Chapter 21: Alone
Eli decided that his first goal should be to try and get back to the police station. This was assuming, of course, that he would be able to find it. He had no real concept of the layout of the town, or even where in the town he was. Everything looked mostly the same in small towns; a bunch of antique stores and specialized shops, a bunch of crumbly old buildings, and plenty of random little shady spots where they had decided to leave some trees standing instead of putting up a building. As he peeked out of the relative protection of an alleyway to make sure the street up ahead was clear of zombies, he wondered to himself how people got by before being able to look up directions on the internet. He could hardly recall a time that he had ever driven anywhere without looking it up online first or being led by his phone.
Sufficiently satisfied that the street was clear, he burst out of his hiding spot and crossed over to the next line of buildings, quickly ducking down an alleyway before anything could see him. He had already been at this for an hour, and was beginning to question whether or not all this cloak and dagger was even necessary. Ever since shaking that first group of zombies he had been pretty much in the clear. Not a single zombie – let alone a massive wave of them – had bothered following him since. It actually seemed rather strange, all and all, since his experience so far had led him to believe that it was essentially impossible to be outside without getting mobbed by hunger mad zombies. Now he was beginning to think he could walk around just as casually as he pleased without being bothered by anything.
Of course, if he did run into anything, he had absolutely no idea how he was going to fend off attacks. If it was just one or a handful of zombies, it would probably be easy enough to simply run away, but if he got surrounded, he had no real means of fighting his way out. So all told, he decided, it was probably better to err on the side of safety.
His stomach growled for probably the tenth time in as many minutes. He attempted to wipe sweat from his eyes and as he did noticed his vision blurring. He leaned back against the alley wall and waited a moment, trying to catch his breath. In the past forty-eight hours he had barely had anything to eat whatsoever. He had perhaps never in his life gone so long without food, and doing so now was really wearing on him. His entire body ached from want of food. His stomach churned unpleasantly as it attempted to consume food that was not there. Eli decided that unless he happened to stumble across the police station on the next street, his first goal should probably instead be finding food.
With that thought, he stepped over to the end of the alleyway and peeked out. No police station, but there was a gas station with a small store just a short distance down the street. Before he even fully realized it, he was dashing down the street in that direction. When he reached the front door he grabbed the handle and pulled with all his might.
The door was locked.
“No!” Eli cried, collapsing into the door. He raised one arm and pounded his fist repeatedly against the glass, eliciting another “No!” for each hit. He sunk to the ground, exhausted, overheated, starving, and defeated. For the first time, he did not even care if the zombies came. Let them, he figured. They could put an end to his misery and let him begin a new life as the mindless walking dead. It was beginning to look like a fairly attractive prospect.
After about ten minutes of sitting there waiting for the end to come, he decided he had given enough time to self-pity and defeatism and just wanted to get out of the damnable Texas heat. With great effort he pulled himself off the sticky pavement. The sun was still low enough that the back of the store could potentially afford some shade, if he could make it there. He leaned heavily on the wall for support, more sliding along the hard, unyielding concrete than actually walking. Step by step he made his way to the back of the store. Turning the final corner after what seemed like hours, the first thing he noticed was a delivery van. It was sitting there with its rear doors open and delivery ramp still extended. His tired mind attempted to process what that could mean, and after a moment he stood up straight and looked to the back of the store. The delivery door was propped open, wide and ready, like a siren welcoming him with open arms. Suddenly there was strength in his body again, and he ran full out for the door.
He barreled inside the store and slid to a stop in front of the drink refrigerator. Laughing maniacally, he ripped open the nearest door and pulled out a bottle of water. He tore off the lid and raised the bottle above his head, letting it pour down like a waterfall into his mouth. The liquid was warm, on the upper end of room temperature, but he did not care. He let it fill his mouth until he could take no more, and then let the life-giving liquids pour over his face, hair, neck, and chest. It was possibly the single most refreshing experience of his entire life.
That first bottle depleted he hungrily tore out another one and repeated the process, focusing a little bit more this time on actually drinking some of the water. His thirst relatively slaked, he began to search for food. Most of what was available had passed its freshness date long ago, although considering this was a gas station Eli figured that would have happened even without a zombie apocalypse. He did manage to find a box of crackers with an expiration date still a few days off, and he happily ripped open the box and shoved crackers into his mouth. He ate until he thought he would be sick, and then set the box back down on the shelf. With a sigh of contentment he collapsed onto the ground, enjoying the coolness of the tiled floor in the early morning shade.
He was not sure just when or how it happened, but he realized he must have dozed off, because when he came to the yellow light of day had faded into the more orange light of early evening. He tried to pull himself off the floor, but his body ached all over. He groaned and decided to make it a point not to fall asleep on the floor anymore.
He grabbed a nearby shelf and hauled himself up to his knees. From there he was able to grab another shelf and pull himself up the rest of the way. He let out a long groan as he stretched this way and that, trying to work out the knots that had formed in his muscles while he slept. His stomach growled hungrily, and he considered going back for the crackers, but the thought of something so unfulfilling just did not sit well with him by this point.
Something moved in the corner of his eye and he turned to look.
The word ripped out of him before he could stop it. He immediately threw himself back to the ground. Outside the store marched a veritable parade of zombies. He had no idea if they had noticed him or not, but he cursed himself for being stupid enough to not realize this would happen. He rose back to his knees and pushed aside some bags of chips on a nearby rack, peeking through the newly opened space to the window. To his relief, it did not seem like the zombies had noticed him. They merely seemed to be roaming around directionless. None seemed to be actively attempting to enter the store, although every now and then a passing zombie would take a misstep and bump against the glass of the window.
Eli cursed his lousy luck. He knew he needed to get away from these creatures before they took note of him. If he got trapped in this tiny little corner store it would certainly mean the end for him. Still, he did not want to just go back out into the world without any supplies.
He stayed hunched down, remaining up on his feet but still as low as he could manage, and quickly ran across the store and behind the main counter. He grabbed several plastic bags and felt around for a weapon. There did not seem to be one. “Of course there’s not,” Eli muttered to himself, “that would be too easy.”
Using the same awkward hunched run, Eli crossed back to the food aisles. He filled his bags with the small amount of chip bags and cracker boxes he could find that were not already expired, and then filled the rest of them with as much bottled water as he could get to fit. The bags were a little too heavy to simply be hauling around constantly, so he dumped one of the bags that only contained bottled water. Balancing the rest between each hand gave what he felt was an even enough weight that he could handle for at least a little while.
Satisfied, he hurried over to the loading door. He leaned out, glancing first left then right. Unlike the front of the store, most of this area looked pretty clear. Some zombies shambled along the roads past the station, but there seemed to be no specific direction or order to their movements.
These were not the zombies he had seen before, the ones that had come en masse after the living. Those zombies had been dedicated, focused on a single goal. These zombies seemed more like what Eli expected to see: the typical movie zombie that just roamed around blindly with no specific direction in mind, barely managing a snail’s pace, and only scary because of their disturbingly vast numbers. As long as they stayed like this, he should be able to slip past them with relative ease. If they were to regain their earlier focus he could be in serious trouble.
Whatever the case, he decided he would have a better chance of getting away and surviving almost anywhere than he would by getting trapped in the gas station. So with that thought in mind, he made a dash for the nearest alleyway. The gas station sat in the center of a large, empty area, and crossing that area left Eli very exposed. He tried not to think of this – or of how loud the echoing of his footsteps rang in his ears – as he crossed the desert of pavement to the oasis of adjacent office buildings. As concrete walls rose up on either side of him he allowed himself a second to stop and catch his breath. He collapsed against the nearest wall, relishing the coolness of the shade, and let the shopping bags fall from his grip and crash to the ground. Despite the late hours, it was still hot enough for the sweat to be pouring off him like a fountain.
When his heart rate and breathing finally slowed to reasonable levels he dared to peak around the corner of the building. Immediately he swore. His short run across the parking lot had apparently managed to grab the attention of several of the zombies. They had turned from their earlier trajectories and were now taking unsteady steps in the direction of the alley.
Cursing, Eli grabbed up his bags and hurried for the far end of the alley. Just as a he reached it, another zombie stepped out in front of him, blocking his path. Eli reeled back a couple of steps, and then for good measure took a couple more. He turned in the direction he had come from, considering an escape back that way, but the entrance was already filling up with the undead.
He looked forward again, and immediately was forced to dodge back even further. The zombie had reached for him, and as it had already been close it nearly succeeded in actually grabbing him. Eli’s fingers flexed, wishing he still had his bats, or at least some sort of weapon. An idea suddenly occurred to him right in that moment and he shoved his free hand into one of his bags and pulled out the first item they clasped onto. Without even looking, he shoved the item as hard as he could straight at the zombie’s snapping teeth.
It was a bag of chips.
The creature’s teeth closed around the bag and it popped noisily, spraying chips in Eli’s face. His eyelids snapped closed to protect him from the barrage of sharp, flying food objects. Clenching his teeth against the annoyance, he wiped the debris from his face. He reached into the shopping bags again, this time making sure to grab a bottle of water. Lifting it free, he swung it in a wide arc for the zombie’s head. It bounced harmlessly off the creature’s skull. The creature’s head bounced around like a bobble head, but otherwise it did not seem to even notice the attack and continued onward.
Sighing with frustration, Eli backed up a few more steps – allowing a quick look back to make sure the other group of zombies had not caught up to him yet – and then struck his best pitcher’s pose and threw the bottle as hard as he could. This had slightly more effect than just hitting the creature, but that was probably mostly due to Eli following up with a swift kick to the creature’s rib cage. The double team of attacks sent the zombie reeling backwards and crashing onto its back. Eli used this slight advantage to leap past it and to the freedom of the street beyond.
Or, at least, what he had hoped would be freedom.
What he had failed to realize was that to his left, the building only dropped off for a few feet, and then made an L-shaped turn and continued on past him for a dozen feet or so before turning again and blocking off the path before him. Then, to make matters worse, to his right – the only way he could now go – three more of the creatures were rapidly closing in on him. As they approached Eli was forced back into the corner of the building on his left.
He began to look around for something – anything – that he might be able to use as a weapon. His time was running out, and if he did not act quickly he would get trapped in this corner with no escape. Despite his efforts, however, there did not seem to be any solution. The only options that were available to him were those that he had already tried: the items in his shopping bags. He raised the bags before himself and stared at them helplessly, as if expecting them to speak up and offer a solution.
Suddenly, an idea clicked in his head. It was an idea so obvious, he felt like kicking himself for not having thought of it already. Quickly backing up a few steps to give himself a little more time, he rapidly set to work moving items around in the bags until he had one bag filled only with bottled water. He left that bag in his right hand, shifting all the other bags over to his left arm, and bounced his hand a couple times to test the weight. Satisfied, he began to swing his arm in a semicircle. Once he had it going, he brought it around behind him in a wide arc, up and over his head, and then back down to slam it into the middle zombie’s forehead. The bottles bounced wildly on impact, causing Eli to nearly lose his grip, but somehow he managed to hold on. The combined weight inside the bag proved every bit as effective as he could have hoped. There was the sickening crack of breaking bones and the creature’s head caved downwards. It toppled backwards to the ground.
Eli swung the bottles a second time, this time going more sideways, hitting the left most zombie straight in the cheekbone. The force of the impact swung the zombie around on its hind leg. The leg, however, did not spin, and continued to face forward as the bones cracked and popped out of place, until most of the zombie faced almost completely around from the leg. The creature still attempted to walk, not seeming to feel any pain from this horrifying position, but with two legs wanting to go in separate directions, it could not do much more than simply collapse straight to the ground.
Eli decided it best to simply ignore the third zombie, and jumping over the twisted remains of the left zombie, he hurried onwards to the street beyond. By now the zombies were just about everywhere, but not really in any sort of pattern. Again he was struck by how different these stumbling, directionless zombies were from the singular wave they had been before encountering the talking zombie. Only ones within a few feet seemed to take any notice of him, and often even then they seemed as though they could hardly be bothered to come after him. It was almost as though the talking zombie had somehow been able to control all the others, and give them that singular goal and purpose. The mere thought made Eli shiver so hard he almost had to stop running.
He ducked down an alleyway that let out onto another street. Across the street from him was a long, unbroken line of shops stretching on for nearly half a mile. Before anything finally dropped away on either side there were large masses of zombies, too thick for him to try to make his way through. He looked back down the alleyway he had just emerged from. Back was not exactly an option. If zombies entered the alley from the other side before he made it back, he would just be forced to come back to this position anyway.
Looking forward again, he took note of the long, purple shadows stretching like eerie fingers across the street, reaching toward him. It was getting very late, the sun was sinking in the sky, and once the light was gone, the streets were going to become several times more dangerous to navigate. He had no flashlight, and no electricity meant no streetlights. That meant wandering around in the darkness surrounded by deadly creatures he would not be able to see until it was too late. The thought churned his stomach.
The shops could potentially provide at least some protection, if he could get inside any of them. It was a better idea than he had otherwise, so he hurried across the street to the nearest shop and tried the door. It was locked tight. He swore under his breath but hardly stopped, continuing on to the next nearest door. This one was locked, as well. Without pausing he continued down the line. The next door was locked, as was the next one after that. By this point he was approaching dangerously close to the nearest of the zombies, and they seemed to be realizing he was there. They turned unsteadily in his general direction, their pale, unseeing eyes seeming to search the darkness for him.
Eli tried another door, and again it was locked. With great trepidation searing through his veins he quickly stepped over to yet another door, this one almost arm’s reach from the nearest zombie, and reached for the handle. This door had a fancy, “C” shaped handle with a lever you pulled down towards the handle. The lever slid down with ease, and a gentle click - indicating the catch had released - sent a rush of adrenaline through Eli. Letting out a sigh of relief he pushed the door open.
Almost immediately the door stopped, and Eli nearly collapsed against it. His eyes wide with sudden terror, Eli pushed against the door again, and again it refused to yield. Through the slim crack he could just barely make out the shape of some object barred across the door, lying on the floor. It must have fallen at some point, unintentionally providing a lock for the door. Daring a quick glance over his shoulder, he noticed that several of the creatures had begun to make their way toward him. There was no more time to waste. With renewed determination, Eli shoved his whole body at the door, shoulder first. The door moved a little, but quickly swung back to almost closed. He charged it again and again, each time the door yielding a little more. The nearest zombie reached for him, almost touching his shoulder.
“Screw off!” shouted Eli, swinging his bag full of water and catching the zombie straight in the face. It crashed into one of his buddies, and as the two fell they unbalanced a few more around them in a convenient domino effect.
Eli slammed into the door once again, and a loud crack reverberated through the air as he fell through the finally open doorway and into the store beyond. He hit the ground hard, but he shook it off and spun onto his back. The zombies continued, undeterred, hurrying toward the store and the now wide open door. Eli managed to hook his foot around the side of the door and kick it shut.
It caught on the broken remains of the item he had smashed in order to get inside.
Pulling himself off the ground he flung himself at the door, and just in time. A zombie had reached the door and started to push it open. Eli hit the door, blocking it and stopping the creature in its tracks, but it had reached its arm through the door, and now that arm kept the door from shutting. He pushed against the door, but the creature only pushed back, and his friends would soon be joining him.
That’s when Eli noticed the object that had been blocking the door earlier. It was a wooden hat stand, now snapped in two, and the bottom end lay right there at his feet. The broken end was jagged and pointy, looking rather decidedly like a spear tip. A wicked smile spread across his lips. In one swift motion, Eli stepped away from the door and grabbed up the broken hat stand. The door flew open, but the zombie only got a single step before Eli shoved the broken edge of the stand straight into the creature’s eye. The creature went stiff, as though rigor mortis finally erupted through its diseased body. Eli gave another shove, sending the creature flying back into the others, and then slammed the door shut. Then, just for good measure, he threw the bolt lock.