There was ringing in Joel's ears as the tide of consciousness slowly returned. He heard someone calling to him from a distance, calling his name, and slowly the blinding pain behind his eyes subsided, and he felt a gentle hand nudging him.
He wasn't quite sure where he was. Was he home? Was Sarah nudging him awake as she was prone to do?
"Daddy," he heard her say, with a sense of urgency in her voice.
"What?" he asked. He opened his eyes. Slowly he registered the cracked windshield, a pair of legs racing madly past him. He heard the distant groans and cries. The smell of gasoline in the air.
The SUV was on its side and he was inside, looking out. His vision cleared and he saw the brutal savagery taking place in the cab of the wrecked truck beside them. The furious onslaught of an animal ravaging its prey. Hands, teeth, blood. Inhuman moans filled his ears.
He quickly returned to his senses and knew he had to get himself and his daughter away from this madness.
He eased her arm away from him. "Get back," he told her. The smashed SUV continually rocked as people pushed their way past it in a rush to get free.
Sarah disappeared behind the seat and he leaned back, grabbed the handrail above his head and he twisted his body so his foot could reach the windshield. Using every ounce of strength, he kicked the windshield with his foot, planting a heavy boot in the middle of the broken glass. He kicked once, twice, a third time. Finally the windshield gave.
With effort, Joel struggled to crawl his way out of the space where the windshield had been. All around him he heard the screams of people fleeing, heard the pounding of the pavement as they ran.
The downtown street had turned into a war zone, with sparking cables, downed traffic signals, wrecked vehicles. Clumps of human flesh lay scattered on the pavement. All around was mayhem.
When he struggled to his feet, he couldn't help but be frozen by what he saw. Mass hysteria filled the street. He found himself leaning against the crashed SUV in order to pull it together, give him time to think. The guttural cries he heard racing toward him didn't register until it was too late.
Almost immediately the beast was upon him, fingers ripping at his face, teeth snapping at his throat. He'd brought his arm up reflexively and it managed to keep the gnashing jaws from ripping into his flesh. Before he could react, he saw his brother materialize from the shadow of the SUV, a heavy red brick in his hand.
Tommy struck the monster in the side of the head, caving its skull in with one massive blow.
The two brother's looked at each other, each aware of just how close death had come. Joel didn't need to say thank you; his eyes said it for him. He turned his attention back to the SUV and the little girl trapped inside.
"Dad?" Sarah cried out.
"I'm here baby. I'm here," he said, kneeling down to get her. "Come on, give me your hand."
He pulled Sarah from the wreckage and as she took a step forward, she stumbled and cried out in pain.
He caught her in his arms. "What is it?" he asked.
"My leg hurts."
"Pretty bad," she said.
Suddenly Tommy appeared, his face full of resignation, his eyes focused on an unseen terror approaching rapidly.
"We're gonna need to run," he said simply.
Joel knew what was coming and cursed the situation under his breath. He reached behind him and withdrew his revolver, plopped it into his brother's hands.
"Keep us safe," he said. He scooped Sarah into his arms as Tommy held the gun out before him. Now, they were ready to run.
"Come on baby," he said, bursting into a sprint. "Now hold on tight!"
His daughter did exactly that as her fingers dug into his shoulders and she buried her head into his chest. He was running behind Tommy, just up ahead. They were headed toward the TEXAN gas station at the end of the hill.
Others ran past him. All around were fallen victims, with the ravenous hunched over their bodies. He heard Sarah let out a gasp, and he squeezed her tight against him. "Keep your eyes closed, honey!"
Over his shoulder were the moans of the attackers, low and guttural, and he could hear their scraping footsteps just behind. As they neared the gas station, a vehicle careened into the pumps, setting off an explosion that trembled the pavement beneath Joel's feet.
Flames rolled horizontally from the blast and Joel veered right, a wave of stifling heat engulfing him, soot filling his lungs. He had managed to avoid the flames, but the people to his left weren't so lucky. He heard Sarah's anguished voice reveal the unspeakable truth: "Those people are on fire."
"Just keep looking at me baby!" he told her. It seemed as if the whole world were crashing down around their shoulders. Everywhere you turned, chaos, panic, bloodshed. Screams, the ear-splitting sound of metal on metal as cars collided, the rumble of buildings as explosions shook them.
Tommy lead the way, with Joel right on his heels. They rounded a corner. The Armadillo Theater was just up ahead, it's glittering lights and Texas shining star a beacon in the warm Austin night. They were headed right for it, with no logic why, when a car in flames crashed into its box-office setting off an explosion that killed the power and covered them in a blanket of darkness.
Beyond the flames of the wreckage, Joel could see a flurry of angry faces racing towards them.
"Get back!" Tommy cried. "There's too many of them!"
Joel stopped in tracks, desperately looking around for an exit. That's when Tommy spotted the gate.
"This way," he cried, motioning with the gun. "Through the alley!"
He pointed to the nearby alley and instantly Joel rushed for it as people fled in all directions.
Tommy opened the gate and Joel raced through, holding Sarah tightly in his arms. “Go!” Tommy shouted.
Now they were separated from the panicked mob, racing frantically down a long dark alley. The brick walls seemed to close in on Joel from the sides, and suddenly he heard the distinctive guttural sounds just ahead, but his forward momentum was to fast to stop.
The creature lunged for Joel and he fought to hold him off, one arm holding Sarah, the other against the maniac's throat.
Tommy appeared at his side, kicking the madman in the gut, knocking it to the ground. He put a boot on the man's chest as it fought and scratched, and he lowered the gun and fired.
"He's dead!" Tommy cried, resuming his point position.
"Jesus," was all that Joel could utter. His mind was still struggling to come to terms with the madness around him.
The cries of the chasing horde had grown louder and he closed his eyes as he ran, repeating an earnest prayer to his daughter: "We're almost there, baby. We're almost there."
“Let’s go!” Tommy cried.
The word ‘There’ meant safety, and safety had to be close. It had to be.
Tommy pointed to the front of a bar with neon lights. "There!" he shouted.
There. Safety at last.
They raced up the stairs, past the outdoor picnic tables with their green umbrellas, heading for the door of the bar. Joel rushed in behind Tommy just as the horde descended upon them. Their blood-thirsty pursuers lunged at them with outstretched arms. Tommy slammed the door on their limbs, the revolver in his hand at the ready.
As the crazed mob fought manically to get inside, Tommy leaned his weight against the door, pinning their hands and arms. He turned and yelled at his brother: "Get to the highway!"
"What?" Joel asked, reeling to face him. He stood near the empty bar with Sarah in his arms. He saw Tommy forcing the door closed with his free arm as frantic hands and nails scraped the wall beside him. Judging by their pursuers’ determination, it didn't appear either of them had much time.
Tommy yelled again: "Go! You got Sarah! I can outrun 'em!
Sarah stiffened in Joel's arms. "Uncle Tommy!" she cried out.
Joel had to make a split-second decision. All around them were screams and the pounding of feet and fists. Complete pandemonium.
He knew Tommy was right. He looked solemnly at his younger brother and spoke, his words more of a vow than a statement: "I will meet you there.” He spun and took off like a madman toward the rear of the bar.
"Hurry!" he heard his brother shout.
Joel smashed through the back door and found himself standing on a desolate outdoor patio behind the bar. A member of the horde tackled another man nearby, ripping at his throat. Joel spotted a crumbling gap in the brick ledge at the rear of the enclosure and raced toward it. In the distance he could see the rusted iron bridge spanning the river and, beyond that, the glowing lights of the highway. Amid the screams and wails, a helicopter thumped overhead.
"Daddy," Sarah cried, her eyes wide with panic, "We can't leave him!"
"He's gonna be fine," he told the daughter trembling in his arms. Another victim let out a blood-curdling scream to his left just before the its body was ripped to shreds. Joel leapt past the fallen victim and a snarling maniac instantly fell upon it, devouring the body as it writhed in pain.
He quickly scrambled down a rutted hill as a strangled cry echoed in his ears.
"We're almost there," he said in a panicked voice.
Now at last he was on a direct dirt path leading to an embankment and the highway beyond. The neon lights from the bar cast an eerie shadow on the ground before him and he saw other shadows emerge in his field of vision. Grotesque shadows, arms flailing. He heard their desperate cries behind him, could almost feel their blood-soaked breath upon his neck.
“They’re getting closer,” Sarah cried. Her desperate fingers dug into his flesh.
A gust of wind from the helicopter overhead engulfed Joel. The bright circle of light from its search beam skimmed the nearby terrain, its blades thumping past him. Around the bend were flashing red lights illuminating the gully, and as Joel rounded the turn, he saw the ambulance on its side with its doors hanging open. A gurney lie half-exposed in the back. The smell of gasoline filled his nostrils.
The driver crawled frantically on his elbows, dragging two broken legs behind. He was headed for a set of makeshift floodlights near a generator at the top of the hill. From the anguished cries and pounding soles just behind him, Joel knew the poor bastard didn’t stand a chance. He heard the man cry out in horror as one of angry horde caught up to him. Joel didn’t glance back. He just kept racing with all his strength. The floodlights had become a beacon of hope and he was headed straight for them.
Suddenly machine gun fire erupted amid a searing light and Joel turned away, seeing his crazed followers tumble back, their chests explode with bullet holes. He heard the bodies hit the ground, felt Sarah’s arm tighten around his neck. In the next instant, the night air was silent; the blood-chilling moans and groans were gone.
Joel turned and looked behind him. His shoulders relaxed and he met Sarah’s frightened eyes. “It’s okay, baby,” he said. “We’re safe.”
His eyes rose and took stock of the man standing between him and the floodlights: the black silhouette of an armed soldier, his dark shadow stretching out before him. A huge sigh of relief escaped Joel’s lungs. “Hey!” he shouted and took a step toward the armed silhouette. “We need help, please…”
The single word the soldier uttered was more of a threat than a command. The tone sent a chill down Joel’s spine. The word was muffled, and Joel quickly realized why: the armed man in fatigues wore a gas mask over his face.
“Please,” Joel said. “It’s my daughter. I think her leg’s broken…”
“STOP RIGHT THERE!”
Joel’s eyes were blinded by the light affixed to the muzzle of the machine gun and he squinted. He saw the man stretch his arm forward, press his palm outward. A warning. This was serious, Joel thought, and he understood the man’s concern.
“Okay,” Joel said, trying to keep his voice calm, edging himself back. “We’re not s-sick.” He cursed himself for stuttering; his adrenaline had finally run its course.
The soldier spoke into a radio transmitter affixed to his shoulder. His voice carried a tone of relief: “Got a couple of civilians in the outer perimeter. Please advise.”
Joel felt the tension in Sarah’s body ease as he held her. His attention was on the guard as his receding heart rate pounded in his ears.
“Daddy, what about Uncle Tommy?” she asked.
He looked down and reassured her in a hushed voice: “We’re gonna get you to safety and go back for him. Okay?”
She nodded and laid her head upon his shoulder.
Joel’s attention was teased to alertness by the strange tension detected in the soldier’s words. The man issued a reply into his radio. “Sir,” he said with a strained voice. “There’s a little girl…”
A silence fell as the soldier’s breathing labored. “But…” he said. Another brief silence followed. Joel could feel the hairs in his neck stiffen. The soldier spoke again. This time his voice was full of resignation. He simply said: “Yessir.”
And somehow Joel sensed the horror of what was soon to come.
“Listen buddy,” Joel said frantically. “We’ve just been through hell. Okay? We just need to…”
The man lifted the machine gun into the groove of his shoulder, taking aim.
“Oh shit!” Joel cursed, his faced flooded in the wash of the flashlight. He spun away, but not before the gunshots erupted and he felt something hot pierce his side. He twisted in pain, crying out, and Sarah flew from his arms. He tumbled down the hill and came to a rest face down in the dirt. His mind reeled from what had just happened.
As the footsteps approached, he rolled over on his side, raising a hand. He knew this was the end.
The dark figure towered above Joel and aimed his weapon. Joel spoke, his voice drained of emotion. “Please,” he said. “Don’t.”
The gunshot exploded in his ears and echoed in the distance.
To Joel’s surprise, the soldier’s head jerked violently to one side and then his body slowly crumbled to the ground. Joel glanced to his left and saw Tommy approach, breathing heavy, both hands on the smoking revolver.
That’s when he heard Sarah’s stifled cry.
“Oh no,” gasped Tommy, his face drained of blood.
Joel quickly jerked his head behind him, saw a shadow lying on the ground. He scrambled on all fours toward it. “Sarah!” he cried.
Sarah lay flat on her back on the dirt, still in her flannel pajamas, her legs stretched before her. Her hands rested on her stomach barely masking the widening circle of blood soaking her powder blue tee-shirt.
Joel could barely speak, his heart clogged his throat. “Okay,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Move your hands baby…” He could handle this, he reassured himself. He just needed to see how bad it was.
Sarah reached for him in panic, her eyes wide, face flushed. Her body trembled with fear.
“I know, baby,” Joel said, taking her blood-stained hands in his. “I know…” He put both hands over the the tiny hole in her tee-shirt; the crimson blood seeped through his fingers. She reached for him again, letting a strangled cry escape her lips. “Listen to me,” he said. “I know this hurts. You’re gonna be okay, baby. Stay with me.”
His words were meant for him just as much as they were for her.
“I’m gonna pick you up…” He bent down and tried to scoop her up in his arms. Her body felt so light, so ephemeral. He was half-aware of his brother kneeling at his side, his face grim. When his eyes returned to Sarah, he noticed the trembling had ceased.
And just like that, Sarah, his little girl, was gone.
“Sarah,” he gasped, staring into her unseeing eyes. The horrible reality took hold. It spread through his veins like a virus and his body convulsed with grief. “Baby…” he cried, burying his face into her neck. He pleaded with her: “Don’t do this to me, baby. Don’t do this to me, baby girl. Come on…”
As he rocked her tightly in his arms, his mind recoiled in disbelief. It was all just a terrible dream, a nightmare. He just needed to wake up, needed her to wake him up. To nudge him like she did on Saturday mornings, when the sun filled the house with warmth and breakfast was on the table, and he had to get up and get atom, because there was a soccer game that afternoon, and things to do around the house, and that new movie at the mall Sarah was dying to see…
But when he opened his tear-stained eyes to the darkness surrounding him, he knew with grim reality that it wasn’t a dream. And the dam to his emotions crumbled and his pain poured forth, in agonizing, gut-wrenching sobs. He clutched Sarah’s lifeless body, knowing his world would never be the same.