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By Robin Tidwell
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About this project

Chapter One

She took the phone call out in the hallway.

“No names. It’s time. Are you okay?”

“Yes. I’ll be taking the side roads.”

“Good. Someone needs to be picked up. See you soon. Good luck.”

Abby tapped her Bluetooth and disconnected. She stepped back into the locker room and cautiously peered around the corner. The office at the far end of the room had the curtains pulled shut tightly; she knew what that meant. She closed her eyes for a moment, saying a prayer, but only for a moment. It didn’t pay at all to be unobservant.

She jumped when the curtain in the shower cubicle to her right moved slightly. A scarred, bleeding face looked out, directly into Abby’s eyes, and a pale hand clutched at the curtain.

“Go,” said the dying girl. “You can’t help us.” Abby turned and left.

She hurried down the hallway, ever vigilant; her ears strained for the sounds of the living, her eyes moved rapidly as she watched for survivors. Or anyone. Finally outside, she broke into a run for her black truck parked in the back of the lot. She scanned the area, realizing how glad she was to have stopped in this particular parking space earlier in the day; there were almost no other vehicles nearby.

Checking the interior before opening the door, as well as the bed of the truck, Abby jumped into the seat, locked the doors, and strapped on the seatbelt. Making a rather wild turn and gunning the engine, she pulled out onto the road.
Be calm, she told herself; you have to think in order to survive. Once you get to where you’re going, maybe you can relax a bit. Maybe. Everyone else will be there too; you’ll be among friends, old friends, and good ones. The best. Well, most of them. Probably.

Abby raced down the street. There were a few cars on the side of the road, not many. Schools were still on summer vacation right now, but sports practices were starting up this first week of August. That’s why Abby had been at the gym, starting her coaching job for the fourth straight year.

It was hot and humid, the sun bright overhead. Abby tried not to think of her boss and longtime friend, Deb, who she’d left behind in that back office. She knew it was too late, even Deb had told her so. Get out, she’d said. Leave now. Go. And Abby had done so.

She pulled into the first gas station she saw ahead. Quickly she scanned the area. Two cars at the pumps, unoccupied. One, a red Camaro, by the door to the convenience store, engine idling. She parked by the pump farthest from the building, jumped out and scanned her card in the machine. While the gas began flowing into the truck’s tank, she realized that, in all likelihood, there was no one alive in that store. Certainly, she could see nothing from her vantage point.
Impatiently, Abby waited for the tank to finish filling, wishing that she’d had a couple gas cans in the back. She knew she didn’t have much time; staying in one spot too long probably wasn’t smart.

Abby clicked off the hose and, making sure that her .357 was tucked securely in the back of her jeans, walked towards the door of the convenience store. She opened it slowly, scanning the interior.

Surprisingly, there was a clerk behind the counter. A live one. One who was functioning, and appeared to be perfectly healthy albeit scared to death. Of course, thought Abby. Everyone is scared to death. Or should be.

As she walked over to a display of beef jerky and other snacks, Abby tried to give the clerk a reassuring smile. She began gathering packages of jerky, pretzels, chips, a few candy bars. In a quick moment, Abby saw another reason for the clerk’s fear: three other people were standing by the beer case.

They were survivors, yes. But they weren’t normal. Probably hadn’t been normal for some time, mused Abby, and it had nothing to do with what was happening now. The ringleader, apparently, was waving around a handgun and laughing loudly; he had slick, dark hair and pale skin. Eh, good-looking enough, thought Abby. Seems the two girls with him thought so, anyway. They were posing and giggling, couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. For a moment, Abby almost felt sorry for them. Then they turned, all three, and stared at her.

Her sympathy fled, and all her senses went on high alert.

These three weren’t trying to buy booze, they weren’t just hanging out. They were evil, all of them, with soulless eyes and carefully blank faces now, looking for trouble. Abby wasn’t thrilled to be the one to bring it to them, but she certainly wasn’t going to back down.

“So,” said the kid, obviously younger than Abby by a few years at least. “What brings you here this fine day?” His sidekicks/girlfriends/accessories just giggled. “I mean, what’s a pretty thing like you doing here all by your lonesome?” He gestured with his sidearm, seemingly unaware of its presence.

Another careless gesture of the gun and the blond girl hanging on his free arm moved swiftly to Abby’s side, knocking the snacks out of her arms and onto the floor. Abby’s eyes narrowed, but she said nothing.

The second girl, mousy brown hair in her eyes, looked at Abby and smirked. But Abby saw something else there now; the telltale signs, in her eyes, on her face. The girl brushed back her hair and Abby gasped.

In one swift movement, Abby shoved the blond girl to the floor and whipped out her gun. She shot the boy first; he was armed after all, then took careful aim at the second girl. Whispering, “I’m sorry,” she pulled the trigger. She’d heard what would be in this girl’s future and she wanted to stop it. The girl dropped like a stone. The blond was on her feet and running for the counter. “Stop,” shouted Abby. The girl spun in her tracks, and Abby fired again. It was over almost as quickly as it had begun.

The clerk stood up shakily from behind the counter; she’d disappeared as soon as the kids had started hassling Abby. “Are you okay?” asked Abby. The clerk nodded. “I have to go,” Abby told her. “I suggest you do the same. Find someplace safe.” The clerk nodded again, as Abby headed for the door.

“Wait,” she croaked, finally finding her voice. “Take whatever you need; no one else will be in today.” She smiled crookedly. “I mean, it’s all just going to sit here….” Her voice trailed off.

Abby didn’t need a second invitation. She grabbed a plastic basket from a stack near the door, looking quickly out the bank of windows for any new arrivals, and began loading it up with peanut butter, beef jerky, and canned soups. She set the full basket by the door and started filling another.

Within minutes, she heard the sound of a revving engine and looked up to see the clerk’s car leaving the lot, gravel flying. She ran outside and pulled her truck up to the door, loaded several baskets in the bed, then dragged out a couple cases of bottled water. She hesitated, then ran back inside.

Knowing she had to keep a clear head, Abby resisted opening a cold beer from the case she’d added to her stash, but she did pause long enough to light a smoke before pulling out onto the road. Now, she had to make it to Emmy’s house. Alive, she added to herself, strapping on her seatbelt.

Traffic was light. Duh, she said. At that moment, it hit her: the sickness, the death, her friends, her family, the escape, the shoot-out at the gas station. Abby pulled over, dropped her head to the steering wheel, and cried.

Some minutes later, she stopped. Just like that. She had a job to do, probably several jobs yet, and she had no time to be sentimental. Or to remember. Get it together, she said. Now. So she did. She popped open a can of Pepsi, lit another cigarette, and got back on the road. Her cell phone rang.

“Abby, where are you?” came a whispered voice. “Hurry up!”

“Almost there, Emmy, hang on…about ten more minutes if all goes well.” Abby pushed the accelerator, hearing an edge of fear in Emmy’s voice and not liking that one bit. Emotions were running high; both girls had forgotten the “no names” rule but Abby was fairly sure that was a little overdramatic anyway. I mean, she thought, it’s not like “they” know who we are anyway.

The truck careened off the highway onto a lesser road, a two-lane blacktop. Abby righted the truck and pointed it in a straight line down the middle, really the only way to avoid the few scattered, abandoned vehicles on the shoulder. She pressed the accelerator, moving almost too quickly to take note of a few drivers slumped in their seats; most likely it was too late for them.

She pulled into a gravel driveway, ready to click her Bluetooth and call Emmy, but the front door of the old frame house flew open and her best friend came rushing out towards the truck. Abby lowered the window just enough to push the muzzle of the .357 through. “Stop,” she said. Emmy skidded to a halt, and Abby studied her face, her eyes. “Alright,” she said, “Come on!” She lowered the window so Emmy could check as well, standard procedure in which they’d been drilled the last few weeks. Just this morning, it hadn’t been standard at all.

Emmy ran around to the passenger door; Abby unlocked it and relocked it almost in one motion, and stuck her gun back between her seat and the console. The girls hugged, clinging together for a brief moment, then Abby spoke.

“Deb’s gone. And Sam. The rest are waiting.”

Emmy bit her lip, her eyes began to fill. “Okay.” She took a deep breath. “We better go.”

Abby turned the truck around, pulled back onto the two-lane, and turned right, avoiding the highway. From here on out, they were fugitives from whatever-the-heck was happening and the lower a profile they kept, the better for everyone. Once they all gathered, the situation would improve; how could it not? Friends for years, those meeting today at the prearranged site came from all walks of life, each bringing a different skill set, yet all united by one common goal: survival.

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