Chapter 6: Hell and High Water
By the time Eli hit Main Street, which was only a dozen or so feet from the exit of his apartment complex, he was already going fifty. Since there wasn’t really any need to worry about traffic, he barely slowed at all as he took the turn, launching himself into the farthest left lane. The world was eerily empty, to a degree he hadn’t ever seen, not even when he would be out at two or three in the morning. There was something extremely disconcerting about the fact that it was still daylight and yet there were no other cars on the road. Here and there, one of the creatures could be spotted, but for the most part, it was as if the world itself had died.
They quickly reached the strip mall Mac had indicated the group would be waiting in, but as Eli pulled in it was immediately obvious that there was no one there.
“Guess they were in a hurry,” Eli muttered.
Amber turned to look into the back seat of the car, particularly at Nancy, whose head was pressed against the window. Blood slowly dripped down the glass pane. Her breathing was labored, and she dizzily swayed back and forth.
Frowning, Amber turned back to Eli. “She’s getting worse, fast,” she said. The words echoed inside her head, sounding stupid and obvious, but she felt it was her duty to make sure they were said.
“What do you want me to do about it?” Eli replied, meeting her worried gaze with a blank stare.
Amber sighed, her eyes darting about outside the car. After a moment, she pointed past Eli to a spot some distance down the strip mall. “There,” she said, matter-of-factly, “we can get some bandages from that Blitzmart.”
Eli followed her finger, frowning deeply. Before them, the parking lot stretched out long and curvy. On their right the strip mall formed a sort of barrier, while on their left the parking lot was dotted here and there by fast food restaurants. These continued along the full length of the parking lot until they ended in the big, square building on the far side of the parking lot from them. It was here that Amber was pointing.
“You want to break into a general store?” he asked, incredulous. “For bandages?”
“Not just bandages,” she snapped. “We need other supplies. We left everything behind in the SUV. Unless you want to go back for it?” she let her voice trail off mockingly. Eli turned his frown on her, but she met his gaze evenly.
“All right, fine!” He consented, throwing his hands up in the air in defeat. “Blitzmart it is.”
He crossed the parking lot as quickly as he dared, watching carefully for any signs of movement. It was quite clear why the others would have chosen this spot for meeting up. The vast size of the lot versus the relative emptiness of it provided a great 360 degree view. If anything were to head their way, they would see it with likely more than enough time to react.
They pulled up to the building. Eli smiled inwardly as he realized that instead of parking in a spot he could drive the car part way up the handicap ramp straight to the front door. Just in case they needed to make a quick escape, he figured. He threw the car into park and pulled out his keys. He took a deep breath to ready himself, and turned to smile at Amber. “Ready?” he asked.
She nodded her head, barely paying him any attention whatsoever. “Let’s do this,” she responded, somewhat absently. Despite her words, she remained in place for a long moment, staring blankly ahead, as if trying to see past the darkened store front windows and take stock of everything that was inside.
Reaching into the back, Eli pulled forth his emergency flashlight. “We might need this,” he said by way of explanation, waving the metal cylinder in the air.
He started to climb out of the car, but suddenly Amber grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back down.
“Wait,” she said, still not really looking directly at him. “If you see one of those… things… you need to aim for the head. That’s the only way to stop it: destroying the brain. Anything else and they just keep coming. Got it?”
“General zombie rules,” Eli replied affirmatively. “Got it.”
“Good,” Amber nodded absently. Eli started to rise once more, but again Amber pulled him back in the car.
“Wait a minute, what did you just say?”
Eli narrowed his brow in confusion and repeated, “General zombie rules. Got it.”
“Don’t say that,” Amber intoned sharply.
“Don’t say what?”
“That. That word.” She hesitated and looked back at Nancy, who still seemed too out of it to really notice. “Zombie,” she continued in a whisper. “Don’t say that.”
Eli blinked slowly, confused. “Why not? Isn’t that what they are?”
“Just… don’t do it!” snapped Amber.
“All right, all right,” Eli consented, raising his hands in surrender. “Geez, bite my head off.”
“Given the situation, that’s a poor choice of words.”
Eli’s eyes went wide for a second, and then his expression grew thoughtful and he nodded his understanding. “Yeah, fair enough. Sorry.”
This time she let him get out of the car, following in suit behind him. The world outside seemed lifeless and empty. Apart from the dull thudding of their footsteps, it seemed as if they were alone in a vast void of nothingness. An occasional gust of wind howled through the trees and across the cement desert of the parking lot to remind them that there was still a world out there, but that was all.
They came to a stop before the doors. Eli leaned in close and peered through the glass, trying to catch a glimpse of anything. It was pitch black, as could only be expected. “Power seems to be completely out,” he commented. “Not even emergency lights. Not gonna get these automatic doors opening up for us.”
“Guess we’ll have to find another way, then,” Amber responded, not really paying attention. She was busy looking at something down across the strip mall back the way they had come.
Eli watched her for a moment, a frown turning down one side of his mouth. He found himself unexpectedly annoyed by how distracted she seemed. “All right,” he said suddenly, turning back to the doors, “I’ll get this.” He leaned all his weight onto his left leg, and raised his right foot.
“What are you…” Amber asked, looking back at him. Her eyes went wide when she saw what he was planning. “Wait, no-” she began, but never finished.
With as much force as he could muster, Eli kicked on the glass pane of the door. To his surprise, rather than shattering the pane seemed to ripple from the blow, sending most of the energy straight back into his foot, and knocking him off balance. He skipped around on one foot, hopping awkwardly and waving his arms in wide, frantic circles as he tried to recover.
“It’s not glass, you idiot,” Amber chastised. “It’s plastic.”
“You don’t say!” Eli snapped. Both of his feet were back on the ground now, but he was too embarrassed to look up, and instead kept his gaze locked on his shoes, as if trying to ensure that they didn’t pull another such stunt on him.
“It’s probably not even locked,” Amber was saying. She stepped over to the door and glanced back and forth, assessing the situation. “Most of these places, they didn’t have time to close before the attacks became too intense. Without power, these things become emergency doors, and…”
Her voice trailed off as she set her feet and raised her hands to the crack between the door frames. With a grunt of exertion she began to push, and sure enough the doors gave way and began to slide open. After the gap had grown wide enough to comfortably accommodate a person she turned back to Eli, a triumphant smile lighting up her face. “Voilà!” she finished, throwing in a little flair with her hand motions.
“Sure, do it the easy way,” Eli mumbled.
Amber turned and entered the building, Eli close behind her. He stopped just outside of the doorway and glanced from door to door. The gap wasn’t very wide, and if they found themselves needing to get out in a hurry a small amount of extra space could make a large amount of difference. So he braced himself between the two doors and pushed, attempting to force the gap as wide as he could make it. After it became wide enough to allow them to step through side-by-side he stopped and hurried in after her.
Amber was over by the cash registers, busy ripping open the packaging on a flashlight so she could have one of her own. “I can’t believe how dark it is in here,” she whispered once he was close. Some light did stretch into the store, not just from the windowed front but from a line of small windows that stretched across the sides of the building near the ceiling, but she was right. Even as the store slowly grew more and more clear as their eyes adjusted to the dim interior, the long shadows between aisles and jutting silhouettes still cast an especially eerie pall on an already dark and creepy building.
“We should check the camping section,” she added. “Some of those electric lanterns are pretty useful for times like this.”
“Okay,” Eli agreed absently. While she worked he swept his flashlight in an arc across the store, on the lookout for any sign of movement. Amber finished shoving batteries into her own light and clicked it on. She reached up and put a hand on Eli’s shoulder, who jumped and had to bite his tongue to keep from letting loose a yelp.
“It’s okay, calm down,” she hissed at him. “There’s probably no one here. All the other stores we went into were empty. When you’re fighting for survival, shopping is sort of the last thing on your mind. Most of these places were abandoned by the end of the first day.”
Eli nodded jerkily, clearly shaken and perturbed. The reality of the world as it was now was clearly settling in on him, and he didn’t like what reality was telling him. Not that he’d ever really liked what reality told him. That’s why he’d been hiding in his room in the first place. That’s why he’d been listening to music and playing video games through the end of the world.
“So, how we gonna do this,” he asked, hoping his fear wasn’t noticeably shaking his voice. “Should we split up, or…?” his voice trailed off uncertainly as he took another quick glance around the cavernous room.
Amber smiled wickedly and said, “If you get more than ten feet from me, I’ll rip your nuts off.”
Eli narrowed his eyes at her. “Did anyone ever tell you what a sweet, loveable person you are?”
Her smile only grew. “Everyone,” she answered simply. She did a quick glance over the various aisles, and then motioned for him to follow her. “Come,” she instructed. They hurried off, heading first to the camping area. There were a number of the lanterns she had mentioned, but even more importantly there were backpacks and travel packs they could use to carry the supplies they gathered. They freed the lanterns from their containers first, and quickly loaded them with batteries. Amber set a couple down on the floor as they continued to work. Next they moved onto the packs. “These ones,” Amber commanded, pointing to a certain brand. “They hold up well.”
“Okay,” Eli consented, not really having an opinion. Following Amber’s lead, he grabbed a backpack and a couple of the larger carrying bags. They then moved back to the lanterns and stuffed a few away in their bags. “Where next?” Eli asked.
“First aid,” Amber responded, grabbing up a couple lanterns from the floor and handing one to Eli. “Come on.” They moved quickly to the back of the store, to the pharmacy area. “Here,” Amber hissed to Eli, motioning to one of the aisles in particular. She set her lantern down on the floor and began rifling through the supply. Eli watched her for a moment, then shone his light on a few items up and down the aisle, not entirely sure which of the items were useful and which were not. Amber noticed his hesitance and rolled her eyes. “Check the next few aisles,” she said, motioning with her head away from the pharmacy area. “See if you can find anything useful. Hey,” she added as he started off. He stopped and turned back to face her. “Only useful things,” she finished, putting stress on the word “only.”
“I’m not an idiot,” Eli replied, annoyed. Amber smiled and shrugged, then quickly went back to work. Eli sighed and shook his head as he started off. It was rather as if this girl couldn’t decide whether she liked him or hated him, but either way she was going to insult him.
He stopped at the end of each aisle, flashing his light down both sides to see if there was anything worth grabbing. The first aisle he came across was mostly kid stuff: toys, board games, stuffed animals. Nothing worth grabbing, certainly, but he almost felt like taking something just to spite Amber. He moved on instead. The next aisle was home kitchen appliances. He stood there for a long moment, considering the possibilities. Some of it might have been useful, but he doubted there would be much chance for home cooking. He decided in the end he could always come back if the next aisle proved fruitless. Stepping over, he checked what was available there.
Sports equipment, he realized, frowning. He doubted there would be many opportunities for sports ever again. He turned to head back to the kitchen aisle when something caught his eye, stopping him in his tracks. Facing back down the aisle, a smile slowly spread across his lips. “Perfect,” he muttered to himself, and hurried down the aisle.
There, arranged in various boxes, were a number of baseball bats.
Eli lifted one from out of the box and bounced it up and down in his hand, getting a feel for the weight. It was a wooden bat, fairly heavy but not difficult to carry. He tried a couple of practice swings to see how easy it was to control. Smooth as butter, he thought to himself, his smile widening. He set his lantern and flashlight down on the floor and then began searching through the remaining bats. Most of the ones remaining were the same brand and type, but some were aluminum. He pulled one of these out and ran through the same series of tests. It felt pretty good. He could always keep both, he figured. After all, the more weapons he carried the better, probably. He pulled off his backpack and unzipped it, shoving the bats inside and then zipping it closed as tight as he could to hold them in place. He began gathering up his gear when something made him freeze.
There was a tremendously loud bang, like the sound of metal on concrete.
For a long moment nothing else happened, and Eli didn’t dare move. “Eli!?” came the sound of Amber’s voice, barely audible from three aisles away. “Yeah?” he replied, and then “Yeah?” a bit louder, when the first got no response.
“What the hell was that?” She demanded.
Eli shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, and then remembered that she couldn’t see him. “No idea,” he called back. “Sounded like a metal door. I’ll check.” He pulled one of the bats from his backpack and readjusted the zipper. Lifting his flashlight, he slowly began to edge toward the back of the store, moving as quietly as he could. With every step his shoes creaked, groaned, and squeaked noisily along the floor. The sound was like cannon fire in his ears, but he kept going. He reached the end of the aisle and peaked around it, first with his flashlight off. He could make out almost nothing in the dim light of the waning evening. He brought his light to bear, shining it in the direction of the stock room door. It was closed.
He let out a sigh of relief, and then turned toward Amber’s direction. She was also peeking out from the end of her aisle, watching him. He pointed to himself, and then to the stock room door. She nodded her understanding.
Much more quickly than before he moved across the slick tiled floor in the direction he’d indicated. There was no window on the door, which meant he would have to open it to check the back room. He sidled up next to it, leaning against the wall and biting his lip. Moving toward potential danger was not what he wanted to be doing right then. He felt there had been more than enough excitement for one day. He really needed to steel his nerves for a moment. Finally feeling brave enough, he shifted his bat into his hand with the flashlight and reached for the door handle.
The door burst open, causing Eli to nearly jump out of his skin. He leaped backwards, dropping his bat and almost losing his balance. From out of the pitch black portal stepped one of the creatures, its eyes already focused on Eli.
For a moment he felt unable to move, his whole body locking up with the surprise of everything. The bat was still noisily clattering on the floor, and the sudden silence as it came to a stop seemed to snap Eli out of his stupor. He dove for his newfound weapon, and brought it up into the thing’s legs, knocking it onto the ground. He reversed direction, bringing the bat back down and into the creature’s head. A couple more blows and it stopped squirming. Eli stepped back, chest heaving, and noticed that the stock room door was still wide open. He shone his flashlight through the doorway, and his face fell.
“Amber?” He called, no longer bothering to try and keep his voice down.
“Yes…?” she responded, the concern evident in her voice.
“We’ve got a problem,” he explained. He turned and booked it back to her. “Time to go,” he said, grabbing her arm and pulling her along. She needed no further encouragement. She hurried along after him, grabbing a couple more items off of the shelves as she moved and lifting the lantern from the ground once it was in range.
They burst out of the aisles into view of the front of the store. Thankfully, none of the creatures were out front or blocking their exit. They hurried to the exit, and Eli ran straight out the front. Amber stopped briefly at a fridge near the checkout stand. Ripping open the door she pulled out some of the remaining water bottles and shoved them into one of her open packs. Eli noticed she was no longer with him and skidded to a stop. Turning he hurried back into the store. “Amber!” He hissed angrily. “Come on!”
He craned his neck and peered off in the direction of the back of the store. The aisles were already filling up with the creatures. Where the hell did they all come from? Eli wondered to himself. Amber followed his gaze and her eyes went wide at the sight. “Right,” she said, dumping one last bottle into her bag. She broke into a run and barreled past Eli and up to the car.
“Should we shut the doors?” Eli called after her, hesitating for a moment.
“Screw the doors, let’s get!” Amber snapped. She pulled open the passenger’s side door and threw herself, bags and all, into the seat. Eli shrugged his consent and followed her lead.
“What’s going on?” Nancy demanded as the car roared to life.
“A swarm,” Eli answered. The tires screeched as he threw the car in reverse and blasted away from the store. “They came in through the back. It was like they were planning it.”
“They can’t do that.” Nancy said, but there was a wavering uncertainty in her voice. She turned to look at Amber, who was busy pulling out some medical supplies for Nancy’s head wound. “Can they?” she asked meekly.
“No, of course not,” Amber responded absently. All eyes turned on her, but she simply continued working, oblivious. Finally she looked up and noticed the sudden attention. “What?” She asked, turning to face each set of eyes individually. “You think I know? They’ve just seemed like dumb, mindless flesh-eaters so far. If there’s any intelligence behind those freaky pale eyes, I have yet to see it.” She lifted some ibuprofen and a bottle of water towards Nancy. “Here,” she said, changing the subject. “Take these.”
Eli turned his full attention back to the road. To their left and right, empty buildings and lifeless parking lots rushed past. Nothing about the view seemed right. This just couldn’t have been the same world he grew up in; not without people bustling about everywhere; not without life, overwhelming and ubiquitous, barging in from every direction and leaving him wanting to hide away in his room.
“How did the world fall into the pit of Hell?” he muttered mostly to himself, but not really caring who heard him. Nobody answered. Nobody had an answer for him.