Authors: Arthur Bradley
As soon as Mason stepped out of the junkyard, he knew he was in trouble. It was so bad that he paused for a moment, hoping that his eyes were playing tricks on him.
Directly across the street, dozens of infected men and women flooded out of the mobile home sales center. Having used the model homes as temporary refuge, they were willing to risk exposing themselves to the last few minutes of daylight to investigate his brazen intrusion.
It was still a good three hundred yards to the CVS lot where his truck was parked, and he had no illusions about his ability to outrun such a large group. One trip or stumble, one violent encounter along the way, anything that slowed him down, and he would be overrun by the bloodthirsty maniacs.
He spun to look behind him, wondering whether it might be better to fight from the salvage yard. The problem was Bowie. The dog wouldn’t be able to climb the mounds of metal debris, leaving him at the mercy of the monsters. That meant, despite what seemed like insurmountable odds, they had to try for the truck.
Mason broke into a dead run, heading south on Highway 19E. Bowie ran beside him, barking like they were playing a game. It took the mob a few seconds to spot them, but when they did, they screamed with violent fury and gave chase. Twenty or more men and women ran stiff legged and slightly bent at the waist, grunting and groaning as if the exertion pained them. Even more worrisome than the ones chasing him were the half a dozen who poured out from the abandoned church directly ahead.
Mason slowed only slightly, swinging the M4 up to this shoulder and firing a series of short three-round bursts. Even with many of the bullets hitting true, only four of the six fell. Before he could drop the remaining two, Bowie raced ahead and cut into his line of fire.
A grossly obese woman tackled Bowie to the ground. That was a mistake that she lived only a brief time to regret. Mason took careful aim and dropped the final man with another burst. Their path ahead was now clear.
As they sprinted past the fallen group, one of the injured men reached up and grabbed Mason’s ankle. He fell, tumbling to the ground, and rolled onto his side as he prepared to bring the rifle back into play. Before he could get off another shot, Bowie had already ripped into the man. Mason scrambled to his feet and glanced back to see the infected mob closing in from behind them.
“Leave him!” he shouted, turning and running.
For a split second, Mason thought Bowie and he might actually make it back to his truck. But as he saw a fresh stream of the infected spilling out from the adjacent CVS, he realized there was no going back. He scanned the street for a place from which he and Bowie could fight. There simply wasn’t one. Every building was a haven for the darkness-loving monsters.
Hopeless or not, he wasn’t going down without a fight. Mason stopped, planted his feet, and prepared to make his last stand. Bowie moved close to him and bared his teeth at the oncoming crowd. Mason couldn’t have felt more proud. Death was coming for them, but they stood firm, willing to meet it side by side.
That’s when he saw it—a possible way out. Not more than fifty yards away sat a huge white garbage truck parked in front of the Blue Ridge Trash Disposal Center.
“To the truck!” he yelled, lowering his rifle and racing toward it.
Bowie ran ahead and circled the garbage truck. By the time Mason caught up, the dog was already fighting two men. He had one pinned on the ground, but the second man yanked at his neck from behind. Mason ran up, put the muzzle of his M4 against the base of the man’s skull, and pulled the trigger. There was a puff of blood as the man pitched forward into the dirt.
Mason hurried over to the massive truck, climbed the metal step, and pulled on the handle. The door swung open but, before he could climb in, strong hands grabbed him from behind. He fell back onto the ground, his M4 clattering off the bumper and falling beneath the truck. Mason rolled onto his back, drew his Supergrade, and shot his attacker in the throat. The man thrashed violently, running around as if on fire before finally collapsing by the rear of the truck.
Scores of the infected were now closing in from every direction.
He shouted for Bowie to get into the truck, and the dog immediately obeyed, launching himself from the ground up into the cab with a single giant leap. Mason scrambled to his feet and half-crawled, half-climbed in after him. He slammed the door shut and quickly locked it.
He realized that his and Bowie’s lives were dependent on a single event—something that had occurred weeks earlier. Either the operator had left the keys in the truck, or he hadn’t. If the keys were there, they might live. If the keys were missing, he and Bowie would surely die in the next few seconds. He leaned down and felt next to the steering column. Not only were the keys in the ignition, but dangling from the key ring was a lucky rabbit’s foot.
Mason held his breath and turned the keys. The truck’s 466 cubic-inch diesel engine came to life with a throaty roar, finally settling to a metallic rumble that caused Bowie’s lower jaw to shake up and down like he was suffering from tremors. There were three pedals on the floor, which Mason assumed were the clutch, brake, and gas. The gear shift poked up from the floorboard, the letters and markings on the black knob worn away with years of use. There was also a handle with a sticker above it that read
, as well as a panel of various payload buttons.
Figuring that the controls were identical to a standard transmission, he pressed the clutch and shoved the gearshift up and to the left. The first of the infected were already arriving, and they struggled against one another to get to his door. Mason eased off the clutch, and the heavy truck rolled forward. Several of the infected stepped directly in front of him and held out their hands as if thinking they could possibly stop a thirty-five-thousand pound rolling steel box. The results were easy enough to predict: screams, blood, and the crunching of bones.
Mason dropped the transmission into second gear and steered out onto the four-lane divided highway. Even in second, he was barely managing ten miles an hour, and the infected continued to hurl themselves at the truck in a desperate attempt to stop him.
A scraggly looking woman jumped onto the front bumper and began beating against the windshield with her disfigured hands.
Holding the oversized wheel steady with his left hand, he slid his Supergrade from its holster and shot her through the windshield. The report of the .45 was deafening, but it had the desired effect. She fell away, cupping the fresh hole in her chest. Mason shoved the pistol back into its holster, afraid that the gun might be lost if he left it on his lap.
The truck rolled on, bumping over anyone foolish enough to stand in its way. Mason shoved the transmission into third, and his speed increased to twenty miles an hour as he pulled away from the mob. He plowed ahead for another two hundred yards before whipping the heavy truck into the salvage yard. Bowie slid across the cracked vinyl seat, pressing against him. The dog seemed to be enjoying the ride and used the opportunity to lick the side of his master’s face.
Mason sped down the long rows of crushed cars until he got to where Jules and John had been hiding. The horn button had been broken off the steering wheel, so he swung his door open and leaned out.
“Jules! John! Time to go!”
The trunk on the impala swung upward as John kicked it open. He struggled to climb out, his injured leg stiff and unresponsive.
Mason hopped down and ran over to help.
“Where’s Jules?” John asked, leaning heavily on Mason.
Mason searched the pile of cars. It was getting darker by the minute, and he could no longer even see the top of the stack.
“Jules!” he shouted.
Mason felt his gut seize. Even though he had managed to gain a little distance, the screams of crazed attackers were steadily growing louder. The enemy was coming, and Jules was nowhere to be found.
Jules crouched behind a rusted metal barrel, clutching a 20-gauge pump shotgun in both hands. Her plan to stay hidden on top of the heaps of cars until Marshal Raines returned had quickly fallen apart. Not only had a group of the infected shown up, but they had resorted to searching individual cars. Perhaps they were having heartburn with John’s disappearing act from the night before, or maybe it was just a bit of bad luck. Either way, when they turned down her row, she knew that her husband was in trouble.
Hoping to lead them away, she had climbed down and fired a shot before running deeper into the junkyard. What she hadn’t realized was that half of the property was a huge parking lot of cars set aside for scavenging. She now found herself stuck on that half, with absolutely no advantage over the disfigured monsters. To make matters worse, the night was growing darker, and she was having trouble seeing through the thick shadows. She had no doubt, however, that the creatures would eventually find her. The damn things possessed an uncanny ability to see in the dark, like drow elves that had spent their lives in a subterranean underworld.
A long string of gunshots sounded in the distance, undoubtedly the marshal fighting his way back to his truck. Assuming that he made it, he would be returning soon. She had to get back to her husband, or they would be forced to leave her behind.
Jules shuffled down a long row of cars. She could see the taller stacks of crushed vehicles up ahead and was confident that if she could make it to them, she could once again climb out of reach. She was so focused on the tower of cars that she ran headfirst into one of the infected as he rounded the corner. The collision sent her toppling backward onto her butt.
He dove for her, hands outstretched as he prepared to rip flesh from bone.
She braced the butt of her shotgun against the dirt and prepared to fire. She had only four shells remaining and couldn’t afford to waste a single one.
He landed directly on top of her, nearly impaling himself on the shotgun barrel.
As he lay dangling over the barrel, fumbling to push it out of the way, she pulled the trigger. The muffled blast imparted a tremendous amount of energy, jerking his body upward and blowing a hole the size of a quarter through his belly. The pellets tore through flesh, intestines, and organs, and he collapsed, drooping over the gun with his arms reaching for her like a drunken lover.
Jules pulled frantically at the butt of the shotgun, but the man’s weight held it firmly against the dirt. Warm blood spilled down the barrel, dripping onto her hands and chest. Panic threatened to overwhelm her, and she bit at her lip to keep from screaming. Ignoring the wet slime that oozed over her hands and forearms, she swung both legs up and kicked the man away.
She lay there for a moment with the shotgun trembling in her hands, convinced that a hundred more of the monsters would appear at any moment. They didn’t. The night remained quiet except for the sound of a deep rumble, which slowly grew louder. It had to be Marshal Raines. He was coming for her and John like he had promised. She needed to move, now!
Jules scrambled to her feet and ran.
Hanging from the doorframe of the garbage truck, Mason searched the night. A crowd of the infected was turning down the long row of cars. He had maybe a minute before they were on him.
“Jules!” he shouted again.
“I’m not leaving without her, Marshal,” John said, sliding across the seat to reopen the passenger side door.
Mason flopped back down and dropped the truck into reverse.
“Sit tight. We’re not leaving her.”
A loud beeping sounded as the truck began backing up. A makeshift reverse camera had been installed on the dash, but there was barely enough light for him to see the outline of the crowd forming behind him.
“What are we doing?” John shouted over the roar of the engine.
“We’re buying her some time.”
When the truck finally plowed through the infected mob, it was moving at a pretty good clip. Bodies were crushed under the heavy tires; others fell into the hopper at the rear of the truck. Mason continued backwards until the truck smashed against a stack of crushed cars. Some of the infected who had managed to get out of the way swarmed the truck, leaping onto its side. One tore at the handle to John’s door.
John fumbled with his Commander, and it fell heavily onto the floorboard. As he bent over to grab it, Mason drew his Supergrade and fired a single shot, blowing out John’s window and taking off the top of the infected man’s head. Cool night air spilled in, as did the smell of the truck’s exhaust.
John screamed something unintelligible.
Mason dropped the transmission back into low, and the heavy truck began inching forward.
An infected woman leaned in through John’s open window, her mouth wide as she tried to latch onto his neck.
“Bowie!” Mason shouted, fighting to get the truck into second. “Clear the window!”
Bowie lunged across John, catching the woman under the jaw with his bottom teeth and across the bridge of the nose with his top teeth. Before he could clamp down, she jerked away, cartwheeling back onto the dirt road.
“What about me?” John asked, holding the Colt up with both hands. “What should I do?”
“You keep an eye out for Jules. She’s here somewhere. And for God’s sake, don’t shoot me or Bowie.”
Another of the infected climbed onto the hood and began smashing his head against the windshield. He was more disfigured than most, his hands elongated and his joints swollen and enlarged from massive calcification.
Mason fought the steering wheel as the truck bumped over bodies.
“John, shoot him!” he shouted, trying to see around the man.
John pointed his pistol at the man but hesitated, his hands shaking.
Bleeding profusely from his forehead, the infected man managed to shove his hand through the hole he had made in the windshield. He pawed at Mason, desperately trying to grab something he could rip away.
“Damn it, man, pull that trigger!”
John squeezed the trigger over and over, pumping 230-grain lead slugs into the infected man’s face. He didn’t stop until the gun’s slide locked to the rear. Blood arced overhead as the man pitched backward off the hood.
Even with the attacker gone, the windshield was now cracked and splintered in a hundred places, making it nearly impossible to see through. Mason leaned back, raised his foot, and kicked out what remained with his boot. As soon as it fell away, he saw a tower of cars looming directly ahead. He swung the wheel hard to the right, but it was already too late. The garbage truck crashed to a stop.
They all slammed forward against the dash, Bowie yelping as he tumbled onto the floorboard. Something sharp hit high on Mason’s brow, and blood began trickling down the side of his face.
Taking advantage of the truck’s sudden stop, more of the infected began to climb onboard.
Mason stomped the clutch, dropped the transmission back in reverse, and floored the gas. He could hear dozens of the infected banging makeshift weapons on the sides and top of the garbage truck, as if trying to down a wooly mammoth with sticks and stones.