He hurried her to the front door, toward the blinding light in the windows, and Sarah felt herself glancing over her shoulder, back toward the office. The reality of what had happened hadn't yet settled; it was though she were living a nightmare.
Joel threw the front door open and scrambled outside with Sarah in tow. He was met by his younger brother, Tommy, moving with rigid alarm around the front of his SUV. Her uncle was a man with the same physical assuredness as her father, but with twice the intensity and emotion.
"Where the hell you been?" Tommy asked in a panic. "You have any idea what's going on out there?"
Joel turned, allowing Tommy to glimpse his face and shirt. "I got some notion."
"Holy shit," Uncle Tommy gasped.
Joel opened the back door to the SUV and ushered Sarah inside. "C'mon baby," he said. "Go on in there."
"You got blood all over you."
"It ain't mine," Joel stated calmly. "Let's just get out of here."
"They're saying half the people in the city have lost their minds."
Joel shut the door and then climbed into the passenger seat. "Can we just please go?" he pleaded.
Tommy nodded and passed in front of the headlights on his way to the driver's side, creating a grotesque shadow that lurched across the front porch. Images of Jimmy flashed behind Sarah's eyes and she felt the cold fear returning. "Some sort of parasite or something," she heard him say, as he scrambled behind the wheel.
He paused before putting the car in gear and glanced across at Joel. "You gonna tell me what happened?"
"Later," was all her father said.
He put the car in reverse and turned to look behind him and his gaze landed on Sarah straddled between the two seats. "Hey, Sarah," he said, his voice calm. "How you holding up, honey?"
She answered without thinking. "I'm fine," she said.
Uncle Tommy backed into the street. The night was warm and the sky above was clear. He pointed the vehicle east and put the car in drive. Up ahead were brake-lights, another car on the road, and seeing them gave Sarah a bit of relief.
She asked, "Can we hear what's on the radio?"
"Yeah, sure thing," Uncle Tommy said. He flipped the knob as he mashed the gas petal. Joel sat beside him in silence.
Sarah replied with a "Thanks," but instantly regretted her decision. Nothing but empty static buzzed from the car's speakers, erasing what little comfort she felt.
Tommy flipped it off. "No cell phone. No radio. Yeah," he said. "We're doing great."
As Tommy drove toward the highway, they passed a familiar house at the end of the street: the Wilkinsons. Sarah knew them and well. Their station wagon was in the driveway, the motor running, the tailgate lifted. The breaklamps were on and everything was bathed in a red glow. Mrs Wilkins stood in the driveway like a deer caught in the headlights. The father was nearby on one knee, packed bags by his side, imparting something vital to their young son. The whole scene seemed surreal, something out of a dream.
"Minute ago," Tommy continued, "the newsman wouldn't shut up."
"He say where to go?" Joel asked in a level tone.
Tommy thought for a moment. "He said, ah... Army's putting up road blocks on the highway." He sighed heavily. "No getting into Travis County."
The road they were on ended at a highway going north and south. Highway signs, a hospital sign pointed in either direction.
"That means we need to get the hell out," Joel said, leaning forward. He pointed to the black highway sign in the shape of Texas. "Take 71."
"71," Tommy confirmed. "That's where I'm headed." As he approached the stop sign, a Texas trooper with lights flashing, sirens blaring, rushed by, heading toward the interstate. The fact they were turning in the opposite direction of the sirens gave Sarah a tinge of relief.
She struggled to grab onto something hopeful. "Did they say how many are dead?" she asked, hoping for some reassurance.
"Probably a lot," Tommy said, failing to recognize her need. "Found this one family all mangled inside their house."
Joel put a hand on Tommy's arm. "Tommy," Joel said curtly, reminding him of Sarah's presence.
"Right," Tommy said, and became quiet as he eased his emotions back down. "Sorry."
Sarah watched the SUV's headlights scour the winding road ahead as she willed her heartbeat to return to normal. Tommy made a sharp left turn, following the black and white sign to the state highway.
She saw Joel lean forward with concern and felt Tommy take his foot off the gas. She followed her father's gaze to the left and saw the flickering light post and the smashed car underneath. Someone had crashed headlong into the pole, causing its lamp to shatter.
Sarah stared at the car, its crushed hood, the driver's door hanging open, a shower of orange sparks dancing on its roof. The driver was nowhere to be found. "Jesus Christ," gasped Joel. "How did this happen?"
"They got no clue," Uncle Tommy said, making another left and stepping on the gas. "But we ain't the only town."
The vehicle descended a narrow lane and the green foliage from the surrounding woods seemed to close in around them, choke them. "At first they were saying it was just the south. Now they're going on about the East Coast, the West Coast..."
Up ahead, an orange glowed grabbed Sarah's attention. Something was on fire.
"Holy hell," Uncle Tommy exclaimed.
The large three-story ranch was ablaze, engulfed in weltering red flames, a trail of orange smoke drifting up into the starry night sky. "That's Louis's farm," Tommy said.
Sarah turned and stared at the structure. She jumped as she saw her own apparition staring back, reflected by the light of the fire and the burning timbers consumed by the flames.
"I hope that son of a bitch made it out."
"I'm sure he did," her father said.
Suddenly, a horrible thought came to her and she said it aloud without thinking: "Are we sick?"
Joel turned to look at her in the eye. "No," he said. "Of course not."
The vehicle approached another intersection and Tommy brought the car to a halt, scanning the highway signs.
It wasn't reassurance she was after from her father. It was the truth. She asked, "How do you know?"
Tommy interjected, turning the car to the east. Out of the three of them, he was the authority on the subject, having listened to the news reports. But when he spoke, his voice lacked the authority he wished to convey: "They said it's just, ah, people in the city. We're good."
The city? thought Sarah. Was it true? She turned to her father. "Didn't Jimmy work in the city?"
Joel considered a moment. She could tell he was working it out in his mind. "That's, right," he said. "He did." And then he added, "We're fine. Trust me."
She didn't have much else to hold on to, so she did as he suggested. "All right," she said.
A moment passed. Sarah listened to the hum of the tires on the highway, then she felt a stutter as Uncle Tommy eased off the gas.
Up ahead, standing next to the speed limit sign, a man and woman...
"Let's see what they need."
As they approached, Sarah saw the frightened child.
Joel grabbed Tommy's arm. "What the hell do you think you're doing? Keep driving."
"They gotta kid, Joel." He spoke with a edge of surprise in his voice.
"So do we," Joel said. There was panic in his voice. He didn't want Tommy to let the car come to a rest.
"But we have room," Sarah heard herself say.
The man moved in front of the headlights waving for help, pleading. "Hey!" he shouted. There was a helpless plea in his voice. His wife had the same forlorn look in her eyes as that of Mrs.Wilkinson, the woman standing at the edge of her driveway in the middle of the night. A look of a world having come to an end. A look of loss and confusion. Of total abandonment.
"Keep driving, Tommy!"
"Hey stop!" the man pleaded again, and it made Sarah cringe, the helplessness in his voice, the guilt pulling at her gut.
With a palpable reluctance, Tommy stepped on the gas. The man cried out again and it made Sarah's blood freeze, that anguish in his voice mixed with disbelief. She knew Uncle Tommy didn't like leaving those people - people like themselves - behind in the dark, at the mercy of some unspeakable terror.
The drone of the tires filled the silence. After letting a moment pass for their heart rates to settle, Joel turned to his brother. "You ain't seen what I seen," he said quietly. Sarah caught a glimpse of the dried blood on his cheeks. "Someone else will come along."
Sarah knew her father was right but inside she was still struggling with the guilt in her stomach. "We should've helped them," she said weakly.
Another turn and now they were nearing the highway. An ambulance passed and strobed the inside of their car with flashing red lights. By now, Sarah had gotten used to the wail of sirens and she managed to keep her pulse rate steady.
The hospital was on the left, the highway just over the hill and to the right. Overhead she heard the thumping blades of a passing helicopter. But when they came abreast of the hospital at the top of the hill, Sarah's heart sank.
"Oh, this is bad," Uncle Tommy said, bringing the car to a halt.
Between them and the highway stretched a sea of red taillights. Joel leaned forward, scanning the horizon in the night, trying to get a handle on the situation.
"Everyone and their mother had the same damn idea," her uncle said.
The helicopter above seemed right on top of them and it was hard to hear what her father was saying. "Well, we could just backtrack and..."
Her focus wasn't on what her father was saying, or the helicopter, or the traffic. It was on the man in the car ahead of him. She felt an immediate rush of panic as the man stepped angrily from his car...
No, no, no... she thought to herself.
Instead of threatening them, the man's attention turned to the traffic ahead of him and his cursing shouts interrupted her father's train of thought: "Hey! What the fuck man! Let's go!"
What they witnessed next was nothing short of unbelievable.
Something manic raced across the road, plunging itself into the man with such force that the impact of its collision shook the car violently and made the woman inside scream in horror. It wore a blue hospital gown, and resembled an older man in appearance, but its speed and savagery was anything but human. It literally ripped the man apart, from the inside out, and soon was covered in a fountain of gushing blood.
"Holy shit," Uncle Tommy gasped. Sarah couldn't move. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't tear her eyes away. Soon, another flash of blue raced into the scene, this one a woman, and she began ruthlessly hacking away at the woman in the passenger seat.
The woman's anguished cry filled the night air.
"Turn us around," Joel said evenly.
"Oh my God," was Tommy's reply. He too, like Sarah, was frozen with shock and disbelief.
"Tommy! Tommy!" Joel urged, jostling his brother back to reality.
Sarah saw the first creature look up from the bloody corpse, a river of red pouring down the front of the blue hospital gown. He locked eyes with Sarah and it seemed something behind the eyes switched on, and it raced toward them with blinding speed.
"Holy shit," yelled Uncle Tommy, fumbling to get the SUV in gear. He threw the vehicle in reverse, made a quick one-eighty, as Sarah's eyes remained locked on the thing racing toward her. She noticed the same blood-shot eyes, the same grotesque look of madness she'd seen on Jimmy when he burst through the glass.
Only this one was coming faster, and she knew the glass window wouldn't protect her.
As Tommy stepped on the gas, the creature slammed up against the passenger window by Sarah's face, leaving a pair of bloody hand prints. The glass held, and in the next instant, they were racing away.
"What the fuck just happened?" Tommy screamed, searching for a handle on the situation. "What the fuck just happened?" He mashed his foot on the peddle and sped over a crossing, jolting the car into the air. "Did you see that?"
"Yes," Joel said, his voice strained. "I saw it."
Uncle Tommy cursed and shook his head.
"Turn here, turn here," Joel said, pointing to a side street on Tommy's left.
Sarah swayed hard to the right as Uncle Tommy veered hard to the left. At the edge of her awareness she could hear the indistinguishable screams and cries for help. The vehicle stopped and they found themselves facing a crowded street. Not crowded with cars, but people. A frightened mob running their way.
Jackknifed ahead was an RV, plowed in the side of a building. All around them were lost souls, faces awash with fear, stumbling aimlessly in the night.
"Come on people, move!"
Suddenly a group of panicked souls appeared from behind the wrecked camper and, like startled rabbits, rushed past them.
"What are they running from?" Sarah asked.
"Get us out of here," Joel said.
"I'm trying," his brother answered. Tommy floored the SUV but then an older man in a green cap and gray shirt suddenly appeared between the headlights. Uncle Tommy hit the brakes. The man's hands slammed the hood of Tommy's car as the two connected, causing Sarah to cry out. The man's mouth hung open as he scanned the passengers inside. There was no anger in his eyes, only bewilderment.
He shuffled off, but more people appeared at the end of the street, stumbling toward them like survivors of a plane crash.
"We can't stop here, Tommy!" Joel yelled.
Uncle Tommy was at the end of his rope. "I can't fucking drive through them, Joel!"
A shouting match erupted between the two: "Then back up then!"
"They're behind me too!"
Sarah's eyes were transfixed on the faces of the people stumbling past them. She'd never encountered such abject fear and the tangible loss of humanity frightened her.
Suddenly a gap appeared in the rush of oncomers and Joel screamed and pointed. "There! There!"
"Hold on!" her uncle yelled.
She felt the SUV lurch as it ran up on the sidewalk. Tommy held a white-knuckle grip on the wheel, was threading them carefully through the thinning crowd. Finally they were clear and she felt the car surge forward as Tommy gave it gas.
But out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pair of blinding headlights racing to meet them. She cried for her uncle to look out, but it was too late.
The vehicle struck them in the side, filling the interior with shattered glass, and Sarah found herself being flung violently across the seat as everything slowly faded to black.