I was sure we’d be dead before my iron clattered to the ground, but as the ringing echo of the metal died, the beech of the bat clattering to the ground with less of a fuss, we stood with our hearts racing. Our faces fixed down the barrels of the guns, trying to make out where the dense covering of leaves ended and each person began. After more than a few moments of frustration and nothing else, other than our joints starting to seize, I wandered if I’d dreamt the whole situation up, or if in the terror of the moment I’d missed an issued command.
It wasn’t until in the distance I heard the rumble of a large engine, grey exhaust smoke pluming high in the air, that I knew sure enough a truck would appear around the corner. I was taken back to when we’d seen the first helicopter, was that only this morning. The rush of elation still fresh, the certainty we’d been saved switched off in an instant as the machine gun rained down, doing more than breaking our hearts. I wouldn’t let myself be tricked this time and pushed away the hope our nightmare was ending.
Sure enough, only moments later an olive drab truck with a heavy fabric rear cover, rocked on its suspension around a distant corner, rolling into view, stopping just before it would have to negotiate the gap between the improvised road block. The driver stayed put as it ground to a stop and four soldiers in camouflage fatigues bounded from the back, their rifles trained in our direction.
“Hands on your heads,” the lead guy said in a commanding voice. Like the others, his face was striped with dark paint, his body covered in armour and thin, yellow tinted glasses ran across his eyes. When I raised my hands and Cassie did the same, they seemed to relax like maybe they were testing we understood language. I chanced a look in her direction, raising my eyebrows, hoping she understood the sentiment. They hadn’t killed us yet.
They still hadn’t ten minutes later. It was only after patting us down and starting to walk to the truck at their command, did they stand back, raise their guns and scream for me to explain how I’d hurt my leg. The explanation seemed only to elicit more questions as one of the four stepped away, his eyes fixed on me as he mumbled something into the boom microphone swinging down from his helmet. Despite my insistence it was by the size ten boot of a looter, they cuffed my hands tight behind my back with the plastic ties before I went any further. Hoisting me up the back of the truck, paying careful attention to my leg, they sat me on the hard metal bench running along the centre, leaving one soldier opposite, his hand on his holstered sidearm.
With Cassie sat the other end, the heavy fabric folded down to cover our view, light coming only from the dim red torches hanging overhead, I felt the truck reversing a long way before we turned. They wouldn’t talk, were silent to my questions, but I soon went quiet, reeling from the realisation we weren’t riddled with holes and our throats hadn’t been cut.
It was only when we jolted to a stop, the cover lifted and I saw the white letters against the blue sign, that I realised we’d arrived where we’d been aiming for all along, St Buryan Hospital. Squinting, I saw soldiers stood guard around the single storey building and as I was lowered, I caught more guards at each of the two entrances, groups of four walking around the perimeter, peering out along the road with binoculars, others helping to finish raising giant wire mesh fences.
We were guided side by side, escorted by the four soldiers through a set of doors, disinfection clawing at our nostrils as our slow uneven footsteps echoed in the long hallway. We didn’t travel far, stopped as commanded at two doors side by side. On each door was a handwritten paper sign. MALE. FEMALE. Ushered to the respective doors, I flinched back as they opened from inside. Feeling the pressure of a hand at my back, I glanced to Cassie to see her already looking in my direction, her eyes wide and eyebrows raised. I tried my best to reassure her with my glance, but I couldn’t do the same for myself. Turning back, I saw a man in a white coat stood just inside, a wide smile on his face, beckoning me in with a wave of his hand.
I stepped across the threshold.
The soldiers didn’t follow.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One