Chris took a sip from the paper cup he’d been holding for the past twenty minutes. Blech! Cold. He hated cold coffee. Still, he choked down the rest of it, crumpled the cup, and tossed it on the floor. Not that anyone would notice.
The newsroom was a disaster. There was paper strewn or scattered everywhere. People were darting around while the two men on camera sat across from one another arguing about the probability that all the violence in the streets was due to the dead rising and attacking the living.
Chris glanced at the door. Everywhere he looked, people were arguing like it was the end of the world. He tried to block out the yelling and formulate a plan. He knew that all the arguing being done couldn’t change what he had seen on his way into work at around 3 o’clock this afternoon…
He’d driven past the junior high school four blocks from his house. Because of the declared emergency, Chris expected to see the place empty. And for the most part…it was. But on the blacktop playground where the kids were usually either engrossed in a kickball game or shooting hoops, he’d seen two of them. The rest of his drive into the station, he’d tried to convince himself that one of them hadn’t been missing an arm from the elbow down. And not the neat and clean amputee-look. No, sir. This arm had stuff dripping from it, and a good chunk of what was probably bone jutting out from the ‘meaty’ part. Say what you would…there was something very wrong and bad happening. Sitting in this television studio arguing about it wasn’t making anything better.
He took one more look across the chaotic studio and considered if he should tell anyone or invite any of the others to join him. “Nah,” Chris said under his breath.
Once in the parking lot, he looked for his car, a 1967 Rambler Rebel. It wasn’t the flashiest car, but the entire front seat folded down, which was way cool when he took a girl to the drive-in. Hell, it was almost as cool as a van.
A strange sound carried on the cold and cloudy night air. It took him a moment to realize what he was hearing. Gunshots!
Not in any big hurry, Chris wandered over to the edge of the parking garage. He was on the top floor, six-stories above the eerily traffic-free streets of downtown Pittsburg. His eyes drifted towards the Monongahela and where Interstate 376 ran alongside it. The interstate looked like a parking lot as far as the eyes could see in both directions.
On the streets below, a police car sped around the corner. The driver locked the brakes, and the vehicle turned a slick one-eighty. It stopped, and both doors blew open. He watched as the two cops drew their guns and fired back into the vehicle.
Shadowy forms emerged from every direction, homing in on the officers who were yelling back and forth at each other while reloading, Chris couldn’t make out what they were saying, his eyes were drawn to the dozen or so figures closing in—albeit rather slowly—on the cops. After a moment’s consideration, and deciding those two were so focused on whatever was inside the back of their car that they weren’t paying attention, he decided to yell.
“Hey!” he hollered.
The cops spun and fired his direction! Chris dove to the ground, but he felt a stinging sensation on his cheek where one of the bullets had hit the concrete and sent shards of it up and into his face.
He lay still for a moment, feeling his heart pounding in his chest. Pain started to build, and it took him a moment to realize that he was holding his breath. He gasped and sucked his lungs full of the cool night air while he tried to get his composure. Then…he heard a sound unlike any before in his life.
It actually took him some time to realize that he was hearing a human—or humans—screaming. It was coming from down on the streets. The cops!
Chris jumped up and looked. The part of his mind that was still trying not to accept everything that was happening was concerned that maybe the police were hurting even further whomever they’d shot up in the back of the car. What he saw took the last shred of rationality that remained and cast it out.
By the time his eyes had adjusted to the pale blue of the street lights, the two cops were practically impossible to see. Instead, he could make out members of the mob surrounding the lone police car stumbling away with…parts. One was clearly carrying most of an arm. Another had a sloppy strand of something that Chris had no desire to know what it was.
A sound tore his attention away from the carnage below. A woman limped down the center of the aisle. He watched as she hobbled into the illuminated circles of yellow that one of the evenly spaced, pole-mounted lights provided. What he saw in the sickly glow made his stomach turn. The woman was vaguely recognizable as the co-anchor of the morning news. Only…
Chris vomited in a loud retching splash. He wiped his mouth and looked up to see Bernadette Simons—rather, what was left of her—had turned in his direction. Her floral-print silk blouse fluttered in the breeze, giving an even clearer view of the damage. It didn’t seem that any of the buttons remained. Chris only had a flash of appreciation that his oft-imagined fantasy of what her breasts looked like was fairly accurate. Unfortunately, his eyes could not pull away from the gaping hole just below her rib cage to just above her belted, corduroy pants. There were things hanging out of her that he could not begin to identify. But, dangling to her knees was a strand of what could only be her intestines.
“Miss Simons?” Chris said through the bile thickened saliva that coated his mouth.
She came at him with arms outstretched, mouth opened and issuing a low, guttural moan. Her eyes were milky and showed no sign of recognition. Her skin color, normally a perfect ivory-white that seemed even more brilliant in contrast to her raven hair, was a vile bluish-gray.
Fumbling with his keys, Chris backed away from the horror that had once been Bernadette Simons. He edged around the car that he had been standing by and, once he was certain that his pursuer was in between a pair of cars, he turned and ran. As he slid into the driver’s seat, two more of those things came shambling into view. One of them was clutching a strip of what looked like Bernadette’s blouse.
The engine turned over, and Chris backed out of his space. A dull thud sounded as he smacked into yet another of those…
What the hell are they? he wondered. The news had initially claimed that there were some crazed lunatics on the loose. Then, they’d called them ‘ghouls’. The most recent label that he had heard was ‘zombies’. Weren’t zombies some sort of weird voodoo thing?
Chris shifted into gear and headed towards the ramp leading down to the exit. He winced as his bumper clipped Bernadette. At each floor, things got just a bit worse. What began as one or two scattered about became packs of four or five by the time he reached the bottom level. He came to a stop about fifty feet from the exit.
Ahead was the well-lit security shack. Inside was old man Ernie Ziglinski. Outside were at least a dozen of those…zombies. They were all pounding on the glass, smearing it up. Ernie was holding his neck, and Chris could see a lot of blood on his hands.
Chris ran over his options. He could floor it and try to plow through…or…he could try and help the old man. A hand slapped against the glass of the passenger’s side window. Chris jumped, involuntary taking his foot off the clutch. The car lurched forward and then the engine died.
“Sonuvabitch!” his voice cracked.
Apparently Ernie had noticed him. He was now pounding on the glass from inside the booth. Chris was no lip-reader, but it was easy to see the words “Please help!” Also, several of the monsters turned around…and were now coming his way!
Chris started the car again, and took a few deep breaths as he surveyed the situation. This could work. He waited, urging the zombies to come closer. Once he was confident that he had enough open space for his plan, he flipped on the interior dome light and waved his arms to get Ernie’s attention. He pointed to the back door. That would be the easiest way to get him into the car. Ernie nodded and brandished his two-foot long flashlight.
Taking a deep breath, Chris gunned the engine, dropped it into gear, and launched up the aisle. The mechanical arm that barred the exit rose, and Ernie threw open the door to the shack. Bodies bounced and spun off the front bumper or careened off the sides. With a screech of tires, Chris skidded to a halt. Ernie shoved a few of the nearby zombies aside or else clubbed them with his heavy, chrome-plated flashlight. He pulled the back door open and dove in behind Chris. As the door slammed shut, the Rambler’s tires were already spinning. They burst out of the parking garage and onto the mostly empty streets.
“Thanks for pickin’ me up, brother.” Ernie clasped Chris’ shoulder with one hand. Chris tried not to notice the tackiness of the blood that coated it.
“Looks like you got messed up a bit there.” Chris caught the eyes of the old man in his rearview mirror.
“Damndest thing,” Ernie tugged at his long-sleeve shirt, tearing away a strip. “One of them fellas managed to sneak up behind me and started to bite down on the back of m’neck. I pulled away, but it kept a piece.”
Chris hung a left on an access road that ran parallel to the river and congested parking lot that was Interstate 376. He knew a couple of places along the waterfront that they could duck into.
“Got family out near Monroeville,” Ernie mumbled. “Maybe we could hole up with…” his voice trailed off to a low rattle.
Chris glanced at the man in his rearview mirror again. He was leaning against the window, asleep. He’d wrapped a strip of the shirt around his throat. A wad of something was against the wound, but it looked as if it was already soaked through. The old man was hurt worse than he realized…or would admit.
Eyes front, Chris slammed on the brakes. A cluster of those things were in the middle of the road. They’d caught a bum judging by the filthy clothing and wild hair—unkempt and unruly—in obvious need of a washing.
They had him by the arms and around the waist. Chris could only watch in the arc of his headlights and the glow from the streetlights and business signs—mostly bars—that lit up this stretch of road. One of them bit down on the hand it held just above the wrist. Others were tearing away the man’s jacket. There was a scream…long, loud, and terrible…as teeth sunk into arms, legs, and even his face. The group tumbled to the ground, and Chris saw dark fluid jet into the air.
There was another series of shrieks as they ripped him open. Hands sunk into the newly splayed cavity, steam rose from it on the cold night air as strands and chunks were torn free and feasted upon. A few on the fringe that were unable to join in the feeding frenzy turned towards the car.
“Oh shit!” Chris shifted and tore past the outstretched hands.
His gaze darted along the waterfront side of the road. Tall fences and locked gates denied him access if he wanted to keep his car. However, with all he was seeing, it might be worth it to ditch the car for the safety of those tall, chain-linked fences.
“Hey, Ernie!” Chris called, glancing in the mirror. The old man was definitely out.
Up ahead, one of the gates was open. Chris turned in to discover a few cars parked at random angles. Two were police cars. Perfect, he thought, maybe he could get some help. He turned into a spot deciding that, while it was okay for cops to park any way they wanted, he didn’t need any useless hassles.
“I think I found help, Ernie.” Chris hoped it wasn’t too late.
As he turned off the engine, one of Ernie’s hands slapped the top of the bench seat causing Chris to almost wet his pants. He flipped up his door lock, opened the door, and started to climb out. He glanced back as Ernie pulled himself up and Chris found himself staring into dead, flat eyes—eyes just like Bridgette’s.
“Oh, Ernie.” Chris choked back a sob. Cold lifeless hands reached for him, breaking the spell. Chris tumbled out the rest of the way, sprawling on the cold cement. He kicked the door closed, realizing too late that he’d left his keys in the ignition.
A new sound carried on the night air. He spun towards the water as a small boat loaded down with boxes and what looked like three or four uniformed officers chugged out of a nearby boathouse. Chris considered hollering, but decided against it. He’d gotten this far on his own, and perhaps he would fare better if he made decisions for himself…at least for a while.
He glanced at his car and the face pressed against the glass in the back seat. He could always open the door and let Ernie out, lead him away, then run back to the car and take off. First, he would check the area for anything useful.
In one office he heard the crackle of a radio. He ducked in to discover a body slumped over the counter. It looked like the man had taken a bullet to the head. Maybe he’d been one of those things. Chris remembered hearing that the only way to kill one was to shoot it in the head, or otherwise destroy the brain. Or, maybe the man had tried to stop the policemen who’d just putted away in that boat.
After looking around in two more buildings, each attached to its own pier, he found a boat. Still, even if he took the boat, where would he go? The cops had gone east…obviously deciding to get away from the city…as well as their coworkers who might not think highly of them abandoning their duties. He didn’t particularly like the idea of heading back into the heart of the problem. But, he didn’t want to follow those cops just in case the worker that had been shot in the head was some of their handiwork.
After another twenty minutes, Chris managed to discover and haul seven Civil Defense emergency boxes that appeared to have been left behind to his boat. Each time he passed within sight of his car, Ernie started pounding on the window. The sad thing was, each time it happened made Chris jump. Of course, the first time, he might have screamed…just a bit.
He knew that it wasn’t right—just leaving Ernie like this. So here he stood, next to the car studying the sagging face of the guy who’d had a smile and something pleasant to say to everybody who drove into that parking garage. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, or that you acknowledged him back. A couple of times, he even helped break into the Rambler when Chris had locked his keys inside. Maybe he should do something.
Ernie stopped pounding and was now staring at him. His mouth was open, a bit of drool running down his chin mixing with the nearly dried blood. Chris realized something funny, between the blue-gray discoloration, and the way his face now drooped as if the flesh was too heavy for the facial muscles to hold it up…the creature in his car now only resembled Ernie.
Perhaps if he got his keys, he could open his trunk and…and what? Chris shuddered at the thought that flashed in his mind. How in the hell could he think about getting a tire iron and taking it to the head of that poor man? No, what he needed to do was to free Ernie from the car.
He thought it over for a moment. Sure, he would be letting another one of those things loose…but at this point, what was one more? It didn’t seem like it could make that much of a difference. Besides, maybe he could lure Ernie to the boathouse. At least in there he could wander around. Chris could shut him in and then cast off. He’d just have to hope that the poor old guy didn’t try to follow the boat and fall into the water. Still, it was better than leaving him in the car.
He reached for the driver’s side door, keeping an eye on the slightly gross caricature of old man Ernie. His head turned, following Chris. When he opened the door, two things happened with catastrophic suddenness: first…the stench that rolled out of the car made Chris start heaving uncontrollably, second…Ernie lunged forward, coming almost halfway over the back of the bench seat.
Chris stumbled back and landed on his right side. The way he fell—unable to do anything to brace for the impact—knocked the wind from him. That, coupled with the thick vomit clogging his nostrils and coating his mouth, completely incapacitated him.
Never in his life had Chris smelled anything quite like that. Either he hadn’t been paying attention in the car, and inexplicably tuned the smell out, or…the combination of the dead Ernie and a closed up car for the past half hour or so had allowed that gawdawful funk to build.
Whatever the case, it didn’t matter now. The thing that had once been Ernie was struggling to get over the seat. One hand landed square on the horn and didn’t seem to be coming off it any time soon. The sound carried on the night air for what began to seem like forever as Chris struggled not only to gain his ability to breathe, but to get back up on his feet.
Keeping one eye on the struggle taking place in the front seat of his car, he rolled weakly to his stomach and slowly made his way up to his hands and knees. By the time he had gotten that far in his quest to stand, the Ernie-zombie tumbled the rest of the way into the front of the car…and mercifully off the horn.
The sudden silence seemed just a bit scary. Then he heard a new sound. Not really the sound of walking, but rather, sort of a draaag-STEP…draaag-STEP.
Chris had been able to control his panic to this point. He’d had the wind knocked out of him plenty between football and four older brothers who loved to rough-house. It sucked, but he’d learned that panic only made it worse. Looking around for the source, he’d felt his heart kick into a whole new gear when he spied a man…what was left of him…limping directly towards him. He couldn’t be more than twenty feet away.
There was a lot wrong with this guy. For starters, he was naked. Several bites had been taken out of his torso. One particularly nasty rip started at the collar bone on the right side and ran all the way to the bottom of the ribcage. Chris could actually see each exposed rib in the three- or four-inch wide tear. One outstretched hand was missing all the fingers with the exception of the pinky. Something had bitten this guy’s face just below the left eye and tore out a chunk. The rest of that cheek hung down past the jaw in a thick meaty flap. The eye seemed to be on the verge of popping out at any time.
Chris reached down deep for every ounce of strength that he could muster and struggled to his feet. Just as he did, Ernie managed to grasp him by one ankle. Chris fell more than dove into the open front seat of the Rambler. The upper third of his body was now inside the car. However, Ernie still had his ankle.
Grabbing the steering wheel, Chris pulled weakly while trying desperately to kick Ernie loose. He felt another hand claw at the back of his leg. Slowly, he could feel his ability to breathe returning as he forced himself over and onto his back. Using his elbows, Chris hauled himself further into his car and away from the two monsters that were inching closer.
His attempt was not entirely successful. The Ernie-zombie sunk his teeth into the left leg, scraping away flesh down the shin and tearing a chunk from the calf. The other had gained purchase just above the right knee, biting into the flesh, coming away with a mouthful of meat, tearing a strip from the leg of his pants. Chris yelped in pain as a lungful of air finally made its way in. The pain provided an entirely new motivation for him to kick free and move.
Pulling himself upright, Chris kicked Ernie in the face to knock him away from the open door. Then, stifling the urge to scream, he pulled it shut. His hand went to the steering column…this time he didn’t try to hold it in…Chris screamed. During his struggle, Ernie had snapped off the key in the ignition. Chris knew absolutely nothing about hotwiring a car.
He stared out at the two horrors pounding on his driver’s side window. That was bothersome, but what he saw in the distance was disturbing. He looked around; they had come from every direction.
There were so many. Chris relaxed, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. There wasn’t much more that he could do at the moment. Hopefully, somebody would come along…soon. He winced as the adrenaline began to ebb and the pain in his leg started making its presence better known.
Grabbing at his torn pants leg, he ripped off a couple of strips and tied them off above each wound. Reaching over to his glove box, Chris opened it and pulled out a pint of Seagram’s 7. Twisting off the cap, he tapped the bottle on the window where Ernie was still slapping at the glass, and took a long drink. He never understood folks who wasted good booze by pouring it on a wound. The warmth in his belly spread, but not as much as usual. Chris took a few more pulls on the bottle and closed his eyes. By now there were a few dozen of those things pounding on the car from every side. Still, Chris felt himself drifting off. That’s it, he thought, I’ll just catch a nap and wait for help. It shouldn’t be too long.
He let the bottle slip from his hand. The last thought he had before losing consciousness was that he should have left old man Ernie in the car. Moments later, he was breathing slow and deep.
What used to be Ernie stood outside a 1967 Rambler Rebel. Its cold dead hands rested on the blood and slime smeared glass of the driver’s side window. Inside, another of its kind stared out blankly. The two simply locked gazes with one another…motionless…as the sun rose over the city of Pittsburg.