John was trying to decide if he wanted to go anywhere near Carl as his friend continued to shoot daggers at him with his eyes. Another rattling bang followed by the maniacal laugh of those things made his decision for him. He scurried in a crouch through the shadows to the opposite side of the door that Carl was standing beside. He squeezed in next to Xander and a high metal shelf stacked from floor to ceiling with tires.
John kept his back flat against the wall as he strained to hear anything outside of the beat of his own heart in his ears as silence descended. Beside him, Xander slid his hand into Riley’s as she pointed to Carl across the way and then down at the floor. Carl frowned at her as she knelt down and made another gesture with her hand to indicate that she was going to peek around the doorway. Xander kept hold of her hand while she rested her free palm on the ground and poked her head around the door to look in the store. She ducked back again and rose to her feet.
Lifting her hands, she shook her head in a gesture that John took to mean she had no idea where they were or where they had entered from. She held out her hand, pointed around to all of them, and then made a walking gesture with her index and middle finger across her palm. John knew what the gesture meant but the last thing he wanted to do was go through that door and try to escape this store.
John shook his head as Carl knelt and poked his head around the side of the door too. He stared out there for a few minutes before gesturing to Josh. The teen bent down beside Carl who whispered something to him. Josh shook his head but Carl rose to his feet, took hold of his arm and said something more. John watched as the color faded from Josh’s face, he nodded and looked over at them. Before John knew what was happening, Josh was darting across the massive door to join them. Riley and Xander flattened themselves against the wall to make more room for him but he hurried past them to rise beside John.
John held his breath as he waited for a reaction from outside of those doors. Carl knelt again and rested his hand on the floor. He slid his head around the door before dashing across the opening at a low crawl to their side. Somewhere in the store something rattled and clattered to the floor, John could hear it spinning across the linoleum but the rest of the store remained still.
The hair on his arms stood on end as he began to get the distinct impression that they were being hunted, that those things somehow knew they were hiding somewhere within the shadows of this store. All he could imagine were velociraptors creeping steadily toward them, minus the giant claw clicking across the floor.
He bit on his bottom lip to suppress a curse as he twisted the gun in his hand and leaned his head against the metal shelving housing the tires. His gaze slid to the doors, and the massive glass wall across from them that led into the large garage bay. He hadn’t tried the doors but he’d peeked into the area enough to know that the garage doors were closed. There had been another regular door across the way from the bay doors though. He couldn’t shake the thought that that door could be opening even now to admit new monsters into the building.
He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the garage area as Carl stepped in front of them and huddled in like he was the quarterback. “I think we’re going to have to make a move,” he whispered.
John glanced at him before focusing on the glass wall across from them again. “If they come into this area we’ll be able to take them out,” Josh said. “We have the advantage of surprise.”
Carl gestured to the doors across from them, the same ones that John was riveted upon. “The doors in there could be open; they could be coming inside even now. If they pin us in here, we’re in trouble.”
John muttered a curse as he shifted his gun again and wiped the sweat from his brow. “We might be able to make it to the backdoor,” Xander said. “Do you have any idea where they came in from?” he asked Josh.
Josh shook his head; he’d taken on the hue of Kermit and looked as if he was trying not to vomit as his eyes darted wildly back and forth. “It sounded like they might have come in from the front but I didn’t see.”
Xander’s face drained of color, his hand briefly went to his head before he moved closer to the rest of them. They were all so close that John could feel Xander’s breath as he spoke. “It was them,” Xander whispered. “They’re the ones that emptied the store of the rotten food, and set it up so that it would be a tempting place to come into. There’s a lot of supplies still left in this store because it’s their hunting grounds.”
John imagined he looked much like Josh now as his stomach threatened to empty its contents onto the ground. Those things were so damn smart and apparently getting smarter with every day that passed. “Why didn’t they come in here for us sooner?” Riley hissed.
“I don’t know. Maybe they move between all the stores in this area, maybe they were hoping we would take up residence in here. They might also just check it once a day, but we need to go, now,” Carl insisted.
Even as he said the word ‘now’ John saw a shifting of shadows through the glass windows across from them. “Yes, we do,” he breathed.
Carl followed his gaze to the doors and nodded briskly as more shadows began to shift and coalesce amongst the large garage bay. If they didn’t move now they were going to get pinned in between both groups. As of now, he didn’t think those things were certain that they were in the store, he had a feeling they would be moving with a lot less care and a lot more excitement if they did.
He wanted to move with a lot more speed right now but he stayed low and followed carefully behind Carl, Riley, and Xander. Glancing back at Josh, he took a step back to allow the younger kid to move past him into the sport’s section. He took one last look at the glass wall of the automotive center just as the first sick person crept into view. Sliding quickly around the door, he held his breath as he waited to hear the unearthly howl that always seemed to accompany those things when they were on the trail of their prey.
He rested his head against the wall and took a steadying breath before following the others at a low crouch. They reached the area where the raft had inflated to cover most of the aisle. Carl crept around it and stayed against the back wall. It was the most direct route to the door they had entered through but John had a feeling they weren’t going to make it there that easily.
Even as the thought entered his mind, something else rattled to the floor. Though the building echoed, and it was difficult to pinpoint the location of the sound, he knew it hadn’t come from more than a hundred feet away. At the front of the group Carl froze and Xander crept up to sit beside him. John couldn’t hear what they were saying but the two of them changed direction and led the group into an aisle filled with toys. John glanced at the assorted dolls, stuffed bears, and dinosaurs that he was pretty sure were watching them.
Images of Chucky haunted him, he glanced away from the soulless black eyes of the dolls above him as he paused in the middle of the aisle with the others. He glanced toward where they had entered the aisle but thankfully it remained clear. His head tilted back as he caught Riley searching the tops of the shelves.
Relief filled him when he saw that they also remained clear. His palms were sweating on his gun, the forceful beats of his heart could be felt against the inside of his ribcage as it pounded out a frantic rhythm. The others slid around the corner of the shelf and into the electronics section. John adjusted his grip on his gun and quickly followed behind them.
They had almost made it to the middle of the electronics aisle when John spotted the shadow coming at them from the direction of the home goods section. Carl moved far faster than John had thought possible as he changed directions and darted toward the circular counter area in the middle of the electronics. There was only one small opening near where they were and three cash registers set up on top of the counter.
John knew there was no way he and Josh were going to make it behind the counter in time as Xander rolled in behind Riley. Riley’s head popped back out, her eyes were wide with worry as she gestured frantically to him. John shook his head at her, grabbed hold of Josh’s hand and jerked him toward one of the DVD aisles instead. Josh hesitated for a second, apparently torn about which way to go but he gave way to John’s grasp.
John wanted to press his back against the rack in an attempt to hide himself even more but he would only knock the DVDs to the floor. He bit his bottom lip as he struggled to get his breathing under control before he laid down on the floor and wormed his way toward the front of the aisle in order to look out.
Memories of being trapped within the gas station assailed him as he met Riley’s gaze across the way. They’d gotten out of that mess, he assured himself; they’d get out of this one too. His gaze drifted away from hers as the first of the pack stepped into view. John felt like he’d just flipped over the handlebars of his bike and slammed chest first into the ground, as all of the air went out of him.
His fingers flattened on the cool linoleum, his chin pressed against it as the creature’s head swiveled back and forth. And creature was the only word he could think of for this once human being fifty feet away from him. Its head moved like a snake that was on the hunt as it passed within feet of the counter that the others were hidden behind. It had a large gash on the side of its head that had peeled back to reveal the bone of the skull beneath. Its eyes had sunken into its head, making it seem like a walking skeleton moving through the store in search of the prey that it had lured in like a Venus flytrap.
Its head turned toward John but he remained immobile as he watched the creature walk by. Eyes that had once belonged to a human, and had color, were jaundiced now and appeared to belong to a walking corpse. Even the irises had taken on a yellowish hue. Its skin had taken on a grayish tint that made him think of a dress a serial killer would have created out of human flesh.
Not zombies, he reminded himself, or at least not zombies in the way that they had always thought them to exist. These things didn’t come back to life and they hadn’t climbed out of any graves. They didn’t do any of those things but they sure as hell were looking more and more like walking corpses every time he saw them.
Nothing that was human should look like that and still be alive. He wanted to slink into the shadows and look away from the monstrosity that was creeping through the store, but he was afraid to make any movement at all. He couldn’t even remember the last time he’d breathed as his lungs began to burn. Exhaling slowly through his nose, he barely took another breath through his lips.
Another one stepped out behind the first. This one was in even worse condition, he could clearly see its upper and lower teeth on the right side as part of its face had peeled away to reveal them. This one moved toward the counter and rested its hand upon it. The tips of its bony fingers could be seen poking out through its jagged and peeled back skin.
Were they becoming walking skeletons? He couldn’t seem to shake the thought as those bony fingertips made a clicking noise against the top of the counter. A bead of sweat slid from his hairline, down his temple and across his cheek to his eye. Though it stung his eye, he didn’t even dare to blink in order to clear it away. Another annoying trickle began to make its way down his skin as the incessant clicking continued.
He didn’t know why they were making noise now, when they had been so quiet before, but he didn’t like it. He could feel Josh’s leg against the bottom of his foot but the kid was like a statue behind him. John’s gaze darted to where the others were hiding behind the counter but he couldn’t see them within the shadows. All the one clicking its fingers would have to do is lean over the counter in order to see them, but it continued onward.
His forehead furrowed as that clicking continued and another one stepped into view from behind them. The noise… Something wasn’t right. He was trying to figure out exactly what it was when a flash of motion to his right caught his attention. His first instinct was to try and push himself even flatter to the floor but he knew immediately that would be the wrong move as something rushed out of the darkness at them.
Too late he understood that the noise had been meant to keep them focused on that creature and not on the ones stalking steadily closer to them.
Josh leapt forward in an attempt to get away at the same time that John rolled onto his back and lifted his gun. The index finger wrapped around his trigger froze as Josh’s lurching body blocked whatever shot he may have had. Josh let out a startled cry when a hand wrapped around his ankle and jerked him back. His body fell on top of John’s, pinning the gun in between them. It pressed against his stomach as Josh kicked desperately at his attacker.
“You have to get off!” John grunted. He tried to rid himself of the weight pressing him into the floor but he was unable to dislodge Josh. If Josh didn’t get off of him they were both going to be sitting ducks, there was no way to keep their location a secret anymore.
Josh attempted to roll to the side but the creature that had grabbed his leg leapt forward and pounced upon him. Finding himself at the bottom of the pig pile was a sure way to guarantee his death, but that was exactly where John was. The weight of the bodies on top of him was making it increasingly difficult for him to breathe as he struggled to get his gun free.
Yellowed eyes that still faintly held the brownish hue they’d once had, briefly met John’s. Those eyes seemed to make the world fade away from him as he was confronted with the most terrifying reality of all.
Within those eyes was Hell.
It wasn’t the Hell of spitfire and brimstone, with Satan ruling court, that many had always considered it to be, this was the real Hell. This was a person trapped within a body and mind that was no longer theirs. A person who was unable to control themselves or no longer cared about their actions. This was a Hell on earth the likes of which no one had ever dreamed of before in books, or legends, or paintings, except for maybe the Devil himself.
Those eyes continued to hold his for a full minute before the person reared back. John flung his free hand up in an attempt to stop it from attacking Josh. He pushed his palm into the thing’s cheek. The skin beneath his hand was mushy and brought to mind a rotten peach and bugs beneath the surface as he pressed hard against the creature’s face. Teeth clacked together as they snapped at him like a rabid dog, John’s grip on it was loosened when it suddenly jerked its head to the side and his hand slipped.
Before John could react the thing’s teeth sank into the fleshy part of his hand. A startled shout escaped him but it quickly became one of pain as teeth pierced through his skin, clamped down hard and tore free a chunk of his hand. Disbelief lanced through him as he stared at the bloody mess left behind, than rage tore through him. Fisting his brutalized hand, he pulled it back and drove it savagely into the hideous face above him.
His flesh flew from the thing’s mouth; its eyes were full of rage when they came back to his. Above him, Josh continued to squirm as he tried to get away from the thing on top of him. It reeled back again but this time it didn’t come for John as it sank its teeth deep into Josh’s shoulder. The boy cried out in agony as those teeth clamped hard into his shoulder and the creature jerked back. John’s stomach twisted as the crunchy and wet sound of flesh being torn from bone and skin filled the air.
Josh swung back as he tried desperately to beat at the attacker behind him, but he failed to hit anything other than air. The motion allowed John to finally get his hand free as the hellish creature swallowed the chunk of flesh he had torn from Josh. It lurched back at them, pinning Josh down like a crow on carrion as it went back for the hole it had already created in his skin. There was a time when he would have hesitated, but that time had long since passed as John swung his arm up, pressed the gun against its temple and pulled the trigger.
Blood and brain splattered over the DVDs across from them, John could feel the wetness of it on his face, but he didn’t bother to wipe it away. The sound of the shot echoed through the store but it didn’t matter, they had been found out long before he’d fired his weapon. The body fell limply over Josh, a dead weight that they both struggled to get out from underneath. Another shot sounded in the store, followed quickly by three more.
He’d never been so happy to see Carl in his life as he appeared over top of them. Carl grabbed hold of the body on top of Josh and hauled it off of him. There was no color left in Josh’s face as he sat back. His head wobbled like a bobble doll’s on his shoulders as he looked dazedly around. Xander was bare chested as he stepped forward, pulled back the sleeve of Josh’s t-shirt and pushed his shirt forcefully onto the blood seeping from the hideous wound in his shoulder.
“Hold it there,” he commanded and lifted Josh’s limp hand to press it against the shirt.
Carl and Xander hauled Josh to his feet as Riley held her hand out to John. “Are you ok?” she demanded.
Blood trickled from his brutalized hand and dripped onto the floor. Desolation filled him at the thought that the bite might have just signed his death certificate, that even now something might be invading his body, changing it and warping it into something unrecognizable. There was no way he was going to die in this place though and at the hands of those things. “Yes.”
“We have to go,” she said urgently.
A part of him still felt as if he were staring into Hell but he took hold of her hand and climbed to his feet. He spotted the two creatures that had been in the lead at the counter lying on the ground, but he didn’t know where the third had gone. Josh had his arm draped around Carl’s shoulders as they hurried through the back aisle of the electronics section past the large screen TVs.
From somewhere nearby the laughter of the hunters pursuing them rang through the store.