Andrea took off her PayDay cap and wiped her brow. She had been gathering carts for the past 15 minutes in the setting sun, and the late June weather wasn't helping much either. She sighed and made her way to the far end of the parking lot to gather the last of the carts.

"Good work out there, Andrea," her supervisor told her after she had brought them in. "Andrea, I have a pressing engagement, so I'm going to let you close tonight." Reading between the lines: he wanted to meet with his mistress before going home to his wife.

"Thank you, sir," she said, having long since learned it was the only thing he wanted to hear. He handed her the keycards and casually waved as he walked out the front doors toward his car.

She locked the front doors first, then began checking the store aisle by aisle, to make sure an errant customer hadn't been overlooked.

Naturally, she found Kevin Thompson in the sporting goods section.

"Oh, hey! You're that, uh...goth chick...right? An...An...Angela?"

"My name is Andrea, Kevin," she informed him through clenched teeth. "The store is closed now, so you have to go home."

"Oh. Okay!" Well, that was easy enough.

As she led him to the front of the store, he stopped in front of row of plasma TVs. "Hey look, Dawn of the Dead is on!" he observed. Andrea turned to look and stopped cold.

"...It is now known that when the bombs exploded, they dispersed an unknown biological agent which authorities believe are responsible for the incidences of violence, rioting, and cannibalism in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere. The President has declared a Terror Alert level of red, and has asked that citizens stay in their homes and places of business until the situation is under control..."

The footage shown over the news anchor's narration was a vision of hell. Three people, staggering down a street in some city, their bodies covoered with burns, cuts, and blood. One of them had an obvious compound fracture in one leg, which he ignored as if it were a pinprick.

A woman -- an uninjured woman -- walked into the frame. She was obviously begging with one of the injured, but her words were lost to the drone of the anchor. Whatever her pleas were, they fell on deaf ears, just as the three injured fell on the woman and began...oh God...

Andrea turned away before she could throw up.

"Hey, this scene wasn't in the movie," Kevin observed.

"Ah, hello, my sweet." Even through the phone, the endearment made Andrea blush.

"Don't call me sweet, Chuck," she chided. "Have you seen the news?"

"Not recently...why? Has something happened?"

"Yeah, there was another...attack. A few cities here on the east coast got hit with a virus that makes people attack each other."

"Like, an actual terrorist attack? Jesus. Let me see what the chatter on the Net's saying." The cell phone was silent for a few minutes, as the clacking of keyboard keys and the clicking of a mouse could be heard. Finally, he came back onto the phone. "It's nationwide, Andrea. There were attacks in Seattle, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, and Detroit. Projected deaths are in the low thousands." He sounded on the verge of crying, or throwing up.

"Listen, Chuck, keep an ear out for an attack on Lawndale, or if there are reports of violence here. If anything comes up, get your ass down here to the PayDay and we'll button up until it all blows over."

"Sure thing, sweets." Worry was in his voice this time, not affection, and Andrea didn't think to chastise him. She closed the cell phone and looked over the parking lot, empty save for her car and Kevin's jeep. It was entirely dark now, so the parking lot was being lit by the light poles placed evenly throughout it. Traffic was light; she couldn't hear anything denoting an emergency.

She looked over to Kevin, who was standing awkwardly a few feet away. It suddenly occured to Andrea that he wasn't wearing his football uniform. He looked small without it.

"So. Uh. Kevin."

"Yeah?" he said, perking up.

"Did you...want to stay here or something?" she asked.

"No...I better get home to mom and dad. They might get worried," he said, a frown on his face.

"Well, okay. If you need anything, though, feel free to swing by."

"Sure thing!" he said, now grinning. He waved as he went to his Jeep and started it up. She watched as he drove to the edge of the parking lot, then turned back to the doors.

She was jarred back around by the sound of crumpling, grinding metal. An SUV had plowed into Kevin's Jeep, flipping the vehicle onto its back. Andrea jogged over as fast as she could; by the time she had made it, Kevin had crawled out from the vehicle's wreck.

"Aw, man! Dad's gonna be pissed!" As Kevin bemoaned his wrecked auto, Andrea checked the driver of the SUV. The woman had torn clothing, an obvious bite on her shoulder, and judging by the way she clawed at the door's window, snarling and pressing her face against the glass, Andrea guessed that she had been infected in Baltimore and had succumbed to the virus (or whatever) on the road shortly before nearly killing Kevin. She whipped out her cell phone and dialed 911.

As an EMT checked Kevin, several men wearing full body armor wrangled the woman out of the SUV, duct-taped her mouth, and zip-tied her hands and feet. The officer interviewing Andrea noticed the focus of her attention. "Yeah, word from HomeSec is to not let them bite you," he informed her. "Whatever that shit is, it's nasty as hell and spreads faster than melted butter. After we put this'un into holding, we'll be moving to Baltimore in full force to act as riot control. I heard they're already strip-searching people, making sure they don't have any bites or scratches."

The armored officers tossed the woman casually into the back of a squad car and piled back into their tactical police van. "Well, if we have any other questions, Ms. Hecuba, we'll call you," the officer told her. "You be safe now."

Andrea watched for the next ten minutes as the cop drove away, the ambulance (with Kevin inside) drove away, and a tow truck and a wrecker came and hauled the Jeep and the SUV away. She was now again alone in the middle of the well-lit parking lot.

Suddenly feeling like she was being watched, she jogged back to the Pay Day and let herself back in. Being inside comforted her.

Her cell phone woke her up. Checking the time, she saw that it was 3 AM. "Andrea, let me in." It was Charles.

"What? Where are you?" she asked.

"Right outside. Damnit, Andrea, please let me in."

She yawned and stretched. She had sat on one of the leather couches, a big-screen TV on in front of her. She was watching the crisis unfold, when she decided to lie down, and...what had happened to the news? The TV was showing static.

She made her way to the front of the store and let her boyfriend in. They embraced and kissed for a moment. "What did you find?" she asked him, locking the doors again.

"There was a wave of secondary attacks," he said. "Both regular and biological. The regular bombings targeted key hospitals in and near the affected cities; the bio attacks were concentrated on the first responders, emergency headquarters, and the like. Andrea...there isn't a Cedars of Lawndale any more."

They sat on the couch together and clicked around on the TV until they found a channel that was broadcasting -- the Weather Channel. It was broadcasting out of Atlanta, which had avoided any attacks.

They listened as the nervous meteorologist rattled off estimated casualty figures (100,000), revealed that Europe had been hit by a similar wave of attacks, and relayed what the federal government was doing in response. Most cities had broken down into total chaos, and the CDC was organizing with international agencies to find a cure for the disease.

They awoke before noon the next day, having again nodded off on the couch (together, this time). The Weather Channel was now off the air, replaced by a test pattern from the EAS. "I guess Atlanta's gone," Chuck shrugged, sounding tired.

Andrea went to check the front doors. "Shit," she said, observing a dozen or so infected people in or near the parking lot. She quickly pushed the shopping carts she had lamented less than twenty-four hours ago in position to block the doors. Even if the infected managed to break through the glass, they would be unable to make their way into the Pay Day itself.

She wandered back into the store looking for Chuck -- eventually finding him at one of the computers on display. He was in a chat room. "Hey, sweets," he said.

Andrea tried to hide the smile, but couldn't hide the blush. "Shut up," she said unconvincingly.

"I've been talking to a few people online. One guy in Australia says that the PM there has grounded all flights and ordered their ports blockaded. Another guy in Europe says there were attacks in London, Paris, Berlin, and Moscow. It looks like the middle of the country -- between the Rockies and the Mississippi -- is being sealed off from the outside world, too. And the big news is that just before Atlanta went down, the CDC reported that the infected were actually the walking dead."

Andrea laughed then, a single high-pitched "HA!". Then, she started crying.

She finally calmed down sometime later, kneeling on the floor, Chuck's arms around her. "Thanks, Chuck," she said, attempting to smile, and kissed him.

They sat there for a while longer, but were shaken out of their moment by a ringing phone. Andrea stood, wiped the tear trails off her face, and made her way to the front of the store, where the phone was located.

"Pay Day Warehouse Store, this is Andrea, how can I help you?" she asked before she could stop herself. She shook her head -- they really drilled etiquette into her here.

"Andrea? You're alive?" It was Monique, one of the cashier girls.

"Yeah, me and my, uh, boyfriend are hiding out in the Pay Day."

"That's great," she said, sounding distracted. It probably had something to do with the moans and pounding in the background. "Listen, do you think you have room for me, my boyfriend, and his band?"

"Uh, sure. We have enough Cheez Logs to last us until Armageddon, more than enough to share." The joke suddenly sounded flat to Andrea's ears, considering what had happened overnight.

"Thanks, Andrea. You're fantastic." The line went dead.

She turned to Chuck. "We'll be getting some guests soon," she told him.

Chuck joined Andrea on the roof of the Pay Day, where she sat in a fold-out chair, keeping a lookout for Monique and co. with binoculars around her neck. "A soda, my sweet?" he offered her. She took it, blushing at the nickname.

"Damnit, Chuck, I told you not to call me that," she said again, futilely.

"Sorry, my sweet," he said, grinning.

Andrea's eyes focused on something in the distance, and she raised the binoculars up. "What the...?"

"What is it? Your coworker and her companions?" Chuck asked.

"No, I thought I saw somebody on the roof of that pharmacy across the street." Andrea silently cursed the trees that obstructed the view. Suddenly, there it was again: movement. "There is!" she said, excited.

"Look, in the parking lot!" Chuck pointed out. Andrea tilted the binoculars down, only to see a battered old black van pull up in front of the doors. She leapt out of the chair to see what looked like Monique and a man already out and running toward the doors. "LOCKED!" Andrea shouted. "COME AROUND BACK!"

Monique and the mystery guest looked up, then Monique shot a thumbs up and dived back into the van with the man, which began to drive around back.

"Shouldn't we go open the loading bay doors?" Upchuck asked.

Andrea stared at him for a moment. "Shit!" she swore, running for the roof access door.

Andrea pulled up the loading bay door so fast it rocked on its hinges when it reached the top. She was greeted by five scared-looking people. "It's about time," complained one of the four men -- the bald one. He sounded more terrified than irritated, though.

Andrea gave them all a hand into the store itself, then closed the door. "Thanks for taking us in, Andrea," Monique said. "Our neighborhood got swamped with those...things, and it was either here or Boston," she said, casting a look of scorn to the man with the goatee as she said Boston.

"Look, Monique, I want to find Janey and make sure she's alright," he replied tersely.

"His sister and her best friend went to Boston over the weekend, to tour the campus of some university," Monique explained. "Nevermind that the big cities are deathtraps right now."

"Well, you're all welcome to stay here until this blows over," Andrea assured her guests.

Monique proceeded to introduce them. Andrea categorized them by their hairstyle: Trent had the goatee, Max was bald, Jesse had the long hair, and Nick had his hair dyed.

Monique found Andrea with Chuck on the roof, each sitting in a fold-out chair, scanning nearby buildings with binoculars. "Looking for other survivors?" she asked.

"Yeah," Andrea said. "I thought I saw somebody on that pharmacy across the street earlier, but there's no movement now." She had a dry-erase board in her lap, ready to communicate if she saw somebody again.

Monique looked to the pharmacy for a moment. "Did you think to look into the pharmacy?"

"," Andrea said, slightly embarrassed. She tilted the binoculars to focus on the open doors of the pharmacy. A body propped the doors open. Andrea fought the revulsion and kept looking. After a minute, a figure clad in camouflage and gas mask darted out and vanished around the rear. "Aha!" Andrea said. She then frowned, because whoever it was had disappeared again.

Several days went by.

To Chuck's dismay, large portions of the Internet ceased to work. The major utlities seemed to stay intact, though, which was a relief as nobody wanted to stumble around the Pay Day with the lights off.

Andrea spent much of her time on the rooftop, watching the mystery camo-person systematically loot the stores across the street. They had taken five trips the first day to empty the pharmacy of whatever they had been after. Mysteriously, they then looted the salon next door. They had seemingly disappeared the day after, but Andrea stayed up that night and watched them pump gasoline at the gas station after breaking the fluorescent lights shining down onto the pumps with a few well-placed rocks. Andrea guessed that he was sticking to night to pump the gas since it involved him being exposed for greater periods of time, and didn't want to draw attention.

There were now several dozen animate corpses milling about in the parking lot of the Pay Day. Andrea considered ways of slipping past the horde to make it to her (or Chuck's) car, but everything she came up with seemed too risky.

Within the store, Andrea occasionally regretted inviting Monique and her friends into the store. She and Trent spent equal time sleeping, sleeping together, and loudly arguing. The rest of Trent's band, minus instruments, tried their hand at singing their song catalogue a capella. Hence, the reason Andrea stayed on the rooftop often.

Chuck stayed on the roof with her, as well. He had brought two sleeping bags so they could sleep under the stars together, but on the first night Andrea had zipped the bags together. They didn't do much stargazing.

One night, Nick and Max decided to come up to watch the camo-man, since Andrea had talked about him a few times and had piqued their curiosity.

They watched him pump gasoline for a few minutes, then Nick pulled out a flashlight from his pocket and started clicking it on and off, pointed at the man.

"What are you doing?" Andrea hissed.

"Trying to contact him. Once I get his attention, I'll see if he knows morse code."

"You know morse code?" Max asked.

"Well, yeah. I was in the Scouts."

"Dude, the Scouts are so not criminale."

"Shut up, I think he sees me." The camo-man immediately hung up the pump nozzle, sealed the gas can, and slipped out of sight. Thirty seconds later, a light shone from the roof of the gas station, then began a frenzy of off-on-off in a seemingly random pattern.

"He's saying 'Hi there'," Nick translated. "And...'How many?' I'm guessing he's asking how many people are here."

"Don't tell him! He might bring some friends and...I dunno, shell us out, or something," Andrea urged.

"" Nick said as he flashed.

"He says 'Smart. No live dead in store?'"

After looking at Andrea for guidance -- and getting none -- he shrugged. "" he sent.

"Okay, he says...'I can get friends to clear area. Want?'"

Andrea considered this. "Well, if her 'friends' come and clear the area, what's to stop them from filling us with lead and taking the store?"

Nick relayed Andrea's concerns to the other. "He trust him. Gives us his word."

"Oh, his word," Andrea said sarcastically, then sighed. "Well, I guess it'd be better to clear the area before we become so swamped that we're dead anyway. And who knows, this guy's friends might not be the loot 'n rape type."

Nick nodded. "Go ahead, send friends."

"And she says..."Okay...expect them 1-2 days...logging off...goodnight."

"Goodnight," Nick returned, then pocketed the flashlight. "Looks like we'll be expecting more guests, then."

Andrea was jarred out of her sleep by the sound of heavy gunfire. She stumbled out of the sleeping bag and carefully peeked over the lip of the roof. Several Humvees had arrived, parked into the street, and now men poked out of rooftop hatches and fired rifles into the crowd of infected which populated the parking lot. They controlled their fire, shooting off three-round bursts, dropping the ghouls efficiently. Within a few minutes, the parking lot was devoid of the living dead.

A man stepped out of the lead humvee, an obvious aura of confidence about him. He wore a green military cap on his head, a smirk on his face, and a Desert Eagle in his hand. The rest of his outfit was also green -- a simple light-green t-shirt and dark green cargo pants. Only his black boots stuck out. "Fan out! Make sure they're all dead-dead!" he barked.

Andrea observed the mysterious figure that had prowled through the stores across the street for several days now appear in the open, jogging towards the commander. They traded salutes, and then appeared to converse. After a minute, the masked man pointed up to the roof of the Pay Day, and both he and the commander looked up -- right at Andrea. The man's smirk turned into a friendly grin, and he raised his hand (the one not holding the gun) in a friendly wave. Andrea tentatively waved back.

He reached into the humvee and pulled out a megaphone. "Hello up there!" he spoke into it. "My name is General Conroy. Can we meet up close?"

Andrea thought for a moment. She decided to agree, since he seemed to have a private army at his disposal, whereas she had a few lousy musicians and some baseball bats. "Uh, sure," she called out. "Come around back, the front doors are blockaded."

When Andrea opened up the loading bay doors this time, she was greeted by the sight of half a dozen men in full combat gear at the ready. They didn't have their guns pointed at her, but Andrea got the impression that if she made the wrong move she would be ventilated in half a second.

The men flanked the General who, along with the mysterious store looter, stood at ease. "Ma'am," Conroy said, extending a hand. Andrea took it, a little surprised that he didn't do the macho 'squeeze hand until it hurts' thing.

"Andrea!" the man next to him said, his voice muffled by the gas mask.

"Uh, do I know you?" she asked.

He took off his gas mask.

That is to say, she took off her gas mask.

Brittany Taylor's distinctive pigtails were gone, apparently chopped off so she could fit her head into the gas mask without worrying about leaks. And the military gear she wore threw Andrea for a complete psychological disconnect for a second. "Brittany?"

"can we take this reunion inside?" Conroy said, a chuckle under his voice. "I'd really like some iced tea, if you have it."

"Uh, sure." Andrea gestured into the store, indicating that Conroy and his men were free to enter. She moved to the front of the store where the vending machines were, and got a bottle of iced tea out of one of them.

She found the general on the same couch she had fallen asleep on the first night of the disaster, and handed him the bottle. He cracked it open, took a sip, and sighed contentedly. "That's the stuff."

He leaned forward, all business. "Please, have a seat," he said, gesturing to the other furniture in that part of the store. Andrea grabbed a nearby office chair, rolled it over, and sat. "So, what I would like to know is can I use this store as a base of operations?"

"Well, uh, I don't see why not," Andrea said. "I'm not the manager -- he's probably dead by now, anyway -- so none of it's really mine to give away."

Conroy grinned again. "Fantastic, miss...Andrea," he said, recalling that's what Brittany had called her.

Brittany herself approached then, a bottle of Gatorade in her hand, and took a seat on the couch next to Conroy. "Hi, Andrea!" she greeted. "Hi, Uncle Buck!" Conroy made a throat-clearing sound. "Uh, I mean General Conroy."

"How did you get involved in all of this, Brittany?" Andrea asked.

"Oh, I've known Unc-I mean, General Conroy ever since I was little, when mom would take me up to the compound every weekend. After mom left me and daddy--" Conroy cleared his throat again. "--Daddy and I, I kept going, even though Daddy didn't like it." Brittany's face fell. "Daddy didn't make it. Neither did Brian."

"Oh Brittany, I am so sorry," Andrea said, reaching out a hand to comfort Brittany.

Several hours later, the command post had been set up. It involved big antennas set up on the roof of the Pay Day, long cables snaking down to a communications set in the manager's office. General Conroy had summoned all the residents of the Pay Day to the office. "What do you folks want to do now?" he asked.

"What do you mean?" Chuck asked.

"Do you want to stay here, or go somewhere else?"

Trent was the first to speak up. "I have to get to Boston, to find my sister Janey."

"Janey? Do you mean Jane Lane?" Brittany asked.

Trent nodded. "She and her friend Daria went up to Boston the day before this mess started."

"Oh no, Daria too?!" Brittany was on the verge of tears. "Uncle Buck, you have to help them! They're my best non-popular friends!"

Conroy seemed to consider this for a moment. "I suppose help can be arranged," he finally admitted. "I can spare a humvee, and some gas, and some rifles."

"Can I go with them too, Unc-I mean, General Conroy?" Brittany begged.

Conroy nodded. "Certainly. Family and friends are important American values, especially in these trying times."

"I want to go with Trent too. He's my boyfriend," Monique said.

Andrea found herself talking. "Me too. Daria and Jane are...acquaintances." The only time they had ever actually interacted was last year, when they had caught her working at the Pay Day. They had a reputation as snarky bitches, and it was completely unexpected the way they didn't tear her down verbally. Besides, she didn't want to stay at the Pay Day...there was something a little wild in Conroy's eyes, something she didn't quite trust.

"I'll come with you," Chuck assured her, taking her hand.

"Anybody else?" Conroy asked. When nobody responded. "Very well, then. Those of you staying, I expect you to work -- either out there, on the front lines, or something else to make yourselves useful..."

They were ready to leave the next day. Trent was speaking to his bandmates.

"Guys, it's okay that you didn't want to come. This is something I have to do by myself." Monique coughed loudly at this. "Or something like that," he amended.

Andrea shrugged under the weight of the kevlar vest, trying to get comfortable. She was grateful that she finally had fresh clothes, though -- the general had sent them to their homes with escorts, to get a shower (nobody had had one in almost a week) and any clothes and other belongings they wanted to bring with them.

Brittany had made it her duty to be Andrea's best friend, and had stuck with her for most of the preceding day. She had been shocked (and a little horrified) to find out that she was dating the notorious Upchuck. "What do you see in him?" she asked.

Andrea had merely held her hands apart, a distance of roughly seven inches.

"Ohhhhh," Brittany said, a look of awe on her face.

Finally, everybody got into the humvee (Brittany driving, since she was the only person with experience behind the wheel of a humvee), and it was only ten minutes into the trip that Andrea realized how stupid she was. Boston was sure to be a deathtrap -- and that wasn't counting Philadelphia and New York, two major cities that were sure to be crawling with the undead -- all in all, 10-15 million zombies stood between them and Daria and Jane, if the two girls were actually still alive, which they probably weren't.

"Me and my big mouth," she grumbled to herself.