“Bram Stoker was a dick,” declared Gabi, throwing the book behind her chair.
Rey glanced at her briefly then focused back on the road ahead. Driving through Oklahoma in the middle of a summer night wasn’t too bad. A rain shower had washed the dark highway, and now it glistened in the halogen lamps of the eighteen-wheeler.
“What do you mean? The guy wrote a book about Dracula, and he’s a dick now?”
“Sure, he is. Name other books he wrote,” Gabi dared, keen to make a point.
“I dunno … I’m sure he wrote other stuff, too.”
“Yeah, other stuff based on the same lie.”
As Gabi’s tone went up an octave, Rey retreated from it in the safety of silence. By far, her history knowledge of Romania—her country of origin—trumped his, so he chose to avoid the verbal duel.
“This idiot never traveled to Wallachia which, by the way, was Vlad Dracul’s kingdom, not Transylvania like how this guy described it.”
Rey was aware of his wife’s proud Romanian heritage and her aversion toward the new wave of modern vampire paraphernalia mudding the media waters of the western world.
In anticipation of the deluge of facts sure to come pouring out, Reynir cocked his head toward the sleeper. “Babe, can you check on the little one?”
With cat-like moves, Gabi climbed in the back, checked on Eve, and then returned to her seat. “She’s fine. Still sleeping.”
Rey looked at her, and Gabi winked.
“The rocking of this rig could put a bear to sleep, let alone a five-year-old.” Gabi smiled at the image of her daughter’s innocent face sleeping with a stuffed Teddy bear in her arms.
Outside Oklahoma City, Gabi pointed toward a truck stop sign. “We’re out of disinfectant for the first-aid kit, and I need some stuff from the store, and”—she leaned over and checked the fuel gauge—“looks like we need gas, too. Jesus, this thing is a guzzler.”
“Not as bad as the Peterbilt. Remember that beast?”
They both chuckled, remembering “the beast” now rusting away in a truck dealership yard in Minnesota.
Several months back, they had traded the gas guzzler for a more economic and brand spanking new Volvo rig, equipped with all the bells and whistles. The back of the cabin had a sleeper with bunk beds, a small kitchenette, and even a shower. They had sold their tiny house and put all their savings into the new truck.
It better be worth it, thought Reynir.
When the solar powered module had been offered as an option, he’d concluded with a, Why the hell not? and had it installed on the spot. Both agreed it was the best move they had made in a long time. Charged by day, the solar batteries kept the lights on at night and saved them a pocketful on gas.
Rey pushed the lever into a lower gear, and the truck slowed down.
On the road ahead, two shiny eyes stared into the lights. For a split-second, Rey saw a blurry creature that he thought to be a deer, but skeletal and disheveled. He could swear the fur barely hung onto the protruding bones of the animal.
Rey couldn’t avoid the collision, and the rig hit the animal straight-on. Blood splashed onto the front bumper and a few drops pelted the windshield.
“Damn! What the hell was that?”
Gabi shook with disgust. “A deer, dear.” She smirked at the joke.
“That didn’t look like a normal deer to me …” Rey said then sighed. “I gotta wash the truck now. I don’t have time for this …”
Gabi shrugged. Shit happens.
Rey got off on the next ramp and banked the big rig at the first pump. It was close to midnight, and the truck stop was quiet, except for the tree crickets chirping everywhere. Two other trucks were parked farther away from the entrance with engines idling.
When Rey turned off the engine, Gabi opened the door and jumped out. Rey followed on his side, walking around to unscrew the gas tank cap.
Under the retina-burning fluorescent lights, Gabi walked by him and playfully hip-checked him. He turned around and smiled. Gabi then reached up and locked her hands behind his neck before kissing him passionately.
“I love you, Rey. Always have, always will,” she said. Then Gabi giggled and broke the embrace.
He engaged the gas pump and whistled like a construction worker while watching her stroll toward the convenient store.
As the gas tank filled, Rey walked in front of the rig and examined the front bumper. Damn!
He searched for a water hose and found one at the other end of the parking lot. Then Rey returned to the pump and amused himself with watching the numbers rolling up, counting the number of gallons pouring into the truck’s twin tanks.
Suddenly, the sound of broken glass came from the store, and Gabi burst out, screaming at the top of her lungs. Alerted, Rey popped his head around from behind the rig.
Two pale men were at Gabi’s heels, giving chase with hunger on their faces. They appeared deranged, and their steps looked unnatural.
Before Gabi reached the safety of the truck, one of the miscreants lunged forward and sharp, filthy fingernails slashed at her shoulder. Streaks of blood imbibed her white T-shirt.
As Gabi sprinted past Rey, he came face to face with two zombies. Depraved faces smeared with blood called for no negotiations.
With hammer-like fists, Rey grabbed their necks and smashed their heads together. Brains and bones fused in a mash of gore, and then the two collapsed like puppets with severed strings. A smell of death and pestilence intoxicated the air.
Oblivious, tree crickets chirped away with indifference.
As Reynir turned toward Gabi, his face twisted with fury, she covered her shoulder with her hand. “I’m okay …” she whispered as blood trickled between her fingers.
“Stay put. I’ll be right back,” Reynir said before climbing into the cabin and quickly returning with the first-aid kit and a blanket.
Gabi pulled off her shirt, and Reynir tended to her wound. It wasn’t deep, but it promised a nasty scar. The zombie’s nails had cut from behind the neck and descended between the shoulder blades.
As one of the fifty-five members of the elite special forces of Iceland’s Víkingasveitin, Reynir Halldor had enough medical training to know how to decently patch the wound. The thought of using that training on any members of his family had never crossed his mind, yet here he was, alone with the love of his life who had been attacked by creatures that seemed to have descended from a parallel universe.
As he cleaned up the wound, Rey eyed the two bodies from time to time, struggling to make sense of it. They seemed to be from another planet or a cast from a horror movie. The decayed faces and the dark blood gave him the heaves.
He concentrated back on Gabi’s wound. “Damn. We’re out of disinfectant.”
Gabi smirked. “I know.”
He finished bandaging her shoulder then handed her the keys to the truck. “Lock yourself in the cabin. I’ll get it.”
Still in shock, she nodded then climbed into the cabin.
Rey picked up a crowbar as he headed for the convenient store. His large shoulders swung with raw power and, at seven-foot-two, with three hundred pounds of muscle, Rey moved like a large jungle cat.
He peeked through the windows. Nothing moved. Then he entered the store, crowbar in hand, ready for anything. The two zombies laying in a pool of blood outside had given him the creeps, so he was taking no chances that more could be inside.
He walked across the smooth floor, careful of the squeak of his work boots. Rey searched every aisle of the store.
In a corner, he found the body of a woman. She lay still, face contorted, clothes disheveled, and head caved in. A nearby smashed crate bore the signs of a struggle.
He approached slowly. No movement.
He nudged her with the tip of his boot. Still nothing.
What the hell happened here?
The dreaded feeling of being watched dawned on him. However, he was more worried about Gabi. I need the damn disinfectant.
He walked toward the medicine aisles in the back and picked up a bottle.
From the cooler, behind shelves of soda and beer, a pair of eyes stared at him.
Rey changed course and headed for the door to the cooler. With a swift move, he swung it open. “Get outta there! Now!” he ordered, and a small cloud of vapor floated by his mouth.
Annoyed, Rey smacked a pile of empty carts with the crowbar. In the dim light, he caught movement in the back.
Aware that his appearance might not put the other in the mood for a conversation, he softened his tone. “Listen, I’m not gonna hurt you. Come out. I just want to talk to you.”
With clattering teeth, a small-framed guy wearing a turban stepped into the light. Rey wasn’t sure if the teeth chattering was the result of fear or the chill of the room.
“Don’t kill me, sir. Please … I’m just hiding here …” the man muttered.
“It’s okay. I just want to talk,” said Reynir as he walked out, convinced the hiding man would follow. “What happened here?”
The turban guy was the gas station attendant. Between shivers, he explained how two truckers had stepped in to pay for gas and browse for other things to buy. After a few minutes, a homeless woman entered the store. She wobbled toward the back, and then weird noises followed.
Rey raised an eyebrow. “What kind of weird noises?”
“She growled and made noises with her teeth, like biting down or something.”
“What did you do?”
The guy pointed toward a monitor housed behind the counter. “I turned the camera around to see what was going on.”
“And then what?”
Encouraged, the store clerk continued, “She went crazy, my friend; that’s what! Out of nowhere, she attacked one of the drivers. When his buddy tried to help, the crazy bitch bit him, too!” Surprised by his own outburst, he paused for a beat, still trembling like a leaf.
Rey waited. There had to be more.
“They screamed at the woman and kicked her in the face many, many times. I yelled at them to get out, but they called me a dirty Indian.” The clerk paused again. “That’s not right … I’m Pakistani,” he finally said.
“Why didn’t you call the cops?”
The Pakistani shrugged. “Call the cops … pfft. Like I had time to think about that.”
Rey’s eyebrows went up again.
The store clerk explained, “After a while, the guys made the same sounds as the woman and, right there, in front of me, they turned into … um … ugly people. I ran into the cooler and—”
“Oh, my God!” yelled Reynir, bolting out of the store.
Oh God, please no. Please! he prayed as he huffed back to the rig.
He unlocked the passenger door and …
The image of his loving wife hit him like a ton of bricks