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ORIGINAL FICTION

TRAILER PARK OF THE DAMNED
(EXTENDED VERSION)


By Rebecca Brock



"I told you, Jimmy Ray.I don't like that thing in here." Jolene slammed down a can of beans to make her point, turning to scowl at Jimmy Ray. "Them things is evil and I don't like 'em."

Jimmy Ray grinned and tapped ash into the Elvis at the Gates of Heaven ashtray. Bastard knew that it was Jolene's favorite. "It ain't hurtin' nothin', Jo. Look at it. It's too dumb to know it's even here."

Jolene reluctantly turned around. Jimmy Ray had caught the thing the last time he and the boys went out hunting. Damn if it weren't the ugliest thing she'd ever seen. Hard to believe it had ever been a woman.

"I don't want it in the trailer with me," she said, trying to make her voice sound less shaky. "What if it breaks loose?"

"It ain't gonna do nothin', Jo. Jesus Christ." Jimmy Ray sighed and ran a hand through his greasy hair. "I thought I could have some fun with it, is all."

Jolene rolled her eyes. "I told you I don't like you doin' that."

"Well what the hell else is there to do around here? Man's got to have some fun, don't he?"

Jolene couldn't look at Jimmy Ray as he grinned at her, disgusted by the man she'd had the bad luck to end up with. She remembered the time that dead kid had gotten through the blockade and stumbled into the trailer park. Jimmy Ray and his fellas had strung the boy up and had a good old time with him, using him for target practice with their bows and guns. Even some of the women had got in on the action, but some of the things they did to the kid were worse than anything the men could dream up.

It was just like Jimmy Ray said: nothin' else to do since them dead folks started getting up and walkin' around pretty as you please. TV didn't show diddly-shit anymore, and once they'd gotten the trailers into formation and arranged the guard watches and got all the details taken care of, there just wasn't nothing to do. You couldn't even go to the Sav-Mart anymore.not that that was such a big loss.

Things were so much better back in the old days, when you could kill a person and by God they stayed dead.

But that was a long time ago, so long that Jolene had stopped keeping track of the days. Now every day was the same: wake up, kill dead folks, eat some godawful crap out of a can, kill more dead folk, and go to bed when the sun went down because there was nothing else to do. Most of the time she was bored stupid.

"Look at her," Jimmy Ray said, lighting another cigarette as he nodded toward the zombie chained in the corner. "Figure she knows what's goin' on?"

Some almost lost bit of intelligence shone in the woman's eyes as her mouth opened in a slanted, painful grimace and she moaned. Her skin was as glossy and slick as a snail's, her stomach a hollow hole beneath her tattered baby-doll t-shirt. She was a fresh dead, not as stinky as most of 'em, and if you looked real hard you could tell she used to be pretty once. Jolene didn't feel like looking that closely.

"Go get me them pliers," Jimmy Ray said and crushed the cigarette out in Elvis's face. "And the tin-snips. Ain't used them in a long while."

Jolene sighed, glancing one more time to the heap of moaning flesh in the corner, and went to do as Jimmy Ray commanded. Wasn't much else she could do.

***

"Why the hell do I have to clean this up?" Jolene yelled for Jimmy Ray's benefit as he lolled around in bed. In the morning sun, the mess seemed even worst than it had before they'd gone to bed. Chunks of moldy flesh were everywhere, twitching independently of each other as the zombie's head sat on the kitchen table and watched with hungry eyes. "And why the hell didn't you do her head like you said you was? Damn it, Jimmy Ray.you know I hate when they look at me."

Jimmy Ray rolled onto his back, one skinny tattooed arm flung over his eyes. "Jolene, just clean the shit up and shut up, would ya? I'm tryin' to get some sleep."

"What about me?"

"What about you?" Jimmy Ray cracked open an eye and stared at her. "Listen, bitch.I'm trying to get some sleep. I'm the one got to go on the goddam Sav-Mart run in the morning."

"Nobody's makin' you go," Jolene muttered just loud enough for him to hear. Then, louder, "More like you're goin' to go screw around with that Naomi bitch."

"You just leave Naomi out of it."

Hit a nerve, Jolene thought with an almost perverse pleasure. So it was true, what all the gossip hens had clucked about. Jimmy Ray really was floozing around with that little bimbo three trailers down.

Jolene wasn't sure if she was relieved or crushed by his betrayal. Once, a long time ago, she'd actually thought she loved him. Now she couldn't imagine loving someone like Jimmy Ray Baisden. The reasons she stayed with him were practical, not romantic.

"Hell, if you wanna take my place when they go to Sav-Mart in the mornin'," Jimmy Ray said, interrupting himself with a ferocious yawn, "then fine by me. I'll tell Bill that I ain't going. Hell, I'd like to be able to sit around on my ass all day."

"Screw you, Jimmy Ray."

"Maybe later," he said and rolled onto his side again, instantly asleep.

Bastard. Jolene slammed the bedroom door shut and turned back to the mess in the kitchen. Snapping on a pair of pink-tinged rubber gloves, she started gathering up the bigger pieces, tossing them into a Hefty bag. The head on the table kept watching her, snapping every once in a while when Jolene got too close. And that irritated the piss out of Jolene. She grabbed the head by its long blond hair and held it up to eye level. There was something there in its eyes, something remaining deep inside its brain. Jolene could almost believe that it knew exactly what had happened to itself, that even now it realized that all was lost but refused to give up and just die.

"Life's a real bitch, ain't it?" Jolene said and smiled sadly, dropping the head into the Hefty bag. She had to get this cleaned up fast before Jimmy Ray woke up again and started hollering for breakfast.

***

"What's goin' on?" Jolene asked as she tossed the garbage bag onto the constantly smoldering bonfire. Her friend and neighbor, Gerdie, was distracted by a gathering in front of Bill Varney's trailer.

"Somethin' about the Sav-Mart run. Bill heard that the place got broke into." Gerdie craned her neck to see over the crowd. "Jimmy Ray goin'?"

"Nah.said I could go in his place if I wanted."

"Are you?"

Jolene shrugged. "Might. Don't know yet. I'm bored as hell up in that trailer."

"Looks like y'all had somethin' to do last night." Gerdie eyed the garbage bag as the plastic curled and melted away, revealing the zombie girl's head. Damn bitch was still trying to take a bite out of something. "Ned brought one home a few days ago, just to play around with. You ain't never seen such a mess."

"Tell me about it. They don't care about messin' up the linoleum or nothin'." Jolene wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. "Whoo.gonna be winter 'fore too long."

"Heard we might have snow for Halloween. Prob'ly why Bill's wanting to do the Sav-Mart run sooner instead of later. Food supply's gettin' low." Gerdie sniffed, then spat onto the burning pile. "Hell.might have to end up eatin' them things if we ain't careful."

Jolene made a face, could feel her stomach churn at the very thought of eating one of the dead folk. "I'd just as soon starve, thank you."

Gerdie flashed her a grin that wasn't entirely friendly. "We'd have to just eat you, then, wouldn't we?"

A chill trickled down Jolene's spine, but she forced herself to return the smile and keep acting friendly. Nowadays, it didn't pay to piss anybody off. You never knew when they might decide to cry zombie and blow your head off. Nobody was giving too much of a damn who got killed lately anyway.

"I'd best go talk to Bill about the run," Jolene said and smiled again, making her exit. Gerdie barely noticed she was gone; the older woman was busy staring at the flames as they licked and ate the pieces of zombies who'd had the bad luck to cross into the perimeter last night.

Jolene had heard the gunshots, but ignored them; after a while, you just didn't pay attention to it. Jolene made her way across the commons area of the trailer park, remembering the way it used to be. Right after the dead folk started coming back, Bill Varney had gotten everyone together and proposed his idea of doing a wagon-train number with the trailers, circling them to keep the zombies out. He'd been real smart to do it before the dead folk found their way out into the boonies. By the time the first zombies popped up, the outer perimeter of empty trailers was in place and everybody was armed to the teeth, just waiting to kick some dead ass. Luckily, they were so far out of the way that they didn't have to worry about huge bands of zombies stumbling onto them. Nobody knew they were out there.

There were only fifteen trailers in the inner circle. Most folks up and ran once they heard what was going on, thought it'd be better to be out on the road and take their chances. Jolene couldn't understand their thinking. Surely it was better to have one safe place, with lots of guns and men and protection, than to be out there on your own.

Things weren't really so different now than they were back in the olden days, when a gun and a man were all a woman really needed. Jolene liked the fact that she had one of the biggest, meanest, son-of-a-bitches in the trailer park as her man, and she liked the status that gave her among the other women. They envied her because of Jimmy Ray, and Jolene never forgot it, even when he pulled stunts like he had last night. She knew that despite it all, she was lucky, and she knew that it wouldn't take too awful much to change that luck.

Especially when a guttersnipe like Naomi White waited in the wings to take her place.

"Hey, Bill.?" She caught herself sweetening her accent, softening her voice, because she knew all too well how Bill Varney felt about women. He liked them quiet, stupid, and obedient, and woe be unto any smart-mouthed bitch who tried to stand up to him. Jolene had felt the backside of his hand many a time. Bill simply would not abide a mouthy woman.

Bill turned around, hands stuffed into the pockets of a corduroy jacket that was at least two sizes too small for his huge belly. His face puckered with irritated distaste when he saw her. "What do you want, Jolene?"

Jolene smiled and lowered her head, keeping her eyes downcast. She knew how to play him now: be polite and sweet and maybe let him take her back to his trailer for an hour or two. She'd been with him before, back when all the men were deciding what woman they wanted, and knew exactly what she needed to do to get her way.

"Bill.I was just wonderin' if maybe I could go with y'all." She shyly glanced up at him. "On the Sav-Mart run."

Bill snorted. "Hell, no."

She knew he was going to say that. "Well, okay.but Jimmy Ray's not feelin' real good and he said if I wanted I could go and take his place and-"

"And since when is Jimmy Ray Baisden the boss of this place?" Bill glared at Jolene, his jowls wobbling as his cheeks darkened. She'd never seen him look so mad before, not even the time she'd mouthed off to his wife about how bad he was in bed. "Lord God almighty," he muttered. "I swear I ought to just feed some of you to the zombies and be done with you."

"I'm sorry, Bill." Jolene took a chance and moved closer to him, being sure to push out her chest and keep her expression as sorrowful as possible. "I didn't mean to get you all upset."

Bill didn't say anything, but Jolene could read the look in his eye. He wanted to see how far she'd go to try to get her way. She'd expected that, too.

"Well.hell." He hawked up a gob of phlegm and spat into the dirt. "I don't like the position you're puttin' me in, Jolene. You know I ain't able to spare nobody on one of these runs."

"I know, Bill."

Bill stared at her for a minute, narrow eyes squinting even more as he sized her up. "You show up in the morning with Jimmy Ray's shotgun and all the ammo you can carry. And I want you to know that I won't hesitate to put a round between your eyes if you so much as get scratched by one of 'em fuckers. You got me?"

Jolene smiled. "I got you."

Bill nodded, then grabbed hold of Jolene's butt, never changing expressions as he glared off into the distance. "Now get your ass up to my trailer so we can work out the rest of the deal."

Jolene's smile faltered, but she managed to catch herself before the disgust showed. "Sure thing, Bill."

He gave her another squeeze, then walked away, not even bothering to look at her again. But that was to be expected. That was the way things were now.

Jolene went to his trailer and waited.

***

A half-hour later, it was mercifully over. A hundred extra pounds and a gut full of stale beer made Bill less than a stallion, and he'd taken out his frustration on her with his fists. The beating wasn't any worse than she'd experienced at the hands of Jimmy Ray-or even her daddy, for that matter-so she'd closed her eyes and waited for him to tire himself out. Luckily, a couple of jabs to her belly and an open-handed slap to her cheek were all Bill could muster.

At least this time the bruises wouldn't show.

Jolene took her time as she walked back to her trailer, enjoying the feel of the cold air on her burning skin. The scent of smoke from the bonfire still hung heavy in the air. She tried to tell herself that all she smelled was burning leaves, tried not to think about the other things that had been thrown onto the bonfire.

But it was there. The smell of roasting flesh, the smell that was so like the scent of baked ham that it could almost make your mouth water if you didn't know what you were smelling.

The thought, as well as the memory of Bill's fumbling, violent hands on her body, made Jolene's stomach lurch. She doubled over at the corner of her trailer, bracing herself with one hand against the rusted metal, gagging up nothing but phlegm as she gave in to the nausea. She stood like that for a few moments, her head hanging low, gulping in foul-tasting air as she fought to settle her raging stomach.

And that's when she noticed that the trailer was rocking. Not much, just a little. Just enough.

And she heard the sound of Jimmy Ray doing what Jimmy Ray only thought he did best.

Jolene went cold. Not because of what Jimmy Ray was doing, but because of what that now meant. She had been deposed as his woman. Her tenuous power was now struck down completely. Because he had taken up with someone else-most likely that Naomi bitch-Jolene was now at the mercy of the rest of the trailer court. She no longer had a man to protect her.

But that didn't mean she had to let them know how much the thought of being alone terrified her. They'd be on her like a pack of rabid dogs if they had any idea how vulnerable she was.

Jolene spat into the dirt once more, clearing her mouth of the last of the bile-flavored phlegm, and marched into the trailer, slamming the door behind her, stomping through the hallway to the bedroom. Jimmy Ray jumped a foot when she pushed through the bedroom door, and Naomi let out a surprised scream, but Jolene didn't even look at them. She grabbed a battered knapsack that had once belonged to her brother and started shoving her things into it, so blinded by rage and fear that she barely knew what she was picking up.

Jimmy Ray and Naomi made gobbling sounds of indignation that Jolene completely ignored. She stuffed blouses, jeans, underwear, socks into the bag, leaving the dresser drawers open, rattling hangers in the closet. What she couldn't fit in the bag she just clutched close in her arms.

And when she was through, she walked right out of the bedroom without even a glance at Jimmy Ray. Naomi, holding the threadbare blanket up to her scrawny chest, gaped at Jolene with wide eyes, as if she expected her to explode.

Jolene just kept walking. There was nothing left for her here.

***

One of the trailers on the outer perimeter was empty, so Jolene dumped her stuff in there. It'd be good enough for a few days, until she could sweet talk her way into the bed of one of the men. A few of them had taken to keeping several 'wives', so it wouldn't take long for Jolene to move in on one of them. She saw the way they looked at her, the way they watched her when she was with Jimmy Ray.

And even though she wasn't crazy about the thought of some new goon taking up where Jimmy Ray left off, she'd resigned herself to it. That was just the way things were now. The way they had to be.

The trailer was fairly secure, so she wasn't afraid to be there alone. Hell, it'd been so long since she'd actually been by herself that the feeling was almost intoxicating. No picking up Jimmy Ray's shit-streaked underwear. No cooking only the foods he liked. No jumping up to do as he commanded every time he wanted a beer or a quick roll in bed.

She didn't know what to do with herself.

Whoever had owned the trailer before the dead folks rose up had taken pretty good care of the place-hell, compared to Jimmy Ray's trailer, this was a palace. The furniture was dusty but nice, and the bed was king-sized. The first thing Jolene did-after checking the strength of the boards on the windows and making sure that the door was double-locked and dead-bolted-was rummage around the linen closet for clean sheets. Then she made up the bed, crawling into it fully-clothed, sprawling with her arms and legs spread to take up every inch of room, wallowing in the fact that she could have the whole bed to herself instead of the sliver on the edge that Jimmy Ray had always allowed her.

It felt so good to be alone that for a few moments, she forgot about the fact that dead people walked around just outside their trailer camp. She forgot about the fact that now that she didn't have a man to protect her, she'd be at the whim of every guy in the camp. She forgot about all that as she drifted into a sound, dreamless sleep.

Because it felt good to be by herself. Better than she'd ever imagined it might feel.

***

"Okay, people.here's how it's gonna go." Bill slung his shotgun over his shoulder as he looked out at the group. He met Jolene's stare for a half-second before his gaze slithered away. "Stay in a group once we get out of the van. Keep your ammo close. No safeties on the guns. I don't want a bunch of them assholes coming at us and catching us with empty chambers. You watch everybody else's back and they'll watch yours."

In the pre-dawn chill, Jolene shivered even though she wore two sweaters beneath an old camo jacket she'd found in her new trailer. In a sling over her shoulder, the shotgun that Bill had given her felt unusually heavy, and the bag of shells hanging at her waist seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. She just hoped she'd be able to run if it came to that.

"Like I said," Bill continued, "we're gonna get out of the van and form a circle, guns out. Shoot any fucker that gets close. Once we get into the store, we separate into two groups of three. Everybody knows their partners, and you know what area of the store to hit. Follow your lists and don't get anything that ain't on it. I want one person to gather the goods while the other two watch their back."

Jolene's throat felt like it was closing up, her tongue thick and woolly in her mouth. Bill had led these Sav-Mart runs a half-dozen times and had only lost a couple of guys, but all of a sudden she didn't trust his so-called leadership. She had no real reason to feel that way, but.she did.

"You got twenty minutes to get your shit and get out." Bill hitched his pants up and adjusted the wide buckle of his belt beneath the overhanging shelf of his stomach. "We meet at the front of the store. Unless a window blew in or a door got opened, there shouldn't be too many of 'em waiting for us inside. Everybody ready? Let's move out."

The four guys around Jolene ran to the van, acting like they were getting ready to go squirrel hunting for the weekend. She knew all of them: Buddy Vance, just barely out of his late teens but whose face was still swollen with yellow-headed pimples; Ray Howser, who went to junior high with Jimmy Ray and always tried to touch Jolene when nobody was watching; Ned Gordon, Gerdie's husband and a world-class asshole alcoholic; and old Carl Yancy, one of Jolene's daddy's best friends and a lecher through and through. Why anyone trusted these four, along with Bill, to bring back supplies for the camp was beyond her. She was amazed they managed to get through a raid without shooting themselves.

Jolene glanced back to the camp, to the women who watched her with narrow eyes, and knew what their opinion of her was. She was getting too uppity, daring to think that she could hold her own with the men. That kind of thing just wasn't done anymore. For a second, she wanted to go to Bill and tell him to just nevermind, that she didn't want to go after all.

But that wasn't gonna happen. She'd put up with too much shit from Jimmy Ray and Bill and Gerdie and every other jerkwad in the camp for way too long. Getting to go on the raid wasn't much, but damn if it wasn't more than she'd had. And now that she was on her own, she needed to prove that she could take care of herself. It might make a big difference in how she was treated when they returned.

Jolene climbed into the van and laid her shotgun across her knees, closing her eyes for a second as the side door slammed shut. She hadn't been out of the camp since the day the dead folk started coming back, and she didn't know what to expect once the trailers were moved and they went back to the outside world again.

If the world was still there.

***

They hit the first pocket of dead folk about a mile outside the camp, just as the sun was beginning to make its way over the mountaintops. There were about ten of them, all dirty and grungy and half-naked, shuffling down the middle of the highway, doing that stupid deadhead walk that made them look almost comical. The sight of them both thrilled and frightened Jolene. It was her first conflict. Her first test. She gripped the shotgun tightly, ready for the zombies to attack the van.

"You fellas ready for some action?" Bill shouted as he drove. All the guys around Jolene roared their approval. Jolene licked her lips and tried to calm down. She could shoot straight and run. That was all a person needed to know how to do.

They were almost on the zombies now. Soon they'd be swarming over the van, slamming filthy hands against the windows, pressing their open mouths to the glass as they tried to chew their way through. Then they'd have to fight and-

And Bill plowed through them like bowling pins. Never even slowed down.

As the men whoo-hooed and whistled, Jolene twisted in her seat and watched the decaying rubble of the zombies smack the pavement like wet confetti. They were much more fragile than she'd expected. She knew the ones Jimmy Ray brought home were fairly easy to mess with, but.but somehow she'd expected the zombies in the wild to be tougher. Smarter, maybe.

But they weren't. They were just dumb old bags of meat.

For the first time since deciding to make the Sav-Mart run, Jolene relaxed. Maybe this was gonna be easy.

***

"This is it, boys." Bill weaved the van through the skeletons of abandoned cars, cresting the hill that overlooked the Sav-Mart. "Ain't seen this place in a while, have we?"

Buddy Vance grinned and spat a gob of chaw into a paper cup. "They got any porno up in there?"

"Naw, not here." Bill sounded almost disappointed. "Got beer though, and cigs." He looked into the rearview mirror and caught Jolene's gaze. "'Sides.what do we need porno for when we got us a prime piece sitting right here with us?"

Jolene felt her stomach drop and her bile rise all at the same time. She didn't much like the tone of Bill's voice, and she definitely didn't like the way the other fellas were looking at her now. It was like he'd flipped a switch in their heads.

She cradled the shotgun close and kept her mouth shut. Maybe he was joking. The man had no sense of humor, but.maybe he was just joking anyway.

"Old Jimmy Ray won't like anybody messing with his woman," Roy said. Roy had blond hair and a billy-goat beard, and when he leaned in too close to Jolene she caught a whiff of rotted teeth and stale beer.

"She ain't Jimmy Ray's woman no more," Bill said as he drove into the Sav-Mart parking lot. "Ain't that right, sweetheart?"

Zombies were everywhere-crawling out of abandoned cars, stumbling through the parking lot aisles, throwing themselves against the closed glass doors of the store, but Jolene was only barely aware of them now, more afraid of the men around her than the monsters outside.

"Me and Jimmy Ray had us a little talk last night." Bill's piggish eyes met hers in the mirror again. "He's done with ol' Jolene. Said she was getting too mouthy, too smart-ass, so he went and got him some fresh meat. Said we could do whatever we wanted to do with this little lady."

Jolene saw the smile on Bill's face, the leers on the faces of the four men around her, and suddenly understood why Bill had allowed her to come along on the raid. Easier to take care of the problem. They could do whatever they wanted to her, then go back to the camp and say that she got herself killed because she was just a stupid woman who was out of her league. And nobody would care. Sorry ass bastards.

"Yep.real shame Jimmy Ray didn't feel like makin' it this morning," Bill said, backing the van up to the open doors. He pulled in at an angle, pinning a female zombie against the concrete wall and crushing her. The zombie flailed her arms, still baring her teeth and trying to scrabble her way free, but nobody was paying much attention to what was going on outside the van.

Jolene tasted metal, felt her spit flow until it flooded her mouth and gagged her.

"So this is how it's gonna go down," Bill said, smiling as he turned in his seat and stared at Jolene head on. "We are gonna march your skinny ass inside and find us a nice office with a good lock on the door. Then me and the boys are gonna do our thing and then, well.then the dead folk are gonna get whatever's left." Bill's smile turned even meaner. "But don't worry, Jolene. Somebody'll put a bullet 'tween those pretty little eyes before you come back. Promise."

Jolene could only stare at him. Her entire body felt hollow, icy. She felt the stares of the men around her, knew what they were thinking, what they were planning, and wondered how many shots she could get off before they overwhelmed her. Part of her couldn't begin to understand why they were doing this to her now. She knew these guys, had lived with them in the trailer park for years, had grown up with some of them. She looked them each in the eye, silently begging them to realize what they were doing.

And nothing changed.

"Come on," Bill said gruffly. "We're wastin' daylight. Let's go."

Before Jolene knew what was happening, Buddy was sliding open the van door, heedless of the rush of rotted arms that suddenly filled the van. The men easily held them off with well-placed shots, laughing as they nudged the zombies away with the barrels of their guns. As goat-bearded Roy grabbed her arm, Jolene felt one of the dead folk brush her free hand; she cried out at its touch-so cold and vaguely slimy-as she recoiled backwards, right into Roy's lap. He laughed in her face, blasting her with that dead meat smell, and Jolene could instantly imagine him on top of her, forcing himself in her.

In a panic, she launched herself off Roy and into the grasping mass of arms. She went into them without hesitation, turning off her mind as she raised the shotgun and blasted whatever stood in front of her. A zombie in a flannel shirt went down, followed by a woman with curlers in her hair and fuzzy slippers on her feet. The other zombies backed off, something like comprehension dawning in their glazed eyes.

She was only dimly aware of the men's cheated shouts from the van, only vaguely aware of the hungry moans of the zombies as they tried to catch up with her. Instead she sprinted across the parking lot, heading for the second set of doors that led into the supermarket area of the store. There were only a few zombies between her and those doors, and she'd damn sure rather have their dead hands on her than Roy's.

Bullets whined past her and she knew that the fellas weren't aiming for zombies. She zig-zagged through the dead folks, her heartbeat pounding in her ears, her breath ragged and almost painful. As she got closer to the second set of doors, she could see that vandals had broken through them, opening the place up to the zombies as well as themselves. Didn't matter. Inside the store there'd be places to hide.

Jolene squeezed through the broken glass, hoping there wouldn't be something waiting on the other side.

***

So far so good.

The place was so quiet she could hear the quiet buzz of flies, the soft scuff of zombie footsteps somewhere in the distance. Every few seconds one of them moaned and sent a shiver down her back. They sounded so damn hungry.

Jolene shifted the shotgun in her arms and edged along the wall, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. If a zombie came up on her now she'd be in a world of hurt; the place stank so bad she wouldn't even be able to smell one sneaking up on her. And that smell.so rank that Jolene had to clench her teeth and keep swallowing rapidly so she wouldn't puke all over the place. The zombies had risen during Sav-Mart's peak shopping hours, which meant that half-chewed carcasses had been left to rot in the aisles. The ones that hadn't been too badly mauled rose up again, of course.but there was still plenty enough left to raise a stink.

The darkness grayed until she could finally make out faint shapes. To her right was the abandoned deli counter. To her left, the shopping buggy area. Nothing seemed to be moving in her immediate vicinity, although she could hear the faint shouts of the guys. They'd be inside the store in just a few minutes.

She moved slowly, feeling ahead of her with each step. If she remembered the layout of the store, she could keep to the right and get to an exit. Maybe she could find an office to hide in for a while. Grab some canned food and a couple of bottles of water, hole up in a locked room, wait this whole thing out. Those idiots were more than likely to give up looking for her after a while anyway. They'd go back to the trailer park and she would.

She'd what? Where'd she have to go now? Jimmy Ray had sold her out to those yahoos, so he obviously didn't want her back.not that there was much to go back to, anyway. Problem was, she didn't have much in the way of ammo, so she couldn't stay on the run indefinitely. Her only hope was to stay in one piece long enough to find some more survivors-bikers, maybe-and get herself another man to take care of her. Then she'd be okay.

She just had to get through this first.

Glass shattered from the front of the store, and Jolene knew that Bill and his lapdogs had lost their patience with the game. They'd ruined the place-now it would be picked clean by any survivors wandering through-but there wasn't much left in the way of supplies, anyway. All the frozen food had long since gone over, and most of the canned stuff was gone. Jolene passed the bread section and caught a whiff of the green scent of mold.

Just keep on going, she told herself, scanning all around her as she kept her back to the wall. Keep on going.

Something moved to her left and she automatically pulled the shotgun up, drawing a bead before she could even identify her target. A little girl stumbled over the hem of her nightgown, her eyes glowing like a cat's in the dimness of the store. Most of the flesh from the girl's throat was gone, so her head bobbed from side to side, front to back, as she walked, her little mouth opening and closing, her little teeth snapping together like a steel trap.

For a moment Jolene couldn't move. She'd never seen a zombie kid before. Until this moment, she hadn't even given much thought to dead kids. In the back of her mind, she guessed she'd somehow thought they were exempt from this whole nightmare. Bad stuff couldn't happen to little kids.

But it did. And it had.

The little girl dragged a blood-splattered teddy bear, her fingers tangled in its ratty bow tie. Her nightgown had Raggedy Ann's face on it.

And she had no throat. The kid had no fucking throat.

Jolene didn't dare fire, even if she could have made herself pull the trigger. Despite everything, she knew she couldn't shoot a kid. Even if the kid was already dead.

Jolene kept moving, keeping an eye on the girl, hoping she'd just lose interest in her. As she inched deeper into the store, she saw more of the zombies stumbling around, each of them lost in their own misery. So far none of them had caught her scent yet.except for the little girl. The smell of all the rotting meat disguised Jolene's own sweaty stink--which was a small blessing she supposed. At least it bought her a little more time.

Gunshots blasted through the store and Jolene froze for a moment, tearing her attention away from the dead girl as she desperately tried to get an idea of where Bill and his guys were. They'd seen her come in through the second set of doors, which meant they probably had a pretty good sense of just about where'd she'd be. She could hear them shouting to each other, laughing as gunfire echoed. They were stirring up the zombies, agitating them into louder moans. The dead folk were coming out of hiding now, appearing almost from nowhere as they stepped out of darkened aisles and rose up from pools of shadows.

Any second now they'd sense her. Then there wouldn't be enough time to do anything but die.

"Jolene!" Bill's shout cut the silence, sounding closer than Jolene liked. "You'd best get your ass out here right now, girl. Ain't nobody playin' with ya now."

The zombies turned toward his voice like flowers turning to the sun. They knew the sound of fresh meat when they heard it.

Except for the little girl. She kept her eyes on the prize, staring at Jolene as she continued to stumble closer.

Jolene started moving again, shuffling sideways as quietly and quickly as she could manage. Sweat burned her eyes, rolled down her sides and back. There was a backroom here somewhere.a loading dock or something. She remembered it was right in the middle of the meat department.

She peered ahead in the gloom, looking for the opening. She saw a wide doorway between the freezers. Two male zombies stood just in front of it, swaying gently. Waiting for her.

Behind her, the little girl gained a few more feet. She was close enough now that Jolene could see straight through her throat to the dull whiteness of her spine.

Jolene slowly turned the shotgun in her hands, gripping the cool barrel with sweaty hands. If she fired, she'd bring Bill and the boys running. Best she could do was take a few swings and hope for a solid hit.

Heart stuttering, then pounding almost painfully, Jolene took a step closer to the little girl. Poor little thing.she looked so sweet.so young.

The girl lunged, all teeth and drool, and Jolene reacted without thinking, swinging the shotgun with all the strength she had. It connected wetly, sinking into the girl's rotted pumpkin of a skull, and the dark light instantly went out of her eyes.

She dropped in a heap, and Jolene nearly joined her. She couldn't do this. Even though the people were dead, even though they were trying to eat her, she couldn't do this.

But this was the world now. A world where you had to run and hide and forage and steal and kill if you wanted to survive. You were either dead or alive, and damned either way.

Tears threatened to blur Jolene's vision, but she forced them away. The noise Bill and the others were making was getting too close now. And the zombies were too animated, too alert.

Too hungry.

Jolene felt panic, cold and thick, rising up inside her as she stood helplessly over the body of the dead little girl. She didn't know what to do. There were too many zombies, too many of Bill's men. Either way she ran, she'd more than likely die.

She raised the shotgun. It'd be so easy to just fit that barrel against her forehead and pull the trigger and.

And what? Heaven? Hell? Nothing? Would death be worse than life?

With her luck, it would. Her luck had landed her in the middle of that damned trailer park hell. Her luck had brought Jimmy Ray and his pliers and tin snips and fists into her life. Her luck was shit, and she didn't trust it anymore.

Hell with it.

Jolene ran away from the meat department, away from the swinging doors that led to the offices, away from the sound of Bill's shouts. She kept the gun cocked and ready, held close to her chest as she silently moved through the corpse-strewn aisles. Bill would find the body of that little girl and know that she had put her down; Jolene just hoped that he assumed she'd gone for the obvious safety of the offices.

Her foot squelched into something slippery and she nearly lost her balance, slamming her hip painfully into the metal shelves as she caught herself. In the dimness she could see that she had made it into the sporting goods section-no food smells here, so there weren't as many zombies milling about. She leaned against the shelves for a minute, trying to keep her breathing as quiet and steady as she could, looking at everything except what had caused her to stumble. This area hadn't been as badly looted as the others, probably because it was so deep inside the store. And because there was nothing immediately useful to looters, like food or.

Jolene straightened up as she realized what she had found.

Leaning the shotgun against the shelves, she moved as fast as she could, grabbing a couple of backpacks, a sleeping bag roll, a lantern and oil, boxes of matches, a thick coil of nylon rope. She shoved a folded one-man tent into the backpack, as well as hunting knives and an industrial strength can opener. She took one of the bigger knives and slid it down the front of her jeans, shivering at the feel of the cold leather sheath. Then she pulled on one of the backpacks. It rested high on her back, pulling her shoulders straight, aching the base of her spine, but its weight felt good and comforting. Slinging the other heavy pack over one shoulder, she scooped up the shotgun and an empty backpack. As she made her way down the aisle, she grabbed a baseball bat: a heavy Louisville Slugger that swung like a dream.

Then she hit the aisles, tossing cans of Spam and beans and anything else she could find into the empty backpack. She was reaching for a dented can of tuna when a zombie snuck up behind her, revealing itself only by a hungry moan. Without a second thought, Jolene whirled around and slammed the bat into its skull, knocking the thing to the floor. The only sound was the crunchy crack of the wood against bone, not enough to draw attention.

Jolene smiled to herself. The bat was an excellent idea. Puts 'em down without wasting ammo, quick and quiet.

She finished filling the pack and slung it over her shoulder with the other. The weight slowed her down, but that was okay. Her idea would work. Had to work. And if it didn't, then it didn't matter just how damn heavy the pack was, anyway. All Jolene knew was that she wasn't going to rot away in the middle of goddam Sav-Mart while Bill and those pigs went back to the trailer park and whooped it up. And she wasn't going to sit around waiting for somebody to save her ass, either. For the first time in her life, she understood that there were no princes to carry you over the rainbow and into the happily ever after.

She'd have to carry her own damn ass. And she'd either do it or die trying. Simple as that.

"Jolene! You stupid bitch! Get your ass out here now, goddam it!"

Bill's voice was close enough to make Jolene drop to her haunches behind a display of dog food. She peeked over the edge of the bags and saw Bill moving just ahead of her, heading back to the front of the store. The other four men had split off, but Jolene had the feeling they weren't too far away. Probably closing in on her like a pack of wolves.

Jolene glanced at the baseball bat. She could do this. Easily.

Bill and the others had left the van parked close to the shattered glass doors, only a hundred or so yards from where Jolene stood. A few zombies staggered between her and the van, but their gait was so slow and jerky that she had no doubt she could get past them easily.

She could go now. She could run out those doors and disappear into the hills and Bill and Jimmy Ray would never be able to find her. There were lots of mountains to get lost in, lots of caves and abandoned houses where she could set up camp.

The bright sunlight of dawn poured in through the glass doors. She could go. She could run and go now and leave Bill in a world of shit.

But then she wouldn't have the small pleasure of seeing him die. And that one fact made a whole lot of chances worth taking.

Jolene moved before she could change her mind, zig-zagging through the zombies. One of them, an old woman, stepped right in Jolene's way. The woman's flat eyes glowed, her mouth toothless and gaping.

She went down with one swing of the bat.

Jolene shrugged out of the backpacks and left them leaning against the doors. Three zombies stood between her and the rest of the store. Three raggedy-ass, broke-down bags of bone. Easy. She made sure the shotgun was secure in its shoulder-sling, its weight deeply comforting against her back, and gripped the bat with both hands. Time to go.

One of the zombies, a guy who looked like he'd been a little too well fed before all the shit came down, stumbled closer to her, his mouth open and drooling as he reached for her with greedy hands. Jolene waited until he was almost able to touch her.and then she swung the bat wide, catching him just above the shoulders and knocking his head almost completely off. It dangled upside down over his back, held fast by a few rotted tendons. Jolene pushed him away with the bat, cringing when her knuckles accidentally brushed against his body. The zombie fell onto its stomach and lay helpless on the floor, still reaching for her.

Jolene fought back a gag and took a shallow breath, calming her nerves before the second of the zombies staggered her way. This one had been a young girl, probably pretty once. Now her long blonde hair hung in tangled clumps, clotted with rusty dried blood, skinned completely away just over her right ear, where mottled gray-black brain matter peeked through. The girl's face had dried like tanned leather, lips peeled back to reveal braces on sharp yellow teeth. One eye was gone, deflated in its socket like a burst balloon.

They just kept getting worse. Jolene swung the bat again, splitting the girl's head with one blow. The girl dropped, and Jolene felt her stomach lurch, bile burning its way up her throat. She spat to clear her mouth, unable to allow herself the luxury of vomiting. The stench of the zombies seemed to get even stronger when they were put down. It reminded Jolene of when she was younger and she and her brother would kill stinkbugs, just to see if they'd smell worse after being squished.

The sudden memory stung. She and Robbie hadn't seen each other for years-not since she'd taken up with Jimmy Ray over her family's objections. The last time she saw Robbie they'd fought over her relationship with Jimmy. Then Robbie moved down to the southern part of the state with his wife and kids and that'd been the last she'd seen of him. It hadn't been a good way to part. Not a good way at all.

She hadn't thought of Robbie in a long time. She wondered if he was still alive.or if he'd turned into one of these things. Knowing Robbie, the way he'd never liked to fight, the way he always tried to reason his way out of a problem, she figured he'd probably died when the first wave of zombies rose up. He probably wouldn't have wanted to believe it was happening until one of the things actually got him.

She just hoped that he wasn't walking around out there somewhere. That would be too much to bear.

The third zombie-an old man with wire-rimmed glasses hanging from what remained of his ears-shuffled towards her with his hands outstretched. It wasn't until after Jolene had swung the bat and put him down that she realized she was weeping.

She allowed herself a moment, swiping at her eyes with the collar of her blouse, wiping the snot from her nose with the back of her hand, forcing herself to take deep breaths and delay the tears for later. And for just an instant, she was struck by how truly ridiculous everything suddenly seemed. There she was, standing in the middle of Sav-Mart with a bloody baseball bat in her hand and dead people walking around, crying her eyes out.

If she had laughed just then, she would have lost her mind.

A burst of gunfire startled her. Closer now. Bill and the guys were making their way back to the front of the store. She figured he planned on leaving her there, dead or alive. She didn't have much longer.

She slipped deeper into the store, following the sound of their footsteps as they crashed through displays. She was in front of them; they'd have to get past her now to get to the doors.

No use in making it easy for them.

Jolene looked around, hackles rising as Bill's footsteps got closer and closer. It would've been nice to have been in the gun aisle, or even close to the propane camping ovens, but no.her shitty luck had held out and she was smack in the middle of the baking aisle. Nothing but flour and cake mixes and oil.

Jolene suddenly smiled. Now here was an idea.

She grabbed an armful of the plastic bottles of cooking oil and began twisting the caps off, watching for Bill to appear at any moment. She squirted oil down the aisle, upturning the bottles right down the middle as she sidestepped to the other end, leaving herself a narrow path along the shelves. Her heart was beating so hard, so fast, that she thought she might black out.

But it was time to finish this goddam mess. Finish it and go home.wherever that would be.

She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and began screaming.

The zombies reacted instantly, their moans intensifying as they honed in on her location. Jolene's muscles tensed as she watched them creep closer in the dimness, their arms reaching, fingers twitching to touch her. She screamed again, barely able now to squelch her growing panic.

Slowly, forcing herself to remain calm, Jolene began to inch her way back up the aisle, careful to keep her footing steady as she followed her narrow path. She moved sideways, swinging her gaze from one end of the aisle to the other. Damn it, Bill! Where the hell are you?

"Bill!" she screamed, trying to put the proper amount of cowed fear in her voice. "Help me! Please! I'll do anything you want.just don't let them get me!"

It wasn't Bill who showed up. It was goat-bearded Roy.

Good enough.

"Get over here, you stupid bitch!" Roy motioned with his gun, hands trembling as he stared wide-eyed at the group of zombies amassing at the other end of the aisle. A few of them had ventured closer, sliding ungracefully on the oil and collapsing into messy heaps. There were maybe twenty of them now.

"I can't, Roy!" Jolene sobbed, flattening herself against the shelves as she covered her face and pretended to cry. "I'm too scared!"

"Jesus Christ." he muttered. "Bill is gonna beat your ass, you know."

Jolene kept faking her tears. She knew that Roy was much weaker-willed than Bill, that he wouldn't be able to just leave her there. She also knew that he was afraid of coming after her because the zombies on the other end of the aisle were just too damn close.

She peeked through her fingers and saw him looking nervously over his shoulder for Bill, unsure of what to do. If he didn't do something quick, it wouldn't matter anyway. The zombies were slowly picking their way down the aisle, sliding on the oil, but holding onto the shelves for balance. Bastards learned quick.

"Roy!" she screamed. "Please!"

"Aw, godamn it!" Roy shook his head, stamped his foot, and made his decision.

About five strides into his run, he hit the oil.

And kept right on going.

As he whizzed past her, Jolene could see an almost comical look of confusion on his face as he slipped and slid down the aisle. The confusion cleared up real quick when he saw the wall of dead folk waiting for him at the end of the aisle. That's when he started screaming.

He plowed into them like a bowling ball. And they were on him in a heartbeat. Jolene stuck around long enough to see one of the zombies wrench away a chunk of Roy's throat in its teeth, and then she tiptoed down to the other end of the aisle, careful not to slip or make a sound. Roy's garbled screams faded into bubbly gurgles, and then to thick silence. After that, there was nothing but the wet sounds of feeding.

Jolene barely noticed. By her count, she still had four more assholes to take care of.with one particular asshole topping the list.

But first.since she had a little time.

She slowly made her way to the hardware department, avoiding the lone zombie here and there. Most of them were attracted to the sounds of feeding coming from the baking aisle, drawn by the scent of Roy's blood. She couldn't hear where Bill and the others were-and she didn't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

Then she was in the relatively unlooted hardware department, surrounded by lamps and light bulbs and hammers and nails and all sorts of lovely little bits of metal. Years of watching Jimmy Ray's favorite action movies had taught her a few tricks, but until now, she'd never thought she'd have any use for them.

She just hoped she had enough time.

Moving quickly, she shrugged out of her jacket and pulled off one of her sweaters, tying the arms together to make a makeshift bag. She grabbed handfuls of nuts and bolts and nails from the open bins, dropping them into the sweater even as she looked ahead for the next thing on her mental shopping list. She didn't know exactly what she was making until she saw the canisters of kerosene.

Jolene smiled despite herself. That could work.

She grabbed three canisters of kerosene and a roll of black electrical tape, keeping one eye on the end of the aisle and both ears open for the sound of scuffling footsteps. Using her teeth to rip off a couple of lengths of tape, she shoved the canisters into her sweater, wrapping the tape around it until she was sure that nothing would spill out.

Oh, yeah.that could work.

She shrugged back into her coat, slipping the shotgun back across her shoulders, and gathered up the sweater-bomb and the baseball bat. She scanned the aisle, looking for something, anything, else that might get her out of here in one piece. Somewhere to her right, she could hear Bill yelling for Ned. He sounded close, but not too close. She still had a little time.but only a little.

Her gaze caught on a length of chain used for chandeliers, curled up in its bin like a silver-skinned snake. The sight triggered a memory of one of Jimmy Ray's zombie round-ups; he and some of the other men had used a chain like a whip on a female zombie, laughing every time it wrapped around her arms or legs, cackling like hyenas when the end of the chain-wrapped around a baseball, with nails and knife blades and other sharp things sticking out of it-hit her squarely in the throat and nearly took her head off. It was a nasty weapon, and it had done its job all too well.

Jolene grabbed the chain, doubling the end of it into a loop. She ran to the other side of the aisle, to the selection of padlocks, and grabbed an armful. She quickly opened them, glancing around every few seconds, sensing that her time was running out. Fumbling with the tiny keys, she unlocked each padlock until she had twenty of them open. She used one to fasten the loop of chain, then-after a quick search of the shelves-opened five larger padlocks. Those she attached all along the loop, every ten links or so. And to those larger locks, she added the smaller locks.

Jolene stood and gave the chain a swing. Not too heavy, but she wouldn't want to be on the other end of it.

With a smile that was little more than a baring of her teeth, Jolene grabbed a few more lengths of chain and a couple of extra padlocks.

Time to get this over with.

***

She heard Ned before she saw him.

Not known for his gentlemanly manners, Ned was notorious around the camp for blasting the most ferociously eye-watering farts known to mankind. His stomach couldn't handle anything but the blandest foods-which was fortunate for him, given their diet of canned food and boiled water-but whenever he was stressed, his bowels would make their unhappiness known in loud and fragrant ways.

And he was tooting the old butt-trumpet in grand style now.

Jolene edged around an aisle, peeking around a display of spider-webbed pocketbooks, and saw Ned at the jewelry counter, filling a white plastic Sav-Mart bag with gaudy fake diamond rings and sparkly necklaces. What he would need a bag of cheap costume jewelry for was beyond Jolene's guess; she figured he thought that if he had a few trinkets to spread around to the younger women, he might have a better chance of getting some non-Gerdie nookie. At five-four and about three hundred pounds, he needed all the help he could get.

Ned looked around anxiously, and Jolene had the feeling that he was more nervous about being caught by Bill than by the zombies. There were a few of them wandering in the nearby toy aisles. One zombie, a young boy, was particularly fascinated by a rack of stuffed animals. Even with his throat torn out and one arm wrenched out of his socket, it was easy to see that once upon a time the boy had been a cute kid.

Jolene looked away. No time to think about stuff like that. Not now, not ever.

Ned kept his head down, greedy as he scooped armfuls of jewelry into the bag, blissfully unaware of Jolene's presence as she silently stepped up behind him. She held the chain tightly, hands cramping as she squeezed the links. All she had to do was swing the chain. That's all. Ned was just as bad as the others. She'd been on the receiving end of his anger more than once, and God only knew what he did to Gerdie when they were alone.

Ned stiffened slightly and Jolene froze, sure that she'd been caught. Instead, Ned grunted with the force of another eye-watering fart, chuckled to himself, and went back to work.

Jolene hesitated only a moment.

"Ned," she said softly.

He half-turned, still bent over the glass case, and she swung the chain. All twenty-five padlocks found their target and Ned's nose exploded in a spray of blood as chips of yellow-black teeth flew through the air. He didn't scream; he just kept making a thick whuffing sound as he tried desperately to understand what had just happened to his face. His eyes, starkly white against the mask of blood, met Jolene's and silently begged for mercy.

Jolene swung the chain again, this time bringing it down across the back of his head, slamming him face-first into the glass jewelry case. He stopped moving.

She stepped closer to him, grimacing as she checked for a pulse, hoping that he was dead. Instead, there was a faint, thready heartbeat. Blood kept pulsing from his nose and mouth. Bastard didn't have the good sense to die.and Jolene was fast learning that she didn't have the stomach for killing living men.

Jolene took a deep breath and released it, nervously watching the area for approaching zombies. They'd be attracted by the rich stink of blood; it wouldn't take very long for a crowd to gather.

But she had to take care of Ned. She couldn't let him walk out of this place alive.

She quickly weighed her choices. She could keep slamming the locks into his head and crush his skull, but that would destroy his brain and keep him from coming back.and she dearly wanted these assholes to exist in a world of pain for as long as inhumanly possible. She could slit his throat, but she didn't think her queasy stomach could handle the sensation of actually sinking the knife blade into his flesh. Shooting him was out of the question, because it would alert the others to her position.

She could hear the zombies shuffling closer, moaning hungrily. Not much time. She should just leave him there.

Jolene almost smiled. Good enough.

She quickly tugged Ned free of the display case, grimacing at the state of his face. Splinters of glass peppered his forehead and cheeks, even his eyelids. He was a big man, so getting him over to the support beam just beside the jewelry section was a backbreaking chore. But she managed, and she didn't bother to stand him up on his feet as she leaned him back against the beam. As he slumped there, breathing slowly but deeply, she wound the length of chain around his beer belly, under his arms, locking it around the back of the beam. Nothing fancy, but it would hold. Even when he came back from the dead and decided he was hungry.

Ned grunted, head snapping up as he opened his eyes and blearily focused on Jolene. ".the fuck.?" he muttered.

The first of the zombies stepped out of the aisles, a young, naked woman with wild, frizzy hair and a grayish-blue tinge to her skin. Her breasts were gone, and her gashed stomach flapped open to reveal an empty hollow. She turned in the direction of Ned and Jolene and stumbled forward, teeth clicking together loudly as her mouth opened and closed hungrily.

More followed her. All of them were aware of Ned now, aware of the thick scent of his blood. Ned, unable to look away from the group of zombies gathering, grabbed at Jolene's arm. "Jolene.don't do this." His voice choked with tears, rising with panic. "Oh God.please don't."

Jolene jerked her arm away from him, backing away slowly, glancing over her shoulder to make sure there were no nasty surprises creeping up behind her. The naked zombie got to Ned first, straddling his lap to go for the soft meat of his throat, ending his girlish scream in a wet gurgle.

Jolene finally turned around. That was all she needed to see.

***

The other two were surprisingly easy to find. Jolene followed the sound of their voices into the toy area, moving very slowly, because she had a bad idea of what she would find when she found Buddy and Carl. She knew all too well what kind of activity would inspire their whispers and giggles. It was the kind of thing that was frowned upon at the camp, but only on the surface. Jolene knew for a fact that some of the guys made a practice of taking the prettier zombies, the ones who weren't too bloated with rot, and 'adjusting' them-knocking out their teeth, cutting off their fingers-until they were suitable sex toys. When the dead women began to fall apart, they were just thrown out of the circle of camp and left to the sun and wind.

So she knew what she would see when she finally found Buddy and Carl. They must have found themselves a pretty one.

Jolene slowed, hesitating at the end of an aisle, leaning against a display of yellow and orange water guns. She held the sweater bomb loosely in the crook of her arm as she carefully unsheathed her shotgun.

"Damn it, Buddy.Bill ain't gonna let us bring one back with us!"

"He will if we do her teeth and hands here. Gimme the hammer. Hold her down."

A sickening crack, followed by the hollow sound of the zombie's moan. Jolene closed her eyes for a moment and willed her gorge to settle down. Do it quick, do it fast, and then get the hell out of this place. She didn't know how much more she could stand.

She stepped into the aisle, unnoticed by either man. As Buddy kneeled on the zombie girl's upstretched arms, Carl straddled her stomach, slamming the hammer into her teeth as he laughed at her struggles.

Jesus Christ, Jolene thought, stunned into inaction. Maybe we deserved this. If this is the best we can do.

Buddy noticed her first, sweat dripping off his pimply cheeks as he snapped his head up and met her eyes. Jolene could see the sudden, shocked guilt in them.

"Oh, shit.Carl!"

Carl, hunched over the girl, half-turned toward Jolene. His smile widened as he straightened up.

"Well, looky who joined the party." Carl glanced over at Buddy. "Bill would definitely let us take her back with us."

Jolene thought of that hammer coming down on her mouth, thought of their dirty hands on her body, and tossed the sweater bomb into the middle of the aisle. It skidded and slid, coming to a rest right beside Carl's knee. Both men looked at it, then back to Jolene.

She already had the shotgun in her hands.

And one shot did the job.

Jolene ducked back behind the display of water guns as the kerosene blew, catching a few bits of shrapnel in her back but ignoring the pain as she gloried in the screams of Carl and Buddy. That bomb was crotch level with both of them.

She peeked around the edge of the display. The toy aisle now looked as if a red paint bomb had exploded; blood dripped from the shelves, pooled on the floor, covered the three lumps of flesh lying in the middle of the aisle. Jolene eased into the aisle, needing to see, to know.

Both of them were still alive, but barely. Buddy's face had taken the brunt of the explosion; it looked like a pile of bloody ground beef with a neck. His breath rattled from the hole that had been his mouth. Jolene was pleased to note that his teeth had been broken and chipped by the flying metal.

Carl, still half-atop the zombie girl, had been wounded even more horribly than Buddy. Everything above his left knee was gone.crotch included. He clutched at the emptiness between his legs, hands sinking wrist deep into the bloody mess.

Jolene knew she had to hurry now, that the blast would bring Bill running, but she wanted to stay just a moment longer, to savor the moment even as it disgusted her. She had never thought she could be capable of doing this, never thought she would ever have to find out what her limits truly were.

But now she knew. For better or for worst, she knew.

God help her.

***

She ran back full throttle for the front doors, keeping her head low and shoulders hunched, just in case Bill was tracking her with his riflescope. She wanted to finish things near the front door, so she could make a quick get-away and-

Something slammed into her stomach, taking her breath away as she collapsed. Jolene rolled away, scrambling for footing, half-expecting to feel teeth sinking into her flesh at any moment.

Instead, she saw Bill standing over her, a smirk on his face and his rifle in his hands. He'd used it as a club. Apparently he'd learned the same lesson that she'd learned: don't waste ammo.

And from the look on his face, Jolene had the feeling that he wanted to keep her alive a little longer.

"Bitch." Bill kicked at her, catching her in mid-thigh. Jolene clenched her jaw and jerked away, tightening her grip on the baseball bat. Bill noticed. "Naw.don't even think about it."

He lifted one foot and slowly lowered it onto her hand, grinding. Jolene released the bat.

"Now.get your ass on up."

Jolene slowly rose, cradling her hand to her chest. So far most of the zombies were occupied with the Ned buffet over in the jewelry department, but she knew that distraction wouldn't last for long. Not when there was fresh meat to be had.

Bill grinned at her, and Jolene could see that whatever he'd called humanity was now totally gone.

"I hate an uppity bitch," he said with a smile, grabbing a handful of her hair before she could even react. He yanked her close to him, her face right up to his. The stink of his breath-a combination of rotting teeth and stale beer-made her gag. "You messed up big time, girlie."

Jolene gritted her teeth and forced herself to keep her eyes on Bill's. The zombies were beginning to take notice of them now, pulling away from the cooling bodies of the others in search of a warmer meal. She could hear them moving around in the darkness, scuttling like roaches.

"I'm gonna do you slow," Bill whispered, pulling Jolene so close that his lips brushed her cheek. She flinched away but he held her tightly. "I'm gonna leave you out here for these fuckers, and then I'm gonna watch them tear your ass apart."

Jolene's hand slid to her stomach, beneath her blouse. The handle of the hunting knife felt warm beneath her palm.

"And then you're gonna come back," Bill said, his voice rising slightly, growing almost hysteric. "And I'm gonna let you."

It would be so easy to slide the knife into Bill's fat gut. One quick movement, one quick jerk upward, and his guts would be on the floor and he'd be dead. Easy. But it'd be too easy. There were other ways.

Jolene slowly smiled.

And then she slashed.

The first swing of the hunting knife caught Bill's left thigh, high near the groin, slicing deeply into the artery. His eyes bugged almost comically with shock as the first gout of blood splashed out, steaming hot and stinking of copper. He released Jolene's hair and looked down at himself, taking a staggering step backwards, sending a fresh spray across the floor.

Jolene followed him and slashed again, the knife tearing across his belly, putting enough force behind the blow to cut deeply into his gut. Bill stared at his stomach, straightening up slightly as the first ropy curls of intestine began to slip out of his body. The stench of blood and bile seemed to thicken the air.

It drew the zombies like moths to a flame.

Bill collapsed to his knees, one hand feebly trying to hold his belly together, the other reaching out to Jolene, as if he actually expected her to do something. His eyes shone with horrible understanding. He knew what was happening. What was going to happen.

"Please." he whispered. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks. His lower lip actually trembled. "Please, Jolene.don't leave me."

The zombies were closer now, coming in from all sides. In less than a minute, there'd be too many to get through, even with the shotgun.

Bill wailed like a newborn.

Jolene moved swiftly behind Bill, grabbing him beneath his arms. She pulled at him, dragging him towards the front doors, trying not to notice that the gash in his belly widened and spurted out more gore with every step. A few of the zombies fell to the floor, lapping at the puddle of blood and bile Bill had left behind. The rest of them followed, shuffling along with renewed speed.

"I knew you wouldn't leave me." Bill's voice rose, words slurring and running together as he rolled his head back to look up at Jolene. "I knew you wasn't gonna do it.don't have it in you.fuckin' stupid bitch."

Jolene said nothing, keeping her eyes on the advancing crowd, trying to keep an eye on the area behind her. The van's doors were open, just a few feet away. If she let go of Bill, she could make it.but then that would ruin everything.

She found a reserve of strength and manhandled him the last few feet to the van, dropping him heavily to the floor. She rooted through one of the backpacks, digging out the coil of rope, then threw the packs into the back of the van. Bill looked expectantly up at her, raising his arms like a child waiting to be lifted.

Jolene slammed the van doors.

Then she reached down to Bill's jeans, snagging the van keys off the cheap plastic keychain that hung from his beltstrap.

"You're riding on the outside, Billy-boy," she said and grinned, wrapping the rope beneath Bill's arms, looping it around his chest, hitching it with a tight knot. Too weak to argue, too stupid to understand, he just stared at her with glassy eyes.

Until she tied the other end of the rope to the rear fender. Then he got wise real quick.

"Don't." he murmured. "Please."

Jolene ignored him. She'd watched him and the other yahoos pull this trick a dozen times, sometimes using live people as their toys instead of the zombies. Jimmy Ray and the others had always gotten a big kick out of seeing what being dragged over asphalt and gravel could do to a human body.

"Don't worry about it, Bill," she said as she tightened the knots and glanced back into the store. The zombies were closer, their whines and moans drawing the attention of the dead folk in the parking lot. "By the time they get to you, you'll probably already be dead." Jolene crouched down beside him, taking a precious extra moment to look into his eyes. "And when you come back-and Bill, you will come back-I'm gonna let you."

There was no remorse, no grief in Bill's eyes. Just that same, dumb hatred. That was all Jolene needed to see.

She jogged around to the driver's side of the van and clambered in, stowing her shotgun securely beside her as she started the engine. She revved it a few times, nice and loud, a dinner bell for all those hungry dead folk out there. In the seldom-used tape deck, she found an old Lynyrd Skynyrd cassette. She cranked it up as loud as she could stand, smiling as the twangy opening notes of "Freebird" filled the silence.

"Come and get it, fellas," she said, grinning as she slowly pulled away from the doors of Sav-Mart. Bill's screams cut through the music; she couldn't tell if they were caused by the zombies or by the movement of the van. Either way, she didn't give a particular shit.

Jolene glanced into the rearview mirror and smiled, seeing nothing but dead folk stumbling along behind her as she rolled slowly along. Looked like she had just enough gasoline left for one last visit to the trailer park.

She hoped Jimmy Ray didn't mind a few unexpected guests.


-- END --



My short zombie fiction can also be found in "The Book of More Flesh" ("Night Shift") and online at the Homepage of the Dead ("Ground Floor", www.homepageofthedead.com). I also review true crime for the Joe Bob Report, the official website of Joe Bob Briggs (www.joebobbriggs.com). I'd like to hear from fellow zombie fans. Please drop me a note at pbwriter@hotmail.com to let me know what you think of the story.



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