The last thing I see are headlights coming right at me, bright and blinding. Brakes squeal like the last cries of a dying thing and then we crash.
The impact rocks me in my seat and a second later the airbag punches me in the face the way Alex Greenberg did in seventh grade, except this time I don't hit the warm asphalt of the playground. Instead, I bounce back into the headrest and sit dazed.
I groan, and my voice comes out higher and softer than usual. After a confused instant, I realize I have an echo. I'm not the only one groaning. It's coming from the other car.
Get a grip, Ben.
I fight the airbag into submission and drag my aching body out of the twisted hunk of metal, glad I wasn't going that fast. My mom's white Toyota is toast and I think Mom's gonna kill me before I remember. Mom's dead.
The thought hits me like a punch to the gut combined with the bruising of the seatbelt pulled tight across my belly during the collision. Screams and grunts ring out, echoing between the buildings on Main street, still in the distance but getting closer. I don't have long. I need to keep moving.
No time to mourn.
Outside the car, my sneaker crunches on glass shards from the windows. Small white cubes scatter like snowflakes in the middle of summer. The air reeks of fire and blood and something sickly sweet like burnt caramel.
For a moment I consider running. They're coming. Not fast but the shuffling gait will get them here sooner or later and I wanna be long gone when later rolls around. Whoever's in the other car just totaled my ride, reduced my survival chances, and is probably hurt. So, they'll only slow me down. It's time to think about number one.
I plant a foot, swivel away from my vehicle and then I hear a soft groan.
The voice is definitely a girl's. I really want to survive this whole end of the world Zombie Apocalypse thing but I don't want to be an asshole just to save my own skin. Mom raised me better than that.
I groan in frustration and turn back to the other car. It's a teal blue Suzuki Vitara with a white roof, one of them fancy mini SUVs. Its side is pancaked against the hood of my car. The driver's side door looks like it got kicked in by a giant toddler having a temper tantrum. I try to yank open the driver's door but it's too bent out of shape.
The girl crumpled behind the wheel reminds me of Jeff Gibson's little sister. A pair of deep dark brown eyes lift towards me as I wrestle the handle. A trickle of blood runs down her temple all the way to her chin. Her bottom lip is split, her lips are blood red and swollen. Pushing herself off the steering wheel she brushes a wild mane of wavy brown hair out of her face and over her bare shoulder, grimacing as her palm comes away wet with blood.
"Are you even old enough to drive?" is the first dumb thing to come out of my stupid mouth.
Her mouth opens and closes a few times. I wonder if she's in shock and just how hard she hit her head when she finally says, "Seriously? Are you even old enough to drive?"
"I’m seventeen,” I blurt.
She blows a curl out of her face and snaps, "Lots of good that did you. I’m sixteen. Now are we going to sit and discuss driving licences, or are you going to get me out of here?" she certainly sounds older than she looks. At my raised eyebrows she realizes I'm her only help. No one else is coming. Her eyes widen and her expression morphs into more of a ‘damsel in distress’ face and she adds. "Please."
“No...I... Sorry. You're right..." I stammer as a scream in the distance pierces the night like a gunshot. We freeze, listen, but that's it. Just the one. Somehow that makes it worse .
As if the scream started the clock again, we both snap into motion. She grabs the door handle and tugs, but it's just as jammed on her side as it is on mine.
"Can you open your seatbelt?" I scramble across the front of her car, my jeans snagging on rough metal, where the bumper bent out of shape. I hear a rip as my jeans tear and jagged metal carves a burning line on my calf. That's gonna hurt later.
I slap the flap of cloth back into place hoping it'll mop up the blood and yank open the passenger side door. The girl is tugging on her seatbelt like she's never worked one before. I scoot into the car on my knees, putting us almost face to face. She's hyperventilating and pulling on the belt which is just making it tighter. I need to calm her down.
I slap my hand down on top of hers and her eyes snap up to mine.
"Wait. One second. Breathe."
Her breath is fast and panicky. "They're coming." She pants and the mint scent from her gum wafts into my nostrils.
"I'll do it. Breathe." She inhales in quick gasps.
"What's your name?" I ask to distract her.
My fingers find the clasp. The belt is too tight. I slide my fingers under the top half of her seatbelt to release the tension, my knuckles sliding along the place her tank top has exposed some skin.
"Sorry." I fumble and hope she doesn't see me blush.
"Hurry." Her breath ghosts warm over my cheek. I haven't been this close to a girl since I broke up with Anna, and I shouldn't be thinking of that now.
"What's yours?" she asks, right in my ear. It tickles.
I've released the tension on the strap enough to depress the button and I'm relieved to hear it click. The strap retracts over her shoulder. Her door is still busted and she looks dazed so I grab her arm and pull her towards me.
"Come on, this way," I guide her as she slides over the steering column and onto the passenger's seat. We're mashed together in the front seat and I realize I should get out of the car. I let go of her arm and climb out, leaning back to grab her as soon as my feet touch the road.
"Wait, my bag…" She fumbles around in the back seat.
"You don't need it." I try to hurry her along, but the girl ain't having it.
"I've got food. My phone." Her voice is muffled as her ass waves in the air and I get distracted by how short her shorts are.
A crash sounds close by. I lean around the car. The smoke is thicker and shapes take form at the edge of the closest building, looming dark against the flickering lights of Belle's Diner.
"Jessie, we gotta go. Right now!"
I don't know what to grab so I thread my arms around her waist and tug. She pops out of the car, almost falling into my arms. I tighten my grip around her and take off as fast as I can go.
Shapes loom in front of me as well.
They got around us while we were busy crashing.
A figure stumbles into the light.
It's Mrs. Creswell, my science teacher. Her gray hair is still in a humorless bun tied tight to her scalp, but her right eye is missing. Her canary yellow cardigan is splattered in blood and her fingertips are red, blood running all the way to her elbows. Her grin when she sees me reminds me of the time she caught me reading a comic book in class hidden under my science textbook. It says this won't end well for you, young man.
I won't get eaten by a teacher. That's lamest of the lame.
Backpedaling I swivel again. The circle of figures is coming from every direction now. The intersection is drawing them in. Jessie is still hugged to my side and her nails dig into my arm as I turn in place, trying to find a gap.
"Back to the car. Let's go back." she pleads.
"If we do we're trapped."
"Maybe we can start it. My car sits higher than yours. The side impact…"
No time to think. I turn us and dash as though I'm heading for the finish line at a track meet except the prize here is not dying.
They shuffle, they groan, but they keep coming.
We make it back to the car door and I let Jessie scramble up first because obviously I'm not letting her stay out here last with the zombies. As I launch into the passenger seat, I realize my mistake because she's already scrambling into the driver's seat.
"Oh, no. Let me drive." I try to make her see reason but she gives me a look promising that if we live, I'm in for a lecture about equality and shit.
"It's MY car," she yells, grabbing the keys and jamming her little foot on the ignition.
"Just don't flood the engine," I mumble and she mutters something about boys and cars and dick sizes that I'm glad I can't fully make out.
The circle grows tighter as the engine turns over. The headlights go on, lighting up a scene that I'm gonna see in my nightmares for the rest of my life.
I roll up all the windows and lock the doors but we both know that won't hold them for long. We're surrounded by walking corpses and the worst part of living in a small town is that I recognize each and every one of them. Front and center are Jake from my little league team and Robbie Henson's mom, and the cute girl who works the counter at the ice cream parlor, who I thought of asking out, but didn’t because she's probably off to college soon, except, not anymore. Now her pink and white uniform is splashed in 32 flavors as though whoever killed her dragged her through the freezer and got a taste of brains with a scoop of mint chocolate chip. Their grasping arms lift towards us, clawing and scraping at the car.
"Floor it," I yell but the car is still smashed up against my Toyota. The bent bumper makes an awful scraping noise. Jessie guns the engine and the car lurches, fighting against the bent metal and the pressing bodies.
Something hits the back window and I watch a crack spread, spidering through the glass. In desperation, I grab the wheel and turn it away from the wreckage. For a moment it fights me but then we gain an inch of distance and then another.
"Now, quick, put it in reverse," I yell and this time Jessie doesn't argue.
Bones crunch as she backs up, the car lurching over groaning corpses and reaching arms. I close my eyes in horror but the sounds are worse when I don't know what's going on. I snap them open again as I hear a sickening thwack on the side window, then the slow squelch of flesh sliding down the glass.
I swivel in my seat to watch our postman peel off the back window and hit the asphalt, bouncing and rolling like a soccer ball in the rearview, and then we're out.
The SUV speeds past shuffling hordes, clearing the outskirts of town.
I can finally breathe. I turn to the girl hurtling down the highway like a getaway driver after a bank heist.
"Wow, that was…phew. Some stunt driver movie shit. When did you say you got your license?" I gasp.
She grins at me, teeth white in the moonlight. "I didn't."
My jaw hits my knee. She leans over and flicks my chin. "Shut it before you swallow flies." She chuckles, eyes on the road, "I've got my learner's permit."
I gulp again.
"What's the matter, Ben? Are you gonna call the cops?" she smirks at me, "Cause I passed a cop car a while back and they looked pretty busy... being eaten."
I shrug. Run my hands through my hair, crank the window open and let the smell of my home burning drift away from me. Who cares about laws anymore? It's a new world. What matters now is survival.
I'm in a cool car, with a pretty girl and an open road ahead of us.
"It's all good."