The first we knew was the internet going down, the music streaming into the floor standing speakers going quiet without warning. A sudden loss of connection, WiFi box rebooted twice and still nothing. The dimming of the lights was the next, not total power failure, the solar panels on the roofs and the farm of south facing glass cells next door to thank. Still we drank, draining the supply to a bottle of port bought from the local supermarket on a hangover fuelled run.
It was New Year’s Eve 2017. We’d rented a holiday cottage on the extremes of Cornwall, almost Land’s End. The cottage was one of nine in a gated development, each built the new way but made to look old, the doors a funny proportion. Building regulations I’m told. Each built out of the way of the rest, in a wide circle, a thick copse of trees separating. In the centre was a manager’s house, a small shop, a bar. Where a tenth could have sat was the wide road out and in. There were ten of us, the cottage full to bursting, twin and double rooms shared despite all but four of us not being coupled. We’d been there four days already, the recycling bin emptied with the ring of bottles each morning. A maid cleaning out the jacuzzi we’d piled in all night until the Atlantic air got too much and we headed back to dry around the wood burning stove.
We lasted an hour before myself and Andrew dressed, mounting an expedition, walking the couple of hundred steps to the centre of the circle. We weren’t the only ones there. A huddle had formed at the open door of the managers house, a half drunk crowd shouting over each other. I remember the concern on Andrew’s face. Our worst fear, the little shop had run out of it’s overpriced alcohol and the mob were about to lynch the grey haired manager unless he’d drive a rescue party to the nearest twenty-four-hour supermarket. We still thought it was true as the door closed in their faces, people turned to each other, some strangers, some not, dumbfounded at his actions, but before the small crowd could become a mob, the door was back open, the guy returning with an ancient radio in his hand, garbled words and static rattling from the paint flecked speakers.
The crowd hushed as more joined at our backs, we were now in the middle of a group, but we hushed too, listening to the voice settle, a handful of words coming clean from the speaker. A power station had been attacked by terrorists, the nuclear reactor in Somerset. Panic rippled through the group as adrenaline worked its way to nullify the alcohol. Two of the group pushed outwards and I turned to see them running back to one of the nine houses. We continued to listen. The sudden drop in power to the grid had destabilised the network, emergency breakers had sacrificed the South West to save the rest of the nation from total darkness. The radio broke up as the words radiation came isolated from the rest of the sentence by static. Andrew and I stared, turning to others, but they’d read no more meaning. Then came the reassurance again. A false reassurance we know now. The damage was not to the reactor, but to the distribution system. There was no danger of radiation leaking. The core was stable. We peeled off back to the cottage, thoughts of alcohol long gone.
The second we knew was the hammering at the door in the early hours of the morning. With the power still dimmed, rationed between the ten buildings, I was the first to answer, the one to see the silver haired guy rush to tell me to get the hell out of there, mumbling the word evacuation without pause or breath as he moved away, running towards the centre of the circle before I had a chance to question.
After five minutes I’d only repeated the explanation twice, Jack and Amy, the couple in the next closest room to the door, watching through hangover fogged eyes as we bounced off each other, figuring out if it was some elaborate trick, then to Pete and Robin, well Robin hid under covers and I was sure I could hear him snore as I recounted the guy’s strange words from moments earlier, trying my best to get across the urgent look in the guy’s eyes. It was Jack who came up with the offer to come with me to the centre of the circle, to find out what the hell was going on and with a mind to chastise the owner for the trick, demanding a refund. The cottage fell silent as we headed out in tracksuit bottoms and dressing gowns across the fresh morning dew to find the manager’s house locked up, a notice paper written in heavy bold ink. Evacuate. Head north. A freephone number scrawled below.
I turned to stare at Jack as he turned toward me, both of us pivoting on our heels, searching out the surrounding circle, looking for any sign of someone jumping out from behind a tree, a phone pointed in their direction to capture the look on our faces as the words sank in. We must have stood for over a minute before fumbling in my pocket, I read the number, tapping the digits into my phone. No Service, was the message that came back. We ran the gravel path back.
Breaking the quiet of the cottage, we flung doors wide to the protests of the occupants, shouting for everyone to get their arses into gear.
“The nuclear power station. Radiation,” I shouted, repeating, Jack following my lead, not stopping to answer questions, instead heading to my room, pulling off Andrew’s covers as I frantically dressed, stuffing what I could grab of my things into a small suitcase. Within another ten minutes the cottage was awake, even the most sceptical, Zoe and Nat, who thought it some elaborate scheme to scare them witless, were making moves to get their things together. It was still half an hour before we were ready to leave, half the group still not convinced, insisting on stuffing all of their belongings away and packing into the three cars before they would let us start the engines.
I think it was the sceptic in me that made me lock the place up and check twice, pocketing the key, instead of pushing it back through the letter box like it said in the welcome pack. I was driving one of the three cars, Zoe and Nat in the back, Andrew at my side tuning the digital radio to each of the stations, flicking to the next as the no signal message came back on the segmented display.
“Where are we going?” Zoe said.
“The way we came,” I replied, looking to Andrew for confirmation, his nod giving confidence to my words. The journey to the cottage had been made four days earlier, the five hours from London, via two motorways and a dual carriageway through Cornwall, the same people in the car. Zoe, I’d known for twenty years since graduating, we were close, about as close as you can get without being in a relationship, taking up my tenancy in the friend zone a long time ago. Nat was Zoe’s best friend, a new fixture since she moved from their childhood town to London last year. She was attractive, if you like the blonde knockout sort, but she made it abundantly clear to us all her interests lay elsewhere. She’d melded with the established group seamlessly, even putting Andrew, in his place early on. Zoe’s voice broke into my drifting thoughts.
“Have you seen any other cars?” she said.
“Since when?” Nat replied. I didn’t need to look to know everyone’s eyes were peeling around the road. We’d driven through two villages on the route to the A30 dual carriage way, but she was right, I couldn’t remember seeing any other cars on the road. At first I put it down to my sleep deprived state, the effects of alcohol leaving my body, I think we all did, but now I was paying attention properly, there wasn’t a car to be seen, driving on the road at least.
“It’s New Year’s Day,” I heard Andrew say.
“But,” Zoe started and I watched in the mirror as she paused, fidgeting her head either side. “I haven’t seen any cars. Not even parked.”
“Dude,” came the urgent word shouted from Andrew’s seat. I turned back just in time to see the figure standing, but with no time to press on the brakes, his head already bulls-eyeing the windscreen red to an eruption of screams.
I won’t ever forget the dull thump, the snap of glass as the dark head spidered the glass, the body rolling up the car, slipping down again, crunching to the floor as I slammed hard on the brakes. With no time for what I was seeing to sink in, Toby’s Merc slammed into our rear. With my foot still hard on the pedal my body was numb to the jolt.
I sat frozen, Andrew already out of the car. In my peripheral vision I saw as he turned back, his eyes wide at the Merc behind, head slowly turning, eyes catching mine as he followed. I should be the first to see, the shock should be mine, the pain in the centre of my chest was for me to bare as the cause of the disaster that had altered two lives forever. Detached from my body, limbs feeling cold, numb to any sensation, I pulled open the door. Toby joined me and I brushed away his concern, his offered hand to help me out. The journey around to the bonnet took an age, but was over too soon and I watched with a detachment as Andrew knelt beside the body, his corded trousers the only visible sign. Shouts echoed as Andrew reached under the car, then louder as he pulled his head high, looking past me. I turned not hearing the words, and Toby was gone, back in his car, reversing.
Climbing to his feet, Andrew was in control, pushing me with gentle force to the side of the road before he climbed in the car. I turned, alcohol laced bile rising, projecting to the tarmac and I turned back hopeful what I’d seen had been a vision. It wasn’t. He was an old man. Grey hair, wrinkled skin, eyes closed, bloodied face with no expression.
No one checked for a pulse, the guy’s wrinkled head bent at ninety degrees.
Andrew turned me away by the shoulders, gripping my upper arms.
“He was flagging us down, tripped, fell into the road.”
I had no idea of the truth in his words, was he saying this for me? Was he telling me to get my story straight? I didn’t know how he’d come to be in the road. I hadn’t seen a thing.
I knew what had to be done, pulled my phone out, tapping the three digits, barely hearing the flashing pips in my ear.
Mouth hanging wide I turned to the nine, watched my friends hugging, tears streaming as they looked in my direction with sorrow in their eyes. I hated the pity pouring in my direction. All I could do was shake my head as I held out the phone. Hands grasped for their own mobiles, but all came back shaking theirs. I threw up for a second time, Andrew at my side.
I looked around, taking in our surroundings as if for the first time. We were on a dusty back road, fields either side, a column of smoke on the horizon in the direction we’d been heading, but I hadn’t noticed before. It looked to have been burning forever, the smoke dissipating high in the air. To our right was a group of two stone houses just off the road, a red door wide open. I started to walk much to Andrew’s protests.
“Let me,” he said stepping past me.
I shook my head, but still he travelled at my side, his knuckles arriving first at the door, with a high greeting echoing inside. He turned and gestured Tony to the neighbour as we took a step in.
Inside the air was still, silence clung to my throat. It was Andrew who spoke again, repeating the called greeting, but only silence replied. A thick, dampening quiet. We both spotted the phone, Andrew’s hand reaching first, listening for a moment before replacing the receiver. We heard Toby’s knock, his call next door, his footsteps as he joined us.
The TV didn’t work, then I remembered, trying the light switch with my finger.
Toby coughed, the noise violent in the stifling silence.
“We can’t stay here,” Andrew replied, pulling a blanket from the armchair, my eyes opening as I realised what he meant to do.
“I can’t, I can’t,” I replied. Andrew held up his hand.
“It’s okay,” he said and I watched as Toby, red faced, followed Andrew, corralling two of the others. I turned away and headed into the kitchen.
Andrew drove, peering around the mess of a circle in the centre of the windscreen. I sat in the back, Zoe insisting she put her arm around my shoulder, held my hand. Time drifted in fits and starts. One moment it dragged, the world going by so slow, the next minute the scenery had changed, the sky darker, the sun covered by the smoke now thicker than before. The car slowed, but I couldn’t see why, the blocked view a constant reminder. Stopping the car, Andrew opened the door and was half out, peering between the gap. He turned back as he pulled himself out, his face a picture of fear. I didn’t want to get out, didn’t want to leave the comfort, but I had to see why we’d stopped, to see what had made Andrew’s expression so serious.
Zoe made the choice for me, pulling away and grabbing the door handle, the others already at the side of the car, their stares pointed forward, mouths hanging open. Toby turned and caught my eye, his head shaking, eyes wide. A chill ran down my spine.
A long procession of cars wheeled out, silent to the extent of my vision as I climbed from the car, my face fixed as my friends held theirs, mouths wide, a bewildered stare ahead. Engines lay at rest, the traffic filling the two thin lanes bordered by a dry stone wall, each abandoned, only some of their owners having the presence of mind to close doors.
“What the fuck?” were the words I barely heard from Toby’s mouth, words I knew weren’t meant for anyone.
“Why the fuck?” I said, mine coming without command, my feet unbidden the same, one in front of the other, slowly at first, building, building until I was flat out. My eyes jerked this way and that, searching out for new information, searching for the end of the line as I swerved left and right around cars, sometimes three across as each one tried and failed, despite the brush of metal on metal, to squeeze past. Shoes and bags, luggage and holdalls littered the remaining gaps, slowing me to more of a hurdle as I raced to the head of whatever this could be until I swerved right, the bumper of a van having smashed the wall before bogging down on grass, its doors wide, a glance of orange handprint to the white paint of the bonnet.
I turned away, my progress doubling as I ran unimpeded along the grass. Slowly, the density of cars seemed to increase, no air either side, but it had done them no good, each car wedged, windows smashed, a vision flashed of people hauling themselves out, biceps tight, clawing to climb from the crush of metal. I turned back ahead, my daymare still only a patch on reality. My breath caught and I saw the queue stop, abrupt, the road blocked with three cubes of concrete stacked at the junction.
Slowing my pace, I climbed back onto the wall, stones crumbing to the ground as I leapt to the roof of a stocky sports car, easing my way forward, the journey unhindered by gaps as I moved to the next. Ahead I could see the concrete blocks were like those used to put across disused carparks, like those used to protect the unwanted colonisation by families armed only with their homes towed behind them. Beyond the concrete was nothing. Nothing at least when I took my first look, an absence of traffic, cars, vans, the spray of glass, but there was plenty to see, bags, clothes, suitcases strewn across the road cutting left to right, blocked by the concrete. Blood was the only sight more numerous.
Glancing back at the sound of panting breath, I saw Toby and Andrew hurrying forward on the grass, their eyes not as wide as mine, wide only to the abandoned cars, soon they would be as wide as they could, seeing the despicable scene that spread out in front, as they saw the three piles of clothes that looked out of place, looking bigger than all surrounding. Both climbed to the car as I stood on without words, both took steps with me, jumping over windscreens, landing to the clear tarmac. Soundless we headed on, our eyes keen on the blood, our feet stepping sideways, glances meeting for the first time as my foot knocked something we all recognised. The spent cartridge like a tiny bell as it rattled across the floor.
Soon the sound was like a miniature orchestra, our feet sweeping the path left and right, clearing the way so not to slip and fall on our collective, unspoken journey to the closest of the dark bundles. Definition grew, the shades of greens, browns and black recognisable on the arched back. We arrived and I watched my hand reach out, pulling at the shoulder, wheeling back as the body of a young woman, a young lieutenant according to her lapels, rolled under her own weight. My stomach reacted first, gripping vice-like, but it was already empty, my gasp of air enough to control my flinch at the crushed side of her face, a muddy footprint to the other. The same could not be said for the other two.
As the body came to rest on her back, I spotted the handgun lain underneath. I turned left and right to the pair standing bent over, hands to their mouths in unison, their eyes on what I had seen. Toby nodded, Andrew gave no reply. The gun was still warm and nearly fell as an almighty rumble, felt deep in my chest, ripped through silence, lighting the horizon.
Lunging for air, I turned towards the cloud, breath rasping as I watched the smoke build, waiting, desperate for its form to become clear. Panting I read its shape in vain, lids blinking in anticipation. Could it be a mushroom? There was no bright flash, no wind battering across me, knocking me off my feet. My breath slowed and I turned to Andrew and Toby either side shaking my head. Solemn nods came back in reply as Toby seemed to get energy from somewhere and he bounded around to the other two bodies, skirting their forms, but never closing in. Without words we turned back along the row of cars, our pace steady, their faces grey. I imagined mine the same.
“What do we say?” I heard Andrew’s words low as we began our walk back along the endless string of cars.
“Tell them everything,” Toby said, his voice quick and coarse.
“No,” I said shaking my head, eyes fixed on my feet. “We tell them what they need to know. Tell them we found a road block. We tell them we found chaos the other end. We tell them everyone has gone, evacuated.”
“Not everyone,” Andrew said. I waited a moment to answer, considering what our words could do.
“We tell them about the panic. We tell them people didn’t make it,” I said, picking up my pace, the gun heavy in my jacket pocket. Their reply was silent. I guessed if I turned I would see them nodding. To say anything else wouldn’t make sense.
“Then what?” Toby said breaking the silence. His voice soon crumbled under the words.
“We find another way out,” I said and my eyes fell on the procession of cars stretching out to the horizon. “All this in just a few hours?” I said, not targeting my words anywhere in particular. No one replied, but Andrew slowed. I turned, watching as he cut across to the wall, tested the stone with his hands before climbing. I joined him high at his side and mirrored him as he took in the view. All around us were fields, rolling gently up and down, only the occasional wind battered tree pointing skyward to punctuate the horizon. The long packed road at our front was the only sign that anyone had ever set foot on the earth. Our eyes carried on to the left, we were about a third of the way back to the cars and our friends. Breath stole from my lungs, my stomach a cavern as I thought of Zoe and the others back at the car, as I thought of their fear for us, their fear for the unknown. They would have heard the explosion, but were in the same head space as us, had yet to see what we had.
“What the hell is going on?” Toby said, his voice at our backs. I climbed down and offered my hand, helping him climb up as we jumped down the other side. I was about to open my mouth, about to speak, about to tell him I had no idea, when all of our heads turned skyward, eyes darting this way and that trying to spot the low rubble building on the horizon. Breath came fast, my eyes twitching to my two friends, theirs as wide as mine. We moved, started to run, winding our way through the metal, jumping the belongings clogging the road. The roar grew, building too quick to a crescendo, a grey fighter jet ripped through the air high above.
“Invasion,” I shouted. “It’s World War Three.” The words tailing off as I ran faster than I dared.
Breathless, I spotted the missing car at the back of our own short convoy before I saw Zoe. She was stood next to Toby’s young wife, Lily, both waving their arms above their head, faces lit with relief. Lily ran towards us as we grew closer, rushing past me to clutch her husband. Slowing my pace and with Andrew at my side, we watched Nat climb from our car, followed soon by Matt and Chloe pulling out of Toby’s silver Mercedes.
“What is it?” Zoe said, her hands at her mouth, dread covering her face. “The explosion,” she said turning towards Nat who was eyeing me with a squint of interest.
“It’s a roadblock,” I said, not ready to give the details. “Where’s Leo and the others?”
Zoe and Nat exchanged looks. Matt stepped forward, looking to Chloe before he spoke.
“Um, they didn’t want to sit around waiting,” he said. “Were pretty pissed off you upped and legged it.”
“I was coming back,” I said. “Of course, I was always going to come back.”
Matt shrugged, his eyes flitting to the distance.
“So where did they go?” I said, catching the eyes of each for the four. Matt spoke again.
“They’re going to find another way around.” Zoe was shaking her head, a look of distaste on her face.
“Leo said some scary shit. Dan thinks we’re being invaded, World War Three or something. It was the plane that did it.” She was looking at me the entire time, I guess trying to gauge my reaction. “Max reckons they blew up the rest of the power station to stop a build of heat, but that must be bullshit.” She was looking in my eyes, her own wide for an answer. “Well, what is it?” she said, her voice rising.
“I don’t know,” I replied and it was the truth. “It’s not an invasion,” I said pausing, adding more words than I needed to. “I don’t think. I did before, but it makes little sense now.” I watched Zoe’s eyes widen and Nat’s contract. “If the Russians or the Chinese have invaded then why the evacuation? The skies would be teaming with fighters,” I said shaking my head.
“But the explosion?” Zoe replied, noticing the rest had gathered around.
“I don’t know.” The only reply was silence, each of my friends looking on, waiting for me to come up with some idea, some plan, some theory they could latch on to. I couldn’t remain silent. “All I know is there was supposed to be an evacuation, everyone should be gone, but we missed the bus, quite literally,” I said turning to Andrew. Silence followed again, but I knew the next words that would come. It was Zoe who spoke.
“Evacuated from what?” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek.
“I don’t know,” I replied and opened my arms, but instead she turned and sunk into Nat’s embrace.
Drawing a deep breath I broke from the group to circle my car, closing the passenger doors as I did. Taking the driver’s seat, I pushed down the locks as the engine started. To emotional faces staring back, I turned the car, rolling it to the side of the road. Six pairs of eyes followed me as I killed the engine and walked to the last abandoned car in the long queue, a Freelander. Leaning through the open driver’s door, I turned the key one notch and watched the fuel indicator spring to the right.
They soon got the idea as I pulled open the boot and lugged suitcases to the side of the road, each lending a hand, pulling our bags from my car with the wrecked screen. Without words we started the convoy once more, driving for hours, following the map book on Andrew’s lap, taking turn after turn, each time to find a queue of abandoned traffic, sometimes long, sometimes shorter. At the first few we checked the head of the queue, gaining hope when there had been no repeat of the conflict, no cold bodies left behind. It wasn’t until we came to a short queue of maybe fifty cars, Zoe the first to see the bodies laying in pools of blood. We checked no more after that, instead turning each time at the end of the snake of cars.
The skies had darkened, the air chilling through the cracks in the window, it must have been at the tenth or so road north we’d found blocked, the queue right back to the trunk road, when we found a dry stone wall smashed through, the first car to knock the barrier down was abandoned to the side, the windscreen smashed, the bumper discarded at the gap. Great welts scouring into the earth told use many more had followed. I looked towards Andrew and he gave the nod as I turned the wheel through the gap.
The going was chaotic, but the Freelander loved the terrain, despite it not being a farmers field as I’d first thought, but a grass wasteland potted with rocks hidden below the waist high wild grass swinging in the winter breeze. The same could not be said for the Mondeo in the rear view mirror. With no surprise steam soon billowed from under the bonnet. Circling around we watched our friends pile out.
With the blue sky only a memory and our luggage discarded to the long grass, Chloe squeezed up against Zoe, sliding Nat to the door, while Toby, Lily and Matt folded themselves into the boot, holdalls bursting with our snatched precious things resting on their laps. No one was keen to hang around in the dark knowing there was death close by. The eerie, distant orange lights helping to urge them on, the towering black smoke telling of its source. Despite the cramped conditions, I felt the relief in the car as we once again moved, my pace slower, more considered than before, knowing each bump rushing through the axles amplified tenfold for those tight together in the back.
With the main beam lights dancing across my view, another ten minutes passed before I saw the remains of a stone wall, smashed through in too many places to count, with many cars that just hadn’t been able, discarded at its foot. Swinging the four by four in an arc, I swept the headlights across the barrier and spotted the largest of the breaches near to the head of the silent queue of traffic. We rolled, our movement slow and considered. I glanced to Andrew, watching his shallow nod in reply.
The going was easy, the gap more than ample. Relief rushed through my body, a palpable excitement we were through the roadblocks, joined by excited whispers at my back. Through the gap we saw the pickup I guessed had done us the service, lit up in our beam as we travelled through, its mass pointing, angled high to the horizon, the front wheels resting on another stone wall bounding the opposite side, its doors wide open.
Turning the wheel, the headlights caught on a view we’d seen so many times before. Bags, holdalls and luggage scattered around, but this time we weren’t so naïve to the larger shapes surrounded in dark shadows. A difference caught my eye and with only a little surprise, the others too, if the short intakes of breath were anything to go by. We’d seen the face of a man, his body encased in an oversized orange hazmat suit, his eyes reflecting through the wide transparent window punctured by bullet holes.
Still turning, trying to find a route to navigate through the biggest of the debris, I pushed hard on the brakes, all eyes snapping forward as I saw something I knew was a trick of light. That was until Andrew jumped forward in his seat, leaning against the windscreen, stretching his neck to get a better look. He’d seen the body in the headlights move as the beam bathed the inside of the car. I twitched left expecting to see Andrew’s hand pulling the handle, but he was fixed forward, mouth open, staring. Chloe’s form lunged into the light before I could feel the chill of air coming from her open door to the chorus of voices calling her back, but she couldn’t be turned, the nursing instinct hard-wired. Drawing a deep breath I followed her into the night, the darkness bringing fog to my breath.
Glancing, I saw her knelt at the body’s side, head bent, listening to the gentle moan of death. I forced myself to breathe through my mouth, the powerful stench of blood and ripe overflowing toilets sticking in my throat. I couldn’t hold my gaze too long as I walked, couldn’t help but survey the scene I knew I should avoid for the sake of my dreams. This was by far the worst scene, the highest body count, double figures ticked off despite my desperation to avoid the detail. This roadblock was also unique, on this side of the concrete blocks were cars, some had not got away, bullet holes strafed their sides, shell cases glinting in the powerful light.
Grateful to arrive at Chloe’s side, despite the growing stench, which gave me an excuse to look away. That was until I took in the desperate view. I watched the last moments of a woman Chloe’s age, mid twenties, hair once blonde, now streaked scarlet, half of her face blown off. No lips covered one side of her mouth and the one intact eye remained closed. Still she was moving, cradled in Chloe’s arms. Chloe did nothing, there was nothing to be done, just the ultimate gift not to be alone when the final moment came.
That moment came too soon, came as Andrew arrived at our side, came as both of us rested our hands on Chloe’s shoulders, her head turning down, her comforting words silenced as the body went limp and her chest flattened. Chloe remained sat, Andrew and I sharing a solemn moment until we sank our heads. It was Chloe’s shoulders rising, her back arching that caused our view to rise, to watch the woman draw a long, deep breath. Chloe’s head turned up with a wide smile, full eyes pouring with compassion, giving joy her prayers were answered.
Startled, I watched as the woman’s one eye opened, the whites red, the lens milky. My legs forced me back as the woman once dead, lunged headlong at Chloe’s hand lain on her blood soaked chest. Teeth found bone according to the sound and Chloe’s arms electrified, trying to pull herself free. I’m ashamed to say my reaction was to leap back, isolating Chloe, staring wide eyed, helpless to the view of my friend’s hand clamped to the mouth of an abhorrence grinding into her flesh.
Yes, I admit my first reaction was poor. Fear had taken control, but only for a moment. It wasn’t long before anger took its place. Without conscious thought my feet stepped forward into the stench, closing to the gurgle of liquid breath, blood spraying from the abomination’s mouth, Chloe’s shock gone, a scream replaced. With a lunge, my right foot connected to her head, pulling Chloe’s hand with the creature’s grip. A second kick did the same and Andrew was around the other side, his feet in on the action. After longer than I feared, the skull gave way under the onslaught and the bloody mouth released.
With one arm under each shoulder, we dragged Chloe whimpering back to the car to the sound of stunned reaction to what had played out in the headlights. The girls were frantic, tears streaming, but still they took control of Chloe, cradling her hand with such care. With the courtesy light on, I shouted for calm, holding back the tirade of questions demanding why that poor injured woman attacked her nurse with such brutality. I shouted again for them to hold back and for Andrew to get in the fucking car. With the doors barely sealed I revved the engine, stomping the accelerator to screams of panic and coos of sympathy for the patient who lay across them on the back seat. The car swerved left and right, my whole concentration fixed hard on the drive. Vehicles abandoned to the roadside flashed by in the headlights, the lines of bullets and smashed glass not overlooked. I left the engine to roar, the pitch black scenery to fly by the window to the cacophony of words until Andrew spoke loud, his voice clear of the melee and with a strange calm.
With his hand on my shoulder I let the engine dip from the red line, let the engine decay to idle, let the wheels coast. The inside calmed with the speed and Andrew pointed, my eyes followed, seeing the road ahead with my conscious mind for the first time.
Ahead was a giant white warehouse, a dead supermarket. So rare was it to see these behemoth buildings without their lights blaring out twenty four seven. The mood grew optimistic in the back as I let the engine build and turned into the car park, a wide expanse of tarmac empty of all but two cars, their bonnets were up, abandoned.
Circling the shop took over ten minutes in the car, the place locked up tight, doors sealed, shutters down on the front. Still, we hadn’t spoken about what had occurred to hasten this leg of the journey and I wanted to keep it that way until we had got Chloe’s wounds under control. Still Tom agreed to stay with the car, agreed to sit in the driver’s seat with the engine running, ready to pick us up at a moments notice. Zoe insisted she came with us, so she joined Andrew, myself and Matt as we got out around the rear of the building to examine the delivery entrance.
A small high window at the rear smashed through within minutes, our success rewarded with an alarm we were all a little surprised to hear. I ventured in, rising on Matt and Andrew’s interleaved hands. Inside was utter darkness, the rage of the alarm incessant, not helping to tune my vision to the pitch black. Not knowing what I was to land on, I lowered myself down from the ledge, my feet finding something solid, the porcelain of a toilet bowl I soon found out. Inside the alarm was bass and high, assaulting not only my ears, but my stomach as well. If I had eaten in the last day, I would have emptied my guts once again.
The deep blackness was so complete, touch alone got me through the cubicle and out of the wider room, where the darkness seemed to only deepen, the last of the moonlight shut out. I don’t mind admitting I was petrified as the tone of the alarm changed. I guessed I was out into the main cavernous warehouse, but there were no lights to guide me, the emergency batteries wearing down the previous night. Despair tightened its grip with the last of the light as the door closed at my back and my pace slowed further. Like a fireman in a smoke filled room, but less practiced, I waved my hands in front of me in methodical circles, fingers curled into my palms for protection.
My left fist caught a solid wall, then my right, and I realised I was in a corridor and not the main hall. My mood fell even further, head splitting with pain, blearing each time the klaxon cycled through its infernal rhythm. Time was pressing on and I could sense Chloe’s blood pumping from her injuries, her body draining with each step I failed to find some way to get her inside and get her injuries dressed. My knuckles rasped against something hard, a cold handle, joy flared as I turned. The door opened. I sank to my knees, the echo resounding deeper, the repetition overwhelming, the noise pouring over me.
Tears rolled when light burst into being, a car smashing through from the outside, the room lit from the source of the attack, my hand unknowing reaching for the gun.
Forcing my eyes wide, the roar of the engine died back below the siren’s scream. As dust and smoke continued to billow from the sudden outburst, I watched silhouettes rush from the new opening, heads turning wild, this way and that searching something out. The first carried another cradled in their arms. Chloe, I soon realised, in Toby’s hold, Lily at her back. A deep relief lifted my mood.
In the new light I saw I was in a side corridor, the group of three already out of view. Hurrying forward, the gun pushed deep once more, my despair forgotten to the shouts of my name just high enough to register. I appeared in the angle of their vision, saw the relief on Toby’s face, a pained, pale complexion on Chloe’s lain at the floor, Lily knelt in stance we’d only just seen, but reversed. Chloe’s face was still there, albeit grey and drawn. Our friends gathered around shouting words, but we all knew the aim. I watched as they scattered, leaving me transfixed on Lily forcing blood red rags around her hand, a pool beneath already forming.
Out of my daze I split from the scene, helpless to react to the constant pour of blood, instead heading off through the pristine aisles, the tops of the rows lit just enough to help navigation. I was back with an arm full of torches, battery packs bulging from pockets, back at Chloe’s side listening to Lily’s calming voice, catching sight of her hand clamp down, her own fingers red with Chloe’s blood, the breathless stare Lily gave me when our eyes met. I strove off once more, finding Toby by the medicines, squinting in the near dark, his hands feeling across the shelves, his face upturned and I pushed the lit torch into his hand.
Still I headed on, found Andrew attacking a tall metal panel by the front entrance, his hands wielding a chair, swinging one after the other, the alarm still screaming out, a rainbow of weak LEDs dimming with each pulse of the speaker. I lit the panel with a beam of light and Andrew turned, catching his eyes in a fright until he saw my face, saying something I had no chance of catching. I was off again, but only a few steps, grabbing bottles of lemonade from the promotions stacked high guarding the wide entrance and with my hand on his shoulder I pulled Andrew back. He got the idea and took a second bottle.
To the scent of sweet lemons, the alarm died to a crackle to the speakers, but I swear I could hear the resounding for hours after. We hugged and drew deep breaths, our bodies shaking as thoughts came back to the situation and we ran back to the group crowded around Chloe, lanterns surrounding her, blankets under her head and covering her legs, the car now silent, the lights off, just the chill of the night creeping through smashed open fire exit doors. The front of the Freelander had been wide enough to punch through the doors, but not wide enough to get through, the wings caved in, wedged in the exposed steel beams.
“It won’t stop bleeding,” I heard Lily’s voice loud and clear. Andrew and I joined, kneeling, taking our place in the circle. Chloe’s hand was packed hard with bandages, Toby ripping open more packets to replace the bloody rags piling up by her side, his face a match for his wife’s, their shared look of fear I couldn’t watch.
Standing, I took deep breaths and others followed. Nat and Zoe rising to their feet, their torches shining down at the ground. Andrew took steps with me, Matt joining. Our steps were slow, guilt raging in each pace, helplessness pounding in my chest. I couldn’t do anything to stop the bleeding, I couldn’t look on and now I knew we would have that conversation. It was Zoe who raised it first, to mouthfuls of water taken from the aisle we guided ourselves to.
“Well?” was all she said, but the meaning was obvious. I turned, looked back and away towards the halo of light where our three other friends were holding vigil. We were far enough away they wouldn’t hear, but still I kept my voice quiet.
“You saw what we did?” I said, knowing full well that wouldn’t do and Nat was the first to pick it open.
“All we saw was you and Andrew going to town on her head. What the fuck happened?” she said, her voice hurried, but keeping with the low volume. Andrew and I shared a look. He nodded, and I let the words out.
“That woman died. Chloe was comforting her, but she came back and bit into her hand, wouldn’t let go.”
Everyone was silent. They would have seen as much.
“You thought she’d died,” Matt said. “You’re no doctor.”
“She died,” Andrew said. “She would never survive her injuries, half her face was splattered across the road.”
“Mate,” I said, and he lowered his head. “Look, she seemed to be dead, but you’re right, she must have been alive. She must have been defending herself, her brain addled with pain. An animal instinct, yeah,” I said, looking to the floor, not wanting to see their reaction. “I mean there’s no other explanation, is there?” I couldn’t help but look around, watching the sunken faces, watching as no one spoke.
“Don’t say it,” were Zoe’s words.
“Say what?” Nat replied. The silence filled the gap and we heard what sounded like Lily’s gentle voice singing low in the glow of the lanterns.
“Zombies,” Andrew said. Laughter followed from his words, but not from him, I was watching his fixed expression. Nat and Matt’s chuckles soon died back when he saw the rest of us weren’t joining in.
“Fuck off,” Matt and Nat said in almost unison, both turned away and walked off, but stopped in their tracks as a great rattle of metal came from the wide shuttered entrance. Within less than a second I’d put it down to the wind. That was until it came again twice more in quick succession.
Zoe stared, her eyes so intent on mine, shoulders rattling each time the shutter banged. After the fifth, I lost count, Nat was the first to move, to turn to Matt then back to the rest of us still in the arc of our circle.
“You’re joking right?” she said, looking to the shutters, then back through the group. “You’re fucking joking? You guys need to stop watching shit TV.”
We continued to stare forward, our eyes on Nat. I noticed Lily’s voice had quietened.
“You wanna take your chances?” Andrew said, his eyes wide.
“With the fucking zombies?” Nat replied. “Shut the fuck up. They’re people just like us. People left behind in this fucking mess. They’ve heard the alarm and come to find help,” she said raising her eyebrows. “If that was you wouldn’t you want safety?”
Everyone kept quiet, she’d made a good point, but she hadn’t been there, hadn’t seen the milky eyes of the woman, her mouth in a death grip around Chloe’s hand, hadn’t had to pulverise her head to release her friend.
“But what if it’s not? What if it’s the military clearing the place out?” I replied. Nat took a step toward me, opening her arms.
“Break open the champagne, we’ve been saved and can get the fuck away,” she said softening her voice, eyes clenched.
“What if it’s an invasion?” Matt said, his voice low too.
“Not you as well. What? Do you think the alien’s have landed?” Nat replied, the harsh rattle of shutters stopping the rest of her words.
“No, no,” Matt said, taking his own steps forward so he could lower his voice as he shook his head. “Another country, I mean?”
Nat’s smile grew wide.
“And you reckon they’re going to knock on the door?”
Our heads turned in unison, a fright running through the five of us as Toby appeared around the corner, his head low, eyes on his bright red hands, a soaked bandage in his palm.
“What if it’s a doctor?” he said, his voice solemn. “It won’t stop bleeding, she’s not got long left.”
Nat turned and took a step before pivoting her head back, locking with my eyes.
“Your call,” she said, raising her brow. “When this mess is over, each decision we make will be pulled apart. Perhaps think that over before you leave them out in the freezing cold.” She turned and headed back toward Chloe.
“Hey, unfair,” Zoe replied, her voice wounded as she took a step toward me. The rest of the group were intent in my direction. When did I get appointed leader? I almost said. Before this shit decisions were made with such little care. Where to party? Where to while the weekends away? Was this all because I got the message from the old guy? All because I’d been standing next to Chloe when the world changed forever? Maybe they just wanted someone else to be responsible. Like it or not, which I didn’t, they had given me control. I had to do something.
Taking a deep breath, I felt the weight in my pocket.
“Whose coming with me?”
Andrew volunteered with no delay, stepping to my side, his face hung with a heavy brow, shoulders rising. Matt took a moment, his eyes searching towards where Nat had just travelled before he stepped forward, hands still stuffed in his pockets. Not waiting for Zoe to make a bad decision, I turned to her, my hands clenching her shoulders, taking her by surprise, her head reacting as I leant in.
“I need your help too,” I said and watched as her eyes went wide. “I need you to get the others away from the door. Get them as far back in the store as you can. Find a place comfortable if Chloe is up to it.” I watched as Zoe blinked a nod, not waiting for her to process, to react, to come back with some headstrong plan.
The coppery odour of Chloe’s blood was apparent long before we rounded the aisle to see her head lain on Lily’s lap, Toby still pushing down bandages to her hand, the scarlet pile to his side bigger than that of the stock to his side. Nat hung around where the car wedged, the collar of her long coat drawn up tight around her neck, white breath reflecting torchlight. With only a glance in Chloe’s direction, I couldn’t hold my gaze any longer, her face devoid of movement, her life still draining out through the bandage.
All but a single lantern at Chloe’s side fell to dark, the warehouse near returning to its original forbidding state. The steel of the car was ice cold as I leant around the thin wall and past the metal skin, peering into the night lit more than I’d appreciated with the half moon light. The coast was clear and lifting myself around the car, climbing up the bumper I regretted how easy it was to get past the barrier. With Andrew climbing at my back, I chanced a rearward look, taking a hard swallow as I saw how deep, so complete, the Freelander had embedded itself into the opening.
The fire door wasn’t visible from the front of the building, along from the tall delivery entrance, obscured by the toilet block from all but the most inquisitive of inspections. We crept in a line along the prefabricated brick wall, halting as we reached the corner. I turned once again, looked back and saw our entrance punctuated with the Freelander and swallowed a hard breath knowing if we didn’t survive this encounter, it wouldn’t be long before the others were done for.
Andrew urged me on, pushing at my back, nodding to my pocket. He was right, I had the gun, I should go first, I was the only one who had a hope in hell of stopping whatever was trying to get into our safe place. The gun felt heavy in my hand and I regretted not taking a few moments to familiarise myself with its workings. Yes, I’d seen so many in films, in those shit TV programmes Nat thought were muddling my brain, but never had I held one in my hand, never hand my fingers searched in the near pitch black for a safety catch or a cocking slide. I did what I’d seen so many times before and I slid the top of the gun. As I did something fell to my feet with a metallic click and I could just catch the brass of the bullet glinting in the moonlight. The gun had been primed by its previous owner, already cocked, or whatever the phase was. I should have realised, I’d taken it from someone who’d died trying to defend themselves.
I couldn’t see or feel a switch or a catch to the side, but to Andrew’s onward urges I took my chances the gun was ready to defend. Peering around the first corner with the gun pointing to the ground, my first view was of my fast white breath pluming into the air announcing both our presence and my frantic state. My second view was the wide open space of half of the car park and the road entrance from where we’d arrived. Forging on, I tried to forget there was only a short distance before I would round the corner and see the shutters, see whatever was waiting for us to come, waiting for whatever welcome they would give.
I reached the corner sooner than I’d wanted. Andrew’s urges had stopped and I turned to see both still there, their faces a mirror of my concern. This was my last chance to turn back, last chance to hand the gun over and run back to the warm, safe place with the others. But I wasn’t that man, I’d come out for a reason. For many reasons. I’d come to find for certain I wasn’t in a comic book, wasn’t in a world of horror fiction, come to prove Nat right. Oh how I wanted her to be right. The next couple of steps would tell and I took them, slow, very slow, stepping so my feet would make no sound at all.
Rounding the corner, a sudden rasp of the shutters pulled my chest tight, the rattle so much louder from this vantage. There stood a silhouette dressed in the bulk of a dark woollen coat, head hidden, face wrapped with a scarf. The figure held itself upright, leant into the metal, waiting, listening with intent, my breath unwilling to come. Moments later, the figure slumped to the floor and for the first time I could see a larger bundle of blankets at his feet. My heart had settled, the figure looked more like an unlucky vagrant who’d missed the evacuation, the superstore his normal nighttime hangout.
With my stance relaxing, I turned, a smile blooming, a vent of the tension spreading to theirs. Andrew was the first to creep past to my shoulder, Matt followed as I turned back. There we stood in a line, out in the open, taking a long look into the night.
Andrew coughed, I started in his direction, eyes wide staring as he stifled the clouds of white air spluttering from his chest. Spinning back I saw the figure’s head twitch, he was up on his feet, jumping with a vigour not matching his broken down appearance. Like the crazed individual I feared, the figure’s arms were out, muffled calls howled from behind numerous scarfs. My friends left my sight, but I would not turn, couldn’t turn, would not take my attention from the monster racing towards me. The monster who didn’t care for the gun pointed at its chest.
The distance swallowed up too soon. Still, I wanted to see Andrew’s reaction, wanted to know if I should blast away. Was I right to use lethal force to stop what was happening to Chloe from happening again? But I had to make the choice alone.
“Stop or I’ll shoot,” were the words from my mouth. To my surprise their speed slowed, steps became shallow.
Emboldened by their reaction, I took a step forward, alarming myself as I did, setting a stance I didn’t even know I’d taken notice of from the movies. The figure had stopped, started backwards, but soon fell over his own feet, stumbling, crashing to the ground with a great huff from his lungs.
He was a vagrant once more, a poor man with nowhere to call home. Lowering the gun, I heard an animal scream from where the tramp had left his belongings. The blankets had risen, but only to half the height, to become another figure, their scream high, child-like, their face not covered, their golden blonde hair not under a hat, their cries not muffled. My head reacted, as did my fear, but in opposite directions as I pulled the trigger.
The trigger gave only a soft click. Engulfed with gratitude to the fates, I realised the bullet in my pocket must have been the last.
Empty of breath, I hurried the gun downward, eyes rushing to see if they’d heard the tiny noise. Desperate to see if they knew what I’d got so close to doing, but their faces told me they had. It had been the only sound for miles.
“I’m so sorry,” I said over and over, not telling of what I thought I’d seen, just watching as the girl ran to clutch around the waist of our stranger. The figure’s hand rose, pulling the scarf from her face to reveal a young woman, face round, stretched with fear, arms wrapped around the child’s. The kid soon pulled away, looked back up, face strong with balled features. Her eyes caught the pistol and I stuffed it back in my pocket, pushing out my hand, offering to help the young woman to her feet.
With breath still pluming hard to the air, she held back, kept her hand low, making no attempt to rise until Andrew surged forward and waited for no answer before he took her weight.
No one asked questions or put up any resistance as we helped the pair climb through the barricaded fire exit and into the relative warmth. Andrew took the lead, tried his best to shield the view of Chloe still laid on the ground, but he needn’t have worried, the circle of three friends that had remained stood to block any stranger, friend or foe, crowbars and hammers bared in their hands. Only Nat kept her grip solid on the handle of the claw hammer as the stranger’s features clarified in the light.
They were sisters, both too young to be parent and child, the woman late teens, the kid maybe only just turning double figures, their features almost a match, long blonde hair, blue eyes glinting in the light. It was only their height and definition in the cheeks that gave away the difference. I overheard the whispered answers to slow questions fired their way, their names, Cassidy for the eldest, Ellie the other, as I knelt beside our patient.
Chloe’s body was still and I feared the worse, Lily’s blood soaked fingers no longer wrapped around the palm of the injured hand. I dared not prompt the answer I desperately sought, but Lily seemed to understand and told me the bleeding had stopped. I saw the first of the shallow breaths and for the first time that day I felt a wash of happiness. Staying sat at her side I let myself relax, let the others disperse and gather supplies. After a hearty meal, my shoulder wrapped in blankets, I was so grateful we’d found this place, that we’d got somewhere perfect to wait out for as long as we needed until the rescue party’s arrival.
Dozing as I sat, head falling forward, I listened to the two teenagers talk to the rest of the group, recounting how their day had started.
“We got the call to evacuate early hours this morning. Literally on the phone, an automated message telling us to ring the police if we needed to verify the call. The electricity was already gone by then and the phones went dead soon after. The radio was no help, other than giving the same message which didn’t tell us what the hell was going on. We set off with my parents, but soon we were in tailbacks longer than we’d ever seen round here. After hours in traffic the Land Rover gave up about half way to the A30, so we hitched a lift on a bus near bursting. We had to stand, huddled in the aisle right at the front.
We came to the roadblock mid morning. People were streaming from cars, just leaving their vehicles blocking the road so they could walk towards the head of the queue. When the driver disappeared out of his door, we had no choice, everyone else was forcing against us so they could rush between the parked cars. Dad was the first to spot a long line of coaches, one after another leaving the head of the roadblock. As we grew closer we saw each overfull, with only two remaining and a long, wide line of people heading towards them. It wasn’t long before the panic started. A ripple of excitement ran through the crowds, leaving behind an urgency to get on one of those coaches. We tried to hold each other’s hands, but it was near impossible, I ended up carrying this one most of the way. People were shouting, elbows shoved out, baring their teeth like animals. We got separated from Mum and Dad as I tripped over, stumbling over an abandoned case. I took ages to battle back into the flow, clutching Ellie, everyone rushing, pushing with their elbows out, surging forward like rabid beasts.
Then came the gunshots.
Her voice stopped as my head rolled up, eyes catching on Cassidy’s as I realised how much attention I’d been paying. Seeing me move, the little sister, Ellie, screwed up her face, shuffling closer to Cassidy and accepting the arm around her shoulders under the blanket. The night had grown colder, my breath alive in the low torch light. Whilst my head was bowed, or when I’d drifted off, Matt, Lily and Toby had crowded around Chloe, sat on a bed of pillows and blankets. I lingered on the patient’s pale face, her distant expression, before breaking the silence, my voice croaking as I pulled the blankets tighter over my shoulders.
“Your parents?” I said, trying to keep the words soft. Regretting as the sounds came out, realising the effect of the words and expecting a shower of tears. They didn’t come, just a shake of the head.
“We ran,” Cassidy said. “The gunfire was rapid, the screams cutting, it wasn’t a place you wanted to hang around. We ran until the noise stopped and never looked back.”
“What did you do?” Nat said.
“Waited,” Cassidy replied. Zoe, who’d been sitting loose to their side, edged herself closer, pressing her hands around Cassidy’s free left.
“We waited for hours, but when the explosion happened and that jet, I decided we needed to get further away, find shelter, food.” Her voice cut short, the words catching in her throat.
“They’re probably fine,” Zoe said, telling me off with a look my way. Lily was the next to come closer to our little group, her face betraying the questions she was armed with. It didn’t take long before she leant in, offering around an open bar of chocolate. Ellie looked up to her sister and receiving a nod, she took a row. Lily didn’t wait.
“So,” she said with an unaccustomed hesitation. “So, while you were out there did you,” she said again, before stopping herself short. Nat gave a great sigh.
“Did you see anything strange?” she said, her voice loud in the darkness. All faces flicked to hers and she rolled her eyes, but the group’s attention switched back to Cassidy, nods running around the room urging on the answer. Cassidy’s eyes fell to Ellie as she devoured the last of her chocolate. Lily lent forward, offering another.
“Then that’s it,” Cassidy said as Ellie broke off the squares. Checking she was occupied, Cassidy looked around the room, taking in each of the faces. She lingered as our eyes caught, her lids lowering just a little until she moved on. “Like what?”
I kept quiet, didn’t want to be seen to influence the question. It was Toby who spoke, heads spinning around to the dim light surrounding their vigil.
“You were out there longer than us,” he said, his face more eager than his voice betrayed. Cassidy drew a deep breath, sparking Ellie to give a wide yawn. Cassidy let the child get herself comfortable at her side, let her nuzzle down on her thigh, let her eyes close and her breath turn to a soft purr before she spoke.
“We saw emptiness,” she said. I tried to stop myself leaning forward, getting closer with each of her words. “We saw people being inhuman.”
“What do you mean?” Zoe said, not giving the Cassidy the chance to draw breath.
“We saw people dead, killed with guns. We saw people acting like animals. People fending for themselves. It’s only been a day and already the mask has slipped.”
Together we leant forward as she paused. I looked at Nat and she sat back, forcing a look of disinterest.
“Anything else,” Zoe said, her voice quivering. The silence ate up the atmosphere, plumes of breath rolling in the centre of the group gave away their apprehension.
“We saw,” she said and the cloud of breath stopped. “We saw people left for dead, so many people,” she said, her voice betrayed she wasn’t finished. Still she paused. “Left for dead, but they weren’t.”
No one replied despite their being so many questions each of us dying to ask. Again it was Zoe who spoke first.
“What do you,” she said, but I interrupted.
“Can anyone else smell smoke?”
“Shush,” came Nat’s reply. “Let her speak,” she said, her eyes pinched in my direction.
“No one else?” I said scouring each of the distracted faces in the shadows. “Really?” I added, then gave up, all eyes were on the newcomer. Taking a long draw of breath through my nose I swear I could still smell bitter smoke, but put it down to tiredness when Zoe spoke.
“So what did you mean, they weren’t dead?” she said, when the answer didn’t come straight way. Cassidy shook her head, rubbing her temple with her free hand.
“Just what I said. Not everyone was dead. Some people were laying on the ground, thrashing around,” her voice grew desperate with a sadness greater than before, her eyes squinting as if trying to block the images in her mind. “I wanted to help, I wanted to do something about their pain, but I couldn’t take Ellie there. I wanted to, I did.”
“It’s all right,” Zoe said, handing over a square of tissue. “There’s nothing you could have done.”
“That’s it?” I said, regretting my tone as the words flowed, then tried to ignore the glares returned. “Nothing else?” I said. Cassidy shrugged.
“It was pretty,” she said, checking her sister’s eyes, “fucking unusual for us. Does this kind of shit happen often to you?” she said, her voice high, tone cutting. I didn’t need to look to Nat to know a one sided smile hung on her face. I let the silence linger, let moments pass listening to the gentle breath of Ellie, a slight rasp on her breath. “What’s wrong with your friend?” Cassidy said. I looked up from the floor, watching her talk to Zoe.
“She’s been bitten,” Zoe replied. Cassidy responded immediately.
“By what?” she said, her voice higher than she’d meant. There was a collective silence and I couldn’t tell who was asleep and who was just pretending.
“She lost a lot of blood, but she’s okay now,” Zoe replied.
“It wouldn’t stop bleeding,” I said. There was a sound of restless movement around the lantern light.
“Is she a haemophiliac?” she said. Lily raised her head. Nat, Zoe snapped up straight. I looked to Matt, to Toby, all the same. Only Andrew lay asleep, not joining our collective silence as the words ran around our heads.
I was the first to shake mine.
“We’d have known,” I said.
“If she’d known,” Zoe replied, her eyebrows high on her forehead.
“She’s a nurse,” I said. “She’d know.”
“What’s your explanation? Go on,” she said shrugging the blankets off her shoulders and stepping out of the dim glow. Heads dipped once again. She was right. What was the remaining explanation? Chloe had been attacked by a Zombie, but Zombie’s aren’t real. There are no examples in nature, apart from that fungus that drives ants up trees before the infestation pierces through their brain. Apart from that, they’re confined to the screen and Halloween parties. Right? Only one example in nature. Right?
“I know what I saw,” I said pulling a great lug of air.
“So what did you see? Tell us.” It was Nat’s voice in the shadows and soon she appeared, sat back down, a square bottle of bourbon at her lips, offering the bottle to Zoe as she finished. I kept my mouth still as I considered her words. She was calling me out again, questioning my sanity. Would I do the same if I was on the other side? If she had gone through what I had to free Chloe from the grip of that animal. Would I believe her without question? No I wouldn’t. I’m sure she wouldn’t lie, but maybe she’d missed something in the mayhem. Pulling a long draw from the bottle I winced as the spirit burned down my throat.
“Her eyes were milky white,” I said in a slow voice, the last of the fumes escaping my throat.
“Cataracts?” Nat replied.
“She was barely in her thirties,” I said, trying hard not to let my voice falter.
“She was in a bad way,” Zoe said. Her voice was soft, at least she was desperate not to antagonise the discussion.
“Half her face was missing,” I replied. Cassidy flinched a look down at her sister. “Sorry,” I said, lowering my voice. “But we watched her die. She’d stopped breathing. We all saw it.” I looked towards Andrew still asleep, looked to Chloe and her pale, washed out face. “And that smell,” I replied, and caught a whiff of the odour, the stench of decay, of human waste and took the bottle again, dowsing my throat. Still the smell was there. “Can none of you smell that?” I said and watched the group exchange looks, watched each sample the air, watched noses turn up. They could smell it, I was certain.
“There is something hanging around,” Toby said, but a flicker of light on the far wall caught my attention. I stood. Through a thin cloud of smoke I saw the far end of the warehouse had begun to glow orange.
“Holy shit,” I said almost under my breath. Toby’s words were not so quiet as he climbed to his feet, his face glowing in the reflection of the heat pouring our way. “Get up, get up,” I shouted, bending down to shake Andrew’s shoulders. I didn’t wait for him to stir, instead ran to the fire exit and pulled the bright red extinguisher from the wall.
Running along the aisles, the heat built on my chest, a welcome relief if it hadn’t been for the fumes catching my breath. Toby joined me, another extinguisher in his hand as we rushed forward to the glowing wall, the remains of plastic posters turning black as they slid to the floor. At first we saw no flames and little smoke, but as we rushed forward the windowless double doors burst open, smoke and toxic heat blasted out, forcing us to stop as we doubled over. Glancing back with my mouth in the crook of my arm, Toby already retreating, I watched flames lick around the side of the doors as they rattled open and closed, billowing with heat.
I abandoned the extinguisher before running back to our campsite, joining Toby’s shouts for everyone to grab what they could and get the hell out. Instead of leaping to the exit, the group split, disappearing amongst the shelves. I knelt at Chloe’s side, the rancid stench powerful enough to break through the thick smoke scratching at my lungs. Lily knelt with me, wrapping her in the blankets, folding up the corners ready to be a makeshift stretcher. Sharing her downcast look, I took a moment. Chloe had grown even more pale, more gaunt as the background light grew, her breath more shallow, barely there.
To the building heat I looked along the aisles, smelt the burning plastic before I saw the contents of the shelves smouldering as it dripped to the floor. I shouted, hurrying everyone up and dragged Chloe’s blankets along the floor, moving towards the barred exit. Soon I was joined, rucksacks on their backs, the load getting lighter with each hand adding to the hold on the stretcher. Arriving at the door we took our time to gather fresh air as we handled her through the entrance. Looking around, I saw it wasn’t just me who was doing everything to avoid catching Chloe’s sunken eyes.
Soon we were out in the chill night with no idea what the time was, but again surprised at how bright the half moon lit up the night. The mood was heavy as I rushed into the car, revving the engine as I tried to disconnect the Freelander from the building. With Andrew, Toby and Matt back in the burning building, pushing as hard as they could, the engine roaring in their faces. Metal continued to grip and when the wheels eventually moved, the car stayed still, filling the air with thick rubber burn.
The heat raged out to where we stood around the car, every pair of eyes scouring the horizon, no matter what they believed had happened earlier in the evening. We saw no movement, but the casual sway of distant trees and nothing man made. We were in the middle of nowhere.
“Let’s follow the road,” I said in a whisper, picking up the front right corner of the blanket. The others followed in silence at a cautious pace, heads turning left and right, darting at every sound. At the entrance to the car park I turned, looked back at the building, watched as the fire consumed the building, watched the pyre pluming with black smoke rising into the night, joining the countless others.
Soon we relaxed into the rhythm of the procession, Chloe’s insubstantial weight hardly a burden. Still no one spoke, taking comfort in the spectacular field of vision. We could see for miles. No one said anything, not even giving voice to the terrible odour we were carrying between us.
“Stop,” came Lily’s voice and everyone started at the break of the silence, halting in unison and lowering the blankets to the floor as we turned. Lily fell to her knees at Chloe’s side, pulled open the blankets to take her wrist, pressing her two fingers against her skin. We watched on, our spray of white breath slowing, shrugging coats tighter around our shoulders, raising packs higher, doing anything but wait motionless for the verdict. Lily looked up in my direction, a tear rolling down her cheek. Why she chose me to receive her deep heartache I often ask myself. I raised my eyebrows to prompt the next obvious question. She turned down at Chloe’s face and knelt in, putting her ear to her mouth to listen.
“No,” I shouted, my voice cutting through the night, swooping down to push her to the side.
Lily rocked back with my swipe, falling toward the tarmac until caught wide eyed by Toby standing behind, his hands under her arm pits helping her to her feet. I turned from Toby’s glare, his unsure stare ready to show his teeth, holding back the instinct to raise his fists. Determined not to be distracted, my vision filled with the pale glow of Chloe’s face despite the darkness. My concentration fixed on every movement I couldn’t see, fingers curled around the gun in my pocket, eyes seeking any change.
My scrutiny was cut short with a sharp jab to the shoulder and I turned to see Nat with her fist still raised ready for me to open my mouth and say the wrong thing.
“Fucking prick,” she said, her words just as sharp as the knuckles on her hand. Looking away, my eyes cast over the assembled. Zoe at Nat’s back, her eyes filled with terror and on the urge of tears, her hands reaching toward me. Cassidy backing off, looking down her nose with Ellie buried in her side. Andrew was with me, a nod in my direction, him the only one who’d shared my witness. I didn’t catch Matt’s expression from my side of the blanket, my gaze already fallen, wide again, watching Lily back on her knees, her head lowering to Chloe’s face. Toby standing to block any second attempt at caution.
I turned away, stepping from the blanket, from the darkness of the pack, three paces before I heard the intake of breath and turned, the commotion lighting the centre of the group. The first I saw was Cassidy dragging Ellie backwards, running, falling into a hedge. Next I saw Andrew stood still, transfixed on what I hadn’t yet got to. Despite my desperation to see what I’d feared, instead my vision filled with Nat and Zoe clutched tight together, Zoe’s face pointing to the ground, a wide scream shrieking from her mouth. Nat staring at me, her eyes and mouth wider, more pale than I ever imagined.
It was then I turned to the centre. Time didn’t seem to slow, but still I took in all the detail. Chloe was rising, attached somehow to the side of Lily’s face. Toby was in there too, his hands between them, pulling, grappling to free the pair. Matt was shouting, cursing, filling the air blue, unable to do anything to his partner who’d clamped her mouth deep on to our friends face.
Blinking for the first time, I was powerless to aid, a spectator like Andrew, fixed, looking on, doing nothing. We couldn’t attack our friend, couldn’t repeat the same. We weren’t doctors, we’d been told. Maybe Chloe wasn’t dead. It was a condition she would recover from, no matter what the made up TV said.
It was as Chloe’s arms raised, her mouth letting go, Lily’s head falling to the red soaked blankets and clamping anew on Toby’s hand to his screams of terror, I acted. My hand ached, knuckles white with effort as I gripped the gun pulling it loose from my pocket. I pushed the weapon out, screaming for Toby to move the fuck away. He looked toward me, his face in a deep contorted shape, winced then with the help of Matt at his back, flinched his arm away. With teeth rending flesh, he was free and falling backwards on top of Matt as they tripped over each other to the tarmac.
I took a hard swallow and levelled the gun. As I did, Chloe, the friend who could no longer be called Chloe, stood as if alive, with no awkwardness, contrary to all my thoughts. I pulled the trigger, remembering I’d not pushed the bullet back, the empty click not needed as a reminder. Stepping back, all my vision on her blood dripped face, on it walked forward, eyes open and milky white, fixed in an expression of interest that sparked electricity up my spine. I stepped back again, my pace slower than hers, but I had the lead and my left hand had found the bullet, my right fumbling for how the hell to release the clip.
It was closing too quickly.
I found the release, the clip clattering to the floor, the sound deadened by asthmatic breath rasping from the thing’s lungs. I launched the gun which struck its head, but even with the jolt it continued forward. With breath like a mortuary with faulty AC, it was soon close enough to touch, her arms clawing out. The bandage had fallen, the deep bite marks dry, her hands cold and waxy as they gripped around my throat. I stumbled, wheeling backwards, my senses overloaded with an explosion of red light.
Vision blanched red, ears ringing, I lay rasping for rancid breath as if a great weight clung to my chest, the last few moments erased from memory. Nausea raced up from my stomach, nerves rattled as if all lit in the same moment, my body invaded by an alien sense. Reality flashed back, realisation took hold. I was back at the moment.
Despair sank into my bones until without warning the suffocating mass released. My first thought was death, nerves calming, nausea lifting, a peace surrounding me, until I felt hands rushing over my shoulders, fingers tracings around my neck, turning my head either side and the bright red abated. Blinking as hands gripped the straps of my rucksack, words pushed through the bells in my ears, a shadow moving across my field of vision. Before I could concentrate on the sounds, I was on my feet, his arms, by now I knew it was Andrew, wrapped around me, pulling me close.
“You’re okay,” he repeated, but I wasn’t sure if the words were just for my benefit.
Releasing his clutch, still he held my arm, one hand on my shoulder, the other on my hand and we walked, building to a slow trot. By now the darkness had replaced the blinding red, I saw shapes on the horizon, blurred and unmoving, but shapes nonetheless. The cold took hold again, my face cooling and about to turn and ask what the hell had happened, he dragged me to the side of the road, manhandling me through the hedgerow, my face scraped against thorns, his hand to my mouth as we came to rest.
All I heard was our fast breath and drawing down his hand I nodded, keeping my voice quiet. As my lungs slowed I tried to tune out the constant tone and listened to the nothing in the air, that smell still hanging in my nostrils. We waited, listening to the rattle of the leaves with each gentle breeze, listening for what I feared, spying out between the thick growth, just seeing the stars more vibrant than I could have ever thought. How much time passed before I spoke wasn’t clear, but it was long enough to know we were safer than we had been moments ago.
“What happened?” I said, hoping he heard my voice, I could barely myself.
“What do you remember?” he replied, his words just as quiet, with all my concentration to hear.
“Chloe,” I said with a pause as I convinced myself I’d heard something I hadn’t before. “Coming for me.” I watched as Andrew’s silhouette gave a shallow nod. “The gun was empty.”
“I shot her with a firework,” he said and paused. “I thought you were toast,” he added, leaning in with a tight grip to my arm.
“What are we hiding from?” I said. “Toby?” I added as his arm in her grip jumped into my head.
“No,” Andrew replied. “There were more of them.”
I let my breath settle, a new fear spiking the blood in my veins, my hand diving for my pocket and finding the stiff cold of the bullet.
“The gun?” I said. Andrew reached somewhere I couldn’t see and rested the cold metal in my hands, the clip home in the base. I squeezed his hand in reply and closed my eyes, tried to envision films and programmes, my fingers finding the release once again. By touch alone, pausing my breath with each loud click, I fed the lonely bullet into the clip and carefully pushed it home just in time to hear movement, a rustle of the bushes at our back.
I felt Andrew’s surprise as keen as mine, the noise was behind us, not on the road. No words came, but I could swear that stench of rotten flesh grew louder in my nose. Andrew rested his palm on my chest, a signal to stay still, to make no noise. It was a signal I didn’t need. The rustle grew louder and I swore I heard voices. I turned towards Andrew, but I couldn’t see his response. The noise was growing. We had choices to make, shoot first, or just run. I pulled back the slide, the motion from the bush reacting, gaining ground as the gun clicked the bullet into place. I pushed the weapon out towards the building commotion and rested my finger in the trigger, only stopping as I heard footsteps scuffing along the road at our backs.
Adrenaline coursing, fear pulled me in both directions. Torn to which needed my reaction. Was it the feet scuffing along the tarmac, a beat skipped with each chaotic misstep? Was it the shudder of the undergrowth so close and with a speed I knew I couldn’t match?
I had no time to think. Still, I didn’t move. What if on the road travelled an injured friend, running lame from a danger I already knew too well? What had Andrew seen for us to dive in this hiding place? We were blind to all around, only our ears to lead us in the right direction. Was it an animal gaining in the bushes, a stray dog not fed for over twenty-four hours? How long would it take for a pet to reverse hundreds of generations of breeding? I’d rather tackle a hungry animal, than something that would kill me and make me live again. What if it were one of our friends? We’d separated and I’d had no chance to question what had happened. Alive or dead, I needed to know.
Zoe’s face came to mind, even Nat’s slid past in the gallery of faces. Toby was gone, or soon to be. Matt, I didn’t know how he’d faired. Lily, she was past the point of no return for sure. Was it a blessing they’d gone together? How long would it be before they turned into those things? Toby wouldn’t be dead yet, Lily either, unless they’d bled out, but not by now? Unless I was missing time, moments unnoticed whilst I’d lain overwhelmed.
I thought of Cassidy, her blonde striking hair and blue eyes, then Ellie, her shorter mirror image, the fear pointed in my direction. I thought of Leo, Daniel and Max, a sudden hope sparking that they may have made it. They’d left earlier than the rest of us, perhaps there was a chance.
I thought of the old man’s head crashing so hard against the windscreen, the spidered glass something I would have to live with for as long as I survived. Realisation sparked. Was he was one of them when he’d died? Is that why he was in the road? But there hadn’t been that smell, the odour of decay. He was alive before, but what was he now? What were any of them now? Was it one or all of them in the road, dead, hunting for their next feed? Were all of them out there, in bushes, on the road, no distinction between the two? A pincer movement with no right way to turn.
Or was it our friends, searching in the dark. Scared like us. Like me. Andrew no help. I couldn’t see past the leaves at my face, my ears full of the rustle of life, the scrape of soles against the road. Andrew knew why we’d dived into the bush. He’d said there were more, but not how many. The roadblock was not so far away? I had no real idea of how far, how fast I’d driven, racing away from where Chloe was first attacked, that place when this became all too real.
Now I’d wasted too much time, they were on us, so close, somehow they knew, must have known where we were. Finding Andrew’s wrist in the dark, I gripped, tensing twice. He reflexed in response. I tapped left trying to indicate towards the noise in the bushes, but he twisted right, my right, showing the opposite direction, but did that mean it was not the way to go. I indicated left once more, moving his hand with a jerk. His arm was limp. The noise was too much, the scrape of the feet too close, the rattle of the leaves like drums in my ears. I took Andrew’s lead, or what I thought he’d meant and leapt right, the breath of cold air feeling great on my face. The pistol in my hand pushed out.
I’d made the right and wrong choice depending on how you felt about what I stood in front of.
My feet were on the hard surface of the road, my vision clear, the first rays of sun climbing the horizon.
I hoped the gun worked this time.
In front of me stood not one of my friends, not a companion who’d died and come back as something else. Not someone I’d seen before. Still my finger wouldn’t commit on the trigger. I’d made too many mistakes in this life already.
She was mid-twenties with brunette hair tied high in a causal bun, the right of her face reflected perfection in the last of the moonlight. A thin, straight eyebrow ran to a point after hours of preening. She wore an Arun jumper, to the left was a black hole hovering over her breast, dark, dried liquid radiating out. Somehow I knew it would look a different colour in the sun. Underneath was faultless skin, not the wide open wound I’d expected to stare back oozing with blood.
I returned to the details I’d skipped at first sight, my head refusing to acknowledge the dark sunken hole where her left eye should have looked out. Skin on the left of her face was tight, desiccated, drawn over skeletal features. Her mouth hung wide. The wind drew her stench across my nostrils. I pulled the trigger and the gun exploded.
At first I thought my hand was on fire, the explosion ripping through my flesh, cutting me to ribbons as the gun back-fired. A result of the bullet, shot backwards as I fumbled in the dark. When she dropped to the floor, I looked at my hand still intact, the gun in one piece, just a ring of pain in my ear. My legs carried me forward and I hovered over her body. Now both her eyes were missing. Her mouth closed. At peace.
The rustle in the bushes grew to a fever, but I didn’t turn, didn’t wince as I looked up to the horizon. The sun was beautiful as its amber rays highlighted the curve of our little planet. Andrew joined at my side, I glanced left and saw another, then two more. Zoe, Nat, Cassidy, Ellie tucked up to her hip almost hidden. Each joined in the line and stared out. We shared that silent moment of hope as if today was the day when maybe the world would make sense again.
One of the girls was the first to pull in the sharp breath, hands reaching for mouths almost in unison as we saw a figure running towards us on the road, a dark outline against the growing light, but he wasn’t alone. Horde was the only word I could find to describe what we saw at the runner’s back. On the horizon, a writhing mass of figures with unnatural, stilted movement. Their speed less than the runner’s, but not slow enough for my liking.
“Go,” I said turning to the line. “Go,” I repeated. Cassidy and Ellie were the first to peel off, to break into a jog, then Zoe and Nat to the sound of sobbing for the shattered illusion of hope we’d just shared. Andrew stood held to the spot. “Go,” I shouted.
“Fuck off,” he replied, panting through a half hearted smile. Together we held our ground, the runner closing, the warm gun repositioned in my hand as a club, Andrew with a lighter in his hand, the stick of a giant star mottled firework in the other.
After a minute we saw Matt’s features, his roman nose appearing first as the light rose. Andrew and I swapped a glance, wide grins shared. I heard the rasp of a lighter at my side, the fizz of the fuse, my hand out grabbing at Matt’s outstretched. The rocket electrified the air, racing toward the approaching crowd, their gut wrenching stench already here. I had his palm and let my blood pressure relax at its warmth. We were already running, chasing away, making good ground towards our friends as the firework exploded at our backs. We almost clapped hands in a high five, turning to watched the middle of the pack halt and tried to ignore the surge of double dead bodies forming over the mound. Andrew couldn’t have been carrying enough fireworks to take the whole pack on, but we had pace, above all we had pace, although the girls were beginning to slow.
Still running I watched as first Zoe stopped, turning our way, then Nat too, despite my waving hands and shouts urging them on. Cassidy was next, Ellie tucked in. They’d turned and were jumping in the air, arms waving, screaming at the top of their voices, no longer worried about the horde of things running our way. Before I could slow, I heard the unmistakable sound of helicopter blades cutting through the air.
Chapter Twenty One
Tears rose as I came to a stop, hand reaching for my mouth, lungs gasping, relief electrifying my nerves. I wasn’t going to die anytime soon. We weren’t going to die that terrible way. I watched the helicopter, a dot on the horizon, but still it was clear they were heading our way, following the road, couldn’t miss the horde who took no notice. They wouldn’t miss us. We were saved.
With the chopper approaching, I walked backwards; the stench reminding us these things were gaining, would still run us down if we didn’t pick up the pace and we needed to get away so the crew could land safely. Matt was moving slower, waving his hands, not moving much from his position, while the rest of us turned and hurried once again.
The beat of the rotors grew and with each step my legs felt lighter, my mind clearing, joy rising at the thought of a safe escape and answers to those questions circling around my head. We’d lost two friends along the way, but hope surged that we’d see Leo, Daniel and Max on the other side.
The tone of the engines changed, but before I could look a jolt of rapid gunfire broke out. I slowed, the others did too. Ellie tucked back into her sister’s side. Nat and Zoe linking arms tight as we watched a line of fire rain from the side door of the camo green Merlin helicopter still heading our way, but side on, a helmeted figure on the door mounted gun, tracer bullets glowing red hot as they leapt away. A dark mist rose from the crowd.
Still, I took steps back, uncomfortable the horde was still advancing, despite their numbers diminishing before my eyes. The others followed, even Matt started to move as the gunfire paused and we watched the walking bodies still ignore their slaughter. After a moment of activity from the door, the gunfire took up again with a rampant fever, but soon fell as the numbers on the ground thinned. I slowed, gaps lengthening between the blasts as the crewman took his time, the crowd diminishing with each burst. We watched as a ball flew from the side door, an explosion tensing my shoulders, crunching forward, a spray of debris reaching up high in the air.
Backing off, the action gained ground, the helicopter crew circling, chasing individuals hobbling as they only now started to disperse. More grenades flew from the doorway, explosions rocking, my fingers jammed in my ears. We backed off further, Matt had too, but was still a few hundred metres away. I pulled my fingers from my ears, took a turn, breathing a sigh of relief, for the first time not retching at the foul smell. We were safe. They were dead. Again.
I hugged Andrew at my side, walked the few steps and met Zoe then Nat, taking them in my arms, letting the stress release with each squeeze, even sharing a smile with Cassidy, her sister hiding away. Turning, the sound of the chopper grew, the long machine gun relaxed on its hinges, pointing down. I took a few steps to Matt, stopped as the chopper grew nearer, flying over our heads, following the road. For one fear filled moment I thought they would race on along the highway, but I relaxed back again as it rose, sweeping to our side in a long arc, circling the field and heading our way, flying over their kills, nose first towards us.
I pushed my hands in the air, the others joining as we waved. We wouldn’t allow them to mistake us for people who didn’t want to be rescued. Andrew said something in my ear, but I missed the detail. Instead I watched as the helicopter twisted, turning through ninety degrees, the machine gun pivoting. My stomach contracted, fire rushing from the muzzle. Matt was falling, a mist following the bullets ripping into his shadow.
Chapter Twenty Two
The spray of lead glowed against the receding darkness, its path grinding onwards past Matt’s slumped, unmoving remains, kicking up great mounds of tarmac. We stood in a line, faces transfixed as another version of death raced in our direction.
“Run,” I screamed. Everyone seemed to wake, turning on their heels, but I held my ground waiting for their reaction. Andrew speared across my front, his plan to separate, to get away from the group, force a choice to whom they’d kill first. Zoe and Nat at first clung to each other as they moved, but soon released, gaining speed, running parallel along the straight road. Ellie’s short legs weren’t pumping so hard, Cassidy slower as she scooped her around her front.
I wouldn’t let them be the first.
I quickened my pace, catching with no effort, grabbing around Ellie’s stomach, locking eyes with Cassidy as her eyelids widened. She released her grip, Ellie squirming as if I was the Child-Catcher from her nightmares, only calming as I slung her over my shoulder and she saw her sister running beside.
“Get off the road,” I heard Andrew’s scream, his voice already distant. I swerved left, seeing sense in his words, Cassidy followed too. I couldn’t keep my eyes on Zoe and Nat, my concentration fixed forward through the grass at the edge of the road, trying to stop my top heavyweight from toppling on the uneven ground. At our backs the machine gun had stopped screaming, but the engines were so loud, the tone heavyweight, changing as it manoeuvred for the chase. I daren’t look to see who they were going after, the only chance we had was to run and hide.
An explosion rocked me forward, taking all my effort to recover from the stumble. Ellie let out a yelp, but the chaos sounded further than I expected. A pit of emptiness opened in my stomach as I realised they were going after one of my friends.
The sky brightened with each wide step, the grass fell down a valley at my feet, the lightening horizon filling me with hope. In the dawn light was a wood of dense trees a few hundred metres away. Somehow I found more and picked up the pace, ignoring the scream of pain in my legs.
The machine gun lit up the air and I winced as an explosion followed, brightening the sky with a flash, the unmistakable pop of a firework. We were at the tree-line and I let Ellie down, my arms aching with relief, watching as she jumped the few steps to Cassidy, grabbing around her waist as we turned, gawking at the onslaught. The helicopter had followed the course of the road. It was Zoe and Nat they’d chased. I closed my eyes and let my breath settle, said a godless prayer in hope they’d split up to halve the chances. A breath pulled at my lungs as I watched a thin silvered line appear from behind the chopper, the air popping with a blue glittered explosion behind the tail rotor. The helicopter didn’t react, a line of fire bursting from the door at its original target.
I wrapped my arms around myself, it was cold, but not the kind the sun would solve. Cassidy stepped near, leaning next to me, looking up, her face warm, concern radiating in my direction. Her arm was around my shoulder and I leant in. Another firework raced from the ground, its launch closer than before. The chopper rocked to the side as the red explosion gave a direct hit at the rear of the fuselage. The darkness wouldn’t tell if he’d done any damage, but it didn’t seem to have mattered, the line of tracers cut off, the chopper raced forward, turning to re-zero its guns. As it turned another rocket raced, then another at its back, one after the other, five or six salvos bursting from the ground. Andrew was giving all he had. I hoped he was running, had somewhere to hide.
The air popped as each glitter ball exploded harmless in the air, the chopper out of range, out of danger and it was tracking back, guns silent towards the source. I pictured the pilot looking through his visor, one eye closed taking time to centre his aim. A prolonged blast exploded from the muzzle. The chopper hung still for a moment before turning, tracing the route to its last hunting ground. I turned to Cassidy and took her embrace, but not able to hold back the tears, I sunk to my knees.
Chapter Twenty Three
A crackle of electricity cut the air. Through tears I turned up to the hazy sky. Dismissing the sound as an echo of my imagination, until shock waves rattled through our bodies, a furious explosion of light erupting from inside the helicopter, out into the half light.
Clambering to my feet I ran, vision fixed as the aircraft became unsteady, smoke circling out, whisked away by the speeding rotors. Stumbling, my face turned to the ground, I leapt to recover, looking skyward as quick as I could, watching the body of the chopper spin. My feet took me right, veering as the path of the rotating fuselage sped through its turn, my eyes fixing forward, seeking any sign of my friend, or what was left.
The grass grew thicker and I slowed to raise my legs high, the ground uneven, hard going, my attention elsewhere. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the helicopter falling to the ground a few hundred metres away, a second explosion coursing outward. The tail caught, stopping the spin, sending the fuselage over on its side, the rotors crushing down, splintering, pinging off in all directions. Falling to my hands and knees I buried my head, interlaced my fingers over my hair, tucking into a foetal position, shrapnel falling to the grass, the burn of oil and hot metal all around.
With the last of the debris falling I stood, giving only a casual glance over to the wreckage as it rocked to a halt, ending its final barrel roll.
“Andrew,” I screamed and paced forward again, my eyes all over the dense grass, spying the road, the mottled surface cut to shreds, fractured with lead still steaming from the small craters. “Andrew,” I repeated, my voice breaking at the last. Crunching loose tarmac on the road I stopped, pivoting, letting my crackling voice sing out into the surrounding nothing. I saw him over the verge climbing to his feet, rising from the tall grass, a wide smile on his smoke blackened face, hands out, red and charred black, his near empty pack hanging in the crook of his arm.
I ran, bounding over the verge, skidding down the side and jumping the shallow ditch, grabbing him as he sucked through his teeth at my embrace. He pressed his elbows at my side, it was all he could manage as he winced at my grip.
“You suckered them in,” I said, through laughter. “You sneaky bastard.”
“Saved the biggest for last. The Brimstone. You should have seen the size of the fucker,” he said and I could hear the grin in his voice, but it turned to a wince as I hugged tighter. Drawing back, I took first notice of the sun above the horizon, the sky free of cloud, the blue softening with every moment. Brushing the loose dirt from hands against my jacket, my hands came away with blood, but my jacket was unbroken as I looked down. Pain opened inside my stomach, but I knew it wasn’t my blood when I catch sight of the hole in the side of Andrew’s dark woollen coat.
“Shit,” I said, showing Andrew my hands, pointing down to the hole not part of the design. His eyes grew wide, his hands still out in front, the smell of charred flesh in my throat. With great care I pulled the bag from his arm, minding the rawness of his hands, then unbuttoned the jacket, his face wincing with every movement. Peeling the coat back over his shoulders, his thin brown jumper was soaked red underneath. I tried to keep my expression straight. I knew despite not looking, Andrew’s eyes fixed on mine, keen for my reaction. Pulling up the jumper, the t-shirt too, I folded up the layers dripping with fresh coppery blood, drawing a sigh of relief as I saw the line traced down the side of his skin.
“It didn’t go in,” I said, the words breathless. He relaxed, tensing again, air sucking through his teeth with every movement. I took a second look, the bleeding had already slowed. We were safe. A calm air settled. We’d survived another moment of terrible history, but the elation was short lived when an animal like scream cut through the air.
“Help,” came the elongated call.
It was a young woman’s desperate voice.
Chapter Twenty Four
I turned, looked toward Andrew, his eyes already urging me away, hands shooing me off despite his visible pain. Shrugging the weight of the rucksack from my shoulders, I broke into a sprint, slowing only as the tall grass pulled at my feet, then tripped by the uneven, potted tarmac. The frantic scream came again, cutting through the air in a blood curdling call, but despite scouring the horizon I still couldn’t see anyone standing, couldn’t shake the possible scenarios. I pictured Zoe lain, blood soaking to the ground, a line of scarlet sinew cutting through her legs. Her eyes fixed, desperate on mine.
With my next few steps her face had changed. Nat’s wide blue eyes glaring back, Zoe’s brunette hair raised from her shoulders, climbing level with Nat’s ears. Nat stared up as I looked down, her guard still surrounding, sneering down her nose, fixed with an expression that told me it was all my fault. I couldn’t take my eyes off the utter destruction of their legs, my foot rolling on the brass of a spent cartridge the size of a finger and the image disappeared. I told myself the damage was done, tried to force away all thought, but guilt surfaced as I hoped it wasn’t Zoe I was about to find, wasn’t Nat standing over her body, screaming for a miracle, heartbroken.
The shrill call came again, it was the only sound for miles around, louder each time. Still, I couldn’t see my destination. All I knew was I was heading towards the crash site, the grass churned up where the rotors first hit. Half a blade jutted from the ground, a jagged, razor edge cutting through the breeze. I caught movement to my left, from the tree line, it was Cassidy, her sister dragged along in hand. They were closing, racing forward for the same reason.
Turning, I first saw Nat, a pit in my stomach opening. She stood in a dip, a valley in the ground, her shaking body plain to see, even from my distance. Catching my approach, she raised her arms in a frantic wave, but turned back, head shaking, tears cascading down her face. I turned towards Cassidy, who’d closed the distance over the last few seconds and held my hands out, looked at Ellie, then back.
“No,” I said, my voice solemn. Cassidy took one look to her side and understood.
“Ells, wait here,” she said. Keeping my pace I listened as Cassidy repeated, this time with the sharpest edge I’d heard.
I was moments away and through wet eyes I saw a body lain on the ground. She was dark, charred beyond recognition, her body swollen, head bulbous and ballooned. Her arms were bent at all angles, legs in all directions. She was moving, swaying as if finding comfort in the motion. I’d known her for half my life. I didn’t know if I could watch this happen.
A few more steps and I heard a low, rumbling moan, the pain in my stomach boiled to anger, fear raging. I sniffed the air, took in the oil and burning chemicals. There wasn’t that hideous odour. She hadn’t died and come alive again. She was living, at least for now.
Movement caught in the right of my eye, heavy breath, but a natural sound. I let my guard drop, focusing back on the body, but as I arrived, wiping my eyes, I saw Zoe coming down into the valley. It wasn’t her laying on the ground, the swollen, bulbous head was a helmet, the exaggerated swelling body was someone else dressed in a charred olive flight suit. The arms and legs were still at unnatural angles, the pain real, but mine fell away. My tears cleared as the body snapped into focus and for the first time I saw him for who he was.
The guy who’d saved our life, then tried to kill us instead.
Chapter Twenty Five
“Why are you crying over this piece of shit?” I said sneering down in his direction, momentum building in my voice. Cassidy drew up by my side, Zoe at Nat’s, linking their arms, tucking into her like Ellie had to her sister. Their eyes fixed, something like grief covering their features. The muscles in my chest tightened, breath coming hard fought. “I thought it was you lying there. I thought one of you was screaming because the other was in such pain, or dead. Not this murderer,” I said and had turned, taking a deep breath, pulling back the urge to spit on the pained body.
I felt Cassidy’s hand on my arm and I pivoted towards her, seeing her doughy eyes staring back, fingers squeezing. I could feel her silent urge for me to relax, but I couldn’t stand here, couldn’t weep for this man. This killer. I span, aiming my venom in Nat’s direction.
“Do you realise who this is? What he tried to do? What he did to our friend out on the road?” I shouted, my hands waving toward my intent.
“Andrew?” Zoe said with a sharp intake of breath. I let a pause hang in the air, but guilt brought my voice.
“No, he’s back there,” I said, volume lower, taking a step forward, my hands raising, thumb and forefinger nearly pinched together. “This close. He was this fucking close to death,” I said pushing my hand out. “This close to another fucking funeral when this is all over.” I took another step, my feet within swinging distance of an olive leg bent at the wrong right angle. “Why are you crying over this?” I repeated. Zoe stepped in front of me, stopping me from doing what she read as my intent. Her hands rested on the chest of my jacket, her eyes wide, calming. Trying to be.
“He’s human,” came Nat’s weak voice through a sniff. “Acting on orders.”
I couldn’t help but step to the side, step around Zoe, moving to stand over the rocking body.
“Orders to kill us,” I said, giving each word the slow, careful consideration they deserved. “We’re the innocent. We’ve done nothing wrong. We’re no harm to anyone,” I replied.
I thought of the old man again. That was an accident and if anyone dare say otherwise.
“Orders to kill the infected,” Nat said in a weak voice. “Or those carrying maybe? They were trying to save the rest of the people. Our people.”
“Are you saying what Andrew did was wrong? Was he wrong to save your life? Our lives?”
“No,” she said and turned away and I watched her walk up the side of the small valley. I turned to Zoe, wanted to see what she would do. Wanted to see if she would stay or go. Her stare fixed on the sway of the body, the gentle moan that had grown quiet. Zoe looked up, considered my face for what seemed like a long time.
Something went weak, melted inside me. I gave her the out.
“Someone needs to get Andrew,” I said. Zoe turned and nodded, then walked after Nat, catching up to wrap her arm around her shoulder as they disappeared over the crest. “Cassidy,” I said, sweeping around to catch her eye, hers too were on the man lain on the ground.
“It’s Cassie,” she said, her voice stern, her gaze not coming off the man. “Call me Cassie, please.” I nodded and she turned, then paused, flicking her head toward me then back towards her sister. “Someone needs to take care of him,” she said, walking away.
“Guess that’s me then,” I said, although by that time there was no one to listen.
My chest had relaxed since I’d last taken note. My breath was coming easy, long, deep and rhythmic and took my first proper look at the man. The straight unflattering line of the charred flight suit. Utility pouches around his stomach open. A first aid kit spilling out as he rocked. A holster tight around his left thigh. A pistol peering out. I was amazed how much the mind can play tricks. To have thought it was Zoe lain there seemed impossible now.
I turned and saw no-one in the valley, they were gone from sight. They’d left me to decide, to take the hard choice. Put him out of his misery, or take my revenge and leave him slowly to die. Leave him defenceless, meat for the real enemy. It was my choice and I wouldn’t let them hold it over me. This was a new world. The old laws no longer made sense. We were in the new frontier, governed only by the law of the jungle. Survival of the fittest. Did mercy still have a place?
Although I’d been watching the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest all this time, it was only now I realised the movement had stopped. The decision had been taken away. With gratitude rising I dropped to my knees, undid the velcro of each pouch, took the first aid kit, a survival tin, two clips for the gun. The body twitched and I flinched back, watching on as the chest deflated, gas belching from his mouth and the other end. I paused, a thought sudden in my head. What if you didn’t need to be bitten to catch whatever it was? Was death enough? The thoughts were plenty to get my pulse raised and my fingers set about working the velcro of the holster when I caught that smell again.
“Give me a fucking break,” I said almost shouting.
I looked up not knowing what I’d see, but had not expected another olive green flight suit standing over the edge of the valley, his face red with blood, swaying as if dizzy. In his hand was a pistol matching the one I was moments from gripping, the gun waving from side to side, but still pointed in my direction.
Chapter Twenty Six
The first we knew was the internet going down. The Skype connection to my wife lost in an instant. Her face frozen in perfection, despite the wide yawn. With the abrupt halt to our conversation, we’d have to decide later what we’d get up to when my shift finished tomorrow. How we’d celebrate New Years Eve a day late, just the two of us. The twins weren’t children anymore, I had to keep reminding myself they were nineteen, back from Bristol University for a month and tomorrow, like tonight, they’d be at a house party living life as young women should. I had to stay awake, part of the job, but Bethany kept her eyes open with matchsticks because she wanted to be in my time zone.
The second I knew was my Petty Officer’s relief as he found me tucked in the corner of our mess room, exclaiming with such politeness, he’d been hunting for me for too long already. A shout had come in, we were ordered to the apron with a briefing en route. A situation like this wasn’t unheard of, but unusual enough to note. We were given a clear flight path to RNAS Culdrose, the only other Naval Air Station in the UK.
The third sign something had gone to shit was in the Land Rover taxiing to the aircraft. I saw the point five machine gun bolted down in the doorway. Leading Hand Spicer was already aboard, his feet straddling the MG, Lieutenant Commander Stubbs in the seat next to mine, all but spinning the rotors. Despite being an operational unit on call, we weren’t search and rescue, those days were gone. We were there to support coastal manoeuvres, help in a national emergency, defend the country, but in reality, drilling until our operations were just muscle memory.
Never in my seventeen years of service had we exercised on New Year’s Eve.
All that said, the weather was clear, cold and cloudless. I’d want to be up in my Merlin rather than trying not to fall asleep in the mess any time, plus I’d have a great view when the hour struck.
Still not briefed, following the pre-defined route, we hit Plymouth and the ground just went dark. I’d never seen a power cut from the sky before, the ground just shades of black. It reminded me of the desolate Afghan countryside, each moment I expected tracer rounds to light up the night, hoping they weren’t in our direction. The power was still out by the time we landed at Culdrose half an hour later and I shed a fake tear for how pissed off the party goers would be. We could see the naval station from miles away, could make it out from the depths of the darkness, the only place on the horizon to have decent backup generators. The clear weather and half moon helped, so did the apron awash with blinking anti-collision lights.
Headlights from trucks and Land Rovers ran around the base, a procession leaving through the main gates, the only other lights in the dark night. We finally got our orders as we touched down. We were there to transport VIPs, but had to wait, stay in our seats, keep the rotors spinning.
I gawked out from the windows shivering, told in no uncertain terms not to stow the gun so we could pull the door closed and let the heat build. I was pissed that I could have been up in the air or back at the mess stealing forty winks. There was no enjoyment in waiting, but it was part of the job. Crates were loaded, ours one of thirty choppers sat on the tarmac, in the same position. This would blow the fuel budget alone, would cost us an exercise or two. I just hoped it wouldn’t cross over into tomorrow. The roster only had me on shift for five hours more.
Stubbs was eyes closed, pulling his usual trick. He was an ex-marine, could fall asleep with the flick of a switch. Spicer pulled up from around the MG and leant through to the cockpit. We’d been crewed together for almost three years, which was unheard of in the service. Stubbs in the seat next to me had been on the team for just a few months, but we hadn’t bonded in combat. Spicer was the only rating on the crew, we’d shared a full tour of Afghan, and had become friends, despite his rank. Living in a tent twenty four seven, flying every other moment, putting your lives in each other’s hands every day kind of did that. I’d got us out of situations so many times with my hands on the stick, he’d shot our way out of trouble more times than I could count. I couldn’t do his job, didn’t have the balls to pull the trigger.
I remember those first few shots in anger. Remembered how he’d changed, withdrawing for days, but he’d pulled himself out with a little help of our ribbing and a reliance on his drills and training. I told him of my plans for tomorrow, today now, a meal and a few glasses of wine. He told me of his night of movies, his two young daughters, twins too, cradled in his arms. I told him to stop being such a sentimental twat, shutting my mouth, elbowing Stubbs in the ribs as three Land Rovers pulled alongside.
There were only three passengers, the other two Landy’s full of Marine escorts with full kit, as if they were about to set out on a week long expedition. A Commodore, Rear and full Admiral, shuffled into their seats, the guards acting like we were back in Kandahar, not on the Lizard Peninsula. We could have taken the escort too, but more trucks arrived and filled the rest of the load space with nameless document boxes and weapons crates. The fuel tanks were topped off, the bird heavier than I’d felt her for a long time and we left within an hour, although it felt like we’d been sitting there for much longer. We lifted being none the wiser, but that wasn’t unusual either.
Keeping questions to ourselves, we were like cadets again with these bigwigs in the back. I had a promotion board assessment in two weeks time, Captain was on the cards and a wrong word now could scupper the chances. It was still all about who you knew in this world and I hoped the new rank would mean less night shifts, in peacetime at least. I was getting too old for the nighttime work. Not the shifts themselves, but the time away from my family.
Lifting from deck and out into the darkness it was easy to see the power hadn’t returned, the only lights were those moving along the roads, most heading north in the same general direction as us. The ground was a tapestry of red light snaking around like spidery nerves. Passing Plymouth the power cut had worsened, we hit Exeter before we saw street lights and buildings lit, the M5 at a standstill, both sides of the road, six long lines of stationary tail lights.
We settled back down on the ground at Yeovilton, ours among only a few of the line of Merlins that stopped, the rest heading onwards, to London, but only at a guess. It was clear there was a mass evacuation, us an air bridge, a quick and easy way out for those higher up the ranks. None of us were surprised when we were turned back to the air, to return three times more, the base more desolate each time. Landing for the fourth refuel, we were relieved, then confined to our quarters, not allowed to leave.
I tried Skype the moment I got into my bunk, but nothing was going through, no connection. I tried the phone, but all the lines were out, but only the externals. I rang around and quickly found they’d been disconnected. No contact was allowed outside with the operation underway. A senior officer’s voice cut into the call. I hung up and tried to take his advice to get some rest. I was dog tired.
A fist woke me as it hammered on the door. It was Stubbs. We had five minutes to get to the operations room. I tried Skype again, but still there was no connection. I didn’t bother with the phone. We arrived in the ops room to find it packed, the Admiral from last night still in his fatigues looking like he hadn’t had a moments sleep, like most of the rest of the ops room, his eyes were red, sunken and slow moving.
He finally told us what the hell was going on.
Chapter Twenty Seven
Every other word told us they were making most of this up, assumptions based on the limited data the government had gathered in the short space of time since the world had gone to shit. The cause of the power cut was certainly an educated guess, thought to be an explosion at a distribution site. Most of us standing here had seen for ourselves the electricity was out across the South West. The details were hazy, in a hurry to tell us a surge of power from the unbalanced grid blew out the protection to an MOD containment facility in Truro. Think Boscombe Down, but on steroids. The Admiral’s exact words.
The upshot was the release of a contagion. A virus or bug, they didn’t know which and none of us were doctors, couldn’t tell the difference, all they know was it was important enough to trigger a huge evacuation the like of which never seen in a western country. Protocol was out the window, shouts came from gathered officers, people wanted to know what the contagion did, why there was such a panic. When the responses didn’t come, more questions fired their way. Should we be worried about our families?
The Admiral cleared his throat and looked at his notes, but we all knew he was buying time for hard answers. And they came. The virus, was fast acting, infecting as it blew through the air.
“What about us?” came a cry from near the front.
“You’re all fine. We would know by now. The virus is too heavy to drift at anything greater than a few metres off the ground,” he said and a rumble of discontent rose again. “And we predict with great certainty the exposure was nowhere near Culdrose when the air bridge was in operation.” His words didn’t help the murmuring, no one was buying his bullshit. Still, he told us the virus was already changing. It was no longer airborne, the cold had killed it off, but was still spreading, now by contact alone. He told how the infected would become stuporous, unable to converse, could barely control themselves. The pathogen attacks the hormones, sending adrenaline, testosterone, cortisol flooding around the system. The mix sends the victims into fits of irrational anger. Then came the answer to the question we all didn’t want to hear.
There was yet to be a cure.
Everywhere I looked I could see confounded expressions, their fixed stares not changing as the Admiral continued to tell us the evacuation went long into the night, stopping as the first signs of the virus showed up in the lines.
“What happened to those people who didn’t get out?” I said. All eyes fell on me, then back to the Admiral.
He let the pause fill the space until forced to answer by the rising discontent from the audience.
“It is our understanding all those not infected have been successfully evacuated.”
There was an uneasy silence across the room. No one questioned it. No one wanted him to be lying and before we could question, we found out the reason we were being told.
They were sending us back into the exclusion zone.
No one needed convincing, were more than willing to go behind the line and take the only action we knew would stop our families from suffering.
It was night again as we stepped outside, the winter window short, the chopper heavy with ammo, stacked rifles and a GPMG. We took to the air, cruised around. The place was properly dark. Night vision picked up a few glowing white spots of light, but nothing like we were looking for. It looked like the Admiral might just have been right.
We flew for the full four hours our load would allow, with the worst sight being the fires. The sky glowing orange at each turn. We were glad to refuel, no shots fired, glad to take a quick break, even if just to be reassured the air station was still operational. Our houses were fine too, a short diversion showed the lights still on in each and served us well as a reminder why we were doing this job.
Staying at the base for another couple of hours, a debrief, relaying out what we’d found, the locations of the fires and not much else to report. We were told the other crews had come back the same and were back in the air, lighter this time, we’d offloaded half the ammo and the grenades to give us maybe an hour’s more time in the air.
It was two hours into the run, the time had gone much like before, the unnatural green of the night vision straining our eyes, when we caught the first signs of what we hadn’t wanted to see. In the middle of the road two figures fought, neither taking notice as we flew closer, as we watched their aggression rage. It was clear one of the pair was stronger than the other, the weaker taking notice as our unmissable din flew over. Circling back, I set a hover, letting James take a good look, facing down, leaning out on his stomach, shouting to get closer. He wanted to see if for himself and was narrating as one of the infected overpowered the other as he bit down into the other’s arms. I had him repeat over the radio and he did, adding detail. The stronger was biting, ripping flesh with his teeth.
I put distance between us and James let a single burst release. The chatter of the gun took me back to Afghan, took me back to those days I had such mixed feelings about, but as each round flew from the machine gun, I knew we were closer to keeping our families safe.
It was another hour of flying and even knowing what we were looking for, we were still unprepared as we came across a moving glow of heat on the horizon. With the first signs of the morning at our backs, we each removed our goggles and saw what could only be described as a herd. Tens of people, maybe a hundred, we didn’t take an accurate count, were walking, stumbling, falling into each other. It was clear these people were in pain. Stubbs reminded us in our ears, there was no cure.
We had a job to do. We had to protect our own.
I called it in, but knew what the response would be and had already turned the airframe side on, thought of my kids, thought of my wife as Spicer racked back the slide and began decimating the crowd.
Chapter Twenty Eight
At first it felt like an RPG strike. In Afghan we’d been told of a Chinook pilot who’d survived such an attack, the grenade exploding moments before its target. The door gunner had somehow hit it midair, but he’d paid the price, a scrap of shrapnel from the shoulder fired launcher shredding through his neck, missing his body armour. Dead because he flinched left, not right.
It was only as I swung us around that we saw it was fireworks rising from the ground. I set about scouring for the target, the air between us showered by colourful exploding sprays. I pivoted the door side-on for Spicer to take his aim. It wasn’t long before I heard through my ear, the poor infected bugger was laid to rest.
What happened next is still unclear, but turning away, heading to sweep up the remains of our last targets, there was an explosion in the rear, the world went black. Another ignition came soon after. There was no way James could have survived. The next few moments barely registered. My scolding hot world rolled around as if I was in a tumble dryer, then hit in the face, I was out cold.
I woke upside down, couldn’t move my neck. Must have blacked out a second time as I released my straps, not realising the consequences. Crumpled in a heap on my head, I struggled to my feet, couldn’t hear anything but a deep ring in my ears. Stubbs was dead, a length of metal protruding from his right eye, arms hanging down from his side, blood falling in a steady stream.
The upside down cabin was mostly empty. Spicer gone, the mount for the MG still in place on what was now the roof, but the weapon itself nowhere. Stumbling out of the door, I saw the scattered contents of what had been inside, where we’d rolled, the grass crushed, mud churned.
The world was swimming before me, nausea rising and falling in waves, my feet not stepping where I asked, not correcting as they placed. Wiping my face with the sleeve of my flight suit, it came back red, a dark contrast against the olive green. I touched my forehead and blood ran down my hand, letting go, the warmth trickled down my face, spreading like warm chocolate from a fountain. Soon parts of my sense regained, and I recalled how I’d come to stand with the world upside down. Thoughts turned to the reason I had a gun strapped to my thigh and remembered we hadn’t taken care of them all. Head swaying under the weight of my helmet as I bent, I slid the Glock from the holster, pulled back the slide and took my first steps onto the solid ground.
First things first, I had to find and pay respects to my friend.
Chapter Twenty Nine
“If you can understand me, don’t move a muscle,” he shouted, blood spraying from his mouth, the words exaggerated as if he was in a foreign land. I didn’t move, let my fingers rest on the cold of the pistol, my eyes fixed on his scarlet face, watching his unsteady walk as he swayed forward in slow, careful steps. I caught sight of the camouflage Union Jack on his chest pocket and I couldn’t get my mind around the way he was acting. He spoke with an English accent, from the south, Kent probably, but he was talking like he was part of an invading army. Had he known we were on the same side?
I had only seconds to think. I could go for the gun, could take a chance he wouldn’t react in time, I could leap away, scrabble up the side of the valley. He was in no state to give chase. His aim would be terrible, but you couldn’t discount luck. He was a trained killer. Any hit would be bad news, no chance of a hospital visit before infection set in. Or I could just kneel here, let him take charge, talk myself out of him finishing the job, while I hoped the others came back. Maybe Andrew would have another rocket up his sleeve.
I couldn’t do either. I had to take charge. It’s where they’d put me and I wouldn’t let them down. Anyway they wouldn’t come running if a shot was heard, they’d left me to take care of the suffering on my own, whichever way I chose. Raising my hands in the air, I saw the moment the guy clocked his colleague laying on the ground unmoving. I watched what I thought was a flinch, saw him stand tall, pushing away the emotion.
“I said don’t move,” came the bloodied voice, but I was already standing, thankful he hadn’t shot me yet, knowing the more time went on, the more my chances extended. What else could I think? Nat’s words came into my head. He had orders to protect, to stop the infection.
“I’m not infected,” I blurted out, losing the battle to keep calm. The guy didn’t react, other than to slant his head to the side. “What’s your name?” I said moving my right foot an inch forward.
“Stay where you are,” he replied, blood dripping from his chin in an elongated string, over-enunciating. I held myself still, concentrating on his face. He had a gash along the length of his forehead, blood still washing down into his mouth. If I could last long enough, this guy would bleed to death.
Movement caught in my vision from below. I stepped to the side, stepped back. My earlier question answered.
“If you can understand me, don’t move a muscle,” I shouted, exaggerating the words in case some vestigial intelligence remained. I could just about make out the figure crouching over a mound of earth, my lids working overtime to clear the blood from my eyes. Each time I could finally see, a blanket of fresh darkness smeared across.
In the last snapshot he wasn’t moving, but still I stepped forward, couldn’t wait back, needed to shorten the odds. My aim last month was only just good enough to get my licence renewed and that was without the world clouded and swaying side to side.
He was watching me, concentrating on my actions. Each time my view cleared I expected to see him pouncing forward, racing to chew my face. I was dreading the moment I would have to shoot. The moment I would find out if I could live up to my friend’s bravery. Instead he watched, his movements slow. I shouted again and he stopped. He understood language, or maybe it was just my tone and now he looked like he was mouthing words. Was he talking or growling, I couldn’t tell, my hearing still destroyed, just a constant ring.
I edged forward, there was still a lot of distance to cover. If he’d had any sense left he would have run, not stood in my headlights just staring back, moving his mouth around like he was chewing gum.
“Stay where you are,” I said, straightening the gun. And here it was, the inevitable, he’d jumped forward as my vision cleared, but despite it blurring all too soon, my mind told my fingers to pull the trigger, the words repeating over again. They didn’t comply.
With the next snapshot my adrenaline spiked higher, the guy had stepped back, moved to the side and out of shot. My eyes flinched down to the mound. Had it moved? Was it twisting around?
We were gathered in the woods when Lane woke. His name badged black against green on his breast pocket. A good hour had passed since we’d dragged his body from beside the road, since I’d taken his gun as he slumped and dealt with whatever had become of his colleague.
I’d been mistaken. When the body at my feet moved, his crewman, rolling over, arms and legs loose, eyes white, teeth bared, that was the first time Lane had seen him. He knew what it had become. I’d watched as he pawed at his face, blood rolling down his forehead, into his eyes and he took his first glimpse. It could have been the loss of blood, or the shock, but he collapsed in a heap.
Andrew arrived under Nat and Zoe’s shoulders soon after, questions alight on each face with my hand pressing a bandage on the face of the guy they were yet to meet. We agreed making camp in the woods was necessary and ferrying Andrew and Lane, we did just that. Nat and I made a fire after a five-minute walk in, the warmth more than welcome, with two pistols I was comfortable leaving Cassie on guard as the rest of the able-bodied scavenged what we could from the crash site. None of us had the courage to visit Matt’s resting place to gather what he’d stowed in his pack, to check if he was resting.
We sat around the fire getting warm, patching up the two injured, Nat giving me glances, a slight smile each time she tended to our air force man. We were okay, I thought, trying to relax by the fire, trying not to flinch at every sound in the woods, every crack of twigs or whistle of wind. I took comfort we were deep enough, would hear anyone living or otherwise, approach from far out.
“I’m sorry,” were his first words, stopping to take a drop of water offered from Nat’s bottle, looking so much different without the scarlet mask. Our age, maybe a little older. Weather worn, face down-turned. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, his eyes falling on the gun resting on my lap. Our eyes caught and he said the words again.
“You didn’t know we weren’t infected,” I said, sharing a look with Nat. “But now I need you to tell us everything.”
And he did.
“They lied,” I said.
“Or didn’t know,” Nat added. Lane stared back, no reaction to the words.
“It’s still spreading in the air. No one touched your man,” I said.
“Spicer. Leading Hand James Spicer,” he replied, looking down at the ground.
“And your name,” Zoe asked, her voice soft from the other side of the fire.
“Commander,” he said, then paused, his eyes turning down. “Connor Lane.”
“Well, Connor Lane,” Andrew said, leaning up at my side, the pain stretching out his face. “Welcome to hell.”
Zoe snapped his way and Andrew relaxed back, letting the air suck through his teeth as he did.
“So what next?” I said, looking around the fire, each face reflecting the question. Lane was the first to speak.
“We should wait here. They’ll come and rescue us. They know where we are, the transponder in the helicopter. Even if it’s damaged, they’ll have our last position.”
I watched as faces lit up. I didn’t want to be the one to let them down.
“And risk another crew for someone who’s already infected?” I said. Their faces fell.
“I’d like to think so,” Lane replied, still sipping from the water.
“I’d like to think so too,” I said. “But what if they come? They were in the same briefing, right?”
“They see you, then fine. Hugs all round. They see us and open fire.” I waited for someone to argue. “Tell me why they’re not like you,” I added. Lane took his time.
“We don’t decide,” he said, his eyes floating around the group. “We call it in and they sign off.”
“Exactly,” I replied.
Zoe was the first to react with sobs from across the fire.
“So what do we do?” Nat said, standing, moving around to comfort her.
“We get warm, rest up, take stock. It’s still early. But we need to get on the move, find somewhere warm and secure for tonight.”
“Then what?” It was Nat again. I looked to Lane, he was thinking the same.
“We keep moving North,” I replied. Lane nodding as deep as his bandaged forehead would allow.
“Then?” Nat said leaning in. I drew a deep breath, all heads turning in the same direction toward the road at the heavy crack of twigs, the damp leaves rustling. I palmed the gun and stood, twisting my head back round.
“We see if civilisation lets us back in.”
Chapter Thirty One
I returned to camp, no shots fired. The noise was a deer or smaller, at least something alive. I was sure Zombies never hid in the movies. Right?
Cassie stood by the fire, the gun in her hand, eyes on me, nodding as I forced the corners of my mouth high. Ellie was asleep close to the fire. Cassie’s every other glance checking a stray ember hadn’t caught her clothes. Andrew lowered himself down as he saw me arrive through the bushes, pain still drawing his features out. He needed to rest, but that was no long-term choice. Lane the same, but our need for tonight’s shelter was so much more important. We had to find somewhere we could keep warm, somewhere we could barricade before we slept. I needed sleep bad. The corners of my eyes screaming out for rest.
Watching me sit, Cassie stayed on her feet, taking nervous steps, she wanted to be on the move and I understood that.
Beside me was the pile of supplies. Between us we’d done a pretty good job in what we’d scrambled to take as the Tesco burnt to the ground. Twenty tins of fish, couldn’t stand the stuff, but I guess that was my old self, much better than digging grubs from the bark of rotting trees. Those chances were great if we didn’t get home soon.
Home. The first I’d thought of that place since we’d set off on the journey less than a day ago. Was it only twenty four hours since our world went up the creek? My parents faces crashed into my head. Their imagined thoughts given words. What must they be thinking when they saw the news? At least I didn’t have a wife worrying where I was. Didn’t have kids panicking when they heard what had happened in the South West. None of us did. My mind lingered on that thought. Between us we had two that couldn’t, I put my hand up in my head. That had been the death-nail to my one and only relationship. Four that wouldn’t and the rest where it just wasn’t the right time, hadn’t met the right someone. Maybe that’s why we’d stuck together for so long. Hadn’t drifted apart when kids and exploding families separated our lives.
A twig snapped, a spray of sparks spat from the fire. All eyes on the loud noise, shoulders relaxing as the light-show drowned in the daylight.
Water. That was our main issue. We had chocolate, first aid kits, pain killers galore. Antibiotics left over from the chemist we’d tried to push down Chloe’s throat. A whole spectrum of other medications in prescription bags that had sat on the shelf, never to be collected. Maybe some of them would come in use. Although we’d need to find some sort of medical book first. Toothpaste, tooth brushes, but only four bottles of water, two litres in each. Three, I corrected as Nat rested the empty bottle at her side. I discounted the bottles of Jack I knew she’d kept out of sight of the pile.
“We need to start rationing,” I said. No one complained or suggested an alternative.
We had an SA80 rifle from the crash site, the only surviving equipment. It was battered and scraped, could be bent, I couldn’t tell. We’d have to wait for Lane’s advice. When he was better, but long before the need came, at least.
I wasn’t sure who’d heard it first. Nat’s eyes twitched upwards, then Zoe’s followed. A crack sparked from the fire for a second time. Zoe’s eyes fell, but Nat stood, releasing her grip from Zoe’s shoulders. Lane had his eyes open towards the sky, then to mine, already raising himself on his elbows. The sound was unmistakable, rotors pounding in the air. I stood, helped Lane to his feet, looked twice at the pistol then pushed it into my jacket pocket. With his arm around my shoulders, supporting him to his full height. Steadying his balance, we took the first steps out of the circle. I turned, hearing Cassie at our backs.
“Stay there,” I said nodding to the pistol in her hands. “Keep watch.” Her footsteps stopped as we built speed, the sound of the chopper loud and constant. They were hovering. I pictured them over the wreckage, the gunner peering down, searching the surroundings for their men. They’d see one, a hole in his head. They’d have flown over the carnage across the road.
We were getting close. Just needed them to stay a moment more before they would see us and we could roll the dice, hoping they saw their comrade before they saw me.
The second noise was one we’d heard before too. The pitch of the engine note changed, we’d already slowed, then came the scream of the machine gun from the door and the snap, snap of bullets hitting the tree-line.
“Infra-red,” I heard Lane murmur, but they weren’t shooting at us. Their aim was for the four dead bodies walking into the trees in our direction, their torsos and legs a pulpy mess of small explosions, limbs missing, eyes white, mouths open, dried blood circled. Lane relaxed his arm from around me. I was about to fire the pistol when Lane pulled me down, snaps of lead hitting the ground too close, tracing our outlines, or so it felt.
When the quiet returned, the helicopter noise lost while I’d buried my head, the footsteps once dragging across the floor now silenced, I lifted, but ducked down as a gunshot burst from the direction of the camp.
Chapter Thirty Two
I didn’t stay down long, leaving Lane to get to his feet by himself while I ran. My shoulders flinched forward as another shot echoed through the trees, the bang followed by a chorus of vicious screams. A third shot exploded as I raced closer to the source and I heard the trample of feet running, Lane behind me, his face contorted with pain as he followed. A fourth split the air and I sped up, while fumbling for the gun, its cold, not quite metal, reassuring me little.
My first sighting was Zoe, tears streaming down her face. She was running, pushed at her back by Andrew, both heading my way, their faces alight, eyes wide. On seeing me, Andrew held his hand out to take mine, waving me from my course, trying to turn me as he saw my approach. Shaking off his hands, his worry, I pointed at a right angle.
“Go that way,” I said. Andrew understood, he’d heard the machine gun only moments earlier and missing with one last attempted grab at my jacket, he veered Zoe off the path and into the untracked route, darting around the trees. “No,” I shouted. “I’ll catch up. Get her safe. Take Lane.” I didn’t look back, didn’t check if they’d taken my advice. I had to keep running, had to get everyone safe.
Another shot sent me stumbling as my foot caught a root, the gun falling from my hands. Down on my knees I scratched around in the leaves. Before I was up Nat was running toward me, in her arms Ellie fought, whipping her body round to get free. I pointed the way I’d sent the others and was running again, the smoke of the campfire strengthening with every step, a first trace of rotten meat.
The camp came into view, as did the maelstrom of movement, the crowded expanse of bodies standing, clawing forward. I loosed off a round into the mass. A head shot. One went down. I had just enough time to see at first sight he looked almost like he was still all there, only his pallid, cold complexion told me there was no real life behind his clouded eyes. He was in the front line of the pack, my eyes adjusting to see the three and four body thick group squeezed between the trees, meandering forward, their pace cumbersome.
Cassie was to the side, on her back, face and hands bloodied, pushing a double dead body from her front. I couldn’t tell if she’d been hit and I shook away a thought flashing past, a thought I couldn’t bare to hold on to. I retrained my aim from her as she rolled the limp, dead body away.
How the hell did they get to the camp without being noticed?
She fired off a shot, shattering my thoughts and the fifth body lay dead, dead again, on the floor, face blown away. As she tried to get to her feet, the pack parted, split and out jumped a woman, once a woman, I could only guess from her shape. Her clothes were tattered, barely there, her skin darker, greyer than any I’d see. Her eyes clouded red, not white like the others. She launched herself to the ground where Cassie was scrambling.
Another shot went off, mine, although it felt like someone else was in control. I missed and Cassie had dropped her gun, was using all of her strength to grip the neck of the thing as it scraped at her hands, teeth snapping open and closed. Its face was long gone, hair missing, a ripped and bloodied scalp only barely remaining. My second shot didn’t miss, but the attack still continued with a ferocity that was getting the better of Cassie. I ran, jumping the fire, pulling up a burning log as I did and threw it into the crowd, pushing the gun to the thing’s temple and let the bullet explode its head. The creature went limp, I popped two wild shots into the crowd, some of which were on fire, their reaction not changed, seeing no need to put out the burning flames on their bloodied clothes. I grabbed at Cassie’s scarlet hand, but my grip slid off, instead I clawed into her shoulder fabric, dragging her to her feet while emptying the rest of the clip into the crowd.
We ran, the smell of cooking flesh receding, our hands gripped into each other’s as tight as they could, pulling up, tightening further as one or the other of us slipped. We kept running, only slowing as we passed the helicopter’s victims, bursting into the open air and out from the woods, slowing just enough to twist around, figure out where we were, scour for danger and find our friends. We saw the crash site, smoke still rising, saw the road, but saw no one standing, anything running towards, didn’t see our friends, only then remembering I’d sent them a different way.
“Tell me you saw that?” Cassie said through fits of breath. I didn’t answer straight away. Still holding her hand I pulled her along the edge of the trees, hoping I was heading in the right direction.
“I saw it,” I said, only just able to get the words out.
“We didn’t hear it coming. It pounced out into the open, then stood there looking around. We were all just looking back. No one moved until it jumped at me, screaming like a demon from a horror film. Oh my god,” she said, her voice cracking, her hand at her mouth.
We jogged on, I couldn’t deal with this right now. I’d seen what I’d seen, but still I couldn’t think about what it meant. An animal call came from behind us, something was injured, screaming in pain. I remembered the gun was empty in my hand, remembered the two clips in my jacket pocket and undid the zip as I let go of Cassie.
“The noise you heard,” I said slowing so my fingers could get at the depths of my pocket. “Was it like that?”
“No,” she replied, matching my pace, turning to catch what I was doing. Her eyes widened, colour draining from her face as she looked past me. A shrill, demonic call ripped through the air.
I didn’t need her to say a word.
Chapter Thirty Three
I didn’t flinch back, didn’t turn, but still our speed had slowed to barely a jog.
“Run,” I said, keeping my voice calm, knowing if I let the panic in it would take control. I needed to slide the magazine, not let it fumble to the ground. “Run,” I repeated as the gun gave a gentle snap, my palm driving the store of bullets home. Still she hadn’t sped, her eyes fixed over my shoulder, her complexion drained. “Run,” I shouted, letting my voice have the full volume it needed, my hands pulling back the pistol’s slide. Cassie looked at the gun and turned forward, her speed building as I fought against my instincts, slowing to a stop, circling to point the gun out as far as I could.
My arms wavered as the length of a football pitch away, I saw what appeared to be an animal running on two legs, its back hunched, arms out, fingers hooked like claws. Even from the distance I could see it was once a human and wore the remains of clothes, but all that was left were tattered, dark stained rags dragging in the air as it raced toward me. Unlike what I’d seen attack Cassie, this had a face, he was once a young man, now a beast with gaunt, tight skin, grey features curled up, snarling, running at the pace of a leopard on the plain, its bared teeth snapping open and shut.
Holding my nerve, going against all instincts, I kept my finger from pulling, from emptying all the lead into whatever was charging. I was thinking ahead, if there were three of these things, there could be more. I had one gun and two magazines, with no idea how many each held. We would need all the brass we could muster if we would ever get to the other side of the exclusion zone.
The thing had already covered half the distance and still I held my nerve, my finger twitching against the trigger, my heart pounding so hard, I thought at any moment it would get too much and I’d be on the floor in a heap. I knew my best chance would be to wait until it was at least half the distance closer. Time was going too fast, with so much running through my head and now I could hear something in the tree-line, something else racing me down, but I dared not turn my attention away. Whatever it was it couldn’t be bigger or scarier, or run faster than this hungry-eyed beast who would try its best to eat me alive.
I shook, unable to take back control. Those things we’d first seen yesterday were slow and easy to outrun. You could smell them a mile off and were simple to out-fox, but still frightening as hell, their existence incompatible with how the world worked. Then came this beast running towards me, it was almost at the point where I’d see if I’d made the right decision. It was like the king of these creatures and threw the rule book out the window, then leapt after it, ripping pages, eating the words and savouring every mouthful.
I let the first shot fly from the muzzle earlier than I’d planned, proving me right as it flew harmless into the air. Resetting my arm, I relaxed my stance, closed my left eye and pulled again, but as I did, the creature jumped high in the air, leaping like a gorilla on speed, clawing its fingers as it sailed towards me. I shot again, but with each bullet I knew the angle of my arms hadn’t caught up as it punched through the air. Again and again I pulled back the trigger, the gun exploding each time, rearing back in my hand. One shot hit, its body deflected, sending it spinning to the right as I caught its shoulder, but there was nothing going to stop it falling on me with its full weight. Still, I fired and fired again, its body, a projectile itself, crashed against my torso, sending me sprawling to the ground, crushing against my chest.
As my back hit the ground, I caught sight of a dark, hunched shape lunging out from the woods, leaping just like this creature had. My head hit hard against what felt like a rock, stars burst across my darkening vision, the weight on my chest no longer noticeable as I felt powerless to stop my eyes closing.
Chapter Thirty Four
My eyes had closed, but just for a moment, the chaos of a pitched battle, yelps of pain, beasts locked in combat, pulled me back. I heard two slathering, growling creatures, blows pounding, rending flesh from bone. Twisting, flushed with relief the abomination was not at my throat, I looked down to make sure my entails were not on view through an open belly.
I was intact.
Leaning to the left, I cursed bruised ribs and saw the tangled battle. A dark, crazed hound was at the throat of the creature I’d stared down. The creature who’d tattered my plans. My aim leaving me when I needed it the most. I rolled, finding the gun underneath me, swearing as it dug into my crushed chest. I rotated back, pulling it up from my side, its weight more substantial than it should have been. Still leaning, I pulled the trigger, repeating twice more. The body of the creature rocked, blow after blow crushing into its head. The shadowy hound flinched with each round, but still it ripped at the throat, locking on for one final rend of flesh before it released, coughing up what it hadn’t meant to swallow. A sensible creature.
I could feel myself passing out under my weight. I closed my eyes, but knew I had to stay awake or be at this rabid creature’s mercy. I was on my back, looking up at the clear blue sky, the gun still pointed across the ground. I could feel the animal walking slowing, stalking forward, its paws light on the short grass.
Letting the pain calm, I rolled to my side, outstretching the gun. The first I saw was the still body of the beast that had terrified me as it pounced. Its head a pulp. I’d hit with all three. Its neck wide open, muscle, tissue and veins out for all to see, thick, dark blood crept out like treacle. The slow step of the hound flinched my eyes from the body. As I caught its shape, it took another step forward, head bowed, eyes on mine, its long teeth bared, sticky blood mixed with foam white saliva dripped along it lips to the grass.
The gun was still out and I straightened its weight. It was heavier than ever, but I knew the opposite should be true. The dog, a pet before today, had saved my life, but looked like it had done so to take me for itself. I’d had animals as a child, dogs, hamsters, no cats, but not while I’d been an adult, convincing myself I didn’t need a companion. My heart sank as I thought of the rabid, demonic animals joining the list of things we would have to fight, would have to compete with if we were going to survive the next few days. They weren’t spared the same fate as their owners, no immunity from this horrific disease making us fight for our lives to get out of the South West.
I locked eyes with the animal and stared as it inched forward. I knew what I had to do. So many lives had been lost and it was dead after all, but pulling that trigger was one of the hardest things I’d done. I closed my eyes and nothing but a hollow click came. The gun was empty. The world had made its choice. I had no fight left, a melancholy weight fell over me, but somehow a brush of wind blew it away. I had to go on, there were people depending on my survival.
Dropping the gun, I took up on my elbows, edging at a snail’s pace towards the tree-line, pain radiating from my chest, sending stars across my vision with each tiny movement.
The soft footsteps were close. I knew it was waiting for me to drop, but there was nowhere to run, even if I had the energy. I was on my last calorie when my left elbow slipped, back dropping to the ground, eyes falling closed. I let the breath push out from my lungs and hoped it would be quick, grateful for the end of the worst twenty four hours of my life.
Chapter Thirty Five
The first I knew was the heavy knock at the door. Rusty’s bark booming as he barrelled down the stairs. My room was dark, but I couldn’t tell the time, the red numbers on my Spiderman clock not there. Still, I could tell it was late, the music from downstairs had stopped, my parents friends gone as the wine ran out. Outside was an eerie brightness, but with no street lights until you got near town, I climbed from under the covers to investigate. Standing on my old toy box under the window, I saw a long white coach, the headlights marking out the lane stretching past the house.
We were the only house for a quarter of a mile.
The coach was full of people staring back as I peered out the window. Their eyes glazed, half asleep. Maybe they’d just got woken too?
The second I knew was mum bursting through the door, her hand reaching to the switch. It clicked, but the room stayed dark. Still, I could see she had my school bag, told me to pack essentials, then repeated as I glared back.
“Pants and socks, warm clothes,” she explained. “No toys,” she said, adding, “Don’t be scared,” as she left.
Scared? I didn’t understand what she meant. The last five minutes had been the most interesting thing to have ever happened. I grabbed the top three comics from the shelf, pushed them to the bottom of the bag, then emptied my drawer of pants and socks, throwing in two t-shirts, stuffing a pair of jeans after. Apparently I was supposed to know I had to get dressed too. Adults need to say what they mean!
I was only half dressed when my mum was back again, practically dragging me down the stairs to where Dad was half asleep with my sister, Tish, in his arms, his breath sweet and sickly. At the front door was a solider, dressed just like Action Man Paratrooper, but his gun was smaller and strapped to his waist. The first time I’d seen one in real life. The night was getting better. He smiled as I stepped past, ruffling my hair. If that was my mum I would have given her such a hard time.
We nearly took the last of the spaces and it looked like it was mostly families on board. The kids were asleep, the dads staring through the misting windows, the mums were either crying or trying not to. There were grandparents too, one granddad was pale white and with every other breath he rattled the windows with a cough. The only free seats were at the back, we took the furthest row, leaving the last two seats empty in front of us. As we sat, I was desperate to get moving, desperate to see where the surprise would end up.
Mum made us sit either side of her, Dad to her left, his lap piled high with filled carrier bags. The inside lights turned off as we pulled away, it was nearly pitch black, but it didn’t stop Mum rearranging. She was a constant sorter, could rearrange an empty room. I watched as she took my bag, could just see her looking down her nose as she saw how I’d loaded my bag. She pulled the comics and threw them on my lap, pushing in bottles of water and cans of something. She’d obviously forgotten to make a picnic.
The lights were back on as we stopped, the soldier stepping out. We were at the neighbour’s, they’d only just moved in, Mum was saying to Dad, their house bright with candles flickering in the windows. I took the chance to read my comic, a classic Wacky Racers my granddad left me when he’d died, with a little note to make sure I kept them in the plastic sleeve. I would be thankful when I was older. I don’t know why.
Outside there was loads of noise. A woman with a cigarette in her mouth and a small dog in her arms. It didn’t look like they’d been woken from their beds, she was arguing with the solider, arms waving back and forth. Why she wanted to bring a dog on a trip, I don’t know. Unless it was the seaside, of course.
“Mum,” I said, but didn’t wait for her to turn my way. “When are we going home?”
“Don’t worry dear,” Mum replied, her hands still diving in and out of bags. She always used that tone when I wouldn’t like the answer.
“Rusty?” I said and she shot a look to my sister, forcing her finger to her mouth as she looked back. She didn’t know.
Stuffing back the tears, I didn’t want to start Tish off and turned to watch the woman still shaking her head. She would freeze if she didn’t get on soon, just dressed in a short top with thin straps, it was the middle of winter. In the end the dog was returned to the house and she came back with her friend who had more sense and was wearing a coat.
The old man was coughing again, but it sounded like he was getting better, the coughs more gentle, quieter, but whoever he was with, another old woman but not as much, stood and asked if there was a doctor on the bus. Everyone seemed to ignore the question.
The neighbours were soon swaying down the aisle, filling the air with the smell of garlic bread and strawberries. It was a strange mix, but made me a little hungry. The woman whose dad, or husband, was sick, shouted to the driver as he closed the door. He looked kind of sad in reply, shook his head and said there were doctors where they were going. Lots of them.
The lights were left on at her insistence and I tried to block out her sobs, but was thankful she didn’t do it as loud as my sister. When the tears weren’t getting in the way of my concentration, it was the neighbour talking like she was alone with her friend, or if everyone else was joining in the conversation. They woke Tish with their laughter.
I stared at my sister, looking to see if when she finished rubbing her eyes she was going to spit the dummy and make us all miserable with her own shrieks of pain, but instead she just kept pointing at the woman shouting Mickey. That’s when I saw the tattoo on the woman’s neck. Mickey Mouse as the apprentice from Fantasia. Right on cue the woman erupted in a chesty laugh, just like that of Muttley from the comic in my lap.
I was still smiling at the coincidence when a scream ripped through the coach and we shot forward, the soldier slamming on the brakes. It was that woman again, she was screaming her dad was dead. I felt sorry for her, but I don’t know why we had to run off the coach.
Chapter Thirty Six
Tish wailed, the soldier screamed, waving the gun in his hand, shouting for everyone to get off the coach. Confused, I turned to my parents, but they stood, peering over their seats, watching as everyone rose. I stayed where I was, the aisle already blocked. The coach had come alive with movement, everyone awake, pulling on coats, grabbing their packs. Mum was pulling up bags from the floor, Dad trying to making himself taller to peer over the crowd, but no one was moving down the bus. Screams took up from all around, a wave of motion radiated towards us. I saw five or six people who had been pushing up the aisle now backed up, the last of them on top of me.
Mum was screaming, as was the majority, her hands flapping, looking to Dad for answers. I turned back to the aisle and saw the neighbour with the tattoo, for the first time she wasn’t laughing, instead pushing her way past the guy who was about to crush me. I thought she would clamber over to get to the window, but she winked down and gave a slow smile, before leaning over, swinging a stout bottle she’d pulled from under her arm. Ducking when the window shattered, I almost said a bad word as the glass showered down. It was my only answer to the craziness, but stopped myself as I felt the rush of cold air. She hoisted me up, her hands in my arm pits like I was five again. Angling me through the window, I watched as people turned, pushing at her back, their faces screwed up as they tried to get past her.
Without realising, I’d scooped my bag up in the crook of my arm and was out the window, into the darkness quicker than I’d expected. Dad lowered Tish into my arms, the screams roaring from inside were louder than her wailing like she was under attack. I stepped back from the bus as more people appeared from the sides and out of the missing window, but the lady who’d helped me, the one with the tattoo, she’d disappeared. Other faces, other families took her place and were climbing over the back seats, hands out pushing others aside.
Seven or eight people were out by now, each running or limping off the road until they disappeared from view. The screams were dying down, but my sister’s weren’t. I felt like my head would explode, then Dad appeared at the space where the window had been. His eye was bloodied and dripping. It was obvious he couldn’t see properly, his hands reaching for the edge of the windowsill, knocking down cubes of glass to join the rest under my feet.
“Dad,” I shouted and a great smile grew on his face, he turned his leg over the side of the sill and he fell to the road with a great oomph of air. I rushed over and helped him to his feet, he was blinking more than normal, blood pouring down the side of his face.
“It’s okay baby,” he was saying over and over as he got to his feet, then held his hand against his chest. Tish seemed to quiet at his words, her eyes still dripping wet, the dummy hanging around her collar from the string tied around the top button hole. I pushed it back in her mouth and she sucked at a furious rate. “Where’s Mum?” Dad said, his eyelids squinted as he slowly moved his head.
I felt myself gag on the words, tears coming as I did.
“She hasn’t come out,” I said, comforting Tish when all I wanted was for someone to do the same for me. “Mum,” I said, my voice strained, an explosion of panic gripping my insides. Dad’s face opened up, his eyes were wide even though I saw it hurt so much. He was looking up to the gap and grabbed up high onto the edge of the sill, but couldn’t pull himself to any useful distance. He let his arms drop and streaked blood from his eye across the back of his hand. A fresh set of screams came from inside. I stood like a statue as he bent at the waist, holding me firm by the shoulders. I knew what was coming. “No Dad,” I shouted. He knelt to one knee, the glass crunching under and patted my shoulders. I could smell his alcoholic, metallic breath as he leant in. “No Dad,” I said, whimpering.
“Look after your sister, keep yourselves safe,” he said. “I have to go get Mummy.”
He was gone before I could grab him.
I thought of running after, chasing him along the side of the coach. Tish had calmed, she was heavy, but I had her tight. She played her fingers through my hair. Any other time I would have snapped at her to stop, despite knowing she’d still carry on, squealing and laughing, everything a game.
I said nothing, just backed away, glass scraping under my trainers.
As the gun shots came, I ran.
Chapter Thirty Seven
I couldn’t see, but still I ran, swerving to avoid a short wall as it loomed out of the darkness. I kept running until my feet found grass, then slowed, stopped, turned, making sure I could see the white of the coach. Looking up, the half moon seemed brighter than I’d ever seen, but still it was such an effort to make out shapes in the darkness. I’d expected to see people from the coach crowded around, people calling to gather everyone up, make sure we were safe. I couldn’t see anyone. I was alone. Now I had to be the adult.
Crouching, she was getting so heavy; I leant my back against the stone, hoping it would stop my body from shaking. Her fingers still moved around, were gentle in my hair and I listened to her slow breath, the rhythm of her suck as she comforted herself. With my free hand I wiped my face, the drip from my eyes was so cold I was scared it would freeze. I stared at the coach, tucking Tish in closer. Her hand stopped moving, her breathing slowed.
Nothing was moving, but everything was. The breeze in the trees, the bushes swaying. There were no lights coming from inside the coach. No one moving around that I could tell, anyway. It was good news, wasn’t it? Dad would be out soon with his arm over Mum’s shoulder. I was ready for her to be hurt, that’s why she hadn’t climbed out straight away. The reason she’d stayed behind. It wouldn’t have been her choice. It was nothing to do with what happened yesterday, my little, barely noticeable crime, not even a crime really. Taking a few crisps from the table when I was supposed to be brushing my teeth. No not that. Couldn’t be. And it definitely wasn’t the reason Dad had left us to find her. He hadn’t chosen Mummy over us.
He’d go get her and if she didn’t come, he’d come out on his own. He would come out of the coach and call our names, open his arms and I’d run back, where he’d scoop us both up and take us somewhere safe. Nanny’s maybe? It was a boring place, no comics, Nanny didn’t like to have them around, it reminded her of Grandad. Why wouldn’t you want to be reminded? At least it was safe and a long way away, which looked like the best place to be right now.
I think it had been maybe ten minutes or more. Each moment since I’d crouched I’d thought I would get up, but couldn’t, backing out at the last second. Each moment expecting sirens and blue lights bright in the distance. I was freezing, Tish was getting closer and closer, she was cold too, but stayed asleep. Thankfully.
Nothing had changed, no movement. I knew I had to do something. People could die from being out in the cold. Everyone knew. I stood, took several steps toward the coach and there he was, a dark figure about Dad’s height, his wide, thick chest. I was sure it was his big puffy coat, the one mum hated because she said it made him look like a teenager. He was walking a little funny and was by himself. Mummy was probably doing her make up or something, or didn’t want to come out in the cold. An image came into my head. We were all back on the coach. I sat behind Dad as he drove us away.
After every step he seemed to stumble. I’d seen that before, normally when he’d been out with his friends at night.
I was nearly at the coach when I first smelt something horrible. At first I turned to Tish and leant in closer. No, it wasn’t her and it definitely wasn’t me. It must have been Dad who’d pooped himself.
“Dad,” I said, trying to take the whine out of my voice, like they always told me. He didn’t speak, but for the first time he seemed to notice I was there, turning direction and speeding up. He was still quite slow. I stopped walking, hearing a sound behind me for the first time. I turned, there were lights on the road. I’d seen no one else since we’d left the house. I kept staring forward, stepped to the side, realising I was in the middle of the road, right where I was told all the time to avoid. Remember the Green Cross Code. The smell was getting nearer and so were the lights, I had to turn away, they were on full.
I turned back to Dad, still squinting, the engine getting louder, they must have been going so fast. As I turned, I let my breath out, it was Dad after all. I could see by his haircut, the blood on the side of the face. Then I looked behind him, my eyes wide as I thought it was Mum, but I soon saw it was someone else. Someone in a white coat. A black, no reddish mark on their chest and they stumbled as they took the last step, falling to the floor.
“Dad,” I said pointing to her, but he didn’t turn, didn’t move. He just kept his eyes on me and Tish. The engine noise was getting so loud I thought they would hit me. Dad looked like he was going in for a hug, but in slow motion. I was in arms reach, his face expressionless like he’d had bad news. “It’s Mum, isn’t it? Just tell me,” I kept saying, but he just stared back. Tears ran down my face and Tish moved. The stink was horrid. I had to hold my breath. “Dad,” I said. “What’s wrong with your eyes?”
I held my hand out, grabbing his outstretched arm, pushing myself against the coach while pulling him close.
What was wrong with him? Couldn’t he see the car was about to run us both over?
Stumbling forward, his skin felt weird. He was cold, but like meat when you unpacked it out of the supermarket bags, stinking like it had been out far too long.
As the headlights grew brighter than I thought they ever could, I felt his teeth bite down into my hand.
Chapter Thirty Eight
With the pain still building, Dad’s mouth ripped away, but it wasn’t Dad. I knew as the car smashed into his side, sending him, arms loose, flying like a crash test dummy across the road. I grabbed Tish tight, giving a shake. She groaned as if she was struggling to wake. I coughed as the air filled with smoke, tyres squealing against the road. The car had stopped just beyond the edge of the coach. A constant pound of a muffled drum beat rumbled towards me.
Fixed to the spot, I didn’t want to move, the smoke gagging in the back of my throat and my hand was pulsing with pain, blood dripping from what looked like a part missing between my thumb and finger. I had to look away, my head swimming as I’d watched the black blood stream down to the road. As I looked up, I saw the passenger door was open, whoever was in the driver’s seat leant across. I couldn’t see who it was, but they must have recognised me. Still, I didn’t move from the spot, even when I saw someone, something stumbled down the stairs of the coach, tripping over the thing still struggling to get to their feet, one of its legs bending in the wrong place.
The bright white of the reversing light blinked on and the car sped backwards. The man who’d climbed from the coach was on his feet, it was the soldier, the gun no longer in his hand as he walked towards us in the headlights of the car stopping at my side. I couldn’t recognise the man in the car. He wasn’t one of my friend’s parents, not someone from the school. I’d never seen him at the house either.
A stranger. A teenager too, maybe a little older, a thin moustache over his lips which made him look younger, not older. He wore a tracksuit and heavy, thumping music pounded from the open door. He nodded towards the opening, then looked at my hand, looked at Tish and nodded again, like he might have changed his mind, but changed it back again. He turned to the soldier for just a second. I turned too. He was getting close. We looked at each other again. His eyebrows raised. Still he hadn’t spoken.
My mum’s words ran through my head.
“Never get in a car with a stranger, unless it’s a policeman.”
I thought of asking him what his job was, but the words wouldn’t come. The man still stared, raising his eyebrows. It was time to choose. I looked down at Tish. I’d be okay on my own, but it wasn’t just about me anymore. I had my sister to look after and I took a step towards the car, could feel the warmth rolling out and saw my Dad’s blood streaked up the white paint of the car bonnet. He spoke for the first time, his voice low. I stopped moving.
“I’ve got sweets if you want one,” he said and gave a laugh that came from deep in his belly.
I turned and ran and carried on even when I felt my breath had run out, not stopping for walls or bushes or hedges or trees, diving in and out. I’d been away from light for so long I could see quite well.
After what seemed like a long time I had to stop in a copse of trees. It was that smell again, but maybe not so bad. I looked down at Tish and she smiled back.
While rifling though my pack I took notice of my hand for the first time. Running had taken all my concentration to stop us banging things I could only see at the last moment. It had stopped bleeding, crusted over, but hurt like it looked it should. It wasn’t the worst pain in the world, that was still being kicked in the gonads. I thought of what I could use as a nappy, maybe three pairs of my pants tied at the side might work. I’d brought enough. I thought of my Mum’s reaction to what I’d collected up. Maybe I was right this time. I smiled as I opened the pack. Mum had put nappies and Tish’s things in my bag.
Laying out one of my T-shirt on the ground, I changed her, not a big deal, but I used that strong smelling stuff on my hands three times as I let her run around. We shared a can of beans once I won the struggle to get the ring pull thing up. They tasted alright once you’d got used to the cold. We drank water and I listened to Tish laughing as she picked up leaves and let them drop to the ground. I couldn’t help but smile. She was enjoying the great adventure.
Climbing the stone wall, every other moment making sure Tish hadn’t run off or wasn’t about to pick up dog poop. She’d done that before, but I wasn’t in charge then. I couldn’t let that happen. The wall didn’t feel too stable, but I needed somewhere high up. Whilst I’d run, I’d decided we should head home. We’d collect Rusty, somehow finding a way to get into the house. I’d get Mum’s address book and we’d head to Nanny’s. She’d know what to do.
A gunshot ran off somewhere in the distance. I looked around, but I couldn’t see anything moving, even though the sun had made the sky blue. Tish laughed as the sharp noise came again. Closer this time, maybe?
I wasn’t laughing.
Since I’d eaten I’d started to feel funny inside, like I needed to lay down under my covers.
The covers in my room. My room at home.
There was only one problem. I had no idea where that was.
Chapter Thirty Nine
The road looked the same as every other where we lived. Still, I stayed high on the wall sweeping my view in all directions, hoping there would be somewhere I recognised. I looked for my house first, of course. A cottage with a thatched roof, but that could be said for most of the houses for miles.
The fresh breeze helped to settle my stomach as I tried squinting, staring into the horizon, searching out anything that could be a building. I thought to look for my school. It would be easy to follow the road home from there. It would take less than half an hour walking. The problem was it was only a little bigger than my house, two small buildings, instead of one. Every year they only just got enough kids to fill the amount of space needed to keep it from closing. I knew soon I would have to go to a bigger school, the comprehensive closer to town. We’d have to drive, a long journey twice a day.
That was before today. Before last night. Before what happened to Mum and Dad.
Me and Tish would have to live with Nanny.
I turned, almost falling, a stone loose under my right foot. Tish wasn’t there.
How long had it been since I last saw her?
Jumping from the wall I ran in a circle, twisting left and right, craning to see around the trees, not wanting to charge off in one direction in case she’d gone the other way.
“Tish,” I called. “Tish,” I said again, then waited. All I could hear were the rustle of the branches above my head, no little footsteps, no little laughs, no cooing at her latest fascination. “Tish. Where are you?” I was shouting at the top of my voice, widening the circle, my head darting all over the place. I looked at the ground, looked for her footprints, but the mud was cold and hard. I wasn’t leaving size four prints, so how would her little feet be marking out her path when she weighed about the same as my bag?
“Tish,” I called again.
How could I have been so silly? How could I have let Mum and Dad down so quick?
With my head darting to the right I didn’t see the branch coming out from the ground. I tripped, stumbling, falling, my knees scraping as I hit down hard. Tears came and I turned, planting myself on my bum. My head was hurting like I’d been playing on the Xbox for too long. My stomach tightened, my jaw falling loose. I knew this feeling and turned to the side. The beans came up, so did the water and last night’s dinner, lasagne and those crisps that had nothing to do with Mum staying on the bus.
Feeling better almost straight away, the world swaying only a little as I stood. The crack of a twig caused me to twist. There she was, running, her hands out wide, her face lit up like she’d been the one searching.
“Where’ve you been?” I said. “Don’t do that again,” I added as I bent down, pulling her close. She screwed up her nose at my breath, the stink reflecting back. It smelt like I’d eaten what goes down the toilet. My head swam.
Holding her tight, I took the few steps to where I’d left the bag at the base of the wall, just about making it before my legs gave way. Leaning heavy against the cold stone, I wrapped her in my coat as she sat on my lap, taking her cold hands in mine. I took a quick look around, making sure it was safe, then turned to look over my left shoulder and watched the sun peering over the stone wall. Taking a deep breath, I knew I had little choice but to sleep. At least just for a moment. Even the memory of something we learnt in school last year couldn’t keep my eyes open. At least I knew when I woke how we would get home.
“Tish,” I said, the cold air a shock as a sharp breath pulled in. I could feel she wasn’t lain in my arms like she had as I’d fallen asleep only moments ago. The morning was still bright as my eyes blinked open, relief coming as I saw her in front of me, bent over picking at the grass. Her pink trousers were dark, soaked through, her nappy sagging between her legs. I must have been out for longer than I’d thought, but it had done me good. The headache had gone and my stomach felt like it had relaxed, felt normal again. Empty, but normal.
Smiling, I kept my eyes on Tish, she was picking blades of grass and throwing them in the air. I turned and saw the bag was missing from my side. It was a few paces away, flat, the contents strewn across the wet ground, a nappy opened, the tapes pulled apart. I think she might have been going to change herself.
I couldn’t have been out that long, it was still morning. I remembered the last thing I saw and turned to my right, we’d done it in science last year. We’d done an experiment over a whole week, plotting the position of the sun throughout the day. I looked up, but it wasn’t there either. I turned left to where I’d seen it before, but it wasn’t where it should be, but as I concentrated, I saw the sun coming over the stone wall. That couldn’t be right. It was lower than it was when I’d closed my eyes. The only way that could happen was if I’d slept through the whole day.
Standing, I expected to feel weak, but the opposite was true. I was full of energy even though I’d not eaten for two days. Walking over to Tish, I changed her bum, feeling guilt for the pink, sore skin, but Mum had packed some of that white cream. Hugging her harder than I should have, I could feel she was freezing cold. At least she hadn’t gone hungry. The empty packets of the dried fruit scattered around the clothes told me that. Still, I opened the last of the beans and we filled up. I was hungrier that I’d been for a long time and eager to get on with the trip home. Confident we should walk to where the sun was coming up, sure I could remember seeing the sun setting from my bedroom window before.
We set off through the trees, coming out the other side. I climbed over the wall after lowering Tish first, repeating over the opposite side. We were walking across fields, the view blocked by large trees everywhere, Tish happy to toddle along beside me, enjoying her fresh nappy and dry clothes. Soon I heard a sound I recognised and a wide smile bunched my cheeks.
A helicopter. Cool, and it was getting close. I grabbed Tish, pulling her in tight and ran towards the sound.
Running, I heard a sound I’d copied so many times in the playground. The chug chug rattle of machine gun fire added to the beat of rotor blades cutting through the air. Pulling from the trees I saw the dark green Merlin, the real life version of what I’d flown so many times around my room. The helicopter was hovering close to the ground, maybe as high as a church steeple. The side door was open and I just about saw the gunner gripping tight as he trained the long gun at the ground.
I knew without having to think, he was shooting at more of those things, the hosts of whatever terrible disease had taken over the dead bodies. Still, I couldn’t help but smile, this was a rescue mission and I wondered what the helicopter would be like inside. Tish gave a giggle and I turned down to see her smiling back, but as I squeezed her tight, she wriggled for freedom. The chatter of the machine gun fell silent.
“We’ll get to Nanny’s real quick now,” I said, giving her a playful shake.
Looking back up, my eye caught on a long stack of smoke rising high in the distance. I chanced a look left and right, seeing columns of grey smoke each way I turned. These were new, not something there when I’d spent so long staring, searching for home. I clutched Tish closer as I remembered what had happened.
Picking up the pace, running towards the helicopter, I shouted for help. Tish joined in with her own made up words. The helicopter moved from its hover, spinning around, hurrying to the right and stopping midair. It twisted as if searching below, then without warning, it twitched left, the door gunner letting out a long blast. When the gun silenced I shouted as loud as I could, calling for help, but it hurried away, flying higher to become a dot in the distant sky.
“It’s okay Tish, they’ll be back. Someone else will come,” I said. Her giggle pushed back the tears, then her face fell, her eyes opened wide. The loud clap of the bird scarer shot was common enough and we both relaxed.
I walked again, putting Tish down and realised I’d forgotten to follow the sun. We ended up walking slowly, I was following Tish as she ambled through the open fields, heading towards a big clump of trees. It was the biggest wood I’d seen while we’d been walking.
Another shot broke through the air and I didn’t give it a second thought, until five, six or seven went off one after the other. I hurried a little closer to Tish. There were people hunting and I didn’t want her running into their path.
Tish was still following an imaginary line that swerved left and right, with no sense in her direction. I didn’t have the heart to grab her up and restrict her from playing. We’d walked like that for ten minutes and my wound itched, but it took my mind from the two shots which seemed to have been the last for some time. Her path straightened and she headed a direct course. Her head lifted high. After a few moments she stopped, her little arm raised, head turned my way.
“Russ,” she said. That was her name for our dog. Following her outstretched finger, I shook my head. The dog was black, not a gingery brown. It was the same breed, a Labrador and she was running off, heading fast towards it. The dog was standing, his head down, leaning over like it was eating dinner.
“No Tish,” I said, running to catch her, not wanting her to see the dog covered in blood, its face buried in the side of a dead deer or something else as disgusting. I caught her, but only after shortening the distance between us and the animal. It was still bent over, but now I could tell from the length of the body laying on the ground, it was a man, not a deer. The dog’s body blocked the view of the face as its head bobbed up and down.
“No,” came a call, a woman’s voice. I startled my eyes up, pulling Tish tight as she flinched. “Stay where you are.”
The woman was far along the edge of the forest and had blonde hair, but that was about all I could tell. She was panting, bending over, holding her palms out. She didn’t want us any closer, that was obvious, but Tish wasn’t having any of it and wriggled free, kicking out her legs. I couldn’t hold on, her coat slipping against mine and she was on her feet, running to the dog. I chased, soon seeing something else, a mound and knew it was one of them. That smell. I tripped, stumbling over my own feet, launching my hand out to grab her leg, but I missed.
Chapter Forty One
Foul breath brushed my face as I woke. Somewhere close, a high-pitched voice of a child screamed a name I didn’t recognise. Warmth lapped at my cheek. Another distant call came high and frantic.
My eyes shot open to a slobbering dog, blood and sinew dripping from its jowls. I startled up, falling back as fire raged across my chest. Pushing away the hound, I realised it must be the same creature that saved my life, but it bore no resemblance to the crazed animal that fought the abomination intent on my neck. Blinking away my disbelief, wiping my wet face against the back of my hand, I saw a toddler. Dressed in pink, she swerved around the body of the rotting creature, not even glancing as she ran towards me. Chasing after her was a boy a few years older, scrambling to his feet, recovering from a fall.
What the hell was going on with the world?
I tried to stand again, but sank back, the pain in my ribs more than I could manage right now. As the girl arrived, she petted the dog’s head. He turned her way, closing his eyes as if in a heavenly place.
“Oh, my god.”
I recognised Cassie’s voice. She was walking around the pair, not hiding her surprise that I was breathing.
“I thought,” she said looking between me and the dog enjoying the girl’s rough strokes. “I thought it was turning on you,” she said, falling to her knees, helping me to bend at the waist, then wrapping her arms around my chest. As she squeezed, stars burst across my vision.
“So did I,” I said, my voice strained. She pulled back and stood, her face falling.
“It’s not safe here,” she said and offered a hand. With her help, I stood, but uneasy at first.
“No it’s not,” I replied, and for the first time took in the small boy stood at the back of the girl, his hands on her shoulder as he towered above her. “Who are these two?”
Cassie turned away shaking her head, and looked at the pair, considering them as if she’d not noticed them either.
“Are you with anyone?” she said, looking back the way they’d come. The boy stood in silence and I could see he was trying to hide his concentration.
“It’s okay,” I said. “There’s a group of us. If you’ve got anyone else with you, they can come too.” He barely moved his head as it shook. He was hedging his bets. “You should come with us,” I said then turned to the dog still being patted by the little girl. “And you too,” I said tapping the dog on the head. “It’s not safe here.”
“The zombies,” the boy said with no emotion in his voice.
I paused for a moment, then nodded. Still, he looked unsure, but I couldn’t wait for a decision. We were all in danger and so were our friends. I hoped they were together, weren’t scattered, weren’t alone. I followed the boy’s eyes down to the gun and bent, nearly screaming as pain lit across my chest, but broken ribs were okay. Doctors couldn’t do anything, but take away the pain. Letting the empty clip slip to the ground, I fished out the fresh magazine and slid the loaded gun into my pocket, the boy’s eyes following me all the while.
I walked, heading the way we’d been running. Cassie held back looking at the two kids. I heard the dog’s paws padding beside me and turned, the girl was following the dog. The boy set off after, with Cassie behind, her head, like mine, twitching to the tree line.
We walked at first, but movement in the bushes, or the sounds in my head, wouldn’t let me stay at that pace for long. I turned to Cassie and she understood. So did the boy and he went to pick up the girl, but Cassie moved her hands towards her, leaning down, but waited for his permission. He nodded and she took her in her arms. The pace picked up, the dog still trotting at my side.
As we ran, we soon came to the edge of the forest, the trees leaving our side. Scouring the horizon I spotted a figure running, then two. They were at the height of a hill a little way off in the distance. One in front of the other. Whoever it was, they were being chased. I ran faster, looking back to Cassie who’d slowed, urging the boy to stay back.
Ignoring the pain I ran. It was Nat.
I watched as she stumbled, disappearing over the brow of a hill, falling. What chased her had been a middle aged man, with balding hair and fat collecting around his middle, tattered clothes barely left to cover, but it pounced after her like an Olympic gymnast. The dog stayed at my side and trying my best to ignore the pull of the pain, I gave it everything. Taking the gun from my pocket I was minutes away, praying she could hold off long enough for me to do what I could.
I wasn’t too late as I arrived over the hill. Her hands around its throat, its mouth snapping forward. Déjà vu, but from a different perspective.
I let a shot ring off into the air, hoping it would distract the crazed monster enough for Nat to get the upper hand. It didn’t flinch. Its humanity gone. The shot rang off and her grip gave way, the beast lurched forward and bit down on the side of her face.
Chapter Forty Two
Without command, the dog jumped at the beast, grabbing a patch of exposed skin, biting deep into its haunches. Still whatever this thing was, it didn’t budge as the hound shook its head, its mouth clamped down hard. I pushed the gun square to its temple, but it only went limp as I blew what was left of its brains out the other side in an explosion of colour.
Rolling the body off, a clump of Nat’s loose flesh fell from his mouth, hitting her with a wet slap against her face. She tried to scream, but had no breath, her arms frantic, blood pumping in spurts from the fist size hole in her face. Dropping to my knees I pulled off my coat, ripped open my shirt, the buttons flying as the cold bit into my skin. I tore the sleeves off, one by one, tying each length around her face, the white cotton going red as quick as I could pad out the wound with the remains.
“Where’s Zoe?” I said, my head darting to each of the trees, the only features on the gentle flow of hills. Twitching to where we’d come, despite knowing there was nowhere to hide but the tree line, the place where we’d all been running from. “Where is she?” I said before looking at my hands thick with Nat’s blood. She’d settled down, her fight slowing as her skin greyed. She wouldn’t answer. Was going the same way as Chloe.
“Ellie,” Cassie screamed arriving at my side. She hadn’t forgotten the last time we’d seen Nat was with Ellie fighting to get free from her arms.
“Andrew,” I added to the call, then shook my head. “We need to move her,” I said not looking back. I picked Nat up in my arms, cradling her like a baby, pushing the makeshift bandages to my chest. Her lack of weight scared me. Cassie continued to call at the top of her voice, the kid still in her arms. The boy said something as he picked up my coat and offered it out, high in his hands. I bent, wincing with pain, but I couldn’t complain. I wasn’t near death. The kid put my coat over Nat while he still talked, but his voice so quiet. All I could manage was to walk, stumbling every few steps as I tried to go faster. We were heading down into a short valley, my eyes fixed on the brow, hoping for what we would see the other side.
“Ellie,” Cassie screamed, her call ripping through the air as she ran past, the dog staying by my side. The little girl was crying, her face bunching. The boy was talking, but I still hadn’t heard what he’d said. “A house,” came Cassie’s cry as she stood on the brow of the hill, not turning our way before disappearing over the edge. I was soon behind her and saw the little cottage. The boy had stopped talking. I’d seen his face light up at Cassie’s words, but it fell as he’d caught site of the squat building on its own nestled on the side of the road. At its front was a sparse rocky garden, with a long fence at the back surrounding a wide stretch of grass. Inside was a large wooden shed, maybe it was even a barn. The road was sparsely lined with trees and as I followed it into the distance, I thought I saw more buildings. Cassie continued running down the hill still calling for her sister.
“Andrew,” I shouted. The boy said something again and I stopped, turning toward him. He was taking in the view, squinting off into the distance. “What is it?”
“I think we should try to be quiet,” he said. I watched him turn.
“We need to find our friends,” I said, shaking my head.
“But we don’t want to find them,” he replied, his hand outstretched pointing back to the woods. I turned and saw only trees, but as my eyes settled I spotted movement. The more I stared the more movement I could see. It wasn’t the trees moving, but those things. I carried on staring, hoping to see if they were running, chasing after or ambling along as if out for a stroll. I couldn’t believe the world had gone so far that I was glad when I could tell they were the undead, but only the slow ones. The boy was right, they were heading in our direction and I turned, picking up the pace towards the cottage.
Cassie stood in the road as we arrived, facing out, but she’d stopped calling to the surroundings, instead she was gently shaking, rocking the girl from side to side. She must have seen them too. The dog ran ahead, it seemed to know the plan, his nose twitching as he moved around the building. My arms ached as I let Nat down gently to the short strip of grass in front of the house. She didn’t respond and I knew there was nothing I could do till I got her inside. Even then I doubted I could help. My hands were tacky as I let go, my chest running with sticky blood.
The dog was back at my side, looking up at me as if giving the all clear. I ran to the door and tried the handle. It was locked. I shoved my shoulder hard against it, but it held firm. The boy spoke again in a quiet voice. This time I listened.
“We need that,” he said. Again he was right. Looking back, Cassie was still staring out the same and blood had pooled in the grass around Nat’s head. I headed around the building, the dog and the boy following, picking up a discarded stone from the rock garden.
The bigger windows needed to stay too, but I found a small high pane around the side I could reach with my hand outstretched. It wasn’t much bigger than a large dinner plate, the pain would be unbearable, but with a squeeze I was sure I get inside. Making sure the boy and the dog were out of the way, I threw the hand sized rock and watched as it bounced off the double glass, falling to the floor at my feet. I glanced to the front of the house and saw Cassie sobbing as she rocked the toddler back and forth. The boy handed me the rock and I threw again, this time the first pane gave, then standing on the tips of my toes, the second pane was gone and the remains of the glass followed.
I turned and the boy had gone, but before I could spin back I saw him walking with my gun in his hand. My eyes went wide as he held the pistol with such confidence, the barrel pointed down towards the ground. He must have grabbed it from my jacket pocket.
“Um,” I said. “Hand it over.”
He looked up, his face lit with hurt.
“But what if those things are inside?”
The thought stumbled across my mind. Was he offering to go inside? There was no way I could let that happen.
“I’m going in,” I said, holding out my hand.
“Not with your injuries,” he replied. “You’ll pass out before you reach the other side.”
Again he was right, but I couldn’t ask him to do this. I didn’t have to, he was already up at the wall waiting for me to boost him up.
As his feet disappeared through the window, I heard glass breaking and the dog barked as if he was next to be helped up. I couldn’t stifle a chuckle as I ran around the front, wrapping my sticky arms around myself. I waited with my ear at the door, listening to the silence, broken only by Cassie’s comforting, low pitch calls.
I couldn’t look at Nat, had to turn away from Cassie’s red eyes, instead I concentrated on the dog’s long face, the pink of its mouth as it panted, watching it sat at my heels, its tail stopping wagging only when from behind the door came a muffled, high pitched scream.
Chapter Forty Three
A dark shape arrived behind the thin rectangles of leaded glass, with breath heavy, their fingers rattled the handle and scrabbled across the locks. The dog barked and the figure stopped. The top latch had clicked off, but had no success with the solid mortice. The figure wasn’t moving.
I kicked myself for not getting his name.
“Kid, find the long key,” I shouted. They moved, jolting forward at my voice.
“Oh my god,” came Cassie’s call. I span around and saw five of the slow creatures ambling over the hill, spotting another group double in number rising over the crest before I turned. Cassie was stepping back, almost tripping over Nat’s motionless form.
“Find the long key,” I shouted again, trying to think how we could get everyone else through the small window.
“Got it,” came the call from inside, but something was wrong, the sound was much quieter.
The lock rattled and the boy pulled open the door. A girl stood further into the darkness. They must have swapped places when she realised the boy with the gun was with us. Still she screamed as she saw my bloodied appearance, her eyes wide open, hands at her mouth.
“Ellie,” I heard Cassie gasp as I picked up Nat. With my hands sliding over her sticky blood, the putrid stench caught in the wind as I slammed the door behind me with my foot.
Placing her on the couch in the first room to the left, the boy had his arms around his sister, nodding to the gun high on a wall unit shelf. Cassie knelt to the floor hugging her sister, the dog had disappeared, racing around, his nose switching from high in the air to hovering just above the carpet.
“Cassie,” I shouted, sharp and clear. “Pressure,” I said, pointing both of my hands to Nat’s face. Cassie dragged her sister over, not letting her out of touching distance as she pressed her hands hard onto the wound. I shot out of the room, heading straight to the kitchen, ignoring the other closed doors. I rifled through the cupboards and drawers searching for a first aid kit or anything else I could use, but only finding clean dishcloths. The cupboards were bare, cleared in a hurry. I scrambled up the stairs to find the bedrooms rifled and disorganised. The people that had lived here had been lucky. They’d had warning, given at least a few moments to collect up treasured things before their evacuation.
I found the bathroom with ease, but the medicine cabinet above the sink was empty. I ran down the stairs, passing the dog on the way and was kneeling to Nat’s side when a great thump hit the front door. We all looked at each other in disbelief even though we knew those things had followed us. Still, we gave a collective jump as a dark shape thudded against the living room window, its shadowing looming across the room.
I looked to Cassie, holding out the cloths.
“Can you?” I said. She nodded and I raced up the stairs, the dog joining my side at the window of the front bedroom. Swiping the net curtains to the side, I saw nothing unusual until I opened the window, the stench rising as the seal creaked. I peered down into the cold air and watched the group of fifteen gathered around the front door, their number spreading out either side to surround the building.
Watching in awe I made myself calm, taking deep breaths through my mouth I stared out to the hills and tried to picture what normality had been. With the stench and the low rumbling moan, all I could think of was the others still out there. There was little we could do in here, but I had an idea.
Listening to Cassie’s voice still high, hearing her gratitude that her sister was safe, I found a child’s bedroom and after a short search, bold markers in a drawer. Back in the front bedroom, I shoved aside the bed covers and with dried blood flaking to the white surface, I scrawled their names in big, bold letters.
“What happened to the others?” I heard Cassie say. I could barely hear the reply, just making out they’d separated. Ellie hadn’t seen what had happened to Nat, Zoe or Andrew. The sound of each name was like an electric shock. The pilot, as she called him, had been with her when they walked into another group of those creatures. He’d distracted them, drawing them towards him, making them follow as he ran away from her. They’d already both seen the house and as he ran, he pointed her towards it.
I had the sheet off the bed and out one side of the window. Tying off the end, I tried to throw the corner across and catch it from the other opening. On my fourth try I’d grabbed it in my fingertips and was tying it down.
“But how did you get in,” Cassie said. My fingers stopped working the knot, my breath held in the long pause. I moved my hands from the sheet, not noticing if it stayed in place. I stepped to the landing, watching the dog’s ears twitch up.
“The back door was open.” Ellie’s voice was clear. I was already moving when Cassie spoke.
“Did you close it behind you?” Cassie said. I didn’t hear the answer before I was running down the stairs.
Chapter Forty Four
Launching myself down the stairs, the stench grew worse. Pain radiated around my chest as I patted my trousers in vain, knowing full-well the gun would stare back from the high wall unit in the front room. Three openings came into view as I raced. The door to the kitchen was open, the room already explored, the other two white doors straight ahead stood closed, only one of them I wanted to open. On the last step I hesitated. Should I turn away and get the gun, or charge towards one of doors unarmed, hoping I’d made the right choice and the invasion hadn’t already begun?
Knowing I’d delayed too much already, I raced to the first, feeling the lightweight hardboard almost buckle as I used it stop my momentum. My heart sank as I realised it wouldn’t last long if it had to be our final barrier. I stepped back, not taking a breath for fear of the foul air, not knowing what I could do if they were already on the other side. Fragrant air wafted out as I pushed the door open. A toilet glared at me from against the wall while a dark figured drifted past the frosted glass.
I felt the cold draft before I pushed the second door open before I saw the dead body turn the corner as it swung. The dark wood of the back door was wide, the chill, pungent air striking my bare chest. Again I hesitated for what seemed like an age, staring at the mud caked trainers so close to crossing the threshold.
My eyes rose up the white tracksuit bottoms, following the line of dark holes strafing the legs. Each was ringed in dark scarlet, the wounds tracking up the white body, across the creased, matching tracksuit top, through her left breast, before ending at the shoulder. The circles of red widened as the bullet holes rose, their course only just missing her young head. My eyes hovered for far too long, watching as she stepped forward in slow motion, at least in my head. With eyes clouded white like her hair, her features were grey and sunken, but her lips were bright red with a gloss sheen, like she’d paused for a moment around the corner to add an extra coat.
This was someones daughter and I looked to her hands, which were much like mine, caked in red flaking blood, but at least what covered me was not my own. The thought filled me with such guilt. If it was, then Nat would be okay. If only it worked like that. She was a wife, according to the ruby ring on her long slender finger, the nails with a perfect manicure, the covering the same vibrant red as her lips.
The dog broke my spell, barking as another creature appeared the other side of the door frame. I barely saw the Asian guy, only noticing the stub of sharp bone where his right arm should have been. At last I’d taken the final steps and pushed against the door, heaving the wood as it caught on something solid. Looking down I saw the woman’s trainer, the toes jammed between the door and the frame. I could feel her weight pushing back, building as more joined the stack. The boy arrived with the gun in his hand, offering it butt first, his eyes wide as he saw my struggle. I couldn’t take the weapon without losing my ground, which I was only just holding. Shaking my head, I felt my anger building, turning inwards, cursing my decisions. Why hadn’t I checked the back door? Why didn’t I go for the gun first?
The corridor grew lighter and I turned my eyes up, saw dark shapes shuffling across the windows in the front door. These things knew of our struggle and were heading around the back. I took a look at the pistol still offered out and made a frightening connection.
The monsters were communicating.
We were going to need bigger guns.
Chapter Forty Five
With each deep, incessant bark, the glass squares in the door rattled against their lead edging. Pushing hard with the back of my shoulders, hands flat against its surface, the hinges complained, creaking against the wall, but not moving either way. Stalemate, although I knew the creatures on the other side could keep it up for longer. My eyes fell to the trainer stuck in the door’s path, its muddy covered fabric wedged to the wall. There was only one way the door was going.
I flinched my view around the small anteroom, to shelves hung along the short walls, then down to where a stout chest freezer sat. Despite the madness of the effort, I couldn’t help but think of the food inside. So much had happened in the last few hours, but in reality it had been barely two days since the start. Since we lost those things impossible to live without. Electricity. The internet. Both would be no use right now as a heave from the other side brought back my focus. I gave a shove in reply, my eye back on the shelves, roving for weapons. The iron might do, but the rest were useless. The electric mixer a great doorstop in this new world. Turning back to the boy, the gun still held by the barrel, he was trying his best to pull the dog back as he growled between each bellow.
The dog needed a name, but he never had a collar to give us a clue.
The boy had the dog back, the mutt not pulling away. The boy turned the gun and pointed it at the wedged shoe.
“No,” I shouted. “No. Too dangerous.” I paused, pushing a little harder and realised there may never be a good time for introductions. “Kid, what’s your name?” I said, straining against a renewed effort.
The kid looked up as if I’d told him Santa Claus wasn’t real, his face distant, eyes raising. Maybe he’d forgotten what he was called.
“Jack,” he eventually said in a quiet voice.
“Jack. I like that,” I replied. The kid looked past me as another shove added to the pile, another low moan of air rolling out that putrid smell. “My name’s Logan,” I said pausing. “I’d shake your hand if I could,” I said and tried to squeeze out a smile. The kid wasn’t impressed, his face deadpan. “Go see if Cassie,” I paused again. “Go see if the woman in the other room can lend a hand,” I said, giving the door another heave. Before he ran the short distance, he placed the gun carefully in the opening of the kitchen beside me, then was back in just a few speeding heartbeats. He was shaking his head. I understood, picturing Cassie’s arms drenched in Nat’s blood. I wanted to say she might have to come anyway. Instead I decided to try something else, to test how these things would react.
Pulling a deep breath, trying to let my muscles relax, I spoke again.
“Jack. Take the gun and get ready to run to the front room. If I don’t follow, just shut the door. Get the woman to pull the furniture across and stay there. You understand?” I watched as he stared back, looking like he was about to ask a question, about to ask me what I was up to. I didn’t have time. “Pick up the gun,” I said and he did what he was told. “And take the dog too, right?” I said raising my brows. “You’ll need to give him a name.”
The kid looked at the dog, turning his head to the side and the tiniest of smiles appeared.
I took a final deep pull of air, trying to hold back my gag reflex and turned my head down to the floor, planting my foot back a few inches, letting my hold relax.
The door gave as I expected, slapping against my foot. The kid jumped, taking aim to my side as I fought to stop the movement and keep my hold. The woman’s dead foot was loose and free to move. It didn’t. My test had failed and I’d lost valuable leverage, the weight so much stronger than before and my foot was moving, the soles of my trainers squealing as they slid against the tiles.
The hallway darkened, my foot slipping, a hand peeling around the edge. It was the woman’s, I could tell from the red of her nails, the fingers dowsed in dried blood. I tried to push back, but I was already giving all I had. Something fluttered to the floor and I followed it down. A finger nail. False. For show. The remaining pink nail was rough underneath, the edge jagged and bitten down to the skin. My eyes shot back to the front door as the glass rattled with the boom of a fist against the wood.
“Help,” came the call. It was Andrew’s panicked voice, I had no doubt. The toddler wailed high, Jack turning, his aim swapping between his sister and the front door.
“Let him in, Jack. He’s our friend,” I said, a new calmness in my voice. “Our friend,” I said again in a whisper, the words relaxing, a weight lifting. Jack turned his face bunched in a question. I confirmed in a nod and felt the pressure ease at my back. The weight was literally lifting. I felt a sudden relief that everything would be okay, but the feeling was only short lived, the events of the day flashing before my eyes. I looked down my blood soaked chest, remembering Nat lain on the couch, Zoe lost out in the wilderness that only last week, didn’t exist. Jack was halfway to the door and I gave a heave, taking back some distance I’d lost and the realisation came. It was getting lighter because they were going after Andrew.
“Hurry,” I shouted, but Jack couldn’t speed any more, he was there, his hands tangling at the locks, getting twisted like in a dream. It was already bad, a nightmare, but worse still. There was no possibility I would wake up.
The light from the front room dimmed. There were more coming around the edge. No time left.
The door sprung open and there was Andrew, red faced, eyes wide, with terror running through him. But here he was in one piece. A smile bloomed on my face, mirrored by his, but dropped as I saw a hand come around the door, grabbing the hood of Andrew’s coat, yanking him back. He pulled himself free, falling to the floor. He was inside. Euphoria.
“Shut the door,” I screamed. More hands racked at the edges.
The temperature fell and my heart sank with it as I saw in the distance, Connor and Zoe running towards us. One of those beasts racing at their back.
Jack slammed the door closed.
Chapter Forty Six
He hadn’t caught what I’d seen, was too busy scrabbling from the floor, racing to my side, pushing, heaving till the latch clicked into place. With the door secure, pain ripped across my chest, the cracked ribs only a part of my state. My muscles took a breath for the first time in what seemed like hours, but I couldn’t relax, couldn’t take time and was rushing past Jack, grabbing the pistol from his hand. The front door was back open in one swift swing, surprising the creatures from where they’d drifted.
Bang. Bang. The gun sang. Two shots and one either side were down. A black shadow raced past my side and I caught sight of the dog, choosing his new name in an instant. He was racing towards the pair I’d stepped out of safety to rescue, or at least give a chance of life as it was meant to be.
Bang. Bang. Another two down and Andrew was out with the iron upturned in his hand, water spilling across his path. Thump, went the corner of the metal across a grey face. Down went the creature and with another solid pound it stopped dead. Again.
Bang. I laid a shot across his front, sending another sprawling to the floor. Thump went the iron and I shot after. We’d taken six or seven out, three sprawled to the floor, but more were coming from each side of the building.
I heard Shadow’s muffled growl and knew without looking he’d latched on. I turned and saw Zoe and Connor were close, running towards the open door. The creature was down, Shadow gripping tight to his leg. He’d made it fall and now it was going for him. I ran after, not wanting to chance a shot. Andrew called me away, the thump of the metal resounding again. As I grew closer, Shadow winced, squealing, a clawed hand dug deep in his chest.
“Shadow,” I said, calling his new name and smiled as he released, running in my direction. Bang went a shot and then another. The body did what nature had once meant it should. I turned and ran alongside the dog, taking two more shots before slamming the door.
My back slid down the wood. Batteries flat. Energy expired.
There was much back slapping and hugs all around. I’d climbed to my feet by the time it had all turned to tears. Nat was still alive, but following the same story as Chloe had already written. I couldn’t take part, I was zapped. Emotions drained. I had to get her blood from my chest and I took the steps one by one, slow and steady, leaving the sobbing behind. It was Zoe’s heartfelt cry I had to shut out. I couldn’t hear more pain, there was no more room inside my head.
Water came from the tap, the tank in the loft not yet empty. I washed as best I could, sparing as much as I was able. Drying myself I went from room to room. Downstairs had calmed. There were three bedrooms. Three people had lived here. Parent and a child. The dad had been, could be still be, my size and I was warm again, at least across my body.
I listened to the slow steps as I counted each of the rounds left. Ten. Cassie appeared at the door, her hands bloodied and buried in a rag. She looked like me. Exhausted with it all.
“There’s water left in the tank,” I said, my voice monotone. She nodded and drifted away. I still sat in the same place, my eyes not having moved from the door since she had. She was back, her coat off, shirt sleeves rolled up, but still I could see the bloodied ends. Without speaking, she sat right beside me, my body tipping towards her as it took her weight. We leant in and she turned. I followed, our eyes catching. Our lips headed together, they were warm. Fresh. Her arms too as they pulled around my body. Mine found hers and we delved into each other’s mouths like nothing else mattered.
After what felt like an eternity, we pulled back for air, her eyes diving into mine like I was the only person who mattered. Her hands began to moved to her shirt, at that moment in time it didn’t matter about the blood splattered up the arms. She stood, I followed, the shirt falling down, there she was just in the white of her bra. I held my breath, took in the silence, took in the moment.
She leant towards me, pulled my hands to her bare back. A powerful thud shook the building. Glass dropped to the ground. Screams called upward and I pulled away. Both our mouths were in a smile. She reached for her top, I reached for the gun and one after the other, we ran down the stairs.
Chapter Forty Seven
Gasps sang through the air as seven sets of eyes stared at the small side pane of the front room window. Shadow shouted a warning, snapping off a bark as I arrived. The outer layer was cracked, a head sized section missing, the glass lost between the panes. With no obvious cause, I turned to the staring faces, my eyes shooting back as a head climbed from below the window line. Something, once someone, rose unsteady above the sill. He’d been an older man, his hair blonde and straw-like, his skin leathery and weathered. He wore a thick checked shirt with a line running across his forehead where a hat had recently been. Just below the line was an indentation, a break in the skin, but no blood poured out. There was no heart pumping.
Eyes turned as I’d arrived, then to Cassie as she followed just after. I couldn’t help but steal a glance as her slender hands delved, pushing away her shirt tails. With my cheeks heating, I checked their expressions. I was sure they hadn’t noticed. Not that there was anything to see.
Zoe’s eyes were red with tears as she knelt beside the sofa, her hands wrapping Nat’s pale fingers. For the first time I noticed the Christmas tree in the corner and was transported to my parents house only the week before. It was Christmas morning, the first time I woken there in ten years. The tree resplendent with brightly coloured parcels bulging from underneath. Here it would be Christmas till this was all over. Decorations around the South West would be up till someone sorted this shit out.
No one spoke as Cassie led the children away and together with Connor and Andrew, we manoeuvred the wall length dresser across the window. With cupboards scoured for anything of use and with Zoe still holding her hand, we moved the sofa, Nat still in place, pushing it across the cupboard to stop if from toppling if the worst should happen.
The room was nearly pitch black with the curtains drain, just the light from the hallway seeping in. Somehow we got Nat up the stairs, carrying her between four, her body hardly responding as we turned her around the corners, landing her in the front bedroom where I pulled in the sheet and did the windows up tight. Zoe lay beside her stroking her hand. There was nothing left to do, but keep watch. I had to stay close.
“You can leave now,” Zoe said as I leant against the door frame. She kept her eyes on Nat, didn’t turn my way. “You can leave,” she repeated. “I know why you’re waiting.”
I kept quiet and held my ground, a deep sadness gripping my insides. Zoe was one of my best friends and there was nothing I could do to stop her pain.
“Go away,” she shouted, tears falling. Shadow thudded up stairs, his nose in the air, bright brown eyes between me and bed. I slipped away and he took my place.
Cassie was in the kids room tidying up the mess, some of which I’d made in my search for the pens. The two young girls were asleep in the bed, it had been a boy’s room, the Spiderman bed cover one of many tells. A Superman sleeping bag was rolled out on the floor.
“Where’s Jack?” I said. She turned my way, a smile rising and for the first time I saw a dimple just below each of her high cheek bones.
“Connor’s looking at his hand downstairs. The girls are whacked,” she said.
I felt a yawn fill my face.
“We all are,” I replied, matching her expression, then turned away. Sleep was a long way off for me. I knew I would break Zoe’s heart when the time came.
I checked out of each of the window, looking down through the cold air. Out the back three or four of those things were roaming around, each looking like they had no care in the world. From the front, Zoe opened her eyes as I arrived and I patted Shadow still in the same place. Zoe closed her eyes as I went to the window, not watching as I looked down at the devastation, the bodies lain across the road. The farmer who’d smashed the window was ambling around the front, stumbling as he came to each of the truly dead. I pulled the curtains closed and left Shadow on duty.
Already I’d learned to hate the calm. It was just time waiting for the next crisis to strike, waiting for the next event to tear our world further apart. Every little noise in this foreign house spiked my interest, drawing the gun in my mind ten times a minute, pointing it towards the dark.
I found Connor and Andrew in the kitchen, with Jack sat on the edge of the worktop by the sink. Jack’s hand was in Connor’s, who was leaning in to inspect a semi-circular wound between his thumb and forefinger.
“He’s been bitten,” Andrew said, Connor’s first aid kit open in his hand. It was one of the few things we’d been able to keep, the rest of our hoard lost, scattered around the campfire when we were overrun. A mistake we would not repeat.
“Bitten by what?” I said, fearing the answer. “When?” I said as Andrew and Connor only replied with a raise of their eyebrows.
“Two days ago,” Andrew said.
“He thinks,” Connor added. My eyes fixed on his and then on Andrews, turning down to Jack, the only one in the room that seemed to be oblivious. He’d been bitten two days ago. Why wasn’t he dead?
“How you feeling, little man?” I said.
“Fine,” he said, his voice quiet. I looked up to Connor, he replied with a nod.
“You must be tired,” I said, but he shook his head.
“He thinks he slept all day yesterday, after he was bitten,” said Andrew. I ruffled the kid’s hair and Andrew followed me to the dinning room where someone had put everything that might be of use on the table. There were a few cans of beans and a small stack of nappies, but not much else other than a collection of half full spirit bottles. That was it for the food.
“There’s a village down the road,” I said, but Andrew dismissed my statement.
“We need to watch the kid,” Andrew said, his voice quiet as he leant in.
“He seems fine,” I replied.
“You want to take the chance?” Andrew said.
“Maybe it’s not a death sentence,” I said. “Being bitten I mean.”
Andrew kept quiet and Connor appeared at the door.
“He seems okay. More than okay,” he said, his voice quiet as we listened to light footsteps on the stairs.
“With the others,” Andrews said, but his face turned to the ground. I patted Andrew’s upper arm.
“They wouldn’t stop bleeding from the wound, but only Chloe,” I said, Andrew filling the pause I left.
“And Nat,” he said looking to the ceiling. “The others didn’t last long enough.”
Connor’s voice was quiet as the footsteps headed over their heads.
“I had a look at Nat and you’re right, it looks like there’s a clotting issue. I’m no doctor, we’re trained in first aid for combat trauma, but there’s more going on than just the bite. It’s not the same for the kid. Its healing really well. Didn’t need to bandage it.”
Connor was looking between us both. I swapped a glance at Andrew.
“You sure you want to take a chance?” he said, this time in his direction. Connor was about to reply when Shadow’s volley of barked calls stopped the words from coming.
Chapter Forty Eight
The pistol led the way up the stairs. Myself, Connor and Andrew chasing Shadow’s sharp homing calls as best we could. I knew what I’d see as I crested. Knew Zoe would be dead, or dying, bleeding out. Nat no longer her friend, her lover, whoever she’d been. Instead, the door was closed, Shadow in the hall, barking towards the handle.
He followed behind I as pushed in. Zoe lifted her head, glaring back from the bed still tucked in her embrace, the side of her face red with Nat’s blood. She scowled at our intrusion with an alien expression I’d never seen her wear. Connor and Andrew had turned before arriving.
“For your own protection,” I said, pushing the gun back in my waistband. “And ours too,” I added. She lay her head back and I turned away, leaving the room, pushing the door as wide as it would go. Cassie was in the hall with the others and followed I ushered them into the main bedroom, pushing the door closed at our backs.
“I’m going to that village we saw on the way in,” I said. The three stared back, each face turning thoughtful. I could guess what they were thinking. Andrew especially. His eyes following toward the room next door. I pulled the gun from my waistband and offered it in the centre. They each swapped glances. “We need food, water, heat, if we can.” They couldn’t disagree with that.
“You can’t go without a weapon,” Andrew said, his eyes wide at the suggestion.
“I can’t leave you without protection,” I replied. “At least I can run. It’s quiet at the moment,” I said nodding out of the back windows. “There might be somewhere better for us to stay tonight.”
There was silence as Andrew walked over to the window, pulling across the net curtains and staring outside.
“Your ribs?” Cassie replied, her eyes squinting down at my chest. I shook my head, the empty feeling in my stomach was worse.
“I’ll come with you,” Andrew replied. I looked down at his side as he turned back.
“You’re worse than me,” I said. “Someone’s got to look after the kids.” I held the gun out to Connor and he took it, pushing it into the pocket of his jacket.
“I’ll come with you,” Cassie said. My heart jumped.
“No,” I replied without taking the time to consider the words. “The kids?” I said. A deep furrow arrived on her brow.
“I’m sure these two can take care. They’ve got the gun.”
I didn’t reply, just stared in her eyes trying not to get lost.
“Why don’t you want me along?”
“It’s not that,” I said, looking to Connor and then to Andrew for support. Both had turned away, finding somewhere else to focus.
“You need more hands, need help to find what we need,” she replied, her voice impassioned.
“It’s not safe,” I said, trying not to turn away.
“But you’re the big hero right?” she replied, pushing her hands to her hips.
“I don’t want you in danger’s way.”
Her eyes flared wide as the words came.
“Because,” she said. “Say it.” I looked up and somehow Connor and Andrew had slipped from the room. “Because I’m a woman?”
“No,” I said. “Yes,” I added. “But not because you’re not strong or brave enough,” I replied. I didn’t see her shoulders relax. She tilted her head to the side, raising her eyebrows, telling me to say what I meant.
“Then what?” she replied, not able to wait any longer in the silence.
“Because I don’t want to see you hurt. I like you,” I said raising my voice. I stopped talking and she took a step backwards, turning, but not before I saw a smile raise on her lips. “A lot,” I added.
“Then I’ll be good company,” she said and headed out of the door. Was she swinging her butt just a little as she left?
I took a deep breath and let the air slow come out. I was nervous twice over. The run would be dangerous, but I was hopeful there would be food and water on the other side, but now I was nervous Cassie was coming along, but they were different nerves, more a feeling in your stomach. A feeling I hadn’t felt since my wife had died.
Zoe’s slow pained sobs pushed away my daydream. I took slow careful steps, standing at the door frame peering through. I knew her pain, knew what it was like to watch someone you love die. At least Nat had a chance. Some hope. The boy had survived and so she might too. If only there had been hope back then. I drew a sharp deep breath as I felt myself sinking and stepped to the corridor. I couldn’t dwell, I had a job to do. I had to keep busy. It was time to get on with living.
Downstairs, rucksacks were piled by the front door. Cassie stood, the smile gone, in her hands she was offering a large duffel coat with the fur around the hood which I pulled on. She was ready, her coat over her shoulders, buttons done up to her chin, the hood pulled up. Andrew appeared from an under-stairs cupboard I hadn’t noticed, a crowbar and a long screwdriver in hand. I wanted the crowbar, it would make a more effective weapon. I handed it to Cassie and took the screwdriver. Andrew returned with a short stubby torch and I pushed it in my pocket.
I hugged no one goodbye. It wasn’t the end. We wouldn’t let it be.
“We’re only going down the road,” I said as we left, Shadow barking as Andrew held him back. The locks turning as we ran passed the farmer. I glanced back, ignoring the pain, as we raced along the road towards the village in the distance. Even then I knew we would not see them all again.
Chapter Forty Nine
Soon we slowed from a fearful pace, letting the white vapour from our mouths settle. Other than the farmer limping from the cottage, we’d seen no more of the creatures as we added to the distance from our haven. Relaxing the screwdriver from my grip, I watched the village grow in the distance, but to continue to call it a village was a big step. I could see four houses, each squat much like where we’d just come from, but otherwise individual. A small post office sat on the corner as the road wound out of view. No corner shop yet, or one of those local supermarkets, but I hoped there would be still plenty of road to see when we got in close.
Cassie was looking to the sky and along the horizon. I followed, looking up, remembering the helicopters, braced to run and hide as soon as we heard the first signs of their call. Cassie’s eyes fixed on a valley, cutting between the shallow hills to the left.
“Might be a river,” she said pointing in its direction. “If all else fails.”
I nodded, chancing another look back, pleased we still put distance between us and the farmer. Soon the first of the cottages were on our right. Outside, lights hung around the edge of the low roof, their lamps drab and unlit, not unusual in the bright daylight. The curtains were drawn, the gate closed. No newspapers stuck half out from the letter box. No candle light came through the thin rounded panes of glass running up and down the door. There were no sounds as I leant in. The round, brass handle was cold and refused to turn.
“We should,” Cassie said in a whisper, stopping as I held my palm high. I’d heard something and she leant in beside me, following the question in my expression. Her face drew in close and I could smell her perfume, not the kind that came from the bottle, but just as nice. Together we listened and I turned, fixing my concentration through the mottled glass, but whatever was the other side was obscured in darkness. I turned again, Cassie looking to the door as our eyes met. Another sound brought my attention back. There was definitely someone moving around in there. I chanced a look at Cassie, our faces so close. She drew back a pace, turning to look along the building.
“Hello,” I said in a whisper. Cassie shook her head.
“We should try the other end of the village first,” she said, her voice even quieter.
“Hello,” I repeated, a little louder this time. Cassie’s hand was on mine.
“We should,” she said, but stopped as we heard a series of what sounded like footfalls. My mouth opened to a smile, eyebrows flashing in her direction. I turned to the door and something hit the wood hard from the other side. A small pane of glass burst open, glancing shards across the side of my face. A gaunt, grey hand launched out in a foul smelling cloud, grabbing my coat, the force pounding against my ribs. I doubled forward, hitting my head and was face to face with sunken eyes squashed against the semicircle of textured glass.
A thin, yellowing sleeve covered the arm and Cassie’s iron bar crashed down across it with a great puff of effort, but still the grip held. I looked down and saw the skin tight around the bones. I tried pulling back, pushing away from the door, but no matter how much I tried it wouldn’t let up. My left hand grabbed around the wrist, but let go, the skin so cold, unreal, like a lifesize doll. A two handed swing from over Cassie’s head cracked against the forearm, snapping in down the middle. The grip sprung wide like the release of a bear trap, but the arm stayed out waving from the window, the last half of the arm swinging from side to side.
Cassie pulled me back from the door with such force I nearly fell to the ground before I made any distance. Stumbling, I somehow kept my feet as she pulled me along. I stared back, the drooping hand waving to the constant bang of its head butting hard from the other side.
Regaining my composure, we ran in the centre of the road, keeping an even distance between each of the buildings. Chancing another look back, the farmer was nowhere, then turned to watch the village open out and end. There was no supermarket, corner shop or pub, just the post office looking no bigger than the size of phonebook.
Cassie slowed first and I matched her pace. Her hands reached into her pocket and she pulled out a cloth, beckoning me closer with her other hand. I followed her request and stooped a little. The cloth came away with a light dapple of blood, but I only felt any pain as she gently dabbed the wound.
“We need to be careful,” she said. “You need to be careful,” she soon added. I let a wide smile fill my face and she handed me the cloth.
“Post Office is our best bet, you think?” I said, pushing the cloth to my pocket. There were ten houses, each painted white, but all so different and similar at the same time. A thought came to mind and I turned around on the spot, taking in each of the houses for the second time.
“No cars,” Cassie said before I had a chance to voice my findings.
“Evacuated themselves?” I said. She shrugged. “We should find a map in the post office. We can walk to the next place, maybe find a car or at least somewhere with food.” Nodding her reply we walked, but took our time to peer in each of the houses, stepping no closer, not leaving from the road. Most were wrapped up tight, windows closed, curtains drawn, the occasional low key Christmas decoration. All bar one.
A house, again much like the others, sat in the middle, between two similar properties with the post office next to the row of three. The curtains weren’t closed and upstairs a window was wide open. We shared a glance at the sight, stopping in the road, both unsure of what to do next. The front garden was immaculate and lined with evergreen bushes that tapered in perfect cones, the time and patience required meant someone had time on their hands. Sharing the raise of eyebrows, we took our first slow steps towards the house, staring forward, waiting for the smallest of signs that should turn away. Cassie was right, we needed to be so careful.
It wasn’t any sight from the house which made us stop, or footsteps from the farmer or any of his new friends. It was the sound of a large engine in the background, the noise already building as we waited. It was a truck, or something large. Too noisy for a coach, the engine being thrashed too hard for an official. I turned to Cassie and she turned to me. My head filled with a vision of the helicopter and its devastation. A vision of those big jeeps they had in Afghanistan, but painted green, the machine gun mounted high trained at every angle. The soldier’s eyes twitching for everything that moved. Shooting first, asking questions later.
Her head must have filled with similar thoughts, I didn’t need to do anything but tip mine across the road and she grabbed my hand, sending a shot of electricity up to my chest. We ran, covering the distance in no time at all, between the two houses, jumping a wall. The sound of the engine was almost upon us as we fell to the grass behind a wide chimney stack jutting out high from the side of the house.
Chapter Fifty One
Our hands released as we fell the ground, both of us scrabbling to turn and get sight of what was coming. Peering low around the wide exterior chimney breast, I moved back, raising up on my knees so I could make out the road over the side of the squat front garden wall. The space between the houses were wide, giving a wide view of the road, which meant whoever was coming would have a great view of us. I jerked my head around, spotting a half rotten wooden trellis collapsed against the neighbouring house. In-between the diamonds formed by thin diagonal strips of wood, old, long-dried, brown vines ran in all directions. It was perfect. With the engine building to a great fuss, I stood, grabbing the trellis, yanking hard to free it from the brittle bounds. With it released, I swung the wood out, leaning it against the brick stack and settled back in my place, my heart pounding as I tried to calm my breath.
Most of the dead and dried vegetation had fallen, taking with the great barrier it would have given. The foliage spread across the path, but it was too late, a pickup truck and a Land Rover Defender had rocked to a halt right in front of us. Cassie went low, shuffling under me. I crept in closer, my front against her warmth. She shifted. I pulled away, whispering an apology for getting so close. She shook her head, dismissing my worry and like two meerkats I raised higher above her, watching through the great gaps in the wooden slats as each of the four doors of the bright red pickup swung open.
With the engines left running, four men jumped from the cab. I was still taking them in when two more jumped from the Defender behind. Each was somewhere between eighteen and thirty, only one older by ten years, but he dressed the same age as the others. They wore a thin covering of facial hair, not unlike my own, but in tracksuits zipped up to the neck. In each of their hands was a weapon of sorts, baseball bats, crowbars, long lengths of iron. The driver of the pickup came around the front, in his hand he was swinging a long knife, the end curved and much wider than the handle.
I felt Cassie lean back towards me; her head making a slow turn as if to check I was watching. Both of us flinched, but forced ourselves not to dart into hiding as six pairs of eyes scoured the view. We both knew it was easier to see movement than if we kept ourselves still. They hadn’t seen us yet, their eyes fixing on a another target, the first house in the row of three on the opposite side.
In unison, each member of the group drifted, apart from two, one hanging at the front and the back of their little convoy, the others heading to the door of the house. We didn’t hear the knocker go, only the smash of the glass, repeated, once, twice and then some more, over and over. The strikes soon hit wood and I felt the warmth of Cassie’s body rattle, start and repeat until the wood gave way and the group disappeared inside. Now it was just the pair left and our best chance to do something, do anything but wait to be found. We didn’t know much, but knew it would be just as bad, if not worse than if we were found by the soldiers. Death wasn’t the worst we feared.
We did nothing but listen to the chaos that ensued, the racket pouring from the little cottage. Glass broke, the front windows smashed, cupboards banged, bags were flung out of the door and the newly made openings, the loot collected by one of the remaining pair in turn, only then taking their eyes off the road. We knew what they were looking for. The same thing as us.
The racket continued for a few moments more, then the sentry at the front, a tall skin head, his blue and white tracksuit stained a mirky brown across the front, raised on his toes, his eyebrows pointing towards the sky, the baseball bat slapping as it swung into his cupped left hand.
We followed his look and then his slow smiling walk, the bat slapping to and forth, but we couldn’t quite see what he was walking towards, our angle obscured by the house to the left. The racket continued as he walked out of sight, the hard slap of the wood echoing as it hit over and over something we could only guess. He was back in view carrying a self satisfied grin, wiping the end of the wood against his trousers. He looked up, stopping dead in front of us. I felt Cassie’s body stiffen, her right hand sought my leg. I grabbed her cold hand and squeezed. Something had caught his attention. We’d heard the noise too, a distinct sound coming from inside the house we were leaning against.
The guy’s smile had gone and he turned in our direction, his eyes squinting, settling on the trellis and gave a great, elongated call.
Chapter Fifty Two
The machete wielding driver was out first, his eyes fixed with a question on the skin head’s. His attention soon turned to the house the sentry was motioning towards with the baseball bat. Neither had seen us, despite his stare in our direction. At one point I was sure he’d made eye contact, but it was clear their interest was in the house. They were welcome to the surprise on the other side of the door. The noise came again before they’d all come out of the first house, throwing bags and high value goods into the back of the pickup. Each followed in the footsteps of their leader, weapons at the ready, whistles and calls of excitement running through the air.
This time they knocked, a gentle wrap of knuckles at the front door as each walked into the house’s shadow and out of sight, giving us our chance. We had no choice but to take it. Cold air plumed around me once more as I pulled away from Cassie with my hand still on the top of hers. I led her, both of us bending over, running down the side of the garden, trying to keep our footsteps light. The fence was six foot tall at our side and ran a long way out. The search for safety ended too quick, the garden was devoid of anywhere to hide with just grass rolling out to the fence at the back. The only feature was a moss covered wooden bench nestled to the side of the fence line half way along.
Still we ran, Cassie behind me, pulled along with my hand at my back. Not daring to slow or look around at the repeated smack at the front door. I dragged her past me, pointing at the bench and motioning my instruction. Her raised eyebrows confirmed she knew my plan, but matched my fears the bench looked as if it would collapse as we climbed. Still there was no choice and we were upon it. I slowed and she didn’t, leaping into the air, her foot on the arm, the wood complaining, but it was too late, her hands were on the fence, legs carrying over as she disappeared the other side to a soft landing.
Not being able to match her momentum and commitment to the move, my feet slid across the moss as I climbed on the seat, resting a foot on the arm, feeling it sag under my weight. Grabbing my hands onto the top of the fence, I chanced a look back and saw net curtains in the windows twitch. Landing on the other side, I held Cassie back, my eyes wide, chancing a whisper.
“There’s someone alive inside,” I said and as if to confirm, we heard the definitive sound of the front door swinging wide, rattling as it hit the wall behind. Her eyes grew wide, matching my concern, we’d both thought the noise was from someone long dead roaming around where the previous inhabitants of the body had lived. One of those creatures wouldn’t care to lift the curtain to see what was going on in their garden.
We held there for longer than we should, both of us deep in thought, shaking our heads. What if it was a family, or a group of decent people like us? What if it had been us, our friends inside? The racket from before started up again, this time there was shouting, an argument and we ran. There was nothing we could do, but we didn’t run away. Without either of us guiding, we ran back towards the houses, diagonal along the new garden and were soon in front of the neighbouring house. I held Cassie back and peered around, inching forward at a snail’s pace. They’d left no-one out the front. I did a quick scan, seeing only the farmer dead again in the middle of the road, only knowing who, what, it had been from the clothes, the head caved to a pulpy mess.
Grabbing Cassie’s upper arm, I ran across the front garden, leaping the small fence which was no bigger than my knee. We ran across the road, turning only when across the opposite front garden, leaning against the wall, looking back the way our friends were, pulling deep breaths to regain control. Cassie saw it first, nudging my arm with her elbow. I don’t know whether we recognised it from before. It didn’t matter, it had seen us and was veering from the bend in the road, heading in our direction.
The creature was slow and we should just have run away, been careful, but someone needed our help, even through we were in no place to give it. Cassie was first to head into the garden, jogging around the house, slowing as we came around the second corner. She stopped, retreating to the safety of the brick. The two sentries were walking back to their posts, shouts were going on in the background, but aimed elsewhere. I ran back the way we’d come and saw the creature was still heading in the direction it would have last seen us, the direction I’d just shown my face again. I was back around the house to see Cassie looking out. She stepped back and met my eye.
“They’ve seen it. The skin head’s heading its way,” she said, her breath still coming fast. I looked around, only just managing pull back just as the guy was turning in our direction, his round head tilted at an angle. He wasn’t as thick as his looks. He’d realised the direction the creature was taking and had altered his own course around the house to cut it off. Our one chance was if the creature had locked onto the new threat, or promise of food, or whatever the motive of those animals could be.
I motioned for Cassie to follow back the way we’d come, but rounding the corner our shoulders sank, the creature was on us having ignored the thug about to score himself three for the price of one.
Chapter Fifty Three
The metal claw dug through the creature’s bright white shirt as Cassie drove home a high swinging blow. Its features unchanging as it staggered back against her push to free the bar from its flesh. I turned away, screwdriver out, the shaft pointing down from my fist, ready as I ever would be to defend us against the other animal about to appear from around the corner. It wasn’t the first time I’d wished I’d taken time to find a bigger weapon. Cassie’s shoulders knocked at my back and I turned, watching the end of her swing, pulling the prongs from beneath its skin. My eyes caught on the back door and its brass handle, all of a sudden fixed on why neither of us had tried it.
Cold in my grip, I held the handle hard like my life depended on what happened in the next few seconds, but as it pivoted, the door swung open. I stood in disbelief for longer than a moment. My breath fell away and I eventually turned, still without saying a word. My hand leapt forward to Cassie at my back, just in time to pull her out of the arch of a sweeping clawed attack. I yanked so hard she tripped backwards over the concrete step, the air rushing out of her lungs as I struggled to lessen her fall. Still, I dragged her further in, only letting go to leap back to the door, pushing it closed with my shoulder, pulling back a split second before it could slam.
We still had a chance. The creature was the other side, his hands batting useless against the glass.
I dropped to the floor with my back at the door, leaning hard in case it gained sentience and pushed the handle. Cassie had the right idea and scurried up against the kitchen counter, staying low. Together we listened to each other’s breath and the excited thud, thud, thud of beech against once human flesh. Listened to the satisfying crack of bone against concrete, our eyes fixed hard on each other. I broke away for a moment, checking the lock, but found it empty. There was no key in the door.
The thing was down, at rest again. This time as it should be. Permanently.
The one who’d done the deed was not. He was still on the opposite side of the thin wood door and all he need do was push the handle.
My eyes darted around the room. We were in a modern, open plan kitchen, a breakfast bar at my side, tall stools not so far away. Across all but one wall were dark, granite doored cupboards. I couldn’t tell any more, was too low to see if there was anything of use on the counter tops. A long knife, or a cleaver sat in a knife block, my preference. Still I’d have to get in quick, get in quietly, like the SAS, minus the years of training.
I heard footsteps, feet scuffing on the concrete behind. Cassie’s eyes told me she saw shadows moving closer. There was no time to form a plan, to figure out the best course of action. Slowly moving from my butt to my knees, I watched Cassie roll from where I’d let her fall and was walking on all fours, scrabbling with me at her back to the carpeted hallway.
The hall was bright and I continued to the follow, to take her lead as she rose to her feet, jogging across the short gap to the stairs, carefully lowering her feet to each step as she rose. With my first step from the ground floor I heard a smash of glass and leapt up higher, pushing her on. She’d heard the sound too, the twinkling of the glass to the tiled floor from what we knew was the business end of the baseball bat raking on the rectangle of glass.
We were up the stairs and in the front bedroom, the floor creaking wild with each step as we took in the straight edged double bed in the centre. A wardrobe ran across the far wall and a door tucked in the opposite corner. A call came from outside, but we couldn’t get the detail. The skin head replied. He was in the house, his bat dragging along the worktops, knocking whatever had been in its path according to the constant shatter.
“Give us a hand, we’ve hit the jackpot.”
Chapter Fifty Four
Hoping it was the promise of the plush interior, the high end kitchen, the mirrored chest of drawers, the flat-screen TVs we’d seen in each room, and not the promise of our bodies for sport, which was giving rise to his excitement. Motioning to Cassie, I stepped slow and cautious across the thick-piled carpet, heading towards the door I hoped held a secret escape hatch to a hidden basement. Pulling the door open as fast as I dared dashed my hopes the owners were paranoid, obsessed with their safety. At least they kept their hinges well oiled. Inside was a dark, narrow walk-in wardrobe, rows of shoes shelved on one wall from floor to ceiling. On the opposite side clothes hung down from a pole, the floor piled with plastic boxes. Everything neat, spick and span.
Stepping with care, we walked along the centre, bathing us in total darkness as I pulled the door closed. By touch, we felt our way to the far end, pausing with each lull in the commotion below. Our breath held as another voice joined in the laughter, but resumed as the chaos increased in volume. The floor creaked as we arrived at the end and Cassie crouched to the floor as wordless, I took an arm full of clothes from the rail and scattered them across the floor. With a second armful, I sat, pulled the clothes on top of our heads, trying our best to cover ourselves, moving only to pull the screwdriver back into my fist.
Cassie shuffled closer beside me as we heard the footsteps on the stairs directly below. Her breath stopped, if only for a moment as their voices grew louder, their excitement cutting clean through the walls. I tried to visualise the pair. One we knew. One we’d seen too much of already, his bald head fixed in my mind, probably forever. The other I could only guess, but it was the weapon my mind fixated on. Now they’d reached the stop of stairs, the gently warping boards underneath confirming, their voices soon moving to our side. They were in the main bedroom.
My concentration fixed on their words, seeking their intention. Were they really such a threat? We’d only seen the skin head defend himself. The two voices were distinct, the skin head’s much lower, still the second had morphed into the sentry who’d stood at the back of the pack, a short guy with an iron bar in his hand. I knew it was wishful thinking. Howls of animal excitement bounded through the walls, Cassie jumping as a window smashed and some animal chant rang out. A distant joyous call came back.
I reached across with my left hand, found Cassie’s and squeezed, wordless to reassure her they were looters only out for the prize. They weren’t hunting us. I didn’t reassure myself. She squeezed back. I had no idea if I’d helped, but I stopped worrying as they started to talk.
“You hear where we’re going next?” came the skin head’s voice edged with concentration as I felt myself shaking, the first signs of my body thawing. Warm for the first time in days.
“Yeah,” came the slightly higher pitched reply. “It’s bullshit, right? Some hospital in St Buryan?”
“It’s true,” the skin head said. “Some do-gooder set it up like a field hospital. Takes in those that can’t look after themselves. The ones who didn’t get out. Once we’ve done the house down the road, that is.”
I turned to Cassie, felt her hot breath on my face. Her hand moved, her arm curling around my mine, squeezing tight.
“I don’t get it,” came the other voice. “Pass the screwdriver.” There was a long pause. “Fuck’s sake.”
“Careful,” said the skin head. “You damage it and I ain’t protecting you.”
“Shut up,” came the reply. “Go on then tell me the secret. Why the fuck are we going to a fucking hospital? Someone ill?”
“Gordy’s got the shits,” he said and they broke out in laughter. “Nah, seriously. They got supplies, right? Medicine, food and petrol. Stuff that’s worth a thousand times what it used to be, at least while all this shit’s going on.” I felt Cassie’s arm squeeze tighter. There was silence in the other room and I worried somehow they might have felt it too.
“But won’t there be lots of people there?” the short guy replied.
“Yes you twat. The weak and the sick and those stupid enough to hang back and look after them. They’ll be no one protecting them, except maybe a few old men. It’ll be a walk in the park and we’ll be king of the castle.” The pair broke into a high laugh. “You look constipated.”
“Fuck off,” the other voice replied. “What I don’t get is why we’re getting all the TVs and stuff? There’s no fucking juice.”
“You twat. It ain’t gonna be like this forever. We live in one of the richest countries in the world and you think they’ll let this stop us. You’re more of a mug than I thought. Give it a couple more weeks, maybe a month, this will all be over and we’ll have a stock pile of TVs to sell when the internet’s back on.” There was a pause and I pictured the short guy’s expression changing, realisation lighting up his face.
I hoped he was right.
His reply was laughter and we went back to listening to the sound of their effort.
“Shove it on the bed,” the skin head soon said. “Then we’ll have a look in that cupboard. I reckon there’s sweet shit hiding away.”
Chapter Fifty Five
“What I don’t get,” the short guy said, but was interrupted.
“What do you fucking get?” said the skinhead as the volume of his laughter tailed off. Cramps were pulling at my calfs, but I feared a stretch would make too much noise. Instead, I tried my best to relax, to keep my concentration on their words.
“Fuck off. Seriously though. What I don’t get is how after only two days of this shit, there’s already a field hospital.” His voice was getting quieter. A rush of excitement spiked up through my stomach as I realised they’d forgotten to check our hiding place.
“Only two days,” the skinhead said, a vein of sarcasm running through his tone. I couldn’t make out the rest of what he was saying. I tried to stand and felt Cassie’s warm hand reach for mine. Ignoring her pleading grip, I tried again, standing, tentative at first, searching out their decaying voices, each word less distinct, all while I listened for the first signs of a report from under my feet. The sound of their footfalls had been so obvious and I knew the same would be for where I stood. Still, I had to take the risk, just had to hear what was being said. This hospital sounded exactly the place we needed for Nat. She was in no condition to travel, but maybe we could convince someone to come to her. A house call, if we ever got out of this cupboard.
I crept to the door clutching the screwdriver in my fist, the voices getting louder than the difference a few steps should have made.
“Look. There’s an evacuation on New Year’s Eve. No one explains a thing, but then it stops before it gets going, leaving behind whoever wasn’t around to get the first call.” There was a long pause. I had no idea why. According to the floor boards and their changing volumes, they were back in the bedroom and moving around.
“Then this morning we saw those military helicopters buzzing around, with their massive machine guns shooting at the ground. We must have hid three or four times. Right?” Another pause. “They seemed to have stopped too. Haven’t seen any for a few hours. Right? But in all that time someone’s set up a field hospital and stocked it with supplies and found people willing to help. That’s what I don’t get.”
The voice changed for the first time in a while.
“You think it’s bollocks?” the skin head said, his tone showing the first sign of a serious edge. The short guy spoke again, finding a new confidence.
“I’ve got no fucking idea. I’m just saying it don’t seem right, that’s all.”
The skin head huffed a reply, his voice all of sudden loud as if he was the other side of the door. I tried to calm my breath, fearing he was so close he could hear the pound of my chest.
“I tell you what don’t seem right. When a place like this gets done out like a New York apartment and is abandoned for ten months of the year because their London pad has better internet access and the local shop sells beard oil, leaving people like me, honest and hard working, priced out of the market.”
“Honest?” came the short guy’s reply and I heard what sounded like a pained call.
“Anyway, for once you might be right, but wrong somehow. I reckon there’s more going on,” said the skin head.
“Huh?” said the short guy, their voices getting quieter. I crept up closer to the door, but still I couldn’t quite make out the words anymore. I looked back to Cassie, but even though we’d been in here for an age, my night vision needed at least something to work with. I was blind. Swapping the screwdriver to my left hand, I found the handle with my right. Slowing my breath, I tried again to listen. A hurrying call came from out on the road. I could only make out the tone.
“It was four or five days ago, I think. It wasn’t even mentioned on the news,” came the skins head’s voice suddenly clear. “Shit. The cupboard.”
I’d missed the interesting part of what was said, only the last few words coming through clear as day. The floorboards under the carpet creaked, vibrating with a speed that left me no time to decide, no time to hold the handle firm, to lean against the door, or move my meagre weapon to my strongest hand before the light poured in and forced my eyes into a squint. I wasn’t surprised to see the short guy stood there. Wasn’t surprised to see him pull up to a stop, his hand right hand still on the handle as he swung it open, his left hand empty. He looked up from the floor and our eyes locked, our faces sharing the same shocked expression.
Chapter Fifty Six
My right fist swung quicker than he could step clear, connecting clean to his nose, crunching the cartilage with a sound I’d remember for a long time. He stumbled backward, tripping over his own feet, but I passed him by, it wasn’t him I feared the most. The skinhead was who I had to deal with. He was the one I knew would run and raise the alarm, changing the odds to somewhere we would never have a hope to handle. Surging past the short guy, I helped him stay down on the floor, hearing the ruffle of movement at my back as my eyes fixed forward. The skinhead was only just turning. Hugged between his arms was the TV once hung from the wall. My biggest fear was if he surged forward, using the sixty diagonal inches as a weapon which would be just as effective as the baseball bat lain on the bed. Instead he stood dumbfounded, dropping the TV as I barrelled toward him pointing my right shoulder square on his chest, adrenaline pushing the pain out of my head.
The edge of the TV smashed across his black booted feet. He reeled back, arms still wide, presenting an open target for my shoulder as it barged into the centre of his chest and sent us both to floor. The air bellowed out of his lungs, his head slapped back against the carpet. The TV sandwiched between us as I fell on top of him, stars sparking across my vision from the new found pain in my chest. I closed my eyes, but opened to find his closed too, long enough for me hover the screwdriver over his left eye before it opened.
I thought the skin around his eyes would break as they sprung wide, his pupils darting between the point of the screwdriver and my face as it hovered just above his. My concern turned to Cassie, but I couldn’t move my attention away, knew he’d have me on my side if I flinched even the slightest. But there was no sound of a struggle. I had to know.
“You okay?” came her hurried voice before I had a chance to give my question. I flinched the screwdriver down to his neck, pushing just enough so he knew I was serious. I flicked a look back to see Cassie with her foot on the short guy’s neck, the crowbar in a double handed hold poised above her head. We’d got them and all without making a noise, but now we had to do something with our advantage.
My first thoughts were to tie them up, shut them in the cupboard, but we already knew they were getting impatient outside, would quickly find them and come hunting for us. My second thought was for a more permanent solution, but I couldn’t stomach an intentional act, couldn’t take someone’s life in cold blood.
“What now?” said Cassie, her voice matching my worry.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Either way we’re fucked.”
“We have to kill them,” Cassie said. The short guy whimpered, but the skinhead’s face seemed to harden at the words.
“I can’t,” I replied. “And nor can you.”
“Then what?” she said, her voice calm. I sensed her gratitude for my words. We all had enough to worry about, already had enough to regret when we closed our eyes.
“We’ll shove them in the cupboard, barricade the door. They’ll be found soon enough,” I said. “And we’ll be gone.”
“But they’re going to the house?” Cassie said, a new tension in her voice.
“You going to be a good boy? Leave us alone?” I said turning downward. I didn’t believe him for one moment as he replied with a nod.
Still holding the screwdriver tight to his neck, I let myself slide from the TV and down to the floor. Keeping an even pressure, I got to my knees, trying to not reel from the pain in my chest.
“Push it off,” I said, motioning to the TV. He slid it to his right, holding his head as still as he could. “Put your hands in your pockets,” I said and he pushed his hands into his skinny jeans. Leaving a thin red mark, I pulled the screwdriver back, but kept it poised, hovering, ready to strike.
A muffled gunshot shook the building. I couldn’t stop myself from flinching around to the window, my eyes meeting Cassie’s at its side. I watched her face alarm, but too late I realised my mistake. The screwdriver snatched from my hand, pain searing in the side of my chest.
Chapter Fifty Seven
As my head swung back, I watched the screwdriver twist in his hand. He’d hit me with the handle and relief rained down. I wasn’t about to feel the delayed effect of a puncture to my chest. There was still a chance despite the pain, which was strong enough to force the breath from my lungs, to hamper my fists as they balled. I swung out my left arm, moving to block a second blow. His grip was poor and the tool went spiralling under the bed as my arm swung wide against his.
Smashing my right fist against his cheek, he reacted with only the slightest flinch, barely showing the pain searing up through my fist had been of any worth. A second blow and his hand was up at my head, clubbing my temple again and again with a speed I had no hope to match. With each strike I felt the weight of my fist lighten, the edge of my vision blacking, forming a circle like a Photoshop filter. The blows kept coming and so did mine, albeit slower. He was angling me to his side with his body while I fought to find a soft spot on his skull. His aim went wide, catching the back of my head. My legs gave way and I rolled to the side, blackness fell all around, but I still felt the floor rise to jar against my back.
My eyes were open, but I hadn’t missed time. He was rising to his feet, his face bloodier than I remembered inflicting. His features screwed up with rage, anger pouring in my direction, but rather than coming straight at me, he turned. I followed his eyes to the short guy on his back, him and Cassie were each holding the crowbar with both their hands, each trying to turn in the opposite direction, to twist away out of the other’s grip. The skinhead had moved, twisted around and was launching himself away at pace. He was going for the baseball bat laying on the bed.
My eyes dropped to the floor and I saw the screwdriver nestled in the thick pile of the carpet underneath. I rolled, barrelling my way with my arms tucked up in vain, but still with every rotation, every twist, the darkness closed in around my dizzying vision. Stopping only as I hit his feet, I reached out, but before I could make contact under the bed, a size ten boot smashed my legs together just below the knee. My hands reeled back and I rolled away, a vision of Cassie still locked in battle cycled passed my view. Hitting the wall, I once again stopped and saw the skinhead with the handle of the bat in both hands, the wood raised high above his head, one foot going in front of the other in my direction.
I tried to scrabble to my feet, but the new pain in my knee just left me laying. Time was up. He was close enough and the swing of the bat was committed. Instead of lunging forward, trying to get as close to him as I could, I pushed up tight to the wall. The bat swung, catching just the edge of my coat. I grabbed for the rounded end as he was pulling it back, trying to raise it high and he inadvertently helped me to my feet, but not for long. My left knee collapsed and I fell, pushing off the wall with my good leg, my arms grabbing around his waist, sending myself forward, him back, the bat hitting him square in the face as he hit the floor. He lay still for a moment, his eyes fluttering open and closed. I knew it would be just for a moment and saw the screwdriver glinting under the bed.
With one last thrust, and using all my energy, knowing if this didn’t work I would be spent, would be wide open for him to do his worst, my finger connected with the handle, the tip of my index touching the wooden end, edging it slowly closer. I flinched a look and saw him rolling at my side. My fingers clutched around the handle and I lunged the screwdriver down, only able to aim in his last known direction. Before the driver connected, I saw the bat raised above my head, but the screwdriver fell from my grip. The bat swung down, hitting my shoulder with little force. Blood sprayed from his neck and I saw the crowbar embedded deep as he fell forward, showering me in his warmth.
His full, dead weight landed on my chest, leaving only my head uncovered to see Cassie behind him, her eyes wide, not able to hide the shock of what she’d just done. I was powerless to help as the short guy picked up a glass perfume bottle from the mirrored dresser, smashing it against her head, sending her sprawling, blooded to the floor.
His eyes too fixed in awe as he looked around the room, at his pal who couldn’t be saved, at the crowbar as he pulled it from the neck dripping with blood, at me as he drew the crowbar high, at Cassie as he swung it down towards my face.
Chapter Fifty Eight
The first we knew were the multi-coloured spotlights going dark, leaving the inside of The Logan Rock lit only with the emergency lights as they sparked to life over the double doors. The music fell away as the spots stopped spinning, just the rumbling groans of confusion left behind as the last cold beer drained down my neck. I had no idea of the time, but we hadn’t sung together, so there must have been a long while to go before the telly chimed twelve times over.
The second we knew was on the long walk home, mobiles and the landline were dead, no taxis could respond and the car park emptied all too quickly. Leaving my best buddy and I with no choice, we walked, tripping over our feet in the pitch black, but out in the middle of nowhere where we lived, the darkness didn’t mean a thing. Halfway to home the road lit with a constant stream of coaches, each in a hurry, none stopping to tell us the news and before long they had gone. Helicopters replaced their noise, the sky filling with blinking lights high above our heads. Between us we gave up racking our brains through all the possibilities. It wasn’t until we reached my house, finding the place double locked, Mum and Dad not answering to the hammering, the car gone, that I took things as serious as I could after drinking since lunch time. There was nothing we could do, no one to ask for help, so we walked the next mile to Mike’s house in a drink fuelled haze, flocks of helicopters coming and going over our heads.
His house was the same, but that’s how he’d left it, his girlfriend having already stormed out on Christmas Eve, something to do with spending too much time with his mates. The power was off there too, so after ten minutes of rifling in drawers he’d never been in, we lit candles and started on the beer warming in the fridge. I awoke still in my coat, coughing to clear acrid smoke from my lungs, it was morning, I first thought as I opened my eyes to the brightness in the room. Realisation took only a moment, fire had taken control of the other half of the room, the half where Mike had sat as we both fell asleep. I couldn’t see, but knew he wouldn’t still be there, couldn’t sit in the centre of the flames. Coughing up my lungs, I fell to all fours and tired to remember the layout, tried twice to navigate in the bright smoke which blocked each way I turned. Somehow I found my way to the door, found my way through the kitchen, told only by the change of floor. Found my way out to the front of the house in the freezing cold with the early morning light just coming over the horizon.
I watched the house burning for no longer than a few seconds before I screamed, calling out for help, banging on the four neighbour’s doors, but all in vain. His house was engulfed as I returned, Mike nowhere to be seen and the horrible truth sunk in. He was still in the corner and I’d left him there to die, my only thoughts were to save myself. Why the hell hadn’t the fire brigade come? I fell to the ground in the middle of the road and there I lay tears streaming as the fire warmed my face and the cold bit into my back.
After not too long I headed back to the first house, to where people had lived that I didn’t know. I smashed my elbow through the glass in the front door, had the place open in no time at all. Inside was decked out for Christmas, long lines of decorations ran along the hall ceiling, tinsel wrapped around the phone just inside the door. I batted the stuffed Father Christmas to the floor and pulled up the receiver, pushing the three digits even though I hadn’t registered the tone I needed to hear. I let the phone drop as no one answered and stared out at the flames as the roof caved in on Mike’s house. He’d lived there for five years, had bought the place with the girlfriend, but would have to sell. Not any more. It was someone else’s problem.
It was warm in the house and I wondered around trying to think of what I should do next. We lived in the middle of nowhere, all the cars gone, I would have to walk, to find out what the hell this was all about. The rest of the house was decorated the same, not one corner had escaped the cheap, plastic coated decorations. The tree was up in the front room; the presents gone from underneath; the lights washed out, unlit, the switch not working. I sat in a great armchair, dust flew up and I could smell the owners and stood. A shadow moved passed the window, there was someone in the road, someone had heard my calls and was ambling down the street in awe of the fire.
Rushing out of the front door, I saw a young, twenty something brunette, my eyebrows rising. Things were looking up. Her clothes were a little ragged, jeans had some dark mark across the front and her top was ripped open, a white bra exposed. I could see her full cups. Things were looking up. She hadn’t noticed me yet, her eyes staring to the fire, her feet rising slow one after the other heading towards where my friend had died.
“You okay?” I said from the doorway and she turned to meet me. Above her eyes was a great bruise, blood had dried as it had rolled down from the injury. Her eyes latched onto mine. She was pale and seemed a little dazed. She’d been in a car accident, that was clear and I looked down the road for the car, but saw nothing. I ran inside, pulled a coat from the hook and rushed back over, offering out the warmth. She couldn’t take her eyes off me. Things were looking up, but first I needed to get her to the hospital.
Chapter Fifty Nine
Her hand reached out batting the coat to the side. I took a step nearer, raising the best smile my banging head could manage, but I brew back as I caught more than just the acrid smoke still burning inside my nostrils. Turning on the spot, I searched again, trying to figure out how I would get her to the hospital when I couldn’t even get myself a ride. I stepped around her, attempting again to push the coat to her shoulders, but she twisted, following my turn, her body stiff, unnatural and I started to think maybe the head wound had done substantial damage.
Reaching her hands out, the smell of the acrid smoke intensifying as she grabbed hold of the arm of my jacket. With a tremendous grip, she wouldn’t let go, her mouth opening and closing, leaning to pull me closer. I flinched away, protecting my hand as she drew it to her mouth. She was in serious trouble, her brain damaged. I hoped there was something the doctors could do about it.
I pulled my arm clear and stepped away, over and again as she reached out unrelenting, letting the neighbour’s coat fall from her shoulders. The roar of an engine broke the cycle, finally someone was coming who could help the injured woman to safety. Stepping backwards, I carried on around in a circle with her continuing to follow in the middle of the road, all with an eye on the building noise. I expected to see one of those coaches from the night before, or a fire engine, an ambulance, police maybe. Hope holding out they weren’t a thing of the past. I hadn’t expected the Land Rover Defender rocking on its squealing tyres as it barely made the corner. I hadn’t expected to see someone in the driver’s seat I recognised more as he grew closer. Although I was still hopeful, the shine of his bald head and the snarling grin couldn’t have been anyone else.
It was Damien Edwards. We’d gone to school together. We were at the same school, at least. He was a loner, someone who hung at the periphery of our large group, but no one would have called him a friend. He was troubled, conflicted. One moment full of confidence, talking for hours about nothing at all, the next he was bullying some kid, whoever he’d picked out to break the boredom.
I’d rarely been his target, but I’d watched many others in his crosshairs. He’d done all the maturing he ever would long before he joined halfway through secondary school. He was the kid who’d pulled the legs from a spider, then ate the rest just to show you he could. When you laughed, he’d tell us to go fuck ourselves, punching out in a random direction. He’d been a skinhead ever since he’d joined, we had no idea if his hair could grow or if he shaved every day.
He’d left school at sixteen, like the rest of us and got a job, but was fired more times than I can count. He didn’t play nice with others. Each time I saw him, usually for an awkward conversation in the pub, he’d have another tattoo to show off. Now he was driving down the road in a car that couldn’t be his, wearing a broad smile as he saw me fending of the mentally damaged young woman who needed help.
“Mackenzie. Fucking knew you’d get left behind. Did they miss you because you’re so fucking short?” he said as he pulled up. When I didn’t reply he turned to Mike’s house as more of the roof caved to the ground. “He toast?” he said eyeing up the burning house. I didn’t know what to say, distracted by the ever increasing ferocity of the woman flinching towards me. “She fight back?” he said eyeing her up and down.
I looked back and he must have seen my glazed expression and he jumped from the driver’s seat as he pushed the door wide. Forcing the woman away again I noticed the triangle of the long knife gripped tight in his right leather gloved hand.
“You don’t getting it?” he said laughing as he spoke.
I shook my head. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“You think she’s fit, right?” he said. I stepped back, not responding. The woman swapped her attention to Damien and let me step back without following. I watched as he offered out his left hand. The woman snapped her teeth together before lurching forward and biting down with a snap as she just missed the thick leather. Damien grabbed her by the hair before she could rise for another strike and her eyes rolled to see what had hold. “She’s not there anymore,” he said twisting her face toward me.
I shook my head. What I saw was a woman in trouble. I tried to protest, but the words wouldn’t come.
“Still don’t get it do you?” he said and when I didn’t reply he thrust her head forward, her bloodshot eyes snapped wide, latching onto mine. I jumped back and she lurched forward, her hands grabbing my arms. I stumbled backwards to the ground and she came after, her body and that stench falling. I tried to scrabble back, pushing hard with my legs, but they couldn’t move with her weight.
Her head punched forward, she had my arms pinned to my side. Her breath stank like rotting shit, the stench forced out with her every effort. I looked deep into her features hoping to see I’d been right, but there something missing. Everything missing. Only decay left. In my peripheral vision I saw Damien’s boot arrive by my head and he leant down.
“You get it now?” he said, his breath didn’t smell too much better. His hand reached out to her hair, pulling her head up. She didn’t complain, her mouth just continued to snap open and closed. “Choose. I haven’t got all day,” he said. I turned to see the sun glinting off his knife as he knocked her right grip from my arm and pushed the handle of the blade into my hand, letting go of her hair. Her head snapped forward and without both my hands to keep her at bay, I watched her teeth zoom towards my face, filling my view.
Teeth snapped forward grazing my nose and her head pulled back, saliva dripping cold to my cheeks as she dived forward for a second try. Despite knowing she was trying to take off my face, every muscle in my body felt tight, but wouldn’t release. My mind couldn’t let me muster the will to take her life, my hand frozen around the handle of the knife. Her perfect white teeth lurched forward again. I knew there was something wrong, something alien, absent, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I did the only thing possible at that moment. Closing my eyes, I gave up.
Feeling her weight collapse over me, the air forced from my lungs and my eyes shot open. I rolled her to the side, turning away as her blood cool as ice, splattered across my face. Panting for breath I looked up and saw Damien standing over me, a wide yellow toothed grin beaming down, blood dripping from a paring knife in his right hand.
“I saved your life you pussy, now you owe me,” he said and snatched the knife from my hand. “Welcome to the new world baby,” he said and jumped back in the Land Rover, leaving me laying, panting on the floor. With his door slamming closed I stood staring at the body, her brown hair still perfect with just a thin line of blood running slowly from the wound at her temple.
“Get in,” Damien shouted, but I didn’t move, was still transfixed on the dead woman at my feet. He repeated, his tone sharper, this time it wasn’t a request. It was choice time again and I took the cowardly way out, climbing into the passenger seat, knowing I’d failed the test. I couldn’t protect myself and knew I’d have to surround myself with those who could if I was going to survive.
We didn’t speak, the hierarchy established. Instead I watched out of the window, the empty roads, the parked cars all gone too, the streets empty of life, only the farm animals out in the fields. We drove for about ten miles not seeing a soul, only the fires on the horizon growing in number. When eventually we saw people in their cars, they were queuing, I could see some sort of checkpoint way off into the distance, but I couldn’t even muster the courage to tell Damien to stop the car, to let me out as he turned away, following his instinct to keep from anything official.
His only reaction was when we came across a small group of what seemed to be people he knew. I was barely introduced to the four when their intent became clear, they were breaking into a small group of houses, helping themselves to everything of value. Damien was happy to go along and so was I, apparently. I did what I was told, stayed at the back of the two cars while Damien was posted at the front and we watched, waited, me with an iron bar I’d been given, Damien with a baseball bat.
I didn’t know my role until I spotted someone coming up the road, their walk so much like the woman who’d been killed whilst on top of me, as were the five others following behind. My muscles froze, giving the same reaction, tension gripped my chest and my limbs locked up. I could barely muster the words to call Damien, my voice high and feminine when I eventually did. I watched on, managing only to move well back, while Damien called for the others and as they exploded out, bombarding each of the things my head couldn’t give a name. They barely had time to fight back under the unflinching onslaught, whilst all I could do was lose whatever I had left in my stomach on the side of the road as one by one they passed me, looking down their noses, my eyes to the ground.
And so it went on for the next two days. I’d watch as they’d go around the houses smashing down the doors, pulling out everything that once had a value. Most times I would just have to stand there, every so often I would call and have Damien take care of those that happened upon where we were. I tried once more to build myself up, to take control, but my body wouldn’t let me even though it had become obvious those things weren’t recognisable as human. I was barely of use, no more than a lookout and that’s how I was treated.
In the evening before darkness took over, we’d head back to a warehouse on a tiny industrial estate, all the buildings abandoned, like everywhere else. There we’d pile up what we’d found, cash, electronics and food. A fire would be started, burning pallets soaked in petrol for warmth and we’d each be handed out the spoils. I was given the smallest share, barely a portion, but I didn’t complain, knowing there was no one to come along and help if they kicked my ass and left me for dead.
The next morning I woke up determined to change my situation, fixed on getting passed my fear, intent on getting respect. We started the day like the previous, a small group of houses, but we didn’t get any visitors. With each downward look from the others my resolve increased. I wanted to be treated as an equal and the only way I would get it was to ditch whatever was stopping me from killing these creatures.
The second set of houses proved more promising, not long after we’d arrived, I saw one of those creatures heading towards Damien’s end, a farmer it looked from how he’d been dressed. Damien dealt with it. I followed up behind as I saw another, but my chance had gone, he’d despatched him before I got near. I followed him to the garden and spotted the inside of the house, a glitzy, modern style full of loot. My mum would have gone mad, she hated anything, but the traditional. Damien seemed please when I pointed it out and let me break in, allowing me to tag along to gut the place, letting me talk now we were alone.
About to finish and being called back to the road, I opened a cupboard door and there was one of the creatures. It launched an attack, knocking me to the ground, shooting past me and going for Damien. I hadn’t frozen and knew this was my chance, then another launched out, blindsiding me. Shaking off the blow, I saw her on Damien, but she was easy to deal with and I pushed her to the side. It was my turn to save him, to get even. Snatching the crowbar from the nasty wound in Damien’s neck, he fell on top of the creature who’d attacked me. This was the moment I would prove my worth.
Chapter Sixty One
“Noooo,” I screamed, the word coming slow as adrenaline pushed my senses to the limit for what I knew could be the last time. I saw his eyes intent on mine, watched them change, saw them widen, a light blinking on behind. The crowbar still swung, but veered off to the side and I felt the pressure on my chest as it crashed down on the slumped shiny smooth head of the man already dead. In his eyes I saw the confusion, saw the battle, saw Cassie rise high, my screwdriver in her hand, watched as he noticed her, but not until it was too late, the tip of the driver plunging past his eyes, buckling his legs. His arms fell moments after, the crowbar clattering to the floor alongside his body.
I tried scrabbling up, tried pushing the dead weight from my chest. It had only been moments, but that smell was already catching in my lungs. Flesh putrefying. Cassie was standing, her mouth agape, breath panting hard, blood rolling down the side of her face. She turned, saw my struggle and helping me pull the body by the arm, I saw the moment she caught the fetid smell. Her nose turned up, features hardened. The body was off and I knelt to the bed, wiping my face of blood on the once pristine covers. Turning as I climbed to my feet, I saw the end of the crowbar diving deep through the skin head’s eye socket.
A second booming gunshot rattled the house, from a shotgun I was sure as we caught each other’s glances before running to the window. The older of the looters was staggering backwards along the path from the cottage we’d last seen his group attacking, behind him he left a trail of blood, his face fixed through the open door. A third shot was louder than we’d yet heard and his body shook, but he hadn’t been the target.
“Look,” Cassie said and I turned, following her blooded, outstretched finger in the direction their cars had first arrived. Blinking away the drying blood, I rubbed my eyes hoping when I opened the first vision would have gone. As my view cleared I saw twenty or more of what appeared to be old age pensioners in gowns, jumpers and tweed jackets, each walking with a new lease of life, their posture hung over and their pace slow, but still they looked too pronounced, too put together for what had been their age before they’d died.
“Where the hell are they all coming from?” I said, not expecting an answer.
“We weren’t the only ones left behind,” Cassie said as another gunshot rattled the window. We turned to each other, both our heads moving to peer in the opposite direction, looking passed the buildings blocking our view, trying our best to reach out to know if our friends were okay, if they were ready if we couldn’t protect them.
“We need to,” I was saying when I turned, but Cassie was already moving, already grabbing the baseball bat from the floor, already at the door. I followed, holding my chest, limping on my knee, stopping to pull the crowbar from the skinhead’s eyes, trying not to listen as it sucked out from the deep wound. “Get to the cars,” I shouted, following as quick as I could down the stairs, rushing as fast as I could to get to where she was waiting at the backdoor smashed up to the side, weaving around the obstacle course of TVs, consoles, DVD players and plastic boxes overflowing with designer shoes.
Out of the door Cassie looked left and right, our eyes only meeting for a moment, hers dropping to my knee as I leant heavy against the wall. She paused, offered me the baseball bat and I shook my head. I didn’t need a walking stick. Around the corner of the building, I waited at her shoulder, was about to edge my way out when another gunshot ripped through the air, followed by a searing howl of pain. Cassie was off, running fast between the houses, not looking back, not waiting for me. She was out and across the tarmac, crouched down by the side of the pickup, its rear overflowing with boxes and gadgets, all before I had cleared the gap.
I waited at the front of the house, seeing the procession of the elderly impossibly close, almost at the rear of the Land Rover. Cassie’s eyes were twitching everywhere, but she couldn’t see another backing away from the door of the looter’s cottage. He dressed the same as they others, a long kitchen knife held high in his right hand, the left pointing up empty. She couldn’t see the body lain out on the path leading away from the house, it was the man we’d watched emerge trailing blood. I watched her flinch as another shot raced from the house, watched as the guy dropped the knife, collapsing to the floor, watched the car knock her back as shot slammed against the front of the pickup, exploding the front left tyre.
She turned, saw me standing between the building, held her hand out for me to stay put, but my look flinched away as I saw one of the tracksuits appear, running hard, from the back of the building, his aim heading for the Land Rover, its engine still running. The group of dead elderly inmates of a forgotten nursing home all flinched in his direction in a uniform turn. Somehow his speed had caught their collective attention and they ignored Cassie altogether as they changed their course, veering towards the passenger door. He didn’t make it. A shot slammed against him, his wails of pain telling us it wasn’t a clean kill. Still the creatures headed in his direction, his vocal agony seeming to urge them on.
I ran, or tried, hobbling, almost collapsing on my knee each time I put down weight. Cassie had seen my move and made her own, leaping towards the Land Rover. The creatures picked up on her run and the group split down the middle, changing their course. Still she made it to the door, pulled it wide and was in, despite the wrinkled hands scrabbling, bones crunching as she slammed the door hard. Grinding the gears, she kangarooing around the pick up. I changed my course and headed for the passenger door. I was going to make it, but as I turned to the cottage, I saw an old man in the doorway, his face wet with tears and both barrels of a shotgun pointed in my direction.
Chapter Sixty Two
The Land Rover bucking, Cassie struggled at the controls as I came around the passenger door with no shots fired, limbs still attached. We were making slow progress even once I’d sat, still only just drawing alongside the cottage. I couldn’t help but tempt fate, turning to stare at the door, hoping he’d not cleared a jam, wasn’t reloading a shell, wouldn’t be repointing both barrels and pulling the trigger.
He was still stood with his features set harsh, but the shotgun pointed to the ground and a woman leant on his shoulder. Her hand moved, hugging his waist. Her eyes fixed on mine, a kind smile on her creased face and were out of view in a moment.
“Swap over,” I said and Cassie stared back, her face set in a terrified expression as she let go of the wheel and lifted her feet. Our heads rocked forward as the engine stalled. Fists hammered at the windows, daylight dulling as torsos crowded, their flesh weak against the glass. Checking my door, I made sure it was locked, Cassie matching as she questioned me with just her face.
“Climb over,” I said and watched as she rose from her seat, awkwardly curling her left leg across the centre console. Right soon followed left, then came her body. For a moment she hovered above me, but her hands gave way and she collapsed to my lap. My senses lit and not just with the pain as I felt her warmth through her clothes, through mine. Her hands were on my thighs, were flat, drawing me in. Clenching my teeth I hoped time would not move on, but the soft hammering of the windows reminded our situation, reminded us we had to get going, had to move, to get away from those things and from anyone who wouldn’t care for what we’d just shared. Pushing her high against my pain, she hovered above me with her hands on the door and I slid, issuing a tirade of foul language before slapping down into the driver’s seat.
The car was surrounded with the elderly creatures, wrinkled skin, thin hair and that smell already radiating as if the windows were wide open. I turned the key and the engine sprung to life, the car leaping forward just before it died. Glancing at Cassie, her eyes were all over the windows as she backed away, moving as close as she could to the centre. I pulled the car out of gear and turned the key again, letting the engine roar. The creatures only reacted as we moved, the front four disappearing below the bonnet, the bull bars pushing them down, the suspension and hefty tyres hiding most of the sensation of their bones crushing as we drove.
Twisting to watch as the crowd followed, Cassie called out before I could round the corner.
“Stop,” she said, slamming her hand on the dashboard. “You’re leading them to the cottage.” I hit the brakes hard, having to lock my arms to stop myself from hitting the windscreen. She was right. In the mirror I watched the group of fifteen or more barely stumble as they crossed over their fallen. “Turn around,” she said and my eyes caught hers, they were wide and serious. I gunned the engine, turning the wheel full lock to the right, before coming to a rest and staring at the pack, their heads locked in our direction.
Cassie had taken a wide paper map from the dashboard.
“They’ve marked where they’ve been,” she said, turning the paper so I could flinch my eyes from the windscreen and to the black crosses scoring out several clusters of houses radiating out in a circle. Snatching a look forward, my eyes returned to the paper and found a wider concentration of buildings, a large cross pinpointing a darker area. I nodded in its direct and she let the map drop.
“Let’s lead them away,” I said.
Letting the speed build, I took out a cluster of three, splitting the group as their heads snapped forward, denting the bonnet one after the other. Watching in the mirror, I slowed as each turned and they started to follow. Cassie twisted in her seat and nodded, picking up the map and concentrating on the marking I’d pointed out.
“It’s the hospital they were talking about,” she said, not looking up from the page. “That’s where we need to be.”
“What about the others?” I replied, using all my willpower not to take us as far away from those things as I could.
“What have we achieved?” she said. “Did you hear what those two were saying?”
“About the hospital?”
“And everything else.”
I shook my head. I’d heard so much, most of it I didn’t understand.
“I hope they can help Nat,” I replied, nodding.
“We can try,” she said and reeled off the directions. “It’s about ten miles, but take it slow,” she said peering between the map and back through the rear window. I drove as she said, keeping those things in sight for a good five minutes before we were confident they weren’t going to turn back. Still, I didn’t speed, was mindful of what could be around each corner, expecting someone to jump out at any moment.
It took longer than I expected for the roads to widen to anything more than a narrow two lane. After twenty minutes of tentative driving we were within two finger widths of our destination, on the map at least. Ahead was a large car, a Mondeo, resting with its nose in the hedge, another the other side, narrowing the way to just wider than we could fit. There was no-one around, no sign of life and we agreed without words it must have been one of the first checkpoints. Neither of us continued questioning for long as the engine note changed, spluttering, giving me cause to interrogate the dashboard. I watched the petrol light which must have been bright orange since I’d taken the controls. The engine soon died and I dipped the clutch, hoping to get every inch of forward movement.
Rolling to a stop long before I wanted, I was out in the cold. Cassie stood on the door sill, peering up high over the hedgerow on one side and the dry stone wall on the other, watching as I limped around the car, opening the boot to find it empty. Taking the map and baseball bat and the tyre iron I found tucked under a panel at the back, we left the safety of the car and walked along the road.
“Ten minutes,” Cassie said, her features bunching as she looked down at my leg as I struggled to hide the limp. I was glad she couldn’t see the pain in my chest or she might have insisted she go for help alone.
Ahead, the two cars grew. The sound of an animal moving within the hedge turned us inward. I looked behind and saw the long road stretching away, knowing how perfect this place would be for an ambush, an ideal location for looters to take at will.
We walked on. I couldn’t stomach the thought of the long journey passed the Land Rover to find a way through the impenetrable hedge and on to the wide open fields either side. Still we carried on, boosted by the utter silence until a twig snapped in the hedge-line at our backs. With my hand tight around the cold iron, there was nothing there as I turned. It took a few moments as we walked again, to notice the tall pillars of undergrowth that hadn’t been there before, to notice the two tall towers with cold barrels open in our direction. Only when the deep voice made me jump did I realise the camouflage had worked so well.
“Drop the weapons.”
Chapter Sixty Three
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.
Chapter Sixty Four
“We need your help,” I said, almost breathless. My head darted around the bright white room as it opened out with each step. His wide, toothy smile remained fixed, but his beckoning halted as I caught sight of two soldiers stood behind the door. In their hands were yellow taser stun guns held at forty-five degrees, their arms folded at their fronts. Although they’d drawn me in, they weren’t the first thing I’d seen. I turned back to the dentist chair in the centre of the room, my attention following down the side of the arm to the two sets of clamps hanging down from the chair, each fixed with four bold, oversized screws. On the other side was a tall stainless steel table with dull metal instruments resting on a green paper cloth.
It was only then I noticed the nurse in dark blue scrubs, she held a stainless steel kidney bowl, inside rested a long syringe filled with a red liquid. I felt the ties snipped at my back and my hands were free to swing around to my front. White coat guy ushered me towards the chair as the door closed and locked at my back.
“Please take a seat,” he said, the smile still there.
“We need your help, please,” I replied, shaking my head, my eyes squinting in the first artificial light I’d seen for over two days. He took a step forward. I didn’t need to flinch back to know at least one of the soldiers was mirroring his movement, at the same time exposing the taser’s prongs. “What is this all about?”
The white coat’s sympathetic smile widened.
“We have to be sure. Please take a seat, sir,” he said and took another step toward me.
“Is it about my leg?”
His smile widened even further, shaking his head to the two at my back.
“Do you know what’s happening outside?” he said. I raised my eyebrows, not voicing my reply. “Yes, of course you do. Then you’ll understand why we can’t take any chances. We have to check you out? If you prefer you can just take your clothes off here. Once we’re sure you can be on your way.”
“We come here to get help.” The white coat raised his eyebrows, at least pretending to be interested. “It’s our friend, Nat. She’s been bitten,” I said and watched as his look turned to the nurse, as her eyebrows raised and they shared a look of interest.
“How long ago was this?” he replied.
I had to think for a moment, so much had happened.
“This morning,” I said, trying not to remember the details.
“How many hours?” the nurse added, her voice impatient. I no longer had any reference of time. I never wore a watch and my phone had died long ago.
“A couple of hours, maybe three.”
Their faces sank and I swapped my attention between them, but still he spoke as if going through the motions.
“Did you stop the bleeding?”
I gave a fast nod.
“After how long?” he replied. I shook my head again and tried to remember back. She was bitten out in the hills and we’d dragged her in to the cottage as quickly as we could. She was still bleeding when we got her inside. Was she still bleeding when I had to defend the building? When Andrew and Zoe were in?
“Half an hour, maybe,” I replied, hopeful. His face fell further and he shook his head.
“There’s nothing we can do for her I’m afraid.”
I felt the breath fall from my lungs.
“There must be something?”
“We can make her more comfortable, or,” he said and turned to the nurse. “We can stop the worst from happening.”
My eyes widened and the nurse took over.
“We can stop her from turning,” she said, her expression jaded, but maybe there was a hint of compassion behind. A radio squawked somewhere in the room, an urgent voice calling though, but using words I couldn’t quite catch.
“Now sir we need to get on, we have more to deal with than you can imagine,” the white coat said.
I turned, hearing movement at my back. The right of the two soldiers had stepped forward again and he held the taser out.
“Easy way, or the other?” the soldier said tilting his head.
I unzipped my jacket and as I pulled off each item of the clothing, I felt the eyes of the white coat and the nurse peering over every inch of my skin, the white coat stepping forward as I pulled down my jeans. The soldier stepped right to my back as the white coat peered down to examine my knee.
Nodding to the nurse and the soldiers, he stood and looked me in the eye.
“Everything sir,” he replied.
I drew a deep breath and turned to the nurse.
“It’s cold in here,” I said and pulled down my boxer shorts.
The radio crackled again as I pulled on my clothes and was hurried from the door, shoved to the side of the corridor by a blur of soldiers carrying one of their colleagues horizontal between them, his hands and legs bound as they rushed him into the room. I just about saw a blooded gauze pushed against his hand with blue gloved hands. The door closed and the guard who’d been there as I’d arrived, turned his fallen expression away from the door and looked at me, his face pale.
“Do you know him?” I said. The soldier didn’t respond, his face staring at mine like he was looking to share his pain.
He gave a shallow nod as I held my expression fixed.
“I’ve got someone like that,” I replied. “She can’t be helped, but it’s not always a death sentence,” I said. His eyes narrowed, longing for the rest of my words. “We know someone who didn’t die,” I said. His eyes flinched to my side and he straightened up, coming to a salute.
“Really?” came a female voice and I turned to my side and saw a woman, her hair silver white with green eyes fixed intent on mine. Cassie stood by her side, walking from the other door, straightening her clothes, her face full of alarm. “Where are they?” the woman said stepping into my personal space. I could feel electricity crackle off her words, my blood rushing with panic like I’d just made a big mistake.
Chapter Sixty Five
“Can you help us or not?” I said, stepping back. Her feet stayed put as she leant forward, her unblinking eyes fixed with an intensity that made me want to turn and run the other way. I didn’t run, didn’t turn away, instead took a step forward and spoke again. “I need to speak to someone in charge, or we’re leaving.”
“That’s me,” the woman said, the wrinkles on her facing relaxing. Her stare dissipated as she took a step back, her hand pushing out, lips curling a forced smile. “I’m Doctor Lytham. I apologise for our introduction. I’m sure you can understand we’re still finding our feet here.”
I squinted towards her, but Cassie seemed to shake her head.
“What is this place? Why weren’t you evacuated?” I said.
A panicked scream raced across my nerves. Cassie’s eyes caught mine as our heads snapped around to the room I’d just left. The soldier standing at the door hadn’t flinched, was left unmoved as the sound died, only then did he raise his eyebrows, asking the doctor a question without words. Turning back, her face hadn’t changed, her arm sweeping out to guide us down the white corridor. Her head gave the smallest of shakes, dismissing the guard’s unvoiced question. She turned and walked down the corridor, her heels clicking along the hard floor.
“What are they doing to him?” I said, my voice more urgent, but Cassie was already following. I hurried behind despite my instinct to get clear of this place, I would not leave her with this woman who reminded me so much of Cruella De Vil. Every few steps the antiseptic smell built, the taste coating my tongue as we walked passed door after door, each with a porthole window painted white. We rounded a corner to find it much the same, with two guards stood either side, their backs to us. As we passed to the click of her heels, I turned back to see neither of the soldiers would meet my gaze.
“Did you work at the hospital before?” I said as hurried to catch up. She turned smiling high with her cheeks, her head shaking.
“There wasn’t a great call for my specialism in this corner of Cornwall.”
“What specialism is that?” I asked, walking fast to stay alongside.
“Let’s call it tropical diseases,” she said, giving me the least reassuring smile.
“Is it or not?” I said. Looking across Cassie, I saw her worried expression, then turned to the doctor whose forced smile was back again, her eyebrows raised.
“I’m seconded to Public Health England. We’re trying to understand the outbreak.”
“And find an antidote, a cure?” I said, my voice rising with excitement.
“Is it a tropical disease?” Cassie butted in from her side.
“Yes,” she said in my direction and turned to Cassie, repeating the same.
“Have you found a cure?” I said. “Please, if you have we need your help.”
Approaching a double door on the right she stopped, pushing both open and holding them wide. A few steps inside a clear plastic sheet with a zipper in the middle separated us from two figures in white plastic suits covering them entirely. Around their waists were white belts, a holster each side. In the left holster was the yellow of a Taser, in the right a pistol. Beyond the guards was a long hospital ward, with ten beds on either side. In each bed lay a patient, reddening bandages on either their arms, legs or faces, with at least two protective white suits busying around them, changing bandages, drawing blood or pushing buttons on the bedside display, much like those on a A&E ward.
Watching in silence, we listened to the buzz of activity, broken only by the sudden shrill of an alarm. Our eyes were drawn to the raise of a white gloved hand, the suit stood at the middle right-hand bed. The two guards stepped from their post, each drawing their tasers. A suit hurried from the other side of the room holding a red liquid filled syringe.
“Now for your answers,” Doctor Lytham said, letting the doors swing closed. “We have promising lines of evaluation, but we haven’t found a cure.” After following a few steps down the corridor, she opened another door and ushered us into an office. Packing crates lines the walls, many were closed, but most were open, their contents spread across the two sturdy wooden desks in the centre of the room. “We’ve isolated the disease to a new species of the Ophiocordyceps genus,” she said as she offered the two empty seats on the nearest side of the desk. We sat as she took one of the two empty seats the other side. “I don’t know if that means anything to either of you,” she said, her cheeks bunched in expectation.
“Zombie ants,” I said.
She raised her eyebrows and slowly nodded.
“Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis,” she replied. “Could we use you?” she said tilting her head to the side. Cassie turned like I’d been keeping something from her, like we’d known each other for years and was only now finding out I had some hidden depth. It was getting harder to remember we’d known each other for less than a day.
“No,” I replied, shaking my head. “I watch a lot of documentaries.”
The doctor’s shoulders deflated.
“We’re calling it Ophiocordyceps Sapien, for obvious reasons.”
Cassie looked at me with a tiny shrug.
“Because it infects humans,” I replied then turned back to the doctor. “But how? Have the tabloids not been warning of this ever since David Attenborough filmed it?”
Her mouth raised into a smile.
“Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” she said, her lips flattening.
“We don’t know how it started,” she said, and I turned my head to the side. “We’re examining as many victims as we can, but the fungus is so virulent our best chances are with those newly infected.”
“What have you found? Are you close?” I said, feeling my heart pounding in my chest.
“All we know so far is if we can stop the bleeding we can extend the time till the fungus takes control.”
“You can keep them alive longer? How much longer?”
“We don’t know yet.”
“But you can’t stop it altogether?”
“Not yet. We need more data, we need to know when anything unusual happens. Like if someone doesn’t die from a bite,” she said raising her eyebrows, letting the silence hang as she watched me turn to Cassie’s blank face. “That’s why I’m so very interested in what you said.”
“You’re trying to help?” Cassie replied, turning between me and Doctor Lytham.
There was a knock at the door and it swung wide before anyone could raise an objection. Standing in the doorway was the white coated man who’d examining me as we’d arrived, across his white coat was a diagonal splash of what looked like blood.
“Major, that’s a negative on B29,” he said, his breath panting. I looked to the man and saw the khaki shirt underneath, turned to the doctor and saw the same under hers. She spoke, her eyes locking onto Cassie.
“What else would we be doing?”
Scraping back my chair, I stood.
“Trying to clean up the mess you made?”
Chapter Sixty Six
Dismissing the white coat with a flick of her fingers, the door closed and we were alone again. The Major, or doctor, whichever was the truth, hadn’t reacted to my accusation and now I was concerned about what she might do. When she finally spoke her voice was calm, her crow’s feet deepening as the forced smile came back. Her upturned mouth made me want to jump across the table, take her by the shoulders and shake her till she told me what she knew; told me the government fucked up, had been playing god and it had all gone wrong; told me she was part of the problem and not the solution.
“I’m not sure what conclusion you’ve just jumped to, but just because I’m an Army doctor doesn’t mean there is anything more sinister going on,” she said, her cheeks bunching high. Despite the constant smile, her stern expression did nothing to reassure me. “The military is best equipped to deal with the situation and that is all.”
I stared back trying to keep my expression as neutral as I could, forcing myself not to glance at Cassie, already knowing the concern on display.
“We’ve heard things,” I said, the words helping to stop from launching a tirade. Even though we’d only caught part of a conversation, everything the two thugs had said back in the bedroom had made sense. How could all that was going on outside just appear with no warning? How could this place be transformed in just two days? Someone must have known before. The woman sitting across from me had to know so much she wasn’t saying.
Her cheeks bunched higher still.
“I’m not interested in what you’ve heard or what you think you might know. We’re here to stop the spread. Who are you to get in our way?”
She was right and I let out a breath. No matter how we’d got to where were are now, it didn’t matter. We’d seen first hand what was going on outside these walls, what was happening to everyday people. With no need for much of an imagination, I could take a good guess at how quickly this could be the end. What could I do? I wasn’t an all-action hero and we weren’t in a Hollywood movie whose script had been audience tested to get the right level of peril before everything turned out fine in the end. So many had died and I knew what we’d seen was only a tiny part. Too much had already been lost for a happy ending.
For the second time since this had started, I thought of my parents, thought of my life before the new year had turned. Everything was different now. I didn’t know if they were alive, or if they were, how much longer would they be able to stay that way. I turned to Cassie and wanted to smile, wanted to take her somewhere quiet and enjoy the one good thing to come out of this whole mess. There were people who needed help and even if the boy wasn’t part of the cure, we had to find out. What else could I do? Despite my unwillingness to trust this woman, what option did I have?
“Okay,” I said, nodding, watching as her smile relaxed and her brow bore down to what I could guess was its normal stern position.
“So tell me you’ve been wasting my time. Tell me you’ve not seen someone whose survived a bite. Tell me you haven’t witnessed what could be our first clue in bringing this nightmare to an end before it takes out the rest of the country.”
Still, I couldn’t just blurt out the words she wanted to hear, something was telling me it wasn’t right to just hand over Jack. I couldn’t help but turn to Cassie. Couldn’t help but look deep into her eyes as she stared straight back like she was trying to reach into my mind and tell me something, trying to urge me to go one way or the other.
Chapter Sixty Seven
“Jack,” I said knowing as the name came out I could no longer take it back. Staring at Cassie, I watched the intensity of her face melt to a smile. “His name is Jack,” I said, warming with her reassurance. “But he’s only ten, or thereabouts.” I turned back to the doctor and watched her hands slide through the mess of paper spread across the desk.
“When was he bitten?” she said as she found what she was looking for.
I looked to Cassie, turning away as she nodded.
“Two days ago, when this all started, but we only met him this morning.”
She looked up from a page of paper she’d centred on the desk in front of her as her right hand found a pencil.
“How can you be sure?”
“There’s a wound on his hand. Looks like a bite. Plus that’s what he told us.”
She continued to stare in my direction before turning down and scribbling.
“Did he say if he had any ill effects?”
“He said he slept an entire day, but he didn’t mention anything else.”
The pencil ran across the page.
“And there’s no chance he could be lying?”
“He’s a good kid. What would be the reason?” I replied.
Looking down at the page, she made more notes, before striking through part of what she’d written.
“Where is he?” she said, her pencil hovering. I looked to Cassie and saw a flash of what I thought was concern in her eyes.
“What are you going to do to him?” I said. Her smile was back and I stiffened upright in the seat until she let the facade drop.
“Blood samples, that’s all. We’re not the monsters,” she replied. “There’s a simple test. If he continues to suffer no symptoms and we find the Cordyceps fungus in his blood stream, we’ll know he’s creating the precious antibodies we need.”
“Then what?” I said, my voice more stern than I’d intended. I looked to Cassie and her eyebrows raised, urging me on.
“More tests, but it’s hard to say until we see the blood work,” she replied, her own posture stiffening. “Where is he?”
“We were holding out with our friends in a house about ten miles away. They’re waiting for us to come back with supplies.”
“Where exactly?” she said, the pencil still hovering.
“I couldn’t tell you,” I replied shaking my head and watched as she leant forward, tilting her head to the side, eyes squinting, still locked on to mine. “It’s the truth. Ever since this started we’ve been on the move.” As she shook her head and I felt rage building in my chest. “Look here,” I said, moving to stand. “What with watching our friends die, scavenging for food, hiding from those creatures, being shot at from the skies, attacked by looters and kidnapped by the military, I didn’t have a chance to consult the map I didn’t even have.” Cassie’s hand reached across from her chair and I felt myself calm with her warmth. I sat and watched the doctor take a deep breath, the wrinkles on her forehead flattened out for a moment as a scowl flashed across her face. “But we can take you there,” I said. Her head angled up and her shoulders relaxed as her hand went below the table. From her pocket she pulled a radio handset, her long wrinkled fingers tapping across the numbered buttons before she held it up to her mouth. A quiet male voice came from the speaker.
“Captain Bains, Ma’am.”
“Captain, when is the next patrol due back?” she replied with her eyes on me all the time.
“Sixteen Hundred, Ma’am.”
The doctor shook her head.
“Have you got another squad available for a retrieval?” she said with her eyes fixed on me. “About ten miles?” I nodded. “Ten miles out. Collecting a group of?” she said raising her left eyebrow.
“Seven,” I said and she repeated the number down the line, adding two passengers would accompany the patrol as she watched Cassie’s nod.
“We’ll need three vehicles, plus at least six on security,” the voice came back.
“Can you spare them?” she said down the line. There was a pause for a moment before his voice replied.
“Yes Ma’am, they can be ready in ten minutes.”
She killed the call without signing off and placed the radio on the table.
“Okay,” she nodded. “We’ll get everyone back here and take it from there.”
Moments later there was a knock at the door and we were introduced to Sergeant McCole, a tall, but stocky man, made wider with the full body armour and camouflage kit he was wearing. With weathered skin and jet black, short hair, his thick, unkempt eyebrows added to his unwelcoming expression.
“Have either of you had any military training?” were his first words as he led us down the corridor, leaving the doctor in her office. Shaking my head, I voiced the answer looking at Cassie as she did the same.
“You’ll do well to remember that. We’re the professionals and you do as we say,” he said without looking as he walked at speed down the long the corridor not checking to make sure we kept up, whilst pushing on a camouflaged green and brown helmet. I nodded at his back.
He let the double doors go as he stepped through. I caught them before they swung back, holding them open for Cassie and getting my first view of the three khaki coloured Land Rover Defenders, their engines running. Soldiers sat in the driver’s seats of each. In the front and rear vehicles another stood behind with his head out of the roof in the rear compartment, a rifle resting at chest height.
Beyond the vehicles I saw great progress had been made erecting the fence. Each metal frame panel of wire mesh stood more twice the height of the vehicles and slanted outwards a few degrees, with razor wire spiralling across the top edge. Concrete blocks and great water containers sat on angled legs to hold it firm, each delivered by a khaki green forklift truck buzzing around the site as soldiers manoeuvred the panels into place. Only the space for two panels remained and a third was being installed by five soldiers in just their green t-shirts, their armour nowhere to be seen.
Still without turning, Sergeant McCole motioned us to the back of the centre vehicle, not looking to see if we’d understood, distracted as he talked in the microphone built in to his helmet. I couldn’t hear what was being said until he turned and caught my eye.
“With all due respect.” The words stopped and his eyes turned to a squint. “Yes Ma’am,” he replied and barked in our direction. “What are you waiting for?”
Nearly running, we climbed up and into the musty rear of the middle vehicle, settling on the hard bench seats and turning to stare out of the windscreen. We watched as the pace of activity increased, an excitement in the soldier’s movement grew obvious as more joined the fencing crew. The passenger door opened and McCole climbed in, his hand pulled up the handset in the cab, but before he had a chance to speak, gunfire lit up the silence, all heads turning to the left, our view blocked by the green canvas.
“Use the rear entrance,” he said, not quite shouting. “Don’t stop for anything. That’s an order.”
Chapter Sixty Eight
“What’s going on?” I said as we watched with intent through the windscreen, the convoy running in the opposite direction to rushing troops laden with weapons and green ammunition tins. McCole didn’t reply, but turned in his seat, scowling, still distracted as he pulled a map from the pocket of his combat trousers. Knowing I wouldn’t get an answer, I turned back to Cassie sat opposite and reached across the gap between the two bench seats. She didn’t pull back as I took her hands. A warm smile appeared across my lips, mirrored by hers, she was as pleased as I was we were going back to collect our friends, her family, finally taking the first steps to get out of this nightmare. Surrounded by Britain’s finest armed to the teeth and expert in how to deal with these creatures, we were safer than we’d been for days.
A growl rumbled from my belly as I looked into her eyes across the gap. She rubbed her stomach and smiled. We hadn’t eaten since this morning, but soon we could worry about those everyday things again. Soon we would have all the food we’d need and could eat together in safety.
Turning back through the windscreen, I watched the rear of the lead vehicle as it guided us around the perimeter fence. To the occasional drill of gunfire, smoke stacks slid in and out of view, their colour a rainbow of greys depending on how close they were to burning themselves out. I watched as fields of green stretched out on the horizon, as a car park empty of all but a few cars went passed, then finally the first buildings of the village came into view. Around we continued in our wide circle until the direction changed with a sharp turn pushing me back against the cold metal, our speed not slowing as sentries, then the fence, flashed out of sight.
McCole picked up the radio handset clipped to the dashboard.
“Take a wide circle down the Boskennal Lane and come out at the head of Land’s End Lane, go cross country if you need to,” he said releasing the button.
“Sir, that’s the main entrance?” the questioning voice came back.
“That’s an order, Private Curtis,” McCole said, his tone not inviting a reply and he got none. Cassie and I continued to watch out of the window as we followed down the deserted streets. St Buryan wasn’t a large village by any stretch of the imagination, but still it felt so eerie to see no people, no traffic each way we turned. The only signs of life we saw were from the past. Windows smashed, drying pools of blood, walls peppered with bullet holes, cars smashed, their metal crumpled around trees and buildings.
Still, we carried on around the streets, turning right and right again, slowing only to bounce up curbs, the Defenders taking the green fields with ease, all to the occasional background of gunfire. I watched as McCole picked his rifle from its stand in the footwell and inspected the chamber, then did the same with his side arm. We turned right again back onto the road and before long the front Land Rover’s brake lights lit and stayed on, our vehicle slamming to a halt a few metres from its back. The radio came alive with the same voice from the last call.
“I count fifty Cords all heading to the FOB sir, along Land’s End Lane.”
I let go of Cassie’s hand and together we leant toward the windscreen.
“How far out?” McCole replied.
“Half a click,” the voice said as he released the button.
“A second wave,” McCole said, but not down the radio which he was hooking back to the dash.
He spoke again, but this time it must have been using the radio on his headset. I watched him tense, turning to scowl in our direction.
“Back up,” he said, his voice betraying no emotion. One by one the convoy turned, the rear vehicle taking the lead as we made our way out of the village in the opposite direction, finding a second roadblock whose sentries I couldn’t see despite being sure they were watching us. The gunfire receded each moment, leaving the drone of the Land Rover’s engine only broken by the occasional pop of a distant explosion. It was another ten minutes before I could be sure we were on the reverse of the route Cassie and I had taken to get to the hospital in our stolen Land Rover.
With my eyes trained and constant on the back of the lead vehicle, I guided us through each turn, gaining confidence as the roads unfolded as I’d expected. About half way to our destination and along the road that would take us all the way, the brake lights of the lead vehicle shone as it reached a scattering of houses staggered either side of the road. A voice I hadn’t yet heard came over the radio.
“Sergeant. We have a Cord in the centre of the road. About a hundred yards forward.”
“Cord?” I said, knowing now I’d heard correctly. McCole ignored my words, instead speaking into the dashboard radio.
“Just follow protocol soldier, you’ve done this before.”
“Cords?” I said again, this time turning back, watching as Cassie shook her head.
“Sir, it’s not giving a classic reaction,” he said. I could hear the worry in his voice.
“What do you mean?” McCole said into the radio.
“He appears to be feeding on a body,” the voice replied.
“Feeding?” McCole replied.
“He’s staring right at me.”
“Move forward and engage, soldier,” McCole said, not hiding his annoyance.
“We should turn around,” I said, leaning forward to get his attention, but he shook his head and opened his door, climbing out, stretching the cord of the radio.
I stood, pushing aside the perspex covers of the roof hatch and stared forward, ignoring McCole’s shouts for me to sit back down. Looking passed the gunner in the lead vehicle, I could see something bent over a body in the road. Just as the voice had described, he was staring in our direction. At that moment the understanding hit me. They’d named the creatures after the fungus. Cord, short for Cordyceps. As I congratulated myself, the radio came alive, the lead Land Rover slowly rolling forward.
“Bullshit soldier,” McCole shouted down the radio, but the words were so loud they would have heard from the other vehicle. McCole let the radio go, leaving his rifle on the seat as he walked out to the side to get a better view. I looked up to see the creature was heading our way, his speed building as his mouth snapped open and closed. I turned back to McCole who stood for a moment unmoving before he flinched up to meet my eyes.
“You seen these before?” he said, the colour running from his face. I nodded, barely able to breath as the bubble I imagined around us popped. They hadn’t seen the worst of the worst, hadn’t seen the creatures who gained such extraordinary speed when they took over their host.
“Sir?” the voice said over the radio.
“We need to get away,” I shouted as we both turned back ahead to see the creature had already covered half the distance. McCole’s reply went unheard as the air lit up with a bone chilling scream, followed by a chorus of searing replies.
Chapter Sixty Nine
Fixed in place with my legs locked at the knees, I stared as the solider stood in the lead vehicle unleashed the full force of his rifle from the top of his vehicle. McCole scrambled back through our open door. The first barrage of shots missed and seemed only to spur the creature on. The second volley exploded against its shoulder in a haze of flesh pluming backwards out of what had remained of a ragged blue t-shirt. The creature didn’t slow, instead it leapt into the air, the rifle aim following, shot after shot missing repeatedly as the creature landed to the floor, its back legs bending cat-like before bounding high into the air.
Round after round raced towards the creature as the soldier leant backward trying to find the angle to stop the advance. He was too late, as was McCole, who had his rifle from the cab and aimed at the indistinct pair flying through the air, the soldier snatched from the vehicle. Still, I stayed locked in position, McCole firing with no discrimination, halting the hellish, pained screams.
“McCole,” I shouted and for the time he paid attention, turning away from the blooded mess lain on the floor, the intertwined bodies of the two lives gone. His eyes followed my out-raised arm, soon seeing the movement in the distance on both sides of the road moments before the barrage of hellish calls ripped through the air from the hunched over figures whose number we had no chance of counting. “We need to go,” I shouted, but the words were not required, the vehicle at the back was already kangarooing backwards, its rear scraping against the hedge, gears crunching against metal.
McCole was back in his seat and we began our turn, the door slamming shut halfway through. McCole screamed for me to get back down, but I couldn’t drop despite Cassie’s calls. All my body would do was to let me turn and watch on as the Land Rover now behind us sped backwards, bouncing over the bodies of the pair riddled with holes. Our distance built, we could go so much quicker forward. I shouted for McCole, but we didn’t slow. I shouted again and the engine quietened as we idled, but the new convoy leader raced out of sight around a corner.
I watched as the lonely Defender reversed, knowing the driver’s eyes would have been on us and not able to see the gap ahead closing, not able to hear the chatter of feet against the tarmac. I could. I saw as he was caught, saw the wheel turn as the driver looked around at the pair of unearthly creatures already on the bonnet. I heard and saw the crack of the glass, felt the four by four swing to the side, crashing hard into the wall buried deep in the bush. I watched as the wheels slipped and slid, smoke pouring from the tyres as his foot held fast, his only chance to break down the wall.
I knew McCole would have turned in his seat, would have been watching with me as the engine noise died, the wheels stopping their squeal, leaving only the smoke. No one said a word, all eyes latched forward. Something flew from the smoke, its arms and legs flailing, but came to a stop as he hit the floor head first, the helmet flying from the smoke a moment after. We watched as the smoke slowly cleared, alarm niggling in the back of my head, it was time to move and save ourselves, there was no hope for our man and all we were doing was lessening our own odds of survival. No one voiced those words until the smoke cleared, until a creature pounced onto the soldier’s body and ripped apart clothes, rending flesh in great sprays of blood. It could only mean one thing. He was still alive, but wouldn’t be for long.
I shouted to McCole for a gun, my words spraying across the top of the Land Rover, but he did what I asked, cocking the gun and passing it up butt first. I didn’t note what I had in my hand, but it already felt so familiar. Drama from the last few days flashed through my head. I’d been through so much already. How much more would I need to take? A warm hand hugged at my thigh with a gentle, reassuring motion and I looked down to see Cassie looking up, her face as wet as mine, eyes wide with terror, but still she had taken the time to make the connection. I would not let her down.
I turned back to see the smoke had cleared and pushed out the gun. I never fired, instead using all my energy to scream the command as loud as I could.
We surged forward and I took my cue, dropping into the rear compartment, watching wide-eyed out of the dusty rear windows as the pack of monsters continued to gain. It wasn’t long until the distance between us stopped shrinking and eventually we had the upper hand. I let my breath even out, let myself feel the ache as I loosened the grip on the handgun. Still, the creatures continued their onward chase, but they were no match the horses under the bonnet. A warm touch found my arm and I turned to the dim light and saw Cassie’s wide smile. I couldn’t help but dive into her open arms.
Clinging together for what seemed like an age, I felt the short bristles on my cheek warming against her soft skin. For a moment I forgot the drone of the engine, my heart racing for a whole other reason, only pulling apart as two deep voices swore from the front. Sitting back on the hard bench, my left hand holding her right, we turned to the windscreen and the wreckage of the Land Rover that had raced off, its nose folded around the stub of a tree that reminded upright, leaving the sprawling bare branches blocking the road.
Together we repeated their expletives, my head snapping behind to the distance, hoping once we left their sight, turning many a corner, the creatures would have slowed, dispersing to worry other folk. I turned as we slowed, looking to the driver and McCole, waiting for their plan, but they were doing the same to other.
“Can we push it out of the way?” I said. The driver and McCole swapped looks, each nodding as the Land Rover continued to slow. Cassie and I made room as McCole scrabbled into the back compartment and stood up through the roof with his rifle, aiming the way we’d come. I scrambled into the front seat, watching the steam rise from the crashed Land Rover as we came level, fingers of wood already scratching and snapping, protesting at our advance. As the front grill bit down hard into the protruding branches, the glass in the headlights smashing, I looked across and saw the other driver, his head lolling forward, leaning over the deflated white airbag. At first I wasn’t sure if he was dead, but as his head moved, fear spiked he’d just come alive again.
As our Land Rover continued to make slow progress, I pulled open the door and jumped to the road, ignoring Cassie’s worried calls. With the gun in my right pointed through the window, I gripped the door handle and pulled. His face turned and I knew I had to make my choice. His jaw hung slack and wide, with no blood he looked like he’d been punched in the face. I pushed the gun into my jacket pocket, grateful he didn’t lunge as I gripped him around the waist and helped him to the ground.
The scrape and crunch of wood had stopped, but the engine’s roar had not. The mass of branches was too much for the Rover without a running start. The rear doors opened and Cassie jumped to my side, pausing as she stared down at the soldier, weighing the decision I’d made only moments earlier. Eventual taking my place, she helped remove his helmet as he squinted through the pain. I ran around to the back of the crashed Land Rover and pulled open the back doors, reeling back as I found the space filled only with two camouflage rucksacks. The passenger and his long rifle were gone.
Pulling the heavy bags by the shoulder straps, I stood back beside the soldier as Cassie knelt. With his helmet on the road, I watched him peer around, trying to make sense of what had just happened. By the time our Land Rover had given up my plan and was backing up, metal scraping, wood snapping as it withdrew, the chaotic sound was overshadowed as McCole gave a great call and the report of his rifle rattled an assault.
All eyes twitched behind us to the three creatures who’d carried on their chase. My reaction was instant and matched Cassie’s, grabbing under the guy’s arms, dragging the soldier over the sheared end of the tree trunk. McCole’s rifle stopped and another took over. I glanced back to see by the time the driver’s shots were done, McCole was out on the road and kneeling down to reload. The driver ran around his back, performing a well practice role.
We were soon over the long trunk, dragging the soldier despite his fight for us to stop. Doing as he begged, he climbed to his feet, his sidearm out, popping off bullets into the frenzy. We ran, not able to watch, not able to hope the two creatures still running wouldn’t last long enough to leap into the air and make their deadly attack. Still, I twisted around as we ran, looking back as a pained scream lit up the air. A curtain of doom fell around with its grating call, knowing when I turned to face forward, a monster from our nightmares would block our way.
I was right and stopped dead in my tracks as standing on the road was a woman who’d died mid forties, her face still bright with colour, rouged cheeks and lips I guessed were the same underneath the blood and sinew dripping from her mouth, running down her sweet, daisy covered white dress, the outlines still visible underneath the dark scarlet apron.
Sweeping Cassie behind my back, I was firing before the gun was level, my hand waving wild with each recoil, bullet after bullet veering wide until the click of the empty chamber echoed in the sudden quiet. I watched the skirt billow as she crouched, not pausing as her legs flung her high in our direction.
Chapter Seventy One
I couldn’t step back, couldn’t move, it was all I could do to make myself the biggest target possible, covering Cassie as much as I could, hoping she would make the right choice and run. High in the air it started its fall. My eyes locked onto its white, unblinking circles, barely hearing the racket of gunfire at my back, watching the monster jerk with a spasmodic movement and feeling the full force of its cold weight as I crumpled to the tarmac.
Surprise started my eyes wide, rushing through me as Cassie’s head bared down close to mine, her face backdropped to the clouding sky and a brief glimpse of McCole’s to the side.
“Can you get up? We need to go,” her voice said with an echo I was sure only I heard. Standing was easier than I’d expect, the heavy weight gone from my chest, left only was the thick crimson stain running down my face and across my front. I spat to the road, a great wad of clots landed, but I knew it wasn’t my own and tried my best to keep my empty stomach from overflowing.
Stepping over the body of the woman who once was, I didn’t need Cassie’s help to keep myself steady, but took the offer so she’d be close. McCole ran by our side, his rifle slung over his shoulder beside another heavy packed rucksack. His face was thick with the same frown, in his left hand he held his pistol, his right tucked under his left armpit, a growing ring of darkness radiating out and across his camouflaged jacket. Urged on by them both and the not so distant screams reverberating in the air, I cleared my mind of all but keeping one foot in front of the other.
McCole went first, his pistol pointed out and we scraped through a gap in the hedge line, grateful for the wide open field the other side. We ran, then jogged, soon slowing to a walk as the adrenaline cleared and the weight of the packs and our empty stomachs returned. With a quick change of direction towards a small copse of trees, we settled at the base of wide oak, slumping to the ground as the memories of the last few moments bore down.
The distant screams hadn’t repeated since we’d had grass under our feet and I lifted my head as McCole gave a cough, turning to Cassie as we both remembered his hand.
“Show me,” Cassie said as we pried off our rucksacks. McCole squirmed on his butt and he gingerly pulled his hand from under his armpit, but as blood cascaded, he pushed it back under, biting his teeth together hard. He’d lost his pinky finger.
“QuikClot gauze in the med kit,” he said, his mouth barely moving. The words of the doctor came back. If we could stop the bleeding quick, he’d have a chance. Both Cassie and I turned, upending the bags, mirroring our motions as we rifled through the Aladdin’s cave, pushing aside heavy camo bags, the bottles of water, warm clothes and ration packs. We found the dark green first aid kits at the same time, unzipping the waterproof bags in a chorus, pulling the long strips of plastic wrapped material with QuikClot Combat Gauze written in bold letters. Cassie was first to get hers open and I dropped mine as McCole shouted.
“Just one.” I turned and took a hold of his pale wrist, blood running down the stump of his little finger. Cassie was amazing. She didn’t pause, didn’t squirm or turn her nose up at her task. Instead she scanned the instructions, pushing the gauze down hard, wrapping as his hand went limp, his eyes closing as he passed out. Blood reddened the gauze as she wrapped, but slowed as each layer added. Sticking the end down she stood, raising the drooping arm as high as she could. I uncurled the fingers of his left hand from the pistol and rested it on the floor beside him as I drew a deep breath, trying to ignore the coppery taste in my mouth. My head snapped around in all directions, breath slowing with every turn when I saw we were still alone.
I repacked Cassie’s bags, knowing we would have to move at any moment, would have to decide about McCole if any of the scenarios running through my head happened. Still turning, watching the hedge-lines, pausing each moment I caught the wind in a tree, I cleaned my face with an antiseptic cloth, disgusted by the red colour returned with each wipe. Using as little water as I could, I rinsed out my mouth and took a great gulp, forcing myself to stop before it was all gone. Cassie took the water as I offered and we shared half a Mars Bar which tasted like it was made of pure energy. The glow of sugar rushing through my body came quick and I took my turn to hold McCole’s hand high.
“What now?” Cassie said as she scanned the horizon, now she was turning, her face full of dread. We both knew these quiet moments were so far apart, but when they happened they always meant something worse would come when we least expected it.
“Nothing’s changed,” McCole said, sucking air through his teeth as he pulled his hand from mine. “We get the boy back to the FOB. The hospital,” he corrected himself, remembering his audience. I nodded turning to Cassie, shouldering the pack as she did the same.
“But how?” Cassie replied before I had a chance.
“We get the Land Rover back,” he replied, picking up the rifle as he struggled to his feet. I followed his pointed look towards the road and a column of white smoke rising, watching until a great explosion tore outward through the hedge, bucking us back as a great plume of black smoke billowed to the air.
Chapter Seventy Two
“There goes the PE-4,” McCole said, stepping around his blood still soaking into the grass. Walking toward the new gap in the hedge, I turned to Cassie as we caught up, my confusion was visible as McCole replied without my need to ask. “Explosives,” he said, taking a hard swallow, the colour from his skin all but drained despite the tan. “We didn’t know what we would come across.” I raised my brow in Cassie’s direction. McCole winced as he shuffled his shoulders trying to re-balance his pack.
“Are you sure you don’t need painkillers?” Cassie said.
“You don’t want me on morphine. I need to stay alert,” he replied, letting his shoulders relax.
“Have you really not see those things before?” I said, knowing from his reaction back when it all kicked off, but a sprig of hope lingered it was just from the shock.
He shook his head, dashing hope for the second time.
“No,” he replied. “What the hell are they?”
“I don’t know,” I said, looking around. “But they’re mean motherfuckers,” I added and a shiver ran along my spine. “Third time now. We always come off worse. They’re so much faster. The others are like sheep, gathering in herds, wandering about, only bothering people when they’re seen. They’re easy to get away from as long as you’re not surprised, but those other things, they were still human once, but react so much differently. They’re like hunters.”
“Top of the food chain,” McCole replied. I nodded.
“Like two different strains,” Cassie added, not taking her eyes from out in front.
McCole turned away shaking his head.
“What have you been told?” I said.
“Me?” he replied looking back, closing his eyes for longer than a blink. “I’m a soldier, not a boffin. We know as much as you’ve guessed already. We should have built the fences so much taller,” he said, shaking his head.
I raised my eyebrows and turned to Cassie, her eyes still scanning the hedge line.
“You must have been told more,” I replied. McCole turned my way.
“Take this,” he said offering out the rifle. I paused, looking him in the eye. We both knew he had more to say, but it was clear he wouldn’t be telling me any time soon. I took the long gun and I laid the pistol on his open palm before he handed it to Cassie. “Aim and pull the trigger all the way. Don’t point at anything you don’t want to be dead,” he said, turning back to check I was listening too. As we walked, he continued with instructions, handing over two new clips for the rifle, watching as I followed his words, releasing the old clip and pushing home thirty new rounds. “Same thing,” he finished by saying. “This isn’t an action movie. Don’t fire from the hip unless it’s your last resort.”
I nodded, feeling the grave weight of the rifle in my hands. Pushing the stock into my shoulder, I leant my right eye against the sight, taking in the magnified view as I let the gun travel across the horizon.
“All clear,” I said.
“Don’t believe it,” he replied.
Soon we were within touching distance of the destroyed hedge, the space between our steps getting less and less as we moved around large shards of misshapen metal and smouldering debris once part of the Land Rover. The space where the Land Rover had been was empty, a crater of steaming tarmac in its place, beside which we saw the underside of what had been our transport, the Defender flipped on its side and pushed deep into the hedge. It wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Our steps were slow, McCole taking the lead, covering left with the pistol outstretched. I followed at his back, almost touching, my eye down the sight, body turned to the right. I could hear Cassie just behind us covering the rear, the ground uneven as we crossed onto what had been the road, the heat rising as debris crushed under my feet.
“Clear left,” were McCole’s words and there was nothing in my scope.
“Clear right,” I said and a great animalistic scream all but obscured the words. Instinct alone lowered the gun and pulled the trigger as I screamed at the blackened, skinless face shrieking towards me.
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.
Chapter Seventy Four
We were here because of him. Logan hadn’t caused the world to end, but he’d got us this far. He’d saved our necks, with a little help from Andrew, but it was Logan who’d been strong, had led us to this cottage, had done all he could. Still, it wasn’t enough. It was Logan who couldn’t protect Natty, couldn’t save her from this fate. He’d tried so very hard, but I couldn’t forgive his every decision. Many differences could have saved her life, could have meant another outcome. My life for hers, or maybe someone else. He’d tested his own to save me, to save Connor, had reached out from safety to get us in, but why couldn’t he have done the same for Nat. Was it because she had what he wanted?
He’d killed so many of those things, shot them dead with guns, smashed their faces in with blunt objects, but he grew distracted, had lost his edge. The new woman could never join our group, wouldn’t fit, even if there was a group left, even if so many weren’t dead. She hadn’t been through what we had, couldn’t understand the pain of watching so many friends die. I realise this now as my tears dry, as my throat heals from the roar emotion I couldn’t keep in, as I keep my dearest warm me even though she doesn’t know I’m here.
He said nothing as he manoeuvred her like an object as he directed the transfer up to the bedroom. He wanted to stay, wanted to appease his guilt, but I wouldn’t let him spoil my last hours with her. If he had his way, he’d end it now. Would be easiest for all involved, right? No. Not right. Nat was a person, my friend, my lover. She would go, but I would be the one to say when, to do what had to be done, but only when she was no longer there. No one would take that away from me. Not him.
He came back, checked so many times, had a pretence for each visit, but I knew his game and I wasn’t having any of it, even left the dog to watch. What was it going to do when the time came?
I heard their talk, his not so quiet voice. It wouldn’t surprise me if those two didn’t sneak away and fuck somewhere in a corner. Maybe once they had he’d be more like the Logan that had been my friend. But would I stand for it? No. That door’s staying closed. Get the fuck out you black little shit. And you too. You call yourself a friend.
I woke and it was still light outside, the skin on my face tight. I knew why and didn’t care, all I wanted to know was had it happened, was she still with me? She was, for now. Nothing came back as I kissed her lips, but there was still warmth, some warmth. I startled at a knock at the door and was about to launch abuse when I saw Andrew, his hand clutching at this side, his face open, projecting towards me. My resistance crumbled. I nodded as he pointed to the bed, keeping silent as he sat at the end of the cover looking over to Nat, water welling in his eyes. I nodded and he turned my way.
“I’ll watch her if you want to clean up,” he said.
“Where is he?” I said. “Logan,” I added as Andrew raised his eyebrows.
“He’s gone to see if he can find food, just up the road,” he replied.
“Cassie’s gone with him.”
I couldn’t help but scoff, but good old adorable Andrew didn’t notice.
I took up his offer, looking back with each step until I was out with the world still baring down on my shoulders. The house was quiet as I scrubbed at my face. It was her blood, but I couldn’t live with it on me. I wandered if he could? I stared at my clean skin, saw Nat behind me in the bath, heard her laughter breaking up her song and leant heavy against the sink to stop myself crumbling to the floor.
A call went out, voices across the house and she vanished. Footsteps running, disturbing the dry floorboards. With a deep lungful of air, I straightened up, opening the door to see Andrew stood wide eyed, peering down the landing. He looked up and spoke.
“The boy’s gone.”
Chapter Seventy Five
We counted five, but every moment we waited in the Land Rover their number added. Each wondering in and out of the house like they owned the place. One thing was for sure, there was no frantic activity, whatever had happened was hours ago.
“Where now?” McCole said.
“Nowhere,” I said turning to Cassie as I held her hands between the two compartments. “We have to check inside, they could be hiding somewhere, scared to come out,” I said keeping my eyes on Cassie, not letting her lose hope. She nodded, widening her eyes and McCole didn’t complain, with his pale skin and laboured breath, he was in no position. I drove slowly, the cold wind still blowing through my missing window, I kept the sealed up window of the passenger side between me and those things as we rolled passed the house to get a better look, drawing out any more that lingered to trap our friends. We counted eight that took up to follow, who snaked around the corners as I kept our pace slow, Cassie watching out the back, my eyes ahead waiting to race off from any launching side on attack we had hope of defending.
Driving as far as we could stomach, Cassie heaved open the back door and mentored by McCole, spent a full clip despatching the tail in our wake. This time with speed, we were back outside the house, a tire iron and a small shovel in our hands, not wanting to draw them near with the thunder of the guns. We left McCole with the engine running, his gun aimed through the back window.
Inside the house was quiet, but the smell was anything but. It reeked with that stink I never wanted to get used to, the forewarning stench that could mean only one thing in this new world. The hallway was littered with bodies, Cassie peering close to my shoulder, our eyes trying to get as much information as they could so we could be sure it wasn’t one of our friends, her family, laying with their heads bashed in. We stepped over three bodies, blood thick and long congealed, but fresh blood too, someone who’d been defending themselves, their trail, their handprints up along the walls, heading to the kitchen and we followed.
The trail stopped among the scattered contents of the kitchen cabinets littering the floor, the fridge upended, barring the shallow larder cupboard which I’d found empty of anything of use. I paused looking on at the wooden door, heard something behind the wood and realised why the fridge was in front, looking up when movement creaked on the boards above, my finger to my lips as I took my place in front of Cassie. Together we scanned the dining room to find everything as we left it, out meagre supplies still in the centre of the table untouched. They’d had no time to collect them up before leaving, or before, but stopped myself from thinking any further.
Movement above again cut my search short, the small bathroom was empty, despite the splash of blood up the door, the living room window still barred and the light blocked by the great wall unit. Nat’s discarded, blooded bandages were still on the floor and the pieces of the puzzle locked into place. The floorboards creaked directly above.
Each step groaned with my weight, my head upturned as I summited to the top floor. Dark patches stained the floral carpet, they weren’t there when we left in the morning. The door to the bedroom where Zoe had been so protective of Nat was closed. The master bedroom where I’d changed was open, where Cassie and I had made our connection, there was no one waiting to attack, the bed almost fresh, but Cassie didn’t follow. She was in the kids bedroom and her tears were easy to hear, but when I arrived the room was empty, covers thrown to the side.
The bathroom door was left wide, the sink stained pink, but otherwise there was no sign, leaving just the one door unopened, the one room where we knew danger lurked.
All was not as I’d expected, Nat was there but it was just her body standing, eyes white and sunken in her sockets. A quick look around the room told me Zoe had not been taken, hadn’t suffered the same fate. I did the deed, saying goodnight as I caught her body and laid her to rest, covering her with a sheet from the bed.
It felt so wrong leaving the house, felt like I was abandoning them, like I was leaving my last connection to my friends. Where had they gone? The question rattled around my head as we rolled along, Cassie unable to add anything to my self questioning, despite my assurances they’d got out alive. She couldn’t take her eyes from looking out from the rear door as we rumbled along the road and out of sight.
Chapter Seventy Six
They left me alone with the kids. Me, the least maternal person in the world, except maybe Nat of course, but I guess she couldn’t be counted anymore. Andrew and Connor had left by the back door, over the fence after we’d overhauled the room where the other two had slept, where the other two were still unaware I was left in charge with Nat upstairs.
It was Connor who’d seen the door open, who’d smelt the outside world drifting in, who’d slammed it shut and run around the house counting everyone, upstairs, downstairs, only calling as the number hadn’t added up. There were two of us missing. The boy and the dog. Nothing gone, but a thick coat. The men of the house had puffed up, running after, leaving me to play house. Did they know what a state I was in? Still, I checked both doors were locked, as I’d been told, checked the two kids were still sound asleep, the two sisters, but not of each other and no relation to me, but still they were precious. Right? Was anything precious anymore?
I stood at the bedroom window with the curtains open and watched out, staring across the field, up and down the road as far as I could, which wasn’t very far at all. I turned back to watch Nat stir, my hand grabbing for my chest as I fixed my focus waiting for the sheet’s rise and fall, soon turning to the window, looking back through the rain across my vision, even though the clouds were only just building. All I could do was wait, all I’d been doing was waiting, going along with their plan and look where it had got me, look at where it had got Nat. I turned again and watched her breath pause. Picking up my own only when hers did.
A decision had been made and this time it was my own. When Nat and I were no longer, I would go it alone. If I lived for an hour, a day or maybe more, it would be on my terms not on those of another. Yes, I felt something inside me react. Yes, I could feel the guilt rising in my chest. Logan had done his best, but the best wasn’t good enough. I thought about going now, about leaving the children sound asleep to be found by the two big strong men, or by Logan and his wife to be, if they ever came back. If they could ever make the journey. I looked out again, across the window and down the road, turning either side to see the empty street rolling out. The plan was set and I wouldn’t be turned away.
Chapter Seventy Seven
I couldn’t leave. I had to wait until I had nothing here left to live for, but that wouldn’t take too long. The wardrobe was easy to move, was easy to push across the door. No-one would divert me from my plan. Not even those creatures chasing after Andrew and the boy, racing down the street towards us. Not even the banging of a shoulder at the front door, or Connor’s colourful calls for me to turn the key in the lock.
They were soon in anyway, their noise inside the house told me so. Voices calling my name confirmed, but they didn’t need me. What did I have to give, anyway? A fist banged at the bedroom door, the handle turned, rattling loose in its brass enclosure. I didn’t reply and it went away, a scream ran through the house followed by a toddler’s cry. I listened to the wailing voices, not able to stop putting their features to the unholy cries, the sound still getting through my fists despite being pushed hard to my ears.
I heard fighting, was sure I could smell that stench. I turned to Nat, but despite the space between her breath, it wasn’t coming from her direction. Gun shots came next, one after the other, the burning smell adding to the mix. Then nothing. No sign of who’d won. I stood, unable to keep back the tears, watched outside as a crowd built, funnelling through into the house. I heard my name. I was sure and stopped my heavy breath, wiped the tears from my cheeks. A name, my name. They needed me. I turned to Nat and held my palms flat on her chest, moved to her hand and for the first time felt her grip.
It was too tight, tighter than when she was alive. My fingers ground together and I pulled back. She wasn’t Nat anymore. Her eyes were open, white, sinking deep into her skull as I watched. It was time. I reached into my pockets expecting to find a weapon, but I hadn’t put one there, hadn’t prepared. My chest grew tight and I realised as the weight lifted from my shoulders, I would be no good on my own. My name was called, but much more distant this time. These were my people. They were my friends. They were what I had left in this world. I couldn’t see them dead at my hands.
“Sorry Nat,” I said as she rose, letting the covers fall and I turned to the wardrobe and shoved it, tried to shove it aside. It was much heavier this time. I turned back to Nat. No not anymore. Turned back to the creature in her body and shoved her cold flesh down to the bed and heaved the wardrobe to the side.
With the door open the stench was almost too much to handle and I slammed it shut at my back, my stomach heaved and would have poured out if there had been anything waiting. I called out, my words stirring movement below. I leant down over the banister. Those weren’t my friends milling in the hallway. Running to the other bedroom, I dragged out the drawer of the wooden dresser and smashed it apart with one hit to the floor.
Holding the plank of wood out in front, I raced down the stairs and called for Andrew. His reply came, but it was so far away, so distant. They’d left, had gone, but what little choice had I given them. The first creature didn’t know what hit it, the wood crushing through the plate of bone between his eyes, falling back, tumbling the others down the stairs behind him. I leapt over the diagonal banister, landing on a body, it didn’t react as I crushed the bone in it chest, there was no air left to escape. Behind me I saw a queue forming at the door, a long, orderly line, ready to take the place of the next I took down.
I rushed to the kitchen, passing the locked up back door. I could hear their calls, but they weren’t in the garden, only those creatures scratched at the window. I turned, backing my way in, hitting out left and right, blood spraying across the walls as my feet battled with the contents of the cupboard strewn over the kitchen floor.
Even though I’d changed my mind, I’d got what I wanted. I was doing it my way. I would die through my own choices.
Chapter Seventy Eight
I swung the board left, then right, jabbing its length forward, smashing the rotting face over and again. Decaying flesh came away with each swipe, but it wouldn’t go down, just kept coming back for more, its hand clawing the air just out of reach. Somehow I was keeping him from the kitchen, the cork in the bottle, knowing if they broke through I’d be surrounded and the improvised weapon would be no use. I could feel my energy relenting, knew it wouldn’t be much longer before I couldn’t even lift the board, my mind on the growing queue in the hallway behind.
The voices were back, quiet, but with an intensity of a shout and I could have sworn they were coming from the cupboard. A light sprung on in my head. They were in the cupboard behind the closed door. Why hadn’t I checked there before? I had one chance and hoped I could make it. When I stopped fighting they would pour in and overwhelm me. I hoped my ears hadn’t been playing a joke.
Angling my body around to the right, battering hard with a renewed energy and giving all I could with one last jab, I leapt side on to the door, pulled it open to see the shallow larder, its narrow shelves empty of food and my friends.
I’d done it now, I’d made my choice and the cupboard was where would have to wait it out. Feeling a scrape against my jumper, I turned, jabbing the wood into the neck of a woman, her eyes white and wide, her hair missing, torn clean off, leaving the red of her skull exposed. Another was at her side, but I turned before I could take him in, pulling the door open, looking to the fridge and with one grab of the back, it toppled down, dropping to the floor, pushing back the horde. I turned, the rest a blur. The floor was gone, the light too and I was falling, but hands stopped my bounce against the steps, the door slammed shut and the fridge scraped along the floor.
My eyes latched onto a candle against a far wall as it flittered in a draft. Hands put me right, turned me through ninety degrees, settling me on my butt. I was in a basement. Andrew’s face peered at me as it moved in and out of shadow with each flicker of the light.
“This is awkward,” I said, but he didn’t reply, just opened his arms and held me tight.
“Look what Connor found,” he finally said so quietly I could hardly hear as he released, spreading his hands out to show me the rest of the tiny room.
The room was about the size of the bedroom upstairs where I spent most of my time in the house, but without the bed, the dated, flowered wallpaper, unless it was authentic decaying brick print. The floor was soft, a mix of rubble and mud I didn’t want to spend much time looking at. Along the walls were shelves filled with jam jars, but I couldn’t make out anything edible inside. The smell was better than above, but only just, the musk and musty odour made me glad when my breath finally slowed. The three children huddled around the far edge, holding each other’s hands for warmth. It was cold down here, almost as cold outside and I wanted to talk, but Andrew insisted we kept silent.
To the side of him was Connor, crouched down in what seemed a strange pose, his hand floating in the air, I thought, until light flashed across a pair of eyes. It was Shadow, Connor’s hand stroking his back. I wanted to say sorry as I stood and looked around the room, wanted to apologise for what I’d said even though it had only been inside my head. I wanted to say sorry for not letting them in, I wanted to cry out this was all my fault. If they hadn’t had to break the door down, they could have kept the horde from overrunning. I had no more tears left to cry, had nothing inside me left to give. So I waited as patiently as I could, waited listening to everyone’s stomach groan and complain for food, listening to the movement on the boards above, the slow methodical placement of one foot after another.
The creak and crack of activity above slowed, but only after some time had passed. No one could say how long, but it was less than a day and more than a few hours. We’d burnt through two candles and had just lit the last when the sound upstairs rattled my nerves. It was them. It was Logan and Cassie, I was sure. It was their heavy steps, faster than the others had been. It was their vehicle we’d heard rumbling outside, their vehicle that left and came back and was now idling on the road. Andrew didn’t agree, but wouldn’t voice a reason why it was better to stay here than to venture back up, to peer out through the door and contact whoever it was. But he’d been outside, he’d gone with Connor to fetch back the kid. I’d seen nothing and I would not make another decision that could end someone’s life. Shadow knew it too and ran to the stairs before Connor could leap after him before he could stop him let loose a single bark. Andrew and Connor subdued him, their hands tight around his mouth.
Now it was too late and we heard their voices, heard Logan and Cassie outside, they were upset. The engine revved and they wouldn’t be able to hear our shouts, wouldn’t be able to hear Shadow’s bark echo in the air. Andrew was first to rise, the first to run up the creaking wooden steps, the first to push up the board covering the hatch and the first to jab the door and to feel it move only an inch as the fridge I’d toppled stayed where it had been pushed by the creatures as they’d clambered after me.
Connor was the second to try it, and the third as they put all their weight behind. I was the first to find my tears again. The children followed shortly after.
Chapter Seventy Nine
“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.
Her low voice soothed my heavy breath, her other hand so much warmer against my chest as she pushed me down, drawing the covers up and sliding to my side. Her cold finger warmed against my lips, her mouth silent as I listened to her breath, mine held so I wouldn’t disturb the dream. Her scent rolled over me with ever movement adding to the most lucid experience I’d had in all my years.
Her fingers ran down my chest, bumping over muscles, my ribs pain free as I tensed. My body reacted, lifting the covers, her hand circling my belly button, lowering to the line of my boxer shorts. She pulled away and I thought the bubble had burst, instead she ripped away the covers, flinging them to the floor and she climbed, straddling across my groin, my stiffness tight against the pressure on my shorts. Her face was down on mine and our lips slid together as we kissed, her hands ran through my hair and grabbing at my palms, she pushed them to her breasts. Exploring her naked body, my fingers roved over her nipples, opening to knead her mounds. The tips of my fingers ran down her stomach, arriving in unison at her butt, stroking and squeezing the tight globes.
As we kissed back and forth, I grabbed her butt, pulled myself down the bed sliding under her, burying my face in her soaking wet crotch. Although trying hard to stifle her pleasure, she couldn’t help groaning as I ground my face, pushing my tongue as deep as I was able. She leant back and grabbed me hard in her hand, stroking, rubbing up and down, the feeling almost too much, but I kept myself on the brink as she gyrated hard on my face, tiny squeals of joy rolling from her mouth, soaking me with her pleasure. Spasming with the last ebbs of joy, she lifted, her body twitching with each touch as I climbed back up the bed. Expecting to hold her in my arms, she kept low, had my boxers around my ankle in one swift move. I was in her mouth and couldn’t hold back from exploding deep in her throat.
We lay with the covers over, her head nestled beside mine, her chest leaning at my side and I fell asleep listening to her slow, exhausted breath.
It was light when I woke and I turned to see the bed empty next to me. It was a dream and I deflated as the realisation came. The house was silent and no one had woken me for my watch. I rushed from the bed, smelling a mix of foreign odours, but the hint of smoke in the air made me pull on my clothes and I stepped to the window to see the lone Cord ambling in the road. Foreign sounds started from downstairs, the noise of activity, of action. I checked the bedrooms and found them all empty, searched the landing for anything heavy, but found only my mistake. I’d left anything of use downstairs. I would have to attack unarmed. I crept back to the room and pulled on my trainers, found a bottle of perfume, its tapered cap the best I could do and took the first step down, willing myself to peer around the corner.
Chapter Eighty One
Halfway down the stairs my fist went out, the tapered bottle nestled below my knuckles as a face came around the corner. Pulling back the lunge, the perfume bottle slipped from my hand as I saw it was Connor’s wide smile staring back. My hands went out, flailing in the air for the glass, grabbing just before it could smash hard against his face. With an unnecessary juggle between my hands, I had it gripped tight, watching as his wide smile narrowed, his head turning to the side as he locked on to the tapered glass.
“Good morning,” he said in reply to my shrug before disappearing towards the kitchen. I rose back to the top step, leaving the bottle to rest on a bookcase in the landing before hurrying down the stairs, the smell of charred meat filling my lungs.
“Barbecue,” I said under my breath as I peered out of the window to the thin wisp of white smoke. Following the smell through the kitchen and into the dining room, I found the long table set for eight places, with everyone, but Zoe sat down as she moved around the table forking out food to each setting.
All eyes turned as I entered, even Shadow took his stare from the plate of food as it moved around the room. At his feet was a bowl already empty. My eyes turned up and found Cassie sat between Andrew and Ellie, her face in a smile pointed in my direction, but she turned away as Zoe filled her plate.
“We found a full freezer. It thawed, but the stuff at the bottom was still cold,” Andrew said, a half smile filling his face.
“Whose watching?” I replied, my mouth not curling up as my mouth filled with saliva.
“It’s fine,” Andrew replied. “Just while we eat,” he said and attacked the food with his knife and fork, sounds of pleasure issuing from his mouth.
“Why didn’t anyone wake me for my turn?” I said still standing in the doorway.
“You needed the sleep,” Connor replied to nods around the table as he cut the food on McCole’s plate. I watched a grin appear on Cassie’s face and she looked me straight in the eye, licking her lips as she nodded. It wasn’t a dream and I remembered where the taste had come from on my lips.
Shadow joined at my side as I took the seat at the head of the table and I ate like it was only the second proper meal I’d had in days. Despite being able to finish my plate, I let Shadow take the last of the prime meat and watched him gulp it down, barely chewing as I ran my palm down his black coat.
Last night was where it all changed, but the first real change came only moments later.
A fist, not heavy, but firm, banged on the front door.
Connor, Andrew, McCole and I shared a look, pausing before we jumped to our feet, knocking the table as we rose. The three of us who were able had the same thought, grabbing table knives in our fists as we ran to the front door.
“No. No. No,” came the voice from the other side as I struggled with the door, finding it double locked. We didn’t find a key last night. I shrugged on my jacket and gingerly opened the back door, a gust of wind rushing across my face. With Andrew at my back, we crept around the corner, my hand fumbling in the pocket for the handgun, only then remembering I was the rifleman now. Nearing the corner, brushing down the side of the Land Rover, I could hear a low moan in the street and saw Cords ambling in the distance, a procession sharing the same pace, slowing rolling down the street.
At the front was the old man from across the road, he was still banging at the door, repeating the same word.
“What’s wrong?” I said letting my fist down, despite the shotgun cracked open in the crook of his arm. As he saw me, then Andrew at my back, his eyes opened wide, his free arm reaching out. “What’s wrong?” I repeated.
“The smell, the smell,” he said. I stopped moving, but didn’t need long to figure out he was talking about the food smell still only just dissipating. “It’s drawing them in.”
I turned again, looking behind me. Although the creatures still ambled slowly, they were getting close, with another pack coming from the other end.
“Shit,” I said turning to Andrew. “We’ve got to go and quick.” Andrew disappeared down the side of the house and I turned back to the old man. “Listen,” I said trying to calm his continued repetition, when he didn’t react, I talked over him. “We’ve found a safe place, a hospital a few miles away. The military are there, they’ll help. You can come with us if you want?” We didn’t have room, but would make do, I couldn’t leave these people here when we could give them hope.
He stopped talking, stopped repeating his word, eventually nodding with great enthusiasm.
“Go back to your wife, get ready and we’ll come and get you,” I said and watched as he turned, hobbling across the road as the horde drew in from either side.
By the time I was back inside, thanks to our planning last night, everyone was queuing up at the back door, supplies in hand, Connor helping McCole to line up whilst handing me the rifle.
“The old man and his wife are coming with us,” I said and despite everyone knowing there was so little room, no-one voiced any other opinion. Before I gave the signal I ran upstairs, looked out of the front window, watched the group merging in the middle and tried to count, grouping each in ten, but stopped as I got to fifty. At least they were only the slow creatures. A dream to deal with compared to what might be.
I kicked myself as I checked the back room. Staring out beyond the garden fence I watched as a creature stooped low to the grass and, as if seeing me, rose high and gave a cry like a wolf howling to the moon.
Chapter Eighty Two
Still, they waited in the line, each turning as I came down the stairs, watching my expression. There was no chance they could have missed the terrifying call, despite the rumble from the crowd outside and the evil smell penetrating through the walls. I beamed back. If ever there was a time for a positive attitude, it was now. A few faces responded. Connor and Andrew’s lifting, Cassie beamed as we locked eyes. McCole was unmoved as he leant heavy on Connor’s shoulder, his face downcast, growing more pale with every moment.
I gave the order and stood to the side of the back door, waving Andrew out with his handgun peering ahead. Zoe and each of the kids followed, I read from their expressions their intrigue to see where we were off to next. Connor came after, a rucksack on his back, McCole following, his good hand on Connor’s shoulders. He couldn’t lift his leg enough and tripped on the step, separating from Connor and falling headfirst out the door. Rushing to his aid, we had him the right way up, watching as he nodded he was still okay, telling us the bruise on his head was nothing compared to the throbbing pain beneath the bandage he’d used to slow the fall. Cassie offered a shot of morphine, but pulled back from reaching around to her pack as he shook his head for a second time.
Connor took the lead again, much slower this time, taking care of each crack in the concrete while checking up at Andrew who hurried them forward, who beckoned them towards the open back door as each moment he swapped his glance to the road. It wasn’t long before everyone had squeezed in, Cassie taking the last space next to McCole, resting his swelling hand on her lap. Our eyes met as I shut the door with great care not to make a noise.
“It’ll be okay,” I mouthed and she nodded, beaming back.
Andrew took the passenger seat, he’d share the front with the old guy’s wife, while the husband would have to take his chances in the back. I jumped in the driver’s seat, crunching broken glass under my feet, trying to ignore the slow procession only a few strides away, but still they hadn’t turned, hadn’t seen us. I looked through the door window and remembered the missing glass. I was out again, crashing my foot against a fence panel, each snap causing more attention than I needed. The shape wasn’t right, but it would have to do, they were turning our way, changing course, their mouths snapping open and closed.
Back in the seat with the rough fence panel at my side, I pulled the door closed with no longer any use for the silence. I didn’t have time to settle in, leant heavy against the panel blocking the space of the window. I took a breath and the engine started first time. In the back the low murmurs stopped and I watched in the mirror as all faces peered forward until the adults distracted the children’s glances.
Revving the engine, I let the clutch out. None moved to the side, a triangular path didn’t open, but the Land Rover had no trouble dropping each in the way below the line of the bonnet, the suspension barely rocking as the wheels crushed bone. I saw our chance. The crowd was surging towards us, leaving a space where the old guy and his wife peered through a crack in the door.
“We’re not going to have time. Drag them in, you’ll have to do all the work for them.” Excitement grew in the rear and children hunched as they stood and were pushed further in so Connor could get to the back door. Andrew readied his hand on the handle and I pushed the accelerator as far as it would go. Flesh slapped against the front, fingernails scraped along the paint work, I leant as heavy as I could against the fence panel, giving more pressure as I felt the grab of hands scratching, trying to get a hold, but still those in the way disappeared underneath in droves. The cottage door was opening as we grew near and a Cord clung to the bonnet, refusing to be dragged to its second death. Instead, entangled in the grill, its fingers, hand and arms slapped against the bonnet, flailing for our flesh.
I started the count from ten. At five we’d cleared the main group and I shifted the wheel left and right, the passengers gasping with each turn like they were on a rollercoaster. Still, the trapped Cord wouldn’t dislodge, clinging on for what it called a life. On three I smashed through the old guy’s fence, hitting a post square on the centre grill, but not before it dropped the body, dragging it underneath and giving back my full vision.
On one I slammed the brakes, stopping with the couple stood in the middle of the Land Rover’s length. The back door was open, Cassie and Connor out, Andrew jumped from the passenger seat and he turned back, raising the gun, his features bunching as he fired. He didn’t stay fixed for long and like a member of an elite Israeli snatch squad, he had the woman off the floor, her calls not hiding her surprise as she slid across the passenger seat while he paused a second time, firing two shots in our wake. I revved the engine for fear of stalling and without looking, drove off as hard as I could as the rear door slammed closed.
Clear of the front garden, I let myself look in the passenger mirror and watched as the Cords slowly turned to follow, watched as they overcame the bodies Andrew had dropped. I checked in front and saw the empty road, checked left out of Andrew’s window. It was clear. I looked back through the rear view mirror and let out a breath as I saw the squashed faces, Connor, the old Guy and Cassie in the back. I relaxed my lean against the fence panel, settled into my seat with my breath slowing, until Cassie’s scream ripped through the air, slamming on the brakes as a gunshot flashed, sending my ears ringing.
Chapter Eighty Three
Andrew and I burst out through our doors, the fence panel flying to the road as I jumped, but freezing in my stride, I stared back at the creature I’d seen from the house, its matted dark hair swinging wild with the long run of its stride. A gunshot exploded from the other side of the Rover and I turned, grabbed the rifle and dropped to my knee. Scared to take the time, but still I pushed my eye to the sight, lined up the iron and pulled the trigger, hitting the target again and again. Andrew’s shots filled the spaces between mine. Too soon the creature dropped to its haunches, leaping to the air and out of view. I shouldered the rifle and still the abomination was gone. I rose, running to the back of the Land Rover, my eyes cast along the line of Cords who I knew would catch up too soon.
By the rear doors I followed the trail of the thick blood splattered in wide marks across the tarmac. A shot went off from around the side before I could look up, before I could round the corner. All I could see was the plume spraying through the air, the body rolling to Andrew’s side as I rounded, the back of its head an open mess with the white of sharp bone poking through flesh. Blood covered Andrew’s arm. He’d been hit, bitten, his face contorted in pain. Had it not been for the chaos at my side, the screams of panic in the back of the Land Rover, I would have rushed to his aid.
Ripping the door open, Ellie’s face ran with red tears as she was pushed towards me. I caught her before she fell to the floor, her face, clothes, everywhere I looked, spayed with blood. A handgun skittered after, stopping just before it dropped. I took a left handed hold and pushed my right into the darkness of the passenger compartment. Grabbing what I first felt, my hand came back with the scruff of the old guy’s collar. I had him out to the road with no complaint, pausing only as I saw the hole in the front of his face. A shot went off, but not from inside, it was Andrew and I turned. The Cords were going down with each round, but still there were around twenty left, making their steady progress towards us.
My hand went in a second time and found the arm of McCole’s camouflage fatigues. Pulling as hard as I could, I soon realised I’d left behind what was missing from his head. I dragged his body to the floor, blood trailing after, the veins sticking out from what I could see of his skin.
He’d turned as I drove and someone had taken action.
Screams continued to issue from inside and so did the rounds from Andrew, until I heard the soft click of the empty chamber, a subtle noise mixed with the screaming chaos. My reach into the darkness found another, but what I had was so light, panic raced up my spine when I thought I’d found just a part of someone, then my face lit up as I found it was Tish, her weight suddenly heavy as Jack clung on. I pulled them both out and Ellie took control of the pair, helping to get their feet to the road, herding them around the side, careful to move their view from the gruesome bloodied bodies at my feet.
With my fourth reach I had to turn back, letting go of the cloth I’d taken in my hand, the moans of the walking dead creatures were so close. A hand grabbed at my coat, but I could do nothing but walk away, had to raise the gun and let fury burst from its muzzle. With each round I took a step forward, issuing a terrifying, angry scream without my command and despite the water in my eyes rounding out my vision, each shot hit square in their heads. As the gun clicked telling me it was all over, I put the last three down, emptying the bullets from the rifle.
I went to turn back, but had to take a breath, forcing myself to twist. As I did, I saw the old woman bent down by Andrew, her hand ripping his shirt from his arm, the gun lain down at her side. To the right, Ellie had the two kids facing in towards her, her arms wrapped tight around their backs. No one else had emerged from the Land Rover and still there was Zoe, Connor and, I could barely bring myself to think her name, Cassie unaccounted. My knees and feet slipped on the vehicle’s slick floor, my eyes still not adjusted to the dark, but soon locked with Connor’s, following his hands held tight around Zoe’s throat, her eyes blinking faster than I thought possible. Moments later they stopped altogether and she slumped forward. I switched back to Connor’s, following them again as this time they took me across the compartment.
Relief filled me with joy as I swivelled around, but it wasn’t long before the world fell out from under me. Cassie stared back, a forced smile on her lips, her hand clamped tight on her arm, blood seeping between her pale fingers.
Chapter Eighty Four
Somehow I switched off the sorrow, cleared the emotion from my view. With a wipe of my hand against stubbled skin, I numbed the fear and pushed back the pain. My hand found the scruff of her jacket and I pulled her hard through the slick of blood, taking her in my arms as she reached the door, managing a kiss to her forehead as I lay her on a patch of bloodless tarmac. Connor was out, the pack open in his hands, the first aid kit already split in two, its contents spreading across the floor. Cassie didn’t moan or wince at the pain as Connor cleaned out the wound, but I had to look away. Standing, I scooped dressings from the floor, ripped open the pack of QuikClot and stumbled over to Andrew. The tourniquet has slowed his bleed, but his arm was going pale and I pushed the dressing to the old woman’s outstretched hand.
With my palm over my mouth I took in a full view, drew a deep breath and watched for movement. The road littered with death and destruction, both with bodies that had died for the second time and those for whom it would be their one and only. The thought struck a reminder in my head, but my step back to the Land Rover paused as I caught a strange noise, my ears attuned to the terrifying scream those horrific creatures gave off, but this was so different. Shaking off the contemplation, I delved in the rucksack, pulled two clips from the ammo bag, retrieved the hand gun from the floor next to the rifle, pushed a clip home and climbed into the back of the Land Rover.
The smell was already surfacing. I pulled Zoe’s arm and she followed like a doll. Gritting my teeth with her in my arms, I could already feel the ice cold body reacting, energy in her muscles beginning to twitch. I took her past the children, smiling through my clench, I kicked the door of the house wide, lay her to the sofa and held my hand firm on her chest.
“Goodbye,” I said and pulled the trigger against her forehead.
Back out in the open the air was thick with decay, the stench of blood in my face with every gust of wind. I’d been right, this was a new beginning, just not for all of us.
“Back in the truck,” I said to Ellie, my words free of emotion. “Back in the truck,” I repeated to Connor, ignoring Cassie’s outreached hand, instead I strode towards the house where we’d stayed the night, walking at a stiff pace towards the whimper, knowing what I would find. The sound grew louder and told me I was right, the black body in the garden curled in a ball confirming. Shadow’s head raised as high as he could manage, his eyes locking to mine as I approached. On his side was a great rend of flesh matted to this fur. Whimpering as I picked him up, tears ran down my face as his long tongue slapped at my cheek. He’d gone ahead, slipped out of the sight, rushed off to attack the creature, a preemptive strike to save the misery of its attack.
Arriving back, the Land Rover was loaded, just the bloody remains and liquid slick, discarded dressing packs and antiseptic bottles littered the road. I placed Shadow just behind the door and Cassie’s voice came back quiet.
“I’m okay,” she said and I turned to Andrew, his cheeks bunched, he stayed quiet. I noted the silence. I couldn’t reply, couldn’t voice my anger, couldn’t give words to the despair when a small hand came up from out of sight.
“It’ll be okay,” the small boy said and I turned in his direction. Taking his hand, he squeezed. “She told me last night. I can help,” Toby said and saw his bright face, his sister’s too as she sat between his legs. Ellie’s hand came out and I took it in my left.
“She’ll be okay,” she said. “She’s the strongest person I’ve ever know,” she added and I gave a nod, slamming the doors as I let go. I couldn’t twist away too soon, couldn’t turn from their faces any quicker. Ellie was right, but I knew even if Toby held the key to the cure, it wouldn’t be in time to save Cassie, no matter her strength. We had the chance to save other people’s lives, but I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my cheeks. I wasn’t blubbing, I wasn’t loosing control, but I couldn’t help let the emotion pour out. I took longer than I should to collect up the discarded weapons and pile them back on the passenger side.
The drive was the most quiet I’d had in ages and I loaded the guns as let the Land Rover amble along, knowing the bullets had names on them I never wanted to write. Although I kept my eyes wide open, searched the horizon for hazards, took wide paths around where danger could be hiding, I’d barely noticed as we finally made it along the stretch of road and I saw the Land Rover we’d used to make our first trip, now pushed to the side, adding to the road block. I slowed, ready for the sentries to raise over the hedge lines, ready for them to take over, to lift this weight from my shoulder and pull away the responsibility.
When the movement didn’t come, I cocked a handgun and opened the door. Standing on the sill, I fired twice at the figure as it rose, their face already blooded, its skull on show. I gunned the engine, swerving around the angled cars, noticing for the first time the plumes of smoke rising in the distance.
Chapter Eighty Five
McCole had been right. They’d needed taller fences, stronger ones too, then maybe there wouldn’t be great gaps where they’d toppled, the supporting weights strewn to the side. If they had, then maybe outbuildings wouldn’t be on fire, their windows melted, roofs caved in, leaving just the rising black smoke. The shells of Land Rovers littered the car park at the front of the low hospital, trucks too. Bodies of soldiers, their weapons at their sides, red-blooded messed up faces lay all around. The more numerous corpses were the creatures, the normal people who were infected, driven of their will. Their bodies paved the tarmac, the grass, everywhere I looked, even wedging wide the main doors dripping with blood, stained with hand prints streaking down the wood. Bullets strafed brick, the windows riddled. Smashed, the glass gone.
Cassie knew something was up, despite facing out the back doors. She saw before asking, climbing to her knees, helped up by Connor to peer over the seats. Rising, she stifled an intake of breath, her good hand to her mouth before she could ask the question to which I had no answer. We could all guess what had gone before. They’d been overrun, but somehow I could still feel the hope. It was a big building, plenty of places to hide. Only the fast creatures, the unnamed, the hunters, would seek their prey, the others, the Cords, were opportunists and would walk away.
I drove slowly, letting the wheels turn, snaking around the death and decay. I saw no movement other than the smoke. I saw no imminent threat, but I didn’t kid myself that couldn’t change in an instant. We travelled half way around the building before the fence and the building were at their closest, where the route became impassable, blocked with a sea of bodies, too difficult to tell which side they’d belonged too. I pictured the last stand in my head. A line of troops, guns up, expressions set waiting for the creatures to gather in the bottleneck, waiting for the prime range, only then letting rip, mowing down time and again, but something had caught them by surprise, something in the air bearing down. I saw the machine gun post beyond the bodies, the heavy weapon mounted in the hastily constructed fortification of sand bags. The gunner was gone, the assailant too, leaving just the weapon and the road scattered with a sea of shell casings.
To the side was a fire exit, the doors open from the inside with another stack of bodies which were easier to identify. Their white, bloodied coats and camouflage clothes told me of their allegiance, the blood slicking a line down the centre of the corridor behind, its surface ruined by heavy footsteps telling me the story. They’d evacuated, ran into the bottleneck and the hail of crossfire and fell to the ground. The soldiers would have been left with no choice, they’d had to make sure they were not coming back.
“I’m going in,” I said, pulling off the seat belt, turning away from the thick air drifting through the missing window.
“Why?” Connor replied, climbing into the front seat. “Let’s drive, find where the quarantine zone ends, deliver the boy.”
I shook my head.
“Where is that? What direction? Where do we get the fuel? How many of the petrol pumps still work?”
“He’s right,” Cassie said, I could tell she was doing her best to keep her voice level. “The place is so big, someone who can help might be alive.”
Connor looked at Cassie, then turned to the children huddled in the back.
“It’s a mistake, we’re safer on the road,” he said taking one of the hand guns from the passenger seat. I leant in, pulling him close, pushing my mouth to his ear and whispering the firm words.
“They’ll be dead before you get out of the county,” I said as quiet as I could. He put his hand on mine, gripping my head and squeezing gently.
“I’m sorry,” he said, tightening his grip. “But they’re dead already.”
I let go, pulled out of his grasp.
“Find another,” I said. “Go.” He sat looking down at the floor. “Look, over there,” I said pointing to another khaki green Land Rover parked at the side of the building. “And there,” I said my voice building. “Take one of those and run.” He didn’t move, looked at me and I turned away. Still, I saw as he turned to Cassie and I knew she would look back with a face full of sympathy. Connor looked down to where Andrew lay silent, at the old woman at his side, Cassie reaching over putting a hand on Andrew’s chest. He looked over at the children, at Shadow, his eyes reflecting the light as his head raised, then turned, pulled open the door open and left, letting it shut quiet on the hinges.
“I thought he was better than this,” I said to no one in particular. Cassie’s hand reached out, resting on my shoulder. She was warm, for now and we needed her strength, needed what she had left. I handed her the last handgun and pulled open the door, stepped out not watching Connor as I strode into the corridor, keeping to the side even though the blood had dried hard.
I heard noises echoing. There was life in the building still, but I didn’t know if it was their second time around.
Chapter Eighty Six
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.
Chapter Eighty Seven
The Doctor was gone and with her went all hope. My plan evaporating like the foul smoke.
Connor had been right and the low hurried calls from the corridor told me it would not be a simple case of rewinding our path. I knew before I stepped from the office, the two soldiers would be making their slow way towards us, but I hadn’t accounted for the crowd at their back, seven or more figures just behind, the details lost in their silhouettes.
Cassie levelled her gun, aiming high as I arrived by her side. I put my hand to her forearm and whispered,
“You’ll draw more in.” She let me lead her back around the corner where she stayed to the rear, kept her place in our order as I moved back to lead. I pulled the Doctor’s office door closed, not voicing what I’d found, not letting them in on my race to figure out what we would do next. Instead, I took the next steps, following the torch beam to the slow plod of feet and the squeak of wheels.
Scanning left to right, the corridor was a mess with debris. Large sandbags lay halfway along the centre, piled high either side of the corridor in a haphazard dark mass, blood pooled at the base, the walls scratched, strafed with bullets. I tried not to imagine the horrific battle which must have taken place.
Along the walls I recognised pairs of doors. The Doctor had led us through one of these, but I had no impulse to take that journey again, knowing what would have happened once we’d left. Each of my footsteps resounded around the corridor, echoed at my back with the five other pairs and squeak of the wheels. At least the sound following grew no louder.
Tracing the walls up and down, I saw no more writing, no more graffiti guiding our way, just the occasional splatter of blood and pot mark of brass embedded in the wall. Walking at a pace no faster, no slower than the Cords, I ran through the layout of the hospital in my head. If I remembered rightly, around the next corner would be the room where Cassie and I had first been taken, where we’d been subjected to the thorough exam to make sure we were not bringing anything in, even though that’s what they’d wanted. They would want Cassie now. She’d been recently infected. Andrew too, both their bleeding stopped soon after they’d been bitten. McCole’s face flashed into my head. How long had it been before we’d had him bandaged? It couldn’t have been much over five minutes, but still he’d died.
I flinched my head back from its downward drift, lifted high and took a thick, copper tasting breath.
It was no way to think, this not the place to reflect.
A light flashed ahead and my reaction was quick, I killed the torch without pause. With the darkness the close footsteps stopped, the wheels ceasing their irritating noise.
The white light was gone, blinking out so soon, making me think my brain was overworking. I would have carried on thinking the same if it hadn’t been for the footsteps, loud and energetic with a purpose. But there was something else. The steps were uneven like someone walking with a limp. I kept the torch unlit even though this was what I’d wanted, what I’d searched for. Someone had come through the double doors, through the entrance we’d been brought through and now they were making their purposeful way down the corridor towards us.
With footsteps slow, I hoped to make no noise, hoped to give no reason for the others to do anything but stand and wait for my command. So far it had worked, the echo of the uneven steps at my front helping to mask my own progress. One handed, I pushed the rifle out, digging it into my hip for a second time whilst remembering McCole’s advice. The sound of the steps become so much clearer in an instant. I stopped, tried to slow my breath, realising they’d turned the corner and whoever it was they were right in front of me.
Still I waited, wanted them close, couldn’t let them run away in panic if they could help us. I didn’t want to scare them off if they were a survivor and we could be the ones to help them. Or maybe looters were already on to this place. I didn’t want to give them the chance to escape either.
As the thoughts rolled around my head, the footsteps stopped and a new noise took up. It was the sound of effort, of strain and I clicked on the torch. There in the bright circle a man stood hunched over, he was halfway through a turn and in his thin sleeveless arms he held a large sandbag with the contents dripping down. The man was gaunt, hair stuck to his scalp, his skin so thin in the bright light I could see dark veins running up and down. His eyes were white and his face covered in dark dried blood.
It hadn’t been a man for some time and those weren’t sandbags in the pile.
The soldier’s body dropped to the floor and the creature’s mouth dropped open. I knew the noise it would issue before the scream began.
Chapter Eighty Eight
I was firing, shooting from the hip, before the roar of the scream hit my ears. I stepped back, keeping my speed down, despite knowing the bullets were missing each time. Light flashed from behind me and I turned, regret gripping tight across my chest. Ellie pushed Andrew through the door, the kids running after to the place I hadn’t wanted to go back to, but now I knew it was our only sanctuary. I didn’t turn to face the creature, knew it would be a waste of time, a waste of the energy I craved for to give a head start on a creature focused on hunting me down.
Perhaps its stomach was full from its feast, but I didn’t wait to question how I’d made it to the door before I was dead, before it dragged me off by its jaws. It had followed, that was for sure, the run of its legs, the slap of its feet against the floor told me all I needed to know. Still, I grabbed Cassie’s looped arm, my hand catching as she fired past my ear. Through the doors, I dragged Cassie with me, pushing her in front, catching her eye, not able to make sense if she’d hit the target.
The room was bright even though the windows were bared, masked with great sheets of white plastic I could only guess were reinforcing the glass. The plastic inner seal was gone, pulled down and in tatters, its shredded, blood streaked remains discarded to the side. There were no guards, no patients, no nurses or attendants left, just a handful of bodies, each with a catastrophic head wound, a wound we knew was the only way of stopping the dead from living a second time. If you could call being under the control of the zombie cordyceps mould living.
The ten beds were still there, rearranged, disordered, pushed to the side, their blankets and sheets each covered in a different bloody motif. Bandages, thin metal chairs and other debris, the monitors, their screens blank, cables snaking from their mouth, lay shattered across the floor. Shadow whined with pain as he jumped down from Andrew’s lap and as he bared his teeth, a sudden fear gripped across my chest. The pressure welled up and almost turned to tears as his head moved, and limping, he turned his attention to the double doors.
“The beds,” I shouted, and the able bodied took action, all but Tish knew what to do, driven by the same instinct to jam whatever they could against the door we had no way of locking. The door which had no jamb to push against, to hold closed. With the beds pushed up, rolled against the door, they were too heavy to lift, to pile on top of each other, it was a sorry obstacle, one the Cords could summit with such little effort.
The weapons I’d seen the guards carrying were gone and our rushed inventory confirmed we were low on ammunition. With one clip left for the half empty handgun and what remained in the rifle’s magazine, maybe ten rounds, was all we could count on.
The doors cracked hard against the beds with a great bang and we shook as the rattle repeated. With my arms open wide I turned and ushered everyone back to the far end of the room. They ran, wheeling Andrew along. Cassie stayed by my side and looped her arms around mine, gripping tight as we turned and took the slow walk to the end of the ward.
“Shadow,” I snapped as he’d stayed behind. He started his backward step, limping. Bang went the door, soon joined by the dull thud and I pictured the slow soldiers catching up, joining the push against the doors. The beds moved as the gap between the door widened.
As soon as I could see teeth snapping in the gap, I looked again, scouring the room to the rasp of Shadow’s bark. I looked to the ceiling, but found it solid, the stainless steel vents fixed with screws I had no hope of turning. There were no other doors, no cupboard to hide in our desperation. My attention again turned to the windows and I stepped away. I could hear the snapping of teeth, a head, soon several, fighting to get through the gap. I pulled up a chair and threw it at the window, gasps running through the watching crowd as it bounced back, slapping down to the hard floor. Even Shadow had silenced as I pulled up the rifle hanging across my back and fired, hitting the big target, but watched as a neat hole punched through the centre without splitting or cracking the glass, leaving a neat hole as shadows moved across the other side of the windows. Still, I had to hope we were better outside then cramped in here. I launched the chair again and my knees gave way as it bounced off, watching as the barricade of beds swept either side.
I had to get up, had to raise myself high, the body was willing, but I couldn’t get my mind to take control, despite seeing the hungry creatures pour through the double doors. After all that had gone before, could I lay down and not fight to the end? Could I really give up now, not take my place at our last stand?
Chapter Eighty Nine
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.
I’d been out cold for a while, but for how long I could only guess. The drugs they’d stabbed in my neck felt like they still swirled around my head. They’d been enough to calm my grief, to close my eyes, to get me behind this unbreakable glass door. With my vision only just becoming clear, I stared out past the glass, watching technicians in white coats hurry around the laboratory as it stretched out, their excitement so clear in their energetic expressions while they busied between the benches. In their hands were long pipettes loading colourful liquids from vial to vial.
I’d woken laying down on a bed to the hum of a generator somewhere close by. With me was Shadow at my feet, the hair around his wound shaven, while a line of stitches kept the wound neat. I pushed my hand to his head, making sure they hadn’t just given me his body back.
Pulling at the long metal door handle, none of the heads on the other side looked up as my fist hammered hard when I found it locked. I stopped only as Shadow woke, lifting his head as if complaining about the noise. The room had nothing I could force against the window. Thick bolts held the metal bed frame to the floor and the blanket was no use, nor was the bucket sat in the corner. I sat close to shadow, letting the pressure in my veins drop, hoping my vision would settle and I stroked across his back, staying clear of the short hair, watching as he nuzzled his head tight against his back legs.
Watching out through the glass I set about planning my next move. They would have to give me food and when the door opened I would stick forward, would take the opportunity, launch my revenge for Andrew’s death. The doctor would be the first. I’d look her in the eye and wait for her to tell me he hadn’t had a chance, so why give him one. I would tell her she had no chance either, count to three, then blow her out of existence. Somehow I would find Cassie and Connor, would find the kids and we’d go. We’d take our chances on the outside, we’d live whatever time we had left hidden away. Hidden from the creatures, hidden from the looters, hidden from the army and those that said they were here on the side of humanity.
With bile rising in my stomach, I stood hoping to make more of the movement in the far corner of the lab, to see who was heading my way behind the tall desks stacked high with clear pipes connecting great bell jars together. The procession was short, just three. A soldier led the way, his handgun holstered, the strap of a rifle over his shoulder. In the middle was Cassie and my breath fell away as I saw her gaunt features and the striking white of her new bandage. Behind her was a man in a white coat I’d not yet seen, but he wore a khaki shirt under his coat.
Before they arrived, a soldier stepped from the side, his eyes fixed on mine and the black of a pistol held in his hand. He slipped the lock to the side and aimed the gun between my eyes. I stopped staring as Cassie swept into the room, the cage, the cell, whatever you care to call it. I stopped watching as she opened her arm, tears rolling down her face and she pulled me in close.
The soldiers and the tech had gone by the time we came up for air and my questions fired.
“Are you okay?” I said and she nodded a reply. “What did they do to you?”
“Tests. Took blood, changed the bandage,” she said, her voice low.
“What did they say?” I asked as I held her good hand in both of mine.
“Not much,” she replied, forcing a smile.
“Your sister, Toby and Tish?”
“Tests too, they have a room set up with toys in. They’re looking after them,” she said wiping her eyes on the bandage.
“Connor,” I said as she leant forward to pat Shadow.
“Don’t know. I think they have him in another room. What about you? Are you okay?”
Sighing, I let a big smile go.
“I’m fine, don’t worry about me. I was just figuring out how I’d rescue you,” I replied and she laughed, pulling me close. I wished she hadn’t, her skin was getting so cold. Sitting back, she settled in at my side and I swept the blanket over her, but she pulled it up so it covered us both. With my arm around her shoulders she tucked in close and I pushed my stare out to the lab, listening to her slowing breath as I tried to calm my own.
Waking with a start, Shadow’s head went up too, but Cassie was much slower to react and was only just opening her eyes as my vision settled on the three figures. Doctor Lytham, the soldier that had killed Andrew and another man in a white coat stood the other side of the door holding a piece of paper against the glass. ‘Drink,’ it said and an arrow pointed to the floor. The two of us followed down the glass to the pyrex conical flask sat on the wooden floor. Filled half way with a dark liquid. I looked at Cassie and back to the figures, the sign had turned and it read, ‘It might save your life,’ but I read from their faces, ‘It might equally kill.’
Cassie was lifting from my side, the doctor’s face setting in an awkward smile as she struggled with her balance. I caught her arm before she could fall and helped her back to the bed. Shadow barked as I touched the flask, the thick liquid was purple close up as it sloshed against the glass.
“It’s okay boy,” I said and Shadow tucked his head back in, closing his eyes. The liquid smelt foul, the rotten stink sending my nose shying away as I sat back to Cassie’s side. “You don’t have to,” I said and she struggled to raise her eyebrows.
“What choice do I have?” she replied. I wanted to say something that would brighten her spirits. I wanted to tell her of my great idea about how we would get out of this place and live happily ever after, but I had no words. I couldn’t save the day. We were passengers on a train, our only choice was to jump to our deaths or stay and hope it didn’t smash apart when we came to the end of the line. I shrugged, regretting the weakness of my reply, but she struggled with a smile and pushed the flask out.
“Drink some,” she replied.
I shook my head.
“I don’t need it. I haven’t been bitten.”
“You might need it sometime, maybe it will help,” she said and turned slowly to the door as my head followed. The doctor and the lab coat shrugged their shoulders. I slowly pushed the flask and her hand away.
“You need it, drink it up. I won’t need it. When you’re better, this will all be over.”
Cassie raised her right brow and my heart melted.
“No, only if you drink it with me.”
“Don’t be silly, time is of the essence. Drink it, then we can get on with our lives. When you get better we’ll be out of here. They’ll want to save you, want to take you with them, us, I mean. You’ll be the one that recovered. Right?” I said and turned to the glass. They were a little slow, but eventually the doctor nodded. “Now drink up.”
“No,” she replied and pushed the glass out to her side as if she would let it smash to the tiles.
“No,” I shouted and took it from her hand, tried not to sniff the liquid and took a gulp, pushing it down my throat as I handed it back. She hurried the rest down in one go, with not enough energy to gag, the sickly fluid rolled away. I took the flask and lifted to my feet, my weight seeming to get greater with every step as I bent and placed the glass by the door. Cassie already lay down on the bed, my legs too heavy to leap the gap, to cup her head in my hands. It was all I could do to get my leg up before I could do nothing but close my eyes, hoping the guilt I felt wasn’t my last thought in this fucked up world.
Chapter Ninety One
My head throbbed to the beating of the wind, air pounding around me, pushing heavy into my drums. Shifting my body as I lay, I tried to release the numb of my shoulder, to move the dead weight trapping me against the bed. My eyes flew open, shrinking back against the fresh light and I realised it was Cassie’s hair in my face as I reached for her shoulder. Surprised and relieved, I found she was warm, but the joy was short lived when she wouldn’t respond to the shake of her arm. I slid my shoulder from under her, my legs giving way as I put weight to the floor. Scrabbling up along the slippery tiles in my socks, my vision cleared and her body defined. It was her face buried in my shoulder, the bandage on her hand soaked through, mottled black and yellow, a sickly stench of decay wafted up as I shooed away the flies.
Shadow’s head lifted in the corner of my vision and he jumped to the floor, his knees buckling as his claws skated on the tiles. Leaning close, I touched her shoulder before carefully turning her to her back. As she settled, I looked to the ceiling, the pound of air was so close now, like something was landing just above our heads. A helicopter. My eyes twitched, blinking wide. Why had it taken me so long to figure this out? Shadow’s bark rattled the glass and sent my hands to my ears for shelter from the pain. I shook Cassie’s shoulder again. Who could sleep through this deafening racket? Who could lay there in bed as the world churned around us?
I snapped for Shadow to be quiet, but he continued to bark before moving forward and out of my view. Kneeling to the floor, I stared at her face, her cheeks were rosy red, so bright against the blonde hair laying across her face. She was hot, vivid red. I knew it couldn’t be a positive sign.
“Cassie,” I cried. “Cassie,” I said, right up in her face. At least now Shadow’s bark was getting quieter. I pushed my lips against hers, but she didn’t reply, flexed none of her muscles and my heart felt like it stopped dead. I turned, standing, wobbling on my feet and stared out at Shadow through the glass and the door hanging ajar to the side.
This was it. The time I’d been talking about for so long. The moment I’d dreamt about since this sorry mess began. The helicopter was here to pull out the survivors, to take away the saviours now a cure had been found. Left behind when they could wake us, I had to show we were okay, had to show them we were awake. We had to get to that helicopter.
I slapped down to the bed, pushed on my trainers, trying to muster speed. I turned and pulled up Cassie’s warm body, praying my knees would let me lift. She didn’t move, didn’t react as with great care I hefted her over my shoulder, pining my arms around her legs, hoping this was the time where everything would go right.
Shadow led the way as I picked my route through the smashed glass, the instruments dropped to the tiles, the remains shattered all around. They’d destroyed the place to stop it getting in the wrong hands, I told myself over and again. Keeping my eyes wide for any movement, I stepped into the corridor, the boom of wind louder than ever before. I could feel the roof complaining at the weight sat above. In the corridor there was no sign of a struggle, no new battle scars running along the walls, no bodies once or twice dead and so I followed Shadow along its full length to the other end of the building, our path unerring as he found the climbing set of stairs.
Stopping only a moment to resettle her weight, I pushed through the door to a gale pouring down the stairwell. With tears in my eyes I climbed following Shadow, bursting out to squint in the brightness. A camouflage helicopter sat on the roof the other side of the building, its rotors spinning hard and a line of white coats and soldiers climbing in.
“Ellie, Toby and Tish,” I said as I saw into the cabin. “Look Cassie,” I said even though she wouldn’t respond. I ran, slowing only to navigate around the puddles of ice and knee high ventilation towers dotted around. I heard a call and realised there was someone at the back of the group, someone separate from the line, running towards the open door. His hands were waving, frantic in the air, his shouts barely cutting through the downdraft.
“Wait, wait,” I heard him say, the words only forming as I pushed to concentrate. I slowed, my heart beating out of my eyes, I knew before the gun raised out from the soldier packed tight in the helicopter. I knew the bullet would fire out before the bang I heard over the rotors. I knew Connor would fall to the ground before the spray of red flew from the back of his head.
I settled my pace, stopped my run, let my feet stick to the tar roof, let Cassie slowly down to prop her against a ventilation tower. I pushed my hand in the air, fixing a smile, settled my eyes on the kids I could just make out. I waved as the door closed and the engine’s whine grew to a high pitch. I waved a slow motion circle in the air as it lifted, watching as it turned through ninety degrees, growing smaller with every passing moment.
Shadow rubbed against my leg, tugged at my jeans as if he wanted me to pull him up. I looked down and saw Cassie squinting back. My flat face lit up as my heart pounded. Like a giraffe on ice, I supported her as she climbed to her feet and took her in my arms, squeezing harder than I should. My eyes fell on Shadow, following his to the village. Slowly, movement came into focus, settling from one dot size face in the distance to another, again and again. Turning with Cassie in a circle, I watched their slow, steady movement in our direction.
Nothing could dampen my spirits. Nothing could push my elation away. Together we would live to fight another day and I didn’t care how much of a struggle it would be, the children were safe and I had Cassie in my arms and maybe, just maybe we’d helped to find a cure. We’d get out, things would turn out okay, we would just have to survive until tomorrow, or maybe another.
Opening my eyes to the sound of distant noise, we heard a voice high with energy coming from somewhere close. I turned still holding Cassie in my arms and she pulled away, opening our embrace, her eyes following mine as I kept her arm around my shoulder. She saw the advance, but only exclaimed as we both caught sight of a white van in the car park. Bold letters stencilled on the side, cables running from the back to camera on the shoulder of a man looking into the viewfinder, its weight pointed to a woman in a red pant suit, a microphone in her hand as she talked at the camera, oblivious to her impending death.
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