Chapter Eighteen

Vision blanched red, ears ringing, I lay rasping for rancid breath as if a great weight clung to my chest, the last few moments erased from memory. Nausea raced up from my stomach, nerves rattled as if all lit in the same moment, my body invaded by an alien sense. Reality flashed back, realisation took hold. I was back at the moment.

Despair sank into my bones until without warning the suffocating mass released. My first thought was death, nerves calming, nausea lifting, a peace surrounding me, until I felt hands rushing over my shoulders, fingers tracings around my neck, turning my head either side and the bright red abated. Blinking as hands gripped the straps my rucksack, words pushed through the bells in my ears, a shadow moving across my field of vision. Before I could concentrate on the sounds, I was on my feet, his arms, by now I knew it was Andrew, wrapped around me, pulling me close.

“You’re okay,” he repeated, but I wasn’t sure if the words were just for my benefit.

Releasing his clutch, still he held my arm, one hand on my shoulder, the other on my hand and we walked, building to a slow trot. By now the darkness had replaced the blinding red, I saw shapes on the horizon, blurred and unmoving, but shapes nonetheless. The cold took hold again, my face cooling and about to turn and ask what the hell had happened, he dragged me to the side of the road, manhandling me through the hedgerow, my face scraped against thorns, his hand to my mouth as we came to rest.

All I heard was our fast breath and drawing down his hand I nodded, keeping my voice quiet. As my lungs slowed I tried to tune out the constant tone and listened to the nothing in the air, that smell still hanging in my nostrils. We waited, listening to the rattle of the leaves with each gentle breeze, listening for what I feared, spying out between the thick growth, just seeing the stars more vibrant than I could have ever thought. How much time passed before I spoke wasn’t clear, but it was long enough to know we were safer than we had been moments ago.

“What happened?” I said, hoping he heard my voice, I could barely myself.

“What do you remember?” he replied, his words just as quiet, with all my concentration to hear.

“Chloe,” I said with a pause as I convinced myself I’d heard something I hadn’t before. “Coming for me.” I watched as Andrew’s silhouette gave a shallow nod. “The gun was empty.”

“I shot her with a firework,” he said and paused. “I thought you were toast,” he added, leaning in with a tight grip to my arm.

“What are we hiding from?” I said. “Toby?” I added as his arm in her grip jumped into my head.

“No,” Andrew replied. “There were more of them.”

I let my breath settle, a new fear spiking the blood in my veins, my hand diving for my pocket and finding the stiff cold of the bullet.

“The gun?” I said. Andrew reached somewhere I couldn’t see and rested the cold metal in my hands, the clip home in the base. I squeezed his hand in reply and closed my eyes, tried to envision films and programmes, my fingers finding the release once again. By touch alone, pausing my breath with each loud click, I fed the lonely bullet into the clip and carefully pushed it home just in time to hear movement, a rustle of the bushes at our back.

I felt Andrew’s surprise as keen as mine, the noise was behind us, not on the road. No words came, but I could swear that stench of rotten flesh grew louder in my nose. Andrew rested his palm on my chest, a signal to stay still, to make no noise. It was a signal I didn’t need. The rustle grew louder and I swore I heard voices. I turned towards Andrew, but I couldn’t see his response. The noise was growing. We had choices to make, shoot first, or just run. I pulled back the slide, the motion from the bush reacting, gaining ground as the gun clicked the bullet into place. I pushed the weapon out towards the building commotion and rested my finger in the trigger, only stopping as I heard footsteps scuffing along the road at our backs.


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