“So, why were you hitting your head on the wheel?” Phoebe asked Mitch as they neared the outskirts of Clifton. The question seemingly bore no real interest to her, merely appearing to be a child’s attempt to ease the silence from the truck. She sat, indian style, dancing the bear in her lap by tugging both of its fuzzy paws into the air.
Mitch checked the rear view mirror. The dead had either lost their scent or had found a more interesting one to ravage, either way, they were gone, at least for now. He saw only the string of bars on Main Street disappearing behind a low grade hill.
“We lost em!” Mitch said, glancing over at Phoebe. He watched as her head bobbed left and right, playing a tune in her head that the bear danced to. Must be catchy, Mitch thought.
Gravel ground underneath the passenger side front tire, vibrating the truck as it skidded along the shoulder.
Mitch hurried his eyes back to the road and corrected the truck back to the pavement.
“Eyes on the road, please,” Phoebe said, smiling, focusing on and setting the bear upright in her lap.
Mitch smiled and squinted his brow.
“Your dad taught you a lot about driving, huh?”
“No,” she said. “Well, yeah, but no. This one time, he let me drive on his lap and it was so fun!” Phoebe said, twisting her whole body to face him, keeping her legs criss-crossed. "He told me," she stopped, losing her nerve, "eyes on the road, sprout. Keep 'em always forward, always looking, always watching, and you'll do alright."
Mitch looked over to her, catching her stare, then looked back at the road.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Mitch said, utterly bewildered.
Phoebe reached up and patted Mitch's forehead. Her fingers came away salty with sweat and she rubbed it on her jeans. “I asked you something, Mitch. Two times. Why were you hitting your head?”
“I didn’t hear you the first time.” Mitch lied. Who is this girl, Mitch asked himself again. His eyes danced around the road, hoping she would leave it at that.
“Ok,” she said, turning herself back to face forward. “But I know you heard me that time. You don’t wanna talk about it, that’s fine, but...” she crossed her arms, squeezing the bear tight.
Mitch steered the truck left, following the bend of the road. They sped along the southernmost tip of Clifton, which was made up of dozens of fenced in backyards that ran east and west.
“You have to go faster!” Phoebe demanded, perching up onto her knees, gripping the door handle with her tiny fingers. She bit down on her lower lip and scanned the countryside. “I’m not gonna make it. Pull over. I can pee in the ditch.”
“You’re not peeing in a ditch! We don’t know how many of them could be out there. They could snatch you up when you’re wiping. We’re almost there, I promise. Just hang on a few more minutes. Okay?”
“We don’t know how many are at the gas station either. Could be a big Ole death trap!” Phoebe said. "I...have...to...pee!"
“I’m not pulling over. Forget it, it ain’t happenin.”
On his right, the gas station slowly came into view. It sat by itself, a hop away from highway 57, surrounded on three sides by golden cornfields aching to be harvested. Its red roof gleamed darker in the dying sunlight. The front of it, made up entirely of windows with two glass doors smack dab in the center, reflected creamy orange light in thick square blotches. The gas pumps lined the front drive, covered in grime and muck. Mitch caught a whiff of the corn stalks, an earthy sun-baked sweetness.
“Told you. There it is,” Mitch pointed.
“You think they still have ice cream? I want a dilly bar!”
Mitch’s stomach bubbled with hunger.
“Oh! You know what I could really toss back? A peanut butter blizzard!”
“My dad used to bring me out here after my soccer games, even if we lost. He said I deserved it for just getting out on the green. Unless we won! Then he would get me a dilly bar for every goal I scored.”
“What’s the most you ever got?”
“Three whole dilly bars! Wow!” Mitch said in innocent admiration. “That’s pretty impressive.”
“Yeah. We didn’t win that game, though. But I had ice cream coming out of my ears by bed-time,” she said with a fading smile, “with a heck of a tummy ache. Mom wasn’t happy about that but dad, he read me an extra bed-time story until I fell asleep.”
Phoebe all of a sudden became very quiet.
Mitch looked over at her. She stared at the gas station, lost in the memories with her father. He figured he should say something.
“You miss him, huh?”
Phoebe nodded her head in agreement, keeping her focus on the gas station.
“Do you miss your dad, Mitch?”
His father’s last phone call rang in Mitch’s mind. Don't be dumb, Mitch. Take care of your mother.
Sorry, dad, Mitch apologized in his head. I hope you’re up in heaven together. I’ll prolly be there soon.
He wiped away a single tear swelling in his eye.
“He never took me to get ice cream or anything like that. My mom was always the one that uh…”
A laugh of realization escaped from his gut. Why did I even fucking leave her alone, after everything she’d done for me.
“She always did the fun stuff with me. I remember her being the one to always take me to the movies, or to fourth of July fireworks. She used to clean houses when the family was a little tight on money. Sometimes she’d let me come with, prolly cuz I was too young to be home alone.”
Mitch turned the truck into the gas station’s entrance. He circled around the parking lot and the gas pumps, checking to see if any of the dead would spring from the shadows and attack. If so, he’d take the truck out and away, maybe even let Phoebe pee down the road.
As they circled, Mitch said, “Anyways, she let me watch movies on their big screen TV’s, play with their children’s toys. One time, she even let me take one home. I didn’t know it back then, but that’s stealing,” Mitch laughed. "My mom let me steal!"
He circled the parking lot three times, ready to slam the gas if a sloppy faced zombie came, but none did.
Through the windows of the gas station, it looked empty. No dark shadows passed, darting about from within. The ceiling lights inside were off, but the soda and water coolers still buzzed with fluorescent bulbs.
Mitch parked the truck along the front door.
“My dad never took me to work with him. Not once. He loved me, I know he did, but in a different way I guess. Musta thought all that stuff was in mom’s job description. I miss him, just not the way you miss your dad.”
He missed him mom, terribly, though that was only just an hour ago. He squeezed the steering wheel with his palms, fingers curling around it harder.
“Can I go pee now?” Phoebe asked, bouncing up and down in her seat.
Mitch let the thoughts of his mother drift away as he released the steering wheel.
Phoebe pulled on the door’s handle and pushed with her shoulder, opening it a bit.
“Listen,” Mitch said, reaching out to halt her dismount. “If I say run, you book it back to the truck and lock the doors. Got it?” he said, lowering his head and stretching up his eyebrows.
“Got it, Mitch!” she said, scurrying out of the truck, teddy bear in hand. Her tone was one of compliance and not understanding, like most children who have something on their mind.
“You better get it!” Mitch said, exiting the truck and rounding the front to meet her at the gas station’s double doors. The cool evening air licked at Mitch’s cheeks. It carried with it the same tangy spice of coming rain Mitch sniffed earlier. He looked up to the sky. The rolling purple thunderheads were closer, lightning bolts dancing and flickering within their bellies.
He tugged the 9mm from his waistband and flicked off the safety, giving the gun a once over. The weight felt good in his hands. It helped ease the tiny shred of fear percolating in the back of his head.
The front door, in need of a good oiling, groaned as Mitch pushed it open, holding the gun out in front. The droning of the air conditioner and the coolers drowned out their footsteps and panted breathing.
The building was mostly dark against the setting sun. Soft white light flickered, humming from the drink coolers on the far wall, opposite Mitch and Phoebe. In the center sat a horse shoe shaped counter, lined with candy and lighter displays, topped with registers and a cigarette case, mostly empty.
“Smells clean,” Mitch smiled, surprised.
Phoebe danced in place, holding her stomach.
“Bathrooms over there,” Mitch pointed, past the register counter, in the corner where the hall branched off.
She was on the verge of exploding. Phoebe sprinted for the hallway, disappearing around its corner.
“Wait for me!” Mitch shouted. He dipped his head low and looked around.
He jogged to the hallway and peeked down at the bathrooms. The women’s door slid shut, Phoebe already through. He dug his free hand into his pant’s pocket and decided to wait, leave her in some privacy. If the dead were in here, they would’ve already shown themselves.
It was surreal, being in there. He felt that at any moment, the clerk would emerge from the backroom, boxes of candy bars ready to be stocked in hand.
The toilet flushed inside the women’s restroom after a quiet moment, filling the empty hall with whooshing echoes. He felt a smile coming on, having missed the sound of a flushing toilet. Strange.
Phoebe shrieked, pushed open the restroom door, and rammed into Mitch’s side, clinging to it like a rubber tourniquet, sobbing. Maybe they wouldn’t have shown themselves. Somehow, he couldn’t explain it, they seemed smarter than movies and books portrayed them. They’d shown they could problem solve. A shudder ran down Mitch’s spine, letting go the repercussions of such a thought.
He aimed the 9mm at the bathroom door, shifting his feet to steady his weight. Any second, he thought, it’ll burst through, mouth frothy with blood and teeth ready to rip into flesh, rend muscle from bone. Squinting his eyes, he prepared for the wall of rotted stenches to blast into his face. But it didn’t.
A minute went by, then another. His pits were soaked, beads of sweat dribbling down his sides.
He took one hand from the gun and clutched her back.
Mitch peeled his eyes from the bathroom door, glancing down at Phoebe. Her face was flush, eyes sparkling with tears.
“What happened?” he asked.
Phoebe sniffled and said, “I was washing my hands and…” she sniffled again. “A spider crawled down the mirror.”
Mitch let his nerves unwind and slowed his breathing.
“A spider? That’s why you screamed?” Mitch asked.
She rubbed her eyes with her hands and nodded. Her face had returned to its peach rouge, eyes still glossy but drying.
He crouched down beside her, face level.
“If that spider comes out here, I’ll squish it!” Mitch said, scrunching in his eyes and nose. Phoebe smiled and nodded again. “I hate spiders too. They’re gross and crawly, and hairy.”
“Ok!” she said.
“Feel better now?”
Phoebe smiled wider.
“You hungry?” Mitch asked, standing up and lending her his hand to grasp.
Phoebe took his hand and squeezed, pulling him from the hall and down an aisle.
“Guess that’s a yes.”
Mitch’s stomach gurgled, crying for a decent meal, and as he looked around he knew he was in the wrong place for that.
Displays were packed with chips, beef jerky, and salsas. Others were stuffed with candy bars and trail mixes. It would satisfy his sweet tooth, if he had one. He craved a turkey loaf, slow roasted and drowning in chicken gravy, surrounded by mounds of mashed potatoes spewing even more gravy from their summits. To smooth it down, a tall glass of chocolate milk, dark brown with extra sweet syrup lining the bottom.
Instead, he sighed, grabbing a red handbasket with black folding handles and began slinging in packets of wrapped sausage sticks and spicy cheese puffs.
Together, they went up and down each aisle, throwing in whatever they thought would soothe their stomachs. Piles of bags of chips crinkled, growing higher and higher in Mitch’s basket.
Phoebe wildly grabbed from boxes and peg hooks, dashing by anything that was a health bar or had nuts in it.
Mitch shook his head with a smile from cheek to cheek when he realized it. This was what kids her age dreamed about. She was a kid in a candy store, and he wasn’t parent enough to tell her when enough was enough. So, she went on, and even when the basket overflowed with junk, she made space for more still.
He handed her the basket, letting go of it when he was sure she could bear the weight, and told her to hide behind the register counter, out of sight of the windows.
“I’ll be back in a sec,” he said. “Just eat and try to be quiet. Okay?”
She didn’t answer. Phoebe had already torn open a bag of chips and began shoveling ruffled and fried potatoes into her cheeks, only chewing when there wasn’t any room left in her cheeks. Mitch wondered how long she’d been hiding in the truck, how long it’d been since she’d eaten.
He watched her eating for a moment as the sun finally fell beyond the horizon, leaving them in nothing but the fluorescent light from the coolers.
Mitch walked, gun on point, into the backroom. The generators pumping power and cool air into the coolers hummed like a choir of burly men, droning on endlessly.
The refreshing air was welcomed, that’s for sure, but the light would attract the dead if they ever caught wind of it. He didn’t have enough bullets, and he thought about scrounging around for some, but he didn’t think it was that kind of gas station. You’d have to go great a deal farther south to find one like that.
He squinted in the darkness, searching for a breaker box. In the dark, he made out a cleaning station with hoses dangling like limp snakes, a deep industrial sink, deep enough to bathe in, with mildewy buildup around the rim, and to his right an office through another doorway.
His foot nudged loose a broom stick leaning against the wall as he stepped forward, thwacking it against the gritty floor.
Mitch shouted, blindly backing into the wall behind him, clutching his chest as it heaved with fright. The nudge was so soft, so subtle, he didn’t know he did it.
Shit, Mitch! You gotta take it down a notch.
He shoved the cold steeled barrel of the 9mm, down to the hand grip, into the back of his pants, having almost fired a shot on accident.
“You’re good, Mitch. Just take it easy,” he said, controlling his breathing.
Once he’d calmed himself down, he crept past the office’s doorway. A single window on the left dimmed the room with a milky moonlit glow. The silvery, glossy sheen of the breaker box glimmered on the wall in front of him. A desk and filing cabinet clung to the wall, beneath the window. The room was tiny, like a bigger than average closet that’d been converted to an office.
Mitch crossed the room, ramming the meat of his thigh against the edge of the desk and stumbled to the grey box.
“Son of a bitch!” he grumbled. His thigh throbbed as the muscles became knotted under his flesh. He rubbed it for a moment, spreading the pain, and started with the box. The latch came free with a metal clink, screeching while Mitch opened it fully.
He wished he brought a flashlight, but in the seeping moonlight he saw there were no labels next to any of the black switches, so it didn’t matter. He’d have to do this blind, and hope, and pray he didn’t turn on any of the immensely bright pump lights. On a clear night, the white glare they cast could be spotted from at least three miles away.
His finger flowed over the two rows of switches, strumming like a guitar while he contemplated which one to start with. It stopped in the middle of the second row.
Mitch took a deep breath and clenched his eyes shut tight. He opened them a sliver and flipped the switch to the right.
Please, God. Don’t let the sign outside burst to life.
The lights above his head and in the backroom flickered to life with tiny clicks. Static filled the room, white noise scratching the air from a portable radio on the desk beside him.
“God!” Mitch squealed, grasping his ears to shut out the noise. Then he flipped the switch back to the left, coating the room in silence and dark again.
He went down two switches and snapped that one alive.
The ground around the window outside went white, glistening the grass blades from a light source above the building, or from the other side. The intense brightness spanned the back lawn, spreading up and along the first row of towering corn stalks bordering the far side.
He saw it in his head, every zombie in a three mile radius, dropping the arm or the leg they were chewing on, turning toward the bright glow hanging in the distance.
Mitch turned off the switch then started flipping through the rest, deciding to finish it quick, like a band-aid.
Then it hit him. The cooler was already running. The switch would already be on. He thumbed through the others for no reason.
He pinpointed the only one that was switched in the on position, and turned it off while shaking his head, pissed at himself.
The droning of the generators slowed to a grinding halt, and almost instantly the cool breeze died, giving way to a humid cloud sweeping through the backroom and office.
Phoebe sat amidst a crowd of empty chip bags and peeled candy wrappers. Her fingers were powdery with dry cheddar flakes, chocolate streaks circled her lips like a terrible attempt at putting on lipstick. She leaned against the counter behind her, patting her belly.
“Why did you turn that off?” she asked, sitting herself forward.
Mitch grabbed a candy bar from the basket and squatted beside her.
“You know how moths are attracted to light?” he asked, ripping open his candy bar.
Phoebe cocked her head to the right and squished in her nose. Mitch recognized it as her thinking face.
“Well they are,” he said, taking a bite and chewing. “It’s a mating thing.” A tiny peanut crumb launched from his mouth from talking with his mouth full.
“Mating?” Phoebe asked.
He’d clearly lost her.
“Well if the light’s on, the gooey men will think we’re here, and we don’t want that. So, it’s best we just leave it off.”
“Then why did you turn on the big light, then turn it back off?”
“That was an accident. Didn’t mean to do that one. Let’s just hope no one saw it, cuz we’d need more than just this little thing,” Mitch said, pulling out the gun from behind and setting it on the floor beside him. He finished off the candy bar and tossed the wrapper into Phoebe’s leftovers.
Phoebe rested her head in her hand and yawned.
“You look tired,” Mitch pointed out, yawning himself.
“So do you.”
Mitch thought about the last two days, the butcher, his mom. He reminded himself that he’d smashed his grandmother’s mirror into mother’s head. When they locked eyes, as Mitch drove by the house, he stared into something that was no longer his mother. He vaguely remembered it smiling at him, whatever it was inside his mother’s body.
A shiver shimmied through his spine, sending goosebumps pimpling his neck and arms.
He sifted his hands through the basket, washing his hand through the crinkling chip bags, and snatched out another candy bar. Tears began swelling in his eyes. He looked at Phoebe, checking to see if she’d catch the watery buildup.
She lay on her side, using her stuffed animal as a pillow, fast asleep. He wondered what she’d been through, where her parents were, if they were alive or walking dead.
What am I supposed to do, mom? Take care of this girl? I thought we help others by helping ourselves. That’s what you said.
“That’s what you said,” Mitch whispered to himself. He wiped away a trickling tear from his cheek with his thumb and tore open the candy bar.
He thought about leaving, getting in the truck and just driving. To where? He didn’t know. He supposed it would be the same anywhere. Hiding, running, dying. It didn’t make a difference. It boiled down to where you wanted to die, where you chose to give up.
He couldn’t leave her. Even in this world, the world they found themselves in where rules didn’t matter, where even if you were dead you could still stumble around feeding off of the living. It was wrong, leaving her.
If anything, this little girl that had hidden in the back of Rickerson’s truck for God knows how long, she gave him a reason to procrastinate, to leave the decision up in the air about where he wanted to die. He wasn’t ready to answer that question, and he was certain it hadn’t even crossed this little girl’s mind.Mitch didn’t feel tired as he munched on a delicious combination of caramel and chocolate, but his eyes felt like dumbbells. He didn’t even realize he’d drifted to sleep until he heard metal clattering together outside.
Mitch awoke with a gasp, scrambling for the gun on the floor at his side, feeling like he’d only closed his eyes for a second. He’d almost fired off a frenzied shot when he realized the hollow clanging was coming from outside.He shuffled to his knees and pulled himself up to peek over the register counter. What he saw through the front windows shoveled a lump into his throat. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. The tears were back, and with full force, readying themselves to stream down his cheeks.
His rotted mother, stringy hair covering the sides of her putrid face, stood beside a gas pump, head cocked and smiling.
Join us again next Saturday for the next episode in Mitch's Story - Episode 8 - "Home on the Range"