“Toby mentioned his house. Maybe they’ll be there? Or the supermarket? Whatever’s left,” I said, trying to catch old conversations as they rolled around my head. When Cassie replied her voice was distant, her eyes fixed on the road behind.
“They’ll be running for their lives,” she said, the words tailing off before rising to a shout. “Stop.”
I pushed my foot to the brake, looked left, looked right and checked ahead, trying to see what had caused the panic. I couldn’t see anything in the fading light and turned in my seat, twisting as she leant against the back door, her hand pushing it wide.
“Cassie,” I shouted as she jumped to the road. Still, my eyes searched her view until I caught movement, something low to the road in the failing light. Was it a dog bounding up from behind? “Shadow,” I shouted, pulling myself from the seat and following Cassie out onto the road. Forgetting McCole, forgetting the lurking danger, I ran towards Cassie, watching as Shadow slowed, watching as he came to a stop, turned his head back, his bark rolling over the stone walls and back again. As Cassie neared, pushing her hand out to pat his head, he turned away and ran in the opposite direction. I’d watched enough episodes of Lassie in my youth not to question what he needed us to do.
With a quick glance in my direction, Cassie continued her chase as I raced back to the Land Rover.
“You know him?” McCole said as I launched down heavy in the seat.
“Yes I do,” I replied with a grin, turning the Defender in three points.
The headlights lit the pair almost back at the cottage. Soon overtaking, I jumped to the road, pausing only to grab the tyre iron from the front seat as Shadow raced past and back through the open door. I didn’t need him to lead the way, could already hear their distant voices calling, growing louder as I passed the bodies we’d stepped over twice before. Arriving in the kitchen, I followed Shadow’s pointed nose towards the fingers hooked around the cupboard door in the corner, his bark rattling the windows as the fridge lay toppled across their escape.
With two heaves, Cassie and I grinning from ear to ear, we dislodged the fridge and slid it across the floor. Not waiting for a helping hand, the door pushed open and there was Connor and Andrew, Zoe behind, Cassie squeezing passed them all with her arms open to pull Ellie out from the back. I paused for a moment, letting my grin lower, until Jack led Tish up the steps and into the twilight. To Shadow’s barks we laughed and hugged, Andrew trying to calm our voices, reminding us of where we were. With the tyre iron in my hand, I led them out.
It was the distant calls in the night that hurried everyone into the Land Rover, hurried our introductions to McCole. Still, I took the time to make sure we’d counted each head twice over.
“Where now?” Andrew said from the front seat. I couldn’t help but smile, glancing over the questioning faces in the back as I told them we had a plan and were taking a trip to a hospital only a short while away. Cassie spent the whole time with her arms wrapped around her sister while Ellie squirmed away from the kisses.
“In the morning,” McCole said, causing me to pause.
“In the morning,” I added. “He’s right.”
I drove us the short distance to the hamlet, not answering any of their questions, but peering as best I could along the road, letting the headlights light up each of the doors until I found the perfect place. It was the house next to the one in which we’d spend so much time, a house that hadn’t been raided by the looters and was protected with double glazed windows.
Tipping a wave across the road to the figure back-lit by feint light coming from the upstairs, I reversed the car down the side of the house, knocking down the short wooden fence so I could get close. With guns, Connor, Andrew and I left the car, leaving strict instructions of what to do if we got into trouble.
We cleared the outside of the house in the last of the light, a small window in the back door smashed with three hits from a stone and we were in, leaving the doors intact. I took the first floor and cleared each room, my racing heart as I saw a disembodied head waiting on a dressing table, but instead of launching an attack, I let my breath calm and opening the curtains, I saw it was just a plastic wig stand.
There was no fuss or fury from downstairs and everyone piled in, herded to stay in the front room as Andrew secured the backdoor and I fingertip searched the rucksacks for the torches, candles and matches. Before we lit the place up, we closed all the curtains, watching as the flowered wallpaper took shape. We found no hidden basement, just a loft hatch, but no ladder to get us up high if we needed. By the time we’d finished the search, we knew the house inside out, knew every route, knew everything of use in each of its four bedrooms and had decanted the water from each of the taps until it ran brown with the sludge from the bottom of the tank. We knew every morsel of food, had it packed in bags, ready, split by each door if we had to take flight, before feasting on cold beans, tinned tomatoes and the last of the Christmas chocolates. Orange creams never tasted so good.
Tiredness caught up as stomachs filled. We’d had no idea of the time, with no clocks hanging on the walls or standing, chiming in the hall, I told everyone as we ate, to be ready to leave at first light. Setting a candle to time each watch, we agreed the rota as we all dissipated around the house. No one had asked about the plan, I was glad, I had no energy to explain, but I would need to have an adult conversation with Toby in the morning.
The kids were given the biggest bedroom, Zoe and Cassie were to share the next, leaving the box room at the front for McCole and the front lookout with their dual purpose. The dining room was where the other watch would stay awake, looking across the vast garden ready to rouse the house. The large double front room upstairs was where I would take my turn to rest before the candle burned to its base. I checked in on Cassie, knocking at the door, but Zoe lay there out of this world, her eyelids flittering in the candlelight, a space beside her. I found her in the kids room, laying fully clothed on top of the covers, her arm around her sister, Tish and Toby next.
I couldn’t help but stare at the boy. Couldn’t help but wander how someone so little could hold the key to our future. My eyes drifted to Cassie and her face as it flickered by the candle in my hand. I’d wanted to say goodnight, to talk about the day, about what tomorrow might bring. I wanted to talk about the rest of our lives. I wanted to know if she excited about the future too.
Closing the door, I drifted to the front room, heard movement downstairs and covering the candle, I peered outside. The street was quiet, unmoving and I tried to force myself to relax, tried to unlearn what I had in those short few days. Tonight was where it started to go right. Tonight was where it would go our way. Tonight was the end of the beginning.
I could hear Cassie’s laughter in my head and I chuckled to myself as I undressed, pulling on new underwear from the drawer. They were a little tight, but I was learning to get by. Folding my clothes and keeping them at hand, I slipped into a dream after barely sliding under the covers, until I bolted upright as a frozen hand touched my shoulder.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One