Chapter Seventy Three

The hand on my shoulder slowed the barrage of fire, calming my finger on the trigger despite the creature still trying to claw its way up from the floor. Cassie had seen what I hadn’t, had seen it would never succeed, seen there was nothing connected below its hips to stand on, its legs blown clean off in the explosion.

“All clear,” came Cassie’s words, strong and decisive as I pulled in a long breath. McCole nodded as he peered around my shoulder, pointing his pistol down the road covered with metal and black stoney debris. We walked, my legs jelly, the ground uneven, but our faces could do nothing but fix forward, watching the bend as it turned so slowly with each footstep, all hopes on what we’d find, praying to a god I didn’t believe in, infected souls wouldn’t be gathering around our treasured vehicle.

Several times over McCole would hold his gun to the sky and we’d stop, listening, but only to hear his ever labouring breath and we’d move on step after step, getting to the most dangerous part of the journey. We came to the apex of the corner, our view so short, our odds even shorter.

We saw nothing new as we stepped through each degree of the corner, the body of the driver flung across the road was missing, as was the creature that had dragged him from the smoke. Only the upturned helmet remained to mark the spot. The Land Rover emerging from the hedge line told us we hadn’t made it all up. Relief grew as we saw it all in one piece. Our pace increased, but soon slowed as McCole’s didn’t pick up, his pale, right hand hanging by his side. We had to get him off his feet.

On the road beyond the Land Rover, the body of the first soldier to die was missing too, but the creature who’d ripped him from the truck was not. It lay, half flattened, its flesh ground into the tarmac by the great tyres as the driver had tried in vain to escape.

The engine still idled as we grew near and I couldn’t hold back my speed as I jogged around, holding the rifle at my hip, not looking to McCole to see if he agreed. All was clear around the vehicle, along the road too, only the bodies of those the soldiers had given their final death lay on the road. Slinging the rifle over my shoulder and crunching cubes of glass under my shoes, I pulled open the Land Rover door, sending the stench of burning rubber into the air. The Defender pulled from the hedge with ease and I jumped out, leaving it lined up straight on the road, my rucksack and rifle on the passenger seat. Around the rear, I pulled open the door with no complaint from the metal, it was a hardy beast with barely a scrape or dent from its ordeal. McCole’s laboured walk ended as he batted away our attempts to help him into the back. Cassie joined him for fear of his imminent collapse.

Back in the driver’s seat, I willed away a sudden flush of safety and tried to ignore the feeling that for once everything was going right. We had the upper hand, but I knew it would only lead to the next calamity, the next catastrophe to change someones life forever. With so little left to lose, I could guess who it would be. I wasn’t willing to let that happen.

I shook away the few seconds of thought and having leant my lesson I peered down at the dashboard. The fuel gauge showed the tank was nearly full, the engine temperature in the centre where it should be. There were no red lights or amber warning signs telling me the engine would cut out right at the least opportune moment. Still, I was ready for the worst to happen and I pushed down the clutch, selected first gear, stalling the engine as I pulled off. This was it, this was the time. I looked to the hedge, the road ahead, turned a full half circle to my left and repeated to my right, looking to see what would be coming as we sat with the engine dead.

Nothing came. Nothing was coming. I dipped the clutch and turned the key. The engine started. With a deep breath and a heavy right foot, we rolled forward, letting the speedo needle climb.

McCole coughed in the back while Cassie peered out of the windscreen and we made good time, repeating the journey, the only difference was the direction and the clouding sky as it darkened. We arrived at the outskirts of the hamlet soon enough, saw the pickup truck still in the middle of the road, still with its front tyre deflated, the only difference were the missing bodies, the dark patches on the tarmac remaining. I slowed as we passed the house where the old man had stood, nodded to the top floor window as he nodded back, speeding up as he answered the signed question with a shake of his head.

Adrenaline built, but there was nothing I could do to temper my excitement. We’d taken much more time than we’d expected, but we were bringing with us so much more than we could ever have hoped. To Zoe, Andrew, Connor, Ellie, Jack and Tish, we were not only bringing food and transport to safety, we brought hope. Hope of a cure, hope of some version of a happy ending. Sadness soon tinged my thoughts, I knew by now Nat would be gone, or near the end. There was nothing that could be done about her, but we could play our part in saving many more who were not passed the point.

The house was beautiful as we came around the corner, a beam of sunlight broke through the clouds as if lighting our way, shining down on someone coming through the open front door, someone coming to greet us. But they weren’t waving, their hands were down by their sides, their mouth hanging open, a great rend of flesh missing from their cheek. Another I didn’t recognise stepped from around the corner and I slammed on the brakes, Cassie’s mouth opening wide to bellow a heart-rending scream.

They’d been overrun. We’d been denied our happy ending.


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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One

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