Vanessa pulled on a pair of cutoff denim shorts and a dark green tank top and followed that with long socks and her hiking boots. She tied a thin hoodie around her waist, and put a few more clothes and essentials into her old college backpack. She knew there was a blanket and a couple of bottles of water in her Jeep.
She loaded up her largest suitcase with food from the apartments she’d scavenged. The red Samsonite bag was bulging at the seams, and well over a hundred pounds, but it rolled on soft wheels, and she didn’t have anything bigger to take to her vehicle. Vanessa stood outside her door with her backpack strapped tightly to her shoulders, the aluminum baseball bat from apartment Three-Nineteen in her right hand and the giant red suitcase in the other. It was now or never. She took a deep breath and headed down the hallway towards the stairs.
When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she left her suitcase behind to have both hands. Her fear was palpable. Vanessa consciously loosened her grip on the bat to keep from crushing it. There was no window in the steel fire-door at the bottom of the stairs. She had no idea what was out there.
She stepped forward and put the bat between her legs, so she could put both hands on the door. She spread her hands out, so each was as close to the edge as possible and heaved with all of her might. The steel door jamb ruptured and the door went flying across the room with a huge crash. When Vanessa stepped out into the room ready to swing her bat, there wasn’t a single soul in the lobby.
With a sigh of relief, Vanessa headed towards the side exit, the one that lead into the parking garage. She peered through the window and saw no movement, so she gently opened the door and started walking towards the stairs. Her parking spot was on the third level of the garage. When she got to the stairs, she looked into the port-hole style window. There were zombies piled up inside. Vanessa stumbled backwards, and waited for them to come pouring out of the door before she remembered it didn’t have a push bar, you had to operate the thumb lever.
The face of one person smashed against the window. The zombies behind him were pushing him so hard, his lips tore free and rolled into flesh-tubes under his cheek. She watched in horror as the group continued to shove, and the zombie’s teeth cracked against the glass, shattering his teeth, leaving jagged fangs. Then it dawned on her that they might actually push the door down and she took off running up the ramp.
On the second floor, she ran into a pair of zombies. A man and a woman, both in their mid-forties, and both were wearing the remnants of business attire. The man’s coat was torn; hanging in shreds from is shoulders. One arm was completely missing, just a jagged piece of bone sticking out. His face was mangled, skin hung down in flaps that swayed as the man-thing stumbled towards her. The woman beside him was only slightly better off. Her brown pant-suit was ripped in several places, and there was a tire mark across her mid-section. Her hair had been ripped from her skull, taking a large part of her scalp with it. One of her hands was completely smashed; it hung limply from the end of her outstretched arm. Her mouth clicked open and closed, as if she was biting Vanessa from that far away.
Vanessa darted to the left and slid past them, the two zombies were so slow she didn’t even break her stride.
Around the curve, she saw why they were in such bad shape. A black BMW was on its side, and a white Volvo was smashed into the roof of the beemer. It looked like both had been racing for the exit ramp, and the result of the crash was disastrous. The worst part about it was that the exit ramp was completely blocked. There was a narrow spot she could squeeze through on either side of the black sedan, but there was no way she was getting her Jeep out.
She looked down the ramp and the two drivers were working their way back towards her. She only had a minute to decide what to do, and fear had her in a deadlock. The zombies stumbled ever closer. Without thinking, Vanessa grabbed the rear bumper of the BMW and spun, slinging the car around her. It crashed through the concrete wall and flew several yards forward as it plunged the two stories to the sidewalk below, where it landed with a loud crash.
The woman grabbed her bat and suitcase and ran over towards her Jeep as if she hadn’t just thrown a car through a cement wall. She tossed her gear in the back seat, turned the key and roared off down the ramp.
She was out of the city of Raleigh before her nerves started to calm down. There had been a number of accidents, but nothing blocking the road. She flew down the on-ramp to I40, and set the cruise control at fifty-five. The wind whipped her hair and the sun was shining. In the four miles to the interstate she hadn’t seen a single moving car. The entire city was dead.
About fifteen miles up I40, she realized she was going to have to stop for fuel. Her jeep had about a quarter tank of gas, enough to get her about seventy-five miles. Just past where 40 and Interstate 85 merged, she put on her blinker and exited the highway. At the bottom of the ramp was a huge Petro truck stop. She idled up to the pump and hopped out of the Jeep.
She opened the gas tank door, unscrewed the cap, and turned to swipe her card. She stuck her debit card in the slot and pulled it out as she had hundreds of times before, not really paying attention to what she was doing. Vanessa was way more worried about any zombies that may be in the area. It was only when she pulled the lever on the pump handle and didn’t feel any fuel flowing that she looked at the pump for the first time. The whole unit was dark. In fact, there wasn’t a single light on in the entire truck stop.
Vanessa opened the door to the Jeep and started in when a man in a baseball cap, a black tee shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots stepped out from around the pump. “Power’s out. You gotta have one a’ these,” he said holding up a pump, “And one of these,” he said holding out a red five-gallon fuel can in the other hand. “Pull over to the tanks over there, and I’ll help you get filled up. Gotta hurry though, don’t want to get caught out here in the open.” He started walking towards the lumpy part beside the fuel pumps, with all the metal discs embedded in the concrete.
Vanessa started up the Jeep and backed up towards the man, who was prying the lid off one of the tanks in the ground. She hopped out and held out her hand to him. “Thank you,” she said, shaking his hand. “I wouldn’t have any idea how to do this.”
“No Problem, little lady. You looked like you could use the help. I’m headin’ south, you wanna follow me? My rig’s right over there,” he said, nodding towards a red Peterbuilt tractor with a white box trailer attached. “She’s all fueled up, I was just getting ready to see if I could find some food inside when I saw you pull up to the pump. If you want, I can lead you south.”
He handed her the red fuel can. “Pour that into your tank. It’s probably going to hold 3 or 4 of these. Lucky you, Overkill over there holds three hundred an’ fifty gallons. It took me almost four hours to fill her up.”
“Yikes, how did you stay safe all that time? I’d have been worried sick,” Vanessa replied. “I had to run from a couple in the parking garage this morning, I’ve never been so terrified in all my life as I am around these people.”
“I’m a pretty good shot, and I have my trusty six-shooter here,” he said patting his side. He must have had it under his shirt.
“You kill them? They’re people!” exclaimed Vanessa backing up towards her Jeep. “I couldn’t bring myself to kill them. They’re just sick. Someone will find a cure.”
“Maybe so. But most of these is so eat up, even if they cure the disease they’ll die from the wounds,” he said, handing Vanessa the gas can for the second time. “Pour that one in too,” he said as he gave it to her.
She poured five more gallons into her Jeep and handed him the can back. “I have to get to my Mom and Dad’s place and check on them. If they’re sick, then I’ll go to my ex-boyfriend’s place until all this blows over.” She paused for a moment, before adding, “My name is Vanessa.”
“Name’s Pete, but everybody calls me Cowboy,” he said, tipping his hat.
“Alright Cowboy. I’m heading to Atlanta. If you’re going that far, I’d like to follow you.”
“You got it, Nessie.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” he said grinning. “Nessie.”
Vanessa poured the last can into her jeep, and Cowboy started refilling it. “Jeep’s full,” she said.
“Yeah, you better take this one with you. Get you a little farther before we have to do this…” his speech was cut off by a loud bang, and replaced with a gurgle of blood coming out of his mouth. He fell straight over and Vanessa felt strong arms encircle her from behind.
“Well, ain’t you a cute one,” a voice said into her ear. “How you gonna pay for that gas yer stealin’?” One arm was around her breasts, under her arms. The other slid down her belly towards her crotch. Even facing away from him Vanessa could smell liquor, stale cigarettes and body odor. She suddenly longed for the Axe body spray of several nights before.
“I have money. I can pay, it’s just that the pumps aren’t working, and I need to get to my family,” Vanessa started, trying desperately not to provoke the man.
“Money ain’t no good no more. Gonna have to do better than that, Honey Pot.”
“I have food, days worth. I could give you some.”
“Got a plenty right round’ here. The Good Lord provides er’thing we need. I got a buck this morning, and fresh tow-maters outta the garden spot.”
“What do you want?” Vanessa cried.
“I reckon a little slice of this pie would about cover twenty gallons of high-test,” he said, squeezing her crotch. “Hell, I’d give five gallons just to see them titties.” Vanessa’s panic seemed to subside a little. This was happening. Anger was replacing fear. Zombies walking the earth, and some dumb redneck was going to rape her over a tank of gas.
She relaxed a little in his grip. “You can go ahead,” she said. “But, I’ll warn you, some dumbass frat boy gave me herpes last year.”
Her heart sank at his reply. “Well, ain’t no matter. I’ve had the herps for on about six years. Don’t reckon another dose gonna do much more to me.”
She put her hands over his and pulled them away from her body like he was a rag doll. “I don’t think you’re gonna be fucking anything, Billy Joe Redneck,” she said. Vanessa squeezed his hands as she spun around, breaking several of his fingers. “You fucked with the wrong girl today.” She let go of his hand and launched a straight jab directly into his nose. She felt the bones and cartilage crush under the power of her fist, and the redneck did a complete back flip, landing in a seated position several feet away. He looked at her for a moment with blood gushing down his chin onto a faded Budweiser tee shirt, before slumping over to the side, dead.
Vanessa tossed the gas can and the pump into the back of her Jeep, and put Pete’s cowboy hat on her head. “I’m sorry,” she said to Cowboy’s corpse. “You were a nice man and you got killed for it. I don’t know what the hell is going on in this world, but you deserved better.”
She drove off, southbound on Interstate 85 with tears falling from her eyes, leaving streaks down her cheeks before evaporating in the wind.