Eric Kenner was beginning to nod when the tires crunched on the gravelly side of the interstate. He jumped awake and swerved back into his place, thankful that no one was around to see him. Or hit him. He had tried turning on the air conditioning to full blast, and that had helped for a little while. Not long enough, though; Jenner was fading, and he knew it. In his twenty-three years of driving big rigs, he had only fallen asleep on the road once – but of course, that was all it had taken, as they say. His souvenirs from that little adventure came in the form of enough metal reinforcement (pins in the legs, pins in the spinal column, and of course, the ever popular four inch plate in the head) to get him special treatment at airports. Since then, it had been his policy to quit driving as soon as he was even remotely tired; to pull into some hotel and just crash, even if he might only be an hour or two from his destination.
Tonight was different because his destination had nothing to do with his job. He had a feeling that if he didn’t reach Myra by tonight, she would be gone forever. If he stopped now, if he showed just one more sign of anger – even an unintentional one – it was probably curtains for them. She had already started talking about moving out of their house and getting an apartment. Eric had little doubt that if Myra did that, she wouldn’t be moving in alone. Not for the first time, he wondered whether or not he really had been better off not knowing about the man she was cheating with. After all, before that, he had been happy, and had assumed that she was, too.
Now he knew the truth, and he was miserable.
The first drops of rain spattering the windshield jerked him out of his thoughts of Myra, back to thoughts of the road. He didn’t mind driving in the rain most of the time, but then most of the time he was in his Peterbilt rig, and not in this dinky Honda Civic. Plus, he knew that after a little while, rain falling on the windshield would likely become a soothing lullaby, which was the very last thing he needed right now.
He glanced down at the cell phone lying in the passenger seat like the world’s smallest child getting to sit up front. He could call her. If he told her that he was tired and needed to pull off to get some rest, she’d understand. After all, she’d been there, holding his hand in the ICU and crying her eyes out as she stared at the damaged body of her husband. She knew that if he said he needed sleep, he meant it. Every time.
But tonight, maybe she knew something else, Eric thought. Maybe she also knew that she didn’t love him anymore.
So, no phone call. Tonight he would make it home, and he would talk to her face to face. If the stars aligned for him, if he could be very convincing, and most of all, if there still burned something inside her for him, he thought they might pull through.
* * *
He was fading again when he saw the smeared streak of halogen lights up ahead. He snapped awake, mentally gauging the distance to them so he’d be sure to catch the right exit. What he felt now was more than tired. It was an ache, the kind of soulless sorrow that comes from wanting to sleep and being unable to. It seemed he could feel it in his bones, in his stomach, behind the eyes he so desperately wanted to close.
It was a gas station; he could see it more clearly now through the rain. One of those middle-of-nowhere all-nighter joints, he supposed, and shuddered. If there was one job more lonely than his own, surely it was being a clerk in one of these places. He turned his blinker on, too soon, but it didn’t matter. It was almost two in the morning, and he hadn’t seen another car in half an hour. Raindrops fell, scattered, and were swept away by the windshield wipers as he pulled off the interstate, guiding his car mostly by the lights ahead, as if he were a mariner lost in a storm on a choppy sea, and the halogens ahead were the salvific lighthouse.
He certainly felt lost tonight.
The parking lot was rough; there were large cracks in the macadam which held sizable populations of weeds, these pushing up through as if to reclaim Earth for the flora. Caught among them were bits of trash – part of a coffee cup, a cinnamon bun wrapper, a broken beer bottle – souvenirs, no doubt, from this hallowed establishment, carried to a temporary resting place by wind and circumstance.
Eric pulled in, shut the car off, and just sat there for a long moment, hoping the rain would let up long enough for him to get out and go in without getting soaked. It didn’t happen. He reached over into the passenger seat and picked up the cell phone, flipped it open. He had two bars, which wasn’t much, but it would be enough should he decide to call Myra. He could do it; he wasn’t sure how close the nearest hotel might be, but it had to be closer than home.
Besides, this whole thing was probably a waste of time. In all likelihood, it was too late to save the marriage anyway; best for him to get over it and begin the process of moving on.
He put the cell phone back in the seat and opened his door. He would at least go inside and look around for something to wake him up, just to be able to say he tried. Beyond that, he could ask the lonely clerk where the nearest hotel might be – where the nearest town might be, for that matter; he wasn’t really sure there was much out here at all.
He was soaked the moment he stepped out of the car, and as soon as he shut the door he ran up to the awning, passing through the heavy sheet of drain water and gasping at the cold. He almost ran head first into the payphone, and wouldn’t that have been hilarious, he thought. He took a moment to shake himself off, wringing his hands, running them through his hair, wringing them again. Now his hair stood up in dripping spikes, and the skin of his palms was shriveled with moisture. It occurred to him that he was wide awake now, and that he could probably go another twenty or thirty miles in this condition.
But no; he was here, so he might as well get something to drink. Not coffee – Eric hated coffee – but something caffeinated. Maybe a Coke.
He walked to the front door, which was glass crisscrossed with black iron bars. “Charming,” he muttered, and stepped in.
* * *
The music hit him first, the smell second. Of the two, the music was more recognizable – he thought it was George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. The smell, though familiar, eluded him. It conjured strange scenes from his youth, existing as a cloudy ectoplasm enveloping the stage during certain scenes of the mostly-forgotten play of childhood. It was inane, alien, yet powerfully close. He both wanted to inhale deeply to explore its singular bouquet, and at the same time vomit it from his nose and thrust himself back into the night, where the rain-washed air would smell fresh and vivid and above all things right.
This smell was not right. It was wrong.
He stepped across the threshold, and above him a small grouping of jingle bells shivered into action, hailing his arrival by cutting harshly across Gershwin’s roving piano solo. They died out quickly, and the sound of the rain was slowly enveloped by the sound of the door whooshing shut behind him. Another tinkling of bells, and he was fully inside the store.
Something else felt wrong about the place immediately. Not only did it not smell right, but he seemed to be entirely alone. No one stood behind the counter; there were no patrons in the aisles. He hadn’t seen any other cars in the parking lot, so he supposed that made sense, but…
“I’ll be right there,” a raspy voice said, and Eric jumped. He looked in the direction the voice had come from, and saw an open door with the word “OFFICE” printed on it. On this door were a multiplicity of signs, including such witticisms as “THE BEATINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES”, and “PROBLEM CUSTOMERS WILL BE TAKEN OUT BACK AND SHOT”. Oddly enough, these signs cheered Eric a little. They seemed to take a little bit of the creepy out of it, in some way he couldn’t quite put a finger on.
He turned toward the first aisle, and was startled to see a man-sized hourglass. Most of its sand – which was brown rather than the usual white – was in the bottom glass. On the top glass was a sign written by hand: TIME UNTIL CLOSE. This one seemed a bit less cheery than the ones on the office door. Eric shuffled past it toward the rest of the aisle and began walking down it, his eyes catching on things here and there. Car equipment on the first aisle: everything you could possibly need from jumper cables to air fresheners. There were sunglasses and phone chargers, phone cards and sun visors, ice scrapers and ice chests. It all seemed perfectly natural; if you were coming into this gas station, you were likely on some kind of long trip, and who in the world liked to take a long car trip sans those special accoutrements one could acquire most conveniently at a convenience store?
Eric smiled, moving on. He found that he had been wrong about the rain waking him up fully – he felt almost as tired now as he had in the car. Maybe a Coke wasn’t going to do the job. As a general rule, he tried to stay away from caffeine pills and energy drinks (he secretly suspected that cancer or something equally vile resided within such products, and that to use them even sparingly was to take one’s life in hand), but maybe tonight was the time for that rare exception.
The end of the first aisle ended up being the porn section. This was the part of any convenience store which he – and, he assumed, most self-respecting people – tried to skirt around, not because he had no interest in such things, but because it was uncouth. Now, of course, it was just him and the as-yet absentee clerk. The urge to look was primal, had been ever since he was a youth. Around about the time that that smell reminds you of, wouldn’t you say, a voice in his head intoned. He took a faint sniff of the air, dismissed it, and looked at the porn rack, checking over his shoulder first to make sure that he wasn’t being watched. There was no sign of the clerk yet.
What he saw surprised him; he had been expecting seedy stuff – this wasn’t a bookstore, after all – but he hadn’t been prepared for this. In place of the Playboy and Penthouse brand of magazine there existed a rack of sadomasochist literature. Magazines devoted to bondage and torture, leather and chains and spiked heels abounding. Women with barely-blurred breasts caught in vise clamps; men holding paddles with what looked like blood on them. There were faux vampire magazines; Goth dominatrix women with pointed teeth leering out from studded leather corsets. There were even a couple of magazines in what looked like Russian Cyrillic; one showed a man hanging himself, one hand on the rope, the other in front of him and – but for the carefully-placed shrink wrap one could be certain – probably on his penis. The other magazine featured three women, naked and not blurred out at all, sitting in a circle. Scattered among them were fake body parts. One of the women held a severed human arm up to her face, and was chewing on it. Eric raised an eyebrow; evidently, cannibalism had entered the world of porn since the last time he’d checked.
He moved on down the aisle, coming to the cooler, and by way of the cooler, to the portion of the store devoted to alcohol. Beer bottles and cans stood before him behind the glass walls of the cooler doors like rows of infantrymen, waiting only for orders. It’d be called the Charge of the Coors Light Brigade, he thought, smiling a little to himself.
God, he was tired. He brought his hands up to his eyes, rubbed them, stared at the beer.
Here was an idea: he could buy a twelve pack, grab some smokes (because it just wouldn’t be proper drinking without a pack of smokes), find the nearest hotel room, and drink himself to sleep watching some shitty old movie. Simple, beautiful, uncomplicated. He had always suspected that he’d make a pretty good alcoholic if he really applied himself to the task; here was the perfect opportunity to find out.
There was a metallic clicking sound behind him, and Eric turned to see that the clerk had finally come out, and was locking the front door.
“Sir,” he said, walking slowly back up the aisle, wondering if this place would even have something as urbane as an energy drink for sale. “Sir, I’m still in here. Sorry, I didn’t know you were about to close.”
The clerk turned slowly to face him, and Eric paused, mid-stride. The man was tall and lanky, sporting a button-up shirt that seemed out of place here. Eric noticed almost immediately that his left hand – and perhaps much of the arm that it connected to; it was impossible to tell with the shirtsleeve – was actually a prosthetic. The clerk’s pants, a faded but well-creased pair of black dress slacks, seemed to billow around him, as though his legs were thin as broomsticks. His face was gaunt and pale, almost a gray color. Eric only stopped staring two or three seconds after he realized he was staring and instead focused his gaze on the door.
“Ah, there’s always one or two,” the clerk said in that gravelly voice, his grin revealing two rows of broken and mostly rotted teeth, which Eric didn’t see because he was looking at the door.
“Yeah, well, sorry man,” he stammered. “I, uh…I was just looking for a quick energy drink or something. Do you mind?” He risked a glance at the clerk, seeing not agitation on the man’s face, but a kind of satisfaction. The clerk adjusted a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, and smiled, this time with his mouth closed.
“Not at all, sir. I’ll just leave this other door unlocked for you.” He waved his prosthetic hand in the general direction of the OUT door, and made his way around the counter.
“Where, uh…where do you keep – ”
“Third aisle, all the way back to the cooler,” the clerk said, and Eric noticed that the man was walking with a limp. Whatever had happened to this guy, it had fucked him up pretty badly. He went back the way he had come, this time passing the strange porn and the beer without looking at them. Sure enough, he found a host of energy drinks, named for everything from hip-hop singers to illicit drugs. Normally, he would have looked each one over – probably to see if the ingredients lists contained the word “cancer” – but not tonight. The store was already closed and besides, he had an uneasy feeling about this place. He grabbed the first thing his hand could find and shut the door.
The music changed as he was walking up, Gershwin giving way to some pop tune he didn’t recognize. So the guy has an eclectic taste in music, he thought, trying to fight the uneasiness and failing. So sue him.
“Ah, yes, the ‘Dumpsta Diva 202’, an excellent choice,” rasped the clerk as Eric set the large pink can on the counter. Eric hadn’t even glanced at the name, but he did now.
“That’s a weird name for an energy drink,” he said.
“I believe it’s named for the rap singer.”
“Wonders never cease,” Eric said.
“Pardon me if I’m being forward,” the clerk said, “but I noticed you were looking at our fine selection of…adult material. Anything in particular catch your eye?” He leaned across the counter, and Eric suddenly realized that the strange smell was coming from him. He still couldn’t put a finger on what it was, but the memories it conjured up grew perceptibly sharper; he was in his early teens, and he was in school doing something. But what?
“Sir?” the clerk said, and Eric came back to the present.
“Hmm? Uh…no. No, I didn’t find anything interesting in the por… in the adult section. Thanks.”
“Pity,” the clerk said, reaching up to adjust his glasses. When he did so, Eric saw a horrible thing. The clerk’s nose actually moved with the glasses. It was a slight thing, but in it, Eric caught a glimpse of the dead black chasm that lay behind the man’s prosthetic sniffer. What the hell was wrong with this guy?
“Pity?” Eric repeated dumbly.
“Yes,” the clerk said, finishing with the glasses adjustment. “I sometimes enjoy conversing with…shall we say, kindred spirits.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Eric said, and looked down at his energy drink. He had no memory of any popular singer who went by the moniker “Dumpsta Diva”. Knowing the current crop of famous people was Myra’s bailiwick, not his. But it seemed odd to him; surely even among the hip-hop community, there was such a thing as a modicum of class, wasn’t there?
“If you’re interested in hearing it, I’ve got one of the Dumpsta Diva albums in my office. She is…off the chain, as I believe they call it.”
“No, thanks,” Eric said, feeling genuine alarm beginning to creep in on him. “I’ll just take the drink.” He reached his right hand around and fished out his wallet. With his left he went for his cell phone – just in case. It wasn’t there, of course; he had left it in the passenger seat.
No worries, he thought. I’ll just pay for this and be out of here.
That was when he discovered that all he had was a fifty in his wallet. He’d neglected to take his credit card with him on this trip, since it had initially only looked like it was going to take him a few hours. Now, he realized that even if he wanted to get a room somewhere to crash for the night, he probably wouldn’t be able to. That was okay; as long as he could get out of here, he thought he could make it the rest of the way home. In fact, he realized, the small tendrils of fear that were encroaching on his mind had acted as the perfect wake-up – he felt fully alert now.
“Ah,” the clerk said, staring down at the bill in Eric’s hand. “Not only a late-comer, but a man with a large bill.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry,” Eric said, not feeling sorry at all, but not wanting to piss this strange apparition of a man off. “It’s all I’ve got on me.”
“And you just assumed that I would be able to accept such a large bill at this late time of night,” the clerk said. “Isn’t that a little frightfully presumptuous?”
Eric looked up to see the clerk smiling again, this time with his broken teeth showing for all the world to see. It was in that moment that he finally realized what the smell was, and where he had smelled it before.
It was formaldehyde. The scene flashed before his mental eye: ninth grade, the science lab, and a young Eric Jenner standing with his teammates over the partially-dissected remains of a pig fetus. They had been kept in formaldehyde.
“You know what,” Eric said, backing away from the counter and slipping the fifty back into his wallet, “I’m sorry. I think I’ll just go.” His heart was pounding now, the not-quite-irrational fear swelling into terror of the clerk. He backed away several more steps, his eyes not leaving the ruined man, and he bumped into something, nearly knocking it over. He turned, only barely stifling a scream. It was the huge hourglass; all the sand now rested in the bottom half, and the TIME UNTIL CLOSE sign taped to it flapped in the slight breeze caused by the disturbance.
“I suppose I’ll just put this back for you, as well,” the clerk said.
“Yeah, sorry…I…I’ve just gotta go,” Eric said, and bolted for the door.
It didn’t open. Eric ran face-first into it, mashing his nose against the glass, and it did not open. The panic exploded now and became a hot white heat that ate rationality and shat adrenaline.
“What the fuck?!” he shouted, turning back to the counter. But the clerk was no longer there. Eric turned further, toward a steadily building wheezing sound, and saw the madman limping around the counter’s far edge. It took him a moment to realize that the wheezing was actually laughter; it was punctuated by little coughs, one of which produced a viscous black fluid which flowed from the corner of the clerk’s mouth, falling onto and staining his shirt.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the clerk said, his grin on full power now. “I seem to have forgotten to leave that door unlocked.”
“Don’t come near me, man!” Eric said, jumping back. This time, he did knock over the hourglass. It fell seemingly in slow motion, crashing to the floor and shattering into thousands of pieces. Eric, who had stumbled in the process of knocking it over, now leaped backward over what was left, as if it might form some sort of protective barrier. It didn’t, but he picked up a shard of glass, wielding it like a knife. “Don’t you even come near me, asshole! I don’t know what the hell all of this is, but you need to just fucking cut it out!”
“Sir,” the clerk said, reaching for his glasses, “this is a family establishment. I’m afraid I can’t tolerate foul language, let alone the brandishing of a weapon.” He removed the glasses and, consequently, the prosthetic nose, exposing two caves of blackened, desiccated flesh. “Even a weapon as ineffectual as that.”
“What are you?” Eric moaned. He could feel his grip on the glass shard weakening; could feel his knees wanting to buckle, his blood turning icy in his veins.
“A zombie, of course,” the clerk answered simply. “But you didn’t want to know that, did you?” He stepped forward slowly, grinning again; the black stuff he’d coughed up coated the bottom row of jagged teeth. “See, now you’re even more afraid than you were before, because you’re thinking that I’m either crazy – which is bad, or that I’m telling the truth – which I assure you is much, much worse.”
“Get away from me!” Eric shouted, renewing his grip on the glass shard so tightly that he could feel it cutting his hand; could feel the blood beginning to flow down his palm and onto his wrist. “Let me out of here or…or I’m going to call the police!”
“Oh, but you can’t call the police, of course, or you already would have. Did you think I wouldn’t notice when your hand went to your pocket? You were looking for your cell phone, but of course it wasn’t there. I’m betting it’s out there,” he gestured with his prosthetic arm toward the door behind him, “in the car. Sound plausible?”
“Look, what do you want?” Eric said.
“To eat your brains, what else?” the clerk said. “Honestly, I’m surprised you didn’t get that one right off.”
“My…my brains?” Eric said. “My fucking brains!” Now he was angry. “What is this shit? Am I being ‘Punk’d’ or something?” He glanced around, hoping to see the orchestrators of this particular prank coming out of the proverbial woodwork, knowing that he wasn’t going to.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what that means,” the clerk said, and began to lurch forward again. “Now, we can do this the hard way, or we can do it the really hard way. In either case, my friend, please know that I’m grateful for the nourishment which you are about to provide for me.”
“What are you talking about, you crazy bastard!?” Eric said, continuing to backup a step for every forward one the clerk took, as though they were locked in some malign form of dance – the hunter and the hunted, performing the two-step from hell. “Look, man. You’re not thinking right, okay? If you’ll just back off and let me use the phone, I can get you some help. I know a doctor who specializes in these sorts of things.” He didn’t; Eric Jenner couldn’t even imagine a doctor who treated this kind of head case, and he sure as hell didn’t know one.
“I’m not thinking right,” the zombie clerk repeated, the rasp in his voice somehow conveying a perfect sense of contempt. “My God, you can’t even speak properly to save your life. What has this old world come to?” He took another step forward, this one more of a lunge, and gave a harsh, barking laugh when Eric yipped and nearly fell over getting away from him.
“Stop doing that! Let’s fucking talk about this, man!” Eric reached out a hand to steady himself, realizing only a second or two later that he was leaning on the porn rack. He pulled his hand back, wiping it on his shirt.
“I find it difficult to converse with someone whose elocution consists mostly of sentences like, ‘Let’s fucking talk about this, man’. When you’ve been around as long as I have, when you’ve absorbed as much of the knowledge of etymology – which in the pantheon of things known occupies such a tall pedestal – it becomes rather boring to talk to the uneducated.”
“How long have you been around?” Eric said. He was stalling, and the monster in front of him seemed to know it; he stopped advancing for a moment, raising his real hand in an accommodating gesture.
“All right, all right,” the zombie clerk said. “I’ve got all night, and I’d hate to deprive you of all chances to think of a possible means of escape. Shall I tell you my life story?”
“Yes, please,” Eric said. The zombie stared at him for a long moment, the grotesque grin hanging off his face like a necrotic dream – the vision poisoned into a nightmare.
* * *
“My name,” he began, “is – or was – Joseph Bellows. I was born in the year eighteen ninety-seven, in Scranton, Ohio. When I was twenty years old, I was killed in the trenches in France. A bombshell went off a little too close to my left arm, tearing it off, and I bled to death before the corpsman could even get to me. Ten days later, I woke up back in Scranton, inside a coffin in the First Baptist Church, to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’ being played on the organ. It was, of course, my funeral. I never knew how it happened, but…hey!”
* * *
He ran, past the porn rack, past the beer, the oddly named energy drinks. He ran wildly, seeing rows of soda to his left, aisles of chips and candy bars to his right. As he neared the ice machine at the back corner of the store, he looked to his left and saw a door marked: EMPLOYEES ONLY. Without hesitation, he slammed into it, and then realized that he had to turn the doorknob first. Behind him, he could hear the creature coming for him, its pace increased, its breath wheezing not laughter now, but genuine exertion.
I’ve got to get out of here, his mind yammered at him, over and over. I’ve got to get out of here! He burst through the employee door, praying that he would find an exit door right behind it. No such luck; if this place had an exit door, it wasn’t in the logical place at the back. Instead, he saw what appeared to be a dry storage area, littered with massive beer carton forts and empty boxes. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, and Eric suspected it had been decades since anyone besides the creature now chasing him had even been back here. Or, at least, been back here and made it out alive.
To his left was the door to the cooler. It was old, with a pull-bar like that of an old refrigerator. If he could get in there and somehow lock the door…
He was in like a flash. From outside in the store area, he could hear the thing bellowing at him. He pulled the door closed, looking desperately for some kind of linchpin. For the first time that evening, fate smiled down on him. Not only was there a metal pin hanging down on a frail old chain, but there was a hole to stick it in. Lightning-quick, he stuck it in, then backed away. The terror did not leave him then, but it slowed a pace.
It was at least twenty-five degrees colder in here, and Eric was suddenly reminded that he was still drenched from the rain. He hadn’t realized he was shaking until now; the combination of fear and cold danced a furious clogging jig across his skin, and his teeth began chattering.
He heard the employee door opening, and then a banging on the cooler door.
“Let me in!” the zombie shouted, but he was laughing again, the wheezing quality of his breath an eerie mumbled drone in Eric’s ears. “I promise it’ll be quick if you let me in now. I can smell your brains, though, and they’re driving me crazy. Be warned; if you wait too long, I won’t be able to control myself.”
“How about you control yourself now and leave me the fuck alone!” Eric yelled.
No response. All he could hear now were the two ambient sounds of the cooler: that of the compressors pumping in the cold air, and that of his teeth chattering. Then he heard the employee door again, and through the glass between the rows of drinks, he could see the clerk’s figure lumbering out into the store proper. He used his free hand to move aside some of the beer, then peered out. The clerk was nowhere to be seen. All that lay before him were the dirty floors and lonely subdivisions of various unneeded products; a cobweb spun of man, its design fiscally predatory.
All the lights went out.
Eric started and sucked in breath, suddenly enveloped in utter blackness. He dropped the shard of glass, heard it tinkle on the concrete floor. He squatted, breathing heavily now, and felt for the thing, his eyes moving vainly back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.
Finally they caught something. It was faint, but it was there. A dim glow presented itself, lighting around two sides of a black angle. At first it didn’t compute, and then he realized that whatever light it was, there was a box between it and him. He reached forward, moved the beer aside, and peered out. It was the streetlamp outside. It should have been comforting, seeing that. Instead, it made the panic within him grow. If the only light coming in through the store window was the streetlamp, then the outside fluorescent lights were off, too. This meant that, for all intents and purposes, the store was going to be unnoticeable to the outside world.
In that instant, the glass cooler door Eric was facing swung open, the magnetic lining giving off a pinched smooching sound, the hinge screaming a small scream. Then a hand – a horrible, cold and bony hand – reached through and grabbed him by the arm. Eric screamed, but it did no good. The clerk’s strength was amazing. He yanked Eric forward, and Eric’s face slammed into the metal rack above it. He felt warm blood trickling down his forehead, and for a moment he was disoriented. But then the creature was yanking him again, dragging him out of the cooler, knocking boxes of canned and bottled beer all over the place.
Frantically, he felt around the floor with his other hand, but it was too late for the glass shard. His torso was already partially wedged between the racks. It was a tight fit, but as more and more beer fell out of the way, there became more room for him to fit through.
He flexed and unflexed his hand in the monster’s grip, hoping against hope that it would slip through; no such luck.
“Come on out, now, human,” the creature rasped, and Eric could now tell a difference in its speech. The words were slurred, as if the clerk had been drinking for half the evening, and they had an odd hollow echoing quality, as if they were words not so much spoken as merely produced. “I want your brains! I need your brains!”
“Get away from me!” Eric sobbed, unable to fight the pull of the monster as he was dragged the rest of the way through the cooler. He spilled out onto the floor, landing atop and around a heap of broken bottles and burst cans. Everywhere now there was the sound of fizzing, and the related but separate smells of alcohol and formaldehyde. A split second later, the monster was on top of him, its bony knee pinning Eric to the floor. Eric shrieked in pain as the knee drove into his kidney. Then the thing grabbed him by the hair and yanked his head up hard.
“BRAINS!” it croaked loudly, then sank its teeth into the hair and scalp.
Eric screamed as the zombie bit in. He felt the jagged teeth tearing skin from his head, and then grinding against something underneath. Suddenly, it was the zombie’s turn to utter a howl. The teeth went away, and the knee at his back slackened. Eric turned his aching head to look back and up at the monster. It was clutching both hands – the real and the prosthetic – to its mouth, through which came a horrid, rusty screeching now. He saw several of the thing’s teeth fall out between the fingers, rolling down its shirt and leaving a trail of blackish ooze.
The plate in his head. The zombie had bitten into the steel plate.
With a sudden burst of energy borne of pure survival instinct, Eric twisted his body, hurling the ailing zombie to the side. He got up on all fours, the throbbing pain in his scalp threatening to unman him. But he had to get out of here. He had to get to a doctor. Had to get to the police. Had to get home to Myra, even if she was cheating on him. He glanced around at the broken beer bottles and found a suitable one. Then he stood astride the zombie and held the jagged end of the bottle-neck up to its face.
“Keys,” he said. “Now!”
Wordlessly, its eyes wide and mysteriously dry over its empty socket of a nose, the zombie removed a hand long enough to reach down and grab its keys. It handed them to him, then returned the hand to its mouth.
Eric dealt it a solid kick in the chest, and was both surprised and horrified when his foot went through its sternum. He had to pull it out, which took some effort.
“Fuck you, man,” he said. “You fucking deserved it!”
Then he turned and staggered away, toward the front of the store.
Toward the locked door.
* * *
The rain felt surprisingly wonderful on his wounded scalp. Despite his terror, he paused a moment just outside the protection of the store’s awning to let it soak him down from head to foot. He found, for that brief moment, that horror was overcome by revulsion, and he had to fight the urge to retch on the way to his car.
Behind him, through the glass door of the store, he heard the monster again, its rasping scream seeming to grow closer, as if it had gotten up to walk off the mortal wound Eric had dealt it. That broke his paralysis. He dropped the thing’s keys in the parking lot, and reached for his own as he ran to his car.
Once inside, he fumbled with the keys in the dark for a long, terrifying moment – the one streetlamp did not provide much light out here, either – before remembering the dome light. Within five seconds, he was melting rubber getting back onto the interstate.
* * *
After only fifteen or twenty minutes of driving, he began to feel consciousness threatening to get away from him again. This time, however, he thought that it was probably from the blood loss, considering that he probably had enough adrenaline running through his system now to light a football field.
He was tired. He wanted to pull over and just sleep sitting up. Only for a little while, and then he could continue on his way home, where Myra would be waiting for him. Myra, he thought. How am I ever going to convince her of this one? Of course, Myra was low on the totem pole in terms of people he needed to see right now. He had to get to a doctor. Had to get to the police.
He remembered the cell phone, and looked over to find it in its spot, just where he’d left it. He wondered now if the thing back there would have attacked him if he’d managed to pull it out and call someone. That was an unanswerable question, and he suspected that there would be a lot of those in this case. He reached for the cell phone, felt his fingers close around it, then let it go.
Myra was what mattered. He didn’t know why, exactly, but somehow the events of this evening had honed his focus to a sharp edge that he wouldn’t have thought possible before.
By J.M. Jennings
J.M. Jennings was born in 1983 in Wichita, Kansas. He is the author of four novels and dozens of short stories, and has also written a daily column for a website and occasional sketch comedy. He has lived all over the Midwest, and currently resides with his wife and two sons in Kansas.