushed the shrink-wrapped pieces of meat at their mouths in feverish uncoordinated movements. Their arms and bodies jerked violently as they reached, grabbed, bit, slurped, and chewed. Their heads and necks were the worst to look at it—contorting with each snap and slurp and—
Sven had to turn away for a moment, on the verge of being sick in his surgical mask. The sucking and slurping noises were getting deep under Sven’s skin, making him nauseated in the core of his bones.
He didn’t have to listen to it much longer, however, because the zombies perked up and seemed to forget about the meat as soon as he turned back.
They turned to him, blood-stained faces splattered with bits of raw meat and gristle and bone, their mouths hanging askew, still full of half-chewed pieces of meat that were apparently forgotten in Sven’s presence.
There was a tall one at the front of the pack, closest to Sven—it had to be over six and half feet tall. It slowly lowered a shrink-wrapped piece of meat from its lips. The meat looked like a pork chop that had been gnawed in the middle, through the shrink-wrap.
The towering zombie’s arms jerked downward, hands losing their grip on the packaged meat. The pork chop plopped to the floor, meat-side down. Then the zombie’s head cocked to one side with a crunch, setting itself at an inhuman angle. Its eyes snapped open wider to gaze at Sven.
Ivan hissed and began to claw urgently at Sven’s shoulder. Sven barely felt it. There may have been shouts from behind him—from Brian and Milt maybe—but Sven could barely hear them now. It was just him and the zombies…all those hungry zombies, slurping at the bloody meat, drinking the—
Sven jerked his eyes away from the tall one at the head of the pack. He looked at the rest of the zombies, now watching him with the intensity of a collective predatory being. Their black eyes seemed to open even wider to take Sven in, to the point where he thought the dead eyes were so loose in their sockets that they would tumble out. But the eyes flopped in place, held there by some rotten fleshy wire that Sven didn’t want to imagine.
The zombies began to move toward Sven, lurching and bobbing like a floating mess of rot. He could smell them now, the gut-wrenching, overpowering, nauseating, mesmeriz—
He pulled the trigger. The shot ripped through the air, shotgun jerking backward into Sven and sending pain into his chest.
Holes appeared in the tall zombie, the focal points of suddenly visible fissures in the zombie’s t-shirt. Then the tall one’s midsection seemed to cave in on itself and the zombie toppled forward, jaw snapping shut for the last time.
Two of the zombies behind their towering leader had also been hit by the scatter, but they continued in their dogged shamble toward Sven.
Sven took a deep breath through the stifling surgical mask, stepped back, and pumped the shotgun. He shot, pumped and shot, pumped and shot, pumped and shot, pumped and…nothing.
He pumped again and pulled the trigger.
And he pumped again and pulled the trigger.
From where his mind was, he couldn’t understand what was happening. Why wasn’t it shooting? Why weren’t the zombies being ripped apart anymore?
Sven began to stagger backward, still pumping the shotgun and pulling on the trigger. Nine of the zombies had fallen to his five shots, ripped apart by the scattering Wolf Power pellets. Sven didn’t have the presence of mind to count how many zombies remained, but there were at least as many as were down, still standing, still advancing.
He finally understood what was happening—the shotgun was empty, he had to reload. He fumbled for the cartridges stuffing the pockets of his pants. He picked one out with a trembling hand, checked that the business end was facing away from him, and…fumbled it.
The cartridge bounced on the floor, plinking away from him, and began to roll.
Sven didn’t watch to see where it would go. He reached in his pocket for another cartridge, trying to keep his hand steady. He glanced up as he withdrew the cartridge and his hand began to shake again.
The zombies were gaining ground, their faces sickening masks of blood and gristle. Sven turned the cartridge the right way and dropped it too, cursing the spasms of disquietude gripping his body.
I can’t do this, he told himself, I mean, damn, I can do this. I can, come on Sven, come on.
He glanced to his left and saw that he had retreated deeper into the dairy aisle. He got his bearings, and reached for another cartridge.
This one’s the one, Sven told himself, and it was. He successfully loaded the cartridge into the chamber, and shot it.
Two zombies in the front of the pack fell backward in a mangle of zombie flesh, landing in the path of the undead behind them.
That gave Sven the moment he needed to load the shotgun all the way—four plus one.
When he was done loading, Sven pumped and shot, ripping the five cartridges of Wolf Power pellets through the air, and through the zombies’ putrefying flesh.
They fell in twos and threes, crumpling in on themselves and deteriorating into a mash of what Sven interpreted as pus-covered, clothed leather.
It only took eleven cartridges worth of Wolf Power to take out the contagion feeding on the meat section.
When the zombies all lay still, Sven made his trembling hands relax a little, reloaded the shotgun, and let the weapon hang down to the floor.
“That’s quite a device you got there,” Brian said, coming up from behind Sven. “You didn’t need any support from us at all.”
Sven turned around to face them. “I’ve never shot one of these before. It’s…it’s…loud.” He looked down at the Benelli SuperNova in black synthetic, and wondered where it had been all his life.
Then he felt a rustle on his back and heard Ivan meow as the cat clawed his way out of the backpack, and regained his perch on Sven’s shoulder. Sven figured Ivan must have hidden himself when the shooting started, and thought it unreal that the cat hadn’t run away during all of that loud noise.
Sven turned his head and looked into Ivan’s gleaming eyes. “You’re a very brave cat, you know that?”
Ivan meowed. Apparently, he knew exactly how brave he was.
Abruptly, Milt trundled past Sven and toward the carnage in the meat section, then stopped amidst the destroyed zombies. He seemed to linger there a little too long, and Sven thought he saw the man inhaling deeply as he stood over the carcasses, as if enjoying the odor…but that couldn’t have been right.
Then Milt waddled back to Sven and Brian, a strange look of wonderment on his face.
“Yes,” Milt finally said. “Fine, fine…all well and good, but I am allergic to felines.”
He would be the type to be allergic to cats, Sven thought.
“That’s too bad,” Sven said, turning away from Milt and wondering why the man didn’t try harder to fit in.
“And, not only am I allergic to those wretched animals,” Milt waggled a well-padded finger toward Sven’s shoulder at Ivan, “but I am afraid that I must inform you that I am a sufferer of felinophobia, which is a clearly demarcated subset of zoophobia…I assure you that my condition is well-documented. I have a copy of my diagnosis in my home. That thing you have on your shoulder cannot remain with us. Please release it into the wild, where it belongs.”
Feeling livid with rage, Sven looked Milt in the eye. “Don’t you point your fat finger at my cat. He’s not going anywhere.”
Then Sven turned to Brian, deciding to ignore the fat man’s continuing inanities—he was now going on about his metabolism, probably trying to shift the blame for his obesity away from himself and onto some uncontrollable, albeit nonexistent genetic factor.
“Let’s scour the rest of this place,” Brian said, then nodded toward the pile of rotten gobbets, “and then I guess we gotta…”
Sven caught Brian’s drift. “Take out the trash. Yeah.”
Sven reloaded his shotgun, hands still trembling as he did it, and then he paused. “Why are these wet? The ones we’ve come across so far today, they’ve all been dry, coming apart like paper…these—” he pointed to the pile of pellet-ridden zombie parts, “—didn’t explode into dust and fragments like the other ones. They’re bloody and moist…more like people.”
“Maybe it’s the meat,” Brian said. “They’ve fed, so they’re healthier. Maybe it’s the rain too. Who knows?”
Sven felt a growing sense of unease. “What if that means they’re getting stronger?”
Brian shrugged. “We fight harder then, or try to figure out what’s causing it. Maybe we can stamp it out at the source.”
“I suggest,” Milt said, “that we conference on that issue once we have secured the immediate area. There will be plenty of time for uninformed conjecture once we have removed the zombie threat from what is to be our new living quarters.”
“Okay,” Sven said. “You’re right. Let’s go.”
The three of them set off to check the rest of the Wegmans.
Their inspection of the rest of the supermarket was for the most part uneventful. Sven followed close behind Brian and Milt as they searched the aisles, stockroom, and various back corners of the large store.
There were only four zombies that they could find apart from those that had been snacking in the meat section.
Three of the four were wandering up and down the water and sports drink aisle, two stumbling side by side in one direction and one by itself stumbling in the other direction.
Milt cut up the group of two with panting, diagonal slashes of his sword, and Brian took out the lone one with his baseball bat.
The last zombie was the worst of all.
They found it in the pet food aisle…in the cat food section.
Ivan alerted them to the zombie’s presence with an unusually vehement hiss that startled Sven. After looking up and down the length of the aisle and almost walking past it, Sven finally saw what it was that had so unsettled Ivan.
In the middle of the aisle, the lowest shelf was moving intermittently, as if emitting sudden, fitful gasps. Sven hadn’t noticed it until he stood by it for a few moments, then he jumped backward in disgust.
“What is it?” Brian asked.
“Look,” Sven said, pointing down, “there’s something in there.”
“Like an animal? How could anything fit in there?”
As if in answer, a stack of Classic Salmon & Shrimp Feast, by Fancy Feast, turned over at them, sending cans rolling down the length of the aisle. Sven picked up a can that was rolling toward him and examined it. It was one of Ivan’s favorite flavors. Sven pocketed it and refocused on the task at hand.
Another stack of cat food cans turned over. This time, the cans flew in a somewhat coordinated formation toward the opposing shelf.
Under the clatter, Sven thought he heard something else. “Did you hear that?”
Brian nodded gravely.
Milt squeezed by Sven and Brian and turned to face them, turning his back on the clattering cans. “Enough of this protracted cowardice. Obviously there is something lurking beyond these wretched feline victuals.”
Milt stood there, looking back and forth between Brian and Sven, like he was expecting them to do something about it.
“If you think it’s so obvious,” Brian said, “why don’t you take a look?”
“I was going to extend that courtesy to you—”
“No,” Brian said, hopping backward to avoid another tumbling can. “It’s all you. You got it.”
Sven wasn’t too hopeful for what they might find beyond the stacks of wet food, but he was now curious to see how Milt would go about this task, and if he would balk.
Milt looked uncertain. He glanced at Sven, then Brian, then back at Sven again. Then he straightened, harrumphed, and waddled over to the source of the commotion. Another can shot out, hurtling down the aisle away from them. Sven imagined that Milt would’ve jumped in surprise if he was a little lighter…but he wasn’t, and he didn’t.
Sven instinctively took a step backward as Milt stopped in front of the jangling cat food cans. Sven began to raise his Benelli, then lowered it, reminding himself that it wasn’t a precision weapon, and shooting at whatever was lurking amidst the cat food would reduce Milt to a mishmash of shredded, fatty gobbets. Sven shuddered and wondered if that was a sight worse than the zombie carnage they had all witnessed so far. He didn’t want to find out.
Milt bent over with some difficulty, and peered into the spaces between the stacks of cans.
“See anything?” Brian asked.
It seemed to Sven that Milt didn’t, but the fat man didn’t answer.
After peering into the low shelf for a few more moments, Milt straightened and turned to look at Sven and Brian with a look of annoyance. “I have completed my inspection. I conclude that there was a small animal hidden there, no doubt harmless, and we should proceed with—”
“You’re just tired from all the bending over,” Brian said.
“You heard me, you weren’t even low enough to take a good look.”
“Well if you so firmly believe that you are capable of performing a better inspection, I suggest that you—”
A hand shot out through a jumble of cans and took hold of his scabbard.
Milt didn’t finish his sentence, but he did scream.
Evan looked on as the men walked into the large supermarket and the door slid shut behind them. Then he put his palms on the pavement behind him for support and turned to Lorie and Jane. They were talking about something—probably about guns and weapons and other things that Evan didn’t like.
He wished it was yesterday again, and he was back at home, safe, and far away from all of this. He was a little more than halfway through the first Harry Potter now, and he knew that he was way late to the Hogwarts party. His friends kept teasing him about how he hadn’t yet caught up with the rest of them in Harry’s wizardly adventures. Evan had avoided picking up the books for a while, because he’d thought the series was just a dumb fad, but had finally given in two days earlier, and found that he couldn’t put the first book down.
It really was very good. He was up to the chapter about Nicolas Flamel, and he wished he could go back to the safety of his room, close the door, and finally learn who this Nicolas Flamel character was.
Evan sighed. He could just ask Lorie, she knew—she was one of the kids that teased him about being so out of the Harry Potter loop—but that would take the fun out of reading it himself. Maybe the Wegmans had some Harry Potter books, and he would read them there, and then he would go back home, and everything would be fine—the same, just as it was before. The adults would fix whatever was going on. It was probably just some flu or something, nothing—
He remembered how his dad and Lorie’s mom had behaved that morning, and he knew nothing would ever be the same. It wasn’t just a flu, and for some reason, Evan hadn’t remembered any of what had transpired earlier that day while he daydreamed about Harry Potter. He’d felt like that all day—floating in and out. And he was feeling even more loopy now.
Maybe this whole thing is a dream, Evan thought, and I’m sick in bed.
But he couldn’t convince himself of that, because everything felt so real. Remembering that morning, and running away with Lorie—that made Evan not care about Harry Potter or Nicolas Flamel anymore. Not one bit. He wanted the nightmare to end…maybe the doctors could help his dad and Lorie’s mom, and then everything would go back to how it was before, and—
Evan felt very thirsty all of a sudden. It was no ordinary thirst, either. It was a gut-wrenching dryness that he felt no amount of water could satisfy.
He struggled, tottering, to his feet, as if compelled by some primal drive, and began to lurch his way over to Jane and Lorie.
Jane was showing Lorie one of her guns, pointing to the different parts and saying something that didn’t register in Evan’s mind.
They looked up as Evan staggered closer, and he saw an expression of alarm travel across Jane’s face. Then she set her jaw and all traces of the expression were gone.
“Can I have some more water?” Evan asked. “I’m so thirsty.”
Jane nodded and went to the car. She retrieved Evan’s water bottle and handed it to him, and it seemed to him that she was standing a little too far away from him, as if she didn’t want to get too close. But maybe that was just the dehydration. Then again, she had pointed the gun at him in the car. Maybe she thought…the same thing that the fat man…
Feeling his insides cry out for water, Evan let his mind float away from that terrible encounter.
Even the pile of zombie parts in the parking lot had gotten the benefit of being soaked in the rain, he thought with envy, wondering if that was a strange thing to think. It seemed such a natural idea to have.
He eagerly unscrewed the cap and drank the water down in furious gulps. It helped to unglue the insides of his mouth, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted more.
Evan asked Jane for more water, or rather, he tried to. His second request for water came out as a series of garbled hisses and splutters. His own voice sounded alien to him. He was finding it very difficult to coordinate his lips into the right movements, and then the wooziness hit him again, and there was a sharp pain in his gut, the world reeled, and—
He lay on the pavement, his head on something soft, not remembering how he’d gotten there. The fuzzy images in front of his eyes resolved and he saw Jane and Lorie looking down at him. One of them was giving him water to drink, and that was good, but it wasn’t helping the thirst.
“Did I fall?” Evan asked, not sure if he had said the words, mouthed them, or just thought them.
Jane nodded, her lips in a horizontal line.
“The fat man,” Evan whispered, “with the sword…he thinks I’m turning into a…” Evan trailed off, his mind dipping. Then it was back on track—on some track. Evan wasn’t sure it was the right one. “I can see it…in the way he looks at me…like you…I think he’s…”
Jane and Lorie began to turn fuzzy again, and he tried to get them back, to make the fuzziness stop, to—
In Evan’s final glimmer of clarity, the name “Nicolas Flamel” flashed in his mind, and Evan realized his curiosity would never be satisfied.
Then the light winked out.
Sven quickly crouched and let the shotgun drop a short distance to the ground, mindful that it point away from Brian, Milt, and himself. Then he sprang forward toward Milt.
Sven grabbed hold of the fat man’s arm and began to pull backward.
From the corner of his eye, Sven saw Brian smashing at the clutching zombie arm with his baseball bat.
Milt’s womanish screams rang through the air as Brian beat at the hand and Sven tried to keep Milt from being pulled down into the cat food.
“Take the belt off,” Sven rasped, feeling the crackling of his damaged upper body. “Unhook that thing!”
“Never!” Milt screamed.
Milt screamed again.
Sven could barely believe that he was pulling with all of his strength, using his legs to brace himself, and yet he couldn’t pull Milt away from the zombie’s grip. The thing possessed inhuman strength.
Then Brian flung the bat down, apparently giving up. He began to back away, startling Sven. Was Brian giving up on Milt, leaving Sven to save the fat man by himself?
“What—” Sven began.
“Just hold on,” Brian said, “just hold on a few seconds.”
Sven kept pulling, trying not to wonder if Brian was abandoning him. He considered stepping around Milt to stomp on the undead arm, but decided against it. Brian’s blows hadn’t done any damage, and stepping around was a great way to get grabbed by the other, still hidden zombie hand.
Suddenly, Milts screams stopped, and he must have gathered himself, because he leaned backward, away from the cat food, and into Sven.
Sven lost his balance and fell, letting go of Milt, and hitting his head on a shelf behind him.
As he fell, Sven felt Ivan claw his way up over his shoulder and down his front, cat reflexes in full gear.
Sven rolled onto his side and out of the way just as Milt lurched backward and sat down, his backward movement pulling out the hidden zombie through a disintegrating screen of toppling cans. Sven’s relief in having avoided being crushed by Milt’s humongous backside quickly vanished, replaced by an enormous wave of revulsion that gripped the whole of his being.
Milt let out a shriek, and Sven thought he might have screamed too, if he could find his voice. The zombie was still holding Milt’s scabbard, and was now edging closer, crawling on its belly like a snake.
A hiss ripped through the air, and Sven glanced over to see Ivan deftly avoiding rolling cans of cat food, his eyes locked on the slithering zombie.
It wasn’t the slithering that bothered Sven. It wasn’t the ragged flesh of the zombie’s fingers, where its fingernails should have been. It was the zombie’s face, or rather what was left of it.
It was instantly apparent to Sven that the zombie had been trying to pick its way into the cans of cat food, with its teeth.
Teeth hung in splinters from the zombie’s bloody, open mouth, suspended by thin strings of gum. The skin around the mouth was cut and torn so badly that the face was barely recognizable as humanoid. Flesh hung in wet, bloody clumps from under the thing’s eyes, and even its forehead and scalp were hacked up.
Scraggly shards of aluminum and tin stuck out of the zombie from all over its face and hands, and were so thick with blood that they were difficult to differentiate from the zombie’s torn, hanging flesh. Wet cat food was all over the zombie’s head, shoulders, hands, and arms up to the elbow. The whole mess stank.
As gruesome as all of that was, Sven’s eyes kept flashing back to the teeth, and he found it next to impossible to look away. Even as his stomach began to heave, he couldn’t make himself turn away.
An inappropriate thought occurred to Sven at that moment—that he would never have been able to be a dentist, not if it involved seeing sights like that, even on an irregular basis.
Then his mind took it further. Sven imagined a rubber-gloved hand wielding a set of pliers, approaching the zombie’s mouth to tug its splintered teeth off their flimsy strings.
On the next heave, something long and black appeared in Sven’s field of vision, joining the bright swarm of stars, and jarring him away from the churn of his revolting stomach. Then there was a loud bang, and the zombie arm turned into a wet mash of pallid skin, rotten sinew, and bone fragments.
Sven looked back at the long black object and followed it up to find Brian holding the Benelli, his face grim with terror. Brian must have aimed the close range blast perfectly, sending all of the pellets on a destructive course toward the zombie and the cat food in which it lurked.
Grateful for having been shaken out of his dental daydream, he got up to Milt’s side and was about to help the man up when Milt scrambled to his feet, surprising Sven with the speed of his ascent. The man didn’t look capable of getting to his feet as fast as he did, and though Sven didn’t know why, that made him feel uncomfortable.
Once on his feet, Milt drew his sword from its scabbard, raised it up by the hilt, and stabbed downward, driving the point through the side of the zombie’s mangled face.
That didn’t stop the zombie, which continued wriggling its destroyed arm. Sven knew it was no time to get complacent, however, because pitiful though the thing now looked, it could still slither over for a bite, and that would be the end, assuming the bite carried the infection.
Pulling upward, Milt removed the sword from the zombie’s face, raising a flap of flash and dislodging several shards of tin, toppling a large gob of wet cat food, and flinging a shrimp upward.
Sven never realized that he had such an eye for details, but he now found himself transfixed by the fine points of the scene unfolding before him. The cat food element made it so surrealistically repulsive that he couldn’t help feeling awestruck by the improbability of it all.
Milt brought the sword down again, stabbing higher this time, and the point of the sword penetrated the zombie’s head somewhere behind its temple, though it was hard for Sven to tell exactly where, through the blood, cat food, and folds of hanging flesh. The frayed end of arm below the zombie’s elbow jerked up at the moment of the stab, then fell still.
Besides killing the thing, the stab seemed to speed up the flow of viscous ooze out of the zombie’s mouth, and over the splinters of teeth, and Sven found himself in an even deeper trance, watching the ooze and wondering if its flow would succeed in tearing off one of the toothy splinters.
“This one’s wet too,” Brian said, jolting Sven from his morbid reverie.
Sven looked away from the mess. “It was strong as hell. The ones we’ve seen so far, the baseball bat would’ve taken care of them…not so with this one.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Ahem,” Milt announced, “if you two could pay me some attention for a moment, the thing’s hand is still latched onto the scabbard of my wondrous sword. I require some assistance.”
Sven glanced at Milt, who was looking dolefully at the mangled zombie hand gripping his sheath. “It’s mostly bone. You can handle it. Come on Brian, let’s check the rest of this place out and get Jane and the kids inside.”
“How do you think it got in there?” Brian asked as he and Sven strode to the top of the aisle, Ivan padding alongside them.
Sven stopped. “I didn’t even think of that. Good question.”
“Obviously,” Milt called in an annoyed tone from behind them, “the zombie that I speared crawled into position from an unseen opening. I venture that you two cretins are standing quite close to it.”
Brian whirled on Milt. “Cretins? Excuse me? Cretins? We just saved your life you ungrateful ball of pudge!”
“It would seem that your memory is quite short-lived. I was the one to spear the wretched undead creature with my zombie slaying sword.”
“Let it go,” Sven said, cutting Brian off. “We have bigger things to worry about. He’s right though.” Sven pointed to a makeshift tunnel through the bottom shelf of the pet food aisle that began at the end of the aisle. “The zombie must have crawled in through there.”
“Why would it burrow in there like that?” Brian asked.
Sven shook his head. “No idea, but we can talk about that later. Right now let’s—”
Sven’s alarm went off again, startling him.
“What pray tell is that?” Milt jeered. “Have we reached the appointed hour for your weight training?”
Sven bit his tongue and removed the watch. He deactivated the alarm and then turned it off so that it wouldn’t ring again. He put the watch down on a shelf next to a 15.4 pound bag of Evo Turkey & Chicken Dry Cat & Kitten Food.
Then, rethinking the placement of the watch, he grabbed it and jammed it into the crevice next to the Evo bag, so that it was out of sight.
“Come on,” Sven said to Brian, taking the shotgun from him and continuing to ignore Milt, “let’s get this over with.”
Sven and Brian did as diligent a check of the remainder of the Wegmans as they thought time would allow, and upon failing to find any more hidden zombies, they made their way back to the entrance.
As Sven felt heartened by Brian’s reassuring, optimistic presence, he was simultaneously discouraged by Milt’s. On balance, Sven wasn’t sure what the net effect of the new company was.
He knew that basing his actions on what happened in zombie movies was a poor substitute for carefully planning their survival, but he couldn’t stop himself from recalling the infighting and general deterioration of the human group that always took place in movies, as the group grew larger. The infighting always got people killed…
Sven, he told himself, that’s just what happens in the movies. It’s not real. We’ll figure out a way to get along, and it won’t be like the movies.
Feeling worse after his own mental pep talk, Sven still wished their group was smaller, more maneuverable. Mostly, he wished that Milt hadn’t joined them. The man’s size and personality were too big to be ignored.
Jane’s heart leapt up into her throat when she saw Sven emerge from the Wegmans sliding doors and begin to traverse the parking lot. Brian and Ivan were alongside Sven, and Milt was following close behind them.
The joy was short-lived, however, because Jane was certain that what had happened to Vicky was now happening to Evan. The similarities were too clear, too salient to be ignored. She was even starting to get whiffs of that smell, coming from Evan. She would bring the boy inside, of course, put him down somewhere, and then…and then…
“What’s happened?” Sven asked.
Jane looked up to see Sven standing next to her, clutching the Benelli in his trembling grip. The man looked more shaken than he had all day, and Milt and Brian didn’t look any better off. They all looked like they’d come out of some nightmare and were still blinking in terrified disbelief.
Sven seemed to be experiencing tremors, and Jane could see the trembling travel up and down his body in waves. He had the expression of a man who was trying not to vomit.
She looked down at the unconscious boy and tried, but failed, to stifle a shudder. His sallow skin had begun to emit a pale fluid that coalesced into a dreadful film, like the gelatinous membrane of a disgusting horror movie monster.
Jane blinked hard, feeling suddenly stifled by the moist, late afternoon air. “He just passed out…was asking for water, drank some, fell…I dunno, he just…”
Jane looked at Sven, hoping for some supportive gesture. Sven must have tried, because he gave a nod and his lips twitched upward, but if he was trying to smile, the expression never reached fruition.
“We’re good to go inside,” he said. “We’ll take the boy, and…make him comfortable as we can.”
Jane nodded, feeling the pressure of tears build behind her eyes.
There’ll be time for crying later, she told herself, now’s the time to get out of harm’s way.
Sven put the shotgun down and leaned over Evan. He began to scoop the boy up when Brian came up from behind him.
“Let me,” Brian said. “You look like you need to ease up on the heavy lifting…yeah, I’ve noticed you’re injured. I’ll get the kid. And besides, you’re pretty good with that thing. Mean kinda gun isn’t it?”
Sven let Brian take the boy away from him and straightened up. “Thanks. I got into a bit of trouble this morning, pulled a few muscles I think.’
Brian nodded, not seeming to strain at all as he held Evan in his arms. Jane was relieved that it wasn’t Sven holding the boy…not that Brian deserved any worse, of course, but she couldn’t watch that happen to Sven, couldn’t—
“I put it before you all that we leave the unfortunate boy behind,” Milt said. “In fact, to be quite frank, I insist upon it. We cannot bring that thing inside with us.” Milt pointed to Evan. “It is quite clear that he is on his way to becoming a human-devouring zombie. Therefore, he cannot remain a part of this tribe. Don’t you understand? This is not a camping trip, this is the zombie apocalypse!”
Sven’s mouth dropped open. “It’s just a cold. He’s had it for a few days.” Sven was stiff and tight-lipped. He gave Evan a once-over and turned away.
“It is obviously much more than a cold virus. Look at the exterior of his countenance! We need to be rid of him or he will pass the virus to us! Then we will all be infected, and all of our efforts will be for naught. It is so simple a concept I cannot fathom how it is that you people are incapable of understanding.”
Jane watched, feeling her body tense as Sven locked eyes with Milt.
“If the kid stays out here,” Sven said, “you stay with him.”
“You’re going to regret this,” Milt said, and began to trundle off toward the Wegmans entrance, snorting and harrumphing as he went.
Jane’s mouth felt unusually dry. She went over to Sven and pulled him aside. “What if he’s right?” she whispered. “What if…”
“I don’t know, but we can’t leave Evan out here.”
Jane looked around and saw that Lorie was eyeing her and Sven suspiciously. Jane was sure the girl could easily have guessed what they were discussing, anyone could have.
As if in answer to Jane’s thoughts, Brian walked over and said, “You’re not considering what he said, are you? Leaving the kid out here?”
Jane looked at him, feeling her mouth get even drier.
“No,” Sven said. “No.”
“Even if,” Brian said, “even if…we can’t…” He shrugged and turned away.
Jane understood the frustration. What could you do in a situation like this?
They’re all being so decent, Jane thought, except for the fat guy…but who’s right?
Jane felt oddly detached as she watched what was happening in front of her. It was as if she were floating several feet up above the parking lot, unfeelingly looking down at her own body and the bodies of the other survivors, as they went about a rehearsed repertoire of physical movements.
The air seemed to be thick with futility, with an inescapable conclusion, which, though it might be delayed, could never be avoided.
Jane watched with foreboding as Brian brought the unconscious Evan inside, Sven beside them. She followed, straining under the weight of the duffel bags from the car. She felt depressed and angry, though she was uncertain from where the anger was coming, and at whom she should direct it.
They entered the Wegmans and laid Evan down in the middle of the produce section, on the smallest sleeping bag from the gun shop, setting him up away from the supermarket’s multitude of refrigeration units.
When Jane was unable to rouse Evan for a drink of water and another fever pill, she resolved to check on the boy at regular intervals, but not to stay by his side. With each passing moment, she grew more sure that Milt was right, and that the boy would become dangerous at any moment. Jane reflected on how long the boy had fought the disease off, keeping it from taking over his body long after everyone around them had already turned into zombies.
She said her mental goodbyes to the child and zipped him up into the sleeping bag as a final precaution. If he woke up as one of the infected, he would likely be unable to get out of the sleeping bag, or would at least alert the rest of them to his plight before he could do any damage. Then once he woke—the word “reanimated” occurred to Jane, and made her shiver—then they would…
She walked away from the boy and set up camp halfway up the row of checkout aisles, between the cash registers and an aisle containing magazines, paperbacks, and stationery. She set out the remaining sleeping bags for Lorie, Sven, and herself, and then began to check her munitions. The routine of the check dried her dampened spirits quickly and significantly, but the distraction was only momentary.
Jane jumped to her feet at once when she heard an irritating, scraping sound, overlaid by the sound of human retching. Then Sven and Brian appeared, pushing a dripping, overloaded shopping cart, scratching its wheels along the supermarket’s polished floor.
Jane watched with revulsion as Sven and Brian carted out the dead zombies. They tried to conceal their loads with makeshift tarps, but it was little use. Blood and the now familiar viscous liquid drizzled from underneath the cart, leaving a trail of putrid sludge, smattered at irregular intervals with gobbets of rotten flesh.
It was a gut-wrenching sight, made all the worse for Jane because when they were done, she put herself on cleanup detail, mopping up the trail of zombie pus, while she strained to control the bouts of dry heaving into her surgical mask. She mopped up to the entrance and threw the mop outside, giving one last look to the pile of dead undead—she didn’t know how to think of them yet.
They were so much like the zombies in the movies…whatever disease they had contracted stripped them so bare of their previous humanity that it was hard to see the creatures as people. Jane looked at the heap that had now grown to many times its initial size and felt as if she were sinking.
When the cleanup was done and Sven and Jane had recovered from their nausea, they figured out how to work the entrance shutter and lowered it. The sliding doors still opened and closed when they came near, but the shutter would keep the uncoordinated zombies out.
Sven pushed several rows of shopping carts up against the back of the shutter for good measure, and that made Jane think of Evan…of being trapped inside the supermarket with Evan, who was now most of the way—
“Hey where’s Lorie?” Sven asked.
Jane shook her head. “I don’t know, I haven’t seen her in a while. On that note, where’s Milt?”
“I don’t know. I don’t like this setup. It seemed like a great idea when we were driving up this way…but I don’t trust that guy. He seems so unpredictable to me.”
“I don’t trust him either, but what can we do? Kill him? We’ll have to keep a watch—a patrol.”
“Between you, me, and Brian, one of us can be up at all times. That way we won’t be surprised by the zombies, or by Milt if he decides to go crazy on us. I’ll go tell Brian.”
So Jane stood there, and watched Sven walk away to tell his friend. She put her hand on the grip of the .460 XVR, knowing that it would always be there for her, and hoping that Sven would be too.
Ivan was watching the boy from a safe distance, tilting his furry head this way and that, curious about why Sven kept the rotten boy around. It was as if Sven couldn’t smell the bad smell, as if Sven had no idea about the rot…the terrible, sickening smell. But then Sven must have been able to smell it, because he was killing the rotten people everywhere they went. Why was the rotten boy allowed to remain? The smell was so bad. What about the woman, couldn’t she smell it? Why couldn’t she? Soon the rotten boy would begin to move, to try to spread the rot into the others, and they would have to run again, or fight, fight and kill the—There was suddenly a stale, fusty odor in the air that drew an instinctive hiss from Ivan. It wasn’t the rot. Ivan skittered away from the smell and turned his nimble body around, using his tail to keep balanced in the hairpin turn. A big man was coming, moving slowly and with great effort, wheezing and out of breath. Ivan flattened himself out, ready to pounce. But the fat man wasn’t coming to Ivan. He was coming to the rotten boy. Ivan would’ve hissed a warning if it were Sven. Ivan even would have clawed at Sven if it were he that was approaching the boy in this particularly late stage of the rot. But with the fat musty man it was different. Ivan didn’t care about stopping him. The fat man wasn’t rotten, but the fat man was soft, not like Sven. The fat man didn’t like Ivan, and Ivan knew it, could smell it. The fat man, Ivan decided, would get no warning. Then the fat man had something shiny. He was holding the shiny thing next to the rotten boy. Then…then? The fat man stood there holding the shiny thing, over the rotten boy. Then the fat man plunged the long shiny thing into the rotten boy. Then…then? Ivan knew at once that the fat man didn’t understand. That wasn’t enough. The rot was still there. Why would the fat man do that? The rot. It was there. It was still coming. The bad death was still coming.
Lorie was creeping around the inside perimeter of the Wegmans.
I could get used to this place, she thought, it’s definitely big enough for me. She was holding the hunting knife in her hand now, making no effort to conceal it. She had no intention of letting go of the knife, not then and not even if it made its way into a zombie’s brain. She would pull it back out and reuse it. Use and reuse.
I will not be left without a weapon again, Lorie told herself.
She revised her circular route when she spied a red-faced Milt trundling out of the candy aisle, chocolate stains running down his chin. She stopped short of the far aisle and stood before an open refrigerator, feeling the cold air spill out onto her. She ignored the fat man as he waddled past her in his slipper-clad feet, grunting and muttering something about wizards and the apocalypse and zombie children.
The guy was a real creep, and Lorie wondered if he could be sectioned off at some far end of the store, or in an aisle—the candy aisle perhaps—so that she didn’t have to see him. It was worth giving up access to all the candy in the store for that.
Lorie shuddered Milt’s lingering creepiness off her and took a bottle of water from the refrigerator, savoring the feel of the cool, wet plastic against her palm. Instead of putting the knife down to open the bottle, she hooked it into her back pocket, then opened the bottle and gulped the cool water greedily.
Surprised when the water stopped flowing, Lorie lowered the bottle from her mouth and realized that it was empty. It hadn’t felt like more than two sips and the thing was empty already. She scanned the refrigerator for another drink.
Anything would be more refreshing than the water, she thought, and decided on a large orange-colored Gatorade. She picked it up, opened it, and downed half of the drink before coming up for air. Then she took the hunting knife in her hand again, and began up the aisle, open Gatorade bottle in one hand and forward-facing hunting knife in the other.
She was a predator, meticulously stalking her prey. She just hadn’t chosen the prey yet. Then, glancing into an aisle of frozen foods as she passed it, Lorie decided that she wanted some fruit. Fruit was good fuel. It was light and kept the energy up, and it was one of Lorie’s snacking staples at track meets and in training.
I’ll start with a banana, she thought, realizing how light-headed she felt, that should help steady me on my feet.
Then something in a dark corner of her mind lit up. It was a connecting cable—a mental one—that ran between her desire for a piece of fruit and something that the creepy Milt had said.
Fruit and, fruit and? What was it? Fruit and…
Lorie realized what was bothering her, dropped the half-full bottle of Gatorade, and broke into a run. It was the remark about zombie children, and maybe it was the way Milt had waddled past, more dignified than before, as if he’d done something, as if they should all be honored to be in his presence.
She ran, hunting knife pumping up and down in her right hand. She veered into the produce section, using her left hand to lean on a shelf to stop herself from toppling over. She couldn’t see anyone there, and slowing to a walk, Lorie approached the center of the produce section, feeling cold apprehension gripping her more tightly with every step.
Lorie’s blood turned cold when she saw him.
Evan was so still, so quiet.
Lorie didn’t even need to see the thick red puddle forming at his left side to know—she felt her face contort with anguish and a sob choke its way out of her throat—to know that Evan was gone.
She wiped at her eyes and mouth, feeling confused. Why was he dead…and why was there blood pooling around him? How could that have—what could have happened to…
She stepped closer, her body resisting every movement closer to Evan, as if she could deny the fact that he was dead if she just stayed away from his body, as if she could turn around and he would become whole again.
She tried not to look at his face as she got closer, she didn’t want to see it, to let it in, to admit to—
Then she screamed.
Sven had taken the first watch. He, Jane, and Brian had decided that they would switch off in four or six hour shifts depending on how they felt. Brian offered to do a later shift, since he claimed that he was well-rested. Sven wanted to get his own over with, and didn’t much trust himself to stay alert into the night. Jane didn’t care which shift she got.
So they agreed that Sven would go first, followed by Jane, followed by Brian, and then the cycle would repeat itself. As he left Jane and Brian to fiddle with the radios and television sets, trying to find a signal, Sven wondered how many repetitions of their watch cycle there would be before the zombies went away…assuming the zombies ever did go away.
How long would they be hiding there? Was it really hiding? It was more like being trapped than hiding. Sven knew that he was assuming a lot. He was assuming that he and the rest of his group could survive long enough. What if they were overrun?
With that and other similar thoughts churning in his head, Sven began his patrol by marching straight to the store’s organic section. The shotgun hung loosely from his right hand as he wandered up and down the aisles, searching for some much-needed protein.
He found a packet of Golden Valley Natural Organic Beef Jerky, gently set the shotgun down on the floor, and took the packet of beef jerky off its rack. He tore it open and withdrew a dried piece of meat. Sven looked at the jerky, turning it over in his hand.
Then he raised the jerky to his face and smelled it. His body began to spasm with nausea, and it took all of Sven’s will to keep from throwing up. After he had drawn enough shuddering breaths to calm himself somewhat, he took another piece of jerky out of the packet, having dropped the first one in his bout of spasms.
I have to eat, Sven told himself, it’s been all day, and I’m hurt. I need to keep my energy up.
His stomach growled as he held the dry, ragged piece of beef jerky in his hand, but he couldn’t make himself eat it. His stomach felt like it was growling at least as much from revulsion as from hunger, so he decided the jerky wasn’t appropriate right then, and he would find something else.
He gingerly set the jerky down on a shelf next to some Cheddar Bunnies, picked up the shotgun, and backed away. He knew he was better off eating something. It would help to settle his stomach. Maybe some cinnamon cookies or ginger snaps, or something with peppermint in it. He knew all of those things were good for settling one’s stomach, knowledge garnered from his friendship with Brian.
It’s good to know a holistic supplement dealer, Sven thought.
But that didn’t change the fact that no matter how much he knew he should eat, and no matter how much he stared at the scrumptious foods in the organic section, the lump in his throat remained in place with finality. The way his body was feeling right now, eating just wasn’t an option, regardless of the muscle loss that might result.
Despondent, Sven left the organic section and began to wander about the store aimlessly, looking for signs of the monsters that had taken over his beautiful town and stolen his appetite in the process.
And soon my muscles, Sven thought, soon the zombies will have those too, starving my hard work into oblivion.
He wandered into a back section of the store that was set off in a recess. The section was a series of bins filled with nuts, candy, and other dry goods, punctuated by an excessive number of weighing machines.
Sven walked over to one of the weighing machines and looked at it. It was the fancy kind where you could not only weigh the product you were buying, but the machine spat out labels to plaster onto your bags of gathered goods. Sven wondered how often people cheated, printing out a label for a bag with two pieces of chocolate, plastering it on, then adding fifty more pieces of chocolate. He decided that if the system was still in place, there probably wasn’t all that much cheating.
He sighed and looked about the bins. Sven didn’t understand how people could do that to themselves, eating garbage and living with the consequences.
With that in mind, he picked up a pair of chocolate eyeballs and began rolling them around in his left palm like a pair of Chinese Stress Balls. The chocolate eyeballs were poorly wrapped, and left brown smears on Sven’s hand, and he decided that they were a poor substitute for the silver pair of Baoding Balls that he had at home.
Sven continued to look at the eyeballs in his palm, no longer twirling them now, and suddenly found himself putting the shotgun down and unwrapping the eyeballs.
Once the eyeballs were unwrapped, he took one in each hand and began to squeeze them, watching the peanut butter dribble out. Why he was doing this he had no idea, but it made him think about his and Brian’s decision not to burn the bodies, to leave them in that putrid pile in the parking lot, to be taken care of by the elements.
Some of those bodies were sure to have empty eye sockets. Maybe the chocolate ones could—Sven shook himself away from the insanity.
I really am losing my mind, he thought, jungle hallucinations and now chocolate eyeball fantasies.
Throwing away the crushed chocolate eyeballs and picking up a fresh pair to unwrap, Sven wondered if leaving the bodies out there had been a mistake. What if rotting zombie corpses attracted more zombies?
He and Brian had decided not to burn them for two reasons. First, they didn’t want to risk catching the Wegmans on fire, flushing themselves out of their new hideaway. Second, they didn’t want to risk attracting any unwelcome human attention…or any at all for that matter.
Sven shrugged and tried to get his fingers unstuck from his palms. Maybe the pile would reassemble itself and attack the Wegmans. The way the day was going, that wasn’t so unlikely.
Sven had squeezed most of the peanut butter out of his ninth chocolate eyeball when he heard the scream. He picked up the shotgun with a sticky, chocolate and peanut butter-covered hand and set off in a run.
Now, as he ran toward the front of the store, Sven’s mind began to flash on the possibilities. Milt could have done something terrible. The surly, waddling beast had stormed off after Sven and Brian brought the unconscious Evan in, and who knew what he’d been up to since? How could Milt be so insensitive as to expect them to leave Evan outside to die…next to that pile of zombies in the middle of the parking lot? Milt was probably capable of anything.
Jane could have accidentally shot someone in the midst of her compulsive gun cleaning, munitions counting, and disassembly and reassembly of her new best friends.
Lorie could have purposefully stabbed someone—if that was the case, Sven hoped it was Milt that she had stabbed…and Sven knew he would forgive her.
Evan could have…maybe it was something to do with Evan. That seemed the most likely possibility. The boy had been much worse when Sven last saw him, probably close to death or…
If the scream wasn’t on account of any of those possibilities, perhaps the zombies had already arrived, surrounded the Wegmans, and were now trickling in through an access point that Sven should have spotted and sealed before leading Jane and Lorie inside. How could he live with something like that? Knowing that he was responsible for the deaths of—Sven cut the thought off, comforting himself with the notion that if the zombies were inside, he wouldn’t have very long to live with his shame.
As he ran, feeling the uncomfortable, more unnerving than painful crunch in his ribcage with each footfall, he tried to tell himself that it had been a good scream, that Lorie and Jane and Brian had finally gotten the radios or TVs to work and help was on its way. He tried to tell himself that was it, but he didn’t believe it.
Reflecting on the possibilities as he slowed, Sven knew it could only be something terrible. He was fairly certain that it was Lorie who had screamed, and that girl wouldn’t be screaming over nothing.
“Lorie!” he shouted. “Where are you? Lorie!”
Her scream—if it had been her scream—still hung in the air, and the air in the place seemed to grow colder the closer Sven drew to whatever it was that…
He burst into the produce section, last to the party. He no longer needed an answer.
Standing next to a disheveled pile of loose cherries, Sven felt the air choking him, closing tighter around his throat.
Lorie, Jane, and Brian stood motionless over Evan’s prone body. Sven took two steps closer, hearing each of his footfalls in the stony silence. He saw the puddle growing out of the boy, engulfing him. Sven’s entire body went rigid, as if gripped by ice. The air grew even colder, closing yet tighter around his throat.
“I did it,” a calm, nasally voice said. It was Milt’s voice.
Sven whirled, feeling air rip its way into his lungs, and then he saw Milt, standing before a vegetable refrigerator, glaring in their direction.
Carrots, cilantro, parsley, dill, kale, and collards framed Milt’s enormous body—a strangely disturbing sight.
“My hand was forced,” he said, unable to keep a wheeze out of his voice. “He was beginning to turn into one of the undead, and then he would have destroyed us from within. It was a heroic act.”
There was an eerie calm in the air.
Ivan padded in, passing in front of Milt and describing a wide arc around the produce section before coming up behind Sven. Ivan pawed at Sven’s pants a few times, then leapt onto an empty display that claimed to hold Yukon Gold potatoes. Ivan crouched low and puffed up his tail.
Glancing at Ivan, Sven could see Ivan’s muscles growing taut on his lean frame.
Then Lorie pounced.
She burst toward Milt, raising the knife she’d been carrying around since their departure from the gun shop. Her face was a tear-streaked snarl and then—
Abruptly, there was a tearing sound, and Lorie’s body lurched and caught. She was motionless for a split second, a look of confusion flowering on her face. She looked down, and the confusion wilted into terror.
Then Sven looked down, aghast at once at what he saw.
Evan’s hands had burst through the sleeping bag, and now were wrapped firmly around Lorie’s left shin. The boy’s hands were partially flayed, apparently having been ripped up by their journey through the sleeping bag’s durable, insulating material.
Evan moaned as he pulled Lorie toward him, gnashing his teeth and wriggling around in the sleeping bag that still had him wrapped from the midsection down.
Lorie screamed, and she brought her knife up, but then brought it down to her side. She didn’t stab at Evan, or even at his hands. Instead, she dropped the knife and began trying to squirm free.
Sven had begun to move toward the sleeping bag, intent on freeing Lorie, when the shot rang out.
Evan’s body went limp, though his hands still clung to Lorie’s shin. Lorie continued to struggle away from Evan, looking dazed and uncertain.
Then Jane ran to her, holstering her gun—the smaller one. She knelt in Evan’s blood and removed Evan’s hands from Lorie’s leg.
“It seems I have been vindicated,” Milt said. “Although I must apologize that I did not do him in properly. In my haste to save all of you, I must have neglected to dispatch the boy correctly, and for that I sincerely beg all of your pardons. And now, I must rest.” Milt turned to go.
Jane stood up, her lower half covered in blood, glaring at Milt. “How could you do this?!”
Milt turned back to face the group. “I would advise you to avoid the boy’s bodily fluids. They are certainly tainted.”
Then Sven watched, disbelieving, as Jane calmly removed the huge gun—not the one she’d just used on Evan—from her second shoulder holster. She raised it, obviously setting her sights on Milt, who shrank back into the vegetables, his face a mask of outrage.
The gun dwarfed Jane’s hand, and Sven guessed that she didn’t have to aim very well at this distance to put a gaping hole in Milt’s enormous body.
Milt seemed to collect himself, righting his body and distastefully picking a bunch of parsley off his shoulder, and tossing it onto the floor. “I am utterly bewildered. You now threaten to destroy me, after I have so selflessly removed a threat to your own well-being? Please clarify your position.”
Jane cocked the huge gun. “Clarify this. Give me your sword, or you die.”
“Thou dost not dare—”
A loud bang tore through the air, and the Romaine and collards to Milt’s left were suddenly transformed into a cloud of green mist. Milt fell to the floor, whimpering.
Jane swung the gun over and down, fixing it on Milt. “Give me your sword. Now.”
Milt raised himself onto his hands and knees, blubbering something about a fear of vegetables. He unhooked the belt on which the scabbard hung and tossed the sword and belt clattering across the floor toward Jane.
Then Milt let out a few more snivels, made his massive body vertical, trundled out of the produce section, and disappeared.
Sven let out a breath as Jane put her humongous gun away.
“What do we do now?” Brian asked, visibly shaken.
“That guy is completely out of control,” Jane said. “He stabbed a boy in the heart! While he was alive! Not after he turned, but while he was alive! We have to get him out of here.”
“He’s crazy,” Brian agreed. “But what are we gonna do?”
“Sven,” Jane said, “say something.”
“I agree he’s a problem,” Sven said. “But we can’t just push him outside to the zombies.” Sven paused, unsure of what to say next, and of the whole situation. “We need to keep an eye on him.”
Jane looked stunned. “Keep an eye on him? We need to get rid of him! He’s dangerous. He’ll find some other weapon in here and then we’ll be next. He’ll kill us while we sleep.” Jane looked at Brian, then back at Sven, as if searching for some support. “What about survival? What about what you said before, about surviving on our own, in the smallest group possible?”
“Look,” Sven said, growing frustrated, “I don’t know what to do, okay? I don’t have the answers, but kicking him out to die would be too cruel. I don’t like him either, but he wasn’t exactly wrong, and—”
“What?” Jane interrupted. “How dare you say that? You’re taking his side now?”
“I’m not taking his side, I just—”
“You just what?”
Mercifully, Brian stepped between Jane and Sven. “Alright, we’re all really upset right now, but this isn’t solving anything. Jane, I’m sorry but we can’t just go pushing people out to be killed. We’ll all keep watch and be careful around Milt.”
Jane glared, but said nothing.
Maybe she’s finally seeing some sense, Sven thought.
“Right now,” Brian went on, “we need to see about…about the kid’s body. We can’t leave him here like this.”
Abruptly, Lorie stood up, her face pallid and red from crying. “I can’t believe he’s dead…I can’t believe you shot him.”
Jane turned to the girl. “I…”
“I know,” Lorie said. “You had to, right? You had to?”
Jane didn’t say anything.
Lorie turned to Sven, and he found it difficult to look her in the eye. “Will you? Will you?”
“Yeah,” Sven said. “I’ll bury him. I’ll do it now, that’s what he deserves. Something proper.”
Lorie nodded, and then Jane led her away.
After they were gone, Sven and Brian found some blankets and a pair of shovels. They wrapped Evan’s body and wiped up most of the blood.
“I’ll help you,” Brian said.
Sven shook his head. “I want to do it alone.”
“You should stay here, watch over everyone. I don’t like the way we left things just now. Not with Milt, with Jane, with Lorie, with anyone. This is all going wrong. Just keep an eye on things okay?”
Brian looked uncertain, or perhaps unwilling.
“Ok?” Sven repeated.
Brian sighed. “Okay.” He put his shovel down next to the blood-sopped towels with which they’d wiped the floor. “And you’re right. Everything is going to hell.”
Sven picked up Evan’s wrapped body. “Everything’s already there.”
The vegan was halfway through his fourth pack when he saw it. The silhouette of the Wegmans was unmistakable, representing a certain reprieve from the soulless ghouls. The vegan scratched at his handlebar moustache with his free hand, fingered the cross at his neck, and redoubled his hobbling.
Dusk was rapidly enveloping the road, and the vegan didn’t want to be stuck on the open road at night, his companions the hungry ghouls that had been unleashed on the sinning planet.
After what seemed like fifteen more minutes of limping, the vegan turned right onto Monument Drive, the access road into the Wegmans parking lot.
He walked up the drive and around it to enter through the vehicle exit, cutting through to the Wegmans entrance without going all the way around through the rear of the parking lot. As he entered the lot, the vegan noted that the low, spasmodic drone he had become used to that day—the irregular scraping of the zombies trapped inside their cars—grew louder.
The sound was unsettlingly stronger in the Wegmans parking lot than it had been anywhere else on the vegan’s route that day.
It had to be on account of the large number of cars parked there, he figured, and because he hadn’t stopped off in any large parking lots until that moment.
Tapping at his cross with a finger, the vegan reminded himself that he would grow used to the louder scraping, and that the ghouls were trapped, immobilized.
I have to focus on the positive, he told himself, and looked up at the finish line toward which he’d been striving for so many hours now. The vegan savored the sight of the Wegmans edifice looming like a glimmer of hope over him. He had made it to safety at last.
It felt like a safe place, in part because the vegan shopped at this particular Wegmans regularly, appreciating its relatively wide selection of animal-free products.
The first thing he planned to do once inside was to find a Newman’s Own Peanut Butter Cup in Dark Chocolate, and devour it. In spite of the absurd amount of cigarettes he had gone through on his journey, the vegan was famished.
As the vegan hobbled toward the familiar Wegmans entrance, he caught sight of something in the parking lot that unnerved him.
It can’t be, he thought. He tried to make out the shapes in the increasing gloom, then, hesitating for a moment, he turned his back to the Wegmans and its promise of a wide range of Newman’s Own products. He faced the center of the parking lot directly, and began to advance at a slow limp.
The ghoul smell—the now-familiar harbinger of the damned—grew stronger as he approached. It was a strange smell, remarkable in its complexity and impossible to pin down. The vegan tried to sniff out its components, but his mind blanked when he tried.
When he got to the very edge of the pile, the smell was so strong that the vegan had to breathe completely through his lit cigarette, instead of mostly through it, as he normally did.
Cringing with fear and wondering why he’d consciously made himself walk up to the pile, the vegan turned around. He felt some relief at having the pile out of sight, though he also felt worse in a different way, now that the soon-to-be-moonlit ghoul parts were behind him.
Looking back toward the Wegmans, the vegan noticed something that he hadn’t seen on his hobble toward the center of the parking lot. There was a crusty trail from the dead ghouls that led to the Wegmans. Curious, the vegan began to follow it, tracing its path with his eyes. He followed it all the way to the curb in front of the Wegmans entrance.
There he looked down to where the trail broke in a sloppy multitude of directions, and spotted something else that he hadn’t noticed before. Lying at the point where the curb met the street was a mop, the business end of which was crusty, seemingly with the same stuff that made up the trail.
It struck him that the crust had once been a thick, stinking liquid…the power source of the ghouls.
The power source of the ghouls? The vegan caught himself, wondering what the hell he was thinking about.
It’s too early into the apocalypse to be losing my mind, he told himself. He stomped out his cigarette, dug out a fresh one, and lit up.
Then he looked at the mop again. The mop head’s grey yarn looked stiff with the crust, a mass of sticking scabs waiting to be picked off. The vegan shuddered and stepped closer, looking down at the thing. An acrid odor hit him, weaker than that emanating from the pile of ghouls, but unsettling all the same. He took a step back, considering the mop, and took a hard pull on his cigarette. Then he followed the crusty trail back to the pile in the center of the parking lot.
So I won’t be in the Wegmans by myself, he thought. And why should I be? What had I been expecting anyway? That I would come here to hide and be the only person to have that idea?
Still, it wasn’t ideal. People always made things so complicated. People and their stupid ways. If only Rainee were still here, the vegan reflected. Rainee was good people, as the saying went, and of course, as often happened to good people, Rainee had fallen prey to the unknown ghoulish agenda, had become a part of it.
The vegan took another hard pull and told himself to stop it. Then he made himself peer into the ghoul pile’s depths. The moon was becoming more visible now in the dimming light, and it began to play off the ghoul parts, glinting off them, as if whispering its ancient, evil orders…commanding the parts to rise and—
Looking at the pile was an exercise in fear, the vegan knew, but he thought that if he looked at it long enough, the fear would melt away. The ghouls could become ordinary if he only looked long enough…they were there for a reason, part of God’s plan, part of—
He gulped and shrank back from the mangle of dead ghouls and ghoul pieces. He turned and limped hurriedly to the Wegmans entrance. His heart sank as soon as he looked up, and he fumbled a carton of cigarettes, letting it slip out from under his arm. The familiar doors of the Wegmans slid open, but beyond them, the shutter was closed.
All of a sudden, as if the sight of the shutter had enhanced his hearing, the vegan began to hear dragging noises in the semi-darkness.
Were they here? Were they surrounding him at this very moment? Panic began to gnaw at the vegan, because he knew that he didn’t have much strength left, regardless of how many more cigarettes he smoked. He needed rest and animal-free nourishment.
This was supposed to be my respite, he thought with increasing anxiety, this was supposed to be the end of today’s journey.
Then he remembered the mashed ghouls in the parking lot and cursed himself for being so dim-witted. He realized it was probably the same people that had battled the ghouls in the parking lot who were now inside the Wegmans. Maybe he could join them, maybe they would be welcoming.
So long as they didn’t brandish tire irons at him, he didn’t care what they were like, and in his current state, a tire iron didn’t seem strong enough a disincentive to keep him out in the haunted night.
The vegan reluctantly released the carton of cigarettes still clutched under his arm, setting it on the ground next to the one he had fumbled. He approached the shutter and reached out, about to shake the shutter and holler in to whoever might be inside.
He froze, his hands inches from the shutter.
Through the openings in the shutter, the vegan caught a glimpse of movement. He peered in, and saw that someone was coming straight toward the shuttered entrance, holding a wrapped bundle. By the look of the man with the bundle, the vegan knew at once that he was not a vegan, or even a vegetarian. This was a carnivorous man if the vegan had ever seen one.
What the vegan saw next brought on a ripple of terror that made him into an even more rigid statue of fright. The carnivorous man had not one, but two tire irons strapped to his belt, and he was getting closer. It would only be a matter of seconds before the carnivorous man was there, looking the vegan up and down, sneering, taking a tire iron in each hand, and…
Stop it, the vegan told himself, carnivorous though this man may be, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he uses his tire irons for evil.
The vegan regained the use of his muscles and crept sideways, scuttling away from the shutter. He wondered if the carnivorous man had noticed the sliding doors open, but it seemed that the carnivorous man, being preoccupied with his human-shaped bundle, had not.
Human-shaped? Then it hit the vegan like a pile of hard, unripe avocados. The bundle was human-shaped! The carnivorous man with the tire irons was a killer, and probably a close friend of the tire iron brandisher that the vegan had met earlier that day.
Aghast and disconsolate at the discovery, the vegan crept toward a far outer corner of the Wegmans, stole behind a large tree, and prepared for the worst.
His forgotten cartons of Luckies sat in front of the Wegmans entrance, as if asking to be let in.
Holding Evan’s wrapped body in his outstretched arms, Sven walked solemnly to the shuttered entrance. At one of the checkout aisles on the way, he gently placed the dead boy into a shopping cart. Sven pushed the shopping cart to the entrance, and began taking apart the make-shift barricade now set up before it.
It was painful work because of his injury, so the disassembly of the barricade was punctuated by bolts of searing pain that shot up from his chest and down from his neck.
Every few moments, Sven glanced at Ivan, who was sitting a safe distance away from the clattering shopping carts, watching. The cat had insisted on coming along, and Sven wasn’t going to stop him. Ivan was turning out to the best of them at this morbid game, dropping useful hints and warnings based on information that it seemed only cats could glean.
Now, with the path to the shutter clear, Sven lifted it and pushed the shopping cart out.
Stepping into the twilight, he at once began to have second thoughts. Putting the body into the freezer was a better idea as far as practicality went—as far as survival went—but it didn’t seem right. It seemed the kind of thing that Milt might do.
With one hand gripping the cart, Sven turned and began to lower the shutter. Ivan slunk out through the diminishing crack and stole off a little ways, until he found a spot that he seemed to like.
Then the cat looked at Sven, his green eyes glowing in the dusk. Sven pulled the rattling shutter down all the way, then he turned back to the cart, and, with a heavy, apprehensive heart, gave it a push.
The cart snagged unexpectedly, and Sven walked into the cart’s handle.
Ivan meowed as Sven winced in pain.
“You saw that coming didn’t you?”
Ivan meowed, probably in agreement.
Sven walked around the caught cart, resolving to pull it, figuring that one of the cumbersome wheels had turned sideways or gotten caught in a sidewalk divot. When he got to the cart’s front, he was startled to discover that both of his theories had been incorrect.
The front wheels of the shopping cart had driven over an open carton of cigarettes, and had caught inside the carton’s cardboard flaps. Next to the open carton lay a closed carton.
Sven whirled around at once, realizing after he did it that whoever had left the cigarette cartons probably hadn’t done it from inside the Wegmans.
Was there someone on the roof? Was someone spying on all of them from outside? Had the zombies taken up smoking?
Sven freed the shopping cart’s front wheels and pushed it gently down the ramp from the sidewalk to the pavement of the parking lot.
It was getting far too dark for comfort. He didn’t want to leave Evan’s body sitting so unceremoniously in the parking lot, but now Sven had to go back inside to warn the others. They had company, and that meant they were all in danger. Unless…unless Sven could spot the cigarette bringer now, outside, and nip the problem in the bud.
Sven scanned the parking lot before him.
It was quiet save for the intermittent scratching of the zombies trapped in their cars. The scratching had grown weaker as the day wore on. Sven hoped that was a good sign, maybe this whole disaster was winding—
He saw a faint glow at the far end of the parking lot, off in the trees behind where he had met Brian and Milt. There was someone there.
A thought dawned on Sven as he began to push the shopping cart nonchalantly in the direction of the glow. Then he stopped, screeching the cart to a halt. He was suddenly certain of what was going on.
It was a trick. The glow was a distraction to get him away from the entrance, so that whoever was trying to get in could get past Sven. It was a group of marauders, come to kill them and take over the supermarket. Sven was sure of it. His mind kept flashing on a zombie movie where a gang of raiders on motorcycles broke into a mall to dish out havoc on the humans hiding there. Their purpose was anarchy, destruction, rape, murder.
All of that was happening now, already, this early into the zombie outbreak.
People are crap, Sven thought, knowing it to be true.
He shifted his grip from the cart’s handle to the shovel, but remained careful not to make any sudden moves. He turned around slowly, surveying all that he could in the moonlight. There was no sign of the rest of the marauder pack.
Sven looked down at Ivan. “What do you think?”
The cat was silent.
Now Sven wasn’t sure what to do. If he approached the glow, he would put enough distance between himself and the entrance to let someone inside. Then again, Jane and Brian were in there, and they weren’t exactly unarmed. Maybe the irregular glow was just a firefly, or a group of them. Sven kept the corner of his eye fixed on the glow, trying to be subtle about his vigilance.
It was time for a decision. Creeping around in the darkness in a world now ravaged by zombies was not something to belabor.
He would neutralize the threat at once, return to the entrance to secure it, and proceed from there.
With one hand gripping the shovel and the other gripping the shopping cart, Sven pushed the cart slowly toward the glow, glancing back every few paces at the Wegmans entrance.
When he was close to the far end of the parking lot, within twenty feet of the glow that he now made out to be moving and flitting about—just like a firefly might—Sven let go of the cart.
He held on to the shovel, scraping it off the top of the cart. Sven walked toward the glow, no longer trying to be subtle about it. The glowing thing pitched suddenly, and Sven saw the outline of a man, then Sven was running toward him, intent on one thing only—killing the intruder.
Sven leapt over the curb into the wooded area where the glow was. The shovel was down to his side, ready to be swung. The blow was going to be lethal, he was set on that.
Then he saw the man clearly, trying to crawl backward, trying to get away. He looked like a lookout, like a diversion. The man was small, frail, and haggard, and he was exactly what the marauders would use to deflect Sven’s attention from the break-in. The man was too small to do any damage on the offensive.
Sven wasn’t going to let him get away.
Sven swung the shovel, aiming at the lower part of the man’s head, at the jaw area.
He swung with all of his strength.
The impact of the shovel blow jarred Sven as it traveled back up the haft of the shovel, dissipating in his arms and upper back.
The glow had been extinguished.
The vegan’s body lay in the dirt, motionless. The cigarette he had been smoking—the cigarette that had given him away—now lay snuffed out and bitten through next to his leg.
The carnivorous man must have realized then that he had struck only the tree behind which the vegan had been hiding, because the carnivorous man raised the haft of the shovel upward, its point over the vegan’s heart.
The vegan reacted, rolling sideways just as the point of the shovel ripped into the earth where he’d been lying less than a second before. He scrambled into a backward crawl toward the parking lot, scraping his hands against the rocks and twigs in the dirt.
The carnivorous man wheeled, face flushed, lifted his shovel once more, and began to pursue the vegan.
“Stop!” the vegan’s hoarse voice cut through the air. “Stop. I come in peace.”
I come in peace? That was a weird thing to say, the vegan knew, but he couldn’t think of anything else. “I come in peace.”
The carnivorous man slowed in his pursuit, seeming to consider the statement.
The vegan took this opportunity and got to his feet, still moving backward. He stepped down into the moonlit parking lot, and the carnivorous man followed.
By the light of the moon, the vegan now saw that his pursuer was not armed with tire irons, but with long, ancient-looking knives. For a reason that the vegan couldn’t place, this made him feel better about the man that had just tried to decapitate him with a shovel.
The vegan shrugged. “I’m just looking for a place to hide from those things—from the ghouls.”
The carnivorous man came closer, looking past the vegan toward the Wegmans. Then he lowered the shovel to his side.
The carnivorous man looked the vegan up and down. “From the what?”
“The ghouls, you know, the…”
The vegan pointed to the center of the parking lot. “From those things.”
“Oh,” the carnivorous man said, “right.”
“Wh—what are you doing out here in the middle of the night…with a shovel? If I may ask, of course.”
The carnivorous man seemed to hesitate a moment. “I was about to bury someone…a boy. There was an accident.” The carnivorous man hesitated again. “And then I saw you…and I thought you were part of a pack of looters…but I don’t see any looters now. Maybe I…”
“It’s just me. And it’s understandable. I should’ve just knocked, but I got spooked when I saw you coming, and then of course I forgot to put out my cigarette.”
“And you forgot your cigarettes on the stoop.” The carnivorous man pointed to the Wegmans entrance.
“Oh, yeah, right.” The vegan extended his hand. “I’m Randy—not a ghoul.”
The carnivorous man looked at the hand, then shook it. “Sven. Sorry about trying to kill you, I was sure…”
“Hey, no worries. But can we get inside? I’ve been walking all day, and I was attacked…earlier I mean, I’m a bit injured, and I’m starved about to death.”
“You can go inside if you want, but be careful, there are some jumpy people with guns in there—big guns.”
“You won’t come in with me?”
“I need to do something first.”
“I’ll wait, if you don’t mind. I’d rather be introduced than surprise anyone else this evening.”
“Suit yourself.” Sven paused. “Oh, here.” He reached into his pocket and threw something at the vegan.
The vegan caught the plastic-wrapped bar and looked at it—a protein bar. “Thanks, but I’m a vegan…I don’t eat animal products. I’ll wait until we’re inside and find something.”
Sven gave the vegan an odd look. “You don’t…even today?”
Sven shrugged and walked to the shopping cart. He pushed the cart the rest of the way to the edge of the parking lot, close to where the vegan had been hiding. He removed the blanketed bundle and set it down at the edge of the wooded area, in the dirt. Then Sven took a few large strides into the woods and began to dig.
The vegan stood and watched, feeling light-headed. He glanced back at the Wegmans entrance a few times as Sven dug, wondering if he should take his chances with the big guns inside. The vegan’s stomach felt all dried up, and his strength was completely sapped, but he decided he didn’t want to try his luck with any “big guns,” whatever that meant.
He offered to help, but Sven refused, so the vegan got out of the way. He wondered if Sven felt guilty about the dead person, if Sven had somehow caused the death and was now forcing himself to do a kind of self-prescribed penance. The vegan could tell that Sven was injured from the way his body moved and the way he gritted his teeth with each shovelful, wincing as he strained to lift the dirt out of the deepening hole.
The vegan wanted to ask about the cat that was sitting and watching the scene unfold, its bright eyes shining like tiny green lanterns in the moonlight. He decided that now wasn’t the time. Cat-related questions could probably wait until after the burial, until after they were all safely inside.
When Sven was done, he came over to the bundled body and picked it up, setting it down gently in the hole. Then he began to shovel dirt into the shallow grave.
As the vegan walked up into the wooded area, he thought he saw something strange in the cat’s eyes, a sort of narrowing and shifting.
Ivan sniffed at the evening air, still wet from the day’s downpour. He knew that the big rain had come and gone. He knew that the boy was gone now too, along with the rot that had taken over the boy’s body. Ivan watched Sven now, putting the dead boy into the ground and making noises at the new man. The new man smelled like grass and fire and burning. Ivan liked that. Ivan sniffed at the air again, and he picked up a scent that had grown all too familiar that day. It wasn’t grass or fire or burning, and it was coming closer.
“May I say a prayer?” Randy asked, walking over to stand next to Sven over the grave.
“You religious?” Sven looked at Randy, remembering how close he’d come to killing a man who now seemed completely innocent.
“You think it’ll help?”
Sven looked past Randy as he said the prayer, checking that the Wegmans entrance was still clear. It was. Evan’s burial was almost done, and soon they would both be inside the relative safety of the shuttered supermarket.
Sven spun, certain that the exclamation wasn’t part of Randy’s prayer.
In the dark woods, like woken monsters stumbling groggily toward their prey, the zombies were approaching. They were coming through the patches of trees, bumping into trunks and limbs, completely non-reactive to the branches that stuck them in the face and tore at their clothes.
One was a few feet away, reaching for Sven, and Randy ran away from the zombie, toward the parking lot.
Stepping backward and getting his bearings, Sven gaped at Randy as he began to fumble with a book of matches and pack of cigarettes, frantically trying to light up as the zombies drew closer. He succeeded, jammed the cigarette into his mouth, and resumed moving backward, out of the trees.
“Come on,” Randy said through his cigarette, “we have to get inside.”
Sven tightened his grip on the shovel, feeling the rough haft against his callused fingers and palms. Then he lunged forward, stabbing the point of the shovel into the reaching zombie’s throat. The zombie’s head slumped sideways on the torn, broken neck, and it fell into the shallow grave, on top of Evan’s blanketed body.
There were four more closing in now, and Sven advanced to cut them off before they could stumble into the grave on top of their dead friend. He sliced with the shovel twice, and finding it an ineffective substitute for stabbing, resumed stabbing. He stabbed two of the four zombies in the face, always aiming for the area around the eyes.
Their skulls gave way under the blows, and they fell like kitchen appliances disconnected from an outlet. Sven missed the next stab, and settled for pushing the third zombie backward by sticking the point of the shovel into its chest. The fourth zombie he hit with the butt of the shovel’s haft, awkwardly missing his target and caressing its neck more than striking it a blow.
As the two zombies that Sven had failed to kill stumbled backward, he had a moment to recover. He backed away, careful not to fall into the shallow grave, and saw for the first time just how many of the things were shambling out of the darkness—too many to count. This was not a battle Sven could wage by himself. It was time to run.
Sven positioned the shovel horizontally and threw it angrily at the two zombies. Their approaching shamble slowed on the shovel’s impact, but they made no move to grab for it or pick it up. It hit them and fell to the ground.
With the bit of time the flinging of the shovel bought him, Sven tossed the surprisingly light body of the zombie out of Evan’s grave, getting the idea too late that he should have thrown the body at the two zombies now reaching for him. Knowing that he was out of time, Sven hastily pushed the uncovered dirt into the open grave with his cross-trainers. It was a shoddy, rushed job, and he saw blanket peeking out from the moist earth, but there was no time to give Evan a more proper burial. It would have to do.
“Let’s go,” Randy cried, “there’s too many now. Come on Sven.”
Sven turned and ran into the parking lot. Randy was halfway to the Wegmans, beckoning to Sven and leading the way, a bright, moonlit fear in his eyes.
Then Sven froze, chilled to the bone.
Sven whirled, looking in all directions, scanning the parking lot and wooded area from which he’d just emerged with a frenzied dread.
“We have to get inside,” Randy said, but Sven barely heard him. He didn’t care about getting back inside if it meant leaving Ivan with the zombies.
“You go in,” Sven said without looking at Randy. He was already running back toward the woods.
The vegan watched in disbelief as the carnivorous man—Sven—ran back toward the woods, toward the throng of approaching ghouls whose arms were so gnarled that they were barely distinguishable from the branches in the darkness.
Where could the damn cat have gone? Of course the vegan loved animals, would do almost anything to save them, and he wasn’t sure if he even drew the line at risking his own life generally, but he sure did draw the line at risking his own life in the face of ghouls. He was sure that was not unreasonable, and still in line with his vegan beliefs.
But what was he supposed to do now? He wasn’t going to leave Sven alone…was he?
With trepidation, the vegan took a few steps toward the wooded area through which the ghouls were now starting to seep. Sven was already gone into it, no longer visible, his movements no longer audible.
The ghouls were in the parking lot now, their reaching arms and seemingly sightless glares trained invariably on the vegan. Their smell was there, strange and unnerving in its inexpressibility.
Backing away, the vegan took a trembling drag on his cigarette and cursed the carnivorous man, though he had to respect him more for going back for the cat. Then the vegan limped quickly through the tightening huddle of ghouls, and dashed painfully after Sven.
Just as the vegan got to the curb, prodding himself onward through a reluctance that he knew to be completely justifiable, he caught sight of the cat, stretched out in mid-flight. Then it crashed into his stomach, knocking him backward and clawing its way up over his chest and face.
When it was off him, but before the vegan even had a chance to pick himself up, a voice said, “What are you taking a nap or something?” and then the vegan found himself lifted up high into the air. Sven—it had to be Sven, the vegan thought—hefted the vegan up onto his shoulder and began to run toward the Wegmans.
The vegan almost dropped his cigarette during the ascent, catching it between his pinky and ring finger, then jamming it forcefully into his mouth. The journey was bouncy and uncomfortable, and from the vegan’s position, draped over Sven’s shoulder, he could make out a great many staggering feet—far too many—all in the parking lot now. Sven was dodging and dashing around them, doing an expert job of staying away from the outstretched arms.
Then there was an abrupt stop and the vegan felt himself being flung downward. He winced as he tried to land on his good leg. Sven caught him as he stumbled, then knelt down and heaved the shutter up with a roar that didn’t work to hide the physical pain behind it. The vegan could tell that the carnivorous man was hurt and exhausted, but those were issues to be dealt with later, in safety.
The cat darted inside as soon as there was enough clearance under the rising shutter. Then the vegan did the same, helping the carnivorous man brace the shutter so that he too could enter.
From inside the Wegmans, in safety, they pushed the shutter down together.
Panting, Sven slumped against the rattling shutter, and the vegan shifted his gaze from Sven to the dim parking lot, looking at it through the shutter’s openings. The advancing shapes were unmistakable. The ghouls were coming, relentless in their mysterious need to pursue and capture their prey.
The vegan felt a particularly painful stab of hunger, even as he watched the approaching hell-spawn. “Is it okay if you introduce me now…so that I’m not shot by your friends? I really need to eat something.”
Sven nodded, pushed himself off the shutter, and began to lead the way into the supermarket.
As they turned down the row of checkout aisles, the vegan heard the shutter rattle—the first ghouls touching down. He and Sven both turned to look.
The shutter swayed under the pressure, screeching as the joints slid and bent. Without another word, they turned back to the interior of the supermarket.
Sven led the vegan down into the row of checkout aisles and to the right, into a small clearing next to and partially within the Wegmans section of books and magazines. There were sleeping bags and blankets arranged in the clearing. Large, open bags of potato chips, jugs of water, banana peels, and stacks of granola bars were all strewn about the sleeping bags and blankets.
A man and a girl were in the clearing, and both got to their feet when the vegan arrived, shooting alarmed, searching glances at Sven.
When the girl drew out a mean-looking knife with a jagged blade, the vegan stepped backward, knocking into a revolving DVD rack and almost upending it.
Sven put his hands up in a calming gesture. “It’s alright. He’s looking for a safe place, like we are…he uhh…he helped me with the burial.”
The man and the knife-wielding girl blinked at the vegan, but remained otherwise motionless.
The vegan was starting to feel even more uncomfortable, and now he was coming to the end of his lit cigarette. He knew that he’d have to light a new one soon, but he didn’t want to make any sudden movements in the showdown in which he now found himself. So he kept the cigarette in his mouth, now smoked down to the beginning of the filter.
Then he had an idea to defuse the situation. “I’m Randy,” he said through his cigarette. He gave a wave, too. “I’m a vegan—don’t eat meat…so won’t be trying to eat any people, that’s for sure.” As soon as the words left his mouth, it dawned on him just how uncouth they were. It wasn’t a day for jokes.
The girl scowled, but put her knife away. The man next to her, seeing that she had put her weapon away, nodded and said, “I’m Brian, looks like we’re all stuck here together. Let’s make the best of it.”
The girl still stood there, scowling and silent.
“That’s Lorie,” Sven said. “We’ve all had a rough day.”
The vegan nodded, took his cigarette out of his mouth, and stubbed it out on the outside of his box of matches—a questionable activity, he knew. Then he lit up a fresh cigarette, feeling relieved as he gave it its first few puffs.
Sven pointed at something on the ground next to Brian. “Anything on your iPhone? News? Anything?”
Brian shook his head. “It’s the strangest thing, nothing works, like the internet is dead. Still can’t place calls either. How can the internet be down unless something’s interfering with the signal?”
Sven looked perplexed. “Why would something be interfering with the signal?”
Then Lorie spoke up for the first time since the vegan walked in. “Because they don’t want us communicating with anyone, putting up YouTube videos of the infection, freaking out the whole world.”
That didn’t sit right with the vegan. “But the whole world might be like this, full of ghouls, then who would they be hiding it—”
“Ghouls?” Lorie exclaimed. “They’re not ghouls, they’re zombies. Sven, tell him.”
Sven shrugged. “Whatever they are, we don’t have enough information, about anything. And where’s the government to help us?” Sven turned to the vegan. “Randy, it’s not the whole world. I got a call from my mom this morning—she got through to me somehow—and she said it was just Virginia that’s affected. If it’s just Virginia, how else can you explain the internet being out except that they don’t want us communicating with people outside Virginia? I don’t know a lot about the internet, but I don’t think it can go out in one day, just like that.”
The vegan wasn’t sure how to process this new information. “Just Virginia? That doesn’t sound like the apocalypse at all. That sounds like…” He wasn’t sure what it sounded like. “How can it be just Virginia?”
Lorie drew her knife, a ferocity suddenly in her eyes. “What’s that noise?”
Sven looked at the vegan. The vegan looked back, inhaling deeply of the cigarette. Before either of them could answer, a desperate voice called out from behind the vegan. “They’re outside!”
The vegan turned, and he saw a tall woman who was obviously pretty underneath her current distressed appearance. She had two guns slung over her shoulders, one of which was enormous. The vegan recognized that it was a revolver, but he had never seen one so big before.
Maybe in the movies, he thought, in Clint Eastwood’s holster.
Then the woman turned to the vegan. “Who’s this?”
“A friend,” Sven said, “he helped me bury Evan.” The vegan was grateful for that. Apparently the carnivorous man was sharp, having figured out that the fastest way to disarm his group to the newcomer’s presence was to involve him as an assistant in the burial. The vegan guessed that whoever it was he had said a prayer for…had been special to all of them, a victim of the localized apocalypse, or whatever it was.
“Okay,” the woman said. “What do we do about them? And where the hell did they come from?”
Lorie began to walk toward the Wegmans entrance where the shutter was rattling harder now, loud enough for all of them to hear. They all followed her, and the vegan tagged along, feeling hungrier than ever as he lit up his next cigarette. He stayed behind the group and watched each of them tiptoe toward the rattling shutter, stare through it for a moment, then retreat, face aghast.
“Where did they come from?” the woman asked again, when everyone had had their chance to take in the terror. She looked directly at the vegan with her large, piercing eyes.
The vegan put up his hands defensively. “I didn’t bring them…at least I don’t think I did. They came out of the woods. I came in from the road, from the other side. I was walking up 29 all day. The ones I passed along the way, they reacted to me, but I lost sight of them as I got farther. I didn’t see any keep up with me.”
“It’s not his fault,” Sven said. “They came when we were burying Evan, out of the woods, out of nowhere, like he said.”
“They’re all clumping up against the entrance,” the woman said. “What if they’re surrounding the place?”
The vegan didn’t think so. He peered outside and saw that the mass of ghouls was getting larger, clinging to the outside of the shutter. He could see more coming out of the woods, staggering toward the throng now pressing to gain entry. “They’re all just here in this spot, and new ones are coming, but only in this direction, like they can hear us, or sense us. It almost looks coordinated.”
“They smell us,” Lorie said, with a conviction that chilled the vegan. “Just how we can smell them. They track us and hunt us down and kill us. They don’t need anyone to lead them. They can find their own way.” She looked up at the vegan with wide, vacant eyes, then she went off down the row of checkout aisles, toward the makeshift camp.
“I think this’ll keep them out,” Sven said, pointing to the shutter as he stepped away from the entrance.
The woman with the big gun looked unconvinced. “Help me put these back again.” She walked toward a long row of shopping carts, and Sven joined her. Together, they pushed several rows of shopping carts up against the back of the shutter. The vegan wasn’t sure how much help that would be if the ghouls broke through, but he figured it couldn’t hurt.
Then the vegan couldn’t take the feeling in his stomach anymore. “Sven, if it’s alright, I need to eat something. I’ll just grab something off the shelf and come back, okay?”
“Yeah, of course, sorry I forgot all about that.”
Grateful to get away from entrance and to finally look for some food, the vegan limped hurriedly toward the interior of the store. He knew exactly where the organic section was—up through the produce section in front of him, and then to the left.
The vegan noted the state of the avocados as he passed by them—of a lower quality than the ones he delivered, but passable. He made a mental note to begin working on them soon. Maybe he could even introduce the wondrous fruit to his new friends, if they weren’t familiar with it already.
They were a good bunch of people, he decided, very civil, considering the circumstances. He hadn’t caught the woman’s name, but there would be time for that later.
Walking through the produce section, something on the floor caught the vegan’s eye. There were dry, reddish smears on the tiles—they looked too much like dried blood to be anything else. The vegan stopped, but didn’t come any closer to the dried blood. He took a long drag on his cigarette, bent over, and took another look, from the angle of the floor. There, kicked between two of the movable displays, was a bloody towel, apparently forgotten.
The vegan straightened, deciding to let it go—at least until after he ate.
He walked into the organic section, feeling lighter as he entered that familiar part of the store. He turned in at the correct aisle and made a straight course for the Newman’s Own Peanut Butter Cups in Dark Chocolate that he’d been fantasizing about all day. He picked up one of the small treats, savoring the crinkle of the plastic in his hands.
The vegan tore it open, took his cigarette out of his mouth, and began to scarf down the small peanut butter cups. He was overeager at first, and one of the peanut butter cups made straight for his esophagus, the vegan having forgotten to apply the chewing step to that one. Once the peanut butter cup had completed its painful journey into the vegan’s stomach, he made himself slow down as he ate. After several packages of the peanut butter cups, the vegan let out a satisfied sigh and put his cigarette back into his mouth. Apocalypse or no, the vegan’s stomach now told him that things were going to be alright.
Relishing the feeling of a warm, full stomach, the vegan half-sauntered, half-limped in and around the organic section’s small set of aisles until he found something else he wanted to eat. It was in the freezer, and though he was familiar with the frozen food’s brand, he had never tried this particular product before.
It must be new, the vegan thought, as he removed the package from the freezer. He turned it over and read the nutrition facts—no animal products, therefore suitable.
Carrying his prize, the vegan went back to the makeshift camp and sat down in a corner. He positioned himself so that he was close enough to be social, but far enough so that he was at an unthreatening distance. There the vegan unwrapped his frozen food item and began to eat.
Ivan liked to watch the new man from the moment the new man arrived. The new man smelled like grass and fire and burning. Ivan didn’t know why, but he liked the new man. The new man was good, and Ivan wanted the new man to stay. The new man had a shiny thing that he played with sometimes, and Ivan was curious about it. Now the new man had gotten something to eat. He was unwrapping it and—Ivan froze, terror and confusion riveting his body into place. Ivan steeled himself, approached the new man without getting too close, and hissed as powerfully as he could. The new man stopped what he was doing and looked down, made some noises, and then went back to unwrapping the food. Ivan hissed again, and again, and again, until his cat body hurt from it, but it was no use. The new man didn’t understand. Like the other people, the new man didn’t understand. Ivan brushed up against the new man’s legs, for the first and last time. Then Ivan ran away.
Jane came in off her watch sometime around 2 A.M.—at least according to the big Wegmans clock. Sven remembered where he’d stuck his watch, and though he wasn’t sure why he’d stashed it, he didn’t want to look at it right now. Just the thought of it made his throat lock up.
Jane crouched next to Brian and whispered something to him, then Brian winked out the light on his iPhone, got up, picked up his baseball bat, and walked away.
Maybe now, Sven thought, now that Jane’s back, I’ll be able to sleep a little.
Jane lay down on top of her sleeping bag without addressing Sven. That was alright, he decided, just her being there made the day a little less terrible.
Sven reflected on how Randy had left to find food, then had come back with some strange frozen food item that was completely unrecognizable. Sven asked him about it, and Randy cheerfully explained what it was, but it still made no sense to Sven.
He wasn’t in the habit of eating such things—he didn’t believe in them—and given his current state, it didn’t matter either way. Sven wasn’t going to try the bite that Randy offered him. Sven wasn’t going to try a bite of anything. He could barely keep down the water he was drinking. Food was not an option.
Sven’s mind was still resisting the events of the day. He didn’t believe what was happening, what he was seeing and feeling. It didn’t make any sense. And why wasn’t anyone there to help? Why were they suddenly cut off from the rest of the world?
And Ivan! How Ivan had scared Sven earlier that evening. That wasn’t like him, running off into the night. What was he doing in the woods with the zombies anyway? Sven looked over at Ivan, who had settled down on his paws in the middle of his arrangement of new bowls, each filled with food. Sven had picked out four of the meanest, metal cat bowls that the Wegmans had. Ivan was a tough cat, after all, and his bowl—or, as in this case, bowls—should show it.
Into the bowls Sven put tuna, sardines, sockeye salmon, and shrimp. Ivan deserved no less than a feast for getting through the day, and why not spoil him now? How much time did they have left at this rate?
Sven looked at Ivan, who lay there with his eyes half-open, and remembered the warning they had all given Randy. Randy had gotten up after finishing his frozen food item, suddenly announced that he needed matches, and then it must have crossed Jane’s mind that Randy didn’t yet know about Milt. She was right. Sven and Jane told Randy the barest of details, with Lorie chiming in hatefully every now and then. Randy’s expression grew more concerned as he listened, but the lecture hadn’t stopped him from walking off—probably in search of more of his strange food in addition to the matches.
Randy hadn’t come back, but Sven wasn’t worried about him, and felt no need to go searching for him. The man was a survivor. He had easily proven that today, having hobbled miles up 29 to safety, surviving hungry zombies, and according to the story he told, also surviving an encounter with an overweight, leather-clad, tire iron aficionado.
Sven was confident that after having come all this way, Randy would be just fine.
Milt was tromping up and down the candy aisle, stewing with rage. He couldn’t believe how foolish the others were in their sentimentality, in their unwillingness to see that he had saved them from the zombie boy—an inside threat that could have destroyed the safety of the Wegmans sanctuary they had taken for their haven.
He had eavesdropped after he left the produce section, hiding behind a large macaroon display to listen. He was appalled by the things they had all said about him…after all of the good he had done for them.
I saved them, Milt thought, and they repay me by speaking ill of me behind my back. They want me out of here, to displace me from the very sanctuary I fought to secure. I shall not allow such a travesty to pass into being. I most certainly shall not.
And he was almost as incredulous of their having taken issue with his treatment of the cleanup duties. So he hadn’t joined in the removal of the bodies, what of it? Didn’t they realize that he was above such menial tasks?
It is irrelevant, Milt decided, they can be stupid all they want. I shall not be stupid. I am not going to be caught unprepared, enslaved by rudimentary human emotions, and I shall continue to take the initiative when the situation calls for it. What unintelligent saps they all are, with no appreciation for the fine art of survival…and it is a fine art.
Now that the cretins had taken Milt’s sword away, creativity could become a necessity.
Milt gulped down the rest of the contents of the Coca-Cola bottle he held trembling in his hand. He set the liter bottle down and eagerly approached the shelf of candy miniatures, in the center of the aisle.
I shall feed my brain, he told himself, settle down a tad, and then plot my next move.
He tore open a package of Snickers miniature candies, and began popping the candies into his mouth with the ease of an expert candy popper. As he chomped, dribbling chocolate and nougat down his chin, he knew that he and the others were at an impasse, and that the only solution was to—
Milt found himself the sudden victim of a very odd hallucination: a very skinny man limped past the candy aisle, smoking a cigarette and carrying two cartons of cigarettes under his arm.
Milt rubbed his eyes with chocolate-smeared hands, making his eyelids sticky. Working through the sticky chocolate and nougat now on his face, he reopened his eyes and stared. The hallucination returned, backtracking to the mouth of the aisle and turning in toward Milt.
The slender apparition began to travel toward Milt. “Hi,” it said in a cheerful voice as it waved its cigarette in Milt’s direction. “You must be Milt.”
The apparition began limping faster now, and Milt dropped all the treats he was holding.
He recoiled, taking two laborious steps backward. “Stay back! My time on this plane is not yet finished!”
Then Milt grabbed a bag of miniature 3 Musketeers candy, tore it open, and began throwing the small candies at the hobbling ghost.
The ghost stopped and put up his cigarette hand for cover, still holding tightly to the cartons under his arm. “What?”
Milt flung another handful of small candies. “Do not play coy with me. I recognize Death when I see him, or rather, it.”
“I’m not Death,” the ghost said, almost believably. “I just got here. I’ve been carrying on up 29 all day, looking for a place to hide…” the ghost’s voice dropped to a whisper, “from them.”
Milt wasn’t buying it. “Then how did you gain entrance to this place?”
The ghost hesitated, and began to hobble nearer.
Milt flung the remainder of the 3 Musketeers candies. “Stay back I say!”
“Alright, alright. Cool your jets. Sven let me in. He was burying…well…he was burying a dead person. That’s when I got here more or less.”
“More or less? Likely story.”
The ghost shrugged. “Likely or not, it’s the truth. I’m Randy.”
The ghost offered his hand to Milt. Milt looked at it with suspicion, and did not shake it.
He waited for the ghost to lower his hand, then he said, “I gather they have told you a plethora of fabrications as to my nature.”
The ghost broke into a violent spasm of coughing, and Milt backed away, noticing for the first time the incredible pallor of this supposed man.
The pallor of him, though fitting for a specter, could mean only one thing in the ongoing zombie outbreak—this man who called himself Randy was turning.
“I see that you are ill,” Milt said. “Perhaps you should get some rest.”
“I’m exhausted. Been walking all day, got beat up, starved half to death on the way over here. You’re right. I was just on my way to find some blankets and set up. I think I’m gonna set up away from the others. I’m gonna be smoking for a while—probably all night—and I don’t like to smoke on kids, and I guess on non-smokers in general. I imagine I’ll find the aisle with matches and lighters and such and spread out there—I’m running low.” Randy put his cigarette in his mouth, fished a box of matches out of his pocket and shook it at Milt. “Just one left,” he said through his cigarette. Then Randy shrugged, said, “Good meeting you,” and walked out of the aisle.
Milt grabbed a fresh bag of miniature Snickers off the shelf and tore it open. He couldn’t believe that Sven and his bunch had done it again. What were they trying to do?!
He sat down, propping himself up on some bags of candy that burst under his weight. He began to pop miniature Snickers bars into his mouth, gobbling them as soon as they touched down on his tongue. He knew he would need the energy very soon.
Hours later, when the supermarket had gone completely quiet save for Brian’s ludicrous watchman act, Milt clambered to his feet. His training as a World of Warcraft professional had taught him incredible patience and endurance. He was practiced in staying up for inhuman lengths of time, waiting and plotting, especially if he had a steady supply of Snickers and Coca-Cola, and the supply at the Wegmans was practically inexhaustible.
Simultaneously sucking on two miniature Snickers bar, one lodged skillfully in each of his cheeks, Milt crept to the outskirts of the candy aisle, hiding as much of his body as was possible behind a display of Butterfinger candies. There he waited for Brian to walk past on his predictable, uninspired route.
Brian came at the expected moment, humming a tune that Milt didn’t recognize except to know that he disliked it at once. Milt waited a few moments, then lumbered into action.
He got out of his position from behind the Butterfinger display and exited the aisle. Milt began to trace Brian’s circular path, keeping the man out of sight. This afforded Milt plenty of time, as long as Brian didn’t change his route through the supermarket, and Milt doubted that Brian had the mental initiative to do anything of the sort.
Milt crept until he arrived at the right aisle. He entered the aisle, quickly found the item for which he had come, and exited the aisle again. His next stop was Randy’s nest—wherever that was.
Milt surmised that Randy would be easy enough to find by the man’s tobacco stench and lung-shaking cough—a cough Milt suspected now had more to do with the zombie contagion than cigarettes. It would just be a matter of avoiding Brian and the other unfortunate souls with which Milt had been forced to share the Wegmans.
After only a short creep through the supermarket, Milt found Randy, a vision of death warmed over, snoring lightly next to packed bundles of firewood and kindling.
Just the spot for a perpetual arsonist, Milt thought, how pathetically predictable.
Looking at the man’s pale skin, frail limbs, and haggard appearance, Milt was certain that Randy was afflicted with the same nightmare disease that was ripping its way through Virginia. But Milt felt no pity for Randy, understanding that becoming a zombie was simply Randy’s lot in life. Then Milt saw the golden cross that hung from Randy’s neck, and he knew that Randy would understand. The pious always did.
Milt stood over Randy and retrieved the item he had hidden in his trench coat. He raised it with both hands, and brought it down with all of his strength, simultaneously biting down on the peanuts that remained trapped in his cheeks.
The king-size jar of pickles shattered on Randy’s head, dousing the tiny, reeking man in pickle juice. The breaking of the jar had made hardly any noise, and Milt guessed that the sound had been muffled by Randy’s tousled hair, onto which the glass broke.
Milt paused, listening, and when he was satisfied that no one had been alerted by the small noise, he took Randy by the legs and pulled him out of his nest, upsetting blankets, boxes of matches, cigarettes, and pieces of a sub par chocolate snack.
As he dragged the unconscious chain-smoker through the supermarket, Milt paused at regular intervals to listen, to make sure that no one was sneaking up on him. He was taking this task very seriously, refraining even from snacking so that he may be able to hear better. The last thing he wanted was another confrontation with the idiots who had taken his sword away.
After dragging Randy most of the way, Milt looked back and was hit by a feeling that was half apprehension and half revulsion. Randy’s thick, matted hair, which had been soaked in pickle juice, was leaving a clearly visible trail of pickle juice and pickle matter.
Unlike a trail of bread crumbs, however, Milt wasn’t sure if the repellent brine coming from the man’s head would disappear when it dried. Not only that, but it might also smell horrible enough to lead Sven and his demented posse straight to Milt.
Though unsettled by this development, Milt remained unwavering in his plan. He dragged the unconscious skinny man up the stairs to the roof and closed the door that led back down into the interior of the Wegmans. He was out of breath when he got to the top of the stairs, and even more out of breath when he got to the edge of the roof. His heart was beating wildly in his chest, unused to the exertions to which it was now being subjected.
Standing on the roof, Milt remarked at how much the air had cooled, at how much better it was than it had been in the day with the harsh sun beating down. Then he looked down at the man he had dragged up with disgust. Milt knew he shouldn’t be feeling this emotion, but he couldn’t help it.
It wasn’t a thing to be disgusted with, it was just destiny. Randy was to be a zombie, and Milt was to deal with it. That was the master plan.
As he rolled Randy to the edge of the roof, Milt couldn’t believe how stupid the people downstairs were—always letting zombies into the sanctuary. What was their malfunction? Resolving to figure that out at a later point, Milt was clear on one thing—he wasn’t going to go down with them.
He propped Randy up against a vent close to the edge of the roof. Then he stepped backward, savoring the execution of the first step of his plan.
Though he was fully aware of the spasmodic moaning and scraping of the zombies below, he never once looked down at them. He didn’t want to see them in their current state of pitiful desperation. The zombies were to have a new plaything soon, and then Milt would look at the zombies in their delight and revelry.
He smiled and began to lumber toward the door of the stairs, enjoying his walk across the moonlit roof.
As soon as he opened the door, Sven’s infernal cat burst out, hissing, clawing, and displaying exceptionally bad manners. Milt shuddered at the sight of the thing, simultaneously vibrating all of his blubbery folds. He had just the thing to get rid of the wretched feline.
Milt lumbered around in a circle, staying just out of reach of the cat’s claws—the cat it seemed, wasn’t really trying to attack him, but just to annoy and humiliate him—then he put his hand up to his jaw and squeezed hard.
There was a satisfying pop, and a perfectly aimed globule of pus shot from a bloated pimple on Milt’s jaw, on a direct path into the damned cat’s eye.
But, alas, the cat was too fast for Milt’s pus blast. It ducked out of the way and ran back down the stairs, no longer hissing, but not whimpering either.
Milt rumbled a sigh as he wiped the remainder of the pus on his jaw with the back of his hand, mentally acknowledging the minor defeat at the paws of the evil feline.
Then he went back down into the interior of the Wegmans, to gather the other items he needed.
The vegan was moving backward.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was a gargantuan, moonlit pudding, adorned with a pony tail and clad in a trench coat.
Then he remembered that it was Milt.
Milt was moving away very rapidly.
The skin of the vegan’s face and scalp felt tight, and the vegan detected the sharp, distinct odor of pickled vegetables.
The sound of scraping and moaning.
The vegan was falling.
Then the ghouls had him.
As he reached for his cross, the vegan’s mind filled with visions of cigarettes and Newman’s Own Peanut Butter Cups in Dark Chocolate.
He forgave Milt. Though the vegan didn’t understand why this had been done to him, he f—
Sven was doing lateral raises with buckets of paint, concentrating on the burn in his deltoids. After reaching failure on the burnout set, he got down on his back and into a sit-up position. Lars positioned himself over Sven, and tossed an extra large bag of potting soil at Sven. Sven caught it as he began his descent into the negative portion of the sit-up, then he exploded up into the positive portion of the sit-up, launching the bag of potting soil back up at Lars.
The improvised medicine ball was incredibly effective—more so than the real thing on which it was based. The shifting soil within the bag made it more challenging to handle, calling additional stabilizer muscles into action to balance the unsteady weight.
After reaching failure on the potting soil sit-ups, Sven staggered up to his feet for wind sprints down the aisle. Lars was standing there with a stopwatch, screaming at Sven and motivating him to run faster.
After the wind sprints, Sven and Lars did sled runs with the forklift tied to their backs, pulling the heavy machine around the Wegmans for laps. When Sven thought he could take no more, the workout duo switched to overcoming isometrics.
They positioned themselves next to each other at the beginning of an aisle, and pushed against its side with all of their might, grunting and cursing at the thing to move. It didn’t, and that was the point.
Sven had all of his body against the broad side of the aisle. As he was pushing, he felt a jolt from the aisle itself, as if it was shaking. But that wasn’t right, because the idea of overcoming isometrics was to push against immovable objects. The objects don’t push back.
The jolt came again, stronger this time, and suddenly the aisle roared to life and began to push Sven backward. Sven’s cross-trainers tried to find purchase, to keep the aisle immobile, but it was too massive for him to control. He called out to Lars, but Lars was gone, and Sven found himself being pushed backward, unable to get his body out from in front of the aisle. He was about to get steam-rolled.
He managed to peel his head back from the side of the aisle and look over his shoulder. Behind him was a writhing mass of undead, with a rotten Lars at their helm, all of them welcoming his approach with their gnashing, grinding teeth and clutching, grasping arms.
All Sven could do was watch and feel as the zombie horde engulfed him, clawing, biting, ripping, tear—
Sven’s eyes opened eagerly, heavy though his eyelids were. On a different day, waking from a dream training montage that ended with a zombie horde would have made him laugh at himself, but now waking from such a dream, into a world overrun by zombies, into a world where Lars really was a zombie, was no more comforting than walking into a different room of a nightmare.
Sven felt the uncomfortable lump in his throat, unsurprised that it hadn’t yet gone away. He was face down, on his stomach. The sheathes of the machetes were digging painfully into his legs, unpleasantly accentuating the steady tick of pain in his chest and neck. Sven’s head hurt badly, but it didn’t hurt enough to prevent him from remembering the terror of the day, and where he now was.
He turned over onto his side. “What time is it?”
Brian’s voice answered. “A little before five in the morning, you have to get up, something’s happened.”
Sven’s vision cleared and he saw that Brian was now waking Lorie and Jane.
That wasn’t a good sign.
He got up, nodding in acceptance as the pain shot through his body. “What? What happened?”
Brian turned to Sven, seeming to hesitate before he spoke. “I can’t find Randy, or Milt. I think they’re on the roof, throwing things off…but, I thought you should all be aware of it before I go up there.”
“You’re right, I’ll go up with you.” Sven picked up the shotgun.
“We’ll come too,” Jane said, already up and checking her guns.
Lorie got up and tore open a fresh box of granola bars. Sven admired her ability to eat in spite of the day’s events.
“There’s just no end to this day, huh?” Lorie said, looking up at Sven.
Sven, Jane, and Lorie followed close behind Brian and Ivan, who led them to a set of stairs.
On the way to the stairs, Sven thought he saw a trail of dry slime that was unlike the trail left behind in the removal of the dead zombies.
It was slick and shiny, devoid of crust, and Sven was sure he smelled pickles and cigarettes. Not making any sense of this, he put it out of his mind.
Brian put a finger to his lips, motioning for them to be quiet, then they all tiptoed up the steps.
At the top of the stairs was a door.
Brian waited for Sven to join him in front of the door, then he put up his fingers to count. The two men nodded at each other, and moments later, burst onto the roof.
Milt stood at the edge opposite Route 29. The way the moonlight played off Milt’s trench coat filled Sven with trepidation, and it looked like the huge man was lit up from the front, as if he were blocking a spotlight. Something obviously wasn’t right.
Brian called out. “Milt? What are you doing up here?”
Milt didn’t respond.
Sven smelled burning. Without asking Milt or waiting for him to make whatever dramatic response he was planning, Sven pumped the Benelli SuperNova and strode diagonally to the edge of the roof, so that he was away from Milt but also in a position to get a glimpse of what was lighting Milt up.
Sven was surprised enough to see what Milt was holding, but his breath caught when he looked down.
Angry and confused, Sven turned back to Milt. “What the hell are you doing? You’re gonna bring all of them down on us.”
Milt finally budged, turning toward Sven. “How congenial of you to join me. I do treasure your company, you must know that.” Milt furrowed his brow. “And no, I do not believe I am bringing any of them down on us. You have taken up that task, fulfilling it quite well if I may say so. I—I am having a very simple barbecue. They love that kind of activity down here in the good ol’ South.” Milt smiled, revealing a black smudge across his front teeth. “Would you like to partake? It is exceedingly agreeable, I assure you.”
“No,” Sven said, in disbelief at what he saw. He crossed to Milt, snatched the lit piece of firewood away from him, threw it down, and tried to stamp it out.
It wouldn’t go out.
“It is best to throw it,” Milt said. “I have soaked the end in lighter fluid, so that piece of kindling is to be thrown, unless you want to catch the whole supermarket on fire, which would be consistent with your series of actions thus far. However, I must insist that you do not light us all on fire. It seems even more unpleasant than your ongoing solicitation of zombies to join our unfortunate troupe.”
Reluctantly, and not wanting to catch himself on fire, Sven picked up the burning piece of wood and threw it off the roof. It landed on top of the sea of zombies gathered outside, lighting up the clothes of several.
The uneven throng stretched out from the woods where Evan was buried, through the parking lot, and to the entrance of the Wegmans. The crowd of zombies in the immediate area before the entrance was punctuated with lit up patches, where burning pieces of firewood glimmered and caught the zombies on fire. Sven looked for evidence that the zombies were succumbing to the burning, but he saw none.
“You’re attracting all of them here, there weren’t this many earlier! They’re gonna overpower us. And what the hell are you talking about? What zombie solicitation, what are you saying?”
Milt licked at his front teeth. “What am I talking about? I am talking about the zombie boy that you so fervently insisted on introducing into our attempt at a controlled environment, and—”
Brian interrupted. “Where’s Randy? He’s not up here Sven, and he’s not downstairs. I looked everywhere.”
Feeling a chill grip him, Sven looked down into the throng, convinced that Randy was down there.
“You have the right idea, bodybuilder man. The perpetual arsonist has left the building. I may have been too quick to judge him, however, at least in the arson aspect. I have discovered that it is quite an alluring pursuit. Of course, roasting the zombies bestows a certain additional…je ne sais quoi, but then I imagine you would not know anything about such things.”
Sven ignored the portion that was incoherent ramble. “What do you mean he left? To go where?”
Then Sven noticed the ground around Milt’s furry-slipper-clad feet. There were wine bottles in rows, set up like dominoes, bundles of firewood, and a dripping can of lighter fluid. All the wine bottles looked closed. What was Milt doing with the wine?
“A toast,” Milt said. He picked up a bottle of wine and chucked it down into the throng. The bottle hit a zombie in the head, sending the zombie staggering backward. The bottle then bounced off another zombie’s arms before hitting the ground without smashing.
Milt huffed. “An unfortunate toss. I have been successful in shattering most of the bottles so far, and frankly, I must say that I am surprised you did not come up here earlier to investigate. Did you not hear the noise, or are you so used to cavorting among bottle-breakers that the sound did not raise any concerns?” Milt went on, not waiting for an answer, “They do not sell any liquor here, as you no doubt are aware, so Molotov cocktails are out of the question, but I find that the wine gives the zombies a nice coating on their feet, and perhaps may hasten the burning from the ground up. Of course, I also find the sound of shattering glass to be comforting.”
Sven was becoming exasperated. “I don’t see that the burning is having any effect. Where’s Randy?”
“You are quite incorrect. Several have already crumpled in the flames. It is just a matter of expanding the incineration. They are quite dry and crumbly it seems, eager to be consumed by fire…on their way to the netherworld perhaps.” Milt picked up a piece of firewood and began to douse its end with lighter fluid.
“Answer my question.”
“You see,” Milt began, gesticulating and accidentally pouring lighter fluid on his slippers, “improvised incendiary devices are not solely the province of uneducated, mustachioed guerilla fighters and rampaging mercenaries, improvised—”
Unable to listen any more, Sven struck Milt across the face with the butt of the Benelli. “For the last time, where the hell is Randy?”
Milt recoiled, putting a hand to his face. “Very well, if you must resort to such barbaric rudeness. As I have already informed you, he has left the building. He is gone—gone to the zombie horde of which he is now a member…or perhaps he was just a late night snack, I couldn’t really tell in the gloom—that was before I began to light them up, you see.”
Brian stepped forward. “So Randy just walked off, into the night. That’s what you’re telling us?”
Milt began to respond, but Sven didn’t hear him, because Sven was now enthralled by another object he had spied by Milt’s feet.
“He was up here,” Sven said, cutting off whatever Brian and Milt were saying to each other, “Randy was up here.”
Sven pointed to the pack of cigarettes that was in danger of being crushed under Milt’s stretched and apparently-resilient slippers.
“Those are his cigarettes.” Sven turned to Milt. “You don’t smoke, do you?”
Milt turned red. “I most certainly do not, even if I considered taking up the filthy habit, my asthma would not allow it.”
“So he was up here,” Brian said. “Why? You said he left.”
“So he did.”
Brian brandished the baseball bat. “By his own free will? What is it that you’re hiding?”
“Very well, if you must know, he did require some…persuasion. He was turning into a zombie, just like the boy was. I simply helped him find his place in the zombie apocalypse, and simultaneously secured our own safety. What I do not understand is this extreme ingratitude. You are all acting as if I have wronged you in some way.”
Lorie spoke up. “You stabbed him, like you stabbed Evan?”
Milt shook his head. “No, nothing like that. I simply pushed him from the roof. It is what he would have wanted, anyway—to be with his kind.”
Lorie looked incredulous as her eyes filled with tears. “So you pushed him…off the roof…to the zombies, just like that.”
“Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.”
Milt beamed, looking proud of his deed.
Overcome by rage, Sven grabbed Milt by his trench coat collar. A machete appeared at Milt’s neck, the tarnished blade reflecting small spots of moonlight.
The machete drew droplets of blood that trickled part of the way down toward the haft before finding comfortable resting places on the metal.
Awestruck, Sven looked at the machete, realizing that he had drawn it reflexively, without thinking.
Then the dark feeling was there, tingling up Sven’s arm and into his body, running down his spine and back up it.
Then the jungle enveloped him.
It was nightfall in the jungle, and the sun-kissed woman’s eyes flickered at him.
The corners of her mouth curved downward with a knowing peril.
Then she disappeared behind a thick tree trunk.
Sven began to follow, but a blinding bolt of lightning ripped into the ground a few paces in front of him, and he stopped dead in his tracks.
A faint, metallic odor hung in the air, and in the distance was…the beating of drums?
Sven’s voice caught in his throat as he tried to call out to the woman. He had finally taken notice of his surroundings, and he didn’t know if the immobility in his throat was greater part horror or revulsion.
The trees and vines around him…they were spattered with…almost painted with…as if they themselves were…
Sven was back on the roof, utterly disoriented.
He was holding a pig-like man, and there was a blade at the pig man’s throat. Sven followed the blade down to its wooden handle, and the wooden handle down to the hand that was holding it.
My hand, Sven thought, feeling even more disoriented.
The thoughts didn’t connect to anything in his mind, and then they were gone.
The darkness was in his legs and his face, then it was running around his face and up his legs at the same time. It was focusing itself in the back of his neck, then in his back, then—
It took hold of him.
Sven continued to hold Milt, who was squealing something. Sven couldn’t hear what it was, because he was too far away, somewhere unreachable. He felt his face do something. It could’ve been a grin, or a sneer, or a grimace, but it was most likely a baring of teeth.
He took Milt by the neck and crotch, and lifted the pudgy man up over his head.
It was almost a record-breaking push press.
Sven walked closer to the edge of the roof. He looked up and felt sheer disgust fill him when the pig man’s tears fell onto his own face.
Milt was wailing now, begging probably, but Sven was still too far away to make out the words.
Then something kicked on in Sven’s mind and he looked Milt dead in the eye.
“You’ll not be back,” Sven said.
He felt Milt’s body shudder as he held the gargantuan lard-ball overhead.
He had trained for this his whole life.
There was something about this moment.
There was someone behind Sven, outside of him, screaming.
Sven lunged forward and threw Milt as hard as he could, with more strength than he thought he had.
Sven barely felt the crunch in his shoulder as he tossed Milt down to the zombies.
Milt hugged his knees and fell, no longer wailing or shrieking or even shuddering.
It was a short drop, and then the zombies had their very own butterball to play with.
Sven backed away from the edge of the roof and saw Milt’s sword lying by his feet. He picked it up and tossed it off the roof, without a care to where it went.
He sheathed the machete, then stood there, still and unblinking, his mind working through the darkness that had taken hold.
In jerky, uneven thoughts, he understood that there was a purpose to the darkness, a structure behind it.
Then Sven rested each of his hands on the hilt of a machete, and his sense of self began to seep back into him.
Milt didn’t scream as he fell. It was a short drop, and then the zombies had him…were holding him…were carrying him off? Why weren’t they tearing him apart?
That strange feeling of kinship hit him again, of belongingness, of some deep understanding…and that intoxicating aroma was there, playing in and around Milt’s nostrils, fluttering deeper and deeper, seeping into his lungs.
He was awash with a kind of acceptance he had never felt before. It was a glorious feeling, and he had to confess that the smell was even better than the smell of his personal battle station. He was in a better place now. He had become an even truer warrior through this ordeal.
Even if the undead tore him limb from limb—and for some reason they weren’t doing it yet—falling to the zombies was acceptable, because Milt had won. He was smarter than that meathead, the failed squire, and those stupid girls. He had shown them, Milt knew. He had especially shown the boy and the cigarette-clutching anorexic.
Oh yes, and he knew something else…something the idiots in the mall would die to know. He knew what was causing it—the contagion. He knew why the zombies had come. Sven and those other idiots would be dead soon, and they would never know—they would be dead because they didn’t know. They wouldn’t last a day on their own. They were ignorant hacks, but Milt was a genius. He was the genius—the genius of the world. He was the master of the univ—
Milt gasped as he felt the nibble, and his attention shifted from his loathing for Sven and his crew to the multitude of groping, rotten hands, and the terribly odd nibble…so dry and scratchy…then…was that a bite?
The colors of the world seemed to shift at once, as if the surroundings were reeling backward, and then forward, and then backward again. The hues around him changed places with each other and danced a carefree, iridescent waltz.
Milt was dimly aware that he was moving away from a big building. The zombies were carrying him away. Zombies?
There is no such thing as zombies, Milt thought, and chuckled.
It was a dream, of course it was. Zombies carrying him through the night as they munched on his flesh…a wonderfully strange dream. Wonderful because the smell of them was so profoundly sweet! So joyfully pleasing, so rapturous…so—
Lorie was pulling at his hand, punching him in the back, tugging at his duck pants, pulling at his shin. But he wouldn’t move. He just stood there a few feet back from the edge of the roof, like he was hypnotized.
“Sven! Sven!” She could feel the tears rolling down her cheeks. “Wake up! Come back in, he’s gone.”
She was scared—so scared—because he looked like he was about to jump off the roof, to make sure that the zombies finished their job of Milt.
Of course Milt deserved to be thrown off the roof to the zombies after what he had done to Evan and Randy…and who knew what else he’d been planning for the rest of them?
Lorie felt no sympathy for Milt, but she was still surprised at how Sven had disposed of him. She was impressed in a way, and felt pride at being on a team led by someone who could be so ruthless. And yet Sven seemed so unassuming most of the time, it was certainly out of character.
Then again, Lorie thought, which one of us isn’t out of character now? The world’s overrun by zombies, you have to change to survive.
“Yeah,” Sven finally said. “Yeah.”
“Come on, let’s go back inside. You need some rest.”
“I think I tore something in my shoulder,” Sven said. His voice was uncharacteristically deadpan, not at all the way someone who had just torn something in his shoulder would communicate that statement.
“Well,” Lorie said, feeling more concerned, “let’s get you inside and we can patch you up.”
She wasn’t sure how they could, if Sven really had torn something in his shoulder, but she knew there would at least be painkillers downstairs to give to Sven, and maybe even a sleeping pill. The man looked like he needed rest very badly. His face was so pallid that it seemed out of place on his lightly-tanned body.
She pulled on his arm, leading him back to the stairs that led from the roof.
She stopped abruptly, realizing she might be pulling on his hurt arm. “Is that the shoulder?” Lorie asked, pointing to the shoulder connected to the arm she was pulling.
“Why didn’t you tell me to stop pulling on your arm then?”
Sven shrugged and looked at Lorie blankly.
Lorie, now beginning to feel frightened, collected herself and set her jaw. She looked Sven directly in the eyes. “Will you follow me in already?”
He nodded again.
Lorie made for the stairs and walked down into the Wegmans, looking back every few seconds to make sure Sven was plodding in after her.
She led him back to their communal camping spot.
“Will you try to get some rest?” Lorie asked.
Sven nodded again, the blank look still on his face.
She set up a sleeping bag for him and pointed to it, but he just stood where he was, looking past her, apparently at nothing.
Now it was just her, Jane, Brian, and Sven…but was Sven still with them? Lorie hoped he just needed some sleep.
“You have to lie down,” Lorie said, bending down and shaking the sleeping bag this time.
He nodded again, and stiffly bent at the knees and waist until he was lying face down, on top of the sleeping bag.
Lorie looked up to see that Jane was watching the sleeping bag debacle. Lorie shrugged, and left Sven in his obviously uncomfortable position. He was lying on top of his knives, but Lorie decided it was best not to pester him about it.
She walked over to Jane and looked up at her somber face. “You gonna try to rest up too?”
“Yeah, we all should. Brian will keep watch for the next few hours. I trust him…he won’t let anything happen to us.”
Lorie wondered if Jane was really going to sleep, or if she was just trying to be comforting.
Lorie didn’t plan on sleeping. She might pillage some fruit and cookies, but she wasn’t going to sleep. Maybe she would give the magazine aisle another visit, and maybe she would keep her own watch, simultaneously with that of Brian.
Two sets of eyes, she knew, were better than one.
Ivan smelled the breach at once. The air in the new enclosure suddenly turned stale. Then the air putrefied before Ivan could load up even a short hiss in his throat. He leapt into action. He had to find the breach. He had to find any of his friends that were close to it. He had to tell them. They never saw the bad people coming soon enough. Ivan ran, skittering and sliding at sharp corners. He ran and slid and ran. Then he knew exactly where the foul people were getting in. There was another smell in the air. It was Sven’s friend. Sven’s friend was close. Ivan leapt into action once more. Then he was next to Sven’s friend with the wood in his hands. Ivan hissed. Sven’s friend looked at Ivan and made a silly noise. Ivan hissed again. Sven’s friend made another silly noise. Ivan tried to make Sven’s friend follow. Ivan tried to lead Sven’s friend away from the rotten people. Sven’s friend wouldn’t follow. Sven’s friend wouldn’t—the rotten people were close now. They were too close. Ivan hissed once more. He had to find Sven. Ivan tried to lead Sven’s friend away again. When Sven’s friend wouldn’t come, Ivan ran off. Ivan had to find Sven now. Ivan had to tell Sven.
Sven had slept some after the encounter with Milt. Now it was late in the morning, and they were all still alive.
He was trying to force down a banana when Ivan came running at him. Ivan looked wild, and ran straight at Sven with no sign of slowing.
Sven backed up, bewildered, and dropped a bite-sized piece of the banana that Lorie was insisting he eat. He almost felt relieved at having an excuse not to eat the thing, to go on avoiding food.
Ivan attacked Sven, scratching at the mallard pants, meowing frantically.
Sven’s thoughts began to turn dark. “What? What is it?”
Ivan began padding away, then turned around to Sven.
Sven got the idea.
“What’s wrong?” Lorie asked, looking up from the green apple she was munching. Jane looked over too.
“I don’t know.”
Sven began to follow Ivan, with Lorie and Jane following behind him. He wished he could be back home, with Ivan leading the way to his bowl.
He didn’t have to look at the amount of food left in Ivan’s new bowls to know that wherever Ivan was now leading him, food was not the issue.
Brian wondered what had Ivan so spooked.
He decided that the cat could smell the remnants of the zombies and zombie parts that he and Sven had painstakingly carted out.
Brian had met Ivan before, on his many trips over to Sven’s house. Brian usually went over when Sven called and said that the protein supplies were dwindling rapidly, and that time was of the essence.
This was often right before one of Sven’s shows or before a training session with a client that Sven was particularly keen on impressing. Brian shrugged, remembering the good old days, and figured all of that was over now. Nothing left now but survival…cold survival.
He was glad that Ivan was there. He knew that caring for animals was one of humanity’s few redeeming characteristics, and Ivan could help to bring out the best in all of them while they struggled through the outbreak.
In addition, he realized, Ivan could also ferret out the mean ones like Milt. It seemed to confirm Brian’s suspicion about people that hated animals.
If they hate animals, Brian said to himself, they’re not to be trusted.
He swung the baseball bat back and forth as he walked to the end of the aisle of international foods. There were some interesting, unfamiliar delicacies there. Some of them caught Brian’s eye, and though he was curious to inspect them, he had a job to do.
He was there to patrol the place and sound the alarm if anything went wrong, and he was going to discharge his duty precisely. Their collective survival depended on vigilance. It was a task to be taken seriously.
What was bothering Ivan so much? The question now burned in Brian’s mind. Did Ivan hate him all of a sudden?
Brian exited the aisle of international foods and stopped in the back of the supermarket. He looked left, then right, like someone about to cross the street, then he strode toward the doors to the stockroom. It was worth a quick check.
The doors to the stockroom were metallic, and fashioned in the style of a saloon entrance, except that the doors spanned the full length of their frame. Each door had a small looking window at about Brian’s eye level, but he couldn’t see through either window unless he walked closer.
Brian heard a noise and spun around.
Brian turned back to the stockroom doors.
The noise came again, like a shuffling exhalation.
He spun around again.
Shaking his head and chastising himself, Brian began a forceful turn back to the stockroom doors to peer through their looking windows.
As he turned, springing toward the stockroom, the doors swung out violently and—
Brian was moving too fast to stop himself.
He ended up in their grasping arms, facing a horde of hungry, gaping, undead mouths.
He tried to scream, but the scream never made it out of him.
A white hot pain, deep in his abdomen beat him to it.
He looked down in disbelief at the gnarled forearm sticking out of his body.
Before he could begin to wonder, Brian felt an unimaginable pain in his insides, and, just before his consciousness began to fade, he noted an unmistakable loss of pressure in his chest. His lungs were no longer drawing air.
Brian’s last thought as he sank into himself was that he would be dead long before he could suffocate.
The zombies made it true.
The shotgun dropped from his hand.
Sven could only stare.
He was far too late.
Brian’s eyes were closed, and Sven hoped that his friend was already dead.
There were zombies—dozens of them, hundreds maybe. Sven couldn’t see the end of them as they piled in through the open doors of the stockroom, trying for a chance at Brian’s flesh.
One of the zombies had a hand in Brian’s abdomen, pulling out his entrails and feeding on them in fitful spasms. Another zombie was working its fingers into the soft part of Brian’s neck.
Many more were pulling on his limbs, pulling in different directions.
If it was an attempt to quarter Brian, it was a failure…or rather, a partial failure. The zombies that had Brian’s right leg tore it off at the hip, falling backward with their prize. The zombies that had been pulling at the other parts of Brian’s body fell in the opposite direction, apparently pulling too hard now that the zombies on the leg were no longer a part of the gruesome tug of war.
More zombies emerged from the stockroom, swarming over Brian’s fallen body, ripping, tearing, crunching, slurping, dragging away—
Sven drew both of the machetes in a single motion that the most practiced of machete-wielders would have envied.
Then the dark clouds were there, blocking out the overhead lighting.
The trees bled, filling the space in which Sven stood with a revolting, palpable dread. He was holding his breath, trying to keep it out, trying to hold on to what was left.
Sven’s lungs began to burn, demanding. He wouldn’t let it, he couldn’t let it.
But the pressure outside of him was too great, and like a great dam bursting, his mouth opened and the blood-tinged air filled his lungs, replacing the burning with something far worse.
The powerful, limber woman reappeared, creeping out from behind one of the thicker trees. She ducked under a bleeding bow, putting a hand against the tree’s trunk.
She locked eyes with Sven, and took her hand away from the trunk. It was smeared with blood.
She glared at Sven as she raised the hand slowly up…up…and to her lips.
Now, in the Wegmans, the darkness poured into Sven, filling him, and pushing everything else out.
He was breathing hard, like a beast, his whole body shaking with every mouthful of air.
Thought was gone.
All he could do was feel, and all he could feel was rage.
Sven leapt into the undead throng, landing in Brian’s still-cooling blood.
An inhuman ferocity gripped his body. He was the wild death, the bringer of the blade, the silencer, the ender.
Sven brought the twin blades down with an unassailable malice, feeling no pain in his body, feeling nothing but raw emotion.
If this was evil he wanted it…and more of it—to never leave this place, to feel it forever.
Two zombie skulls split open simultaneously, hacked down the middle, revealing grey bone and putrid brain matter. Chunks of flesh sprayed in all directions.
Each half of the torn zombie heads sagged away from each neck, opening upward like vile, twin flowers of the damned.
Then the bodies slumped and fell, and more zombies came forward, overtaking their fallen brethren, lunging for Sven, grabbing, gnashing their teeth and lolling their dry tongues menacingly.
Sven’s machetes never stopped, never slowed, as he plunged deeper into the undead that were falling all over themselves trying to get in through the stockroom doors.
The zombies snapped at Sven with their gnarled jaws, begging for decapitation, and he and his discolored machetes obliged…gladly.
Sven reveled in the frenzy, letting his anger feed and grow stronger through his eyes.
He absorbed the carnage before him as if he were a man who would never see again, who needed to imprint the vision of the world into his soul.
Gobbets of putrid flesh flew and zombies fell, limbless, headless, bodies torn asunder with a fury not of this world.
Sven’s darkness feasted on one sight in particular, in addition to the dual cleaved zombie heads with which he had begun his offensive. Once, twice, three—no—numberless times he slashed down on a zombie head in profile, chopping off the front part of the head so that everything in front of a cut section of brain and remaining back piece of jaw were gone.
Staring into the thing that remained—a strange device hanging with no ascertainable purpose atop a rotten, lifeless body…was…sublime.
As Sven leapt and cleaved and left sliced-open shells containing zombie brains in his wake, fighting his way deeper now into the stockroom, to the source of the zombies, holes—large ones—sometimes appeared in the zombie heads around him and the zombies fell, and in his frenzied state, he didn’t know why it was happening, just that it was, and that it was good.
Sometimes the zombies’ heads just disappeared. The darkness must have been outside of him too, helping him, feeding itself without vehicle, shaping itself through the air.
Then a different feeling came—one that didn’t really belong with the others. It was a calm, gentle feeling, and it touched Sven within the melee. It was a calm like none he had ever felt before, as if he were moving in slow motion in a certain structure, in a clear harmony within the violence.
Pure, unrestrained fury.
More holes appeared in the zombies around him, and more fell victim to his mottled blades.
The zombies began to thin, and then all of the ones inside the stockroom had fallen.
When it was over, Sven stood in the middle of a mass of hacked and slashed zombie flesh, lopsided chunks and gobbets surrounding him, as if he had been at the center of a great zombie combine.
And he had been.
Some of Sven’s normal feelings began to return to him, but they were dull, like unpolished, rough pieces of crumbling rock compared to what he had just experienced.
He turned around. Lorie and Jane were watching him. There was fear in their eyes, or maybe it was just apprehension. Whatever it was, it was directed at him. Sven felt shame for a moment, but then that feeling, coarse as it now felt, darted away, as if launched by its incongruence with the receding darkness, and was gone.
Sven wiped his machete blades on some of the fallen zombies’ clothing, and sheathed the blades. He wiped the sweat from his face and began to walk toward Jane and Lorie. Jane was holstering her gun—the big one.
They backed away as he drew nearer. The girl raised a hand up in front of her face, as if to protect herself. From him?
He stood there, watching them for a moment—watching them watching him.
“What is it?” Sven asked once his panting was under control. He felt a twitch in his jaw and neck, and tried to stifle it.
He heard something, whirled, and saw that another zombie had begun to stagger in through the—
It hadn’t registered before. The way the zombies had gotten in, they hadn’t forced their way in as Sven had assumed, they had…but how could that be?
Lorie and Jane came closer, apparently seeing what so perplexed Sven.
Lorie’s voice came muffled from behind her surgical mask. “How could one of them do that? They can’t even get out of cars or open doors, how could they?
“We have to get out of here,” Jane said in a stern voice. “We have to go now.”
Right on cue, as if they were on the set of a horror movie, a tearing, rending sound came from a distant part of the supermarket. Sven couldn’t hear the moans, but he was sure the zombies would be coming.
The stockroom began to swim, and Sven suddenly felt like he was sinking.
Too late, he realized that he didn’t have his mask on, and then his body went numb.
Sven fell, landing on a severed arm. The bloodless stump shot upward, as if telling Jane that her demise was now as certain as the separation between the arm and its previous owner. This was it, the zombies were overrunning the supermarket, Sven was gone, no way out, death—
“Help me get him out of here,” Lorie said, jolting Jane into action.
They grabbed Sven by the arms and dragged him out of the stockroom. Jane tried to ignore all the zombies and zombie parts that they brushed against and pulled Sven over to get out of that room. The jumble of parts made Jane’s own death seem so inevitable…to think she would soon join them.
She looked at Sven. His face, now extremely pale, was twitching violently. The thought pattern that had struck her when Evan was ill was now revisiting her, and though she tried to put it out of her mind—she couldn’t see any wounds on Sven, any sign that he had been bitten—the thought pattern didn’t yield.
Jane looked down at Sven, willing him to wake up, to wake up and to be alright. Her mind flashed on a picture of him just moments earlier, overtaken by some kind of violent rage. He had been so terrifying, but he had lashed out only against the zombies, and his protective instinct remained intact throughout the carnage. She felt a pang of longing when she recalled how he had shielded her and Lorie with his body when the zombies were on the verge of grabbing them.
If only he would wake up!
Jane shook him, and his head began to move. Ivan was there too, lapping at Sven’s face, prodding Sven’s head with his paw.
Sven came to, looking like death. “Back there…did you see?”
Jane nodded. “Yes, but there’s no time for that now. We have to go…I think they’re getting in, not just there but in other places.”
“They are,” Lorie agreed. “They’re in at the side door, I can see them.”
Ivan hissed, and Jane found that it amplified her dread, the feeling of being trapped with the undead closing in around them.
“Okay,” Jane said, controlling herself, “Sven you have to get up.”
Sven’s eyes began to roll back into his head.
“Sven! Do you hear me? Lorie, come on help me get him up, we have to go.”
“Go where?!” Lorie screamed.
“To the car, we have to get out of here, drive somewhere.”
Jane and Lorie continued to pull on Sven, and finally, the man regained enough of his physical composure to stand up. Jane and Lorie helped support Sven’s weight, and the three of them made their way to the Wegmans entrance. They dodged two zombies on the way, apparent evidence of the slow leak through the access point that Lorie had seen, or of another yet unknown leak in the building.
Jane and Lorie helped Sven lean against a checkout counter, then they pushed aside the shopping carts that were blocking the shuttered entrance.
Jane approached the shutter and peered through it, out at the parking lot.
Her world reeled, and she recoiled from the sight, staggering backward.
Lorie caught her by the arm, helping balance the world a little. On seeing her ashen face, Jane was sure that the girl had already seen it.
“What?” asked Sven, slurring the word. “What’s out there?”
Jane turned to him, gripping the .460 XVR for support. It had served her well in the stockroom, covering Sven, but it couldn’t take care of what was now awaiting them outside. “They’re all over the car. There’s no way we can get through that.”
Sven tottered to his feet. “There’s a way. We’re not gonna end this here.” He was still slurring his words, and had to lean on a rack of paperback romance novels for support. “You stay here with Lorie and get ready. Here are the keys.” Sven handed his car keys to Jane, who took them, not knowing how to react. The man seemed to be choking, making gurgling sounds in his throat and swaying as he spoke. “I’ll pull them off the car.”
Jane’s mind resisted this at once. “What? No! You can’t do that, you can’t leave us like this. We can’t face them alone.” Lorie put her hand on Jane’s forearm, but Jane pulled it away harshly. “You’re in no condition to be doing that, if you go out there, if you…” She couldn’t overcome the sob that strangled its way from her throat.
“No,” Sven said. “This’ll work, I’m sure. I’ll pick the shotgun back up—I still have a lot of cartridges—” Sven patted the bulging pockets of his mallard pants, “—I’ll go out through the loading docks, get their attention, start shooting ‘em up real good. They’ll get off the car, and then I’ll run around. I’m sure this’ll work.”
Jane shook her head. “No! Sven, no! There’s gotta be another way, we just need a little time to think it through, there’s gotta be another way to do it.”
“This is the way. Trust me.”
Jane took off her surgical mask and thrust it at Sven. “Take this.”
He must have seen the resolve in her eyes, because he took the mask and put it on without a word.
He looked at her for a moment longer, then surprised her with a hug. When it ended and he broke the embrace, Jane felt an unbearable anguish, as if her very being were ripped apart.
He turned to Lorie and tousled her hair, still saying nothing.
And then he quickly limped away, and was gone.
Ivan padded off after him, faithful to his loving master until the bitter end.
Jane knew she would never see Sven again, she had never been so certain of anything in her life. She wanted to run after him, to go there and face death with him, but she didn’t. She just stood there next to Lorie, knowing that he had been there a moment before, but never would be again.
Sven circled back to his sleeping bag, where he’d forgotten the shotgun in his haste to follow Ivan. He picked up the Benelli SuperNova in black synthetic, knowing that it was for the last time. This was it.
Jolts of pain pulsed through his body. Every step felt like burning, every breath, every movement. The only thing that helped was touching the handles of the machetes, and there wasn’t even time for that now.
Loading the Benelli as he went, Sven limped through the stockroom and to the breached loading dock entrance.
He stopped for a moment, and stared at it in sheer disbelief. He felt betrayed, confused, completely lost. But there was no time to figure that out right now.
He had to make it possible for Jane and Lorie to get away. He had to make it happen. There was a way. There was a way. He kept telling himself there was, but—
“Oh, to hell with it all,” Sven said, and he stepped out through the breach into the balmy, stinking air. His head went fuzzy for a moment, and he forgot what he was doing. Then it all came back to him like a sickening headache.
No time to freeze up now, he told himself.
He limped around the perimeter of the Wegmans, avoiding the few zombie stragglers that reached for him. They weren’t worth wasting energy or ammunition on. He turned the corner, making his way up the side toward the front of the store.
Sven hobbled up to the corner of the building and peered around, recoiling at the sight, and feeling the fear reach into him. He put a hand on one of the machete handles and tried to make the darkness come back, the invincible feeling from before, but it wouldn’t.
There was no time for standing around.
He took a deep breath, not at all making peace with the thought that it would likely be his last, and limped out from behind the corner.
He faced the sea of undead head on.
“Hey zombies! You hungry?!”
They began to turn toward him—their answer in the affirmative.
He opened fire.
Even as the zombies nearest him fell, the zombies behind them began to pile toward him, reaching for him, wanting what he had—his flesh.
Sven emptied the shotgun into them, barely making a dent in the horde.
He backed up as he reloaded, staying out of reach, mindful not to step on Ivan.
Ivan! Sven was so grateful for Ivan being there now, with him at the end.
He backed around the corner of the Wegmans, then began backing down the side, watching the corner of the building and waiting.
He didn’t have to wait long.
It was working!
The zombies were turning the corner after him, reaching for him with eager, gnarled hands, moaning in anticipation.
“Yeah, that’s right! Here I am, but you gotta catch me first!”
The smell—their smell—intensified as they drew nearer, and even though Sven was backing away, he caught himself reeling, his hands on the shotgun growing numb almost to the point of uselessness.
He had to fire while he still could.
Continuing to back down the side of the Wegmans, Sven fired again, dropping the front lines of the advancing undead.
As before, the volley made no visible dent. More zombies came, staggering on and over their fallen comrades, insensitive to the loss.
Ivan hissed and Sven spun around just in time to dodge a zombie’s snapping jaws, much too close to his face. He jerked the Benelli awkwardly at the zombie’s head, cracking the skull sideways and dropping the zombie to the pavement.
The creeping numbness was making Sven careless. Of course there were a few zombies behind him—the remnants of the loading dock incursion, he had passed them just moments before.
Then he was backing up again, trying to load the Benelli.
The first cartridge slipped through his fingers.
The second almost made it but slipped too.
Then the third slipped.
Sven couldn’t feel his fingers or hands. He looked down at them, trying to will them into coordinated action, but the Benelli only slipped from his deaden grip.
His knees began to lose feeling, to buckle under his weight, but he managed to lean backward, staggering away from the zombies that were now fatally close.
He fell, not feeling the impact.
The zombies were over him now, touching him, too close.
A snide remark, Sven thought, I’m not going to hell without a snide remark.
But his lips wouldn’t move, wouldn’t deliver.
His head turned sideways, not of his own volition but under the influence of gravity.
There was Ivan, still poking, prodding, pawing at him.
It’s okay Ivan, Sven thought, it’s o—
Jane clutched her .460 XVR hopelessly, wondering how many hours she had left to live.
Hours is probably presumptuous, she thought, I should be thinking on the order of minutes.
Peering out into the parking lot, Jane imagined that she would see a zombie version of Milt any minute. Horrible as it might be, she was glad Milt was gone, and she even hoped he had been torn apart pretty good, though she hadn’t seen what had happened to him after Sven flung him from the roof—hadn’t tried to see, hadn’t wanted to see. Milt had been a horrible man, and he deserved to die, even a gruesome death at the hands of the undead.
Feeling both glad that Milt was gone and apprehensive at his possible reappearance in the ranks of the undead, Jane knew that if Milt did return, she would eagerly put one of her massive bullets through his zombie belly.
“I believe in him,” Lorie said, startling Jane out of her fantasy. The thought of killing Milt a second time really was appealing. “He’ll come back.”
Jane looked at the girl, wishing that she could soak up some of her naïveté and believe it too. Jane didn’t understand Lorie at all. She didn’t understand how the girl could be so sensitive and optimistic on the one hand, and so inhumanly merciless in the way she fought the zombies, as if she were deriving pleasure from it, on the other. Jane recalled Lorie’s gruesome contribution to the battle in the stockroom and shuddered.
The girl had leapt about the carnage, using her exceptional speed and dexterity to stay out of reach as she stabbed with her knife, plunging it into zombie heads and twisting it enthusiastically, as if the crunch and sprinkle of bone fragments were a reward.
So much of the outbreak now seemed unreal that Jane was having some trouble distinguishing between what she saw and what she imagined…but Lorie’s lips had been curled upward as she dispatched the zombies. Jane’s mind hung on to that image with immovable certainty.
Lorie seemed to function only in extremes, and now Jane was face to face with Lorie the optimist.
Jane had no clue how to respond, so she didn’t, and turned back to look through the shutter.
She heard shots and a yell that she couldn’t make out. The roiling of the undead in the parking lot was unaffected, Sven’s efforts were comple—
She blinked. The zombies were receding from the entrance and from the car, they were flowing away, shambling to the side.
There was the sound of more shots being fired, and the zombies hastened in their shambling, clearing an imperfect but maneuverable path for Jane and Lorie.
Jane felt her pulse quicken. “This is our chance Lorie, let’s go.”
They crouched low to the shutter, and with considerable difficulty began to lift it. When they had raised the shutter about one foot off the ground, it ground to a halt.
Lorie was pulling, trying to get her body underneath the shutter for leverage. “The hinges must be bent out of shape from all those things pushing against it.”
“Hold it like that,” Jane said. “I’ll crawl under, then I’ll hold it for you.”
“Okay,” Lorie said.
Jane dropped down and lay flat on her back. She squirmed under the creaking shutter head first, looking up and backward to—
There was one on top of her, one that must have been in a recess she hadn’t been able to detect from her position inside the entrance. She put her hand up just in time to stop it from falling on her.
The zombie was clawing, chomping, putting all of its weight on her hand. Jane went for her gun but her arm got caught in the holster’s strap. Her strength was letting up, and the stinking zombie was getting closer.
Then her body began to tingle, and she suddenly felt as if she were floating, far away, admiring the zombie’s dry mouth, devoid of drool.
That was something, her mind mused as it floated higher, no tainted saliva was dripping out of the mouth onto her, that was—
There was a flash, and then the handle of a knife appeared on top of the zombie’s head, then the zombie was gone, pulled off Jane. Then something was pulling Jane to her feet, shaking her.
Jane’s mind fluttered back down to her, somewhat reluctantly. She looked down at Lorie in her surgical mask—the mask! She had given hers to Sven.
“Come on,” Lorie said, “there’s just a few more and then we’re there. Luck’s on our side now.”
Lorie pointed to the shutter. It hung in its position a foot above the ground. “No crushing for us today.”
Jane turned to the right and saw the last of the main mass of zombie horde turning the corner. There were less than a dozen zombies remaining in the parking lot now, loners.
The loner zombies set out on a half-hearted stagger toward Jane and Lorie.
“These ones look weak or something,” Lorie said, as she tried to dig her knife out of the dead zombie’s skull. “Damn, it’s stuck in there good, too deep.”
“That’s okay, just leave it.”
Lorie gave Jane a puzzled look. Then the girl dragged the zombie’s body and placed it so that the zombie’s head was under the shutter. Jane reached out a hand to stop her, but Lorie was already bringing the shutter down.
Jane cried out, turning and drawing her .460 XVR. She couldn’t watch that, couldn’t watch Lorie do—
Single action, Jane told herself firmly, trying to block out the rattling of the shutter’s hinges and the bone-breaking, stomach-churning, stop!
Single action! Jane screamed in her mind.
With tears brimming on her eyelids, she cocked, aimed, and shot. The noise and recoil were comforting in their physicality.
Four zombies fell victim to the first four rounds—a zombie for each.
Jane cocked the gun again, the final round before she had to reload. There were less than a dozen now, and the ones that had turned the corner made no sign of returning.
A glint of inspiration lit in her mind. Two zombies were almost aligned in a way that—
She circled around, putting the two zombies in her mental crosshairs. She aimed, then stopped herself just in time.
Jane’s body went cold when she realized what she had almost done.
She had lined up her shot against the car. If she had shot, she would have risked damaging their means of escape. There were other cars in the lot, many with the keys still in them, but with potentially empty or near-empty gas tanks, and zombie drivers still trapped within them. It wasn’t a risk worth taking.
Lorie came up at Jane’s side. “You okay? I got it! It only took a few cracks to loosen it and then—”
Jane blocked the rest out and circled around closer to the car. She lined up the two zombies again and pulled the trigger.
Both zombies’ heads exploded into an indiscernible spray. Headless, the zombies fell and lay still.
Lorie whistled. “Nice shooting.”
Jane reloaded the big gun, noting that she had fewer than ten rounds until the gun became useless.
The rounds went quickly, and with each round, a single zombie fell. There were no more double shots.
There were four zombies remaining as Jane stood in the parking lot, clutching the now useless .460 XVR. She didn’t want to let it go, to leave it for the damned undead to shamble over, but it was dead weight now, like the zombies.
Anger built in her at the loss of the gun. She looked at it in her hand, knowing it was time to let it go, to let Sven go, time to—
Summoning a long-dormant fury from the depths of her soul, she strode straight to the tall, overweight zombie shambling toward her. She kept herself just out of reach of his arms, staring up into his dead face. Dry strips of flesh hung down around his cheeks and jaw. His dark eyes were small and sunken, wobbling about in their putrid sockets as he shambled. There was so much wiggle room in the sockets, so much—
Jane would let the gun go, she decided, on her own terms.
Inadvertently in time with the zombie’s hungry moan, Jane plunged the barrel of the .460 XVR into the wiggle room of the zombie’s left eye socket, pushing against the butt of the gun and feeling the barrel rip through rotten flesh until it was lodged securely in the zombie’s brain.
The zombie slumped and fell forward, toward Jane. She stepped out of the way as she let go of the gun’s handle. The falling zombie pivoted, landing on its side and then rolling onto its back, the magnificent revolver sticking out from its head.
This was no stupid movie where when the heroine ran out of bullets she threw the gun at the villain, only for the villain to duck out of the way. The .460 XVR was not a weapon to be thrown. It was to bring death to others even in its own demise. And Jane had made it so.
She looked over to see that Lorie was staring at her, open-mouthed. Jane nodded, pulled the Beretta from its holster and made quick work of the three remaining undead. It wasn’t nearly the same, but it got the job done.
Jane unlocked the car. “Get in.”
She took a last look at the .460 XVR, properly buried, its butt sticking out of the zombie’s skull. Then she climbed into the driver’s seat, started the car, and put it in drive.
She knew what was to happen next. As soon as the zombies showed, they would drive off. They had to.
Only moments later, her hands tightened on the wheel when she saw the small group of undead, now shambling out of the woods, on a direct course for the car.
Jane’s foot remained firm on the brake pedal as she held her breath.
Lorie was holding the door handle, waiting for Sven. She would open it as soon as he was close enough to get in, he would get in, and they would drive off—that was the plan.
The car was already running and in drive. Jane’s fingers were squeezing the steering wheel as she searched the parking lot, eyes darting anxiously back and forth. Lorie watched Jane’s hands on the wheel, turning white with each squeeze.
Lorie hoped that Jane wouldn’t ask why Sven was taking so long. Jane didn’t. It was obvious enough, what else was there for either of them to think about at that moment? Sven had covered for them so that they could escape, and now Lorie was sure it had been too long since the last of the shotgun blasts.
Why the hell was he taking so long?
There was, of course, the obvious reason, and it flashed through Lorie’s mind constantly, making her sick as she tried to resist it. It was such a clean, simple explanation—an explanation to explain any and all tardiness in the midst of a zombie outbreak—death by zombie.
Lorie flinched away from the thought, and then she saw him, lurching out from the other side of the supermarket, looking for them, spotting them, and then stumbling quickly in their direction.
Jane spun around to look. “He—what’s wrong with him?”
Lorie couldn’t swallow, couldn’t answer.
What’s wrong with him? What the hell else could it be?
No, her mind screamed, no! This wasn’t true, it couldn’t happen like this, after all that they had gone through, after all that—
Then he was there, swaying over Lorie, motioning weakly for her to open the door.
“Wait!” Jane yelled. She was looking at Sven as if she had never expected his return, had not been awaiting it as eagerly as Lorie had been. Jane looked at him mournfully, as someone looks at a dead body, and Lorie felt herself grow angry. Jane had no right to give up on Sven like that, after what he’d just done for them. There was no reason for it.
Lorie didn’t wait. She opened the door.
Sven tried to climb into the car, but instead collapsed inward, knocking into Lorie. Ivan leapt in after his master, climbing onto the dashboard, tail puffed and turning in a circle. Lorie climbed farther into the car and over the divider between the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat, helped Sven get all the way in, and then reached over him and shut the door.
Jane took her foot off the brake, jolting the car into action. They sped out of the parking lot, careening around the new band of zombies emerging from the woods.
Not at all relieved, Lorie turned to Sven. His face was even paler than when he had left to create the diversion. His skin was clammy, and he was shivering, barely responsive. He turned a peculiar shade of green as Jane meandered out of the access road and swerved onto Route 29, and his eyes rolled shut, as if he were on the verge of losing consciousness.
Lorie saw that the shotgun was gone, as was the surgical mask that Jane had given Sven before he went off to distract the zombies.
“Sven,” Lorie said, “we made it.”
He didn’t respond.
His head nodded forward, then he slumped sideways against the window, fingers slowly unfurling against the mallard ducks on his pants.
Lorie felt her body choked by despair, by—
She flew forward, landing with her back against the dashboard. The car fishtailed violently, and then they were still.
Lorie pushed herself away from the dashboard, the pain in her side and back radiating outward.
She decided it wasn’t that bad, and that she was physically alright, except that something worse was waiting for them.
She righted herself and looked out through the windshield.
Correct again, she thought.
The afternoon sun was heating up the car to the point of discomfort, and wanting some bit of relief in the last seconds of her life, Lorie reached for the air conditioner knob.
A blaring voice stopped her. “Turn around and go back the way you came, or we will open fire. This is your first of three warnings before we open fire.”
Lorie scanned the road in front of them. There were numerous rows of spike strips extending beyond the road through the wooded area between the lanes of Route 29. Beyond the spike strips were metal barricades. Beyond the barricades were military vehicles, extending up 29 as far as Lorie could see.
Soldiers clad in body armor and gas masks were scattered among the vehicles. They began to scurry into action.
They must be burning up in all that gear, Lorie thought, though she had to admit the gas masks were sure to be more effective than the surgical masks, if only Sven had a mask like that, then maybe he wouldn’t now be…
As if the ground portion of the roadblock weren’t enough, two helicopters flew up and down on a perpendicular flight path to the road, probably ferreting out fugitives unfortunate enough to be on foot, or fugitive zombies even.
In addition to the two helicopters in the air, Lorie thought she could make out the blades of another beyond the stripped-down cargo hold of a truck.
Jane lowered the window and yelled. “Where are we supposed to go? We’ll die back there.”
The soldiers positioned themselves, then raised their rifles, pointing the barrels at the windshield of the car. It seemed to Lorie like way too many soldiers just to take care of the three of them.
Another voice came on, gentler than the first. “You need to keep moving. The infection is waning. It’s ending. You can outrun it if you keep moving. Teams have been dispatched to secure the area, you are not alone in there.”
Lorie wondered what that meant. Teams have been dispatched to do what? To kill everyone? To napalm the place? No one was helping them, that was for sure.
More soldiers were dropping from the backs of trucks, joining others of their kind hurriedly surging toward the barricades. Lorie looked at the closest soldiers before her, pointing their rifles. A few were trembling.
Jane was breathing hard as she yelled back. “Just drive? Back to the zombies?”
The first voice came back on. “You cannot pass the point of quarantine. You must turn back. This is your second warning.”
Now most of the soldiers before Lorie were trembling like rickety robots, like mass-produced, impersonal killing machines stuck on vibrate. They were there to keep whatever was happening from spreading, to keep Lorie, Jane, and Sven trapped in the nightmarish stretch of road where the infected shambled, eager to bite and tear and—
“The bastards,” Lorie said, letting her face turn into a snarl. “This is all their fault. Why aren’t they helping us?”
“This is your third and final warning. Turn back now.”
“Our tax money at work,” Jane hissed. She put the car in reverse and began to back up. Then she completed a three-point turn, facing the car south in the northbound lane of Route 29.
She drove south until there was a gravel turnaround. She took it and entered the southbound lane, not that it mattered—theirs was the only moving car on the road.
As they drove back the way they had come only the previous day, Lorie noticed that it had grown much quieter.
The engines of the cars that they passed didn’t run, and there was no drone of zombies scratching at the insides of their cars. The zombies in their cars were still trapped, but they no longer moved, their bodies lay still, slumped against windows and steering wheels, or slumped toward the passenger seat but kept in place by their buckled seatbelts.
There was no noise save for that made by Sven’s car, Sven’s ragged gasps, and the soothing chirrup of birds.
“They’re coming apart,” Jane said, as they drove farther away from the Wegmans. Lorie looked and saw that Jane had slowed down and was peering into some of the cars, in which the zombies seemed to be deteriorating.
Maybe it was ending!
Maybe the military people, untrustworthy and loathsome as they were, had been telling the truth about this being the end of the outbreak.
On the verge of a joyful outburst, Lorie felt her jubilation die as her eyes passed over Sven. He looked just as Evan had before…
Lorie noticed they were pulling into a strip mall. “What are you doing?”
“We need some water, maybe some food, and I personally need some caffeine if we’re to keep driving like this forever. Gas wouldn’t hurt either.”
Lorie gave Jane her order and stayed with Sven while Jane rummaged in the convenience store. Pacing around the car, Lorie almost felt safe. It really did seem that the zombies were gone.
Jane came back and loaded the car with candy bars, and bottles of water and iced tea.
After a short leg-stretching break, they set off again, putting more distance between them and the Wegmans.
Lorie was munching on a Mounds Dark Chocolate candy bar when she saw them—a small throng of zombies coming up a side road toward 29. The throng reacted violently to the car’s presence, and though Lorie suspected that Jane saw them too, Lorie didn’t say a word.
Trying to work up the saliva with which to swallow her bite of coconut and chocolate goodness, Lorie tried to make peace with the truth. The outbreak wasn’t over. It would never be over.
Sven let himself fade in and out of consciousness as Jane drove and Lorie navigated. He couldn’t believe it was down to the three of them now. It had just been seven, counting Milt.
He realized that he was neglecting to count Ivan.
Good, faithful Ivan, scratching at the bottom of the seat. Ivan would always be there, Ivan would always…
There was a shaking, a pain in his chest, blood in the trees—
He opened his eyes.
The car wasn’t moving. Was he in the car? Yes, still in the car, he could feel the strap of the seatbelt holding him uncomfortably in place.
Lorie was shaking him awake. “You need to eat.” Her eyes were kind, concerned.
Sven shook his head, feeling his throat seize and lock up.
“Sven,” she pleaded.
Abruptly, Sven jolted awake. “Why are we stopped? Where’s Jane?”
Lorie began to answer something about ABC Stores, but Sven didn’t catch the rest of it. He opened his door just in time, and fell out of the car to heave.
The heaving sapped the last of his strength, his will.
“Where are the…” he managed.
“Far behind us, far—”
When Sven next came to, they were stopped again. He heard voices—whispering voices. He opened his eyes.
Ivan was looking down disconsolately at him, intermittently poking at Sven’s head with a concerned paw.
Where were the voices coming from?
Sven looked around, bleary-eyed, wondering if Ivan had been fed.
His field of vision lurched, and began to spin.
He rolled over and gave in to the vomiting. His body became one large spasm of expulsion. But nothing came out. What he needed most to get rid of could not be thrown off.
The darkness was there, drilling its way into his bones, and Sven knew that it would never leave.
When his vision cleared, Sven’s mouth was filled with a thick liquid. He was sure that it was blood.
I’m a zombie now too, he thought, that’s what’s happened. Just swallow it and shamble on. Come on zombie Sven, come o—
Sven’s vision cleared. Lorie and Jane were crouched over him, pouring water into his mouth.
He managed to swallow some of the vile liquid between bouts of coughing. Then his vision clouded again, and he was swimming in nausea.
After what seemed like hours, Sven regained some of his former self and propped himself up on his elbows. “Where are we?”
Lorie’s voice answered. “On the UVa grounds. Memorial Gym.”
“What? We’re back where we started? Across the street from my…”
“Across the street from what?”
Sven sighed, keeping the nausea at bay for the moment. “My house.”
His eyes finally focused properly, and he saw that he was lying on a gym mat, in what he recognized as the ground floor of Memorial Gymnasium, a building whose layout he knew well from years of working out there. Sven found the gym mat’s sweaty smell oddly comforting, and reminiscent of the pure athletic endeavor that he wasn’t sure he would ever experience again.
He sat up slowly. “What’s happening to me? Am I…”
“I think you’re fine, probably inhaled too much of the zombie fog. I think of it as their tentacles. They reach out and grab you, paralyzing you, and then…well, you know.”
“Wait, how’d you get me in here?”
Lorie pointed at something.
Sven looked where she was pointing and saw a small, carpeted dolly. He laughed in spite of everything. “You carted me in on that?”
“Yeah, that’s right, and you weren’t much help either, flopping around all over the place like a dead jellyfish.”
“Thanks for that.”
Lorie pointed straight up. “On the roof, getting ready for…well, why don’t you go up and see for yourself? She’ll be so happy to see that you’re better! We had already thought you were gone when you weren’t coming back, and then when you showed up, well, you were so sick that we…”
Trying to understand Lorie’s words, Sven felt a gap in his memory, in the story of that day. There was something he couldn’t place, an inexplicable dead zone where a connection should have been. He tried to fill the gap, to remember, but his mind wouldn’t let him.
Dusk was approaching, and it would be time to start soon. Things were going as smoothly as could be expected. The outbreak did seem to be waning, but Jane wasn’t going to be the one to tell that to the zombies that had gathered down below, snapping and clawing up at her, probably trying to project their stench upward so she would fall down to them, a heaven-sent dinner gift for the undead.
Jane was crunching away at a bag of hickory-smoked potato chips, reflecting on what she would soon do, when the doorknob shook.
She dropped the chips and whirled toward the door, reaching for her semi-automatic.
Then the door that led onto the roof opened, and Sven hobbled out, Lorie supporting him at his side. Ivan kept crossing in front of Sven, as if trying to trip him up.
Jane was overjoyed to see Sven limping over to her, seemingly alright, the color back in his face.
She felt cold at how wrong she had been about him dying in his successful attempt to create a diversion, and then again in her assessment that he was becoming a zombie himself.
The man she had now mourned twice looked about the roof, then at her. “I see we’re drinking tonight.”
Jane smiled. “Only if you’re buying.”
“You have chip on your chin.”
“How unladylike of me—forgetting my compact what with starring in a zombie movie and all that.”
Sven smiled. “I’ll overlook it.”
“I’m glad to see you’re in high spirits.”
“Good one!” Lorie said. “High spirits! Get it?”
Jane was lost. “What?”
Lorie’s grin broadened. “High. Spirits. Get it?”
Jane shook her head.
Lorie sighed, still smiling. “We’re high up, and we have spirits.” Lorie pointed to the neat rows of liquor bottles.
“Oh,” Jane said. “Okay.” The girl did have a weird sense of humor.
Sven’s eyes narrowed. “So what’s with the rags and bottles of 151…and are those gasoline cans?”
Lorie threw up her hands. “Am I the only one that knows how to make a proper Molotov cocktail?”
Sven gave the girl an odd look. “Probably.”
Then he turned to Jane. “Wait what? You’re going to burn them? Shooting not your thing anymore?”
“The gun shop was burned to the ground when we passed it on the way here. I’m low on ammo, and…we picked all this stuff up on the way down here, stopped at a couple ABC Stores and a gas station. The rags are from downstairs—they’re just torn up towels.”
Lorie chimed in excitedly. “The fire will dry them up faster. We think that’s what’s happening to them, they’re drying up and crumpling to nothing.”
“I think she’s right,” Jane said. “And I can take no credit for the Molotov stuff either. Lorie’s the mastermind behind all of it. She’s sharp.”
Sven looked unconvinced. “And you know how to make a Molotov cocktail because…why?”
“That’s what she said!” Lorie said, rolling her eyes. “Didn’t either of you pay attention in school? They cover this stuff in history class.”
“Not in my history class,” Sven said.
“Or mine,” Jane agreed.
“Whatever, now you know.”
“Okay,” Sven said, “so we burn them and then what?”
Jane and Lorie filled Sven in on what the military people had said about the outbreak dying down and being brought under control.
“So this is the end of it?” Sven asked when they had finished.
Jane shrugged, and recovered her bag of potato chips from the ground. “If it is, it is. If not, we’re locked up good in here. We’ll burn them for as long as we can, and then we’ll run again. There’s gas in the Sven-mobile.”
That seemed to satisfy Sven.
Jane popped a chip in her mouth, savoring the salty, smoky flavor.
Then, after some instruction from Lorie, they each took turns hurling Molotov cocktails from the roof, down to the gathering undead beneath them.
The cocktails were mixed about half and half 151 and gasoline. Lorie said there was usually another component, but Lorie didn’t remember what it was.
The mixtures they used worked better than Jane had expected, and after attaching rags to the bottles, lighting the rags, and tossing about half of the prepared cocktails from the roof, they all stopped to watch.
The zombies came, walking into the flames, their stumbling alacrity in destroying themselves a bitter relief to behold.
Many never made it, their bodies coming apart long before they reached the pyre, falling into pieces about the tennis courts.
The flames licked the air over the burning congregation, and Jane imagined that the crackling fire was burning the deadly, numbing odor out of the air.
Cutting up through the sky from the west, the brilliant streaks of red that accompanied the sunset gave the disgusting barbecue a surreal flavor.
They stayed on the roof, watching until the last of the walking dead had crumpled.
It was over, Jane knew it—could feel it even.
The air was changed, not changed all the way back to the way it had been, but changed all the same. Jane could smell the flowers and the grass again, now that the overpowering stench of the zombies had been removed.
It made her feel hopeful, and when she closed her eyes and the thoughts emptied from her mind, it felt like the world was back to normal.
Sven was running down a dark road. It resembled Route 29 except that the strip malls that he passed were filled with burnt-out, unrecognizable skeletons of buildings.
There was a sense of desolation, and of fear.
Sven ran hard, pumping his arms up and down and kicking his knees up high. It was a faster run than he was capable of in real life, and his speed and agility surprised him.
He was wearing his man-tard, so his movements were unrestricted.
In his left hand he had a grip trainer that he was pumping within inches of its squeaky death, and in his right hand was a feather quill pen.
A feather quill pen? What the hell was that for?
He looked down at his left forearm and watched his muscles bulge. His body fat was very low. That was good. He was close to competition form now.
Then Sven saw something in the darkness ahead of him and it was all he could do to stop himself in time.
Their eyes were…they were burning. The things’ eyes were lit up with a black fire…and there were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, in a throng that took up the whole of the road before him.
They had appeared out of nowhere, and now he was backing up to stay out of their clutches. They were shambling, but their shamble had a bounce to it, almost like they were gamboling at him, excited to tear his untarnished muscular flesh apart, biting and tearing…and the eyes were boring into him, into his very soul—
Sven’s eyes opened and he jerked awake, beginning to crawl backward, startled in his disorientation.
Then he remembered. They were in the basement of Mem Gym. Everything was going to be alright…well not alright, but they had lived through it.
It was mostly, if not completely, over. There was no reason to be having dreams like that. The zombies were dying, crumpling under the weight of their disease. It had just been a disease—no evil in those black eyes after all. It had been a terrible viral outbreak, and now it was going to be over and life would return to some semblance of ordinariness.
Sven surveyed the space they were in until he was satisfied that they were alone.
“Good cat,” Sven whispered to Ivan, who was padding around the rearranged gym mats, apparently keeping watch. Sven knew that if something—one of the diseased—drew near, Ivan would alert them all at once.
“You’re the best cat ever.”
Ivan padded over to Sven. Sven petted Ivan a few times, and the cat purred gently. Then Sven settled back onto his smelly gym mat, closed his eyes, and told himself not to dream.
Don’t dream, don’t dream, don’t dream, don’t…
He repeated the mantra over and over again as he was falling asleep, but it didn’t work.
Lorie woke, not sure where she was at first. Then she saw Sven and Jane still sleeping, and it all hit her like a ton of bricks.
She peeled herself off the raunchy gym mat she had gotten stuck with and got up. Ivan brushed up against her legs as she rubbed some of the sleep from her eyes. She gave Ivan a light pat on the head.
Then she picked up her serrated hunting knife, and began to walk down the hall.
The stillness of the vast basement was unsettling.
Lorie left the side area in which she had been sleeping with the others and turned into the basement’s main hallway. She began to walk in slow, measured steps, almost tiptoeing, and had the strange feeling that she was walking down the nave of a cathedral, a feeling that added to her paranoia.
As she proceeded down the hallway, Lorie held her knife high and swung it from side to side with each step. She kept glancing behind her, making sure nothing was sneaking up on her.
There wasn’t anyone behind her except for Ivan, who was watching her with wide cat eyes and following from a distance.
Lorie came to the foot of the stairs. It was still quiet, and no one had come looking for her, so Sven and Jane were probably still sleeping. Lorie walked up the first set of stairs to Mem Gym’s first floor. She looked behind her and saw Ivan padding up the stairs in tow. He was keeping quiet too, as if they were both in on the silent game.
She walked across the lobby and up to Mem Gym’s large doors. She slowed down as she got closer, then crouched down. She wanted to have a look outside, but didn’t want anyone or anything outside to spot her.
She half crawled and half duck-walked over to the doors, then sat down under one of the door’s windows with her back to it. Ivan came over to her and nuzzled against her knee, prompting her to set her knife down on the floor.
Lorie took a deep breath. She wanted to see. It was like those movies her mom told her she couldn’t watch—that just made her want to see them more. But it was different than a movie too, because it wasn’t a movie, and there was something truly horrible outside, and she wanted to see just how horrible it was.
Even with everything she had seen in the past few days, she wanted more. She wanted to see the mangled, rotten corpses. She wanted to see the destroyed bodies. She wanted to see it all.
She surveyed the lobby for a moment to make sure that she was alone. Survival came first, no matter how enticing the gore outside was.
There was no one with her there except Ivan. He was looking at her, and Lorie was sure he was as curious as she was.
Lorie smiled. “You know what it’s about, don’t you?”
Lorie picked Ivan up in her arms and raised him to the window. She picked him up high enough so that he could look outside too, and she was satisfied when he stared out, apparently as engrossed in the scene as she was.
“That’s what I thought. See all those bodies?”
“Do you think we’re bad people?”
Ivan turned and looked up at Lorie with his curious eyes, then he turned back to the writhing carnage—and it was writhing, unbelievably alive in death.
A sprinkle of early morning rain was falling on the charred corpses of the undead, and on the many equally charred but detached pieces of corpses.
Lorie thought the detached pieces were the most interesting to look at—the nastiest bits, moving, beckoning, struggling to be…
Jane woke with a start. She didn’t know where she was, and for a second she thought she had been kidnapped and locked away in a basement—a dank one that smelled of body odor and chalk. Then it began to come back to her and she remembered the previous two days. Had it all been a dream?
Of course it had all been a dream. But how had she ended up in here, with Sven lying beside her? Had she gotten drunk with him and stolen away to some basement for an after-party? She had resolved not to start things up with him again, it was too frustrating and painful and there was no future in—
Jane saw the gun lying beside her, apparently placed by a woman who kept weapons by her gym mat…and who slept on a gym mat.
It wasn’t adding up.
Then she saw a mat with the unmistakable imprint of a body in it, but whose body?
Then she remembered Lorie, and the previous two days flashed back into her mind, filling themselves in and erasing any possibility, no matter how earnestly hoped for, that it had all been a dream.
Jane sighed, made her tired body stand up, and put her shoulder holster on. She popped the clip out of the Beretta, checked that the clip was full, put it back in the gun, and racked the slide.
She crept away from Sven and around the corner, holding the gun with both hands, trained downward and to her right side. Every few steps, she stopped and listened. It was all quiet.
Then she stepped into the long basement hallway and stopped. The stillness was eerie, and she expected a zombie to shamble out from one of the many doors and dark recesses lining the hallway.
Jane went upstairs and found Lorie pressed up against the building’s main doors with Ivan in her arms, standing on her tiptoes and peering out the window.
Jane holstered her Beretta.
She knew in an instant what the girl was staring at, and it made her uncomfortable. She wondered if Lorie was losing her mind, if Lorie was particularly susceptible to neurosis, and if the zombie outbreak had put her over the edge. Why was she so obsessed with the carnage? With hacking up the zombies and poking at the zombie parts and staring at the chopped-up, disgusting, mangled—
Lorie turned around. “Hey.”
Jane walked toward the girl. “Hey.”
Ivan meowed, and Lorie set him down. He padded his way over to Jane and brushed up against her legs.
Jane began to walk to the door, careful not trip over the cat, but then she stopped herself. She didn’t really want to look, didn’t want to see…and Lorie had done plenty of looking for the both of them, so…
“What’s it look like out there?” Jane asked. “And you don’t have to go heavy on the details.”
Lorie grinned, and Jane almost cried out in anguish, almost slapped Lorie, but she didn’t. Jane was guilty of similar insanities, and it wouldn’t be fair to take Lorie’s escape away. So what if the girl fixated on the gore? It obviously helped her in some way, just like fixating on the Beretta helped Jane.
She felt a sudden pang of regret on losing the .460 XVR, sighed, set her jaw, and looked into Lorie’s eyes.
“There’s a good amount of squirmage,” Lorie said. “It’s drizzling and all…but I don’t see any fresh ones. There aren’t any walking around I mean. Maybe it’s over.”
Jane shuddered as she pictured the writhing of the undead. “Maybe it is.” She hoped to hell that it was.
Lorie turned back to the window and seemed to forget that Jane was there.
Jane went up the stairs and checked out the track. She took a quick lap around, and when she was satisfied that it was empty, she went back downstairs and did a similar check of the basketball courts. Finding the courts as empty as they had been the previous night, Jane returned to the lobby, where Lorie was still peering out at the dawn.
“Come on,” Jane said. “Let’s get Sven up and figure out what we’re doing next.”
“Won’t we just stay here for a while? Until help comes? You think they’ll come for us here too?”
“I don’t know, we should have a look from the roof, and then we might have to start moving again.”
“I guess so…I like it here though, it’s—”
The first shout from the basement cut Lorie short, and she and Jane broke into a run toward the basement stairs.
Jane had the Beretta out again as she sprinted the length of the basement hallway. She ran straight to where Sven had been sleeping.
He was gone.
She felt a tightness in her chest. He couldn’t be gone. It was so hard to breathe all of a sudden. Without Sven, without—
There was another shout, and she could make out the words this time. Sven was calling for her and Lorie, but where was he?
Lorie caught up to Jane and turned back to the long hallway. She pointed to the left, to a door. “It’s coming from there.”
“What, is he working out? Has he lost his mind?”
The shouts came again, and Ivan ran to the nearest door on the left side of the hallway and began to scratch at it.
Lorie ran to the door, turned the knob, and gave it a hard shove. “He’s in here! He’s okay!”
Jane sighed and her shoulders slumped with relief. She put her semi-automatic away and was so happy that she had to stop herself from skipping to the doorway. When she got close, she could make out voices that were neither Sven’s nor Lorie’s.
Confused, Jane walked into the room to find Sven and Lorie transfixed.
They were in a small cardio room that was packed with as many treadmills, recumbent bicycles, elliptical machines, and rowing machines as it could hold. The room was musty, and in desperate need of some ventilation. Dust motes sailed lazily through the thick air, as if riding waves of the stale body odor of exercisers…exercisers now undead…or dead undead…their once toned muscles dry, crumpled, and unusable.
A TV hung above one of the exercise bikes. It was on, and it had Sven’s and Lorie’s rapt attention. Jane walked all the way in and turned to the screen.
Then she too, found that she couldn’t look away, could barely breathe.
Lorie couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t believe that was the cause of the zombie outbreak. It was crazy.
After the news program had begun to repeat for the fourth time, Lorie snapped out of it and began to pace back and forth in the cramped exercise room.
What a ridiculous explanation, she thought, totally insane. How could that be?
Sven made a sudden menacing gesture at the TV, as if about to hit it. “What?! What the hell does that mean?”
“I…at least…” Jane began, then trailed off and sat down on one of the treadmills.
Sven turned to Lorie. “Did you get any of that?”
“I think so.”
“The glyco thing and everything? What?”
Lorie shrugged. “Yeah, I think so. It’s like a kind of food poisoning.”
“A food-borne illness,” Jane interjected.
“Right,” Lorie said. “It was that new strain of genetically modified soy. They tried it, and I guess it didn’t work out so well.”
“But then why isn’t the rest of the country affected? Were they experimenting on us or something?”
Lorie hadn’t thought of that. “They didn’t really explain why it only went here. They did say it was a small batch though.”
“And what’s with the glycosa…glypho…whatever it is?”
“Glycophysate,” Lorie said. “It’s a pesticide.” The look that Sven gave her made her wonder if Sven knew what a pesticide was, so she decided it was a good idea to explain. “You know, pest-i-cide: kills bugs. We spray pesticides on plants so the bugs don’t get them.”
“Okay, I’ve heard of them, yeah.”
“So, the problem is that when we use pesticides, some of the pesticides can harm the plant that we’re trying to grow…because they’re a lot like poisons. So, scientists have made genetically modified plants that are resistant to the pesticides they want to use. That way, we can spray the plants all we want and kill only the bugs, because the plants are made to withstand the pesticide. So here, they came up with a new strain of glycophysate-resistant soy—glycophysate is a type of pesticide. And…well…we all know what happened.”
“So the tofu that came from these soy plants…was infected with something?”
“I don’t think so. It seemed from what they were saying that it’s not a virus so much as a poison, like the human body reacting to something in the genetically engineered plant. It explains what happened to Randy…or at least what Milt claimed happened to him. He ate that vegetarian, no, vegan frozen dinner.” Lorie looked up, trying to remember exactly what he’d eaten. “Yeah! I remember now, it was Kung Pao Tofu. He even described it to me, telling me how great it was—peppers, peanuts, rice, celery, carrots, but then, instead of meat…tofu.”
Sven nodded. “And it dries us up.”
“Severe dehydration,” Lorie said. “The water gets all expelled, and severe mineral loss along with it. They just go crazy and try to replace the water and minerals any way they can, by biting us I guess. I don’t really get that part.”
“It doesn’t add up,” Jane said. “It does seem more like a virus, like an intelligent virus that’s trying to spread itself. At least that’s how it seemed to me, based on the way they chased after us. If they were just dehydrated, why did they try to bite us? To suck our blood? Wouldn’t it be easier to just drink water?”
“Yeah,” Sven said, “there’s something here that just doesn’t make sense. The zombies were trying to get us for some reason, as if they were trying to spread, to make more of themselves. The dehydration was there, they did dry up and crumple, but I don’t think that’s all there was to it.”
“You think they’re lying to us?” Lorie asked.
“Who knows,” Sven said. “I’m not about to start talking conspiracy theories. Right now, I just care about next steps—the plan.”
Lorie gestured at the TV. “They said the worst of it is over, that as long as we stay inside and away from any of the remaining ones, that we’ll be okay. They said that by day five we’ll be all clear. It’s day three, and I didn’t see any outside. Maybe it’s over already.”
“Let’s go up on the roof,” Jane said. “We can have a look around just in case we need to move again.”
Sven got up in a swift movement. “You’re right. We need to go check.”
He rushed out of the room. Jane followed.
Lorie patted Ivan’s head. “You knew all along, didn’t you?”
Lorie was sure that he did.
She left the smelly exercise room to catch up with Sven and Jane, not caring to see any more replays of the President speaking from the safety of the Oval Office. Apparently, he had made two inspiring addresses during the progression of the zombie outbreak.
“Speeches didn’t help us much, now did they?” she asked Ivan as he padded eagerly beside her. Lorie decided that Ivan agreed.
Lorie exited onto the roof, leaving the multiple sets of stairs behind her. The humid air jolted her out of her thoughts of the mangled zombie corpses.
Although it was still early in the morning, the air was heating up quickly, and was beginning to feel stifling. One of the first things she noticed when she walked onto the roof, despite the humid, somewhat stifling air, was the absence of that strange, terrible smell that the zombies had brought with them—their secret weapon of sorts.
Lorie watched Sven and Jane walk to the edge of the roof together, and Ivan started after them but then stopped a short distance away. Lorie could see that Sven and Jane cared about each other, and she was certain that after all of this was over, if they lived through it, Sven and Jane would end up together.
She was surprised to realize that she wanted to stay with them. Her family was now completely gone…Lorie hoped Sven and Jane would let her…otherwise where would she go, what would she—
She sighed and walked to another of the roof’s edges, away from Sven and Jane. She looked out over the University of Virginia grounds and took a deep breath.
The air was getting clearer, that was for sure. The rancidity of the zombies was fading. Lorie poked at the surgical mask that hung around her neck and hoped she would never have to use it again, even while a part of her savored the violence of the past days’ events. She wondered what that meant about her, if that meant that she was crazy. Lorie shrugged and walked over to Jane and Sven.
“Can you see anything?” she asked.
Sven and Jane both shook their heads. Lorie looked out from their vantage point and couldn’t see any roaming zombies anywhere.
Then she walked all around the perimeter of the roof, checking as far as she could see in all directions. Sven and Jane did the same, while giving Lorie her space. Only Ivan stayed close to her, rubbing up against her legs and meowing gently each time she stopped at the edge of the roof to peer down and out over the landscape. She felt so much affection for Ivan that she couldn’t imagine leaving him…he was such a good cat.
After walking around the roof for a good ten minutes, Lorie was satisfied that the outbreak had ended—at least in their immediate surroundings.
She realized then that they hadn’t encountered any more people since Randy.
Were there no more human survivors?
Surely looters would have been out if there were people left.
Could it be that they were it? She, Sven, Jane, and Ivan? Were they the only survivors of the zombie outbreak?
The news report had made it sound like there were others, like the government was relaying a message to all of those people still hiding in their homes. Lorie wondered if those people existed…the news report had been so vague, so neatly packaged…too neatly packaged.
She turned back toward the center of the roof to find that Jane and Sven were standing close to each other, watching her.
“Anything?” Jane asked.
Lorie shook her head. “Maybe it really is over…maybe we can go…” Lorie didn’t know what she was going to say next. Go home? Where was there to go home to now? She didn’t want to go home and find her mother and Evan’s father and their crumpled bodies or whatever was left of them. She couldn’t go back there.
“What’s wrong?” Jane asked, looking concerned and starting toward Lorie.
Lorie stepped backward instinctively. “Nothing, I…nothing.” Lorie looked up at Jane. “I don’t want to go back …back to my house.”
Jane put an arm around Lorie, which Lorie found comforting. “You don’t have to. You stay with us as long as you like.”
Then Sven walked over, looking as perplexed as he’d looked in the small exercise room after watching the news program. “I don’t believe it,” he said, looking into the distance and shaking his head. He had a sad, resigned look in his eyes. “I told him not to eat that crap, but he just wouldn’t listen, I told him…” He shook his head again. Lorie watched Jane put her other arm on Sven’s shoulder, and then the three of them were linked…no, it was the four of them, because there was Ivan, pawing at a mallard on Sven’s calf.
“Why don’t we go home?” Jane said. “It’s over.”
As they walked back down into Memorial Gymnasium, Lorie began to wonder what the zombie outbreak meant.
Who had won? Was it the people who were against genetically modified food, or was it the meat eaters who denounced tofu?
It seemed exceptionally ironic to Lorie that the tofu eaters were the ones who protested the proliferation of genetically modified food, and yet they were the ones that had taken the brunt of the zombie onslaught, as if they were targeted.
Then again, Lorie realized, that wasn’t quite right either, because almost everyone in and around Charlottesville seemed to have been affected. Soy was in just about everything, she recalled, and maybe she and Sven and Jane had something peculiar in their bodies that kept them from turning into zombies even though they actually had been exposed to the tainted soy.
She shrugged and tried to put all of it out of her mind for the moment. It was over, and there would be plenty of time to put the pieces of the puzzle together later. If the public was ever allowed to have all the pieces, that was.
Sven had a hand on each machete when he stepped out of Mem Gym and into the late morning light. Ivan was in his backpack, perched atop Sven’s shoulder. The cat’s head swept from side to side as he sniffed at the air.
“How’s it smell?” Sven asked.
Ivan didn’t hiss, and Sven took that as a good sign. The cloying, paralyzing odor seemed to be settling out of the air, becoming fainter with each passing hour. It was almost noon on the third day of the outbreak, and if the newscasters were correct—if they knew and were telling the truth—then the last of the zombies were crumpling, the outbreak was ending.
“Self-contained deterioration,” that was one of the terms they had used on the news program. Sven didn’t know how anyone could refer to something like this as self-contained. It was ludicrous. The zombies were trying to kill the remaining humans. How could that ever be characterized as self-contained?
Even if the newscasters had just been referring to the course of the virus, the term was at the very least inept, and having dealt with the zombies firsthand, Sven found it offensive.
He looked up at the sky and found a reassuring, almost unmarred blue staring back down at him.
He walked carefully down the steps of Mem Gym, keeping his eyes averted from the area where the burned zombies were. He didn’t want to look at any of that, and there was no time for rubbernecking anyway.
The plan now was to check his house, clear it out if necessary, and relocate there with Jane, Lorie, and of course Ivan. They all agreed it was best to move to a smaller space, one that they could watch more closely, one that at least one of them—Sven—was intimately familiar with.
Mem Gym had worked well for the previous day and that morning, but the building had so many unknown hiding places that they were all uneasy about staying there any longer. They suspected that more zombies might be lurking in Mem Gym’s hidden recesses.
They could barricade themselves in Sven’s house more easily, and keep a better watch over its points of entry, which numbered far fewer than the points of entry into Mem Gym, the number of which they still didn’t know for certain.
They would settle in and lock up—it wasn’t as if the zombies knew how to open doors anyway. It was just a matter of reconnaissance and cleanup now. Sven hoped to God there was no cleanup to be done.
He strode across Emmet Street and stepped foot on Lewis Mountain Road for the first time since he’d driven away on day one of the outbreak. He kept his eyes averted from the piles of crumpled zombies that he passed, but he couldn’t help wonder how he could bring himself to clean up a crumpled pile that had once been Lars. That thought had kept him insisting to Jane and Lorie that they were better off in Mem Gym, even though he knew that they weren’t. Sven had backed off, feeling a bit of shame for his insistence.
Then he was standing in front of his home.
There were bits of flesh strewn across the lawn that Sven assumed were the remains of the mailman, but they were too unrecognizable for definite identification.
They’ll have to check dental records, Sven thought, and wondered if the zombies’ teeth became brittle and fell apart too. If that were true, identifying all of the victims might not be possible.
Sven’s body shuddered as he inhaled and put his right hand on a machete. He waited, but nothing happened. None of the strangeness that he attributed to the machetes took hold of him.
Unsure of whether to be glad or fretful at the lack of jungle imagery, Sven walked straight to his door, avoiding the scattered remains on the lawn. The way the remains were arranged, it was hard to imagine they had ever been assembled in the form of a human body.
Sven pulled the screen door open and leaned it on his right shoulder to keep it propped open. He unlocked the door, put his left hand on the doorknob, tightened the fingers of his other hand on the machete, and pushed the door open.
Less than ten minutes later, Sven emerged, shocked, confused, and not at all relieved.
Lars was gone, along with any sign of his body.
The back door had been forced open and left ajar.
Apparently Lars had made his way out of the basement and out of the house, no doubt in pursuit of moisture and blood.
There was bound to be some of his friend’s flesh remaining on the splinters jutting from the ruined back door. Sven cringed at the thought.
He sat down on the stoop, closed his eyes, and took deep breath after deep breath until he felt lightheaded. Then he went back inside for another check, pushed the stove up against the broken back door, exited the house, and locked the front door behind him.
No more screams, Sven thought, recalling the sounds that had traveled into his front lawn on the first day of the outbreak.
He started back toward Mem Gym in a slow, painful jog. Sven, Jane, Lorie, and Ivan would move, and in Sven’s house they would stay…at least until the government cleanup crews had finished their safety sweeps, clearing out the zombie remains and dispatching any undead stragglers that remained vertical.
He would retake his house, block the doors with furniture, and wait.
As he jogged, Sven wondered how long Virginia would be quarantined from the rest of the country, and how long he, Jane, Lorie, and Ivan could live on stale peanuts and turkey jerky.
At least until the peanuts and jerky run out, Sven thought, at least until then.
Sven rummaged through the DVDs littered around the TV stand in his basement until he found the one he was searching for. He picked it up and looked at it, hoping that it might take his mind off everything. He didn’t want to believe any of what had happened the previous two days, and at the very least, he didn’t want to think about it.
He also didn’t want to risk turning the cable on, because he was sure news of the zombie outbreak would be on every channel, and he couldn’t handle any more of that at the moment. He needed to escape, to get away from what had happened.
Sven put the DVD in and went to the basement refrigerator. He made himself a chocolate and peanut butter protein drink and sat down in front of the TV with it.
This protein shake was the second he had made for himself since he reclaimed his house. He told himself that he wasn’t going to dump it out like he had the first one. Sven knew that he needed to get his protein in order to heal. He needed nutrients, but his appetite still wasn’t there.
His mind was in all the wrong places—it was watching Lars splutter on the basement floor, it was sledging the girl in the drugstore, it was burying Evan at the edge of the parking lot, it was watching Brian get ripped apart, it was…
Almost as disturbing was the image of the breached loading dock through which the zombies had entered the Wegmans, killing Brian, and almost killing Sven, Jane, Lorie, and Ivan. The vertical gate had been cut through, the rectangular, human-shaped access point too precise to have been made by the zombies, or even by humans without equipment and experience in improvising entries.
Sven, Jane, and Lorie had all seen it, and Sven was sure it hadn’t been there on his earlier inspection of the supermarket. Though the implications of this discovery were startling, they had all put it to rest for the time being. It was inexplicable.
Ashamed to even think it, Sven knew that part of his despair…part of it was missing the darkness that had consumed him, enveloping his soul, taking over all—he cut the thought off.
It didn’t help that he could hear Lorie crying one floor above him. Sven wished that she would stop. Not that he could blame her for it, of course, but it made the depression he now felt seem utterly inescapable. Jane was comforting the girl, and had been for the last few hours. It seemed that after it had ended, the events of the outbreak finally sunk in for Lorie…as they must have for Jane…and as they were beginning to for Sven.
His chest and neck still hurt from the bench press accident, and he was fairly certain now that he had torn something when he overhead-pressed and tossed Milt.
I need to drink this, Sven told himself, I need my nutrients.
He looked down into the cup of protein drink—his favorite protein drink—took a deep breath, swallowed, and took a sip.
As soon as the mixture was in his mouth, he saw Lars and Brian and the girl with the destroyed head, and felt the mixture turn into a mealy paste.
He spat the mouthful back into the cup. He couldn’t do it.
After putting the cup on the floor, Sven pressed play and turned up the volume on the TV, hoping that would help ward away the gory images playing in his brain.
He watched with impatience as the copyright notice appeared and lingered on the screen for an unreasonably long time.
When the movie finally began, Sven fast forwarded one chapter to get past the introductory credits, so that he could be more quickly caught up in the story.
The movie began to help. Then Sven put his hands on the machetes, and that helped even more. The haunting images were fading, but Sven wasn’t going to try to drink the protein mixture again. He couldn’t face the images it recalled, not now, and maybe not ever again.
He reflected on what a blessing it had been that Lars wasn’t there when he returned to the house. The poor guy had probably wandered out and crumpled somewhere in the hot sun. Sven knew he wouldn’t have been able to deal with finding Lars in the house. And there he caught himself again, thinking about his lost friend. He was staring at the TV, but not seeing a thing.
With a determined effort, Sven clenched his jaw, refocused on the TV, and turned the volume up higher.
After a few more minutes of staring at the screen, and trying, without success, to ward away the depression, Sven got up and put the cup of protein drink in the basement refrigerator.
Reluctant to waste food after the events of the previous two days, he told himself he might try to have it later, even though he knew that he wouldn’t. He couldn’t drink it, and he couldn’t bring himself to dump it out either, so he resolved on trying to forget it for a while.
Sven walked back to the basement’s main room and sat down in front of the TV again.
A thought pounded its way into his head. It had a kind of reverberating clarity that Sven wasn’t used to having in his mind.
“Your bodybuilding days are over,” Lars’s voice whispered to him.
Sven shuddered, and was overcome by the eerie feeling that it was more than a mere thought, more than a post-stress reaction.
It was the truth. He was certain of that.
It was over—the massive eating, the competitions, the man-tards…he would still weight train, but the massive body couldn’t be kept up if his mind remained in its current purgatory.
Sven wondered if that was where the undead went—purgatory—or where they already were when they staggered through the streets, their gnarled bodies just shades wandering the earth, souls long-dispatched.
The TV reporters had said that the infected were already dead when they were in the zombie state, but was it true? What if they could feel everything, compelled in their actions by an undeniable force, the virus’s conscious but unwilling hostages?
Sven wanted to believe that they were already dead when they got to that state. He wanted to believe that Lars…and the girl in the drugstore…God how had Sven done something like that? He wanted to believe that when Lars and the girl were—
Then Ivan skittered into the room, clawing to a halt in front of Sven, the momentum of his movement carrying him slightly past where Sven imagined Ivan had wanted to stop.
The cat looked up at Sven, his green eyes shining brightly in the basement’s gloom. Then Ivan leapt into Sven’s lap, turned a full 360 degrees, meowing all the way around, and settled down to watch the movie.
Sven looked down at his cat. “Turns out you were the smartest of all of us. It’s not our fault, you know, they build you guys a lot differently than us. We don’t see things the way you do.”
Ivan looked up at Sven, blinked his glowing eyes knowingly, and meowed.
“We’re just people. But at least we have TV, right Ivan?”
He pointed at the screen. Ivan sniffed at Sven’s finger, then settled back down to watch the movie.
The sobs coming from upstairs had grown more quiet and more infrequent.
He sighed, and tried to lose himself in the movie, in Ivan’s semi-unconditional affection.
As long as I feed you, Sven thought, and patted the cat’s head. He felt his throat lock up, and nausea swept up through his body. Even the thought of food, of Ivan’s treats in this instance, was enough to make him want to retch.
Then Lorie and Jane came down.
“What are you watching?” Jane asked. Her face was ashen and she was trembling.
Lorie beat Sven to it before he could answer. “Harry Potter…the fourth one, right?”
“Yeah,” Sven said, “that’s right…it was a gift.”
“It’s really loud,” Lorie said. “Can we turn it down a little?”
“Sure,” Sven said, and passed the remote to Lorie. He made himself look away from her red eyes and cheeks.
The girl turned the volume down and sat down on the floor in front of Sven. Ivan jumped down and sat next to her, sniffed at her arm, and, apparently reassured that Lorie was Lorie, began to stare intently at the screen. Lorie put her arm around Ivan.
Jane looked at the girl for a moment, then plopped herself down next to Sven and drew her knees up against his side. It hurt him, but he didn’t say anything or push her away. She put her head on his shoulder and a hand on one of the machetes attached to his belt. He covered her hand with his, and tried hard to escape into Harry’s adventure.
Maybe, Sven thought, if they were lucky, each of them could get away for a while, even if just for a few seconds at a time, could get lost in the story and forget…forget…
Milt awoke and drew in a painful, rasping breath. He opened his eyes and squinted up at the sun, beating down on him through the moist air.
His mouth felt as dry as cracked parchment. He could feel the cracks in his lips, and there was something wrong with his mouth. It didn’t feel right. He wiggled his jaw, turned his neck, and then he understood what it was.
His mouth was so dry that his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. It took him a few tries to get it unstuck, and the detachment hurt enough that Milt was sure some of his tongue was still on the roof of his mouth, though the rest of it was free.
Then Milt realized something else was wrong, in addition to his now possibly-forked tongue. He had fought enough video game battles set in forests and wooded areas—and had designed enough of them—to realize that the scene he was currently in was missing a key gaming element—sound.
He couldn’t hear a thing. There were birds above him, fluttering, opening and closing their beaks, and engaging in the other bird-like activities that Milt found annoying, but he couldn’t hear any sound coming from them. He was sure they were clucking and chirping and chattering and otherwise trying to get on his nerves, but he heard nothing.
Apparently, Milt thought, being deaf has its benefits.
Looking away from the birds, Milt put a tentative hand to his lips and then touched the inside of his mouth. He looked at his fingers. There was no blood on them, but…but they looked so wrong.
They were pale, shriveled, and cracked, and they cracked even more as he bent them, opening up lines into his flesh. It was troubling to see, but there was no blood, and it didn’t hurt as much as it should have. It just felt like a tightness, like stretching.
Milt knew that he needed fizzy refreshment—he needed it badly.
He sat up with a crackle of joints and dry skin, feeling the sun’s ominous rays becoming more bothersome by the second.
Where am I? How did I get here?
He felt his tongue begin to stick to the roof of his mouth again. Finding that his neck wasn’t mobile, Milt moved his eyes around as far as they would go and scanned his surroundings.
He was looking for some bottles of Coca-Cola, trying to ignore the fact that such a thing might be hard to come by in a forest, where he almost certainly now found himself.
Coca-Cola would fix things, or at least begin to fix things. A few bags of miniature Snickers bars would help too. Maybe there was a convenience store not too far from here.
Milt tried to comfort himself with the thought, but he had to admit that he couldn’t see anything but woods surrounding him.
I need a running brook or stream or something, he thought, at least until I can get somewhere with real refreshment.
He wondered if it was dangerous to drink raw water, but the thought dried up and turned to dust in his mind. He didn’t care, he would drink anything right now, from anywhere. He would squeeze water out of elephant dung in his condition, like that skinny, self-proclaimed survivalist on the television that all the women were giddy about.
Milt thought he could feel his own brain, nerve endings or no, shriveled up like a prune. It hurt. It needed hydration. And he would hydrate it, he would find a way. It was his favorite, most-cherished organ, after all.
But, even through all the dryness in his head and throughout his body, Milt could still feel a want—another want. There was an empty spot in his mind, no, in his soul, and that spot could only be filled with Sven’s suffering—with Milt’s domination and final ownership of Sven.
Milt still could not believe the boldness of that atrocious man in throwing him from the roof, down to the zombies.
Wait, he remembered Sven throwing him to the zombies, but how had he gotten here? There were no zombies around, and Milt was still alive.
He tried, but couldn’t remember what had happened in the interim. His mind seemed to be grasping, but when his brain tried to turn out the thought, it felt like there was coarse sand grinding over itself inside his head.
The stuff in his head—whatever it was now—needed wetness, at least enough wetness to get to a muddy state of comprehension. Right at that moment, nothing made sense.
Milt’s neck creaked as he turned his head in a series of short jerks, looking for a source of hydration. He was somewhere out in nature, and wasn’t the natural world supposed to be full of water and such? He was sure it had to be.
There were leaves on the ground, and shoots, and roots, and there was a tree trunk not too far away from Milt. There was no elephant dung to squeeze, but Milt decided that chewing on some fallen leaves was a better idea than squeezing dung, whether the dung was available or not.
Then Milt’s ear canals suddenly cleared a little, and he heard a faint gurgling coming from somewhere nearby. He rolled over, and, focusing on the sound, began to crawl toward it. He scraped himself on rocks and through bushes as he went, but he felt nothing. His body felt like a shell that could be sloughed off and remade, and he was unconcerned about it—except that he did need to water it.
The sound was getting louder, but his body was slowing down. The more he crawled, the stiffer he became, and the harder it was to keep up the crawling.
Milt paused to rest, thinking that might help, and saw something that he didn’t want to. There was fluid oozing out of the cracks in his skin. A pale yellow fluid was seeping out of him, like motor oil.
He tried to crawl some more, but his arms and legs seized up and became rigid, and he collapsed in the dirt. Though it must have been his body cramping up, it didn’t feel that way. It didn’t hurt, but was simply immobile.
As luck had it, it wasn’t dirt that Milt had collapsed in. It was mud. Milt’s slowing mind realized this, and also that the gurgling sounded like it was only a few feet away—so close.
Milt felt the seeping fluid leaving him, and he understood that he could control it—not the stuff that was already outside of his body, but the stuff still in it. There was some still in there, deep down.
He focused, and bade the fluid to gather in his neck, throat, and jaw. When it had, he opened his mouth and forced his head into the mud, as deep as he could make it go.
There he drank.
When he had drunk enough to form more fluid within his body, he withdrew his face and head from the mud, chewing on the bits left in his mouth.
Milt pondered his current state, being reduced to a kind of prehistoric beastliness, finding sustenance in mud. It was no Snickers nougat, that was for damn certain.
But wait…was it better? He couldn’t believe it, but the mud seemed to be fulfilling some carnal need that even Snickers candy bars didn’t.
It was as if the mud was doing something far more vital for his body than Snickers or Coca-Cola ever did, or ever could. Milt had never imagined that a base substance such as mud could be filled with such incredible powers of revitalization.
As the mud replenished Milt’s system, the stuff in his head began to flow, began to stir, and he understood.
He understood everything about the evolution he had gone through—much more than he ever thought there was to understand. So much more, in fact, that even he was humbled by the knowledge he had gained through his experience with the zombies.
Not only had they taken him in and made him one of their own, they had selected him as their leader, placing him at the top of their hierarchy.
Milt had been right at the very outset of the contagion—it had brought his destiny with it. He was the one human with the constitution worthy enough to lead the zombies.
Only…he wasn’t human anymore, no. He knew he had become something else—something better, superior to any human, and, superior even to his quite wondrous former self. As hard a feat as that was to accomplish, he had done it. He had become an even greater, enhanced version of himself.
He was still thirsty, and now he had the strength to crawl the rest of the way to the stream, so he did, and he drank until he was contented.
It was Milt’s first drink of pure water since a mysterious bottle of Evian had snuck into one of his Coca-Cola cases, and that was years ago. The cold flowing water was even better than the mud.
Then he lay down sideways with his body half in and half out of the stream, so that he could continue to soak in the cool water. That was what his body needed—to sop up the stream, all of the stream. Of course that was impossible, but Milt felt like if anyone could do it, he could.
After some moments, Milt raised his head and looked down at his soaking body. He saw that his portliness was much reduced, and that in his prostrate position, his belly did not completely obscure his feet. The tips of his pallid, shriveled toes were visible, poking out of scraggly, torn socks. He wiggled them. Notwithstanding their appearance, they seemed to work just fine, and maybe even better than before.
Milt lowered his head back onto the damp earth and took a long, deep breath. He was startled to note that all traces of his asthma were gone. He took a few more deep breaths, and was astounded that he could breathe in and out fully, with no wheezing. His lungs felt better than they had in years.
There was water in his body and fresh air in the far reaches of his lungs: Milt could not deny that his body had changed.
As he lay there, wiggling his toes and taking the moist air into his apparently rejuvenated lungs, the rest of the previous days’ adventures came back to him.
Once the zombies had taken him in and made him their leader, he had become privy to a sort of collective consciousness, a shared mind—a shared mind that he controlled.
That was the best part. It was like playing Warcraft—not World of Warcraft—and directing his underlings in battle. The zombies were his chess pieces to move about the world…only now…now he wasn’t sure if there were any left. That insolent, muscle-bound ruffian, Sven, had no doubt destroyed them. That was just like Sven, a hater of zombies if there ever was one.
So, the winds of destiny had come for Milt…to make him great. But, he had originally thought that he would lead the humans against the zombies. Now, knowing that he was to lead the zombies against the humans, he had to confess that he had been short-sighted not to see this prospect earlier. Milt as the zombie commander was an elegant, even brilliant turn of events. He understood that this new station was allotted for him, prearranged somehow.
We all have a role to play, he told himself, and I will play mine to perfection.
Then, Milt’s hearing abruptly returned to its full capacity, and the infernal birdsong that came from all around him made him lose his train of thought.
After a few moments of painful chirruping, Milt remembered the new task that fate had allotted to him. He was to gather and assemble the zombies, and lead a zombie army against the darkness that was humankind.
But what if the zombies were gone? Milt wasn’t sure there were any zombies left now that he was out in the forest by himself.
The thought frightened him, but he knew that they couldn’t be gone. They were a part of him now, waiting to be reborn. He’d been bitten, after all, and here he was.
I am a zombie, Milt thought, I am…the greatest zombie of all.
The zombies remained. Milt the zombie was proof.
Deep inside, he knew the other zombies would come back, there was a way to get them from out of his own being. He felt this, and knew it to be true. If it was a disease, he was no doubt a carrier of sorts, waiting, lurking in the shadows for the perfect moment to unleash his biological, world-ending agenda once more.
The zombie apocalypse wasn’t over.
It was just about to begin.
Milt smiled, and searched for a bloated pimple to pop. Disappointed on not finding one, he began to plot his revenge against Sven, and against all of humankind.
In a similar wooded area not too far away, another pair of eyes opened to take in the sunlight.
Squinting uncomfortably, his body racked with a sickening thirst, the vegan raised a dry, crackling arm, and brought it up to his face. He scratched at the coarse hairs of his handlebar moustache, and began to remember.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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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