What choice did I have when I saw Cassie reaching out? How could I draw back from her bandaged hand held open to pull me out of where I’d sunk? How could I let her see me like this in our last moments together?
I stood, fixing my eyes on hers, ignoring the pain in my knees as they bent, sucking up the sting of each breath as my body remembered the trauma I’d endured in the last few days. Together we turned to face the advance as Shadow’s bark grew more intense. We drew up our weapons and with no need to be selective, we both fired, loosing off round after round into the crowd. Lead opened jagged holes, ripping flesh from bone, but few bodies fell to the floor or stopped their momentum. The click of my empty chamber came too soon. I turned to Cassie to see her rapid fire, but she was staring at me, her gun empty too, but still bullets shocked the air, rounds flying in from somewhere. I scanned the room and saw a window in the centre row where the glass had blown out, its fragments spread across the floor. A flurry of lead streamed from outside and the smoking black end of a long barrel rattled against the window sill as it weaved left and right, mowing the dead down, splitting torsos in two.
“Get down,” I shouted turning as I motioned for everyone to hit the floor, my back to the advance even though the creatures were almost on us. “Get down,” I repeated, running over to Andrew, the old lady already on the floor as I pulled him from the chair, launching myself to cover his body and burying my face against his cooling skin. The chatter of the machine gun stopped, but shouts were all around, single shots volleying from somewhere unseen. The rattle was back and I felt a weight fall on my arm. I spasmed out, rising, prepared to smash the life, or death, with my fists, ready to protect to the end. No response came back as I shoved it away, the creature was just flesh, my fist coming back clotted with blood.
A haze of thick, cordite stink misted the room as the gunfire fell silent. The fog settled enough for me to see two soldiers, one a good foot taller than the other, striding through the double doors, their faces stern, eyes flinching either way for movement, their handguns aimed in our direction. I put my hands in the air, ready to switch to the next nightmare.
Still alive as they slowed their advance, as they settled their guns pointing to the floor, my eyes shot to the window and someone climbing through. Neither soldier reacted as Connor jumped to the tiles, dragging the heavy machine gun by a handle, a ribbon of long bullets wrapped around its centre.
“You were right,” he said, his face in a thin smile as he picked his way through the mess of bodies littering the length of the ward, tip toeing around the leeching blood. I stood to full height, took notice as each one of us rose, Ellie ushering the other two up, herself taking care to see their wide eyes open, turning them away to find a direction clear of the chaos. Cassie pulled up, looking to me, checking over my body for any damage, as I did the same for her. Only the old lady and Andrew didn’t rise and together we helped him to the chair, pausing as we saw the bullet hole in the leather seat and a matching crater in the wall behind.
“You found them,” I said, turning away, stepping around the children. The old lady was still on the floor, her body cooling as I touched.
“No they found me,” Connor reply. We hugged. “You were right, I told them about you guys.”
“I didn’t even know her name,” I said looking to the old woman. Cassie took my arm and helped me to my feet. “Doctor Lytham’s dead,” I said.
“No she’s not,” said one soldier in a deep voice, his gun by his side. “Whose injured?”
With no time to take in the news, I turned to Cassie, not able to look anywhere but her hand. I saw the soldiers stiffen, their pistols jerking just a little, but still pointed to the ground, raising more as we turned to Andrew.
“But they’re okay. We got the bleeding under control quickly,” I said. Both looked at each other, gave a nod and turned, clearing a path, pushing bodies to the side with their heavy boots. I stroked Shadow and picked him up around his legs, my ribs complaining like they hadn’t done in days. The taller soldier stayed up front guiding the way with a torch, Connor walked by my side as the other dropped to the back while headed through the corridor. I was thankful for Shadow’s bulk blocking my view as we passed the piled bodies with no other choice than to walk through the tacky blood. A shot went off as we found a double set of doors, the solider at the rear running to catch up now he’d made sure the old lady would not rise. Beyond the doors were rising concrete steps, the smear of dark liquid on the first few told of the battles won and lost in this place.
Leaving the machine gun behind, Connor and the shorter soldier helped Andrew out of his chair, their footsteps echoing with each heavy breath until we were through the doors at the top and out into light. We passed another two guards, these crouched down behind barricades, rifles pointing in our direction. At least I could be sure the bags they used for cover contained sand this time.
The first floor was different, despite being the same as below. The stench of decay was less pronounced, covered perhaps by the caustic antiseptic hanging in my mouth. This corridor was not littered with battlefield scars and light poured down through skylights after every few steps. It felt like we were in a different place, like a weight lifted, despite the heaviness of the dog. Led into an anti room much like the one downstairs, I watched each of the two separate doorways and without the need to wait, the left of the doors opened and through came Doctor Lytham. Proof she wasn’t dead.
“Who?” I said, turning back to Cassie, but the words tailed off.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost?” the doctor said, but she didn’t keep her eyes on me long enough for a reply, instead her lids widened as they fell on Toby then squinted small as she scanned the room, settling on Andrew sat to the floor, his back leaning heavy against the wall. The second of the two doors opened and out stepped a man with messy, ginger hair. With a nod from the doctor he rounded up the children, but before he could be lead through the door, Toby turned wide eyed for my approval.
“Go,” I said, tapping his shoulder as they passed. The doctor nodded,
“He’ll be fine,” she said. I nodded a slow reply. “They’ll be safe with us,” she said.
“We’ll make sure,” I replied and moved to follow. The soldier stepped into my path.
“You have injured,” Doctor Lytham said and turned with me towards Cassie and Andrew. As the door swung closed at my back, I was sure I heard a key turn and a lock snap into place. The doctor took a step, Connor backed away and she examined Cassie’s grey, dirty bandage, sweeping Cassie’s long blonde hair to the side as she pushed her hand to her forehead then gripped her wrist between her thumb and forefinger, staring out to the wall as if it wasn’t there.
Letting go, the doctor seemed satisfied and ushered her to stand beside me. With Cassie out of the way she knelt down to Andrew, but didn’t touch him or take his pulse, she did nothing but look over his paling skin and the dark red stains soaking through the bandage at his arm. Another man in a lab coat came through the right-hand door, his coat not clean, splashed dark with blood. The doctor pointed Cassie out and he opened the right-hand door, holding it open. Cassie turned, staring back at me the same way Toby had, willing me to answer her unvoiced question. Is it going to be okay? I nodded without pause. I wanted to go with her, but Andrew’s need was more pressing. Connor followed Cassie through the door, but when I didn’t go with them, Doctor Lytham dismissed her colleague with a nod and he let the door close as he followed behind.
“He needs stitches,” I said looking down at the dog. Doctor Lytham snapped her head in my direction, glancing towards Shadow, but soon her gaze was on Andrew again. I saw the look in her eyes, saw her give an unvoiced order, watched as the taller of the soldiers took a step towards me as she tried not to catch my eye, walking through the left door, holding it open. I took a step, turning back to ask a question, but my voice dried up as I looked at Andrew, his eyes wide open and instead of the soldier lifting him under the armpits, he held a gun at his temple. My view became blocked by the other soldier, his arms grabbing around me in a bear hug. Our bodies flinched as the bullet echoed, Shadow struggling, squeezed tight against my chest, my arms pinned at my side.
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Reading out of sequence? Why? Here’s Chapter One