The pistol led the way up the stairs. Myself, Connor and Andrew chasing Shadow’s sharp homing calls as best we could. I knew what I’d see as I crested. Knew Zoe would be dead, or dying, bleeding out. Nat no longer her friend, her lover, whoever she’d been. Instead, the door was closed, Shadow in the hall, barking towards the handle.
He followed behind I as pushed in. Zoe lifted her head, glaring back from the bed still tucked in her embrace, the side of her face red with Nat’s blood. She scowled at our intrusion with an alien expression I’d never seen her wear. Connor and Andrew had turned before arriving.
“For your own protection,” I said, pushing the gun back in my waistband. “And ours too,” I added. She lay her head back and I turned away, leaving the room, pushing the door as wide as it would go. Cassie was in the hall with the others and followed I ushered them into the main bedroom, pushing the door closed at our backs.
“I’m going to that village we saw on the way in,” I said. The three stared back, each face turning thoughtful. I could guess what they were thinking. Andrew especially. His eyes following toward the room next door. I pulled the gun from my waistband and offered it in the centre. They each swapped glances. “We need food, water, heat, if we can.” They couldn’t disagree with that.
“You can’t go without a weapon,” Andrew said, his eyes wide at the suggestion.
“I can’t leave you without protection,” I replied. “At least I can run. It’s quiet at the moment,” I said nodding out of the back windows. “There might be somewhere better for us to stay tonight.”
There was silence as Andrew walked over to the window, pulling across the net curtains and staring outside.
“Your ribs?” Cassie replied, her eyes squinting down at my chest. I shook my head, the empty feeling in my stomach was worse.
“I’ll come with you,” Andrew replied. I looked down at his side as he turned back.
“You’re worse than me,” I said. “Someone’s got to look after the kids.” I held the gun out to Connor and he took it, pushing it into the pocket of his jacket.
“I’ll come with you,” Cassie said. My heart jumped.
“No,” I replied without taking the time to consider the words. “The kids?” I said. A deep furrow arrived on her brow.
“I’m sure these two can take care. They’ve got the gun.”
I didn’t reply, just stared in her eyes trying not to get lost.
“Why don’t you want me along?”
“It’s not that,” I said, looking to Connor and then to Andrew for support. Both had turned away, finding somewhere else to focus.
“You need more hands, need help to find what we need,” she replied, her voice impassioned.
“It’s not safe,” I said, trying not to turn away.
“But you’re the big hero right?” she replied, pushing her hands to her hips.
“I don’t want you in danger’s way.”
Her eyes flared wide as the words came.
“Because,” she said. “Say it.” I looked up and somehow Connor and Andrew had slipped from the room. “Because I’m a woman?”
“No,” I said. “Yes,” I added. “But not because you’re not strong or brave enough,” I replied. I didn’t see her shoulders relax. She tilted her head to the side, raising her eyebrows, telling me to say what I meant.
“Then what?” she replied, not able to wait any longer in the silence.
“Because I don’t want to see you hurt. I like you,” I said raising my voice. I stopped talking and she took a step backwards, turning, but not before I saw a smile raise on her lips. “A lot,” I added.
“Then I’ll be good company,” she said and headed out of the door. Was she swinging her butt just a little as she left?
I took a deep breath and let the air slow come out. I was nervous twice over. The run would be dangerous, but I was hopeful there would be food and water on the other side, but now I was nervous Cassie was coming along, but they were different nerves, more a feeling in your stomach. A feeling I hadn’t felt since my wife had died.
Zoe’s slow pained sobs pushed away my daydream. I took slow careful steps, standing at the door frame peering through. I knew her pain, knew what it was like to watch someone you love die. At least Nat had a chance. Some hope. The boy had survived and so she might too. If only there had been hope back then. I drew a sharp deep breath as I felt myself sinking and stepped to the corridor. I couldn’t dwell, I had a job to do. I had to keep busy. It was time to get on with living.
Downstairs, rucksacks were piled by the front door. Cassie stood, the smile gone, in her hands she was offering a large duffel coat with the fur around the hood which I pulled on. She was ready, her coat over her shoulders, buttons done up to her chin, the hood pulled up. Andrew appeared from an under-stairs cupboard I hadn’t noticed, a crowbar and a long screwdriver in hand. I wanted the crowbar, it would make a more effective weapon. I handed it to Cassie and took the screwdriver. Andrew returned with a short stubby torch and I pushed it in my pocket.
I hugged no one goodbye. It wasn’t the end. We wouldn’t let it be.
“We’re only going down the road,” I said as we left, Shadow barking as Andrew held him back. The locks turning as we ran passed the farmer. I glanced back, ignoring the pain, as we raced along the road towards the village in the distance. Even then I knew we would not see them all again.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One