Wallace noticed the cruiser’s lights on the down slope of a particularly slick patch of highway. It was dark and the rain made everything indiscernible, like watching a movie in 3-D without the glasses on. The lights of his rig stood out among the pitch-black landscape, and he moved over to the left lane to give the officer a wide berth.
Except, as he blew past, he saw there wasn’t an officer. Nor was there a passenger, so far as he could tell. Both cars sat just off the road, one pulled in behind the other. Both had their headlights on, which Wallace thought was odd, but otherwise the situation appeared normal.
He checked the rearview mirror, trying to make out some kind of shape, some kind of anything, that resembled a person. All that could be seen was the swath of light surrounding the cruiser and the rear end of the car that had been pulled over.
Maybe the road was making him a bit loopy. He had been driving nonstop all night, headed for the Gulf Coast of Florida. He was somewhere in Georgia, and everything was muddy and humid and he couldn’t wait to be done with this particular run. The amphetamines were wearing off, and he felt tiredness course through him like a virus. He had maybe another hour’s worth of juice left in him before he would crash out.
Every time he got this tired, he started to think about retirement, how great it would feel to just give up on driving a truck and just relax. He didn’t really have any savings, but it wasn’t too hard to bum around Florida, maybe get a small place on the coast of Georgia, fix cars or do something casual. Some bullshit job. He’d never do it, unless something drove him into it. It’s something he would dream about but never follow through on. It would take some outside force to get him to give up the grind.
As he approached the next exit, he debated on whether or not to pull off the interstate and refuel. Both he and the truck were running low on gas. His mind returned to the empty cop car, and a twinge of panic hit him. What if some maniac had taken it to the cop, throttled him and left him for dead? What if Wallace was the first man to cross the scene? Maybe there was still time, he thought, unless he was imagining the whole thing. A possibility, considering the amount of speed he’d taken over the last couple of days.
The exit approached. Wallace coasted back over into the right-hand lane, chewing one of his fingernails. Behind him, the lights flickered and sent shadows dancing over adjacent trees. Each time the police lights flashed, it looked like a haunting still life, painted by an artist with a morbid sense of humor. The title could be, A Traffic Stop Post-Rapture, or something equally as unsettling.
He felt his hands growing wet on the wheel. He wasn’t nervous, really, but something about that empty cop car (and the other one, as well) put him on edge. “Ah, fuck it,” he said, turning off the main highway onto the off-ramp. A giant, well-lit sign loomed overhead. Git N Go Express, it said, a red-and-white sign with black lettering, one of the last few of these franchises remaining down in those parts.
The truck rumbled to a stop at the bottom of the hill, and he braked lightly before turning left. The gravel parking lot out front of the aging gas super-station was more or less empty, and yet he parked longways out by the highway. Force of habit. The Pope would dance a jig on live television before Wallace thought he’d break his longstanding routines.
As he jumped down from the driver’s seat, he peered into the brightly-lit storefront. Not a single person stirred. Not a single head bobbed up and down the chip aisle, and no one colored in numbers for the Mega Millions drawing, which had reached twenty-seven big ones, by his last calculations. His gaze became more penetrating as he closed in on the front door. There was nobody in the store. For that matter, there was not even a clerk present, so far as he could tell.
A sour feeling settled in his gut, fear exacerbated by coffee, speed, and doughnuts. The sound of his feet crunching on the mud and rocks made a faint echo, and he was suddenly aware of his complete and utter loneliness in that moment. The store truly was empty.
If everybody’s gone to their reward, he thought, and I’m still left here, I’m gonna be right pissed about it.
He stopped at the glass door and cupped his hands around his eyes as he looked inside. It didn’t help visibility for shit (for one thing, the place was so damned bright that he could see everything from way back at the rig) but it gave him momentary pause. If something bad was going down – a robbery, perhaps – he could maybe spot it and hightail it the hell outta there. No harm, no foul. If it was the same guy from the abandoned car back out on the interstate, he could be comforted in knowing the entirety of the situation.
Displays for magazines and potato chips and DVDs and energy drinks lined the glass partition, but even despite that, Wallace was able to scan the perimeter of the store. Everything seemed to be in order. As far as he could tell, there was nothing spilled on the floor. No candy bars or sodas or anything of that sort, and all of the cooler doors remained closed.
In addition, and this was perhaps the most important element, there was not a drop of blood anywhere. Of course, he couldn’t see behind the main counter (where, to his lack of knowledge, a dead and mangled store clerk could be slowly rotting), but he was fairly certain the lack of blood proved maybe that he had overreacted.
Spooked by an odd sight, that’s all, he thought.
Still, where was a clerk? At this time of night, somebody should be parked behind the counter. Bathroom, maybe? Out back, smoking a joint, while there are no customers around? That would certainly make him feel much better about the overall situation.
He walked to one corner of the building and peeked around it, and then went back to the other side and did the same, and he saw nothing but cigarette butts and used condoms. It smelled sort of funny, but that wasn’t any different from the side of any other random gas station. He sighed and turned back toward the entrance.
A bell above the door tinkled dully as he pushed inside. A rush of cold air struck him, sliding around him like an icy blanket, and he let the door close on its own. He took one step to his right, nudging up against the ice cream cooler, and took a gander at the establishment. He’d been here before, and if he wasn’t mistaken, he’d bought a couple of bumps of speed from a harsh-looking dealer with perpetually-sunken eyes.
The only sound in the station was the low hum of the fluorescent lights and the occasional flourish of the video poker machines in the corner. He turned his attention to the beer coolers, and then he flipped his gaze to the small hallway directly across from him, at the back of the store, where the single stall bathrooms lay. No signs of struggle, robbery, or murder. He let out his breath.
“Lo?” he called. “I’m gonna get some gas. Anybody here to turn the pumps on?”
He waited, smirking, trying to remain calm and optimistic. His boots were cemented to the sticky tiled floor, yellowed by either design or tramped-in filth. There was a slight odor in here. He noticed it now. Smelled slightly like spoiled meat. Something slipped around his guts and tightened up like a vice. He wanted to get the hell out of there.
The first step was the hardest. It echoed in the building with unnerving clarity. Sounded in that moment like a gunshot in a telephone booth. He waited, listening to the way his heart thudded along in his chest. No sound from the other end of the building. No sound from anywhere, really.
He took another step, and then another. He got to the first row of snacks, candy bars and potato chips and gum and whatnot, and he leaned on the corner of the display. It was good to take some weight off of himself. The speed had worn off, and he was crashing big-time.
His elbow slid sideways, and he turned his head in time to see a full box of Snickers bars bounce off the rows of candy beneath it and spill brown plastic cylinders everywhere. It almost seemed to happen in slow motion, and the sound of skittering chocolate bars was amplified. It sounded large, immense.
The spilled candy lay there, and Wallace debated on whether or not he was going to pick it up. He stood at the head of the aisle, listening. Watching. His ears and eyes were fine-tuned for movement of any kind. He heard nothing. “I just spilled a whole shitload of candy bars, my man. You want me to pick ’em up, or should I leave ’em for you?”
He waited. No answer.
This is creepy as shit, he thought, backing away. Over by the counter, the smell intensified, but he dared not look behind it. He was going to get the hell back out to his truck, and then he’d call the police like a good citizen. What in the world did he need to play super hero for?
And the gun, oh yeah, the gun! He had a pistol under the seat, a nice little nine mil, and if he had that, then this wouldn’t be half the problem it had turned out to be. How could he have forgotten it? He thought for a moment that if he went back outside and got it, he could scour the aisles to see if anybody was trapped in here, that if a robbery had taken place, maybe there was a clerk tied up in the cooler or something. But no way was he going to go turning over every rock in this godforsaken place without a gun in his hand.
“I’ll be right back, podna,” he said, comforting himself as much as anybody who might be in there. “Don’t you worry.”
The air smelled much better, but he almost didn’t have time to pay attention to it. He skipped along the gravel as if shot out of a cannon, looking back to make sure he wasn’t being followed. Halfway back to the truck, he sort of wished he’d snagged one of those damned Snickers bars, maybe a soda. Or a beer. He didn’t know if there were cameras in there, but who knew how long it’d be before he got back to another station. Shit, what if a crankhead and a buddy of his had taken to a crime spree? Maybe all the surrounding stations had been hit. Then what? Would he try to turn on the pumps himself, leave money on the counter? He couldn’t make it very far on the gas he had, and he was a long way from anywhere.
It actually felt nice to get back to the rig. He opened the door and climbed in, debating the subject. Snickers or no Snickers? He reached down, felt along underneath the seat until his hand hit something cold and metallic. The gun was a lot heavier than he remembered, but he was also a little bit nervous, wasn’t he? The gun most certainly would feel a tad weighty in this situation.
Wallace placed the gun in his lap and watched the store’s interior. A flash caught his peripheral vision, and he turned to see an older Volvo come rumbling through the gravel lot. It was rust-colored, worse for the wear, and its owner was a skinny thirtysomething with a bad complexion and wire frame glasses.
The man slammed on the brakes and was nearly out the door before the car was in park. He left it on, lights and all, and it was then Wallace saw why his movements had looked so strange. He was barking into a cell phone, his head moving in time with the conversation. He looked angry, frustrated, and hurried. Wallace couldn’t read lips, but he thought he saw the man say Oh my God once or twice.
He sure wasn’t afraid to step into the store, though. Just opened the door and went right on in. Wallace watched with baited breath.
At first nothing happened. The guy continued his verbal rampage while going through the store, stepping over spilled soda bottles and broken bags of chips, as if that was the new way to display snacks. Veins bulged on the gentleman’s neck, and the back of his shirt was soaked through with sweat. He took a moment to stuff his cell into the pocket of his Oxford shirt before opening the door containing water and energy drinks.
Wallace could see that the man’s mouth was still moving, so he assumed the man hadn’t hung up but had set his phone to speaker and was still yelling into it. He took bottles of water and stuffed them into the pockets of his khakis. He opened one bottle long enough to drain half of it, and then he commenced his rapid-fire speech again.
It was perhaps for this reason that he didn’t see a person emerge from one of the bathrooms. The door had been open, and this new person ambled out into the main floor, head tilted to one side in an awkward fashion. An older guy, balding, wearing a suit that would place him in the “homeless” category. The face was a bit dirty, and the light shining on the hairless dome of a head detracted from the look of his face. Wallace didn’t exactly leap at the opportunity to run in and introduce himself.
The way the new figure walked made Wallace ill at ease. He should have been elated to see other people, especially after the police car situation, but this wasn’t making the puzzle fit together any better. His eyes flicked from the guy stealing water to the ambling newcomer and back again.
Wallace opened the rig’s door and stepped down. From this angle, he couldn’t quite see everything, but his fear was assuaged somewhat by the presence of the gun in his hand, which shook violently as he stood in the station’s vast parking lot. He didn’t approach, but he also didn’t recede to the comfort of the rig, either. It sort of gave him a charge to be standing there, in the open, not sure of what would happen next. Or what might.
Inside, the dirty man in the dodgy suit shuffled forward as if he had all of eternity to get out of there. He seemed weak, and his feet barely left the ground. Wallace wondered whether or not the man was seriously ill. Judging by the angle he was taking, it looked as though the guy was heading right for the double doors.
But then, he took a rounded left, moving toward the back cooler. Meanwhile, his counterpart had finished shoving bottles of liquid into various pockets. A row of drinks lay at his feet. He stopped talking and stared down for a moment before turning on his heels, presumably to grab a basket for the remaining bottles.
It was like watching a video online through a bad Internet connection. It was slow, choppy, and Wallace couldn’t quite make sense of it as it happened. And yet, he could not look away.
When he saw the man coming toward him, the guy in the Oxford shirt didn’t quite react, not at first. He stopped, yes, but he skipped forward once, looking like a man who wants to go in two directions simultaneously. They were very close by this point, and the Oxford man just seemed to freeze up. His eyes widened, and he began to raise his arms in defense, but it was too late to fend off an attack.
The man in the suit tumbled forward, catching the Oxford man off-balance, and the two of them fell out of sight behind the snack foods rack. Wallace took an instinctive step forward, raising the gun a little, but he paused. What if there were more of those people – and he used the term loosely – waiting in back?
He glanced at the pistol. Then he looked in the store. His rig loomed behind him, its defenses calling to him. A few steps backward, and he’d be able to forget this whole damned situation in a matter of miles.
Even as he thought this, however, he was moving forward, racking a shell into the chamber and flipping the safety off. He stumbled a couple of times, and his legs didn’t want to hold him, but he pushed ahead, telling himself what a dumb move this was going to end up being.
As he reached the doors, he could hear high-pitched wailing coming from inside. The scene was far worse than his imagination would allow. The two men lay sprawled on the ground, the attacker on top, hands pressed to the Oxford man’s shoulders, holding him there while he snapped and clawed at him.
A small puddle of blood had formed on the ground beneath them, and the man being attacked shook and writhed as if being tased. The attacker clamped down on Oxford man’s neck and pulled back, causing a small spray of blood to mist the air.
What the hell is going on? Wallace wondered.
He raised the pistol but couldn’t fire. He’d always wondered what he would do in this situation, and he was finally finding out. He would chicken the fuck out. Thankfully, this hadn’t happened to him. He didn’t know if he could pull the trigger. Instead, he turned the gun around, butt first, and swiped the back of the balding man’s head. The guy toppled over but remained awake.
He was on his feet before Wallace was able to react. Putting one foot in front of the other obviously wasn’t this guy’s forte, but from ground to feet he was pretty deft. Wallace trained the barrel on the dude’s face and put some distance between the two of them.
The guy smelled awful. He absolutely reeked. It was something Wallace couldn’t quite put his finger on. Not only that, he had to have been suffering from a deteriorating physical disease, because his face was covered in a kind of rot. That had to have been causing the smell. It smelled worse than death.
“Stay back, fella,” Wallace said. His voice was weak, watery. “I intend on using this thing, if you don’t listen to me.”
The guy on the ground was screaming something, and it wasn’t until Wallace put everything around him into some kind of order that he could decipher its meaning. “Shoot it! Shoot the damned thing, man. Oh, man, aw shit!”
Thing? Whatever it was obviously hadn’t heard him, because it continued to shuffle in his general direction, eyes fixed sternly on the top of his head. “I’m serious,” Wallace said.
Oxford man put his knees beneath him but was having trouble standing with one hand clamped to the gushing wound on his neck. “It can’t hear you,” he said. “It’s not a, shit, just shoot it in the head!”
Wallace regarded the thing’s eyes. No blinking. No nothing. The chest didn’t move, not even slightly, and the hands and mouth were caked with dirt. Not new dirt. The old, even dirtier kind, the kind you might see in a documentary about archaeological excavations. And then there was the blood. What sane person – what person at all – attacks someone for blood?
The back of his foot hit something hard. He glanced down. The base of the counter. He was standing at the front of the store, his back against the gum racks, with literally nowhere else to go but outside. The man in the dirty suit (that is no man, he thought) showed no signs of fear or even acknowledgement of the gun being pointed at his face.
Only a couple of feet separated them now. The stench of death lingered so strongly in the air that Wallace was forced to hold his breath. It was that or yark on the floor. It smelled, he didn’t know, oniony. His eyes burned. His mouth was dry. The thing’s middle finger grazed the barrel.
The report was earsplitting.
Smoke mixed with the scent of death, causing a near-fatal aroma, and Wallace did, in fact, toss his cookies right then and there. He tried to give all the credit to the smell, but that wasn’t entirely it. It was the sight of the head shredding apart right before his eyes, of the goop and dried flesh pelting him like confetti at a parade, of the sound of the body hitting the ground.
Of the fact that he’d murdered a person. A near-person.
The guy in the Oxford shirt made his way to the front of the store. He was still holding his neck. Blood seeped through the fingers. Wallace couldn’t take his eyes off the blood. It looked fake. All of this now seemed staged. Like a movie he’d watched years ago.
“What took you so long, man?”
“I don’t know.” He was still holding the gun in the firing position.
Oxford guy kicked the unmoving corpse. “Well, you’re lucky you did. That shit was about to get real.”
“I didn’t think I could do it.”
The guy pulled his hand away, checked the blood. “Won’t be the last time, I promise you. These things are all over the place.”
A fresh trickle of blood ran down his neck and disappeared under the collar of the shirt. “They’re not people. Where have you been hiding for the last day?”
“I’ve been driving. Inside the cab of my truck, the rest of the world goes away.”
“I think that’s precisely what’s happened.” He smirked. “The end of the world. Ow, fuck.”
“You okay? You need a towel or something, to apply pressure?”
“Mainstream media’s been hiding this story. One more thing to add to the country’s shit-list. But it’s real. All of it. Blogs have been saying that getting bitten is a death sentence, but of course I’m hoping that ain’t the truth. Still too much uncertainty being pushed out there to believe much of anything.”
Wallace finally had the presence of mind to drop the gun. He slipped it into the back pocket of his jeans and made his way to the snack aisle. The smell of blood was strong here.
Oxford Shirt was still talking. It was obvious he was the sort of guy who liked to hear himself talk, doubly so if he knew more about any given topic than anyone else in the room. Wallace guessed he must work with technology of some sort. “Some people are saying it’s terrorism, al Qaeda and all that. I don’t know. Could be anything. Truth is, it’s scary as shit to see somebody climb out of a grave and start to hobble around.”
“Out of the grave, huh?” Wallace regarded him carefully. “You saying there’s a lot of those fuckers stumbling around?”
Oxford nodded. Wallace looked from him to the candy on the shelf. He wanted to say like in the movies but held back. No sense in making this situation even more absurd. This was an isolated incident, signifying nothing. He needed more experience for the shock of what he’d done to wear off and new kind of reality to set in.
Wallace grabbed a Snickers Bar, went to the back, grabbed a beer. He picked up a second and third Snickers on his way out the door and flicked the beer top in a trash can by the door. “I’m heading out,” he said. He felt a rush of adrenaline (and little else) propel him forward.
The guy in the Oxford shirt laughed, a sickly gesture. “And go where? At least here, you have food. And none of them are around. Yet.”
“I’ve got a delivery to make.”
“Assuming the company’s still up and running when you get there.”
“Don’t really care. It ain’t the cargo I’m going to Florida for. Like you said, the media’s holding off on it. If that’s true, and it’s just starting up, it’ll be days before the whole story gets big. That’ll give me plenty of time to get to Florida. You wanna come with?”
“Are you crazy? Florida’s where everybody goes to die. There’ll be things walking around the streets before dawn, I bet. Overrun with dead northerners in paisley golf pants, driving Buicks.”
“Then the terrorists win.” Wallace raised a hand in half-salute. “See you.”
The man in the Oxford shirt waved back. “Guess I’m gonna hole up here. Plenty of beer, long as the lights stay on. Drive safe.”
“And if I don’t, what do I have to lose? Here, take this.”
He tossed the gun over to the bleeding man. “What’d you do that for? You just gonna give up a firearm?”
Wallace thought for a moment and then went around the counter to where a clerk would have been standing if other circumstances had played out. He checked above the register. Rows of cigarette packs. He searched below the register. Bingo. A .45 with a round already in the chamber and a pump-action shotgun that looked as if it had never been used once.
He gently pulled the shotgun free of its mount and slipped the .45 – with the safety on – into his pants. “I think I’ve got the gun situation handled.”
The other guy stared at the gun with the same expression he’d used with the water a few minutes earlier. “I appreciate it,” he said. “Second time you’ve saved my life tonight, I guess.”
“Whatever you do, save one of the bullets.”
A question spread over his face, and a sorrowful expression followed. He understood. “I guess you’re right. Good luck.”
“Yep.” With that, Wallace slipped out into the night, drinking his beer and eating a candy bar. He got behind the wheel and cranked up. With any luck, he’d be in sunny Miami by morning. If all this was true, and a little more than half of him wished it wasn’t, then he’d opt for early retirement.