/ Language: English / Genre:sf_horror

Rabid

J. Bouchard

Taylor and Carl Mitchell are brothers who have taken wildly divergent paths in life. But when a mysterious virus transforms most of the Earth’s population into bloodthirsty lunatics, they must learn to trust each other and work together in a dangerous new world where the slightest misstep could lead to the ultimate consequence. The brothers must face their innermost fears and confront loss as they try to survive the long journey home. But will anyone be there waiting for them? Sometimes there isn’t a happy ending.

RABID

By J.W. Bouchard

For Josh Brown

Who schooled me on bloodhounds

“There are more dead people than living. And their numbers are increasing. The living are getting rarer.”

– Eugene Ionesco, Rhinoceros

“Death’s gang is bigger and tougher than anyone else’s. Always has been and always will be. Death’s the man.”

– Michael Marshall, The Upright Man

“No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.”

- Euripides

Chapter 1

Crowd Control

“The water will stop them.  Take it!”

Taylor handed Carl a spray bottle partially filled with water.  “If they try to come close, spray them with it.”

“Because they have rabies, right?  They’re scared of water because of rabies.  That’s what you said,” Carl said.  He wielded the plastic spray bottle in both hands, pointing it at the mob in front of him as though he was getting ready to fire a gun.

“I said it was like rabies.”

Taylor also had a spray bottle.  He squeezed the long trigger, sending a misty cloud of water at the thriving crowd of people.  The mob would move back to avoid the cloud and then surge forward again after it had dissipated.  The water in the bottles wouldn’t last forever.  In fact, it wouldn’t last much longer at all.  He stood with his back against Carl’s, suppressing the urge to scream.  Something as simple as water.  Something so simple yet, at this moment, in dangerously short supply.

Carl said, “They’re trying to surround us.”

“No shit.  Keep spraying them.”

And then what, he wondered.  What advice would he have after the water was gone and the bottles were empty?  His mind ran frantic, unable to form a single cohesive thought because they all collided together into useless randomness.  They needed to find a way out.  He needed to save Carl.  And he needed to save himself.

Beyond the mob, Taylor could see more of them coming out from between the buildings.  It was like watching pests crawl out of cracks in a wall; like watching insects swarm.  The wind picked up, and when he squeezed the trigger, the mist that spread from the nozzle was blown back into his face.  Thank God we ran out of gas in a small town, he thought.  It could have been so much worse.  Carl had informed him on numerous occasions that he was the only remaining optimist left in the world, and although Taylor usually denied this, he supposed that anyone who could point out the bright side of things with a mob of crazies coming towards them had earned that title.

The crowd was all spittle and gnashing teeth.  The sound was like fifty people munching on Captain Crunch with their mouths open.

Carl said, “I can’t keep this up much longer, bro.  Water’s almost gone.”  Carl’s voice was the high-pitched whine of a small child in hysterics.

Taylor pulled his arm back just before one of the things in the mob was able to grab it.  He sprayed a cloud of mist and took a step back.

“Level with me,” Carl said.  “We’re not going to make it out of this one are we?  We’ve been through some real shit together, you and me, but this takes the cake.  Remember when you rolled the Bronco when you were sixteen?  I used to think that was some crazy shit.  Not anymore.”  Carl was almost shouting.

“I don’t know, but I can tell you we’re not going to die standing here.”  He removed one of his hands from the bottle and pointed to their right.  “You see that building?  The brownstone that’s kind of kitty-corner to us?”

“Yeah, I see it.”

“On my say, we’re going to make a run for it.  I want you to head for that building.  You don’t stop and you don’t look back.”  The crowd had moved closer again and Taylor spritzed them with the water and they backed off a few feet.  “Around it actually.  I don’t see anything useful here, but maybe we’ll find something over there.  If we have to, we’ll try to hole up in one of the buildings.  You okay to run?”

“Remember who was on the track team?”

“You never let me forget it.”

“The question is, can you keep up?”

“Don’t worry about me.  I’ll be right behind you.”

Together, they started to shift to the right so that there was a cleaner opening in the mob in the direction they wanted to go.  Taylor glanced at the brick building and tried to judge the distance.  Had to be nearly a hundred yards; about a football field’s length away.  Carl was fast enough.  He believed that without a doubt.  But he had close to forty pounds and four years on his younger brother, and he had never been on the track team.  He had been on the football team one year in junior high and that had satisfied his interest in sports.

“We gonna do this anytime soon?”

Carl didn’t see it, but Taylor nodded.  “I’ll count to three.  On three, squeeze off a few sprays and then make a break for it.”

The mob was closing in.  Taylor felt a greedy hand grab the sleeve of his shirt.  He sprayed the thing – Taylor figured it had to be a businessman judging by the suit and tie - and the man let go, clutching his face and screaming.  You’d think it was acid in these things instead of water.

“One other thing,” Taylor said.

“What’s that?”

“Don’t wait for me.  You got that?  I don’t care if you leave me in the dust, but don’t you dare slow down.  Or the last thing that’s going to happen before these things get us will be me kicking your ass.”

“Promises,” Carl said and smiled.  For a moment, he felt that familiar burst of adrenaline.  The same feeling as when they had rolled the Bronco all those years ago; the same feeling he had had countless times when they were on one of their escapades.  They were older, and those times were few and far between now, but this was one of them.  For the first time in ten minutes, Carl thought they might just stand a chance.  Not a great one, maybe not even a good one, but any chance was better than no chance.  His father had once said, You never know until you try.  This had been in response to Carl asking if he should try out for the wrestling team.  Armed with his father’s simplistic wisdom, he had tried out and went all the way to State.  In his mind, he could see his father’s face, and he judged the distance between where they now stood and the five story brownstone that appeared so very far away, and he imagined his father saying, “You never know until you try, Carl.”

Chance was chance, hope was hope.

“Just do what I say this one time,” Taylor said.  “Okay?”

“All right.  I’ll wave at you when they’re eating your ass.”

They were shoulder-to-shoulder, forming a right angle with their bodies, each of them misting the crowd that seemed to grow larger and larger by the second.

Taylor shouted, “One!”

Carl glanced at the remaining water in his bottle.  Enough for five or six more squirts.  Maybe more, maybe less.

“Two!”

Let this fucking work, Taylor thought.

“Three!”

Taylor squeezed the trigger on his bottle a final time and then turned and ran.  Carl was slower off the mark, pausing to chuck his bottle at one of the things in the crowd and watching it glance off its head before hightailing it out of there.  But after he started to run, he had passed his brother within several seconds.

“Move your fat ass,” he said as he shot past Taylor.

By the halfway point, Taylor was chugging air.  That had always been one of his problems with running: he had never learned how to breathe right.  He was okay for a few minutes, and then everything went to shit when he started gulping air.  Despite the lack of oxygen, he kept going, pumping his legs, setting his sights on his brother’s back and making that his goal.  He glanced over his shoulder and saw the crowd following them.  Easily over a hundred of them.  They were fast and untiring and he could feel their eyes boring into him as they came.

Taylor picked up his pace, closing the gap.  Carl looked back at him.  Don’t slow down, he thought.  Especially not for me.

Carl reached the brownstone and kept going until he had rounded the corner.  He slowed to a rapid walk, searching for something – anything - they could use.  Where were all the cars?  Had someone went to the trouble of hiding them all?  He couldn’t recall seeing a single vehicle since they had walked into town.

Taylor came around the corner and almost plowed into him.  “Why are you walking?”

“You said run to the brownstone and turn the corner.  That’s what I did.  You didn’t say what to do after that,” Carl said.  “Not a fucking car in sight.”

Taylor scanned the streets in disbelief.  Carl was right.  Not a car or truck or motorcycle in sight.  Right about then he would have been happy to have found a bicycle.  A pink bicycle with tassels coming out of the handgrips and a white basket that sat in front of the handlebars.  It wouldn’t have mattered; even that would have been faster than running on foot.

“Don’t waste your time,” Carl said.  “You’re not going to find anything.  I already told you, there’s nothing.”

Taylor jogged along the back of the brownstone.  There were two doors on the ass end of the building.  Both of them locked.

The first of the mob reached the brownstone, and Taylor said, “Follow me,” and began to run again.  This time, they ran side-by-side, Carl asking him where exactly they were going.

“I’m not sure.  We’re going to keep checking buildings until we find one that’s unlocked.  Short of finding a car with keys in it and gas in the tank, I’d say that’s our only option.”

They took turns checking doors.  At first, they followed the same street, but then started veering down alleys and zigzagging as they went in hopes of losing the mob that continued to follow them.  Taylor guessed they had put around seventy-five yards between themselves and their pursuers.

Taylor gasped for air.  His lungs burned and he couldn’t catch a full breath.  His legs were numb.  The pain was in his calves and the large muscles above his knees.  The sun had been eaten by a string of thick clouds, but the air was humid and sweat trickled down into his eyes.  He slowed to tug on the handle of a door without success.

“Locked,” he said, shouting to Carl, who was across the street trying the door of another building.

“This one too!”

How many movies had he watched where someone was being chased by a pack of zombies or an axe-wielding maniac?  And, invariably, when he would watch them he would wonder how they could possibly get tired of running.  He had always believed that if he was running for his life that he could run as long and fast as was necessary to keep his ass out of the fryer.  But he was running for his life now, for what was probably less than ten full minutes, and the prospect of slowing down had crossed his mind a dozen times.  Maybe it was a combination of the heat and being out of shape, and that as a kid he’d had asthma.

“Found one!”

Taylor crossed the street to his brother.  Carl was holding open a metal door.  Written on the inside of the door were the words: THIS DOOR TO REMAIN UNLOCKED DURING BUSINESS HOURS.

When they were inside, Carl pulled the door closed behind them.  “I can’t lock it without a key.”

“Let’s hope they didn’t see us slip in here,” Taylor said.

“Let’s hope they can’t smell us.”

“Why would they be able to smell us?”

“Just something that crossed my mind.”

Past the back room there was another open door; this one of a flimsy wooden material, and beyond that they could see light pouring in through the plate glass windows at the front of the store.  Rows and rows of clothing filled the store.

Taylor scanned the racks and said, “This is all women’s clothing.”

“Great,” Carl said.  “Of all the stores in town we run into the most useless one possible.  “Should have known.  Just like a woman to forget to lock the back door.”  They shared a smile over that one.  Carl rapped on the door lightly with his knuckles.  “It’s not going to be safe with this unlocked.”

“You’re right.  I don’t think they saw us come in here, but they might figure it out given enough time.  We don’t know how intelligent they are.”

Taylor inspected the backroom.  The fusebox was on the wall to the left of the door.  There was a cramped inset bathroom, flanked on one side by a gas furnace and a water heater on the other.  A telephone terminal was located next to the fuse box.  A dozen or so insulated telephone wires snaked their way up and disappeared into the suspended ceiling.  He grabbed one of them and yanked it from the network terminal, wound the wire around his hand once and then gave it a hard pull.  He kept tugging at the cord until there was a few feet of slack.  Taylor looked it over and said, “Should be plenty long.”

He tied one end to the handle of the metal exit door and then ran it to the knob of the bathroom door.  He pulled it taut and tied it around the knob.  “It’s not much,” he said, “but better than nothing.”

“My brother, MacGyver.”

“Shut the fuck up, smartass.”

“What?  It was a compliment.”

Taylor pushed on the metal door.  It gave a quarter of an inch and then the telephone wire prevented it from opening any farther.

Carl had already wandered out into the store.  He held a summer dress in front of him and said, “What do ya think?  My color?”

“Get serious.  And stay away from the window.  I don’t want to chance those things walking by and seeing you.”

Carl tossed the dress over the rack.  “Just trying to lighten the mood.  Maybe this is how I deal with tense situations.  Ever think of that?  Tell me you don’t do the same thing?”

Taylor ignored him.  He searched the store for anything useful.  The clothing racks were positioned so that four racks ran from back to front, and five from side-to-side.  A large wire shelf at the front of the store displayed a variety of purses.

I hate to admit it, but he’s right, Taylor thought.  This is about the most useless place we could have stumbled into.

But for the moment they were safe; told himself that that had to count for something.

He walked behind the sales counter and bent down to rummage through the shelves behind it.  There were two drawers on the right side of the counter.  One contained a pricing gun, a roll of packing tape, and a pad of blank invoices.  The other drawer was locked.

Carl said, “Get down!”

Taylor glanced up in time to see his brother hiding behind one of the clothing racks at the front of the store, and ducked down as he heard the sound of a hundred thunderous feet passing by on the sidewalk outside.  He peeked his head above the top of the counter and watched the mob pass.

Once they had passed, Carl sneaked around the rack and up to the window, watching as they headed south along the street.  “You think they’re still looking for us?”

“Probably.”

“Persistent bastards.  You think this is an isolated occurrence?  Like maybe we just stumbled into the wrong town?”

Taylor pulled on the drawer handle.  “Come over here a sec.  And, no, I don’t think it’s an isolated occurrence.  You know better than that.  You heard the same thing as I did on the radio.”

Carl moved around the counter to stand behind his brother.  “All the radio said was there was an outbreak of some kind and that everyone should seek shelter.”

“And the radio also said to maintain a safe distance from the infected.  Lucky for us, they’re pretty easy to spot.”  He pointed to the drawer and then tugged on the handle again.  “See?  Locked.  If there’s something worth locking up, it could be useful.  So help me get this open.”

Carl bent down, wedging his fingers into the small space between the drawer and the counter, pulling on it as Taylor pulled on the handle.

“It’s no good.  We need something to pry it open with.”

“We don’t know if it was a national broadcast on the radio.  Could have been local.”

“I don’t think it was local.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Gut instinct,” Taylor said.

Carl rolled his eyes.  “Was it ‘gut instinct’ that told you to slam the brakes on thick gravel when you were driving the Ford, too?”

“You can’t let me live that down can you?”

“A guy has a near death experience, he tends to remember it.”

“I was sixteen.  Twelve years ago.”

Carl helped him search for something to pry the drawer open with.  After several minutes of searching, he said, “Just forget it.  There isn’t anything here to get that open with.”

“Wait a minute.”  Taylor opened the top drawer and took out the packaging tape dispenser.  It was the kind with a metal lip with jagged teeth below where the tape sat.  “This might work,” he said.  “Not from the top, but if I can get the cutter wedged into the side.”

He motioned for Carl to pull on the handle of the drawer, creating a quarter inch space which was wide enough to slide the tape cutter into.  Taylor held the dispenser by the handle and pushed forward, using the corner of the counter as resistance.  He heard the wood start to splinter.  “Thank God for cheap wood.”  Taylor pushed forward harder, using both hands now, and the metal flap that prevented the drawer from opening gave way.

“See.  You really are like MacGyver.”

Taylor sifted through the contents of the open drawer.  “No gun,” he said.

“We don’t need a gun.  A fire hose would do the trick.”

Taylor picked up a leather deposit bag, unzipped it, and then placed it on top of the counter.  Carl picked it up and counted the cash that was inside.  “Almost a thousand dollars here,” he said.

“And every bit of it completely useless.”

There were other odds-and-ends in the drawer, but none, Taylor thought, were useful enough to warrant keeping under lock and key.  “Why the fuck did they bother locking this thing?  All of this stuff is crap.”

Carl said, “Crap to us.”  He held up the leather deposit bag.  “But on a normal day, I’d say a thousand bucks is worth keeping in a safe place.”

“That’s what banks are for.”

“Maybe the owner didn’t believe in banks.”

At the bottom of the drawer, below a pile of documents, Taylor found a zippered black case.  Upon opening it, he discovered it was a toolset.  “Basic,” he said. “About as basic as you can get.  A flathead and a Phillips.  Pliers.  Zip ties?  Somebody must have added those.  Not much.”

Carl held up the bag of money.  “What do you wanna do with this?”

“Put it back.  It’s not ours.”

Carl zipped the bag shut and tossed it into the drawer.  “Doubt anyone’s going to miss it.”

“Maybe, maybe not, but we’re not thieves.  It’s the principle of the thing.  It’d be a different story if you could hurt those things by throwing five dollar bills at them.  Then I might take the money.”

“What now?”

Taylor shrugged and slid the drawer shut.  “For now, I guess we stay put.  We know they’re still out there.  I’m not willing to try outrunning them again.  If anything, we wait until it gets dark and try to sneak out of town.”

“On foot?”

“We’ll find a car or a truck or something.”

“Doesn’t seem to be an overabundance of them in town if you didn’t notice,” Carl said.

“I can’t figure that out.  It’s a small town.  How many people do you figure live here?”

“I remember seeing the population on the sign when we coasted in on fumes.  I know it wasn’t more than fifteen hundred or close to that.”

“About the same as Coldwater.  So think about home.  If this was home, and we were walking around town the way we have been here, would we have seen any cars by now?”

“Well, if we were walking around downtown, I’d have to say yes because of the car dealership.”

“What if you were walking down Main Street around…” Taylor checked his watch.  “A little after five-thirty.  How many cars would you see?”

“I know what you’re driving at.  Not many.  Nothing is open on Sunday’s except the gas station on the highway, and that isn’t downtown.  Still seems odd.”

“It seems odd now because you’re noticing it for the first time.  Now that we’re actively looking for something to drive the hell out of here, it’s painfully noticeable.  A few of the lucky ones probably got out while the going was good.  Only the crazies left.  How many of those have we seen?  A hundred or so.  Tops.  It’s not so out of the ordinary.  I bet if we can get to the residential part of town, we’d find what we’re looking for.  But I’m not willing to risk it until it gets dark.  Those things out there want to tear us apart, but they’re still human.  At least to the extent that I don’t think they can see in the dark.”

“You really thought that through.  The whole missing car problem I mean.”

“When I was younger, you remember how I liked to take walks?”

“I remember that you liked to go for midnight strolls.  It freaked me out a little actually.  Who does that?  Takes walks in the middle of the night?”

“Best time to do it.  Nobody else around.  A small town is dead at those hours.  I used to pretend I was the only person left on Earth.”

“How the fuck did you get so weird?”

Taylor ignored the question and started to search around the store.  “Help me see if there’s anything else we can use.  It’s close to six.  Should be dark enough out by nine.”

Carl walked past a rack of winter coats.  One of them had an imitation fur collar and he ran his fingers through it.  “It’s going to be cold out by that time, too.  Middle of October, it could start snowing any minute.”

“So take one of those jackets.”

“It’s made for a chick.  I’d rather freeze.”

The fitting rooms were at the rear of the store.  There was another counter sitting a few feet in front of two doors.  Taylor searched the shelves built into the back of the counter.  He found tape measures, pins, hangers, scissors, a coffee mug that held a mixture of pens and pencils, and a half-full bottle of Arrowhead drinking water.  “What’s that?”  He pushed some of the other items out of his way and closed his hand around a metal object.  “It’s a box cutter.”  He slid the lever up so that the blade protruded.  It looked sharp enough.  He retracted the blade and shoved the box cutter into his pocket.  “Could come in handy.”

“Mine’s better,” Carl said and pulled his knife out.  He flipped open the blade.

“Put that thing away.”

“That’s what all the girls say to you isn’t it?”

“Don’t make me beat the shit out of you.”

Carl waved a hand and laughed, but he folded the blade of the knife back into the handle and put it into his pocket.  “Has anyone told you you’ve got an overactive imagination?”

Taylor walked to the front of the store, staying close to the racks in case he had the sudden need to hide.  When he reached the plate glass windows at the front of the store, he scanned the street outside.  “Sun’s starting to go under.”

Stores lined the opposite side of the street.  One of them was a barber shop with an old-fashioned red, white and blue pole next to the door.  A tanning salon stood next to it.  Farther down the street, Taylor saw a store with Dave’s Hardware written on the marquee.  Why couldn’t we have ended up in that one?

“I’m hungry.”

“I think I saw a bag of rice cakes in the backroom.”

“Fuck that.  I want real food.”

“Well, we’ll just saunter across the street and find us the local steakhouse then.  Sound good?”

“Be like that if you want,” Carl said, “but sooner or later we’re going to have to figure that out.  What if this doesn’t blow over?  What if we’re stuck here?  We’re going to need to eat sometime.”

“There’ll be food once we get back home.  There’s enough game meat in the basement freezer to last us over a month.”

“Assuming we make it home.”

“What are you talking about?  Once it’s dark enough out there, we’re out of here.  We’ll find a car and then we head home.  We can hit your place first.  Aren’t you worried about Angie?”

“What kind of question is that?  Of course I’m worried about her.”

“She’s a smart girl.  Just not smart enough to dump your ass.  How long have you two been going out now?  Six years?”

“Seven.”

“And you haven’t put a ring on her finger.  Jesus.”

“Like you’ve got room to talk.  You get engaged to every hooker you meet on the street.  What’s it been?”  Carl pretended to count the number of times on his fingers.  “At least four that I know of.  They’re not all marriage material you know.  Oh, that’s right, you must already know that because they all left you.”

“Keep talking,” Taylor said.

Carl held his hands up in front of him.  “Hey, you started it.  You had to start doggin’ on Angie.”

“I wasn’t dogging on Angie.  I was dogging on you.  I’d take her in a heartbeat.  You’re lucky to have a girl like that.  Seven years, man.  She’s done her time.  Take it from me, there aren’t many around like her.”

“Let’s drop it.  Okay?”

“Suit yourself.”

Carl looked up and down the street.  All was quiet.  “Maybe they left.”

“I doubt it.  Chances are they’re still around here somewhere.  Probably waiting for us to do something stupid.”

“You think those things are that smart?”

“They used to be normal people.  So, yeah, they could be.  Either way, I’m not going to chance it.”

“What kind of moron screwed up so bad for something like this to happen?”

“I wish we had a TV.  Or even a radio.  That might help us figure out what’s going on.”

Carl was still staring down the street when he said, “What are you talking about?”

“Just thinking out loud I guess.”

“What about Mom and Dad?  You think they’re okay?”

“I don’t know, and I’m going to try not to think about that until we’re out of this mess.  We need to keep our heads clear.  It’s going to be hard to do, but that’s what has to happen so we don’t fuck up and get ourselves killed.”

“There was that bottle of water behind the counter,” Carl said.  “I’ll fill that up with water from the sink before we leave.”

Taylor nodded and moved away from the window.  “Good thinking.”

I want to get inside that hardware store before we leave, he thought.  Pick up a few things.  A Just-In-Case measure if nothing else.  I’d donate a kidney for a gun and ammo store right about now.

“You think they’ve got a sporting goods store in town?  Some place that sells guns?  That’s what we could really use.”

That Carl had spoken aloud what Taylor had been thinking only a moment before didn’t come as a surprise.  Coincidences like that were commonplace between them.  What surprised Taylor was that they still shared moments like that despite the fact that they had always been on such divergent paths.  Carl had always been the stand-up kid; the one destined to follow in their father’s footsteps.  As a kid, he had been their father’s second shadow.

And what were you?  The black sheep?  Not even.  Don’t go feeling sorry for yourself.  Like you were abused or something.

Taylor sat down behind the checkout counter, watching the daylight slowly fade away.  He could hear the sound of water running through the pipes and realized it was Carl filling the bottle with water.

When Carl returned from filling the bottle, he held it up and said, “Hard to believe that this is as good as a loaded .45.”

“I’m not sure that it is.”

“What aren’t you sure about?  It hurts them doesn’t it?”

Taylor answered without taking his eyes from the window.  “I’m not sure that it hurts them.  I think it’s more like they’re afraid of it.  The radio said whatever’s going on might be related to rabies.  How they know that this soon beats me, but if it’s related to rabies, then it fits that those things would hate water.  People with rabies develop an aversion to water.  But it’s worse than that.  Like just the thought of water drives them apeshit.  If I remember right, it’s called hydrophobia.”

Carl tilted his head in bemusement.  “And you know this because?”

“I read a book about it.  Well, the entire book wasn’t about rabies, but there was a chapter on it.  I don’t remember who wrote it.  Some doctor, I think.  Anyway, it was about all these different kinds of bites and stings.  Poisonous animals and stuff.  Rabies was covered in it.  I only remember it because it was interesting.  Until I read that, I didn’t know rabies was such a crazy disease.”  Taylor pointed to the water bottle in Carl’s hand.  “Can you imagine a disease that causes you to be deathly afraid of something as harmless as that?”

“I saw it in action an hour ago,” Carl said.  “And let me tell you, I was scared shitless.  Had I known that this wouldn’t actually hurt them, it would have been a lot worse.”

“Don’t take what I’m saying as gospel truth.  I’m only making an educated guess based on what the guy on the radio said.  I could be totally wrong.  Or the guy on the radio could be wrong.  If somebody offered me a choice between that bottle of water and a loaded .45 and said I had to go back out there, I’d pick the loaded .45 every time.”

Carl glanced at the bottle of Arrowhead in disappointment.  “It’s better than nothing.”

“Yeah, it’s better than nothing.”  He looked at his watch and then nodded toward the window.  “Another hour-and-a-half and it should be dark enough.  We’ll go out the same way we came in.  I think we should head across the street and see if we can find a way into that hardware store too.”

“Why not just find a car and leave?  I don’t think a shopping spree is such a good idea.”

“We’re going to do it just in case.”

“What?  And we’re going to fill a shopping cart and then push it down the street until we find a car to unload it in?”

“No.  We won’t use a cart.  Only what we can carry without getting bogged down.  A cart would make too much noise.”

“No shit, Sherlock.  It’s still a shitty idea.  I’m telling you, if we stop anywhere it should be a gun shop.”

“Remember where we are.  Chances are a town this small doesn’t have a gun shop.  You have to compare it to our town.  Do we have a gun shop?  No.  So most likely they don’t have one here, either.  Around here, a hardware store is the next best thing.”

Carl mulled this over.  He walked up to one of the plate glass windows, looking down the street at Dave’s Hardware.  “It’s not that far.  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to take a look and see what we find.”

“We need to look at this like we’re in it for the long haul.  It’s not a matter of getting home and everything’s back to normal.  At least I don’t see how things could get turned around that fast.  The plan is to get home, get our loved ones all together, and then make a kind of self-sustaining fortress out of your place or my place or Mom and Dad’s house.  Fix it up so it’s strong enough to keep those things out.  Maybe then we can wait till this all blows over.”

“Has anybody told you you’ve seen too many movies?”

“Yeah, and it’s lucky for you that I have,” Taylor said.  “Turns out they’re kind of like survival guides for when the shit really breaks loose.”

Carl rolled his eyes.  “See.  That’s what I mean.  Too many freakin’ movies.”

Carl heard the sound and imagined it was what Spain sounded like during the Running of the Bulls.  The sound of a hundred feet running in tandem.  The noise grew louder and he crouched down behind a rack of women’s power suits, peeking around a pair of slacks in time to see the mob of crazies passing by right outside the window.  Even on asphalt, that many feet were like the menacing rumble of distant thunder.

Taylor had taken refuge behind the ‘returns’ counter.  He was thinking that if those things saw them that the two of them were goners.  Nothing to stop them but a thin piece of glass.

“I don’t believe it,” Carl said.  “You think they’re still looking for us?”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.”

Carl waited another minute, took a final glace around the corner to make certain the coast was clear, and then made his way back to Taylor.

The sky outside had taken on a gloomy quality; a thick buildup of clouds had rolled in.

Carl said, “That’s what we need.  For it to rain.  If those things are afraid of water, then rain should really fuck with them.”

Taylor didn’t think they were lucky enough for it to rain.  It was autumn.  Although the season saw its fair share of rain, he was also cognizant of the fact that eighty percent of the time those dark clouds could also be one of Mother Nature’s cruelest bluffs.  He didn’t say this out loud; he wanted to keep things positive.  Carl knew how to keep his head.  That wasn’t an issue.  But Taylor never underestimated the power of positive thinking, even if he wasn’t very good at it.  “Rain wouldn’t hurt,” he said.

“I can’t believe those things stick around,” Carl said.  “Just running back and forth on the street like that.  I know they’re probably still looking for us, but don’t they have to move on sometime?  Don’t they still have to eat?  Or sleep?”

“If we had access to a radio or a TV we’d at least know if they’d figured that out yet.”

Taylor glanced at his watch.  Time was creeping by slowly, and despite his pessimism, the clouds outside instilled a glimmer of hope.  The rain might not hurt them, he thought.  But it might keep them out of our hair for a little while.

Carl unscrewed the cap and took a drink from the bottle of Arrowhead.

“I thought you were saving that for them?” Taylor said, nodding in the direction of the window.

“I am.  It’s not a big deal.  It’s tap water.  I’ll get a refill before we go.  It tastes like shit, you know.  Not even cold.”

“Can’t have everything.”

“Why do you think they were running?  When they went by those things were running.  Why?  I don’t see the point of it.  Whether they’re still looking for us or not, I don’t see the need to run.  I wonder if it has something to do with whatever’s wrong with them.  You’re the rabies expert.  Would rabies make them run like that?”

“No idea,” Taylor said.  “I don’t remember reading anything about that.  And I’m nowhere close to being an expert on the subject.”

“Since there’s nobody else around, I’d say you’re the closest thing to it.”

Carl moved over to the window again.  He was leery of the mob returning.  His eyes were on Dave’s Hardware.  It sat kitty-corner from the clothing store.  “It’s really not that far.  I bet I could throw a rock that far.  Way less than it took to find this place.”  He brought his head forward, pressing his nose against the window glass, shifting his view so that he could see down the opposite side of the street.  “None of those things in sight at the moment.  What if we tried going for it?  I mean, what if we went right now.  Make a beeline for it.  Go right out the front door, full speed ahead.”

“The only problem with that is what if we get over there and the door is locked?”  He walked up to the window and stood next to his brother, bringing his face close to the window without pressing up against it.  “The coast is clear now, and maybe we could make it across the street fast enough, but what happens when we hit that door and it’s locked?  Because you know it’s going to be.  Besides the fact that no business owner with his head on straight is going to forget to lock up his own store, we’re just not that fucking lucky.  How many times have you left the front door to your house unlocked?”

“Plenty of times.”

“Okay.  Bad example.  Say you owned a business.  Wouldn’t you want to make sure the door was locked?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Well, there you go.”

“I didn’t mean we should get across the street, try the handle and say ‘oh well, it’s locked, guess we might as well move on.’  I meant we break the glass out of the door if we have to.  Or just try the back door.”

“Breaking the glass will make enough noise to bring those things down on us.  And if we break the door, there won’t be anything between us and them.”

“True.”  Carl tapped his knuckles lightly against the window.  “But is this really gonna stop them if they want to get in?”

“You’ve got a point, but it’ll be dark enough in another hour or so.  An hour difference isn’t worth the risk.”

Carl sighed and walked back to the counter.  He took another drink from the water bottle, grimacing at the taste of it.  His stomach protested loudly against its lack of food.

Taylor sat down on the floor, back resting against the front of the counter.  Carl sat down next to him.  Together, they watched and waited.

Chapter 2

Dave’s Hardware

An hour passed.  In all that time, they hadn’t heard the sound of running footsteps.  The mob hadn’t passed by the window again.

Taylor unlocked the front door and opened it, cautiously at first, looking up and down the street.  The town seemed silent and empty.  The clouds had dispersed, the sky was clear, and for a moment Taylor admired the stars and the curved sliver of moon.  The cold had arrived with the night, and he wished for a jacket.  The sky was always clearer on a cold night.  He didn’t know why that was.  He thought there was probably a scientific explanation for it.

He stepped onto the sidewalk outside the store, Carl holding the door open behind him.  “It looks clear to me,” he whispered.  Before he had unlocked the front door, Taylor had emphasized the need to whisper from this point forward.  Carl had rolled his eyes.

They walked alongside the buildings, both of them looking over their shoulders frequently.

“It’s not that far.  It looked farther away from behind the glass,” Carl said, talking about the hardware store.

Several blocks up, the street dead-ended.  It was like seeing the edge of the world, Taylor thought.  Walk any farther than that and you were bound to fall off the edge.  He pointed ahead and said, “The street dead ends up there.  When we leave, we’ll have to decide whether to go right or left.”

“Left.  Take a left and we’d be moving closer to the highway,” Carl said.

They crossed the street.  Taylor figured they looked like a couple of dumb shits practically tiptoeing over the asphalt.

“Is this what it feels like?  This what you were talkin’ about?  Feeling like the last man on Earth when you’re walking around town by yourself in the middle of the night.”

“It’s close.  Imagine this, but without the sense of impending doom.”

Carl reached the front door of Dave’s Hardware first.  He gave the handle a quick tug and shook his head.  “No dice,” he said.  “Locked.  Just like we figured.”

Taylor walked along the front of the building.  Between Dave’s Hardware and the pharmacy next to it, there was a narrow alley, barely wide enough to drive a car through.  “Let’s try down here.”

Carl could hear the sound of his own footfalls.  They had never seemed so loud to him before, but now each step he took sounded like a thunderclap.

When they reached the lot behind the hardware store they both noticed the same thing first.  “A car!” Carl said.

It was a battered Ford Escort that hadn’t seen a good day for at least a decade.  A leftover from the nineties, Taylor thought.  Carl ran up to it and tried all the doors.  They were all locked.  “Shit!”

“Whoever left it here parked it awful close to the back door.  Can’t be more than two feet between the door and the front bumper.”

“Maybe they were in a hurry.  Definitely belongs to a chick.  No dude would have a stuffed penguin hanging from the rearview mirror.”

“Not in enough of a hurry to forget to lock their car doors,” Taylor said, and tried the handle of the back door to Dave’s Hardware.

It was unlocked.

“I’ll be damned,” Carl said.  “What are the chances?  Would have been a good day to buy a lottery ticket.”

Taylor entered the building first, hand instinctively touching his pocket to feel the comforting form of the box cutter.

The room was dark and smelled of oil and sawdust.  They had grown up with the same odor frequently wafting out of their father’s workshop.  Taylor had never cared for it; as a kid, it had played hell with his allergies.

“I can’t see shit,” Carl said.

“I know.  So be careful.  Just stay behind me.”

Taylor inched his way to the left, arms extended in front of him, slowly shuffling forward until the tips of his fingers brushed up against the wall.  He pressed both of his hands, palms forward, against the wall and followed it until he reached the wall in front of them.  He followed this until the texture beneath his hands changed from rough drywall to the smoothness of varnished wood.  He allowed his right hand to explore until he felt the seam between the door and wall.  Finding the doorknob was easy after that.

Carl’s hand was on the back of his shoulder.

Taylor said, “I found the door.”

He opened it and a moment later they could see again.  Light from the streetlamps outside shone through the front windows, providing enough illumination to navigate through the store.  Long rows of shelves lined one side of the store to the other.  Shadowed things lined the walls, appearing somewhat ominous in the faint light.

“Looks a lot bigger on the inside,” Carl said.  He had regained some of his former confidence.  After they had crossed the street and found their way into the hardware store without incident, he was beginning to think that maybe things would be all right; that maybe the crazies had found something else to chase.

They wandered down the aisles.  The streetlamps provided ample light to see if you were at the front of the store near the checkout area, but it became more difficult browsing the darkened aisles.  Taylor searched for flashlights.  He assigned his brother the task of locating batteries and grabbing a variety of them.

It took him five minutes to find the aisle where the flashlights were kept.  He plucked several different ones from their pegs and used the box cutter to strip away the tough plastic packaging.  He tucked them under his arm and carried them to the front of the store, aligning them along the floor where the ambient light was good.

Carl returned carrying several packages of batteries in each hand.  Taylor sorted through them.  He handed one of the packages to Carl and said, “Use these.  They go with that one.”  He worked on one of the other flashlights, screwing the end back on and sliding the switch to the ON position.  The flashlight shot a beam of light down one of the aisles.  Carl had his working a moment later.

“Okay.  Now that that’s done, find anything useful.  But make sure it’s something we can carry without too much trouble.  Keep your eyes peeled for a set of car keys.  Unless the owner of that Ford out back ran out of here with the keys still in their pocket, they’re bound to be here somewhere.  I’ll check by the register.  If you want, check the backroom.  It was dark as hell back there when we came in.  There might be an office back there or something.  Worst case, we try to hotwire the damn thing.”

“And when did you learn how to do that?”

“I don’t know how, but if there was ever a time to try to learn, this is probably it.  It would make things a lot less complicated if it worked out that easy.”

“Don’t hold your breath,” Carl said and started down one of the aisles, the beam of his flashlight dancing back and forth in front of him.

Taylor glanced out the front windows.  The street was still empty.  He was grateful for that.

He aimed the beam over the checkout area, across the counter and the cash register, and then along the shelves behind it.  No keys.  He started down the far left aisle.  Various outdoor implements hung on the wall to his left: shovels, ladders, hoses, gardening tools, bags of soil, hedge clippers; there was an entire section devoted to different styles of gloves.

Taylor reached up and took the hedge clippers down from the peg.  They were awkward and heavy to try wielding them with only one hand, and he put them aside, continuing his way along the wall.

Taylor found gas cans at the end of the second aisle.  They were made of durable plastic, and he picked one of them up.  Farther down the aisle, he found an assortment of spray bottles.  He browsed the aisles until he found the paint section and located a canvas drop cloth.  He carried it to the other aisle, spread it out on the floor, and dropped the gas canister and several spray bottles onto the center of the drop cloth.  He folded the four corners and hoisted it over his shoulder, feeling a little like Santa Claus with a bag full of toys.

Carl came around the corner, shining his flashlight in Taylor’s face.

“Get that thing out of my face,” Taylor said.

“What you got there?” Carl asked, directing the flashlight’s beam at the makeshift canvas sack.

“Gas can and spray bottles.  Figure we can fill them with water before we ditch this place.”

“See what I got?”  Carl held up his hand.  He was holding a machete.  “Thought it might come in handy.”

“Any luck finding the keys?”

“I haven’t been back there yet.  You?”

“Nothing up front at the checkout.  Find anything else useful?”

“Not really.”

“Let’s go in the back and check -”

The thunderous roar began again.  Distant at first, and then growing louder by the second.  Taylor killed his flashlight and gestured for Carl to do the same.  Each sat down on one side of the aisle, backs against the cold metal shelving, and they watched as the mob passed by the front windows.

“Still running,” Carl said.  “I can’t believe it.  They must never get tired.  It’s almost like they’re doing laps.  The town isn’t that big is it?  It’s been how many hours since we saw them last?  If they’ve been running the whole time, what took them so long to make it back this way?”

“Don’t ask me.  Maybe they found something they were looking for along the way.  Maybe they stopped off at the local diner for some grub.”

They remained seated until the sound of the mob’s running feet had faded away completely.  Taylor stood up and re-shouldered the makeshift canvas bag.  “Let’s see if we can find those keys in the backroom and we’ll go figure things out from there.”

Carl had found a scabbard for the machete and had fastened it to his belt, looking like a modern-day swashbuckler with the machete sheathed along his left hip.

The backroom of Dave’s Hardware was roomier than the backroom of the women’s clothing store.  There were boxes stacked along the walls.  There was a bathroom and a small office.  There was only enough room in the office for a desk and a chair.  A corkboard hung above the desk, papered with invoices and Post-It notes.

Taylor checked the desk.  He rooted through the drawers and came up empty-handed.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be that easy, but for some reason I got my hopes up anyway.”

He put the canvas drop cloth down and opened it, handing several of the spray bottles to Carl.  “Let’s fill these up.  After that, we can fiddle with the Escort out back.  Worst case, we can’t figure out how to hotwire it and we have to leave some of this stuff behind.  I’m not going to be able to lug all this around very far once it’s filled with water.”

Taylor listened to the sound of water running in the bathroom sink as Carl filled the bottles.  All he had asked for was to find the car keys.  It was a small favor to ask, but for some reason God had chosen not to grant it.  All of it followed a certain pessimistic logic he had developed over the years.  If that continued, then they would be shit out of luck when it came to the Escort.  He knew that as surely as he had known they wouldn’t find the keys.

But once in a great while you got lucky.

“Finished,” Carl said.

“Lay them down on there.  As close to the center as possible.”

Carl arranged the filled bottles and gas canister on the canvas.  When he was finished, Taylor folded the edges over again.

Carl had his hand on the handle of the exit door.  He glanced back at Taylor before opening it.  “You ready?”

“Do it.”

Chapter 3

Mr. Sullivan and the Squirrel

A sound came from behind them.

Taylor instinctively dropped the sack, listening to the heavy thud and sloshing of water as the contents hit the floor.  In a flash, he was squatting down, grabbing for one of the spray bottles.

Carl had twisted around, unsheathed the machete and had it raised above his head.  He had nearly screamed.  When he saw what had made the noise he was thankful he hadn’t.

“Take me with you,” the girl said.  “If you’re leaving, please take me with you.”

One of her hands was up, shading her eyes from the beams of the flashlights.  She had something in her other hand and she held it out to them.  Taylor shined his flashlight on it.  Keys.  “That’s your car out back?”

The girl nodded.  She wasn’t crying now, but looked as though she had been recently.

“What are you doing here?”  Carl asked.

“This is my father’s store.  I go to the university and came home to visit for the weekend.  I got here and everyone had, well, you know…everyone had changed.  This is the only place I could think to go.”

“How long have you been here?”

“What time is it now?”

Taylor looked at his watch.  “Nine-thirty.”

“Almost seven hours.”  She pointed to a ladder leaning against the wall.  “I used that to climb into the ceiling.  There’s nothing up there but rafters and that insulation that looks like cotton candy.  It’s dusty and smells weird.  I listened to the two of you talking and realized you couldn’t be those…things.”

“You forgot to lock the back door,” Taylor said.  “That’s how we got in.  You’re lucky we’re the only ones that found our way in.”

“I was in a hurry.”

“But you remembered to lock your car doors?”

She showed him the black fob that dangled from her car keys.  “You use one of these things for a while, it becomes a habit.”

“So you come back to town, and all you find is a bunch of crazies,” Taylor said.  “What about your father?  Where’s he?”

The girl cast her eyes to the floor.

Dumb question, Taylor thought.

She shrugged.  “I thought he’d be here, but he wasn’t.  Do you think anyone is still normal?”

“I’m normal,” Taylor said.

“Some days,” Carl said.

“My brother is normal, and you look like you’re normal.  I imagine some people made it out of here.  Either that or they’re holed up in their houses doing the same thing we are.  Laying low so they don’t draw the attention of those crazy fucks.”

“Maybe they’re gone by now,” the girl said.

Carl shook his head.  “We just saw them run by a few minutes ago.  They run a lot.  Doesn’t seem like they ever get tired, either.”

Carl thought the girl was attractive.  Skinnier than he liked, but even through her blue jeans and tight sweater he could tell that she had an athletic build.  He wondered if she had ever been on the track team.  Strong shoulders, he thought.  Probably a swimmer.

Staring at the girl and seeing how vulnerable she looked standing there in front of them, and noticing that she had obviously been crying, made him think of Angie.  Alone somewhere - hopefully, locked up in the house - in a town that was mostly a carbon copy of this one.  He was disappointed in himself for spending so little time thinking of her safety.  Almost like he had forgotten about her.  He justified this by telling himself it was natural to put pain and worry from your mind in order to continue functioning; that Angie had been there in his brain all along, but that he had set those emotions aside temporarily while they searched for a safe place.

And he felt guilty for finding this girl attractive.

Taylor’s right.  Why the hell haven’t you proposed yet?  Because you figured you could take your own sweet time.  Now look.

Taylor said, “I wouldn’t feel right leaving you here, but are you sure about going with us?  I can’t guarantee it’s going to be any better.  We’re just trying to get home.”

“Where’s that?”

“Coldwater.  It’s about a hundred miles from here.  About the same size as this.”

“Maybe this is only happening here,” she said hopefully.

“From what the radio said, it’s happening everywhere.”

The girl pondered the situation for a moment, eyes going to the ladder and following it up to the panel in the ceiling.  “I can’t stay up there forever.  So I guess I really don’t have a choice.”

Carl considered how he would explain returning home with another girl.  It was a shame what a selfish thing the human condition could be at times.  Find Angie first.  Worry about explaining things afterwards.

Taylor took the keys from her and said, “My name’s Taylor.  This is my brother, Carl.”

“Tina,” the girl said.

“Well, Tina, that’s about all I’ve got in the way of formal introductions.  If you don’t mind, we’re in kind of a hurry to ditch this place.  What do you say?  Road trip anybody?”

Tina nodded.  A smile briefly lit her face.  Taylor could see himself ending up with a girl like this.  Name a girl you couldn’t see yourself ending up with.

Taylor handed one of the full spray bottles to Tina before folding the drop cloth and swinging it over his shoulder.

“What’s this for?”  Tina asked.

Carl said, “He thinks they have rabies.  That’s why they’re acting crazy.”

“Something like rabies.  That’s what the radio said.  That a strange disease is spreading rapidly and that the symptoms are similar to rabies.  So this virus or whatever it is might be related to that.  A symptom of rabies is hydrophobia.  They have difficulty swallowing, and have a strong aversion to water.”  He looked at Carl.  “Make fun all you want, these things already saved our asses once.”

“I happen to know quite a bit about rabies,” Tina said.  When Taylor raised his eyebrows in surprise, she elaborated.  “I’m studying to be a veterinarian.  I’m a sophomore right now, so I’ve got a ways to go, but it’s some interesting stuff.  I guess I never put it together.  It makes sense.  Large quantities of saliva.  No wonder they drool the way they do.”

“How’s your car doing for gas?”

“I think I’ve got half a tank.”

Taylor opened the back door a crack and froze.  Tina’s Escort was less than three feet in front of them, but beyond that stood the mob of crazies.  They stood there still and silent as though they were in a kind of mass trance.  He scanned their faces.

What are they doing?

“Shut the door!” Carl yelled.

The mob rushed forward.  Carl nudged Taylor aside and pulled the door shut, holding the handle with both hands.  “Lock it for God’s sake!”

Taylor stood there looking at him until he remembered that he had the keys.  He looked at them and handed them to Tina.  “I don’t know which one it is.”

Tina sifted through the keys, her hands shaking so violently that Taylor was certain she was going to drop them.

The door shuddered.  The pounding of many hands on metal.  Carl was yanking back on the handle, one leg up with his foot braced against the wall.

Hurry!  I can’t hold this thing forever!

Tina fumbled with the lock, aiming for the keyhole and missing on her first two tries.  On the third, she managed to insert the key and twisted it.  “Got it!”

Carl removed his weight from the door slowly, making sure it would hold on its own.  “Will it hold?”

“I don’t know.  It is for now.”

“What do we do?”

“They don’t seem to be very smart,” Tina said.  “They must lose something during the change.  That might work in our favor.”

Taylor said, “How long before they give up and find their way around front and smash in the glass?  Those windows aren’t going to keep them out.”

“You heard her,” Carl said.  “They’re not very smart.”

“They found us in here didn’t they?  They may be dumb, but they obviously don’t quit.”

“What if we boarded up the windows?”

“They’re huge.  It would take forever.  And the minute we started hammering nails in they’d hear it and come running.”

The pounding continued.  The sound of it was almost deafening; flesh on metal.

 “I saw one of those things catch a squirrel.  When I first got back into town.  Mr. Sullivan was standing on the sidewalk, just staring at this tree.  At least that’s what I thought he was staring at.  When I got closer, I saw that there was a squirrel next to the tree.  And then he pounced.  It happened so fast.  He caught it and had this squirrel in his hands, squeezing and twisting it like he was trying to wring out a wet sponge.  Then he tore its head off.  I screamed.  My window was down and he heard me scream and looked right at me.  He yelled back at me and all this spit flew out of his mouth.  I slammed on the gas and got out of there.  They’re all like that now.  The entire town.”

“I think whatever’s happening goes beyond this town.”

“I hope not.”

“Does your dad sell lumber?” Carl asked.

“Maybe.  A little, I think.  Most of it he keeps at the warehouse.”

“We could use the lumber up front,” Carl said.  “We’ve got everything we need to board them up.”

“It’ll make too much noise.  That’s a guaranteed way to bring those things around to the front.”

“They could figure out to do that anyway.”

“What do you want me to do?  I said leave them for now.  We need to think about this.”

Taylor wheeled the chair from the office into the back room.  He sat down in it.

“That’s your answer?  To sit down?”  Carl said.

Taylor nodded.

“I think he’s right,” Tina said.  “Trying to board the windows would only bring them around to the front.”  She sat down on the linoleum, positioned so she could still see down one of the aisles to the front of the store.

Carl followed suit.  “I can’t believe this is your answer.  That we’re just going to sit here.  Especially while we have to listen to that.”  He motioned at the metal door and then covered his ears with the palms of his hands for a moment.

“Wait a minute.”  Tina hopped up and disappeared into the office.  They could hear her shifting things around, and when she returned she was holding an old-fashioned kerosene lantern.  “Believe it or not, this thing actually works.  It belonged to my grandparents.  It’s kind of an antique, but my dad liked to use it whenever the power went out.”

She pulled a lighter from her front pocket and lit the wick of the lantern.  She adjusted the metal dial on the side of the lantern and watched the flame lengthen.  The room was filled with a flickering orange glow.  Carl turned off his flashlight and rested it upright next to the wall.  He laid the machete across his lap, gazing at the blade.

Taylor said, “Right now I’d prefer them banging on the door rather than tearing up the only working car we’ve seen since getting stranded in this town.  He held Tina’s keys in his hand, sorting through them until he found one with the Ford logo on it.  “You said you’ve got half a tank?”

“Close to it, I think.”

“That’s enough to get us where we’re going.  There are a few small towns like this scattered along the way once we hit the Nebraska border.  Some of them have gas stations.  If one of them looks safe, we can stop off and fill up.  That’s if it looks safe.  Otherwise we keep going.  I’m not taking any chances.”

Carl looked up at him inquisitively.  “Imagine that.  You not taking any chances?  That’s a first.”

Taylor waved a dismissive hand at his brother and then turned his attention to Tina.  “What he really means is that I’ve learned more than one lesson the hard way.”

“Do the two of you bicker like this all of the time?” Tina asked.

“Situations like this bring out the best in us,” Carl said.  “I’m just giving him shit and he knows it.”

“I read this book not too long ago,” Taylor said.  “It was about survival.  Like who lived and who died in bad situations, but mostly about why certain people were more likely to survive than others.”

Carl glanced at Tina, cocking his thumb toward his brother.  “He reads a lot.  A real bookworm.”

“Anyway, a lot of the book spent its time dealing with the ingredients of survival.  How you could take the same situation and the same circumstances, and one man might die while another might come out of it.  Some of the prerequisites were obvious.  You know, staying calm, being a leader, setting goals, stuff like that.  The part that caught my attention was the one that said having a sense of humor can be a tool for survival.”

“That’s not surprising,” Tina said.  “A lot of people use humor as a coping mechanism.”

“So,” Carl said, “is this the part where we go around the room taking turns telling knock-knock jokes?”

Taylor looked at Carl sternly and then continued.  “Say what you want, but you’re doing it right now without knowing it.  We’ve both been doing it since we’ve been stuck in this mess.”

“Okay.  Maybe.  But what’s your point?”

Taylor shrugged and stared at the kerosene lamp.  The flickering orange flame performed its own kind of hypnotism, lending a certain degree of peacefulness to the situation.  “Sharing knowledge?  I don’t know.  I’m not sure I was trying to make a point.  Talking to talk I guess.”

“I think it’s cool,” Tina said.  “I like learning stuff like that.  It seems like I have my nose crammed in school books all the time lately.  It’s nice to hear something different.”

Taylor smiled at her.

Carl said, “He’s a closet geek.  You wouldn’t know it because he plays Mr. Cool Guy most of the time, but when you get to know him you find out he’s a big nerd.  He even used to collect comic books.  Go on, tell her about the stuffed animals.”

“Shut up.”

“C’mon, tell her.”

“Stuffed animals?”

“Fine.  I’ll tell her.  So Taylor had this collection of stuffed animals.  Different kinds of cats.  Leopards, tigers, lions, panthers.  You name it, and he probably had a stuffed animal to go with it.”

“I was a little kid,” Taylor said.  “What kid doesn’t have stuffed animals when they’re that age?”

“When he used to go to sleep at night he’d line them up around himself in the bed.  Build a fortress of stuffed animals to keep the monsters out.  He still believes in monsters.”

“I don’t believe in them,” Taylor said.  “I acknowledge that they could exist.”  He turned to face Tina and smiled uneasily.  “It’s kind of a superstition of mine.  I used to figure if I admitted to believing in them that they would leave me alone.  It’s silly, but I was afraid of the dark for a long time.  An overactive imagination or something.  So part of the ritual when I was a kid was to line up my stuffed animals around me on the bed.  That and I’d put the thought out there to any monsters that I believed that they were out there.  It sounds stupid now, but it worked back then.”

“I think it’s kind of cute,” Tina said.  She patted him on the arm.  “I had a bunch of stuffed animals, too.  Dolphins mostly.”

“I haven’t even gotten to the really fucked up part yet,” Carl said.

“You just can’t leave it alone can you?”

“Don’t be a poor sport, bro.  You were the one who was just saying humor is a survival mechanism.  So I’m being humorous.  Besides, she wants to know.  Don’t you?”

“I’m hanging off the edge of my seat.”

“Right.  So ask him where those stuffed animals are now?”

“Where?”

“In our parent’s attic.  My mom has brought up selling them at the garage sale every year, but Taylor refuses to get rid of them.  They’re all up in the attic in this big black garbage bag.”

“I’m sentimental,” Taylor said.  “Thought I could pass them on to my kids some day.  Assuming I ever have kids.”

Tina smiled at him.  He wondered if she was just being polite.  She looked so beautiful yet vulnerable sitting there on the floor.

Another hour passed.  Conversation was sporadic, and after a while they grew tired of raising their voices over the pounding on the door.  For brief periods, the pounding would change tempo, alternating between loud and fast to soft and slow.  Were they taking turns out there?

Without proper treatment, rabies was almost always fatal.  If he remembered right, there was only one case of a person surviving the disease without treatment, and even that had been a long and drawn out affair.  How long could those things outside last?  If the radio had it right and the disease was related to rabies, shouldn’t they start to keel over?  At some point, he hoped.  And he hoped it was soon.

He was tired and hungry.

“If either of you want to sleep,” he said, “now would be the time to do it.  I can keep watch for a little while.  We can rotate if you guys want.  Take shifts.”

Tina said, “I don’t think I could sleep with all this commotion.  Every time I close my eyes I see Mr. Sullivan and that squirrel.”  Despite this, several minutes later she leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes.  Whether she managed to find sleep or not, Taylor couldn’t tell, but she seemed momentarily at peace with the situation.

Carl yawned.  The machete still rested across his lap and he tapped his fingers against the blade, his fingernails making faint clicking sounds against the cheap metal.

“That goes for you, too.  If you want, get some sleep.  You can fight it for a while, but you’ve got to do it some time.  Might as well be now.  If I feel myself start to drift off I’ll wake you up.”

“I’m hungrier than I am tired.  We haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.  That was how long ago?  Sixteen hours now?”

“Something like that.”

“We could still sneak out the front.”

“And what good would that do?  The only car we’ve seen so far is behind that door.  At least for the time being we’re relatively safe in here.  As long as their attention is back there instead of up front.  If we go out there?”  Taylor shrugged his shoulders.  “Who knows?”

Carl stared at him wearily.  The light from the kerosene lamp cast moving shadows across his face.  “Who would have thought, huh?  You see TV shows about stuff like this, but who knew it would actually happen?  When you think about it, it’s some crazy shit.”  He yawned again, this time covering his mouth with his fist.  “I could understand an asteroid or another terrorist attack.  But this?  This isn’t your ordinary crisis.  This is a cluster fuck.  I keep thinking about Angie and Mom and Dad, but I’m trying to put it out of my mind for now.  It could drive you nuts thinking about it like that.”

Taylor rubbed the palm of his hands along the legs of his jeans.  He could envision the scene outside the door; could see the car only a few feet away, the keys in hand, and thought about how close they had gotten.

Carl went on.  “Where’s the Army or the Air Force when you need them?  Some guys with a little bit of firepower could turn those things to mince meat in no time.”

“Maybe they are, but I don’t think a backwoods place like this ranks very high on their list.  If it’s going on everywhere then the big cities are probably getting their attention first.  Get some sleep.  I’m not going to be able to keep my eyes open indefinitely.  At least do it for my sake.”

Carl moved the machete from his lap and put it down on the floor next to him.  He lay down on the floor, bringing his knees up and using one of his arms as a pillow.  He pulled his cap down, staring at the illuminated swathe of linoleum at the front of the store.  He closed his eyes.  “I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he said, his voice a breathy whisper.  “It’s like falling asleep in the middle of a war.”

Taylor struggled to keep his eyes open.  He took turns watching his brother and then Tina, and then turned his attention to the windows at the front of the store.  He rubbed his eyes.  He unfolded a corner of the canvas drop cloth and removed one of the water bottles.  Sprayed some water onto his hand and rubbed his eyes.  It helped.  Not much, but it was better than nothing.

Quietly, he stood and stretched.  He walked to the front of the store, coming close enough to the glass to be able to look up at the sky and see the moon and the stars.  Wispy clouds were scattered sparsely throughout the sky as if they had been added there as an afterthought.

The street outside was vacant.  If not for the incessant pounding, the place could have been a ghost down; each building a tombstone whose contents told the story of their owners.  So easy, he thought.  He wrapped his hand around the door handle.  The keys were in his other hand, and he considered how easy it would be to unlock the door and make a run for it.  In fact, he entertained the idea of doing just that.  Wake the others and they could make a break for it.  Forget the car.  They were bound to find another one sooner or later.

Taylor turned on his flashlight and started down one of the aisles, more thorough in his inspection of the store’s merchandise.

His mind wandered.  The pounding became nothing more than white noise, like the sound of a television or radio playing in the middle of the night.

Don’t get too comfortable, he thought.  Shit starts to go bad the minute you forget it stinks.

In stressful situations, the mind narrows and focuses in like the zoom feature on a camera.  The brain crops away superfluous information, zeroing in on a single situation at the expense of the surrounding environment.  Depending on various factors, this compressed view of things can be useful or detrimental.  An ability, when applied to an endgame scenario, can be the difference between death and survival.  Taylor figured the odds were around fifty-fifty.  Presently, he liked to think their chances were better than that.  Put the three of their heads together and find a solution to the problem.  That was a drastic simplification of a complex problem, but there was some relief when he contemplated it in those terms.  You had to be resourceful.  Maybe Carl hadn’t been too far off; maybe you had to be like MacGyver.

He was standing three feet from the store windows, staring out at the town, when he heard footsteps behind him.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

“Not really.  I tried, but it’s a lost cause.  I keep thinking about my dad.  Whether he’s okay or not,” Tina said.

“What does your gut tell you?”

She stood next to him.  Taylor thought she was a good five or six inches shorter than he was.  Her eyes shiny in the dim light, and he wondered again if she would start to cry.  He didn’t like to see a woman cry; had what his mother had called rescuer-syndrome, which meant he was attracted to women that were in some kind of trouble and felt the need to save them.  That was, according to his mother, why all of his relationships failed.  What he needed to do, she said, was to find a woman that was strong enough to stand on her own.  A girl that had her shit together (his mother hadn’t used the word shit, but that’s what she had been getting at).

“He isn’t dumb.  I think he could have seen what was happening and left town, but he was one of those people that always had to lend a helping hand.  If he was all right, he would have found a way to call me.  Make sure I was safe.  He does that all the time.  Checks up on me.  He still calls me his little princess.”

“Well, I’m sure you are.”

“Right.  He’s the stereotypical overprotective father.  In high school, I was the girl with the nine o’ clock curfew.”

“Maybe he couldn’t call you.  Does the store have a phone?”

She led him to the front checkout.  There was a phone situated next to the cash register.  She picked up the receiver and held it to her ear.  “No dial-tone.”  She held it out so that Taylor could listen for himself.

“Some of this just doesn’t make sense,” Taylor said.  “Those things aren’t that smart.  They may have been geniuses in life, but whatever has happened to them has turned them into cavemen.”

“So?”

He held the phone up as if that explained everything.  “So how come the phones don’t work?  Those things have been pounding on the back door for how long now?  If they had any brains left in them, they would have figured out to come around front and break the glass.  That means they aren’t responsible for the phone lines being down.”

Tina reached into her back pocket and took out her cell phone.  Taylor snatched it from her.  “How come you didn’t say you had a cell phone?”  He started dialing.

“Because it doesn’t work.  Not in town.  No reception.  That’s why most people don’t have cell phones here.  They can’t get a signal.”

Taylor looked at the signal indicator and saw that there were no bars.  He dialed his parent’s number anyway and pushed SEND.  He waited.  Nothing happened.

“See?  Told you.  You can’t get service here in town.  Take the interstate for ten minutes in either direction and you can get a signal.  But that doesn’t help us very much at the moment.”

“Okay.  It’s a small town.  Lots of places like this don’t get cell phone coverage.  No mystery there.  I don’t see how the land lines could be down, though.  Something tells me that if we stopped in any of the towns around here and picked up a phone we’d have the same problem.”

“You can’t know that.”

That scared her, Taylor thought.  Don’t make it any worse for her than it already is.

“You’re right.  I was thinking out loud.  It’s just a theory.”  He lifted the handset of the phone again and held it firmly to his ear, holding his breath as he listened, hoping to hear even the faintest of sounds; the familiar buzz of the dial-tone.  Nothing.  “Seems too coincidental to me.”

“The sky is cloudy.”

“Clouds don’t affect the phone lines.”

“But it looks like it could storm some time soon.  A storm could knock out the phone lines.”  She gazed at him hopefully, but she recognized the doubt in her own voice.  Of all the people she had ever lied to, it was always easiest to lie to herself, but in this case even she couldn’t buy her own flimsy story.

“I doubt it.  A storm could knock out the phone lines, but if there’s one coming, it’s taking its time.  The lines wouldn’t go until the storm was right on top of it.”

“I hope it doesn’t storm,” she said.

“I kind of hope it does.  In fact, I hope it rains cats and dogs.”

“Why?”

Cover.  We’d be harder to see in the rain.  We could make a break for it.”

Tina said, “It would be harder for us to see them, too.”

“That’s true, but rain would drive those things bonkers.”

Tina jumped up onto the counter and sat down, feet dangling a few inches above the floor.  “How do you think they found us here?  None of us were making that much noise.  Not enough for them to hear it from outside anyway.”

“I’ve been wondering about that too.  I haven’t figured out an explanation for it yet.”  But he had an idea.  It was based on a helluva lot of assumptions, but it was also the simplest explanation.  Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.  Occam’s razor.  Of two or more explanations, the one which uses the fewest suppositions is usually true.  Or at least Taylor thought it went something like that.

Thing was, it wasn’t an idea he could share with Tina because it had to do with her father.  It was her father’s hardware store, after all.  Didn’t it stand to reason that he would have been the one to lead the others there?  His exhausted brain couldn’t conjure anything more logical unless a person was to assume that they had some supernatural sense of smell or that the disease had caused them to develop telepathic abilities.

He kept his thoughts to himself.  She was trying hard to keep herself together and doing a pretty good job of it, and he didn’t want to be the one to deliver the news that caused her to crack.  The problem was outside the store, and that’s how he wanted to keep it.

In the distance, they heard the far away but unmistakable rumble of thunder.  Taylor came close to the window, studying the sky.  Dark clouds had massed to the north where there had been only wisps fifteen minutes ago.  “Maybe you’re right.  By the looks of those clouds, it could be a real doozie.  If it doesn’t pass us by.  Nine times out of ten it’s a case of all bark and no bite.”

There was silence.  He guessed uncomfortable silences were normal in situations like this.

“So you’re studying to be a veterinarian?”

“For now anyway.  My dad says I’m a scatterbrain.  I’m interested in something for a while and then I lose interest and move onto something else.  I’ve managed to stick with this, though.  Partly to prove him wrong maybe.”

“Find something you like and stick with it,” Taylor said.  “That’s the advice people always give anyway.”

Thunder boomed again.  The clouds were thick and had formed a wall that blotted out the northern sky, swallowing the light of the moon.

Something struck the front window.

“What was that?”

The street was empty.

“Look.  It’s starting to rain,” Tina said.  A raindrop slid down the window glass and she tracked it with her finger.

Another drop of rain hit the window and then another, gaining momentum.  “Scared the crap out of me,” Taylor said.  “I thought those things had finally wizened up.”

He watched as the clouds approached, rolling in with a certain arrogance, the rain starting to come down harder now.

“What’s going on?”  Carl came jogging up the aisle towards them, machete at the ready.  His baseball cap was off and he was scratching the top of his head with his free hand.

“Storm’s coming,” Taylor said.  “How’d you hear that over the racket back there?”

“They stopped pounding.  That’s what woke me up.  I could tell that it stopped back there and started up here.  Thought maybe they’d figured out to break the windows.”

Taylor walked to the back to listen for himself.  Carl was right.  The pounding had stopped.  The only sound was the patter of rain on the front windows and on the roof.  The rain was heavy enough to have created narrow rivers that ran along either side of the street.

“If they stopped pounding then where did they go?”  Tina asked.

Carl had his flashlight on, the beam dancing frantically across the linoleum floor.

“Careful with that,” Taylor said.  “We don’t want those things to see it.”

Carl turned the flashlight off and said, “You think they’re still back there?  Just standing there not doing anything?”

“I don’t know, but I’m not taking any chances.  Not yet.  We’ll give it some time.  Wait it out.”  He stepped close to the window, cautious this time.  The rain would provide better cover than he could have hoped for.

They could have made a break for it, and he would have been tempted to suggest just that.  Unlock the front door, make a mad dash for a different safe haven; search for a different car or, worst case, find a house with the door unlocked.  A house would have a refrigerator, and a refrigerator was bound to contain some amount of food.  He was hungry.  Despite his fear, his stomach complained to him of this hunger.

The chance of finding a weapon was better.  As far as population went, this town was comparable to their own, and back home most of the men in town were hunters to some degree or other.  Which meant they owned at least one rifle.  His father owned two gun cabinets and a gun safe.  All of them were full.  A rifle or two wouldn’t be enough to turn the tables, not with hundreds of those things running around out there, but it added another layer of safety.

The trick was getting to a different location without those rabid things knowing.

But now they had ceased their pounding.  Listening?  Waiting perhaps?

Taylor felt exhaustion hit him.  It was like a forceful hand trying to hold him down.  He wanted to curl up on the floor and sleep.  He thought about finding a house.  In addition to food and the possibility of finding a weapon, a house would have a bed.  Suddenly, a bed seemed like the most important thing to him.

Responsibility.  If only that word were foreign to him.  He stood there, looking from his brother to Tina, realizing that sleep had a short life expectancy in a situation like this.

“Get away from the window.”

“There’s nothing out there,” Carl said.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the sky for a moment, and Carl saw them huddled at the entrance to the alley.

“Hide,” he said, barely audible.  Thunder split open the sky like a hammer on metal, drowning out his voice.

“What?” Tina asked.

Carl turned away from the window, hurriedly making his way down one of the aisles.  “Hide, I said.  They’re out there, by the alley.”  He herded them down the aisle in front of him, his hand resting on the back of Tina’s shoulder, urging her forward.

Taylor thought: Great.  Now they get some common sense.  And us without so much as a simple plan.

“If they’re in front, can’t we get to my car now?”

Carl said, “You bet your ass.  That’s exactly what we’re gonna do.”

His hand was on the door handle when Taylor said, “Wait!”  His voice was little more than a harsh whisper, but Carl recognized a command when he heard one.  His hand fell away from the handle and he turned to look at his brother.

“What?  We have to get to the car while we’ve got the chance.”

“Don’t you remember pulling in?  The alley dead ended in the back parking lot.  There’s only one way out.”

“Then we’ll plow through them,” Carl said, hand finding the handle again.  “Now c’mon.  Unlock it.”

“If it was only a dozen of those things out there that might work, but there are more than a hundred of them.  We can’t get through that many.  Not without a truck or a bus anyway.”

“He’s got a point,” Tina said.  “My dad says my car has a lawnmower motor for an engine.  No get-up-and-go to it.”

Carl sighed.  Instinct told him he was right, that now was the time to make a break for it, but logic got in the way.  “Then what do you suggest we do?”

Taylor glanced at the front of the store.  It was still raining heavily, but the view outside the windows remained clear.  “I wish I knew what those things were doing.  It’s almost like they’re doing this on purpose.  Like they know they’ve us by the balls staying where they are.  We can’t go out the front or the back.”

“If they’re boxing us in, then it means they’re at least semi-intelligent,” Carl said.  “That’s a bad thing.”

“It’s a hunting strategy.  Animals do it.  Useful but primitive,” Tina said.  “It doesn’t necessarily mean those things are rocket scientists.”

“So what do we do?”

Taylor wanted to ask why the decision-making responsibilities fell on him; ask why someone else couldn’t do the thinking for them.  But he had taken the reins and he couldn’t let them go that easily.  It beckoned back to a time when he had known how to start things, but his weakness had been in finishing them.  He had started college and dropped out.  His father had gotten him a job with one of the local construction companies and he had quit showing up for work his third week into it.  That had been a time in his life when ideas and plans had seemed to flow effortlessly from his mind, but his follow-thru had been sorely lacking.

Recalling that period in his life was embarrassing.  The worst part about it was that those events had taken place less than three years ago.

He could feel the bulge of the keys in his pocket.  He ran his hands through his hair and said, “Let’s think this through.  We can’t go out the front because they would chase us down in no time flat.  The back way and the car are out because we’d be sitting ducks.  Bottlenecked in the alley.”

Carl had his ear against the metal of the back door, listening.  It was impossible to hear anything over the rain coming down.

“What if we distract them?” Tina asked.

“Huh?”

“Distract them.  Somebody could get their attention at the front while the other two slip out the back and get my car.”

Carl’s face brightened.  “That’s not a half bad idea.  What do you think, bro?”

Taylor mulled it over.  He didn’t like it.  It was dangerous.

But options were scarce.

“It might work,” he said.  “So your car is pretty reliable?  I wouldn’t want to even attempt something like what you’re talking about and then get to the car and it doesn’t start.”

“I said that it doesn’t have any get-up-and-go, but it starts and runs fine.  There was only one time that it didn’t start, like six months ago, but I got the battery replaced and it hasn’t had a problem since.”

“All right.  Good enough.  The only reason I ask is because if this was a cheap horror flick we’d get out there and the car wouldn’t start.”

“Well, this is real life,” Tina said.  “Not a horror movie.”

“Right about now, I’d say the line between the two is starting to blur.  Anyway, so here’s what we do.  You two stay back here.  I’ll go up front.”  He took Tina’s keys out of his pocket and splayed them out.  “Which one is the key for the front door?”

Tina pointed to the one with a large square bow.  “This one.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

Taylor removed the key from the keychain and handed the rest of the keys to Carl.  He went to the back of the store, carefully slid the key into the lock, and slowly turned it.  “This one’s unlocked.  When we’re ready, I’ll unlock the front door and do something to get their attention.  When they start coming all the way out of the alley, I’ll yell for you two to go.  Get to the car and get out of the alley.”

Carl cocked his head.  “And what about you?  What’s your escape plan?”

And that’s the kicker, Taylor thought.  Exactly what is my escape plan?

He walked himself through it in his head, explaining it to them out loud.  “The only way out would be through the back.  Close the front door, and if there’s time, I’d lock it.  Run out the back and shut that door.”

“But the alley dead-ends,” Carl said.  “You’d still have to come up the alley to the street.”

“Maybe those things would have made it inside the store by then,” Tina said.

“Maybe.  And maybe they would see you coming out of the alley.”

“Then I make a run for it.  You two will have gotten away in the car.  At the end of the alley, you’ll take a left and when you come to the first intersection, you’ll take another left.  Once you get around that corner, leave the car running.  Don’t even put it into park.  Just keep your foot on the brake.  I’ll know where to find you.”

“If there’s running involved, then maybe it should be me that plays the distraction.  Between the two of us, we’ve already established that I’m the faster runner.”

“I want you driving the car.  You’re faster, but I’ll be fast enough.”

Carl stared at his brother and something unspoken passed between them.  A look that traded a thousand words in an instant without either one of them opening their mouth.

Finally, Carl nodded.

“It’s settled then.  Let’s do this before I go chicken shit.”

Taylor started for the front of the store.

“Wait,” Carl said.  “Take this.”  He handed him the machete.  “If they get too close you can hack the shit out of them.”

Taylor weighed the blade in his hand.  It was lighter than he had thought it would be.  He wondered what it would feel like hacking into their flesh.

They’re not people anymore, he thought.  Not really.  They’ll tear you to shreds if they get the chance.  Remember that.  If push comes to shove, you can’t hesitate.

Another reason he wanted them out of sight and around the corner was that he was willing to bet that Tina’s father was somewhere in the mob, salivating profusely like all the rest of them.  If she spotted him…things could turn ugly quick.  She might lock up and shutdown.  Logic and emotion.  The two often didn’t play well with one another.

“That could get us kilt,” he said quietly and almost laughed.

“What?”

“Nothing.  Talking to myself.  So we all have this down, right?  I’ll open the door, wait for my go, you guys bolt and get around the corner of the first street.  Two lefts.  Remember that.  Then wait for me.  Unless it isn’t safe.  Then just keep going.”

“There are parts of this I don’t like,” Carl said.

Taylor shrugged.  “I don’t like any part of it.  Remember what Dad used to say?  About how a person can get old before his time.  How a guy had to learn two words to prevent that?”

“Fuck it,” Carl said.

“That’s right,” Taylor said.  He pointed the machete at the back door.  “Now get back there and be ready.  When I give the go, you can’t be fucking around.”

Carl stood there staring at Taylor, looking like he had something to say.  After a moment, he turned and headed to the back, Tina following behind him.

Taylor headed to the front of the store, pausing momentarily at the end of the last aisle, double-checking that they hadn’t strayed from the entrance of the alley.  When he was close to the window, he could see them.  No more than thirty feet away.  Some of them swayed back-and-forth rhythmically, as though rocked by a powerful wind.

He removed the key from his pocket and inserted it into the lock.  He glanced at the mob and turned the key.  He opened the door slowly.

And then he stepped out onto the sidewalk.

Chapter 4

The Escape

Hindsight is twenty-twenty.

It wasn’t until he was on the sidewalk, getting wet in the rain and facing a mob of a hundred or more bloodthirsty creatures that could hardly be categorized as human, that it occurred to him that he could have simply ran the other way.  Instead of luring them into the store, he could have broken to the right and rounded the first street corner.  Could have had Carl and Lisa take three lefts instead of two.  He could have taken two rights and they would have met each other.

It seemed so easy now.  So obvious.  But it was too late to make changes.

His courage ebbed as if the rain was washing it away.  The overprotective part of his brain, the part interested in self-preservation and continued survival, screamed at him to quit this nonsense immediately.  Reasoning with him.  They hadn’t spotted him yet.  Quietly step back into the store, lock the door behind him, and call the whole thing off.  There was still time.

Only there wasn’t.  One of them turned and saw him.  It was a little like being caught jerking off by his mother.  For a moment, you just froze with your dick in your hand, looking at it and then at your mother as it went instantly flaccid, a look on your face that said, Where did this come from?

Taylor felt logic stripped away.  “C’mon, motherfuckers!  Come and get me!  I don’t have all fucking day!”

He ran back into the store, pulling the door closed behind him, cursing at the pneumatic arm that caused it to close with agonizing slowness.  He had the key in his hand to lock it.  He yelled back to Carl and Lisa.  “Go!  Get the fuck out of here!  Now!

He turned the key and snapped it off in the lock.

Hands slammed into the glass, leaving slimy handprints.  Taylor fell back, machete held out in front of him.  He heard the sound of the back door slamming closed.  He thought he heard the sound of Tina’s Escort starting but couldn’t be sure.

He picked himself up from the floor and made his way to the back room.  Glass shattered behind him.  It was a forced effort to keep from looking back; to keep moving to the back of the store.  When Carl had handed him the machete, it had seemed like a formidable weapon.  Now it just felt inadequate.

Taylor heard them come crashing through the glass, the store being destroyed as they pursued him.

He reached the back door and flung it open.  The car was gone.  Good, he thought.  Thank God for that at least.

Cold rain bit into his skin as he ran up the alley.  He reached the street and stopped.  Dozens of the rabid things were still stuck at the entrance to Dave’s Hardware, attempting to shove their way in through the bottleneck that had formed.  Yet another oversight in his plan.  Despite this, they continued to force their way in, none of them noticing that he had appeared at the entrance to the alley.

He heard the sound of the back door, metal rebounding off of brick; feet splashing in puddles.  He turned left and ran.

The pain in his legs was almost instantaneous, but it was easy to forget the feeling if he focused his mind.  The rain made it hard to see too far ahead, but he could make out the reflective green surface of a street sign.

Red streaks reflected off of the rain slicked street.  At first, Taylor wasn’t sure of what he was seeing.  But as he moved closer, he recognized the red light as coming from the Escort’s brake lights.

He reached for the handle of the rear door and pulled.  It was locked.  He pounded on the window.  Tina leaned over into the backseat and unlocked it.

“Go!”

Taylor jumped into the seat and pulled the door closed.  The car rocked to the side as the first of the mob reached it and one of them jumped onto the trunk.  He saw the face of utter insanity pressed up against the rear window, nose flattened against the glass, lips pushed back, its breath creating a foggy patch on the glass.  And despite the heavy rain, he could read the name stitched on the thing’s work shirt: DAVE.

“Go!”

Carl punched the accelerator with disappointing results.  The takeoff was sluggish; revealing the car’s lack of get-up-and-go that Tina had warned them about.  Taylor watched in slow motion as the rest of the mob arrived and kept pace with them until the Escort gained momentum.

The car fishtailed and the inhuman thing that clung to the trunk went sailing away, sending up a spray of water as its body collided with the curb.

So long, Dave.  Thanks for letting us hole up in your store, Taylor thought.  I’ll take good care of your daughter.

Carl found the controls for the windshield wipers and turned them on.  He glanced out the rearview mirror.   Despite poor visibility, he kept the car at a steady forty-five, watching the mob grow smaller and smaller as the distance increased.  After they had driven several blocks, he slowed at the intersection and said, “What now?  If we go straight, we can get back on the highway.”

“Let’s get out of here,” Tina said.  “Out of this town.  It might be different somewhere else.”

She’s in denial, Taylor thought.  She could be right and the radio could have been wrong, but I doubt it.

“I second that motion,” Carl said.  “Let’s get the hell out’ve Dodge.”

Taylor said, “It’s gonna be a long drive.  An hour-and-a-half at least.”

“I can get us there faster than that.  Call me crazy, but I don’t think they’ll be handing out speeding tickets.”

“We could use some supplies.”

“Sitting right next to you.  Everything you put in the tarp.  What else do you want?”

“For starters?  Food.”

Carl pondered this.  His stomach rumbled at the thought.  “Food would be good.  But none of us are going to starve to death in the hour and a half it takes to get back home.  I’m hungry, but I’m not that hungry.  Not enough to risk getting hung up in this town.”

“There’s nothing left for me here,” Tina said.  “I just hope that my dad got out before things got bad.”

Taylor stared out the window.  What you don’t know can’t hurt you, he thought, and wondered if he was breaking some law of morality by not telling Tina he had seen her father.  Wondered if he would have wanted to know if the roles were reversed.  He decided that in this case, the old saying held true: ignorance is bliss.

“It’s not a matter of how long we can hold out.  I’m thinking about all the possibilities.  Like the possibility that we hit a roadblock.  What if we have to travel on foot at some point?  What if we can’t get home?  I can think of a bunch of them.  It might be smart to stop off and find food here.  Find a house and raid the fridge if we have to.”  He turned in his seat so he could see out the back window.  “Those things aren’t behind us anymore.  Even if they try to follow us, it will take a little while for them to get this far.  We can hide the car.”

“They could find us,” Tina said.  “The way they found us in the store.”

Carl said, “Yeah, I don’t want to get boxed-in again.”

Taylor leaned forward.  “Maybe we were too loud.  That could be all it was.  They got lucky.  It doesn’t necessarily mean they have special abilities.”  Taylor noticed Carl staring at him in the rearview mirror.  “I’m not proposing we hole up here.  We’ll just take some food and whatever else is useful.  We can do that in less than twenty minutes.  Then we leave.”

Carl stared into the rearview mirror again, and this time Taylor was certain that his brother’s attention was focused on him.

“Listen, guys, think about it.  It’s the smartest thing.”

Carl sighed and tapped gently on the brakes.  “Fine.”  He gestured out the window at the houses lining the street.  “So which one?  Or are we gonna play eenie-meenie-miney-mo?”

Taylor put his hand on Tina’s shoulder.  He could a tremor of fear running through her.  “Are you okay with that?” he asked.

“Whatever you think is best.  I asked to come along.  The last thing I want to do is be demanding.”

“I appreciate that, but this is still a democracy.  You still get a say in the decision-making process.”

“That’s nice to know,” she said, staring out the window into the rain.  At least for the moment, she seemed far away and out of touch.

 “You better decide quick, bro, because this isn’t a big town.  And once I get to the highway I can’t guarantee I won’t change my mind about this pitstop idea of yours.”

“Just pick a house.”

“You want to just randomly pick a house?  Shouldn’t we pick the biggest one?”

“No.  The biggest doesn’t necessarily mean the most food.  What I’m thinking is we look for the most rundown one we can find and check that one.”

“See?  He’s a nutcase.”

“Food stamps,” Taylor said.

“What about them?”

“We look for a below average house.  You figure whoever lives there is poor.  Or at least struggling.  Go a step further, and you figure they’re poor, maybe they’re on food stamps.  If you got free money what would you do with it?  You’d spend it.  So they’re the most likely to have a well-stocked fridge.”

Carl slowed the car, squinting to discern the condition of the houses through the rain.  “That’s some fucked up reasoning, but you might be right.”

Tina turned in her seat so that she could see both of them.  “Or maybe there is another option.”

“What’s that?” Taylor asked.

“We go to my house.  Well, the house I grew up in anyway.  Now only my dad lives there.  He keeps the fridge stocked for when I visit him some weekends.  Nothing fancy,  but I’m sure we could find some stuff to take with us.”

“That’s even better,” Taylor said.

“Does he have any guns at the house?”

“Not that I know of,” Tina said.  “I don’t think he kept any guns in the house when I was growing up.  He might have since then.  I wouldn’t know where he would keep it if he did though.”

“So how do we get there?”

She leaned closer to the windshield, scrunching up her face.  “The rain makes it tough.  Okay.  See this street coming up?  Take a right when you get to it.”

Carl slowed and turned right.  Two blocks down, she instructed him to take another right.

“My dad’s house is on the opposite side of town from where we are now.  Just keep heading straight until you get to the stoplight.  It’s one of only two that we have in town.  Pretty pathetic, huh?”

“We don’t have any back home,” Carl said.  “We’re still on dial-up Internet.”

“I’m sorry for you.”

“I’m sorry for myself.  It’s like a tiny black hole in America.  Our town got sucked into it.  Just sits there going nowhere and nothing can escape.”

Tina pointed ahead.  “The stoplight is right up there.  It’s not working, so it’s hard to see.  You’re going to want to take a left there.  It’s kind of a roundabout way, but it will keep us farther from downtown where those things are.”

Taylor said, “Who knows where they are.  They might have kept on following after us.”

Carl took a left at the dead stoplight and then another right for three blocks until Tina pointed out her house.  There wasn’t a driveway so he parked alongside the curb and killed the engine.  Taylor and Carl opened their doors to get out.  Tina stayed in her seat, unmoving.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m afraid to go in,” she said.  “My hopeful little vision is that my father made it out of town.  That he’s somewhere safe.  That’s what I hope.  But my imagination can come up with a whole lot more less appealing possibilities.  Like he could be lying dead on the kitchen floor.  Or turned into one of those…things.”

“You can’t think like that,” Taylor said, feeling as close to a piece of shit as he had ever felt.  His conscious prodded him to just come out and let her have it; give her the plain old truth of the situation, which was that her father was indeed one of those things, but that they didn’t have to worry about running into him inside the house.

If you had told her in the first place, you wouldn’t be standing here trying to convince her to come in, he thought.

But he ignored his conscience for now.  Deep down, he knew he was taking the coward’s route and it didn’t sit well with any part of him.

“How do you know?”

“I tell you what,” Taylor said.  “I’ll have Carl wait here with you for a minute while I go check the house.  If it’s safe, I’ll motion for you guys to come in.  Sound good?”

Reluctantly, she nodded.

“Sure you want to go in there by yourself?”

“It’ll only take me a minute.”

“Seems like you’re the one taking all the chances,” Carl said.

“Calculated risks.”

“You’re an asshole.”

“Big brothers are supposed to be assholes.”

Carl watched as Taylor unfolded a corner of the canvas drop cloth and dug around until he found one of the flashlights.

“Be careful.”

Taylor nodded and trudged off toward the house.

“Wait,” Tina said.

“What?”

“The house key is on there,” she said, pointing to the key ring dangling from the Escort’s ignition.

Carl fumbled around with the keys.  “Which one?”

“Let me see.”

After Carl had handed her the key ring, she went through them until she found the right one.  “This is it,” she said.  “I remember because it’s the one with the little fake ruby glued in the big end.”

Taylor bent down and thrust his head through the lowered car window.  “Is there a door in the back?”

“Yes.  Why?”

“I’m going around back.  Don’t ask me why.  I don’t have a good reason.  Seems safer.  Keep the key in the ignition.  Leave the engine off because it’ll make too much noise, but be ready just in case those things show up.”

“What about you?”

“Honk the horn.  I’ll know that means you had to take off.  Drive around to the other side of the block.  I can cut through the backyard, fences…whatever, to get to the street behind this one.”

There was only the pitter-patter of rain, and the sound of his shoes squishing as they plodded through the soggy grass.

The urge to start smoking again hit him; this nagging feeling that came out of nowhere.  When he had first quit, the urge hadn’t been so haphazard.  It had come as naturally as any other routine act or emotion.  Something as simple as the phone ringing could trigger it.  Over time, those attacks had subsided, but once in a while, during particularly stressful situations, he would feel the need.  And he felt the need now in a bad way.  He found himself hoping that Tina’s father had smoked.  Maybe he would find a pack in the house.  Taylor thought he might cave to temptation if that happened.

By the time he reached the rear of the house, the moisture had penetrated his sneakers and was soaking into his socks.  He climbed the three cement steps, opened the screen door, and twisted the knob of the inner door.  Locked.  He took the key Tina had given him (there was indeed a small artificial ruby set into the metal), inserted it into the lock, and it turned smoothly.

He switched on the flashlight and pointed the beam into the house.  He was in the kitchen.  A square table with four chairs sat in the center of the room, a stack of folded newspapers on top of it, and several unopened letters resting on top of the papers.  There was a pile of dishes in the sink.  Bet Daddy’s little girl does those for him when she comes home on the weekends, he thought.

A cordless phone hung on the wall to the left of the entrance to the living room.  Taylor picked it up and pushed the TALK button.  There was no dial tone.

He performed a cursory check of the house.  He opened the front door, stepped out onto the steps, pointed the flashlight at the Escort and flicked the beam on and off three times in rapid succession.  He waited until he saw his brother and Tina exiting the car before going back into the house.

When Tina was in the kitchen, Taylor said, “I didn’t want to snoop around too much without your permission.”

Tina opened the refrigerator.  “Not too bad.  I’ve seen it worse.  There’s almost a full jar of grape jelly.  Peanut butter’s in the cupboard.”  She opened a drawer and removed a loaf of bread.  “This will work.”

Carl helped her ransack the cupboards.  They organized the canned goods into two groups: take and don’t take.  The “take” group consisted of canned fruits, vegetables, baked beans, and three tins of sardines.  “They’re kind of nasty, but not too bad on crackers.  The ones in mustard sauce are better.”

Taylor searched every nook and cranny of the house.  No guns.  That would have been too damn convenient.  A heavy-duty safe sat on the floor at the back of her father’s bedroom closet, but he had no way of opening it.

He tried one of the other rooms.  Shined his light in and saw stuffed animals on a neatly made bed, posters of boy bands tacked to the walls.  Tina’s old room.  Taylor had no doubt that her father had left it untouched.  His daughter away at school, he probably peeked his head in the empty room once in a while just to be reminded of her.  Peering into that room made the house feel like the loneliest place in the world.

After having given the upstairs the proper once over, Taylor descended the stairs to find Carl and Tina still working in the kitchen.  Tina had taken a large cardboard box from somewhere and positioned it on top of the counter, slowly filling up with the odds and ends from the cupboards.

Taylor said, “I didn’t mean we had to pack for weeks.  I was thinking of enough for a day or two maybe, but you’ve got quite a collection there.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Tina said.  “I think I’d have to be starving to death before I could consider eating any of it, but it is edible.”  She topped off the box by adding the jars of peanut butter and jelly and carefully placed the loaf of bread on top.  It almost felt like they were getting ready to go on a picnic.  “One of you two will have to carry it to the car.  It’s heavy.”

“Any luck?” Carl asked.

Taylor shook his head.  “Nope.”

“I didn’t think he kept a gun in the house,” Tina said.  “In a town like this anybody that keeps a gun uses it for hunting.  My dad wasn’t a hunter.  Nobody really keeps a gun for protection.  Probably one of the few places left where people still leave their doors unlocked.”

Taylor kept thinking they had been stranded in an alternate version of Coldwater.  A town like this or a town like Coldwater, were probably endangered species this day and age, but he supposed there were still a few of them left.  Almost made you feel fortunate.  Like you were privy to a secret only a select few knew about.

 Taylor went into the living room and parted the slats in the Venetian blinds.  The street appeared empty.  The Escort parked on the street, looking more like a tired prehistoric animal.  The rain had let up.

From behind him, Carl said, “Well?  That everything?”

“Unless you can think of anything else.”

“A bazooka maybe,” Carl said, uttering a nervous laugh.

“Too big to lug around.  I’d settle for a shotgun.”

“Or a Super Soaker.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Hey, it would work.”

Tina said, “It’s so obvious the two of you are brothers.  You look nothing alike, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”  She tried to grab the box of food supplies, but it was too heavy.

“Here.  Let me take it,” Carl said.

“Grab the flashlight.”

Tina disappeared into the kitchen and returned a moment later with the flashlight, aiming the beam at the ground.  She handed it to Taylor.  He switched it off and peeked through the Venetian blinds again.

“Let’s get going.”

Taylor opened the door.  He held it open for the others and followed them down to the car.  He opened the back door, took the box of supplies from Carl, and motioned for Tina to get in.  He slid the box in beside her.  “You’re not a backseat driver are you?”

“No.  Why?”

“Bad joke.”

“It’s a tough audience tonight.”

“No shit,” he said.  He liked this girl.  She was different than a lot of the girls he knew.  She didn’t act like she needed to be saved.  At least not in the figurative sense, since given their situation, they could have all used a little saving.

He smiled at her and closed the door.

“I take it you’re driving?” Carl asked.

In answer, Taylor slid in behind the wheel.  “Tina?”

“Yeah?”

“Do me a favor.  Hand the machete to Carl.”

Bet you never thought you’d hear yourself say that, Taylor thought.

He wheeled the car around and they set off into the night.  He expected some unseen force to prevent them from leaving town, but they reached the highway without incident.

Minutes of silence passed.  Finally, Tina’s home several miles behind them, Carl said, “It’s over a hundred and fifty miles.”

“About two hours.”

“Do we have enough gas?”

Taylor pushed his foot down on the accelerator until the speedometer hovered at seventy.  “I hope so,” he said.

Chapter 5

Heading Back

He paid close attention to the gas gauge as though the needle wouldn’t drop if he stared at it long enough.  It was at the quarter tank mark.  Taylor had the distance figured at another hundred miles or so.  They would be cutting it close.

Tina had pushed the box of food supplies onto the floor and slept on the backseat like a cat curled up on a couch.

Carl had his seat reclined back, his eyes closed, but he would wake fitfully every few minutes.

“Bad dreams?”

“With you behind the wheel?  How can I not?”

Interstate 80 ran parallel to the highway.  It would slip into sight for a stretch and then disappear behind low hills or because of a gradual distancing, but they would always reunite later like old lovers.  Taylor had seen a fair share of abandoned cars sprinkled here and there; the same problem plagued the highway, but to a lesser degree.  Most of the vehicles they passed were parked along the shoulder or had veered off into the ditch.  He had come across an aging Chevy truck that was parked in the middle of the road, straddling the yellow center line, but had managed to slip around it by driving with two wheels on the gravel shoulder.

The storm had moved in the opposite direction.  Taylor had watched the clouds break away, thin out, and then dissolve altogether.  He cracked the window to allow in the cool night air.

Billions of stars filled the sky.  Under different circumstances, he would have enjoyed setting up a lawn chair and stargazing for a while.  He wondered if Tina could appreciate something like that.  The two of them outside on a chilly night, bundled up in a heavy blanket, heads tilted toward the sky.

Get your head in the game, he thought.

His eyelids grew heavy.  Lack of sleep took its toll most fiercely when he was driving.  He switched on the radio, dialing through both the FM and AM bands.  He had tried the same thing fifty miles back, knowing full well it was a lost cause.

One night.  Is that as long as it takes for civilization to be torn down?  I would have given us more credit than that.

They were driving through what was considered a remote area.  On a good day - a normal day - he could find a dozen or so stations on this same stretch of highway, five of which were at a listenable clarity.  Was it so hard to believe that those were defunct at the moment?  What they needed was to be near a big city; try dialing through again.

Taylor remembered Tina’s cell phone.  He hadn’t been able get a signal in town, but Tina had said that wasn’t out of the ordinary, and that once you got going on the highway for a time - he thought she had said ten minutes - you were good to go.

“You all right?”

Carl’s voice startled him out of his bubble of silence.

“Yeah.  Why?”

“Just checking.  Let me know if you need me to drive.”  Carl’s eyes remained closed as he spoke.

“I’m good for a little while.  About a hundred miles to go.  Give or take.”

“This is it, huh?”  He scooted himself up in his seat, opening his eyes momentarily and starting at the road.  After a quick visual inventory, he closed them again.  “The shit they talk about on TV.  You see so many different doomsday shows anymore.  Volcanoes, comets and asteroids, nuclear explosions, global warming.  Probably a dozen a day.  None of them covered anything like this.”

“When they talked about the end of the world, I don’t think they had something like this in mind,” Taylor said.

“Is it just me or has tonight seemed to last forever?  It seems like I haven’t seen daylight in forever, but it’s only been a few hours.”

Taylor cracked the window another inch.  The surge of cold air helped his sudden drowsiness.

“I can take over, dude.”

“Yeah, I’m fine.  Just need a slap in the face.  If you want to do me a favor, though, see if you can find her cell phone.  We’ll see if we can get service.”

Carl sat up and twisted around until he could reach the back seat.  Tina was holding the phone in her hand.  Her grip had loosened now that she was asleep, and Carl was able to pluck it from her hand without waking her.

“She fell asleep with it.”

“Probably waiting for her dad to call.  How many bars?”

Carl flipped open the phone, the display bathing his face in blue light.  “Three and a half it looks like.”

“Not bad.  Try calling Angie.”

Carl dialed and listened.  “Nothin’.  Goes straight to her voicemail.  That’s bad.  She never goes anywhere without that thing.”

“It doesn’t mean anything.  Could mean she was in a hurry.  If it rang through to her voicemail at least we know the towers are still working.  Try Mom and Dad’s.  Maybe their landline first.”

“Says the number is no longer in service.”

“Landlines are down.  Try their cell.”

Carl dialed the number.  Waited.  “Voicemail.”

“Try somebody else.”

Carl studied the keypad on the phone.  After a moment he said, “I don’t know anybody else’s numbers.  They’re all in my phone.  I didn’t memorize any of them.”

“Nine-one-one.”

“Nothing again,” Carl said.  “Makes a guy feel pretty fucking cut off from the world.”

Taylor gripped the steering wheel more tightly.  “I’m telling you, it doesn’t make any sense.”

“You’ve got that right.”

“It’s not just about what’s happened to people.”

“Rabies,” Carl said.

“Call it what you want.  None of this started until yesterday.  It’s barely been twelve hours.  Society can’t break down that fast.”

“How do you know that?”

“All right.  Maybe a natural disaster would knock out the power, the phones, all that stuff.  But I don’t get why that’s happening now.  The people that have that disease or whatever it is…they’re crazy.  Lunatics.  They obviously don’t retain much of the intelligence they had before they changed.  Look how long it took them to get into the store.”

“But they found us there.”

“What I’m saying is there has to be an explanation why everything’s down that fast.  We know Mom and Dad’s landline is down, too.  That leads me to believe that that’s the case everywhere.”  Taylor pumped the break as they came up on a vehicle parked along the side of the road.  The driver’s side door hung open.  Clothes were strewn on the ground around the vehicle.  There were no bodies.

“Where do you think they went?  There’s nowhere within walking distance.  And all those clothes on the ground.  That can’t be good.  Creeps me the fuck out.”  Carl rolled down his window as they passed the abandoned vehicle.  “Don’t see anybody in there,” he said, spit out the window, and then rolled it back up.

“Are you listening?” Taylor asked.

“I’m listening.”

“If those things aren’t much better than cannibalistic village idiots, what’s with the other stuff?  They didn’t take down the power.  So who did?  It can’t just be coincidence.  If it was only that one town maybe I could swallow it.”

“Yeah, I get it, it’s fucking strange.  But, honestly, bro, I could give a shit less about all that.  Does it really matter?  Solving riddles like that.  I want to get home.  I want to know that Angie and Mom and Dad are okay.”

“And I don’t?”

“I’m not saying anything like that.  I’m telling you what I want.  At this point, I just don’t care about the reason why stuff is happening.  Listen, you’re the only one out of the three of us that hasn’t rested yet.  Let me drive for a while.  Quit playing hero for a little bit and pretend you’re human like the rest of us.  I’ll swap out with you and drive the rest of the way.  Rest your brain, dude.”

Taylor sighed and then stopped the car.  He opened the door and the overhead light came on.

Tina woke from her fitful sleep and said, “What’s going on?  Are we there?”

“No.  We’re switching places.  Go back to sleep.”

She’s been through a lot, Taylor thought.  I hope it hasn’t taken all the fight out of her.

Carl adjusted the driver’s seat back a few inches.  “Damn you’re short.”

“It comes with old age.”

“Sure.  Whatever you say, old lady driver.”

“Just stay on the highway.”

“I know the way.”

Taylor leaned his seat back.  He closed his eyes and listened to the wind and the strange grumbling complaint of the Ford’s engine.  The rhythm of the ride, of every bump and dip and inconsistency in the road, soothed him.

You should have done this earlier, he thought, feeling himself slip off into another world.  One that wasn’t ending.

Chapter 6

Homecoming

The high-pitched squeal of the brakes woke him.  When he opened his eyes, the headlights of the Escort were lighting up a large wooden sign that read Coldwater.  Warm people.  Population 1579.

“Why are you stopping here?” Taylor asked, rubbing the sleep from his eyes.  He couldn’t have slept for more than forty-five minutes to an hour, but he still felt a hell of a lot better.

“Just nervous I guess.  Being here means it’s time to face reality.  My stomach’s tied in knots, dude.”

Taylor leaned over and glanced at the instrument panel.  “By the skin of our teeth, huh?”  He was looking at the gas gauge; the needle hovered just below the “E.”

“Oh, yeah, that.  And I guess it’s accurate ‘cuz there were times at the end where it seemed like this baby was gonna crap out.  Probably nothing left but fumes.”

“Then don’t waste gas just sitting here.”

“Aren’t you worried at all?”

Taylor stared at him, his eyes narrowing the slightest bit.  “What kind of a question is that, little brother?  I’m as scared shitless as you, but we didn’t come all this way to chicken out.  Now put this piece of junk in drive and let’s face whatever reality there is to face.”

Carl shifted into drive.  The engine sputtered as though responding to an insult.  “Maybe you should say a little prayer that we make it into town.”

“No good worrying about it now.”

Traveling north of the highway, it was three miles into Coldwater.  Carl pointed, whistling through his teeth.  “Would you look at that.”

There were two gas stations in town.  One could hardly be classified as a gas station.  It was an auto body shop that happened to have two gas pumps sitting outside, about fifteen feet from the entrance.  Carl had pointed to the only Honest-to-God gas station in town.  What was left of it anyway.  It was a charred ruin.  Four of the pumps lay on their sides, the metal contorted into strange pieces of alien art.  Thousands of pieces of glass littered the cracked cement, twinkling like tiny stars in the car’s headlights.

“Jesus,” Carl said.

Taylor patted Carl’s shoulder.  “Let’s hope the other one is in better shape.  Keep going.”

It was the longest drive of his life.  Carl wouldn’t let the speedometer’s needle creep above twenty miles per hour.  You’re only delaying the inevitable.  That’s what Taylor would say.  He won’t let you get away with this pussy shit for much longer.

Tina stirred in the back seat.  Carl watched her in the rearview mirror.  “Wakey-wakey,” he said.  “Welcome to the other speck of fly shit gracing the Rand McNally Road Atlas.”

She sat up and rubbed her eyes; the gesture making her seem more childlike somehow.

Carl pulled up in front of the house he shared with Angie.  It was painted a light green, like sunwashed limes.  He put the car into park and killed the lights.

“Her car isn’t in the driveway,” Carl said.

Taylor knew when his brother was trying to act tough.  He was acting tough now, trying to pretend he wasn’t about to panic.  Taylor didn’t call him on it.  They had a mutual need to be strong, feigned or otherwise.  He opened the door and stepped out, stretching his legs.  His head swam momentarily, big black butterflies crowding his vision.  He closed his eyes and waited for it to pass.

Tina trailed behind them as they walked toward the house.  Taylor had the machete in his hand.

Carl hesitated at the front door.

“You want me to go in first?” Taylor asked.

“No.  I’m a big boy.”  He took a deep gulp of air and opened the door.

The beams of their flashlights cut through the darkness.  Carl flipped the light switch next to the door and nothing happened.

“Angie?  Hey, Angie, it’s me.  You home?”  He repeated her name several more times.  They searched all the rooms in the house.  When they had finished, he felt compelled to state the obvious.  “She’s not here.”

Tina said, “I found something.”

Carl rushed over to her.  She was holding a piece of paper that had been laying on the coffee table in the living room.  She handed it over to him.  “It’s a letter.”

“What’s it say?”

“Give me a minute.”  His eyes darted over the letter.  He read it again, this time more slowly, before saying anything.  “Says she’s going over to Mom and Dad’s.”

“So let’s get going over there,” Taylor said.  “You need to grab anything before we go?”

Carl disappeared and then reappeared a minute later carrying his hunting rifle.  “It’s a two-seventy.  Packs enough of a punch.”  He held a box of ammunition in his other hand.  “I’m ready.”

Taylor stared at the couch.  It looked like one of the most inviting pieces of furniture he had ever laid eyes on.  If not for a small surge of adrenaline, he might had plopped down on it, sunk deep into the soft cushions, and drowned himself in sleep.

Taylor opened the door and immediately cursed himself for not being more cautious.  A group of the rabid things had gathered around the car.

The engine’s still warm I bet, he thought.  Can they sense that?

Seven or eight of them stood huddled closely together.  He squinted into the semi-darkness.  It’s entirely different when they could be people you know.  One of them was Jeff Cairns, proprietor of the local grocery store.  He recognized another as one of the mechanics who worked for Mike Earnest, owner of Earnest Motors a few blocks east of Main Street.  Taylor couldn’t recall the mechanic’s name.

Carl raised the rifle.

Tina said, “What are you doing?”

Carl hesitated for moment and then squeezed the trigger.  Taylor thought the sound of the shot was perhaps the loudest thing he had ever heard.  It cracked like a whip; a brief thunderclap of authoritative noise.  Tina gasped, covering her mouth with her hands.  Taylor had to suppress the sudden urge to laugh out loud.  Maybe I’m going a little crazy if I can think about laughing at a time like this, he thought.

 The right side of the rabid thing’s face disintegrated a moment before it sank to the ground.

“Gotcha!”

Carl chambered another round.

“They’re coming,” Tina said.

“Get in the house!” Taylor said.

Tina reached the door first, holding it open for Taylor and Carl.  Carl walked backwards slowly, taking aim with the rifle again.  He squeezed the trigger, catching the mechanic high on the shoulder, and sent him spiraling around to bounce off the side of the Escort.

Taylor enjoyed a certain amount of satisfaction watching Carl take the rabid things down, but as he scanned the empty streets, he knew it was one of the dumbest things they could have done.  The roar of gunfire was loud enough to wake the dead – no pun intended, Taylor thought – and it would only draw attention to their location.

Carl said, “One more,” as he ejected an empty round.

Taylor batted the rifle down.  “Get in the house.”  He had meant to yell, but instead the words tumbled from his mouth in a calm and detached manner, as if he was reacting to something far away.

By the time all three of them were in, the first of the rabid things had reached the porch and was at the door before Taylor could get it all the way closed.  He put his back to the door, squatted, and used his feet to push off the floor.  It worked.  He heard the latch click and he locked it quickly.

“That won’t hold them off for long.  Help me find something to block it closed with.”

Carl pointed to the couch.  The two of them, both on one end, shoved the couch so that it was positioned up against the door.

Carl went to the window nearest the door, parted the curtains ever so slightly, and looked out.  He could see them gathered on the porch steps.  He counted five of them.

“I count five,” he said.  “One of them is Carrie Martinez.  She owns that store over on Birch.  Stitch With It or whatever it’s called.”

“Is there a back door or something?” Tina asked.

“Yeah, but it’s two miles to our parent’s house.  I wouldn’t feel safe going a block by foot with things like that waiting around out there.”

Carl turned his head to look at Tina.  “He’s right.  It was a good idea, but for once in his life my brother’s right.” A hand slammed against the window, a thin pane of glass the only thing preventing it from grabbing his face.  He jerked back.  “Jesus.  Stupid but dangerous.  What do you think makes them so dumb?  None of them were exactly rocket scientists before, but damn.  All they seem to know how to do is chase after normal people.”

“Severe brain damage,” Tina said.  “That would be my educated guess.  You said whatever they had is like rabies -”

“According to the radio,” Taylor said.  “I don’t know how much trust we want to put in that information.”

“Whatever it is, I’d say that it causes a terrible fever.  Enough of one to cause permanent and extreme damage to the brain.  It should be fatal.  Under normal circumstances, it probably would be fatal.  Instead, it makes them insane.   Look at the symptoms.  Insanity is a symptom.  Excessive salivation.  Poor judgment and motor control skills.  An aversion to water.  If you look at what we know,” Tina said, “there are quite a few similarities to rabies.  But rabies doesn’t cause animals to run in packs.  From what we’ve seen, all of those things seem to travel together.  That’s not a hundred percent accurate, but it seems to be the rule rather than the exception.  I wouldn’t say they’re necessarily working together.  It’s more like grouping.  A natural tendency to be with their own kind.  But that’s just a shot in the dark.”

“This makes twice they‘ve found us, too.  Don’t forget that.  Out of the blue, they found us at your dad’s store.  And now here.”

“The car’s running,” Carl said.  “That makes noise.  They could have heard the noise from the engine running.”

“Right.  That doesn’t explain how they found us in the store, though.”

Carl shrugged and looked back to the window.  The rabid thing that had once been Carrie Martinez slapped her hands against the glass repeatedly, eying him, exposing her teeth as rivers of drool ran from her open mouth and down her chin.  He studied her face and the emptiness in her eyes, and he couldn’t quite fool himself into believing there was anything remotely human left.

“That could be coincidence, or it could be another symptom,” Tina said.  “If it’s a symptom, there’s nothing that I know of to connect it with that particular disease.  We don’t know what sense to associate it with.  Hearing or sense of smell or something else.”

Carl said, “Is science class over yet?  Maybe the two of you can go back to flirting later.”

It was one of those comments that, if uttered in the past, would have led to a brotherly brawl.  Taylor narrowed his eyes and stared at his brother, trying to resist the blossoming rage that welled up inside of him.  Tina looked aghast.  Taylor wasn’t sure if it was a feigned response or not, and couldn’t decide which was worse: his brother’s comment or Tina’s I’d-Never-Flirt-With-Your-Brother-In-a-Million-Years reaction.

Carl met his gaze.  “I’m not going to apologize for that,” he said.  “It got your attention, which is exactly what it was meant to do.”  He was still holding the curtains open, and Taylor could see Carrie Martinez - or the thing that passed for her these days - with her face pressed up hard against the window, nose and lips smooshed up against the glass.  She looked like an alien fish.  There was only madness in her gaze.

“Why don’t they just break the glass?” Tina asked.

Carl said, “I don’t think they know they can.  Not yet anyway.  It’s like back at the hardware store.  Remember how long it took them to come around front when they couldn’t get in through the back.  And even then they didn’t wander to the front of the store on their own.”

And then the glass did shatter.  Carl felt fingers clamp down on his wrist.  The fingers were warm and sweaty and mushy.  He let out a high-pitched scream.  His first response was to pull away, and as he did he tripped over his own feet.   Gravity, as reliable as ever, assured his fall to the ground, and he pulled Carrie Martinez forward through the window.  He felt her hand slip from his wrist as her body was impaled on the long slivers of broken glass still clinging to the bottom of the window.  He scrambled back.

Carl looked back in the direction of the window.  Carrie Martinez hung halfway into the house, blood so dark it was almost black gushed from her stomach.  From behind him, Tina made a retching sound.

Carrie Martinez’s eyes remained blank.  Her mouth opened and closed as if keeping beat to some rhythm only she could hear.  When he was only a boy, Carl had enjoyed going on fishing trips with his father.  The first fish he ever caught was a small catfish out of Granite Lake, and he remembered his father holding it up to his face and how the fish’s mouth had opened and closed the same way Carrie Martinez’s mouth was opening and closing now.  He had felt sorry for the fish; he’d had his father toss it back into the lake.  He had watched it flounder for a moment and then shoot down into the depths.  A part of him felt the same compassion for Carrie Martinez.  After all, whatever was wrong with her wasn’t her fault.

But you can’t help her, he thought.  No throwing this one back.

Carrie Martinez’s mouth stopped moving.  Her head sank forward, and for a moment she looked as though she were bowed in prayer.  Her long black hair reached down to the carpet.  It glistened with moisture in the flashlight’s beam.

Sweat, Carl thought.  Just like her hand was sweaty.  That must be another symptom.  Part of the fever or something.

A man appeared in the window behind Carrie Martinez’s impaled body and placed his hand on her back, using it for support as he got his first leg up, trying to work his way through the window.

The rifle had landed several inches away.  Calmly, Carl leaned over and snatched it up, took his time aiming, the man so close that his head was all that could be seen through the rifle’s scope.

Carl fired.  The top of the man’s head disappeared and he fell back through the window, landing on the ground with a wet thud.

“I’m an army of one,” Carl said, laughing, as he pulled himself up off the floor.

More of the rabid things appeared in the window.

Lining up like ducks in a row, Carl thought, taking aim with the rifle.

He picked them off one by one until there were none left.  Taylor watched, knowing he should put a stop to it, but he was caught up in the thrill of it just as much as his brother.

In the end, he had put down all five of them, not counting the two by the car or Carrie Martinez.  He had experienced that rare surge of adrenaline, but it had worn off as quickly as it had come, leaving him breathing heavily and physically drained.  He lowered the rifled, resting the stock on the floor, leaning on it like a makeshift cane.

Carl approached the window slowly and poked his head through, careful not to touch Carrie Martinez’s slumped over body.

“That’s a massacre,” he said.  His stomach went queasy; something hot and nasty got as far as the back of his throat before he managed to hold it back.  He gagged, dropped the rifle, and held a hand to his mouth.  “I’ve gotta use the bathroom.”  He fled from the room.

“Is he going to be all right?” Tina asked.

Taylor nodded.  “I think so.  It’s not every day you kill someone.  Even if they aren’t human anymore.  But he’ll be all right.  Give him a couple of minutes to himself.  I’ll check on him after that.”

He walked over to where the rifle lay on the floor and picked it up.  He undid the bolt and ejected the spent casing.  The flashlight was on the floor, the beam pointed at the shattered window, illuminating Carrie Martinez.  In the weakening light, her hair was the color of canned spinach.  He stared out the window.  “We can’t stay here.  It’s not safe.  More of those things will have heard the gunshots and they’ll come running.”

On the street, Tina’s Escort was idling quietly.  It wouldn’t last much longer if they didn’t feed it gas, but Taylor wondered if any of the pumps would work.  Nothing else did, so it was hard to believe their luck would turn for the better.

Carl entered the room, wiping his mouth with his forearm.  Taylor held the rifle out to him, but he shook his head.  “Why don’t you hold onto it for now.”

“Nice shootin’.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“Thanks.  I guess.”  He felt like baby brother again.  It made him feel ashamed yet comfortable.  It was an easy niche to fall into.  You could take a lot of excuses with you into a role like that.  “On second thought…it’s not like you’d be very handy with this thing.  You never did like to hunt.”

“Wasn’t for me.”

Carl turned to Tina.  “He couldn’t bring himself to hurt an animal no matter how small.”

“I could never see the fun in it,” Tina said.

“So are we getting out of here or what?”

They made their way to the car, vigilant as they hurried down the narrow sidewalk.  Carl glanced back at the house before getting into the car, sadness in his eyes.

“The town seems so empty,” Tina said.

Carl said, “It’s always like this here at night.  That’s why my brother likes to take his long walks.”

Taylor looked at the houses lining either side of the street, wondering if there were survivors in any of them.  If there are, then they’re the smart ones, he thought.  Smart enough to stay put and be quiet.

“I don’t see anyone,” Tina said.

“They’re hiding somewhere,” Carl said.  “I’d bet money on it.”  The rifle stood upright between his legs, resting against the back of the driver’s seat.  Carl had one hand wrapped around the barrel.  His window was cracked to provide easier access in case he needed to start shooting from the car.

They passed an elementary school.  The playground was visible just west of the school.  The jungle gym caught Carl’s attention.  In the dark, it resembled a giant steel spider web.

As they reached the outskirts of town, the houses were spaced farther apart.  Taylor drove them another half a mile, at which time their parent’s house became visible a quarter mile down the road.

Carl pointed.  “That’s it up there,” he said to Tina.

It was a two-story house, painted white with brown shingles on the roof.  A sizeable deck was built onto the left side of the house.  A picnic table sat on the deck.  Taylor slowed the car.  For some reason, he felt the urge to keep going.  He told himself that maybe it was better not to know, that some of the alternatives were far too dark to entertain.  But he also realized he must be feeling the same way Carl had felt when they had pulled up in front of his and Angie’s house.  Now that the shoe was on the other foot – his foot, to be exact – it wasn’t as difficult to empathize with his brother.

Taylor sucked in his breath and turned into the driveway.  Putting the car in park, he leaned over the wheel and peered up at the front of the house.  “Looks quiet.  You guys want me to go -”

Carl had already exited the car, rifle out and at the ready.  He approached the house, eyes darting from window to window.  Please, God, let them be all right.  Let Angie be here and let them be all right.  You know how much I hate asking for favors, but I’m asking now.

Taylor walked over to the two car garage.  The garage doors were lined with windows.  He pointed the flashlight through them.  “Van’s gone,” he said.  “The truck is here, but no van.”

The front door was unlocked.

They had grown up here.  All of their senses were attuned to the house.  By the time they entered the kitchen, both of them could already sense that the house was empty.

Carl said, “Forget it.  There’s nobody here.”  He flicked the lightswitch and the lights came on.  “Power works.”

“Must be the backup generator.  Dad put it in a few years ago, remember?”

Carl placed the rifle on the kitchen table.  “They’re not here.”

“Check anyway.”

Carl explored the house, calling Angie’s name as he poked his head in the various rooms, knowing full well he wasn’t going to find anyone.

“Where the fuck could they be?”

“Do you think she would have left another note?” Tina said.  “I thought maybe she might have left one like she did at the other house.”

“Where would they have went?”

Taylor tried the phone.  No dial tone, which wasn’t at all surprising.

“Why wouldn’t she leave a note?”  Carl said.  He rummaged through the papers, bills, and receipts that were scattered across the countertop in the corner.  “If those things had been breaking in, I can see them having to make a break for it, but there aren’t any signs that that happened.  Nothing’s broken.  It doesn’t make sense.  Angie wasn’t that scatterbrained.  Not like some of the chicks you’ve gone out with.”

“Thanks,” Taylor said.

“You know what I’m sayin’.  Shit!

Tina said, “Is there anywhere else she might have left it?  Someplace she might have chosen where she knew you would look for it?”

Carl thought about it and after a moment his eyes lit up.  He rushed out of the room and up the stairs, and Taylor and Tina heard a door being thrown open.

“Found it!”  Carl had a yellow sheet of paper in his hand when he came down the stairs.  “She left it in my old bedroom, stuck to the desk.  I didn’t go all the way in when I looked before, so I missed it.”

“Well,” Taylor said, “what does it say?”

“There’s not much.  She must have been in a hurry.  All it says is ‘Your dad said we’re going to the mountains.  He says you will know what that means.’  That’s it.  Oh, and ‘Love, Angie.’”

“Do you know what she’s talking about?”  Tina asked.  “What mountains?”

After some thought, Carl snapped his fingers and threw his head back, chuckling to himself.

“What?”

“No wonder she wasn’t more specific.  She probably didn’t know what the hell Dad was talking about when he said they were going to the mountains.  You remember where we used to go camping when we were younger?  It’s been seven or eight years, but do you remember?  Dad would pack us up some weekends and tell us we were heading to the mountains.  Thing is, they’re not really mountains.  He just called them that.  They’re just big rocks, but when we were kids, they looked like mountains to us.”

“Wouldn’t that be dangerous?  Being out in the open like that.  There wouldn’t be any way to protect ourselves.”

“Those dumb fuckers can’t even figure out how to open a door without breaking it down,” Carl said.  “Dollars to donuts they wouldn’t be able to climb up a big rock.”

Taylor and Carl exchanged glances.  Taylor led them into the dining room where a large safe stood in the corner.  The safe was large enough that it could have housed a grown man comfortably, maybe two if they didn’t mind rubbing up against each other, and when Taylor grabbed the handle he was surprised to find it unlocked.

“For our sake, I’ll bet,” Carl said.

“He left the Glock.  There’s a 12-gauge, and another one of the Ruger’s.”  He spoke directly to Tina now.  “See, normally this thing’s full, which means they packed up the rest and took them with them.  You asked why they would head into the mountains.  My dad’s kind of a wilderness junkie.  Not one of those paranoid survivalist-types or anything, but he liked to spend his free time hunting and being in the woods.  He’s never lived in a big city, so it wouldn’t make sense for him to head for one now.  He’s familiar with that place.  Maybe for somebody else it would be the worst mistake in the world.  For him, it’s probably the best place he could have picked.  Loaded the van with food and guns and ammo and went on their merry way.  Plus it’s isolated.  If those things out there are only out to fuck up other people, they’ll stick to the places where the people are.  That’ just an educated guess, but it sounds about right.”

“How big is this place?”

“Big enough to get lost in if you don’t know where you’re going.  But there are quite a few trails in there.  Usually you follow one of the trails and sooner or later you’ll find your way out.”

“If it’s that big, how do we find them?”

Taylor reached into the safe.  He checked the magazine in the Glock, made sure it was loaded, and then tucked it into the waistband of his jeans.  He handed the shotgun to Carl.  Pulling out the rifle, he handed it to Tina and said, “Let’s worry about that when we get there.”

Chapter 7

Hell Out of Coldwater

They didn’t waste a lot of time gathering supplies.  Most of the non-perishables had been taken, so the selection was sparse.  The important things were the guns and ammunition their father had left for them to find.  They also packed anything that would provide warmth; blankets, flannel shirts, some of their father’s thermal underwear.  It could get cold in the mountains.

As they packed, Carl made frequent trips to the window, checking on the car to make sure more of the rabid things didn’t show up.  They sky was beginning to shift colors; soft blues and piercing oranges.  Light poured through a row of apple trees that had wept piles of white blossoms onto the ground.

“How’s it looking out there?” Taylor said.

“Good so far.  Seems safer with light in the sky.”

Tina sat at the kitchen table.  She thought heading to the so-called “mountains” sounded like a bad idea.  She had to keep reminding herself that she was the tag-a-long in this thing and couldn’t afford to be demanding.  She wasn’t prone to abandonment issues, but that possibility existed now.  She stole glances at the brothers as they scrambled through the house.

The question you have to ask yourself, she thought, is would they be capable of leaving you behind?

Capable?  Yes.  But would they?  She didn’t think so.

They carried the guns and ammo out to the car, arranging everything along the floor in front of the backseat.  Taylor stuffed the Glock between the driver and passenger seats so that only the handle was visible.  Everything else was packed into the trunk.

“Is that everything?”

Tina nodded.  “I think so.”

 “I brought this.  For emergencies,” Carl said, smiling as he showed them a bottle of Wild Turkey he had wrapped in a flannel shirt.

“Alcohol?”

“Yep.  It’s probably older than the gods.  It could come in handy though.”

“How?”

“As a sleep aid.”

Carl winked at her and wrapped the flannel shirt around the bottle.  “That about covers it I think.”

Tina slid into the backseat, careful not to step on the rifles.  A pile of sleeping bags were stacked on the other side of the seat on top of the box of supplies they had taken from her father’s house.  She scooted over next to them and leaned her head against the pile.  “How long does it take to get there?” she asked, closing her eyes.

“A few hours.  That’s under normal conditions.  It’ll take longer now.”

Carl came around to the passenger side of the car when he saw them.  Coldwater.  Population: 1579.  At least half of them had to be coming down the road as though they were part of a marathon.  It was one of those situations where time stretches out like taffy.

Taylor saw his brother frozen in the act of getting into the car and glanced into the rearview mirror.  “Hey.  Hey!  Get in the car!”

Carl was still in slow motion, but he managed to pivot, slump down in the seat, and pull the door closed.

Taylor gunned the engine, one hand moved to the butt of the Glock and stayed there.  He watched the rabid things following after them.  There were several agonizing seconds as the Escort’s lethargic engine debated on whether it would continue running, that he thought the mob would overtake them, that he saw them growing closer in the mirror, but the car gave a dramatic lurch and carried them forward and away from danger.

Carl wore a startled expression.  He pulled the bottle of Wild Turkey from the flannel shirt and unscrewed the lid.  He raised the bottle to his nose and sniffed it.  The odor made him cringe, but he took a quick swallow anyway, trying not to taste it as it lit up his insides with a fire he could feel all the way down to his stomach.  He held the bottle out to Taylor.

Taylor shook his head.

“Come on.  You’re not that old.”

Taylor moved his hand from the handle of the Glock and took the bottle.  He let some of it settle in his mouth, allowing it to rest there, the awful taste like a bitter magic that served to lighten the heavy lids of his eyes.  After the initial burn subsided, a comforting warmth spread through his body.

He could feel a tickle at the back of his throat.  Not painful yet but the subtle precursor of worse things to come.  His body was wearing down.  He needed rest.  A hot meal would help, too, but sleep was what his body required now.  He took another sip from the bottle and then handed it back to Carl.

“That’s the most we’ve seen,” Carl said.  “It looked like damned near the whole town.”

“Looked like it.”

“It makes you wonder what a big city would look like.  Think about it.  What must Denver look like?”

“I don’t know,” Taylor said.  “I think Dad had the right idea.  Avoid places where there are a lot of people.  Hide out.  It’s the smart thing to do.  Doesn’t matter how many guns we’ve got, there are too many of those things to try it any other way.”

“They found us again.  You realize that don’t you?  I would have figured they’d find us at my place after hearing the gunshots, but they found us at Mom and Dad’s.”

“There’s something to that.  I just don’t know what yet.  Some kind of special sense because they couldn’t have heard us all the way out here.  We need to keep that in mind.”

Carl had the shotgun angled so that it rested against the dashboard, the barrel pointing toward the car’s ceiling.  He kept it braced between his knees so it wouldn’t slide around.

Taylor waited until the rabid things had disappeared from view completely before taking a left on Seymour.  Out of two places in town to get gas, one was a charred ruin.  He prayed the other was in working order.

The shop was two blocks east of Main Street, sandwiched between a car dealership and a beauty salon.  The town’s only bank, occupying a squat brick building, sat kitty corner from the shop.  He could see the shop’s twin gas pumps standing side-by-side like metal headstones a hundred yards ahead.

Carl rolled down the passenger-side window and picked up the shotgun.  “I’ll keep you covered,” he said.

“Yeah, well, just don’t accidentally go blowing us up.”

“How are you going to get gas?  I mean, it looks like the thing works, but nobody’s inside to give you access to it.”

Taylor paused in the act of exiting the car.  He removed his wallet and plucked out a plastic card.  “For emergencies.  Mom gave it to me years ago.”

He came around the side of the car, unscrewed the gas cap, and inserted his keycard into the slot of a metal reader that stood next to the pump.  Nothing happened.  Please, God, let this work.  Just one damn thing.  The ratio of good to bad is really jacked up right now.  How about evening it out some?

He removed the card and tried again.  This time there was a brief Ding! and Taylor was able to pull down a small metal lever that activated the pump.  He began filling the tank, watching the numbers roll by on the pump’s old-fashioned display.

“It’s working,” Carl said.  “I can’t believe it.  I didn’t think it would.  Nothing else has.”

Taylor pointed to the row of cars lined up neatly side-by-side in front of the glass display of the car dealership.  “If that had been the case, we could have siphoned some off from those.  It would have been a lot more time consuming though.”

When the tank was full, Taylor hung the nozzle back in its cradle.  He looked to the west and saw some them rounding the corner, still moving en masse, participants in a parade for crazy fuckers.  “Time to hit the road,” he said and got into the car.

“You realize how many of those people we know?”  Carl asked.  “I could name off most of them.”

Taylor nodded.  He focused on the road ahead, watching the needle of the speedometer jump to sixty.  He recognized most of them, too.  He was thankful that the three Coldwater residents that were the most important to him had had the sense to head for the mountains.  Whether they had made it or not was another matter.  He shoved those dark thoughts deep down; there wasn’t room for them now.  The trick, he thought, was to set small goals and work on completing them one by one.  You didn’t disregard any possibilities, but you let them sit along the side of the road like mile markers; signs you glanced at only occasionally because there were larger signs to follow.

Taylor glanced into the rearview mirror.  “How you doing back there?”

Tina’s eyes fluttered open.  She surveyed the world outside the confines of the Escort and said, “Okay, I guess.  We’re going the same way we came?”

“Yeah, we’re kind of backtracking.  The place we’re going is a about an hour and a half into Wyoming.  Going seventy-five, it’s probably a four hour trip.  Like I said, that’s optimum conditions.  Most likely it’ll take longer than that.”

The morning fog was thick.  Taylor was glad for it.  It was like having a security blanket; a cocoon that obscured anything dangerous that lay outside its confines.  He could see the road twenty yards ahead and then it was swallowed up by the haze.

“You just let me know when you need me to drive,” Carl said.  “I’m not feeling too bad.”

“I must have hit my second wind because I’m not doing too bad at the moment.  But I’ll let you know.”

Carl switched on the radio, toying with the dial.  “Still nothing.”

“I don’t get how it spread so fast.  If it’s a disease.  That means it started somewhere.  A monkey in Africa or something.  Right?  So how does the whole world go to shit overnight?  Wouldn’t we have seen something about it on TV or read about it in the paper?  People getting sick?”

“Not if you were where the original outbreak took place,” Tina said.  She yawned into her hand and leaned forward.  “We know about it ahead of time when it happens someplace else first.”

Carl said, “So you’re saying you think it started here?”

Tina shrugged.  “Maybe.”

“That still doesn’t explain much.  Like what’s here?  What’s the scale?  Our town.  Your town.  It was happening in both of those.  So is it happening in just a few surrounding counties or just this state or the entire country?”  Taylor slowed the car abruptly to swerve around a truck that was angled on the shoulder, its front end sticking out into the road.  “One town, I could see it.  But it’s not.  At least two towns that we know of and they were talking about it on the radio before we broke down.  People did know about it, but not very far in advance.  It happened fast.  Maybe the question is how does it spread?”

“Or how it originated,” Tina said.  “Anything that affects so many people that rapidly has got to be airborne.”

“Maybe it was a meteor.”  Carl twisted around in the seat so he could look at Tina, both hands holding onto the barrel of the shotgun.  “Crashed and gave off some kind of alien radiation.”

“You said you heard about it on the radio.  Was it a local station?”

“Denver.”

“Well…if it was radiation than it had a pretty big radius.  I think we would have heard about the impact.”

“I was joking.”

“Oh.”

Taylor met her eyes in the rearview mirror.  “He does that.”

“So it’s happening in the States, maybe the whole world.  It almost has to be spread through the air.  And it spreads fast.  Fast enough to infect everyone in about…”  She opened her cell phone and checked the time.  “Sixteen hours.  God, is that all it’s been?  I feel like we’ve been going like this for close to forever.  It’s funny how quickly we adapt.  One of my first classes in college covered adaptation by species.  How animals have evolved over millions of years to survive a changing environment.  Yesterday morning, I was driving my car on a normal road in a normal world, heading home from college to see my dad.  Now look at things.  Some people think nature does it on purpose.  Like this natural cleansing.  Only the strong adapt and survive.”

“Sixteen hours,” Taylor said.  He glanced in the rearview mirror again, this time seeing past Tina and out the back window.  He could see the sun low in the sky, a hazy orb whose brightness was muted by the fog.

Carl said, “Does it sound like rabies?”

“Going only off the symptoms, they mimic a lot of those found with rabies,” Tina said.  “But nothing else really fits.  Being airborne, the rapidity of the infection, traveling in packs.  I guess it doesn’t have to add up.  This is something different.  Normally, a disease or virus doesn’t mutate that fast.  It almost makes me think…”

“What?” Carl asked.  “Finish what you were gonna say.”

“Well, it just makes me think that maybe it was manmade.”

“Terrorists?”

“Could be.  People have been worried about something like that for years.  But it could just as easily have been an accident.  That’s not as rare as you might think.  It doesn’t matter how many precautions you take to prevent them, people still make mistakes.  I’m just glad they’re afraid of water.”

“The place we’re headed has lakes.  Two small ones and a bigger one.”

“Do your parents have a boat?”

“Yeah.  It’s just a small fishing boat.  Can seat five or six tops.  I didn’t think to check to see if they took it with them or not,” Carl said.

“Pray they did.  I wish I knew where my dad went.  We could find him and bring him with us.”

Taylor felt a stab of guilt again.  It was another opportunity to lay the truth on her, but he remained silent again.  He couldn’t bring himself to do it.  The more he thought about it, the more telling her seemed like the right thing to do.  From what he had gathered in a short amount of time, Tina was about as level-headed as you could get, but telling her that her father was one of them was heavy news for anybody to have to hear.  If she went off the deep end they could be in trouble.  She could do something stupid and endanger herself or, worse yet, all of them.  And when weighing it out based solely on what was best for their survival as a whole, his instincts told him to keep that knowledge to himself.  Sometimes morals had to take a backseat.

He said, “Maybe he’ll find a way to contact you,” and, despite his good intentions, he still felt like a total slimeball.

You’re going to hell for lying to her like that, he thought, which was immediately followed by another: Oh wait, we’re already there.

“Look!”

Carl shouted this so loud and so suddenly that Taylor nearly lost control of the car, instantly wide awake.  “What?”

I-80 was visible from the highway.  Carl pointed to it and said, “Right there.  Don’t you see them?”

Taylor squinted in the direction of the Interstate.  “How can you see anything through the…”

But then he did see.  He took his foot off the accelerator and the car slowed to a crawl.

“You see them now, huh?”

He answered with the briefest of nods.  His foot touched the brake and gently brought the Escort to a halt, and he shifted into park.  Opening the door, he exited the car and stepped onto the road.

Tina said, “What are you doing?  Are you insane?”

Carl opened his door.  “They’re a ways away.  Far enough that we could take off before they ever got close to us.”

After some hesitation, she got out of the car and joined them.

The highway was on higher ground than the Interstate.  They watched from a small hill, looking downward at the mass.  It was impossible to know how many of them there were.  Carl thought it was as many people gathered in one place as he had ever seen before.  Taylor had taken him to a Def Leppard concert years ago when Carl was still in high school, and he had been awestruck by all the people packed into the stadium.  This was worse.

“Do you think they’re normal?”  Tina asked.  “The way they’re walking, I can’t tell.”

“No.  They’re not normal.”

“How can you tell?”

“Trust me.  They’re not.”

“Where do you think they came from?”

“I don’t know.  But I’d like to know where they’re going,” Taylor said.  “They have to be heading somewhere.”

“So many of them.”

“Hundreds?”

Thousands.

“None of them with homes anymore,” Taylor said.  He almost sympathized with them, but it merely a transient emotion.  “All of them homeless.”

After that, there wasn’t much else to say.

“Do you think they know where they’re going?  Like they have a destination in mind,” Carl said.  He had taken over driving duty when they had gotten back into the car.

“If I hadn’t just seen that with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have given them credit for it.  They could be walking without knowing where they’re going.  That’s possible.”

“Why would they head east?  There’s nothing in that direction for forever,” Tina said.  “Nothing but small towns until you get to North Platte.  And that‘s not that big.”

“Omaha?” Carl said.

“I doubt it.”

“Just a thought.”

Forty-five miles later, the fog had dispersed.  The sky was overcast with thick gray clouds.

“We’re coming up on Cheyenne,” Carl said.  “Do you want to stay on the highway?  It takes us straight downtown.”

Taylor looked at the I-80.  Abandoned vehicles formed a labyrinth of metal and glass across four lanes and the median.  In some places it looked as though it would be impossible to squeeze the Escort through some of the more congested spaces.  “The interstate isn’t any good.  I don’t see any other choice but to stick to the highway.  Just be on the lookout.”

“After what we saw a little while ago, I doubt there’s anyone left in the city.  That many people came from somewhere.”

“It’s like a traveling caravan.  A group starts off and more join along the way.  Almost like they’re collecting together for something.”

“Now I remember!”  Tina scooted forward on the backseat.  “I thought of this earlier when we were having our discussion about what could have caused this to happen, but I forgot about it.  Why weren’t we infected?  What did we do different?”

Carl said, “Maybe we have a natural immunity.  Isn’t that how they work it in the movies?  Certain people are magically unaffected.”

“Yeah, but in reality it’s not as plausible.  Not to say that it isn’t possible,” Tina said, “but that would be a big coincidence.  You said you heard about it on the radio.  So when it happened, you were driving?”

“I guess so.”

“I was driving, too.  I didn’t hear about it on the radio.  I saw it happening when I got into town.  Then I hid in my dad’s store.”

“You think we didn’t become like those things because we were driving?  That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that the power went out in so many places around the same time either,” Taylor said.  “Some of the things I’ve noticed make me think whatever is going on isn’t exactly random.  Didn’t happen out of the blue like nature’s wrath or something.”

“You were heading east to get back home.  I was heading west.  None of us got whatever’s going around.”

“Like it’s a cold,” Carl said and smiled.

“One fucked up cold.”

“But look at all the cars on the road.  Plenty of people would have been driving.  How did it miss us but get them?”

“Maybe it did miss them.  Maybe they were stranded out there with no place to go.”

Taylor gave Tina a look that said he wasn’t convinced.

“Okay,” Tina said.  “My theory has a few flaws.”

“You’re a tease,” Carl said.

Carl slowed to thirty, which happened to be the posted speed limit.  Abandoned cars littered the street.  A silver Nissan was parked neatly on the sidewalk, its front grill dented in by the streetlamp it had collided with.

The street became more congested the farther they got into downtown Cheyenne.

“We aren’t going to be able to get around that,” Carl said.

“Go around.”

“How?  There isn’t room.”

“Hang a right at one of these side streets and go around.  We can get back on here a few blocks down.”

Carl turned right and drove a street up.  They came upon more discarded vehicles, but he was able to weave his way around them, taking the nearest left and heading west again.

“It’s like a ghost town,” Tina said. “A really big one.  You can almost feel that there isn’t anybody here anymore.”

Taylor said, “We can’t be the only ones.  I refuse to believe that.  My parents survived it.”

“And Angie,” Carl said.

“Yeah, and Angie.  I’m sure there are others.  They’re just being smart and taking refuge in the safest places they can find.  Probably what we should be doing.”  What we will do once we get to the mountains.”

“It’s blocked up ahead.”

“Do what you did a minute ago.  Find another street.”

Like rats in a maze, Carl thought.

At times it seemed that the number of dead ends was infinite.  Carl navigated the streets and thought it wouldn’t be entirely absurd to leave a trail of bread crumbs behind them.  They had been forced to take over a half a dozen detours.

“I don’t like this,” Carl said.  “They could box us in and we’d be stuck.”

“We’re almost through downtown.”

“You’re always full of wisdom.”

“Wise beyond my years.”

Tina was filled with nervous anticipation, like she was waiting for something big to happen.  The air was filled with it: a tension thicker than the fog they had passed through earlier.

She worried for her father.  Taylor knew something about that.  She was sure of it.  Keeping something from me, she thought whenever she would look at the expression on his face after mentioning her father.  She had purposely brought it up at regular intervals to revisit that reaction.  Each time he appeared on the verge of telling her something but had thought better of it.  It wasn’t good, she knew that.  She let it go.  For now.

“You think they would have found us by now?”

“Most likely.  I get the feeling that the city is empty.  Don’t quote me on this, but I think the big danger is gone.”

“Which is good news for us.”

“It still doesn’t explain where all of them were going,” Taylor said.

“Good fortune in our favor.  Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, bro.  Just be thankful.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t.”

“So don’t question it either.  At least not out loud.  Not until we get out of the city.  Once we get to the mountains and find Mom, Dad, and Angie you can speculate all you want.  What we saw…it was just plain spooky.  And I can’t figure it out.  I’m not even going to try.  I’m going to thank the Man Upstairs for throwing a little bit of luck our way and go about my business.  You go trying to analyze it and you’re bound to jinx us.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“I’m superstitious.”

“All of a sudden?”

“Pretty much.  Yeah.”  Carl glanced over and saw him roll his eyes.  “Remember, I know all kinds of embarrassing things about you.”

Twenty minutes had lapsed by the time they reached the highway again.

Carl whistled, loosening his grip on the steering wheel.  His palms were sweaty and he wiped them on his jeans.  “I’m glad that’s behind us.”

“Anti-climatic,” Taylor said.

“Dude, I warned you already.  Don’t say shit like that out loud.”

“I’m just saying.  That must have been most of the city walking along the road.  What’s the population of Cheyenne?”

Tina said, “Right around fifty thousand, I think.”

“You think there were fifty thousand of them on the road,” Carl asked.

“I don’t know about that many, but there were a lot.”

“What’s important is that they’re going the opposite direction from us.”

“If they’re all doing that, we’re bound to see a lot more than that,” Tina said.  “Like if it’s the whole United States that this is happening in, and if there’s some force drawing them east, then there will be lots more.”

“No need to worry about that now,” Taylor said.

Cheyenne fell away abruptly as though an invisible fence marked its termination point.  A restaurant, hotel, and home supply stores were some of the last indications that a civilized world existed.  After that, a long, winding highway snaked ahead for as far as the eye could see.  A few miles later, they passed a chemical plant that looked like the ruins of a futuristic kingdom that had been forgotten after an apocalypse.  Metal stacks telescoped into the sky like spires.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Carl said, sweeping his hand around in an arc, “the end of the world.”

And Tina thought that was exactly what it looked like: the end of the world.  She touched the pocket of her jeans, the outline of her cell phone visible there.  Ring, she thought.  Call me and let me know you’re all right.

Taylor said, “Don’t forget about Buford.  That’s the real end of the world.”

“You could be right,” Carl said.

“This reminds me of when we were kids.  Dad taking us up here.  Those were some good times.”

“Hell yeah, they were.”

In the backseat, Tina began to cry, but silently and to herself so Taylor and Carl wouldn’t see.  They still had hope, and she didn’t want to ruin it for them because her own hope, what little she had left, was running out.

Chapter 8

 The Mountains

With all that had happened over the last twenty-four hours, Taylor thought it was odd that they had so little to talk about.  He couldn’t help but feel that everything he said was forced; that he was creating noise if only to break the silence.  And that made him feel self-conscious.  He scoffed at the feeling.  Let it go, he thought.

For the next thirty miles the highway was remarkably free of obstruction.  They encountered two abandoned vehicles, both of which had been courteously parked on the shoulder of the road, almost bumper to bumper.

He caught himself taking abnormal breaths; quick shallow ones that weren’t at all satisfying to his lungs.  He noticed he started breathing that way whenever he got to thinking about whatever disease had affected all the people they had encountered.  It was mostly due to Tina suggesting that whatever it was might be airborne that brought on the brief fits.  He would think about how those same particles could be hovering in the air all around them now, and almost immediately his pattern of breathing would change.  As though somehow, if he was careful and didn’t pull air too deep into his lungs, he would be okay.

Carl saw him in the middle of one of his shallow-breathing sessions and said, “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.”

“You look like you can’t catch your breath.”  Carl let their speed drop as he watched Taylor with a concerned look.

“Keep going.  I’m fine,” Taylor said.  “I can breathe fine.”

“That’s not what it looks like.  Your asthma?”

“Yeah, but nothing serious.  It’ll only last for another minute or two.”  He sucked in a long breath to prove it.  He lied because it was less humiliating than telling the truth.  “See.”

“All right.  If you say so.  But let me know if you need me to stop.  It’s pretty isolated out here.  I’m starting to get the feeling that all those things have cleared out.  All traveled east on their hippie parade or whatever you want to call it.”  What he didn’t say was that he hoped he wouldn’t need to stop.  Rabid things or not, Angie was the focus of his mind.  The uncertainty was eating him up inside.  For some reason his mind had the most difficulty envisioning a scenario in which she was safe and sound, Angie and his mom and his dad all camped out around a fire somewhere in the mountains.  Instead, his mind insisted on showing him all the negative possibilities.

Taylor said, “We’re almost there.  Only a few more miles.  I’m nervous again, you know that?   I’m almost starting to think it would be better not to know one way or another.”

“I need to know,” Carl said.

Tina thought about her father and said, “I think it would be better to know.  When you know you can deal with it either way.  Not knowing, it kind of stays with you and you’re always wondering.  I keep thinking of my dad.”

It’s time to tell her, Taylor thought.  Maybe not right this second, but as soon as possible.  Otherwise that guilt could eat at you forever.

He was determined to tell her.  It was a promise to himself.  And he would do it…soon.  It all had to do with timing.

Tina could already see the forest up ahead.  She could also see the huge rock formations and could see why someone might mistake them for mountains.  She had a minor fear of heights.

Carl pointed.  “That’s what we call the mountains.”

“I think she’s smart enough to figure that out on her own,” Taylor said.

“Right.  Well, they aren’t much, but it’s what’s available.  A lot of people do their rockclimbing here.”

Carl turned onto the first path available; a narrow dirt road barely wide enough to support two-way traffic.  Carl drove slowly because of the road’s state of disrepair.  “The roads are shit,” he said.  “They have been for as long as we’ve been coming here.  Four-wheel drive is practically a necessity.”

“Will we make it in this?”  Tina asked.

“Yeah.  We can make it.  I don’t know if it rained out here last night, the ground looks pretty dry.  That’s a good thing.  Otherwise we’d probably get stuck.  I’ll take it slow and we should be okay.”

Tina took in her surroundings.  It would have been a beautiful place had the circumstances been different.  Her mind was a full plate, and it was difficult to appreciate the beauty around her.  She was too expectant of those rabid things to come running out from the trees.

“Where to start,” Taylor said.

“If Dad brought the boat, the lake is the best place to start.”

“That’s a good idea.”

Carl said, “That’s about two miles in.  We can drive most of the way.  When we get close it might be easier to walk the rest.  Usually the ground gets muddier the closer you get to the lake.  Just the way it is, so we don’t want to chance getting bogged down.  Search on foot.  We can come back for the stuff in the car.”

The dirt road curved to the left.  Tina felt like they were making a lazy circle and that they would end up in the same place they had started, but the road eventually curved to the right and then straightened.  The trees seemed to be closing in on them.

The giant rocks spiked up all around them.  They reached the top of a hill and Carl pulled as far over to the right side of the road as he could without hitting a tree.

“This ends the driving portion of the tour.  From this point on, we proceed by foot,” Carl said.  He killed the engine and stepped out of the car.  The others joined him.

“Do we need to take anything with us?” Tina asked.

“It’s about a mile to the lake.  Maybe a little less.”  He picked up the shotgun and then walked around to the trunk.  He opened one of the packs and placed several bottles of water into it.  “Besides the guns, it would probably be good if we each take some water.”

“You’re starting to get good at this,” Taylor said.  “Acting like a grown-up.”

Carl looked at his brother, smiled, and said, “Shut up.”

Taylor slid the gun into the waistband of his jeans, feeling the cold metal of the Glock resting at the small of his back.  He took the Ruger, slinging it over his shoulder, and grabbed one of the backpacks, filling it with water to the point that it was heavy, but still comfortable enough to carry.  He handed Tina the other rifle.

“What?  That’s all you’re giving me to carry?”

“You’re complaining?”

“If you’re taking it easy on me because I’m a girl then, yeah, I guess I am complaining.”

“Look.  It’s not a long walk.  Between Carl and me, we’ve got plenty of water for such a short trip.  On the other hand, if one of us gets tired, you can carry one of the packs for a while.”

Tina closed the trunk, noticing the smirk on Taylor’s face.  “You’re full of shit,” she said.

Taylor turned to Carl.  “Why does everybody keep saying that?”

“Because you are.”

“Right.  Anyway, if you’re still itching to carry something more, I’ll hand over my pack at the halfway point.  Fair enough?”

Taylor stopped and handed her the car keys.  “There.  You can carry those.  What they lack in weight they make up for in importance.  That makes it even.”

“You’re a dick,” she said, taking the keys anyway, and following them as they began the walk.

You don’t know the half of it, Taylor thought.

Tina glanced back at the Escort every so often.  It looked lonely sitting there along the side of the road; like an abandoned puppy.  It was also the first time she could readily admit that it had been a dependable vehicle and served her well over the last three years.  While unappealing to the eye, the fact that it had gotten them here was an endearing quality.  As they crested a hill she looked back once more before they descended the hill and the Ford vanished out of sight.  Instinctively, she thought it would be the last time she would see it.  She couldn’t explain why.

They traveled at a diagonal angle from the road.  “It’s faster,” Carl said.  “The road narrows some more and then curves around in a half-circle.  Without it being wet, you can usually make it with four-wheel drive.  This is kind of a shortcut because we can cut across instead of following the road all the way around.”

It was a leisurely hike.  Almost recreational.  At the halfway point, Taylor removed the pack and offered it to her.  “This is halfway.  You still interested in lugging this thing around?”

Tina, not wanting to contradict herself, took the pack and clumsily shouldered it.  Taylor adjusted the straps so that it rested snugly against her back.

“Okay?”

She nodded.

“Good enough.”

“It’s pretty up here,” Tina said.

“Yeah,” Taylor said.  “I’m surprised you haven’t been here before.”

“I may have been.  I just don’t remember coming here.  I think I’m more of a city girl.  Is that possible?  To be a city girl without ever having really lived in a big city?”

“I guess so.  I figured with you studying to be a vet that you would be more a country gal.  You know, live on a farm with horses.”

She shook her head.  “Nope.  Not for me.  I do like horses, though.”

Carl had been right.  The ground became damp, and as they progressed Tina could feel her shoes sinking into the mud.  If those things tried coming after us now it would be hard to outrun them, she thought.

They climbed a steep hill.  When they reached the top, Tina stopped, awed by the view.  Ahead of them, she saw the lake.  It wasn’t large by any stretch of the imagination, but it was a thing of startling beauty.  The water was dark and still.  The land surrounding it was decorated with large moss-covered rocks and trees.  It’s beautiful, she thought.

A boat sat in the center of the lake.

Even from this distance, they could tell that it was empty.

“That’s Dad’s boat all right,” Carl said.  “But where are they?  You don’t leave a boat sitting in the middle of a lake.  The only way out would be to swim to shore.  You think those things attacked them and they had to swim?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  Whatever happened, I don’t think they were attacked.  At least not while they were in the water.  Those things wouldn’t step foot in the water.  Right now, I’d say that boat is probably one of the safest places in the world.”

From most of what they had seen, Taylor thought it was sound logic, but he remembered how the rabid things hadn’t seemed to be bothered by the rain.  He hadn’t really thought about that, but it occurred to him now, making him a little uneasy.

“Then what?”

Taylor continued forward without saying anything.  They were careful coming down the hill.  The steepness and muddy terrain made it a precarious descent.  When he reached the bottom, Taylor removed the Glock from his waistband with every intention of using it should the need arise.

Taylor guessed it was something like fifty yards from shore to the center of the lake where the boat sat.  The boat rocked gently on the water.

“Should we swim for it?”

“Maybe later.”

“What if they left a note for us?” Carl said.

“Let’s have a look around first.”

He followed the edge of the lake.  On the opposite side, he found the remains of a campfire; a pile of twigs and broken branches charred into a black pile of ash.  Several twigs surrounded the campfire.  One end of each of the twigs had been sharpened to a point.  He said, “They camped here.  They used those twigs to eat.  Hot dogs or marshmallows would be my guess.”

Taylor picked up one of the twigs and examined it.  Carl stood behind him and said, “Abandoned?  Why would Dad leave the boat in the middle of the lake?”

“They might have decided to find higher ground.  Maybe the boat drifted out there on its own.”

“But it’s right by the lake.  What better place could there be?”

“The van isn’t here.  That’s a good sign.  Wherever they went, they took the van with them.”

“Or if they were attacked, the van could have been stolen.”

“I can’t see any of those things being able to drive.”

“No,” Tina said, “but I don’t think he was talking about the rabid things.  There are people that turned bad because of this disease or whatever it is going around, but there are also people that are just bad in general.  People that don’t have an excuse to be…they just are.

“Dad could have tied the boat off to one of those trees.  You know how it is around here.  It can get windy as hell.  Maybe the knot was loose to begin with.  So the boat gets loose and eventually drifts to the center of the lake.  Nothing mysterious about that.

“The other thing is that we know dad packed most of his guns.”  He looked down at the ground surrounding the abandoned campfire.  “I’m no expert, but I don’t see any signs of a struggle.  There are footprints around the fire where they would have sat.  There are more that go that way, which is probably where he parked the van.  Some faint ones that travel in that direction.  To me it looks like they lead up to one of those trees over there.  That’s where he could have tied the boat off.”

“I don’t see any rope,” Carl said.

“That doesn’t mean anything.  So the knot came undone from the tree.  The rope went with the boat.”

Carl wanted to say that something about his brother’s theory didn’t gel, but it wasn’t that as much as simple pessimism.  The reality of the situation was that it was hard to believe that such a simple explanation existed.  His mind insisted that it must be something far worse.

“I don’t see what’s so hard to understand about what I’m saying.  We know Dad brought guns with him.  So he had one for sure.  Chances are, he gave one to Mom and probably  Angie, too.  Mom at least knows how to use a rifle.  You think somebody attacked them and wouldn’t leave a trace that anything happened?”

“Someone could have surprised them.  Snuck up on them.”

Taylor trudged through the mud and climbed a small hill.  He sat down on a boulder that was partially buried in the ground and stared in the direction of the lake.

Carl said, “I pissed him off.”

“Should I go talk to him?”

“No.  Let him chill for a minute.  You can’t talk to him when he’s like that.  It’s a funny thing.  Growing up, he never took to any of the same things that my dad and I were interested in.  Dad would take him hunting, but Taylor didn’t have any interest in it.  Didn’t like hurting animals.  I’m the one that grew up tagging along with Dad everywhere he went.  I’ve got the same hobbies.  Taylor’s kind of the black sheep.  A real loner.  It’s almost like he’s adopted.  I mean, he’s not.  I’m just sayin’.  I don’t think my dad could ever relate to him.  But personality wise, it’s a whole different ballgame.  If you compared personalities, my dad’s and brother’s would be almost identical.  They’re both stubborn as hell.  Same sense of humor.  And it’s like he’s just starting to realize that.  I think it’s hard for him.”  Carl paused for a moment.  “I hope Angie’s all right.”

“I keep thinking about my dad,” Tina said.   A tear ran down her cheek.  “I don’t think he made it, Carl.  I think he’s dead.”

“Doesn’t do you any good thinking like that.”

“But that’s reality.  He’s probably dead  Should I kid myself and go on pretending he might be out there somewhere?”

“How do you know you’re kidding yourself?  You hope that he is still alive.  You keep that belief alive until you have proof that the truth is something different.  I couldn’t just give up like that.”

“Or you could be setting yourself up for heartache.”

“There’s heartache either way.  That’s the shitty thing about not knowing.”

“Maybe we should just drop it.  Talking about it just makes me upset.”

“You started it.”

“Yes.  And I reserve the right to end it.  I’d just rather not talk about it anymore.”

Carl thought about adding something else but stopped himself.  It looked like the slightest nudge might push her over the edge.  Beautiful or not, he had no intention of dealing with a hysterical woman.  Maybe throwing a big fit was exactly what she needed, but this didn’t seem like the time or the place to deal with something like that.

Carl sat down next to his brother.  “If your plan is to just sit here and stare at that boat the rest of the day then it’s not a very good one.  No offense.”

“I’m trying to figure it out,” Taylor said.  “I don’t think they were attacked.  The signs aren’t there.  The footprints in the mud aren’t erratic.  No blood.  I checked over there at the top of the hill.  I found tire tracks.  Probably from the van.  Obviously, I never stopped to see what his tire patterns looked like, but they’re too big to be from a car.”

“Okay.  So maybe you’re right.  They weren’t attacked.  Then what’s eating at you?”

Taylor pointed in the direction of the boat.  “That.  It’s the one thing that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Like you said, Dad didn’t tie it off well enough.  Thing floated out to the middle of the lake.”

“I know I said it, but I don’t really believe it.  Dad would have tied it down right.”

“What if he had Mom do it?  Or Angie even?  I’m not sure Angie could have tied a sturdy knot to save her life.”

“Dad would have wanted to do it himself.  And even if he did have one of them do it, he definitely would have checked their work.  You know that.”

“If Dad didn’t mess up, and they weren’t attacked, then what other explanation is there?”

“That’s why it doesn’t make any sense.”  Taylor reached over, picked up a stick, and used it to doodle in the mud.  “I don’t see one.”

Carl stood up.  He stripped off his shirt, his pants, and finally his shoes and socks.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m swimming out to the boat.”  His bare feet sank into the mud.  It was an odd sensation.  “Maybe there’s a note or a clue or something.”

“Are you kidding?  It’s cold enough without being soaking wet to boot.”

“It’ll be fine.  Only take a couple of minutes.”

“Water’s probably freezing.”

“Then I’ll swim fast.  Get my blood pumping.”

“I’m telling you, you’ll freeze.”

“You can hold me.”  Carl smiled at him.

“That’s not happening.”

“Don’t worry.  I’ll figure it out.”  Carl, wearing only his boxer briefs, charged towards the water and plunged in.  He disappeared under the surface briefly and then poked up ten yards farther out, rubbing water from his eyes and shouting.  “Damn!  It’s fucking cold!”

“No shit!”  Taylor said.

Tina walked to the edge of the lake.  “What is he doing?”

“He thinks he’ll find a clue on the boat.”

“Does he want to get hypothermia?”

“That’s what I said.  I don’t think he cares.  It’s how stupid people act in a survival situation.  Start taking needless risks.”  Taylor watched as his brother swam out to the boat.  Carl had passed the halfway point.  He was beginning to wish he had been the one to take that swim.  Whatever Tina thought about his brother’s mental state, he could see by the look on her face that she had a sense of admiration for what he was doing.

“Maybe he’ll find something,” she said.

“We can only hope.”

“You think he’ll make it?”

“Oh, I know he’ll make it.  He’s an excellent swimmer.”

Carl tired near the end.  When Carl reached the boat, his arms were like flubber.  Out of practice, he thought.  It was a struggle to lift himself up into the boat.

Now that he was no longer submerged in water, the cold air froze his skin.  He shivered.  His fingers felt stiff and clumsy when he tried to move them.

A cooler sat in the center of the boat.  He opened it.  It was filled with bottles of water that had been packed in a bed of ice.

It’s been sitting here long enough for the ice to melt completely.

The only other object in the boat was a walkie-talkie.  He picked it up and switched it on.  A red LED at the top next to the volume knob let him know that it still had power.

Moving to the back of the boat, he tried to get the motor started.  It started the same way many lawnmowers started.  There was a handle attached to a long retractable cord.  He yanked on the cord.  Nothing happened.  He tried again.  Nothing.  On the third try, he heaved on it and the motor coughed briefly before dying.

“Come on, baby.  You know you want to start.”  He used both hands, drew the cord back rapidly, and the motor grumbled to life.  “Thank you, God!”

He drove the boat back to shore.  When he was several feet from land, he grabbed the small anchor that lay atop a coil of rope on the floor of the boat.  He motioned for the others to stand clear and tossed the anchor onto the land.  He jumped out of the boat and said, “I guess we can rule out the idea that Dad tied the boat off.  That’s the only rope on the boat and it’s attached to the anchor.”

Carl was shivering.  Tina had gathered up his clothes from the ground.  She handed them to him.  “You better put these back on before you freeze to death.”

Taylor said, “What did you find?”

“Wait a sec.”  He finished dressing (his socks were a considerable hassle to get on due to his feet being wet) and climbed back into the boat.  He returned with the walkie-talkie.  “Better than a note.”

Taylor examined the walkie-talkie.  “It still has power,” he said, pointing to the LED.  He turned the volume knob as high as it would go.  He pressed the button on the side of the walkie-talkie and spoke into it.  He felt self-conscious, like a child playing with a toy.  “Hello?  Can anybody hear me?  Hello?  Hello?  Dad, can you hear me?”

Silence.

“Why would they leave one and take the other?” Tina asked.  “Do you think they forgot?”

“Assuming they have the other,” Taylor said.  “They may have lost that one, too.  Could be at the bottom of the lake for all we know.”  He spoke into the walkie-talkie again.

“Maybe they’re out of range,” Carl said.

“It’s a possibility.  These aren’t the cheapest ones I’ve seen, but they’re not great.  I think the range is something like three to five miles.  And five miles is probably stretching it.  I don’t know how much area this place covers for sure.  If they’re still here and theirs is working, then they should hear us.”

“You think they might have left?”

Taylor scanned the area around him solemnly.  He didn’t answer.  The truth was he didn’t have an answer.

“Taylor?  You listening to me?  I asked if you think they left or not.”

What would Dad do?  He wouldn’t come here and just leave.  He wouldn’t leave his boat in the middle of a lake, either.  Not on purpose.  So where the hell are they?

Taylor made another half-hearted effort to reach them on the walkie-talkie.  “Hello?  Are you guys out there?  Anybody?”

Nothing happened.  Taylor was about to turn the walkie-talkie off when static issued from it.  The three of them huddled together.

“Did you hear that?”

“Yeah.  Static.”

“There it is again.”

Tina said, “Is that somebody talking?  I can’t tell.”

“Hello?  Is somebody there?”

Another short burst of static.  Taylor thought he heard someone’s voice buried underneath the static.

“If you can hear me, you’re coming through really garbled.”

There was silence for a full minute.  Taylor was ready to write the sound off as a figment of his imagination when the walkie-talkie squawked and a distinctly female voice came through.

You’re not imagining that, Taylor thought.

“Hello?  Taylor?  Is that you?”

“It’s Angie!” Carl said.  “I can tell the sound of her voice.”  He snatched the walkie-talkie from Taylor’s hand and spoke into it.  “Angie, baby, it’s me, Carl.  Are you okay?  Where are you?”

“Carl?  I’m so scared.”

“I know, baby.  I know.  I’m here now.  Where are you?”

“I’m not sure.  Lots of trees.  Those things...”

Tina said, “There are trees all over the place.  How are we going to find her based on that?”

“Baby, are you okay?”

Another burst of static.  Angie’s voice was garbled when it came over the walkie-talkie.  “Things.”

“What did she say?”

“I don’t know.  I couldn’t understand it.”

“Ask her where Mom and Dad are?”

“Angie, honey, are my Mom and Dad with you?”

“No…sep…ar…ated.  Those…things…”

“She’s breaking up bad.”

“Angie?”

Carl kept trying, but hisses of static were the only response.

“Dammit, we lost her,” Taylor said.

“Fuck!  We’ve gotta find her.  She’s out there.  Alive.  We have to get to her.”

“I know.  That’s exactly what we’re going to do.  We need to think this through for a minute.”

“That’s your answer to everything!  We don’t have time to think!

“You hear yourself?  That’s a pretty fucking stupid thing to say.  Don’t have time to think?  Jesus Christ.”

“What if we all split up?  Go in different directions?  One of us would be bound to find her?”

“We’re not doing anything like that.  We’re sticking together.  Splitting up is a very bad idea.”

“She’s out there, bro.  By herself.”

“I know.  She was pretty broken up over the walkie-talkie.  That means there was something interfering with the transmission or she’s almost out of range.  Or both.  Let’s think about this logically.  Going south is out of the question.  That’s the way we came in.  We’d hit the highway before the walkie was out of range.  That narrows it down a little.”

“Why don’t we just follow the tire tracks?” Tina said.

Taylor glanced at Carl and shrugged, both of them a tad embarrassed for having overlooked something so obvious.

“Stands as good a chance as any.”

Carl was still shivering badly.  His lips were a dark purple.

“We’ll follow the tire tracks,” Taylor said.  “For as long as it seems like the right thing to do.  But do we go back for the car first?”

“That’ll waste too much time.”

Taylor handed Tina his rifle.  “Take this.  You two start following the tracks.  I’ll go back for the car.”

Tina looked at him incredulously and said, “You were the one who just got done saying that splitting up was a bad idea.”

“I know what I said, but I don’t see any other way.  All of our supplies are in the car.  The farther we get from it, the slimmer the chance we’ll get back to it.  I’ll run back.  I can do it in ten minutes.  I’ll catch up with the two of you.”

“I thought the whole reason we went on foot was because we couldn’t get here in the car.”

“Well, as far as I knew we couldn’t.  I was aware that a trail started up again to the north of the lake, but I didn’t know of any way to get to the lake other than on foot.”

“I think it’s connected somewhere to the west,” Carl said.

“I always thought that was a dead end.”

“They might have opened it up.  How long has it been since we’ve been up here?  Years?  We need to get started.  Get the car.  Find your way back here.  I’m going to find Angie.”

Taylor couldn’t argue with his brother’s determination.  “You okay to keep carrying that pack?  It’ll just slow me down if I take it.”

“I’ll be all right,” Tina said.  She handed him the car keys.  “You’ll need these.”

“Good thing you remembered.  Stay on the path.  Or at least within shouting distance of it.  I’ll catch up with you as soon as I can.  Be careful.”

He watched as Carl started down the path, following the tire tracks as they curved with the road until it straightened and led north.  Tina followed him.  She looked back once at him and smiled nervously.  He waved at her and she waved back.  His mind hadn’t changed from earlier: splitting up was a terrible idea.  He could think of dozens of movies that illustrated that point.  As he turned and started to sprint in the direction they had left the Escort, all he could do was hope that the outcome would be different in real life.

Chapter 9

 The Search

Taylor hadn’t taken into account the uneven terrain and the fact that the bottom of his shoes were laden with mud.  The extra weight caused him a noticeable increase in effort.  A distance that should have taken him ten minutes at a rather leisurely jog ended up costing him nearly twenty.

The Ford was there as they had left it.  He unlocked the driver’s side door and removed the Glock from his waistband before sliding into the seat.  He started the car, listened to the engine idle, evaluating his choices.  Which way?  The road ahead of him led to a dead end; he could see where it abruptly ended and turned into nothing but hills and forest.  The only way was to backtrack.  Turn the car around and take the first right he came to, and hope that it either curved around or that there was an intersecting road that would cross paths with the one Carl and Tina had taken.

You should know this kind of stuff, he thought.

Taylor turned the car around.  Half a mile later, he turned right on a road that eventually formed a gradual curve that took him in a northerly direction.

The road ended at a T intersection.  There was a sign posted in the road just before the intersection, blocking him from going any farther.  ROAD CLOSED: September-April.

He exited the car.

The sign had a heavy metal base.  He grabbed the sign from the side and began tugging it toward the side of the road, creating enough room for him to maneuver around it.

Man, I hope it’s this simple, he thought.

Carl slowed his pace when he noticed Tina falling behind.  He tried the walkie-talkie every minute or so, and it was all he could do to keep himself from breaking into a run.  Not that running would have done him any good.

Angie was out here somewhere.  And, most importantly, she was alive.  A queasy feeling erupted in the pit of his stomach.

When Tina caught up to him, she said, “Thanks.  You were walking too fast for me.  I couldn’t keep up.”

“It’s all right.  Just anxious I guess.”

That’s the understatement of the year isn’t it?

“I don’t blame you.”

Carl tried the walkie-talkie again.  He received a momentary hiss of static in response.  Might be a good sign, he thought.

He spoke into the radio.  “Angie, if you can hear me, we’re coming.  If you can, try to find a way to signal us.  I love you, baby.”

Another hiss of static.

“Is that her do you think?”

“Could be.  Or it could just be static.”

The dirt path curved to the left and then to the right again.  Gradually, the ground became less muddy, and in places it became difficult to make out the tire tracks.  He figured they had been following the tracks for nearly a mile, never falling below a rapid walk unless it was to allow Tina to catch up to him.

“How far does this road go?”

“A few miles, I guess.”

The prospect of walking several miles exhausted her completely.  She hoped that Taylor would catch up to them in the car sooner rather than later.

“I wish she would answer,” Carl said.  “That we were getting more than static.  We’ve got to be getting closer right?  So why isn’t this thing working?  We heard her when we were by the lake.  Why not now?”

“Taylor thought it was interference of some kind.  She might be moving the same way we are.”

“It sounded like she was talking about those things.  Something about being separated.  What if they’re after her?  What if we’re too late?”

 “We haven’t seen any of the rabid things since the ones on the interstate.  That’s a good thing.”

The path seemed to narrow as they went.  Huge stones peppered the landscape.

In a feeble attempt to distract Carl from his thoughts, Tina said, “It’s pretty up here.  How long did you say it’s been since you were up here last?”

Carl pointed to the ground.  “Look.  The tracks leave the road here.  See?  They curve and head that way.”

So much for that idea, Tina thought.

“Do you see them?”

“Yes.”

“They must have headed for those rocks over there.”

“Could they get a car through there?  It looks rough.”

Carl followed the tracks.  The ground was solid, rocky, and strewn with leaves.  The tracks became faint.  Fifty yards later, they vanished completely.

“They can’t just disappear can they?”

Carl stomped his foot on the ground.  His foot didn’t leave a mark.

“There’s no give to the ground.  Not like there was when we were closer to the lake.  And it doesn’t look there’s much rain up here.  The ground is hard and rocky.  The tires didn’t leave marks.”

“What do we do?”

“Keep heading this way.

“How far away is that?”

“Maybe a mile, maybe a little more.”

Tina felt like her legs might give out at any moment, but she continued to trudge onward.

It didn’t take him long to realize why they kept that particular road closed.  It hadn’t been properly maintained.  Taylor thought it probably bore some similarities to what it would be like to drive across the cratered surface of the moon.  The Escort wasn’t faring well.

He had to take it at a crawl.  The needle on the speedometer hovered anywhere between five and twenty miles-per-hour.  It felt like an eternity.  Taylor was frustrated at having to move at such a slow rate when every fiber of his being was screaming at him to hurry the hell up.

But there was always the reality of it: if he hit any one of the potholes going too fast, Tina’s car would be finished.

I’ve got to be close to the lake by now, he thought.  It wasn’t that far.

He was hoping to see it up ahead, but the trees were distributed densely in the area to his right, making it impossible to see anything past them.

The road curved slightly to the right.  He skirted another pothole.

His mind was preoccupied with the mystery of the boat.  It was hard to grasp.  In his mind, he saw the image of it sitting forlornly in the middle of the still lake.  His theory had been wrong.  There was no evidence suggesting that it had floated out there by accident.

Admit it.  They abandoned the boat.  That’s the only explanation.

It went against everything they knew about the rabid things.  If his parents and Angie had been in danger from them, then the safest place would have been inside the boat.  Those things wouldn’t go in the water.

Or had they purposely left the boat there so that the walkie-talkie could be found.  It was such a small lake, a solitary boat floating in the center of it stuck out like a sore thumb.  Had his father known they would come to find them and that the boat would catch their attention?  Wasn’t it also odd that there had been nothing else in the boat other than the walkie-talkie?  Almost as if it had been left on purpose.  If all of that had been part of his father’s elaborate plan, then it had worked.

The only reason to leave the walkie-talkie was to communicate.  Maybe his father had a hiding place and leaving the walkie-talkie for them to find was the means by which he could give them directions.  Somehow his mom and dad had been separated from Angie, and Angie had the walkie-talkie.  He had been able to figure that much out from Angie’s static-filled transmission.

These thoughts reminded him of the urgency of the matter.  Driving along at fifteen miles-per-hour was agonizing, but it couldn’t be helped.  He couldn’t take the chance of losing their only means of transportation.

 Then, to his right, the lake was visible through the trees.  As the trees fell away, he could see the boat exactly where they had left it.  The dirt road followed the northern side of the lake and then curved to the left, unwinding to the north.  He had to squint to make out the tire tracks from inside the car.  He rolled down the window.

Almost there, he thought.

The terrain had grown more rugged since they had left the path.  The ground was rocky, and Tina’s slip-on shoes were thin enough to make it seem as though she was walking barefoot over every branch and rock.  The pack on her back was growing heavy.  Don’t complain.  You asked for it.  With a sense of purposefulness, she pursed her lips together and carried on, watching Carl’s back as she followed behind him.

The two of them hadn’t spoken since they had diverged from the road.  She was afraid that if she opened her mouth to speak, she would only end up complaining about the weight of the pack or the condition of her shoes.  She didn’t want to come off as whiny; she didn’t want to sound like most other girls she knew.

A change had come over Carl since he had heard Angie over the walkie-talkie.  He had become solemn and preoccupied.  His withdrawal scared her a little.  He kept talking into the walkie-talkie.  He would say different things, but it was almost like he knew he was only talking to himself but doing it anyway.  He would say things like It’s okay, baby.  I’m coming for you or I love you so much, honey.  The constant repetition of it gave the words a chant-like quality that Tina found disquieting.  Especially since the only response was a transitory burst of static.

As part of her studies, she had been required to take a course in psychology.  They had covered stuff like this.  In certain extreme conditions a person’s mind could snap as easily as someone stepping on a twig.  She wondered if that was what was happening to Carl.

“Can you slow down a little?” she asked.  “I can’t keep up.”

Carl didn’t respond, but he slowed down until she caught up with him.  Tina came up beside him, looked at his face and tried to judge his condition.  His face was blank.  He brought the walkie-talkie up to his lips and whispered something into it.  Pretty soon he’ll start hearing voices coming back through that thing when there aren’t any, she thought.  When that starts happening, that’s when you’re going to have to be on your guard.

Despite having covered another half mile, the looming rocks appeared as far away and unattainable as they had twenty minutes ago.  It’s like they’re moving away from us.

“They don’t seem to be getting any closer,” she said, once again trying to spur him into conversation if for no other reason than to gauge his state of mind.

Carl said, “It’s always like that.  But we’re making progress.  Trust me.”  He picked up his pace.  “It’s a kind of illusion.  You can’t focus on the peaks.  The highest ones are actually the farthest away.  The trick is to let your eyes follow the ground.”

Tina trailed a few behind him, focusing her gaze on the ground directly in front of her.  The rocks still seemed a long way off, but she trusted that he knew what he was talking about.

“Maybe another mile,” he said.  “Tops.  From here it seems pretty open, but up close there are plenty of hiding places.”

“Caves?”

“No caves.  Not that I know of anyway.”

She was glad to have him talking again.  It helped to keep her imagination in check.

Carl tried the walkie-talkie again.  When there was no response, he fiddled with the volume knob.  He tried a second time, and this time the burst of static sounded oddly like a high-pitched human voice.

“Baby?  Was that you?  If you can hear me, say something...anything.  Even if it’s just one word.”

Nothing.

Carl brought the arm holding the walkie-talkie back, looking as if he were about to launch it into space, but then thought better of it.

“This is bullshit!  She’s alone out here and I’m too dumb to know how to find her.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.  You’re doing the best you can.”

“Yeah?  And what if that’s not good enough?”

“It has to be, Carl,” she said.  “That’s all there is.”

He made a disgusted look and stuffed the walkie-talkie into his back pocket.  He said, “Let’s just concentrate on getting there.  We don’t need to talk.”

I think he’s losing it, she thought.

The tire tracks ended.  Gone.  He parked the car along the side of the road and stepped out, inspecting the tracks as they veered to the right, disappearing when they reached the rocky soil where the road ended.

Taylor stood next to a tree, running his palm down the rough bark, gazing ahead in the direction of the rocks.  No way to go off-roading with this.

He spotted them far ahead in the distance.  If the distance between them hadn’t been uncharacteristically flat, he would have missed them.  They were little more than blurry specks, but Carl and Tina stood out among the more subdued tones of the landscape.

His first thought was: I brought the car for nothing.  All that time wasted to go back for the car and I can’t even get to them.

And then he saw something else in the distance as well, hidden amongst the trees like the secret figures in an illusionist’s paintings.

Then he started to scream.

Chapter 10

 The End of the Road

Carl heard a twig snap.

“Did you hear something?” he asked, pulling the walkie-talkie from his pocket and holding it up to his ear.

“No.  Why?”

“I thought I did.”  He spoke Angie’s name into the walkie-talkie to no avail.

Another sound.  The squishy, crackling sound of feet trampling over brittle leaves.

“Oh my God!”  Tina screamed.

He glanced at her, following the direction of her gaze, and immediately saw what all the fuss was about: a group of rabid things seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.

Carl registered them like a man in the kind of dream where you’re cognizant of the face that you’re dreaming; with the stunted sense of urgency that comes with realizing you are not in any real danger.

But the danger in front of him was real.

He thought he heard another sound in the distance.  Something far away.  A voice perhaps?

His first thought was that it was that the group of the rabid things was surprisingly small.  After witnessing the strange migration on the interstate, he expected to see them in larger numbers.  His mind calculated quickly.  On first sweep, he counted a dozen.  They stood in a haphazard line.  Some of them were wearing mountain climbing gear.  Forty yards away.

Then he heard the voice clearly.  He turned and saw Taylor standing beside the car, hands cupped around his mouth, shouting at them.

Carl heard the rustle of leaves and didn’t need to look to know the rabid things were running towards them.  He grabbed Tina by the arm and said, “Run!

She was slow.  It took Carl a moment to realize that the pack on her back was weighing her down.

“Drop the pack.”

“What?”

“Leave the fucking backpack!”

She shrugged the pack from her shoulders in one fluid motion.  The pack hit the ground, sending up a spray of leaves.

Over the walkie-talkie, Angie’s voice said, “Carl?  Where are you?”

Carl heard his name called over the walkie-talkie and tried pulling it from his back pocket.  He was running full speed, one hand around Tina’s wrist.  He fumbled with the radio and it fell to the ground.  He let go of Tina’s wrist and stopped.

“What are you doing?”

“I dropped the radio.”

“Leave it.”

“I heard Angie.”  He stooped down, rummaging through the leaves, pushing piles of them aside with his arms, frantically searching for the fallen radio.  He heard it squawk again, and Angie’s voice calling for him.

“Carl!”

It was the type of mistake that didn’t allow for second chances.

They descended on him, ripping and tearing at him before he could scream, and even then his arms were stretched out toward the spot where the walkie-talkie had suddenly appeared on top of the leaves.  The pain was swift and unbearable.

Angie’s voice over the radio: Carl, where are you?  I love you.  Please say something.

Carl felt his flesh being torn and shredded; felt an oozy warmth slide down his body.  He closed his eyes.

He was almost grateful that the last sound he heard was Angie’s voice coming over the walkie-talkie.

Taylor saw his brother stop and stoop to the ground.

What the fuck is he doing?

He watched Tina hesitate, but only for a moment, and then she started running toward him again.

Taylor ran.  He’s out of his mind, he thought.  Damn fucking moron!

He and Tina passed each other.  She was screaming.  She seemed to not even notice him as they passed one another.  Taylor’s heart was beating so fast he thought it would thump right out of his chest.

He arrived too late.  The rabid things had Carl and had destroyed him within seconds.

Taylor felt rage take over.  A shouting voice that spoke only the language of fury, drowning out the quiet and rational voice that whispered for him to run.

He pulled the Glock from his waistband and fired, hitting several of them, but missing most out of carelessness.

After the Glock was empty, he picked up a sturdy branch from the ground and swung at one of the rabid things that had hold of his brother.  He caught the rabid man in the neck and its head tilted severely to one side.  Another one of them hissed and lunged at him.  Taylor struck him across the face with the branch, caving in the side of the thing’s face.

They dropped what remained of Carl.  Taylor stood next to the body, swinging the branch back-and-forth wildly, trying desperately to protect his brother.

Carl was dead.  There was no question of that.

Taylor struck a woman this time, raking the end of the branch across her mouth and tearing open her lips so that her teeth were exposed.

One of them grabbed him from behind.  Taylor flailed around like a captured animal, throwing his head back so the back of his skull collided with the rabid thing’s face.

He felt pain erupt at the back of his neck; thick wetness.  He collapsed to his knees, still managing to cling to the branch, his brother clearly visible on the ground two feet in front of him.

This is it, he thought.  All the things he had ever hoped to do in his life occurred to him within the span of a single second.  His hands grew too weak to maintain his hold on the branch.  Dark blotches crowded his vision, seeping in from the corners and working their way to the center until his vision was clouded completely.  This is it.  It was a hard fact to accept.

They were on him, dragging him to the ground face first.  He tasted dirt and smelled the mustiness of brittle dead leaves.

Taylor was stubborn.  Like his father.  He continued to struggle, fighting death with the bullheadedness he was known for.  However, in the end, it was a losing battle.

Tina refused to look back.

She reached the car, sat down in the driver’s seat and closed the door, listening to the whine of the engine.  She had stopped screaming.  Her hands gripped the steering wheel, shaking with the vibration of the engine.

She put the car in drive, mashed down on the accelerator, and pulled the car around so that she was headed back in the direction of the lake.  By the time she could see the lake up ahead, the needle of the speedometer rested at the sixty miles-per-hour mark.

She didn’t see the pothole.  The Escort’s right front tire caught it with enough force to allow it to go airborne, coming down and issuing a brief scream as the tire went flat.  Tina slammed the brakes and the back end fishtailed.  One of the rear tires skidded onto the embankment that marked the place where one side of the road ended.  She pressed down on the accelerator as hard as she could, but the car refused to move.

“No!”  She pounded her fists against the steering wheel.  “Noooooo!”  Tina drew the word out, screaming it until her breath was gone.  She threw open the car door, running toward the lake.  Behind her, the rabid things followed the road.  They were far back, but they were tireless and relentless and Tina was familiar with the futility of trying to outrun them; knew that they would keep coming long after she was unable to run any longer.

The boat was where they had left it.

Water, she thought.  They can’t stand the water.

Her mind raced frantically.  She was all alone now and the knowledge of that ate away any sanity she had left.

Tina reached the boat.  Her shoes sunk into the mud, and she felt water squishing between her toes.  She pushed on the front of the boat hoping to set it free from the shore.  At first, nothing happened; it was an immovable object.  The boat had worn a deep groove into the dirt where it rested on the shore.

She planted her feet roughly shoulder-width apart and squatted down, already feeling the burn in her thighs as she placed her hands on the boat.  She lifted up and pushed at the same time, grunting with the effort, aware that the boat was moving ahead an inch at a time.

They have got to be close.  She didn’t dare glance behind her.

Gathering herself, finding her footing, pushing off the slick mud as best she could, she heaved a final time, letting a burst of breath out as she did.  The boat came free of the shore.  It slid into the lake and she hurried to climb into it before it floated out of reach.  Her shoes were heavy with mud.  She kicked them off and managed to climb into the boat, hauling the anchor hand-over-hand, wondering how something so small could be so heavy.  The rope went taut, and at first the weight was too great for her to manage.  She heaved again, and the anchor moved a foot, digging a shallow trench in the muddy shore.  Tina pulled five more times before the anchor was close enough to be hauled into the boat.  With this accomplished, she leaned back trying to catch her breath.

The boat drifted slowly.

The rabid things reached the lake, giving it a cautious birth as they stood along the shore watching her.

Hours passed that way.  They seemed never to tire of standing or watching or waiting.  She removed her cell phone from her pocket.  It was nothing more than an overpriced clock now, but she used it to keep track of the time.

She thought: How long can they wait there?  Until they starve to death?  Can they starve to death?

It was hard not to think of the two brothers that she had known ever so briefly, but she had fallen in love with each of them in separate yet distinct ways.  Maybe the circumstances had contributed to that.  In fact, she knew they had.  Her mind replayed the memory of her running away in a continuous loop.  Taylor running towards her and past her as he ran for his brother and she, like a coward, ran for the car.  The shame of that cut deep.  There was nothing you could have done, she thought, but it did little to alleviate her guilt.

The sky darkened, and with it came a biting wind that rocked the boat gently, sending hypnotic ripples through the water.  She admonished herself for not having had the foresight to at least grab one of the sleeping bags.

Being able to see the car was a kind of torture.  Her little Ford Escort that had seen better days represented so many things at once; warmth, food, travel…a way out.  And now it sat at a strange angle, utterly useless.

By seven-thirty, night had descended.  The sky was clear and full of stars.  Funny, she thought, how you start to appreciate things after it’s too late.

The starlight provided enough ambient light for her to see the rabid things hovering at the water’s edge.  She knew they would wait.  She had once had a cat that would keep a vigil for hours outside a small space between the kitchen cabinets and the stove because it had seen a mouse scurry into it.

She hugged herself.  The wind had died down, but it was still cold and her breath hung on the air.

The car might as well have been a million miles away.  It was a fossil now; the corpse of a prehistoric insect.  But there was food and warmth still tucked away inside of it.  She could envision the sleeping bags stacked on one side of the backseat and the box of food sitting on the floorboard.

If this is happening all over the planet, that car might sit there forever.

Tina didn’t notice the subtle change; oblivious to the moment her resignation set in.  The Escort was far away, and any plans of escape left her as she stared into the lake, hypnotized by the reflection of the stars and the way they moved in the gently rippling water.  She stared at them and thought they was beautiful.  She pushed her survival instincts far back in her mind until the feeling was something she could only glimpse now and then.  Doing that gave her a remarkable sense of peace.  Giving up made it all easier somehow.

Escape.  It felt like she had departed her own body; that suddenly, she had gained an aerial view of the situation, soaring high above as she looked down on the group of rabid things which stood silently and motionlessly along the shore.  As time passed, more of them trickled in, joining the others.

And she saw the lone girl in a boat drifting out to the center of the lake.

How long could she last out here in the cold and without food?  The thought was a fleeting one.

Tina stared into the rippling water.  She thought she could go on staring at it forever.

Coming Soon

Last Summer

During the summer of 1993, Zach and his friends set out to have one final adventure before they start high school.  But instead, they accidentally stumble upon the entrance to hell.  Now they must go to battle with an ancient evil which threatens to destroy their small Iowa town.  The battle begins April 2012.

To learn more about the author please visit:

http://www.jwbouchard.com