On a rural two lane blacktop, I am driving in my station wagon behind the company service van. Rich is driving the van carrying the new spindle drive for the machine tool that we are traveling to service. The plan is to find someplace to have a late breakfast and then to get to the customer, some custom boat engine shop, before noon.
Sitting beside me is a new hire, Tony. Tony, fresh out of tech school, is along for the ride to get some hands on experience. If it was just me and Rich it would just be the two of us in the van and I would not be denting up my rims on these back water roads.
Rich pulls into a little ranch house with a gravel parking lot and a red neon RESTAURANT sign in the window. It is a tiny place with not more than a half dozen tables. We walk in and sit ourselves uncomfortably as the tables are short and barely have room to seat the three of us. I notice that the restaurant also serves as some sort of used book shop. Old dusty paperback novels and older dustier hard covered volumes of reference lie in piles on a few tables.
The waitress, an old bird, is taking her time, talking with some graying codgers at the small counter facing the kitchen. She finishes her conversation and comes over to take our order. I am somewhat put off by her colorless skin on her face and her hands. They look as if they spend too many years being blanched in the water. Something about her was too akin to the somberly grey and wet weather this morning.
While we wait for breakfast, I get up to check out the old books that are lying on the tables. Something familiar catches my eye. My word. Three copies, badly dried out and crumbling, of my Mother’s first novel, “Zombie Winter”. It has been out of print for over 20 years, not that there were very many printed.
These three must have been remaindered and come to this table some time ago judging from the dust. One copy’s front cover is almost entirely missing; the other two are not in much better shape. None of them appear ever to have been opened. I open the best looking one and the spine cracks.
The waitress brings over the food to the table. I return with the books and show the guys. I do not intend my mother’s craft to languish another day here. After our under seasoned and somewhat rubbery meal, I pay the tab and buy the books, all of which cost me only $16. The waitress has not yet smiled or even shown a very human expression during our short stay. I am oddly bothered by the lack of elasticity in her face as I tell her to keep the change from the Twenty.
We hit the road once again. It has gotten darker outside, more overcast. Rich is annoying me; he is driving the service van too fast. I curse as I fail to hit a series of potholes. I cue him up on the two-way of my Motorola to tell him to slow down but I fail to connect.
Great, we are in a dead-zone.
We round a curve and crest the peak of a small hill and the service van is gone. Fuck. I don’t even have the directions for the place that we are going. The road continues to twist and turn and the van does not reappear in my sight. My frustration grows until we come to a fork where the blacktop veers off to the right and a gravel road continues forward. I believe that Rich has taken the gravel road by the dust lingering in the air.
The gravel road twists, climbs and dips through a alarmingly overgrown and neglected country. The sight around every curve seems to be obscured by huge rotting willows and grey fencing toppled by masses of vines. It is greyer here and wet now as well despite the lack of rain this morning. The tumbledown barns and molding piles of hay are singular in their dilapidation. The whole landscape looks as if the sun never breaks the clouds here, as if never getting a respite from the morning dew.
Still no sign of the service van and I feel a gripping in my chest. I become aware of the increasing frequency of road kill, sodden and badly decomposing. Raccoons, rabbits, deer; by-god, livestock as well! Whole cows rotting by the side of the road. I begin to see a few run down houses now; we must be approaching some sort of a population center. There is someone in a yard as we pass. Something didn’t look right about that person; something reminded me of the waitress miles back down the blacktop.
My heart is racing. I am traveling too fast. I am not watching the road. I catch something in the road out of the corner of my eye and serve, the something passing between my tires. I check my rear view mirror. Oh, God! Was that a person?! Was that a person in the road? I large barn, still largely intact, comes into view and the road curves around it. As I make the curve, a hamlet comes into view: A rotting church, a feed store, a number of moldering townhouses.
Instinctively, I slow down, but I feel my heart pounding in my chest. My fingers are icy numb clutching the steering wheel. As I roll through town, my panic turns to horror as the townspeople begin to amble into the street alongside my car. Their flesh is grey and sagging. Their eyes are lifeless. Their mouths grotesquely agape betraying mouths full of decay.
Ahead of me they begin to fill in gravel road. I hit the gas as they press in around closer and closer. Two of them block my path now! I swerve and miss them but my front tire hits something with a thud and my car wrenches to one side. I loose control and momentum of my car. I have broken an axle! My car grinds to a halt.
“Get out!” I yell at Tony, “Run!”
I throw open the door and tumble into the grass. In the grip of horror, I look over my shoulder and I see them running now after me in pursuit. I see Tony running into the woods. In blind panic I run down the road. My chest burning. My legs burning. I don’t look back. I run until the road and the woods end at a swampy boat launch. To the left and right are marshes and woods. I see the other shore of the lake distantly. I think I see a few white houses.
I do not look back, but run into the lake. The muddy bottom holds my feet fast! I wrench free of the mud sucking my work boots until I loose them. I struggle through the cattails and mud until the water is deep enough to swim. I barely feel the cold of the water and I dive forward and furiously swim for the other shore. I am a good swimmer, I can make it! I must make the other shore. I must not open my eyes underwater because I do not want to see the corpses that are surely on the bottom of the lake.
I was not aware of how long it took to reach the other shore. I was not aware of crawling out of the lake, nor how my clothes were dry, nor how I came to stand in front of the white house. It is a very old white house, a Cape Cod with high narrow windows.
A young man, a boy of ten perhaps, calls to me from an open window. He asks if I need help. I thank him and reply that I do. The boy opens the door and I lets me inside. The boy’s mother is home and she is silent with worry on her face.
I explain to them my ordeal and thank them profusely for taking me in. I become aware that I am injured. I have hurt my hip and it is growing painful to stand upon. The boy offers me a chair but the mother protests, telling me that she is sorry but I have to be on my way. Her eyes are desperate.
The boy counters. He argues that good folk don’t turn out people in need. The mother’s face grows more concerned and tells me that I really do need to get going, an edge of panic rising in her voice.
She opens the door and I see my station wagon on the street. The wheel is pivoted at a bad angle on the broken axle.
My mind whirls and freezes.
How… My car… How did my car get here…?
I limp painfully down the walkway and onto the street. The boy follows. I stare at my car. This does not make sense. I must be dreaming. I MUST BE! I try to snap myself awake but I know this is no dream. This is all too real; the air is too cold, the wind is too biting to be a dream. The smell of a storm blowing across the lake is too real…
I limp down the street to the shore that I had seen from a haze of terror. That which seemed so distant just a moment ago comes rushing back to me. On the distant shore from which I came, I see tiny dots on the water. Boats. They are searching for me.
The boy stands beside me. He hands me a pair of binoculars. Reluctantly, against my mind’s will, my hands raise the glass to my eyes. My fingers focus the lenses and I see them.
Hundreds of them.
Making their way around the perimeter of the lake.
They are coming for me.