Hell Breaks Loose - Episode 8 - "Home on the Range"
Mitch stared at his dead mother, smiling like a kid about to dig into a Big Mac. She stood, bathed in creamy moonlight, holding a gas pump gun in her hand, still dressed in her nightgown though now it was quite a bit more bloodied and soaked with her own phlegm-colored fluids. Her eyes sunk deep into her head, cheeks sagging from the bone. The hair on her head was thinning, gone in patches. She cocked back the nozzle and swatted it against the empty garbage can beside the pump, producing the clanging noise he’d heard. She did it again, and again.
Mitch looked over his shoulder at Phoebe who was still sound asleep, undisturbed. He closed his eyes, clearing away the tears, and hoisted himself to his feet.
His footsteps seemed louder, like they bounced off the walls at ten times the normal volume. His hear beat pounded behind his eyes, blood running cold. He walked around the counter and put his hand on the pushbar of one of the front doors.
She slammed it into the garbage can faster, harder, then slowed again, like a fit of anger swept over her.
Can they get angry? Can they feel emotion? Can SHE feel anything anymore?
The door groaned as he pushed it open and stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the gas station. The gun hung at his side, finger hovering over the trigger.
His mother dropped the pump, mission accomplished. A sickly, yellow and rotted smile peeled back over purple bloated gums. A maggot slithered over her tongue and disappeared down her throat, leaving a clear trail of goop behind it.
Mitch’s lips nervously pouted, uncontrollably so as his eyes teared up. His arms and legs went stiff, joints hard as rock. He stepped off the sidewalk, down onto the pavement, moonlight washing over his trembling frame. He was face to face with the corpse of his mother.
The truck was still parked in the same spot he’d left it, just off to his left now.
His mother wobbled back and forth, struggling to balance herself up with a dead equilibrium, but still her smile persisted, eyes glued to Mitch.
Mitch let out a deep breath and gritted his teeth, shaking his head in denial.
“Get out of here,” Mitch said, to himself, knowing she wouldn't understand him. “Go on. Get!”
A childish, yet evil coo shoved its way through his mother’s gritted smile. Her lips shifted from a smile to a snarl as she took a few steps forward, sliding her hand over the top of the pump. A stringy tendril of glistening spit flopped from her bloody maw, soaking into the collar of her nightgown.
His mother took another fleshy footstep closer and Mitch took aim, raising the gun from his side, aiming right between her peepers.
“Don’t!” he shrieked, spitting saliva, squeezing tears from his eyes. “Don’t come any closer!”
Her smile widened, amused, and her head jerked at odd angles, shoulders bobbing along with it. She took another step.
“You’re stupid! So fucking stupid! Stop! Not one more step!”
She contorted her fingers into a fist, popping her knuckles like bubble wrap, then took yet another step.
Mitch closed his eyes and squeezed the trigger. The gunshot rang in his ears, deafening all other noise.
The ground in front his mother’s foot burst into a plume of dust and pavement crumbs. She stared down at it for a moment, then smiled and looked back at Mitch.
“Why didn’t you listen to me!? We wouldn’t be here! We’d be home…together. I wouldn’t have left. All you had to do was fucking eat something!”
Mitch rubbed away his tears with the back of his hand, finally understanding he couldn’t blame her for what he did.
“Just go away, Mom! I don’t wanna shoot you! It shouldn’t be this way, but I did this. I did this to you. I can’t fix it.”
Then it hit him, like a freight train hauling the maturity he didn’t have before. Inside, Phoebe slept, and if she was hungry, he didn’t know why, but he would give her his food if it came down to that. He would give her his water. He didn’t know where it came from, whether it rubbed off on him from his mother, or it was an inherent human condition to care for a child, though it wasn’t yours, it was there. He got it, like some great cosmic joke, by George he got it. But when it was all stripped away, he still forgot to lock the backdoor, and now here he stood, face to face with his mom. This was the great puzzle being put together, and Mitch still wasn’t ready to decide where he wanted to die.
But still, his mother took another barefooted, feet-slapping step forward, reeling back to start into a run.
Then Mitch saw them, hiding out in the ditch by the road. The moonlight shimmered against the fluids on their faces, the blood sparkling in the white light. He saw their blinking eyes, glossy and reflecting. There were dozen’s of them, watching, observing, testing him. The dead had set up a trap.
This was bait? What the fuck?
The door behind Mitch whined, then slammed shut.
Phoebe! Oh God!
Mitch peeked over his shoulder and there stood Phoebe, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and clutching her stuffed animal against her chest.
“Get back inside, Phoebe! Now!” Mitch barked.
He looked back at his mother, who was jumping into a sprint, her mouth and teeth ready to rip through flesh.
“Mom, no!” Mitch screamed.
Mitch popped off a shot. Phoebe covered her ears with her hands and screamed.
The bullet whizzed through his mother’s cheek and erupted like a geyser through the back of her ear in a trail of red mist and stringy muscles, smashing into the gas pump behind her.
She spun with the bullet and lost her footing, crashing into the pavement face first. Her teeth snapped and skittered over the ground. Rocks and gravel dug into the soggy skin of her face and gums.
A spark ignited, like a fiery flower blooming, jumping from the gas pump.
Mitch grabbed Phoebes arm and hoisted her up, opening the gas station’s door and leaping inside.
A wall of heat scorched the back of Mitch’s shirt, ruffling through his hair like piping hot tornado winds, bursting with a heavy WHUMP!
Then Mitch’s sight and hearing lapsed as the gas pump detonated in a black and orange fireball, blasting off the roof that covered all the pumps from downpours, rocking it forward and free of the struts that held it up, shaking the ground.
The entire window display that made up the front of the gas station shattered inward, showering Mitch and Phoebe, who huddled into one another, with glass shard.
The pillar of fire rose into the night, churning smoke and flame.
Mitch shook free the glass covering both him and Phoebe and looked through the gaping windows.
The ditch by the road lit up, like a flare burned above it. There must have been fifty zombies hunkered in the trench, waiting to see how the whole thing played out, testing whatever defenses the gas station proved to have.
His mother pushed herself onto her knees with her arms then leveled the flats of her feet to the pavement, rising and smiling, ready for the kill. Blood ran down her chin, gums split open.
The roof over the gas pumps crashed into the ground, squashing her into a wet pulp of rotted flesh and shattered bone. The tin of the roof curled into itself, under its own weight, burying her from sight.
Mitch wanted to cry as he watched her crushed to death under the debris, but he knew she’d already been in a better place before that. She’d died yesterday. What she was now, it wasn’t his mother. But, what was it. What was inside of her? What was smiling at him?
He tightened his jaw, knowing it was for the best and fought back the pointless tears.
Mitch stood up and pulled Phoebe to her feet.
"Don't open your eyes yet, Phoebe," Mitch warned.
He swatted the glass from her hair and clothes, taking care around her eyes, then looked back to the ditch.
"Okay, you can open 'em now."
The dead were shambling their way up the divot, sprinting across the parking lot, fumbling and hopping over the debris from the explosion. Flaming balls of shrapnel and chunks of metal showered the parking lot and pump area, slicing down zombies by the handful, only to be replaced by hungrier zombies scrambling down and out of the ditch.
Phoebe screamed and Mitch shoved her through the door into the backroom. He turned and pulled off a few shots at the closest zombies.
One took a bullet through the nose and slammed into the sidewalk, skidding across into the building. Another bullet zipped through a zombie’s neck, throwing off his rhythm, crashing him to the ground in a roll.
Mitch aimed at a female zombie climbing through the shards of the broken window and fired, blasting off the top of her head, spraying brain bits onto the zombie behind her.
When the gun clicked dry, he ran into the backroom and locked the deadbolt behind him.
Got it this time.
Phoebe cuddled in the fetal position by the enormous industrial sink, squeezing the bear tight, bulging out the stuffing inside. Her eyes were glassy and she shivered like she’d just come in from a harshly cold January evening. She squeezed the bear tighter and clenched her eyes shut, propelling tears down the rounds of her rosy cheeks.
The fire in the pump area glowed through the window in the office, casting it into an intense and bouncing orange.
“I’m scared,” she whispered to her bear. “Mitch?”
Mitch leaned his back against the door, staring into the darkness of the ceiling, but not all together there. His mind was still watching his mother, that sickening smile plastered to her decaying lips, and the zombies that watched and waited for the right time to attack.
What were they doing? Was I baited?
He bounced his head against the door, listening to the hinges rattle. Any moment, the fists would punch, palms slap against it, wanting to get through. There were still at least two dozen left, the ones who made it through the shower of flames and passed Mitch’s gunfire.
There were enough of them to break down the door. It was sturdy and thick, and the dead bolt was strong, but all it would take was time.
He heard the flames roaring on the other side of the door, licking the crisp night air as it cackled. Glass crunched under dozens of running dead feet. Hungry grunts and sighs seeped through the cracks of the door.
The door rumbled, shoving Mitch forward and spinning around. He backed away, watching the door tremble in its frame under a barrage of fists and shoulder ramming. The dead bolt rattled in sync with the thuds of attack.
Then Mitch saw it, the creamy moonlit outline of a roof hatch above a steel ladder bolted to the wall.
“Phoebe, stop crying.”
She ignored him, continuing to sob quietly.
“They’re gonna get in,” she said. “They’re gonna kill us.” She looked up at him.
“We're gonna' be fine. They're not gonna' get us,” Mitch said, turning to face her. “We’re goin up there!” Mitch pointed at the roof hatch.
The door went quiet, finally resting still. They both paused and stared at it, expecting something big to burst in at any moment. Nothing happened. No more fists, no more kicking, prodding or ramming. The grunts and sighs disappeared, leaving silence.
“Why did they stop?” Phoebe asked, almost afraid to make a sound. It scared her that they had stopped. It meant they were planning something else, something they couldn’t see.
“Looking for another way in I guess. They’re smart, and I think they’re getting smarter everyday,” Mitch said, thinking about the window in the office, not five feet from where they were. If they were looking for another way in, and Mitch was sure by now that they were, it wouldn’t take them long to find that window. When they poured through, it would be over.
“Come on!” Mitch held out his hand. “Stop crying, because you’re not dying. I’m watching out for you. I'm...” he stopped. He looked at her tear-soaked face, those tiny eyes that aren't okay, not alone. "I'm gonna' take care of you."
Phoebe placed her tiny hand in Mitch’s and he pulled her to her feet with a grunt.
"You're going first," Mitch said.
“I’m not afraid of heights,” Phoebe said. Mitch lifted her up by the waist, raising her higher up the ladder. “Just wanted you to know that. So don’t think I’m a little ‘fraidy cat.”
“I don’t think you’re a ‘fraidy cat at all. You’re a very brave little girl.”
Phoebe climbed up the ladder to the roof hatch, feet clanging on the steel rungs, vibrating the ladder. She reached up with one hand to push the latch up. It moved a few inches then stopped, caught by a safety lock.
“You’ll have to free the lock, then open it,” Mitch said from the base of the ladder. “It should be right above the ladder, on the edge there. You just twist it.”
She looked around the edges of the hatch, locking her eyes just above her head.
“I see it!”
Phoebe played with the safety lock, struggling to turn it free. Rust flakes fell into her eyes and mouth as she fought it, twisting with her thumb and forefinger with as much might as her tiny fingers would allow. It slid with the unease of an old man into a hot bathtub.
Mitch watched, swiping his hand through the air at any stray flakes that fell past Phoebe.
The glass of the window in the office drummed, a wet hand slapping then sliding against it.
“Ugh, Phoebe? Maybe you could go a little faster?”
Shadows began blotting out the orange glow in the office, rising a deep darkness across the backroom.
“It’s not as easy as it looks. This thing doesn’t wanna move!”
She rose her foot, hooking her legs around the ladder rungs, freeing up her other hand. With both sets of fingers, the latch gave faster, but still fought every step of the way.
“Are you twisting it!?” Mitch yelped. Frustration kept him edging from one heel to the next. It was up to her.
The grunts of the dead grew louder, echoing throughout the office, shadows flickering back and forth. Then a fist exploded through the window, spraying glass across the office floor. Dozens of grubby and mutilated hands followed, shoving their way through.
“Phoebe! For Christ’s sake!” Mitch shouted, voice bouncing with fear of time that was running out, quickly. “Twist!”
She’d been so focused on the latch, she hadn’t heard the window shatter.
The latch clicked free of its safety bolt and Phoebe lost her balance. As she fell backward, legs still hooked around the wrungs, she caught herself.
“Got it!” she shouted, catching her breath and hoisting herself upright.
“Go!” Mitch barked, already starting to climb up. “Climb, climb, climb!”
Zombies spilled into the office, shredding their rotted flesh on the broken window, tripping their way over the sill. They fumbled to their feet, using each other as leverage as more fell inside, mouths gaping and growling with drool.
Phoebe opened the hatch, pushing it up and back, and scurried out onto the gravel roof. She squatted on her hands and knees, peeking back down the ladder while Mitch scrambled his way up.
“They’re coming, Mitch!” she shouted. “Climb!”
She watched as zombies tore from the office and latched onto Mitch’s legs. One wearing a mechanic’s uniform sprinted into a leap, stomach landing on the shoulders and heads of other zombies, and wrapped his bony arms around Mitch’s lower back.
Mitch strained to keep his grip on the ladder under the weight of their pulling and the zombie on his back. He felt the tendons in his neck bulging, ready to snap free the tension that was mounting, stiffening them. The muscles in his arms stretched and burned. Blood swelled in his fingers hooked around the steel wrungs, throbbing and whining for him to give up. His ankles racked, thighs pulling from their sockets.
His pants slid down, constricting around his waist and his torso went hot. The gun fell from his waistband, crashing into the upper lip of a zombie about to gnaw into the back of Mitch’s ankle. The zombie disappeared below a mass of bloodied and rotted hands.
“Mitch! No!” Phoebe cried. It sounded almost like a warning, Mitch thought.
He looked up at her silhouetted by moonlight, hair dangling down. Her eyes scrunched in and she turned away. She was seeing something he wasn’t.
The zombie, wrapped around his lower back, sank its teeth into the soft tissue of his side, below the ribs.
Mitch screamed out, arching back while one of his hands slipped, dropping him an inch lower, but it was more than enough for more zombies to get their hands on his legs.
It felt like the worst blood squeezing, baseball sized, pinch that only grew bone grindingly worse. He gritted his teeth, trying to subside the pain, or at least divert it, but even they felt like they were going shatter. His soiled shirt mingled with the zombie’s teeth and the exposed sinewy muscle it clamped into. The canines of the zombie’s jaw dug deeper, like knives carving out a plump thanksgiving turkey, slicing through muscle.
Mitch swung his elbow back, crushing the zombie’s nose. It held strong like a dog on an intruder. He slammed his elbow again, this time punching through one of the zombie’s eyes, spilling yellowy eye goop that stuck to his elbow like melted cake frosting.
The zombie let go with a painful shriek that could crack glass. It fell like a cement block, taking the crowd around Mitch’s feet with it as it slammed to the concrete floor.
Mitch screamed again as he lifted his leg up a wrung. The pain stiffened his leg and back, flickering like lightening bolts up his shoulders and neck. His side burned, shirt clinging to the wound like a wet sock. The breeze bursting through the broken office window lapped over the wound, tingling and cooling it, though it still felt like a burning coal. He fought through the pulsing pain, through the rigidness that was strangling his joints.
“I got you!” Phoebe assured, grabbing handfuls of Mitch’s shirt to help pull him up.
Below, the zombies were already back on their feet, scaling the ladder with fierce agility.
Mitch lifted himself up and through the hatch, collapsing onto the gravel roof, face up. His breathing was hard, rough, and he couldn’t get enough air. His vision faded, stars sparkling in his peripherals. Phoebe’s voice was muffled and he couldn’t make out what she was saying, something about the hatch. All he knew was that his side was on fire, and not moving seemed to be the best relief.
“Phoebe…” Mitch said, drifting in and out.
He rolled onto his side, grinding gravel beneath him, smearing dirt on his t-shirt.
Phoebe sat on the closed roof hatch, bouncing up and down while zombies underneath her tried shoving their way up. Her mouth moved, but no sound came out, at least none that Mitch’s distant ears could perceive, then he realized he was going to pass out.
“If you’re gonna pass out, Mitch, do it on this hatch!” Phoebe screamed.
Mitch crawled over, laid on the hatch, and started surrendering to the cold that was crawling through his body.
Phoebe paced back and forth beside him while the orange flames of the pumps continued their roaring behind her. Smoke billowed into the air like black pillows, churning up into the night with an oily burning stench.
Another pump ignited, shaking the building’s foundations, and brightening the roof in a warm glow. A wall of heat spread like a tidal wave while a fiery plume clawed at the sky.
Phoebe curled up next to Mitch as tiny crumbs of debris rained over them, like fiery hail.
Mitch’s eyes grew heavier, even as the zombies pounded the hatch beneath him. He knew when they closed, there would be no waking him up, not this time. He thought about death, being with his parents, up in the sky, and decided it wouldn’t be so bad. Phoebe was safe, for the time being. His dead body would ensure they wouldn’t get up onto the roof. He felt warmth spilling from his side wound, a clammy wetness puddling around him.
As his final sleep raced through his limbs, begging him to close his eyes, a blaring horn pried them open.
He looked over, no energy to speak of, and saw Phoebe staring at something out in the field behind the gas station, something shining an intense light, brighter and whiter than the raging fire of the pumps.
Mitch lifted himself upright, flexing his abs to ease the pain of the chunk missing in his side. He shivered, losing body heat and quite a bit of blood. The world was blurry, sound distant like it was being whispered into his ear through a funnel.
Phoebe jumped up and down, waving her hands, screaming.
The white light edged to the side of the building, coming free of the cornfield, rolling around to the side of the roof closest to Phoebe.
“Phoebe, get away from there!” Mitch shouted, but it came out a whisper.
The bouncing hatch below Mitch stopped and then he heard the sound accompanying the light. It was the huff and puff of a diesel engine, chugging and belching exhaust.
The light darted to the parking lot, illuminating dozens of sagging faces and their yellowing clothes.
“You guys stay put!” a voice shouted over a loud speaker, coming from behind the spot light.
Phoebe ran to Mitch, crunching gravel beneath her sneakers.
“It’s a tractor, Mitch! There’s two guys!” she said, shaking him, unaware that he was bleeding out. “Mitch, what’s wrong?” Her eyes wandered down his side to the dark red stain, now the size of a dinner plate and still growing.
“Oh…” She said, sitting back. “Oh, no.”
“It’s ok,” Mitch wheezed. He grabbed her small hand and squeezed it tight. “It doesn’t even hurt…” he said, trailing off.
Gunshots echoed from the far side of the roof, and Mitch heard the bodies of the dead flopping onto the pavement.
Phoebe put both of her hands over the wound and shoved against it, and didn’t stop. She squished in her face and grit her teeth, straining to keep her strength against the wound.
Mitch screamed as pain spider webbed around his back, curling up the back of his head.
“Why…” a cough tackled its way up Mitch’s throat. “Why are you doing that?”
“Saw it on TV.”
Mitch slammed his head into the hatch, diverting the pain.
"If I turn into one of those things..." Mitch said, gulping a wad of blood and spit.
Phoebe lifted his head and looked into his pained eyes.
"You're not turnin' into one of them, I won't let you," she said, squishing in her lip.
She looked over her shoulder at the light, at the men.
“They’ve got guns,” Phoebe said. “We’re gonna be ok. You’re gonna be ok.”
Mitch couldn't heard Phoebe saying any more, he was already settling into the darkness. He’d passed out.