Chapter 4: The Best Laid Plans
The clunky, white SUV rounded the corner of the parking lot and crept along, steady but wary. Inside, seven pairs of eyes were glued to the windows, on the lookout for the slightest hint of danger.
As Eli expected, this area of the lot was almost entirely clear, as most of the creatures that had been there had followed him earlier, and were probably still trying to push their way through the gate leading to the pool area. At the far end, however, the parking lot curved around a building toward the front entrance, and from around this bend several of the creatures were already stiffly making their way deeper into the complex.
“I don’t want to get too close,” Mac said nervously, eyes locked on the front-most creatures.
“Yeah, obviously,” Eli agreed. “Just pull up to that red car. That’ll be fine.”
The truck slowed to a stop and Eli quickly launched himself from it. With quick steps, he rounded the side of it and approached his car, the little red one he had mentioned. The dents in its side and along the rear bumper were definitely not good, but it didn’t look like the car had been damaged enough to not be drivable. Quickly pulling the keys from his pocket, he found the appropriate one and slipped it into the driver’s side slot and unlocked it. The minute ‘click’ that resounded echoed in his ears like the thundering of a drum. He glanced up to see if any of the creatures had noticed, but they seemed to simply be continuing their aimless staggering.
He let out a long sigh of relief, and only then realized he had been holding his breath. He hadn’t wanted them to notice him too early. They might surround Mac’s car and try to get in, or he might have found some waiting by his car when he got back to it at the end. It was best to avoid that situation, if at all possible.
As quickly and quietly as he could manage he hurried off in the direction of the entrance, bending over in the hope it would help maintain his stealth. About halfway to his destination, he realized this was probably a stupid notion and he was just making himself look ridiculous, so he gave up on it and straightened up. A few steps later, the nearest creature seemed to notice him, turning in his direction and starting after him. Eli ignored it, dodging away a few steps as he passed it by.
A boxy, dark green car marked his destination. It was near enough to the gate that all the creatures would have to pass it to get in the complex, but also near enough to some of the apartments to provide a means of escape. Most importantly, many of the creatures were already nearing it, and he was hoping if he could grab the attention of enough of the ones in the front the rest would simply follow behind.
Several of the things seemed to already be taking note of him, and in their stumbling, awkward way tried to turn in his direction. However, since he was running past them, they had to keep turning, a task proving too challenging for their stunted movements, and a couple of the creatures even fell over just from the attempt.
He reached the car, and with a couple quick leaps climbed up onto the bumper and then the trunk. Glancing around, he took stock of the nearby creatures and took another step, climbing up onto the top of the car. It buckled slightly under his weight, and he took a few seconds to try and ensure his balance. Looking up, he began to feel very stupid. Less than an hour ago, his biggest concern was what he was going to eat for dinner. Now, he might be dinner, thanks to his idiotically rash plan to throw himself into the greatest danger he’d ever known in his entire life. Who does this? He wondered distantly. Who is this stupid?
Just a couple dozen feet away he could see the front gate. Sure enough, it had been forced open, with the doors hanging loosely on just their bottom hinges. There was just enough space for the cars to all fit through single-file. The space was slowly growing larger due to the intake of creatures, but, both fortunately and unfortunately, their numbers were thinning, and not that many remained outside the gate.
Eli’s hands opened and closed, and he found himself wishing he’d had the common sense to bring some sort of weapon with him. Anything, really, would probably have been good enough to help him survive the next several minutes. His nerves were getting the better of him. His common sense was telling him to run, to get out of there as quickly as he could while he still had the chance. He turned his head and glanced back to where the group waited, to a certain, white SUV wherein waited the attractive young woman who had saved his life mere minutes earlier. He sighed, cursing himself and the things he would do just to impress a girl. He turned back toward the gate and took a deep breath, steeling himself for the task ahead.
Raising his hands, he began waving frantically and bobbing up in down on the roof of the car. “Hey, over here!” He called out, despite being fully unaware and unsure of whether the creatures were even capable of hearing him. “Fresh meat!” he continued. “Come and get it!”
Whether it was his ridiculous behavior, some natural sense in the monsters, or something else entirely, he seemed to be grabbing their attention. Slowly, but purposefully, the creatures were turning in his direction, hurrying toward the car and raising their arms to grab at him. He remained there only a moment longer, giving a couple extra bounces and shouts for good measure, then turned and jumped off the far side of the car, away from the creatures.
Some were already coming around either side, so he quickly broke out in a dash for several steps, trying to move himself a couple feet out of their grasping range before turning back around to make sure he was being followed. Once he did, the site greeting him was horrible, almost overwhelming. It was like looking down an endless sea of monsters, in the middle of a tsunami, with one of the waves headed straight for him. Somehow, their numbers hadn’t seemed so great from the top of the car. Now, the mass seemed to stretch on into infinity.
He turned and climbed up onto the nearest sidewalk, and began a sort-of quick step down the path toward one of the apartment buildings. His heart was racing, but the terrifying part was that his feet could not. Every few steps he had to stop and glance over his shoulder, in order to make sure enough of the group was still following him. If any broke off from the main crowd, he would began hopping up and down and shouting again, until it seemed like the stragglers resumed their hunt.
Moving in this way, it took a few minutes to finally reach the nearest building. Down the center of the building ran a long hallway. On either side it was lined by doors leading into apartments, and all twelve of the ground floor apartments were along this one hallway. If this worked, it would serve his purpose wonderfully. Not more than six or seven of the creatures would be able to squeeze down the hallway at once. If he was lucky, he could use the hallway as a sort of bottleneck to not only slow the creatures down but keep them from easily maneuvering back to the parking lot and the vehicles.
For that to happen, he knew, he would have to make sure to keep the vast majority following after him. He began stomping and shouting all the more, jumping up and waving his hands as high in the air as he could get them to ensure their due attention. The creatures were getting close, very close, and he began to step backwards as he continued his display. He knew if he lost too many going down this hallway, then his efforts were pointless. However, he also knew that if he tripped and fell while walking backwards it would be the end of him.
He tried not to think about that part.
The hallway was eerily dark. The cloudy sky brought on the feeling of it being late evening, and what little ambient light there was did not reach all the way down the hallway. Normally, this issue was dealt with by a number of small lights along the hallway walls, but with the power out those lights were gone, leaving part of the path in almost complete darkness. It was almost the perfect mood for a horror film, Eli thought to himself. All it needed was for one of the wall lights to be flashing occasionally.
The journey was excruciatingly slow, though every now and then he had to speed up a little. A few times he took several steps backwards instead of just one. Once, after a creature almost grabbed him, he turned and ran several steps before returning to the task of keeping all attention focused on him. Despite this, it seemed to Eli that there was no progress being made at all. He began to think he’d be trapped down that long, dark hallway for the rest of eternity, forever trying to stay just out of reach of hundreds of creatures trying to devour him.
Suddenly he was back in the daylight. He had reached the other side. He turned his head quickly, realizing that he had to be close to the next set of stairs. Sure enough, the metal railway was right there, so close that if he had taken so much as one more step he would have run into it, hard, and probably have knocked himself flat.
Ducking, he came around the side of it and hurried off a few steps, trying to again put some distance between himself and his rabid followers while he pondered his next move. He had never really been over to this part of the complex much, and had completely forgotten what was over here. What he saw surprised him, but also put a smile on his lips.
Before him, the path split off to his left and to his right. On both side it came to an end at another hallway leading through another of the apartment buildings, but before him stretched a clearing. On the far side of this clearing was the outside gate of the apartment, and he could see the empty streets beyond. But, before that, in the center of the clearing, was the second pool.
He had completely forgotten that the complex even had a second pool. Even if he had remembered, he probably wouldn’t have realized it was in this part of the complex. Yet this was the perfect opportunity, the very saving grace he needed at just that moment. The pool was surrounded, on all four sides, by a metal gate just like the one around the first pool. This one wasn’t connected to any buildings, and only had the one entrance, but that didn’t really matter. He was going to use basically the same trick twice in one day. And considering how well it had worked the first time, he had little doubt that he could get them all attacking the gate and then loose them.
The entrance to the pool area was down the left path, so that’s the way he headed. He didn’t bother trying to wave or shout and grab attention as he went, he just hurried off, assured that enough of them were following at this point. He reached the gate and tried to open it, and the smile quickly fell from his face.
A thick, heavy looking padlock hung, locked, around the opening lever for the gate. There was no way he was getting this door open. He looked around for another solution, but realized with a sinking feeling that it was either keep running or climb the gate. Taking a glance back the way he’d come, he realized that enough of the creatures had followed him that this was still his best solution. Just my luck, thought Eli, a disgusted grimace on his face. With a deep sigh, he climbed up onto the first rung.
He reached up and grabbed the upper rung, and began trying to pull. Almost immediately he could feel exhaustion entering his limbs, and he inwardly cursed the amount of sodas, fast food, and video games he had consumed in the past couple of years. If only he had taken a P.E. class instead of computer science, this might not be so hard. His face was beat red, and the strain was almost unbearable. His feet kicked about, fighting for any kind of foothold to help push him up, but there was nothing - just the one rung at the bottom of the fence and the second rung at the top. Still, he could feel himself slowly moving upwards, his arms shaking wildly as he did, but not giving out. With immense effort, he managed to maneuver himself into a position where he could raise his right knee up and onto the upper rung. This gave him slightly better leverage, and with a look of great determination he pulled himself the rest of the way up. Once he was able to set his other foot down on the top rung, he knew he had made it.
With a triumphant yelp, he leaped down to the ground on the far side of the fence. He hit hard and rolled, coming to a stop on his back. His chest was heaving, and his eyes couldn’t focus. The world seemed to be dancing a tango around him, moving up and down, this way and that, much too fast for him to make heads or tails of anything. The dirt was soft, maybe even a little moist. Eli felt like he could lie on that patch of grass forever.
Something patted woodenly at his shoulder, bringing the young man out of his stupor. He sat up with a jolt, remembering where he was and what he was doing. Looking behind him, he saw that one of the creatures had fallen, but its arm reached between posts in the gate and was attempting to grab at him, had nearly grabbed him. Several of its compatriots were already pressing themselves against the gate as well, trying desperately to reach him, to feed on him. But they couldn’t. Metal bars left him perfectly safe. He smiled, pleased with himself.
A loud crash, followed by a horrible screech, split the air.
Eli covered his ears, horrified by the sound. It didn’t seem to be coming from the creatures, but he couldn’t tell where it had originated. It did, however, have the unfortunate side effect of pulling the attention of some of the things, and they began turning back in the direction of the parking lot. He knew he had to do something, and looked around for an answer. There was only one.
With yet another sigh of annoyance, Eli climbed up onto a table. Turning to face the monsters, he resumed his jumping up and down, waving his arms as high in the air as he could get them and shouting. “Hey, you stupid dead guys!” he called. “Don’t you see me? I’m alive. Eat me! Come on!”
It was maybe not the best solution, but it did seem to get the creatures to turn back around. At least, most of them turned, which was going to have to be enough. Eli climbed down from the table, then hoisted it off the ground and began carrying it across to the other side of the pool area. Every few feet he stopped, putting the table down and taking a quick breather. This was more exercise than he had gone through in years. He was quickly remembering why he hadn’t taken one of those P.E. classes. Feeling this tired sucked. A lot.
With a great big grunt of determination, Eli lifted the table and carried it the last few feet to the fence. Carrying it had been hard work, but not nearly as much work as climbing the fence had been. Now, he had a boost. He glanced around, taking stock of his enemies. Most of them were still at the gate entrance. A few had started around the side of the fence, but it didn’t exactly seem as though they were following him. In fact, considering that there were others that just seemed to be wandering about aimlessly, he figured those few that were a little bit closer probably had no clue what they were doing, and wouldn’t notice him being on their side of the fence.
Feeling safe enough, he climbed the table, and then up onto the top rung of the fence. Taking one last look around to make sure none of the creatures were anywhere particularly close, he jumped.
“Well, I’ll be damned.”
From his position in what was now the lead car, Mac watched the events unfolding. He could hardly believe his aviator sunglasses-covered eyes. Reaching up, he pulled off his red and white trucker cap and scratched his head through his shaggy, brown hair.
“The sonuvabitch is actually pulling it off.”
Amber had moved up from the back seat, and was now clasping the back of the passenger seat, surprise every bit as evident on her face. “They’re actually going after him,” she commented.
Sure enough, almost all of the creatures from the parking lot were quickly disappearing down the hallway they’d seen Eli enter just moments before. A few stragglers stayed behind, but a few stragglers they could deal with.
“It looks like we’re clear to go.”
Mac turned his head to the left and looked out the window. Marshall Cotton – the big, muscular man – had moved up and parked his car next to Mac’s. He was nodding his head to the words he had just spoken, eyes still focused on the distant hallway and the creatures attempting to force their way down it. He turned to meet Mac’s gaze and smiled. “What do you think?”
“Well, I see no reason why we should wait around here,” Mac agreed.
“Should one of us wait for the kid?” Elaine asked. She was sitting in the passenger seat of Cotton’s SUV, close enough to Mac that he could reach out and touch her. At the comment, he found himself wanting to reach out and strangle her. Comments like that, they only created more danger than they were worth. The kid had wanted to risk his neck. What should they care?
“Elaine’s right,” Marshall agreed. “What if his car doesn’t work? We shouldn’t just leave him stranded here. Not after how he helped us.”
Mac gritted his teeth but said nothing. He knew what they were really saying, even if they didn’t want to come out and say it. He was the only one with a spare seat, so he was the one that would have to stay behind.
“Yeah, fine, I’ll do it.” Mac growled, tossing his cigarette to the ground outside. “Just get out of here, will ya?”
Cotton nodded, rolled up his window, and started off. Behind him, the others quickly followed suit. Mac watched all four cars roll by with a deep set frown on his face while a black feeling grew in the pit of his stomach. Once they’d disappeared out of sight around the bend, he pulled the gear into drive.
Ryan, who was sitting in the passenger seat, shot him a funny glance. “What are you doing? I thought you said we would wait for the boy.”
“We’re not waiting for Eli?” Amber said, sliding forward in her seat.
Mac turned around, scowling. “Hell no, we’re not waiting. Not here, anyway. We already all agreed to wait at a strip mall down the street. If that kid wants to go off and get himself killed, that’s his business. We have kids of our own to worry about.”
He was referring, of course, to Mandy and Tyler, who were both still sitting in the back seat. However, he was more thinking about Nancy, their mother, who sat in the middle seat next to Ryan’s brother Rob.
Nancy’s husband had been one of the first to turn. Or at least, one of the first as far as anyone in the group knew. He had been infected during the initial outbreak, before anyone knew what was going on. One night he had simply come home with a bad wound on his arm. Nancy had wanted him to go to the hospital, but typical of his nature he of course refused. Instead he opted merely to clean and wrap the injury, which he claimed he got from cutting himself on something – he was unsure what – after some jerk had pushed him down on a sidewalk. By the time he made it to bed that night, he was feeling dizzy and sick, but assured his wife that all he needed was a good night’s sleep. She had gone to bed next to him.
Come morning, he was dead.
She had screamed and pleaded for it to not be true, she had called the hospital for an ambulance, and then, with nothing else to do, she had cried.
That’s when he suddenly rose up, and tried to eat her.
Suddenly, the woman who had been devastated at his loss only moments earlier had found herself desperate for anything that would make him stop moving again.
She had barely escaped that situation with her life. Now, her two children were all that remained of what had seemed a perfect life with a loving husband and a nice, two-story house in a pleasant neighborhood.
Mac told himself that he would be perfectly willing to risk his life if those three hadn’t been in his car, but the truth was that he would probably have found a reason to avoid the danger no matter who had been sitting there. Still, the warm smile and the softly spoken “Thank you,” Nancy gave him made it all seem worth it.
“Oh dear God,” Rob said suddenly. All eyes turned toward him, and then followed his gaze out the front window to where a large group of the creatures were making their way out of a hallway. Though they had no way to know it, this was the same group that had followed Eli from the parking lot only minutes earlier. Now, attracted by the noise of the engines, perhaps, they came stumbling back, spilling out of the hallway and down the short path to the parking lot.
“Shit!” Mac yelled, turning back around in his seat. He slammed the gas pedal straight down to the floor as hard as he could, and the vehicle raced off. “See, this is why we don’t split up, and this is why we don’t wait!” he shouted.
From the other side of a parked car near the hallway lurched one of the creatures. None of the passengers in the car had realized it was there. Mac didn’t think, only reacted. It was a reaction that would have probably saved a life, had the creature been a living, breathing human being instead of what it was. Since it was not alive, it dove for the car and fell right into the front wheel.
Mac attempted to swerve away from the monster, but the undead corpse was caught up in the centrifugal force and lodged in the wheel well. With the engine running like it was, the vehicle so top heavy, and now a body locking one of the wheels in place, Mac lost control. They crashed down on their side, skidding across the pavement with a horrible racket.
For Mac, everything suddenly went black.