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Chew (part 2)
By
verbal

Chew (part 2)

Series: Chew

Spend more. Want more. Need more. Own more.

The man on the phone told him the latest girl was twenty-one, but Mr. Hargrove thought she looked more like a teenager.

It didn’t matter anymore, of course. All that mattered now was getting rid of her body.

Jeeves wasn’t around to help this time.

The phone call--no name, just a number--took place every few weeks. Mr. Hargrove would order an ounce of good weed, several bottles of expensive liquor, an eightball of cocaine, a pill bottle full of Xanax to take the edge off the coke, and a girl, sometimes two.

The drugs lasted him several weeks. The girls generally stayed awhile, from a few hours to a few weeks at a time. They weren’t required to stay, and had no reason to leave, Mr. Hargrove felt. The world inside his house was measurably safer than the world outside. Strong walls, well-fortified doors and windows, and an electrified fence kept them safe. If all that failed Mr. Hargrove owned an extensive arsenal of guns and Tasers and knives.

He provided them with gourmet food, clean water, pricey booze and very good drugs. He gave them access to stereos and giant televisions and a vast library of entertainment. They had computers. They had video games. They had--incredibly--a good, reliable internet connection. He permitted them full run of a huge, lavishly appointed home.

All that Mr. Hargrove required was that they entertain him.

He was surprised any of them ever wanted to leave.

They always did.

This girl showed up about a week ago, right at the agreed-upon time. A black SUV pulled up to the outer gates, Mr. Hargrove spotted the car, checked the license plate against his notes, and pushed the button to open the gate. The car drove into the roundabout, dropped off the girl and two duffle-bags full of intoxicants.

She showed him a good time for the better part of two days, and then Mr. Hargrove sort of lost track of her for the better part of a day. It was a big house, it contained a lot of rooms and a lot of distractions. It was not uncommon for two people living there not to see each other for days.

He found her on the otherwise spotless tile floor of an upstairs bathroom, on her side, laying in a pool of puke and urine. Her skin was blue and veined, she was unresponsive.

The pill bottle lay sideways on the sink, top off, the few remaining pills spilling out of it onto the cool blue tile of the counter. The remains of a few lines of cocaine were visible on the closed lid of the toilet.

A half empty bottle of gin stood on the floor, next to her, miraculously upright.

He reluctantly kneeled next to her, careful to keep his knees and cuffs away from her bodily fluids. Her eyes were closed. The features of her face did not change. Her chest did not rise and fall.

He took her pulse and found a trace of a heartbeat. She was still alive, though how much damage had already been done was impossible to know.

He contemplated giving her mouth to mouth resuscitation, but found himself unable to bring his lips to hers. Too messy. What if she puked again?

Mr. Hargrove could summon an on-call doctor who’d be at the house in a half an hour. The doctor could probably save her life. But what would Mr. Hargrove tell him? That he’d hired a prostitute to come to his house, who subsequently ODed on illegal drugs he’d given her?

He turned off the light. He set the lock on the handle and closed the door. The lock wouldn’t keep her in, but it would keep others out.

As he descended the stairs to the main living room, his eyes scanned the yard, looking for a breach in his security. What he saw stopped him in his tracks.

The black SUV that brought the girl was now buried in the right-hand column of the front gate, the front end of the car crushed and covered in broken bricks. The driver’s side door was flung open, the driver was nowhere to be seen. The limp remains of a spent airbag draped across the seat.

The right hand hinge of the gate had pulled out of the bricks of the column. The gate now hung from one hinge, warped and bent. The gap between metal and brick was not sizable, but a man could easily find a way through the space.

The looters and anarchists wouldn’t hoard mindlessly at the breach in the gate and tumble through like lemmings. But someone would find it eventually, Mr. Hargrove knew. And infected or not, whoever found it would use it to rob him and take his food, his toys, his drugs, his money, his home.

Mr. Hargrove could not let that happen.

#

Sara tried to extricate Baby from her bleeding throat without hurting him. He possessed strong teeth and stronger jaws, but his tiny frame was delicate, and his arms and legs could be broken with the squeeze of a hand.

She didn’t scream. She didn’t want to frighten him.

She worked her palm between his forehead and her shoulder, and placed her other hand on his skull. Slowly, and with infinite care, she pried his head away from the skin of her neck.

She felt his teeth withdraw from the skin of her neck, the entire process etched with pain. The muscles of his jaw went slack.

She held the boy out in front of her. Smeared blood covered his happy bunny romper, but Sara was reasonably certain none of the blood was his. A glance down at her torso confirmed her suspicions; blood pumped copiously from the bite in her neck, soaking her shirt. She felt pretty sure Baby missed her carotid artery. If he hadn’t she’d be dead in minutes.

Baby’s eyes drooped; his breathing slowed. Sara knew he got sleepy after he fed. Pain bloomed from the wound in her neck, her head swam in a dizzy vertiginous swirl, her vision doubled, then went out of focus.

She needed to hold on. She had to wait for him to fall asleep. If she held him while he was still awake, he’d bite her again.

She willed herself to stand upright and stay conscious.

Soon Baby’s eyelids fell closed, his breathing now a wet purr. She held him to her chest, and wrapped her arms around his sleeping form.

Her dizziness intensified. She felt her balance begin to falter. She knew she’d fall soon.

She lowered herself so Baby wouldn’t be hurt in the fall.

The world tumbled into darkness as she set her baby gently on the ground.

She awoke on a comfortable couch in someone else’s very warm living room. A crochet quilt lay over her body; a pillow comforted her head.

Where was Baby?

She bolted up on the couch, flinging the quilt onto the floor. She called out for him, panicked.

A door across the room opened and an older woman stepped out into the living room. Deafening alarm bells went off in Sara’s brain. Her pulse raced, her breathing quickened.

“Where is my child?” she screamed, standing now.

The older woman abruptly stopped, dead still. She stood in front of the door, just inside the room.

“He’s right here, in the room.” The woman pointed to the overstuffed chair where Baby lay “He’s safe. He’s sleeping.”

Sara flung herself off the couch and knelt before the chair. She ran her hands along his arms, his legs, the contours of his torso and head. He appeared to be uninjured.

As importantly, his fever had subsided. His skin still felt warm to the touch, but his temperature was returning to normal.

She realized with a start he’d been covered in blood right before she lost consciousness in the hallway. No blood stained Baby’s skin or clothes now.

She brought her hand up to her neck; the pain flared as her fingers touched the bandage.

The old woman said, “Don’t worry, you won’t get infected. I don’t know if you were worrying or not but you don’t need to. I don’t know much about any of this, but there was a woman up in 2D who was pregnant, and her baby was...the same. And she didn’t get infected. She’s fine.”

Sara asked, “Did you….”

The old woman nodded.

“You cleaned him up?”

“Yes,” she said.

“You put me on the couch? You bandaged my neck?”

“You were bleeding pretty badly. At first, I thought the child had been injured, but after examining him I realized…” The woman faltered, then simply quit talking.

Sara glanced down at her own blood-soaked blouse.

“He’s never bitten anyone else,” Sara began. “I mean, we haven’t seen hardly anyone else since the Worm. So, he hasn’t had a lot of chances.” Sara smiled apologetically.

“I wasn’t scared,” said the woman. “He’s very sweet. When I found you two, he was so drowsy he was barely awake. I cleaned him and gave him fresh clothes. My son’s old clothes. Then I put him to sleep on the chair, so that as soon as he woke up he’d see you.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course. You were lying in the hallway, totally unconscious. From the pain, I guess.”

“I didn’t know where I was.”

“You’re on my couch. I’ve lived here for decades. I heard the commotion outside my door. After I made sure the boy was safe I dragged you into my apartment. I cleaned your wound and made you a place to rest on the couch. You were out for several hours.”

“It’s feels like I slept about a week. Was my baby feverish? When you were cleaning him?”

“No. He seemed fine. He seems fine now. I didn’t take his temperature. Would you like me to? I have a thermometer.”

“No. That’s okay. You’ve done so much already. I don’t want to impose.”

“Please. I haven’t talked to anyone since that crazy mind virus hit. I don’t even know what that means. Mind virus? I’m too old for this stuff. I don’t even know how to work a computer.”

“Yeah, I don’t understand it, nobody understands it. And after it happened there was no one to study it anymore. The mind virus. The Wendigo virus, somebody on TV called it. Ever hear of that?”

“I didn’t get out much. Less so now.”

“Wendigos are this Native American Indian thing, I saw it in a movie once. They turn hungry, and can never be satisfied. The medical term is Graybeaux’s. Graybeaux’s Syndrome.”

Neither of them said anything. Baby slept, burrowed in the cushions of his comfy chair.

Sara asked, “That woman? That pregnant woman? In 2D? Is she really all right?”

“She really is,” said the old woman.

Sara couldn’t tell if the old woman was lying or not, but she chose to believe her.

“Wanna watch TV? We have electricity, for the moment. I have a DVD player. Maybe your baby would enjoy it when he wakes up.”

“No,” said Sara. “I think TV might be what got us into this mess.”

“Really? People got it from TV?”

“Maybe. No one knows. My sister handed her cellphone to my baby to watch videos. So….”

The silence that followed reminded Sara of the silence earlier on the pay phone, with the doctor. The hum in the line, the fraught miles, the chaotic distance between the speakers. Fresh grief bloomed in her belly.

The old woman said, “Let me at least make you a snack before you have to go. I still have some crackers. I’ll set up a TV tray.”

Sara didn’t say no.

#

“My name’s Tori,” she said to Lucas.

“It’s nice to meet you, Tori.” He shook her hand in a manner that was more formal than he expected it to be. He hadn’t shaken anyone’s hand in months. Human gestures were increasingly rare in the world.

She stood, and walked out of the shelter of the shelving to look out the windows art the empty stores across the way. Nike. Just Masks. Cinnabon. Zee Mobile.

“So, it’s almost dark. The Grays will be gathering. I know the real estate inside the mall pretty well. We’ll be safe. I know where to hide. But I don’t know what it’s like out there. That’s more your field.”

He followed her out to the window. They avoided eye contact. Both of them continually scanned the hallways of the mall as they talked. “Well, if we wanna take the propane, we could load it into a shopping cart and push it. We aren’t gonna be able to outrun anyone. We’d have to move from dark spot to dark spot. It would be a long night. But if we were careful we would be there by morning.”

“And where is ‘there’?”

“Out in the ‘burbs. Eden Prairie. And we gotta avoid downtown. It’s crazy there, so we gotta sorta curve around. We can follow I-35 south most of the way. Stay in the shadow of the sound wall. That’s the route I took here. It’s pretty safe. There’s a few pockets of homes with water and electricity along the route. They help keep the Grays away.”

She turned to him. “The noise of a shopping cart won’t draw them out? What if it has a squeaky wheel or something? They all do.”

He kept his eyes on the hallway. “I’ve done it. You just have to be careful. And if things get scary you can always just abandon the cart and run. They lose interest in the chase pretty quickly, I’ve noticed.”

“I hate taking risks.”

He turned to her. “How about the car? Why is that such a bad idea?”

“It draws them. You hear a car motor start up, and out of nowhere Grayboys and thieves start popping their heads up, chasing the noise. The Worm made them kind of dumb, but it didn’t make them deaf. I got caught in the mall because of the car. That’s why I’m here. Drove into the parking garage, thinking it’d be safer. They ambushed me. It took planning. I barely got out of there. I abandoned the car. So I’m scared.”

“But the car’s still there?”

“Yeah. I parked it and locked it up. They waited til I got out of the car. It’s just sitting there. Level C-3.” She pointed in the direction of the garage.

“Full tank?”

“Oh, I dunno. About half I think. It runs well. You could get to the car. Start it up no problem. But you’d need to create a distraction. Something to make them look in the place that you’re not.”

“Sorta like what you did with throwing the kibble?”

She laughed. Such a small, lovely sound, thought Lucas. It moved him to remember sounds like that still existed in the world. He hadn’t heard someone laugh for a long time.

“Yeah, sorta like that.”

“Something to keep the Grays from swarming the car?”

“Yeah. Grays and assholes. “And we’d have to create a distraction when we got to your camp.”

He smiled suddenly, then returned her laugh. “I have an idea,” he told her. “Like your trick with the kibble. But louder.”

#

Mr. Hargrove didn’t know what kind of gun it was. Jeeves bought it for him. A machine gun, he was pretty sure. Illegal, he was pretty sure. Fully automatic. Fifty round magazine.

He knew how to shoot it. Jeeves taught him that too.

Mr. Hargrove got the gun and a coil of electric fencing wire from out of the garage. He pocketed a pair of wire cutters and a roll of electrical tape. He opened the fusebox, and then, after following the diagram Jeeves had helpfully taped to the inside of the fusebox door, turned off the electricity to the fence.

With gun in hand and a coil of wire slung over one shoulder, Mr. Hargrove crept to the corner of the house to survey the gate.

The brick column upon which the right side of the gate hung took the brunt of the impact when the SUV crashed. As a result, the column was partially collapsed and now listed to the right, away from the gate. The metal gate had been ripped away from its hinges embedded into the brick. In addition to breaking the circuit of the electric fence, a space of maybe three feet now separated the column from the gate.

He didn’t expect the repair to be difficult. All he needed to do was string the fencing wire from one point to another in three places, cut the excess wire, string new wire across the gap, and repair the cuts with electrical tape.

Few Skinnies roamed the streets. They liked to live in nice houses, eat well, drink good booze, watch TV on wall sized televisions. He didn’t think he’d have to fight them off as he worked.

He’d fix the fence, return to the house, switch the juice back on, and he’d be safe again.

After that, he’d deal with the dead hooker in the master bathroom.

He stepped out from around the corner of the house, and scouted the area for movement. Nothing. He began walking toward the gate, eyes and ears alert.

When he got close to the car he slowed to peer inside, curious as to what might have caused the crash.

The driver slumped over the steering wheel, clearly dead. His seat belt was not buckled. The dull tan nylon of the airbag hung limp from the center of the wheel.

In the passenger seat lay a handgun, a roll of cash, and a small glassine envelope filled with a white powder. Meth, probably, thought Mr. Hargrove. Maybe coke. Maybe heroin.

Mr. Hargrove hoped it was heroin.

The possibility pulled him closer to the car door. Even with the large gap between the gate and the fencepost so close, the tools to mend the gap literally in his hands, and the dead man in his kitchen as a visual reminder of what would happen if the gate remained unfixed, he found himself unable to keep himself from exploring the car.

It wasn’t just the drugs. Money wasn’t the most effective tool these days--gold, food, drugs, medicine were in far greater demand--but it still held its uses. And as for the handgun, it was more useful than the machine gun in some situations.

Mr. Hargrove figured the whole process would take less than five minutes, tops. Do a couple quick snorts of whatever was in the envelope, let the high take root as he pocketed the money and the gun and the rest of the drugs, then get to work on the fence. More than enough time.

He circled around the car to the passenger door and opened it. He was a little surprised to find it unlocked. He swung the door open, and slid the gun, the money, and the drugs over to the side of the seat, then plopped down into the plush overstuffed interior.

Nice car, thought Mr. Hargrove. He felt a twinge of jealousy that the car wasn’t his, then realized it essentially was, now.

He opened the clear plastic envelope as he contemplated his strategy. He’d have to deny being in possession of the car the next time he called up for drugs and booze and girls. Tell them he saw the car leave, with both the driver and the girl inside.

Of course, it would mean he had another body to dispose of. Two deaths on his property now.

Three, if you counted Jeeves.

The first hit of white powder hit him with improbable force. His nostril burned and throbbed; his mind burst into ten thousand thoughts and sensations, a mirror shattering.

Prominent among those ten thousand thoughts: the man next to him had snorted this very same drug, from this very same envelope. And now he was dead.

The realization came seconds too late. Mr. Hargrove’s vision narrowed, as his peripheral eyesight abruptly departed. Bright white spots danced before his eyes. His breathing quickened, his heartbeat grew rubbery.

A skinny man carrying a toaster oven stumbled through the open gateway and ambled toward the car just as Mr. Hargrove’s world went black.

#

Baby was hungry again.

Sara listened to him cry from the far side of the door.

She’d already fed him all the breast milk she’d pumped earlier in the day. She could bring him a bottle of formula. Soon she’d have no more.

After that, she’d need to come up with another food source.

Not just for him, but for her. She was running low on canned food.

She looked out the window and saw a column of smoke rising in the distance, coming from a large house on a hillside, surrounded by a formidable gate.

Fires were not uncommon these days. She hoped whoever lived inside would be okay.

Food could be found in the outside world. She could scout for food, as she knew others did. Actual stores existed out there, though she’d heard prices were outrageous. She had little money anyway. She’d heard of a few food banks out there too, supplies gathered for and distributed to those in need. And groups here and there that not only survived the Worm, but thrived. People who’d banded together and shared their skills and were trying to rebuild the world.

She couldn’t leave him alone here. He was her baby. He was helpless.

Yes, the old woman on the first floor had let them in her door, gave them food and advice. Not everyone would respond that way. Most wouldn’t.

Baby needed her to take care of him.

A time-lapse image came to her, unbidden, of the cans and bottles disappearing from the cupboard, one at a time. They left circled stains on the fading shelf paper. The empty area of the shelves growing as time passed, until there was more emptiness than food. Until there was no food at all.

Dust. Cobwebs.

All that would be left after that would be breast milk. Her milk.

The milk wouldn’t last for long. Neither would she.

If she could make it for just another year she could take Baby with her as they foraged.

Perhaps she could go back downstairs to the old woman. Ask her for food when stocks ran low. Maybe they could even move in together. The old woman probably needed help. She could help. They could share their food.

Sara lolled in her chair, lost in a reverie where the three of them shared an apartment, and had plenty of food and plenty of water. They’d raise Baby together. The old woman would dispense wisdom and tell stories of what the world was like before the Worm came. They’d plant a garden. They’d get a kitten. They’d forage for books to build a library for Baby’s education.

And as they healed, and thrived, the world around them would heal and thrive with them. Schools would reopen. Restaurants. Movie theaters. Hospitals.

If she could make it for just another year. Stretch the food out as long as possible. Supplement her cupboard however she could. Barter services for food. Pray they’d continue to receive running water, and at least sporadic electricity. Pray they’d have heat in the coming winter. Pray the locks held.

Keep Baby safe from the infected. And the looters.

Keep herself safe from Baby.

Sara touched the bandage at her neck. The bandage felt hot to the touch, and damp with blood. The wound still stung, and would for some time. She looked down at her breasts, her scarred and swollen nipples. She followed the trail of the scratches along her arm with her gaze.

One more year. Make it through one more year.

She couldn’t leave him alone here.

He was her Baby.

She prepared a bottle of breast milk from her stores in the cooler. At least the freezer still spit out enough ice when the electricity was on to keep the breast milk cool. She tested the temperature on the skin of her arm. She opened the door to his room.

“I’m here, baby,” she said. “Don’t cry. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

She heard his wet hungry whimper, and crossed the room to feed him.

#

The squeaky wheel of the shopping cart threatened to betray them in the dark, echoing expanse of level C-3 of the parking garage. Tori gripped the front of the cart, steering it as she pulled it forward. Lucas pushed the cart from behind. They’d packed the propane cylinder, the water bottles, and sacks of dogfood tightly in blankets to keep noise to a minimum.

Tori led the cart to a large, tan soccer-Mom minivan.

“That’s practical,” said Lucas. “Boring, but practical.”

“What, you want me to steal a Porsche?”

“It’s not like there are many Porsches around anyway. The Grayboys went after all the luxury cars.”

She hit the button on the keyfob. The brake lights flashed briefly, and Lucas held his breath waiting for the tell-tale beep to sound, but none sounded.

“Disabled it,” Tori, whispered. She opened the hatchback of the car with care. “Besides, doesn’t a minivan give you a feeling of security? Like driving home from the grocery store with Mom? Bags full of groceries in the back?”

“I never had that kinda Mom,” he said.

They packed the supplies in the back of the van without further conversation, then re-wrapped everything in blankets so the bundle fit snugly in the back of the vehicle.

“Okay,” he said. “Here comes the fun part.”

He pulled his rifle from the back of the van, then fumbled in his coat pocket for a bullet.

She pulled a propane bottle from the stack.

“So who do you think’s a better shot, you or me?”

He handed her the rifle without comment. He handed her the bullet.

“I need three, at least,” she said, handing him the propane. “Grays like to hang out in shopping malls. As soon as I take the first shot they’ll come running.

He dug into his pocket for two additional bullets and handed them to her.

She expertly took out the clip, threaded in the three bullets, and secured the magazine back into the gun with a small but satisfying click.

He walked to the end of the row of parking spaces, on the far side of the garage. He saw few cars. Most of the spaces stood empty.

He looked back to see Tori balancing the rifle on the roof of the car. Lucas stood the propane canister on top of a stump of concrete, far away from any remaining cars. When he looked to Tori again she nodded her head, so he left the bottle, and walked back to the car.

“You ready?” she asked him.

He stepped up into the passenger seat and buckled up.

“It’s like the end of Jaws,” he said. “Let’s do this.”

Tori squeezed the trigger.

The rifle bucked in Tori’s hand with a loud blast. The shot angled off the concrete behind the cylinder and whistled away. She’d missed. Lucas quickly scanned the area surrounding them to see if the sound of the gun had drawn anyone; Tori stayed focused, ejecting the shell, already lining up her next shot. The rifle sounded again. Lucas heard the ping of metal from the far side of the garage a split-second later.

No explosion. With a loud hiss, the canister leaped into the air, rotating as it arced across the parking garage, a spiral plume of condensed gas erupting from the side of the container like rocket exhaust. The can ricocheted off the wall behind with a loud clang, landed on a car hood with a thump, setting off the car alarm as it flew back into the air, landing on a car roof this time, setting off a second car alarm before careening off the metal and disappearing into the adjacent aisle, bouncing along the concrete with a series of metallic clanks.

This wasn’t the fiery distraction they were expecting, but it worked even better, the twin car alarms echoing endlessly in the narrow concrete hallways of the structure.

Lucas tuned to find Tori already sliding into the driver’s seat. She quickly buckled her seat belt as Lucas hopped into the passenger seat.

“Hold on,” she said. She hit the gas, squealed backward out of the parking space, slammed the car into forward gear and lurched toward the exit of the garage. Lucas buckled his own seatbelt as they bounced down the aisle. She barely touched the brakes as she took the two corners into the next parking level, searching for an exit.

“There!” cried Lucas, pointing toward an arrow and an Exit sign.

Below the sign stood a man with an axe in his hand. He pointed back at Lucas. Then he began running toward them.

Tori hit him with the car as she turned the corner. The man glanced off the corner and pinwheeled back into the wall behind him. His axe tumbled in the opposite direction, arcing over the roof of the car before slamming against the concrete floor on the far side of the car.

“It’s blocked!” yelled Tori. Lucas looked ahead of them. A large sign with the words “Nicollett Ave. Exit” hung before them, and the open night sky loomed beyond the sign, but between them and their freedom lay a wrecked car, deliberately placed. A young woman rounded the corner with a baseball bat in hand.

Tori took another turn at high speed, the minivan temporarily tipping onto two wheels. By the time the car had settled back onto all fours they’d nearly reached the end of the row. Lucas spotted movement to the right, through Tori’s passenger side window.

“There’s another one,” he said, pointing.

Tori took a sharp left. Another exit appeared directly in front of them. Another wrecked car blocked their escape.

Instead of slowing to turn again, Tori hit the gas. Lucas saw she was aiming at the space between the rear end of the wrecked car and the side of the exit to the street.

Someone rushed into the space right before they hit, but saw the car hurtling toward them and kept running.

The cars collided with furious impact. The wrecked car spun around, the minivan bounced off the car into the wall on the far side, and into the street as both airbags blasted into their chests. A rain of plastic debris from the dashboard and steering wheel filled the air as the car stalled.

Lucas blinked, trying to regain a sense of his surroundings. The air danced with some type of powder. “Go, go, go,” he shouted, but Tori had already reached for the key, batting the now limp air bag to the side.

Miraculously, the car started.

Lucas didn’t see anyone chasing them, but didn’t look too closely.

Tori punched the gas and they squealed down the street.

Five minutes later, she took a ramp onto the Interstate. Lucas gave her directions to his camp, south of downtown.

Tori took the road at a slowed pace. The whole car shook with the vibrations from the engine. The shocks complained with each bump in the road. The steering wheel shuddered whenever she turned the car.

They said nothing as their heartbeats returned to normal and their heads cleared. No other cars moved on the roadway, though several cars were left abandoned, hoods open, doors ajar. A few people walked the side of the roadway with shopping carts and suitcases and backpacks, but they didn’t chase the car or attempt to flag it down.

They had their own dramas to attend to.

Off in the distance, a plume of smoke rose from a large house on top of a hill, disappearing into the night sky.

Tori said, “Did you ever take a road trip? Just get in the car and drive? Burn through a full tank of gas, stop at a station for gas and food and the bathroom, and get in the car and go again.”

“Yeah. A few times. It’s a rite of passage, kinda.”

“It is. So much fun. So exhilarating. So freeing.”

“I wonder if you could still do it?”

Lucas said, “You’d never be able to account for everything. You’d need food, water. Extra gas. Guns and ammo. I bet someone has this road blocked, farther down the line. Lots of abandoned cars to work with.”

“I wonder if there are even gas stations out there anymore?”

“I doubt it.”

She sighed. “This car would never make it anyway. I’m not sure how many more miles it has left.”

“We’re almost there.”

“Yeah?”

“Maybe I’ll work on the car when we get home. Park it out front on blocks, like the old days. Be one of those guys. Work on the car, Saturday afternoon, baseball game on the radio, beer in hand.”

“Or get another car. Lots to choose from. You can get that Porsche you wanted.”

He smiled. “Someday.”

“The world will still be out there.”

“I promised them supplies. I owe them. Like, for my life. And there’s a woman who has a baby, I think. I should probably see if she needs anything.”

“I know.”

“They need me. As much as I need them.”

“Yes.”

“It’s tempting though, isn’t it? Just keep driving? See where the highway goes?”

“Someday.” She paused. Perhaps she was contemplating the idea. She said, “But it’s important to keep your promises. Be a person of your word. Especially in this day and age. In this world, all you have is your word.”

“Maybe that’s all we ever had,” he said. “Maybe all the rest was just distraction.”

They drove on in silence, eyes on the horizon, alert for roadsigns, clues of where the road might take them next.

#

Mr. Hargrove smelled smoke.

Light, dancing on the polished surface of the windshield, caught his eye.

He turned.

Flames curled at the sides of the open front door, blistering the white paint of the doorway, darkening the surrounding wood with soot and ash. Smaller flames leapt from the upstairs window.

His house was on fire, and had been burning for some time.

A shower of quarters and nickels and dimes rained on the windshield of the car like hail, immediately turning Mr. Hargrove attention, forcing him awake.

The Skinny pressed his face against the windshield, eyes bulging, teeth chomping like an extra from a monster movie. He smeared blood on the glass with broken fingers as Mr. Hargrove struggled to regain his senses.

Loose change continued to spill from the infected man’s pockets. The SUV’s hood ornament caught the edge of his coat and pulled on it, ripping a hole along the seam. As the Skinny turned to inspect what had happened, nickels and dimes and quarters spilled out in a fan from all his pockets onto the hood and the windshield of the car, pinging musically on the metal and the glass.

Mr. Hargrove’s throat burned with thirst. His stomach clenched and threatened to spasm. His vision doubled, quadrupled, returned momentarily to normal. He couldn’t clear his head, and as he blinked and attempted to regain some sense of lucidity, a sharp bolt of pain burst through his skull.

He smelled urine and knew without having to look that it was his own.

How long had he been in the car?

He put the question on hold; no way to answer it now.

The gun sat next to his leg, in the foot well of the car. The Skinny beat on the windshield with closed fists. He pressed his mouth against the glass, biting at it, his lips and tongue obscenely stretched by the glass, painting it with saliva and blood.

His eyes, in contrast, stared down onto Mr. Hargrove with eerie calm.

Mr. Hargrove reached down for the gun, grasped the grip in his palm. He lifted it to the windshield. He placed the barrel of the gun directly against the glass, aimed toward the infected man’s mouth.

The man stopped. He reared back, away from the glass, as if to see Mr. Hargrove and the weapon he held better. He blinked down at the gun pointed straight at his face.

He smiled, baring all his teeth in the process.

Then, in a move so swift and unexpected it left Mr. Hargrove fully unprepared, he brought his forehead down directly onto the glass with a stomach-churning thud. The car rocked and shuddered. A spiderweb of cracks leapt from the point of impact. The window did not break.

Teeth scraped against the ridges of the fractures in a grotesque stacatto as the man bit at the glass. His palms were now spread out against the glass, cracked fingernails clawing to get inside.

Mr. Hargrove pulled the trigger.

The windshield shattered outward as the air filled with a bright flash and the acrid taste of gunpowder and fear; the glass still remaining within the frame of the windshield sagged down into the interior. The Skinny flopped sideways, the car lurching as the body landed on the hood, arms and legs spayed across the surface. Blood and gray matter coated everything: smeared across the glass and hood, soaked into the clothes of the dead thing, dripping into the interior of the car through the ragged hole in the glass.

Mr. Hargrove could hear nothing save the ringing in his ears.

He fumbled with the door handle, finally found the catch and pulled it, then fell out of the car in a shower of rounded glass pebbles as the door opened. He landed on the tarmac of the driveway in a lump.

He lay on the asphalt until his hearing returned and his eyesight adjusted. His heart rate and breathing slowed from panic level to something approaching normalcy.

He grabbed the door handle to help pull himself up, brushing the glass off his clothes after he stood.

His reflection hung in the glass of the passenger side window. He did not at first recognize himself. Dark circles surrounded his dull, red eyes, shadows haunted the hollows of his cheeks and the slack of his jaws. His sweaty, blood stained clothes hung from his frame like they hung from a scarecrow. He must have been in the car for days; he looked as if he’d lost ten pounds.

His stomach convulsed in dry heaves. He was starving, he hadn’t eaten in days. His throat hurt as he swallowed, thirst painted his parched mouth and cracked tongue. He needed food. He needed water. His muscles trembled in weak hunger.

He looked like one of the Skinnies.

He could have been one of the Skinnies.

An angry bark of a laugh pulled Mr. Hargrove’s attention from his own reflection.

A skinny, bloody, disheveled woman stumbled toward him from the flames.

The hooker he’d left for dead in the bathroom wasn’t dead after all. Her clothes sparked with flame, her hair smoldered, her eyes shone bright with hunger.

She stopped when she reached him, palms clenching, jaw flexing, chewing at the air.

“What do you want from me?” he whimpered.

She smiled in toothy response.

“Tell me what you need,” he begged, “I can get you anything.”

She worked her jaw. Her hands grasped at the empty air.

“What do you need?”

Slurred words tumbled from her lips, but he couldn’t decipher them. She tilted her head and opened her mouth wide, revealing a maw that grew larger with each step she took toward him, a hunger that could never be sated, a hole that could never be filled.

 

 

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