The coastline was dotted with rocks, refuse, and the occasional sea gull. The sky was gray, as it had been for the past week, and the sand had been interrupted by two pairs of footprints.
That was the content of the sign the duo had encountered more or less one mile ago, scraped almost to illegibility by the wind. It was a beacon.
The boy looked down at the shotgun in his hands and blew it back, inspecting the shells. “There might be something there,” he said.
The girl scanned the area for anything of interest. Then she shrugged.
They continued on, sidelining the coast. The ocean extended somewhere to their right, but they hadn’t encountered it yet. To their left were the craggy, grassy hills they had journeyed from.
“Did you ever go to the ocean?”
“No.” The wind whipped the stray strands of hair on her face.
“So it’s good that we’re going now, yeah?” He laughed, then looked down. “Why not, though?”
She thought of something explanatory. But then again, when was the last time she had gone anywhere? After the accident?
“We … lived way inland.”
She wondered if the creatures could swim. Slowly they continued on.
The gas station was on a hill overlooking the ocean. A small road intercepted it. As they approached the station, the girl noticed a body on the ground, a pool of blood around the head. As the boy moved closer to investigate, a voice called out, “Yew git any closer an yew won’t, y-you brats.” The wizened shadow of a face was covered by a shawl. “Tryina say sommat?”
“Do you have any food or water?”
“Shor, the town’s got some.”
He glanced back. “Yeah, we try and stay away from the people–”
“Ifn y’kin git me town food, there’s keys for my cah, in th’lot.” The old lady motioned with a key ring. “Five oh oh I eight four. It’s there fah sure.”
“We don’t have any gas.”
“Pumps are dry, so don’t you bother lookin. All the gas right here wid me. I’d go git the food myself, but my knees are givin out.” She entered a coughing fit.
It was a simple trade, and an advantageous one, she thought.
He shook his head.
“We’ve got no choice,” she interjected.
He looked sharply at her. “She’s crazy. She’s senile.”
“Who knows if there’ll be another chance for us to get a vehicle? And we don’t have anything to eat. If we get a car, we can actually get somewhere off the coastline.”
“But if it’s so easy–”
“You two just wastin’ my time?”
“We’ll do it,” he stammered.
From their elevated position, it was not far before they could see a short stretch of settlement, and they managed to land in the parking lot without incident.
“She wasn’t lying. It’s an SUV. 5-O-O-I-8-4.” He peered at the tires. “Looks fine to me.”
A main street, if you could call it that, diverged into a motel, a stretch of small houses, and a couple of garages and depots. They stopped at a convenience store.
“Do you hear anything?” the boy inquired.
She listened. “No.”
“All right. Let’s go inside.” He edged open the glass doors, then sidestepped in, fingers tensed on the shotgun.
Whoever had looted the store had made a complete mess. The cashier’s stand was littered with paper bills; the storeroom lock had been bashed in. Flies buzzed around crates that stunk of rotting meat and produce. The wind had found its way indoors through the shattered windows, and fan blades on the ceiling slowly sliced the light.
They made their way forward.
The silence was broken by the sound of cans and boxes collapsing on the floor. A scream, then a blur of crazed fury. The fumble to raise his gun – no matter. He was pinned to the floor in an instant. It was at this that the rubber grip of the hammer in her hand began to burn, and as she swung downward, the blunt force connecting cleanly with the creature’s chin. She flipped the hammer in the palm of her hand, aiming the claw at her attacker’s face. But she wasn’t quick enough: another one had her backed into a metal shelf. As she fought its grasp, two shots rang out. She lay, gasping, and realized that she was still alive – unlike the quivering mass beside her.
As she brushed aside boxes of prescription medicine and stood up, a plastic bottle with a hollowed-out circle for the bullets to come out was thrust in her face.
“Are you bit?”
She shook her head vehemently.
The stranger – a peculiar-looking man whose overcoat was stuffed with layers of rags – gave her another once-over. She turned around at a wave of his pistol, a little embarrassed, but helpless to disagree.
He spotted the boy, who was still in a daze trying to get up, and froze when he saw the pistol.
“They don’t surrender,” the stranger said pleasantly. He went around the store, securing each area, then peered out the window for a few minutes as if he had alerted the town’s population. He came back and kicked over the bodies of their assailants.
It was then that he lowered the gun. “You two are the first I’ve seen in a month.” He scratched his chin and walked toward the back of the store. “Back in a bit.”
The girl turned to her companion, who was sitting on the floor, staring at the over-under dangling useless in his hands. “I swear I pulled the trigger,” he blurted.
The stranger came back from the storeroom with plastic bags. “Where are you guys from?”
They bagged cans of corn and Vienna sausage, those that looked okay, that didn’t have brown leaking out the sides.
“We met up on the road, been wandering around the coast for a week now.”
“Well, it’s nice knowing someone out there didn’t go crazy.”
As it grew dark, the three moved to the back of the store, carrying the plastic bags with them.
“Can’t stay in the front. Don’t want to wake up to get mugged,” the vagrant explained. He opened three cans of beans using a Swiss Army knife, and was finishing them methodically with a plastic spoon. “Then you’ve got crazies. Shot one of them myself.”
He chuckled. “He was trying to kill me. Stole my backpack and ran away with it. When I got to him, he swung at me with a crowbar. Almost knocked my jaw off. Pulled the trigger right there. Lucky there wasn’t any runners around, or I would be in trouble.” He wiped bean residue from his chin. “They’re attracted to sound, you know. Gunshot? Pretty loud, yeah. That’s why I use the bottle – it helps a bit. But what I think is … those high-pitched noises. Alarms. The screaming they do. It’s like an opera. That’s the thing that really gets them going.”
“But the one that just got us–”
“Almost got you. If you’re that close, then yeah, they’re going to hear you. Probably saw you too, that close. If we wanted the sound, you get one of those things that make dogs shut up, and I’d bet you’d have a million right here.” The man shrugged. “Where you guys headed?”
“They say north it’s all right. They’ve still got the military up there in Canada. They’re trying to make a front.”
“That so?” The vagrant grunted. “How old is that news?”
“A week or so. We heard it on a car radio on the highway.”
“Why didn’t you just take the car from the highway and drive over there and see?”
“Highway’s full. It’s a massive jam. Some have infected in them, too,” the girl said. “Out here on the coast you can actually get somewhere with a car.”
“You’re right. So where’s the car?”
“We found an old lady by the gas station west of here. Said she’s got keys for a car in the parking lot. She wants us to get her some food. It’s near the hills. There’s a hiking trail up there to the station.”
“Could get out of here, then.” The realization sank into his face. “No one would throw away their chance at survival.”
“She’s old,” the boy said. “She said she couldn’t walk back. It sounds like she lived in the town and then ran away to the gas station, where she knew there was some supplies, when the townspeople started going crazy. You couldn’t drive a car up that trail, though, so she left it behind. Guess it didn’t come to her until later, when the monsters didn’t go away. You know how old people are. It’s definitely there. We saw the license plate.”
“Guess you guys are serious, then?”
“You-you can come, of course,” the girl stuttered. “If you want to.”
“I need new shoes,” the stranger said, before rolling over. “Did you see the clouds? There’s a risk of rain.”
They woke, instead, to the staccato waltz of gunshots.
“Rifles,” said the boy. “Gotta be rifles.”
The vagabond nodded. “Sounds like it.”
“What’s going on?” she interjected.
She could then make out the orange flare on the storefront window, and the sound of the fire alarm. A streak of panic as she saw the shadows of running creatures, illuminated by the firelight.
“Someone crashed and set the building on fire.” The boy rubbed his neck.
“They’re dead,” the stranger added. “If you were thinking about that.”
“Well, what are we doing, then?”
“For what? The town’s going to be full of them in a few seconds!”
The vagrant blinked, as if just woken up. “We should get going.” He spoke slowly at first, then yelled to the boy, who was desperately packing cans into a backpack. “Get going!”
They stumbled outside into the smoky night, coughing. Ash and debris had risen into the air, clouding their vision. A burning parallelogram reflected off the glass panes on the street, and voices echoed. There was no time to pause for breath.
“Where are we going?” the boy choked out.
“The car. Where is it?” The vagrant had detached the bottle from his pistol and aimed it at a following crowd. A burst of fire, and they collapsed like broken dolls.
The girl struggled to gain some sense of her surroundings. An explosion rumbled behind them.
They followed her through the light of broken glass. She recognized the sign that they had passed on the way, illuminated in flashes of fire, and squeezed into an alleyway. The vagrant had the sense to fasten a gate behind them, but it was barely an obstacle to the creatures. They clambered over, clawing for the escaping prey.
The scene of madness was just behind her, but the vagrant’s pistol reports punctuated the escape. How long is this block? Between two walls, confined, suffocated ….
Finally she saw the night sky. Her eyes strained frantically at the alley when another shadow stumbled after her. Boyish eyes, matted hair. He held on to the shotgun, wheezing, “Where is he?”
She listened. The pistol reports had stopped. Then there the vagrant was, in the open, cursing the pursuers dragging him backwards. A massive explosion rattled her eardrums, and another followed.
“Get him. I’ll cover you,” the boy yelled. He was already loading two more shells into the shotgun.
She felt herself moving, grabbing the collar of the man prostrate on the ground. She put one of his arms over her neck and dragged him backwards. As she looked back there was a vicious snarl and the raising of the gun. Another marvelous bang, and nothing was left. Her ears rang. They ran toward the wall, the forest, as the noise faded into the distance.
They had pulled him over to the side of the trail and sat him up against a crag of rock. Blood gushed through his ragged jeans. A rabid animal had torn his leg apart, and the wound was already festering.
“Take the backpack. It’s got the food and the compass.”
She had already known in her subconscious what would happen, seen the teeth tearing away.
“I’ll do it,” the boy offered.
“No, it’s okay. What I mean, it’s fine.” He coughed up bloody phlegm. “Look away.”
They did. It occurred to her to say something.
She turned around, but the man’s lips moved only for an instant before the body jerked, lifeless.
The boy took off the man’s backpack and drew out a long, tattered blanket. He walked back into the darkness and came back with the pistol in hand.
It began to rain, and they instinctively huddled together. They ran as the night sky fell around them.
The light of the gas station seemed a sanctuary against the elements. The glass swivel door opened reluctantly to the two sopping wet strangers.
The old woman eyed them. “Don’t git it all wet errywhere.”
They stood in the doorway, waiting for something to happen.
“Well, didju giddit or what?” Her tone was nasal, impatient.
The boy opened the bag and drew out cans and bottles on the floor.
Then it seemed as if the old lady had pointed a cane at him. A cane? The girl didn’t remember a cane ….
The rifle shot blew him backwards, but before the wrinkled hand could bolt in another one, a bloodied hand was grasping her throat. The old lady choked and screamed shrilly as the hammer stopped, poised over her forehead.
“NO! NO, no, no, STOP!”
The blows were methodical. The screams gave way. It was mechanical. Her facial expression did not change. She was not revolted.
She felt nothing.
She stood up and went to the boy with a red plastic first aid box that had been behind the counter. He was bleeding badly. It appeared to be manageable until she looked at the exit wound in his back. She poured on all the antiseptic she could, tearing open the dry white packets with her teeth. She used the largest bandages to try to stop the bleeding, but things were broken that could not be fixed.
She went to the counter, hurriedly knocking over papers, until she found a prescription bottle next to rifle cartridges and the car keys. She read the label and popped a few smooth white pills into her hand.
“It’s cold,” he said.
She gave him the pills, unscrewed a water bottle, and gave it to him. He drank a bit, then coughed up a bloody mist.
“I’m cold,” he said.
“Hush.” She ventured a smile. Her wrist trembled as she wiped his blood. “Shhh.”
She rummaged through the backpack and found a box of nine-millimeter bullets. She loaded these into the pistol magazine, slowly and deliberately.
“I have to tell you something.” He took a labored breath. “I ….”
He swallowed his pain, but he was sure that she knew. A certain look – contentment? – came over his features, and he closed his eyes. She was with him until the end.
She ran with the rifle and backpack over her shoulders. The rain battered the world around her with the resonance of distant drums.
With a jerry can in each hand, she made her way. As she approached the parking lot, she fumbled in her pocket.
A few beeps. The flashing of lights. The sound of footsteps. A snarl. With a swing of her arm, the plastic collided with something behind her. She dropped it and drew the pistol, and like the opening and closing of a camera shutter, the figures collapsed on the muddy pavement.
She opened the gas can and filled the tank, constantly checking over her shoulder. She threw open the driver’s door and climbed inside the humming SUV. The jerry cans sat beside her; the rifle, backpack, pistol, plastic bags, and cans of food all sat in the passenger seat.
She drove past the abandoned town, its fires extinguished. As she veered around a crag of rock, an expanse opened ahead of her: the ebb and flow of the waves on the shore. Millions of raindrops, a sea of ripples, the ocean.
That’s all it is, she thought.
The car sped past the shoreline as spirits took flight.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.