The First Days (As the World Dies, Book One)

As the World Dies (Volume 1 of 3)

Rhiannon Frater

Tor Books

CHAPTER ONE
 

1.
Tiny Fingers

So small.
So very, very small.
The fingers pressed under the front door of her home were so very small. She could not stop staring at those baby fingers straining frantically to reach her as she stood shivering on the porch. The cool morning air lightly puffed out her pink nightgown as her own pale fingers clutched the thin bathrobe closed at her throat. Texas weather could change so fast, and this early March morning was crisp.
I knew we needed weather stripping, she thought vaguely.
The gap under the front door was far too large. These new modern homes looked so fancy, but were actually not very well built. If they had bought the nice Victorian she wanted, there wouldn’t be a gap under the front door. A gap large enough for that little hand to slide underneath.
The tiny fingers clawed under the edge of the door.
The banging from inside the house had become a steady staccato. It had a rhythm now, as did the grunts and groans. The sounds terrified her. But what was truly horrible were those tiny, desperate fingers.
Her voice caught in her throat when blood began to trickle out from beneath the door. Of course the blood would eventually flow out. There was so much. It had been everywhere when she stood in the doorway of Benjamin’s bedroom. The walls had been splashed red.
She covered her mouth with her hand. Another wave of chills flowed over her as her knees knocked together.
The rhythm changed to a new beat as a second set of fists banged against the door.
Through the lead glass of the door, she could see the dim outline of her husband’s body. It was distorted by the thick smears of blood on the inside of the panes. She stared long enough to make out Lloyd’s misshapen hands battering against the glass before her gaze was inexorably drawn down to those tiny fingers scrabbling so frenziedly toward her.
She really should have insisted on Lloyd putting in weather stripping.
An angry howl from the other side of the door made her jump, and her thick raven hair fell into her face. With trembling hands, she pushed back her tresses. Her gaze did not waver from those tiny fingers.
The pool of blood was slowly spreading toward her bare feet.
She should move.
But where?
The tiny fingers were now raw, with tips of bone showing. Yet they still sought her out.
There was a loud thunk to her left, and her attention shot over to the window. Mikey stood there, hissing as he beat on the window with clenched fists. His torn lips were drawn back in a grimace as his dead eyes latched on to her hungrily.
“Why, Mikey, why?” Her voice was a plaintive whisper.
Why had her twelve-year-old son rushed back to try to fight his father? Why hadn’t he run when she screamed at him to follow her?
Clutching her head, she swayed slightly. She felt something cold touch her toe and looked down to see blood welling around her foot. Stepping back, she returned her focus to the fingers pressed under the front door. The tips of the tiny fingers were skinless.
“Benjamin, please stop,” she whispered.
He always followed her everywhere. Every time she went to the bathroom, the persistent three-year-old would be on her heels. She could never relax and just go. She would have to talk to him as he lay outside the bathroom, one eye pressed against the crack, his tiny, chubby fingers pressed under the door.
Was one eye pressed against the crack under the front door now?
How had he managed to get downstairs? There was so little left of him. Lloyd always was a big eater.…
She almost vomitted as both hands flew up to cover her mouth. Gagging, she stepped away from the door. Her body was shaking violently. She heard a clattering sound now, painfully loud. Covering her ears with her hands, she took another step back.
Why wouldn’t it just all stop?
The rattling noise was louder and her jaw hurt.
Oh, her teeth were chattering.
She closed her eyes, swaying.
Those tiny fingers … those tiny fingers …
Glass shattered and growls filled the cool morning air. Her eyes snapped open to see Mikey trying to shove his way through the broken window.
“No, no, no…” She stumbled backwards down the front steps and fell when her bare foot slipped on the slick dew-drenched grass.
The glass shards ripped away Mikey’s flesh as he scrambled through the window, but the twelve-year-old didn’t seem to notice. He kept pushing forward, growling and snarling.
It was then that she screamed. Screamed louder than she ever thought possible. Screamed as she should have when she found Lloyd hunched over Benjamin, eating away her baby’s tender flesh. Screamed as she should have when Lloyd pursued her and Mikey down the stairs. Screamed as she should have when Mikey turned back to try to defend her. Screamed as she should have when the front door slammed behind her and she realized she was alone.
She screamed until her voice died in her throat.
And still Mikey grunted and hissed as he slowly dragged his torn body through the shattered window. Lloyd, blood drenched and crazed, came up behind Mikey and fastened his vicious gaze on her. Determined, he crawled over his son, breaking the remaining glass out of the window frame.
Slowly, she stood. Her gaze strayed to the door.
Tiny fingers still searched for her.
She pressed her hands against her face as she watched Lloyd and Mikey wiggle and jerk their way through the narrow window.
“Get in the truck now!”
She blinked.
“Get in the truck now!”
She turned slowly. An old, battered white truck sat on her perfectly manicured lawn. The engine was hot and grumbling.
Where had it come from?
“In! Now!”
She raised her eyes to see a tall, slim, blond woman in a business suit and hunting jacket standing next to the truck with a shotgun in one hand.
“Get in now!”
Looking back, she saw Mikey slip from the window, wet, bloody, and battered. For a moment, she remembered how he looked when he had just been born. Her shriveled-up little monkey boy.
After struggling to his feet, Mikey leaped forward.
It was time to leave her family. The money she had carefully squirreled away to provide for her and the kids in a new life would have to stay hidden in the closet. The suitcase she had packed for when they finally ran away to the women’s shelter would have to remain in its hiding place in the attic.
Lloyd had destroyed what remained of their life together.
It was time to go.
Wrenching the passenger door open, she looked back to see Mikey hurtling toward her. She jumped in and slammed the door shut just as he impacted with the side of the truck. His battered, chewed-up face pressed against the glass as he bared his teeth and his growls ripped at her ears.
“Mikey,” she whispered. She pressed her hand against the glass, blocking his gruesome face from her view.
She looked away.
The blond woman slammed her door shut and shifted gears. The truck roared into reverse as Lloyd rushed toward them, hissing loudly.
The blond shifted again and the pickup truck rolled forward and accelerated down the quiet suburban street just as the sun rose over the tops of the houses.
She dared to look back, dared to see what followed. Falling behind were Lloyd and Mikey: her husband and her son. And they were not alone. Others, bloodied and crazed, were racing out of houses, screaming in either terror or hunger.
She tore her gaze away from the things running behind her.
And the tiny fingers she knew were still pressed under the door.
2.
Together
The battered pickup swerved around a corner and nearly sideswiped an SUV that was stopped dead in the middle of the road. Forced to slow down, the driver slammed the flat of her hand against the steering wheel, cursing under her breath.
The blond woman’s green eyes glanced into the parked vehicle. She immediately wished she hadn’t. A man sat in the driver seat, staring straight ahead. His eyes were wide, unblinking, his mouth moving in words that were too easy to make out.
“Stop, please, stop.”
Despite his plea, the female passenger hunched over him, covered in blood and gore, continued to pull ropes of intestine up to her greedy mouth. As the truck passed by, the woman looked up and hissed, slamming her hand against the SUV’s windshield.
The driver mashed her foot down on the accelerator, and the truck lurched ahead. She stole a glance at the pale, fragile creature beside her. The woman she had rescued sat silently with one hand pressed against the bloody smear on the passenger-side window.
“Hey,” the driver said, reaching over and tapping the stranger’s knee. “Hey.”
The woman slowly turned her head, and the driver saw that her eyes were glassy and distant.
Great, she was in shock.
“Hey, my name is Katie. I need your help, okay?”
“The man,” the woman said in response.
Katie turned her attention to the road just in time to see a man trying to wave them down. He was drenched in blood and sobbing violently. She started to slow the truck, but two small children suddenly leaped onto the man, their baby teeth ripping into his throat.
“Just go,” the passenger said in a dead voice. “Just go.”
Katie drew in a shivering breath. “Yeah. You’re right.”
She drove on, leaving the man wailing as blood spurted into the air and the children rode him to the ground. Katie swallowed hard as she forced her gaze from the rearview mirror and concentrated on maneuvering through the suburban hell they were caught in.
The rescued woman drew her pale pink bathrobe tighter around her shivering body and stared straight ahead. Her eyes were as dark as her black hair.
Katie slowed down just a tad to a quick but more reasonable pace. The street they were on appeared to be peaceful. She needed to get her thoughts together. She forced herself to take several deep breaths. She had to keep calm. She knew that much.
“Listen, I need you to take my cell phone and call the first number in the speed dial. Nine-one-one is not working right now, but hopefully we can get through to the police department. I can’t pay attention to driving and call.”
She had to swerve again, this time to avoid a pack of rabid humans racing toward them from a side street. Chaos was spreading quickly. The pack tried to pursue the truck for a few seconds, but was drawn off by another car tearing out of a garage in an attempt to escape.
The dark-haired woman nodded as she took the phone from Katie. She flipped it open and stared at the tiny screen. On it was a picture of a lovely woman with short-cropped brown hair and amber eyes.
“She’s pretty,” the woman whispered.
Katie choked back a sob and fought the hot tears suddenly stinging her eyes. “Yes, she is.” She brushed her mouth with her hand and tried not to cry. She couldn’t think of Lydia right now. She just couldn’t. She had to find her way out of this hellish neighborhood and to safety.
The woman worked easily through the menu and dialed.
Even Katie could hear the busy signal.
“Keep trying, okay?”
“Okay.”
Katie drove past a school bus. It was empty and the open door was smeared with blood. The rest of the block looked calm, but she knew it was not. Whatever was happening in the rest of the city was happening here. They had to be very careful. Katie had seen too many horrors this morning to think they could be safe.
“I’m Jenni. With an I, not a Y. I like it spelled that way,” the woman said softly.
Katie smiled despite everything. “Hi, Jenni with an I. I’d say I’m happy to meet you, but under the circum—”
“The little boy, that was my son, Mikey. His dad … he … my husband … Lloyd … did something to him. To him and Benji…”
Katie shuddered slightly at the harsh, brutal memory of seeing Jenni pursued by the ravaged little boy and his blood-splattered father.
“I’m so sorry.” It was all Katie could think of to say.
“It’s still busy,” Jenni said.
“Please, keep trying.”
Jenni nodded as she pushed the button again.
Katie spun the steering wheel, and the pickup headed around a corner, barely avoiding two cars. She saw frightened families inside and whispered a silent prayer for them. She was hopelessly lost, not sure how to get out of the neighborhood. She and Lydia lived miles from this new, modern, cookie-cutter suburb. Lydia had designed their custom-built home. It was tucked into a hillside overlooking the lake and the city. It should have been safe there. It should have been, but the terror of this morning had reached even their quiet street.
Her feet were aching in her high heels and she wished she had found shoes in the truck. The old man’s hunting coat was comforting, warm, and smelled of fresh tobacco. It reminded her of her grandfather.
How had this happened? What did it mean? One minute, she had been sitting in her brand-new convertible, top down despite the cool morning, enjoying a cup of coffee and readying herself for a long day at her job as a prosecutor. The next, she had been fighting off a man who had reached across the passenger seat, grabbed the jacket of her Ann Taylor suit, and tried to drag her out of the car. She had slipped out of her jacket, grabbed her briefcase, and smashed it into her attacker. She’d struck him so hard, she heard his skull crack.
She’d leaped from the car, ready to fight … and then saw that his throat was torn out and that a long train of intestines trailed behind him. But none of that stopped him from trying to climb over the car to get to her.
To her growing horror, she saw more mutilated people rushing straight for her through the early rush hour traffic that always snarled up the narrow road leading down into the city. She had turned and started to run blindly, past honking cars, vehicles with music so loud, her teeth throbbed, and SUVs packed with children going to school. All of them seemed oblivious of the danger quickly running toward them.
“Hey, missy!”
An old man stood outside his white truck, waving at her, a shotgun clutched in his hand. “Get in my truck! We’ll off-road it! Hurry!”
She hadn’t needed to look behind her to know she was pursued. She heard the slap of their feet against the pavement.
Katie had almost been to the truck when suddenly the old man was grabbed from behind. A woman bit into his throat and viciously dragged him down to the ground. Katie almost stopped, but the old man had waved her on.
“Get in the truck! Take the gun! Get out of here! Go! Go!” He fought with the woman that had assaulted him, but his blood was already a fountain against the pavement and he faded fast.
Pausing for the barest of moments, she had grabbed the shotgun from his quivering hand and jumped into the pickup on the driver’s side. After slamming the door shut, she reached for the ignition, only to realize the engine was already on.
The old man’s gurgling voice had shouted, “Go! Go! Go!”
She obeyed: shifted gears and went. In the rearview mirror, as she drove down the shoulder and past the stopped cars that honked at her, she had seen the small pack of mutilated humans reach the old man and dive onto him.
“Don’t turn here!”
Kate shook herself out of her memories and slammed on the brakes. “Shit!” It was a cul-de-sac. She quickly started to turn around when she saw a nightmarish vision. Around fifteen of the things erupted into the street and raced toward the pickup, cutting off their escape route.
Her hands tightened on the steering wheel as she quickly pulled the white vehicle around to face their pursuers.
“Just do it,” Jenni said softly beside her. “They’re not real anymore.”
Katie aimed right for the center of the throng, floored the gas pedal, and braced herself. The deer guard caught the first few and flung them away from the vehicle. One skinny teenager bounced onto the hood and clung there, beating at the windshield with one hand.
Katie slammed on the brake. Momentum carried him away, and his hand, barely fastened to his arm by strands of tendon and skin, snapped off, still gripping the edge of the truck’s hood.
“Oh, God,” she whispered.
“It’s okay,” Jenni assured her in a distracted tone. “Really.”
Katie hit the accelerator and moments later they bumped over the youth’s body. Maybe it was just her imagination, but she could have sworn she heard a mushy popping sound as the wheels passed over the thing.
“What is happening? What the hell is this?” Katie shook her head, her blond hair falling across her brow.
“The end,” Jenni sighed. “It’s the end.”
3.
As the City Falls
As the white truck hurtled down suburban streets that were quickly falling into bloody bedlam, it was obvious that whatever was happening was spreading at an accelerated pace. Gunshots rang through the morning air. People’s screams rose in a cacophony. Cars careened crazily through the streets. At times, only Katie’s quick reflexes saved them from an accident.
Beside her, Jenni hit the Redial button once more. Katie couldn’t bear to look at the phone and see Lydia’s beautiful face smiling out at her.
If this wasn’t the end, it sure looked like it. It had to be terrorists. Some sort of weapon that made people crazy. PCP, something. Katie rubbed her mouth with her fingers. That had to be it.
Since Jenni’s proclamation of the end, they had both been silent. It was too much to absorb.
Too much to comprehend.
They just had to keep moving.
They had to keep going.
But where?
If only her dad would answer his cell phone. Of course, he was probably going nuts trying to reach her. She could see him now, in the midst of the chaos, being the strong police chief of legend. Big Bruce was certainly doing his best to get this insanity under control. Tears threatened to fall as she thought of his strong, craggy face under his military buzz cut. It was a soothing thought in this moment.
“I got him!” Jenni exclaimed, switching the phone to speaker.
Suddenly, Bruce’s voice filled the truck cab. “Hello? Katie?”
“Daddy!”
“Katie, are you and Lydia okay?”
Katie shook her head and whispered, “No, no. I’m fine, but Lydia, she didn’t make it. She … Daddy … she…”
“I’m sorry, Katie-baby. I’m sorry.”
She could tell by his voice that he truly was. Despite his misgivings about her lifestyle, he had come to accept and be quite close to Lydia. Though her mother remained blissfully in denial until her death, her father had tried hard to understand. His painful, sometimes embarrassing questions had only shown her how much he was trying. And when he had shown up at her wedding dressed in his military uniform, beaming and near tears, to walk her down the aisle, she knew that he loved her even if he didn’t understand her completely.
Now they shared a moment of silence over the woman Katie had loved.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he said again. “But you can’t let it affect you right now, understand?”
“Yes, I know. I’m trying to keep a cool head.”
“Good girl.” A tinge of pride crept into his tone. “Listen, Katie, whatever the hell this is, it’s all over the city. You need to get down to the police department. We’re barricaded in, and you’ll be safe here. We got the National Guard on its way.”
“Okay, Daddy. We’ll be there as soon as we can.”
“Katie, be careful.” His voice was rich with emotion.
“I’m armed, Daddy. I have a good vehicle.”
“Not that little—”
“No, no. A truck. I’m in a truck.”
“How—? Never mind…”
Katie continued to drive, trying not to let her emotions overwhelm her. “Daddy, what are they?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. The damn Russkies are behind it, I know. We never could trust them. Everyone else is saying terrorists, but I’m telling you, Katie, the Soviet Union never really died.”
She couldn’t help but laugh a little. He was such a Cold Warrior. She could hear many voices behind him, demanding, questioning. Without a doubt, her dear old dad was at the center of the storm.
“Katie, I gotta go. I love you. Get here as soon as you can. Be careful.”
“Okay, Daddy. Okay. Love you.”
Jenni snapped the phone shut, the image of Lydia vanishing from view, and smiled weakly.
Katie drew in a deep breath, trying to refocus herself. She needed to get them to safety and not think about what these things were. Of what her beloved had become. She couldn’t think of how she had pulled up to their beautiful home to see Lydia and their neighbors tearing at the mailman. She couldn’t think of how Lydia had rushed toward her, not to kiss her and hold her and make the world better, but to kill.
“I know what they are,” Jenni informed Katie. She was intently staring at her feet, especially her bloodstained toe.
“Yeah?”
“Zombies.”
Katie laughed bitterly; then her voice died away as they crested a hill. Before them lay the city. It was smoldering. From their high position, Katie could see clearly that the city had been overrun. The things were everywhere. Chaos swirled through the streets.
The phone rang.
Katie snatched it from Jenni and pressed it against her ear.
“Katie?”
“Daddy?”
“Katie, don’t come here! Don’t come here! I just got word in. It’s not safe. The National Guard was overrun. Don’t come, Katie! Run! Get the hell out of the city! Keep safe, baby, keep safe.”
Her father’s anguished voice filled her with despair, and she rested her forehead against the steering wheel. “Daddy…” Tears brimmed in her eyes as she struggled for words. All she truly wanted in that moment was to feel his arms around her and know that she was safe. Either he hung up or the service went out, for suddenly there was nothing on the line.
Katie looked up as a car sped past, heading for downtown. In a few seconds, only blocks away, it was overrun by a horde of those things.
“We need to go now,” Jenni’s faint, singsong voice said. Katie looked at her and saw that Jenni’s eyes were glassy. She thought her own probably looked the same. Katie turned the wheel and they headed back up the road.
“Turn here,” Jenni said.
Katie obeyed automatically. Tears streamed down her face.
Jenni pointed again. “Turn here.”
Katie sped down a back road that sliced behind the suburbs nestled into the hills.
“This will take us far away from the city,” Jenni sighed, then reached down and cleaned her toe with the edge of her bathrobe. “Away from the zombies.”
Katie whispered, “There’s no such thing.”
“Then what are they?” Jenni’s voice held a hint of emotion. “Some bum bit Lloyd last night when he was coming home from work. This morning, he ate my baby!” Abruptly, her voice was on the edge of hysteria.
Lydia racing toward her, bloody hands stretched out, her chest torn open …
Katie drew in a sharp breath.
“If they’re not zombies, what are they?” Jenni’s voice was shrill.
Katie grabbed Jenni’s cold, clammy hand with her own. “Zombies, okay, Jenni. They are zombies. And you’re right: This is the end.”
Jenni nodded and rested her head against the passenger seat. “I know.…” She closed her eyes and slept.
4.
Into the Hills
Jenni woke to the steady hum of the road. She opened her eyes slowly. Her nightmares released her and she sighed with relief. Her dreams were even worse than this new, horrible reality. In her sleep, she had curled up, resting against the passenger door. Now, raising her head, she saw the dried blood her son had smeared on the window when he tried in vain to reach her.
Not for hugs and kisses, but for far worse.
Beyond the swath of gore, the world was speeding by. Hills, large and small, were covered in trees decked out in colorful spring blossoms. Time for Easter and Easter baskets. She would fill them with candies and toys, and the kids would scramble around the backyard, looking for colorful eggs.
No, no. That wouldn’t happen now.
Lloyd had taken away her kids. Stolen them away. Just as she had known he would. Maybe he had been a zombie when he attacked them, but Jenni knew he had only finished the cycle he began when they’d married. She had been seventeen, and his looks, money, and success had blinded her. He was older and wiser. She hadn’t truly loved him, but she had believed that one day, she would. When he spoke of his first failed marriage, she had vowed that she would never let him down. She would be the perfect wife, the perfect companion, and he would never say a negative word about her.
But no matter how hard she tried, she had failed. At first, his weapons were words—fierce lashings of scorn and anger. Then it was the back of his hand and, eventually, his fists. Nothing she had done was enough, though she’d done everything he asked of her.
Toward the end, she knew in her heart that either she would die at his hand or he would kill the children. She should have run away sooner and not waited. But then again, how was she to know he’d turn into a zombie?
“I always fail,” she sighed.
“What?”
Jenni directed her gaze slowly to the woman beside her.
The driver of the truck was very pretty, with golden hair that fell just to her shoulders in tousled curls. She had a strong yet feminine face with catlike eyes and a sensuous mouth. Jenni was sure that the driver had been the sort of girl who was homecoming queen, head cheerleader, and student council president all rolled into one. The smart, pretty girl who was actually nice. Jenni felt comforted by this. She understood these girls. They lead; you follow. It was that simple.
Her name was Katie. That was right, Katie.
“I was dreaming,” Jenni answered finally.
Katie flicked her gaze toward her for a second, then returned it to the road. “You didn’t miss anything. After the last traffic light on the edge of the neighborhood, it was smooth sailing. We’re about an hour out of the city.”
“No one comes this way anymore. Not since the toll road was built. I like it out here. It’s peaceful.” Jenni didn’t feel so cold anymore. She still felt awfully numb, but it was a pleasant sort of numb.
“I’m not sure where we’re going,” Katie said after a beat. “I’m just driving.”
Jenni looked at the phone resting on Katie’s lap. “Did you talk to your dad again?”
Katie shook her head, pressing her lips tightly together. “No. There’s no signal.” She motioned to the radio. “And that doesn’t work.”
Jenni nodded, understanding. They were alone, detached from the rest of the world. Since this was how she often felt, it was almost comforting.
Besides, she was sure Katie would figure things out. She looked strong and very capable.
“We’ll need gas soon,” Katie said. “Know if there are any stations out this way?”
“Yeah, there are. One is coming up soon, about two hills over.” Jenni slid her fingers through her hair and sat up. “Maybe those things aren’t out here.”
“That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Jenni laughed a little, her voice sounding odd to her ears. “You know, this isn’t supposed to happen. The zombocalypse isn’t supposed to be real.”
Katie exhaled slowly. “Maybe it’s some sort of terrorist weapon. Something like that.”
“No,” Jenni said firmly. “It’s zombies.”
Katie cast a thoughtful look in her direction. “I agree they look like zombies.”
“They are zombies,” Jenni stressed again. Katie had to accept this as truth.
The blond woman stared straight ahead as she drove. It took several long seconds before she said, “Zombies, or whatever they are, definitely shouldn’t exist in a rational, ordered world. It suddenly feels like we’re living in a horror movie.”
“A Romero movie,” Jenni agreed, then frowned. “They aren’t supposed to be so fast. They’re supposed to be slow. Very slow.” Running down the stairs, trying to evade Lloyd, had been terrifying. There had been no time to think, just run. It was sheer luck that he didn’t seem to know how to open the door and had just banged against it.
“Why do you say that?”
“In the original movies, they were slow. Lloyd always watched those movies. I was afraid, but he made me watch.” Jenni chewed on her bottom lip. “If the movies are right, we can’t let them bite us.” She looked over at Katie warily. “You’re not bitten, are you?”
Katie looked at her for a long, frightening moment. “No! Are you?”
Jenni sighed, relieved. “No. I’m not.”
But she almost had been. Lloyd had almost grabbed her; then Mikey had turned back and yelled, “Leave Mom alone!” She covered her face with one hand. She tried hard not to remember the horrible fear she had felt as she screamed at her son to run and raced out the front door.
How it slammed behind her, she didn’t know. Maybe she closed it. Maybe Mikey did. Maybe when Lloyd had grabbed her son, he had shoved it shut. But the front door had slammed, and she had been alone.
“How did you find me?”
“I got lost in your neighborhood, trying to get off the highway. I heard you screaming, then saw you in your front yard,” was Katie’s answer.
That easy. That simple. That tiny difference between life and death. Jenni studied her reflection in the smudged side mirror. Her eyes looked too big, too wide. Her face was very pale.
“I think I’m in shock,” she decided.
“Aren’t we all,” Katie responded in a harsh, bitter voice. Her tone softened as she hastily said, “It was hard to see my wife like that. But your children—” She reached out and gripped Jenni’s hand tenderly. “—I can’t imagine how it feels to lose your children.”
Jenni clung to Katie, grateful for the kindness. She really didn’t care about Lloyd being dead … undead.… The children. That was harder. Much harder. They had been so sweet and innocent, and for them to die … She didn’t want to think about it, and quickly closed off that train of thought.
She wanted to ask Katie about her wife, the beautiful woman in the photo on the phone, but she was afraid to ask. Afraid that Katie might think she was being judgmental and withdraw her comforting hand.
“Shit!” Katie jerked her hand away from Jenni and yanked the steering wheel hard to the left. As she slammed on the brakes, both women were thrust forward, then caught painfully by their seat belts.
A car was idling on the right shoulder of the road. Near it stood a man covered in blood. He looked in their direction in a daze; then it was as if something snapped inside him and he flung out his hands and rushed toward the truck.
Katie quickly shifted gears, and the pickup leaped forward. The man’s hand slapped hard against the side of the truck and they could hear his nails scrapping the metal as they escaped.
Jenni whirled around in her seat to look out the back window. The man was running after them, pumping his arms and screeching. “How fast are we going?”
“Thirty,” Katie responded. “He’s keeping up.”
The man howled as his legs suddenly spread askew and he tumbled hard to the pavement.
Katie braked sharply and looked back.
“Why did you stop?”
“I want to see if what I’m thinking is true.”
Jenni watched as the man staggered to his feet, looked around, saw the truck, and slowly hobbled toward them. “Now, that is the way they are supposed to be!” Jenni grinned at Katie triumphantly.
“He blew out his knees!” Katie laughed. “I thought that was what happened, but I wanted to make sure. They aren’t superhuman. They can still be hurt.”
They both screamed as a mouth filled with sharp teeth suddenly appeared in the back window.
“Shit!” Jenni screamed.
“Oh, my god! It’s a dog,” Katie said with relief.
A German shepherd was staring at them, appearing a little dazed.
Katie flung open the door to get a better look at the bed of the truck. A veterinarian’s temporary cardboard carrier was strapped with bungee cords to the big silver toolbox under the back window. A corner of the carrier had been chewed open and the young German shepherd stood on wobbly legs before her.
Jenni leaned out the driver’s side. “Uh, zombie—”
Katie looked up to see the man still shambling toward them.
Jenni picked up the shotgun from the floor of the truck and handed it to Katie. “Just shoot him in the head. That’s how it works in the movies.”
Katie blinked at her, then looked at the man. “I can’t.” She handed the gun back and reached out to the dog. “Come here, puppy, come here.”
The dog padded slowly over to her and she lifted his heavy body out of the bed of the pickup. Holding him tightly, she slid him into the cab, then reached back to snag the vet paperwork taped to the carrier.
Meanwhile, Jenni solemnly got out of the truck, released the safety, pumped the shotgun, and waited. The zombified man was moaning, reaching out to her. For a moment, he looked remarkably like Lloyd.
She fired.
The headless corpse hit the pavement.
“What the hell did you just do?” Katie looked utterly shocked.
Jenni shrugged. “We have to kill them.”
Katie opened her mouth to say something, then closed it. Silently, she climbed into the cab and shut the door.
Jenni climbed in as well, slipping the safety back on the shotgun.
“We don’t kill,” Katie said at last in a low voice. She appeared shaken. “We can’t kill them.”
“You ran over the runners back in town.”
“I panicked. I…” Katie faltered.
Jenni sighed sadly. She needed Katie to be strong. She needed her to be the strong one. She hadn’t minded shooting the zombie, and she would kill them in the future, but Katie needed to lead. Jenni couldn’t bear the thought of having to figure everything out.
Katie stroked the dog’s fur as she looked at Jenni for a long moment. “We’ll talk about this later. We need gas now.” Katie read over the vet’s paperwork swiftly while she scratched behind the dog’s ears. “As for Jack, here—well, we need to keep him up here. Poor baby just had surgery. Good thing he was knocked out during most of our escape.” She nuzzled the dog and kissed him.
“Jack?” Jenni smiled. “I like that name.” She wrapped her arms around the dog and pulled him onto her lap.
“That’s what his vet papers say. Jack Horton. His human daddy was the Reverend Horton. That is the man who saved my life. Jack and the reverend lived out of the city near the lake.”
“It’s a good name.”
Katie smiled slightly. “Okay, gas station next. Gas, food, supplies, and we keep going until we figure out where the hell we are going? Sound good?”
“Yeah,” Jenni answered. Snuggling the dog tight, she exhaled with relief.
Katie was back in control.
It would be okay.

 
Copyright © 2008, 2011 by Rhiannon Frater