The trigger gave only a soft click. Engulfed with gratitude to the fates, I realised the bullet in my pocket must have been the last.
Empty of breath, I hurried the gun downward, eyes rushing to see if they’d heard the tiny noise. Desperate to see if they knew what I’d got so close to doing, but their faces told me they had. It had been the only sound for miles.
“I’m so sorry,” I said over and over, not telling of what I thought I’d seen, just watching as the girl ran to clutch around the waist of our stranger. The figure’s hand rose, pulling the scarf from her face to reveal a young woman, face round, stretched with fear, arms wrapped around the child’s. The kid soon pulled away, looked back up, face strong with balled features. Her eyes caught the pistol and I stuffed it back in my pocket, pushing out my hand, offering to help the young woman to her feet.
With breath still pluming hard to the air, she held back, kept her hand low, making no attempt to rise until Andrew surged forward and waited for no answer before he took her weight.
No one asked questions or put up any resistance as we helped the pair climb through the barricaded fire exit and into the relative warmth. Andrew took the lead, tried his best to shield the view of Chloe still laid on the ground, but he needn’t have worried, the circle of three friends that had remained stood to block any stranger, friend or foe, crowbars and hammers bared in their hands. Only Nat kept her grip solid on the handle of the claw hammer as the stranger’s features clarified in the light.
They were sisters, both too young to be parent and child, the woman late teens, the kid maybe only just turning double figures, their features almost a match, long blonde hair, blue eyes glinting in the light. It was only their height and definition in the cheeks that gave away the difference. I overheard the whispered answers to slow questions fired their way, their names, Cassidy for the eldest, Ellie the other, as I knelt beside our patient.
Chloe’s body was still and I feared the worse, Lily’s blood soaked fingers no longer wrapped around the palm of the injured hand. I dared not prompt the answer I desperately sought, but Lily seemed to understand and told me the bleeding had stopped. I saw the first of the shallow breaths and for the first time that day I felt a wash of happiness. Staying sat at her side I let myself relax, let the others disperse and gather supplies. After a hearty meal, my shoulder wrapped in blankets, I was so grateful we’d found this place, that we’d got somewhere perfect to wait out for as long as we needed until the rescue party’s arrival.
Dozing as I sat, head falling forward, I listened to the two teenager talk to the rest of the group, recounting how their day had started.
“We got the call to evacuate early hours this morning. Literally on the phone, an automated message telling us to ring the police if we needed to verify the call. The electricity was already gone by then and the phones went dead soon after. The radio was no help, other than giving the same message which didn’t tell us what the hell was going on. We set off with my parents, but soon we were in tailbacks longer than we’d ever seen round here. After hours in traffic the Land Rover gave up about half way to the A30, so we hitched a lift on a bus near bursting. We had to stand, huddled in the aisle right at the front.
We came to the roadblock mid morning. People were streaming from cars, just leaving their vehicles blocking the road so they could walk towards the head of the queue. When the driver disappeared out of his door, we had no choice, everyone else was forcing against us so they could rush between the parked cars. Dad was the first to spot a long line of coaches, one after another leaving the head of the roadblock. As we grew closer we saw each overfull, with only two remaining and a long, wide line of people heading towards them. It wasn’t long before the panic started. A ripple of excitement ran through the crowds, leaving behind an urgency to get on one of those coaches. We tried to hold each other’s hands, but it was near impossible, I ended up carrying this one most of the way. People were shouting, elbows shoved out, baring their teeth like animals. We got separated from Mum and Dad as I tripped over, stumbling over an abandoned case. I took ages to battle back into the flow, clutching Ellie, everyone rushing, pushing with their elbows out, surging forward like rabid beasts.
Then came the gunshots.