Authors: Christopher Fulbright,Angeline Hawkes
Dejah scrounged the extra-large men’s coat from her sleeping pile and put it on, pushing up the sleeves. She stuck the revolver into the coat pocket and seized the heavy duffle bag. Taking one last look around the trashed convenience store, she grabbed a cold soda for the road, and, using the dead clerk’s keys, unlocked the front door.
Knees pressed to his forehead, arms wrapped tight around bony shins, Shaun’s body shook with tremors from the cold. His head was a flood of images, memories of the past few days fading to thoughts and fears. The tollbooth for the Mountain Creek Lake bridge in Grand Prairie, Texas wasn’t exactly the place he envisioned he’d be when he finally bit the big one. Though he hadn’t spent a lot of time th
nking about dying or where he’d be or how old he’d be, he
know that he never imagined he’d be fetal on the floor of a tollbooth with a mob of flesh-eating zombie-like creatures waiting to disembowel him for a midnight snack. And that’s what sucked about the whole thing.
Sure, it sucked that he was going to have to die, and die pretty horribly if those things out there had their way and managed to crack the glass of the booth, but somehow it sucked even more that he was going to die
Well, except for Scooter. Scooter actually had a better chance of surviving considering he had dogteeth, but enough of those infected assholes out there could bring down an elephant if they wanted to. Shaun felt Scooter’s coarse wet tongue lick his ear and cheek, drawing him from his self-imposed stupor.
“I love you, too, boy,” he said, rubbing behind Scooter’s velvety ears. Scooter whined softly. “I wish I could tell you it was going to be okay, but I don’t think it’s gonna be. Not this time.”
Shaun unlatched his arms from his legs and leaned against the lower wall of the tollbooth, looking up so he could see the surveillance monitors streaming their grainy, black and white images of the roadway. The zombies were lumbering around the stopped cars, falling over the already dead and mangled bodies left on the street. Occasionally one of the smarter ones grasped a door handle and gave it a yank or two before lurching onward toward another vehicle in pursuit of warm flesh. Some of them knew he was holed up in here, but those particular fiends had wandered off for now — hopefully, forgetting their prey was inside. Shaun sighed. Scooter looked at him with a questioning gaze.
He opened a drawer beneath a computer keyboard and moved pens and tablets of paper around looking for a candy bar or something. His stomach rumbled, reminding him how long it had been since he last ate. He’d eaten everything in the backpack his mother had packed. Now all that remained was a roll of paper towels and some wet wipes.
I can’t believe I’m thinking about food
. Shaun frowned. Well, just because everyone he knew was dead, didn’t make him any less hungry. He was still alive.
“I’m still alive,” Shaun muttered to Scooter. The dog slapped the ground with his tail.
A week ago the worst thing he could imagine was never having a girlfriend again. Now, he was living a nightmare that far surpassed anything he could’ve cooked up even in his most fanciful dreams. It all started with that airplane exploding on their way home from the game against Greenville Christian Academy. When people started coughing and feeling sick before they even got home, Coach laughed and said they must have picked up something from the Greenville team. Coach wasn’t laughing when they had to pull the bus alongside the curb at the ER and start calling parents.
Coach was dead before morning. The doctors said it was a heart attack, but Shaun had his suspicions. Now, everyone on that bus was dead, except him. He didn’t even get a case of the sniffles. But then the world went crazy and everyone started getting sick. His family was one of the lucky few. Or so they’d thought at the time. When everything started going to Hell, they packed up their Suburban and headed out of town. Everyone else had the same idea. When they hit the interstate, cars were backed up for miles.
Shaun watched the monitor inside the tollbooth. It was meant to record the license plates of cars that didn’t pay. But now it provided a full view of the horror that was left in this once beautiful area. Twenty yards away on the bridge, a fat woman in leggings and a polka-dotted sweater she had no business wearing squeezed her girth between several packed together cars. The window of the nearest vehicle was rolled down, and Shaun could just make out the outline of a corpse slumped to one side. The woman reached inside the car and yanked the dead body free of the constraints of the seatbelt. In a gluttonous display of undead binge eating, she body-slammed the dead guy onto the pavement, and face planted right into the dude’s guts.
Shaun groaned as the vision of the zombie woman tugged another image into his thoughts. The one he’d been trying to suppress most of the night: his dad being dragged down to the ground by a hoard of slobbering infected people while his mother screamed, beating the rabid crowd with a tire iron. Meanwhile, he and his two sisters sat in the back seats, doors locked, windows shut, fighting amongst themselves as to what to do, while their mother got her face bit off by a guy in a three-piece suit. Their mother’s last orders had been:
Don’t get out of the car unless you know for a
the person coming to help is not infected. Do NOT get out of the car. I love you
. Then she locked the car, thinking they’d be safer there, and went screaming to their dad’s aid.
His mind replayed her words over and over again in a constant loop. That last phrase, the
I love you
part, was the hardest to listen to but the words he wanted most to hear. The look in her eyes was one of terror, but resignation that her place was beside their father, defending him. Her voice commanded them to do as she said, for their own protection, as her dying wish.
I love you.
How many times had she said that to them? He wished he could hear her say it again.
His sisters got out of the car, despite him yelling at them and pulling at their clothes to keep them inside. They were hysterical, crying for mom. They were also dead before they hit the pavement, swarmed immediately by the infected. He would’ve been dead too, had it not been for Scooter’s snarling growl. The dog had been in the back of the car. Scooter barked and growled, causing the zombies to pause just long enough for Shaun, blubbering with the sudden shock of his loss, to get the door closed and locked before they got to him, too. Bleak feelings settled into him as he sat, Scooter next to him, occasionally whining, as hours passed. Over time, he noticed the zombies thinned out, and then were gone. Moving on to better hunting grounds. He knew he had to leave. He’d never get help here. No one was stupid enough to come to the interstate with the zombies all around. He thought he could run until he came to a car that wasn’t blocked in and then drive that car out of there. He had his license. He’d had his license for three weeks.
Not that it matters now. Nobody’ll be pulling me over to check it in this mess.
He got as far as the toll bridge before the hoards of infected picked up his scent on the wind. They trailed him and Scooter as they emerged from the wooded area on Belt Line Road, south of Pioneer Parkway. As they neared a retail area, more and more of the creatures gathered, catching their scents. Closing in.
He realized he was either going to have to lock himself into yet another car, or find some place more substantial in which to hole-up.
The tollbooth was his saving grace.
Here, under the lights, he had a clear view of the comings and goings of the zombies. He had the monitors that constantly showed their whereabouts, and he had a backpack full of food and water his mother had packed. He should have grabbed one of the other backpacks as well, but he wasn’t thinking that coherently at the time. Urgency had forced him to run and run fast.
But now, he was out of food and down to one bottle of water that some tollbooth attendant left behind. In one corner he’d been using the plastic wastepaper basket as a toilet. He shredded paper to cover Scooter’s crap. It smelled funky in here, but funky was better than dead. It had taken some major coaxing to get Scooter to whiz inside the booth, but the poor dog finally had no other option. After the dog whizzed on top of the spot Shaun had saturated before him, he put the paper on top to soak up — what? — the odor? Shaun didn’t know. It just seemed somehow the right thing to do.
So, now what
? Shaun scratched Scooter’s neck and tried not to think about food. Every so often, Scooter would lift his head from his paws and whine. They couldn’t stay barricaded in the tollbooth forever. That was where his plan ended. He alternated between crying and praying, all the while trying to formulate a plan that didn’t stink as bad as the piss in the corner. He came up with some elaborate schemes that played out like some sort of old
movie, or like — what was the name of that 80’s movie his dad liked? Red something.
. Only formulating plans against Russians seemed a lot easier than coming up with escape routes from zombies intent not upon indoctrinating you and taking over your country, but ripping open your stomach and slurping down the contents of your abdomen. Or munching the top of your skull and scooping out the brains inside like you were one of those Jell-O molds in the shape of a brain that his mom once bought at a Halloween store. His Christian school education had left him sorely under-skilled in the outliving-the-zombies department. Not that public school would have done him any better in that respect.
Scooter snored on the floor beside him. Moans of the infected were low and mournful outside.
“Maybe you’ve got the right idea, boy.” Shaun lay on the floor beside the Scooter, and nestled his face into the dog’s warm fur. “Maybe we can think of a better plan once we get some sleep.” He glanced at his wristwatch. It was one o’clock on Saturday morning. He could almost hear his mother telling him to go to sleep, that he’d have a clearer head when daylight broke. Shaun smiled sadly.
He slid his hand over the ear not buried in Scooter’s fur, and hoped his palm would be enough to block out the sounds of the shuffling dead drifting to him from outside of the tollbooth.
The sound of the gunshot echoed through the woods; its recoil reverberated in Dejah’s body.
Her back braced against the cold trunk of a thick cypress tree. The coyote lay dead in front of her, its mangy hair falling out in clumps, its drying lips still curled, revealing teeth in an eternal snarl. Her bullet had ripped through its left eye. The scavenger’s brain matter hung in a gelatinous clump like a jellyfish that tried to escape through the hole in the back of its skull.
Dejah trembled, muscles strung tight as boa constrictors, her senses on high-alert now that the gunshot had announced her presence. She studied the nearby foliage: conifers, mesquite, cypress and sere grasses, illuminated by the light of the moon, shot with webbed shadows from bare branches fading into pools of darkness. Finally, she looked back at her would-be killer.
The coyote had stalked her through the forest she’d cut through on her way to Grand Prairie to avoid the population centers. She hadn’t even thought about the animal threat until she was well on her way, too far into the woods to turn back. Stupid, she chastised herself, because she didn’t even think back to the mailman in her own front yard who had been ravaged by an infected neighborhood dog. She didn’t put two and two together until the darkness of the woods echoed around her with stirrings of wildlife, making her wonder if they were living or infected.
Not like the coyote had to be infected to attack. It might have done so anyway, with all of the infected eating anything it might have otherwise been able to scavenge.
Scavenger turned predator, she thought as she looked at the skinny beast that had growled and lunged for her throat just moments ago. It looked sick.
A wave of emotion swept through her, blurring her vision with its suddenness and strength. She was angry at herself for feeling like she was once again on the verge of tears. Strength was the order of the day if she was going to make it to Selah. Breaking down into a mess of sentimentality wasn’t going to make the cut. Somehow, she’d been struck by a wave of empathy for the beast that had just attacked her. How its life of scavenging and killing small animals to eke out a normal everyday existence, had turned to a life of preying on anything that moved and didn’t smell foul, plagued with the raging infection. The fast-spreading virus changed its life completely in a matter of two days.
Just like her life had changed.
But she guessed anyone who was a survivor did whatever necessary to carry on, to make it through.
These things…these infected animals…these infected people…they’re trapped by this contagion. I’m doing them a favor by setting them free.
“How noble,” she muttered. Her voice came out unstable, wavering. It was too loud in the aftermath of the gunshot. But she wanted to believe this was right, what she was doing. By killing that man in the store, and now this animal. If it meant making it to Selah and saving her girl’s life, it was the right thing in a very selfish way. Nobility didn’t have a damn thing to do with it.
She stood, stashed the gun in the back of her pants, and slung the strap of the duffel bag across her chest again. With a groan, she tried not to think about the soreness of her shoulders from carrying the bag of supplies. She looked at the cheap car-dash compass she’d snagged at the convenience store, orienting herself to the direction she needed to reach Pioneer Parkway/303. She reasoned that the smaller highways would be less populated, and planned to take 303 over to Loop 12 and gauge whether or not it could be traveled. She thought the section south of where Loop 12 met Spur 408 would be sparsely populated. At least she hoped so. A big truck — or anything capable of pushing other vehicles out of the way if necessary — might be easy to find deserted on that road.
Not really thinking about having to fight off flesh-eaters during all of this, are we?
“We’ll take it as it comes,” she muttered. Right now, here in the woods, she felt vulnerable, darkness and unknown creepers on every side. She focused on the compass and headed northeast.
Soon, she saw streetlights through the trees. The loamy scents of wet earth and rotting leaves drifted to her on a crisp breeze. When she neared the street, she crouched in the brush. It was a six-lane boulevard, deserted both ways, running north and south with a treed median in the middle. She followed the street for a few hundred yards to the north, realizing that it was Belt Line Road.
By some divine miracle, she’d come out just south of where she’d intended.
Unfortunately, to reach Pioneer Parkway, she needed to travel along Belt Line heading north, and there was no way to conceal her approach where the forest gave way to civilization. Of course, these days, the term “civilization” was open to interpretation.
Dejah managed to stay low in the shadows for the majority of the distance. She struggled with the weight of the duffel bag, but needed the supplies too much to ditch the stuff. Up ahead lay a run-down strip mall with a parking lot that looked like it had been through World War II. The asphalt was cratered, weeds growing through cracks. It was scattered with a few cars. Lights were on in the stores – a Dollar Tree the size of a supermarket, a Chinese food restaurant, an insurance broker, and a dry cleaner. Beyond the strip was an intersection with another six-lane road. Her heart leaped as she realized it was Pioneer Parkway. At the same time, her stomach growled.
She crouched behind a concrete barrier, mulling over how she’d get across the parking lot. She knew that Pioneer Parkway curved down a small slope before it crossed Mountain Creek Lake. Her plan was to reach the toll bridge and go across that way, to travel east.
Five infected people roamed across the parking lot, one of them wandering into the street. She saw two others crouched over some kind of gruesome meal. She didn’t look too hard. It was enough to know they were there. Fighting the mental images, she could imagine what they were eating. The scent of rotting flesh greeted her nose.
Nausea overcame her as she bolted from her place of hiding. She ran full speed to make it behind the strip mall and cut through its rear lot. Adrenalin surged, giving her more speed. She scanned the lot to see if any of the nearby flesh-eaters had cued into her presence, but she made it around the corner unnoticed.
She breathed heavy, cold air harsh in her lungs as she pressed her back against the cool white brick, closing her eyes.
Something stirred in the dumpster next to her.
She held her breath.
The dark green dumpster was just three feet away. She fixated on it like fugitive might fixate on a prowling cop car. Her eyes searched for an escape, a place to hide, but there were fifty yards of wide-open parking lot between here and the slope leading down to the bridge. She looked back to the dumpster.
It was quiet now.
Probably just a cat, right? A mouse, or rat maybe. Nothing to lose your mind over.
Dejah was riveted in place. She willed herself to move, to turn her back on the dumpster and run for the slope.
. She stepped away from the wall.
The top of the dumpster opened with a rusty screech. What rose from the fetid darkness within was a horror all its own. She must have once been a handsome black woman before she’d been homeless and the wiry gray dreadlocks began to fray, soaked in vomit and garbage. The skin of her face was black as greasepaint, sagging in folds over the bony features of her skull. The muscles beneath her skin had long ago withered from lack of food, but now she’d finally found something to nourish her hunger – in her right hand she held a broken cat, eaten most of the way through the furry gullet, its white spine shining like teeth in the moonlight, innards trailing wet from the cavity.
As soon as the woman saw Dejah, she released the cat from ragged fingernails and bared her teeth in a silent threat. Her eyes were rolled so far back into her head that all Dejah could see were the bloodshot whites.
The infected woman crawled from the dumpster with deliberate movements, stiff but determined. Dejah thought she could hear the woman’s tendons creak as she edged over the rim of the bin, fixed on her prey.
Dejah broke into a run. Across the narrow lot behind the strip mall was a drop-off into brush. Over the brush she could see the light of street lamps sloping down to the Mountain Creek Lake toll bridge, following the curve of the parkway.
She ran toward the back of an 18-wheeler parked in eternal mid-delivery behind Dollar Tree. Dejah veered around the end of the trailer. Soon as she rounded the back, she ran headlong into a man. Dejah screamed as she barreled into him. The weight of the duffel bag hammering her side threw her off balance. She fell, tangling limbs with him.
Immediately she knew he was infected. When he groaned a foul stench rose from his face. She felt his movements beneath her, felt his hands gripping her limbs. Bony fingers tightened on her arms. She yanked back her head. His face was that of a crazed, starving man. The way he gnashed his teeth looked like maniacal laughter.
Instinctively, she head-butted him. The infected man groaned, but the defensive move had little effect. She pulled her right arm free, skin gashed by his gripping fingernails. Panicked, Dejah fought the man, using her right hand in a hammer-fist, rapidly pummeling him to free herself. She struck him repeatedly in the face. His nose snapped. The man gurgled blood. She continued to strike, caving in his face, cracking the central bones…all the places that by all rights should’ve been fatal blows. In a disturbed version of one of
The Three Stooges
famous moves, she used her two fingers to ram into his eyes. She hooked his eyeballs with her fingers, popping them with a disgusting sucking sound from the gore within his sockets. Still he squirmed, but it was enough to blind him so he couldn’t anticipate her next movement. She ripped a shred of her new shirt from his grasp and scrambled to her feet.
The black woman from the dumpster had caught up during the fray. Her claw-like hands dug into Dejah’s flesh. She screamed and tried to lunge toward the drop-off leading into the brush.
Dejah flung herself over the concrete wall, but the infected woman clung to her and fell with her. They tumbled in mid-air. The impact, when they reached the bottom, came sooner, and much differently, than Dejah had been prepared for – strands of barbed wire fencing were buried in the brush.
Dejah came down sideways on the barbed wire fence. The duffel bag, still wrapped across her chest, yanked her down. Her body bent sideways, spine aching with a painful twist. She tried to throw herself away from her attacker in a move that ripped the muscles in her torso and back. Metal barbs tore open her shirt, ripped into her skin. She thrust backward, throwing her legs into the air, but the woman clung desperately to her. Dejah could smell rotting trash, could feel the virulence of her sickness and hunger, the scent of decay on her breath.
They landed together on the opposite side of the fence. Dejah’s breath whooshed from her lungs at the impact. The woman atop her growled. With a mad clawing that ripped away part of Dejah’s shirt, the woman bared sharp teeth and bit the flesh of her exposed breast.
“Ahhhhh!” Dejah pulled away and felt a piece of her go with the infected woman. She thrashed again, not knowing what she was doing, just responding to the panic in a flurry of physical violence. Her struggle freed her from the woman’s grip.
She scrambled to her feet and half-slipped half-ran down the grassy slope toward the parkway. Frantically, she felt the back of her pants, checking that she hadn’t lost her revolver in the scuffle. She yanked it out to use on the next sorry motherfucker that decided to take a piece of her.
Dejah reached the edge of the parkway. It followed a gentle curve down to the lake. The tollbooth of the bridge leading across the lake glowed like a lighthouse in the storm. Beyond the tollgate, the bridge stretched almost two miles, lampposts along each side softly gleaming. The light of the moon caught the faceted waves of the lake. On the far side, atop a hill, the steepled main campus of Dallas Baptist University stood in gothic repose against the velvet backdrop of night.
Dejah quickly took in her surroundings. A wide swath of grassy area led to the shore of the lake, forest deeper behind her…
but you’re already out in the open. Best to get to the bridge, get a vehicle…go!
She sprinted for the toll bridge.
Cars were stalled on the bridge, but not too thick. It wasn’t hopeless. If she could find a vehicle with keys, she could make it across. There were infected lurching around looking for their next victim; and with all her screaming earlier, they must know she was there. But …
but nothing, just run.
The faster she ran toward the bridge, the more the infected emerged from her surroundings. They materialized from the darkness, lumbering visions of decay and hunger. She didn’t have enough bullets to take them all. She had to find a vehicle and lock herself inside, and pray to God that they’d eventually go away…otherwise, she was finished.
Movement inside the glowing tollbooth on the bridge caught her eye. She did a double take to make sure she really saw a figure waving from inside the booth, motioning her in.
Twelve figures shambled in a scattered pattern between her and the tollbooth. But at this point her heart filled with such hope at seeing another uninfected person (
dear God I hope it’s another uninfected person
) that the vision steeled her resolve.