It all happened so fast. Beth had been so excited to be able to go to Atlanta all on her own to meet up with some friends for a birthday shopping spree. Her mom had given Beth her credit card to use, asking her to keep it under $200. It was supposed to be such a great day.
One minute she was doing her best to navigate the streets of downtown Atlanta, listening carefully to her phone’s GPS directions, her favorite CD playing softly in the background. The next minute, when the last track played, she ejected the disc and went to replace it, the radio station came through the speakers as she did so; a message from the Emergency Broadcast System was warning everyone to vacate major cities and take shelter, making sure the avoid any suspicious looking people.
Beth’s heart began beating in her throat. A glance at the sidewalks on either side of her showed a flood of people running in and out of buildings. Several people were carrying bundles of clothes, others sacks of food. She nearly screamed when the first round of gunshots went off and nervously checked and rechecked that the car’s doors were all locked. She frantically grabbed her phone and reversed the directions to get back home.
The only response her phone gave her was the little spinning circle of doom. Apparently no connection could be made. She looked around in panic, trying to find a way to turn back toward the interstate that would take her home. Traffic crawled along, cars pulling haphazardly from lane to lane, everyone out for themselves. More and more pedestrians were walking between cars now with little to no regard for their own safety.
She almost threw up when she realized they were all gravely injured, all of them with a vacant yet hungry look on their faces, all of them with fresh looking bite marks – wounds that no one should be able to survive and be able to walk around with. She checked to make sure her doors were locked one more time before ignoring the traffic light in front of her and sped into the intersection, determined to get herself to safety.
She found herself in the industrial part of town, certain that somewhere nearby would be a turn off to get onto the interstate. Any highway would suffice at this point; Beth just wanted to get home. Finally she found the interstate, but the traffic built up to get to the on-ramp was backed up for several blocks on each side. She resigned herself to waiting, knowing that no amount of honking or revving her engine would help matters. Instead she tried again and again to reach her parents on the house phone, but again, the phone couldn’t connect – “All circuits are busy,” the voice on the other line told her. Beth began to pray, trying to keep calm, realizing that getting herself worked up would only make things worse.
Hours passed before her tires finally touched the pavement of the interstate. The cars around her inched along, but she figured any movement was good. She’d at least been smart enough to turn off the car each time they stopped in an effort to save gas. The downside to that was she was forced to roll down her windows in the stifling Georgia heat. She forced herself to only roll them down an inch or so to keep anyone from being able to reach in and grab at her – something she’d seen plenty of on her way out of the downtown area.
The highway wound away from the city and toward farmland and wooded areas, none of which looked familiar to Beth. The sun was high in the sky, beating down from directly above her, and Beth was positively sweltering in her car. She opened her sunroof, knowing that it would only let more sun in, but would hopefully let some of the hot and humid air out and provide a little more circulation. She rummaged through her messenger bag, thankful she thought to grab a granola bar and bottle of water before she left this morning. She wasn’t hungry, not yet, but it was good to know they were there.
The cars ahead were no longer moving. Beth watched as more and more people got out of their cars, trying to glean any information from those just as clueless around them. Some even began unpacking their cars and walking, figuring that would be the only way they’d make any progress getting away from the city. The thought crossed Beth’s mind, but without any kind of map and no way of knowing how to get back home from this particular highway, she decided to stay put and hope for the best.
Hours had passed, and the granola bar was starting to sound awfully tempting. Then she heard them. The screams. The groans. It was like a horror movie her brother Shawn had forced her to watch, but these weren’t monsters – they were people.
‘Were’ was apparently the key word. A glance in her rearview mirror became a prolonged stare as she watched a man try to fight off another bite victim...and lose. She sat horrified, unable to look away, as the attacker ate the man...while he was still screaming for help. These were not human beings but some kind of monster, and Beth was absolutely terrified.
Beth scrunched down in her seat and sat stock still, praying that if she didn’t move, no one would see her. She was wrong.
A pair of bloody hands slammed against her window, clawing at the opening, accompanied by a gaping mouth between them, growling and gnashing its teeth. Beth couldn’t help but let out a scream of sheer terror, which only riled it up even further. She looked to the passenger door to escape, but saw a second attacker had found her, this one a woman several years older than she was. She stayed in her seat, praying that they’d just leave on their own. Beth pulled her messenger bag into her lap, squeezed her eyes shut, and prayed.
It was the sound of glass cracking that forced her eyes open again. Another of these human monsters had joined the first on her left and together they were about to shatter her window.
Beth tried taking deep breaths, fighting the panic rising in her, looking for anything she could use to protect herself, but there was nothing. She could picture the baseball bat sitting in her trunk – a fat lot of good it did her there. She leaned her head back against the seat’s headrest and looked up, saying one last prayer...
...before climbing through her sunroof.
There on the roof of her car, she was at least out of her attackers’ reach, but she couldn’t stay there forever. She noticed that they moved relatively slowly and decided she could try outrunning them. She vaulted onto the hood of her trunk and slid onto the pavement, making a beeline for the side of the highway, over the barricade lining the road, and into the woods beyond.
She ran...and ran...and ran. Never in her life did she think she’d be thankful for Coach Hanratty for making her class run the mile twice a week for the last three years of her high school career. She focused on breathing and ignored the burning in her legs. Finally she could run no further and was forced to stop to catch her breath.
Even though she was standing in place, she was constantly in motion, looking for people, whether they were monsters to run from or others like her that might help her survive. Seeing no one, she tried to think of what to do next. The sun was starting to get low in the sky, and as far as she knew, there was no shelter nearby – none that she knew would be safe anyway. Her best option appeared to be finding a tree to climb and get high enough to be out of the reach of anything...or anyone.
She spent the night in the crook of a large Georgia Maple, nibbling on her granola bar and sipping on her bottle of water to make them last as long as she could. She had hardly slept at all, afraid of what might happen if she were to close her eyes. As the night passed, she watched as different forest critters scampered here and there below her. One human monster walked right under her tree, but didn’t seem to notice her, which she considered a blessing.
Her stomach was beginning to make god-awful noises; in fact, her entire abdomen was one big ball of pain. She hadn’t gone to the bathroom in hours and her bladder felt like it was about to burst. Taking one more look at her surroundings, she deemed it safe enough to climb down and relieve herself.
When she had finished, biting back a sigh, she stood up and pulled up her shorts.
“Well, well, well. Lookie what we got here.” A voice with a rough southern drawl surprised her from behind. She gasped loudly, her scream choked off by the fear coursing through her.
Standing before her was a man pointing a crossbow at her, though not necessarily aiming it at her. He was older than her by at least fifteen years, with steel blue eyes, and hair that looked like he’d cut it himself with a knife rather than scissors. Aside from the weapon he held comfortably in his arms, the most dangerous part about him was the smile that crossed his features.
“Please,” she said softly, trying not to cry and show this man just how scared she was, “please, don’t hurt me. I need help. I was in Atlanta trying to get home and I got lost and I’m hungry and I don’t know...”
“Save it,” he barked, lowering his crossbow and stepping through the brush toward her. Beth automatically stepped back, only to have her back meet the tree behind her. He laughed at her startled gasp and continued advancing on her. He looked her up and down, and it gave her a bad feeling in her gut. “You got anything? Any weapons? Food?”
“Tell you what,” he said after a long moment. “Y’all can come back with me. We got a group o’ people, men, women and children, up by the quarry, holdin’ out til this blows over. I’ll take care a ya, won’t let none o’ them fuckers get ya.”
Beth let out the breath she’d been holding since he’d shown up. “Oh my gosh, thank you! Really, I...”
“Hey, hey, blondie,” he interrupted again. “Don’t get too excited. I ain’t no knight in shining armor here. Ain’t nothing comes for free,” he said, looking her over once again. She felt like he was sizing her up for something, and she fought the shiver threatening to overtake her body.
“I...I can cook,” she stammered. “And sew.” Maybe her small skillset would make him see her as more than what she thought he was.
The man nodded. “Well,” he began, the lecherous grin returning to his face, “I’m sure we can work something out.”