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All Jeanette has are the dreams of her former life, and even those are starting to fade.
Welcome to Coma Wagon: The realm of nightmares on a never ending trail toward the truth...
She crawled underneath the old Datsun pickup. The rough asphalt scraped the skin of her stomach beneath the worn t-shirt. Closely she scrutinized the building across the street for signs of movement. A difficult task as the moon was only a quarter full tonight. Easily they could be lurking in the shadows undetected. No tell-tale aura that outlined them in the light of day.
Her stomach rumbled. She knew there was food in that place. There had to be. Maybe a good variety of can goods, chips, bottled drinks and jerky. How long had it been since she tasted meat?
A small town combination Diner and General Store. The big cities had been wiped clean of such human establishments. The great monoliths with their towering spires now commonplace. New York, Dallas, Boston, Miami and who knew how many others had become their cities now.
But here, in the more rural areas. And she wasn't even sure exactly where she was anymore. One of the Dakota's maybe? Wyoming? It was getting cold here. Wherever here might be.
She had become the scurrying rat, traveling this way and that, scavenging for any small morsel and comfort.
It was most likely a trap. Had she not seen it before? Some wandering, starving innocent lured in to never wander back out again. She was smarter than that. She knew how they operated.
Her stomach growled again.
An image of Randy flashed through her thoughts. A memory of them lying in bed as the sun came up. He was smiling and teasing her about her less than fashionable, rounded figure. Her broad hips and rounded ass. She had smacked him smartly with a pillow. His laughter had filled the room as he swatted it aside, gathering her up in his arms, kissing her. How gently he had made love to her, assuring her over and over she was beautiful and perfect.
What would he think about her now? Long gone was the voluptuous body and in its place was a tiny scarecrow of a thing with ratted hair and skin covered in a layer of dirt.
She wiped the tears from her cheeks. It was best not to think about Randy now.
Gathering her courage she quickly made her way across the street.
The door swung open easily with a slight twist of the knob. Peering around in the darkness she slowly made her way inside. Surely there were candles or even a flashlight about somewhere. She dare not light them though. If she truly had gotten lucky and was alone in here, a beacon like that would bring them quick. Stumbling through the long forgotten tables and chairs, she felt her way to what she hoped was the general store side. The darkness in here was thick and heavy. She could not even see the fingers she waved in front of her face. It could take hours for her eyes to adjust. Did she have hours? What a luxury that would be.
There was a loud series of thumps to her right and she slapped her hand over her mouth to hold back a scream while she nervously back peddled and fell over a chair.
They were here! They had come! She tried to quell her rising panic. She was surely too insubstantial now to keep, slowly and ignorantly being drained of life. No. She would be snapped up. A quick and tasty snack.
Well, maybe it was time. She'd made it five years longer than anyone she had known. The guilt overrode her fear.
* * *
Randy was sleeping so soundly. His hair tousled and his breathing so deep. He had not gotten up for work. Playing sick or hooky, she wasn't sure. She had tried to wake him. Nudged him a little, brushed back his hair kissing his forehead and softly calling his name. He slept on. Perhaps he wasn't feeling well, she mused. She hadn't tried to hard to get him up really. He looked so peaceful. She had just left him there assuming he would rise in his own time.
If only she had known. She would have slapped his face, pounded his chest, screamed in his ear. But she hadn't known. Who could know that this day was different from any other? That the world she knew was about to be over? And so she'd left him there. She had gone off to the bathroom to pee, brushed her teeth and hair, washed her face and applied a light lipstick. She pulled on some old jeans and a t-shirt, popped in a toaster pastry, poured a glass of apple juice, glanced at the newspaper headline about some epidemic or something in New York, snatched up the grocery list and was out the door.
There had barely been any traffic and the store had only a few customers making their way up and down the aisles. She had considered this a blessing at the time. It made quick work of what could normally take hours. If only she hadn't been so self-absorbed and actually paid attention. In truth, had she had taken the time to look outside of herself and her own little world and into the larger one around her, things could be so different now.
Randy was gone by the time she returned home. She went inside to get him to help carry in the bags from the car. Both bed and house were empty. She had been irritated at the time. He hadn't left a note or even bothered to call her cell phone and say he was going out and how long he'd be.
* * *
She felt horrible now at the memory of the way she had mumbled petty little indignations about his behavior under her breath as she put the cereal on the cupboard shelf.
Randy was gone. But he hadn't left on his own. By the next morning, if there was anyone besides her left in the city, she was unaware. They had all just fallen asleep and disappeared.
The thumps came again, jarring her from her memories. It was the wind! It was buffeting against the big picture windows! She let out the breath she had been holding. She was safe here for now.
She wasn't sure how long she sat there on the floor. Her head jerking up every now and then when she dozed off. Looking for anything to eat in this blackness was futile. She would have to wait until dawn. It was only a few more hours.
Slowly she began to scoot herself backward hoping to come up against a wall. It offered her little security but felt better in her mind than sitting in the middle of the room. She bumped up against something. A booth! Even better! She climbed up onto the cushioned bench and curled up, pulling the table top closer to cover her.
She knew she shouldn't sleep, but it was warm in here and it had been so long since she had something this soft to rest on. Just for a few hours, she told herself as her eyelids grew heavy and closed.
* * *
He hadn't made it home for dinner and he wasn't answering his phone. After a fitful night of sleep, she was furious. See this ... This was a prime example of why she refused to marry him. He just went off at times on his obsessive little binges and forgot all about the feelings of everyone else. It was as if they ceased to matter. Although, he had never been gone overnight like this before. Should she start checking the hospitals and police stations? She began to worry. This in turn made her even angrier because he should know damn well she would worry!
She sat at the breakfast bar in the kitchen spooning cereal into her mouth, viciously chewing each bite. Oh he was going to hear about this! Of that you can be sure!
Agitated, she flipped rapidly through the channels ... Some Crime Drama, buy a vacuum, miracle wrinkle cream, a sitcom with very pretty people trying to convince the viewer they are super nerds, get your rock hard abs, another Crime Drama, clean your grout, white noise, white noise, white noise. She checked the channel numbers. This is where the news should be. Weren't they on twenty-four hours a day? Noting the time, she flipped down to the local morning shows. Nothing.
She reached for the phone to call and lodge a complaint with her service provider. No dial tone. Just an annoying beep. Damn. Her cell phone was still upstairs on the bedside table.
She shut the TV off and stared at the soggy remnants left in her bowl. Weird. Only the preprogrammed shows were working. Weren't the live one's mostly filmed in New York? She remembered the epidemic headline from the morning before.
Today's paper should be on the front porch by now. There wasn't one. Of course! The one time she actually wanted to read the damn thing and it wasn't delivered! She started to step back inside when the silence struck her as odd. She glanced at her watch. It was 7:15 am. There should be neighbors leaving for work and school children standing on the corner waiting for their buses. Was this a holiday she was unaware of? Had she lost time somewhere? That thought scared her. Had Randy only been gone a day? Oh jeeze, Jeanette you need to stop this! You haven't gone insane!
As she glanced off down the road, what she saw made her question that last statement. Perhaps she had.
It was like she was looking at a long stretch of dusty highway where the sun was beating down. The little shimmering way the light warbled in such heat on the pavement. A desert mirage. Only this was New England not Arizona and it was fall besides. Maybe 50 degrees at most this morning.
She felt the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stand up. She stepped inside, bolting the door and leaning against it. Something was terribly wrong and it was obvious Randy probably wasn't coming home.
She rolled over, banging her elbow against the table top. She noticed the difference immediately. Dawn had come.
The windows were covered in cheap vinyl blinds. Enough light escaped through them for her to be able to navigate the rooms safely.
In the General Store portion she found a good solid backpack. The kind true hikers liked to wear. She filled it up with can goods, and other assorted processed foods. Not exactly healthy, but there wasn't anything humanly edible growing in the fields anymore. She managed to find some clean clothes, meant for a preteen child that fit. Jeans, t-shirt, heavy flannel shirt and even a good down filled coat and hiking boots. And then there was the water. A luxury now. She stuffed as many of the small bottles as she could into the pack. She knew the big gallon jugs would be too much for her and there was no way she could encumber herself with a cart. A shame really. Running water like electricity was something she had once taken for granted. Now it only came dropping from clouds or if you found a river or lake. Somehow, someway it always surprised her that when she thought she'd die of dehydration, a soda machine was always on the horizon. Of course all the teeth in her mouth were slowly going bad, but she was thankful Americans had loved their soda dispensing machines. Occasionally she would even find water or energy drinks in them as well. But mostly soda and that was okay.
She made several trips carrying gallons of water to the oversized sink in the Diner kitchen. She filled it almost halfway before removing her old clothes and climbing in. She had found both soap and shampoo on the store shelves and couldn't resist the urge to be clean. To feel, well ... human again. It had been months.
She had just finished dressing and was trying to coax a brush through her albeit clean tangle of hair. Idly wondering if she might be safe here at least a few more days. Because in truth she was loathe to leave such accommodations behind. They were few and far between. Her head snapped up and the brush dropped from her hand. Was that the little bell on the diner door tinkling?
Crouching behind the counter, she peeked around the side. Nothing looked different. Maybe she had imagined it? No! There! In a sliver of sunlight coming through the blinds she saw a bit of warbled rainbow. Similar to something you would see on bubbles you were blowing.
She reached for the cabinet door under the counter, hoping it would open without protest. It did. Two long shelves inside. She carefully placed the backpack on the upper one and squeezed herself onto the lower one, closing the door behind her.
Straining to hear any sound besides her own breathing, there was only silence. Did it know she was there? The fresh smell of soap and shampoo, the discarded pile of clothes, the water jugs around the sink. It had to know someone had been there. Was it too much to hope it thought she had gone?
She lay there what seemed like hours in the quiet. Her legs and arms ached from being cramped in the tight space. If it found her she would die in here. Die in this large wooden box. How fitting really. It was rather like a coffin.
She heard the bell on the door again. Had it left? She lay there a few more minutes hearing nothing and decided to take her chances.
Pushing open the cabinet door she scooted sideways and out onto the floor. Raising herself into a crouched position, she pulled the backpack off the top shelf.
She felt the change in the air behind her. An icy coolness slowly started creeping up her back. She shivered and turned her head to look over her shoulder. There it was at the end of the long counter.
She had never seen one this close before. It was like looking at a large, rounded mound of crystal clear water that was slowly moving this way and that. As it came towards her she knew she should move, but her body would not obey. The cold was full on her now.
It formed some semblance of an arm and hand and reached for her. She stared at it helplessly, teeth chattering. The water/mirage/ hand thing closed on her wrist and pulled her to her feet. She screamed at the searing pain that shot through her hand and arm. The thing was burning her! Some baser instinct took over and she grabbed the backpack with her other hand. Jerking it up, she swung wildly and made contact with the main body of it. A solid thump that caused it to step back, releasing its hold on her.
No time to stop to think. She just turned and ran. Through the interior of the kitchen and then a door. She fumbled with it, flipped the lock and was outside. Running wildly down the street, dragging the backpack behind her. No time to stop and put it on her shoulders. No time to examine the injured arm she held against her chest. No time to do anything but run. How fast these things were she did not know. But she had heard they were weaker in the day. But then there were the Sniffers. She had been told stories about the Sniffers. Oh God! Please don't let it send a sniffer after her! There would be no escape from its hunting skills!
Still she ran.
It was late afternoon when she collapsed in a small copse of trees. She simply could not take another step. She lay in a pile of dead leaves completely devoid of energy.
Her left arm was thrown out to the side of her head. The burning feeling still lingered. There were no jagged edges to the wound. The skin had been stripped away in a precise and perfect pattern. As if a thick red ribbon or band had been placed around it.
She had to get up. The sniffers would be on her soon if she didn't. As frightened as she had been of that thing back there, death for her at its hands would have been quick and almost painless. Not so with the vicious, dog-like beasts that were used to hunt the human remnants down, ripping away at their prey's flesh with razor sharp teeth. She shuddered. Better to die of anything else really.
Watching as the trees shook their leaves upon her, wondering not for the first time why she simply didn't give up. Everyone she had loved was gone, along with all she had known of her life before. Why did she fight so hard? She was going to die anyway in the end. Maybe today she would be lucky and maybe tomorrow too. Maybe a few more years even. But why bother? What was she so determined to live for? They had come and taken over everything. Spreading across the country, and she had to assume the world, in a great wave. Soon there would be no place they didn't occupy and they hunted down and disposed of every human straggler that had managed to survive their original airborne assault.
Rolling to her back; her eyes searched the puffy white clouds above the trees. Why me? She whispered. Why did I get to live? She received no answer. After a few minutes her eyes closed in exhaustion and she fell asleep. Her cheeks wet with bitter tears.
Excerpted from COMA WAGON by Patricia Foster. Copyright © 2013 Patricia Foster. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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