Chapter 5: Run for Your Life
As soon as he exited the hallway, Eli knew something was wrong. He had gone around the outside portion of the complex, following the gate until he had managed to put some distance between himself and the creatures he was hoping were still attempting to get into the pool. Once he felt comfortable doing so, he cut through one of the buildings back to the parking lot. He didn’t see the overturned SUV immediately, but it was almost as if he sensed it. It was blocked from his site by one of the complex’s dumpster sites, where two large city dumpsters sat walled off by a brick enclosing. It was only a few steps before he noticed part of the vehicle, clearly lying on its side, sticking out from around the dumpster block. A few steps more, and he noticed something odd and reflective lying on the ground, and yet a few steps more made it clear what the object was.
Mac’s aviator sunglasses, Eli knew immediately. Which meant… Amber…
He broke out into a run. Run was hardly even an adequate description. Eli had quite possibly never moved so quickly in his entire life. Barely a thought entered his mind. He was no longer concerned about his exhausted body, his tired limbs. They were a thing of the past, long forgotten to the annals of history. The undead creatures roaming about did not even enter his consciousness. They, too, were now non-entities. All that existed for him was the overturned SUV, and what was inside the SUV.
He skidded to a stop right outside the front window, leaning in close so he could peer inside, hoping to get a glimpse of the passengers. There was some kind of moment, and one of the side doors popped open.
Eli straightened, and hurried over to the open portal. A hand and arm reached out from the inside. He grabbed it and pulled, helping the person climb out of the vehicle. It was Rob. With an annoyed grunt, he pushed the man to the side and climbed up to the doorway.
“I... I think everyone’s okay. We weren’t going that fast,” Rob was saying, but Eli paid no attention. He was too focused on the task at hand.
Through the opening, he could see Amber. She was kneeling over the prone form of Nancy, whose window had been shattered, and whose head now lay in a small pool of blood. “Amber!” he called, desperate to get her attention. “We have to go!”
Amber glanced up, tears welling up in her eyes. “She’s unconscious,” she replied, numbly. “I can’t wake her.”
Eli turned his head and gave a good look at his surroundings. The large group of zombies he’d lost at the pool gate earlier was making its way out to them, slowly but definitely. They would be upon them in a matter of moments. He dropped his head and peered back through the door, the look on his face making the reality of their situation all too clear to Amber.
She stood up as straight as she could and bent over the side of the seat to look into the back of the car. “Help me with the kids,” she said. She squirmed around the seat and into the back, out of Eli’s sight, and muttered several words he couldn’t quite make out. From within the car came the sound of the children sobbing quietly, their moans and whines the only sign they were still alive. Moments later, Tyler was in front of him, reaching up with unsteady arms.
With a grimace, Eli grabbed on to the young man and pulled. The effort was not an easy one as the boy had only precarious footing upon the sides of the seats, and it was an awkward angle he was forced to squeeze through in order to get out of the car. It took some doing, but the two finally managed to wiggle the young man free. Eli quickly handed the boy off to Rob, who thankfully was prepared to help.
“Okay, next,” Eli called, uncertain of what else to say. Almost immediately he found Mandy’s terrified face before his own. Smiling with as much assurance as he could muster, he reached down for her and pulled. To his surprise, this time the process was completely different. Her smaller frame and lighter body made for a much easier time, and he quickly pulled her free from the car. Turning, he handed her off to Rob, and then quickly turned back to the car door again. Amber was already climbing over the back of the seat, and he reached down to help her, but she clearly had other plans. Pushing his hands aside, she dropped back down to the ground inside the car. She looked up, frowning, and waved him away.
“Help the others,” she demanded, a growl deep in her throat, as if warning him against trying to talk her out of anything. “Don’t worry about me.”
Eli wanted to say something. He wanted to tell her that she was the only one he was worried about. He wanted to say that if she didn’t survive he would consider all his effort to have been pointless. He wanted to say a lot of things, but he knew how ridiculous he was being. So instead he bit his lip, fought back his growing fear, and shifted his position to peer into the passenger side window.
Ryan’s head was turned away and dangling. It bobbed up and down to every slight movement of the vehicle. His arms hung similarly loose, dangling down across the car and bumping Mac as he made a series of frantic movements. Eli squinted, trying to get a better view of what he was doing, but it was almost impossible to tell past the cracked glass and Ryan’s motionless body.
Realizing that time was quickly running short, Eli pulled at the door handle and lifted, pushing the door up to the open position. It was a lot more difficult to open the door straight upwards than he had expected it to be, but he didn’t let it stop him. With a terrible, squealing creak it popped into place at its full extension and Eli leaned into the doorway.
“I’m stuck!” Mac called to him, motioning toward his seatbelt. “It won’t unbuckle!”
Eli frowned, taking in everything before him. There wasn’t much he could do with Ryan in the way, not that he felt there was much he could do regardless. Still, there was something about the level of stillness from Ryan that struck Eli as disturbing. He reached out and felt at the man’s neck for a pulse. As soon as he made contact, he could tell something was wrong. Necks shouldn’t feel like that. He fought back the urge to recoil and kept searching for a pulse. He couldn’t feel anything.
A cold feeling dropped over him, wrapping him up and forcing his skin to tingle from head to toe. Slouching, he turned back to the others. “I… I think this one’s dead.”
“What!?” Rob exclaimed, a terrified look crossing over his features.
“I… I-” Eli began, but he could get no further. Rob jumped up to the top of the vehicle, pushing Eli aside and diving into the door.
“Ryan!” the man screamed, desperately. “Ryan!”
Eli dropped to the ground, unsure of exactly what was happening, but painfully aware that they were almost completely out of time. He glanced at the only two still outside the car with him. It was just him and the two kids. That might be all he could save. Turning, he looked for his car, considering the possibility that he should go and get it now, and worry about who would be coming with him at that point.
Eli was so caught up in his worry that he almost didn’t notice as one of the creatures came around the side of the SUV.
“Shit!” he exclaimed before he could censor himself. He grimaced and turned back to Tyler and Mandy. “Um… pretend you didn’t hear that,” he added.
“I’m fourteen,” Tyler admonished. “I’ve heard the word ‘shit’ before.”
Eli thought that over for a second, and then shrugged his shoulders in defeat. “Fair enough,” he replied, and turned his attention back to the more pressing matter. The creature was barely moving, as though it were unsure of which direction it intended to travel now that it was this close to its prey. Not really knowing what else to do, Eli raised his fists and began a slight hop of a dance, as though he intended to box with the creature. “All right,” he called to it, “come on. Let’s do this.” With mock bravado, he pounded his left fist into his right hand a couple times as he spoke, daring the creature onwards.
A noise like thunder rang out, and despite himself he cringed, coiling up and freezing in place even though he had no idea what he was trying to hide from. It took him a moment to realize that his “opponent” now lay on the ground, motionless. The sound had been gunfire.
Looking up and to his left, Eli realized Amber had raised herself up far enough out of the doorway to have seen the creature’s approach, and had taken aim and fired on the creature from that position. She holstered her gun and pulled herself the rest of the way out of the car.
“Are you crazy?” Eli hissed. “That was loud enough to bring the entire city down on us!”
“Well then, you better go get the car, now, and stop procrastinating,” she shot back, venom thick in her voice.
He opened his mouth to respond, but only a few guttural noises rolled out, nothing coherent. Letting out a sigh, he admitted to himself that she was right. He gave the sternest look he could muster at the two children. “Wait here,” he commanded, then hurried off to his car.
On the way, one of the creatures stepped into his path. He didn’t have time to stop for it, and instead bent over like a linebacker and bowled it down. It tried to grab at him while it went down, but he was moving too quickly for it to grasp. He continued on at full tilt, quickly taking stock of the remaining creatures nearest his car. There were a couple near the front left side of the car, blocking off his path to the driver’s side door. He wasn’t all too willing to keep trying his football technique, especially against two so close together. A third was actually quite close to the driver’s side door itself, and seemed to have found a quicker way to make use of the stiff-jointed walk all the creatures had. It shambled along with almost a waddle, quickly shifting from foot to foot, covering much more distance much more quickly than the others were. Lastly, far to the other side of the car, a large group of probably five or six neared the rear bumper, making a path around that side of the vehicle even less feasible. A plan quickly formed in his head, and he hoped he had the kind of balance and dexterity he would need to pull it off.
Not stopping to consider how feasible this plan was, Eli launched himself up onto the front hood of his car, putting himself just out of reach of the front most two creatures. Taking two quick steps he rocketed outwards towards the third, the one nearest the driver’s side door. Bringing his right leg up, he kicked it square in the chest. The creature stumbled backwards and collapsed onto its backside. His plan had worked surprisingly well, but he hadn’t taken into account how much momentum he would have upon landing. He hit the ground and stumbled forward for several more steps, trying desperately to slow to a stop.
Finally, he managed to get a hold of his momentum and get turned back around. However, this had given the other two creatures along the front of the car enough time to do the same, and they were already making their way back toward him.
He looked around frantically for any means of escape, and then a bizarre idea occurred to him. It was so unexpected he actually let out a chuckle. He bent forward, reaching for the door handle of the car, and then flung the door open as hard as he could, briefly thanking God that he had thought to unlock the door earlier.
The door hit the two creatures with a resounding “crack,” and they stumbled back a couple steps but did not fall down. Still, it was enough to give Eli the room he needed to dive into the driver’s seat and slam the door shut before they could grab at him. He hit the door lock, jammed the key into the ignition, and turned it. The car roared to life, a sound that echoed like the most beautiful melody in Eli’s ears. He affectionately patted the steering wheel and smiled. “Good car,” he added, in a whisper.
With a flurry of motion he threw the car into reverse and pounded on the gas pedal. A squeal of tires split the air and the car launched backwards. The parking lot had become an obstacle course of ambulant undead monsters, and navigating through them was no easy feat. Every time he thought he had a clear path, one or more would move in and he’d have to quickly change direction. It didn’t help any that the parking lot was so small and constricted, either.
Despite all this, he was able to make it through without incident and pulled up around the side of the overturned SUV. Amber was on the ground by now, holding up Nancy, who she’d apparently manage to wake up, despite the gash bleeding rather profusely on her head. Amber motioned the children over to the vehicle, and the two kids quickly climbed into the back seat. Nancy followed unsteadily behind, helped into place by the younger woman. Once all three were safely inside, Amber closed the back door.
She turned away, looking up at the open front passenger door of the SUV. “Rob!” she called, but there was no response. “Rob,” she repeated, again to no avail. “Mac? Ryan? Somebody! Come on! It’s time to go.” She waited a few seconds for any kind of response, and then repeated her call. After several more seconds, she bit her lip and flexed her fingers nervously. Every muscle in her body told her to flee, but her heart wanted to help her friends. Just as she was about to give up hope, the long, thin nose of a shotgun poked out of the open portal, followed seconds later by the unkempt, hairy face of Mac.
He pulled himself out of the car and dropped to the ground. He waved the shotgun at Amber dismissively. “Go on, get out of here.” He said. Without another word he began walking around to the front of the SUV.
“What?” Amber demanded, incredulous. “Are you kidding? We can’t just leave you here!”
Mac waved his hand as if brushing away her concerns. “You have to,” he responded, firmly. “I’ll look after Ryan and Rob. Try to make sure they get out of here. What’s more important is saving you and the kids. Now get.” Amber didn’t move a muscle, a fact that Mac noticed after a moment. He turned his head and looked at her over his shoulder. A warm smile crossed his lips, a smile that couldn’t have possibly seemed more out of place in such a crazy nightmare that the world had become. “Hey, don’t worry about me,” he added. “Ain’t no flesh-eating jackass getting the better of me.”
For a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity, Amber still did not budge. Then, at last, with an ache in her heart, she turned and pulled open the door to Eli’s car. She shot one last glance at Mac, who was standing near the front bumper of the SUV, his back to her and his shotgun resting on his shoulder. In the dim light of the evening, he looked strangely heroic.
Amber sat down and closed the car door. She smiled sadly at Eli, and in a weak voice said, “Well, let’s go.” Eli didn’t argue.
Mac continued to stand there as the car drove away. He knew Ryan was dead, and Rob would need a long moment to grieve before he’d be willing to go anywhere, which meant there wasn’t really much chance of them getting out of there alive. Which, for some reason, did not bother Mac in the slightest. He calmly knelt down, picked up his aviators, and returned them to their rightful place on his forehead. He lifted his shotgun and aimed it at the nearest of the creatures, and ignored the thought that popped into his head that this was the end.