The tiny gas station’s old wooden door suddenly burst open, spilling sunlight and a man onto the dingy floor within. The door swung on its aged copper hinges and crashed into a pegboard stand of fishing lures to the left of it. Shimmering artificial bait with names like Red Claw and Sexy Swimmer rattled in their plastic packages, pendulating back and forth on dull-grey metal pegs.
Gasping for breath, the man quickly grabbed the bottom corner of the door and slammed it shut. Its latch clicked solidly into place an instant before something large crashed against the door from outside.
The door bucked violently, rattling in its frame as fists insistently beat against it.
The man scrambled to his knees and threw himself against the door. His fingertips gripped the frame as a whimper of despair squeaked from his parched throat. He struggled to hold the door closed from the horror outside as more of the ravenous dead piled against it.
When he saw the doorknob rattling in its mount, he grasped it and twisted the thumb latch, setting the lock. Its reassuring click calmed his fears, but only for a moment. The knob was a flimsy, faux brass contractor-grade model that offered a feeble promise of security at best.
The creatures banged against the door as the man scrambled back, putting as much distance as possible between himself and the evil outside. The thumping of flesh against wood spread out from the door and onto the adjacent walls as more of them gathered. It was then that he heard the terrible screams.
The surge of adrenaline that had fueled his sprint to the gas station was wearing off. As it faded, the reality of the last few moments came flooding back.
He had left them behind. He had left his family to die.
The man filled his lungs with the hot, stagnant air of the abandoned gas station and screamed. As he drew breath between screams, the wails of his wife and son echoed in his ears.
He knelt on the floor and bellowed, helpless to respond to the cries of his family as the dead devoured them.
His wife screamed their son’s name. An image of the horrific event burst to life in the man’s mind. Her scream gave way to a rushing gurgle; his imagination brought to life what he couldn’t see. He tried to push away the gory picture, but it looped in his mind, tormenting him.
The wooden door rattled with each pounding of the dead’s fists. Blades of light flashed from the edges of the door as it shook, threatening to give way.
The sickening sound of tearing cloth and rending flesh seeped under the door and into the gas station, driving the man deeper into grief—and fear.
He trembled with racking sobs as the totality of his failures overwhelmed him. He had failed to provide for his family in the months since they’d fled the dead. They’d starved because of his failure; been parched with thirst because of it. They had spent night after sleepless night fearing the darkness and the ghastly things that lumbered within it.
Now, the only sound the man could hear, other than the mob of dead thumping against the gas station walls, was the crunching of gravel and clicking of teeth as the dead consumed his family.
Their shrieks of pain echoed in his mind.
The cowardice of his actions overpowered his grief. He screamed. He banged his fists in anger, rage and self-loathing against the door, matching the dead’s own drumming beat for beat. The man screamed obscenities at the horrors outside as they sought to get in. He tore at his face with his fingernails and bit his tongue as the fury turned inward. He pressed his head against the door and screamed.
Shadows flickered in the thin slit of light ebbing under the door as blood and dust-caked shoes shuffled on the cement walkway outside.
The man’s eyes followed the long shafts of shadow cast by the legs of a zombie—down to his gun where it lay forgotten on the floor beside him. The gun. His eyes bulged wildly as his shouts and curses descended into a guttural growl of determination. He reached out, snatching the weapon from the floor with a single intent.
He exhaled through his clenched teeth, casting a ball of frothed spittle from his dry, cracked lips, put the gun’s barrel to his temple and pulled the trigger.
He pulled the trigger again.
Again and again, the pistol’s hammer fell on spent rounds.
Each pull of the trigger drove his grief deeper into his heart. He wanted to be released from this mad world, relieved of the pain and shame of abandoning his family to save himself.
He had forgotten that the gun was empty. The bullets wasted as he fired blindly at the dead as his family ran.
Even in suicide, he was a failure. His hands fell limply onto his lap. The gun clunked to the floor.
As the man sobbed, rocking himself back and forth, a thought occurred to him.
The door lock.
Of course! Why should he be allowed a coward’s death when his family had endured so much worse? Why should he suffer only a fleeting moment of pain compared to the agony they bore at the teeth and hands of the dead? Yes, this was the demise he deserved. And from it, he would return to his wife and son.
A sense of peace overtook him. The man reached up and grasped the thumb lock.
As he turned the latch, a shaft of light suddenly appeared through the door above him, followed by another, and another. Slivers of wood rained down on his upturned face as dozens of beams of light burst from the door, piercing the darkened gas station interior. Dust motes swirled in the light carried on invisible currents of air. The loud booms of gunshots echoed from outside.
The dead at the door dropped to the ground, blocking all but a faint glow of sunlight seeping through the threshold.
The man crawled away from the door as bullet holes punched through the drywall and faux paneling of the gas station’s façade. A Sexy Swimmer exploded in its packaging when a bullet tore through the wall behind it. Somewhere in the darkened store, the bullets pitched cans of food off of their shelves. Geysers of soda splattered to the floor as they tore through plastic bottles.
He flinched reflexively while the gunfire grew louder and closer.
Moments after it began, the gunshots slowed and separated; moving away from one another. One drifted off to the rear of the store, its solitary shots slowing almost to a halt as it grew distant. The other came closer to the gas station. The man could hear gravel crunching under the approaching gunman’s shoes. Moments passed without a shot, and then the man heard a gun’s hammer ratchet back, followed by a thunderous crack as a bullet was loosed from the barrel.
Again, there was silence outside. Sporadic pops of gunfire continued behind the store, growing more distant with each shot. But a strange thumping snap drew the man’s attention back to the bullet-riddled door.
Shoes scuffed on the concrete walkway, and stopped. A shadow fell across the door as the gunman’s body blocked the sunlight, bullet holes highlighting his silhouette.
“Hello?” a strange man’s voice called through the door.
A male voice, his words unintelligible, shouted from a distance.
“Yeah. All mine are down,” the stranger yelled back.
More distant garble was answered with, “I swear I saw someone go in!”
“Hello. Are you okay? Can anyone hear me?” the stranger called again. The doorknob rattled in its casing.
The grieving man pulled himself into a ball, hugging his knees, and prayed the strangers would leave.
“There’s two more coming up on your right” the stranger shouted. “No, your other right!” Two distant pops were followed by a moment of silence.
“Thank you,” the stranger called out in a mocking lilt.
“If you can hear me in there,” the stranger said calmly through the door, “I’m coming in. Please don’t shoot me.”
Light danced from hole to hole in the bullet-riddled door as the stranger moved.
The door exploded open, the jam splintering as the locking plate was torn from the doorframe. The man covered his face, shielding it from slivers of wood and the intense sunlight pouring in through the open doorway. The locking plate clanged to the floor, clattering off into the darkness.
The grieving man looked up at the silhouette standing in the doorway. He shielded his eyes from the sunlight streaming in around the stranger. It bathed the unknown man in a godly glow.
The stranger stepped inside, briefly straddling a pile of bodies at the threshold, and stood over the grieving man. The stranger was fairly young, somewhere in his early to mid-thirties, with short brown hair and brown eyes. He wore a dirty SWAT vest, with a weathered leather gun belt and holster hanging at his hip. Tassels tied the holster to the stranger’s thigh as if he were a gunslinger in a Western movie.
“You’re safe now. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
In the stranger’s right hand, he held a shining silver revolver, its hammer cocked back, in his left he carried a weird bludgeoning weapon of carved wood; eagle feathers dangled from the handle on leather tethers. “Sir? Can you hear me?” the stranger asked.
The grieving man stared up at the stranger, trembling.
“Hey, buddy, can you hear me?” After a moment’s pause with no response, the stranger leaned in close and said gently, “You in there?”
The stranger de-cocked his gun and slipped the weapon into its holster, crouching low in front of the grieving man.
“My name’s Ford. What’s yours? Hey man, snap out of it.” Ford reached out and touched the grieving mans knee, giving it a gentle shake.
The grieving man looked past Ford, through the open doorway at what his heart could not bear to know. His hands hovered over his mouth, shaking as a bellow of unbridled grief shook him to his core. Tears welled in his eyes and spilled down his cheeks.
Ford turned and followed the grieving man’s gaze to a pile of bodies in the gravel parking lot, baking in the sun. Among the mass of gore-soaked corpses, a pale white hand, speckled with blood, held the hand of a child— the two locked together in their last moments. An expanding pool of blood draining from their fresh wounds spilled over a slight depression in the dust beneath them. A tiny rivulet of blood ran from it in a winding path, pointing a crimson finger at the grieving man.
“Hey, hey. Don’t look at that,” Ford said soothingly. He turned and pushed the door closed.
The man’s grieving bellows fell to silent, breathless sobbing.
Ford gave the man a moment to grieve. He sat back on his heels, looking passively at the floor as the man cried.
“They didn’t suffer long,” Ford said softly, “I promise.”
The man’s sobbing slowed; his breath coming to him in gasps. Ford’s voice was thick with sympathy when he spoke again.
“As soon as I could…release them, I did. I’m so very sorry for all this.”
Outside, the sporadic crack of gunshots resumed. Their spacing conveyed leisurely shooting. The kind of shots one might take at a target or some other stationary object. The kind one would take as he walked from corpse to corpse, blowing a hole in the heads of those still twitching.
Ford looked at the grieving man and whatever glimmer of hope he had at finding him alive began to fade. Then it completely evaporated as the grieving man pulled a revolver from beneath his feet, put the barrel to his sweat-slicked temple and pulled the trigger.
Ford flinched. The hammer fell with a click on a spent round.
“Hey! Gimme that!” Ford barked, snatching the gun from the grieving man’s hand. The man simply bowed his head and sobbed.
After a moment of gazing at the grieving man’s huddled form, Ford looked away, staring off into the darkness of the gas station. “God forgive me,” he said under his breath.
Ford held up the grieving man’s gun and examined it. Borrowing one of the many shafts of light piercing the door he found the markings stamped into the barrel.
“Crap,” he sighed, “I don’t have bullets for this.” He set the man’s gun at his feet and reached behind himself, retrieving a compact semi-automatic pistol from the small of his back.
With a sigh, Ford ejected the compact’s magazine, set the gun on the ground and flicked each bullet from the magazine, gathering them together in his left hand.
The gunshots outside drew closer.
He dropped all of the bullets but one into a pocket on his vest, slid the single round back into the magazine, loaded it into the gun and racked the slide, chambering the round. Ford held the small gun in his hands for a moment and thought. Outside, the gunshots had lost their intensity. The riotous crack was now a gentler pop, and it was coming closer.
Ford held out his hand to the grieving man. The gun lay flat in his palm. “It doesn’t—”
The grieving man snatched the compact from the Ford’s hand and immediately shoved the barrel into his mouth, squeezed his eyes shut and pulled the trigger.
The gun clicked, its hammer striking the safety plate. The grieving man opened his eyes and looked at Ford, confusion wrinkled his unkempt brow.
Ford leaned in close to the grieving man and carefully took the compact from his hand. It was then that the grieving man saw how deeply sorrow creased the corners of Ford’s eyes.
“I understand what you’re going through,” Ford began. “I know your grief. I know you want to join your family. But it doesn’t have to end this way. You can get through this. I can help you get through the grief—the loss—if you’ll let me.”
Fresh tears welled in the grieving man eyes.
“You can make every good deed you do from now on be a tribute to them. Come with us. Help us keep others from losing their families the way you have, the way I have.”
Ford nodded toward the bullet-riddled door. “The only family I have left now is my brother. He doesn’t understand the pain you and I share. He’s never lost a child. ”
The grieving man stared into the Ford’s eyes. “I need you to make a choice,” Ford continued. “That’s what this is for.” He idly turned the small gun over in his hands. “If you want to go, I understand. I really do. But I’m asking you to, please, please consider staying with us. Think about what I’ve said. You can make it through this. Please, just…let me help you.”
Ford held the man’s gaze for a moment then looked away and held the small gun out, offering it to the grieving man. Cautiously, the man reached out and opened his hand. Ford lay the weight of the gun in the grieving man’s palm, holding it tentatively with his fingertips. Their eyes connected for a moment.
“I’ll be right outside, waiting for you.” Ford clicked off the gun’s safety and relinquished the weapon to the man’s upturned hand.
Ford stood and silently left the shelter of the gas station. The grieving man watched Ford open the door and step into the blinding light of day. Carefully and quietly, Ford tugged the old wooden door closed behind him.
The grieving man sat staring at the door and Ford’s shadow as it jumped from bullet hole to bullet hole, blocking the light.
He listened to Ford walk away, the gravel crunching under his feet as he strode off in the direction of the bodies spoiling in the sun.
The grieving man closed his eyes and thought of his family. Memories of happy times: anniversary’s, birthdays, the birth of his children flashed before him. These reminders of the past didn’t ease the man’s pain. His memories were tainted with their cries for help. The images of his family’s smiling faces were replaced with the torn and mangled horrors his mind dredged up from its depths.
The man wrapped his fingers around the gun’s grip.
He struggled to force the horrific pictures from his mind. His despair grew, while he lost ground in a war against himself.
The man slipped his index finger through the gun’s guard and rested it against the trigger.
The echoes of his wife and son’s screams stripped away the last of his reserve, and with it, his desire to live.
As tears streamed down his face, the grieving man put the gun barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger one last time.
Barrett Shumaker lives in Memphis, TN with his wife and two young sons. When he isn’t writing, or thinking about writing, he’s tweeting or attempting to explore other social media. Barrett has been published online at talesofworldwarZ, werewolfpage and in print at Dark Moon Books: Special Zombie Edition. Visit him at www.barrettshumaker.com