Authors: Robert Paine
The Dead Road
The Complete Collection
By Robert Paine
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
And above all – Enjoy!
Table of Contents
When Jake vomited in the back seat it didn't smell like vomit. That rotten animal smell, that sometimes permeates around dumpsters in forgotten corners of parking lots behind struggling department stores, it smelled like that. I opened my window, my left hand gripping the barrel of my rifle that much tighter. It seemed like a lifetime since we were breaking camp, since the world was still a normal place, and we all knew our place in it. From apex predator to easy prey in one very long, quick step down.
"Hurry up, man! I think he's dyin'!" Eli was in the back seat. His voice was shaky, like he was on the verge of panic. My heart was racing, and I could feel the cold sweat pooling in the small of my back, but I wasn't panicking. Of course, I didn't have Jake's vomit on my shoes.
"I'm going as fast as I can!" Roger was driving. The SUV was bumping and bouncing down the mountain road, Roger turning the wheel wildly to avoid holes and rocks. We had driven this road a dozen times every year, for six years. Our annual camping trip, out in the mountains of Vermont. Roger always drove. We even used to come in his beat-up hatchback and left Eli's brand new Jeep at the bottom of the mountain because Roger wanted to drive. He used to come up here with his parents every summer. His uncle taught him to drive on these roads where he couldn't hit other cars. He used to ride four-wheelers down like he was in an X-Games event. He knew the road. I am positive that was the only reason we were still alive to that point.
Jake groaned and shivered, clutching his stomach, a combination of phlegm and blood leaking from the corner of his mouth. The wound on his calf, where the thing in the woods had bitten him, was festering and oozing. I could swear I could smell the sickness in the wound, even with the reeking puddle of vomit. Nothing about this felt right anymore.
Eli had his hand on Jake's back, patting his shoulder, "Hang in there buddy. Another fifteen minutes 'till town. The doc's'll fix ya right up. Give you a shot and... OH SHIT!"
Eli's words were cut off as Jake snarled and twisted like an injured animal, snapping his teeth at Eli's hand. Jake made a noise like a hissing cat as he lurched, trying to uncoil his body from the position we had strapped him in, getting tangled in the seatbelts that crisscrossed over him. He kept opening his mouth, snapping his jaw shut, snarling and moaning, as if he were a starving man and Eli was the last steak on the planet.
"PULL OVER PULL OVER PULL OVER!" Eli was shrieking, pushing himself against the door, fumbling with the latch, his desperate words coming out in a stream of panicked syllables.
Roger looked over his shoulder, "What the...?"
His eyes went wide as he looked at Jake, watched for a heartbeat as the man that was once his friend was trying to sink his teeth into Eli's leg. That second of distraction was all it took.
The SUV lurched as it struck something in the road. There was a sickening thud and a crack, like wet wood giving way in a storm. The windshield shattered as something hit it, and the spider webs of glass were tinted crimson with foul-smelling blood. Roger slammed on the brakes. We all jerked forward, Eli crushed against the back of my seat. Jake had the bottom hem of Eli's flannel in his mouth and was jerking at it like a puppy with a new toy, except there was no playfulness in his expression. I watched mutely, my mouth hanging open. I looked into Jake's eyes; Jake's dead, glazed eyes, milky and hollow. No matter how long I live I'll never forget Jake's eyes.
The SUV skidded to one side, then came to a precarious stop, leaning sideways on the steep incline of the road. Eli got his door open and tumbled out of the back, falling into the road and sliding back in the dirt. I unbuckled myself and rushed from the front seat, my rifle still held tightly in my hand. I looked into the back seat with a mixture of horror and determination. I hoisted the rifle to my shoulder.
That last moment slowed down in my mind. I could see Roger screaming something, but the sound was a rolling growl of distant thunder. Eli was shouting too, but his tone was different, an animal with its paw caught in a snare. I took a breath, closing one eye to look down the sights. The rifle felt comfortable in my hands, against my shoulder, the worn wood smooth against my cheek. My finger hooked against the trigger. Roger was raising one hand in protest. I could almost make out the word "No!" Roger always was the squeamish one. I held my breath. My hand squeezed. The trigger shifted back. I heard a click. A bang. The stock tapped against my shoulder. Jake's right eye, that dead, vacant eye, exploded in a shower of pus and blood. He let out a gasp of fetid air. He stopped moving.
Roger lowered his hand. I could see tears in his eyes. "What the fuck did you just do??"
I lowered the rifle with a long exhale. "I did what I had to. He was one of them."
Eli scrambled back up the hill from where he had landed, kicking up a cloud of dust that swirled in the red glow of the SUV's taillights. "Alex is right, man! Jake was fucking gone!"
Roger slumped, "You don't know that! We could have gotten him to the ER!"
I shook my head, staring at Jake's corpse. "No way, Roger. You didn't see the look in his eyes. He was as far gone as any. He had the same stare as that thing that came into our camp. The thing that bit him."
Eli nodded over and over, like his head was stuck in some sort of repetitive motion. "Yeah, man! Yeah! He tried to bite me too, man! I'd be sick like him! I'd be...." He fell silent.
The only sound was the ticking of the stalled engine as it cooled.
Then a thump as a bloody hand planted against Roger's window. He screamed. I never knew Roger to be squeamish or easily rattled, but when that hand slapped his window, leaving a blood-smeared handprint on the glass, he screamed his lungs out. I can't blame him. If I were in the driver's seat, i would have screamed too. Instead I just raised my rifle again and cocked the bolt.
The thing that Roger hit, the thing that shattered our windshield, the thing that turned our fifteen minute high-speed rally drive into town into a nighttime hike through hell, stood up. It used the side of the SUV for leverage, snarling like a feral cat. I could see its face. It was a man once. An overweight, balding man, with sideburns and thick jowls. Its mouth was stained with blood. Its lips were pulled back tight against gnashing teeth. Its eyes, white and hollow, were dead eyes. I couldn't even see pupils. I took aim. I said "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes." Eli turned his head to look at me, an expression of horror and shock on his face.
Roger came hiking every summer, ever since he was a boy. Eli was a photographer and loved the outdoors. Jake, rest his soul, lived in Manhattan, and relied on these summer outings to feel like something other than a cog in the New York machine. I came up here for the hunting. I squeezed the trigger. Roger flinched and screamed again. The bullet shattered his window and went through the forehead of the thing that used to be an overweight man. I knew these things weren't people anymore. Eli learned that fact when Jake tried to eat him alive in the back seat. I'm not sure Roger needed convincing anymore either. It fell against the SUV and slid to the ground. It didn't make any more noise. Roger turned to look at me with wide eyes. Six inches to the right and I would have put the bullet in his head. Six inches left and his window shatters, letting the unharmed thing reach in.
Roger buried his face in his hands. I could tell he was on the verge of crying, but I wasn't sure if it was out of fear, hopelessness, or relief. I walked over to the SUV and put my hand on his shoulder. "C'mon, hold it together. We have five or six miles to get to the bottom of this mountain, and I don't think we're going to be driving it."
Roger looked around the inside of his SUV. The windows were broken, and there were fragments of glass everywhere. Jake's corpse was still laying in the back, strapped in, oozing foul-smelling fluids from the back of his ruined head. The windshield had completely shattered. He turned on the radio. A faint hum of static buzzed from the same station that we loudly blared classic rock from for the entire drive up here. Roger pushed the buttons, going through his preset channels, then hitting Seek. The numbers rolled from 88.1 to 107.9, then started over. He watched the numbers cycle again, then looked at me. "Alex, what the hell is going on?"
I fished my cell phone out of my pocket and glanced down at it. The words "No Signal" were clearly visible in the upper left hand corner. I tucked it back into my pocket with a shrug. "I don't know. But you saw what happened to Jake. It wasn't more than a couple of hours between that thing wandering into our camp and Jake getting so sick he couldn't walk anymore. He turned, Roger, and he turned fast. One bite and that was it. How long would it take to infect a whole town? All of Vermont? What happens when one of these things gets to Boston, or New York? How many millions will there be then?"
Roger went pale as the reality of it set in. Eli fell to his knees with a heavy thump, then fell again to all fours. He was hyperventilating, his breathing coming in short, panicked bursts. I turned away from them both to look down the winding road, into the darkness. I could feel the grip of fear around the base of my spine like ice, cold sweat running down my back in rivulets. I took a breath and swallowed it down. For a moment I pictured Katie, then I saw her as a snarling thing, her blue eyes white and dead, her brown hair a tangled mass, her hands reaching out towards me, not for a lover's embrace, but to grab hold of her latest victim. I shook my head and put the thoughts out of my mind.
I turned back to the pair. "There's a very real chance we're some of the last living people on Earth." The words came out flat. I didn't want to believe them either, but I had to say them.
Eli let out a sobbing wail. He wasn't ready to face reality, even if reality had just tried to take a bite out of his leg. Roger wore a blank expression, "How the ... I mean how do you figure that?"
I turned away again. I couldn't stand to watch him fall apart, and I realized I was the only one holding it together. "We've been out here for a week, Roger. Out, by ourselves, isolated on the mountain. We take our last day back at the campsite that's near the road and we've already seen two of them. How many campers are out here? How many are armed? Most will be sitting ducks. And it's not like this started up here, right? Had to be at a medical lab, or a military base, or something. So it's spread far enough that campers out in the mountains are being infected. All the radio signals are dead. My phone's dead. This goes a lot further than the Vermont wilderness, Roger. A whole lot further."
Eli forced himself to stand up and put his hand on my arm. I looked his way and saw the fear in his eyes. "What do we do, Alex?"
"First things first. We're pretty much out of food, and it's a long haul down to our cars, and another ten miles to town from there. We need to find supplies, and then find someplace to hole up. Someplace we can wait this out."
Roger climbed out of the SUV to come stand with us. "Wait what out, Al? You said we may be all that's left."
"That's the worst case in my mind. The best case is this is an outbreak of something, but it's being worked on. You know, the CDC, the military, people like that. They're probably isolated somewhere getting ready to clean up this mess."
I could see Roger tensing. He needed to be convinced, and talked down. "There are probably other survivors out there too, you know? We made it this far, so others probably have too. We find them, we band together. We help each other out, and go from there."
Eli was already at the SUV, the back open, pulling our packs out. Something had snapped inside of him, and in the course of the conversation he went from crying desperation to rigid determination. He slung his heavy pack over one shoulder, "I don't know what makes those things come for us, but if it's smell or noise, they're probably coming our way. We gotta move."
I nodded. "Right. Roger?"
Roger looked down into the darkness again. The road wound out in front of us, disappearing into shadow beyond the glow of the SUV's headlights. It would be a rough hike, over uneven ground, with an unknown number of things that wanted to eat us between here and there. I could see him calculating the odds in his head.
He looked at me. "What are we waiting for?"