WARNING: Graphic Content
“Martin, I told you not to let me fall asleep! I always get a headache when I sleep in a car,” complained Pauline, rubbing her temples in frustration.
“This is an ’84 Chevy Silverado, not a car,” countered Martin.
Pauline glared at her brother. “Shut up.”
“I was hoping you might be less cranky if you got some rest,” said Martin. “I expected you to be a little more chipper after being rescued. You’re just lucky I was making a drop-off in Redmond.”
“Chipper? Really?” Pauline took a deep breath. “I do appreciate you coming to get me, I just…hey, where the hell are we?” she asked, seeing no hint of civilization as she peered out the window of the truck.
“It’s getting late. I pulled off the highway for a minute to look for somewhere to crash. Sometimes my job requires me to drive across the entire state, or states, in a single night so I–”
“Wait…what’s your job now?” interrupted Pauline. “Delivery boy, right?”
“I’m a courier for Northwest Bio-med,” replied Martin with a sigh. “I shuttle coolers full of blood samples and organs between facilities in Oregon and Washington. Mostly research samples not worth the expense of putting on a plane but too delicate to be shipped by parcel.”
“Gross,” said Pauline, sticking out her tongue, “and boring.”
“Shut up. I never see what’s inside the coolers. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m carrying…anyway, the money’s decent.”
Pauline looked over her shoulder. A stainless-steel lockbox and a refrigerated cooler were next to each other in the bed of the truck. “So, do you have a brain back there?”
“No! I was trying to tell you where we’re heading, remember?”
“I drive up to nine hours in a stretch so I usually stop somewhere to sleep on my way back home. I learned Walmart parking lots make great, cut-rate campgrounds.”
Pauline groaned. “You have to be kidding me.”
“Nope. Walmart lots are huge and mostly empty at night. The bathrooms and cheap food inside the store are an added bonus, especially if you find one that’s open 24 hours a day. A cranky cart wrangler might get in your face if you loiter too long in the lot, but they can usually be bought off with a fiver.”
“Or a liver?”
“Har har,” said Martin, rolling his eyes.
“Are you telling me we’ve been looking for a Walmart this entire time?”
“Just the past few minutes. I haven’t spent much time in LaPine but I thought for sure they’d have at least a couple of chain stores,” said Martin, scanning the horizon. “I would have asked someone for directions but all the service stations I’ve passed have had their lights off. Even the damn convenience stores are shuttered.”
“Because we’re in the middle of the BFE,” said Pauline.
A dose of discomfort sometimes helped Martin stay alert on long trips, but the stress supplied by his sister was a far bigger pain in his ass than the truck’s bench seat. “Dammit. I was really craving a shitty sandwich and a cup of coffee. Is your smart phone working here? Mine isn’t.”
Pauline shook her head. “No bars. I just tried to look up a Walmart but the page just loads forever. Let’s just drive all night. I want to get home.”
“No go. I need to find gas somewhere…we won’t make it much farther on an eighth of a tank.”
“Just go!” begged Pauline. “I don’t want to be stuck in this weird redneck burg all night.”
“I don’t know why you’re so eager to get back home. Mom and Dad are going to murder you for that stunt you pulled. They were just trying to help you.”
“If that’s what they call help I’d rather be murdered. Ugh…you’re starting to sound just like Dad.”
Martin pulled the truck over to a side street and locked eyes with his sister. “Hey, be thankful I took a detour to the middle of nowhere to pick up your scrawny ass. You were supposed to be at rehab all summer, not four days.”
“Rehab? Oak Reach was a prison! I hardly ever drink and I’ve smoked weed like, twice in my life…I didn’t deserve to be sent there!”
“Mom and Dad wanted you to go…that’s all that matters. All you had to do was–”
“Mom and Dad have never trusted me because of all the shit you pulled when you were my age!” interrupted Pauline. “Besides, do you honestly believe I could have pushed that shithead off a balcony? He’s a football player and I’m 97 pounds!”
Martin stared at his sister wordlessly.
“Okay…118, and okay…I did push him! But he was grinding all over me and trying to put his fat fingers down my pants. I didn’t mean to break Andrew’s legs, I just wanted him the hell off of me.” Pauline slumped in her seat.
“Don’t get salty with me, I’m on your side! Andrew Parsin deserved far worse than he got, but we both know the judge had his mind made up before you even stepped foot in the courtroom. The only thing those crap stains who run the town could see were those casts gracing the star quarterback’s legs. Andrew was their golden boy.”
“That judge was a complete asshole.”
“Mom is a hell of a lawyer. The deal she cut to keep you out of juvie was the best you could have hoped for. If you had just done your little court-ordered stint at rehab you wouldn’t have anything to worry about!”
Pauline crossed her arms and tightened up. “No. I refuse to let anyone paint me like some drugged-out villain.”
Martin sighed. “After you graduate high school you can leave town and go about your business. You only have a year left, so stop fighting the tide. Don’t you remember what happened to me?”
“Yeah, but you were an actual drunken fuck-up.”
Martin stared at the steering wheel and nodded. “You’re right, I did fuck up. But I finally crawled out of the hole I dug for myself and now I’m slowly getting my life back. I don’t want you to end up like me…with your life put on hold because of a few stupid decisions.”
Pauline looked at her lap and pursed her lips. “Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. You’re not a fuck-up. I’m just saying…it wasn’t fair to send me away.”
“I know, but the fact that you’re already clean means detox would have been a piece of cake. You probably would have been sent home early. You need to stop rebelling for the sake of rebelling and be smart!”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should have just shut up and stayed put. But it’s too late now. What’s done is done.”
Martin regretted coming down on his sister so hard after seeing how defeated she looked. “You really didn’t eat or drink for four days?”
Pauline looked at her older brother sheepishly. “Nope. And now I have a gut sloshing with a gallon of Ensure they force-fed me. So nauseating.”
“I can’t believe you tried to pull off a hunger strike. You could have died, you idiot.” Martin leaned over and hugged Pauline and they spontaneously broke into tears. “I’m just glad you’re alright. If you need to puke, please point your face out the damn window.”
Pauline nodded and wiped her eyes. She suddenly titled her head and cranked down the window. “Did you hear that? It sounded like a scream.”
“Probably just some dogs roaming around the neighborhood,” said Martin, dismissively.
“Maybe. Don’t you think it’s weird that none of these houses have their lights on?”
Martin shrugged. “Not really. It’s 2 a.m. Judging from all those closed stores, this town rolls up the carpet at sundown.”
“I dunno. I’m pretty creeped out right now,” said Pauline, rolling up her window in a hurry.
“Everything’s cool,” said Martin, offering reassurance.
Pauline decided to change the subject for the sake of her sanity. “I know I’ve been bitchy, but you coming to get me means a lot.”
“Good thing I can forge Dad’s signature. You might still be at Oak Reach if they weren’t so eager to get rid of you.”
“Yeah, they hated my stubborn ass.”
Martin laughed. “We’ll figure out what to tell Mom and Dad. First though, we need to find a place to sleep. I’m wiped.”
“Me too,” admitted Pauline.
“I’m giving up on that sandwich. I have a tent and some sleeping bags in the back, so let’s just camp somewhere outside of town. There should be some nice spots along the river. I saw a dirt road a few miles back that set off my camp finder.” Martin pushed an invisible button on the carpeted dashboard and made some beeping noises.
“God, you’re a goofball.” Pauline’s smile betrayed her incredulity. “So, instead of heading home you’d rather pull down some dark dirt road to the middle of God-Knows-Where, in the middle of Who-The-Fuck-Cares County, in the middle of the forest, in the middle of the night?”
“Stop saying ‘middle,'” said Martin. “I’d rather take my chances in the woods than on some random street. I don’t want a nervous yokel tapping on my window with a shotgun.”
Pauline raised an eyebrow. “Okay…I said we should head home, not sleep in the truck in a strange neighborhood.”
“We’re not going to make it home tonight, so the woods will have to do.”
Pauline sunk deeper in her seat. “Great.”
“Hey cheer up, maybe we’ll run into big-foot.”
“Oh! I hope so!” beamed Pauline with phony enthusiasm.
Martin spun his truck around and headed back out of town, unaware LaPine’s population was steadily dropping by the minute. He kept driving, searching for the dirt road he had spotted earlier. “Aha, there it is!”
“My buttcheeks are clenching. Are you sure about this?” questioned Pauline.
“Yes, it’s fine,” said Martin, moving his truck through a gate with a NO TRESPASSING sign. The truck’s balding tires spun out a few times in soft clay as they rolled up a narrow dirt road into the forest, following the river.
Pauline sighed with relief as the road widened, revealing a small, grassy clearing. She pointed her smart phone out the window like a flashlight and saw a circle of stones set up as a fire pit. “Stop the truck. This is perfect,” she said.
Martin scanned around. “Nice. There’s still firewood here, and it looks dry.”
The air was cool and crisp as they stepped out of the truck. Martin started a fire in the stone pit but the flames only slashed a few feet through the darkness. The siblings huddled close to the fire and bemoaned their lack of marshmallows. After warming up for a bit, they set up their tent (with no shortage of grumbling from Pauline) and hopped inside. They wrapped themselves in a pair of tight, florescent green sleeping bags that made them resemble psychedelic grubs.
Pauline stared up at the ceiling of the tent, feeling restless. She turned toward her brother and jabbed her knees into his back while he was wriggling himself into a more comfortable position. “Hey, Martin.”
“Fucking what? Go to sleep. It will be daylight soon.”
“Did you hear that howl? It sounded close.”
Martin squinted at his sister. “Try to relax. You’re a camping newbie.”
“Okay, okay.” Pauline clamped her eyes shut and stayed quiet for a couple minutes before piping up again. “Hey Martin…would you ever kill a baby? Not a normal baby, but an evil baby?”
Martin turned around to face his little sister, his face wrinkling in disapproval. “No, you psychopath! Babies can’t be evil.”
Pauline’s eyes were wide and shining. “I’m not so sure.”
Martin sighed. “What is this really about?”
“Nothing! This has just been one weird day, right?”
“Every day is weird when I’m with you. Now go to sleep.”
“I would totally take out a baby if it were up in my biz doing super evil shit.”
Martin groaned. “Even your own baby?”
“God no! I’d love the little beast, no matter how dangerous it was!”
“Good to know. Now sleep. You’re officially damaged.”
Pauline shrugged and turned to her side. “I’m in good company.” The sound of the steadily rolling river eventually lulled her to sleep.
Martin woke up with the dawn, a smile stretching over his face. He was a morning person—a fact Pauline despised to no end. He sat up and stretched his arms wide with an “AHHHhhh…”
“Go away forever,” moaned Pauline. She pulled her bag over her head and tucked into the fetal position.
Martin scampered out of the tent into the chilly morning air. God rays were filtering through the Douglas firs surrounding the campground, stabbing shafts of light into the clearing. A net of sequined dew sparkled on the grey-green grass. He looked toward the low roar of the river and could just make out the glow of whitecaps behind the tree line. “Nice,” he said quietly to himself.
Martin went to his truck and tugged an old fishing pole from the utility case. He always brought it along on his trips hoping to have a chance to use it somewhere. The reel proved to be in working order after a few test casts into the road. After squatting down and digging a small hole, he tugged a few panicking night-crawlers out of the earth. He dropped the worms inside an old Fritos bag he had found half-buried near the fire ring.
Martin stuck his head back into the tent and saw Pauline’s blonde hair poking out of her sleeping bag. “I’m going fishing, be back soon,” he told her.
“Catch some donuts,” Pauline mumbled back to him.
Martin made his way to the bank of the river. He walked a few minutes along the loose stones until he found a perfect spot where the water slowed behind a natural wall of rocks. He pinched a worm out of the Frito bag and pierced it around his hook. His cast hit the mark and the line kept steady. A little more than half an hour later he had caught two medium-sized brown trout.
Martin gutted the fish on the bank with a pocket knife and hiked back toward the camp site. On the way, he somehow surprised a four-point bull elk taking refuge in the brush. The hulking animal stared back at him then crashed into the nearby woods, nearly giving Martin a heart attack. A few cows from the bull’s harem revealed themselves and scampered away as well. “Whoa…thanks for not killing me, friends.”
After Pauline managed to pull herself upright, she scrounged a percolator from the back of the truck and boiled some coffee on the camp fire. She was sipping java out of a mug screaming “SEXY GRAMPA” in big block letters, when she saw her brother returning to camp. He seemed a little shaken.
“Don’t look so shocked, I’m not totally useless,” Pauline told him. “You need to clean out your box, bro. It’s a mess in there.”
“Gramps gave me that utility case, including everything inside. I still haven’t looked through all the crap in there.”
“Well, I’m keeping this mug,” said Pauline, squinting as she took another sip.
“This is perfect,” said Martin, looking at the fire. Pauline had balanced the coffee pot on top of a cast iron skillet in the flames. The pan was good and hot after sitting on top of the orange coals. After moving the percolator he put the fish in the pan then scavenged some salt and pepper from the utility box to spice up the fillets. “I wish we had some lemon.”
“I’m not eating that river trash,” said Pauline, turning up her nose at the trout. She quickly changed her tone after Martin finished cooking and fed her a perfect, meaty bite. With his sister suddenly ravenous, Martin had to smack Pauline’s hand to ensure he got some of his catch. Even with all the little bones to sift through, it was a delicious, simple breakfast.
The sun was quickly warming the clearing, signally more birds to call to each other through the trees. The flowing water nearby somehow didn’t seem as loud in the daytime. As the midday sun lifted over the pines there was still no indication that anyone else was camping in the area.
Pauline had perked up a little. Unlike her brother, she had never been a scout—finding the whole affair endlessly hokey. Still, it was nice to be away from an endless parade of judgmental eyes. There were no morons to appease in the woods.
The siblings took a small hike to survey the surrounding area. After Pauline spotted a porcupine she named “Maniac,” she demanded to spend one more night in the woods. The weather was perfect, the mosquitoes seemed sparse, and most importantly their parents still believed Pauline was at the rehab, so Martin agreed to her request.
Martin returned to the river the next morning eager to catch more fish. In contrast to the previous day the bugs were biting relentlessly. He was forced to pull on his hoodie and sprint through the swarm. Thankfully, the pests seem to clear as he neared the bank.
“What is going on? It wasn’t like this yesterday.” Martin had never seen so many fish jumping out of the water. While the sight was encouraging, an hour went by without a single nibble on the end of his line. Defeated, he collapsed his rod and traveled along the edge of the fast-moving stream, scouting for a game trail through woods he could use as a shortcut back to camp.
As Martin emerging from a stand of pines he was startled by the sight of a man about a hundred yards upriver limping awkwardly along the bank. His foot was dredging through the silt of the shore as he hobbled, leaving a small channel of water slowly filling behind him. The left pant leg of his haggard khaki uniform was completely torn away, revealing a blood-stained thigh covered in slashes.
Jesus, is that a fish and game cop? Separated from the man by a steep drop off, Martin cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted to him. “Hey! Are you alright?” The man kept trudging, paying no mind to Martin’s calls.
Martin clambered along the uneven bank as the ranger slowly disappeared around a bend in the river. “Wait!” After negotiating around a wall of rocks and thorn-covered blackberry bushes, he regained his view of the water. The ranger was nowhere in sight. He could see the foot-carved canal fading at the edge of the stream where the rapids grew loud and treacherous. What the fuck. Did he fall in?
Martin pulled up his cell phone but found no bars. “Dammit.” He slid along the thick mud of the bank until he was standing by the rocky shoreline where the man had vanished. The ditch carved by the ranger’s foot was stained at the edges with blood.
“He’s gone.” Martin stared at the crashing white caps for a moment in disbelief when he heard the crunch of gravel. He turned around and saw the ranger rising from behind a thick, bark-stripped log. After lifting himself into a crooked stance, the man let out a wet, guttural groan. He cocked his head toward Martin, revealing a pair of swollen eyes jutting halfway out of their sockets–their blue corneas barely visible behind milky clouds. His entire body was shivering violently, as if he were gripped in hypothermia.
Martin dropped his pole with a gasp. “Sir…we need to get you to a doctor! Can you hear me?”
The ranger slowly turned toward Martin. Tears in his shredded uniform revealed jaundiced, boil-covered skin. A swollen, softball-sized lump near his neck burst as he took a wobbling step forward, oozing pink pus down his shoulder.
The odor of rotting flesh invaded Martin’s nostrils and he gagged. “Fucking Christ!” he said, feeling his pulse race. He stumbled backward and felt his ankles sink into the cold water at the river’s edge. “Stay back!”
The ranger was shivering so hard it looked as if he were vibrating. His arms moved erratically in a palsied twitch as he shambled closer. Trapped gas escaped from his throat when his mouth drooped open, causing his distended belly to quiver. He jerked toward Martin, letting loose a growl from gaping jaws.
Martin froze up, unable to process what he was seeing. Before he could react, the ranger’s frigid, bony hands grasped his neck and pushed him to his knees. The emaciated man was strong. Too strong. Martin gasped for air as he was pressed flat to the bank beneath his attacker’s shuddering, pustulant body.
Martin’s vision blurred as his head dunked into the icy stream. Seeing a close-up of the ranger’s teeth jutting from gray gums quickly brought him back to his senses. He groped under the water for a rock and brought it up in a clean arc against the man’s skull. The fist-sized stone embedded in his ranger’s head, causing him to topple to his side with a howl.
Martin struggled to his feet and quickly snapped a thick branch off a fallen tree. The ranger seemed unaffected by the large rock jutting from his temple as he let out a wet hack and lunged again. Martin brought the branch down on the decrepit man’s head before his flayed fingertips could reach him, swinging the club again and again until he heard wood crack against bone. The ranger finally collapsed—his face reduced into a bubbling mass of indefinable flesh.
Martin gasped for air as he sat on a boulder. He shuddered at the sight of the bloody stick and threw it into the trees behind him. The ranger’s body slipped off the bank into the water where the rapids began to pull it gently downriver. All the man left behind was a pool of clotting blood and a few teeth.
Noticing his blood-spattered shirt, Martin vomited on a pile of rocks beside him. He tried to wash the gore away in the river but the stains held fast. He sank to his knees and sobbed, realizing he had just killed someone. “This this can’t be real,” he told himself. “That…thing…it wasn’t a man.”
Martin ran his hands over his body, feeling a horrible itch crawling across his chest. A wide, pink rash covered in welts was spreading all over him–far beyond where the mosquitos had bit him. He put his wet shirt back on, more disturbed by the rash than the blood. After scrambling to his pack he frantically searched its pockets until he found his phone. There were still no bars. “Shit!” Seeing a glint of light, he plucked a small silver flask from the bottom of his bag. He hadn’t taken a drink from it in nearly a year. “Fuck it,” he said, and drained the flask of its single-malt contents with one gulp. His head spun immediately, but he felt calmer. “Pauline. I need to get back to Pauline.”
The magic of the outdoors had worn off for Pauline after sleeping another night on the hard ground. Her face sagged into a pathetic look of disappointment when she saw Martin coming back from his fishing trip empty-handed.
“Pauline!” exclaimed Martin, seeing his sister. “We have to—”
“I’m done. Leave. Now. Please,” said Pauline, shivering on a log. Her blonde locks jutted in every direction as she pulled a black hoodie over her head. She noticed Martin seemed fidgety and out of breath. “Where’s my fish?”
“Did…did you see anything weird while I was gone?” asked Martin, as he slouched and panted.
“I dunno. I watched a bird take a big poop on the truck. That was kind of weird. Don’t worry though, it flew away.”
“No! I mean, did you see anyone come by? Did you hear any cars?”
Pauline shook her head. “No, Martin. What’s up? Have you been drinking?”
“There was this guy by the river and he…he just disappeared,” said Martin. He realized it wouldn’t do any good to panic his sister. Pauline’s okay…she’s okay, he told himself while sucking in some fresh air to clear his mind. He pulled some random chunks of twigs and dirt from his black hair.
“What do you mean he disappeared?” asked Pauline, straightening herself a little. “Wait, that shirt wasn’t pink before…is that blood?!”
“I…I gutted a fish but I lost it in the stream. Come on, we need to leave.”
Pauline shrugged. “That’s a lot of blood for a trout. You look like shit, bro.”
“Just…get your gear together,” said Martin.
Pauline nodded. “Fine. I’m tired of burying my own poop. I’d wrestle a bear for a shower.”
The siblings quickly took down their tent and loaded everything back into the truck. Pauline looked at Martin with concern; he couldn’t seem to stop shaking. “You alright? Maybe you should let me drive.”
“Huh? I’m fine,” said Martin, wiping his brow. He scratched his chest violently.
“If you get me sick I’m going to kill you,” complained Pauline. “Ugh, I’m so hungry I could eat at a Denny’s.” A sudden crash in the woods spun her head around. “What the hell was that?”
The big bull elk Martin had seen the day before was standing at the edge of the clearing. Hot gusts of breath burst from the animal’s flared nostrils as it shuddered horribly. One of its antlers was broken, hanging beside its head by a thread. Pustules pushed from mangy clumps of hair lining the ridge of an abnormally hunched back. A pair of cloudy eyes dripped black liquid down the animal’s face. The elk reared up on it’s shaky hind legs and trumpeted an unearthly bellow.
“Pauline! Get in the truck!” shouted Martin.
“Oh my god,” said Pauline, nearly losing control of her bladder. She hurried inside the truck and crouched down as her brother jumped behind the steering wheel and slammed his door.
“Stay down!” Martin yelled as he shoved his keys in the ignition and cranked the engine. Without warning the entire truck tipped up then collided back to the ground. When Pauline saw the passenger door bending toward her from the impact, she tucked herself under the dashboard closer to the floor.
The elk’s hooves battered the side of the truck relentlessly. A mangled antler burst through the window into the cabin, showering Pauline with broken glass. She could feel vaporous jets of warm spittle spraying her as the beast shoved closer. Pauline screamed and pressed herself tighter to the floor.
Martin’s foot slammed on the gas. The truck threw up a fishtail of mud with its worn tires until finally finding some traction. Pauline felt a heavy wallop and pulled herself back up as Martin tore away down the trail toward the road. She could see the elk convulsing on the ground behind them. “Oh my god Martin, what the fuck is going on?”
“It’s okay…just need to get back…to town,” said Martin, gasping.
“It’s not okay! Just tell me—”
Loud thumps began to pepper the truck like hail. Pauline gasped as splatters of blood and detritus quickly engulfed the windshield. Martin turned on his wipers, cutting through a red swath of gore and plumage as a black cloud of sparrows bombed against the windshield. Pauline held her backpack up against her broken window to keep the birds from coming in the cab but a few managed to wriggle through the gap. They pecked and scratched at Pauline’s legs as she shrieked in terror.
The wings of the frenzied birds were flapping wildly, creating a storm of tiny feathers inside the truck. Martin reached down and crushed a few sparrows with his free hand as the truck launched over a berm and landed back on the highway. He sped further up the road until the birds stopped finally stopped coming. When they seemed clear of danger, his foot slipped off the gas pedal and the truck sputtered to a stop. Away from the treeline things seemed quiet. Several smashed birds were embedded in the windshield, still twitching.
Pauline couldn’t catch a full breath. Her jeans were shredded and blood stained. She looked over at her brother with tears streaming down her face. He was leaning against the steering wheel, moaning through gritted teeth. Blood was dripping from the corner of this eyes. His body convulsed violently as his hands gripped white-knuckle tight to the steering wheel.
Martin quickly opened the glove box with a shaking hand and pulled out a brown pocket knife. He unfolded the blade then threw his door open with a grunt. Sweat was pouring from his brow.
“Martin?! You can’t leave me!”
“Stay here!” Martin shouted, seemingly unable to look Pauline in the eye. “Keep the doors…closed! Wait…for someone to come! Come find you! Don’t—”
“Please!” Pauline begged as Martin threw open his door.
“You can’t go!”
“DON’T LET ME BACK IN!” cried Martin. He threw himself out the door to the ground and coughed violently.
“Martin!” Pauline scrambled across the top of the bench seat but couldn’t will herself to leave the truck. She was on the edge of hyperventilating.
Martin stood up, facing away his sister. His body was shaking uncontrollably. Finally, he turned his head and looked at Pauline with bloody tears streaming down his cheeks. “Stay…there’s a g…a gu—”
Martin released a guttural wail as his words fell apart. His legs were barely able to complete each step as he stumbled away from the truck. He finally managed a crooked run and carried himself into the distance, thrusting himself beyond a stand of pines where he disappeared.
Pauline was stunned—unable to string a thought together. She quickly closed the door and huddled in the center of the bench seat where she hugged her knees and cried uncontrollably. She waited there as her brother instructed, hoping he’d return but also hoping he wouldn’t.
Hours passed. The truck’s cabin was getting stifling hot in the midday sun. Pauline realized she was going to have drive back to LaPine alone to find help. “It’s not that far…I can do this…I can do this,” she said to herself as she slid behind the wheel. She couldn’t seem to stop shivering.
As Pauline started to turn the key, Martin reemerged from the forest. He started shuffling toward the truck, moving as if he were a child taking his first steps. Pauline only recognized him by his hair and his tattered clothes–his body was white as a sheet except for yellow, oozing boils covering his skin. Both eyes had been reduced to black pinpoints beneath warped flesh. His desiccated lips were peeled back, revealing puffy gums leaking rivulets of blood between the channels of his teeth. Every breath he took was a slippery, desperate gasp. His arms hung limply at his sides and his hands were stained crimson from deep, self inflicted slashes in his wrists.
Before Pauline forced herself to look away she took note of the scrawled letters written in blood across his brother’s shirt.
Pauline took her trembling hands off the steering wheel and began groping beneath the truck’s seat in a frenzy. “Come on!” Finally, something solid slid into her grip. She rose back up with Martin’s pearl handled .38 revolver in her hand.
Pauline screamed as Martin’s bloody fingers slapped against the truck’s door. He released a curdled shriek in response and scraped his teeth on the window. Without warning he began slamming his face against the glass, making the truck rock back and forth.
“Stop! STOP!” wailed Pauline as she slid to the other side of the truck and brought up the gun. She pulled the trigger and heard a dry click. Then another. Fighting back her sobs, she fumbled with the revolver until the wheel popped open, revealing there were no shells inside. She ducked beneath the seat again to find the bullets and heard the window smash. Her brother grunted as his hand reached for her, striking the truck’s horn.
Pauline finally felt a small box against her thumb and twisted her wrist to grab it. She moved back to the other side of the cab, dumping the box of bullets in her lap as Martin climbed through the window. She only had enough time to push a single round into the wheel before her brother moved over the top of her, his stained fingers tangling in her hair.
The revolver’s wheel slapped closed as Pauline lifted the gun to protect herself. Martin’s gnashing mouth chomped down on the barrel, sending a cascade of broken teeth over Pauline.
Pauline groaned and pulled the trigger. The wheel turned but the .38 didn’t fire. Martin pushed forward against the gun and Pauline could feel his remaining teeth scraping skin from her wrist. She pulled the trigger again. Another dry click. Then another.
Pauline exhaled loudly as a puff of red mist blinded her. Her ears were ringing and she could smell smoke. Her brother slumped away from her and fell to the floor, the back of his head opened wide. Bits of bone and brain were dripping from the ceiling of the cab. Her finger was still clamped on the revolver’s trigger.
Gun in hand, Pauline shoved herself out of the truck and crawled away a few feet. She rolled on her back and stared up at the blue sky until her ears stopped ringing and her heart stopped pounding. The world had gone quiet again.
Taking advantage of her remaining adrenaline, Pauline stood back up and went to pull her dead brother out of the cab. She left him bleeding on the road then hurried behind the steering wheel. The truck’s tires screeched over the pavement as she left the scene as quickly as possible, determined to make it back to town.
After every tear had been spent, Pauline realized she had been scratching anxiously at her naval. She lifted her shirt and saw a deep red rash spreading across her middle. After letting out a few hysterical laughs she sent a blank stare into the road ahead, feeling numb. She pulled the truck over to the gravel shoulder and flipped through the stations of the AM radio until a panic-stricken newscaster conformed her worst fears.
After listening to news of the outbreak for a few minutes, Pauline calmly stepped out of the truck and loaded a fresh bullet in the revolver. She went and sat on the hood of the Silverado, thinking of Martin as she waited patiently to watch one last sunset. The gun was cradled in her lap, cocked and ready.