Victor awoke with a start just before daylight. He’d been dreaming the same dream for weeks; every night, he relived fighting the zombie horde outside of the family home. Every night, he experienced those few steps into the sea of undead after he was forced out of the truck. Every night, he relived the pain and despair of being eaten alive as he struggled to reach his son, and failed.
Like every morning, Victor sat up in bed and said out loud, “I won’t let you down again, Max.”
He stood up, stretched the night’s kinks out of his back, and pulled his borrowed clothes on. The backpack in the corner of the room still had books in it, one by on he set them on the desk. “College English Essentials”, “The Norton Field Guide to Writing”, and “Practical Statistical Analysis” went by without a second glance. The last book in the bag was “Oryx and Crake”, by Margaret Atwood. Victor had read that book years before and it had always been one of his favorites. Victor thought if he was going to carry a book of fiction, this particular post apocalyptic story would be a good choice, so he left it in the bag. On top of that he put his now dry pants and tee-shirt. He strapped his gun on his belt and dropped his trusty hatchet into its loop.
When he got downstairs, Mrs. Rotelle was already cooking breakfast in front of the gas stove. “Good morning, Mrs. Rotelle,” said Victor. “That smells heavenly. Do you have a grocery list for me? I’m going to run out to the grocery store for you.”
“Not without a hot breakfast you’re not. It’s cold enough to kill hogs out there, you need something to keep you warm. Besides, you look like you’ve skipped too many meals as it is. Sit down at the table son, it won’t take a minute,” she ordered, handing him a sheet of paper. “Here’s the list, thank you for going to the store for me. All walking up and down the aisles wears an old woman out.”
Victor could find no valid reason to complain other than he didn’t want to mooch any more than he already had, so he sat down at the table. After a short couple of minutes, Leeland entered from the barbershop, wearing a gray suit, wide blue tie, and matching gray fedora. He took his hat off as soon as he entered the room, hanging it on the hat rack in the corner before joining Victor at the breakfast table.
“Are you ready to go to the store, son?” Leeland asked. “What was your name again? I’d better drive you, my old truck’s almost out of gas so we’ll have to stop by Fred’s Service Station on the way home.”
“My name is Victor, Mr. Rotelle, but you can call me Vic. All my family does. I’m ready to go when you are, but… Mrs. Rotelle didn’t give me much choice about sitting down to breakfast. I got the feeling she’d hold me down and spoon feed me if I didn’t eat enough. And I believe she could do it,” Victor chuckled. It felt good to laugh. These people were slightly off kilter, but not harmful at all. He still wondered how they’d managed to survive this long, but he liked them well enough to avoid asking any questions that would destroy their delusions.
Mrs. Rotell entered the room carrying a steaming plate of sausages and a huge bowl of grits. It looked like enough grits to feed a dozen people. Victor had been able to smell the sausages since the minute he walked into the kitchen. “Oh, sausage! I haven’t had breakfast sausage in forever,” he exclaimed. Mother Rotelle rolled four off the serving platter on to Victor’s plate with a smile.
“Is that enough for you? A young boy like you needs strength for a day like today. Are you sure you can’t stay another night? It’s been so nice having someone to talk to,” she said with a wink and a nod towards Leeland. “He’s not much of a conversationalist.”
“No, I really have to be going after I get back from the store. I have to get back to my son, I’ve been gone too long already. I promised him I’d be home last night,” Victor said.
“We understand that,” said Leeland between mouth fulls of grits. “A man’s got nothin’ if he ain’t got his word.”
“That is a true statement indeed,” said Victor, spooning a bite of grit’s into his mouth. “Oh, Mrs. Rotelle, these are fantastic.”
“Why thank you, deary. See Leeland, someone has good taste around here.”
Leeland smiled as he said “The poor boy’s starved half to death. Doesn’t look like he’s eaten right in months, no wonder he likes your cookin’, Mother!”
Victor really liked this couple. They were fun, they jabbed at each other, but it was easy to tell that it was based on decades of love. He forked a sausage in half and ate half a sausage in one mouthful as if to agree with Leeland.
“Don’t forget to chew, Victor.” Mother Rotelle said.
Victor slowed down his chewing, and ate smaller bites for the remainder of his breakfast. When he was done he pushed back from the table feeling full and happy. Leeland followed suit, although he’d only eaten about half of what was on his plate.
“I’m ready whenever you are, Mr. Rotelle,” said Victor.
“Alright son, lets go. Would you hand me my hat?”
Victor took Leeland’s hat off the hat rack and handed it to him. Leeland rolled his hat in his hand with a flourish before parking it on top of his head, and said “Alright son, lets go.”
Victor walked towards the door in the kitchen, the closest door to the truck, followed closely by Leeland. As they stepped out onto the back porch, the elder man handed the keys to the truck to Victor and said “Don’t tell Mother, but you’d better drive. My vision isn’t what it used to be. I’ll ride shotgun,” said Leeland clapping Victor on the back.
Before he could form the words of his response, Victor felt a familiar cold sensation. It was an unmistakable cold; one he’d felt so many times travelling with Leo. Then they were standing in the produce isle of a mega-mart. It took a couple of seconds before it dawned on Victor how Leeland and Mrs. Rotelle had survived.
The smell of rotting food assaulted Victor’s nose. There were piles of vegetables in their stalls, all marked with summertime prices. There hadn’t been a delivery of fresh produce since that day back in early summer; everything on the shelves was at least six months old and either growing some sort of white furry mold or had melted into puddles of goo, which had long-since dried on the floor.
“Oh my, I must be getting old,” said Leeland. “I don’t even remember the trip up here. Did I fall asleep on the way?”
“No, we…” Victor paused, eyeing Leeland. He wasn’t sure if the old man was acting or not. Surely he wouldn’t carry the act this far; he had to really be this delusional. “We made it fine, not a bit of trouble,” Victor said, putting the keys to the truck into his pocket. “It seems like I forgot to get a cart though. I’ll run back and get one.”
Victor walked back towards the front of the grocery store and eased his head around the wall to peer out the front window. There were dozens of the dead out in the parking lot, milling around aimlessly. A pair of gruesome zombies stood right by the doors that led into the airlock where the shopping carts were kept. One of them was missing its entire bottom jaw, his tongue flopped around as he moved, hanging down well past the second button of his gore covered oxford shirt. His upper teeth were mostly broken, and drool ran down his tongue neck-tie and dripped on to a substantial beer gut underneath. The other was more intact, missing only a chunk of her cheek. Her blackened teeth were visible through the hole in her face as she opened and closed her mouth. She was wearing ripped sweat pants and a shredded tee shirt. Victor wondered briefly if they’d been that ripped up prior to the apocalypse. Heading into the airlock to get a shopping cart wasn’t an option. He’d have to find one inside the store somewhere.
Leeland watched Victor back away from the window with his hand on his gun. Leeland noted that as Victor backed around behind the check-out lanes, his eyes never stopped moving. He was constantly aware of his surroundings, looking for threats down any isle and behind every display. The man paused for a second at the entrance to the cereal isle, then darted down the row. Victor returned a second later with a shopping cart already full of canned goods from behind one of the registers. “Definitely not a hippy, he moves like a soldier. Reminds me of myself back in the day,” Leeland thought to himself proudly.
Victor returned with the cart he had found in the cereal isle, and pulled out Mother Rotelle’s list, and marveled at its organization.
1 large bag of frozen, skinless chicken breasts (found in the freezer section)
1 package low-fat sliced chicken or turkey deli meat
24 ounces eye of round beef steaks
1 package turkey burgers
½ pound turkey sausage
1 package turkey bacon
1 pound ground turkey
1 New York choice lean sirloin steak
1 container old-fashioned oatmeal
1 package of whole-wheat tortillas
1 box low-fat whole-wheat frozen waffles
1 package whole-wheat English muffins
1 package pita bread
1 loaf whole-wheat bread
1 package whole-wheat hamburger buns
1 box whole-wheat spaghetti
1 stalk celery
1 portion water chestnuts
1 portion scallions
1 jar dill pickles
2 bags spinach leaves
3 fresh tomatoes
2 bags frozen carrots
1 bag Romaine lettuce
2 bags frozen broccoli
2 sweet potatoes
1 head lettuce
1 can whole tomatoes
1 bag fresh mushrooms
2 cans kidney beans
No matter how well the list was organized, most of it just wasn’t available. Victor eyed the produce section where he and Leeland were standing. Victor pushed the cart in front of him, to where the onions were. Those on top had sprouted, but were still good. Underneath there were several bags of onions that hadn’t sprouted. Victor put two of those in the cart. He rooted around the potato section, and found the ones that had been individually shrink-wrapped for baked potatoes seemed firm and in good shape. He put two dozen in the cart.
Across the department there was a display of acorn and butternut squash, they seemed firm and fine, so he put a couple of those in the cart. That pretty well covered the fresh produce section, which he was anxious to get away from.
In the middle aisles, he grabbed boxes of whole grain cereals, several tubs of oats and a twenty pound sack of stone ground grits. The cart already had several of every type of canned fruit and vegetable in it, but he stopped off at the Chef Boyardee section and picked up a dozen cans of Max’s favorite raviolis. He loaded up the cart, making sure he had some sort of canned version of everything Mother Rotelle had asked for. Canned chicken, canned ham, canned chipped beef, every can of tuna, and several packets of salmon went into the cart.
In the dried foods section he loaded up with powdered milk, butter flavored sprinkles, popcorn and beef jerky, as well as coffee and tea and several dozen bottles of coffee creamer.
As Victor put the last of the coffee creamer in the basket “She had all that on her list?”
“Yep, and a few more items. We still have to see what’s left in the dairy section,” Victor replied, turning the corner into what was perhaps the most disgusting part of the store. The smell of rotten eggs battered his nose. Gallon and half-gallon jugs of milk had expanded until the plastic tops could no longer hold the pressure, exploding chunky rotten milk all over the shelves, floor and even on the ceiling. Victor was after two things; ultra-pasteurized vacuum sealed tubs of margarine, and a few blocks of his favorite processed cheese-food, both of which would still be edible for years to come. He was able to find both that weren’t too covered in gooey mostly dried milk chunks, and threw several packages of each in the cart.
“Alright Mr. Rotelle, that’s it,” Victor said turning the cart.
“They really should get someone to clean this mess up,” Leeland said, motioning to the milk everywhere. “This store is going to the pits. I think this is the last time I shop here.”
“We’ll let them know there’s a clean up on Isle 18 if we see someone up front,” Victor said, still unsure whether or not Leeland was all there and just pretending or if he’d really lost all his marbles.
When they reached the check out counters, Victor purposely stalled and let Leeland pick which one they went through. He stepped into the one nearest the raised managers area. Victor followed him with the cart, and Leeland stood there for a minute. “Where is everybody gone?” he asked.
“I don’t know, Leeland. But we probably shouldn’t be standing right here. The parking lot looks a little dangerous. Bunch of crazies walking around out there.”
Leeland looked outside and said, “Fuckin’ pinko hippies. They do look kinda dangerous. I’ll just leave my card and the list here, so they don’t think we stolt all the stuff, and we can make a break for the truck. You ready?” he asked, laying his hand on the cart.
“Leeland, I don’t think…” Victor started, but the chill cut off his words, and then they were standing in the driveway.
“What were you saying, son? Musta dozed off in the truck again, last thing I remember you saying was in the store, something about them commie bastards outside.”
“Doesn’t matter now,” Victor replied looking behind Leeland. “But we should get inside, there’s a group of crazies coming up the driveway.”
“Mother!” Leeland shouted. “There’s another group of them commies comin’.”
“Push the cart up to the door please, Leeland,” Victor said, drawing his Sig from it’s holster. I’ll hold ’em here.”
Mother Rotelle stepped out onto the porch holding an AR15 rifle with ACOG scope and suppressor on the barrel. “Get on outta here,” she yelled, raising the rifle to her shoulder. “Boys, get on in the house with them groceries,” She squeezed off three rounds, dropping three of the zombies where they stepped. The action of the rifle knocked her back a step, but she firmed up her stance and said again, “Get in the house, now!”
Victor squeezed the trigger on his pistol, clipping one just above the nose. Blood sprayed out behind it coating two zombies behind with blood and brains before he holstered it. He stepped two feet to the left, grabbed the whole shopping cart full of canned goods and heaved it up onto the porch. Leeland, who was already up on the porch, pushed the cart inside the house.
“If there’s one thing I hate about this place, It’s all the fuckin’ zombies,” Mrs. Rotelle said, squeezing the trigger. The AR was fully automatic. She never missed. The kick of the rifle knocked the tiny woman back three steps, but she didn’t miss a single shot, from almost 100 yards at full auto firing speed.