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  Table of contents Issue Nine SAFE DISTANCE



a’m, so help me God, as long as there is a United States of America, you shall never darken its roads again. By the power invested in me by the state of New Jersey, I hereby sentence you to a lifetime ban from driving.”

The judge's words stunned Amanda. She’d never gotten so much as a speeding ticket or moving violation in her life, and she’d been driving since she was sixteen years old. True, they’d suspended her license twice, but only because of a misunderstanding. The third time wasn’t a charm. She’d fired her son of a bitch attorney after he told the judge that she was mentally ill. The judge ignored her pleas for leniency and handed down a six month sentence to go with the lifetime ban.

"How am I supposed to get to work?" She demanded incredulously.

The judge was stiff and unsympathetic.

“Try walking.”

As long as there is a United States of America...

Amanda smiled as she thought back on the judge’s smug condescension, five years earlier.

There wasn’t a United States of America anymore, so she decided to help herself to a brand new sports car.

The parking lot was deserted, except for the tattered skeleton of a police officer, crushed beneath the back tires of a crashed ambulance. A hot wind blew across the concrete. Amanda stroked away the ruby-red hair which fell across her eyes like a great velvet curtain. Her face and neck were streaked in sweat.

Georgia was a nasty place in the summer. Maybe it wasn’t so bad if you’d grown up there. Amanda was from South Jersey, so the closest she’d ever come to Georgia was the Pine Barrens, which had been full of people who only imagined that they were from Georgia.

The doors to the dealership’s main garage had digital locks and the power had been out for some time, so she had to blow them open with a grenade she’d pried off a dead soldier at an army checkpoint back on the Jersey Turnpike. After the cage door was blown apart, plumes of must and aerosolized concrete filled the dealership for a half hour.

When it had finally dissipated, the garage still smelled stale. Shrapnel had shattered the windshields and headlights of the first half dozen sports cars, but there were a few untouched models in the back. Amanda found the laser-cut keys to the vehicles in the sales agent's office. There wasn’t any food, but there was a bottle of spiced rum on the manager’s desk. She picked it up and then thought better of it and set it back down. On her way out of the office, she spotted her dream car in a back corner of the garage: a freshly minted Lamborghini Gallardo, dark pomegranate, with red piping and a black tail fin.

"Where have you been all of my life, gorgeous?"

Grinning, she tossed a pillow on the passenger seat, along with a crate of food and water, several hand guns, batteries, flashlights and a medical kit.

She drove the Lamborghini straight through the front windows of the dealership, squealing giddily as it hit the pavement and took off. A few miles down the road, she turned off onto the interstate.

A gruesome little smile creased her face as she thought of the soldier again in that big yellow contamination suit, lying lifelessly across that roadblock back in Jersey. He'd looked like a space marine. Behind him, there had been a wall of sandbags and barbed wire. The army had converted a turnpike station into a military quarantine checkpoint, M-60's pointing out of all of the toll booths.

A fat lot of good the suit had done him. The Muwallad Virus just didn’t care.

The dead soldier had been twenty-five hundred miles ago. Shortly after that, she'd gone north, looking for other survivors. She traveled as far as Maine, sticking closely to the Green Mountains, and then swung down through New York and Ohio, traveling as far west as the Missouri border before turning back toward the coast. Moving down through the Carolinas in a police car, she had the sirens set to full blast the whole ride, hoping that somebody might hear it. The radios were all filled with static. At one point, her cruiser broke down, so she commandeered a Mr. Softee’s ice cream truck and drove it straight through Charlestown.

All the while, she’d felt the creeping suspicion that she was being followed. More than once, she’d glanced up into her rearview mirror and thought that she saw a flicker of movement. One night, she saw a strobe of light pass through a backyard at the end of an adjacent neighborhood. By the time she’d jumped back into her car and came horning around the corner, it was gone. Just another lake in the desert.

Finally, after months of fruitless searching, she’d decided on the Florida Keys.

Amanda noticed that the Lamborghini had only an eighth of a tank of gas. That was probably design. Just enough gas for potential customers to give it a spin while they made up their minds, and not enough for thieves to get far on.

She pulled off the road to refill her car at a station in Clark’s Bluff. Someone had tried to board the place up. There were nails and two-by-fours everywhere. They’d fallen ill halfway through the attempt. She found the body in one of the aisles. It had long since ceased to smell, reduced to no more than a gray, wrinkled raisin of a human being. There was a plastic jar of summer sausage on the counter. It was filled with dead flies. She took a few cans of food from the aisles. Some had already expired. There were a few bottles of Kentucky bourbon beneath the cash register. Amanda picked one up and thought about it. There weren’t any cops around to arrest her for DUI. Canned food had a short half-life, but all of the hard liquor in the world would still be perfectly good a hundred years from now. She rolled her eyes at this little fact before putting it back.

In an office in the back of the store, she found the switch to unlock the underground gas drums. They were all empty, though. Every drop had been siphoned out. Amanda wasn’t surprised. In the final days of the epidemic, the army had reportedly swept across the nation, confiscating as much fuel as they could to slow the spread of the disease.

A mile down the road, she found a two-story colonial hidden a hundred yards back in the trees. At the end of a long gravel driveway there were two Ford pickup trucks, an El Dorado Cadillac and a mint-condition Shelby Mustang. She siphoned twelve gallons of gas out of the tanks and checked the house. All of the doors and windows were covered by thick tarps that had been duct taped, including the chimney. The entire house was airtight. There was an in-ground swimming pool out back. It was thick with algae. It looked like someone had taken the winter covers off, sliced them up and then used them as a makeshift bio-shield to quarantine the house from the outside world, like patching up a pair of overalls.

There wasn’t any food inside. There were people, though. Twelve of them. They were all gathered together in the living room. It looked like a bomb had gone off around them. They were sprawled out over tables and couches. Several vases had shattered on the floor. Pictures were hanging off their hooks. A plasma screen television had fallen flat on its face and cracked. One man lay face-down in a dark stain on the floor, at the foot of a smashed fish tank, tiny designer pebbles surrounding his body. The rest of the house was unmolested.

For a little while she stood there, drinking in the strange scene with her eyes, more curious than horrified, trying to make sense out of it. No guns. No knives. No dried blood. No signs of the Muwallad, of boils on their skin or gray, cracked fingernails. For a long time, she was unable to move from where she stood, determined to figure it out, as if it were all nothing more than a morning crossword puzzle that was frustrating her. After just a few months, she was already immune to the revulsion that a healthy person might have felt at the sight of a pile of corpses.

Finally, it hit her. They’d all suffocated to death.

Frowning, she rolled her eyes and left, quickly returning to the highway.

By midday, the Lamborghini had put her within a heartbeat of Florida. There were less and less crashed and abandoned vehicles the further south she went. She thought maybe the national guard had been stricter about interstate travel down here in the early days of the outbreak, but she wasn’t sure. She was excited, though. She was certain that there would be survivors in the Florida Keys. Her mood brightened as she thought about having a real conversation again.

Just past mile marker fifteen on the Georgia Interstate, Amanda glanced up into her rearview mirror and blinked. At the very edge of the mirror, at the back end of a long, winding stretch of the four-lane road, she thought she saw something. It was there and then it was gone, blotted out by the steadily imposing horizon of Georgia oaks. She dismissed it. It was probably nothing. Maybe another pack of wild dogs.

But then something caught her eye again. She blinked in disbelief as a yellow dot moved across her rearview mirror.

There was another car following her on the interstate.

Amanda nearly cried in fear and excitement, and immediately began to ease down off the gas. Just to be cautious, she didn’t turn off the road. She kept going, but lowered her speed to a more reasonable eighty miles per hour. If there was a crazy person chasing her, she didn’t want to give them a chance to catch her. Whoever they were, they were driving a pretty fast car themselves. Over the roar of the Lamborghini’s engine, she heard the other driver horning her.

Within a minute, the other car was shadowing her by less than a hundred feet. Amanda recognized the car immediately. It was a bright yellow Ferrari California, a spectacular model. It was nearly impossible to look at in the Georgia sunlight. An oblong of fierce daylight blinded Amanda in the rearview mirror. She winced and looked away. Her heart was racing as she wondered who this person was. A few seconds later, the sun disappeared behind a large embankment of clouds. A light rainfall began to patter across the highway, the raindrops hissing as they touched the hot asphalt.

Amanda glanced up into her rearview as the Ferrari closed to within thirty feet.

The first thing she noticed was the man’s bright white smile.

He flipped off his sunglasses and she got a good look at his face. ‘A good look’ was the only way she could have put it, because it didn’t look like you could get a bad look at the fellow following her. He had a face like Bradley Cooper, hair like James Dean, eyes like Ian Somerhalder. And damn it if she wasn’t sure that when she’d pull the car over and he’d step out, that she’d hear a voice sexier than George Clooney’s saying, “Hey, girl.”

“Girl, you hit the jackpot!”

Some other girl, driving through Europe, probably got the cannibal.

Smiling big and wide, the man continued to bang down on his horn. By now he just seemed to be celebrating, since he’d obviously gotten her attention.

“Sorry, I’m not stopping here!” She laughed giddily. “Last man alive or not, I’m not getting soaked on the side of the road. It’s wet, sticky and there’s too many bugs. It’s two miles to the next rest stop. We’ll pull in there.”

There was no way the man could hear her of course, so she pointed as quickly as she could toward an upcoming rest stop sign that hung over the road. But they were both doing well over ninety miles per hour, and the thing zipped by them like an asteroid. The excited fellow probably didn’t have time to see it, and she didn’t know how to explain it to him with her hands, so she just kept driving.

The Ferrari inched closer. He was only three car lengths behind.

She chuckled. “Sorry, buddy. Give me minute.”

The man continued to hammer down on the horn and pulled closer to her. She had a great look at him in the rearview now. He was pumping his fist and grinning like the devil as both cars swung down a small slope in the interstate. Islands of green, alluvial fields and maple trees, cut and separated by the opposite set of lanes, swung past them as they looped down toward Florida at nearly a hundred miles an hour. Over the din of the wind spiraling through the open driver’s side window, she heard the Ferrari's engine roar as he gave it more gas.

“Okay, lover boy. That’s very flattering. Now ease off a little. I haven’t even said yes to a date yet and you’re already trying to round home plate.”

He banged on the horn some more. He closed to within two car lengths as they raced down the countryside.

“I’m real excited to see you too, buddy,” she said, frowning. “There’s some hope. Humanity’s got a friggin’ future. Now get the hell off my bumper.

The Ferrari didn’t budge. It continued to shadow her, the driver leaning hard on his horn and, waving one hand, tried to flag her down. The world zipped by at a hundred and ten miles an hour. She drove faster out of fear that the creep would rear end her.

“Damn it, get off of me! What’s wrong with you? We’re thirty seconds from the rest stop!”

Amanda flinched as a cold realization swarmed through her. A voice, long forgotten, struggled to be heard.

He’s trying to bully you. He thinks you’re just a little girl. Don’t let him push you around.

“Fuck you, buddy,” she hissed into the rearview, glowering at him. “One car length for every eight miles an hour, asshole! One car length! We’re doing a hundred and ten! That’s fourteen car lengths! You’re right on top of me! Get back!”

The Ferrari closed to within fifteen feet.

He’s going to kill you. He doesn’t care. None of them do. Make him pay. Make them all pay.

An unspeakable but familiar rage ballooned through her. She pushed her face directly up into the rearview mirror and screamed wildly. Behind her, the man reflected a big, disarming smile. But that only made it worse. The pressure building on her forehead was enormous. Her brain swelled with blood. It felt like she might faint if she didn’t do something.

The man was trying to kill her; to push her around, to bully her off the road, just like all the others before him, all of the ones that had died. The arrogant high school kids that road her bumper through residential neighborhoods, the old fossils that did thirty in a fifty-five zone, trying to cause an accident, the maniacs that drove eighty miles an hour on the interstate and switched lanes without turn signals. That crazy wanker that cut her off when she tried to merge onto an empty road at three o’clock in the morning. The son of a bitch had gotten what he deserved. All of them had. All of the ones that she’d sent into the ditch and the judge had cried his bleeding little heart over, like they were saints that she’d shot out of the heavens.

He was one of them. The very last one.

The road belonged to Amanda now. And she was never going to give it back.

The Ferrari horned her one last time and something popped inside of her head.

“I SAID GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME!” She screamed furiously. Drops of sweat crept down her neck like insects. The palms of her hands burned as she gripped the steering wheel. The skies turned red and the smooth landscape before her was suddenly denuded, stripped clean of its trees and signs, a wasteland of broken vehicles, their occupants all dead, murdered not by the Muwallad Virus, but by roving bands of reckless drivers. “WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU! YOU’RE ASKING FOR IT, YOU SON OF A BITCH! YOU’RE ALL ASKING FOR IT!”

She shifted gears and pressed down hard on the accelerator. The Lamborghini took off like a bullet from an F-16’s cockpit guns. Within a few seconds, she topped one-hundred and thirty miles-an-hour and the Ferrari was trailing literally hundreds of feet behind her, quickly diminishing in her rearview mirror.

But it didn’t last long. The Ferrari took off like a missile after her, closing to within a hundred feet.

Which was exactly what she was hoping for.


Amanda snatched up the pillow from the passenger seat and hugged it tightly to her chest. Then she brought her foot down hard on the brake pedal and wrenched the emergency break free with both hands.

The Lamborghini dropped off fifty miles per hour in a fraction of a heartbeat.

The tires let out a high pitched squeal as both vehicles futilely tried to stop. The smell of burnt rubber filled her nostrils.

Then the Ferrari barreled headlong into her.

The crash was momentarily deafening. The Lamborghini didn’t explode. It imploded. Glass and serrated metal flew everywhere. Every window shattered. Something flew forward, decapitating the passenger seat, and impaled itself through the windshield. What was left of the windshield swung out, like a door. The hood popped open and then slammed back down. The passenger side door flew off its hinges, disappearing into a flank of trees on the side of the road.

The airbag exploded out of the steering wheel like a gunshot, rocking her body back into her seat and knocking the wind out of her. The pillow took the brunt of the impact, though. She’d made sure to blow all of the air out of her lungs, bracing herself at the last second. A jagged piece of glass punctured the bag, releasing her from its bear hug. As the car finally skidded to a halt a hundred feet down the road from the collision, Amanda straightened up, desperately heaving for breath. It felt as though her lungs had been squeezed out of her body. Finally, she managed to force down a big gulp of air and then turned her head to get a look at the damage.

To her astonishment, she found the other driver’s mangled body sprawled out over the backseat of the Lamborghini. The crash had catapulted him through both his windshield and then Amanda’s rear window. Through the shattered glass, she could see that the Ferrari had flipped over and cartwheeled into the concrete divider, its front end smashed flat and both its doors clipped off like chicken wings. There was a trail of wreckage over a hundred feet long following it; doors, glass, mirrors, tires and broken pipes. Oil snaked along the asphalt and ended in a growing pool at the foot of the Lamborghini.

Amanda didn’t think there was a danger that it would ignite.

She blinked disbelievingly as the dead man began to twitch.

One of his eyeballs wiggled, as if caught in the throes of REM sleep. The other one was detached and hanging just below his nose. There were long gashes across the left half of his face and neck. His hair was gone, his head nothing but pulpy cornrows of flesh. Blood squirted sickly from his exposed scalp.

Amanda fought down the bile rising out of her stomach and tried to remain calm.

Finally, he seemed to recognize her. The man’s whole body shuddered as he uttered a weak, delirious chuckle.

“Well....thank God.... thank God... for you...”

A moment later, he was dead. Outside, the sunshower pattered off as the clouds dissipated. Amanda stared blankly at the man’s corpse for what seemed like an hour.

Then she took a deep, achy breadth and swung the driver’s side door open. For a few moments she stood, taking in the decimated landscape. Some of the vehicles looked salvageable. After some time, she decided that it might be best to walk.




Thomas Peter McCarthy is a poker player and fiction writer from Atco, New Jersey with a BA in literature. His favorite three authors are Stephen King, Dean Koontz and the late, great Elmore Leonard. He writes primarily horror/suspense, as well as a smattering of science-fiction, fantasy and crime. An extensive collection of his illustrated stories can be found at www.beneathblackbridges.com.

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