"Back inside!" Jake hisses.
"Are you crazy? We'll be trapped! We need to run for it!"
Their numbers have already doubled, as more of them stagger around the corners of the building, closing the gaps.
I grab Jake's arm and twist him back around, but he resists. He dives through the broken glass door in a panic, kicking my Link out of reach as he does.
I watch it skitter to the feet of the closest zombies. They don't even bother with it. Their feet grind it into the pavement. But Links are manufactured to withstand pretty much everything short of a nuclear bomb, so I know it won't break. Still, Kelly's photo is on there. I take a step toward it before Jake grabs the sleeve of my wetsuit dangling down.
"Jessie!" he screams.
"No, let go!" But by the time I've recovered we've lost any chance to escape through them. Now they're three deep and pulling in tighter. I might be able to burst through them, but I can't risk getting scratched or bitten. I let Jake pull me inside.
He runs to the nearest aisle and wrenches the metal shelf from its bracket. Items crash to the floor. He carries the shelf over and slips it between the door's push bar and the frame.
"That's not going to hold them!" I scream, but he ignores me and goes for another.
The first zombies are banging on the corners of the display windows, edging their way closer. The glass thuds, making dull, hollow noises. Those in front get pushed down by those behind. Their hands whisper over the glass, sounding rubbery and dry. A single moan rises from them, triggering all the others. The sound quickly grows.
One of them stumbles against the glass. Its skin is so shriveled and brown that it looks like bark. It opens its mouth and its teeth and tongue are as black as licorice. Its head hits the ground and pops like a puffball beneath the feet of the approaching horde.
"We're trapped!" I shriek. "We need to find another way out. Jake, listen to me!"
By now he's wedged three of the shelves into the opening. He pushes a fourth sideways, locking them all into place.
The zombies fill every spare inch of the window and have reached the door. They rattle it. The metal creaks and groans. They slap feebly on the glass, but there are so many that the glass vibrates. It bulges inward, then back out, as if it's breathing. More zombies push against the ones in front and the glass bulges in again, crackling.
I slide behind the counter and tear through the dusty trash and mouse droppings underneath. There in the darkness I find exactly what I was hoping for: a pistol.
I yank it free. Its cold edges are rimed with flakes of reddish powder, gritty beneath my fingers. A shiver runs through me. But it's not blood, it's rust. Dust and cobwebs fill the muzzle. A quick check of the chamber tells me it's loaded. I don't have time to inspect the magazine. I pray it's full and that the rounds inside it are still good.
When I was nine, my grandfather took me to the shooting range, defying my brother's vehement wishes that he wouldn't. But Eric was only seventeen then, a self-proclaimed pacifist, and Grandpa was a lot more imposing of a figure than he's become since then.
"Your brother may be a spineless idiot, Jessie," he told me then, "but I know you're not. You need to learn how to fire a weapon. You need to know how to defend yourself."
Call it whatever you want—irony or spite, or maybe even resignation—but right after Eric graduated from high school, he went and enlisted in the Marines. He volunteered to fight in Mexico and got sent with the Omegamen to China. Now he wears a gun on his hip. Granted, it's an EM gun, but still. He's not the young man I remember growing up knowing. He's…changed.
But Grandpa still calls him spineless.
"Did Mom say it's okay?" I'd asked him, hoping against hope that he wouldn't answer. Or if he did, that he'd lie. I was breathless with excitement at the idea of firing a real gun, but I knew it was my duty as a daughter to ask for my mother's permission. Of course, I could never remember a time when she'd ever actually taken that role seriously, but I still felt an obligation to give her the right to refuse something like this.
I'm not so naïve anymore.
Grandpa must've seen the look on my face because he said, "It's okay, young lady. Your mom's fine with it. I already asked her." I didn't challenge him. We were both complicit in a crime that was not of our own doing.
It wasn't until many years later that he'd tell me it was the same gun my father had fired the night he died. I don't know that it would've made any difference to me then. I doubt it.
I wrench open a drawer and look for the box of the remaining rounds inside. There has to be one. You can't just buy a few bullets.
"Jessie!" Jake yells.
The moaning and banging from the front of the store has grown even louder, more insistent, spurred on by the racket Jake made before and continues to make now.
I take a quick look toward the front. The metal shelves are just thin sheets of aluminum and already they're beginning to buckle against the weight of the zombies pressing against the door.
Jake flies past me and disappears past one of the displays near the back. I hear a door slam open, then the telltale sounds of bathroom stall doors being flung wide. Somewhere in the back of my mind I'm thinking what a crazy-ass time it is to be taking a dump.
"What the hell are you doing?" I scream, still searching for the rounds.
"There's a window in here!" Then, "Shit! They're outside in back, too. We're surrounded!"
"Get out here, Jake!" I scream, alternately searching and checking the windows. The only thing that's saved us from being overwhelmed is the zombies' weakness. They're slow and desiccated, weakened by years of not feeding. Their movements are stiff and jerky. Or at least they were. They seem to be waking up.
It's the noise! Stop making so much noise!
I need to find that box of spare rounds.
"There's a back door here," Jake shouts. "Christ, where the hell are they all coming from?"
Draw them to the front!
I spy the cash register. The bullets are probably in the back of the drawer.
I try to open it, but without electricity, the thing's locked tight and won't budge.
There's a fire extinguisher sign in a back corner. As I hurry over to it, I hear the first splinter of glass from the front, a sharp report, followed by snapping sounds. I fling my head back. It's just a crack, but the windows won't hold for much longer.
I pray that my hunch is right.
"Jake, get the fuck out here! I need you!"
I find the extinguisher, but the object I really want is hanging on the wall next to it: an axe. I yank it free from the mount and sprint back to the front.
I don't even slow down. I raise the axe over my head as I run and bring it down on the register. It crashes into the counter, missing the target by half a foot. I curse just as the window explodes inward. Glass rains down on the horde as the Undead tumble inside, slicing several of the zombies. But it doesn't stop them. It doesn't even slow them down.
The first ones trip and fall. The ones behind begin to climb over them, but they're pushed down by the third wave. The growing mound of Undead acts as its own speed bump, buying me precious seconds.
I wrench the axe free from the countertop and bring it up again before slamming it down on the register. The ancient machine chimes and caves in, but the drawer stays closed. Two more quick swings and it finally pops free. But now the first zombies are less than ten feet away. I raise the pistol, cock it and squeeze the trigger with one hand while the other yanks the drawer fully open.
Coins and bills shower to my feet. The gun goes off, rocking me onto my heels.
My hand is shaking so badly that the shot goes wide. A hole opens up in the chest of a zombie further back. The bullet passes easily through it and shatters the unbroken window, unleashing another torrent of the walkers into the store. The zombie I hit rocks backward and falls. It's quickly overrun by others.
"What the hell was that?" Jake screams from the back.
I aim and the second shot finds the forehead of the closest zombie. Its head explodes in a powder. The skull shatters and the thing collapses. I get off two more shots and drop two more of them before I see Jake out of the corner of my eye, skidding up the aisle.
"This way!" he screams, pinwheeling his arms.
I manage to fire another three rounds, but only one zombie goes down. The noise is making them go berserk. Their moans are shrieks of desperation and their movements are much more focused.
"You can't shoot them all!"
I know he's right. There's no way I'd even be able to reload the clip, even if I had a thousand rounds. They'd be on top of me in a second. And my shoulder already burns from the recoil.
How I wish I had an EM gun.
I duck quickly down and sweep my hand over the floor until it encounters an object with some heft to it. I lift it and shove it into the elastic waist of the wetsuit without looking. Then I grab the axe in my other hand and run toward Jake, knocking a withered zombie in a faded too-large muumuu out of my way. She tips and falls in slow motion.
"I'm coming," I shout, and I pray Jake's not just planning on barricading us in the bathroom.
He's standing beside a metal door, one hand up to stop me, his eyes glued to the tiny opening.
"Jake, you better have a plan, because they're fucking coming!"
He reaches down and grabs something off the floor. It's a tire iron. The other hand holds a—
"Is that a toilet plunger?"
"Yeah." He kicks the door open.
I don't have time to say anything else before we're rushing out into the bright sunlight.
There are only a handful of zombies in back now, the rest drawn to the front by the gunshots. They turn as one as we skid out onto the loose gravel behind the store and begin their advance. They're moving frightfully fast, faster than the ones we first saw in front.
I step around Jake and with a quick shot from the pistol dispatch an Infected wearing the still-recognizable remains of a tattered business suit. Like the others inside, its head explodes in a fine powder, not the spray of gore I keep expecting. A strange powder that lingers in the air before slowly drifting back to the ground.
"What the—?" Jake exclaims. "Jesus, that's sick!"
"Jesus is dead and he ain't coming back! Now move!"
Another zombie quickly takes the place of Business Suit. I swing the axe one-handed like a sword, not caring if I hit the thing with the flat side or the edge of the blade. Instead, the spike sinks into the monster's face. It falls, pulling me down with it.
Jake reaches over and grabs me, keeping me from falling right onto the blade, but knocking me in the head with the plunger. He swings his other hand at another zombie. It spins around.
He swings again, and the plunger strikes it on the shoulder with a dull thwop, accomplishing absolutely nothing. The zombie reaches out. Jake thrusts straight at its face. I expect to see the plunger stick, but the zombie tumbles over backward instead.
"Really?" I shout. "You couldn't find anything better? A toilet brush, maybe?"
"Closest thing to a dahn bohng I could find," he says, referring to the short sticks some fighters use in hapkido.
"I prefer the long staff."
"You're doing just fine with that pistol!"
I stumble back to my feet. He points to an opening and we sprint for it.
His backpack bounces up and down and from side to side, making him look awkward. He twirls his plunger and tire iron like batons.
The zombies that were heading around the sides of the store have changed direction and are now staggering toward us. Jake heads for the widest space between them, then suddenly veers off in a new direction.
"Where are you going? Our gear is the other way!"
"Yeah," he puffs. "Exactly." And I realize he's right. We need to lead them away, not toward it. Otherwise we'll never be able to leave.
The Holiday Inn rises up before us. I wonder if Reggie and Ash are still inside. They should've finished by now and come back already. Do they even realize what's going on out here? How could they have not heard the gunshots?
And then I envision them in a hotel room, unaware that it's filling with zombies, the sounds of their lovemaking attracting them from other parts of the hotel.
"Where'd they come from?" I pant. "Jake? Jake, stop! We can't just keep running around like this. We need a plan. And it has to include the others."
He slows, nodding, but doesn't stop. I jog to keep up with him.
"We might be running directly into even more of them."
He puts on the brakes and I plow into him.
"I don't know where they're coming from, Jessie." But there's something in his eyes, an accusing look. He thinks this is my fault.
"They heard the glass breaking."
"It's not your fault, Jess."
He takes a moment to assess our situation, turning in a full circle. Other than the zombies swarming the refueling station, the place still seems empty, but now we know we can't trust this perception.
The zombies we can see number at least fifty by now. They've turned and are heading toward us, as if we're magnets.
There are so many of them. So many, and they showed up so suddenly. Where were they hiding? And why? Were they just trying to stay out of the sun? Were they…planning?
I can't believe I'm even entertaining such thoughts. The Undead don't think.
He's staring at the Holiday Inn. "That's where Ashley and Reggie went, isn't it?"
"Yeah, and that's why we can't go there. We'll lead the zombies right to them."
"What if they're—" He stumbles backward, swearing and shaking his head as some variation of the thought I'd had moments before comes to him. "I hope they didn't come from inside there."
"You need to ping them," I say. I feel naked without my Link, vulnerable. Helpless. "We need to warn the others."
He glances back at the zombies, his eyes still crazed with fright. "Shit," he repeats, but he nods and pulls out his Link. As he does, he starts walking, cutting off to the right and toward more open ground. "Keep an eye out for me, Jess," he says, gesturing with his free hand. He babbles almost incoherently into the Link.
"They're getting closer, Jake. We need to move."
"Okay," he says, slipping the Link back into his pocket.
We start jogging again.
"You told everyone?"
"I tried Micah. No time to key in anyone else."
"You spoke to him? Is he coming?"
"He wouldn't accept. I left a message."
I notice we're heading for the tower, the same one Micah said he was going to earlier. It's at least a quarter mile off, far enough away that we'll easily lose the zombies before we arrive.
I'm not sure this is the best plan, however. I don't like having my back up against the wall—literally—and we don't know if there are more zoms in front of us. On the other hand, we need to lead them away, anywhere, just not toward the gear.
And we need to do it quickly, because it now looks like there are close to a hundred of them.
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