"Jesus Christ!" Rene exclaimed breathlessly.
The Styrofoam cup of coffee slid from her fingers, splattering warm liquid across expensive Ferragamo heels in the process. Paying no heed to the mess, the tall red-head dashed from the room to find her friend and partner.
Rene found Erin right where she knew she'd be at her desk logging the day's sales receipts into the company computer.
Finishing Touch was the fine jewelry business that Erin and Rene started together right out of college. Despite her tacky choices in clothing (which she currently demonstrated with a bright pink blouse and leopard print Spandex slacks) Rene was a true artist when it came to designing elegant pieces of jewelry. Erin was in charge of turning the designs into actual product. The calluses on her fingers were proof of the many hours she toiled over shaping precious metals and setting expensive gem stones.
"Erin, you have to see this," Rene gasped from the open door.
Barely sparing a glance from her work Erin asked with half-hearted sarcasm, "What is it Rene? Is Tyra giving relationship advice again? Or is it 'geek to chic' makeovers today?"
Purple stilettos clicked on the floor as Rene crossed the space between them. Without a word she grabbed Erin by the arm and led her to her own office where the disembodied monotone cadence of the news anchor greeted them.
Standing in front of the television, Erin watched indifferently as the anchor described the multi-car pileup that blocked four lanes of traffic and warranted the aid of a Medi-Vac helicopter.
Erin ran a hand through her short blonde hair. "This is awful Rene, but I really need to get back to work," Erin said and started out of the room. Red-lacquered nails dug into Erin's wrist as she was jerked back in front of the TV.
"Keep watching," Rene hissed and nervously lit a cigarette. Erin rolled her grey-blue eyes at her friend's usual dramatics but focused her attention back on the set anyway.
The paramedics loaded the patient into the helicopter and shut the door. The chopper was no more than twenty feet into the air when it careened to the left and plummeted onto the crowded highway narrowly missing electric lines on either side of the road. As the camera man, or more precisely someone using their phone's built-in camera, ran toward the fallen helicopter the screen jumped up and down making it difficult to discern what was happening. When the dust settled and the scene came back into focus once again, Erin could see the interior of the helicopter. She watched in silence as one of the paramedics tried to pull the accident victim off of the screaming pilot. The woman, her head tilted at an impossible angle, turned and plunged her teeth into the throat of the flight nurse. Blood gushed from the severed artery and streaked across the window.
The grisly scene switched back to the well-known anchor as he set up the next series of similar events in different areas of the state. Yellow banners panned across the screen informing the local public to evacuate and head to Atlanta as soon as possible.
Erin jumped when her cell phone rang. Bringing it to her ear she answered a little more loudly than she'd intended.
"Erin, are you alright?" Her grandfather asked. The old man's usual gruffness was replaced with something she couldn't quite put her finger on.
"I'm fine Granddad. Are you okay? Is anything wrong?"
There was nothing but silence for nearly thirty seconds and then, "Erin, I need you to come home. I'm
I'm afraid." Erin had to strain to make out what Zeke was saying. He was speaking barely above a whisper and his dog, Daisy, was barking hysterically. If Zeke Jenkins, highly decorated war hero, was afraid then something terrible must have happened.
"Alright. Stay put. I'm on my way. I will be there as soon as I can," Erin said trying to squelch the little bubble of panic growing in her heart.
"Erin, be careful. I love you." Her grandfather's last words made her pause. In all of her thirty-four years, Erin could not remember him telling her that he loved her. She knew that he did, but he had never voiced the emotion.
"I love you too," she replied, but he had already ended the call.
Erin glanced at Rene who was still glued to the television screen, anxiously fumbling the cigarette. Ashes drifted carelessly to the floor.
"Rene, I have to go. It's Granddad
something's wrong," she said.
The two women stared at each other, neither of them knowing what to think about the situation that had so suddenly presented itself.
A symphony of car horns blared as traffic began to increase.
From their vantage point on the seventh floor of the office building they could see that people were starting to panic. Everything became real for Erin when a swarm of helicopters came into view. Apaches and Chinooks cast their long shadows across the sea of vehicles below.
"Granddad... I have to get to him. If I leave now I can be there by tomorrow afternoon," Erin whispered and hugged her friend but couldn't shake the feeling that she would never see her again.
"Be careful honey," Rene said and exhaled a stream of smoke as tears began to smear her liberally applied makeup. Erin said goodbye, left the room and headed toward the elevators but was compelled to return to her own office before leaving.
Unlike most women, Erin did not carry a purse. Instead she preferred to use her Grandfather's Army-issue messenger bag. It was the topic of many lunch conversations between Rene and herself.
"Just because you were raised by a big-shot, four-star Army general does not mean you have to dress like a commando," Rene would chide.
Despite herself, Erin smiled at the memory and grabbed the bag from the coat rack. She walked to her desk and unlocked the drawer where she kept her Beretta, another one of Zeke's deeply ingrained institutions.
He had insisted that everyone, especially women, should know how to use a gun. On Erin's eighteenth birthday Zeke enrolled her into a fire arms training course. Much to her surprise she enjoyed every minute of it and was actually a pretty good shot.
Out in the hall a small crowd was waiting to board the elevators. Only two of them serviced the ten story building it could take awhile if she waited so she decided to take the stairs.
Once inside of her blue 2008 mini-van, Erin cranked up the air conditioning against the intolerable Georgia heat and turned on the radio. Things had gotten more chaotic and out of control in just the past ten minutes - fender-benders, people arguing violently in the streets.
On the radio, the host was in a heated argument with a paranoid caller who insisted that the current events were just another way for the Government to control the masses. Staring at the havoc around her "control" was not the first word that popped into Erin's head.
As Erin pulled into traffic she browsed for another station. Settling on one that was reporting from within the city, she listened as the director of the Atlanta-based CDC reported their theory on the pandemic. When the vague and obviously rehearsed speech was over she didn't know anymore than she already had.
Traffic was moving at a snail's pace and Erin waited impatiently at another red light. She was thankful she had decided to bring her gun when just up ahead two men got out of their vehicles and started fighting. As was always the case, panic, confusion and fear turned otherwise respectable, law-abiding citizens into stupid, dangerous animals; she was prepared to defend herself if it came to that.
As she listened to the radio her fear mounted. The events that were being described were like something out of a horror movie. Individuals who were presumed dead would reanimate and attack people - consume them.
It took nearly two hours for Erin to make it out of the city. Usually the trip from Atlanta to Baton Rouge only took her around nine hours depending on traffic and weather conditions, but due to the current circumstances it was going to take at least twelve. Traffic was moving in spurts and roadblocks were being set up here and there slowing her down even more.
Impatiently she glanced at the clock on the dashboard and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel when traffic slowed to a crawl once again. Even though she knew it was of little use she tried to call Zeke again. Still nothing.
She drove all through the night and eventually, much to her relief, traffic thinned out to just about a dozen other vehicles on her side of the highway. When she noticed that her tank was almost empty she sighed and reluctantly pulled off onto the next exit to gas up at a grungy little station in Greenville Alabama.
It was self-serve so she pumped her own gas and then went inside to pay. Bells jingled above the door as she pushed it open. The place looked deserted. "Hello," she called out. No one answered. "Hello, I'm in a hurry and I need to pay for some gas."
Everything was quiet except for the electric hum of the neon "We're Open" sign in the front window. Frustrated, Erin pulled out a twenty dollar bill from her bag and put it on the counter. "I'll just leave the money here," she called out.
Erin was almost to the door when she heard moaning coming from the manager's office. Thinking maybe the place had been robbed and someone had been hurt, she hopped over the counter to see if she could help.
She eased the door open, but something heavy was on the other side of it, preventing her from opening it more than an inch or two.
"Is someone in there? Are you hurt?" She asked and shoved hard at the door.
She felt something sticky on the bottom of her shoe. Blood was pooling into a viscous puddle from underneath the door.
"If you can, answer me. I can help you," she called out. The door still wouldn't budge. There had to be a body up against it, which would explain all of the blood. When she saw movement in the crack of the door, Erin leaned in for a closer look. Placing her ear against the door, she heard moaning once again.
"Hello. Can you hear me?" She whispered. Just then a ghastly face appeared in the crack of the door only inches from her. It looked like a man but it was hard to tell since blood covered everything but the dull, lifeless eyes. With flesh dangling from bared teeth, the man growled at Erin and tried to bite her as he began to force open the door.
Erin gasped and shot to her feet. She climbed back over the counter and stumbled toward the exit. She ran back to her van without looking back and sped off. She said a silent prayer for her grandfather and willed herself to stop shaking.
She didn't know what she'd find in Baton Rouge