by Madeleine Marsh
He's exhausted, mentally and physically, tired of being wary, tired of being alone. The Starbucks tucked between the liquor store and the 7-11 looks to him like the Star of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.
He drives twice around the block and when nothing seems out of the ordinary he parks the car at the curb, pulling in close but not too close to the rear end of a black Mustang that needs a wash. Then he kills the engine and waits. His fingers linger on the keys still in the ignition in case he needs to make a swift get-away. In the last town it was quiet because everyone was dead. No bodies but enough blood in the gutters to send him high-tailing it out of there to a soundtrack of squealing rubber and the protests of an old engine.
It seems like the madness hasn't reached here yet. He hopes it's not just wishful thinking because there isn't much he wouldn't do for coffee right now and it's good just to see people - ordinary people - doing those routine things he's always thought he would hate doing. Until recently. Now he would give his substantial bank account to stop whatever the hell is happening. He would happily work nine to five anywhere doing anything if the world would just go back to normal.
After ten minutes, when no one has attacked anyone and he hasn't heard a single cry, shout or scream, he gets out of the car.
The smell of coffee hits him the moment he pushes open the door of Starbucks and he breathes it in. Filling his lungs with vapours is closer than he's come in days to a caffeine hit. The young girl behind the counter and the bored barista smile at him as he orders without needing to consider the options. He orders two - one to drink in and one to go - with an extra shot in each. He isn't hungry, he doubts he'll ever be hungry again, but he gets a blueberry muffin because he knows he needs to eat and sweet is easier to stomach than savoury. He sits at a small table in the window, close to the door, and drinks half the first venti latte without lowering the mug.
From somewhere further down the street comes the sound of glass shattering. His pulse starts to race even before the meaning of the sound has crystallised in his brain. He determinedly holds on to his coffee, tips the mug and doesn't stop drinking until he's drained the contents completely, staring out of the window, keeping a look out for anything he will need to run away from. What he sees as he's swapping his empty mug for the full cup and getting to his feet isn't what he's expecting.
Two young guys in T-shirts and an older man in a biker's jacket are running backwards into the road, shotguns held high, yelling at something Gabe can't see. One of the young guys - the one with long hair - fires back towards the line of shops. It's so loud. He's never heard a real shotgun before despite living in Los Angeles all his life. His hands fly to his ears and coffee spills down his coat, luckily missing his blue suit pants, hitting his black polished shoes.
He swears out loud but it's drowned by another shot, a series of shrill cries that aren't human, and more shattering glass.
Time to leave. Dumping his cup, muffin forgotten on the table, he pulls his car keys from his coat pocket and opens the door of the shop cautiously. The only other people in there - an elderly couple and the two kids behind the counter - are staring at him but he's been in this situation before. He's doing the best thing, the only thing, he knows how to do.
He's half-way across the road, car just a few meters away, when another cry jerks his head around and against his better judgement he stops to look. The three guys in the middle of the road are pinned down. He's seen the inhuman things before, in other towns he's driven through without stopping. He wants to call them Zombies but there's a small part of his brain that won't allow him to use the word because it's insane. There's a small group of them surrounding the three, and each time they shoot one another takes its place, closing in. They're dead or worse in a matter of seconds if someone doesn't do something.
He's no hero but he can't run away again.
"Hey!" This is by far the most stupid move he's ever made. "Hey! Over here! Come on! Eat me!" Four of the group closest to him stumble round to look at him. "Yeah! Come on! I'll taste better than them!"
He wishes he's thought this through, because when three of those things come after him they're so much faster than the dead have a right to be. He starts for his car, long legs clearing the distance quickly, coat flapping around his shins, heart hammering, sheer terror in every cell. He hears a series of rapid shots, low and echoing in the street; one after another after another until the silence that follows them is deafening.
He reaches his car and turns around. The road's painted in pink and red. He doesn't look too closely. But he's no longer being chased. Everything's dead. Again.
"Hey." The young guy with short hair is striding towards him, shotgun resting against his shoulder, looking as calm and relaxed as a day at the beach. "Thanks." Gabe just stares. He can't speak. He's breathing so hard his vision is sparkling like champagne bubbles. When the guy reaches him, he holds out his hand and Gabe shakes it out of pure habit. "Name's Luke. Are you on your own?"
continued in The House at the End of the World, Feb 2013
Last updated: 2012-12-19 14:27:24