Meg saw the smoke rising from the gas station from miles away. She groaned and looked at the fuel gauge of the Audi Quattro. "Should have kept the Chevette," she muttered.
When Meg saw the solid mass of dark, shuffling shapes spread across the highway in the distance, she knew that the gas station would have done her no good even if it had been operational. She turned around, and after a short distance, turned east, onto a two-lane back road that had seen better days when the last Democrat was elected president. She had heard that campers, prospectors, and off-roading daredevils frequented the general area. That would explain the sign, which said, TO NOWHERE FAST.
She looked at the fuel gauge again. The Quattro had decent gas mileage, and it had a generous 20-gallon fuel tank. But it had been less than half-full when she had driven it out of her ex's garage, and the circling, idling and multiple four-wheel-drive detours getting out of the city had drained it fast. Even travel on the open roads was slow, and the car was giving far less than its theoretical 20 mpg. The gauge was down to the last gallon or so, and dropping.
She swerved to avoid a shuffling shape in the road, not soon enough. The collision crumpled the bumper and damaged a headlight. The shuffler went under the wheels, and she heard scraping on the undercarriage. Then the shuffler was receding in the rear view mirror. She looked away when the twisted shape raised an arm. Then she saw another line of shufflers across the road ahead, not close but not far. She took the next turn-off, onto gravel. Her eyes lingered on the sign: SERVICE STATION 5 MILES. The 3 MILE sign marked a turnoff onto a dirt road. Her gas lasted just long enough for the car to die within sight of the sign that said 1 MILE.
At the turnoff from the road, twenty-one shufflers from a passing mob turned aside down the gravel track. Seven of them broke away to explore the dirt road. Within half an hour, they passed the Audi. Four moved on, but three lingered, examining the car with vague interest. One pulled the door handle. Another picked up a rock and swung. The rock bounced right out of the zombie's hand, leaving an inch-wide spiderweb in the glass and setting off an alarm that was audible back at the turnoff. Back at the gravel track, eight shufflers turned back toward the dirt road. Closer at hand, the third shuffler at the car looked up. Down the road came a looming shape. It was big and boxy and half-shrouded by dust, which did not obscure the bright gleam of something like a giant silver Cheshire Cat grin.
A piercing cry, something between a wail and a whistle, carried even further and clearer than the car alarm.
There was one last turnoff, a dirt path of about ten yards, to reach the service station. A weathered green sign showed `Pete's' in bleached white cursive. Beneath it was a newer but still visibly faded circular sign for GULF oil. As Meg trudged into the station, she stepped over a body in a station attendant's uniform, sprawled face down next to a New Mexico Highway Patrol car. A crow squawked at her, before returning to feeding on the exposed brains of the deceased.
Scanning about for any sign of gas, Meg stepped right between two strange creations that looked like oversized antique gumball machines, each topped with a circular sign with the "Pete's" legend. She whirled about at a strange screech, to see the crow flapping away. Then she looked at the objects at either hand, and recognition dawned. Even so, she wasn't sure until she saw the hoses. Mom had told her, once, about visible gas pumps. Her mother had seen them on a trip down a country background, and thought the sight passingly strange and quaint. The trip had been her honeymoon.
Meg found a pump handle and gave it a try. There was a wrenching scrawnk that made her jump back. She tried again, and the noise was not repeated. She continued to pump, watching gas well up into the big glass cylinder on top. She was up to the five gallon mark before it occurred to her that she would need to find a can.
Meg went to the station's narrow main building, and looked in the door. There was a single room, with a lobby area for people to sit, a counter with a meager selection of candy and post cards, and an antiquated Pepsi-Cola machine shaped like a baby blue headstone. At the back was an office with the door ajar, and a short passage to an exit in the back. She noted a sign that said, "Toilet in back. Ask attendant for key." She averted her eyes from a mass of crimson that had been a woman sprawled on the checkered linoleum of the lobby. Then she jumped back as a shuffler slammed against the glass. It was a man in grungy clothes, with numerous lacerations and a bloody head wound. The shuffler slammed against the door again, making it rattle in the frame. Meg started to tremble, until she looked at the handle on her side. Large bas relief letters read, PUSH.
Meg made her way to the garage entrance, past a VW Baja Bug parked with one wheel halfway onto the paved walk. She paused to look back at the parking lot, and tensed. She could see past the patrol car, where the body had been... but the body was gone. What was more, three more shufflers were making their way up the path, while a fourth shuffled on by. She drew the magnum, and fired at the nearest. Her shot missed the target completely, but felled the shuffler still on the road. She took aim more carefully, lining up the sighting piece as best she could on the shuffler's constantly lolling head. Just when she felt ready to fire, something plowed right into her. Her shot went wild, and she let out a scream as she recoiled. But the shuffler that collided with her was not pressing the attack, but flailing strangely on the ground. It was clearly the same `body' that had been lying on the car. A green badge bore the name "Art" in the same cursive script as the station signs. It looked very much as if the shuffler was still trying to walk upright.
That was when Meg noticed the smell. She looked to the pump, and swore. Her shot had clearly grazed the glass tank, probably glancing off a bent support rod. The tank was essentially intact, but it had sprung a slow and steady leak.
The garage had bay doors on both ends, both open. Its two births were occupied by a stripped-down '32 Ford and an early-'60's Dodge pickup on a raised hydraulic lift. On the far side of the garage, an engine hung suspended on chains. Meg stayed on the near side, ducking as she passed a door that led to the main building. With hurried rummaging, Meg found a steel jerry can at the back. She noticed a clipboard hanging from a nail with a semi-legible scrawl: "Jon- Borgwar (scribble) Gal(smudge) Co. no good. Call Mo(scribble). Phil." Finally, she paused to pick up a hefty old monkey wrench that looked promising, when she heard footsteps around the back.
There was no question in Meg's mind that it was not one of the shufflers she had seen so far. Indeed, the sound was not shuffling at all, but long and measured strides. For a moment, she began to hope that it was human, though she knew better even before she peeked out the doorway. This one wore a police uniform, and walked with stiff goose steps. The motion was radically different from the shufflers' dragging perambulations, but just as rhythmic and even less human. She drew the magnum, but pressed back to the corner and waited, watching the strider jerk out of sight and then listening as its footsteps receded into the yard behind the station. She was just exhaling in relief, when she felt something slam against the wall behind her. She lurched back, as two even more powerful thuds came through the wall. Tools rattled, a thin cloud of dust puffed from the wall, and the clipboard clattered to the floor.
Meg knew it could be only one thing: Somehow, a shuffler in the main building on the other side of the wall knew she was there, and it was trying to come through the wall. For a moment she wondered if it might succeed, but that fear eased: The wall might be thin, but it was solid concrete. But then, the real problem was if the shuffler finally used a door. She holstered the magnum, picked up the wrench and the can and ran.
Art was still on his back, but his writhings were more purposeful, like an upside-down turtle trying to right itself. Meg jumped over the loathsome thing. Behind her, there was the sound of the rear door of the main building opening and slamming shut. The first of the newcomers stood in front of the pumps; a single blow of the wrench took care of it. She hefted the wrench as another shuffler approached, moving a bit faster than usual straight at her- until it turned right and shuffled past the garage. She dropped to her knees in front of the pump, trying to stay clear of the growing pool of gas. The fuel made a pattering sound as it poured into the can. Some splashed out, and she set down the wrench to steady the nozzle. She heard the sound of a shuffler, going around the main building, and looked over her shoulder to watch the corner. She was still looking when a leathery hand touched hers.
Meg stared into the ruined face of the shuffler she had bludgeoned. It stared back with one remaining eye that seemed, for once, functional and focused. Meg's eyes flicked to the tank; it was down to the last gallon. The lifeless hand gripped her wrist, and began to squeeze. At last, she could bear it no more. With her free hand, she snatched up the wrench and struck. The blow landed across the back of the shuffler's head, with a crunch of fractured bone accompanied by the popping of dislocated vertebrae. The shuffler stiffened and rolled over, clearly and truly lifeless, yet its mouth opened in the contortions of a death rictus, and an eerie, bloodcurdling, ear-splitting and bowel-wrenching cry came forth. Then, as it pitched to the asphalt, Meg was jerked forward in its death grip. The pump nozzle dropped from her hand, and the can fell over, spilling more gas to mix with the shuffler's blood. The shuffler's wail ended in a rasping wheeze, but from every direction, identical cries rose to answer it.
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