When she wakes, every nerve is instantly on full-alert. She sits bolt upright but instantly regrets it when she bangs her head on the underside of the desk she’d slumbered beneath. With teeth gritted she groans and presses both hands to her forehead. It’s embarrassing, the number of times she’s shaken herself awake and injured one body part or another in her frantic scramble to make sure she’s as safe as she was when she went to sleep. She was used to it, though, and these days the only thing it hurt was her pride.
Not that it should matter, since a usual precursor to embarrassment is someone to be embarrassed in front of. And the only person she traveled with didn’t care when she did something humiliating, as long as she let him sleep.
Beside her, her companion squirms and fusses, but remains asleep. With a sigh of relief she bushes two fingers gently across the four-month-old’s cheek, then climbs from beneath her hiding place to find them some breakfast. What she carried into the office five days ago was running out.
Her weapon of choice is a Louisville Slugger, the best damn stick of wood on the planet. Her hiding place is a good one, one that’s given her more quiet mornings than any other place she’s found. The office of the small, independent grocery store is hidden in the back of the loading dock and is fifteen feet in the air, she assumed so the boss (whoever he had been) could watch over all the peons beneath him. The only way up to the office is a metal staircase, and the flesh-eaters seem to have trouble with stairs. If push came to shove and she had to make a stand, there would be no better place.
The grocery store was almost picked clean when she arrived five days ago. Baby food was one of the first things to go when the looting started; sealed in glass jars, it promised to last no matter how long the world was in total chaos. Luckily her baby is still months from solid food, and baby formula is one of the few things that remained on the shelves.
She wraps her hands around the bat and again feels a little guilty that she wants to name the baby. The day before her son was born she and Kyle, her boyfriend and the baby’s father, promised to compromise on a name before she gave birth.
The following day the plague struck and her son was born. Kyle didn’t show up at the hospital, apparently lost in the chaos of those first few days. Without him, she wasn’t able name the baby; and she won’t name the baby until she finds him.
She swallows hard as she pushes the swinging door with her foot and takes a tentative step into the grocery store. The periwinkle light of mid-morning barely illuminates the ramshackle atmosphere, but her eyes adjust quickly. Her flats move soundlessly on the tile; she’d prefer the steel-toed boots she pilfered last month, but they’re incredibly noisy and make running difficult. So she’d settled on the flats because of their stealth, and because she’d never take the chance of fighting a flesh-eater barefoot.
She avoids what’s left of the canned good aisle; it was the first place she checked for food five days ago, and it was where she found the bodies. Apparently there was a fight between scavengers for the canned goods, and each of them was too busy arguing to notice the flesh-eaters that snuck up on them. Sure, the can of green beans they fought over was still there, but she isn’t that desperate. Not yet, anyway.
She turns a corner and almost gasps, but she learned months ago that breathing is a luxury, only reserved for times when safety is absolutely assured. Her quarry is at the end of the crackers/chips aisle, where a box of Goldfish can sustain her for a whole day. But at some point during their five-day hold out she and her baby ceased to be the store’s sole occupants. A flesh-eater stands as still as a statue, facing the rack of food like it’s trying to decide what to buy.
Her heart rate and breathing quicken as adrenaline slowly fills her limbs. There’s no need to freak out; she’s taken down plenty of these things, and one that hasn’t noticed her will be a piece of cake. Slowly she raises the motorcycle goggles from around her neck to her eyes and pulls up her bandana to cover her mouth and nose. Days after the first infections she heard something on the radio about how scientists predicted that those who didn’t become infected after the first month would be immune, since the disease was carried in bodily fluids and was highly contagious. She very well may be immune, but she isn’t taking any chances.
She skitters to it as fast as her flats will take her, and just as the flesh-eater is turning its boil-covered, filthy face to her, she takes aim and swings for its neck. Always the neck, never the head. Movies and television put too much emphasis on the head. The head is full of liquids that are ready to spew out with the slightest tap, and liquids carry the disease. One quick strike to the neck takes them down just as easily and isn’t nearly as messy.
The flesh-eater gives one small grunt of acknowledgement before the bat connects. Its neck makes a sickening yet satisfying snapping sound and its eyes roll back into its head as it collapses to the ground. Her muscles warm and breath huffing, she quickly backs away and surveys the scene. No fluids. A clean kill.
Avoiding the thing with her eyes, she takes the remaining four boxes of goldfish from the shelf and slides them into her backpack. Without removing her goggles or bandana she stalks her way into the baby aisle and finds it empty. There she stuffs her backpack with diapers and no-refrigeration-needed formula (refrigerated goods were the first to go) and breathes a sigh of relief as she removes her 'infection protection' and makes her way back to the office.
She would never hear the sound over her boots. Good thing she chose the flats.
Feet shuffling on metal. And a tiny voice, crying.
She’s been so stupid. Of course if one flesh-eater wandered into the store, two could wander in just as easily. It was why she always slept with the door of the office locked.
Did she lock it before she left, looking for food? No, of course not; she didn’t have a key. Did she even shut the door, or was she been too complacent, too reassured to bother with necessary survival strategies?
Damn these quiet mornings.
She charges through the store and into the loading dock. Another flesh-eater, one that used to be a woman, has tried to climb the stairs to reach her baby. Its legs have slipped between the metal stairs halfway up and it struggles mindlessly to get free. From the office she can hear her baby crying, and with a shudder of horror she realizes that she was stupid enough to leave without checking the baby’s diaper. Of course he was going to cry, and of course it would attract wandering flesh-eaters.
She leaps up the steps two at a time, ignoring the piercing sound her footsteps make on the metal, and brings the bat crashing down onto the trapped flesh-eater’s head. At the last second she turns her head and squeezes her mouth and eyes shut. A terrible crushing sound, like a prop comic smashing a watermelon, resounds through the loading dock. She feels her shirt and pants splattered with ichor. A few wet droplets strike her face.
How could she be so stupid?! What if the creature hadn’t gotten stuck? What if she came back from foraging for food and found…
The thought makes her gag, but with her eyes closed she charges past the dead creature up the stairs, using her hands to find her way. When she reaches the office she still barely opens her eyes, even though she knows she’s far from the thing’s corpse. The baby is crying, but she snatches a rag from her stash of supplies, dunks it into her bucket of water, and then wrenches the lid off of the bottle of bleach. The smell almost overcomes her as she wipes down her face. She tells herself that she’s not contaminated, that the thing’s fluids didn’t touch her mouth or nose or eyes. Please, dear God, not her mouth or nose or eyes.
She strips and throws her clothes out the door and over the railing, then wipes down her hands and forearms with the bleach-covered rag. Her decontamination is done in ten seconds, but even naked (except for her flats) and smelling of bleach she’s afraid to pick up her baby. Just as she gets the nerve to pick him up the adrenaline mixes with the panic and she collapses into tears with her son clutched to her chest.
After a few minutes, after she composes herself, she kisses her son and changes his diaper. “Damn quiet mornings,” she swears with her bottom lip still trembling.