I STARED THROUGH ERNIE'S FRONT windows until I was sure nothing was moving inside.
"How do you want to do this?" I asked, but Michelle was already opening the double doors.
"Hello?" she called into the food mart.
No response came, spoken or snarled, so she went inside and let the glass doors swing shut behind her.
"Stay out here," I said to Levi. "If something's coming, we need to know about it. And keep an eye out for Chuck."
Levi stared blankly at me, then looked away.
"Or just stand there not saying anything," I said, and went inside.
I was so used to the smell of rotting corpses, both walking and non-walking, that at first I didn't register the stench coming from Ernie's office.
Michelle was crouching in an aisle, stuffing cans of tuna, bags of chips, and beef jerky into her backpack. I took my own pack off and set it down. I wanted to fill it, but first I wanted to make sure we were alone.
I took a flashlight from one aisle and batteries from another. When I had it working, I went first to the men's room and found it empty.
In the women's room, I raised my bat before I realized the figure coming toward me also had a flashlight and raised bat. For the first time in a week I really looked at myself. I had streaks of dirt on my face and my blond hair looked brown.
Below the left corner of my mouth was a giant zit, gorged white. In 6th grade I had a bad case of pizza face and my mom bought me heavy duty soap. But I hadn't bathed in days, and Ernie's didn't sell Neutrogena.
I checked the sink's faucet, but nothing came. There was clean water in the toilet, though, so I popped the zit and freshened up.
Aside from my reflection, the women's room was vacant.
Next, I checked the office. That's where I found Mrs. Ernie.
I never did know Ernie's last name, but I'd been in there enough times to know his wife was a short Vietnamese woman named Sue. She was slumped against Ernie's desk, a perfectly round, blackened hole half an inch above her right eye.
There was plenty of daylight in Ernie's office, making it easy for me to play detective. Against the wall was a ladder that led up to the roof. The hatch at the top was open.
I could tell by the dried blood and skin beneath Mrs. Ernie's fingernails, that she'd been dead before getting shot.
I went back into the mart to gather supplies.
Levi stood inspecting the row of dark refrigerators on the back wall.
"Anybody want a soda?" he said, grinning, but neither Michelle nor I laughed.
Levi produced two bottles of water and tossed one to Michelle and one to me. For himself he took a beer, which he chugged. "Warm as piss," he gasped when he finished, but that didn't stop him from grabbing another.
"Thanks for standing guard," I said, moving closer to the glass doors so I could see the street out front.
Michelle tossed a deodorant stick to each of us and took one for herself. "If you expect me to stay around you guys, you'll hang onto those," she said.
Levi moved behind the counter to get a pack of smokes. He had them open and was lighting a cigarette before Michelle saw what he was doing.
"Put that out," she cried, hurrying over as though Levi had started an actual fire. "Put that out right now!"
"Why would—Hey!" Levi yelled as Michelle smacked the cigarette out of his hand to the floor and stomped it.
"What's the matter with you? I just wanted—"
"Smoke will attract them," Michelle said. "And besides that, it will kill you."
Levi stared at Michelle dumbstruck. A grin broke across his face and he burst out laughing so hard he choked.
"Shut up!" I said. By the way I said it, the other two knew I wasn't asking.
But I wasn't looking at them. My eyes were trained on the street in front of Ernie's.
"Get down right now." I dropped to my knees and lay on my stomach.
IT'S THE MOANING THAT GETS to me.
I can handle the smell. It's bad, but like any smell, if you breathe it long enough, you get used to it, even the stench of rotting flesh. But that constant moaning sets my teeth on edge.
Their moans don't change. They'll snarl at prey, but otherwise there's no emotion. They could be happy, sad, in pain, or in utter ecstasy, and you'd never know. Their moans are continuous and hungry and without human inflection.
Lying flat on my stomach in Ernie's, I could hear them, but I couldn't see them without risking their seeing me.
Michelle was also on her stomach and she whispered, "How many?"
I held up three fingers, but it sounded like more.
Three zombies were all I'd seen before I hit the deck. They'd been on the other side of the street.
I didn't know if they'd seen me. I'd tried not to give them the chance, but their moans were growing louder, closer.
Levi poked his head out from behind the counter and lifted his axe. He started to stand.
I shook my head.
If they came in, we'd have no choice but to take them out or be eaten. The zombie in the field had been the exception. Most don't travel alone.
For the three zombies I'd seen, there might be another three or six or nine I hadn't seen. The last thing I wanted was to attract the attention of a horde.
"They'll pass," I whispered. "We wait."
But they didn't sound like they were passing. I could hear their steps on the cement outside as they shambled past the gas pumps.
I wanted to lift my head to the glass, peek out just enough to see what they were up to, but I kept my cheek pressed to the cold tile floor.
They moaned in unison, the sound of each harmonizing with the moans of the others so I couldn't tell if the moans were coming from three zombies, or five, or ten. All I knew for sure is they were on the other side of the door.
At first I thought it was the sound of a gun, but then it happened again, just above me.
"Sh—" Michelle slapped a hand to Levi's mouth before he could say more.
A corpse's palm smacked against the window glass, fell away, and smacked again.
A second hand smacked the glass, closer to the entrance. Then a third hand started on the other side of the door, so all three hands were smacking in unison.
Michelle bit the fingers on her left hand, but in her right hand our one gun was trained on the glass.
I tightened my grip on my bat.
WHAM!!! WHAM!!! WHAM!!! WHAM!!!
The glass wavered, rippling with each smack, but didn't break.
WHAM!!! WHAM!!! WHAM!!! WHAM!!!
The pounding was heavier, more insistent.
The moaning, of course, didn't change.
WHAM!!! WHAM!!! WHAM!!! WHAM!!!
A woman's voice: "Run, Tommy! Run!"
Every dead hand withdrew and the glass settled.
"Tommy, watch out! Tommy, to your right!"
My breath caught and I couldn't seem to exhale.
"Tommy? Tommy? Tommy! TOMMY! TOMMY! TOM—"
After that was just screaming. It grew higher in pitch, then cut off suddenly.
There were no human noises from outside, only moans. They didn't sound any farther away, but no corpses were visible through the front windows. At least I couldn't see any from the floor.
More minutes passed.
I pushed upward.
"Ricky!" Michelle spat through clenched teeth. "Get down."
I ignored her and rose to my hands and knees so I could crawl closer. I lifted my head slowly, just enough to peek over the window ledge.
The zombies weren't gone and there weren't three of them.
There were seven.
I worm-crawled to Michelle and Levi. "They've forgotten us," I said.
I didn't know if that was true or if I just wanted it to be.
"What do we do?" Michelle asked.
The answer turned out to be nothing.
For the next three hours, we stayed where we were and quietly ate from the boxes of cereal we found on Ernie's shelves. Frosted Flakes never tasted so good.
Every so often, I'd slither over to the window and peek. Each time I saw at least five zombies milling around like kids waiting for their parents to pick them up when the mall closes.
After a while, the sunlight streaming through the front windows diminished and it became clear we were staying right where we were for the evening.
"You mind taking first watch?" Levi asked.
I didn't. He curled up on his side.
Michelle tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a carousel display at the end of one of the four aisles. We crawled to it together.
I didn't know why we were crawling toward the carousel and I didn't care. After three hours on Ernie's floor, I was up for doing anything other than lying still and listening to moans.
There were books and magazines stacked seven racks high. We didn't dare reach for anything higher than the second rack or turn the carousel.
Michelle pulled down three books and spread them on the floor. One was a mystery called Angela Hibbard and Her Kitties in: The Teacup Murders, another was a romance titled Destiny Takes a Lover, and the third was a black journal—the same one you're reading.
Michelle made a face, but picked up Destiny Takes A Lover. I, of course, took the journal. I found a package of pens hanging high on the side of an aisle facing away from the windows, so I figured it was safe for me to reach for them.
No one said much that night.
Michelle read and pretended to sleep.
Levi actually fell asleep at one point, but then he woke up. He discovered a rack of adult magazines behind the register—the kind wrapped in plastic with a black square hiding the cover. He took it to the register side of the counter and whatever he did back there was his business.
I wrote in this journal. Every so often, I peeked through the window hoping to see Chuck, but saw only adult zombies.
They stumbled and stared and moaned, waiting like frogs for flies to flit across their path, waiting for some sound to tip them off there was prey hiding only a few feet away inside Ernie's.
I LIKE BOOKS. MAYBE NOT as much as I used to like video games, but I knew some guys who never read even one book.
It's still strange to write I knew some guys, but the guys I'm thinking of are either dead or stumbling around somewhere in search of living flesh.
Some authors have that ability to suck you into their world completely. I've been reading on a bus or in study hall and the real world has fallen away and for the time I was reading I was somewhere else.
Writing creates that out-of-body experience on steroids.
Maybe that's why I didn't notice Levi taking the pack of cigarettes off the counter.
Maybe that's why I didn't notice Levi sneaking outside until the glass doors of Ernie's were shutting behind him and it was already too late.
"Levi!" I whispered, but he couldn't hear me from outside.
The first thing I saw when I crawled over was there were no zombies. I don't know if maybe some Tommy was left in the street and they went to eat leftovers, or what.
But the coast was clear.
Levi stayed only a few steps from the front doors, probably so he could come running back if there was trouble.
I cracked the front door and whispered, "What are you doing?"
"What's it look like?" Levi said, exhaling cigarette smoke and not bothering to whisper.
I felt silly being on my knees, so I stood. The street in front of Ernie's was empty. I poked my head outside and looked all the way down to the jail and then across the overpass.
The coast was clear.
"Where are they?"
"There's some in that church." Levi pointed to a one-story brick building catty-corner from the jail.
A big white cross protruded from its front beside two glass doors. Through them I saw a woman in a yellow dress. I couldn't tell if she was alive, but if Levi said there were zombies in there, I couldn't see how she could be.
In front of the building, someone had abandoned a silver Ford. Its door hung open.
You can't throw a stone in Indiana without hitting a church. We'd only just left Levi's church yesterday.
"We still going to Kirkman's?"
I nodded. There were at least four churches I knew of between Ernie's and the Kirkman Soda plant. We were traveling in God's country.
"Well then, now looks like a good time to get going," Levi said. "Get your stuff and wake up sleeping beauty in there and tell her I'm taking these ciga—"
Levi screamed and jumped in the air.
When I looked down, I saw why.
THE LITTLE GIRL ONLY HAD one hand, but it was clawing the back of Levi's boot. She'd been five or six. Her blond hair was greasy and streaked with dirt and dust, but there were still two pink barrettes on either side of her head.
Levi jerked his leg back and kicked her hard enough to shatter her front teeth.
The girl made no noise, just reached toward Levi with her pale dead hand.
"Why ain't she moaning?"
I shook my head.
"Never seen one didn't make noise," Levi said.
The girl was dressed in a ripped T-shirt with a bear on it. The left side beneath her missing arm was caked in dried blood.
Her pants had slid off as she slithered because her thighs ended in stumps. The jagged end of a broken femur poked from the skin of her right thigh and her left leg had been bitten off below the buttock.
Levi stepped back.
Using her one arm, she dragged herself toward him, making no noise other than the sliding of decayed meat across cement.
I knew what had happened. I'd seen it before.
This little girl got herself surrounded by a pack, probably after they'd eaten whatever adult was looking out for her. They'd been feeding on her when something distracted them.
They'd left her to crawl the earth mostly eaten.
Levi called her a bunch of foul names. I'd tell you what he said, but I've decided not to swear in this journal.
In real life, there's been a lot of swearing. Of course there has. It's the apocalypse. Everyone's been swearing, including me a few times.
But my Grandma Lacey always told me swear-words are the first choice of the weak writer and the intellectually slow. I've read enough graffiti on gas station toilets to know she was probably right.
When Levi ran out of names to call the dead girl, he stomped her head.
His aim was off. Instead of crushing her skull, he broke her jaw.
Her lips slid crooked. Still she made no noise, and when she flopped over I saw why: her throat had been torn out and probably her voice box as well.
Levi raised his leg and her one hand seized his ankle.
Her fingers stayed clasped as Levi stomped her twice more, but released on the third stomp when her face caved in like a rotten jack-o'-lantern.
Her arm dropped and lay still.
Levi spat on her and put his cigarette out in the mashed all-white goo of her eye socket.
When his eyes met mine, he looked embarrassed as though I'd caught him behind the counter with a dirty magazine. "I hate those things."
I nodded. "I'm going to get my backpack."
Levi lit a fresh cigarette.
I went back into Ernie's and found Michelle was already awake and eating an apple.
"Pack some of those for the road," I said. "The coast is clear and we're leaving."
Michelle's backpack was already full, but mine wasn't. I stuffed cans of tuna into it and bottled water and sticks of jerky and plastic bags of crackers that I took out of their boxes.
That was a trick Michelle showed me. Boxes take up a lot of room—you can fit more crackers if you trash them.
I'd just put the backpack's straps on my shoulders when Levi started screaming.