With the blue sky only a memory and our luggage discarded to the long grass, Chloe squeezed up against Zoe, sliding Nat to the door, while Toby, Lily and Matt folded themselves into the boot, holdalls bursting with our snatched precious things resting on their laps. No one was keen to hang around in the dark knowing there was death close by. The eerie, distant orange lights helping to urge them on, the towering black smoke telling of its source. Despite the cramped conditions, I felt the relief in the car as we once again moved, my pace slower, more considered than before, knowing each bump rushing through the axles amplified tenfold for those tight together in the back.
With the main beam lights dancing across my view, another ten minutes passed before I saw the remains of a stone wall, smashed through in too many places to count, with many cars that just hadn’t been able, discarded at its foot. Swinging the four by four in an arc, I swept the headlights across the barrier and spotted the largest of the breaches near to the head of the silent queue of traffic. We rolled, our movement slow and considered. I glanced to Andrew, watching his shallow nod in reply.
The going was easy, the gap more than ample. Relief rushed through my body, a palpable excitement we were through the roadblocks, joined by excited whispers at my back. Through the gap we saw the pickup I guessed had done us the service, lit up in our beam as we travelled through, its mass pointing, angled high to the horizon, the front wheels resting on another stone wall bounding the opposite side, its doors wide open.
Turning the wheel, the headlights caught on a view we’d seen so many times before. Bags, holdalls and luggage scattered around, but this time we weren’t so naïve to the larger shapes surrounded in dark shadows. A difference caught my eye and with only a little surprise, the others too, if the short intakes of breath were anything to go by. We’d seen the face of a man, his body encased in an oversized orange hazmat suit, his eyes reflecting through the wide transparent window punctured by bullet holes.
Still turning, trying to find a route to navigate through the biggest of the debris, I pushed hard on the brakes, all eyes snapping forward as I saw something I knew was a trick of light. That was until Andrew jumped forward in his seat, leaning against the windscreen, stretching his neck to get a better look. He’d seen the body in the headlights move as the beam bathed the inside of the car. I twitched left expecting to see Andrew’s hand pulling the handle, but he was fixed forward, mouth open, staring. Chloe’s form lunged into the light before I could feel the chill of air coming from her open door to the chorus of voices calling her back, but she couldn’t be turned, the nursing instinct hard-wired. Drawing a deep breath I followed her into the night, the darkness bringing fog to my breath.
Glancing, I saw her knelt at the body’s side, head bent, listening to the gentle moan of death. I forced myself to breathe through my mouth, the powerful stench of blood and ripe overflowing toilets sticking in my throat. I couldn’t hold my gaze too long as I walked, couldn’t help but survey the scene I knew I should avoid for the sake of my dreams. This was by far the worst scene, the highest body count, double figures ticked off despite my desperation to avoid the detail. This roadblock was also unique, on this side of the concrete blocks were cars, some had not got away, bullet holes strafed their sides, shell cases glinting in the powerful light.
Grateful to arrive at Chloe’s side, despite the growing stench, which gave me an excuse to look away. That was until I took in the desperate view. I watched the last moments of a woman Chloe’s age, mid twenties, hair once blonde, now streaked scarlet, half of her face blown off. No lips covered one side of her mouth and the one intact eye remained closed. Still she was moving, cradled in Chloe’s arms. Chloe did nothing, there was nothing to be done, just the ultimate gift not to be alone when the final moment came.
That moment came too soon, came as Andrew arrived at our side, came as both of us rested our hands on Chloe’s shoulders, her head turning down, her comforting words silenced as the body went limp and her chest flattened. Chloe remained sat, Andrew and I sharing a solemn moment until we sank our heads. It was Chloe’s shoulders rising, her back arching that caused our view to rise, to watch the woman draw a long, deep breath. Chloe’s head turned up with a wide smile, full eyes pouring with compassion, giving joy her prayers were answered.
Startled, I watched as the woman’s one eye opened, the whites red, the lens milky. My legs forced me back as the woman once dead, lunged headlong at Chloe’s hand lain on her blood soaked chest. Teeth found bone according to the sound and Chloe’s arms electrified, trying to pull herself free. I’m ashamed to say my reaction was to leap back, isolating Chloe, staring wide eyed, helpless to the view of my friend’s hand clamped to the mouth of an abhorrence grinding into her flesh.