The sting of antiseptic was all but gone from the air, replaced with the breath of decay and burning plastic clawing at my throat. The hum of fluorescent tubes had gone too, leaving just my long shadow stepping before me as I approached the first door. Like the others I’d seen on my first visit, it was tall and white with a porthole at head height, but rather than seeing to the other side, all I could make out were dark shadows passing behind the white paper blocking my view. I knew from my last visit what would have become of the people who’d been the other side. The cold stung my hand as I twisted the metal handle, slow and calm. After the smallest of pushes, I let go, relieved as it held firm.
Trainers squeaking on the tiled floor, my shadow grew taller as I headed further down the corridor. Glancing down, I watched as the trail of blood thinned, but remained as my companion with each step. I was searching for any sign of life, death too, but the Doctor’s office was the first place I wanted to find, the only place I guessed would be a hideout. If someone had survived, had held out for the miracle boy, I wanted that to be the place where I would find them. Along each side of the corridor, I counted five doors before a sharp turn to the right. A noise came from outside. Was it a call from the people I’d left behind? Or one of those creatures we had no effective defence against? Whatever had made the noise I knew it wouldn’t be smart to stay apart from my friends for long without Connor there for protection.
The next doors were close, but for different rooms and with no portholes I pushed my ear to the cold wood and listened. I heard vibration through the building, heard movement reverberating along the wall, on the floor above perhaps, but nothing I could pinpoint to the other side. I turned the handle, regretting I’d left the handgun behind as I did, but time was of the essence as I thought of Andrew’s speedy decline and knowing Cassie would look worse with each moment.
The door opened to darkness and when nothing lashed out, pounced towards me screaming, I stepped to the side and let the door open its full arc. The little light reaching this far down the corridor was enough to make out the store of medical equipment. Unfolding a wheelchair, I pulled it out of the room and let the door swing closed, cursing as it slapped hard against its frame. I ran back, pushing the chair at my front.
Cassie hadn’t changed. Andrew was no worse, no better. The rifle felt good in my hands as I grabbed it from the passenger seat. Along with pulling the torch from the pack, I shouldering the rucksack and made sure Cassie held the handgun out as she jumped to the road. Andrew woke as I lifted, but slumped to the side as I let him down into the chair, waking again as I placed Shadow on his lap, his hand reaching to take a long stroke of his back. Movement caught my eyes as I took a quick scan of our surroundings, but I flinched away from the figure, instead my eyes fixing on the space where the second Land Rover had sat. I swapped a glance with Cassie. She shrugged with her face full of empathy. I’d wanted to understand, instead I did what I did best and pushed the pain down, burying it inside.
I turned back to where I’d seen the movement and to two soldiers walking in a line, their backs hunched over, their camouflage soaked dark in different patterns. I’d made the right decision and pushed the chair through into the corridor, the wheels squeaking against the floor. I paused just beyond the entrance, but pushed on as I abandoned pulling closed the doors.
Without voice or command, we fell into a natural formation. Cassie followed at the back, glancing everywhere we’d walked while I went ahead, Ellie pushing the chair, with the old lady shepherding the kids. As I watched her form them in a group, her face almost as clear as mine, showing no sign she’d witnessed the death of her husband, the death of her old life.
The floor was alive with tall shadows, except when caught by the swing of the thin torch, as was the wall at our front as we’d walked the length, listening at each door for a pause, trying the handle before moving on. I was looking for a sign, some way of knowing if there was anyone left living. It wasn’t easy to spot until I turned the corner. I peered around, slow at first, watching the trail of blood end at a door. The words ‘Safe Harbour’ ran in bold maker on the long wooden panel, but smeared over with blood as if someone had tried to wipe the letters away.
Rushing forward, barely looking down the length of the corridor, I tried the handle and it gave, my heart racing with delight at my choice to stay, at keeping the faith in others when I’d relied on myself for what seemed like an eternity, even though it had only been a matter of days.
I let the others know to wait as Andrew’s front wheels rounded the corner before opening the door wide.
The first sign was the darkness, the second the emptiness of the room. The packing crates were still there, the desks in the centre too, papers were still strewn across its surface, but now ran across the floor as well. I forged ahead, letting the door swing back and I saw the third sign as I rounded the desks, the body lain, its lab coat once white, face down on the floor. A gun rested beside where most of the head had fallen, blood and grey hair stuck high to the wall.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One