By R.L. Brock ©2000
Edited by Tom Redding

So far so good.

The place was so quiet she could hear the quiet buzz of flies, the soft scuff of zombie footsteps somewhere in the distance. Every few seconds one of them moaned and sent a shiver down her back. They sounded so damn hungry . . .

Jolene shifted the shotgun in her arms and edged along the wall, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. If a zombie came up on her now she'd be big trouble; the place stank so bad she wouldn't even be able to smell one sneaking up on her. And that smell . . . so rank that Jolene had to clench her teeth and keep swallowing rapidly so she wouldn't puke all over the place. Half-chewed carcasses had been left to rot in the aisles. The ones that hadn't been too badly mauled rose up again, of course . . . but there was still plenty enough left to raise a stink.

The darkness grayed until she could finally make out faint shapes. To her right was the abandoned deli counter. To her left, the shopping buggy area. Nothing seemed to be moving in her immediate vicinity, although she could hear the faint shouts of the men outside. From the sound of gunfire and screams, it didn't sound like things were going too good for them.

Tough shit.

She moved slowly, feeling ahead of her with each step. If she remembered the layout of the store, she could keep to the right and get to an exit. Maybe she could find an office to hide in for a while. Grab some canned food and water, hole up in a locked room, and wait this whole thing out. Those idiots were more than likely to give up looking for her after a while anyway. They'd go back to the trailer park and she would . . .

She'd what? Where could she go now? Jimmy Ray had sold her out to those yahoos, so he obviously didn't want her back . . . not that there was much to go back to, anyway. Problem was she didn't have much in the way of ammo, so she couldn't be on the run indefinitely. Her only hope was to stay in one piece long enough to find some more survivors-bikers, maybe-and get herself another man to take care of her. Then she'd be okay.

She just had to get through this first.

Glass shattered from the front of the store, and Jolene knew that Bill and his lapdogs had lost their patience with the game. They'd ruined the place-their efforts, combined with the damage the other looters had done, meant that now it would be picked clean by any survivors wandering through-but there wasn't much left in the way of supplies, anyway. All the frozen food had long since gone over, and most of the canned stuff was gone. Jolene passed the bread section and caught a green whiff of mold.

Just keep on going, she told herself, scanning all around her as she kept her back to the wall. Keep on going.

Something moved to her left and she automatically pulled the shotgun up, drawing a bead before she could even identify her target. A little girl stumbled over the hem of her nightgown, her eyes glowing like a cat's in the dimness of the store. Most of the flesh from the girl's throat was gone, so her head bobbed from side to side, front to back, as she walked, her little mouth opening and closing, her little teeth snapping together like a steel trap.

For a moment Jolene couldn't move. She'd never seen a zombie kid before. Until this moment, she hadn't even given much thought to dead kids. In the back of her mind, she guessed she'd somehow thought they were exempt from this whole nightmare. Bad stuff couldn't happen to little kids.

But it did. And it had.

The little girl dragged a blood-splattered teddy bear, her fingers tangled in its ratty bow tie. Her nightgown had Raggedy Ann's face on it.

And she had no throat. The kid had no fucking throat.

Jolene didn't dare fire, even if she could have made herself pull the trigger. Despite everything, she knew she couldn't shoot a kid. Even if the kid was already dead.

Jolene kept moving, keeping an eye on the girl, hoping she'd just lose interest in her. As she inched deeper into the store, she saw more of the zombies stumbling around, each of them lost in their own misery. So far none of them had caught her scent yet . . . except for the little girl. The smell of all the rotting meat disguised Jolene's own sweaty stink-which was a small blessing she supposed. At least it bought her a little more time.

Gunshots blasted through the store and Jolene froze for a moment, tearing her attention away from the dead girl as she desperately tried to get an idea of where Bill and his guys were. They'd seen her come in through the second set of doors, which meant they probably had a pretty good sense of just about where she'd be. She could hear their panicked shouts as gunfire echoed. Idiots didn't realize that they were stirring up the zombies, agitating them into louder moans. The dead folk were coming out of hiding now, appearing almost from nowhere as they stepped out of darkened aisles and rose up from pools of shadows.

Any second now they'd sense her. Then there wouldn't be enough time to do anything but die.

"Jolene!" Bill's shout cut the silence, sounding closer than Jolene liked. "You'd best get your ass out here, girl. Ain't nobody playin' with ya now."

The zombies turned toward his voice like flowers turning to the sun. They knew the sound of fresh meat when they heard it.

Except for the little girl. She kept her eyes on the prize, staring at Jolene as she continued to stumble closer.

Jolene started moving again, shuffling sideways as quietly and quickly as s he could manage. Sweat burned her eyes, rolled down her sides and back. There was a backroom here somewhere . . . a loading dock or something. She remembered it was right in the middle of the meat department.

She peered ahead in the gloom, looking for the opening. She saw a wide doorway between the freezers. Two male zombies stood just in front of it, swaying gently. Waiting for her.

Behind her, the little girl gained a few more feet. She was close enough now that Jolene could see straight through her throat to her spine.

Jolene slowly turned the shotgun, gripping the cool barrel with sweaty hands. If she fired, she'd bring Bill and the boys running. Best she could do was take a few swings and hope for a solid hit.

Heart stuttering, then pounding almost painfully, Jolene took a step closer to the little girl. Poor little thing . . . she looked so sweet . . . so young . . .

The girl lunged, all teeth and drool, and Jolene reacted without thinking, swinging the shotgun with all the strength she had. It connected wetly, sinking into the girl's rotted pumpkin of a skull, and the dark light instantly went out of her eyes.

She dropped in a heap, and Jolene nearly joined her. She couldn't do this. Even though the people were dead, even though they were trying to eat her, she couldn't do this.

But this was the world now. A world where you had to run and hide and forage and steal and kill if you wanted to survive. You were either dead or alive, and damned either way.

Tears threatened to blur Jolene's vision, but she forced them away. The noise Bill and the others were making was getting too close now. And the zombies were too animated, too alert.

Too hungry.

Jolene felt panic, cold and thick, rising up inside her as she stood helplessly over the body of the dead little girl. She didn't know what to do. There were too many zombies, too many of Bill's men. Either way she ran, she'd more than likely die.

She raised the shotgun. It'd be so easy to just fit that barrel against her forehead and pull the trigger and . . .

And what? Heaven? Hell? Nothing? Would death be worse than life?

With her luck, it would. Her luck had landed her in the middle of that damned trailer park hell. Her luck had brought Jimmy Ray and his pliers and tin snips and fists into her life. Her luck was shit, and she didn't trust it anymore.

To hell with it . . .

Jolene lowered the shotgun and ran away from the meat department, away from the swinging doors that led to the offices, away from the sound of Bill's shouts. She kept the gun cocked and ready, held close to her chest as she silently moved through the corpse-strewn aisles. Bill would find the body of that little girl and know that she had put her down; Jolene just hoped that he assumed she'd gone for the obvious safety of the offices.

Her foot squelched into something slippery and she nearly lost her balance, slamming her hip painfully into the metal shelves as she caught herself. In the dimness she could see that she had made it into the sporting goods section-no food smells here, so there weren't as many zombies milling about. She leaned against the shelves for a minute, trying to keep her breathing as quiet and steady as she could, looking at everything except what had caused her to stumble. This area hadn't been as badly looted as the others, probably because it was so deep inside the store. And because there was nothing immediately useful to looters, like food or . . .

Jolene straightened up as she realized what she had found.

Camping gear.

Leaning the shotgun against the shelves, she moved as fast as she could, grabbing a couple of backpacks, a sleeping bag roll, a lantern and oil, boxes of matches, a thick coil of nylon rope. She shoved a folded one-man tent into the backpack, as well as hunting knives and an industrial strength can opener. She took one of the bigger knives and slid it down the front of her jeans, shivering at the cold leather sheath. Then she pulled on one of the backpacks. It rested high on her back, pulling her shoulders straight, aching the base of her spine, but its weight felt good. Slinging the other filled pack over one shoulder, she scooped up the shotgun and an empty backpack. As she made her way down the aisle, she grabbed a baseball bat: a heavy Louisville Slugger that swung like a dream.

Then she hit the aisles, tossing cans of Spam and beans and anything else she could find into the backpack. She was reaching for a can of tuna when a zombie snuck up behind her, revealing itself only by a hungry moan. Without a second thought, Jolene whirled around and slammed the bat into its skull, knocking the thing to the floor. The only sound was the crunchy crack of the wood against bone, not enough to draw attention.

Jolene smiled to herself. The bat worked beautifully. Puts 'em down without wasting ammo, quick and quiet.

She finished filling the pack and slung it ov er her shoulder with the other. The weight slowed her down, but that was okay. Her idea would work. Had to work. And if it didn't, then it didn't matter just how damn heavy the pack was, anyway. All Jolene knew was that she wasn't going to rot away in the middle of goddam Sav-Mart while Bill and those pigs went back to the trailer park and whooped it up. And she wasn't going to sit around waiting for somebody to save her ass, either. For the first time in her life, she understood that there were no princes to carry you over the rainbow and into the happily ever after.

She'd have to carry her own damn ass. And she'd either do it or die trying. Simple as that.

"Jolene! You stupid bitch! Get your ass out here now, goddam it!"

Bill's voice was close enough to make Jolene drop to her haunches behind a display of dog food. She peeked over the edge of the bags and saw Bill moving just ahead of her, heading to the back of the store. Looked like only three of the pigs had survived to this point.

Jolene glanced at the baseball bat. She could do this. Easily.

Bill had left the van parked close to the shattered glass doors , only a hundred or so yards from where Jolene stood. A few zombies staggered between her and the van, but their gait was so slow and jerky that she had no doubt she could get past them easily.

She could go now. She could run out those doors and disappear into the hills and Bill and Jimmy Ray would never be able to find her. There were lots of mountains to get lost in, lots of caves and abandoned houses where she could set up camp.

The bright sunlight of dawn poured in through the glass doors. She could go. She could run and go now and leave Bill in a world of shit.

But then she wouldn't have the small pleasure of seeing him die. And that one fact made a whole lot of chances worth taking.

Jolene moved before she could change her mind, zigzagging through the zombies. One of them, an old woman, stepped right in Jolene's way. The woman's flat eyes glowed, her mouth toothless and gaping.

She went down with one swing of the bat.

A man screamed from deeper inside the store. Jolene couldn't recognize the voice, but it sounded too high-pitched to be Bill. Of course, the sensation of a zombie chewing you r throat out was liable to do all kinds of funny things to a person's voice, but she was sure it wasn't Bill. At least, she hoped not. That would ruin all the fun.

Jolene shrugged out of the backpacks and left them leaning against the doors. Three zombies stood between her and the rest of the store. Three raggedy-ass, broke-down bags of bone. Easy. She made sure the shotgun was secure in its shoulder-sling and gripped the bat with both hands. Time to go.

One of the zombies, a guy who looked like he'd been a little too well-fed before all the shit came down, stumbled closer to her, his mouth open and drooling as he reached for her with greedy hands. Jolene waited until he was almost able to touch her . . . and then she swung the bat wide, catching him just above the shoulders and knocking his head almost completely off. It dangled upside down over his back, held fast by a few rotted tendons. Jolene pushed him away with the bat, cringing when her knuckles accidentally brushed against his body. The zombie fell onto its stomach and lay helpless on the floor, still reaching for her.

Jolene fought back a gag and took a shallow breath, calming her nerves before the sec ond of the zombies staggered her way. This one had been a young girl, probably pretty once. Now her long blonde hair hung in tangled clumps, clotted with rusty dried blood, skinned completely away just over her right ear, where mottled gray-black brain matter peeked through. The girl's face had dried like tanned leather, lips peeled back to reveal braces on sharp yellow teeth. One eye was gone, deflated in its socket like a burst balloon.

They just kept getting worse. Jolene swung the bat again, splitting the girl's head with one blow. The girl dropped, and Jolene felt her stomach lurch, bile burning its way up her throat. She spat to clear her mouth, unable to allow herself the luxury of vomiting. The stench of the zombies seemed to get even stronger when they were put down. It reminded Jolene of when she was younger and she and her brother would kill stinkbugs, just to see if they'd smell worse after being squished.

The sudden memory stung. She and Robbie hadn't seen each other for years-not since she'd taken up with Jimmy Ray over her family's objections. The last time she saw Robbie they'd fought over her relationship with Jimmy. Then Robbie moved down to the southern part of the state with hi s wife and kids and that'd been the last she'd seen of him. It hadn't been a good way to part. Not a good way at all.

She hadn't thought of Robbie in a long time. She wondered if he was still alive . . . or if he'd turned into one of these things. Knowing Robbie, the way he'd never liked to fight, the way he always tried to reason his way out of a problem, she figured he'd probably died when the first wave of zombies rose up. He probably wouldn't have wanted to believe it was happening until one of the things actually got him.

She just hoped that he wasn't walking around out there somewhere. That would be too much to bear.

The third zombie-an old man with wire-rimmed glasses hanging from what remained of his ears-shuffled towards her with his hands outstretched. It wasn't until after Jolene had swung the bat and put him down that she realized she was weeping.

She allowed herself a moment, swiping at her eyes with the collar of her blouse, wiping the snot from her nose with the back of her hand, forcing herself to take deep breaths and delay the tears for later. And for just an instant, she was struck by how truly ridiculous everything suddenly seemed. There she was, standing in the middle of Sav-Mart with a bloody baseball bat in her hand and dead people walking around, crying her eyes out.

If she had laughed just then, she would have lost her mind.

A burst of gunfire startled her. Closer now. Bill and whoever was left were making their way back to the front of the store. She figured he planned on leaving her there, dead or alive. She didn't have much longer.

She slipped deeper into the store, following the sound of their footsteps as they crashed through displays. She was in front of them; they'd have to get past her now to get to the doors.

No use in making it easy for them.

Jolene looked around, her hackles rising as Bill's footsteps got closer and closer. It would've been nice to have been in the gun aisle, or even close to the propane camping ovens, but no . . . her shitty luck had held out and she was smack in the middle of the baking aisle. Nothing but flour and cake mixes and oil . . .

Jolene suddenly smiled. Now here was an idea . . .

She grabbed an armful of the plastic bottles of cooking oil and began twisting the caps off, watching for Bill to appear at any moment. She squirted oil down the aisle, upturning the bottles right down the middle as she sidestepped to the other end, leaving herself a narrow path along the shelves. Her heart was beating so hard, so fast, that she thought she might black out.

But it was time to finish this goddamn mess. Finish it and go home . . . wherever that would be.

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and began screaming.

The zombies reacted instantly, their moans intensifying as they honed in on her location. Jolene's muscles tensed as she watched them creep closer in the dimness, their arms reaching, fingers twitching to touch her. She screamed again, barely able to quell her growing panic.

Slowly, forcing herself to remain calm, Jolene began to inch her way back up the aisle, careful to keep her footing steady as she followed her narrow path. She moved sideways, swinging her gaze from one end of the aisle to the other. Damn it, Bill! Where the hell are you?

"Bill!" she screamed, trying to put the proper amount of cowed fear in her voice. "Help me! Please! I'll do anything you want . . . just don't let them get me!"



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