Before The End

I’m currently in the process of editing the follow up to my first novel. Called Before The End, it starts before the music went off at Logan’s party.

The chapters below are the first, unedited draft. The release version will still be the same story but there may be many changes, including zapping the pesky typos.

If you’re not going to judge then please read on, but if you want to wait for the full and final version on kindle or paperback then you’ll have to wait until it’s released in the middle of 2019. If you want to follow my publication journey of In The End, my first installment, then here it is.

You have been warned…

Chapter One

The first I knew was the phone call from an old friend. It was Christmas Day and to see her face smiling back with full lips and bright white smile was a perfect season’s treat. With the festive joy skipped, she hurried, breath panting as told me her story reminiscent of the TV horror series that had just finished its millionth season. Invasion of the Bodmin Snatchers, I could almost read the headline. It was a well-timed prank, my guard had dropped the furthest it ever would, but my blood pressure still skipped every time the chimes came, only calming when I saw it wasn’t the newsroom. I listened throughout the short call, barely took in the tall story as I heard Jamie’s growing voice in the background as he egged her on. With a true dramatic climax, the call cut with a slap to the mouthpiece, over dramatising the phone falling to the floor just before the line went dead.

She was my once best friend. “You remember Toni, don’t you mum?” and she did, of course, we were inseparable at school, like sisters until we had to grow up, limited now to infrequent calls when we plucked up the courage. Either I was following a scoop around the world, or she was locked in some government lab for months at a time. The result was a gap of two years since we’d last met in the flesh. Each time she came into my mind, I had to push away fear that life was just an excuse. We’d grown too close, too young and providence had stepped in. If they only knew, my parents would have said it was Jesus.

The call stuck in my mind as I ate through the Christmas plate, skipping the pudding, much to my mother’s distaste, barely hearing the lecture about my weight. I wasn’t in the mood for the usual debate about how the British public were wrong to want their TV presenters emaciated, my dad reminding me I was a journalist first.

Out alone in the garden for a cigarette, I called Toni back, ready to give her a piece of my mind. It wasn’t right to do that on the first call they’d had in three months. It wasn’t fair on either of them. I softened with every unanswered ring, with every echo of the chirps down the wire. By the tenth I’d changed my mind, had already forgiven her, was ready to say I’d be on the first train, we could spend the next four days together, if she could handle it. As the call rang out, so my mind swung back. Screw her. She’d crossed the line.

I barely glanced at the call when Jamie’s eyes appeared, the bottom half of his face obscured with his index finger as he frowned at the unexpected shot. They were together and playing games. Mum offered me white wine and I took a beer. If she hadn’t of launched into a lecture I’d have let the screen go blank.

“Not funny,” I said, knocking back half the bottle, back in the garden. I let him talk, defend himself, dig deeper as he denied all knowledge. Jamie was a mutual friend, someone we’d both grown close to as we went though school, the third musketeer in our dysfunctional pack. Years ago I thought I’d lost him, the world cracking down the middle as Toni and I crossed the line. Ending the call I couldn’t help but analyse his tone, using my professional tools to dissect the conversation. He was at home only ten minutes away with his husband and their two kids. Of course he was, it was the season for family. My breathing grew shallow and mum asked me if I was okay. I nodded, leaning against the counter to keep myself upright realising it could mean only one thing. Toni was playing a game. She was trying to tell me she was here in town. She was just down the road at Jamie’s.

I looked up to see dad offering me a beer, the empty gone from my hand already. I took the glass which was wet with condensation, placing it on the side, grabbing my car keys as I told the family I’d be back within the hour.

With my breath pluming white, I knocked using the brass and counted my beats as I waited. Jamie’s face lit up, his hands opening wide as he pulled open the door.

“Where is she?” I said, pecking at his cheek, peering over his shoulder and into the kitchen.

“She’s not here darling. I haven’t spoken to her in weeks.”

Chapter Two

I knew people. I knew her boss’s boss. I knew the minister in charge of the department she worked for the last ten years. Favours for silence were owed all over the place, some for secondhand information told in confidence, others of my making. A misplaced hand here, a quiet dinner somewhere special. Right, or wrong, married men were so easy to add to the list. Still, no one answered my calls, no one gave themselves a chance to tell me I was making a fool of myself over some woman playing a cruel joke.

Swerving to avoid an oncoming car, I juggled my ringing iPhone, pulling over to answer the call I wasn’t expecting from Stan. It was my Editor-in-Chief, calling from his house, not best pleased with the interruption his celebrations. After my series of calls, word had got through and I was being warned off with some excuse about it being the season to be jolly and that’s what everyone was trying to do.

It was bollocks. These people never switched off, their work was twenty-four-seven. I was being pushed off the path because something serious was going on. It knew it with every unanswered call. My mood turned to regret as I tried to erase what I’d called her in my head, tried to remember the joy at seeing her face lighting up my phone barely an hour ago.

I skipped my parents house with fewer characters than I should have sent, and headed straight up the motorway, stopping only for supplies, parking in the underground carpark in the only space left in the line of news vans that shouldn’t be moving for another twenty-four hours.

“No,” was their immediate response, barely turning their heads from the TV as they each lay back on a mess room sofa. Dan Huntley and Mike Pollage were on the shift that was always quiet, the shift that pulled in double time, but still no one wanted. “No,” was their second reply when I told them it was just down the road and all I needed was an hour of their time and their professional skills not required. “No,” was Dan’s reply when I took the keys from the hook on the wall, Mike was coming around, his head shaking silence told me he had already given up fighting.

We were on the road within five minutes, the three of use squashed in the front seats, Mike driving, his only clause in our forced contract. Dan already digging into the pizza that was still hot enough to steam his glasses. With no traffic, the one day of the year, we parked across the gates ten minutes later. I was at the video intercom before the protection officers, dressed in festive jumpers, had left the front door flanked by two brightly lit trees. The call picked up before they’d reached the other side of the gate. It was another few minutes before I was in, leaving the windows of the van to steam. With my message relayed as I walked across the wide block paving forecourt, Mr Secretary at the door as I arrived, the two officers dispersing to separate corners.

“Ms Carmichael,” the Secretary said in his trademark low voice. He was still wearing a shirt, the loose top button and missing tie his only nod to the season. He stood with the opening spread just wide enough for his thin body, making no motion for me to enter.

“Jessica please,” I replied with my on-camera smile.

“What is it that cannot wait until my office reopens?” he said, the deep lines around his mouth curling to a glimpse of a smile.

“How’s Mrs Secretary?” I said and watched as he tried to pull the door tighter against his body.

“The family is well thank you,” he said. “Is this a social call?” he replied raising his brow.

“No, sorry. Business,” I said and his brow stayed raised. “Invasion of the Bodmin Snatchers?” I replied and watched as the smile fell from his face, his eyes shooting behind me. I turned as saw one of the protection officers looking our way, turned back to see the secretary shake his head.

“I don’t know what you mean?” he replied.

“Is that your final comment?” I said. “I have a source,” I added, raising my eyebrows. His face was pale and his hands were shaking. This man had signed off war, he’d signed off benefits cuts putting millions into poverty, he’d taken money for the party that should have gone elsewhere and he’d done it with a smile. The professional lier couldn’t keep this down. “Shit,” I let the words slip. “Shit,” I said to the percussion of my heartbeat. Fear for Toni ballooned in my chest, excitement bubbling through my brain. What the hell have I stumbled into? “Okay,” I said. “I’ll just have to take the crew and find out for myself.”

“Jessica,” he said as I turned, but I didn’t look back. “Leave this alone,” he said and thought I heard a tremble in his voice. With my heels clicking on the paving, I watched as the two officers headed in my direction, only diverted when in arms reach, the gate sliding open.

The call came through barely before we’d left the curb, Stan again, this time his temper boiling over. I held the phone away from my ear, cringing at words shouted down the line, watching the road as we headed back to the office. This was big, bigger than I could have known, but it looked like it might cost me my career. I wasn’t scared of losing my job, turning the other cheek was my fear, letting something big out of my grasp. I wasn’t scared of going it alone, it was just a little bigger than I expected. We sat in silence as the miles rumbled by like a countdown to my fate, not knowing what waited for me as we headed back at the office.

“Stop the van,” I said and Mike slowed. Dan jumped as his phone rang, handing it over as he answered the call.

“It’s for you,” he said, his face screwed up. The screen showed a withheld number, but it was Stan’s voice on the other line.

“Stick with it, but you’re on your own kid,” he said before the line went dead.

Handing back the phone, the two conversations still tangled in my head, I watched as the tall door mirrors lit up in a sea of flashing blue lights.

Chapter Three

The strobe of blue light grew as we slowed, the tone ringing in my ear only twice before the flat voice answered.

“How’s your Christmas going Mrs Commissioner?” I replied and the call went dead.

With the empty echo still in my ear, the car behind veered right as it neared, its lights still winking as if still not sure it would not cut across at the last minute and bring us to a stop. As it sped into the distance, Mike continued to brake.

“What the fuck?” he replied as we slowed to the curb.

“Let me out,” I said, motioning for Dan to shuffle out of the way. He looked back with wide eyes, but not moving to let me by.

“What are you on to?” he said, shaking his head with none of the usual cheer in his voice. I turned to Mike, his face hanging with the same fixed expression.

“I need to do this alone,” I replied. Mike and Dan swapped looks across me and the van pulled away from the curb.

“Where are we going boss?” he said with his cheer returning.

“Cornwall and take the back roads,” I replied, my head already filling with ideas.

“You owe us more pizza,” Mike said flicking his eyes to the empty box at my feet as he turned us down a side street, leaving behind the only other car on the road.

I wanted to throw away my phone, was about to pull the Sim Card and snap it in two, but paused, Toni’s wide smile flashing before my eyes. It was the only way she could get in touch. Breathing back the welling pressure, I unlocked the screen and slid my finger to turn off data. It would have to do for now.

The journey was slow, the van not meant for a high speed getaway along the ‘A’ Roads, but at least the tarmac was clear in the most part. The journey was pleasant enough, watching families as they travelled, their exhausts white in the cold, Christmas jumpers on show as they wound their way between friends and family. Joining the M5 Mike asked for directions, a postcode for the Sat Nav, but I had none to give. Bodmin was all I could say, was all I’d gleamed from the one sided conversation over four hours ago.

Turning off the motorway, we stuck to the main road heading in the general direction of Bodmin,  crossing into Cornwall after forty five minutes. No signs highlighted our approach to the Moor, but as the red and white warnings appeared at the roadside, I questioned the words that had stared this all off. Repeating for the hundredth time, I replayed her voice in my head, my stomach sinking further every time I read the evenly spaced signs declaring the ‘Foot and Mouth Infected Area.’

“Slow down,” I said squinting through the cold clear air. The van slowed, halving the speed as sign after sign went past the window. I’d seen this before. I’d reported for Bare Facts as Student Features Editor in Surrey. Back in 2007 I’d stood at the roadblocks cleaning my boots so many times. I’d chatted with the police manning the road closures, watched as trucks brimming with carcasses, hoofed feet jutting over the top, moved the culled to their resting place. I’d watched the smoke rise into the sky and seen the fear for the future in the farmer’s weary eyes.

Each side road we passed on the A30 had a sign declaring ‘Road Closed’ accompanied with a static line of cones. The turn off for Bolventor was the only open junction, so we took it, slowing to take in the line of army trucks on the grass verge as we turned the first corner. Moving closer to the hamlet, the line peppered with Police cars, but the crests were different. Military, not Devon and Cornwall Constabulary. Eyes peered back, mouths pulling on cigarettes. We didn’t stop, kept up the momentum. At the centre of the small collection of buildings was a pub, The Jamaica Inn. The car park to its side was full of heavy canvas olive drab tents. We didn’t stop, no one made the suggestion.

Driving on back towards the dual carriageway, we saw the same line of trucks repeated as we built up the distance. Mike was the first to spot the tail, the low sun reflecting off the Freelander’s white, blue and yellow paintwork, the dark figures inside not hiding their austere expressions as they kept two car lengths behind us. Still we drove on, rejoining the slow lane, getting up to speed before we hit our first traffic jam.

Still, it was reminiscent. I remembered the archive footage. Tony Blair with rolled up shirt sleeves in the command centre over-viewing the massive operation back when the major outbreak happened as the century turned. I remembered the headlines, the cancelled sporting events, the restrictions on country pursuits and the mass graves with carcass after carcass piled in with a JCB. The government had taken it seriously.

I took a second look at the road ahead and saw the few cars at my front, watched as each was slowly released to crawl around a pair of green trucks stood in the inside lane at obscure angles. Without a word, Dan jumped in the back already unpacking the camera to film what looked to be a traffic accident, while a solider in a yellow hi-vis vest stood by the Armco central reservation motioning the cars forward to squeeze passed a third truck blocking the second lane. Soon we were next in line, the hand motioning for us to slow as Mike negotiated the tight turn, micro-correcting the wheel to the soldier’s instructions so we could get through the gap. We were finally through and he turned hard left to avoid the truck in our way, but slammed on the brakes. I looked up and saw I’d been right all along. We were in the right place, the three pointed rifles clearing away my doubt.

Chapter Four

The doors pulled wide before we would slam the central locking into place, Mike and I given no chance to come quietly, hands bundling us to the cold tarmac. I didn’t put up a fight, tried to tell Mike, but knew the words would be in vain. Letting my body relax, I watched as the moments blurred past my eyes, attempting to calm my blood pressure as I tried not to be distracted from details as they played out. My wrists were tied, I could no longer see Mike, but could hear his language explode, the emotion in his words spill out as the ex-Royal Marine gave the young soldiers a verbal beating I hoped stung harder than a punch in the face.

I kept quiet, knew there was no changing the course, instead I watched as they left the van, no one checking for Dan who was surely now secreting himself in the back. Bundled into a waiting Snatch Land Rover, I saw no more as a musty canvas hood pulled down over my head. Mike’s voice stifled, with what remained evaporating into the distance as the engine note rose.

There was no Foot and Mouth Disease.

I’d found what I was looking for.

We didn’t arrive in the car park of the Jamaica Inn, the roads too loose, too uneven. Where we arrived I had no idea, it had taken too long for us to be at the farm in the centre of their exclusion zone. I heard the rattle of a chain link fence, the collective tap tap tap of boots marching on the hard ground, the turn of keys, the rumble of engines and a pervasive odour that smelt like the Portaloos needed emptying.

As the engine cut and light invaded from below, hands helped me to stand, guiding my feet down to the solid ground, not before pulling off my heels, letting my tights split with each step, bright cold air glinting from below, but just for a moment. The air turned warm and the hum of electricity filled my ears, the whine of a generator perhaps or some other powerful equipment. Doors opened and closed at our backs as I counted, the four sets of footsteps the only sound until I flinched back as chair legs scraped along the floor. The hands holding tight at my bound wrists wouldn’t let me budged, instead forced me forward, pushing down until all I could do was bend my knees and sit. With a snap of plastic my hands were free, but not under my control, each wrist driven forward, held firm, but not so much it hurt.

Light poured in as the hood snapped off with a sharp upward pull, my first instinct was to shake away my chaotic hair covering my face, pulling my hands up to bat away the strands, but they wouldn’t come, each tied to metal rings either side of stainless steel desk bolted to the floor. Turning my head around the room, I wasn’t quick enough to see anything but the door at my back slot into place.

I let the irritation on my face pass, moving my head slow so not to aggravate.

The room was a small box with no windows, just the one door, the walls painted white, but dulled with time and a sheen of something that wouldn’t quite clean. Along with the table and my chair, another was opposite, each a cheap plastic seat with metal legs. As I let my mind settle, let myself relax, I tried to silently form the words I would use in the documentary, maybe the film I would release in the cinema. Every few moments Toni’s face would invade my head, my thoughts turning to what I would say when the moment came.

The words dried up as the minutes went by, the dull ache of my filling bladder enough of a distraction to pull me back into the room. The door opened and I took a deep breath, dressed my face in a smile and sat up straight, letting the hand gently push my hair either side of my face and watched as the woman in the white coat sat, her face set in a smile bunching wrinkles in the corner of her eyes. Underneath her white coat was the stiff fabric of a pressed green shirt, exposing a triangle of hanging skin at her neck. When she talked the grey hair at her temples moved.

“Sorry?” I said as I missed her first words. She tilted her head to the side, her smile growing as her eyes told a different story.

“Are you well?” she said. Her squint told me I hadn’t respond in the way she expected.

“You will jail for a very long time,” were my words cutting through my wide smile.

“Are you well, Ms Charmichael?” she said. I stared at her deep green eyes and tried to visualise her in the dock, then in the orange jumpsuit she’d wear for what was left of her life.

“Yes, I’m well,” I replied as she went to repeat the question.

“Could you be pregnant?” she said. I couldn’t hide my reply, my mouth opening to a laugh as my eyes squinted.

“Not a chance,” I said. Her smile dropped and she nodded at something beyond my back, but before I could turn, arms clung around my throat, shoulders hugging tight against my head, dragging me back in the chair, pulling my arms tight against my bound wrists. Straining for what the hands were doing at my side, I couldn’t see my arm but could feel my clothes being cut, could feel the cold of the scissors, the warm air like a blanket as my skin exposed. I saw the syringe flash into view, before it disappeared and I tried to move, tired to thrash away, but only tugged hard, the plastic digging into my wrists.

Our eyes locked as the needle pricked. Warmth raced up my arm and was quickly to my chest, soon blanketing my body from the inside as the lights slowly faded dark.

Chapter Five

A touch pressed light against my cheek, the fingertip of feeling running down my face. I lay with my head to the side, resting on a soft pillow of plastic. Breath panted in and out, my lungs not listening as I tried to calm, tried to take in all the air I needed blow away the cotton wool in my brain. I wanted so much to move, but my head was so heavy like it was encased in lead. The touch came again and my eyelids obeyed my instruction, but all that filled the space was darkness. Another stroke ran down my face and I turned, looked up into the nothing, my hand slowly moving, rising to touch my cold, pallid cheek. My finger came back wet.

Moving to dodge the drops, sensation rose from my limbs as I swayed to sit, my feet edging down to dip into the puddle of ice cold water. Head throbbing, I felt it must have been a good night, but with no alcohol breath stinging my tongue. My breasts ached, arms were heavy, my stomach churned like I’d eaten a bad meal. I sat unable to do anything but think until I heard an echo of movement in the distance.

Light came through a square glass in the wall, then I realised it was a door when I caught sight of a line of light piercing low to the ground. The light was bright and artificial, but let me see the white wall through the glass as many steps grew closer. With control of my breath regained, my attention fell to my hands and the wrinkled, swollen fingertips like I’d spent far too long in a hot bath. Turning around the room, I saw it was a small rectangle, much like a prison cell, but anything more I couldn’t tell. The light was gone before I could analyse, then bright again, but focused and shining in my face. I looked away, turning to the side, the torch beam running down my body, along the hospital gown covering my torso before it flickered out. My eyes snapped to the square, catching only the side of the face, a gas mask covering their guilty features.

Foreign tears flowed, a grief pressing down on my shoulders as the corridor light cut off. I cried cold tears for Dan and Mike, for myself and my stupidity. I cried for Toni and what should have been, curling into a ball, my spine aching as I closed myself in, but I sprang wide, my eyes shooting to the door as with a crack of the mechanism, it gave up. Dan, I thought as joy took over my face, my hand pushing the tears to the side.

I stood, unsteady at first, the cold water lapping at my toes. Taking care not to splash, I moved to the door, guided by a new dim light the other side. The door was heavy, but opened out as I heaved. Warm air spilled in from the corridor as my breath sucked in, my toe smacking hard against the raised step.

Breathing through the pain, I pushed harder, peering around to the left and the small bulkhead light over a door at the far end of the white walled corridor. My steps were measured and even, my head twitching side to side. Along the corridor I saw more metal doors, each pronounced from the wall, each unlocked, but although their number was not too great, I did not understand how I would count. A thought rushed into my head and turned around too quickly, my brain moving slower than my head, my hands pushing out to the walls for support. Behind me were more doors either side of the corridor, all open, but no one yet to come out. I was alone. Creeping forward, afraid of my shadow, still I looked to the corner, pleased I could see no camera. Arriving at the next cell, I struggled with the steel, quickly glancing away from the motionless body lain on the bed with an arm hanging down to the floor.

With a churn of my stomach I turned and continue my walk, each step bringing bile into my throat and a metallic sting, growing a fear I was bleeding from the inside. Step after step I kept it together, my hands soon touching at the far wall where I waited a moment, letting the cooling breeze from the crack wash over me. The bile subsided and I hooked my fingers in the crack, pulling the door wide, holding my other hand to shield my eyes from the high, bright lights. A gust of wind rattled though my robe and realised for the first time, I was naked under the gown.

Wrapping my arms around my chest, I took a first step out into the open and let the harsh lights bare down on my skin. Blinking away the pain searing through my eyes, my hand held to my brow, I squinted into the dark shadows. I was outside in a square of concrete bounded by a chain link fence, beyond that fence I saw another, then only darkness. A single gate waited in the far corner. It was open. I couldn’t wait, pushed through the pain in my legs, hurrying towards my escape. Stopping only when it slid shut, slamming hard, echoing against the steel post buried in the concrete. Gasping, I turned and watched the door at my back sealed tight against the wall.

I was trapped outside, the wind blowing right through me, but thoughts soon turned elsewhere as I saw a figure, a woman dressed much like I was in the furthest corner. Hunched over on her feet, her knees tucked up to her chest, long dark hair flowed to the cold concrete, her body rocking.

“Hello,” I said, my voice quiet and dry as I took slow steps towards her, trying to keep my heart rate slow, trying to ignore her resemblance to who I was looking for. Her movement was too quick for me, too quick even if I’d had full control. She rose, her eyes glazed white, dark, dried blood ran down the front of her gown, her face lined with open wounds as she leapt at me.

I tripped, falling back, head cracking against the floor. Her teeth were deep in my arm before the spinning calmed. She convulsed, shaking as static coursed across her body and I turned, following thin wires trailing from the side of her head to the yellow gun poking through the fence. I saw the long barrel at its side and the flash of something from within, felt a sharp sting to my thigh and I lost control for the second time as all went dark.

Chapter Six

A touch pressed light against my cheek, the fingertip of feeling electrified my skin on its journey down my face. I lay with my head to the side, resting on a soft pillow of plastic. Breath was slow and even, my mind clear, senses sharp. I sat bolt upright listening to the slow tap of water as it fell to the plastic mattress.

Although still dark, I could see across the room, see the featureless walls and the handless, reinforced door. There were no windows and no lights, no openings to the sky, but still I could make out my hands in front of my face and the wound on my arm that gave no pain. I gave thanks realising my stomach had settled, but the gratitude disappeared as I realised the twist and turn had been replaced with an emptiness so deep I felt I hadn’t eaten since my birth.

I caught a faint nectar in the air, a sweet flavourful mist titillating my nose. I turned my head, somehow knowing the light would go on and its bright burn would not force me to turn away. The golden smell grew with each footstep and I stood without thought, pushed my face to the glass at the door, waiting for the veritable banquet of food I expected on trays across their arms.

No suckling pig came with an apple in its mouth, no bowls of sweet gravy to accompany. Just three figures, men by their gait, marched into view, bodies bound by thick armour, gas masks covering their faces. The masks couldn’t hide their surprise, couldn’t prevent them stopping in their tracks, rearing back as they saw me peering out through the door, my mouth fixed in a wide oh as I tried to keep my breath steady, tried not to claw at the door to get to whatever feast they’d hidden the other side.

Nods exchanged between the men and they turned, leaving their disciplined march behind, hurrying, scurrying back out of sight, with a mixture of fear and excitement, dowsing me in the low darkness with a glimmer of sweet meats in their wake. My breath slowed as my disappointment grew, my stomach pulsing as the anticipation retreated. I stepped back away from the door as it snapped with a noise sharper than before. I gave a high laugh to myself. Sat back to the bed. Did these people think I was stupid?

The door remained ajar when I didn’t move, it must have been hours before the lights were back on full, before I could taste them heading back my way, this time their number and bounty they carried much greater. Riot shields were the first I saw. POLICE in bold black letters across the top as they pushed between the gap in the door. I didn’t move, didn’t leap to take what food they’d hid, despite the desperate instructions from my belly, the demands for satisfaction pushing saliva to fill my mouth, forcing me to swallow it down. When I spoke the soldiers reacted as they had before, their shields twitching as they jumped back like they’d never seen a woman talk.

“I need food,” I said, my voice clear, but desperately dry. The pack backed off, letting another through, a man pushed into view. Not a soldier this time, he wore the clothes I’d last seen him in. Dan was forced into the room, dishevelled, squinting in my direction. I stood, the soldiers leaping back, the door slamming as I caught him in my arms, hugging him tight, my nose against the skin on his neck as I drew in his fabulous smell. I could so easily pull my lips back, sink my teeth into his flesh. The instinct was so overwhelming, so near to being sexual I could feel myself getting wet. For the first time I wanted a man inside me.

His deep voice murmured something I couldn’t quite tell as the light went out. All I knew was my colleague and friend was wishing me well. My head snapped back and I threw myself to bench. Eyes wide, I watched him hold his hand out, feeling for the walls in his complete darkness. Pains cramped tight in my belly, my mouth open wide, closing as I forced back the feeling. The smell in the room was so overwhelming I curled in a ball until I felt him stumble at me feet, spraying me with the standing water.

I lunged forward, unable to stop my mouth snapping open.

Chapter Seven

His arm pulled back as my teeth touched light to his flesh, the salty, sweet taste of his sweat exciting my tongue as I inhaled. About to lunge forward again, about to wrap my arms around him and drag him back, a high animalistic scream sent a painful fissure deep through my brain, forcing my hands to my ears. With the demonic, pained cry growing high, it was like a deformed child screaming for its mother. The scream flattened with a great thump to its cell door, the piercing feral noise rising high in between the smashing of its flesh against the metal.

I couldn’t hear Dan’s words, but could feel the shake of his body, the sting of his hot flesh radiating against mine, his hands over his ears as he cried down to floor, our bodies rearing each time the possessed creature filled the air with its terror.

The lights came on in the corridor with boots barely heard over the animal call, their rainbow scent calling me despite the air already thick with Dan’s powerful pull. I leapt up, standing to shake out my tense muscles, to ward off the desire to fill my belly and leaning hard against the door, my hands still at my ears, I fought to get my shoulder tight so I could see around the angle.

The black armoured back of a man came into view, his shoulders tense as he stood ready, but I couldn’t tell what was in his hands. Others unseen, shouted and screamed, barking instructions near impossible to hear over the deafening din.

The door mechanism cracked and by instinct I pushed, but it was only an echo through the metal, not my door opening. A slap of metal reverberated in the corridor sending a shock wave through the wall and a man spilling backward, his feet tripping as stumbled to the ground. The scream relented, replaced with a barrage of gunfire, round after round from automatic rifles. My ears felt like they’d been stripped back, the drums exposed, the bullets blasting off every surface, men screaming and the high pitched zing of metal against metal.

Soon the chaos receded and I saw no movement in my narrow angle, just the light haze of smoke and the spray of blood up the walls. Someone had won the battle and it was easy to tell from the light pad of feet, the victor did not wear heavy boots. Still, I peered out as my ears relaxed, took in the view as wide eyed as I could, tried to push away the hunger in my belly I was thankful had pushed down, hidden by the terror of the wail.

Peering out, a face shot up at the window, blocking most of the light, sending me backwards, my feet splashing water high in the air. Dan screamed and the man’s face erupted with a noise so high I thought the reinforced glass would cave and pelt me with glass. The whites of the man’s eyes were deep red and sunken, the skin on his forehead missing and past dark, thick patches of clots, I saw the white of his skull. He reared forward, but the glass stayed intact, leaving a dark, sticky film on the window each time he pulled away only to smash his head again and again.

The air pressure changed, distant boots ran on the tiled floor, shots leapt out and I stumbled further until my back was against the wall. The face had gone, the cell light again, but between the scrape of lead running down the walls and the bang of each bullet, I could hear the wail growing less vital. I looked to Dan curled in a ball on the bed, but I couldn’t comfort him, the temptation brought tears as I fought back the urge, a question burning my senses.

What had they done?

All was quiet again, the cell bright from the lights in the corridor. I closed my eyes, pushed my hand on my mouth, but still the smell licked at my nose, the sweet taste dancing on my tongue.

I took a step forward, a step closer to the bed, perhaps it was for the best. Dan was ruined, broken down, perhaps it was the right thing to do to put him out of his misery. But what was that noise?

It was a sound I’d heard before, the slight cry of a child, but it wasn’t from a kid. The rupture of terror filled the air with a feral scream as my hands pushed again to my ears. I barely noticed the second call soon adding to the chorus, barely noticed the third and the fourth, there was no more pain my ears could take. One thought remained in my head. There was only one way this could get worse. As if by command, the lights in the corridor went dark and with a snap, the electromagnetic locks released their heavy steel, the doors, our door, relaxed open and the din magnified, searing through my brain.

Chapter Eight

With a collective breath, the pained echoes slowly died away. My hands held out to the wall hoping to keep upright. As my head rolled from side to side, still feeling the full force inside, movement in the corridor shifted, their attention a group focus. I heard the mood as clear as if I watched from above, footsteps, bare feet padding, stalking with a single aim. Slow and cautious in the dark. I turned to Dan, listened to his desperate low whimper, listened to their thoughtless steps outside, each in time with his low, quiet, self-destructive cry.

I moved, keeping my feet slow, trying not to aggravate the standing water. Outside theirs were quickening and I grabbed Dan up, his eyes so wide, his weight nearly empty as I pushed him against the wall. I could almost see the shadows in the gap as I leant against him with my back, a foreign instinct holding my arms out wide to shield him from their arrival.

But they didn’t come. All I saw was a shadow pass the gap in the door, a figure bent low, there and gone in a flash, right before a confusion of scents caught me from the corridor.

Gunfire burst out, tiny flashes lighting the corridor for an instant, each peppered with a riot of movement. Screams ripped again through the loud bangs, Dan grabbing around my waist, holding me tight as he sobbed. The chaos was soon out of the corridor, soon beyond the far door, echoing further away, leaving just the two of us behind. I hoped. The lights in the corridor flickered on and I jumped out of Dan’s grasp, a breath unbidden pulled into my lungs, Dan’s smell wafting all around. I turned wide eyed, a painful emptiness raking at my insides.

Dan looked up and I closed my mouth. He stood watching my silhouette as I backed up to the doorway. I wandered if he could tell I was weighing up if I should take this last chance to kill the pain, to take his life, or to fight against these new feelings and not take the step I knew I could never come back from.

I welcomed the scream echoing in the distance, forcing my attention to the call rushing down through the corridor. I turned, placing my hand on the cold of the metal door and peered through the gap. I startled back at the floor strewn with bodies, my eyes roved the blood soaking into almost every space, the white of the floor only visible through the smeared foot marks, the rushing boot prints, licking at the lumps of tile, plaster from the walls, lead and flesh crowding its surface.

I counted seven bodies, four of them soldiers, but could only tell by their thick body armour, doubting their mothers could recognise what remained of their faces. The other three I didn’t have enough words to describe, but knew they were like the man, the Bodmin Bodysnatcher, who’d smashed his head against my door, who lay at my feet, a dark ooze of clots filling where his eyes had been.

Stepping out, blood sucked around the sole of my foot. It was warm to touch, like stepping into a lukewarm bath, sending tingles of pleasure along the inside of my thighs. I peered along the corridor and saw the door at the end ajar, the light burned bright the other side and I pulled my left from the cell, breathing slow and considered as the blood wrapped around the sole. A gentle waft of air passed my nose and I turned, following the scent and beckoned for Dan to follow. I didn’t wait for him to move. As I passed each door I peered in, finding each cell empty, the former inmate either dead or a player in the melee echoing in the distance.

The lights out from the corridor were brighter this time, lit up like a football pitch with no corners in shadow. The gap in the fence was wide open and I ran before someone could play their awful trick again. I knew Dan followed behind even though I didn’t turn to look. Beyond the gate was another doorway, lit from the other side. The body of a soldier lay across the threshold, his gun still cradled in his left arm, both out of his reach.

The corridor was much the same, but with less blood, the bodies of two creatures lay, both mown downside by side half way down, riddled with wide gaping holes strafing their bodies, at least half of their heads missing. The doors in this corridor were glass, had been. None remained, each shattered into cubes laying, blown across the floor of the examination rooms, the laboratories and store cupboards.

I continued to add my red footsteps to the jumble of prints, gasps from Dan confirmed he was close. By now the screams had lessened, the gunfire more sporadic and way off into the distance. Cold chilled my bones and I knew this chance would end soon, my time to form a plan shortening with every moment. I ran.

Precious seconds had passed since the last gunshot, since the last echo of a demonic scream. There was no noise to hide the loud crack as I kicked the locker room door open, sending a throb of pain up through my toes. Beckoning Dan into the room, I pushed the door closed, paying him no further attention as I busied myself, barehanded pulling open each small metal doors, somehow knowing I had new strength.

Staring at Dan with a detached wander, I couldn’t decide if he was gawking at my feat of strength, or my naked curves as I dressed in someone else’s clothes, my mind elsewhere, mouth filling with saliva as I couldn’t help but fantasise what his flesh would taste like. Just a nibble.

The door swung wide and we cowered in each corner, the burst of flavour almost leapt me to my feet, despite the red dot on Dan’s forehead and the scream of the voice to get face down on the ground.

Chapter Nine

I expected a bullet as he told me to rise, barking orders to get to our feet. I knew he would shoot as we locked eyes, seeing my monstrous features. I expected a bullet, but he didn’t search underneath the lab coat, giving himself no chance to recognise someone else’s clothes that didn’t fit. I expected a bullet as footsteps built to a roar in the corridor, heavy boots running past, skittering cubes of glasses in all directions. I expected a bullet as I headed our small group through the doorway, turning right before Dan, leading the way. I expected to be shot to the ground as I forced my hand across my mouth, trying to lock out the dreamy wake of the flesh gone racing to the empty cells.

I expected a bullet after each instruction, each left turn, each wait, go right. I expected a bullet as he spoke to someone else, someone on the radio as we arrived at a braced metal door twice as wide and half as tall as those baring the cells. I expected gunfire from within as the door slid, expected the beast of a black soldier on the other side to swing his gun down from his shoulder, to smash the butt across my face and send me spiralling to the ground. I hadn’t expected him to stare wide eyed, his eyebrows twitching, mouth curling to a smile, that look of recognition I’d grown so used to, those words no one could hold back.

“Are you?” he said, stepping back to let us in the room.

I walked past, not able to talk, fearing the deep breath I couldn’t hold back. It came with a surprise, a lungful of smoke, a great blanket blocking out everything else. My nostrils filled, the buds on my tongue clogged. I took in more of the thick air and realised all around me, my vision no longer blurred with the need to fill my urge.

I saw people. Saw the small, under-lit room. An old incandescent lamp hanging bare from the ceiling. We were in a kind of strong room, dining chairs set around the edge, each alternating its space with white plastic crates stacked to the low ceiling. I saw the eyes on me. A small collection, four young women in lab coats in the dark room and a man sat on the floor with a laptop in the far corner, the cigarette dangling from his lip. I didn’t want to tear off their flesh. I wanted to know who they were. I wanted to get their story. I was me again.

Ushered to a seat in the corner, Dan joined me, sitting meek at my side, his head in his hands as I watched the soldier who’d found us, leave and his colleague push the door closed at his back. The solder came over and I smiled, pushing on my public face, surprised I could hear his words.

“Are you the woman off the tele?” he said, his accent thick with West Midlands rhythm. I shook my head, pleased my face had not turned hideous.

“I’ve just started,” I replied. “A week ago. Graduate programme.”

He smiled showing teeth as white as snow. I didn’t think he believed me, but I lived a few moments more to tell the tale.

“What’s going on?” I replied, I couldn’t help myself and watched as despite my low voice, two pairs of eyes glanced in my direction. He shook his head, turning to the rest of the group as if for show, shrugging his shoulders in an overactive move to add to his point. The cigarette smoke thinned and I watched the wisps of blue air glide up into the vents. Dan’s smell came first as he leant over still with his head in his hands. Then came new tastes. Thick and meaty, I guessed was the soldier’s, the huddle of women were delicate and gamey. I hadn’t quite got the older man’s until I stood next to him, his scent pale, aged like mutton.

“Have you got another?” I said, nodding towards the rectangular package on the floor. He smiled up showing yellow teeth, his meat strong as he breathed in my direction. I’m sure I would have found out his taste if he hadn’t flipped up the lid of the box next to him to reveal long cartons of white boxed cigarettes.

The first draw was bliss, the taste empty, saliva retreating down my throat as my vision cleared. The woman in the huddle coughed as I passed, if they’d kept that up, I might have shown the alternative. I took my time, let the smoke fill every corner of my lungs, let the thick air coat the inside of my nostrils. Dan had grown quiet and I guessed he was asleep, not even waking at the dull knock on the heavy door, not hearing the words as it opened.

“Five unaccounted for.” It was a different soldier that had escorted us. I wanted to say rescued us, but that wasn’t right. The right words tried to form in my head as I savoured my blank taste bugs, listening to the drivel. “I had to bring her here. Watch her. She’s trouble, the brig’s overrun.”

I looked up at those words. Knew before I saw her face in the orange light, knew it would be her stepping through the gap. I hadn’t guessed about the hands cuffed at her front. Hadn’t guessed at the left side of her face black and blue. Hadn’t thought I’d see her head down turned. Broken.

I stubbed the unfinished cigarette under my foot.

Chapter Ten

She wore a bright orange jump-suit three or more sizes too large. Her feet shuffled across the floor, restricted by manacles clipped at her ankles. What could she have done to prompt such fear of escape?

A great black hand reached my way as I stepped forward, but with all eyes on me I let myself back, watching her downward face as she was led to the opposite side of the room. The huddled women gave their attention, fixed their sneers pointed in her direction while I half listened to the soldier’s chat, catching only half their words as a bunch of keys changed hands. Soon our black guard was left to his task alone.

Still, she hadn’t looked up.

Lighting another cigarette, I pushed away my returning senses, smothering the sweet honeyed scent I could almost see drawing out from her like an aura. All the while I kept my eyes on the top of her bowed head and as the door sealed closed, I spoke loud enough for everyone to hear.

“What’s going on?”

Toni looked up, my plan a success. Her eyes were wide, her left not as wide as her right, her chest heaving as she struggled with pain from the sharp intake of breath. I turned away after lingering just enough. The soldier stood at the door with a wide smile shining back, his voice booming when he spoke.

“It’s under control, but we’ll be moving as soon as the compound is cleared.”

“Moving where?” said one of the woman who’d broken from the pack, a chorus of agreement at her shoulders.

“I don’t know. I’ve just been told we’re going mobile. You have work to do,” he said and letting his rifle relax on the straps, he held his hands in the air. “That’s all I know,” he said and turned raising his eyes wide to test my satisfaction.

I gave a shallow nod and waited until he turned away before I let my view radiate in Toni’s direction. She was staring right at me, pain hanging from her face, tears rolling down her cheeks and squinting each time I took a long drag.

All I could do was think, but I’d already done all I needed to do. I knew my only choice. Sit and wait this out, smoking to keep myself from going crazy, pushing away the air thick with the mouthwatering smells while I stared at Toni fighting my growing anger at the damage to her face and all I could imagine they’d put her through. Her phone call made little sense, although the words were fading, she must have found out what was going on, must have discovered they were testing on humans, were testing a vaccine against a new disease I hadn’t even heard of. She’d been silenced. Shackled and chained. But why hadn’t they killed her? A shudder ran down my spine at the thought.

Shaking off the growing tension, I let myself fantasise over the only other option. Stub out the cigarette and burn no other. Let myself be engulfed by the smorgasbord of flavour. There was no point kidding myself about what would happen next. I knew I would rend flesh, would pull heads to the side and bite my teeth deep into their necks. I knew I wouldn’t stop, couldn’t hold back once I’d tasted the sweet warm meat straight from the bone. These thoughts didn’t scare me one bit and I felt my heart beating and my vision begin to haze. I barely heard a cackle of coughs from the side of the room, the sound more like braying lambs in a field. I thought of the blood spurting from their veins, heat raining down my face, covering my naked body.

“Are you okay lady?” the soldier’s voice boomed somewhere near, but I saw him as only a shadow, my breath pulling fast as I snapped forward sinking my teeth, but only in my head. Sweet, delicious, tangy scent filtered down my nostrils, electricity coursed along my veins, blood pumped to my extremities, fingers, toes, head, breasts, my pussy felt engorged, bulging heavy between my legs. More words came at me as my head lolled back and forward. I fought the feeling as it took control, knowing if I leapt forward and sunk my teeth, the race of Oxytocin would be better than the greatest orgasm I’d ever felt.

A sting of pain cut through the mist and I looked to my fingers and saw the orange ember kissing my skin. Through the fog I pulled it to my lips and sucked the deepest breath I’d every taken, blowing out as slow as I could manage.

My heart slowed and the moment passed with a disappointment we all know when we’d pulled back from the cliff edge, our partner out of energy, the batteries dead, hand too weary. My eyes fell past the soldier who’d stood back as I took the drag, falling on Toni. I knew plan A was my only option, I couldn’t trust myself to be in control, knowing I wouldn’t be able to stop. Her flesh would taste the sweetest, would be the most familiar of all.

The soldier was speaking and I looked up, taking another drag. In his hands were the carton of cigarettes he’d taken from my side as the women coughed.

“We’ll just hold off with the smoking until we get outside,” he said, his mouth and eyes wide in a smile.

Chapter Eleven

The choice was made. Not my decision. What could I do? At a guess I had a full five minutes before I couldn’t hold back, maybe ten if I distracted myself from all around me. Perhaps I could sleep, think happy thoughts, but not those already crowding my head.

I looked back at Toni, her eyebrows raised in what I knew was a solemn communication. Sorry, but thanks for answering my call, I guessed, turning away. Yes, I’d come to her rescue on the flimsiest of information, but what good had I done? I was in a worse situation. pumped full of drugs, or whatever was in the syringe. I’d been bitten, infected by a disease I couldn’t even imagine, the first symptoms of which destroyed my world. At least she still has her life. Battered and bruised, broken maybe, but she would recover when she was out of this place. My future was less certain. To be put down like a rabid dog, or locked in a cage for however long I had left.

I stood, breathing through my mouth and took small steps across the room, ignoring the soldier’s words.

“Miss, please stay away from the prisoner,” he said, turning my way. I carried on my advance, standing my ground as his wide spread hand blocked my path and he stepped in to follow. I looked him up and down, trying not to linger on his sidearm, a Glock 17, a weapon I’d learnt to handle, trained by my Israeli bodyguard on my six month stint in Jerusalem. I saw his pouches packed full, guessed which one should hold the ammunition, could practically smell the chocolate on the other side that would melt in the building heat of the room. Only as he copied my look did I sit back down, he’d got the wrong idea, but I’d found a way out.

Closing my eyes, I let my mind drift, turning away from the thought of food, of urges I needed to satisfy. I thought of my parents sat in front of the telly, each with a glass of sherry and a box of chocolates spread across their laps. Still, the scents rolled in and I knew the four women would be standing in front of me as I opened my eyes, their gamey notes exciting the thin hairs along the inside of my nostrils. I could almost see in the air as their cocktail of scents untangled, their flavours becoming distinct, my attention caught by one in particular who had an undertone of burnt caramel.

There they were, silhouetted against the lamp. I closed my eyes again, but couldn’t help but open, their words already losing definition as I looked each of them with a growing desperation to know which one would make a great dessert. I stood, feeling saliva pour from my glands, the liquid hot in my mouth as I tried to concentrate on their words.

“Karen,” the tallest of the four said, with a high pitched voice she tried to keep quiet. She was blonde with great skin, her white coat hid her curves, but hung high off her chest. I only noticed her hand held out as the other three pairs of eyes followed down. I held mine out, hers so warm, could feel her energy filling me, my breath rising. “Where do you work again? I’ve not seen you around,” she said, her face alarming and she yanked back her hand. “You’re freezing,” she said and in unison each of their eyes went wide, fixed on my hand and then my face. “Do we,” the tall one said and before I could find my sweet treat, she’d pushed up my sleeve and were rearing back at the healing bite wound.

The world slipped down a gear, their speech slowing as if their batteries had drained. They moved back with a speed like they were stuck in treacle, the screams building as my arm fell back to my side. The game was up, their widening faces told me so. I had just enough of a chance to catch Toni’s face as it fell, before I caught the soldier’s eyes. He was good, had his rifle up, head looking slowly side to side, the fat in his cheeks carrying its momentum as he checked twice either side he was making the right decision.

The first bullet was easy to dodge, the round fired in a panic and like a fly, my body and brain were on overdrive, time had slowed for those around.

The second bullet grazed my arm, sending pain I would only feel moments later. The third was a wild shot, ricocheting twice before embedding deep in a brain. I hoped it wasn’t in the sweet taste of pudding. He had the Glock out as I closed the distance, but I saw it too late, heard the trigger pull back the first safety pin, felt the second vibrate through my temple, knowing the third noise would be the sound of my brain exploding.

Chapter Twelve

Part of me expected the end. Part of me even thought it would be a good way to go. Clean. Over and done before I could commentate. But more than anything else, the biggest part of me knew his hand would go down, the gun would slip from my temple and I’d snatch it away, have him face down on the floor before I could think any more.

Looking up from my foot between his shoulders blades, I knew I’d see Toni, what remained of the plastic box in her hand, whatever had been its heavy contents still settling on the floor amongst the jagged white shards, a wide lopsided smile beaming in my direction as the world settled to the speed I was more comfortable with.

No one moved because I told them not too. Toni paused only for a moment as I hurried my voice for her to snatch a cigarette from the carton and get one to my mouth with a lighter. She read my distress as I shooed her away with the smouldering stick between my lips, as I took a moment, took my time to collect, drawing in the thick air, watching as my vision snapped back, the scents evaporating.

The three remaining women huddled over the fallen. The tallest had taken the lead, the price of her height. They let themselves fall to the floor as the obvious became undeniable. The man who’d sat at his laptop continued to type, his fingers speeding as if he was curating his own narrative. The soldier shook under my foot, but obeyed the one and only command I’d given as Toni bent at his side, pulling off the helmet, yanking the radio cables from their sockets, digging out the keys from his pocket.

For the first time in an age I took a moment to think and the question spilled. How the hell am I going to get this story out?

Massaging her wrists, Toni bent to her ankles and pulling up the orange overalls I winced back at her skin black and blue, my foot between his blades getting heavier with every second. She looked up and saw my pain, pulled the legs down and launched herself at me, her arms grabbing tight around my upper body, her head burying deep into the crook of my neck. I took a long draw, to push away the growing distraction, kept my eyes on the four, although they were looking anywhere, but in my direction.

A clang of metal rang out against the heavy door and Toni pulled away, her eyes catching on the cigarette in my mouth, returning a look, a scowl I knew well. Her eyes snapped to the door, but were soon on the rifle in her hands and the slide of the mechanism it was clear she knew so well.

“Radio check, dumbass,” were the cotton wool words just about making it through the steel. We glanced together, her nod gave me the will. I took my foot from his back and made sure he was aware a gun was pointed should he wish to be a hero. Without words I motioned for all to move behind the door, the man at the laptop took the longest to comply, almost upset to close the screen and let his fingers leave the keyboard. Before too many more words had repeated through the door, our hostages were in the crook and Toni and I were standing at the far wall. They would see us only when the door was full pushed open and we’d have them.

I padded forward, pushing the gun into my white coat pocket, gripped my hands around the handle and forced the slide across, pulling the heavy metal by the handle, just enough to crack it open before I jumped back to my position, both our aims centred on the gap. The door didn’t move, and no words came. It hadn’t crossed my mind that a plan might have been in place for this situation, a procedure ready should they get no answer. We should have opened the door straight away, guns blazing. Now on the other side backup would be on its way or already there in silence. Guns would be pointed our way, doing to us what we’d planned for them. They were professionals. No sound came. No boots ran down the corridor. No final calls were made just to make sure.

I’d covered enough sieges in my time, terrorists, bank robbers and plain old stupidity. A canister would roll all casual through the gap. A bang and a flash would overwhelm our senses and in those moments they would have control. We’d be dead or in chains. I chanced a look at Toni, her eyes were already on me. I drew a drag of foul smoke, letting the remainder drop to the ground, knowing the only way out of this situation was to lose control, to let myself go where my body ached to be. I’d just have to hope I could reign it in when the job was done and not destroy my reason for being here at the same time.

By not holding back, I could already taste the change in the air, could feel blood swelling, muscles tense, coiling up, ready to spring. It was Toni’s words which halted the march, made me pause enough to follow her outstretched finger down to the growing line on the floor at the gap. To watch the dark line of a viscous liquid glint in the light. As my eyes locked, I could taste it on my tongue, could smell the thick iron rich tang heavy down my throat, all before I heard the structure of her question.

“Is that blood?”

Chapter Thirteen

Gulping down the heavy air, I pushed my hand out to my side, forcing myself to continue the step forward as Toni’s warmth shot up through my fingers. The room was silent, the breath around me still, the air motionless, the only noise from my pounding blood. My eyes fixed on the gap, the smell of its liquor spiralling up my nose, my forward leap only held back by my curiosity of who the owner was.

Not bothering to listen out as I neared, all I could hear was the call everywhere but in my ears. Stepping around the door, I saw the light of the corridor and the start of the trail of scarlet coming from outside the gap’s angle. Reaching my fingers out to the door, I jumped, only just able to stop myself from pouncing as warm hands burnt at my shoulder. I saw the fear in her eyes, Toni’s step back, the pull away of her hands. I couldn’t stay in the room like this and turned, slapping my fingers against the steel, the door giving like it had no weight at all.

I was out into the corridor, leaping forward, I could hear the gasps from the room echoing. My eyes shot left, not lingering on the body of the soldier, scanning down to the far door, flipping around as the piercing scream came from behind. I took a moment. I was in another place; the shriek sending my body into itself. He wasn’t wearing his glasses or one of his many trademark checked shirts, but past his wide mouth and bared teeth, behind the dark clots and white sinew hanging from his short beard, the wide scarlet radiating down the hospital gown like a bloody napkin tucked in at the neck, I recognised his pale green eyes, saw that fleck of dark in his right just as the trigger was all the way back, his torso stuttering as the bullet slammed.

Still, I let the second round release, but it was Toni’s just after, shattering his skull. Hers hit in the centre of his forehead, my aim distracted with the arrival of her scent, catching him in the shoulder instead. He dropped like a rag doll, collapsing to the floor, my head was already elsewhere, searching behind him, beyond the body to the corridor and the bloody footsteps leading off, only to return. I forged forward, stepping around the body, not glancing back, knowing I would only drive myself closer to where I couldn’t be, where I never wanted to end up. I ignored the bullet as it went off, ignored the echo I barely heard. It wasn’t until I heard her soft voice from miles away I tried to listen to what my ears were telling me.

A name called from a great distance, repeated, the sharp tone reminding me of school, of a teacher telling me off, stopping my prank, forcing concentration. The name was mine and I turned only as I heard the click of a lighter, but found she wasn’t in the corridor. There was enough of me left to stop, to accept the order to wait, to stay my panting breath, to hold back my muscles itching for the hunt, my stomach growing as my eyes fixed on the soldier’s body by the door.

My view blocked. Toni through the door. In her hands was the carton of cigarettes, the soldier’s Glock in the other, a wisp of smoke trailing from the cigarette in her mouth. I saw the new pool of blood in the corridor, the soldier’s head flatter than when I passed, but my eyes returned to her, to the curl of her mouth. Oh my god. She understood. I almost broke down, the animal draining from me. Still, I pounced towards her, in my memory I was like a dog, jumping to her side, into her cloud, her taste potted with blank space. The cigarette was in my mouth, the blood in my veins already calming, replaced with a warmth, a gratitude she knew my plight, knew how to bring me back to myself. I heard her calm sweet words, crystal clear as she grabbed my hand and led me down the corridor.

“I know somewhere,” she said.

We twisted and turned, stepping over bodies, soldiers mostly, but civilians too, only one wore a gown, killed by a gun shot shattering his head open. I didn’t care that not once did she check for life before she pushed the gun to each head, setting the air alight with the noise. My only concern was with the pointless waste of bullets, or did she know something I didn’t and it wasn’t a waste?

Chapter Fourteen

We headed through the corridor at a good pace, my eyes twitching to noise I couldn’t tell was really there. Peering through every open door, out into the darkness through every window, snapping back over my shoulder despite Toni’s relentless push forward. We climbed three storeys, still with my hand in hers, winding our way higher each time until we came to the top and a great sliding door which should have barred our way, but lay strewn to the side. Blood streaked across its front and at its side was a guard, not a solider, but a man in a blue shirt, a great bunch of keys hanging by his side. Only as we approached did she let go of my hand to unclip the ring from his belt. She didn’t need to administer the gun to his head, someone had done the job moments earlier, but long enough ago for the pool of liquid to slow its escape.

The carpet felt soft, letting my feet bounce, the sensation so alien, like I’d only experienced hard floors before. Toni lit another cigarette, handing it over before we reached a door with gold letters across its front, words I only recognised as her name as they passed out of sight. Letting go a second time to use the great bunch to unlock, she led me in, turning the thumbwheel in her fingers, slapping on the light. I took in the wide, spacious office, a great oak desk taking over half the space in the centre. Everything ordered, neat and clean, just as I would have expected.

She didn’t draw breath as we entered, instead ushered me to the long sofa filling the right-hand wall. Sitting, I pulled on the glorious cigarette, watching as she raced around the room, pulling open the draws of her desk, rifling through cupboards lining the floor and the wall. On top of the floor standing cupboards was a counter top with a sink in the centre, but there were medical instruments, no laboratory equipment cluttering its surface.

I watched as she seemed to slow, glancing at me, then standing straight, taking her time to look me over.

“You look like a granny,” she said with a smile. I glanced down. She was right. With the white coat spread wide, the tweed skirt and frilled blouse caught my attention for the first time. “She’ll be pissed if she sees you in her clothes,” she said, then burst out laughing. “She’ll be pissed if she see’s you at all.”

Her laughter cut short as the lights went out and a dim haze from the far wall caught my eye. I turned to the great window, stood and walked around the desk, my eyes fixed on the yellow line appearing on the horizon.

“How long’s it been?” I said, my voice dry and throat hoarse. I filled her pause peering through the window, gazing to the light on the horizon, turning down to the rest of the buildings, but with none of the lamps lit, I couldn’t make out any detail.

“I see you every week,” she said in a playful voice. I could tell from the muffle she was looking away, the sound told me she was still searching, but for what I didn’t know. Each moment the sun seemed to rise more and I knew it was true. The roofs of the shorter buildings on the other side of the site highlighting.

“I don’t get it,” I said and turned back into the darkness, taking a moment to let my eyes catch up on her shape moving in the corner.

“That little flared red dress you wore in Istanbul last week. That did it for me,” she said.

“When I interviewed the President?” I replied, stepping away from the window and her shape back in view. The orange jumpsuit lay crumpled at her feet, her hands were at her back tugging at her bra as she stepped from a lace pair of knickers. The feeling was growing too familiar, blood racing around my body, filling me up, urging me on. I took a long drag of the cigarette and turned back to the window, but my thoughts fixed on her curves, the image of her slender body in the dim light raging in my head. No matter how much I pulled from the cigarette it wouldn’t fade.

“Too long. I know. We weren’t meant to be and there’s no escaping from reality,” she said and was right. Together the weeks would pass by like hours, life set aside, blurring past the window. All it took was for one of us to remember we had lives outside, or a call from an editor or her boss and out time ended. Neither of us could ask the other to make the sacrifice it would take to be together.

With the clink of coat-hangers on the rail, I turned back, the light already greater. Her jeans still showed off her amazing form, the jumper hugging tight couldn’t hide away any of her beauty. I turned back through the window, movement catching my eye down below. I saw people and lots of them, soldiers, a rescue party. My shoulders hunched tight as I remembered they weren’t here to rescue me. They were here to rescue survivors. They were here to rescue Toni.

“Your friends are here to help you,” I said.

“Look again,” she said, but I was still watching, my eyes lingered as the light grew. I saw dull forms take shape, watched as civilians and those in lab coats came into focus. I watched their slow movement, their direction without aim. The mass of people seemed to grow in number with the light, their movement stilted, turning only when they bumped into each other, turning as they reached the walls, like maggots writhing in a bowl. As the light grew I saw the mass swelling against a chain link fence, like the ebb and flow of the tide. I saw another fence beyond and rubbed the bite on my arm. A long drag helped the growing pressure slow.

“What is this place?” I said with my view still fixed.

“A research facility,” she replied, her voice getting near.

I remembered back to our conversation as their injuries took shape, dark marked clothes grew clear, each face radiating a blank expression and I knew what I was looking at. I knew what they were trying to do. I knew what had infected me.

“What is it you exactly do?” I said with surprise at my breath still even. Her words were louder than I expected.

“Head of infection control,” she replied and I turned, my eyes catching at first on her bruised face, the cigarette dropping to the floor as my mouth shot open, my hands pushing to the syringe heading for my stomach.

Chapter Fifteen

I lay on my back in the darkness, warm for the first time in what seemed like an age. The left side of my body felt heavy, paralysed. A soft cushion nestled beneath my head and waited for the drip to fall to my face. I couldn’t move my left arm, my body unresponsive, with a panic rising I opened my eyes to the dim light and glared down at the dark hair of the head resting on my chest. My last memory flooded back. The needle stinging at my belly, legs going from underneath as she lunged.

“What the fuck?” I screamed, my voice building with every syllable as my right side reared up. Her head stirred, tilting around, bleary eyes looking back as I scrabbled to the floor. “What the fuck?” I repeated pulling up the blouse, my fingers running over the flat of my stomach, catching on the edge of the small circular plaster just above my belly button. “What the fuck?” I repeated, my eyes on hers as she dropped back to the sofa, fists rubbing at her sockets, a deep yawn pulling her mouth wide. “What have you done?” I said my voice desperate. “You’d better answer, or I’ll,” I said cutting myself off as I scoured the room.

“Wait,” she said, getting to her feet. I backed off, turning to find anything I could use to defend myself, but all I could see out of place was a red flared dress hanging on the back of the door. I lingered on the dress, our conversation pulling at my head. “Before I answer,” she said, holding her hands out as I looked back. “Tell me how you feel.”

“Feel?” I said, snapping back, the rage felt like about to vent as steam from my ears. “I’m fucking livid,” I said, my voice building. She pushed her hands out, her mouth twisting in laughter as she fought for control.

“Take a moment, let yourself wake. Calm down and tell me how your feel,” she sat back down keeping her attention my way, her eyes doughy as she tilted her head to the side with her lips a petite smile. I turned away, knowing I had to fight those eyes and took a step to the window, looked out to the horizon and the perfect blue sky. My eyes caught on the carton of cigarettes and panic pushed into my chest. Snapping my back to Toni, hers eyes were wide and hopeful.

I let the breath slowly catch in my lungs, tentative at first, taking note of all that came. As hard as I searched, the smell was benign, blank, empty, with no earthly taste drawing my attention. I let the breath build through my nose and held. My body gave no reaction, blood didn’t course like a tsunami and my heart didn’t pound out of my chest.

“I feel great,” I said, the words quiet, unsure. “What have you done? I feel like,” I said, struggling for the words. “Like,” I said again not knowing how to get it out.

“Human again?” Toni said and stood as I gave a slow nod.

“You’ve cured me?” I said with tears welling in my eyes, but I didn’t understand as she stepped towards me slowly shaking her head, her hands opening to pull me close. “I don’t understand,” I said, the tears flowing. I had her in my arms, still wanted to tear her clothes off, I wanted to taste her in my mouth, but not to pull away her flesh and didn’t feel the overwhelming need to lap at her open veins.

Her arms tightened around me, pulling closer as she spoke. Wrapping me completely.

“It’s not a cure,” she said, her voice soft, the tears obvious as she sobbed. “But it will suppress the symptoms for a while.”

I tried to pull away, I didn’t get it. Her arms held me in place.

“How do you know? How can you be sure?” There was silence and no reply came. “Please, you have to tell me or my brain will explode.”

Her arms tightened further, clamping on for dear life. Her lunge flashed in my mind as the sound of distant gunshots rang in my ears and an explosion shocked the fabric of the building.

“They’re coming,” she said.

“I don’t care whose coming, just tell me please. How do you know?”

My knees gave way as I heard the answer.

Chapter Sixteen

“You did this?” I shouted, struggling to get myself to my feet as my hands slipped on the tears covering the wooden floor.

“No,” Toni shouted back as she tried to gather me up in her arms.

“You made the drug,” I said, slapping away her arms.

“It was an antidote,” she said as I scrabbled back, bumping against her desk. “But it wasn’t ready. Wasn’t for human testing. They didn’t give me enough time, I told them I wasn’t for use on humans yet. There were more tests to do, more protocols to follow. When they refused to let me finish the work, wanted me to jump straight to the trials, I threatened to go to the media.” Her arms had fallen to her side, but lifted to wrap around her stomach as her slowing words pleaded. “They knew about you. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone, but I couldn’t sit back, I had to call. They found me when I was on the phone, beat me until I told them what I’d said. If you hadn’t come here, they were coming to get you, anyway. I’m so sorry.” Tears ran down the bruises on her face and she barely reacted to the echoing gunshots filling the air.

We stood, each of us unable to talk. Neither of listening to the litter of explosions and the chatter of the gunfire, until finally she sucked up the tears, letting her arms fall as she straightened up.

“We have to go or we’ll never leave this place alive,” she said, her eyes on mine, despite not able to look in her direction.

“You did this to me,” I said, the words not rising above the chaos.

“No,” she said. “I saved your life and I’ll do it again. I’ll do it every minute of the day if you need me.”

I turned away, ignoring her words then felt her grip around my upper arm. She tugged, pulling me to the window.

“Look,” she said and I turned to face the glass. The swarm was still there, but now the people formed lines of camouflaged soldiers streaming from trucks out in the yard, each looking left and right, their rifles levelled as they piled into every building. A door burst open and a creature leapt out, its hunched over form the only sign it was once human. The arc of its jump was a feat greater than an Olympian in his peak, only tattered rags of its gown circled around its neck, dark veins spidered out from its chest. Heads turned its way, followed by rifles. Soldiers dropped to their knees, their eyes peering through the scopes, but were none able to pull the trigger. The creature tangled in one of their colleagues, whose flesh flew from his face, ripped and discarded into the air.

My head shook as I took in the melee. I knew I’d seen this and worse already, but those images were like I’d seen them through someone else’s point to view, like on TV, my consciousness removed. I was taking this in for the first time, my body shaking, panic radiating in waves. Only Toni’s hand held tight in mine stopped me from curling into a ball and giving up.

Machine gun fire burst out from the side lines. A frantic chatter of bullets exploded in the crowd. I counted three soldiers down before the creature and its victim took the brunt of the fire, swiftly joined by a hundred other rounds, every soldier cutting them down.

I felt my breath heavy as I watched, Toni’s warm hand clutching at mine, but I couldn’t press back. My body so numb I thought I might collapse.

“You’d be dead if I hadn’t helped. You’ll be dead when they see you. We have to go. They can’t let you get out. You’re already their best chance. They’ll want to pull you apart and see why it worked.”

“But,” I said, turning away from the reforming line, soldier’s rushing in to check for survivors. “I’m not immune. It didn’t work,” I said in a low voice. “Before. Before,” I repeated. “I was like them, I wanted to do so much, the hunger was so overwhelming.” Her hand clamped tighter and she turned me around by the shoulder, peering into my eyes.

“No, you’re not like them, won’t be. You’re alive. They’re dead. You’re human and I’ve given your body a chance to fight back. We’ve got to go, they’re in the building already.”

I stayed where I was, unable to move as I watched her rush to the wardrobe, watched as she pulled out a rucksack, shouldering the rifle. Beckoning me forward with a pistol in her hand, I started towards the door as she pulled down the red dress and stuffed it into the bag. As she took hold of the handle I stopped, hearing a noise the other side. Toni heard it too and threw herself to floor just in time for an explosion to destroy the lock and fling the door wide.

Chapter Seventeen

The metal handle stopped spinning as it reached my feet. With the noxious smoke dispersing, a figure appeared at the door, a gas mask wrapped around their face, a short rifle tracking up, taking aim. Toni lay still, leaning back on her elbows, her eyes wide as she stared back at the figure taking tentative steps across the threshold. His eyes headed up to mine. A muffled sound came from behind his mask, but the words seemed as if not meant for us.

He took a step forward, his gun still on Toni, another figure arrived at his back. At first look they were identical. A burst of gunfire lit up the corridor, muffled shouts followed as if from all around. Anger rose in my chest. These were the people that had done this, these were the people that had beaten Toni. An urge to let my guard down built, I wanted the rage back, wanted the animal hunger to return so I could defend myself, defend Toni, but it wouldn’t come.

The other man stood with his shoulder at the door frame peering around a shallow angle out into the corridor. The soldier in the room was shouting something, his chest heaving up and down. With him he brought a thick chemical odour, the burn of plastic thickening the air. Across his dark, earthy uniform was a great line of splattered blood as if an artist had flicked a brush. The inside of his mask misted, the words muffled with the race of his breath and the protruding filter. Gunfire in the corridor wouldn’t let me concentrate, all I could do was stare back wide eyed at his noise as I shook my head, as he swapped his aim, snapping the muzzle between us.

His left hand stopped steadying the machine gun, instead hurried to unclip his helmet, dropping it to the desk as he flicked his head between the two of us, but his aim soon settled on me. He pulled the mask off and dragged in air. His red face ran with sweat, his short fringe dark, his bloodshot eyes flicked open and closed, frantic to rid the sting of sweat. Gunfire burst down the corridor, the soldier’s report at the door shook through my body and I flinched in his direction, not sure if I would see the gun pointed at me, the lack of pain a delayed reaction, but no, his aim was down the corridor and another volley rattled off as I stared.

The unmasked soldier drew my attention back as he spoke, his voice high, as young as his looks. So much younger than me. His wide eyes and the shake of his voice betrayed his recent loss of innocence.

“Stand up,” he’d been saying all along. “You’re coming with us,” he said, his words robotic, rehearsed.

“Stoppage,” came the muffled shout from behind the other’s mask. Our guy’s eyes lit up, his head rearing back. We watched as the soldier’s gloved hands raked the slide at the side of the weapon, pushing forward and pulling back. We watched as his motioned grew more frantic, watched as he vanished, leaving only the echo of the rifle hitting the floor.

I looked to the other man to make sure he’d seen it too and he stared back reflecting my disbelief. Toni didn’t pause, a hand pushed the pistol in a slide across the floor before grabbing at her rifle. Our eyes locked and I knew she’d seen it, seen him there, before a shadow darted past the doorway, grabbing the soldier and he’d gone.

“Aim that weapon somewhere else.” It was Toni’s sharp voice and I turned towards it, away from the doorway. She was standing at my side and I followed the aim of her pistol to his face. His mouth was hanging wide, his face turning from the corridor, the gun dropping in slow motion.

Sound came from the corridor. It was a noise I couldn’t at first describe, but soon I recognised something heavy being dragged across the carpet. We stopped moving, except for Toni. Her gun still pointed at the soldier, motioning him to the doorway. His eyes were still wide and I could see he was deciding, looking between the gun in her hand and the corridor, then to the window. He stepped to the glass and peered down, all with the noise in the corridor multiplying. I saw his eyes go wide as he peered lower, watched as he let the short machine gun down on its straps. Toni kept her gun pointed in his direction, despite the rising activity in the corridor. With the pant of his breath growing ever faster, the soldier unclipped the top of his holster and calmly drew a pistol out as he shook his head.

“What’s your name?” I whispered, keeping my voice as calm as I could, but he couldn’t take his look from below, all he could reply was the shake of his head. I looked to Toni and she looked back letting the gun drop, opening her hands and I looked back, the gun already under his chin. I dropped to my knees and felt the tears rolling down my face as I buried my hands over my ears, leaning against the desk. My body rattled as he pulled the trigger.

I heard the echo in my ears, heard the spent cartridge clink as it hit the desk. I heard his breath push out as he slumped to the floor and heard the scrape on the carpet stop, but only for a moment before it became an orchestra of drumming feet.

Chapter Eighteen

Without thought I raised to my feet, Toni already at the door, slamming it closed before running to the other side of the ornate desk, hopping over where the soldier had fallen. She pushed. The heavy wood didn’t move until I came around the other side and leant down, heaving with all I could whilst trying not to look at the soldier’s legs. It was too late to unsee the spray of red across the ceiling.

I looked away as I pushed with everything. The desk built its pace, slamming hard to the wall. Both of us stared at the gap between the desk and the door, the desk’s feet protruded out further than its surface, enough for a hand to fit through the gap sideways. Silently agreeing there was nothing we could do, we looked to the window trying not to let our breath deflate.

“Sealed shut?” I said, jumping as I finished my words, the door slapping hard against the wood, the desk moving against our bodies. We turned around and pushed back, spinning again as the door held firm. My eyes fell to the floor and the sprawled body despite my command, fixing on the slow darkening of the carpet.

“And bulletproof,” she said as I raised the pistol towards the glass, dropping my hand as I scoured the room for inspiration.

“Explosives,” I said, feeling the desk move with me as I leapt forward, snapping back around to the door to make sure Toni had kept her hold, lunging forward again as another great smack of flesh thudded against the wall. The scream came next, but the effect was different this time. I was numb to the emotion of the call, but couldn’t help but stare past Toni with her fingers in her ears, a white arm snapping through, scraping its length, bunching the black veined skin as it tried to reach us.

Kneeling to the carpet I tried to keep my eyes away from his head, huffing breath with the effort of turning him over, pinching the top of his small pack open, my fingers sliding on the sticky blood. I was in, but the pack was empty. I let the body settle on its front, jumping to my feet at the sound of Toni’s effort. Running to the edge of the desk hunching my shoulders, slapping the wood hard and reclaiming what she couldn’t help give up.

Shaking my head our eyes met, separating after a pause to take in the rest of the room.

“Come on,” I said, my words in a hurry. “You’re the clever one. How do we get out of this?” She laughed and I reared back. “I’m serious.”

“You ain’t too stupid yourself,” she replied in a thick west country accent. I squinted back.

“There’s no time,” I said, scanning the empty surfaces of the room, pushing hard against the desk. A realisation came as the door slapped against the desk. Bursts of gunfire were no longer peppering the air.

“Sorry,” she said with a laugh and I could only reply with a shake of my head. “Bullet proof glass stops bullets right?”

“I guess,” I said.

“Bullets are soft and spread when they hit something hard. They’re hot, often melting through their target.”

I nodded with excitement, but my energy drained as I spoke.

“So we need something small, cold and hard?” A smile lit her face. “So have you got anything like that?”

I could see the thoughts forming as she squinted around the room, her face straining in time with mine as we pushed against the desk, fighting a renewed surge. As the pressure released, she looked at me with wide eyes, not breathing despite the effort. The desk moved and I pushed back as she leapt away, ushering me to shuffle along to where she’d been. As I moved, I watched her open the right-hand drawer, sliding it out as far as it would go, the stop slapping hard as it reached its limit. Her hand reached for a small pink fabric covered box and knew its contents before she jumped away, sharing a moment, a small smile, her head tilted and eyes raised.

The ring was my first ever gift for another. The one and only gift for her. I’d used all my money, my head in the clouds after I came to terms with being different to everyone else, different to everyone apart from Toni. I was in love, had fallen for her so deeply I couldn’t imagine it wouldn’t just work. When we realised it wasn’t meant to be, I told her to get rid of it. I didn’t want it back. She gave it to charity, she’d said, telling me it meant nothing the first time we split. The only time we’d split. The only time we thought we knew what we were doing, a time when we thought we could see into the future.

But she’d kept it. She had it near.

As the confusion welled up in my chest, warmth radiating from my heart, I watched as if I was viewing CCTV images. She went straight to a floor cupboard, pulling a heavy weight from the bottom shelf and then a roll of surgical tape from another. She was at the window pulling the diamond from the golden setting, glancing back, sorrow in her eyes, before taping the stone, and yes it was real, to the glass at head height before she raised the weight and struck over and again.

I didn’t see the glass crack, didn’t see it splinter before I had to turn, putting my hands at the edge of the desk, renewing my effort. The screams radiated from the corridor, the wood moving towards me despite my efforts. I turned to see her bending down and saw a great slice in her jeans, felt the rush of the breeze in the room, the floor littered with thick clumps of glass. I turned back despite her urges, saw three black vein-ridden arms at the door, saw the door bending at the top, saw what I thought was the wall swaying inward.

“Come on,” she said, but I couldn’t move knowing the desk would give. They’d overrun us in seconds. Toni was at my side as I tried to push against the pressure. She shrugged the rifle off her shoulder and pushed through the gap, firing. The first explosion numbed my ears, the second, the third left them ringing, but the tide relented and I was free, a great breath pulled into my lungs. For the first time I smelt the stench, the soiled smell of sewerage from the corridor. She dragged me away, pushing me towards the window. I had to skip over the body, had to steady myself as I landed on the glass, hoping to stop my bare feet from cutting to ribbons.

With her hands at my back, she helped me climb, the door creaking against the wood, but I couldn’t look, keeping my eyes set on the horizon. I was up and on the ledge, looking along the side of the building at the decorative bricks protruding just enough to give texture at a glance, but were surely not enough for me to balance my weight on. Not enough to get me to the metal drainpipe and relative safety just out of arms reach.

“Go,” she said, her voice frantic. I had no choice, the door was opening wide, pushing the desk to the side. “Go,” she said and I saw her rucksack being push along the floor. “Go,” she said as she climbed, the first of the creatures was through, on the top of the desk, limbs at its back already following. “Go,” she said and I took the step, my weight holding as I gripped the thin edge of the brick below, my fingers scraping for a grip at the edge of the flat room. With her following at my side, my foot slipped, scraping my toes, but my grip was strong, fingernails digging into the soft skin of the roof. I held on, waiting for my breath to recover. “Shit, the bag,” I heard her say.

“Leave it,” I shouted, but as I turned I saw her disappear back through the window, a deafening scream howling from inside.

Chapter Nineteen

With my concentration on where she’d stood, I felt my feet slipping, my fingers aching as they pinching into the roof, my long nails already sheared flat. I turned, lunging for the drainpipe, giving my trust it wouldn’t fall away, wouldn’t release from the wall as I gripped around its surface, digging my toes hard as they came to rest on each side of the metal bracket. The round metal pipe moved, but didn’t give out all the way, at least not as my weight settled. The wind had picked up and with every movement as I clung on; the metal rubbed against itself, creaking, shifting, complaining like it could go at any moment. My hands were going numb with effort and I knew I couldn’t last long like this, but I wouldn’t look down, couldn’t let myself head that way. I refused to see what had made the soldier give up and take the easy way out.

I turned back to the space where she’d been not so long before, but still she hadn’t returned. I wanted to help her but I couldn’t, there was no chance I could make it back across, it was all I could do to cling onto the metal rattling with the slightest of my movements.

Somehow I climbed, letting the stack take my weight as I gripped around its girth with each hand, pushing my feet flat against the brick. I could see no other way and it worked, at least at first, letting me get three paces up the wall before I had to scrabble at the roof and find the ledge on the other side as the stack collapsed, my feet falling from under me, testing to see if my grip would hold.

It did, but for how long I wasn’t sure, with the metal still clattering, its echo ringing as it smashed down hard for the final time, I heaved myself up by my arms, scraping my front over the edge before I finally had my feet on the solid ground. I lay face down against the rough surface, drained, empty and savouring what was beneath me, my breath slowing until I thought about Toni.

Scrabbling to the edge, not taking in what was around me, staying low, I pulled myself back to the edge, popping my head into the free air, my breath catching as I reared back taking in the distance to the ground below. It was only three stories, but was enough to send my head into a spin. That was until I saw the ground moving. I knew it wasn’t the ground in motion and my brain corrected itself as the people gained their definition. They were wandering aimless as before, but had multiplied with a low hum radiating toward me, along with the same stench from the corridor.

I pulled my head up, my vision extending across the distance, past the trucks and the Land Rovers, the scattered weapons. The aimlessly wandering crowd had thinned, but I’d yet to see anyone not infected, anyone still human. The horizon ran out before I could see what I wanted, but hope came in the form of gunfire, distant at first, the best sign there was still a resistance. Close gunfire replied, so close, I shook with its force, until hope rose again in my chest as I released it was coming from below, the sound bursting from the window. Then came Toni, her body rearing back as she fired again. Her precious pack slung on one shoulder, swinging under her arm as she climbed out of the window, backwards into the nothingness.

I pushed myself out into the air as far as I dared, about just below my ribs, and I reached down, letting my arms drop.

“Grab on,” I said and she gave a start, sending her balance off, but I grabbed her hand as it flailed, a great smile on my face as we touched, my grip encircling her wrist. Together we scraped and shuffled sideways.

Nearly clear of the window, I felt strong again, ready to help drag her up, confident as she gripped me tight, her feet along the wall as I shuffled back, anchoring myself of the shallow ledge. Feet flat as mine had been, she climbed higher and I knew soon we would be safe and together. I could hold her in my arms and we could take our time to think. We would have all the time in the world to wait, contemplate the right moment to make the next move.

She climbed higher, my eyes on hers, her speed increasing as a scream seared through the air from below. I looked down as a dark flash burst from the window. I expected to see the shape fall to the ground. I didn’t expect Toni’s body to go tight, to pull against me so I hard as I took her full weight, to drag me down towards her. It all made sense when my eyes fell on the snarling beast lined with dark veins, its claw-like grip around Toni’s left ankle as it swayed, its mouth snapping wide, the other hand clawing at the air.

Chapter Twenty

There was no time to think. No energy left to slow their weight from dragging me from the roof. No movie-like surge of inhuman strength came to pull them both up. My options were clear. Save myself, sending Toni to her death, or let myself get dragged down so we could be dead together.

“Let the bag go,” I shouted as it swung at her shoulder. It would make no difference and she’d have to let go of one of my hands to do so, but it was heavy and it was all I could bring myself to say, unable to decide the way forward. Her eyes just stared deep into mine.

My brain lingered longer than it should. I knew there would be no miracle. I knew the creature’s grip would hold longer than I could keep mine whilst staying anchored to the roof. It was only as a shot rang out somewhere in the long distance, did I finally realise there was someone around, some resistance, some hope, even if it was too far off to help. The joy seemed greater than it should, but the creature’s weight was no more. I looked down, watching it fall, my eyes catching on a cloud of blood drifting next to it. Toni was scrabbling over the edge of the roof before the slap of the creature’s body against the concrete.

Dragging her the last few paces from the edge, I gripped her tight, laying flat on my back, our breath heaving as she buried her head in the crook of my neck, her body on my side, much like she had as I’d woken on the couch beneath us. As our breath slowed, the low hum took over, feeling like it was the building beneath us shaking. When I couldn’t stand the noise any more I spoke, my words sharper than I’d intended.

“What’s going on?” I said. “Time for an explanation.” I let my hands drop from around her back and tried to sit, but she gripped, holding me tight.

“Stay down. That sniper might change his mind. If he figures out who I am, we might be his next target.” In the heat of the moment I hadn’t connected the distant shot and the puff of blood that saved us, but now with a pull of breath, my heart pounding again as another shot echoed through the air.

“He saved us,” I replied as my breath calmed when I didn’t hear the shot land close by.

“He might have missed,” she said with a voice devoid of emotion. I let the words sink in and repeated my question.

“What the hell is going on?” I said. She didn’t reply straight away and my ears settled back to the hundreds of low calls writhing below us.

“It’s bad,” she said looking up.

“No shit,” I said shaking my head. “Tell me everything, unless you have other things to attend to,” I added, raising my brow to the top of her head. She moved her head to the side and talked.

“Twelve months ago a group of American researchers found a new virus in the Amazon. A member of the Ophiocordyceps family,” she paused for a breath. “Hailed as a cure for Altzheimer’s, work began all over the world fast tracking the R&D to confirm the breakthrough. Within two months our government got reports the independent labs which were part of the research network, were being taken over by their country’s governments. Findings were shared only on official channels. There was a big delay before the news broke. The fungus had infected a rhinovirus strain in the American lab where the initial analysis took place. It had fused with the virus and mutated. The first known case of human infection was a research fellow who died of a heart attack, natural causes as far as we can tell. He died at his desk while carrying out tests.” She paused, titled her head up, locking eyes with mine. “He rose from the dead and attacked his colleagues.”

I realised my body was shaking as her grip tightened around me.

“When was that?”

“Six months ago.”

“Six months,” I replied raising my voice. She nodded.

“Since then we’ve been racing to find a cure. The fungus itself is what does the damage, but it’s the virus that provides such an effective delivery system.”

“Six months?” I said again.

“Aside from a few outbreaks quickly controlled, in the UK anyway, this is our first serious problem.”

“Problem?” I said and she buried her head back in the crook of my neck. She nodded, but kept quiet. “So this virus,” I said.

“Disease,” she interrupted, pushing herself closer.

“This disease,” I said. “It turns people into zombies with inhuman strength, the ability to leap into the air and chase down an Olympic sprinter.” She didn’t reply. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“No,” she replied and I tried to pull away, but she wouldn’t let go. “They’re a side effect.”

“A side effect?”

“Of the work we’ve been doing,” she looked up. “The work I refused administer.” It was my turn to hold by my reply.

“So they’re different?”

“The disease doesn’t effect the living,” she said, then added. “In its unadulterated form. It only takes over when the host dies. It takes control, don’t ask me how, but it does.” I held my question back again. “The disease needs protein, despite its lack of any metabolism we can find. It seeks meat and that’s all it’s concerned with.”

“And the other,” I paused. “Things?”

I shuffled out from under her when she didn’t reply, this time she let me go.

“They’re still alive,” she replied. I could fell my heart beating hard.

“But you said,” I blurted out as I raised myself to my feet.

“Get down,” she whispered, her hands reaching up. When I backed away, she sat up. “The creatures in your corridor were given different versions of the trial vaccination. It had different effects, some of which you mentioned. Those things are an amalgamation of the original disease and human physiology.”

“They’re super humans with an insatiable thirst for death,” I said staring at her stoney faced.

“If you will,” she said looking down to the roof.

“And you made them,” I said. “Like me.”

“Not by choice,” she replied, not looking up.

“But they’re all gone now,” I said. She slowly shook her head, staring down at the tarmac pitch of the roof. “But everyone I’ve seen had their brains blown out or smashed against the concrete.”

“You saw one corridor,” she said standing, pointing her finger to the long low building that housed my cell. Still holding her finger out, she turned me around and I took in the building shaped like a child would draw the sun. Where we stood was the ball in the middle, the cell blocks were the lines out from the central circle. With the ground writhing between the buildings. I stopped turning as I completed the circle, twelve cell blocks counted.

Chapter Twenty One

“Each one?” I said finally lifting my mouth closed. Toni nodded, her eyes almost shut. “Full?” I added and she continued the nod. “And human testing started when?”

Toni snapped her head to the side at the echo of a distant shot.

“Not here, not now. Please.”

I barely noticed the noise, but the birds taking flight caught my eye.

“All in the last forty-eight hours?” I said, my voice lowering as my mind asked questions I didn’t want answered.

“Not here. Please,” she said grabbing my arm and I let myself be pulled to a crouch.

“You said you wouldn’t let them do it.” My voice was soft, almost childlike.

She slowly shook her head as she scoured the skyline. Another shot rang off and a blast of wind rattled through my clothes sending a chill through my body, the memory of hunger pulled my lips tight. She was right, there had to be better places to have this conversation. I did my best to push the thought away, joining in the search of the roof.

After twisting around still bent at my knees, I wasn’t sure what we were looking for, but I was sure we hadn’t found it. There was no small building on top of the roof. No stairwell rising out with a door we could open or break through. The tallest feature was a metal tower higher than twice the building. On the top were satellite dishes and mobile phones masts, halfway up were thick cables running tight to a smaller version of the mast on each of the twelve buildings. Across the roof were small upturned plastic boxes no larger than my head, each face slatted with a ventilation grill. They weren’t our way back in and maybe the infested corridors were not where we should return to.

Toni seemed to agree, ignoring the square hatch we found at the edge of the building. Instead I followed her on hands and knees as she crawled the perimeter. I copied her motion as she peered over the edge, flicking her head away every few moments to take a deep breath and clear her nose of the foul sewerage stench I could taste on my tongue after only a moment over the side.

Every area of ground our eyes fell on swam with creatures writhing, squirming against one another on their unrelenting search for human protein. I watched great bruises appear as they slapped into walls, turning without stumbling, heading in a new direction before hitting the next object in their way. In amongst the slow tide it was easy to see those who were different, those I’d shared a cell block with such a short time ago. Their hands swung out, clearing a path for wherever they headed, I could see the hunger I just wanted to be a memory. Was forty eight hours long enough for this to happen? I pushed away the question as a pair of eyes from below snapped up in my direction. We shared a look, but their pause was less than mine, his black lined faced stayed fixed as he forced his way to the edge of the building, smacking aside the dead creatures in his way, my heart racing as he pounced into the air, his feet landing to the window ledge on the first floor. “Toni,” I squealed as it took another leap, not looking at his next target, the window above. My breath relaxed as she followed my view of the creature slapping against the second floor pane of glass, falling backward to land, its fall cushioned by bodies who too no notice as they squirmed out from under him while he rose to his feet to try again.

We sped our crawl as our eyes separated. I stood, frustrated at the pace, but dropped back to my knees as the wide circle completed, the tears flowing when our miracle escape didn’t materialise. I hadn’t been down for long before Toni was at my side, her mouth at my ear, her words not quiet.

“Get up,” she said and I twitched my head to look at her stern face, her hands out for mine. “Get up. We’ve need to get there,” she said, pointing to one of the twelve spine buildings. I stood with my mouth wide open at her wishful thinking. Yes, the cell blocks were just one storey high. Yes, the building she pointed to still had its double perimeter fence intact with none of the dead filling the space. Yes, on its other side was the wide space of a car park full of vehicles we could use to the get the hell out of here. But to get there we would have to bound over a gap of over three car lengths wide. Unless we’d sprouted wings or gained inhuman strength, we’d have to jump down from our relative safety and wade head high in the sea of infected. She’d gone mad. It was the only explanation.

The thought fell away as a scream pierced through my brain, my mind numb as I saw Toni pull out her gun, pushing me to the ground. My head rolled to the side, catching on a blur of motion running from the right, my body shaking with every shot broking the sound barrier as it launched from the barrel, but did nothing to stop the creature’s race towards us.

Chapter Twenty Two

Still the shots rained on the creature, puffs of blood, skin and bone bursting out from every angle. This was it, this was the end of the line and all before we’d got started, before I could set this outrage straight, before I could tell the world Toni’s story. My story.

No. It couldn’t be. I hadn’t got this far in my life to go down as a footnote in a history never told. I sat up straight, landing on my knees and lunged forward just as the blur of the creature shot across me. I caught sodden flesh, tacky thick blood sticking to my fingers and I pushed until Toni grabbed me by the ankles to stop me falling over the edge with the creature’s face staring at me, its jaw snapping open and closed as it fell, head smashing against a short wall, setting its neck at a right angle. I watched, panting when it got up, its movement slow, its eyes already whitening over.

Toni pulled me up and into her arms, squeezing tight until my breath slowed, until my eyes followed the cable from the mast down to the centre of the building, to the centre of where we hoped was a haven.

“You first,” Toni said, pointing halfway up the tower, her other hand pulling a tissue from her pocket, its white ruined by the dark blood coming back as she dabbed at my face. A shot rang off in the distance and we crouched to our knees. “Take off the lab coat,” she said and I did, the cold air biting through the blouse. She pulled a penknife from her pack, slashed at the material halfway down and tore it in two before rolling one half in on itself. Holding each end of the improvised rope, she wrapped as much as she could around each fist as she held on tight. I understood, I said, but only with a nod.

“You first,” I said, my hands shaking as I tried to wrap my half of the lab coat into a rope. She handed hers over, trying not to let it unravel as she took my half and repeated the twist.

“You first,” she said standing and taking me by the arm. Movement caught in my peripheral vision and I turned to see a hand on the edge of the roof. We were too far away to see the detail, but I knew it would run with dark veins. The scream confirmed, stopping only as it thud to the ground. I stood and a second scream lit the air, a third call joined it and I didn’t need to be asked again. I ran, the thin metal of the mast cutting into my feet as I climbed with Toni close behind on the opposite side. The mast creaked, swayed and moved, tightening the cables as we rose. The calls grew in volume, so loud I wanted to push my fingers deep into my ears. The shout of the distant gunfire grew more frequent, but still we didn’t know who was the target, we climbed, stopping only when I could reach out to the thick cable.

Breath pulled in fast and I wrapped the rope as tight as I could, loosening back a turn as I felt my fingers numb. I held the rolled up coat over the cable, it was much harder to wrap the left side without letting go of the right. I would just have to hold on for my life. And there it was, right on cue, another creature had made it up to the roof, its back arching over as it pulled its feet from under, already in a full sprint toward us as the second summited.

“Go,” Toni shouted over the ear piercing din. I took a deep breath, leant forward and let myself down onto the cable with a leap, trying to ignore the creatures I could see altering their path to intercept me much quicker than I could have guessed.

Just as I dropped to the cable on the horizon I saw my news van and a smile rose on my lips, but tensed to a line as my grip held, but falling completely from my face as the tower bent, my journey less than half complete. The cable dropped as if another weight had added, the movement so great I had to tuck my legs under me to stop my feet hitting the roof as I went over the edge, but at least I was picking up speed and the creatures would not get close unless they could find another gear. Only just over the side of the building, there was nothing I could do as the cable gave out, snapping with a pop greater than the distant shots. With its length retreating through my arms, I plummeted through the air, my view filling with the building coming toward me faster than I knew my bones could take.

Chapter Twenty Three

My vision filled with the clay bricks racing forward. My concentration fixed on their symmetry, my eyes tracing the neat white lines between each course when I was interrupted, my view changing, the world spinning with a tug at my feet. I heard the rattle of chain-link and was weightless for a breath. Pressure slammed at my side and I paused, upside down. With just enough left inside, I curled into a ball, rolling as the air pushed out when I hit the concrete. The smash of the chain-link came again and I looked through blurring vision to see Toni on the other fence still swaying, sprawled on the floor, motionless with a hundred eyes on her as she lay between the two rows.

I ignored the aches, the pains shooting up my legs as I climbed to my feet, eyes tracking the thick cable slapping to rest on the hard floor, its weight bearing down on each fence. She’d jumped on the cable as I descended. She’d had no choice with those creatures so close. The inner chain-link fence had caught my feet, slowed me down, turned me over and I survived the fall. She’d fallen much lower, hit the other side of the fence and bounced into the perimeter. We’d got down, but were being followed. The air filled with the piercing calls as the creatures jumped from the roof, pulling through the sea of stench and would be on us again any minute. We had to go, but first I had to get to her.

Hooking my fingers between the links, I gripped with my toes too; the fence swaying forward and back as I climbed. Pain shot up my spine as I lurched in my attempt to keep steady. Toni still hadn’t moved and a widening dark pool formed at her back. I pulled myself away from the sight, turning to the sea of bruised faces staring with white eyes as they parted. The dead were thrown to the side, cast away by the creature I knew I would see, a version of what could so easily have been me. Turning away, I was over the top and with one late grip to slow my fall, I landed. Pain electrified the sole of my left foot, stealing my breath as I reached for my pocket. As the burning sensation subsided, I remembered the lab coat in tatters, my gun lost as I climbed the side of the building. Toni’s was gone, the rifle too, cast aside in the panic. Around me were hundreds of guns. A pistol at each soldier’s side. A rifle slung over every other’s shoulder, as they scraped and clawed, rattling, chattering on the other side of the thin linked metal.

All I had was my hands and I had to think quick, the creature was prone, surprisingly slow as it climbed the fence, but it would be here, the first of many, any moment. I ripped open the pack, ignoring Toni’s lack of movement, ignoring the thin red liquid swimming inside. I felt no gun, only thin broken glass and I pulled my hand back, a river of panic washing over me as I launched my rage towards the creature gaining height on the fence. Pushing hard, I screamed my own terrifying call, sending it sprawling, slapping to the ground somewhere in the sea of death. Chocking back the surprise at what I’d achieved, I ran with the realisation I’d bought myself no time at all.

I scooped Toni’s light body up in my arms, she’d always been so dainty, but I had to push away the thought. I ran as fast as I could around the perimeter between the two fences, ignoring the snarls of the dead and didn’t look back. Toni’s tiny movements urged me on. She wasn’t dead, despite the new bruise weeping from her head. The relief fell when I realised her movement was no longer a good sign. A heavy weight closed around me like curtains. Lost in her pain as she moaned in my arms, the pad of feet slapping to the concrete wouldn’t give me time to check if she was still mine.

The race was on, but I knew I would lose, there was no way I could outrun what was chasing us down. No way I could climb quick enough. No way I would leave Toni behind if she could be saved. I felt what I thought was its breath on my neck and stopped, laid Toni at my feet and turned, letting out a deep breath, locking with its eyes, its clawed fingers swiping at my face as its teeth bared down.

Chapter Twenty Four

Stunned by explosions at my side, I watched, a passenger in my body as the creature lurched forward, its black-veined face smashing against my chest, sending me tumbling backward. I fought to stay upright, but the weight pushed me down. Despite my punches curling to its face, it gave no reaction as my knuckles dug into its loose skin. My volley forced on, weakening as my resolve ebbed, until a warm hand encircled one fist and then the other, holding them back.

The creature slumped to the side, its hideous, bent features replaced by Toni’s pained face peering upside down over the top of my head and she leant down, her lips landing soft on my cheek. There we stayed, both sobbing for too long, until a shot echoed in the distance. Our wake-up call. We lifted, taking in our surroundings as if for the first time, the moans, the snarl of the dead barely heard in the background. As I stood, the creature’s blood ran down my front, dripping to my feet as my arm encircled Toni and handed over the gun, its weight too much as she limped at my side.

Somehow we climbed the fence, Toni first to the top, wincing as she fell not able to make the last few steps. She was on her feet by the time I finished leaving a bloody trail over the metal. We padded into the car park, my eyes turning this way and that, searching for the next battle as we headed to the news van.

The few creatures who’d made it this far, ignored our slow, walk as we kept low, using the cars, trucks and SUVs for cover. With thanks, the van wasn’t locked and I helped Toni up the tall step and into the rear, half expecting Dan still to be hidden, hoping his appearance would push this reality back into a dream. I let my eyes drop and I gave a shallow sign as helped Toni settle to the director’s seat fixed to the carpeted floor, took her hands in mine as I stood in her warmth. With her breath settling I pulled the back door closed, wincing with the click as the lock engaged.

Toni pulled the rucksack from her back in slow motion, the drip of liquid trailing from the canvas and from her hands as she carefully searched by fingertip, drawing out two unbroken vials of the red liquid. We didn’t speak for what seemed like an age, neither of us able to put words to what we’d just gone through. I was the first to move, to pull away, opening the long cupboard to find it empty, time flashing back to Christmas Day when for the cost of pizza, I’d convinced Dan and Mike to come here to die. Holding back the pain, I stared into the empty wardrobe which, had this been an assignment, would have been full of my outfits. Instead it was bare and I would have to remain blanketed in the creature’s drying blood for the duration.

“What next?” I said turning to Toni. She stared out though the doors as if they had windows in the centre. When she didn’t reply, I moved over towards her, but not close enough to touch. Now wasn’t the time for distraction. “If we leave here, we’ll get picked up when we hit the perimeter. They’ll have regiments surrounding us,” I said, looking to her for answers. “This place will be covered. Unless they’re still in shock, overwhelmed, waiting for reinforcements. What do you think?” Still, she gave no movement, no hint of a reply, just continued her stare through the nonexistent window. “If we stay, eventually they’ll round me up, you too and do whatever they were going to do. Right? Do you think?” I let the words hang in the air, trying not to raise my voice as I spoke again. “You know these people better than me.” She gave no reply. “Toni?” I snapped and watched as her head turned away. I twisted, taking a step, kneeling, forcing myself back into her view. “What next?” I said again, raising my hands to cup her chin as I stared into her vacant eyes.

“We have to find her,” she said, her words low.

“Who?” I said, letting my hands down from her face.

“The woman who did this?” she replied. “The woman who did this to you.”

“Who? Why?” I said, brushing the front on my hand against her undamaged cheek.

“There’s not enough,” she said, then stuttered to silence. “There’s not enough,” she said, taking her time to say the words. “There’s not enough to give us time.”

“Time for what?”

“For your immune systems to have its best shot.”

“Of beating this thing?” I said and she nodded. “I feel fine,” I said doing my best to raise a smile and it wasn’t a lie. Apart from the aches and pains from our escape and a hunger anyone would feel after not eating for days. “I feel fine,” I said.

“For now,” she replied.

“What can this woman do?” I said standing. I wanted to rest her head against my stomach. I wanted to comfort her, but it would be no great comfort to rest against the blood flaking to the floor as it dried. For a second time I looked around the contents of the van, trying to find something I could change in to.

“Everything,” she said and turned back from my search. “She can do whatever she wants. She’s the head of the whole program and she holds the key to getting more of this,” she said, opening her palms and showing me the vials resting in the centre.

“Who is she?” I said, remembering a cupboard above the camera boxes.

“You’ve met,” she replied as I pulled out the hi-vis jacket, press written along the back in black letters. Trying to keep my fingertips from the blood as much as I could, I picked open the blouse buttons and slung the shirt to the corner. Looking down my chest, bare apart from the streaks of dried blood, the remains of a river running between my breasts. “You would have met her when you first arrived. She would have wanted to look you in the eye.”

I pulled on the warmth of the jacket, feeling the hug of the material against my skin, I turned back to Toni back staring through the imagined windows as I caught up with the conversation in my head, my fingers stoping the zip half way up as I remember the older woman with grey hair as she sat opposite me, across the table.

“Who is she?” I said, my eyes narrowing. I watched as Toni took a deep swallow.

“My mother,” she replied and her head fell into her hands.

Chapter Twenty Five

“Your mother?” I said lurching forward as I pulled the zip just below my neck. If I’d blinked, I’d have missed her nod. “She’s not your mother,” I said, not able to hold back the laughter as I shook my head. “I’ve met her like a thousand times. Why would you say she’s your mother?” I stepped back, my surprise turning to anger at her obvious lie.

“I’m adopted,” she said through her hands, tears dripping through her fingers. The words went through me like a shock wave.

“How long have you known?” I said, not able to hold the words back, still shaking my head. How could she have known something so fundamental and not said?

“I found out eighteen months ago,” she said and my anger turned to guilt. I hadn’t seen her since she’d found out. Yes, we’d spoken on the phone, we’d talked, maybe not as much as we used to. No. Definitely not. But we’d talked, spent hours in conversation and she’d said nothing.

“You never mentioned her,” I said trying to hold back a torrent of emotion, trying to unpick what I was feeling, guilt piling on as I reminded myself of the pain she must have gone through. She let her hands drop and looked up, her eyelids low, her battered face so full of sorrow.

“She’s not someone I like to think about.” She snorted a laugh, but her lips fell flat before they could form a smile. I stepped to her side, kneeling beside her, pulling her undamaged cheek gently to mine. I didn’t know how to reply. I wanted to ask how a mother could do this to a child. I wanted to ask her if it was her fists that bruised her beautiful skin, her hand bursting her blood vessels.

“And your father?” I said without thought, but when she pushed her head into her hands, I kicked myself as I drew a deep breath and rubbed the back of her head. She pushed me away, trying to stand, falling back to the chair before trying a second time, breath sucking through her teeth as she put weight on her feet. I stood, taking a step back, watching as a brightness appeared on her face as she looked around the van, eyeing the boxes secured by cargo straps to the shelves.

“Does this stuff work?” she said, her features pointed to a frown.

“Of course it does,” I said, scowling at the question, but my annoyance disappeared as I watched the smile rise on her lips.

“Do you know what we should do?” she said, but spoke again before I could answer. “We should get this story out there, break this wide open.”

“You think?” I said, a wide smile hanging from my lips.

“Our bargain. Fill the tapes with what they don’t want anyone to see,” she said, her voice rising in tone. “Then she’d have to give us what we need. Come on, let’s get moving. I know just the shot we need.”

“One problem,” I said and she turned back raising her eyebrows. “Whose going to film it?” I replied, raising my brow to match hers. She stopped, about to speak, her mouth hanging wide open, then pursing as if words were going to come out, but didn’t. “I’m front of camera,” I said, trying to flatten out my scowl.

“You don’t,” she said stopping herself, then laughing gently before her brow furrowed again. “You don’t know how to use the equipment?” she said staring at me as if I was an uneducated ape.

“Don’t say it like that. I’m a journalist. A professional. I have qualifications, experience. This equipment,” I said looking around and repeating her waving hand gestures. “Is state-of-the-art,” I paused as their names stuck in my throat. “The crew train for years, they have special places they go to learn this stuff. It’s not like a compact camera, point and shoot.”

A lopsided smile appeared on her face. The Toni of old, the Toni who thought I was playing a joke.

“That’s what they told you, right?” she said, undoing the straps of a rugged plastic case at waist height, only just able to take its weight as it left the shelf. I watched with interest as she laid the case down, grunting with relief as it landed to the floor. With the clips either side undone, she hovered over, peering in as the lid fell back, her eyes roving over the large hulk of black plastic and metal sat on the dimpled foam, its surface covered in tiny buttons, each with a foreign symbol or minuscule white writing.

I looked back, my cheeks bunching with a closed lip smile, my brow raising as I waited.

“Go on then,” I said when she didn’t make a move.

“There must be a smaller one, right?” she said, turning but looking away frowning as she saw my expression. I shook my head, watching as she closed up the case, helping with the weight as she lifted it back to the shelf. We barely had the strap across its front before a metallic thud came from the back doors, the echo repeating somewhere inside. Our eyes locked, peeling apart, turning to the back. Her breath drew in as we saw the small hole in the door, its jagged metal pushed out towards us. I followed her head as she turned, stopping when we saw a matching hole by the director’s chair where Toni had sat.

Chapter Twenty Six

“Stray shot. Right?” I said before Toni had chance to speak. Wide eyes were her only reply. “It’s not safe here,” I said turning towards the cab.

“You can drive?” Toni said, her voice slow. I half expected a smile hanging from her face, but as I turned I saw her cold, blank expression. She knew I could drive. I’d driven to meet her so many times. I’d driven halfway across the country full of anticipation, my head bursting with excitement at what lay ahead. Days later I’d driven home, deflated, tears spent, body aching. After a week of heaven, the bubble would always burst and I’d promise myself never to open up again, never to think we could be any other way, never to daydream we could be together, could never build on the good times, ditch all the pain.

“You know I can drive,” I said turning away, climbing between the front seats as I peered through the windscreen. My eyes caught on the sea of movement, the car park dotted with people walking. But they weren’t people, not anymore. Their slow walk told me they weren’t making their own decisions, told me they were driven by their desire to fill the burning hunger.

I found the keys still in the ignition. I was so pleased to see them dangling, my mind didn’t even consider there was a good reason. Looking through the right wing mirror, my eyes caught on the side panel and the flared hole in the centre before falling to the mess of flesh slumped to the tarmac.

“Stray shot,” I said to myself, Toni catching my eye as she settled in the passenger seat, pulling her belt across with the engine roaring to life.

“Where now?” I said as I pulled the van from its space, scouring the surroundings for the exit. I flashed a look in her direction when she didn’t reply, the raise of her hand told me she didn’t want her thoughts disturbed.

Still, I saw no life as I slowly drove through the narrow lanes, the dead following between the cars, to cut across our path. A soldier appeared from around an olive drab truck, I slammed on the brakes, the belt pulling tight against my chest. My first thoughts were for the sniper who’d saved our lives, the second for those who’d come to take us. I stepped on the accelerator before the third thought came to mind, steering the wheel into the figure as I saw the huge welt down the side of its face, the milky white eyes fixed in a stare as its mouth snapped open and closed.

Bile rose from my empty stomach as the crunch of bone carried up through the suspension. I turned to Toni, her eyes closed, head shaking as if trying her best not to spoil her concentration. I couldn’t avoid the next few, took them out one after the other, each time my reaction lessened, my pause shorter, my eyes barely stopping on their shape as I scoured the horizon for a break in the fence. I found it moments later, not a break, but the way out. A thick sliding gate of green steel barring our exit. In front, on the other side, just a short throw, was a white and red barrier across a deserted road.

I headed that way without wait, steering to take down anything that stood in our way, their faces gawking, open wide, knowing their thoughts fixed on how they could get to our taste. I drove to the gate, but wasn’t surprised as it didn’t move, didn’t slide, staying solid, heavy, fixed in place. There was no way we were getting through without a tank and I hadn’t seen one yet.

“Toni,” I snapped in her direction and she opened her eyes, fumbling in her pockets. I turned around to the side of the gate and noticed for the first time a panel with a green LED blinking at its top. “It’s on,” I replied to the sight and I turned to Toni still searching, but my eyes passed her by, instead landing on the small crowd of the dead I saw through the window heading in our direction. At the head of the group of five was a soldier, as were most of his companions, but just at his shoulder was an Indian man in a white coat, limping as he walked. Around his neck was a white card on a lanyard swinging side to side.

“No,” Toni said and I caught her turning back from the same direction. “I’ll go,” she added. I couldn’t let her do that.

“Give me the gun,” I said, but she shook her head, unable to stop her eyes darting back toward the rear compartment.

“No, please no,” she replied, her voice stringing out as she pleaded, but I stood before she could, reaching between the seats. She didn’t follow, she knew we were as head strong as each other, she too knew the root cause of our problems. She stayed watching from her seat as I took the gun from the side where she’d placed it to pull the vials from the bag. With one in the chamber and five bullets in the clip, I had a spare, I thought. If only my aim had improved.

Cold air bit between the gap as it opened wide, the inside of the van already warm as I pushed it shut at my back, turning as I felt the sticky handle and saw the ink blot of dark blood splattered above the jagged hole in the metal. I shuddered as I caught the air, the chill of the icy wind carrying the foul stench of sewerage and I turned, my eyes following the moan. I had no time. Around the side of van, the group were only a few paces away. Pulling the gun up, I took aim, choosing the soldier at the front, closing my left eye and centring on his forehead.

The shot missed, but I’d got their attention. In one fluid motion each turned, their faces electrifying with energy, mouths slapping shut, eyes gaping to show their full whites. I took a step closer, couldn’t miss at this distance, barely the length of the van between us. I centred my aim again, trying not to be distracted by the missing nose and fired. I might as well have missed, the shot pushing through its neck, thick blood barely filling the space left before I fired three, four and five and he was down.

One shot left and I looked to the van, turning just in time to catch a clawed hand as it swiped for my back. With my last shot I blew the back off a scientist’s head, my eyes widening on the pass hanging from its neck. I twisted back around, breath panting as I aimed, the click of the empty chamber echoing in the cold wind, the group’s slow procession was nearly at an end. I turned with one last dash, bending over, snapping the lanyard from the fallen scientist’s neck, but about to stand, I felt fingers claw down my back and I swung my fist in an upper cut with all my strength, hoping it was enough to send the creature’s jaw bone into its head.

Chapter Twenty Seven

There was little time to pull the punch before Toni’s head deflected left, my knuckles glancing along right side of her face. Her teeth clamped together as she grabbed me up, sending me surging into the back of the van. Her hand cracked the door closed over and again to the sound of distant gunfire, blood spraying through the opening, metal crushing soft tissue until the fingers fell to the ground to let the lock catch.

She fell to my side, slipping on the new slick, turning over as I rounded, my arms wide, her face hidden by her hands as she sobbed.

“I’m sorry, so sorry I hit you,” I said, words alien to my lips. I was smearing blood on her t-shirt, but it wasn’t mine.

I lay, mouth wide, breath panting in and out. I turned away as she stayed curled up with her hand to the face. I sat, pulling the skirt down over my cold legs and she lifted herself upright, tears dried against the back of her hands.

“Sorry,” I said as she raised her eyebrows in my direction.

“It was a good shot,” she said, still rubbing her cheek.

“I thought,” I said, but she cut me off and stood.

“I know,” she replied, stepping passed me as I stayed sat, doing my best to keep my breath running out of control. Eventually standing, I climbed into the cab, looking down my legs to see long scratches I hadn’t felt. Toni was in the passenger seat staring off into the distance as the tyres crunched bone in my manoeuvre toward the pass reader.

“I guess we have a friend out there,” I said, letting my breath run out.

“You shouldn’t have gone out there,” she said. “It was a stupid thing to do. A risk we didn’t need to take.”

“I got the pass,” I replied, dangling the bloody lanyard. She didn’t turn. I knew this Toni too. It was the Toni that came out each time we got to the end, each time we figured out the fun, the long carefree days, had to come to an end. We would be back to our lives, each time realising it should be the last. Time to move on. It was the Toni that came before the arguments, before the real pain. It was the Toni I knew I had to get away from, the Toni that would flip up the cover and press the self destruct button, jabbing it with her finger, over and again. But this time I couldn’t leave, we couldn’t separate. Our lives depended on being together, helping each other. At least this time I was the one to throw the first punch.

The gate slid without a noise, a beacon flashing either side, the barrier lifting as we passed through, closing at our backs, gunfire clearing the air, catching the strays as they tried to follow in our wake. We had a guardian angel. We were free, out. We’d saved ourselves. Only then did the realisation come. It was only Toni that was safe and I knew she wouldn’t be for long if I couldn’t get more of those vials that kept me feeling human.

“Where do we go?” I said, letting the van coast around the winding road that cut through the shallow hills either side. “Where did your mother go?” I said when she didn’t reply after a moment.

“Don’t call her that,” Toni snapped back and I felt an all too familiar emotion circling my head.

“Where do we go then?” I repeated, raising the volume, my head not turning away from the road. She didn’t reply until I slammed on the brakes, rounding a corner to find the road blocked with sand bags and at least five rifles aimed in our direction.

“I don’t know, but I think they might,” she replied, her hands raising at her sides.

Chapter Twenty Eight

I killed the engine, raising my hands to match Toni’s stance, setting my mouth in a grateful smile while bunching my cheeks. I didn’t need to try hard to get the tears to fall.

No one moved and the rifles stayed steady as I paid all my attention to each of their faces looking for signs they weren’t  the real enemy. Each stared back no doubt doing the same, their weapons making them no less anxious than I was despite what their words would have said. I saw enough pigment surrounding their pupils to slow the beat in my chest in time for the call from somewhere in their line.

A face in the centre went sideways, the helmet turning. I could see his reluctance as he looked back towards us. Keeping his rifle high, a pasty white man side stepped the sandbags and started the journey in our direction. He didn’t call out, didn’t shout commands, but eventually as the young soldier made his journey in our direction, the aim of the other rifles drifted either side.

“Open the door,” were the first words I heard him say as he came around, but he hung back from the driver’s side. I knew his eyes should have remained fixed on mine, but he couldn’t keep from looking down to the front of the van. His eyes twitched, travelling along the side, after longer than he should, his gaze snatched back, his aim snapping from its fall.

“Do what he says Jess,” she said and my breath stole from my lungs. I hated the way she could make me feel. How she could pull me back with just the way she’d say my name.

I pulled the handle and let the cold air in.

“How d’you get out?” the young man’s voice called as I placed my bare feet to the cold tarmac.

“It was awful, help us please. We have to get away from here, where they can’t get us,” I said, pushing the emotion to catch in my voice. He didn’t reply, instead he looked back, his eyebrows raising as he surveyed me tilting his head up and down. I saw the same look I always saw in a young man’s eyes, in a man of any age’s eyes as they catch my sight, but this time it was mixed with an open-mouthed horror. I looked down my fluorescent yellow front, following the black lines as they ran down the jacket and I turned as the white of the van caught my eye. It wasn’t white anymore. Most of the surface was flecked red, clots streaking down the dented, once pristine paintwork. Tattered remains of cloth and flesh hung where they’d caught between the bumper and the metal.

“We hid. Waited for it to all die down, then ran. Found this thing unlocked, the keys in the ignition,” I said pointing over my shoulder. “It saved our live. God only knows what would have happened if we’d not found it.”

“Ask her,” came the call from another voice. His eyes shot back to my face, running up and down the jacket, falling to the scratches on my legs.

“Were you bitten?” he said, his voice quivering as he spoke, his eyes peering into mine. I shook my head and shot a look back to Toni. “Her?” he said.

“No,” I replied.

“Take off the jacket, we’ve got to see,” he said, motioning with the rifle. I paused before I replied.

“I’m not wearing anything underneath.”

His eyes came up from torso and he latched back onto my face, his head turning to the side.

“I got covered in blood when we were trying to escape. You’ve got to help us please?” I said, letting the tears flow. I watched him pause whilst he looked off into the distance as if leaving the conversation for a moment, then he turned back to the line before staring wide eyed in my direction, slowly looking into the distance where we’d just come from.

“What is it?” I said.

“They’re coming,” he replied, before a call from the group could shut him down.

“Private, stow that,” came the booming voice. I turned back to him, almost putting a hand out in comfort as I realised he was yet to face the horror in person. When I turned his eyes were no longer on me, were no longer on the van, they were fixed across the horizon and he was slowly stepping back to the roadblock.

“Get back in the van, Miss,” he said as the distance between us grew. I followed his eyes out to the horizon, but couldn’t see anything new. I turned back to the roadblock and saw the soldiers leaving their defences to fan out to see past the van. “Miss, get back inside,” he said, but his eyes had never left the distance.

“Get back in, Jess,” I heard Toni say. “Get in the van,” she said again, the words loud, controlled, but clearer this time. I turned and I felt the wind change. The foul stench of a sewerage works filled my nostrils. I knew what it meant before I saw the two figures running down from the high ground to the left, before I had a chance to tell if their stance was controlled enough, not too animalistic, too fast or too slow to confirm my fears. They were still human. But what were they running from?

I already knew.

Chapter Twenty Nine

I watched in the wing mirror, their eyes fixed forward, neither looking back as they hurried to cover the ground. Their hardened faces and the wide, disbelieving look in their eyes told me they’d seen as least as much as we had. A breath pulled unbidden as I spotted the barrel of a long gun rising from behind one of their backs.

“It’s him,” I said, not turning to Toni. She made no reply and I lost the train of thought as I turned to see a soldier shouting through my window.

“Move it,” a tall man in a moustache called. His confidence, more than the stripes on his chest, told me he was in charge. With breath misting against the window, he pointed to the left side of the roadblock where two soldiers were pulling down the sandbags while another moved one of the two Land Rovers. By the time I’d turned back he’d gone, racing up the side of the hill to meet the pair, turning when they didn’t wait, running at their side as they shouted their conversation.

I turned on the ignition, wheeling the van up the first of the incline, the tilt unsettling as I leant in the opposite direction, my hands constantly correcting the steering to miss the remaining sandbags. As the wheels settled back to the tarmac, I was straight out onto the road, forgetting my bare feet until they hit the cold, not listening to Toni’s calls for me to get back in, to stop being so stupid, to get us away from the danger. The words disappeared as my door slammed shut.

“Give me a pistol,” I shouted to the three soldier settling back behind the roadblock. None looked up from the sights of their rifles as they knelt against the sandbags. “Give me a gun,” I said, nudging the closest at his shoulder. He looked up and shouted across to the three returning.

“Sarge,” he said, flicking up a look in my direction.

“Hundreds,” said the sniper as he swung the long rifle from his shoulder. Jumping over the roadblock, he gave me the slightest of nods before running to the back of the closest of the Land Rovers before I could thank him or give any reply. The stench caught in my nostrils and I looked down the road, watching the valley cut between the hills as it wound out of view. The sergeant stood at my side as he looked, stone faced, in the same direction.

“Give me a pistol,” I said. “I can help.” The sergeant double took, looking down across my spoilt front.

“Get in the van, Ma’am. Get in the van and get the fuck out of here,” he said. I turned to the van, saw Toni’s wide-eyed command repeat his words with her head to the side.

“Where do we go?” I replied, folding my arms in the cold. He double took again.

“I take it by the state of you, you know what’s coming?” he said. I nodded. “In that case, get anywhere. Get as far away as you can. What you see,” he said looking back to his men. “What you see is everything, you understand? There’s a hundred or more of those, I don’t know what they are, but they were my regiment and they’re coming here with one thing on whatever remains of their minds. I don’t have to tell you what will happen. Now go,” he said, his voice raising. “Or do I have to waste one of my men forcing you back inside?”

I stayed put as he turned away, raising his rifle and peering through the sight. I flashed a look down the road. The tarmac was clear until I blinked and the moment my eyes opened I saw the first movement, saw the camouflaged legs, then the body, half an arm hanging loose at his side swinging in time with its slow, casual stroll. I jumped as a bullet leapt from the long rifle, snatching a look to the sniper crouching to my right, the double legs of the long gun leaning on a sand bag. I turned back to the road and watched the sea of legs trampling over the fallen figure. With the awful creatures in view, the stench felt like it was pouring from the sky. My heart raced, but I couldn’t just walk away. Toni said we needed to know where that woman was, she wanted her to save me. I wanted her for another reason altogether and I couldn’t let this pass by.

The rifle snapped over and again, my body’s reaction lessening each time. Each time was a hit. Each time was a kill, despite my head’s trouble with those words. Ten, maybe more, were down, but still they continued on, stumbling over their fallen, some moving to avoid, veering up the hill, only to be drawn back by the incline, funnelled by the valley back to the road. This was a stand, this was where history would be made. If they broke through here where would the next be? From here they could move out into the open, they would be out in the wide space and I’d seen too many movies to know how this would end.

I thought of my parents and my friends. I thought of the villages, the towns, the cities, all those people, those children, those lives to be lost. Those lives that would live again and add to the battle that would have to be fought. I couldn’t run and I walked to the back of the van, pulled the door open to the sound of the dried blood cracking and took the gun from the floor. I shouted just as the door slammed.

“You go. The keys are in the ignition.”

I took an ammunition clip from the back of the Land Rover and rejoined the line as the order to open fire was given.

Chapter Thirty

The machine gun jumped to life, hot lead spraying in a furious chatter, consuming the belt of finger-length bullets as the soldier swept it across his view in a wide arc. The first shots were too low, the bodies rattling with each impact, but as the spray moved across the line, skull and brain erupted under its power. The first in line were down, rifles picking off those missed in the rain of metal. The soldier’s pause caught us all by surprise, their eyes catching on the next targets stumbling through the red mist as the wind adding a thick metallic hint to the acrid swirl around us.

“Fire,” the sergeant screamed and all rifles joined the chugging rhythm of the machine gun. Shot after shot, round after round exploding flesh as they hit their targets, sending dead flesh to the floor. Slowing their advance, they stumbled, moving to their hands and knees if they still had them, to cross the carpet of bodies, only to be cut down. Shouts went through our line, an excited rumble of voices as the bodies piled ever higher, the gunfire falling quiet when all movement stopped, the masses unable to cross the hill of camouflaged bodies.

Weapons reloaded as the rifles went quiet, voices died to nothing with the slap of metal against metal. The sergeant called the line to order, silence surrounding, letting us hear the low rumbling chorus of moans in the background. A chill ran down my spine and I let my gun drop without a round being fired. I knew my limitations and was pleased enough the advance had halted beyond my useful range. I turned as the van’s engine sprang to life at my back, smiled to Toni in the driver’s seat as she peered out beckoning me toward her with her head shaking from side to side. I pushed my hand to the air, gesturing for just a few minutes more.

The soldier’s were talking amongst themselves, their voices high, excited at their easy victory, not even the sergeant holding them back, until the first screams brought back their silence. Only two remained calm, their heads not snapping sideways, their mouths not hanging down, eyes not wide with questions. The sniper and his companion would have seen it before, had taken them down, had saved our lives. The wretched calls were more distant than we’d heard before, but were no less terrifying, forcing the cold into my bones.

“Get ready,” came the sniper’s voice not turning to the faces that didn’t know what would happen next. I levelled the gun, trying to ignore as my arms refused to steady, the shake of my hands only pronounced by the cold. I knew before the first of the dark shapes sprung high from behind the line, my eyes catching on the second as the first landed. In a tattered orange jumpsuit, the colour only showing between the dark patches, his legs bent like a gymnast dismounting from a pommel horse. His face as dark as oiled hardwood, thick black lines spidering across, a beard of blood matted to the skin around his jaw. His left ear was missing, as was the skin on the top of his head, with it too went the long hair covering the other side, the remaining long brown locks matted and clumped like dreadlocks.

A single shot pierced the air. The sniper the only one not paralysed with fear, but his bullet went wide, thudding a red spray out from the pile of bodies at their backs. The leap of the second, his pasty naked form riddled with the dark lines like roots through snow, taking his attention. Silence returned as the shot’s echo fell, even the moans in the background seemed to pay their respect and quiet. The pause felt as if it lasted for an age, the only movement was their jaws, slow and considered as they opened and closed, keeping time with each other. With the orange jumpsuit’s single step, the pause ended, its companion back in the air, surging.

The line of fire lit the space between us. Hurried shots flashed against the barricade of bodies, ripping flesh from bone, shattering each form, but not those racing towards us. The sergeant screamed for focus between each of his shots as he stood, calling for concentration of fire, splitting the squad, the first pumping their shots to the crazed creature on the ground whose distance had just shortened enough for me to opened fire, the second group to the target high in the air, his form only just falling back to the ground in front of his companion. Fire continued until the explosions replaced with well-drilled shouts at each position as they hurried to reload and take up the battle.

“Bayonets,” was the next call, his voice breaking, but there was no time, they were on us, just the other side. The knifes were taken in hand, the sergeant jumping the barricade, the blade held in his fist with a great warrior call as he ran forward, leaping across the sandbags, leading with the sharpened metal. I stayed my shots, forgetting how many I’d taken as his knife hit high, the creature only catching the advance when it was too late, when the blade was through its temple.

I looked around, everyone turned to see, with pistols, a panic descending as eyes searched for the second enemy. We didn’t find it. It found us. It found the last on the line. The young soldier who met me as we arrived. His screams turned our heads, the blood pumping from his neck turned me away, but not his friends, not his colleagues, they stayed true to their calling, pouncing on the attacker, climbing up with pistols, blades slipping in and out of its skull as the soldier’s heart pumped a fountain of blood over each of them.

The creature slumped down within a moment, but with the damage done, the warrior’s frenzy replaced with a furious activity of hands on the wound, red hands falling inside his neck, until after not too long, it was obvious there was no hope.

I turned away with my eyes closed, the sound of the horn bellowing at my back span me around. Toni’s outstretched arm pointing out turned me back and I watched as the dam of bodies collapse either side, the walking corpses streaming around the edges, massing in the centre, having covered half the distance to us, a stone’s throw away without our notice.

Chapter Thirty One

“Fire,” was all I could think to say, my voice barely registering against the bass drone of the crowd. “Fire,” I repeated, shouting out across the line. Faces turned forward, rifles lifted, sending the air thick with hot lead again. Calls for reloads came too soon, silencing the advantage before we’d had a chance to regain. My pistol clicked empty with two shots missed and I span around, fist balled towards what had grabbed me back by the shoulder.

I let myself fall into Toni’s arms as she cupped my fist in her hand and she pulled me away from the roadblock. Taking my weight back, I let her go as she hurried to the van, the rifles and pistols taking up again, shouted commands blurring into one long call. Toni dragged me by the hand, pulling hard as we passed the back of the Land Rover, not letting me reach out, turning only as she pushed me through the driver’s door whilst she ran around the bonnet. In the driver’s seat I closed my eyes, not wanting to see the chaos at the line, but I couldn’t help but look.

The guns fell silent, knives swung out, the soldiers stepped back, leaving the line. Ghouls were falling, but not fast enough, as one fell to the floor another would be at its back. Three of the soldier were down by the time Toni’s calls went out.

“Go,” she pleaded. “Drive.” My eyes fixed on the two remaining by the time her words were done, the sergeant and the sniper. I slammed my hand to the horn and faces looked up, dead white eyes set in our direction. The sergeant turned and was consumed by the pack, his struggle quickly obscured by those once under his command. The sniper didn’t turn but edged away, snapping on his heels, using the one advantage we still had. He ran, moving out of my view, but when I heard the doors at the back opening, weight in the back shifting, I pushed the accelerator to the floor as hands blooded my window.

I didn’t pause for the turn, didn’t wait, let the tyres spin in the mud as they caught the incline of the hill. I pushed my foot harder even though I knew there was nowhere further for it to go, my eyes on the expanding line of the undead shrinking in the wing mirror. Toni was the one to slow me, her hand on my shoulder when I nearly turned the van on its side rounding the corner, watching the surrounding land flatten. All I could think of was the village we’d passed on the way in, the motorway near, a speedway for the infection to spread. I slowed at Toni’s command, lifted my foot from the accelerator, watching as the two police cars came in to view, watching the pair of wide eyes coming back from the fluorescent jacketed officers as they took in what must have been a terrifying view.

Letting my breath calm, even though I hadn’t realised it had been racing, I pulled air to force my heart to slow. Turning to Toni, I watched as she mirrored my expression. I slowed the van as the police cars separated, neither getting out of their cars as we rolled by, but just as our metal passed theirs, I slammed on the brakes and let the window drop.

“You need to call someone,” I said. The police officer paused, his head turning sideways. “You need to call someone,” I repeated. “Then get the hell away from here.” I pushed the accelerator down, taking the road under the motorway. “Where now?” I said, my words without emotion.

“My place,” she replied, her face fixed forward. “Next junction, by the Holiday Inn. Can’t miss it.” I drove, the motorway a desert, but I wouldn’t have noticed any cars if it had been grid locked, my thoughts distracted by the growing pain in my stomach. I’d felt it earlier, but with everything else it was the least of my concerns. Now the action had died down, fear grew. I could feel it already growing inside. The hunger, the thirst. I didn’t want to return to what I’d been before, what she’d made me into. “This one,” she said and the road snapped back into my vision. I pushed the indicator left and slowed, looking up at the ten storey hotel as it loomed out in front.

Her words sounded muffled, cotton wool in my ears as she gave directions, passing by the hotel, the empty car park. I stopped at a pair of low holiday chalets, the ache in my stomach cranking up as we rocked to a stop.

“What’s wrong?” Toni said and I turned to look, feeling a tear roll down my cheek. Laughter broke from my lips unbidden.

“What’s wrong?” I said and she smiled in a reply that melted my heart.

“Apart from the obvious,” she said, holding out her hand. A wave of pain rushed over my stomach as our hands touched. Her skin was so warm, so inviting. I craved to be close, to hold her in my arms, to take in her scent. I craved to run my tongue over her neck, to bite, gently at first. As the air came alive with smells I didn’t want, my smile fell and she repeated the question with the raise of her eyelids. I took a deep breath through my mouth, holding back the ache of my empty stomach.

“It’s happening again,” I said and her face dropped.

“What’s happening again?” came an unfamiliar male voice from behind us.

Chapter Thirty Two

I jumped, turning through the pain to see the shadow of the solider in the back of the van.

“What’s happening again?” he said, his voice urgent as he drew forward, his eyes falling to my hand resting at my stomach.

“Shit,” Toni said, her reaction sharper than mine. She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. “She’s hungry that’s all, I need to get her something to eat,” Toni replied pulling open her door, turning back as she left. “It’s not time yet.” I smiled back in her direction, wincing as I turned away, my stomach aching with emptiness.

“Thank you,” I said, my eyes closing.

“For what?” he said. “Are sure you’re all right?”

I nodded, unable to do anything else as Toni took me from the seat and helped my feet to the floor.

“What is this place?” I heard his voice join at our backs to the sound of Toni pushing keys into a lock. She stopped, I felt her body turn and I squinted open my eyes as she pushed her head out towards the soldier.

“What are you doing?” Toni said, holding her free hand at the door.

“I need to you use your phone,” he said. “I need to call this in. Make sure they’re sending everyone this way.” Toni paused on his face, then turned, her eyes narrowing.

“You think they don’t know?” she replied and just as she did, I heard the beat of helicopter rotors in the air. Pain ripped across my stomach, a feeling like something was about to burst. I bent, letting out a column of air. Strong hands gripped around my waist, catching before I could fall, but Toni took over and I was lead through the door, my eyes on the wooden floor as I fell down to a soft sofa. I heard words exchanged through the pain, but with my eyes sealed shut all I could make out was a throbbing beat in my ears.

“Jess.” It was Toni’s voice near. “I’ll get you something to eat, just hold on a minute.” I kept my eyes sealed tight, squirming on the sofa while I listened to the sounds of a kitchen close by, my mind wandering over what she could have to satisfy the ache. A newly slaughtered lamb, a side of uncooked steak? I felt bile rise in my stomach as it contracted. “Jess,” the words came again and I forced my eyes open and saw the cheese sandwich on the plate offered out in Toni’s hands.

I pulled my hanging jaw closed and focused on Toni’s smile.

“What were you expecting?” she said. I shook my head and pulled the bread from the plate, stuffing the food in my mouth like it was the first thing I’d eaten in days. The flavours were out of this world, the taste of the cheese so intoxicating. “Slowly,” I heard her say as the pound in my ears lessened. My fear subsided, the pain easing with every swallow.

“All because I was hungry?” I said with the last mouthful pushed down.

“Better now?” she said, a soft smile on her lips as she handed over a tall glass of water. I nodded with enthusiasm and took my first look around the room as I drank. The space was open plan, faded sunflower relief on the walls with a small kitchen to the right. Underneath exposed steps running above our heads, I sat on three seat sofa facing a wall hanging TV. The soldier had gone.

“Where’d he go?” I replied.

“To do his job, I hope,” she said, dismissing my enquiry to the growing sound of helicopter rotors blades passing over our heads. “We need to get out of here.”

“You think he’ll tell them where we are?” I said, stretching my back to work out the last of the pain.

“They won’t care for now. Too much going on, I hope. It’s us that need them.” Her eyes drifted to the red vials laid out on a kitchen cloth on a table at the far wall. “You’ll need another dose tomorrow morning, then we’ll need more. And we need a few other supplies before then,” she said, turning away.

“How many doses do you think I’ll need?” I replied, looking back to the table.

Her first reply was silence, her head not turning my way.

“Honestly,” she said, eventually meeting my eye. I gave a slow nod. “I don’t know,” she said, her words quiet. Her hands rested on top of mine clasped at my lap. Her eyes went wide, her eyebrows lowering as she squeezed my hands. “I don’t even know if it will work long term.”

This wasn’t news and I gave a nod as I drew a deep breath. It was all that had been going through my head since the first dose.

“But we’ve got to try, right,” she said, lifting her hands off as I pulled up mine to take her in my arms. Pulling back, she winced. “Shower first,” she said. I stopped and looked down, raised an eyebrow and nodded back. I watched as she stood, following, steading myself on the arm of the chair, freezing as a shadow moved across the window by the door, both of us drawing back in a start as a heavy fist knocked hard against the wood.

Chapter Thirty Three

We looked into each other’s eyes, mine wide, hers the same. She shook her head in reply at my question spoken only with a screwed up brow. She didn’t know who it could be, but still she turned away. I looked down at myself, the dark dried blood cracking each time I moved. I stepped to the side, out of view of the door when it opened. Moving to the foot of the stairs, I saw the van parked outside, saw the matching dark ink blots across its front, saw the policeman circling its perimeter and remembered the stains on the back doors, the jagged bullet holes in and out. I turned to Toni, taking her dishevelled appearance, her long hair, scrunched up and thick with knots, thin splashes of what would have once been blood up her arm and across her t-shirt, but still she pulled the door open.

I listened intent on the depth of the new voice and could see his jacket reflecting yellow into the room. I listened to the pause in his flow.

“There’s been an accident at the chemical plant near,” he said. I watched as Toni gave the expected reaction, her face a picture of concern, staying hung high with surprise despite the officer not completing his words. I could practically see his face as he changed from his practiced script. “Are you okay miss?”

Toni raised her eyebrows, set her mouth in a toothy smile, her voice high and spritely as she explained about the strawberry jam she was making. The officer gave no response, I imagined his raised expression and waited for the questions to flow. The question came from the second policeman who’d been circling the van, but appeared around the other side looking towards the door.

“Is this your van?” he said.

Toni shook her head.

“Do I look like I work for the BBC?” she said. There was a second pause. “The guy next door works for a TV company, he’s always bringing home the props,” she said with laughter in her voice, running her fingers through her hair and pushing out her chest. There was a pause for a moment that was too long for my liking as his brain tried to work out the consequences. He wasn’t to know of the real chaos up the road and he continued with his prepared speech.

“Okay, Miss. The advice is to stay indoors. Keep your windows closed and stay off the roads. There’s a lot of military coming in to help with the clean up. It’s nothing too bad, but best to keep to what I say. Do you understand?”

I watched as she took a moment to think and then let out a nod before closing the door.

“A chemical spill,” I said as she stepped away.

“They had to say something,” she said, then pulled her mouth wide, flashing her teeth as she spoke. “Sorry, a group of government scientists just up the road are bringing people back from the dead, only to let them escape. They’re coming your way, so stay inside. If you don’t you’ll get bitten and you’ll join the massing undead army.”

I stood still for a minute.

“I guess not,” I replied and hurried up the stairs.

My first shower in how many days I couldn’t remember, felt like it cleansed through my entire body. The act of lathering up, washing myself down, watching the water turn from red to clear again, untangling my hair as I ran my fingers through, felt like I cleaned away all that had gone by. As I dried my body, I was shrouded in optimism, the bite wound now barely a scar, I felt an uplifting sense it was all going to be ok. I stepped from the bathroom, retracing my steps, Toni’s wide open smile greeting me as she stood pulling off her white lace bra that matched the knickers already laying to the floor, doing nothing to dissuade my mood.

The hunger was back, but not the same as before.

My eyes fell to the clothes she laid at the bed. My clothes, I thought as my heart fluttered. A red pant suit I’d left behind in my rush to get away, two years ago now. I stared, memories of pleasures flooding back and I turned to see her standing beside me, her warmth radiating through my towel.

“What you smiling at?” she said.

“You’re smiling too,” I replied, looking at her nipples pointing in my direction. Her grin raised higher as I let the towel drop to the floor, the soft material electrifying across my nipples as it fell. Her eyebrows flashed high and she bit her bottom lip.

“No time for that,” she said, her mouth bunching in a pout. I didn’t say a word, but my eyebrows lowering did all the talking as I ran my hand between her shoulder blades. “No,” she said stepping away.

“Why?” I said, my voice coming out wounded, kicking myself for the control she had. She disappeared through the door towards the shower, her words echoing before the door closed at her back.

“I’ve found her.”

Chapter Thirty Four

The white vest top from Toni’s drawer fit like my own, but the jacket hung loose, gaping at the front. The freedom of no bra whilst in my work armour, mixed two worlds never meant to be together. Toni’s was no option, rattling around in her giant structure would be worse. Running my hand down my stomach, it was almost concave and I hated the way the material pulled, the fit as I stared in the mirror, my first lapse in control since I’d been a teenager. Still, I was ready to meet the world again, ready to share my story, even in what I was wearing.

The shower stopped running and I stared out of the window, my eyes following the tops of the olive drab trucks on the motorway. At the sound of the bathroom door opening wide, I busied myself with a brush through my hair, despite having already preened it to perfection.

Turning when she hadn’t arrived, I found her leaning on the door frame, a towel hanging from her armpits to halfway down her thighs. With her hair wrapped in another towel, her eyes narrowed as she stared back with a sweet smile, teeth digging in to her bottom lip. The smile rose as I took a step. Toni pulled in a breath and walked past me, only turning as she arrived beside the bed.

“You should get something else to eat,” she said shaking the towel loose on her head and rubbing it against her hair with her left hand. “You’re losing weight.”

I watched as she ran the towel over her hair, her eyes on me, but only for a moment. She turned away, pulling the larger towel tight around her upper body. Only lingering for a moment, I shook away my thoughts and meandered down the stairs, staring out of the window as I landed. It wasn’t until I noticed the bucket and sponge by the front door that I turned back through the window and saw the van white again. By the bucket was a pair of red heels, my size, I could tell without having to look inside. She was a four, I was a five. I was bigger in every way, but one way. They must have been mine, I was sure, until a thought crept in. They could be someone else’s. Without time for my mind to ask questions I didn’t want to answer, my stomach urged me back to the fridge and flicking on the TV as I passed, I made another two sandwiches, setting one aside.

There was no rolling news, no stories breaking through the seasonal films. The scoop was still mine to break. For now.

“What day is it?” I said as I heard her feet on the stairs.

“New year’s eve,” she replied with no smile in her voice, no smile on her face as she landed at the bottom in jeans and a t-shirt. “You found the shoes,” she replied looking down to my feet, shaking her head as I offered out the sandwich on a plate. “I’ve eaten.”

“Mine?” I said without thought, my heart pounding in my ears as the words slipped out. Her smile went wide, her teeth glistening as they bared, her face alight with joy at my question. She nodded, turning away, only coming back as the smile faded to a shadow in the corners of her lips. I had to wait, not wanting the relief to show in my voice and ate the other sandwich, controlling my movements with each bite. “I’m a little over dressed,” I said with a smile, hoping and not, she’d tell me to take it off.

“You want to film this, right?” she snapped. I nodded, turning back towards the kitchen. The remains of her smile flattened.

“What now?” I said, looking away, my mind drifting away to the early days when I saw her. We couldn’t bear to be apart for so long, couldn’t have been naked so close without having to spend the next hour scratching each other’s itch. Warmth filled my cheeks as tried to push away the thoughts, but her cold, strict tone did the job for me.

“There’s another facility on the edge of Dartmoor. A place called Willsworthy. You know it?”

I shook my head, remembering how it always changed. A phone call, either mine or hers, and it was like something snapped. A fight would start. I’d take the blame, but they were mostly her fault. Maybe she would say the same, but she’d be wrong. I could feel the warmth inside me turning cold as I stared at her as she went around the tiny room, picking up things and squaring the place up. We had to get out of here before the inevitable.

“Are we going or what?” I said heading to the front door.

“You’re ready now, right?” she replied and I pulled it open, sliding on the heels, letting the cold breeze wash away the building anger as the door slammed at my back.

The roads were empty, we’d agreed in our short few words we’d avoid it like the plague, both of us silently regretting the phrase. With each shop we came across closed, Toni’s frustration grew, claiming she couldn’t get the supplies she wouldn’t disclose. Each of the shops had a sign telling people who’d dared to brave the chemical leak it was why they weren’t open. We’d travelled maybe half the distance we’d covered on the motorway getting away from the place, when we came across the independent petrol station on our left, barely a hut, with pumps from the sixties, when Toni told me with a single sharp phrase, to pull over. I nearly didn’t, nearly decided it was time for her attitude to stop, but my will relented at the last minute and I pulled the van under the shallow canopy.

“Wait here,” she said, ignoring my protests, the place locked up, like the others. My heart raced as I watched out of the passenger window as she pulled a screwdriver from her pocket and levered open the front door like she’d been doing it for years. I watched on, almost feeling the need to get the camera out and film the robbery in progress. As I sat, simmering, my attention turned to a tap at my window. I jumped in my seat as I saw a policeman, his hand slapping at the glass, his split wide finger leaving a trail of thick blood as it returned to take a second hit. His white, clouded eyes stared straight into mine as he gave a low growl.

Chapter Thirty Five

I recognised his face, the policeman who’d moved his car first as we’d raced away from the soldier’s last stand. Missing from his great bald head, half his scalp hung down the side of his face, slapping his cheek each time he moved, the left side of his yellow jacket blanketed in a flaking scarlet crust. I jumped again as his teeth bared, the whites of his snarl smacking into the window. A tooth fell to the ground and gap stared back as he glared with his mouth wide.

I stared on transfixed, wishing I had a gun to make the problem go away. Instead, I felt around the cab, searching for something sharp, something heavy. My attention drew away with a ring of bells rushing from the hut. I turned to where Toni has broken in, the policeman’s movement following mine. My heart sunk at his slow walk towards the door still open wide. There was no sign of Toni, the view beyond the windows too dark.

I had to do something, had to warn her at least. I jumped between the seats, my head spinning as it hit hard against the roof. Gripping the upholstery hard, I steadied myself, wasting a precious moment for my view to settle. With the spin almost gone I searched in the back, grabbing a tripod, but it was too heavy to weald. I had no choice, let it drop to the floor, jumping to the side at the last moment so it wouldn’t hit my feet and pushed the back doors open, letting daylight rush in, slamming them at my back as I ran down the side of the van.

The policeman had made up the distance, a few steps away from the penetrating alarm. Toni, her hands weighed down with carrier bags swinging below, appeared at the door. Looking up, she saw me first, the alarm on my face sent her eyes shooting wide, before latching onto the creatures whites. It lunged, pace quickening and she dropped the bags, glass smashed and liquid ran from under the plastic. Her hand was in her back pocket and the screwdriver out, but not before it grabbed at her shoulder with its left hand, clawed fingers trying to push through her skin. Its right hand went for her throat, her hand to his, dried blood fluttering to the floor as they grappled. She swung as its head bent forward, teeth snapping as she did her best to lunge the shaft, but only jabbed at its neck, the tip puncturing skin, but no blood flowed and it didn’t flinch.

I ran towards her, stifling my terror, holding back a scream my head wanted so badly to call out. Dropping low, hoping what I heard had been right, I dashed my hand into the bag and pulled out the neck of a shattered bottle, alcohol rising in the air as I pulled up. Pushing my hand out, I plunged the glass into the side of its head.

The wound made no difference. The creature gave no reaction as I crushed the glass to its bare skull. I jabbed again, hitting at its arm. Reaching back to the bag, I pulled out a full bottle. With the vodka in my hand, I swung hard, the glass shattering over its head. Liquid gushed, covering us all, Toni and the creature the most, but I was back again, lunging unarmed and I pushed sideways as hard as I could. The creature stumbled, letting go with its right hand, leaving blood to her skin running down with the spray of alcohol. I’d given her the chance she needed and the screwdriver plunged through its temple, sucking air as she withdrew the blade from the motionless, slumped body.

“Get in the van,” she said, not looking back as she wiped sticky black liquid from the blade, her left hand pulling handcuffs from his belt. “Get in the van,” she repeated when I hadn’t moved. I waited until she disappeared back into the hut, sliding into the driver’s seat, head spinning as I tried to make sense of what had just happened. Before I could, movement caught my eye. I’d kept watch this time, looking out and I saw the other policeman coming around the corner. He was missing his fluorescent coat and the left sleeve of his white shirt ran with dark scarlet, leaving a syrupy flow in its wake.

I let the horn sing, drawing the creature closer. Toni took one look at the doorway, gave me a shallow nod as she flicked a match to the inanimate creature on the floor and jogged to the van, placing another huddle of shopping bags in the footwell.

“Go,” she said, just as a woman’s voice electrified the air. We turned to see a young woman standing in a thick winter coat, her gloved hand at her face having come around the corner. She stared at the burning corpse, mouth wide, watching flames licking at the wooden hut. “Oh shit,” Toni replied as the second policeman turned and started his advance toward her.

Chapter Thirty Six

“Stay here,” came Toni’s forced words as she shouldered the van door, the handle of the screwdriver pointing down from her fingers, knuckles white as they balled tight in a fist. A huff of air pulled from my chest as the bells quietened with the slam of the door. Since when had she become so butch? A memory tugged. Her screamed accusations as I shrunk back. My voice through the tears, begging for her to believe she was the only one for me. Her hand across my face, the sting as the dream shattered in one swift movement. My silence as I stormed to my car, barely able to see the road through my anger, my sorrow. Not able to look her in the face as she pleaded through the window for me to come inside so she could show her remorse.

Now was not the time.

I drew a deep breath, shouldering my way out, surging forward towards the back of the blooded creature. Its wide shoulders, one crimson, one crisp white, blocked the view of all but the woman’s feet pinned with fear to the ground. Before Toni was around the front of the van, the air turned blue when she realised I was out, her voice sharpening to a command as I heaved at the creatures back, a chill running through my fingers as I pulled away.

The creature tripped, the nervous system not playing its part and it stumbled forward, catching its legs, knees hitting the ground with a crunch as bones shattered.

“What did I say?” came Toni’s booming voice. I turned, bile rising, face screwed.

“Excuse me?” I said as I took a step toward her. She started up, pushing herself taller, taking her eyes off the creature, widening at me with surprise as her brow furrowed.

“I said stay in the van,” she replied, drawing back a deep breath as she tried to look around me. I stepped in her way. This needed settling.

“Where do you get off ordering me around?” I said, trying to take a step forward, only to find my foot snagged. I looked down to see a hand wrapped around the heel of my shoe. “Fuck it,” I said and tried to turn, but the creature’s ice cold left hand clung around my ankle and I fell the ground, only just able to hold my hands out to slow the fall.

“Shit,” came Toni’s response and the stranger’s voice lit the background in a scream. Run for your life, I thought, but my head was too busy to let the words out, my focus fixed on kicking at its arm with my right, angling the heel as a weapon. I watched Toni trying to get around me to put whatever it was now out of any misery, but I was in the way, trying to turn to get control of my ankle so I could kick at its hand to stop its fingernails driving deep.

Eventually I got the angle I needed and Toni came around the other side. The hand let go of my heel, the other still around my ankle. A strange sensation. Cold, like plastic. Unnatural. It’s free hand grasped at the air in a claw, trying to get hold of Toni as she bobbed and weaved to place herself out of its reach, angling the screwdriver, fainting stabs in the air. I kicked at the hand, but the grip was too strong, the sensation in my foot faltering. A waft of smoke ran across my nostrils and I inhaled at the wrong time, sending my lungs into spasm.

“Oh shit.” It was Toni again and I looked up, pushing my eyes wide through the sting. My view ran blurred with moisture, but I could just about see and feel all too well, the heat rolling out from the raging fire engulfing the hut, flames licking at the canopy. I kicked again, watching as Toni stabbed, watching as she missed time after time, the creatures head moving too fast, snapping its teeth to grab at her flesh. Without warning the creature released my ankle, sending a flood of sensation back to my toes. The relief was short-lived as I watched its fingers take hold of Toni’s wrist, latching on with the other to her hand, the screwdriver falling to the floor, its sound unable to penetrate the chaos of the crackling inferno above our heads.

Guilt soon replaced the flush of pride as I took a step forward, bending at the waist to pick up the screwdriver. The wind changed direction and surrounded in smoke, my charge was beaten back by the burn. Guilt surged into panic as wood cracked close by in the flames and my vision exploded with light, embers bursting into view as a railway sleeper sized burning timber crashed to the ground right where Toni and the creature had been grappling.

Chapter Thirty Seven

We had our issues, but only because our feelings for each other were so strong. For the same reason I’d never been able to stop going back, couldn’t stop returning, couldn’t stop ignoring the daemons. Toni was driven, passionate for life, for her field, for science, for me. She was empathic to a fault, knew what was going on in my head, except when the green mist descended. She was caring, brave, honest, but jealous. Toni wanted me all for herself and I was ready to give her what she craved, but it was her cross to shake off, only she alone could get past the mistrust. I’d never given her any reason to think I wasn’t hers. I’d never cheated, never looked elsewhere while we were together, not that we’d ever been an item for longer than the few weeks in a row we could cling on to. Despite my protests, a phone call, a text message, a look across the room from someone else, would be enough for her to think I’d been with everyone else in the world when I wasn’t laying in her bed.

I’d leave and we wouldn’t speak, until the memories wore thin enough for one of us, usually me, to pick up the phone. We’d talk for hours, slow at first, building it all back from scratch without ever mentioning why I’d run from her bed. Despite our time apart, she was always there, in the back of my head, in my thoughts every hour that passed. Could I forgive her those few slips? Could I forgive the times when the passion boiled over into something more dark? Of course I could, if she’d have let me, but now it was too late. The embers settled on the ground as I cried out her name.

With my mouth in the crook of my elbow, I backed away, wide eyed, lids flickering at the smoke. A cough called from the other side, a high scream for help. The stranger. I remembered. Pulling the curtain of depression aside, I ran around the hunk of wood and saw the stranger pulling Toni by the arm, dragging her away from the fire, their bodies covered in smoking embers.

My face lit with joy and surprise and I jumped forward not looking at the stranger. Together we pulled her clear, our hands swatting at the embers as she coughed the smoke from her lungs. I looked up as the canopy gave a wretched creak with the orange flames engulfing the sky.

“The van,” I called out. Toni’s wide eyes stared back as we dragged her to her feet, the stranger shadowing Toni out from the canopy as I ran, not looking back, jumping in the van, slamming it to reverse. The wood gave a final call and collapsed into a heap, throwing dust out in front as I let the engine revs drop.

“She’s alive,” I said out loud, even though I was the only one to hear. With a wide smile, I shouted out into dusty mist. “The petrol tanks,” I said almost laughing, watching the two squinting faces appear in the mirror, the backdoors opening and closing as I reversed again, swinging the van around as the road grew wide enough for the turn. I kept going, kept motoring on, not paying attention to the country lane, flinching only to look in the wing mirror as the fireball burst out to the sky.

“What’s going on?” said the stranger between coughs. Neither of us replied until I caught the first of the road signs and distance sirens catching in the air.

“Shit,” I said, still with joy in my voice. “I’ve gone the wrong way.” Slowing to let the van stop, I pulled off the road into a lay-by at the side of a field.

“What’s going on?” the woman said as I pulled from between the seats, watching as Toni lay on the carpet floor, her eyes half open as she pulled in slow, controlled breaths. The woman stood in the corner, her eyes flitting around the interior. “What’s going on?” she repeated, pleading in my direction.

I took a moment to contemplate as I stared back, the low sun beaming in through the windscreen, catching her face in the bright light. Despite the dirt on her face, she was classically plain. Not ugly. Not pretty. With unmarked, soft clean lines, she had a face many would fight for and the cosmetic companies would hate. Even with the big coat shrouding her form, I could see she was a little heavier than I would be comfortable with, but that was my choice.

I turned down to catch Toni’s face, watching the black lines of ash streak down her skin and the tiny holes surrounded by black, marking her white tee and the rip across the arm pit, exposing the joint. She was looking up, keeping her breath slow.

“You okay?” I said, my voice soft. She nodded.

“You?” she replied. I nodded back.

“Please?” the stranger said. I looked up, unsure of the words I should use.

“You saw what you saw. Those police man,” I said pausing and looked down to Toni for inspiration. Her eyes closed. “They were dead,” I replied looking back up. “I mean before what happened.” I watched her face react, her eyes stay wide, her forehead still high. I stared on as she held her position, waiting for more words to come, but they didn’t, until she shook her head.

“What does it mean?” she said, tears rolling through the ash on her face. I looked back to Toni’s closed eyes, then to the shelves.

“Do you know how to use a Panasonic AJ-PX380?” I said reading from one of the shelved boxes before turning to her to see her bewildered expression.

“No,” she replied in concert with Toni. I looked down and saw her getting to her feet.

“She’s not tagging along for the ride. Have you got a fucking one track mind?”

I shook my head, the anger rising and jumped back in the driver’s seat as the back door opened with a huff of air from the woman’s lungs. Over her protests at being shoved around, I heard the heavy engines before I saw the flash of blue lights coming over a hill in the distance.

“Toni,” I shouted, turning back as I watched her pull the woman from half way through the door by her upper arm, a gasp calling from the stranger’s lips.

“Keep quiet,” Toni said in a tone that forced me to close my eyes, to think of something else. The doors slammed closed again, leaving only the woman’s sobs to settle while the heavy engines reverberated through the thin metal of the van, the top of the olive drab lorries looming high over the brow.

Chapter Thirty Eight

Through the windscreen I watched the white of the police car rise into view. It was the head of a convoy for which I couldn’t make out the tail, with more vehicles rising over the crest as the long line continued towards us. Putting my hand to my ear, I moved my mouth as if I was on the phone, but took the time to let a smile out in the direction of the flowing traffic.

The police car didn’t stop, didn’t pause after the driver glanced in my direction. My eyes turned to the truck at its back and the next as it passed, glimpsing soldiers in full kit in the wing mirror, their faces fixed and serious. The next truck blocked my view and looked back through the windscreen with a warm sensation rising as I counted the trucks full of men who were going to save the day, were going to stop this nightmare, even though they were too late for me.

Truck after truck kept coming, then Land Rovers followed, army vehicles in their wake I couldn’t name, but I could feel the smile stretching out my face until the last truck passed by and another police car followed behind, slowing as the driver caught my eye.

I twitched a grin, kept my mouth still, letting my empty hand drop to my side as I told Toni what was happening. With the car slowing I let the cold in, rolling down the window.

“You got here fast,” the policeman said as he pulled from the car he’d left in the middle of the road. He was older than me, late twenties, his face full of a black beard, the top of his head too. He wore thick, dark rimmed glasses, the kind kids used to get bullied for in my school. “You know there’s a D-Notice in force? You can’t use anything you’ve got.”

I let my on-camera smile through, twitching up the right side of my lips.

“We haven’t got anything,” I said. “I’m supposed to be standing by for when you boys want to announce to the world,” I replied, bunching up my cheeks. “But I don’t much mind for the cold. Do you know any good hotels close?” I added, running my fingers through my hair.

He shook his head, speaking quicker than I expected.

“Don’t stay close,” he said, his smile faltering. I pulled a sharp deep breath, reminding myself to keep it subtle.

“What do you mean? Are you saying the chemical spill is effecting people this far out?” I said, letting my voice rise in pitch as my eyebrows climbed.

The officer looked to his car and his butch female college I hadn’t noticed until now.

“What’s your name, officer?” I said and he returned his look back in my direction, stepping closer to the window.

“Mike,” he replied. The name caught in my head and a paused for a little longer than I should before I replied.

“Nice to meet you Mike,” I said, pushing my hand out through the window. “So where should I stay?” I heard a noise from the back, the sound of a voice quickly muffled. He gave a nervous smile, raising his eyebrows.

“All I’m saying is there’s plenty of nice hotels Exeter-way,” he said, leaning in, trying to peer past me and into the back of the van. “Where’s your man?”

“Excuse me,” I replied, the indignation in my voice not put on. “What could you mean?”

“Sorry, your camera man, I mean, your camera operator,” he said and I watched as he forced a smile to his face, his cheeks reddening. I flinched to the police car as the passenger door opened and his female colleague stepped out, with her barrel like chest, not helped by the body armour. I heard what sounded like something heavy dropping to the floor, the van rocking for a moment and footsteps walked from behind. A deeper version of Toni’s voice soon came from over my shoulder.

“Camera woman,” she said and I turned to see her stroking a grey furry windshield from a stick microphone.

The policeman gave a wry smile, his eyes narrow, mine too. She looked like a feral child with her face still covered and lined with ash, but worse, as she turned we saw to the right of her cheek, a line of blood dripping from near the corner of her eye, smudged in several places across her face.

Chapter Thirty Nine

“Holy shit,” policeman Mike said. I would have mirrored his words if I had any breath. Toni’s eyes flicked between us, surprise not hidden in her brow. “What’s happening?” the policeman said through an imagined strict frown, but my eyes too busy pleading at Toni for some well place words. I turned back to the man at the window, watched as he backed away with hushed conversation to his colleague coming around the car, his hand reaching down, instinct touching on the top of his baton. I thought about revving the engine, speeding off down the track, but realised before my feet could react, I’d switched off the ignition.

I turned to Toni’s high grin, her left hand dabbing at her face, looking down at the sticky red on her finger.

“A box fell from a shelf,” she said. “Lady here wanted to drive. Always a bad idea,” she added with a shake of her head and a smirk down in my direction. I lowered my eyebrows to the officer, his face in a knowing grin at my apologetic shrug of my shoulders as he let his hand away from the baton.

“Looks nasty. Someone should have a look at that,” came the voice of the policewoman as she came into view.

“It’s fine,” Toni replied, smiling back. The woman still screwed up her face, squinting at the blood with her fingers hooked under the arm holes of her stab vest. Finally she turned to her colleague.

“We should go if you’ve had enough of a look?” she said, raising her brow.

“Nice to meet you,” Mike said with a new distance in his voice and turned away. “Get that looked at,” he said twisting round to Toni as he slid into the driver’s seat and his colleague joined him on the other side, the engine jumping to life shortly after.

A sudden bang on the back door turned our eyes through the centre and to the stranger on her knees, her hand slapping on the thin metal in Toni’s shadow. I twisted around, my face full of alarm, first to Toni, but she was already away from between the seats, taking great strides to the stranger whose head had turned around in alarm. Spinning back, I watched for the police car, making sure they’d gone, but I saw their car rock to a halt, Officer Mike’s face set stern as he stared towards the back of the van.

I turned the key in the ignition, waved to the officers and pulled away from the lay-by, not waiting for their reaction. Watching in the mirror, I expected blue lights to flash, expected the car to turn and the chase to begin. I saw his door open, the car roll forward. I slowed, watching his eyes not following us, instead fixed into the distance as the car jabbed to a stop for a second time, but not by his hand. I slowed, stopping the spin of our wheels, not listening despite the scuffling in the back, the muted argument with no voices, my concentration on where the police man was walking.

Switching my view to the other mirror, I jabbed my foot back on the accelerator as I watched the bush moving into the road, realising it wasn’t the foliage advancing with bared teeth towards the poor man who didn’t understand what he was looking at.

Pinned in my seat, something heavy fell in the back and rolled, thudding against the metal panels with each snap left and right of the wheel. I pushed the accelerator hard as I wound around the country road, taking every bend, every junction to make sure I put as much distance as I could from the terror. Toni didn’t rejoin me and I drove, my need to know what was happening in the back growing as the quiet shouted out. It was only as we entered a sleepy village I felt my right foot lighten and the van slow, coasting to a stop as the road widened.

For a moment I let my breath settle, finding no danger as I scoured though the windows, soon discovering I’d park outside a church with a steeple rising high in to the blue winter sky. Movement caught my eyes and I sat up straight, ready to push the accelerator again, but I watched his walk, a man in a long black coat, a black shirt with a white collar that reminded me of my childhood. It took several seconds with my eyes on the priest before I could let my beat slow, before I could be confident as he slowly drifted between the headstones, he wasn’t someone who should be buried deep.

I stood, climbing out of the seat, turning to Toni on the floor with her back resting against the doors. I couldn’t quite make it out the details or her expression, my body casting a long shadow. Reaching high to the ceiling, I flicked on the light above and gasped for air as I saw the stranger’s head held to Toni’s chest, a look of terror in Toni’s eyes as they stared back. The stranger hadn’t moved, hadn’t struggled while I’d watched.

Chapter Forty

“She was going to shout out. She was going to give us away.”

Still Toni hadn’t moved her hand from behind the stranger’s head.

“What have you done?” I said, my voice high as I kept my feet planted firm. “What have you done?”

“She wouldn’t be quiet, I was just holding her down, but she stopped moving, stopped struggling. I wasn’t holding her that hard.”

“Maybe she’s okay,” I said, my legs stiff as I moved between the seats. “Let go,” I said leaning down. Toni kept her hand to the back of the stranger’s head as she stared back at me, her eyes wide, but with her brow heavy, lips pursed. “Let go,” I said raising my voice. “What’s wrong with you?” I said putting my hand out to touch Toni’s, but before I could she pulled her hand away and the woman slid down Toni’s body, turning as she fell, her eyes open as she gave no reaction when the back of her head banged hard against the floor.

My eyes stuck on the woman’s, her bloodshot whites fixing back as if asking why I hadn’t done something sooner.

“What have you done?” I said snatching a look back at Toni. She hadn’t looked down at the body, kept her eyes fixed on me. “She dead,” I said glancing down. “She’s dead,” I said again when she didn’t seem to have heard. “Look at her,” I said peering down once more, but still her eyes didn’t follow. “Look at her,” I said, my voice high, almost shouting and she gave her first reaction, flinching back, mouth hanging wide as she took a tentative look down, but twisted away, scrabbling to get to her feet as she spoke in a hurried voice.

“She was going to give us away. I didn’t mean to,” she said rushing along the van and between the seats. I watched as she pulled open the passenger door and jumped to the tarmac. I picked myself up and followed, eyes glancing at the vicar still rambling around the graveyard. Toni was walking fast the way we’d come, her head shaking, mumbling quietly to herself. I pushed the door of the van and took after her, trying my best to match her pace, despite the heels.

“Toni,” I called out, flinching a look to the graveyard, pushing a fixed smile on my face as the vicar looked up with concern in my direction. “Toni,” I said a little quieter, but still she rushed on, nearly running down the narrow road. I stopped, pulling off the heels and ran after her, sidestepping as much of the loose gravel as I could. “Toni,” I said as I caught up, but she didn’t slow, made no move to acknowledge she’d even heard my words. It was only as I my hand went to her shoulder and I pulled she flinched at my touch and let me slow her.

I took hold of her by the upper arms and turned her towards me, her eyes vacant as she stared right through me, still mumbling words I couldn’t make out.

“Toni,” I said, giving her a shake and her eyes latched on to mine for the first time. “Where are you going? We can’t go this way, it’s not safe,” I said pleading wide eyed. She blinked, twisted her head the way she’d been heading and turned back with her eyes wider than before she’d looked along the narrow country road. “I know you didn’t mean it. It was an accident,” I said and she nodded. “She was going to get us caught, then we wouldn’t have been able to break the story and keep everyone safe.” She nodded harder. “And now we’ve just got to deal with it.” The words caught up in my head. What was I saying? Toni had just murdered someone and now I was telling her how we were going to cover it up.

Blooded faces burst into my vision, teeth snapping at my face as I remembered the world had changed. The world I lived in would never be the same, for me at least. I’d spent the day killing already, although they’d already died once before. The stranger had saved Toni’s life and now Toni had taken her’s. Why didn’t I feel bad about it? I was going to help cover it up and was already thinking in this new world it would be easy where the line between life and death blurred.

The roar of an engine caught my ear and I turned away from Toni, her head following. A Land Rover flashed into view around a corner. It was going too fast, the side panels slapping the foliage lining the lane, great stones from a section of wall scraped down the side, sparks flying as the driver struggled to keep control. The windscreen had shattered, marbled with a hole in the centre. The Land Rover corrected, swerving into the middle of the road, almost too quickly, the wheels sliding left, then right and for a moment I saw daylight underneath.

Taking a step back, I tried to look at the driver’s face, took another step, my hands still holding onto Toni’s t-shirt when I saw the red eyes of a soldier in the driver’s seat, his face white like snow, breath panting. In his terror he hadn’t seen us, or didn’t care, the road not much wider than the vehicle. I lunged at Toni, pushing as hard as I could towards the bush, knowing there wasn’t enough time to save us both.

Chapter Forty One

The roar of the engine thundered high as Toni dropped. About to launch after, I watched with an ache as she fell short, her shoulder pushing aside the heavy green cover to clash hard with a hidden rigid stone wall. With no time for a Plan B, no time for a change my mind, all I could do was brace myself for the impact, hold my thoughts for the crushing weight to send me off into orbit as I lost consciousness.

I’d waited, eyes closed, for longer than the split second I’d expected for it to all be over, turning without thought, instincts taking control, my hands reaching up to my face as shrapnel exploded. Seeing the Land Rover collide with the wall, the eyes of the driver on me, his face so fearful, I twisted, let myself drop, arms wide, falling over Toni like a blanket. Debris peppered my back as Toni writhed beneath my cover.

Standing, stone and metal showered to the floor as I twisted and turned, easing out every new ache while I watched steam hiss from the crumpled front of the Land Rover. With the ring in my ears only just settling, I helped Toni up with an offered hand and she lunged her arms around me squeezing tight, gripping so hard I felt like maybe I’d been hit after all.

After longer than I should have waited, I peeled her off and turned back, remembering the poor driver who must have seen me after all, twisting the wheel at the last moment. The front half of the vehicle had crumpled like a concertina, the front tyre flat, the rim of the wheel resting to the floor. Steam continued to rise, black smoke intertwining and no matter how hard I looked the driver was no where. I didn’t wait for Toni’s response, leapt forward, gripping the handle tight, looking inside, surprised to see no loose white bags that should have saved his life. He’d vanished, completely gone, there was no trace of him ever being in the vehicle other than someone must have got it here.

I looked through the windscreen, continuing to battle with the stuck door. Letting go of the handle, I saw the windscreen undamaged, saw no sign of the hole from where the glass had spidered. I scrolled back through my mind, I’d definitely seen it, I wasn’t miss-remembering. A groan called from the field the other side of the wall and I stepped back, shifting to the front of crumpled bonnet, wafting away the blackening smoke mixing with the white of the steam and pushed my hand through the pace where the glass should have been.

Turning back to Toni wide-eyed, both of us twisted to the sound of movement, the rustle of leaves, of vegetation on the other side of the wall. Just then I heard stones grinding, rubbing together and I jumped back just in time to watch as the wall collapsed into the field, stones falling either side like dominoes. About to step through the settling dust and over the debris, racing into the field to help the man who’d put himself into the wall to save our lives, Toni caught my arm and looked wide-eyed raising her nose to the air.

I let a tentative pull of air into my lungs, coughing at the bitter smoke itching the back of my throat, but there it was hanging in between. My mouth dropped and my breath stopped as I turned towards the Land Rover, watching dazed at the thickening smoke and the flames crackling at the edges of the bonnet.

“Jess,” Toni called and I turned not hiding my alarm, nodding frantically, keeping my voice mute, she knew the worse thing she could have done was to call out, to make a sound. I watched the moment she caught up, her hand slamming to her mouth as another call cut in half, her head shaking, mouth bunching. I turned back, flinching as her hand gripped my shoulder, twisting to pull at the warming handle, coughing as my grip got tighter, the fingers on my right jabbing at the window, pointing to rifle laid across the passenger footwell.

Still she shook her head, pulling hard against my arm and I relented, stumbling back, steadying myself on my bare feet. Toni followed me as I stepped closer to the wall, almost tiptoeing as I leant down, my fingers touching on the patent leather when the body of the soldier lunged from the field, his face curtained with blood still gushing from a slit down the centre of his forehead. He stumbled, his bloodied hand still warm as it latched on to mine, falling face first across the stones.

Chapter Forty Two

My eyes fell on the jagged patch of skin missing from the back of his hand, watching in slow motion as blood seeped from the wound each time the tendons flexed, exposed bones moving, its grip tightening around mine. I didn’t panic, didn’t want to scream out, it was like I was watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel. My concentration drifted to the pistol holstered at his side, distracted away only by Toni’s strength pulling at my other hand. The race of engines echoed from down the lane, growing each moment I listened. I took no part in the tug of war, pulled by a hand either side, only snapping my attention to the pain as with a sharp snatch of force, I pulled free of its grip, leaving its face to slap down to the remains of the stone wall.

I stumbled back, Toni catching my fall, her arms under mine until I leapt forward, righting myself, not waiting to steady. Instead I leant down, heaving a great rock, pulling it high above my head before letting it fall, flinching away as the legs shot up, going limp as blood slapped across my bare legs. I was too busy for my eyes to linger on the great clots rolling down, already trying to forget the squelch, the liquid slap as the stone hit. With no time to pause, the engines so near, I leapt out, steadying myself on the rocks, pulling my glance away from the misshaped head remaining, my hands on the holster, the gun in my grip as I cleared the rest of the debris, turning back only to make sure Toni was following.

We ran along the hedge on the inside of the wall, knowing whoever was following, whatever was chasing after their colleague, could go no further than the Land Rover blocking the road, but just as the thoughts came I heard the aggravated bark of hungry dogs in the distance. Down into a shallow valley we took our first opportunity to make sure nothing had followed, thankful we couldn’t see the scene we’d left behind so knew they couldn’t see us in return. With the view blocked we swerved across the field, running until our breath couldn’t pull any harder.

Coming to rest on the other side of a hedge, together we leant behind a tall, wide tree, its branches gnarled and bare. Peering around the side, my breath shaking my body, I watched the line of black smoke in the distance whiten, soon disappearing altogether. Listening out for the snarl of chasing dogs, all I could hear was Toni’s deep breaths as she tried to regain control. My view turned down to my feet. I was up to my ankles in mud, scarlet flecks of clotted blood had dried hard and despite all I kicked they clung on to my legs as I tried to hold back the gag.

I turned away, looking around for something to help, something to wipe the mess away, instead my eyes settled on Toni as she watched, eyes squinted to where we’d come, her breath slow and I wondered, hoped she was feeling better, hadn’t swung the other way. She turned, her face solemn, a grin rising in the corner of her mouth as she looked me up and down. I did the same, taking in her disheveled hair, her face lined with black soot and darkening blood, smudged together with a sheen of perspiration at our effort. My eyes fell down her top, the rip in her t-shirt at the arm, the white of her left cup showing through, the t-shirt potted with black rimmed holes, exposing tiny patches of pink flesh. The corner of my mouth rose.

I watched as she grinned my way, the way my Toni did when times were good. I watched as her smile grew and she shook her head until her eyes fell on the pistol I’d nearly forgotten I held in my hand. The grin lessened as she pushed out her hand, her eyes narrowing with the crumple of her face as she reached out for the gun. I had no hesitation in my head, but didn’t understand why my arm was so reluctant to offer her the gun. Her head turned sideways, her eyes narrowing to a pinch as she stepped forward, her smile back, but its nature gone. She stepped closer, so close I could smell the burn mixed with her unforgettable scent pulling hard on snatched memories. I closed my eyes as her flingers ran light down my arm, letting go as she gripped the barrel of the pistol and my hand emptied.

Opening my eyes, I saw she hadn’t stepped far, but looked sideways in the sky, for a moment turning her head around until she found the low sun half way around its journey and I knew the words before they came out.

“We have to get back to the van,” she whispered.

I nodded.

“The cameras,” I said still tilting my head, but she raised her eyebrows, turned her head to the side, righting it after not too long.

“Your medicine,” she said, her voice lowering. “We need to retrieve it before night.” She smiled, bunching her cheeks in my direction and I felt an overwhelming need to be close, to feel her warmth, the hunger lying low inside me. I stepped closer as she peered the way we’d been heading, snapping her head my way as I wrapped my arms around her, her skin cold to touch for a fleeting moment before she flinched away, stepping back, her eyes wide, face curled up in disgust. She flinched for a second time and I realised she’d heard the dogs before me, had heard their panting snarl. Together we turned as I backed away and stood transfixed on the Alsatian running across the field, puffs of vapour pumping from its lungs like a steam engine, its eyes and wide hanging, tooth laden mouth, fixed in our direction.

Chapter Forty Three

“We can’t outrun it,” Toni said, her voice calm as she stepped back from the tree, her face fixed forward, only glancing behind for a moment, her eyes never catching mine. I watched the dog as its legs pumped hard, its shape getting bigger all the time. “You run,” she said, her voice raising with the weight of the gun towards the field, edging back to get the tree from her field of vision. “If we get split up, meet me at the van,” she said, her voice only half committed to the words. I glanced away, looking out to the horizon filled with fields sprawling across the countryside, rolling up and down as I tried to fix my view, tried to imagine where I’d parked. We’d run further than I’d thought and with only one crumbling building high on the horizon, I made my first steps in its direction.

“I’m not leaving you,” I shouted, stopping as her words sunk in.

“Don’t be a fucking child,” she called over her shoulder. “I’m the one with the gun, you need to run.”

There it was again. My teeth gritted tight together.

Turning to watch Toni’s back, her arms still raised out, head twitching as she checked the view and checked once again. I took one final glance before the hedge lining the long field obscured my view, but I couldn’t see anything following behind the creature racing in our direction. Soon it was only the rise in its pounding breath forewarning its sharp toothed chase. I wanted to take control, I wanted so much to run, to outrun, leaving the creature alone, dragging Toni with me, overpowering her protests, but all I could manage was a slow pace backwards shaking my head, watching Toni take smaller steps, her eyes never leaving the direction of her outstretched arms.

Putting my hands to my face, the dog appeared taking the corner wide with a speed much greater than I could have imagined. Toni let off a shot with no delay, the explosion shaking through me, as did the next when it was clear the first had missed. The second too. The dog’s course unpredicted, and it continued to ignore Toni and the gunshots altogether, instead making a wide arc around her, its legs pumping, pushing hard in my direction, a snarl, glaring its long teeth as it sped unrelenting to fill the space between Toni and I. The third shot exploded with the gun pointed in my direction, the dog’s teeth barrelling into me and I was on the floor, head spinning as the world turned over, Toni’s scream all I could hear.

Chapter Forty Four

I felt the pressure of the explosion through my body as the ground rose to smash against my shoulder, forcing the pain from elsewhere, but only for a moment. I tensed, ready for the fight, ready to take the pain, to kick and scream till it gave up, or I had to. As the echo died away in my numb ears, I squeezed my eyes open when the pain subsided and saw Toni’s offered hand, air sucking through my lips as the pain radiated down my shoulder while climbing up from the ground.

The dog lay lifeless, his long teeth hidden over hanging lips, a spray of red on the grass, scratches around my left ankles, new elongated splashes of blood up my legs. Turning my eyes away when I saw the wound to its head, I looked to the ground with a heaviness in my chest, a sore shoulder was a small price to pay, but the dog didn’t ask to join the military, the police, whoever sent it chasing after us. Ultimately, this was something else Toni’s mother would have on her conscience and I would make sure it sat heavy.

I looked up to see Toni already making her way across the field, the barrel of the gun tucked into her waistband. Waiting for her to twist around, to check I was okay and following. I turned back the way we’d come, listening with my breath slow, eyes hanging on the horizon not able to stop wondering what was going on beyond my view, how the battle was playing out and if life would ever be normal again. To the sound of distant gunfire only just heard, I turned and followed in her path.

She was easy to catch, her pace slow, but I hung a few paces behind and she knew, speeding as I joined. I had nothing I wanted to say, nothing I wanted to hear, instead I watched her hips sway, watched the tight of her jeans across her butt and had to look away as I felt urges rising, shaking my head to force a stare across at the horizon. Nothing was following, nothing tracking behind, despite the noise we’d made in our defence. Still, we didn’t rest and had soon climbed up to the building, a ramshackle shed whose roof had caved many years before.

Looking through where a fourth wall had once been, I saw inside was an animal, long dead, a sheep maybe, its bleached white carcass the only remains. The building marked the edge of the village which started over the crest, twenty houses arranged around a T junction. The road headed across our view, the point of the Tee running almost to the shed, tarmac halfway, before it ran to gravel. Crowded around the junction a post office bunched up tight to a local shop with bright orange signage, which sat alongside a public house. A lion roared out from the red board hanging on the side and our eyes fixed on the tall steeple just slightly removed from the rest of the village to the side.

Toni gave a sharp look in reply as I pointed out our destination, but my anger was only short-lived, dissipating at the sound of a pack of ferocious barking dogs. We moved closer, sharing the concern on our features. Toni’s hand reached around for the pistol, but before she took hold the fearful sounds lost their strength and headed into the distance.

Calming and about to set foot to make our way, a scream cut through the air and the unmistakable sound of a gunshot followed. The calls became a chorus with a second soon joining. We tried to find the source, tried to peer around the building, but it was only as two woman rounded the corner, coming from the right and running down the T towards us, we knew the source. The women were joggers if their tight shorts and figure hugging bright tops were anything to go by, but they were sprinting as if their life depended on their hobby, all whilst their heads twisted behind, screams echoing out each time they saw what we still couldn’t.

Doors of the houses opened as the screams grew more feral, not abating, and we looked at each other, but knowing it was the worst thing to do, knowing some wouldn’t live to regret their actions, the cause of the terror could only be one thing. We both stood in silence watching on with a fascination we had no time to take, but neither of us could pull away from the view. Something must have nagged unconsciously, as we both started a slow walk down the side of the hill, sidestepping the pain of the gravel and walking toward the danger the two joggers were about to know all too well.

Watching, we stopped again, by now half of the houses had their doors open. People stood on their doorsteps looking around, looking to each other and at the two women, unable to figure out why they were making such a din. It wasn’t long before they got their first sign, what should have told them to get behind their doors and to hide away, but none of them reacted to prevent their deaths, all watching on, hands at face, wide-eyed at the ear piercing shriek that told both Toni and I we couldn’t outrun what was chasing, knowing our only chance was to race forward toward the noise and find sanctuary as soon as we could.

We ran staring toward the first house, a middle aged man stood at the door with a woman of a similar age at his back, both wearing dark Christmas jumpers with festive patterns inappropriate for the peril. As we ran, they caught a view of us, but took little notice, looking back the women’s screams now so high, looking to each other, neither sure what to make of what was happening, their glances hanging as the shriek lit the air again. Their faces turned wide, mouths opening, fixed as we ran not wanting to see, but already knowing one jogger would be flat on her face with something resembling a human dog tucking into her flesh. Neither of us were wrong as we caught a glance just before we pushed past the couple.

Chapter Forty Five

“Close the door,” I heard Toni’s sharp command and watched the guy’s eyes follow as she led the charge, his face indignant to the invasion.

“Mary, ring the police,” came the man’s voice, his eyes snapping to mine as I followed behind.

“Shut the door,” I said, through my heavy breath, trying my best to keep my voice level.

“Close the door,” the woman begged as I passed, her hands grabbing the man’s upper arm as she sunk at the knees.

A chorus of screams lit the air outside and I ran past Toni stopped in the hallway and was peering back, letting her breath settle. I stopped only when I came to the kitchen and ran out of space.

“Close the door,” Toni repeated, her voice even sharper than before. The screams dulled as the door slammed shut, the locks clicking into place and I turned to the back door and the empty mortice lock, noise flashing high as I pulled it open, slamming out the blast of cold air blowing off the rolling fields past the garden.

“Where’s the key?” I shouted, my voice racing away. It was Toni who arrived first, joining my search around the room before heading back through to the hallway. “Toni,” I snapped and she turned, her eyes on my hands gesturing to her waistband at her back. With a sharp nod she untucked her t-shirt to cover the gun.

With keen ears I continued to search the kitchen, pulling open drawers, rooting around for the key while listening to the man’s bluster in the hallway.

“It’s not working,” I heard him say.

“Mobile?” came Toni’s reply.

“Not out here,” he said, his voice growing in volume. The woman, Mary, marched from the hallway projecting her hand out whilst the other clamped firm to the side of her pale, white face. I took the key and turned it in the locked, testing the handle twice before I moved away nodding.

“What was that?” she said with a tremble in her voice as I drew at her side. Her eyes held wide, then dropped while her head twisted, eyebrows lowering. “Are you from the telly?” she said, taking a step back. I gave a shallow nod, no time for the usual smile everyone expected to accompany. “What is that thing?” she said, her voice trembling. Toni arrived at her back just in time, the man following, the couples’s expressions ridiculous in their Christmas finery. I didn’t reply, instead looked to Toni for answers.

The man was next to ask the same unanswered question, but Toni left at his shoulder and I followed her into the living room, the room decked out in ridiculous decorations, a great tree blocking the view through the front window, the lights on to compensate. I caught sight of the TV news, my friend of two years dressed casual, wrapped in a warm woolen coat with his back to frost covered parked cars, the millennium wheel in the background as his did the stock piece, giving out advice for the night’s celebrations. Not once in those few moments did a body cross the screen with his hands raised, a fractured jaw hanging wide. The story was still mine, for now.

Toni shot past me as I watched, the man making noises of complaint, following her up the stairs, his tone changing halfway up as he stopped.

“What’s that?” he said, the words tailing off. “Mary, no don’t,” he said to her following. “Lock yourself in the downstairs toilet.”

“What?” was her only reply and they moved swiftly out of my way as I bounded up the stairs to catch up with Toni in what appeared to be the master bedroom. My eyes soon turned away from the chintz dark velvet wallpaper, dark gaudy flowers on a light background, then from the black silk sheets, my corner-mouth smile dropping as I stared into the distance and the top of the van right where I’d left it.

Toni swept the net curtains aside I joined her, leaving the window open, letting the wind rush over us. We weren’t cold, it was the last thing on our minds, our focus all on the differences in the scene before us. The fallen runner was still down, her bright orange top split in half with great round wounds to the back, welts of skin ripped off, the white of her spine and ribs exposed, great chunks of flesh no longer where they should have been. I followed the dark marks to the road, the red and white of the skin left laying on the hard ground surrounded in oily puddles, what looked like pink kidneys discarded on the creature’s journey to the house only a few doors down, the only one where the door remained open.

“Now,” Toni said with a sharp twist in my direction. I replied wide eyed. “The van,” she said. “We can make it.” My heart raced even harder, breath pulling in shallow breaths.

“We’re saved,” said the man, joining us at the window as we turned away, but twisted back at his words, Mary pushing past to get a look. Forcing my way back to the view, I followed their overjoyed faces along the road to the scatter of soldiers heading down from the church. My heart sank and I gave a heavy breath when I saw their slow, slack jawed movement, my eyes catching people running from their houses, arms open in the soldier’s direction.

Chapter Forty Six

One after the other, people streamed from their houses, doors opening across the view. Whole families ran breathless, racing from safety, not caring for the bloody trail and the obvious danger still hidden beyond the door that never closed. The husband turned away, stepping from the window. Mary twisted, moving to follow as he jogged to the hallway, but she stopped, both of us grabbing a shoulder each.

“They’re not what you think,” I said, looking to Toni, but she stayed quiet as if she was unsure of the words. “Look,” I said, pulling her around as gently as I could, pointing to the slow advance towards us from the church. As she turned, her eyes squinted out to the crowd of soldiers, before turning to check for her husband. As she returned to the view, I leant out of the window, Toni watching on, shaking her head. “No,” I shouted, the echo calling back. “Get inside, it’s not safe,” I said, stopping only when Toni gently pulled me inside. No one had responded, no one made any sign they’d heard my words.

With the wind gone from my face, I followed Toni’s outstretched finger to a woman about our age, dragging a boy of maybe five behind her, somehow still running towards what she thought were her saviours. I urged Mary, adding my pointed finger at the soldiers, begging her to watch their walk, to see no guns held in their hands, any weapons in sight hung useless slung around their backs. I urged her to look at the injuries, the blood crowding each face, or to stare at the same lifeless expression each of them carried.

“Ray,” she screamed in the heartbeat when it all came together, her eyes out of the window for more than a moment, but when he gave no reply, she turned and ran, Toni following. “Ray,” she called down the stairs, his voice dismissing, the wind running through the window as the door opened downstairs. I imagined Toni watching at his side, ready to close the door at his back if he set foot over the threshold. But moments later they all trooped upstairs just in time to watch the crowd surge in our direction, to see the thirty or more soldiers heading towards the woman who’d only just slowed, her attention on the child kicking and screaming behind.

It wasn’t for a few paces until she turned and saw the obvious, slowing, letting go of the boy’s hand. He ran with desperation, tripping over his feet, falling backwards. I wanted to race down the stairs to sweep him up, but there were enough people there to help, ten or more of their neighbours out in the street who’d see the light soon enough, would understand there wasn’t a fairytale ending to this bulletin.

The first scream shattered the new calm moments later when the mother stopped, staring on, still trying to get her mind to fix on what she was seeing. Hands reached from the crowd, fingers grabbing her by the throat, a second and a third coming around until she’d disappeared, dead bodies surrounding, leaving only her painful screams cutting through the forest of camouflage to let us know she hadn’t given up yet.

I felt Toni’s fingers wrap around my wrist, holding firm, but not gripping tight, like she knew I could run at any moment, could leap from the window to my death, hoping I would survive for long enough to do the right thing, to pick up the boy, scoop him up, not turning like the others, running for their lives. A heavy thud shook the floor and broke my concentration. I could barely bring myself to look back, to see the man lying on the carpet. No one else had turned, their eyes fixed forward on the boy and the encircling masses.

“Run,” I screamed as he vanished from our view. I pulled against Toni’s grip, holding my breath as I saw his face from between the forest of legs, hands swiping as the creatures bent, stumbling over themselves to get at the child. Toni pulled me back as he scrabbled out, jumping to his feet and running, his eyes searching for the safety of a doorway, searching past those running in the street.

A moan called out from the floor at our backs, but no one turned, each of us urging the boy on as he tripped over his legs, sending his knees scuffing to the hard floor, the procession of ex-soldiers not far behind. A second moan called to my ears with reminiscence, a sound I’d heard much in such a short space of time. Toni twisted her view too, her hand reaching, pulling the gun free, but our breath relaxed as we saw his wide-eyed stare, his mouth turn to an oh as he looked into the gun pointed in his direction.

Sharing a look of relief, Toni and I turned back, but tensed as we fixed on the snarling creature at the open door, its leathered face dripping red from forehead to chin. Its eyes on the fastest moving object in view. The child still nowhere near an open door.

Chapter Forty Seven

The gun was out through the window, the sound like it would shatter the glass. No one saw where the bullet landed. It could have hit, but the effect was good enough. All eyes, including those bloodshot, bounded by heavy hanging lids, fixed upwards for enough of a moment, at least I hoped.

I couldn’t see the child, couldn’t take my eyes from the snarl, couldn’t stop staring down its throat as it let out a scream sending a shiver along my spine. Only as it leapt into the air, covering half the ground between us in one great bound, could I move my eyes, but only to follow. Somewhere inside I was thankful we were the new target, but Mary didn’t see it that way.

There was no time for her to let out a scream before she fell to the floor, collapsing at our feet. If I’d had a spare second, I would have let out a great sigh, would have mumbled under my breath lauding her for playing up to the female stereotype. Instead, all my energy concentrated on grabbing for the handle dangling at the door, dragging it closed, Toni moving out the way as I slammed the double glazing hard into the frame.

I felt the wave of pressure as the glass flexed, blood spraying either side with a slap against the window, the creature’s face hitting hard halfway through its second bound. Its expression didn’t change as it hit, the hunger I recognised all too obvious in its curled features. Its will still clear as it slid down the glass, smearing blood until its clawed fingers hooked to the sill. I glanced to Toni and she glanced back. We had it point blank with a chance that didn’t come often and all we had to do was sacrifice the safety of the house.

“We’re leaving anyway,” I said in answer to her look and she raised the gun before my last words. We turned together, cringing back, ready for the sear of pain to my ears, but instead we stared at the smear of its victim’s blood. The sounds of footsteps heavy on the roof told us all we needed to know. Our eyes headed out across the sea of soldier’s heading in our direction until our attention drew downward by a light but frantic call of a hand against wood. We moved in unison, turning over the sill and saw the back of a little figure, heard his sobs, his hand slapping in time with the noise coming from downstairs.

I ran, not waiting to share a look. I ran not being careful with my feet, ignoring the complaints of the husband only just rousing from the floor. I ran hearing Toni’s calls through the open window. She was calling out the beast, distracting for a second time. Halfway flying down the stairs, I could see his tiny shape through the misted glass, my hands on the banister propelling me toward the ground floor in two great leaps when I caught the black shape fall from above, a dark shadow through the glass at the short figure’s back.

A great explosive filled the air coming both from outside and above, the shapes were too indistinct behind the misted glass to see anything other than their collective flinch. I didn’t know what I’d see as I pulled the door wide, still, I raked it open without a pause. The kid had turned his back to the door. I grabbed on, my arm around his chest, drawing him over the threshold, into the warmth, into our safety and away from the creature looking up, his face turning down in what seemed like slow motion, its body falling forward. As I pulled back, I saw the bullet hole through its forehead, a smile appearing on my face I stepped out of the arc of its death.

“Great shot,” I said under my breath, forgetting the kid folded in my arms, not seeing until I caught a gust of foul window and heard Toni’s call from above, shouting for me to close the door. It was only then I looked up to see the crowd edging ever forward, so close I had to let go. They were so far up the garden path I had to turn and usher the kid up the stairs, had to call for Toni to help him up as I turned to push the door closed only to find the creature’s lifeless lump of a body had fallen across the threshold. No matter how hard I pushed and shoved, my heart beating out of my chest, no matter how hard I swore or prayed to a god I hadn’t believed in since I was six, it wouldn’t budge.

Chapter Forty Eight

Sweat poured down my face as I pushed and pulled at the cold flesh, the body not budging while I tried to listen to Toni’s calls barely breaking through the low moans vibrating through my chest. I struggled on, cursing my weak frame, but with one last yank against the limp arm, I looked up and watched the first dead soldier trip over the doorstep. With defeat resting heavy, I turned and ran, climbing the stairs two at a time, chancing a glance over my shoulder just as I turned back to the bedroom. The first of the horde had already fallen, tripping over the unmovable body, but another crossed behind, stamping along its former colleague’s spine, their milky white eyes fixed in my direction.

Slamming the door at my back, Toni looked on, her eyes almost as wide as the kid’s tear streamed face, her arms across his chest. My head shook as I swatted my brow on the back of my hand, dabbing my eyes along the sleeve.

“I couldn’t move him, couldn’t shut them out,” I said, trying to hold back the exhaustion. It was Mary who was first to react, sitting on the silk sheets next to her husband, swapping wide eyed looks between each of us as if in a daze.

“Andy,” she said with surprise. “What are you doing here?” she added, lowering her brow. The boy looked at me and then up to Toni. “Come here,” she said opening her eyes wide. I saw the recognition as he pulled away from Toni’s grasp and ran into Mary’s wide arms while I leant heavy with my back to the door, my hand straining to keep the handle upright.

“What are we going to do?” I said looking only at Toni. She shook her head, turning back to the window.

“We need to get out, we’ve got to get back before nightfall,” she said twisting back the concern obvious in her eyes. I avoided her stare, looking over her shoulder at the sun hovering over the horizon.

“We might need to think again,” I said raising my eyebrows. “In a minute those things,” I said exaggerating the last word. “Will be here and this door won’t hold for long,” I said, raising my eyebrows, not able to stop myself glancing to the child still buried in Mary’s arms. Before Toni could speak, I lifted my hand, raising my index finger to my mouth and turned my ear to the door. “The window?” I said, pointing my eyes outside when I was satisfied.

Toni turned as I finished, peering over the cill, shaking her head.

“There must be over a hundred of them out there, even if we survived the fall, there’s no way we could win a fight.”

“Toni,” I said, my voice sharp and she turned, watching with a lowered brow as I gestured to the kid. She dismissed my concern with a shake of her head, pulling the clip from the gun. I watched the couple’s wide eyes, staring on as Toni turned the clip lengthwise and counted the bullets.

“Fifteen rounds. It’s not enough,” she said shaking her head. She still had a lot to learn about being around others.

I looked towards the ground, straining my ears to noises somewhere beyond the door, when the squeak of the little boy’s voice cut through the air as he shuffled out of Mary’s embrace.

“Can they climb stairs?” he said and we both turned in his direction, the couple looking on with bemused expressions. I swapped glances with Toni, but I was the first to speak.

“What do you know about these,” I said slowing to a pause. “Things?” I added, not able to find a better word.

“Zombies, right?” he said without a change in expression. I looked at Toni, holding her gaze for a long moment before shrugging and turning back to the boy, nodding. “I’ve read a lot of comics, my dad has one of those survival guides and he lets me read it.”

I couldn’t help but look back at Toni for a second time, watching as she took a pace towards me, pulling up the gun and aiming towards the door as I rested my fingers on the handle. I felt a gurgle in my stomach, the sound radiating out into the air. Toni’s expression hardened as she gave turned away from my belly and back to the door before giving a shallow nod, watching as I pushed down the handle.

Chapter Forty Nine

I let the handle drop, slow at first, bracing for the heave of wood, counting down the seconds in my head. After more than I dared to wait, the force hadn’t come, hadn’t pushed back and I gripped the handle tight, holding it down until it went no further. Toni hurried me with her frown and I relaxed my hand, realising I still held the door firm with my back. The wood didn’t push against me, didn’t smash outward, hadn’t forced me to the floor. I relaxed, letting the ache in my hand dissipate.

Nodding towards Toni, she nodded quickly back, her eyes full of impatience. I pulled the door open, holding it firm as I backed into the shadow, shame rolling over me as I hid behind the wooden barrier exposing the room to the horrors of the exposed hallway. With guilt crowding my thoughts, emotion battling in my head, I realised Toni hadn’t fired, hadn’t launched an assault on whatever was coming towards us from the other side. I stepped slowly around the door as she stood, face fixed with anger, the gun aimed into the void.

Their signature carried through the corridor. A low murmur of air vibrating along flaccid throats making no comprehendible sense. Their smell too was easy to spot, the stench of blocked toilets billowing out from where the door had been, but in the dim light their lifeless forms were nowhere to be seen. I glanced a turn to my back and in those few moments the lower quarter of the sun hid behind the houses opposite. Toni twisted, following my gaze, returning with a concern common these last few days and I turned away, taking my first steps over the threshold.

She arrived at my side as I made out the scene, the writhing mass leading halfway up the staircase only just becoming clear, their activity, their clawing in the air, speeding as they caught sight of me. The mass of bodies scraped at the carpet, at each other, laying diagonal as they scratched and scraped for traction. Toni and I swapped a glance, then back at their slow advance, neither of us needed so say we didn’t have long before they would break through.

Splitting, we ran to different rooms. I took the back bedroom, Toni the bathroom and soon she was at my side as I lingered, looking out of the window, peering down the tiles of the extension roof. Toni dragged the chest of drawers, pushing me out of the way before I had taken my eyes off the slope. By the time the plan formed, she already dragged a chair across the carpet for the first step, urging me to climb with a point of the gun. I let my foot rest on the chair before stepping down, not listening to the call of my name as I ran from the room, as I held the front bedroom frame in my hands, calling for the three to come, urging them on with all my will, saying the words I didn’t want the kid to hear only when they wouldn’t budge.

“Run, or you’re going to die.”

The kid was the first, pulling from Mary’s arms, following my pointed hand in Toni’s direction as I stooped, smiling encouragement as he ran past.

“Your choice,” I said, stepping back, peering to the stairs to find only the last third remained uncovered with bodies, holding back as best I could, my shock at their quickened pace. I gave one last look back into the bedroom, raising my eyes, silently pleading for them to wake from their trance, but neither did, their faces fixed and expressionless to the ground. I ran the few paces to the bedroom and found Toni helping the kid onto the chair, holding his hand as he eagerly climbed to the chest of drawers. “Wait,” I said and grabbed the kid under the arms, glaring at Toni, but not saying the words I was desperate to, flinching behind me, my heart rate spiking to find Mary rushing through the doorway.

“You first,” I said to Mary, ignoring Toni’s protests as I held the kid back. “And we’ll lower Andy down to you.” Toni quietened.Mary was easy to get to the roof, made no complaints as we helped her up, as we lowered Andy down, once she stopped slipping down the tiles.

“You now,” Toni said, her head twisting back and forth to the entrance, disappearing one last time into the corridor as I waited, standing on the chair, for her to reappear. She came back a little out of breath, slamming the door of the bedroom and leaning against it with her back. “They’re almost at the top, hurry.”

I paused, hovering my foot over the chest of drawers.

“What about the husband?” I said, but Toni could only shrug. “What’s he doing?”

She shrugged again and urged me on, gesturing with the gun out of the window, but I stepped down to the chair, lowering myself to the floor, watching as she slid across the door, blocking my path to the handle.

“We’ve got to get him?” I said, stepping to the side, but she moved to block again. “He’s in shock, doesn’t understand what’s going on. We’ve got to give him one last try,” I said again with wide eyes, stepping closer. She turned, putting her face right up to mine.

“He doesn’t want to come, he’s given up.”

I could hear the moans and irregular footsteps growing louder in the hallway.

“You don’t know that?” I said, my head overwhelmed at our closeness. I could feel energy sparking across my nerves, blood jetting through my veins. Toni flinched as I licked my lips, a gurgle vibrating out from my stomach as she pulled in a sharp breath.

“It’s too late now,” she said, shaking her head towards the window. “Too late. Go please,” she said, a mix of anger and pleading rising in her voice. I drew a deep breath and was about to turn, flinching as something heavy slapped against the door. Deflated, I turned away, raising my foot leaving Toni to lean against the door, her knuckles white around the handle as she fought against its movement, stopping my climb only when a scream came from the other side.

“Help me. Please help me, open the door.”

Chapter Fifty

My face dropped as I heard the words, as did the strength from my legs as I tried to raise up to the chest of drawers. Turning towards Toni, I knew she’d be shaking her head, but didn’t expect to see the gun pointing square in my direction. Energised with the surprise, I spoke, the words still weak, barely heard over the elongated sound of begging from the other side of the door.

“Why would you?” I said, my eyes squinting, watching a single tear run down each of her cheeks.

“I have to keep you safe,” she said, repointing her aim at my chest, following me as I climbed down, my legs shaking as the gun traced.

“You won’t do it,” I said. “We have to save him for goodness’ sake.” I turned, following the slope of the roof, watching Mary looking up expectant at the window with Andy smiling wide in her arms. “His wife is just there,” I said, taking a step towards the door. “We have to try,” I said, raising my hand to the gun. Before I could reach, she turned. Before I could scream, she pulled the door open, latching on the relief of the husband, his wide eyes as he saw us, the creatures swarming so close to his back. We couldn’t have cut the time any closer. I watched the elation in his smile, the most emotion I’d seen in him since we’d met, but his face dropped, his eyes catching on the gun raised at his head. The bang came after the bullet exploded out of the back of his skull.

My ears were numb and I was on my knees. The world enveloped in cotton wool, my senses dulled. Toni’s words, her shouted commands, her tug at my shoulders only half felt. My senses snapped into focus with a sudden pain at my face, her hand still completing the arc.

I stood, shaking off her grip, climbed the chair, striding across the chest of drawers and letting myself slide down the roof. Dropping down the other side to the grass, I cared little for what would happen if I fell. I barely noticed as I helped Andy down, taking the light package in my arms, enjoying his warmth as I held him for a moment before letting him down to help Mary, who could only look up trying to see past Toni as she emerged through the window.

I didn’t wait, didn’t linger. The light fading and all I wanted to do was get the van and drive away as fast as I could. Still barefoot, I walked along the grass to the end of the garden, climbing the fence at the back, letting the low hum of the moans, the stench and the occasional scream dissipate into the distance.

A new sound cut through the air after a few minutes of trudging through the field in a direction to circle the village. I didn’t look up to see the helicopter for fear of finding Toni following. I hoped she’d taken another path, at the same time wishing she was behind, knowing it best to keep her distance. The noise of the rotors grew too strong and I glanced to my right, watching as the green helicopter hovered over the centre of the village. A figure in a flight suit leant out of the open side door, even though they was quite some way off, I thought I could see, or sense, the horror in their expression.

The helicopter went after a moment, moving high along the road with caution, the figure still at the door. I couldn’t imagine the crazed conversation as they tried to explain over the radio what they were seeing. Still, I walked on at pace, covering a quarter, encircling the village, when I came to the road bisecting the settlement. I stood at the roadside, leaning against the brick of the last house. Pausing, I couldn’t help but turn to my back and with surprise, and more than a little hurt, I saw Toni hadn’t been following, hadn’t appeared as I lingered on, staring out as far as I could from where I had come. Still she didn’t appear as I waited. I was on my own.

Taking a deep breath, I told myself nothing had changed. I told myself I just needed to get to the van. Toni would be there waiting impatient for me with a scalding look drawing the anger from where I kept it hidden. Peering around the wall, I saw the thinning crowd of dead soldiers, each still turning right into the cul-de-sac, following their dead colleagues to torment any residents still alive. There were only a few by the time I started walking toward the white of the van I could just about make out around the twist of the road on the other side of the village by the church. Toni was probably already there, ready to grab me when I arrived and tear off a strip for going it alone.

I walked slowly, hugging the buildings to avoid putting my bare feet on the gravelled edges of the road. Using the line of detached houses for cover, I stopped each moment, ducking into doorways at the sight, or fear of solider’s glance my way as their head’s lolled from side to side. I checked the coast was clear and I stepped back into the road, passing a dark house, not seeing the door wide before it was too late, before a pale hand shot from the darkness and yanked me hard dragging me, my feet smacking off the concrete step as the shadows enveloped.

Chapter Fifty One

He was alive. His hands warm to touch. I tried to let my breath catch, tried to push away the musty tang of dust in the air, tried to let my chest relax as I sat on the floor, staying where I’d landed, the carpet in the hallway of the stranger’s house.

“You were done for, before I saved your ass,” the man’s voice said in a thick, west country accent, his body just a wide shadow at the door.

“Thank you,” I said, my breath yet to slow. “I’m okay, but thank you.”

“Unless you’ve got eyes in the back of your head, you’re a lucky girl,” he said still staring through the open door, looking left and right, before stepping back into the hallway. The room was too dark to see very much, the carpet a shade of grey, the walls stained with what seemed like damp, the thick air only helping my conclusion. I looked around, saw the door open directly to my left, another to the right at the base of the rising stairs.

“Thank you again,” I said. “But I’ve really got to go. I have a friend out there, she’ll want to make sure I’m okay.”

He paused and I watched his head twist, but the light was too dim to catch more than a pudgy outline of features as they lingered in my direction. He turned around through the doorway, took another look left and right, pausing in each direction, before he let the door close at his back. The silhouette of his hands turned and pulled the key from the lock.

“I’ve really got to go,” I said, my heart rate still not falling, the heels of my feet stinging as I pulled myself up.

“Wait it out here,” he said in a breathy, asthmatic voice, offering out a hand while he pushed the key into his pocket with the other.

“I insist, but thank you,” I said, already at my feet without his help, trying my best to keep my voice even. A shadow passed by the front door, and then another. I thought about screaming, but I could have read this all wrong, my first fears a hang up, annoyance creeping in. I’m not a weak woman. I couldn’t be dominated, especially not by a man. “Look, I really am thankful for your help, but I have to insist you open the door so I can rejoin my friend.”

“Insist all you want, you’re not going anywhere.”

Bile rose in my stomach, but I held back from my gut reaction to scream and call for someone to come to my rescue. This guy just needed to be told to stop being such a prick. What could he do anyway, the size of him? He looked like if I said boo, he’d have a heart attack and fall to the floor clutching his chest.

“I’m going. Now get out of my fucking way you big fat creep,” I said, taking a step forward. Despite the darkness, with my first foot forward I saw a smile bunching in his cheeks, his hand pulling something from behind him and pushing it out towards me.

He mumbled something under his breath with all but an aura of light around his wide frame blocking the doorway. His face lit from below, his chins and heavy hanging features shadowed as the crackling blue light of electricity arced between the two prongs of the taser in his hand.

I turned and ran to the back of the house, racing through the hallway, knocking a thin, tall telephone stand to the floor, the bells pinging as the Bakelite hit the carpet. In the kitchen I had my hand on the back door, pushed down, pulling as hard as I could. It was locked. Of course it was. I picked up a bowl filled with rotting fruit from the kitchen counter, raised it above my head with both hands and felt his grip against my wrists and his pull backward as my legs buckled from under me. I screamed, but the air went from my lungs before I could get any volume, each of my muscles contracting and relaxing at the same time. All I could do was listen to his words brimming with laughter.

“You’re mine now.”

Chapter Fifty Two

My vision blurred, sounds rolled into one, his stench thick in my face, I felt his heaving breath as he carried me over his shoulder with each slow, painful step higher than the last. I kept silent, not able to talk, not able to think what would come when we reached the top of the stairs. Tears boiled over as he laid me down in a dark room, the musk of months old bed clothes all around me. I tried to fight as he grabbed at my hands, but when his face lit up with an arc of electricity, I let him take them, sealing the Velcro around my wrists, clipping the cuffs to straps either side. My instinct told me to kick out as he forced my ankles wide, but the memory of the spasm won and I let myself go.

I shuffled up, resting my head on a pillow to get a better look and tried to bring my hands together, but when I could almost touch my fingers, the straps stopped my progress. A lamp clicked on to my side, its long arm tilting with a hand wrapped around its shaft, the light falling to my body, turning my eyes away from the brightness and he disappeared into the dark.

I heard his weight rest in an armchair, the leather creaking under his mass, a huff of air from his chest as it pushed out the effort, leaving just the rattle of his lungs with each laboured breath. I looked to the window, the daylight almost gone, what remained of the light doing nothing to help me see the room. I waited with nothing else I could do, the grate of his breath somehow reassuring as he sat there. He wasn’t the worst thing I’d had to deal with this day and I knew with certainty I would deal with worse before all this was over. I told myself again and again, it was another story to be told, the underbelly of rural England, of humanity. Collect as much information as I can.

With a great bubbling surge of noise from my belly, his breath paused, the silence disconcerting, leaving me only in pain. I thought of Toni out in the darkness alone. She would be safe, she had the gun, but her worry would be uncontrollable. By now she’d be at the van for sure, she’d be searching and I listened out for the distant call of my name. Laughter was the only reply, his laughter, a low, bass grumble from his vocal cords, his shot lungs doing their best to give voice to his joy as he tried in vain to let his breath settle. Maybe I could send him over the edge, make him clutch his chest as he fell to the floor. I found my legs opening as the thought progressed, his breath rising with each tiny move, the leather of the chair creaking with each fidget.

I stopped moving, my brain catching up. What if he keeled over? I’d be stuck here until Toni searched each house and by then who knows what I would have become. Who knows if the pit of hunger would deepen beyond where I could get back from. I wanted that less than I wanted to battle this creep. I pulled my legs as far as they would close.

The void had grown in my stomach, a cloud descending into my head. I remembered the first time I’d had this feeling, the first time I’d experienced the alien depth of want in my belly. He must have seen my expression change as I heard a deep breath and the complaint from the chair, air hoofing from his lungs, the floorboards creaking with each movement. I looked into the darkness, following as the noise travelled around the room, but the light was too bright at my eyes to make out any shapes in the dark, even with his sound close by my side.

The straps pulled at my right arm, a slow, gradual movement I was powerless to stop. His short breaths told me of his concentration as movement by movement my hand pulled out wide from my body. When the progress stopped, his rattle and the creak of floorboards told me of his travel, I pulled, gentle at first, the pressure building, but all I could feel was the velcro tighten, each hook and loop increasing their grip. He was around the other side, my left hand doing as my right had done and I could feel the breath in my chest speeding, but only shallow as I glimpsed his sweaty round face in the light before he drew back with realisation.

My hands spread and I knew what would be next, my leg going the same way as my wrist, until my left was at the edge of the bed, the floor boards creaked again and I shook my head.

“No,” I said, cursing myself for the feeble sound as my other ankle pulled to the right. “No,” I repeated. “Is this the only way you can get girls?” I said, the yank of my ankle making me regret the words, my leg going no further, my thighs tight against my skirt. His breath panted just beyond the light, spraying me with decay from his mouth as his hands came down, reaching for the join of my jacket, his fingers like butcher’s best sausages, fumbling for the gold buttons holding the fabric together. Footsteps ran across the tarmac outside and I screamed, letting the girl out I wanted so much to suppress, bellowing my lungs before they were empty, a fist thumping hard into my belly.

Pain seared upward from my stomach like a knife dug in deep, my stomach thrust up as I bucked against the pain, my eyes wide, the surprise not hidden in his expression as it dipped into the light staring down at my chest. The pain settled and I saw the arc of electricity at his side.

I could smell the ozone snapping in the air.

I could smell his flame grilled beef.

Chapter Fifty Three

His fingers were back at the buttons along my chest, his touch light as he fumbled with each disc of metal until they popped open one by one, his breath drawing deep with each success. I felt the cold through the thin vest top as I lay only just winning the war to keep my breath even, knowing I would need my energy soon to stop myself destroying this man and diving too deep into what I could feel coming.

With surprise, he kept his hands from the white of the vest top, holding himself back, perhaps waiting until I was ready, until he’d unwrapped me. Even now with all the buttons gone, my jacket open, he held himself from grabbing me, instead taking his time to fold the loose fabric of the jacket neatly either side.

“No,” I said. “Please no,” I added as I watched his arms, his hands hovering as they ran down my body, watched his face dip in and out of the light, his stare square on my skirt held tight by my thighs. Despite my pleading he grabbed either side at the hem, despite my attempt to push down with my ass, in one swift movement he had my skirt up around my waist, taking his time to roll and gently lay the material across my hips before he’d gone.

I felt my body shake, tiny tremors glittering my body, goose bumps prickling my skin. He hadn’t moved in the dark, his breath strangely quiet, but my hunger knew he was still there, the taste of his meat still thick in the air. I fought against his intoxication. He was just watching, staring, savouring what he’d exposed.

My legs spread further by his will, dragged either side, slow and with precision, the floorboards creaking in-between his movements. I tugged with my hands, tugged with my legs, I was strung wide, tight between the bounds, it was all I could do to raise myself slightly off the bed. Despite being so exposed, part of me was thankful I was bound, part of me craved to be held back to save the world from what would happen if I didn’t find Toni real quick, despite knowing what would happen when I next saw the creep’s pudgy hands in the light.

His smell was morphing, the difference subtle. I could sense his arousal, could smell the texture of his meat change, could taste his hormones in the air and knew his flesh would be all the sweeter. I shook my head, realising I’d been urged him on inside my head and stopped the flex of my hips, flattening the snarling smile which had taken shape without my command.

His hands came in as I stopped and heard him pulling air deep through his nose, his fingers heading for my middle. I froze, tensing as he picked up the hem of my vest top and collected up the material, the back of his hand cold as it brushed at my stomach. By the catch of his breath, the touch not intended, he paused, raising his hands higher as he slowly rolled to expose my skin, slowing just below my breasts like he was savouring every moment. His wheeze had gone, his breath so shallow, his movements so controlled, anticipating what he would find. With each roll, he got closer, couldn’t help but bring himself in. His scent double handed, the odour of the unwashed folds clawed at my throat, made me want to cough, but with it, like I was two people all at once, I wanted him right in my face, I wanted him to place his neck at my mouth so I could breathe in his sweetening meats.

A sheen of sweat glistened my body, despite the cold, each of his movements sending cold air, chilling the heat I could not control. The cotton touched my nipples and they stood to attention. I would have barely noticed if not for the spark licking out. I wanted them to deflate, wanted not to urge him on, didn’t want him to see part of me enjoying the sensation, even if it was for reasons that would have chilled him to the bone.

His breath stopped altogether and he let go of my shirt, before grabbing again and pulling up with a yank, exposing my breasts, dropping the material just under my neck. He stepped back without a pause, withdrawing from the light. His breath was heavy and any moment I knew it would get heavier. Any moment it would go bad, my body wanted him away, but my hunger wanted him on top of me so I could satisfy the empty pit in my stomach.

He moved, swifter than I could have imagined, he was around the other side of the bed swiping the lamp was off, plunging the room in complete darkness. This was it, this was the time, the next event to change the way I saw the world, but instead I listened as he ran from the room, he must have heard something before me, some pre-warning I hadn’t caught, only now I heard the glass falling to the floor somewhere downstairs.

Chapter Fifty Four

Toni. It had to be her. She was here to save the day, to take care of me. He couldn’t hide his motion down the stairs, she would hear him coming long before she would see the massive target lumbering forward with the taser. She would shoot him down before he had any chance to react.

I screamed, louder and longer than I thought I could and the gunshot came sooner than I could have hoped, the second soon after, quickly followed by the third, leaving only silence after the echo died. I listened hard, listened long, let myself relax, taking deep breaths though my nose. The last of his fresh scent had gone, leaving only the odour I tried to ignore. Was there another mixed in with the musk? Could I smell Toni, the memory of how she would taste in the forefront of my mind, the scent to which all others compare and fall short? No, I couldn’t make her out, couldn’t find her in the blankness of the palette.

Then it came. Not the smell, but the noise, I heard the hum, the motion of the masses beyond the walls. They’d followed the sound, sought the cause of the loud noise, but would stay to get at what created that glorious smell. There was movement in the house too, controlled, not frantic, the scrape of heavy furniture, at a guess. At first I pictured Toni hauling heavy cabinets across the room, moving solid wood to block the door she’d just smashed open, but why wasn’t she racing to find me? Why couldn’t I taste her on my lips? The hunger was great enough, the chasm in my belly bottomless, my need singing out for her. Maybe it wasn’t Toni after all and the nightmare was about to start over, but with a smirk, I pitied whoever else would come into the room.

I tested the bounds, pulling hard against the strain, trying to judge if I let go, let the beast inside grow at its will, could I pull free? Would I be submitting myself to the creature I wouldn’t be able to turn off when I needed?

No, I told myself. I must fight on and concentrated back on the noise. I could hear definite footsteps coming from the hallway. The steps were so light compared to what had come before, so calm and relaxed. I caught the first scent, the glorious smell, the intoxication. It was Toni standing there in the doorway; hers was the slender figure I could just make out in the last ebbs of the light through the windows, but why was she at the end of the bed not saying a word?

“Toni,” I said without question, but she didn’t respond. “Toni,” I said. “Let me out please,” I pleaded. The figure moved with a grace only confirming what I knew, but with an unhurried pace I couldn’t understand, why wasn’t she rushing to free me? Instead as she grew near, I felt her fingers on my ankle, tracing with a light touch against my skin, the electricity stronger than the taser’s punch. My nerves were on fire as her taste sparked the inside of my nose, energy coursing between my legs. I raised my hips up and down as she slowly travelled her fingers as a guide, getting closer and closer to my knickers and where I was desperate for her touch.

She raised her hand as she was about to arrive, my body aching, hips bucking to find her touch again, but she’d gone and I couldn’t make out her form, only knowing she was there in the shadow, her smell nearly solid in my mouth. The light shot on and I squeezed my eyes closed, the lamp moved toward the ceiling and I opened to see Toni looking me up and down, a playful grin on her face.

“Let me out,” I said with a stranger’s low tone to my voice.

She shook her head, the smile gone in an instant.

“I think you better stay there for a while longer,” she said, but when she didn’t raise her eyebrows, didn’t give a childish giggle, my face screwed up and I shook my head. I didn’t want her to take away my senses on fire, to take what I had, what I could feel. I bucked and I pleaded as her fist came down to my stomach, the syringe of the red liquid curled in her fingers as I snapped my teeth towards her hand.

Chapter Fifty Five

Surrounded by a sea of creatures of the night, the starless dark sky all around me, I stood on a stone column rising high above in a white shimmering lace nightgown, watching as they clawed at the air, their disfigured, rotten faces melting to the floor. I had no emotion, didn’t fear, didn’t want for anything, the hunger in my belly satisfied.

As I watched, my head turned down without my will and I saw my once pristine white gown dripped with blood congealing as it rolled down my front. My face wet, sticky as I touched with my hand, red as I looked, cracked, and dried on my fingers. My focus fell to the floor far below, the creatures had parted, were spreading wide, each running away from the naked body lain at the base of the pillar. My vision zoomed and as it did, I saw the creatures had changed, screams raising from their voices, they were human now, real, alive and were running in fear from the body surrounded in a spot of light I couldn’t look up to see the source.

Dumbfounded, unable to find breath, I could only stare down, unable to look away as I saw a woman on her back naked, her white pale skin perfect in every way, her mound of hair neatly trimmed to a line, her breasts the perfect size, not too big or too small, her arms spread, hands upturned at her side. I knew it was Toni despite not being able to see her face, the skin missing, leaving just the sculpt of her bones and a ragged mass of flesh. It was Toni, her scent undeniable, thick, strong, shivering down my spine and I stood there on the pillar now less than a foot high, the darkness empty of all but her slain body. I wanted to stare on, wanted to take her in, but something drove me forward, my hands stuck behind my back and I felt as if pushed from the plinth. I screamed with anger, with pain, tears rolling from my eyes as I opened my mouth. With no breath I panted for words as I lunged, my face forced to her fleshy stomach as she called out my name.

“Jess,” her voice said and I opened my eyes to the darkness. My hands were bound around my back as I lay on my side. “Jess,” she repeated and I opened and closed my eyes to take in more light. My legs were free, but I was on the bed, the shadowy shape of the room coming into focus. “Jess,” she said one more time.

I nodded, afraid I would have no voice.

“They’re here,” she said. 

“Where?” I replied, surprised at my voice. “Who?” I added as I processed. “My hands,” I said as my thoughts evolved.

“How you feeling?”

I sat up, my abs aching as I pulled up to sit and I remembered laying on the bed, remembered the fat fingers doing up my buttons and looked down not able to see anything, but knew from the tightness at my chest, she’d covered me up.

“Hungry,” I said, realising they were the wrong words as the shadow I could only just make out, stepped back pushing out something square in her hands. “Thirsty,” I said. “Eggs, bacon, that kind of thing,” I said, not knowing how else to express myself. I watched as she relaxed and drew in close. Her scent had gone, the powerful elixir only a dreamlike memory.

“Good,” she replied. “It only took half the time,” she said with warmth in her voice. “That’s good. It means it’s having an effect.”

“What time is it?” I said. 

“One,” she replied. 

“Can we have some light?”

“Power’s out,” she said.

“My hands,” I said, shaking my wrists to make sure it hadn’t been part of the dream.

“Soon,” Toni replied. “I had to be sure.” I nodded in the darkness.

“Who’s here?” I said, remembering her words and for the first time I could sense someone else close.

“I am,” came a woman’s voice pulling at a memory, sending the blood from my face as I twisted around to the doorway.

“Toni,” I replied. “What’s your mother doing here?”

A rumble of laughter came from the woman’s throat and I struggled to turn my legs, shuffling to the side of the bed, bright torch lights beaming at me from the doorway as my feet found the floor after too long. The lights were moving and figures were around me, the cuffs grabbed firm, pushing my arms up my back, forcing me to move towards the door.

“Toni?” I said, pleading.

“Come quietly,” Toni’s voice breathed from somewhere in the room. “I told you we had to find her.”

“And here I am,” said the woman, the smile obvious in her voice.

Chapter Fifty Six

“Not like this,” I said, the chasm in my stomach growing.

“It’s okay,” Toni replied to the background of low laughter coming from beside the doorway. “You’re not helping,” Toni said and the laughter slowed.

“Not like this,” I repeated, my voice low. “Why didn’t you tell me?” I replied, twisting my body, testing the grip on the cuffs.

“You were dead to the world,” she replied. “I got a call.”

“You didn’t have a phone,” I replied, not succeeding to keep the emotion from my voice. I waited for the reply, but it didn’t come. “You could have waited, discussed it. Like adults do.” There was no reply other than a snort from the doorway.

“Please,” Toni pleaded, but not in my direction.

“Why am I so shocked you’ve let me down again?” I said out loud, shaking my hands, but they held firm.

“Jess, don’t do this.” 

“No. You don’t do this, Toni,” I said letting my anger build. “But then again it’s what you do, right? It’s what you have to do. You always find a way to fuck us up.”

A huff of laughter came from the doorway.

“Please ladies, stop with this sickly crap. We need to hustle, I’ve got the fate of humanity in hands and I haven’t got time to listen to this disgusting, deviant talk. She’s just a phase Antonia, you’ll get over it. We’ll find you a nice man and you’ll never look back. Trust me.”

“Are you going to let her talk to us like this?” I snapped, trying my best to shake my hands from the hold. Toni didn’t reply. “My hands Toni, really?” I said, trying to let the whine out from my words as I looked in the general direction of where her voice had come from, but the lights still dazzled bright in my eyes. Before she could ignore me for too long, there was a call from below, a man shouting for everyone to get moving. Something was coming and it didn’t take a lot to know what. The lights from the doorway disappeared down the stairs and I pushed back against my braced arms, wincing as my wrists pushed upwards, forcing my shoulders down. “Really,” I said and Toni’s voice came from where she’d moved to the corner of the room.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt her,” she said, more than a little childlike in her high tone. I couldn’t tell but the mother must have given a wave, or some other signal to let the pressure on my arms relax enough for me to stand up tall. Another shout came from downstairs, but with more urgency this time and the figure at my back tried to push me along without pulling up my arms. Another call came, it was too late and he held me back, stopped my travel, shadows from the beams of light downstairs scattered, hurrying as they danced on the walls before disappearing. I heard the front door slam shut and a call went out from outside, replied soon after in the distance.

I didn’t flinch at the gunfire, instead I turned around to the window and saw two figures standing either side, their silhouettes barely visible until the guy at my back glanced their way, his head torch following. Toni was to the right, that woman, her mother to the left, both had the side of the curtain lifted, their faces hidden as they peered out. The guy flinched away when he realised what he’d done and the light was back on me, but it was too late, I’d seen that other than the three, we were alone.

To the orchestra of gunfire raining lead outside, I dropped to the floor and he let me fall rather than being dragged down, but before his breath had huffed out in annoyance and he completed his bend, I’d twisted around and had my knee in his face. With all sound masked by the explosions lighting up the night outside, I felt the bone crack, but no pain, I assumed it was his nose shattering. He was out cold, had fallen to the floor and I paused, watching the line of light from this head torch along the floor. I saw my chance, the first instinct to run abandoned, instead I twisted, squatting backward to the carpet and blindly fumbled, the pistol coming out of the holster much easier than I’d expected.

Ignoring the pain in my wrists, I pulled the slide back and hoped it was a Glock, I had no chance to feel for a safety. I stood tall, angled my body sideways, the gun toward the window, crudely swapping between the pair’s shadowy positions I could only just make out. I kicked the head lamp, glancing the guy’s head, he didn’t complain as the torch span, the elastic sending it in a short spin and it came to rest, facing me, stealing the tiny amount of light coming from the window.

It was then they noticed, one turning, Toni first, but the other followed her heavy pull of breath. Despite the chorus of the fight outside I could tell they were looking on. Toni had moved, her voice coming from closer than I expected.

“What are you going to do with that?” she said, her voice calm and slow, somehow heard over the slowing rate of fire from outside. I looked down past the light, the guy who’d held me had woken and was crawling slowly away towards the window.

“I thought I needed you,” I said, pulling in a deep breath, not thinking before I spoke.

“I need you,” Toni replied, her voice moving closer. The woman gave a push of air from her lungs in disgust, tutting between the slowing shots from outside.

“That’s what I used to think,” I said, closing my eyes and twisted the gun to the left, pulling the trigger three times.

Chapter Fifty Seven

Running down the stairs with tears streaming down my face, my shoulder slid across the wallpaper to keep me steady as I raced to the ground floor. Not able to slow without toppling, no arms to balance, all my hands could do was grip the gun. My right upper arm took the force as I slammed hard into the thin door, the hardboard cracking down the middle as it stopped my fall.

With an ache in my hand, I let it my grip relax. Head darting left and right, I sought out shadows, but the only disturbances in the light were thin flashes through the remains of the front door’s glass. Twisting my wrists still held tight by the cuffs, I turned towards the back door, moving past the sideboard and ran, slowing to a stop as the first shards of glass pricked at my bare feet. I turned, squinting under the stairs, looking for anything I could use to protect my feet. Seeing a rabble of disorganised shoes, I ran back and pushed my feet in a pair of white trainers which were way too big, sliding on with no need for my hands. A scream came from up the stairs and I looked to the door, hesitating while I searched out its surface for some lock, some mechanism I could use to slow their return, but found nothing I could operate without my hands. I would have to hope the slowing gunfire had been enough to hide the call. I twisted, keeping my feet wide and ran towards the back door, flashing a look down as the laces whipped up, slapping at my ankles.

Contorting my hands around the side, I ignored the tension at my wrists as I tried the handle with my right, unable to stop slapping and scratching the gun against the metal. It was locked. Still locked, I thought, as I remembered the last time I’d tried, desperate to escape. With my night vision improving, I looked to the wide windows at its side, shuffling along the dining table to follow. Not able to raise my hands high, I angled the handle of the old fashioned window with my nose and it moved just enough for me to push it wide with my forehead. Feeling the chill air wash over me while I used my foot to hook a chair from under the dining table. The chair scrapped across the tile floor, the loudest sound in the moment, my actions no longer drowned by gunfire, only competing with the footsteps above.

Teetering for balance on the frame, I toppled headfirst, my hands letting go of the grip, the gun landing before my shoulder. Thankful for grass under the window, I shook off the ache, pausing for the pain to dissipate, taking a deep breath as I tried not to think what would have happened if it had been concrete under the window. After the darkness inside, the outdoors glowed with moonlight. Standing, the gun caught my eye. I dropped back to my knees and fumbled it from the ground, adrenaline racing as I heard shouts inside the house.

Not able to stop myself as I stood, I looked back through the window. Ignoring the hurried sounds, my eyes froze on the fat fuck’s body abandoned, open mouthed, on the floor. Eventually I ran, could do nothing else, but instead of trying to figure how I could climb the tall fence growing in my vision, my mind instead played over the three frames of light as the room brightened in the bullet’s flash. The frames hung for a second, fixing on Toni’s evolving expression with each pull of the trigger, her body forced back, unable to absorb the momentum while she watched me desperately trying to correct my aim.

Chapter Fifty Eight

The smash of glass brought me back to the present and with no time to turn to check the source of the noise, I was upon the fence, blinking away the tears, my face expressionless, numb to the emotion. I looked left as I slowed, my shoulder hitting hard against the wood, pain forced through the ache I already felt as the wood stayed firm, not creaking as I slammed hard against it. I ran to the neighbour’s boundary, the fence only half the size and made from wire mesh. I was over without slowing, the only thought to choose my left shoulder to take the pain instead of my right.

I’d expected the fall, expected the agony, but did my best to roll as I landed. Shocked at my grace, I was on my feet in one swift move, the momentum still with me as I headed towards the next line, a bushy barrier I wasn’t prepared to find out what lay beneath. The garden’s rear fence was just as tall as the last, but my excitement grew as I spotted a wooden structure only half as high in the corner, the kind used to store bikes or other garden things in and at the base was a neatly stacked collection of pots and wooden boxes I hoped would make the perfect set of steps.

As I ran, I had time to think this one through. Not enough time to do anything but give a yes or a no. I committed, buoying myself up, taking comfort in the graceful forward roll I’d just accomplished only seconds before. I plotted the line. My right foot would go for the larger box and I would push up as hard as I could, landing my left on top of the roof, then hoping I hadn’t lost my school-aged skill at athletics, I’d Fosbury Flop over the next fence, not caring to think about the landing.

The time to plan was over too soon. I’d committed, any more thinking would just have added corrosive doubt. I had it all planned out in less than a second, now was the time to follow through with as much confidence as I could muster. I took a great breath of air, filling my lungs in more than just a symbolic act, I adjusted my stride so my next footfall would be on the wooden box, hoping it wouldn’t collapse under my weight.

It took the weight of my body and the right trainer. Didn’t buckle with the extra weight of the lace of my borrowed left shoe. Didn’t crush as I pushed off taking my body with it, but my left foot went only as high as the lace under my right would stretch, which was about the height of my lower leg less than I needed to get on top of the box. Instead, my left shin smacked against the roof of the container, the momentum carrying my knee down the sandpaper-like roof before my right foot raised. Skin scraped away as I came to a halt, but I was able to stop my nose cracking to the wooden roof as my torso fell forward.

I paused, took stock, relaxed the grip around the gun. I tensed at the sound of dogs barking, the noise picking up, getting closer. With air sucking through my teeth, I stood, took a single glance back, saw torch beams scouring the garden I’d already left and let myself flop over the tall fence, bracing myself for whatever came next.

Thorns. A blackberry bush, or something with spines I’d never paid enough attention to, but my shoulders were thankful for the jabbing of the spines, much better than being crushed hard under my weight for the second time in a row. I rolled off, landing on my knees with my breath still intact, I ran as hard as I could along the fence in the darkness, lunging forward every other step to keep my balance on the uneven ground, veering off into the fields when I heard the first hint of the smell humans knew instinctively to avoid.

The only feature on the horizon, apart from the rolling hills, was a tree and that’s where I headed, not looking back. It wouldn’t change what I had to do. I had to run. It was my only choice.

At the tree, a great wide species that must have been there for years. Like me, it was alone in the wild, its branches bare and gnarled and sloped heavy to one side. Fighting against my breath, I let the solid trunk take my weight, leaning with its trunk between me and whatever was chasing. With my breath slowing I gripped the gun and peered around the bark, listening to the dogs getting louder in the distance. Fear gripped hold and I turned, running, new sounds coming all the time. There was the sound of an engine, more than one. I looked to the sky, looked for blinking lights on the horizon, then looked down to the ground as I felt myself stumble onto tarmac. A road.

I turned as the engine noise grew, as did the sounds of dogs and smaller, whining notes. I imagined motorbikes chasing after the dogs they’d let loose, turned again to see two headlights bright and coming towards me. I was standing in the middle of a road, fixed to the spot, unable to move, the lights so close I could see the young driver, his face pale white, his eyes disbelieving as they locked together with mine.

Chapter Fifty Nine

My lungs emptied as I hit the bonnet. Instinct bent me at the waist to slow the impact as the bumper hit. It worked and worked well, so well it took a few seconds of resting on the warm bonnet to realise the car had slowed before it hit, leaving my feet still under me, the borrowed shoes barely scraping along the floor. There was no pain as I pushed up from metal and stumbled back into the blinding headlights. I listened to the click of driver’s door as I struggled to walk sideways out of the dazzle. The man had climbed out of the car, but he’d turned away, not facing me, instead snapping toward the way he’d come, looking long into the distance with his neck extended, his head pushed out like a chicken. The rev of motorbike engines grew stronger and he finally turned, barely noticing me, his brow low, forehead pale and bunched. About to jump back in the car, he hesitated before looking again in my direction, surprise lighting his face.

“Get in,” he said, confusion clear on his voice. “Quick,” he added when I hadn’t move. He didn’t wait and was back in the car, leaning over the seat to push open the passenger door. I hovered, waiting for what, I wasn’t sure, staring past the car, searching out what he’d been looking for. The car rolled forward and he nodded with impatience to the open passenger door. Motorbike engines rang in my ears, dots of light bounced in the distance and I swear I could hear the heavy breath of the four legged beasts racing in our direction. I had no choice.

I barely touched the fabric before I was forced back in the seat, my hands crushed together against the gun as the car sped. Lunging forward, metal clattered in the footwell as he dabbed the brakes and the door slammed at my side. I caught the mirror image of ambling legs in the glow of the red lights before being enveloped again by the darkness. 

“Where are we going?” I said, my voice a little unsure as I stared out of the side window to search the dark horizon. I caught the tang of alcohol in the air as my eyes roved along the line of the land in the distance. Lingering on every imperfection I squinted, but the car moved too quickly for me to make out what I was seeing. When he hadn’t replied for what seemed like a long time, I turned to watch his profile, his concentration as he leant forward, his body nearly at the steering wheel, eyes peering out wide into the distance. The beat in my chest refused to settle, doubt filling my mind as I looked at his face only just more than a silhouette. Had I left the hornet’s nest only to jump straight into the web of a poisonous spider?

From what I’d already seen, he was young, a similar age. In the darkness he looked like he’d not seen the sun in years, his face white, apart from the stubble of a beard. He was tall, but not lanky, wore a black t-shirt over a dark shirt half tucked into his jeans. If first impressions were anything to go by, he didn’t look like he scared easily.

“Where are we going?” I said again and he replied straight away, his voice deeper than I expected.

“Anywhere,” he said, coughing away the tremble in his voice. “You saw those things? Right?” he said as he gripped his hand back tight to the steering wheel. He turned to catch my reply and I nodded. “What are they?” he added, his eyes wide on me. I shook my head and he turned back to the road. With the moon high in the sky, my night vision had improved, his must have too and he turned back for the first time seeming to take note in the dark, looking at how I sat uncomfortable with my hands at my back.

The car slowed as we took a corner, both of us pulling up in our seats as we couldn’t help but see the floodlights lighting up the road up ahead, the dark trucks parked across its width, dots of figures moving around in the light. A roadblock. His hand jumped at the switch for the lights and he slowed the car, turning back then looked forward to the road, letting the car stop, before twisted around, his brow furrowed in my direction.

“What’s wrong with your hands?” he said. I took a deep breath, my options racing through my head. I could jump from the car and run in to the darkness. The dogs would have lost the scent by now. We’d travelled far enough away to get from what had frightened him, but would he risk following me? It all depended on his intentions. I shouldn’t take a chance. I should run, my gut told me over and again. If only I could get the door open.

I twisted in my seat, showing my cuffed hands, leaving the gun still resting in the small of my back. I waited for his reaction, trying to suppress my urge to scream as I questioned why I was giving myself up to him.

“You weren’t running from those,” he paused with the same hesitation I’d seen before. The same stall in the brain people have as their minds try to come to terms with a new reality. “Those things?” 

I shook my head whilst trying to keep calm, opening my eyes wide and holding my breath.

“What were you running from? Did you escape from the police?”

I gave a shallow shake of my head.

“A man,” I said, letting my voice catch. “He tried to rape me,” I said. “He, he,” I stuttered.

“It’s okay, you don’t need to say,” he said, pushing out his left hand in my direction.

I backed away, pushing myself to the door, conscious of the pistol pinching in my back as he snapped his hand away.

“But, he, he’s a soldier. I can’t,” I said looking up to the roadblock. “I can’t let them find me,” I said, peering straight into his eyes. He stared at my face, then looked down to my hands still twisted down on show at my side. He turned to the lights ahead, twisting back at me with a nod, then grabbed the wheel, pinning me in my seat as he accelerated, swinging the car out to the side as he turned the wheel, bumping us off the road. The car jumped up and down, metal clattered in the footwell, the underside of the car scraping against what sounded like giant boulders. As I peered into the dark night ahead, we both screamed, a dark figure flashing into view, a great cracking sound ran through the windscreen as its head hit square in the centre. In a flash the body had gone, but the scrape if its bulk across the roof was clear to hear. I lost my concentration as my head hit the screen.

Waking from a daze, I realised the car had stopped. Through cotton wool ears, I listened to a door open, cold air rushing in as my eyes flashed wide to the see a blurred crowd of faces in the moon light stumbling towards us across the uneven ground.

Chapter Sixty

“Come back,” I said, the words slurred and without the powerful pitch I’d intended. “Where the hell are you going?” I tried to shout, but the sound came out more feeble than I’d expected. The world span as I twisted either side, nausea rising as my eyes darted, flicking left and right across the darkness. All I could see were tall shadows approaching from all around, their slow, ambling approach getting ever closer.

I reached to touch the pistol, but before my fingers found its reassurance and my vision could catch up, I felt the car moving, the motion doing nothing to stop the sickness forcing my eyes shut. I slid left and right in my seat without the belt to hold me fast and I forced myself hard against the door, bending to get traction. With my head turned away, my eyes closed tight, something hit the car, the sound much as before. This time we didn’t stop, even at the third impact, the crush of something under the wheels, the scratch of metal over the roof. We kept going, kept bouncing along the rocks, the ground undulating beneath us until the impacts stopped and with a great thud against the tyres I felt the smooth road beneath us. Our world calmed.

I turned, daring to open my eyes and almost with surprise I saw the man back in the driver’s seat, his hands on the wheel, fingers blooded.

“Are you okay?” I said, my voice hoarse and unsure.

“It’s not my blood,” he replied, his eyes not leaving the road. I didn’t speak for a long while, remained quiet letting my stomach settle. When it had settled enough, another feeling took over, an overwhelming urge to stop, to get the cuffs from my hands, to find out what this guy’s intensions were.

“Can you let me out?” I said as buildings grew on the side of the road. 

“Where are we?” he said still facing forward.

“I don’t know,” I replied with the truth.

“You plan on just knocking their door? Seeing if they’re kindly strangers who wouldn’t turn you into the police?”

“I think the police have more on their plate than me?” 

He thought for a moment without reply.

“I guess, but do you want to take that chance?” he said after a letting the silence hang. It was my turn to pause, despite not wanting him to think I was. I didn’t want him to change my mind. I didn’t want him to think I was even considering his words. “I should be able to get those off, the locks are straight forward. If not I’ve got a hacksaw,” he said, for the first time making eye contact.

“How far are we from your house?” I replied, keeping the scowl fixed to my face. I didn’t want him to think I took any pleasure from the suggestion, despite my obvious eagerness to rub my wrists free of the ache.

“Five minutes,” he replied, turning the headlights back on at the sight of another pair of lights on the horizon. I flashed a look inside the car as it passed, it was full of teenagers, the back windows steamed, the driver’s face fixed forward, looking half asleep.

“What day is it?” I said. He turned in my direction and looked at me, raising and then lowering his brow.

“New Year’s Eve,” he said. “I assumed you we at a party,” he said looking back down to my wrists hidden behind my back. I shook my head and turned away to look through my window.

We passed a building on my side, but it had gone out of view before I could take a proper look. I turned back though the cracks in the glass. We were lucky, apart from the mess in the centre, the damage limited to long fissures running the width of the screen which didn’t affect the view.

Another building shot by and I realised we must be in a village, but the lights were out here too. Even this late shouldn’t there be someone awake on New Year’s Eve? I caught the guy’s concentration just before he spoke.

“Power’s out here too,” he said and I nodded. “I’m just up here.” 

“Wait,” I said as he slowed the car, pulling right up to a house right on the road. As the car stopped, he turned in my direction, twisting in his seat as I turned my head around the view, slower than I would have liked, but any quicker and I could feel my vision blur. “It looks clear,” I said once I’d satisfied myself. His eyes shot across the view with a look of panic as if I’d reminded him of the nightmare. “It’s clear,” I said in a softer tone. He nodded and pulled from the car still checking the horizon and jogged around the bonnet.

I took a deep breath, but stopped halfway through the pull, my bound hands searching the seat, touching at the small of my back as I wriggled to get to each part. I couldn’t find the gun and his hand was at the door, I snatched a look down the right side between the centre console, peered left between the door and seat and as the door opened, I looked up at his hand reaching out to help me up. I’d expected the light to come on above our heads so I could get a better look, but it stayed dismal and I remembered it hadn’t when he’d opened the door in the field.

Something made me turn away, a noise in the distance perhaps, but I never noticed the source because as I turned my foot touched against one of the hard objects out of place, my eyes following down to the dark pistol on the floor sat next to a long claw hammer, a crowbar, a metal box with coloured wires coming from the rear and the man’s hand reaching toward my feet.

Chapter Sixty One

There was nothing I could do. His body blocked the door. His arm extended, hand reaching deep into the footwell. I paused, thoughts of kicking out flashed through my head, propelling myself forward, smashing my head against his. None of the glimpsed ideas ended well, only in pain with the cuffs still tight around my wrists.

“Mine,” I said as he pulled the pistol up, turning it in his hands as he swapped his view between me and the black handgun. He mouthed a word I didn’t quite catch, his face stretched with surprise, eyebrows high on his face. He stepped back, turned away, but something made him stop and stare along the road. My heart sank as I thought of the creatures coming our way, the thought of having to run again, this time without the gun.

“Help me out,” I said as I struggled in the seat, twisting to get my feet to the road with the memories of my previous plans to escape coming back to ridicule me.

He turned and seemed to remember, came back to a long-forgotten part of the night. He snapped around in a hurry, bounding over in two long steps, pushing the muzzle of the gun into the waistband of his jeans before taking both my shoulders and hoisting me up.

I was out into the night and saw flashing blue lights at the far end of the village and let him hurry me along after slamming the car door shut. Let him escort me, his hand on my wrists as he ushered me to a door, his grip never releasing as he pushed in the key, guiding me over the step, almost not waiting for me to get inside the darkness before he pushed the door up, letting go for the first time to lean against the wood.

We waited, both slowing our breath, watching the floor as the flash of blue grew between the gap under the door. Together we watched it grow so intense I could see my legs in the eerie blue while listening to the growl of the engine before it died back. He turned his back and I listened again as he pushed his key, twisting the lock into place.

“They’ve gone,” he said, his voice still quiet and I felt his hands reach out, but with a firm touch they were at my forearms, guiding me around, urging my back to the wall as he slid past. “Wait here,” he said and I heard his footsteps place with care on the carpet, stopping in a room nearby where I listened to him rifle through the contents of a drawer. I urged my night-vision to improve, but the concentration did nothing for my pounding headache centred on what felt, without being able to touch, was a melon-sized bruise reaching out from my forehead.

A heard friction from a match striking out of sight and watched the doorway off the hall build with an eerie light, growing brighter to the sound of footsteps. He was at the doorway with a burning candle resting in a glass tumbler in one hand, a bunch of unlit candles in the other, the pistol still tucked into his jeans and his mouth in a wide smile looking very pleased for himself.

“Follow me,” he said and he stepped into the hall holding the candle out in front. It felt like I was about to follow a priest to my execution, but what choice did I have? I took one slow step and then another, keeping my eyes forward, not noticing my foot snag until it was too late. I fell forward, stumbling over whatever was in my path, the object skittering across the floor until I stepped on it a second time, taking my feet from the floor.

The fall felt like it took an age. The carpet lit as the guy turned, the flickering light revealing the stacks of metal boxes with multicoloured wires coming out of the back, the home electronics with their black cords wrapped around their middles, the stack I’d knocked still collapsing. As my shoulder hit the carpet, I watched DVD players, Sky boxes, games consoles cascade down around me to thoughts of the hand tools littering the footwell of his car and his fear of the roadblock, of the blue flashing lights and with my wrists scraping hard against the cuffs, I caught his wide-eyed look, his eyes following me down, his features shadowed in the candle light, before I felt his hand push against my arm, turning my view down to the carpet. I’d been right all along. I’d stepped out of the frying pan and jumped, hands bound, into the witch’s oven.

Chapter Sixty Two

“No,” I said with the last of my breath, the muscles in my neck spasming as I fought to keep my face from the carpet. My hands darting left and right from the warmth of his fingers trying to get a grip. “No,” I repeated with little success, my fingers going limp as he took a firm grip, pushing my wrists into the small of my back.

“Hold still,” he said in the struggle, but his words made me wriggle harder against his weight until I felt his pressure release, like I’d won the battle. For a moment it felt like my wrists were coming away from each other. My hand was free, I thought for a second time and I tried pulling my arm up to my side and it came away. I couldn’t believe it, despite the ache in my shoulder as I moved. As the reality settled, I pushed my hand to the floor and rolled, searching in the darkness and there he was looking down with a heavy brow, his face illuminated by the candle flicking on the floor, his hand offered out.

“Ryan,” he said pushing his hand towards me.

I lay on my back swapping my view between my wrists, the cuffs still hanging on the right. I didn’t know what to say, didn’t know what to do. I’d been so wrong about this guy, about Ryan. My right hand touched his and he gripped as I pulled, taking my other hand with his left until I was on my feet, but he kept hold of my right before pushing a small key into the cuff’s lock.

“You have a handcuff key?” I said, rubbing each wrist as the metal released, working my shoulders around in circles, the relief flowing over my head like cooling water after being in the sun for too long.

“Five pound ninety nine on eBay,” he said pocketing the key. 

“Why would you need that?” I said and paused, my head too busy to think about his words for long. “Jess,” I said when he replied with a flash of his eyebrows and pushed my right hand out again and we shook, his grip more gentle, more considered than I’d expected.

“Sorry about the,” he said nodding to the littered floor. “Are you okay?” 

I thought for a moment. I felt fine, my head ached a little, the fall not helping, but I was overwhelmed enough with surprise to keep other thoughts I didn’t want to dwell on pushed to the corners of my mind. I raised my hand to my forehead and touched as the tender bulge, relieved it wouldn’t stop me fitting through doorways.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said as he bent down, piling the household electronics back it to neat stacks against the walls.

“Shall we?” he said as he finished, offering a hand towards the end of the corridor and picking up the lit candle, before lighting another and handing it over.

I took the candle and followed him in to a living room dominated by a wide TV hanging on the wall. Even in the low candlelight I saw there were no decorations of the season, just a single Christmas card on the mantlepiece reminded me we were supposed to be jolly. Apart from the TV, a man of Ryan’s age didn’t look like he’d belonged to the decor, to the chintzy decoration.

“Take a seat, please,” Ryan said as he took my candle, fixing it with dripping wax into a mug resting on the nest of tables at the side. I did, choosing a single overstuffed armchair in the corner where I could watch the door. He went to sit on the three seater couch, but first had to pull the pistol from his trousers before resting on the edge, laying the pistol to the side.

“My gun,” I said, tipping my head beside him. He looked down at the pistol as if he’d already forgotten and nodded back.

“You’re not going to shoot me are you?”

I paused for longer than I should, but instead of speaking I let a smile bloom on my lips as I ran my hands over my hot wrists, head shaking. He watched my reply before picking up the gun by the barrel and leaning over. The warm grip felt solid and reliable in my hands, its power buoying inside me. I had been wrong about this guy and looked up to see him watching my every move, his expression intense and unsure. I lay the pistol on my lap, smoothing down the wrinkles in the skirt either side and smiled back. Noticing my feet, I tied the trainer’s laces. Being prepare for whatever could come next was a habit I knew I should get into.

“So you’re a burglar?” I said, in such a matter-of-fact fashion it took him by surprise and he stuttered the first word so much, he gave up and instead nodded, his eyes falling back to the gun on my lap. I stared, he had a face my parents would like to see me bring home. Less lipstick. Shorter hair. I pushed the thoughts away, now wasn’t the time to open the box of demons I knew would take years to sort out, if I ever could. Right now I had more immediate concerns. “Are you any good?” I said. My second question came as an equal surprise to the first, but after a moment he let his open hand to point to the hallway and his hoard of bounty. “Good,” I replied, nodding. “I need your services,” I said standing. “And bring the handcuffs. You might need them.”

Chapter Sixty Three

“Wait, what?” Ryan said standing, his hand reaching out. I stood, backing away from his reach, my eyes fixed on his scarred knuckles, looking up only as he withdrew and saw his intent on the gun limp in my right hand. “You,” he said, but stopped as the churn of my stomach radiated across the room. Raising his eyebrows, a smile widened across his mouth. “Do you want something to eat?” he said, his perfect white teeth gleaming in the candlelight.

My defences fell, leaving my insides knotted with pain. The feeling wasn’t new, but the cramps hadn’t been my key concern. Until now my concentration had focused on impending death or incarceration. A compliment to Ryan, I guessed. Mind and body relaxing. I drew in a deep breath, a few minutes of delay wouldn’t hurt, a few hours perhaps. Daylight would be our friend and we could use the time for the area around the van to clear.

I nodded and his smile grew wider. 

“Sit down. I’ll go see what I can rustle up.”

I didn’t like being in the room on my own. Hated the flicker of the candle and the shadows it cast, the hypnotic movement sending me within myself, the chaotic dance resembling the flashes of light I kept seeing in my head. In the strobe I saw Toni, her wide-eyed expression, a bloodied wound growing before my eyes, despite knowing my head filled in the blanks. I didn’t want to think about this right now. I never wanted to think about it again. Standing, I lifted the candle before the anger, the sorrow grew too loud and watching my feet, I headed towards the kitchen.

“Gas still works?” I said as I found Ryan stirring a pan in the glow of the blue flame with the grill bright below.

“It’s pressurised,” he said turning his smile widening with my frown. “Doesn’t need electricity,” he added returning to the pan. “You don’t have to carry that around you know,” he said. I looked down at the gun. He was right, at least I hoped. “I took the cuffs off,” he said still looking at the stove. You had your chance and didn’t take it. I heard the words only in my head.

“I know, and I’m sorry I didn’t say thank you,” I said and turned away. “Thank you.” I wasn’t ready to give up the gun just yet.

“It’s okay. Take a seat,” he said turning, nodding towards a small table on the opposite wall of the small kitchen where he’d laid out a single place with a lit candle in the centre. Behind the table were stacks of pizza boxes piled high like a memorial to a single man’s life.

I pulled out the wooden chair and sat, resting the gun on the top to my left with care and he placed a steaming plate of beans piled high on two slices of toast.

“You not eating?” I said, grabbing the knife and fork, not waiting for his answer before I dove in. He sat opposite and watched as I ate, but I enjoyed the food too much to hear his reply. Looking up after my mouth was too full to add any more, I saw him looking on with a question still hanging on his lips.

“I said when did you last eat?”

I thought back to the tastes of food I could remember, the fresh, gamey meats I could smell in my head. The char-grilled BBQ overpowering the tomato sauce and I nearly choked as I forced myself to stop those thoughts, remembering the last meal of a cheese sandwich, Toni’s smile as she offered out the plate.

“Yesterday morning,” I said holding back the cough and I ate the rest of the meal in silence, too distracted to care about my audience, then gulping down the water Ryan offered.

“So are you going to tell me what’s going on?” Ryan said as the last of the water disappeared. I sat back in the chair basking in my full belly, enjoying the stretch of my stomach, trying to ignore the lack of satisfaction, trying to forget I may never feel it again.

“People have different names for it,” I said and watched him stare as if hanging on each word. “Are you a religious man Ryan?” 

He smiled and shook his head with a look of confusion on his brow.

“Good, nor me, but don’t tell my parents.”

His smile grew and I enjoyed his white teeth again.

“It’ll make this easy.” His brow grew heavier. “They are what they seem,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “A virus, a plague has taken over the land,” I said as I tried to think of how I would say this on camera. “Reports of a deadly virus are coming out of a secret government research facility in Devon.”

His brow furrowed even further.

“Sources say the plague has infected hundreds of people, if not more,” I said, the words slow as I carefully chose. “Causing symptoms including reanimation from death.” I watched as his mouth dropped wide and he stood, scraping back his chair.

“Oh my god,” he said, pushing his hand to his mouth and I could almost see the colour draining from his face and I made a mental note to tone down the words. “Oh my god,” he said and peered closer. “Oh my god,” he repeated, his eyes getting wider, not able to turn away from me.

I stood, scraping back the chair as he drew in close, my right hand moving to my face afraid I was changing, hairs sprouting out of my chin, teeth ripping through my lips, my left heading to the gun.

Chapter Sixty Four

“You’re from the TV. You’re Jessica Carmichael,” he said, lifting the candle from the table and holding it towards my face. “Off the news, right?” he said, his voice eager, face contorting as he leant further and further over the table to get a better look.

Sinking back into the chair I let my hands fall as the air sighed from my chest.

“Oh my god. I’ve never met anyone famous before and you’re in my house.”

I shook my head. 

“You are, you are. I watch the news every day. I see you there in London interviewing all those important people.”

Another sigh escaped from my chest.

“Yes, I’m Jess Carmichael,” I said not hiding the resignation from my voice as I shook my head.

Blind to my response, he let the candle back to the table and pushed his hand back out with a great smile on the right side of his face as he waited with his hand offered mid air. When it seemed he would stand there forever if I didn’t respond, I shook his hand with a weak grip.

“We’ve done this already, you’re Ryan, I’m Jess.” 

“Jessica Carmichael, yes,” he said, gripping my hand with a great enthusiasm. “I can so see it now.” He sat back in the seat, hovering on the edge, leaning forward, edging his arm further across the table. “So all this,” he said his eyebrows raising and lowering. “It’s a TV show, right?” He looked around the room as if searching for hidden cameras or waiting for a TV crew to burst through the doorway. “No wonder you look so glamorous for this time of night.”

I peered down to the dirt, the creases covering my jacket and looked back up with a raised eyebrow. Maybe this guy wasn’t the full biscuit.

“Those things,” he continued. “I should have known. How did you do it?” he said standing, not waiting for a reply, walking past me and reaching up to a cupboard just at my back. “You like whiskey?” he said, but before I could reply. “Oh shit, can you drink on the job?” he said, his face widening as if I’d taken offence.

“I’m not on the job,” I replied and must have seen the curl of my lip as he reached for another bottle.

“Of course you can, you’re not a copper. Vodka?” he nodded, his smile wide again as I replied with a reluctant nod.

“If only,” I said, but he ignored my words, pouring a slug of the clear spirit into my empty glass.

“I mean,” he said before having to catch his breath while he poured a good few fingers into another glass grabbed from the drainer. “The make up is amazing and the smell, oh my god, how did they get it so realistic? Made my stomach turn.”

“It’s real,” I said letting the glass down, but he carried on talking like I hadn’t spoken.

“And you picked me,” he said, his smile beaming wider than ever. I sighed again turning down to the table as I slowly shook my head.

“It’s real,” I said, letting the words build in volume. I looked up to see he’d stopped talking, his eyes watching as my head rose, but he burst into laughter as our eyes met.

“You’re good. You’re so good,” he said, taking another look around the room. “So when do they burst in to spring the surprise? Are there camera’s hidden all around this place? I hope I haven’t ruined this for anything?”

“Listen,” I said and he was about to speak again, but I stood up from my seat and slapped my hand down on the table sending the glasses jumping into the air. As the glasses landed without spilling, he paused, the colour draining from his face as the candles flickered. “It’s real. It’s fucking real,” I shouted watching his smile fall.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his smile creeping back, but not quite building to its full strength. Anger boiled in my chest. I grabbed the glass and downed the liquid, revelling in the sting as I wiped the back of my hand, letting out a great relief of air. He looked on, his uncertainty growing as the smile sunk. He looked around the room, searching again. I’d had all I could take and slapped the table, sending both glasses toppling as they landed.

“On Christmas Day I had a call,” I said, my voice quiet, but forceful. “My ex called me. She was in trouble.” I did my best to ignore the twitch of his eyebrows. “I raced here to find she’d been imprisoned in the middle of a quarantine zone. They held me too, the government. They conducted tests on me and on my camera team. They’re both dead and I barely survived to escape with Toni. There were so many people infected, dying and coming back to life. We were attacked from all sides. We nearly died. This thing is real and if you still don’t get, step outside and it won’t be long before you’re surrounded. Let one of them, let all of them bite into your flesh, then you’ll know how fucking real this is.” I drew a deep breath and held my lungs full, silently congratulating myself on holding it together.

He didn’t speak, stared on and I let him. I gave his mind time to get to grips with what I’d just said, with my story. The first time I’d told anyone. The first time I’d opened up. The first time I’d told anyone anything about me.

I watched the excitement slowly grow on his lips, my chest rising into my mouth, breath constricting with each moment.

“You deserve a fucking Oscar. Where’s Toni now?” he said. I hated the way he exaggerated her name like she wasn’t real, like she was part of a lie. I moved around the table, careful to place my feet where I could see. I leant toward him.

“I shot her,” I said, letting the alcohol breath pour out before I stepped back.

His smile fell, but not completely, his eyebrows twitching.

“We had to run. We had to run for our lives, but still those things found us. They’re everywhere. We got split up and some fat fuck tied me to a bed and almost raped me.” I could no longer see the detail in his face, the rage pumping blood so fast in my head. I took another step back. “Toni rescued me, but then turned me over. I killed her trying to escape. It was an accident, but it was my finger pulling the trigger,” I said, raising my palms out towards him. “Does that deserve a fucking Oscar?” I said.

Part of me wanted him to smile. Part of me wanted him to give me a way out, to give a release to my rage.

His smile came and he shook his head as he saw the gun in my hand as it raised. He saw it as I did, just as I realised I’d picked its weight from the table as I’d passed. The smile fell with each angle of the gun rising in his direction.

“If this is a performance, if this is a show, if this is entertainment, this bullet won’t kill you.”

I raised my eyebrows, his smile no longer there, but still he couldn’t help but flinch a look around the room.

I pulled the trigger.

Chapter Sixty Five

The candles stopped flickering. The room fell silent. Dust and smoke rained down between us.

Past the barrel I watched Ryan stood straight like a statue, his face fixed, eyes staring, open-mouthed.

Letting the gun drop, he bent his neck towards his chest; the light dancing once again across his shirt, his hand shadowing the light as he scoured for a disturbance. He looked up, watching as I flicked my eyes over his shoulder. He followed, twisting to the wall behind. Air pulled deep in a gasp and he stared into the cracked plaster at head height, his eyes disappearing down the round hole in the centre.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d fallen to his knees, was ready to catch his head as he turned, but he returned, fixing in place, his mouth held open, catatonic.

“Still think it’s a fucking joke?” I said, my eyebrows raised as I fidgeted the gun in my grip.

He shook his head, eyes flicking to my hand.

“You almost killed me,” he said, all the colour gone from his voice as he raised his head.

“I never almost do anything,” I replied, making a show of placing the gun on the tabletop. I let the air hang with silence, watching the sharp contours of his face in the flicking orange light.

He took at least a minute to move, any longer and I was ready to walk out of the door. If he came with me he’d see so much worse by the time the day was over. Moving to the sink, he leant against the metal basin, letting water dribble into the bowl before pushing another glass from the draining board and holding it until it overflowed with water. Leaving him in peace I waited for the glass to finish, waited for his turn before I spoke.

“This is real. The dead walk the streets infecting more each minute. Tomorrow it will be so much worse, people will wake to the horror and it will overcome them,” I said nodding to the window. He turned back, following my gaze. He’d seen something out there, I’d seen it too. Fear forced him back from the window. “There are people out there trying to help, the military, the police, but others will use this as an excuse.” He was white as a sheet as he turned back towards me, but flinched back to the window at the sound of a glass bottle rolling along the road. “And that’s not the worst,” I said raising my eyebrows. I didn’t finish my words and he didn’t ask.

Taking a deep breath, swallowing hard, he was about to speak, but stopped himself, turning, pushing the glass under the tap till water rolled over his fingers.

“What are you trying to do?” he said once he’d gulped the glass down.

I let a smile rise in the corner of my mouth.

“I’m trying to let everyone know. It’s the biggest story in history, but unless you see it coming down the road, you’ll have no idea. You won’t be prepared.”

He stared on, head turning down to the gun.

“So why do you need that?” he said, his voice slow.

“I need to survive,” I replied my eyes following back up from the gun. “I won’t give a shit when I’m dead and not in control.”

“And why do you need me?”

“I need someone to help me get my camera’s back.” He raised his eyebrows before letting them fall. “I had to leave them behind, next village North.”

“Why me?”

“I thought you had big balls. I thought you wouldn’t be afraid. You have skills,” I said shrugging my shoulders. “And I can help you.”

He looked down to the gun again before meeting my eyes.

“I’m surviving. I know how to survive. I can help you stay alive.”

His brow furrowed, a question forming on his lips, but he didn’t ask, turning instead to the blue lights building in the darkness outside, staying quiet as a strobe of light raced past the window. I knew he would turn as the lights faded, but they didn’t disappear, instead a great screech of tyres came from outside, beyond the angle of window no matter how far he craned around. He twisted back, looked at me as if he wanted to know what we should do, but turned back to the window when I gave no response. I stood there, eyebrows raised. An orange glow mixed with the flash of blue, searing through our night vision with every pulse.

I shook my head.

“I might have been wrong about you,” I said shaking my head. He twisted back and forth to the window, each time looking back at me, his brows low. “We can’t help them,” I said, but before the words settled in the air, a shock wave shattered the glass pushing Ryan toward me, the pressure hitting before I could move, before I could steady myself, sending a bright light through the room.

A moment later my senses were recovering, it was dark, my body covered with a great weight. My hands hit out at what lay over me, but it wouldn’t move, lay lifeless across as my ears rang, the room getting brighter with dust and smoke catching in my throat.

Chapter Sixty Six

“Fire,” the word came slow and dry. “Fire,” I repeated, heaving against the force on my chest. Alarms rose and fell in the street. Car horns bellowed for attention. Bright lights flashed in and out like a white disco singing to the music of embers crackling and the burn of plastic, all while smoke thickened, collecting in my lungs. With a great heave I rolled the weight to the floor, glass scratching under my trainers as I pulled myself up against the table, snatching the gun as I leant heaving for breath while squinting around the room. The pizza boxes were just embers glowing orange, flames licking along the adjacent unit, the microwave melting, dripping down the counter, leading flame to catch on the floor.

I turned to the doorway. It was clear, the floor strewn with glass, but checking my feet I found the oversized shoes still there. My eyes fell on Ryan still quiet and pushing my hand into the crook of my elbow, I nudged him hard with my foot. When he didn’t respond I admonished myself for a thought even though it barely had time to form. Turning to the doorway, I pushed the Glock into the band of my skirt and gripped him under shoulders, nails pulling hard with each tug. His body moved with each pulled, glass sweeping along the floor, soot smudging in his path, but we were soon through the doorway with only a short distance left to escape.

The key sat in the lock and I praised my fortune when it turned, sucking out smoke billowing from behind me as the first chill of fresh night air sucked deep into my lungs. We were over the step before his body complained, lungs heaving, coughing as the icy air hit his face and the cold tarmac pulled from beneath him, a cacophony assaulting our ears. With heat pouring from the house at my back, I stared at the scene of destruction while I dragged Ryan a few more metres away from the house and towards the left. I pulled him backward into the road, the pathway blocked by parked cars pushed over, including his, found resting on its door, the tang of petrol in the air.

What I could only guess was once the police car, sat in the road just a short step away, black smoke pouring from the multicoloured flames dancing inside its glowing red cage, with no sign of what had caused the crash. Along the street half the houses, ten or more, whose owners were yet to update to double glazing, had no glass remaining, except for the odd finger dangling down ready to fall at an inopportune moment. We were the first out, but not the only house on fire. Two others, both opposite the centre of the blast, were alight and only now people burst into the street followed by smoke, trailing tears and pained, longing looks for their worldly possessions. Fingers jabbed at the keys of mobile phones, but I could see even from the other side of the street they weren’t able to make the call. Maybe no one would come, no one could come, even if they could get through.

Alarms continued to ring, boxes on the side of houses strobed, car headlight’s flashed, heat cracked wood splitting the air. As I looked down, I watched Ryan sit up and as he coughed, I let my lungs clear with each cold breath, ignoring with each intake of air, the sting of petrol vapour. Petrol, I thought, the word hanging in my mouth and I grabbed at Ryan’s shirt. He looked up as I shouted and tried scrabbling to his feet, eventually able to get up with my hand as a guide.

“Petrol,” I said out into the street, pointing back as I squinted to the orange light, but no one took note, my cotton wool filled head shook as we got to what I thought would be a safe distance. “Petrol, get back,” I shouted this time, my voice hoarse and with little power. Ryan joined me to make a chorus, but his voice gave little help against the chiming of the bells and the two tone alarms. I looked around, the street was filling, everyone must have been at home. There were people stood in their pyjamas, some covered with dressing gowns. Women cried, children screamed, people held torches, people held candles to stave off the darkness. Up the road the crowd was building, people walking, ambling along, the noise would have woken everyone up, would have woken up the village, or the army base by the look of those coming down the road. I pushed my fingers in my ears, the chaos enough to wake the dead.

I tried to concentrate, to fix on the crowd, watching their movements with intrigue. My eyes went wide as the realisation came, my hands raising up as the first of the crowd passed into the group of houses, as the crowd spread, turning this way and that, moving to those standing by the side of the road. Those watching on weren’t scared, weren’t worried until it was too late, their screams adding to background. Only I saw those weren’t people. Only I saw those weren’t rescuers. Only I saw those were the infected.

I grabbed for the Glock, but it wasn’t at my waistband. I scoured the floor, frantically turning to stare across my path, running back towards the house knowing I must have dropped it inside. I jogged, but fell to my knees, my arms covering my face as the cars on the side of the road exploded one after the other.

Chapter Sixty Seven

The heat beat me back once I’d stood, unsure on my feet, but the screams, the pain resounded between the houses. The realisation came from the crowd, echoing out, panic sparking to life. People ran into the dead, confronted with jaws locking to their fleshy parts. Some ran to the fires, adding to the orchestra of screams, while others ran to their houses shutting out those who tried to follow even though hearts still beat in their chests. Some jumped over fences and out of sight, some stayed put, fixed to the ground in disbelief.

I couldn’t watch, had to turn away, took a step forward, but the fire beat me back. My thoughts flashed to Ryan. He’d gone. I tried again to get through the heat but still the heat forced me away and I bounded back a few steps until I could just bear the energy pouring out. With a call, a familiar tone, an angry shout, I turned overlooking a pair in a tussle, until with a flash of light from a nearby fire, I saw his checked shirt, saw the long fencepost wielded in his hands, the club swinging left and right, figure after figure knocked to the ground. With pride rising in my chest I saw it was Ryan beating back the onslaught of the dead.

I turned as many hands gripped at the post, the fire at my back dying down and I ran past the flames, scooping up the gun and turned back racing towards the battle, but he’d disappeared again, leaving just a crowd surging forward where he’d been, hands grabbing at those whose brains were miss-wired, gripped to the spot with fear. I ran, a gust of wind almost pushing me over with the stench of the sewers and I looked beyond the front line of the group, high on my toes, but he was no where to be seen. They’d overcome him.

“Jess,” a call came to my left. “Jess,” it came again as I searched, but only on the second call did I see Ryan beckoning me between two houses as he stood beside the stream of people waving them through, circling his hand. I took one quick glance toward the crowd, watched wide-eyed as a middle aged man, his face grey, hand clutching his chest, disappeared, overcome by the crowd of faces bearing down as he collapsed to the ground. I ran.

Ryan followed behind me, the last of those who could still walk. The screams had died, the lights had gone dim, beams flicking around the night as those running dispersed. The sirens and car horns still blared away, calling more of the dead ever closer. We had to get away. Everyone should get out, everyone had to go. The right choice to run, the wrong choice to lock yourself away hoping the cavalry would come around the corner and save the day. It was my job to tell them, my job to let people know. It was my job to tell those people who could still hear me they had to prepare for the worst or die. It was my job to break the news and save as many lives as I could.

Once between the alley we filtered through the garden of the house on the right and followed the thin crowd down along the grass and over the tall wooden fence lain on the floor, out onto the fields and back where we’d started. Stumbling in the dark, Ryan gripped my hand, catching my fall as I listened to the sounds diminish and the smoke thin in the air but cling heavy to everything else.

Moonlit figures dotted around the field, most had stopped and turned back to their village, shining torches across the horizon with sharp pulls of breath following each moment someone caught a fright, saw movement from some unseen part of the field. Ryan stayed at my side, his eyes scouring like the others as we slowed. Words in the scattered group built to a hurried conversation and people drew together. Tears fell and rose and fell again as they sought and received comfort, their mouths full of questions.

“What now?” a deep voice said, the loudest of many voices. A reply came from one of the many.

“Wait for the police,” a woman said, her voice on the edge of tears. I looked to Ryan and could just make out his face in the dull glow until a torch shined right on him and he pushed his hand out to block the beam as he turned away shaking his head. The beam swapped to another face.

“We get away,” I said and the beam was on me, but I was used to the brightness and didn’t shy away. “We walk, find somewhere safe, stay in the fields until it gets light, till we can see where we’re going.”

A murmur ran around the thin crowd, tears dried and breath slowed.

“We should get back to our houses,” a man’s voice shouted towards the back of the group.

“You need to be quiet,” I said, hushing my voice and crowd murmured in agreement as they stepped closer.

“What are they?” a woman’s voice said close by, the clearest of the many questions pouring in my direction. I paused, not wanting my words to raise their blood.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I know what they look like.” Noises of agreement ran around us. “All I know is you need to stay away, you need to keep quiet, you need to find somewhere safe, somewhere with food until you’re rescued.” Voices of encouragement greeted my sentiment and people shouted names of places, loud at first, then repeated quieter, the crowd broadly agreeing on a supermarket a few kilometres away.

“Great,” I said and stopped. “Which way is that?” I said and watched in the moonlight as many hands pointed to our right. “Okay,” I replied, watching as the crowd moved, following the outstretched hands. Ryan walked away until I put my hand on his forearm and held him back, my finger to my lips as he turned in my direction.

Chapter Sixty Eight

In silence he walked in my wake with my hand around his wrist. I felt his tension, the questions on the tip of his tongue as we headed parallel to the growing amber glow, the cacophony still roaring at our side. With the fade of each short-lived scream, I imagined increasingly more people forced out into the open as the fires caught neighbour after neighbour. With nothing I could do to help, under my breath I thanked them for their help even though they didn’t know what they were doing, drawing away the infected, keeping us safe.

With the amber glow at our backs, Ryan twisted from my loosening grip and grabbed my wrist. I pulled away, rubbing the tender skin, turning to see the shadow of his apology, hands raised, palms out in the air. Before he spoke my eyes lingered on the halo above the village, the growing plume of dark smoke rising to blot out the stars. To the side I saw distant torchlight flashing, scanning the horizon, circling in search for someone. Searching for us.

“Why didn’t we go with them?” Ryan said, his voice quiet. I turned, walking slowly away while my eyes adjusted from the light.

“I told you, I have something to do. I have to get my cameras, I have to tell the world what’s happening here.”

“Shouldn’t we have brought them with us?”

“It’s too dangerous. They’re better off doing what I said.”

“Isn’t it too dangerous for us too?”

“I don’t have a choice,” I replied letting my pace quicken.

“And I don’t?” he said, his mouth sounding contorted.

“Of course,” I said. “You can catch up with them if that’s your choice.”

He didn’t reply for a while, his voice was quieter when he spoke.

“You need my help?” 

“It’s your choice?” I said, letting go of a bubble of laughter.

“You want me along though?”

I paused, a smirk rising on my lips.

“I doubted myself back there, it’s a lot to come to terms with, but when I saw you with the fence post I knew.”

“Knew what?” he said his pace quickening to catch up.

“I knew you’d be okay, knew you’ve got what it takes.”

“Takes for what?”

“To stay alive. To survive.”

He didn’t reply.

We walked in silence for what must have been ten minutes, with still no sign of light on the horizon.

“What’s the plan?” he finally said, catching up after falling behind. I paused and thought about the question.

“Get the camera van,” I said. “Do you think you can operate a camera?”

“I guess,” he said. “How hard can it be? What are we going to film?”

I paused again and thought all of what had happened so far, thought of all the missed opportunities, each time I should have captured the images, sent them back to London and rest of the world would have known, would have come to the rescue. I thought of all the lives I’d seen lost, thought of all the needless death and tried not to imagine the scale, knowing I’d only seen a fraction of what was going on.

“We film what we see. We won’t need to be picky.”

He paused again.

“Where’s the van?” he said. I stopped and looked around the horizon trying to get my bearings.

“The next village over?” I said, the words uncommitted. He stepped ahead, repeating my turn around the view and pointed to our left, almost in a right angle direction and starting walked. He spoke as I caught up.

“Why’s this down to you?”

“It’s what I do,” I replied, the words a reflex.

“What I mean is if this is so bad, and it’s easy to believe if what I’ve seen is just a fraction, why is the world and his wife not down here kicking their asses?”

I thought for a moment and looked up to the sky. Looked at the pinprick stars I often stared at to make sure I remembered how minuscule my part in the universe is.

“My thoughts exactly,” I said. “And that’s what else were going to do.”

“Huh,” he replied.

“We’re going to find out why the rest of the country is letting this happen.”

“How?” he said.

“I’m not sure yet,” I replied, my words slow. “But I’ve got a feeling if I stick a gun in my mother-in-law’s face we’ll know a lot more.”

Chapter Sixty Nine

“Mother-in-law?” he said, the words tailing off.

“I don’t know why I said that. I didn’t mean Mother-in-law, I meant something else. She’s the mother of my,” I stopped, the words confused in my head. Toni hadn’t been my girlfriend for longer than two weeks and only way back when we didn’t know what happened when we spent long periods together. Yes, we’d seen each other plenty of times since, snatched time together as our memories lapsed. We’d laid in each other’s arms, but only for the briefest of moments had I considered calling her anything but a friend. I paused on the word. It didn’t sit right either, even more so now she’d handed me over to the woman who’d plunged an infected needle in me, who’d locked me in a cage to see what happened. Breath caught in my mouth as I rambled inside my head, the images of Toni’s body stumbling back, her hand to her stomach so clear in my head.

“Are you okay?” Ryan said, one hand reaching for my arm, the other in the small of my back as I bent. With his touch I pulled upright, shaking off his grip.

“I tripped, calm down,” I shouted and he pulled away. He didn’t speak and I was glad for the quiet. I needed space to concentrate on pushing away the thoughts as we walked. As time went on my mind went over old ground and I needed him to talk, to fill the void left by my feelings pushed down inside, needed his words as a weight to keep them from rising.

“It’s getting light,” I said my voice low, not turning to see if he’d been watching the first glow of orange on the horizon.

“Yes,” he replied and let the silence cover us again.

“Sorry I snapped,” I said. “I’ve got a lot to deal with, you know. It’s no excuse, but,” I added and he quickened his pace to catch up.

“It’s fine,” he said and I could hear the smile in his voice, seeing the curl of his lips as I turned. It was still too dark to make out the detail, but he seemed to have a smile not compatible with his anti-social line of work. I looked ahead, could see nothing on the horizon as we climbed, the rising light highlighting the clean line of the hilltop. There was still a long way to go.

“So you want to talk now?” he said, his words seemed genuine enough, not an accusation. I nodded. “So what’s all this about? What do you know?”

I should have realised he’d want to talk about the one thing I’d had enough of.

“What do you mean?”

“You said something about what’s going on, the dead reanimating. I’ve seen for myself, but I need to know more,” he said. “From the beginning.”

I got it. I would be the same. I am the same. I’d have to know everything I could in his position.

“It’s patchy, but I’ll do my best,” I said and turned to see him nodding out of the corner of my eye. “From what I can gather it started in a laboratory near to the village. The scientists were doing work on the disease, trying to find a cure, an antidote.” He nodded, only moving his eyes from me to check his footfalls as the ground undulated. “It got out of control. There was infighting about how to deal with it, scientists squabbling about the best approach. I got a call, my girl,” I paused on the word. “Toni, was in trouble and I rushed here to see if I could help.”

“Your girlfriend right?” he said and I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath.

“It’s complicated, but yes,” I said, opening my eyes as the sole of my trainer kicked against a stone. “Anyway, fast forward and it turns out through some questionable ethics, to say they least, the virus or disease, call it want you want, hasn’t only mutated, but the creatures, I want to call them the dead, but that’s not right, they overran the place. Not even the army could deal with it.”

“And that’s when you escaped?” 

I nodded.

“Why you?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Wrong place, wrong time,” I said.

“Where did it come from? The disease?” he said. I paused. It was a good question, one of many I would ask when the gun was in the Doctor’s face. I shook my head.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “All I know is you have to damage the brain to kill them.”

“Like in the movies?” 

“Like in the movies, yes.”

“So,” he said, stopping before he continued. “They’re zombies, right?”

I didn’t reply, but my shoulders gave an involuntary shrug. The name had been on the tip of my tongue since I’d first seen them, but to use the word to describe the creatures seemed both perfect, but too cartoonish, too trivial at the same time.

“They’re the dead come back to life?” he said. I nodded. “They’ve got an insatiable thirst for flesh?” he said. I chewed my bottom lip and gave the slightest tip of my head. “What happens if you get bitten?”

“Okay,” I said. “I get it.” The world obsessed with zombie culture on the TV, in books and in film. Now they’d need to obsess in real life too. “Call them Zombies if it makes you happy,” I replied. The silence hung for a few hundred metres.

“Is this legit?” he said.

“In what way? Do you mean am I telling the truth? Let’s not start that again.”

“No, no, no. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve smelt it, felt their cold skin. I get it,” he said holding up his palms. “I mean the work they were doing, was it legit? Is it the government doing this to us, or is it some rogue outfit?”

I thought about his words. Another sensible question. If he hadn’t chosen the path to his scum of the earth profession, then maybe he would have made a good reporter.

“Like a super villain?” I said.

He laughed. I wasn’t smiling.

“I guess, but less like a comic. If this was sanctioned government work, then surely they would be better prepared. They’d have protocols for protecting against a release, back up, enough protection, enough troops to contain any situation.”

“You could be right,” I said. 

I looked up realising the light was growing fast and we were heading downhill, the sun blueing the sky enough for us to see the buildings looming larger than I would have thought. My eyes drew to the dark smoke stacks rising on the horizon. With each step I could make out more detail, houses, the olive drab trucks parked along the road leading into the village, the road blocked with a tall metal fence gripping tight to the buildings either side, the wooden fence over which I’d jumped, where I’d run, the house I’d run from, its sight sending a shiver down my spine. I slowed, gripping the gun tight and Ryan kept at my side as we stared on trying to make out if the wriggle, the maggot like movement in the streets, could be anything other than a sea of zombies, looking nothing like they did in the cartoons.

Chapter Seventy

“What next?” Ryan said, but I barely heard the words, my concentration fixed on scouring everywhere but the house where I’d been held, the house where I’d shot the gun, the house where I’d done the deed I couldn’t bring myself to think on. I was glad of his interruption when he spoke again. “I have a cousin in the next village over. We could hold out with him?” he said. I sped my pace, twisting back to see his face in the burgeoning light, his weathered complexion for the first time without the shadows. It wasn’t an unpleasant sight. The thought reminded me of Toni, reminded me of the look she would shoot, the accusation she’d give just with her narrowed eyes.

“Nothing’s changed,” I said turning back as he jogged to catch up.

“You’re looking at the same place right?”

I nodded and he stared on before speaking again.

“They’re hemmed in, packed in like kippers,” he said. 

“Sardines,” I said.

“Yeah, whatever. Fish in a tin. They’ve shut them in there for a reason,” he said looking to the sky, which was now mostly blue.

“I get it,” I said and speeded my descent.

“And you’re still going in?” he said hurrying at my side.

“I have no choice.”

“We can get another camera,” he said, but by now I was jogging, the distance between us growing as we closed in on the village. By now with each breath of wind I caught the concentrated odour, could hear the low grumbling moan, the ground itself seemed to rumble as it to complain at the weight of the creatures. The metal fence panels swayed in and out, the creak of the metal clamps scratching to keep hold. Through the gaps between the metal sheets clamped together to the vertical poles, constant movement passed back and forth. Somehow I knew Ryan was about to talk and I turned, light full on his face, his mouth open, words primed to spring out. He paid attention to my request, my index finger to my lips, then pointing to the slow sway of the fence, he changed course with me, heading to the right and the wooden fence panels marking the start of the village’s gardens.

Not slowing from the jog I followed the path of the fence, not able to see over, but I could feel the house, cold sweat ran down my spine and I picked up the pace, slowing only when we came to a corner. Around the turn the fences were lower and made from chain-link, the deserted gardens easy to see. I kept my eyes flitting to the windows, looking for movement, for signs of life. There’d been many people, tens of villagers caught up in the fright the last time I’d been here. Was it last night? I said to myself, trying to remember the details. I wanted to see movement at the windows, hands waving, anything but open-mouthed stares. I needed to see reason still for the Army not to forsake this place, to lock it up, light the blue touch paper and stand well away. They’d evacuate first, right? Then again if that woman was in charge, maybe my hopes would be unfounded.

We ran on, neither speaking, not even when I saw the familiar row of houses, the row we’d first come across, where we’d stood and seen the two runners chased, dropped to the floor, at least one of their lives ended, leaving just hope for the remainder. I saw the back of the house where we’d escaped over the roof. Saw movement, but those memories were clear. The house was a bust. We’d run because I’d let them in to save the boy. For a moment I wandered if he was safe, if the woman, already forgetting her name, was looking after him, or was alive at all. I let the thoughts drop, I only had enough emotional energy to keep it together.

“Jess,” Ryan’s sharp but quiet call pulled me back from my memories and about to admonish him for breaking the silence, I saw the reason for the word, his outstretched arm, finger pointed to the movement which had caught his eye. A woman with her back to us, her spine pronounced through the thin bright running top I’d seen before, the two great rends of flesh where the material broke in ragged tears. She was the second jogger, the one I’d hoped had survived. I let my eyes close, but just for a second, I told myself, just enough to take a deep breath. I had time, she hadn’t seen us yet and I imagined her drawn features, drawing on what I’d seen at a distance. Her mouth hanging slack as her attention focused on the metal fence which hadn’t been there last night, but she wasn’t trying to escape, she was trying to get in, she was on our side.

I stopped, Ryan halting, and watching his wide eyes snapping around, but I could see nothing in the overgrown grass he’d could use to improvise as a weapon. I pulled the gun up, but I wouldn’t fire, it would be a last resort, knowing we had to get inside quietly, the shot would call the dead over and our easy hop over the fence into their enclosed territory would turn to a death sentence.

I took a step and a twig I hadn’t seen snapped under my foot. I stopped. Holding my breath, I flashed a look to Ryan who stared back, both of us drawing in relief which blew straight out as we twisted back around. The woman still hadn’t turned, but coming around the corner another stared in our direction already picking up speed, her hands rising in the air as my gun fell from my grip, stomach stabbed as if hit with a bold of lighting. It was Toni, her face red with blood, shredding with deep scratches, hair missing, scalp gone with it, the white of her skull on show for all to see, her stomach an open cavity, intestines uncoiled like a rope dragging behind.

Chapter Seventy One

“No,” I shouted as Ryan reached for the gun, with no pause in his reaction as it thud to the grass. His hand froze, hovering just above its black and our eyes caught, breaking off as the sound of movement came from in front, the sound too loud, too busy for what we’d seen. Alarm lit our faces at the crowd of bodies ambling around the corner, none of which had been there only a moment before. With my breath already caught, it felt as if a vacuum pulled my lungs from my chest as I saw Toni, her chest rended wide, ribs pulled clean of their flesh with a blanket of thick, clotted blood covering her face.

I looked to the Toni pulling her intestines behind her, snatched a look straight back to her double with the white of her ribs bared. I knew only one could be Toni, despite what my eyes were screaming, knew even when I saw her for the third time, her clothes a perfect match, at least what remained, at least what I thought the colours would be underneath the blood and dirt. 

I saw her head on every other body, saw her smile on mouths hanging slack. I looked between each, stared at the face of a solider, the face of a man dressed in military fatigues, a rifle hanging loose around his front. He wasn’t her, I was sure, but I couldn’t look elsewhere, couldn’t let my imagination take over. I would have calmed, should have calmed, should have taken a deep breath and centred myself, but Ryan had taken my pause to reach for the gun and he’d raised up and pointed it out to the crowd. Blinking, his motion slow, all I could do was observe, could watch, seek his line of sight, follow where he pointed. Straight at Toni.

“No,” I screamed, regretting the volume as the world came back in focus. I grabbed both hands around his upper arm and yanked. The gun went off and I screamed again. “No,” I could move, but didn’t grab the gun. With a twitch I saw the shot must have missed, each still stood as I pulled him hard. Letting go with one hand fixed tight, he followed as I dragged him behind.

A second from the low fence I put my faith in him and let go, jumping as high as I could, pulling my legs around the side, barely stumbling as I landed. I kept running, racing through the garden, chasing down the house, eyes fixed on the bright green back door, only looking back as I pushed the handle down and it held under my weight.

He’d followed. Relief lit my face, raising my cheeks when I saw he wasn’t aiming the gun towards me, wasn’t carrying a thin smile as he forced me to do his bidding. Relief raised the corners of my mouth until my focus fell at his back, fell to the creature falling over the short fence, the resemblance still there as they floundered to their feet the other side, our side, already making their slow but dogged journey in our direction as I watched.

His hand grabbed at mine, pushing the gun into my grip, his other at my back drawing me away from their route, pushing me in front, down the side of the house and the second short fence. I was numb to the climb, to the cautious raise of my leg as I stepped over the chain-link while Ryan held it low. I didn’t look on to where I’d landed, to the other side while Ryan climbed, my eyes fixed on my thigh exposed by the long rip up the side of my skirt rising to the waistband, trying to think back to when it happened, knowing Toni would be cross. If she’d lived long enough.

“Jess,” Ryan said, grabbing me by the shoulders, shaking. I looked up and saw the concern in his face. He shook again and I seemed to watch, despite not realising I’d been anything but wide awake. My eyes fell over his shoulder, the resemblance still there in too many places. I nodded, pulling in a breath, sounds crisp again, despite not realising they’d become anything but. I turned, grabbing his wrist despite him running parallel to my side not needing encouragement. My eyes ran across the view, jumping every few steps to launch over the bloodied mess of bodies littering the once sleepy village street.

I’d seen the Tee junction. I’d seen the steeple of the church, couldn’t quite see the white of the van but knew I shouldn’t be able to from here. I’d seen the street thick with Zombies, but hadn’t connected there being nowhere to go. It was the pull of Ryan’s wrist guiding me away from the junction, the road littered with the smoking remains of Land Rovers and trucks and black sticky piles with steam still rising nearby.

We’d turned around, had no choice, found no alternative, all but one house on each side of the once quiet street had their doors open and movement ambled toward each opening from inside. We had nowhere to go but back the way we’d came and we ran until we saw the creatures which had followed climbing up from the grass as they pulled up from their fall our side of the second short chain link fence.

I looked to the sky for a miracle. I looked to the blood soaked ground at my feet as we pulled up. I looked to Ryan and his wide eyes twitching to every point in view. I didn’t know how many bullets remained, but I had enough to make sure we both could make the choice not to be eaten alive.

Chapter Seventy Two

I’d let go of his wrist, but still felt him by my side, his body twisting as he searched for a way out. While I tried to slow my breath, I felt his warm hand linked into mine, gripping hard, gripping tight, pulling across my chest. My body followed, feet soon after, if only to stop me falling face first to the tarmac. He took control, had me completely. I gave no resistance as he dragged me toward the row of houses, my feet barely keeping up as we headed to the opposite side of the street to where we’d arrived. To our right the metal fence rang with fingers scratching, hands slapping, shoulders barging as teeth snapped and the metal pulled its grip against the wooden posts rocking, swaying with each wave of effort.

His hand released and I slowed, a weight pulling at my chest as if I’d lost something, some part of me, my gravity. He didn’t slow, raced passed the garden gate, shoulder first. Not stopping to test the handle, he barged at the door. I saw his pain. Saw the shatter of his bones, his agony as the door held, seconds before he connected. What was wrong with me? I’d lost all will. I’d lost all hope, could hardly believe what I was seeing as the door gave, his shoulder connecting, wood splitting at his side as he took the barrage in his stride without a stumble, not faltering, only pausing to make sure I’d followed.

I had and I hated him for it.

Ryan ignored me, stepping past to push what remained of the door back into its hole, rushing back past me to the living room, grabbing at the straight back chair, barely noticing as I moved out of his way and climbed the stairs.

I hated the way I felt. Hated my growing anger. Hated the resentment brewing each time he took control, each time I stumbled, but still the anger rose with each step, the cloud in my head thickened as the seconds ticked by. I knew I should have been alert. I knew no matter what I’d been through these last few days, no matter how wronged I’d been, how unfair the world had been, it owed me nothing. All my life I’d been a strong independent woman who had needed no one else to get me what I needed, to keep me safe, to achieve my goals, the goals I’d set for myself. I’d never needed a man to hold my hand, never needed a woman to take the lead. I’d made difficult choices in my life, but they were my choices and I’m here right now because of me, not because of some woman who’d chosen to bring me into their mess, or some man who thought he was my hero come to save my life and turn me from my current path.

As I reached the top step, I saw the mess. As I reached the top step, I realised how stupid the words sounded in my head. I pointed the gun and tried to push the thoughts away as I scoured the landing, following the trail of blood back down between my legs, following the scarlet track which should have been obvious so much sooner, the volume lessening as it fell. I followed it back up, lingering on the pool of blood just past the top step, soaked into the grey carpet and stepped, the wood creaking with my weight.

I’d made it up in my head. He wasn’t trying to take control. He’d done what any person would have done, any brave individual, any selfless person. I’d frozen, my brain clogged with grief, clogged with too much, with no chance to resolve any of it. Now was not the time, I knew, but I wasn’t in control. I shook my head as I took another step. He wasn’t trying to change my path. I was the first, my head was the first to bring it up. He’d done nothing wrong.

The floor creaked as my foot pressed weight on the carpet. I should stop, I knew, but my brain asked why I should wait for the man to come and take control. I shouldn’t have listened to the voice. My voice in my head. I shouldn’t have kept taking those steps, should have listened to the feet running behind me, shouldn’t have opened the door, should have let go when I felt the handle, sticky with what anyone would know was blood. I should have left it alone, waited, called for his help, he would soon be behind me. I should have left it well alone. I had nothing to prove. I didn’t need to turn the metal I kept in my hand, didn’t need to push open and look into the room, letting the daylight flood into the corridor until the sun shadowed with the lunge of the creature, its teeth sinking deep into my arm.

Chapter Seventy Three

He was there before the pain finished its journey, forcing past me, brushing my shoulder, the knife through the creature’s pale temple in the same movement, its teeth letting go as it went limp. He stumbled over the body, falling, rolling, the knife left behind as he tumbled. His eyes were all around the room, his hand on the hilt, pulling, wiping the blade on the clean edges of the bedcover. He turned, his featured coming to rest on mine.

He stared into my eyes, not looking at my hand covering the wound, blood dripping between my fingers, messing the floor. He stared on, face blank and I replied locking my eyes, waiting for his reaction. A heavy bang on the front door came from downstairs, his face lit and we separated, our eyes parting, his mouth closed, head shaking in slow motion. He ran past, making himself small, trying his best not to touch my arm as he sprinted from the room. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the pain, the pulse of energy shooting out from the wound. I heard footsteps on floor boards racing away and I stumbled forward, almost tripping over the body, my senses too overwhelmed to take in all but the edge of the creatures smell.

I sat on the corner of the bed following my trail mixing with the dark of the creature’s, watching the blots of blood shrink then expand, a record of my journey as the blood continue to ooze, to make its way from the surface of the gun I’d dropped to the carpet as my first reaction. I tried to concentrate past the pain, tried to ignore the hurried escape of the man I’d misread, reaching out for what was happening in the wound, sensing, imagining the tiny diseased critters invading my blood. The start of the war I knew I’d lose.

A calm came over me as the pain lulled to a thud, a dull ache to the beat of my heart slowing every other moment, until I moved, until I tried to pull off the jacket one handed. At least the scarlet was only a little darker than the two piece Toni had picked out, it shouldn’t dry too dark before I could reach the cameras and make my first, make my last, piece.

I stood and landed back down to my butt, my head light, swimming, lolling around in my skull. I would need a moment to compose myself, to let the blood stop, although the growing puddle falling down my lap, running along my legs told me I may need to give it some help.

With a deep breath I let the jacket from my shoulders, pushing past the world shrinking to a spot in the centre of my vision, waiting only a moment for the dark border to retreat before I lifted the arm I doubted I could use for much longer, tugging at the collar, pain surging, but only for a moment before the darkness took over.

Chapter Seventy Four

I woke to birdsong, but the music went the moment my eyes opened, replaced with a relentless scratch and scrape echoing from the stairwell. A dark figure stood looking out through the window, turning as I moved, their features in shadow. A sharp pull of breath sent my head ringing with a hangover of pain, my neck stiff as I looked down my body. Sitting up in the bed, lain on the duvet covered with blood, my legs were clean, arm high across my chest, the wound dressed, bandage still white, crisp and new, beside the pink of the oval already healed.

The first bite flashed through my mind. The haze still covering my time back in the compound, the teeth in my flesh, the feverish nightmare I’d let my mind park out of sight.

“The bleeding’s stopped,” Ryan said stepping from the light, his downcast features coming into focus.

“I’m not going to die,” I said. Now was not a time to be coy, he deserved that much for staying at my side, cleaning me up when he thought it was the end for me, thought if I woke I would be alone, a ravaging hunger coursing through my veins. He deserved to know even if it meant he would run a mile.

Ryan watched my arm as I bit down on the pain as I lifted.

“The tests?” he said. I nodded, raising my eyebrows. “What did they do to you?”

I paused, speaking when I realised I was thinking too much.

“They gave me an antidote.”

His eyes went wide.

“There’s a cure?” he said, his voice high, words coming quick, face alive, lit bright, but shrank away at my reluctance to reply.

“A vaccine,” I said looking away. I could see the thoughts running through his brain, the twitches of his brow as he tried to figure out my words.

“You were bitten after they gave you the medicine?” he said, eyes widening.

I nodded.

“They were testing the vaccine,” I said.

“That’s horrible, but,” he said pausing. “Good at the same time right?” he said seeing my eyes close.

“It wasn’t ready.”

He shook his head, his features bunching.

I tried to sit up, but the world span, my arm felt as if tied to a weight keeping it down.

“Don’t get up. You lost a lot of blood,” Ryan said turning around and grabbed a pint glass full of water and a packet of digestives open in the other hand. “Have something to eat,” he said pushing the cup to my good hand.

“We need to move,” I said.

“It’ll hold for a little while longer,” he replied, listening to the unchanging sounds coming from downstairs.

“No,” I said between sips, the water cold on my lips, absorbing into my pores the moment it touched my skin. “We need to get to the van. I need the cameras,” I said.

“Don’t be in such a hurry,” he said as I crunched the second digestive.

“Look,” I said, letting my eyes close for a moment as I tried to slow the spin. “I’m on a course of treatment. The last dose, hopefully, is in the van too and I need it before nightfall.”

He didn’t speak, instead watched as I ate, his head turning side to side.

“What happens if you don’t?” he said, but didn’t finish the sentence.

I paused, knowing what I should say, knowing what I wanted to say would be too much, should be too much for anyone to take. I watched as he raised his eyebrows in our silence. He expected an answer. He deserved an answer.

“Do you turn into a werewolf?” he said, forcing a laugh. Part of me was glad when I heard the front door collapse under the assault, but soon changed my mind when Ryan pushed his arms under my knees and at my back, scooping me up, my breath going from my lungs, chest tightening, water spilling to the bed. He didn’t rush, took great care, carrying me out of the door. Through blurred vision I saw the creature no longer in the doorway and my thoughts sprang for the gun, but the light had gone and I couldn’t see it on the floor. We were in the hallway and his pace hurried, soon out the other side, in another room, the window wide open and I balanced on the window ledge, daylight bright in my face. Cold air stole what was left of the breath from my lungs, the drop to the other side would have robbed the rest if any remained.

“Give me your hands,” he said and I turned, the world a soggy mess as I looked down to mattresses piled on the flat roof. Despite his preparations, I could predict the pain. “Give me your hands,” he said and I could do nothing else but what he told. With a firm grip he lowered me down, the bite screaming with pain until my feet touched cushion of the springs. I wobbled off to the bitumen roof, leaning against the brick to slow the vertigo and felt a weight hit the mattress, a rucksack, the wooden roof beneath giving just a little as he landed at its side. With my head settling, my heart leapt as I looked up and there it was. Seen across the gardens at the back of the row of houses, the van glistened in the bright morning light. It was in one piece, but soon the excitement died when at its back I couldn’t miss the hastily erected metal fence hemming in the densest collection of the creatures I’d ever seen, the van rocking side to side as time and again the walking dead crashed and bounced off its paintwork.

Chapter Seventy Five

Stepping back from the edge of the roof I looked up, Ryan’s hand steadying me with a touch at my arm. The stench continued to rise from between the houses and writhing bodies walking on two feet, hands in the air, fingers clawed, scratching at the brick for traction. Looking away before I had a chance to see her in the crowd, I turned to Ryan, his eyes falling to my bandage and the crimson brightening the white.

I twisted, moving my arm from his view, looked up and across, watching the crowds gathered, waves of the dead rippling forward in every space, every patch of ground. I turned back to the van, my eyes dragging along the seething path we would have to take to get to the goal I had no choice over. Looking back, I caught movement in the house from the window where we’d climbed. I turned to Ryan, his eyes locking with mine.

“What now?” I said, then shook my head, turning away, frustration racing my heart each time I landed on a surface free of the swarm, but each out of reach without a helicopter or a dash through scratching hands and biting teeth surging for us even now while we were out of reach. Directly in front of me and between the van, were six or more houses, their back gardens at least, all but one had a single storey extension of some size, more or less as deep as the one we stood on, around three meters projecting out, all but one with a flat roof, but it didn’t matter, the gulf between each much longer than we could dream of ever jumping.

I looked around the garden, but only with half a heart, it didn’t matter if an aluminium bridge lay on the grass, the teeming crowd of scraping clawed hands and snapping mouths would get us the moment we dropped to the ground. I didn’t find what I needed. As my anger grew I could feel blood pounding in the wound and I turned at a strange high sound ripping over the low moan. With surprise I found Ryan not standing at my side, a sprint of panic lit up inside me until I saw him kneeling by the edge of the roof as if he was about to climb down.

“What the hell? You won’t stand a chance,” I said rushing towards him, the steps sponging as if compressing the insulation under the felt. About to grab his arm, he lifted, the bitumen felt coming away in his hand, a curious smile on his lips. I stood back, let met myself calm on my heels, pulling in my breath as he turned back around, his cheeks still bunched. “What are you doing?” I said, moving around his side along the centre of the roof to get a better view.

He didn’t speak at first, his breath lost in the effort as he stood, the muscles in his arms building against his shirt as he heaved at the felt and it stuttered up, the nails popping as they gave out their grip.

“We need to get something to bridge the gap,” he said, flicking a look over his shoulder. “Can’t think of anything else. You?”

I ignored the question and he didn’t linger for the answer.

After standing at his side for a moment thinking his plan through, I leant in, I’d had no ideas and he let me take the felt which I dragged back with my good arm, while he stood to the edge and inspected what we revealed.

Beneath the felt were chipboard panels with no insulation, its surface swollen with water, scattered with stubborn nails still in the surface with skirts of the old felt.

“Will it hold?” I said drawing back to the edge next to the brick. Ryan didn’t answer, but the wood did, as did the dust spraying out of the gaping hole he disappeared through.

Chapter Seventy Six

With my arms either side, flat against the cold brick, I held my breath as the dust and chaos of the moment settled, my ears keen for his call to say he was fine, for the shout through ragged breath he’d made it down safely. The dust stopped falling, but the only noise came from the grotesque crowd’s excitement as their instincts told them they were about to feed.

I took a tentative step, it would serve no purpose to join him at his side on the floor as I imagined him curled. I sank to my knees, dropping to my hands, the pain in my arm easy to ignore as I spread the weight across my limbs in hope, in desperation, to get close. The surface felt springing, giving just a little as each part of me touched, felt as if with just a little more pressure I would by his side. I crept forward, craning my ears but all I could hear was the racket of creatures crowding, there was no sound of effort from below, no stirring of a man trying to get to his feet, trying to raise himself before the creature at the window realised a tasty treat waiting below.

I shot a glance behind me and up to the window and sped, cursing my caution when I saw no shadows behind the glass and I soon arrived at the edge peering down. At first I saw the mess of debris, split, sodden wooden sheets, folded, bent and buckled, broken apart with the white dust of plaster, scant remains still hanging from the ceiling. My eyes followed the neat lines of thick wooden beams, their surface dark, covered with a frosting of mould where in-between the chipboard had completely gone. Laying my front flat to the wood, I edged myself forward, peering in, eyes fixed on the centre of the mess, hoping, urging the pile to move.

The extension was a workshop, tools lined the walls hanging on metal, a wooden bench ran along the closest wall, notched and paint flecked from years of hard use. I looked to the tools and tried to think how they could use each, if, I corrected my thoughts. Once, we’d got over this hump. Then I saw it, saw the clear of the metal ladder sat in the corner at an angle, its length too great to fit flat to the wall. It would be perfect to bridge the gap, perfect for Ryan to climb back out and out of trouble. All he had to do was wake up.

I saw movement, spotted it at the bottom of my vision, but not in the centre as I expected. A sheet of plaster pushing up from the edge. I shuffled forward as far as I dared, leaning my head down whilst holding on to the soaked edge, my eyes searching out Ryan’s hands or his legs pushing the pile, waiting for him to rise, to appear from the mess. I caught sight of a foot, upside down from my perspective as I hung. The boot had a thin covering of mud, flakes falling off as it rose and fell over and over, trying to raise high enough to mount the pile, but not managing. I stared on, couldn’t understand how Ryan was standing, was at the edge and I crept further forcing myself out of what I thought was a safe distance over the limit of the beam to get a better look.

With my new vantage I regretted the improvement to the view, regretted the blood soaked trousers connected to the boots, the second pair of legs joining at their side. A creature from upstairs, or fresh from through the front door, it didn’t matter, and now the pile below me rose, another groan, adding to the low moans already filling the air. Ryan’s hair coming through the rubble as he sat up. His face covered in plaster dust, his complexion pallid, pale like the creature’s at his front, the only colour coming from a line of bright red dripping from a scratch to his forehead. If he hadn’t died and turned from the fall, he would soon succumb to the fate unless I did something and did it now.

I stood, taking care where I placed my feet behind me, then jumped as I high in the air as I could, clenching my teeth and pulling my hand tight to my chest.

Chapter Seventy Seven

I’d like to say I fell gracefully, keeping an elegant line while the chipboard crumpled, while my feet snapped open the plaster beneath. I’d like to say I didn’t scream, didn’t wave my arms wild at my sides despite the pain as I abandoned the previous second of planning. I’d like to say I watched the fall, stared with my expression fixed, a picture of composure as the floor raced towards me, watching as I knocked the ghouls out of the way either side. I’d like to say I didn’t open my eyes only as my legs bent and I arrived cursing the slap of the ground to my knees, broken bones only prevented by the crack of plasterboard catching my fall.

Ryan stood as I raced to my feet knowing either side the creatures would climb to their own. Their slow, toddler awkwardness my only advantage. Fists balled, I stepped forward, eyes fixed on this dazed expression, seeking hope, recognition, searching for any sign of humanity.

He blinked.

I racked my brain for meaning. Was it only a human action? Had I seen the creatures blink?

“Speak,” I shouted, knocking him sideways as I jumped over the mound, my hands landing either side of the cold metal ladder. Still, he hadn’t uttered a word as I swung around, pushing out each half and thrusting it to the floor, my feet already to the second rung as it landed, swaying to the side with rubber resting on the even ground.

Back to the roof, crawling to my front, I twisted, turning, scraping across the sodden board as I landed, peering down below, my hands back to the top rung, ready to hoist it high and out through the hole if Ryan no longer wanted to follow. He stared up, mouth wide and coughed.

The dead didn’t cough.

“Ryan,” I shouted, eyes wide looking to his side where the creatures were on their feet and closing, teetering with traction on the rubble. He blinked, recognition there, he turned, twisted sideways, eyes alarming as he caught the sight. Grabbing the rungs, he sprung alive with action, climbing, feet kicking, slapping away hands before they could get a grip. Dust rained down as he climbed to the edge, following my lead, spreading himself as thin as he could, but I turned away as soon as I knew he was out of their reach, pulled at the aluminium, yanking hard to take it from their grip, hands reaching high and I pulled, Ryan’s hand grabbing hold, pulling up the ladder, swatting, jabbing each wayward, clawed finger.

I climbed to my feet, resting each on the line of the beam beneath, pointing to the edge of the hole as Ryan’s face alarmed. My eyes settled a shape to the floor in the centre from where Ryan had risen. The shape of a gun, covered in a white dusting. I turned, his own had followed.

“I’m sorry,” he said and I turned away.

“As long as you’re all right,” I replied, my voice coming out flat, hands grappling with the ladder, forcing it to fold as I walked along the imaginary tightrope.

“I’m sorry,” he said again as he joined me, the remains of dust floating down as he stepped to where the end beam held firm underneath, his foot sinking as he let his weight settle.

I didn’t reply, stuffing the anger, pushing it down and together we held the ladder, one side each, eyes fixed ahead on the flat roof opposite, slowly lowering until the angle grew too great, its length too far for us to do anything but hold back the fall, guiding the drop with a hope it would reach the other side.

It reached, but only just, the width of the top rung barely at the edge, hands clawing to the air, my eyes alarmed as bloody tips of fingers tapped and clawed against the hollow metal. We had to race, had to get across before something tall, something with long arms come along and grabbed a leg or tipped our bridge as we clambered over.

Looking to Ryan, he nodded across the ladder, showing I should go first, his chest puffing as if to stay behind, to go second would be the more dangerous operation. I didn’t wait, didn’t linger to change his mind. One of us had to go first. I scratched and scraped my soles on the remainder of the felt and put the first of my weight on the metal and slipped, falling forward, the river of upturned foul faces, their clawed fingers outstretched racing to meet me as I descended. 

Chapter Seventy Eight

He didn’t catch me, didn’t stop my fall, didn’t pull me back as I raced down face first to the rungs. Instead, I collapsed to the metal, hands grabbing a hold either side, gripping hard, the sting of my arm tightening as I took the weight. The two halves of the ladder clattered against each other, the metal jumping, snapping back together. I held firm waiting for when the ladder would turn and twist, falling with the metal into the crowd who even if they couldn’t infect me, would frenzy, pulling flesh from my bones.

The ladder stayed put, despite the claw of nails down my face as hundreds of fingers willed me to the ground.

“Go,” came Ryan’s voice from my back. My pause ended and I pushed up, arms outstretched, the tips of my feet on top of the rungs, surging forward, giving full respect to the ladder as it stayed in place. My feet slipped off but I recovered over and again until I could rest on the solid roof the other side. I turned before I calmed myself, fear raining down as I worried for the strength of the wood underneath my feet, but I hadn’t collapsed yet and held my ground, watching as Ryan took my lead, using his hands and feet to guide him quickly to my side. The ladder fell as he pushed off the last step and I bounded over, forgetting my fears for the roof, skidding to my knees, feeling the sting of skin coming loose, but I had the cold metal in my hand and yanked and pulled it free from a tangle of hands and arms and heads, slapping it side to side, jabbing at heads for no other reason than to vent my tension.

Ryan helped me to my feet, helped lift the ladder, settling in down to the roof, his movement as stilted as mine, his caution understandable. We both looked back to the wreck of a roof we’d left behind, the felt ripped away and two great holes where they hadn’t been before. The guilt weighed like a knot in my stomach. It was someone else’s house. Someone else who might by alive and when all this was all over, if they returned, they’d feel the devastation we’d caused.

“What’s wrong?” Ryan said and I turned, my face fixed in a scowl, not hiding my anger pointed in his direction.

“That’s someone’s house,” I said. He turned back to the wreckage and nodded and gave what I thought was a shallow shrug. “Don’t you feel guilty?” I replied, my face turning to a scowl.

“Sure,” he replied and turned away. “But what’s the alternative,” he said as he bent for the ladder, looking towards the pitched angle of the next extension’s roof.

“Oh, sorry, I forgot,” I said, letting my voice harden. He turned, his face nonplussed, the ladder still held in his hand.

“Sorry?” he replied. I took a step toward him.

“I forgot you wreck lives for a living,” I said and walked past him, knocking the ladder in his hands as I did.

“You have no idea,” he said with no change to the tone of his voice. I stopped, turned back and he held my eyes, his expression didn’t change, his eyes snatching away only for a moment from the slope of the next roof. I turned away, this wasn’t the time, and took in my own view of the tiles.

The pitch wasn’t too great, if we could get onto the roof it was shallow enough for us to climb with probable ease, little fear of slipping down, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how the hell we would get across.

At least we had time. At least we were safe for now and I turned on the spot, Ryan doing the same search for inspiration, both of us coming up empty. Then I looked the windows just about our heads, noted the single panes of glass, looked to Ryan and he raised an eyebrow in return and pulled the ladder nodding, opened the metal either side and set it on the roof. I didn’t wait for him to take his first step, didn’t wait to listen to his argument and I climbed, raising up the level and squinted in from the light to the dark. With little surprise, I stared into the bedroom, a double bed in the centre, the quilt ruffled, the sheet cast half off and I could see the mattress, could see the dark, abstract pattern on the white and took no note, my heart only sinking when I took another step up and saw the white of the bones on the floor, the mess of blood underneath, the leather like covering discarded to the side. I watched the blood up the side of the bed, its brightness catching stark in the light from this angle.

I felt bile rise from my stomach, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the bones, the flesh missing, picked clean, scattered around the floor. I couldn’t help fear for the creature, searching the room for signs of it still there. Ryan asked if I was okay, a reply to the sharp intake of breath when my eyes caught on the skull cracked in two across the eye sockets, the contents of the protective shell missing. I never gave a reply, didn’t have a chance before a bloodied face appeared at the window from below, its mouth chewing in a round circle like a cow, a thin collection of bones, a hand, hanging from its mouth, dropping to the floor as its eyes flared and its forehead surged toward the thin layer of glass and my only protection.

Chapter Seventy Nine

The scream came next, a shrill call in tune with the outward spray of glass. I stumbled back, pulling the ladder with me as I grabbed the metal for safety, but still I fell. Ryan’s body caught my weight and together we collapsed to the roof, the cold metal following. With no chance to recover from the shock, I peered up, pushed the ladder away, willing my ears to close off the pain, eyes watching as from the window the creature burst out in a blur, bringing with it the remaining shards of glass.

My legs wheeled in circles as I struggled to my feet, Ryan’s arms in the same frenzy, words coming, shouting his disbelief. Scrabbling to his feet, his hand on my arm, his view alternating between me and seeking the creature who’d jumped right over us and disappeared from view. We looked to each other, looked to the ground, span to the window, eyes wide peering as we held our feet firm. Neither of us knew what to do, we waiting, questioning why the inevitable hadn’t already happened.

After what seemed like an age, but was more than likely just a fleeting second, I picked up the ladder, Ryan grabbing the other side and just as we got our grip, the creatures was in view, jumping from the ground, shaking the roof as it landed, standing before us, its bloodshot eyes wide, chest heaving for air, recovering its breath. At first I couldn’t believe the pause, looked to Ryan, but this was his first view, but not mine, I’d seen these before. I’d shot one over and again and watched it stay upright, charging onward with a fury at home in a horror film. Now it stood before me, its naked, blood soaked, heavy belly sagging out in front. If I didn’t know better, I could have sworn it was tired and drunk from its full stomach.

I didn’t wait more than a blink of an eye, surged forward, Ryan bringing the rest of the ladder at my side, taking no time to understand my plan. The creature could have jumped, could have charged forward, but just seemed to watch, only acting when it was too late, giving a dulled call, a weak scream costing it more breath, and unable to hold us back, its feet stepped off the edge and fell to the ground, taking at least one of dead with it.

We didn’t look over, our instincts told us it wouldn’t be that easy, told us we had to go, had to act, we’d been given a gift and would be dead if we didn’t take full advantage. Ryan let go of the ladder so I could take hold and I hopped with wide steps across the roof, planting the feet of the ladder as I pulled apart each half. Running, I clambered up the side, jumping in through the window, missing the glass, not looking back, already knowing why the ground was sticky and wet, my eyes concentrating on finding the door I could put between us and the creature when it followed. 

Through the open door, my eyes flitted along the hallway, only now looking back and seeing the disgust in Ryan’s face as he looked to his hands after rolling away from the landing.

“Come on,” I said trying to keep my voice low and he jumped up, his feet slipping as he struggled for traction in the mess, eventually bursting through the doorway, then settling back, leaning with me to the door, our lungs pumping the surrounding air, my mind desperate to slow the pull, the whistle of wind, knowing the creature must have got in somehow and if it could get inside, then others would lurk ready to pounce when their opportunity came.

We weren’t followed. 

The house was silent.

We weren’t followed. If we believed our ears.

The low rubble of breath over dormant vocal cords had become the norm and now with it gone it felt like something was missing, something wasn’t right. At least when you could hear their low hum you knew they were there and could prepare. Now in the silence I felt blind, didn’t know if they were there and were just being quiet. I wanted to be back out in the open. I wanted to see all around, hated being inside the house, hated the confinement.

A drip of sweat drifted down my forehead, my hand already clammy as I swatted the droplet away shaking my head, feeling my breath running away. I pulled at Ryan’s arm and he looked, concern in his eyes, but he didn’t move, held the door firm pushing with his back. I raised my right hand, opening the palm and he grabbed my wrist. I raised my left and he grabbed it too, as my heart raced and my head went light having my hands bound once again, I heard the thump of something heavy landing on the other side of the door.

Chapter Eighty

With the sound, the vibration through my feet, adrenaline, energy, a will to survive raced through my veins as my vision cleared. Ryan let go as he saw me raise up. I nodded, turning away, looking for our escape.

Holding my palm out for him to stay put, I light-footed it across the hallway and into the bedroom on the right, my first choice of three doors. Inside I found what I needed and came back with a dark wooden chair having tipped the clothes to the floor. Ryan moved as I pushed the wood under the handle and followed me back into the room, carefully easing the door closed behind us with his palm. With the chest of drawers covering the door, I didn’t let myself relax, didn’t let myself calm, not ready to find out if my thoughts would take me. Instead, I took in the full room, the window with the single pane looking out over the extension roof from where we’d come, looking out on to the roof next door where we wanted to be, looking down at the sea of the dead which hadn’t thinned even one bit.

Inside the room I pulled out the drawers, raked out clothes looking for what, I wasn’t sure. Inside the room I rifled through the wardrobe, jabbing at the buttons on the electronic safe while I listened to its negative reply. Pushing the hanging clothes to the side, I pulled out empty suitcases, my smile gleaming at the sight of the gun case,  heart screaming at the luck finding the baseball bat at its side.

I turned with both in hand, passing the rifle to Ryan, who pulled it from the case, but his expression lacked my excitement.

“It’s an air rifle,” he said. I thought for a moment, fighting against the drop in my will.

“Any bullets?” I said watching him crank the barrel like he was snapping it in two, then pulled a bag of what looked like metal balls from inside as he nodded. I ran to the window, a plan already forming, but the view was no good, just gardens edged on the vast space of the moor. I ran to the chest of drawers covering the door and without dropping the bat, I heaved the drawers to the side with only a last minute hand from Ryan.

Bat out in front, I looked left and right. With the coast clear and no noise coming from the room we’d left the creature, I stepped out into the hallway and we were through the second door, raking the curtains to the side, breath pulling in as I saw between the two rows of houses the road teeming with dead soldiers and residents, some of which I recognised from our last visit. I didn’t linger on their faces for fear of what my mind would project, instead I fixed on the cars parked outside each house, most of them only a few years old, most of them perfect for my plan.

I turned to Ryan.

“You any good?” I said, nodding to the rifle. He looked down at the gun and shrugged his shoulders, giving me wide eyes in return. I’d never fired one before and turned away, scanning again, eventually pointing the bat and looking down its length to the furthest away car. A Freelander in a dark red, but the details didn’t matter. He didn’t ask questions, didn’t look confused, but still I told him to make sure he understood. “The windows, right?” 

He nodded, matching my expression and I turned away. Covering my eyes, I jabbed the bat end-on shattering the glass, turning and wheeling it around to remove the remaining shards. As the music rained all around, landing to the carpet and to the tarmac outside, we snapped back behind us, the corridor alive with the sound of heavy thuds against the door.

“Do it,” I shouted, holding back the full force of my voice and I turned around the room, cursing myself for not blocking the doorway before, searching around the edge, frantically trying to find the large piece of furniture I needed to block the door, but finding it wasn’t there, the room only filled with a light divan bed, a cheap wooden frame surrounded in thick cardboard. Still, I shut the door, cursing as it slammed with the draft, heard the chair wheel along the corridor and come to a rest. “Do it,” I said when I hadn’t heard the push of air. With the bat up high, gripped with both hands, after a practice swinging its weight through the air, I turned to Ryan, watching his eye to the sight, watching him move the gun and steady his feet, pushing the butt into his shoulder. The chair careered along the corridor a second time and he took his eye away, glancing back. I raised the bat ready for the door to swing and heard the puff of air. Holding my breath in the long silence I urged it to fill with the car’s screaming alarm.

Chapter Eighty One

The wail of the alarm didn’t come, leaving only the silence to continue to scream out.

“Again,” I shouted, regretting the volume, but couldn’t take my eyes from the door to check he was doing as I commanded. I could hear the rustle of the plastic bag, the patter of metal pellets forming a pile, but still I couldn’t look away, listening to the silence only broken by the rhythmic creak of dry wood vibrating through the floor.

Air rushed from the barrel a second time, but nothing other than Ryan’s under-breath curse replied. I shot a look, listening to the change of pitch from the other side of the door, the break in the melody of the steps getting closer. Ryan twisted, resetting his aim near, resetting his aim to a target he could hit as he snapped the air rifle in two, pushing the pellet in, cracking it closed soon after.

The handle moved and I pushed the sole of my trainer to the door, raising the bat high over my head.

Air rushed from the barrel, the handle twisted and a scream replied, a shout of pain from behind the door whilst Ryan congratulated himself. Only when the scream faded, the pierce receding, did I hear the call of the alarm outside. He’d done it.

“Another,” I whispered, repeating louder, raising the bat over my head from where it had fallen as glass shattered from a different room. “Another,” I said as he kept his eye through the window, the gun held in one hand at his side. He twisted around, his eyes falling to my foot at the door, flinching back as he turned toward the window, moving out of the view, his free hand beckoning me over. I looked to the door, looked to the handle. I’d heard the beast depart but still I couldn’t move, couldn’t take my guard down. “Another,” I said and he backed away from the window, reloading, taking aim, taking his time.

The second call added to the chorus. He didn’t need to be told again and reloaded. Three alarms sang out into the street, echoing off the buildings, pulling and pushing the drums in my ears. Only then could I take the comfort, moving towards the window and Ryan, his arm out so I wouldn’t get too close and with one last look to the door, to the handle, I peered over the ledge, around the wall, a smile rising as the creatures, one after the other, lolled toward the three screaming cars. He’d done it and as I peered, I could see the naked beast, his engorged, blood soaked belly as he climbed in the closest car, head raised to the air, then down to the floor, following his nose, seeking the source of the sound.

Creature after creature kept up the pace and Ryan lifted the gun, I guessed with his aim on one of their heads.

“Don’t bother,” I said. “Even if it works, there’s a hundred to take its place.” He took a moment to lower the gun, I was already collecting up the pile of pellets from the floor, was already with my hand on the door, pulling down slowly before he turned and joined at my back, the rifle held in two hands, stock first, ready to jab.

The coast was clear, the carpet not. Footsteps imprinted red on the beige. Mine. Ryan’s much bigger and two bare feet, just the toes leading off along the hallway to the other room at the front, cold air whistling in the corridor with each step. I placed my feet around the marks, moved toward the second room at the back, but turned before I crossed in, bile rising in my stomach at the thought of the mess ready to greet me, to greet us, but we had little choice, the ladder left behind.

The mess was no greater and no worse, the white of the clean bones no brighter, no duller. The red of the carpet no more vibrant, the metallic cloud no thicker, no thinner.

I couldn’t avoid the slick covering the floor, using the tips of my toes my only defence, the only respect I could pay as I leant out of the missing glass, my hair billowing behind me in the draft. The last of the creatures were leaving the garden and didn’t look up, didn’t see. The last of the creatures were rushing as much as they could, clattering and bumping into each other with the greatest haste they could give. The step ladder was still there and I was on the roof without a helping hand. I took the rifle from Ryan as he climbed down, gave it back as I lifted the ladder, checking all around before I placed it to the grass, before I climbed down, brushing up along the side of the building, peering along the edge, staring at the backs of the creatures moving away.

Up the ladder and jumping down the other side, Ryan sat on the wooden fence, the thin slats bowing in and out as he balanced, as he pulled the ladder up before handing it over. Both of us landed on the grass the other side, ladder in hand. It was going so well. Too well, I knew. We were three houses down of six, three more to go and with the ladder being handing into the four garden it wouldn’t be long before I could get what I needed, could get the last vial, could take footage, could start the journey to warning the masses, to breaking the story, getting the scoop.

The chorus of alarms turned to a pair, and soon to a single voice as I stepped off the ladder, jumping down the other side. Then none. A pause in the commotion, but still I didn’t panic, my pulse didn’t inflate too much, until Ryan sat on the top of the fence and it collapsed as he swayed, the ladder in his hand, the metal slapping down to the flagstones, the cacophony echoing like a dinner bell as Ryan landed on top sending a second chorus ringing out.

Chapter Eighty Two

I listened to the lull as the echo died. Watching Ryan and his wide-eyed daze, we fixed our stares, both afraid to move, afraid to rattle the aluminium bell any further, but with the sound, the bass vibration coming clear, even if only in my mind, I jumped to my feet. Holding my hand out for Ryan, he clambered up, pulling the ladder, no longer caring for the noise,  we ran.

With a glance to my left and down the side of the house as I arrived at the fence, the crowd had turned, faces pointed in my direction, eyes opening further as they caught my movement, caught my scent. With the ladder planted firmly at the base, I climbed, but my feet tripped as they hit the first step. Swearing under my breath I raised again, taking more care to plant my feet as Ryan held the metal to hold back my shake.

From the top step I ignored the fence, only peering with a glance over the wood before checking back between the houses where the creatures were getting so near. Dropping the baseball bat to the other side, I jumped, a sharp pain rising along my shin as I landed only to look up and see more of the undead this side of the fence walking our way. I looked up from the ground, with no sign of Ryan and rolled out of the place where I’d landed, getting to my knees, raising up and putting tentative weight on my pained foot.

It took my weight and I breathed relief as I saw Ryan rise from the other side; the rifle coming my way as we met eyes, his attention turning to test the top of the fence before I’d caught the rifle in its case midway through the air. Indecision paused me for a moment as the crowd grew closer, but soon I dropped the rifle bag, picking up the bat, raising it high over my head. I took one step, eyes focusing on the pair heading the crowd, a tall woman with a barrel of fat around her midriff, her belly button on show through a rip in her shirt, the fabric open from her chest bone to her hips, a scored, jagged line following the broken material on her pale skin. Two, I said in my head, moving my eyes to avoid her face, instead catching on the tall man at her side, his arms outstretched, milky white eyes fixed toward me, his fingers pointing in different, unnatural directions. Three and I raised the bat higher, stretching out the muscles in my arms just a bit more, trying not to think of who these people had been and on the fourth number counted in my head, I swung down with all my breath.

The middle aged mother of two, her children were doctors, one with a kid of her own on the way, fell to the floor as the wood bounced from the front of her skull, sending a shiver through the bat. The young bank clerk who’d lived with his wife and two point four kids, seemed relieved when the bat cracked his skull open. His eyes fell closed, sending blood and lumps of flesh spraying out with a sound like hitting a melon against the ground. A second swing to the mother whose birthday it would have been tomorrow, and she went the same way while I tried to scrub their made up lives from my memory with a raise of the bat, blood dripping in an arc as I pulled it up, eyes staring on the next two in line, the fairy tale of their lives already forming when the car alarms took up again in near unison.

The front row of two kept up their advance, but the outnumbered crowd at their backs took a slow turn, their arms pointing back out towards the road and I twisted around, racing to Ryan who was at the next fence, holding the ladder ready for me to climb.

We were in the last garden before the alarms silenced, with a line of sight down the side of the house to the teeming mass of creatures only just dispersing in all directions with no single noise to call the herd. Whilst I peered over the wooden fence to the van, I welcomed the thin smell of creosote cutting through the sewerage taste. I turned to Ryan, for a moment watching him peeled off, pulling the rifle from its case.

There it stood all alone. The van I’d wanted to get back to all this time. There it was, a little dirty with red smears and with a few new finger sized holes in the panels giving me concern. Still, there it was, a short run from the other side of the fence and with only a handful of creatures who hadn’t made the journey towards the alarms. An unfamiliar electronic song rang off from the road and I turned, catching Ryan relaxing the rifle down, a wide smile gleaming across his mouth.

Up the ladder before Ryan reached me, I stared out watching the backs of the last few humanlike creatures receding. My eyes fixed on the carpet of bodies, of soldiers, lain across the road, across the path, guilt tugging my insides as I fought with my joy at seeing the discarded pistols, the fingers gripped around the triggers, the rifles, real rifles with deadly bullets. Deadly even for those who’d died once already. I didn’t see these bodies as people, as once I would have done, as now I should. Ryan took hold of the ladder and I landed on bent knees in a spot I’d picked out between two bodies I was desperate to see as someone’s people.

I shook my head, tried to keep to my goal. There would be time to work out how I felt, to work out if I was a bad person, if my experiences had killed my humanity. Now was time for action, time for those we could still save, to warn the community, to warn the country, to tell the tale to the world. I stretched out my fingers, grabbing the cold handle and pulled, but the locked door held firm. My vision filled with Toni in the flash of light. She held the keys in her hand as the patch of red grew around her chest; the smile widening on her face.

Chapter Eighty Three

“Step aside,” came Ryan’s breathy whisper from behind.

“No,” I said, hushing my voice as I stood between the passenger side window and the raised butt of his rifle. “No,” I repeated, turning along the road to check I hadn’t disturbed the withdrawing masses. As I looked I saw through the creatures crowding, scratching at the Freelander with its hazard lights blinking, its electronic beat pulsing out, drawing the creature’s hands to open and their teeth to smash together as they groped to feed on the metal. The sound dulled in my head. I could still hear it but through cotton wool ears, my eyes fixed on the clustered olive drab vehicles and the hint of the house where I’d been taken, where I’d been held, where I’d been betrayed.

“No,” I said again as he lowered the butt, the confusion thickening on his brow as it lowered. “It’s alarmed, you’re just going to bring them back. I need the van too, the transmitter’s hard wired. Without it I’ll never get the story out.”

Ryan’s face melted away the confusion, but then rose again as he questioned.

“So where are the keys?” he said, staring at me with a deep intent, his brow low, before he looked around. I peered past him, turned to the side, past the flailing mob of the dead to the house where I’d last seen Toni. To the house where she’d died.

“Fuck off,” he said, his tone high and mocking. I turned his way, eyebrow raised. “You’re kidding right?” I didn’t reply, didn’t lower my brow. He thought for a moment, his eyes fixed on mine. “So we’ll need another distraction?” he eventually said. I could have hugged him, could have wrapped my arms around him tight, but I didn’t, instead leaving my gratitude to a shallow smile, cheeks bunching as my face relaxed. I watched him sling the air rifle over his shoulder and pick his way around the dead soldiers, plucking a rifle dropped to the ground, in favour of those still intertwined with their former owners.

“Go around the edge,” he said. “I’ll draw them away,” he added as he lowered the gun down, peering through the optical sight toward the ground piled with what were once people.

“No,” I replied, but he didn’t listen, he was already climbing the ladder set into the back of the van, his hands already on the rungs at the top, ready to pull himself up to the folded satellite dish. “No,” I replied again and turned away. “You should come with me,” I said gripping the bat as I crept around the back of the van. Walking along the new fence-line, I peeled a pistol from the cold fingers of a soldier whose face could no longer be seen, keeping my concentration fixed at my feet, only glancing ahead with every other step and not looking back, hoping he’d heard my words as I disappeared into a small copse of trees.

Hunger, the old type I hoped, left a cavity in my chest, in my stomach as I walked peering between the trees, the gun out in front as I fixed on the line of buildings, on the car alarming with flashing lights, the crowd five or more deep surrounding it. The alarm halted, but not the lights and I stopped, paused my breath as the crowd lost interest, each ambling in random directions. The pain in my chest grew, but it wasn’t real pain. It was a feeling, a hunger, no. Anger, maybe. A let down. I felt betrayed when he hadn’t followed. I felt stupid for the way it churned my insides. I was emotional. Of course I was. Any normal person would be in this situation. Even someone who knew who they were, knew what they would become, would have a hard time with what I’d done, with what I was doing. Alone.

An alarm took off again in the distance, the crowd drawing away like metal to magnets. He hadn’t needed to stay behind, hadn’t needed to play the hero. He should have come with me.

I stopped my thoughts as the alarm ceased, the silence broken only by twigs snapping, the rustle of the thick undergrowth under my feet. I’d known him for less than a day. My girlfriend. No. My lover, had been dead for the same time. The thoughts vanished as the view of the house became clear, the dark scorch marks across the front, the shattered clusters of bricks which somehow still kept the house held up straight. I stared at each of the trucks, but tried to avoid the burning carcasses. It had been a great battle, the start of which I’d seen, but the solders, the military hadn’t been the victors, with so many lain across the street, so many dead but walking, how could they have been?

I tried to ignore the scene, looked beyond the chaos and peered at the wide open door. Saw it fallen, great chunks of brick, of wood, missing from where it had hung. I moved, letting caution go, readying myself to make the run, preparing for the bounds, the long strides I would need to get over the bodies in time.

My heart jumped as the nearest car alarm went off again. It was so much closer now and drawing the creatures near. With my heart already going crazy, I heard footsteps behind, the gap in my chest, the emptiness filling. I turned to see Ryan, but he wasn’t there. Where he should have stood, another did, walking towards me with his arms raised out. A soldier, half his face burnt beyond recognition, a bloodied mess down his fatigues. I dropped the bat from my right, raised the gun, gripping tight with both hands and pulled the trigger half the way, stopping only when he said my name.

Chapter Eighty Four

“Jess Carmichael?” came the breathy, surprised words. My finger stopped moving, but remained firm on the trigger.

I lowered the gun, but snapped up again as the soldier stubbled forward, a foot catching on a raised root.

“Hold it right there,” came Ryan’s voice, his form becoming visible as the soldier collapsed to the ground. Ryan lowered his rifle first, his eyes catching mine for a second before we both ran in, meeting over the slumped body, our hands twisting him around, covering his blackened half, rolling so I could push two fingers to the pink skin at his throat. I lifted my head. Ryan looked on hopeful as I looked past him, my tips seeking his veins and the momentary bulge I couldn’t find.

Looking upward and with a shake of my head, I stood. Ryan remained on his knees, peering down to the body as it  relaxing, the body’s pained expression draining, chest lowering with each moment.

“Come on,” I said. Ryan looked up. 

“Did you know him?” he said, confusion written across his features. I looked down, held on his face for a moment, the pink of his skin, its colour darkening as my eyes followed to the char I was thankful for being mostly hidden. I shook my head. “But he knew your name?”

Watching his face, my eyebrows raised. I waited for his head to catch up, but when it didn’t and he turned back down to the man, his hands at his side, looking lost, I spoke.

“You know my name. Half the country knows my name.”

He raised his eyebrows as he looked back, then sank as his thoughts caught up.

“We need to go,” I said, turning when he hadn’t followed my pace, listening to the whine of the alarms fading in and out of the background. “What are you waiting for?”

“Shouldn’t we,” he said not finishing his words. “Shouldn’t we,” he repeated. “Isn’t he going to rise again? Won’t he join them?” he said pointing his arm toward the crowds of dead still ambling between whichever car made the most noise. I looked at the crowd walking away, but turned as I watched, as the closest car’s alarm rose from its silence. “Shouldn’t we put him out of his misery?” he said in a voice I barely heard.

My eyes fixed on the soldier’s face, looking down to the ball chain necklace I knew would lead to two circular discs and the tags used to identify him when all this was over, when his body decomposed beyond recognition, here or wherever he finally fell to his rest. One more of their ranks would be no different in the grand scheme, but would I rather have a knife through my temple, through my eye socket, than wonder around with a squatter driving my empty body. Too right I would.  Ryan was right. I nodded, closing my eyes, shutting out the view as Ryan stood, dipping his head in a shallow salute.

The world began a slow spin, fatigue calming my breathing, a blanket of calm surrounding me. I felt myself about to stumble and my eyes shot open to see I hadn’t moved, but caught on Ryan, his head bowed, the rifles on the floor behind him and a knife held out in both hands like he was about to sacrifice a virgin on an alter. A tear dripped down from his face, darkening a patch of the green fatigues. His head shook slow from side to side and he looked up, pulling in a great breath. I kept my expression calm, held my hand out for the knife and he gave it over taking a step back.

Dropping to my knees I pushed the fingers of my left hand to his throat. Slowing my breath, closing my eyes as I pushed all concentration to the tips of my fingers. I had to be sure. I had to be sure again. There was nothing. Still nothing. My fingers tightened around the hilt of the knife in my right until a bump of sensation rippled across the fingers pushed into the side of his throat.

I looked up to Ryan, eyes wide, but he’d turned. Snapping down to the soldier’s face, but there he lay, eyes closed, chest still, no matter how long I lingered. Breath drained from my own as I relaxed, closing my eyes, my fingers held in place.


The sensation must have been a something else, a need for there to be a reason to turn away my course. But no. I had to be brave. Had to do the right thing and pulling my fingers away I moved the knife, but my eyes sprang wide as the scorched hand clamped around my throat, cutting off my scream as his milky whites stared back.

Chapter Eighty Five

Tiny stars appeared at my eyes as I held firm, disbelief fixing me to the spot, fixing my right arm hovering over his corpse. My left hand pushed out to its chest, holding it back as it tried to sit up, mouth snapping open and closed in silent, swift motions. Nothing came as I tried to pull deep, fighting against the blockage at my throat. Ryan still faced the other way, looking into the distance as I felt my will drain. My eyes caught on the knife still held out and adrenaline shot along my arm. I jabbed, pushing all my weight behind my balled fist wrapped around the hilt, the knife diving deep, slicing through the skin with no resistance. Slice after slice, jab after jab it gave no reaction and we were locked in a stalemate, knowing I would give out first, despite the destruction I’d made to its stomach.

Still, Ryan looked away and I tried to force my remaining energy away from trying to figure the reasons why he couldn’t hear the sounds which should have been so obvious. My vision closed in from the sides, a dark border encroaching with every moment. I switched my effort, turning the blade to its outstretched arm, its hand at my throat, but I could feel the power lessen with each jab digging to the bone.

With my vision nearing to a dot in the centre, I felt myself relax, with nothing left to stop it from taking over, nothing to stop myself falling.

Chapter Eighty Six

I didn’t hear the shot, only the shock wave across my face. I didn’t feel the grip release, only the cooling blood tightening as it dried across my skin. With pressure under my arms, my legs were the first to wake. No. My lungs were already pumping before I realised I was travelling, before I realised I was being dragged. Held up. Pulled along. My eyes opened to the trees moving either side, but my alarm didn’t hold back when I figured we were going in the wrong direction.

“No,” I shouted, the words dry and raw. We slowed, my arms pulling away, pulling from his hold until I juddered to a stop, leant over, gasping for breath. Each pull like flesh ripping inside my throat. Ryan paid no attention as he faced the other way, faced behind us, feet not holding still as he waited for me to rise.

I coughed, spluttered breath into my lungs, holding my throat as if it would drain away the pain, would ease the pressure still surrounded.

“Hurry,” I heard his vague words. Vague to my ears at least. I stood and looked up, his eyes still behind, only briefly catching on mine, then back to the sight of his rifle trained the way we’d come. With the car alarms still strong in the background, I twisted around, breath painful as it drew, painful as I saw the crowd in the distance. No need for magnification. The crowd easy to see at the edge of the wood, shutting out the sun as they ambled in our direction, the open door easy to glimpse. The place where I needed to be.

I tried to speak, but held back knowing the pain, instead holding my hand out, finger pointed toward the house.

Ryan shook his head.

“Change of plan,” he said.

“No,” I croaked, pulling myself upright and turning the way he’d dragged me, taking one step and then another as I squinted into the darkness of the woods as it pulled us in deeper. “No,” I said again, putting one step forward after the other. My pace built with Ryan at my side, the pain throbbing as each beat careered through my body. On and on I jogged, jumping over fallen trees, finding the energy somewhere to bound over roots sticking out, swerving left and right to avoid the undergrowth until I could see the ground fall away out of sight, my lips painful as they curled into a smile.

“Shoot them,” I said, holding back a repeat, fearful of another painful flare. Repeating once more but only in gesture, pointing to the crowd now barely visible with the naked eye. He stared back, turned, squinting, but soon followed my outstretched finger, the rifle stayed pointing to the ground. When he made no move, no effort, I grabbed the rifle ignoring his dumbfounded stare. Dropping to one knee, I shut out his protests, shut out his fears, pushed my eye to the sight and centred the iron in the view. With tip touching the movement, the white of a head bobbing in and out of view, I fired. 

Not waiting for the echo to die, not waiting for the rustle of birds to get to their wings, the scrape and scrabble of those on the ground escaping on four legs from their hideouts, I fired again and again until the echo of the empty click gave me no other choice. Still, I left the gun level, ignoring Ryan’s feet, ignoring him searching for movement, for a large tree to climb or some other escape. I watched them grow bigger in the view, standing as they grew near, moving back, closer and closer to the river until I no longer needed the sight to see the detail, the bruised, broken faces, limbs missing, the same shade of red they all wore. I threw the rifle to the ground, following Ryan’s downward glance as it clattered against a stone, adding to the racket.

Knowing Ryan would fix to the spot, I grabbed the arm of his shirt, dragging him from his stare, peeling him from the approaching crowd, letting go only as the ground fell steeper, giving neither of us a choice but to fall knee deep into the river. Splashing through the water, slapping my feet to the surface, we reached the other side to find the bank too steep to climb, our feet sinking into the rapid incline. Twisting around, heads rose over the bounds, teeth gnashing as they fixed their stares on the veins proud in our necks. I saw through milky white eyes. I saw their dreams of our blood coursing, could feel as if inside their riddled minds, their instincts desperate to pull our flesh open.

Chapter Eighty Seven

To my right Ryan stood, his eyes wide on the crowd, the haze of their stench rolling out before them. Beyond him the river bared to the left, sweeping in the perfect direction despite its narrowing, despite the water running fast, despite the surface white with foam like a big No Entry sign. To my left the water stretched out turning away from the village as it widened, as the banks fell gently either side, levelling with the calm flow, calling with its calm surface, calling from the wrong direction.

The choice was clear; the choice required now; the creatures stumbling down the bank, falling to their knees, head over heels, already rising to their feet unsteady with the flow. Still, we stood with the bank no longer visible for falling bodies, my head left and right, ignoring the pain as I twisted back and forth, turning left to safety, but away from the house, turning right to danger and the goal I couldn’t give up.

With no time to discuss, Ryan would make his choice, and determined not to look back, I turned to the crowd, their bodies stumbling, piling up to dam the edge of the river, but as a group, closing the distance each moment. I moved right, pushing through the growing flow, not looking back, not wanting to know his decision.

The water deepened with every step, but still I didn’t look around, didn’t want to see the creatures following me on the bank, didn’t want to see Ryan not following, heading the other way or overcome by the dead’s advance. Forcing on, the pressure against my legs gave me hope I couldn’t be followed by those without dexterity, the rising level my only concern. I edged toward the far bank now on my right; the mud rising higher than I could see over even if I stood out of the water. With my hand I grasped for roots I couldn’t find, something to hold as the flow grew with every step. I found nothing but the sheer walls of dense dirt. Breath pulled in as the water reached my crotch, the pain in my throat less than I’d expected as the air pulled in with the cold shock. I took the silver lining.

With the water reaching over my hips, I clawed the air for traction, white foam bubbling around my belly, my eyes fixed forward, searching out the banks in the darkness. My next footfall landed higher than I expected and tripped forward only to be drawn back by the current, swept the wrong direction against my will, my lungs pulling sharp at the air as I sank, the water above my shoulders. A firm grasp grabbed at the scruff of my jacket and I was high in the water again, cold wind washing across my soaked clothes, pulled close to Ryan and to my feet. I grabbed him around the waist and we trudged on, holding against each other as the banks slowly spread, lowering with every step, the flow calming, the water receding. Excess water cascaded down our bodies, the wet remains clinging tight, pushed firm by the chill in the air as we shivered for heat. About to pull to the left, I turned, stared down the river, surprised by the distance, surprised by the clear banks. We hadn’t been followed. The plan had worked.

With slow, considered steps, we stepped from the water and onto the grass, fixing to the spot each time the water gave any sound, glancing around, ready to climb back in at any moment. No milky white eyes stared back as we walked the grass through the last of the thinning trees and into the meadow at the edge of the village. We watched along the side of wood, my gaze constant reaching out the last house by the only road running through the settlement. We’d done it, we’d thrown them off the scent, the only price to pay was the constant vibration of each part of our body, the chills running deep into our core. We had to get out of these clothes, had to change and fast before hypothermia took away our choices.

Together we ran across the meadow peering through the trees, switching ahead every other moment, waiting for the time when we’d see the creatures and the timer would start before we had to run again. It wasn’t until we cleared the trees, rounding the wood on our side of the road, we realised we were on the wrong side of the fence and saw movement within its boundary, the olive drab vehicles crowded the other side, the house I was so desperate to avoid, the house I had no choice but to enter.

Steeling myself with a deep breath, my teething chattering so much I thought at any moment they would fall out, I jumped, catching the tall top of a fence panel, hanging from the edge as it swayed under my weight, until I felt Ryan’s hands so warm, so large, around my waist, lifting me until I had my arms resting on the top, my feet on his hands boosting me high. Precarious on the top of the fence it swayed with my movement, but the concrete at its feet stopped it from toppling. Twisting over the edge, I lowered too fast, keen to avoid the discarded bodies, my knees banged against the metal like a bass drum as I landed.

I couldn’t stay and wait for his climb, knew the drum would have called them near. Finding a pistol was easy. Pulling it from the holster soaked in blood was not when despite my best will, I couldn’t take my eyes from the empty cavity where its owners organs should have sat. Picking my way around the truck blocking my view, I ran toward the first house, ignoring it entirely, instead fixing my gaze on the wide open door to its side. I saw straight through to the garden and the place I’d run, my escape route after I’d killed the woman I once thought I loved. In the background I heard feet landing to the road, but soon a heavy tone in the air took my attention, a tone which could be only one thing, but I took longer than I should have to realise I’d been right as we’d first approached the village. There had been a reason the army penned the creatures in.

The sound grew louder as Ryan arrived at my back, soon turning, looking to the sky using his hand to shade his eyes from the sun. It was there even though it couldn’t be see it. It was there even though it would be too late for us when we did. But we had no choice. We had nowhere to run, so I carried on regardless and climbed the stairs thinking how Toni would have laughed if the bombs hit as I stood over the place where I’d taken her life.

Chapter Eighty Eight

Ryan didn’t follow, instead staying behind to barricade the doorway, the drag of furniture so reminiscent but I couldn’t recall from which place or when. How many times had we repeated this process since the world changed? I didn’t know, couldn’t tell, concentrating lifting my heavy legs while I thought of anything but what I would find. Thought of anything but the flashbacks I knew would come, along with the embellishments my brain added as a punishment for my crime.

I looked down, my stare peering halfway up the stairs. Was this the first of the tricks played by my mind, or was the line of blood, widening as it rose, real or just in my head? I couldn’t remember if it had been there before. Was it dark when I was last here? I think so, but I couldn’t be sure. Was it hers? The question I should ask, but should I already know from the colour, or did it have a smell, her delicate scent I’d tasted so many times? If I truly loved her, should I be able to tell? I couldn’t. Did that answer my question? I shook my head and lifted another step. 

With Ryan still busy at the foot of the stairs and despite my legs gaining weight, or my muscles losing strength with each rise, I made it to the landing, following the blood rising to a pool in the centre. Yes, I had seen this before. My hand reached out to the soaking wet bandage I’d forgotten until now. I looked down, following the blood smearing, blotting with each of my damp prints. Turning up to the spread of blood, the previous events which hadn’t taken place in this house slowly drifted through my head and I raised the pistol, the butt sticky with blood and I pulled back the slide, priming the chamber with a bullet and pushed it out to lead the way.

Despite my fear, I turned left, knowing it was the place I least wanted to go. Knowing it was the most likely location for what I sought, the keys to the van. Or at least I told myself it was what I looked for.

The room was dark; the curtains pulled closed, the air heavy and perhaps not all the atmosphere projected by me. Try as I might I couldn’t see any detail from where I stood at the door. Try as I might I couldn’t stop the chatter of my teeth, the constant vibration of my limbs, the wave of the gun as it swayed left and right to counter the buzz of my frozen arms. Try as I might I couldn’t see beyond the bed, couldn’t see past the mattress, the space between where I’d been held down, where I was close to being raped, later handcuffed, betrayed. Couldn’t see beyond there and the window. With one step I drew a shallow breath, lungs stuttering to take all the air in one go, my face expressionless, pistol still pointed out into the vague darkness. With the second step I let out an exhale, letting my eyes close but only for a moment, before they shot wide and I surged forward when her form appeared, projected at the window, knowing it was only inside my head.

The sudden movement stopped the shakes, calmed my convulsions as I grabbed at the curtains. Sweeping left and right, drawing back as the light poured, my eyes opening, tears rolling down my face, hitting the carpet soaked in blood as my eyes darted between each of the littered bandages and red sodden dressings. I saw the chaos in my head, watched myself disappear down the stairs, watched Toni’s mother catch her in her arms, lay her to the floor, breathless and silent as she fought to find the wound, screaming the house down for help.

I watched as more joined the panic, as lights crowded, pouring their beams on the holes in her chest, her clothes pulled up and discarded. I opened my eyes, searched the floor, but found nothing. All that remained was her life force spread across the floor.

I crouched, the tears landing on the back of my left hand as I touched the tip of my index finger to the ground. The blood sticky, not dry. I watched as the pain drained from her face in the torchlight. I watched as she replayed my destructive force over and again in her head, her last thoughts before they brought the long black bag, before they zipped her up from heel to head.

The stairs creaked. I looked up. They hadn’t made a noise as I’d climbed. At least I hadn’t noticed. I looked back down begging for the pain once more, begging for the punishment to fill my heart, but I couldn’t concentrate, the noise on the floor too great. I stood, whispering his name.

“Ryan,” I said in a voice only someone next to me would hear, but the reply was greater than I could have expected. Ryan’s voice shouted a hurried command, a panic male voice matching his volume. The two bucks squared off with indistinct, hurried words, but as I took the first steps with the gun shaking out it front, an explosion drowned everything out, throwing me off my feet and on to the bed, shattering the window, spraying razors of glass.

Chapter Eighty Nine

Numb body. Numb between my ears. Each part of me felt like it had lost some feeling. The smell of burnt flesh, burnt plastic, a cocktail of unpleasantness circled around the room, swirling as it mingled with the thin smoke clawing at my lungs. A shot of wind blasted against my sodden clothes waking me as the heat turned to a chill coursing along my spine. Glass fell to the duvet, chattering as I rose from the bed, every muscle ached as I lifted my head, as I arched my back to straighten out the kink. I saw the keys lain on the floor next to the bedside table in a pile of glass by the far wall. A flurry of delight rushed up from my stomach until I realised the van, in all likelihood, would be useless, totalled and a fitting ending, an apt punishment leaving my humanity to end when night fell.


His face flashed into my head and I stood, stretching out the crick in my neck, grasping for the gun just out of reach, gripping tight as I rounded the bed, knowing I needed to save at least one bullet. With dwindling hope I scooped up the keys and ran from the room, not looking back through the missing window, not looking down to the blood soaked carpet. Steadying myself, searching after bounding over the scarlet puddle in the hallway, my eyes looked left, looked right, the gun following shortly after, my neck just loose enough to follow.

To my right I saw the soles of feet upturned, pointed to the ceiling, trainers I could guess Ryan would wear, the ankles dressed in white socks disappearing behind a bed. I took a step, promising to take more notice next time, if given a chance. Glass crushed under my feet, but my eyes drew to the fluttering of the curtain, the plume of smoke passing by the window, carried in the wind across the view, its source somewhere in the distance. The bomb, the explosive, the missile, whatever, must have targeting the woods because we weren’t dead. I’d seen the result of targeted strikes before, had stood with in the blue press body armour and the bulky helmet, had seen the gutted buildings, watching on while families picked through the rubble for their missing.

I sped, under no illusion my steps could be the first and last if the roar of jet engines were heard on the wind, but on my next step a figure dressed in dark clothing emerged from the right of the room, creeping out of a cupboard. His hand held around his chest, his arm reaching down to Ryan, for his gun dropped in the blast, I knew, even though I couldn’t see past the bed. With a blink of my eye I pulled the trigger bypassing conscious thought, the explosive cracking through the air before I realised what happened, the man slumping to the ground, his reach dropping as Ryan’s foot twitched to life.

Bursting forward, my eyes taking in the detail for the first time. His black jacket, black trousers, everything dark, even the paint covering his skin, all but his nose flat to his face, the paint smudged clean off. The wound in his shoulder poured with dark treacle as I grabbed him by the shoulder and rolled him onto his back. It was the soldier I knocked unconscious, his left hand holding a scarlet dressing to his stomach. He’d been in the room when I’d killed Toni. It was his nose which popped against my knee. It was his gun I shot her with and now he was here, bleeding to death, already dying maybe.

I slapped him square on his cheek, his eyes flying open, blood and black paint sliding off with my hand. For a moment he stared on, but I caught the moment of realisation, the time when he remembered. Intrigued by what he saw in his head, was is it my face as I lay asleep on the bed, bound with my arms spread across the mattress or was he the one who disconnected the ropes only to force my unconscious hands into the cuffs behind my back, or was it my face in the darkness before he bent down and I smashed him in the face?

Wherever it was, I only needed him for one thing, only needed him to answer one question. I slapped him hard and pushed the nose of the gun into the exit wound I’d caused, damming the blood, electrifying his senses.

“Where the fuck has the bitch gone?” I shouted, ignoring Ryan’s rise and his open mouth stare in my peripheral vision.

He stuttered, the words catching in his throat as he fought to hold back the scream. I lingered with the gun, letting my insides boil with the memories playing in my head. Out of the blue my parents faces were in my mind, looking down from up high shaking their head. I pulled the gun from the ragged hole, his face relaxing the instant the metal withdrew. I watched the blood drip from the muzzle as I brought it up level with his face and breathed a long, deep breath through my nose.

“Where the fuck is the bitch?” I said and he turned his eyes up from the ground, locking his to mine, the pain in his expression all but gone.

“Which one?” he said, letting out an exhausted breath. I switched a look to Ryan who stared on with his mouth hanging open as he climbed to his feet, my mind was numb, thinking about what he could mean. Why would I ask where a dead woman was? Of course I meant her mother. Of course I meant the boss.

“The one in charge,” I said turning back from Ryan as he edged back in the room, flinching out to the window, his eyes shooting wide and his finger pointing to the sky.

A wry smile came across the guy’s face.

“Hospital, down south. Stage three,” he said, reciting words he knew so well.

“Where?” I shouted over Ryan’s panicked calls to get to the floor.

“St Buryan Hospital, conducting field trials. The mother too.”

My arm fell under the weight of the gun, the weight of his words. Had I got this right? Was she alive? Was she more of a liar than I could have ever known? I needed to sit. I needed to think on the words. I had to interrogate further, but first I needed calm, quiet, a moment to get myself together. The moment came in slow motion as I sat to the bed. Ryan diving, soundless to the floor despite his agitated breath. The soldier collapsing to the ground, blood pooling around him, the shock wave from the second explosion ripping the curtains from the window, pushing me sideways, forcing my eyes closed.

Chapter Ninety

Still numb, but not from the explosion, I picked myself up, dust falling to the ground, stepping over the body, pulling Ryan up by the arm. I led the way down the stairs, ears ringing, my view on the world swimming like jelly. I didn’t stop to check left and right, didn’t look for the dead searching us out. With my view fixed on a patch of white panel, the letters down the side I’d clung to for so many years, I trudged, hand clasped around his, pulling, dragging as he stumbled by my side. In my periphery I saw cars shunted, their windows smashed, the cacophony of alarms coming into the focus, the great fire consuming the woods, the spay of wooden shrapnel everywhere I placed a foot.

I saw movement, saw creatures, their bodies covered in red, skin torn off, stripped bare with the wave of energy. They saw us, walked our way, stumbling no more, no less than before. Ryan gripped my hand tight by my side as he built his strength and we dragged each other, both knowing our direction as the pace built to a level we could barely manage, our course steered only to avoid the debris, the cars blown in our path, shards of fist sized wooden splitters peppering each body panel.

I took no notice as a dead soldier, or at least the half remaining, reached out to grasp as I stepped over. Ryan pulled me to the side just out of its reach, my face not reacting, mouth not turning from the thin line, as numb as my body and ahead I trudged on, relief barely breaking the surface as I saw the van was too far from the blast to break out the windows.

The keys were in my hand in an automatic action, without a memory of my fingers reaching inside my jacket where I must have put them. The realisation came as I pushed the thin metal into the lock, the handle clicking when I pulled up and the clawed fingers reached through the gap, a foul odour rolling out, waking me from my trance. I stumbled backward, slamming hard to the hastily erected metal fence.

I’d forgotten all about her. The woman we’d picked up, the woman who’d helped me rescue Toni. Toni had turned on her in the back of the truck. At the time I’d accepted the accident in the heat of the moment. The suffocation as we’d tried to evade those in authority, tried to prevent ourselves from being trapped again. But now I knew it wasn’t the full story, there was more to her than I could have known. Now was again not the time to process this new information as the woman fell from the back of the van drew up to her feet to exact her revenge. I stood, staring on, watching the last of my days flash back, trying to test each of her words, each of her actions from a whole new perspective.

Ryan charged in from my side, pushing the woman down to the ground, lifting a pistol from a soldier’s hand, without the top half of his head he had no use for it, and slammed two rounds to shatter her skull. The explosion woke me from my daydreaming to Ryan’s concerned stare, his wide eyed look asking a question. Was I broken beyond repair?

I answered his question; I owed him that much and more.

“Thank you,” I said. “This is fucked up,” I added and he gave a slow nod in reply. “We’d better go,” I said looking to the sky, hoping the dot on the horizon wasn’t another jet, looking to the woods, knowing the blackened smoking creatures walking towards us were exactly what I knew them to be. He nodded again after following my view, slamming the door behind him as he climbed in after, sliding the bolt as he followed me to the passenger seat, both of us holding our hands over our mouths in a futile attempt to keep from breathing the stench she’d left behind.

The engine started and I almost gagged as the breath of relief came and I turned to the window, but knew I couldn’t give them even a crack to get their clawed fingers into, so I sucked down the bile and heaved the steering wheel to avoid the car pushed up against the bumper.

I closed my eyes as the engine pushed the van backwards and tried not to think of the crushing bones the suspension couldn’t mask as it pitched us one way and then the next, bumping into the fence, slamming us to a hard stop as the bumper banged, the sound resounding like a bass drum. Swapping glances with Ryan, I could see his knuckles white on the armrest and door handle either side and was ready to shout him down if he so much as offered to drive.

Moving forward I couldn’t pretend it was just a bumpy road, despite my attempts. We could see the bodies, those of dead soldiers and residents, those who had died and stayed dead and those who had not, before the great tyres rolled over in vain of my best efforts to avoid. I guessed there were at least half of the creatures left alive by the blast as they swarmed towards us and I checked my door was locked more times than I could have counted while we rolled along watching the horizon for an opening in the fence, watching the skyline for the dot in the centre growing bigger with every moment.

It was then we realised at the same time we hadn’t thought this through. Yes, we were safe in the van despite the surrounding crowd, but we had nowhere to go, had no chance to get away from the next missile surely on its way. I stopped with the bonnet of the van almost at the fence, then let it drip forward, nudging into contact with the metal. There was a pop, a grind of metal as we made contact, but we stayed firm, as did the fence, my mind’s eye on the other side and the great concrete blocks sat on the wide feet at its base. I looked up, the dot was growing, hands slapped at the windows but neither of us jumped. Hands slapped at the panels as the engine revved with the dot growing larger.

I turned and asked his down-turned face a question.

“Is this how it ends?”

Chapter Ninety One

He didn’t reply to my fear, but turned to the hands slapping at the window and fixed for a moment until his head slowly crept around, his eyes wide, stopping on the growing dot above the fence line.

“No,” he said, the words loud. “The gardens, the wooden fences,” he said. “That’s how we can get out!”

I paused for a moment, the words catching in my mind, as they progressed the route appeared in my head, tracing the journey back from where we sat in the van, through the crowd scratching at the paintwork, turning the corner down the short street, the road turning to gravel, veering right just before the metal fence, seeing the clear air over the two short sets of fences to the rolling hills beyond.

“Yes,” I said, my eyes wide, looking up to the dot which was growing. It was too slow to be a plane, wasn’t a jet racing towards us to fire another salvo and I pushed it out of my mind, letting the accelerator go, letting the engine calm but only for a moment before jabbing the clutch, crunching the stick to engage reverse. Heavy on the accelerator, I let the clutch up, but the van moved less than half the turn of a wheel before it slammed to a stop and the engine stalled, leaving only the moan coming through the windows.

I looked up to the dot, a thought coming into focus with engine quiet, only the low hum from outside left behind.

“It’s a UAV,” I said looking to Ryan. “A drone. It must be,” I said as the thin wings were just in view. I saw the relief in his face, the corners of his mouth raising, despite knowing it was getting bigger as I looked back. “You know they carrying the same missiles as a Tornado, right?”

“How do you know all this?” he said. “Oh right,” he replied to himself as he saw my left eyebrow raised.

His eyes widened as he turned, then looked back to the aircraft and I followed. His breath caught, mine did too but without the noise as we saw a line of smoke appear on the horizon from the aircraft’s belly.

“Get down,” I said, pushing myself down to the middle of the van, my head crouching over the gear stick, just seeing Ryan heading the same way as I fell.

The explosion came much sooner than expected, the missile travelling the distance to its destination in a time which made me question. I looked up, not afraid of a fireball, seeing the rising cloud of smoke, of hot energy coming over the high fence some distance away. We weren’t the target. Ryan’s voice confirming.

“It’s not us,” he said, our eyes latching back on the dot in the sky gaining definition with every passing moment.

“Not yet,” I said.

“But,” he said, the words stuttering to a stop. “But they’ve got cameras right, they can see what’s going on back in the bunker.” I nodded. “If they see us, they won’t attack? Right?”

I paused for a moment.

“I guess,” I said looking through my window, the view only going as far as the face smearing a brown sticky fluid the other side. I turned to Ryan’s, looking past his optimism and through the glass seeing the near mirror image of mine, but through his was a person who’s gender I couldn’t tell, their features burnt off, hair gone in the blast. All that remained was dark flaking skin, lumps of which stayed behind as it scraped along the glass.

“You wanna get out and wave your hands in the air,” I said as I brought my focus back to the falling features on his face. He tilted his head to the side, but stopped himself from flicking his eyes to the window.

“Get us the fuck out of here,” he said, his voice resigned and I jabbed the accelerator down, letting go of the clutch and remember why we hadn’t moved, had gone nowhere yet. I remembered as the van moved back less than a centimetre, watching the fence flexed out as much, holding us firm as if tied by the bumper, the ground rocking, heat coming through the windscreen as we caught the evaporating trail of a missile exploding so much nearer than the last. 

Chapter Ninety Two

“We’re stuck,” he said. “We’re clinging to the fence,” he added, urgency raising the words as I turned with heavy eyes, mouth hanging open.

“Really?” I said twisting back as I dipped the clutch, pulling my foot from the accelerator.

“How?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I replied, my words loud, lowering only as I swore under my breath. A distant memory of a snowy day flooded into my concentration, the one week of iced water falling from the sky we’d get every five years blotted out the moan, the scrape of fingers down the window. I’d booked a driving lesson not knowing the forecast and with my test only around the corner, I was keen to be out on the road as much as I could. I wanted to cancel, my parents wanted me to cancel, but my driving instructor insisted it was an excellent opportunity for specialised practise. So I drove along, inching down the roads like I had a case of eggs on the back seat, but still I got stuck in the centre of a quiet road not visited by the ploughs. It was inevitable when the wheels turned and we went nowhere no matter how hard I pushed the accelerator.

I tried to remember my instructor’s words. Slid the gear stick into first, pushing on the accelerator and pulling up the clutch just enough for the van to rock forward, then I dipped the clutch again as we rocked back, added to the momentum with a little reverse, then switching back and forth until we were rocking in a decent rhythm. When I thought I couldn’t get more power into the forward swing, I jabbed the accelerator back as we changed direction and let the left pedal all the way out, clenching my teeth, not looking to Ryan as I held my breath.

A snap of metal came from the front and we jolted back. I let the clutch down, breath stole from my lungs as I celebrated the victory whilst bones crunched under the wheels, watching forward waiting for the creature’s expressions to form the disappointment, forgetting they had no command of expression. I hurried my view to the left mirror, mindful of the cars parked, strewn in our path, catching only a glance as my vision swung around to the metal hook attached to the fence and hanging from it a black section of plastic I knew would be missing from our bumper.

“Holy shit,” came Ryan’s voice. Not the response I’d expected and I swapped to his face. “Can’t they see we’re moving, don’t they know the dead can’t drive,” he said, his breath running hard. I didn’t look up, didn’t turn to the drone getting closer, didn’t look for the missile released, instead concentrated on turning the van, trying to avoid the creatures and the great trunks of trees littering the road as I tried to keep as much momentum while I twisted the van around.

With each turn of the wheel, each crutch of the tyres, each time I couldn’t avoid a great splinter, a great chunk of concrete, I thought we’d grind to a halt. I knew I had to keep the momentum up, had to keep our speed as I followed the journey I’d takin in my mind only moments before. The layouts were as I’d expected, the details much the same, only the van was harder to control, the sideways shift of our weight greater as the van listed in the turn. Ryan and I leant the other way in a vain attempt to balance gravity from taking us over and somehow we made it, the wheels scraping along the kerbstones, aiding our upright hold. Still, I piled on the speed, my eyes fixed on the last minute change of direction I’d need, the turn we’d have to make, the second leap of faith we’d need to believe in, to take us through the fence and into the garden to carry us still onward, crashing through the wooden panels and out into the freedom of the grass hills.

We made it almost intact, just leaving the air from the front left tyre behind, the suspension feeding us every lump in the grass, every divot, every hole bleeding our speed with every revolution of the rim despite my foot being flat to the floor. I had little control, but somehow kept us facing out to the moor. Kept us heading away from the village and the great gaping hole I’d made in what had kept us safe before, in what had kept those around us from the horde. Now what remained of the creatures, burnt and skinless, would be free to roam if they survived the explosions raining down from the sky.

The van came to its rest and I leapt out, Ryan throwing me the gun as he dived under for the spare tyre whilst I took slow paces toward the hole we’d crashed through and the first creatures making their way in a long trail, snaking into view. I counted thirty in their slow amble which wouldn’t be slow enough, before Ryan was out from under with the tyre. I checked the clip, counting ten rounds and wandered how I would kill three of the blackened creatures with each bullet.

Chapter Ninety Three

At my command, it seemed at first, an explosion lit up the back end of the undead procession. Disintegrated flesh went skyward in a foul spray, the pieces slapping down to the ground in a shower I could only use my forearm to protect against. Ignoring the stench of burnt flesh, I looked up the drone now clear in my view. I wanted to wave at the pilots, wanted to see their faces so I could thank them, shake their hands, put them on camera to tell the nation not to worry because they were on the case, wanted to tell everyone they had our backs even though they were in no danger of contracting the terrible disease themselves.

As I watched with those thoughts running through my head, I looked back to the trail and counted what remained, raising a laugh because now I only had to put down two with each of my shots. I stepped back, waiting for the next launch to even the odds, ready to turn and take cover from the spray of barbecued stink. The whine of the drone’s engine changed as I counted and my heart fluttered, my optimism in danger of draining even before I twisted up to the sky. I saw its grey underbelly as it turned away, its thin wings empty of the missiles which could cut the odds to something more manageable, like one or two for me to despatch.

Pulling in a deep breath, I glanced behind, but turned away at Ryan’s frustration, the jack ripped from the under the van as he released it to stop it from sinking through the grass with each turn of the handle. I closed my eyes, letting my breath free, drawing another though my nose, regretting as I did, but not stopping, stubbornness forcing me to endure the foul air. Opening my eyes, I bit back the surprise as I saw they’d been closing the gap for longer than I thought, the creatures so much closer, two seconds more and they’d be in arms reach. I had to give Ryan time and lots of it, so I ran at a right angle, heading deeper to the moor, watching their heads for a decision, watching what remained of their minds choose who would be on the buffet. I forced the decision, firing off a shot which glanced off the lead creature’s shoulder, increasing the number I would need to kill with each remaining round as its blood sprayed in lumps on its shorter companion, the rest of its individuality destroyed by the raging fires.

I had to slow my backwards walk, the ground unsteady, my first few stumbles too much for my heart to take. A second shot reassured those whose decisions were waning. I am the tastier treat and took out the twice-baked creature, causing its following companion to fall over, giving welcome time to catch my breath.

With one eye on the rising van, I led them further away, my mind turning to the water still in my trainers, the dampness running through my clothes and the rub of harsh fabric on the seams of my skin. What I wouldn’t give for a rest, a cat nap then maybe a shower, or a soak in a bath surrounded by scented candles, drying myself with a fluffy warm towel and stepping into dry clothes not covered in decaying human flesh. I thought of Toni, her smile as she knelt down beside the bath, her fingers dancing on the surface of the water, promising her touch.

I stumbled back, twisting around to see what had caught my foot, my hands wheeling through the air, the pistol heavy until it fell. At first I thought it was a judge’s wig, then I saw its belly wide open, the great rend surrounding a cavity picked clean of the organs which should have been inside, blood and dark gristle clinging to the woollen edges. All this seen before my ass hit the grass, sending a jarring pain shooting up through my spine, freezing my body with panic as I looked to the cloudless blue sky, all too soon interrupted with a blackened, bald head rearing down, its yellowed teeth pocking out from burnt gums, snapping open and closed. My eyes fixed on the pink of its tonsils as the sky blotted out, my hands blind as they swept the ground either side for the gun they just couldn’t find.

Chapter Ninety Four

The fingers of my right hand jarred against something cold and hard, curling around before I knew what it was, bringing it up before I could move my head, leaving my coordination alone to draw the rock down on the wide jaw sending its head twisting around. With a second blow, my heels pushed hard to get a grip, the rock smashing against its temple, the thick blood spraying out the least of my concerns. The charred animal went down, falling on top of me, its heavy head slapping to my empty belly, sending a wave of pain and nausea up through my throat, but I was more concerned to feel for its teeth unpicking my flesh.

When the pain didn’t sear through my once white vest, I knew it was out cold, or dead. I had no time to think about whether they had a consciousness to come out of. Two charcoaled creatures took its place in the attack, one either side with their hands out in front, lip-less mouths wide as they mashed their teeth. I threw the rock at the head of the one to the left, regretting as soon as my fingers released, the rock bouncing harmless from the side of its face, landing with a thump to my stomach and forcing the wind from my chest as my hands flailed left and right, pushing and shoving whilst trying to keep clear of both sets of mouths.

My hand slapped hard against a flash of white to my right, the pain radiating up my arm feeling bones broken into too many bits, stars in my eyes as I shook my head. There was only one row of assailants left, the right side clear, but I couldn’t tell how many had vanished, the one handed defence taking all my will. White flashed again, but this time to the left, the black of the creature attacking silhouetted against white, the large letters so well recognised hovering above its head.

With the slam of a door, Ryan appeared at my side, the creature punched in the head, then twice more. Ryan bent down and my ears exploded with noise and I was up in the air on my feet, pushed in through the open passenger door into the warmth. The van bounced over the ground as my hand throbbed nestled against my chest.

Breath settling, I watched the strewn bodies lifeless, but they had been before, now the word held new meaning. The bodies were still, except for one which some had power over its arms, the only bones able to hold weight. I watched as we drove past the abandoned flat tyre, the block of wood Ryan must have found in the back to rest the jack on top of, stopping it disappearing as he lifted the weight. The sky was clear until I peered over to the village where the wind blew the thick smoke in the opposite direction changing the bright daylight to night as it seemed there wasn’t a single part of the horizon not burning, not smouldering. I took hope in the strategy. The bombing had worked, despite our breach in their containment. There were no undead still walking.

Maybe, just maybe, this was the beginning of the end.

The pain had dulled by they time we were back on the smooth tarmac, my eyes scouring the horizon, scouring the sky for movement, for any sign of the living, for any sign of the dead.

“Thank you,” I said. 

“No need,” he replied. “You gave me the time I needed. I’m sorry about the hand. How is it?”

I looked down, afraid of what I’d see, but it wasn’t deformed or out of shape. The skin was darkening underneath and swelling up as I watched. I tried a tentative movement. My fingers wiggled slow, which was as brave as I got.

“I don’t think it’s broken, but it fucking hurts.”

“I’m sorry,” he replied.

“Rather the pain, than being dead.” 

He didn’t reply, instead placed the gun he’d left resting on his lap, to the seat in between us and fixed his face forward.

“What now?” he eventually said as he slowed for a T-junction with no signs showing the way.

“St Buryan,” I said, pulling out the Sat Nav from the glove compartment, handing it over to Ryan after trying to turn it on with my left hand.

He nodded and found the town, letting the mini computer choose the route, taking the left road as the van rolled slowly forward, the numbers in the corner falling from sixty as we did.

“We’re stopping for a change of clothes too,” he said and I closed my eyes, the thought of the candlelit bath coming into focus. “And painkillers and food.”

I let a smile bloom on my lips as we rolled slowly down the narrow country road only just wide enough for the white lines to mark the two lanes, but it fell as Toni’s image appeared in my mind. Her bruised face, the emptiness in my stomach when I first saw her in that place, the sound of her voice as she made the call which brought me here, which tempted me back to her. I’d fallen all the way down the rabbit hole at her command. She’d called me for help, said she needed me, but was it really the reason I came, or was it the want of a story.

Ryan’s voice saying my name turned me away from the window I stared as if with my lids shut. I drew my eyes back to road and saw another junction, this time leading four ways. I looked to the little screen, saw we wanted to head straight over, but giant concrete cubes blocked the way and even if we could get passed, cars parked the other side with their doors open, boot lids high, glass missing from the windows. Bodies lay across the road, I counted more as the van trundled on, slowing within each passing moment.

I saw soldiers, civilians and a tear caught in my eye as I watched a young body in a red top, its colour leeching to the road. My eyes caught on a column of black smoke rising in the distance, then on another, five more fires scattered across the view, but it wasn’t until I saw a figure walking towards us from between the cars, a line of blue seen through the great hole in their once pristine white coat, that the emptiness returned to my stomach and I closed my eyes.

“Oh my god Toni. What had you done?”

Chapter Ninety Five

“Get the camera out,” I said, turning to Ryan. He pushed the brake pedal and we rocked to a stop, staring back open-mouthed. “We’ve got to film this, we’ve got to let people know. This is how we can help, this is how we can make a difference.” He looked on, staring wide eyed, his only reaction was to turn away, wiping his mouth with his right hand, taking a hard swallow.

“This is worse than we could have imagined,” he said. “I thought back there, I thought it could be the end of this. I thought it was over.” 

I nodded. 

“So did I,” I said, sliding along the seats, twisting toward him and placing my left hand on his shoulder, sucking back the pain as I shuffled. “There’s no dressing it up. This couldn’t be worse, it could be the end of the country, the end of the world, but we could give people a change if they can prepare, but they have to know what’s going on first. We could have a chance if those responsible were stopped from doing whatever it was they were trying to do.” If only I could live through the night without killing you, I didn’t say. He looked to my hand as it drifted down his arm. I pulled away, watching his brow lower. “We need to tell the world,” I said, ashamed of the pleading in my tone. “We need to find her and tell everyone what she’s done.”

He didn’t reply straight away, his eyes turning back to the road, fixing on the child’s body laying alone, then up to the creature passing between the blocks, its white eyes fixed square on our windscreen.

Ryan nodded, not turning to meet me.

“But not here. We need to keep safe, need to find somewhere to rest, get out of these wet clothes, find food and figure out how these fucking cameras of yours work.”

I looked out through the windscreen. He was right. There would be plenty of time to get some decent footage. I didn’t complain as the wheels rolled, instead forced myself to look at the child, to take in her pale cold face. Forcing the sight to my memory so I could describe her in great detail when I got on the air.

We varied our journey many times to avoid roadblocks found at almost every turn and the congregating dead walking along the line of hemmed-in cars, watching the number in the corner of the Sat Nav rise and fall, the sun sinking in the sky with each passing moment. Whilst in the back of my head a thought I couldn’t put my finger on nagged heavy and despite all my efforts I couldn’t pinpoint its source. After two hours we’d cleared ten miles, when we should have been in the hospital carpark setting up the camera, instead we were watching from so far away as the sun touched the horizon.

When eventually we came across a lone cottage on the side of the road, we both agreed without words we should stop and do the things we knew we should, but both soon decided without conversation this wasn’t the place when we saw the long line of blood covering the path leading up to the front door.

Darkness had fallen not long after, leaving only our headlights, the stars and the moon half bright in the sky. Ryan drove slowly knowing we had no spare tyre, the road so often littered with debris and cars abandoned at the side, pushed at rough angles down ditches and into hedges to clear a path. With little other choice, he pulled the van into the car park of a wide single storey white building, the headlights bright on it sign across the front, giving more than a flutter of optimism at the words ‘Cash and Carry’ in yellow on the dark board.

We drove around the perimeter slowly, turning the wheels to shine the headlights across every surface. The shutters at the front were down, but two wooden rear doors looked like they wouldn’t present Ryan with much of a challenge, if he was any good. Parking around the back to the nearest side door, Ryan emptied his pockets, searching for what, he didn’t say, but placed a brown leather wallet on the seat between us, a frown drawing on his face as in his left hand he pulled a thin metal screwdriver and the handcuffs I’d told him to bring along.

The realisation sparked through my head as I saw the metal bracelets. It had the medicine nagging my thoughts and I stood, my rise pulling at every aching nerve in my hand. I pushed between the seats into the back of the van, jabbing the light switch above my head and saw the vile, or what was left, the red liquid soaked into the carpet, drying around the broken glass edges and knew this would be my last night on earth.

Chapter Ninety Six

“We have to do it now. We have to,” I said as Ryan arrived at my back.

A huff of air from his lungs was his only response as I felt him trying to peer past my shoulder.

“Your medicine?” he said and I gave a shallow nod. He kept quiet, not replying for a long moment. “How long have you got?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. Closing my eyes I tried to relax, tried to slow the thoughts racing through my head. How long did I have? How did I feel? I asked myself without speaking. The hunger was obvious, a sensation I’d learnt to dread, but the emptiness in my stomach wasn’t alone, accompanied with a deep pain in my chest and a vacant chasm where blood pushed out across my body.

“What can I do?” Ryan said, his voice solemn.

“We should go,” I replied with no time between the words.

“It’s too dangerous at night. We’ll end up in a ditch on the side of the road or in the middle of nowhere with no chance of help. Is that how you want it to end?”

I stood on the spot, taking in his words. I had to go. I had to be next to Toni when it was all over, but I didn’t want Ryan near me when the end came. The plan formed as the thoughts scattered across my brain. I would wait for him to leave to pick the lock. When the door opened and he was safely inside, I’d take the van and hope I could make it as far as the hospital. I knew she’d welcome me in, knew she’d be grateful to see me and then I’d change, I’d let myself go, let the resistance drop, go all the way without holding myself back. She’d be my first victim, then I’d end it all.

Opening my eyes, I turned to Ryan.

“Never mind,” I said. “Let’s get inside,” and watched as he smiled, turned, picking up the lock picks and handcuffs before opening the window, peering either side for a moment. Soon at the door, he concentrated on the lock as I moved to the driver’s seat watching left and right for visitors, practicing in my mind what I would do when I saw him disappear through the door.

The door opened before I’d thought it all through. He’s skilled, but I wasn’t sure it was something which deserved a compliment. Now was the time and I went to put my hands on the steering wheel, but had to stifle the scream as pain reminded me of how stupid my plan had been.

Ryan was back out, his face beaming, eyebrows twitching when he saw the grit of my teeth as he opened the door.

“You okay?” he said and I nodded. “You’ll love this place,” he added, forcing himself to keep his voice low.

I drew a deep breath, pushing up my on-camera smile and let him help me down the tall step, let him guide me through the door as he pointed a torch out in front.

Ryan saw a corridor with doors to the left and right.

I saw the radiators clinging to the walls, wandering if the pipes would be strong enough to hold the cuffs as I tried to rip my hands free.

Ryan saw the store room packed with rows of boxes on shelves. I saw the door banded with steel, trying to figure out where the owners lept the key and if the windows were reinforced enough to keep Ryan safe in the night.

Ryan saw rows of shelves containing boxes of food, much like a supermarket, racks of clothes on rotary hangers, giant numbers corresponding to multipack boxes at their side. I saw the lack of bolts holding the steel to the concrete floor, knowing I would pull it free, knowing I would drag it behind me when I turned.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” he said, then looked back, almost skipping the way we’d come, pointing to a row of torches hanging on shelves by their fabric cords as he passed.

“Yeah great,” I said, my underwhelming words quiet once he’d gone. “A great place to die,” I said, scanning the shelves, not taking any notice of what I’d seen.

I wandered through the isles, catching sight across the shelves as Ryan made trips outside, his eyes finding mine each time he came through the door carrying the plastic equipment boxes from the back of the van. After locking the door closed, he toured the aisles, his white smile beaming as he bundled blankets, food and water in to his arms before heading to the back of the shop floor. After what must have been half an hour he found me, carrying two lit torches in his hand, passing one over whilst guided me to the rear. I couldn’t stop my mouth forming a smile as I he shined his torch beam on the nest he’d been building.

He’d cleared away racks of clothes, pushed them to the side. In the space cleared he’d piled ten or more blankets on the floor, forming two rectangular beds, both spaced a good distance apart. Around each bed he’d placed unlit candles, batteries and boxes of food beside bottles of water and a first aid kit resting on the top of the bed to the left. My eyebrows raised at the jeans and t-shirt spread in the centre and I twisted, raising my eyebrows.

“Risky business,” I said.

“Huh,” he replied.

“Choosing a lady’s clothes,” I said and couldn’t help but let a gentle laugh trickle after.

“We should change first,” he said, his voice quiet and nervous as he watched my eyes raise until I winced lifting my hand from my chest. “I can,” he said then stopped, filling the air with a pause. “I can help if you don’t mind,” he said, the words slow and broken. “I could turn the lights off?”

His words caught me by surprise. Well, not the words themselves, but my body’s reaction. In the silence I could hear his breath, hear mine too, but I hoped he couldn’t sense the sudden race of the engine in my chest.

Chapter Ninety Seven

With the torches dimmed, my eyes closed anyway, his fingers were at the hem of my vest and I slowly lifted my arms as his hands climbed, my skin prickling with heat, goose bumps rushing across my torso and not just because of the cold air licking at my damp skin. The sensation kept my mind from the pain as I lifted both my hands high, sinking to my knees while he lifted the vest over my head, over my arms as he stood behind, throwing the top to the pile with the jacket. I waited, listening to his breath, somehow the calm air still brushing across my body, licking away the last of the moisture, my skin alive with sensation, every inch prickling with electricity.

“Your bra?” he said, his words slow, punctuated with a heavy swallow and an abrupt finish. The deepness of his voice forced a pull of breath and I shook my head, standing, remembering the darkness.

“I’m not,” I said and he apologised.

“Oh,” he said to the rip of plastic as he pulled the t-shirt from its packet. I knelt in front of him and I opened my eyes, my breath catching in my throat as I could see his outline, his eyes looking away, head shaking. The room was brighter than I’d been expecting, I could see more detail than I thought possible. So could he. I didn’t care where the soft light came from. I knelt, my hands still to the air and looked up as he concentrated, guiding the fabric first over my bad hand, relaxing only when it had cleared, pulling it over the other.

I stood, letting my hands relax, he took one side of the hem and I took the other. Together we pulled down the top slowly, my breath catching as electricity sparked from my pronounced nipples as the fabric snagged as it passed. The rest I could manage, and I let the skirt drop, my hand hovering at the band of my knickers, but I didn’t know why, did not understand how my mouth curled, why I’d bitten down light on my bottom lip. Ryan stared at my silhouette, my shadow looked back, eventually he bent to the side and pulled a pair of fresh underwear from the pile.

“Do you?” he said. I held back my reply, swallowing down my thoughts, confusion at my body’s reaction clouding my mind.

“No, thank you. It’s fine,” I said and took the cotton from his hand and disappeared behind a shelf to finish dressing, waiting longer than it took, taking time to search my thoughts, to resolve the feelings rippling in my head.

“Thank you,” I replied, trying to ignore my disappointment he’d already changed as I arrived back to the clearing, the candles flickering as he stood by his bed.

We sat and ate cold beans from cans without talking, but I didn’t care, each mouthful soothing my pain as I listened to the air void of sound other from my companion eating. Tiredness fogged my thoughts. I hadn’t slept since I didn’t know when and I could feel myself drifting, eyes heavy, my heart beat rising at the thought.

“You need to tie me up,” I said. Ryan sat straight, not giving a reply. “I need to sleep,” I said, but he didn’t get my meaning, his brain frozen on the words. “It’s not safe to be around me. You need to tie me up in case I can’t control myself.”

I felt frustration bubbling in my belly, at least I hoped it was the reason for the feeling. Ryan sat up straight trying to force his smile down.

“I’m not going to fuck you,” I said, the raise of my voice seemed to echo out. “Women are my thing, right,” I said lowering my tone. “You’re safe from my advances, but if the medicine I’ve already had isn’t enough, then you won’t know what hit you.”

With my words his face fell and he stood, disappearing out of the light. I closed my eyes, letting go of a deep breath, using my good hand to rub the water from my eyes.

I heard him before I saw his shape in the light. Heard the rattle of the chain before I saw its gleam in the flicker of the candle, the cuff already around my good wrist, the empty bracelet ready to clip to the free ends once its length had encircled the pipes leading up to the radiator on the far wall.

With the bracelets fixed he didn’t say a word and I lay down, turning back and forth to find comfort and closed my eyes, hoping I would see the morning with the same perspective. Knowing I was in his hands if I survived the night intact. Knowing with my good hand tied, I would defenceless against his or anything else’s advance. My last thoughts couldn’t help but wander if I should have let him down with a little less volume. It wasn’t his fault he was the latest in a long line of people who thought they could change my programming.

In the blink of an eye I opened my eyes. The room was the same, but different in every way with daylight pouring from the skylights I hadn’t noticed last night. An engine revved too hard close by, but it was clear it was moving away. I turned for Ryan to shout for him to wake, to call out so he would know someone was stealing the van, but his hand-build bed was empty, the gun missing from where it had rested at his side. If this wasn’t a dream, I’d made it through the night, but if this wasn’t just inside my head, I’d not only scared away my cameraman, he’d abandoned me and left me for dead.

Chapter Ninety Eight

The pain in my hand told me it wasn’t a dream although the dull ache in my swollen fingers had improved from the sharp stab with each pump of my heart before I’d slept. The rattle of the chain as I sat up rang high in my ears confirming it wasn’t the result of chemicals forming pictures in my mind. As did the hunger deep in my belly when I looked around the ruffled blankets where I’d slept to see if he’d at least left me the key.

He hadn’t.

I should have known. Why had a trusted a man like him? Was he always going to do this all along, despite our burgeoning friendship?

I laughed to myself, shaking my head. Was it only a day since we’d met? But my thoughts darkened as the sound of the engine headed further into the distance. Was it his damaged ego which made him leave? The dent in his masculinity when I’d turned him away, when I’d killed any advance before it could cross his mind. Experience told me what thoughts were heavy in his mind. I’d lumped him with all the men I’d spent time with, each of them who saw me as a challenge, a trophy to turn and etch into the bedpost. A fantasy come true if only he could convince me to bring my girlfriend along to his bedroom.

They’re so kind at first, such gentle men like him. He’d saved my life and me his, but how much of it had been an act to get my clothes off and when he found I wasn’t going to fall, he took off. The pressure rose in my chest, the knot in my stomach growing at the thought of him not even unlocking my bounds or leaving me the key. Knowing I would be at the mercy of the first person to come through the door, alive or otherwise.

Since I was a teen I’d needed no one. Never a man before now and I hated Toni even more for putting me in this position. I knew she’d always wanted me in her control. Our fights, the ends of our serene weeks together came, at least partly because I am my own person. I could never be called hers, would never submit myself fully to another, would never end being me until my heart stopped beating in my chest. At least that phrase still has meaning. Although the dead rose, they weren’t the people they were when they’d lived.

Standing, I traced out the semi-circle with the chain fully extended and my arm stretched as far as it would go. I swallowed down the rising bile of anger and tried to reach out for the shelves as the chain links scratched against the pipe jutting to the wall and into the radiator, the metal like an amplifier. Still, I couldn’t reach any of the shelves and none of the useful items my imagination hoped could help me get free.

My eyes fell on one of rugged plastic boxes open by Ryan’s bed and the smallest of the cameras set up on a tripod, the lens pointing down the aisle; the manual resting open between the three legs.

I held my gaze, stopping my movement, taking a deep breath, my head tilting to the side. The space left by the terrible rattle of the chains filling with confused thought.

Why had he worked to figure out the camera when he would do a runner in the morning?

The thoughts fell from my head as I heard a gun shot in the distance, a second coming soon after with the crunch of gears in the distance. A third soon followed with barely a space as another shook through me, my eyes turning to the windows blocked by the shutters. I pulled hard on the chain, yanking till the tension was too much for my wrist, letting it relax, but it hadn’t come loose, didn’t release its grip. I drew a deep breath, holding still, welcoming the silence, my fear for the noise echoing out through the door sending an invitation to all those around. I hoped it wasn’t too late.

I listened out for more gunfire, for engine sounds, trying to keep still, but while looking around. My eyes caught on anything heavy, water bottles, a can of beans still sealed. Anything I could wield one handed, searching for what would give me the best defence against whatever made the slow, heavy footsteps coming from the corridor.

Chapter Ninety Nine

I gripped the tin of beans bulky in my hand, my wrist weighed down by the chain hanging heavy. With the footsteps getting near I daren’t raise the tin high, afraid the rattle of the metal links would advertise my presence. Breath caught in my lungs as I heard another sound, the drag of something bulky along the floor behind each echoing step. My mind raced to form the worst pictures inside my head.

Searching left and right, desperate to find a space to hide, somewhere to give cover which I’d overlooked all this time, but no matter how my eyes flitted around the clearing, no miraculous safe room appeared for me to enter. Movement flashed into view through the doorway and I raised the can, the chains alive with song as I released towards the figure, the cuffs tight against my wrists, snapping back at the full extent of my reach. The can bounced off the torso, splitting against the tiles, tomato sauce flooding the floor as it skidded to a stop.

I stood open-mouthed, Ryan lifting his head as if struggling to raise, the first stage of a bruise reddening his left cheek. My eyes followed down his arms, skipping from the gun in his right to the bundle of heavy clothes held in his left, a mop of mousey brown hair falling around his hand as he held the bundle by the scruff of a jacket, a trail of blood in their wake.

I backed away until the chain would let me go no further, fear raging through my chest, until his eyes sought mine across the room, wide and seeking my attention. Ryan threw the gun to my bed and bent down, turning the sack over, sweeping the hair to reveal a young woman’s dirty face.

Breath held in my lungs until I remembered to pull deep, watching as he bent over, sliding up his left jeans leg, the bottom of which soaked with blood. He looked up as I peered at the black shard of metal stuck in the side of his ankle, his hand reaching out for the first aid kit beside my bed. I rushed over, the chain rattling as I did and he shook his head, the pain obvious as he pushed his hand to his pocket, pulling the key and swapping it for the open green box.

“What happened?” I said with the key held in my good hand, sticky with his blood drying on my fingers. “I woke and you’d gone. I thought,” I said, but couldn’t continue the words.

He didn’t reply, instead shook his head as he rifled through the contents of the small kit, letting the bandages and dressings spill to the floor. Then as he pulled apart the foil of an antiseptic wipe, he nodded over to the girl who still hadn’t moved.

“Is she okay?” I said, peering over.

“Is she okay,” he replied, the words darting from his mouth.

“You’re fine, looks like a scratch,” I shot back.

He raised his eyebrows, his expression stern. I raised mine back, mimicking his expression until his face melted to a thin smile.

“You were tossing and turning, that bloody chain kept me awake all night. I ended up spending most of it getting the camera to work.” I raised my eyebrows, titling my head to the side and he nodded in reply. “When I finally got to sleep, I woke to the sound of the engine running. I darted out of bed and there was this little shit driving off in the van.”

“You ran after her?” I said, a smile rising. He nodded, turning down to the wound, clenching his teeth as he pulled the jagged triangle of metal, dropping it to the tile with a high clatter. “Luckily she couldn’t get the gears working. I bet she’s never driven before. I caught up with her, yanked the door open.”

“You shot her,” I said, my eyes wide, looking back to the gun as I tried to reach out to check her over, but the chain held me back. 

“No,” he said, his tone defensive. “She tried to grab the gun and we got into a scuffle, it went off, the bullet bouncing off the metal of the van, shrapnel flying into straight into my leg.”

I looked down at the slumped body which still hadn’t moved, raising my eyebrows.

“Yes I hit her. What else could I do?” he replied. “No sooner had the gun gone off when there were creatures coming out of everywhere. I took two out, but I bet there’s more on their way. We should go,” he said, nodding back towards the door.

“If she can’t even drive, then how did she get into the van?” Ryan didn’t reply. “She can’t drive, but she can hot wire?”

He turned his head down, wrapping the bandage around his leg, drawing in sharp air through his teeth.

“I may have left the keys in the ignition last night,” he said, his voice quiet.

I raised my eyebrows, biting my tongue, my joy at his return holding back my outpouring.

“I told you you’ll be fine,” I said. “I thought you’d left,” I said. Ryan looked up, his head turned at an angle, his smile growing. I forced a frown, but it fell, my head darting around to the shutters as they clattered with a heavy bang. We both knew what it meant, especially after the words he’d just finished and together our heads twisted around to the corridor, but stopped as the sack of clothes jumped to the air, the coat unfurling, the long, triangle of a kitchen knife glinting in the sun pouring from the skylights. Her bright blue eyes fixed on the chain, rising to my face full of alarm, then resting on Ryan as she charged forward, her dirt smothered face bunched and the mouth full of white teeth bared as she raised the knife above her head higher with each bound.

Chapter One Hundred

“No,” I screamed. “No,” I repeated over and again, watching as Ryan stood tall, eyes wide as he tried to prepare for the attack, pain etched on his face as he spread his weight across both his legs. I picked up a thick candle resting on the floor, the only object close by and hurled it while still screaming for her to stop. Its weight slapped against her shoulder and she turned to face me for just a moment, eyes wide with confusion, giving enough of a distraction for Ryan to surge forward, smacking the knife from her hands, the blade clattering to the floor as Ryan wrapped his arms around her, squeezing hard against her convulsions.

Hurrying, I bent at the knees, snatching up the simple key I’d dropped to the floor, swapping it to my ballooned hand, biting down the pain. Fumbling in the lock, my hand like I wore five pairs of gloves. Relief flooded through me when the lock snapped open and I could let go of the key, freeing the stars from my view. I drew a deep breath before leaping the short few paces to Ryan and the girl still flailing in his arms, the vulgar language screamed on the edge of making even me blush.

“It’s okay,” I said, being careful not to get too close as she kicked out. “It’s okay,” I said again. “We’re the good guys,” I said, trying the softest voice I could manage in the moment. The rattle of the shutters didn’t help, the rise in the urgency of the beat did nothing to promote her calm.

Trying to normalise my tone, I looked up to Ryan, his face bunched with the effort. “Did you lock the door?” I said nodding to the corridor. Somewhere in the mix of his struggle I saw Ryan shake his head and I forced my voice to soften again. “It’s okay, we’re leaving now. This place isn’t safe any more,” I said, then pushed my good hand out, but drew back as her eyes locked onto my fingers and she tried to push her head forward, snapping her teeth together. “You can come with us.” I looked up to Ryan, his head shaking. Any minute now he was going to gave to let go, the struggle sapping his energy, her kicking legs so close to the injury.

“Let her go,” I said, looking back to the knife, making sure I knew exactly where it was. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m from the telly,” I said looking up to Ryan as I shrugged my shoulders. 

Hers eyes opened and she held my gaze, her motions slowing, legs taking her weight. Her head titled to the side as she frowned. I nodded up to Ryan and as his arms sprung wide, she fell to the floor, her body shaking.

Taking a step forward, Ryan stepping back, pushing his hands out as he shook his head. I tried to reassure him with a nod, holding my good palm out in her direction.

“It’s okay,” I said as her movement slowed on the floor. “What’s your name? When did you last eat?” I said, waiting for her head to raise.

There was silence between us, but the clatter of the shutters didn’t let up. I moved away. 

“We’re going,” I said. “Grab food and go on your way, but you’re much safer with us than you are alone out there.”

The rattle of the shutters stopped and I scooped up the knife, wrapping it in my red jacket and skirt, still damp at the edges. Out of the corner of my eye I watched Ryan tentatively move away from the girl, the woman, I couldn’t quite decide her age as she stood, her head bent low, eyes peering around the room through a tangled mop of brown hair.

“You thought I’d left you?” Ryan said as he picked up one of the camera cases, lifting the camera still connected to the tripod in the other hand. I looked sideways at him, but didn’t answer. “I would have left you the key,” he said.

“Thanks,” I said, the words dripping with sarcasm. “My hero,” I added.

“Just friends,” he said shooting me a grin, the smile falling as he turned back the woman, my eyes following his as she stood there with the hair gone from her face, her eyes roving over the rows of shelves.

“Take what you need,” I said. “It’s yours.” She didn’t reply, instead turning rapidly on the spot, her hair trailing behind as she twisted to face the corridor, eyes wide. We both knew what she saw and swapping the bundle of clothes to rest on my other arm, I walked beside the young stranger, pulling the knife from between my clothes and offering her the handle with Ryan shouting at my back.


Chapter One Hundred and One

Her eyes were wider than I imagined Ryan’s were at my back. Her surprise greater than his when I returned the long knife after what she’d done. Although the pause between us felt like an age, the creatures moving through the doorway had barely taken a step before her decision was made. Surging toward the opening, she soon blocked my view with her wide coat, her arms diving up and down, movement silent except for the slash of the knife as it connected to bone and the heavy fall of the bodies as they went down in quick succession.

Ryan stood at my side and we shared a moment. He’d had no time to put the equipment down, no time to grab the gun from the bed before it was over and she stood beckoning us through the corridor with her fingers in silence as thick blood dripped from the knife. With the gun in my hand, I followed, Ryan behind, laden with the camera and equipment to find her outside scouring the horizon, looking around the side of the building, searching for threats. She nodded towards the van and my eyes fell on the dark blood dripping down the side by the driver’s door, above the wide hole in the metal where the shrapnel had flown out and into Ryan.

I climbed in the back, Ryan insisting I go first and he took the driver’s seat, not starting the engine, instead looking to me for the answer as we watched the woman, the girl which we still didn’t know, slip back in through the open door of the building.

Sat in silence, giving him no cues, my eyes fell across the skyline. Columns of smoke lined the horizon. As my heart slowed I could taste the thickness in the air while watching the rainbow of depressing colour flowing from black to white across the spectrum. The green fields were void of life as they rolled out to disappear where they met the dirty, cloudless sky, the road empty of traffic as it travelled relentless left and right. The image had a certain perfection and I looked towards Ryan about to prompt him to set up the camera, but the girl, the woman, rushed from the building, her arms laden with bags bulging at the edges. She stopped as she spotted us in the van, surprise turning her head to the side, smile dropping from the corners of her mouth. It was clear she’d thought we would have left her and the raise of her eyebrows, eyes glinting with hope as she stared in our direction, broke my heart. Had it only taken a few days, a week at the most, to strip this girl, this woman, of her faith in humanity?

Her features hardened and she let her hair drop back to cover her face while she moved past the van, walking away. I ran through the back, regretting my enthusiasm as I jumped out the doors jarring my hand, but sucked down the pain as I called after her, not holding back my voice.

“Come with us,” I said. She turned, her lips curled up. What I could see of her face twisted feral, but she didn’t linger on mine for long, snapping her head around the view. I shouted again and watched her anger rise and I forced down a smile as I watched movement appear from around the front of the building, but instead of focusing on the chef whose uniform could no longer be called whites, I called again and jumped back in the van.

“Start the engine,” I said and Ryan did as I asked, the grumble of the mechanics coming to life only spurring on the middle aged man with a rend in his great belly. The girl, woman, scowled at me through the glass, but ran to the back, slamming the doors closed after she jumped in, her reluctance obvious in her scowl. Ryan pulled us in a wide arc away from the chef.

“You’re safer with us,” I said joining her as she stood in the back. “We’re safer with you,” I added, pushing my left hand out, my lips in a wide smile. She stood in the corner, clutching the bags to her stomach. “Sit. Eat. We can talk when you’re ready.”

We drove for five minutes before she let the bags drop, before she sat on the floor, pulling out a can of corned beef and turning the key to release the meat. I tried not to watch her, tried to stop my mouth from wanting the food, instead I asked her name again, looking away when she didn’t answer. Soon the van slowed and I called out to the front.

“What is it?” I said, standing when Ryan didn’t answer and we’d drawn to a stop. Arriving between the seats I felt the blood drain from my face as I stared on at the white coach wedged side by side with an olive green truck. Together they blocked the narrow road and despite the dark interior, I watched the writhing masses inside.

My heart jumped as a delicate voice spoke from behind, nearly fainting as I processed the words.

“We’re going the wrong way. We’re supposed to be getting away from the Doctor Lytham and her mother.”

Chapter One Hundred and Two

“What did you say?” I said spinning around to find her standing peering past me to the block in the road, the knife scraping around the inside of the tin.

“You need to go the other way,” she said, dropping the can to the thin table mounted to the side of the van.

“No,” I said stepping forward. “What did you say about the doctor? What do you know about Toni?”

She raised her left eyebrow, her eyes meeting mine for the first time as she licked the meat from the tip of the knife. Letting her right hand and the knife drop, with her left hand she swept hair from her face one side, then the next, tilting her head, before catching one last glance through the windscreen. Nodding forward, she spoke.

“That’s where they were going,” she said. “That’s where I don’t want to be.”

“Who?” I said. She narrowed her brow.

“The Doctors,” she replied. I took a step toward her, my heart pulsing in my ears and my swollen hand.

“What do you know about the doctors?” I said, voice raised. She lifted her brow, pulling herself up to full height, which was only just a little shorter than my five foot ten. “Speak, for goodness’ sake,” I shouted when she didn’t reply. Her chest thrust forward as she filled her lungs, her hand gripped hard around the knife. “I’m sorry,” I added, pushing out my palms. “They did things to me, the doctors,” I said softening my tone. “I need to find them. Make them pay.” I watched as her brow fell forward, lips covering her teeth. “How do you know the Doctors? Did they do things to you?” She squinted, her forehead creasing, fingers tightening around the knife handle again. I took another step. “You don’t have to say, just tell me what you know. Tell me where they are.”

The van moved, rolling, but in the wrong direction. I turned back to see the coach and the truck receding in the view.

“No,” I shouted, jumping the few steps to back within the seats. “No,” I repeated. “We have to find a way round. What if this is our only way of getting through, it could take hours to go another way, even if we can find an empty road?” The van rocked to a stop with Ryan silent, just his frown voicing his discontent with the plan, but the light coming from behind and the click of the lock span my attention around to the back.

I raced through the open doors, jumping to the tarmac as the woman ran down the road, she’d left one bag behind and soon dropped the last as I called after.

“Please, I need to know.” I watched on as she slowed, her head turning over her shoulder, her eyes falling from me to the bag and its contents spilt on the floor at my feet. She kept on walking. I sobbed, quickly turning back to make sure Ryan had done nothing stupid like getting out of the van and following. Picking up the bag I let the tears fall to the tarmac as I lifted the tins of food and pushed them back into the bag.

A breath sucked in hard as two dirty trainers arrived at the top of my vision. I stood up straight, wincing with the pain, offering out the full bag as I tried to draw my tears away with a deep breath. She stood in front of me with a crisp white handkerchief offered in her hand. The tears stopped, my face relaxing as I set the bag down between us, taking the folded square from her dirt clogged hand and dabbed at the moisture on my cheeks.

“Thank you,” I replied, her eyes staring as I wiped my face.

“Why do you want to find them?” she said, her soft voice nearly lost in the wide open space. “They’re terrible people. The worst.”

“I’m a reporter,” I said.

“I know,” she replied.

“I was in love with Toni,” I said.

“I know,” she said, nodding. I ignored her reply, putting it down to exposure, tiredness or maybe hunger.

“They did bad things to me,” I said. Still she nodded.

“They did bad things to many people,” she replied.

“They did this,” I said, sweeping my hands across the view, taking in the columns of smoke.

“I know,” she replied. “But what are you trying to achieve?”

“I want the world to know what they did, what they’re doing so they can be stopped, so people can prepare. I want to destroy them and make them pay.” She nodded. “Tell me,” I said, knowing the answer before I asked the question. “How do you know all this?” 

“I’ve seen your picture in her office. I’ve seen the grand plan spread across her wall.”

“How?” I replied. She took a deep breath and swallowed down hard.

“I used to be one of them,” she replied, drawing the knife up high, but my brain was too fogged to give any reply.

“What’s she doing at the hospital?” I said, ignoring the glint of the knife raised above my head.

“Collecting samples,” she replied, leaning down to take the bag. I didn’t move, didn’t back away, just stared to the ground, not seeing anything but Toni’s face.

“Samples of what?” I said, the words barely voiced.

“Children who’ve been exposed.”

“Exposed to what?” 

“The virus in the air,” she said, the bag raising through my vision.

“Why children?”

She didn’t reply, instead took a step back.

“Why children?” I repeated looking up.

“Because they’re the future. Right? And they make the best hosts.”

Chapter One Hundred and Three

I didn’t ask for her meaning, knew she’d turned and knew with her went my chance to question. I knew from the rhythm of her feet padding on the hard ground she was running in the opposite direction. I knew from her words she’d told the truth; the truth being what I’d sought. I’d done my job, fulfilled my role, explored my passion to expose wrong and those in authority abusing their positions, but it hurt no less to know such a big part of my life had been false. To know what I had given, tried to give, had been taken, chewed and thrown away.

I questioned if there had been signs of her disfunction, had blind feelings put those down to quirks of personality? I wandered if Hitler’s companions had done the same?

I tried to stop my breath flinching at the comparison.

Turning, I didn’t look after. She had every right to leave, to turn down a role in my task, my goal which could end so badly for me, for everyone. Who knew?

My eyes fell on Ryan, a smile lifting my lips to see him stood on top of the van, his hand shielding his eyes from the bright morning as he peered across the blocked road.

“Can we make it?” I said calling toward the roof as I walked back, knowing one way or another I was getting through the mess. He didn’t reply and I imagined the thoughts spread across his features. Imagined him scratching his head as I walked along the side of the van, my eyes elsewhere other than the movement in the coach frenzying as a drew nearer, elsewhere other than the slight rock of the olive drab truck in a slow side-to-side rhythm.

“Jess,” I heard him call as I neared the coach, only giving the rattle of the door the barest notice, ignoring the slight parting of the clear plastic as the short bodies clambered to be the first to break through, the first to pierce my flesh, the first to fill themselves. I paid more attention to the paint scraped down its side, the buckled panels, black scuffs running the white length until blocked by the back of the truck. I listened, tried to feel, to sense behind the canvas, what lay behind of the musty green cover. The truck rocked with a gentle movement, but the canvas didn’t bulge, didn’t pulse with hands reaching out.

I heard Ryan’s steps down the ladder, feet landing to the road and I lifted my hand behind me, palm out to stop him from getting any closer. When I could no longer hear his steps along the road, I moved my hand back, unpicking the ties with good fingers, taking in a deep breath as I lifted. It was dark inside, nothing came from where I couldn’t see, no fingers jumped out, clawing for the softness of my eyes. I undid enough ties for me to fit through and I climbed, awkward with only one hand to steady, but I’d made it into the back still alive, unbitten.

Welcoming the musty air, I blinked, testing my vision with each opening, the four rows of seats lining the sides and centre grew clearer in my vision with each opening. They were empty, but the space between was not, instead lined with boxes stacked higher than the rows where soldiers should have sat. I climbed on the nearest long rectangular box, plastic, but couldn’t be sure, my thoughts elsewhere, beads of sweat forming across my forehead as the morning sun trapped under the canvas. I headed forward, slowly sliding on my knees, eyes fixed on the edges of light toward the front.

Air pulled sharp between my teeth, forcing myself steady with both hands as my knee found the space between two boxes. I wouldn’t let it slow me as I bridged the gap and my hand soon felt the flap of canvas I hoped covered a window to the cab.

Reaching out with my left hand, I told myself I’d seen the worst. I tried to prepare for the horror I knew moved beyond the thin fabric, beyond the glass the other side. I told myself the worst I could see was traffic lined up blocking the road, ending our path, sending us for hours around another way. Blood and guts were nothing new. No injury could top what had already burnt into my dreams.

I took a deep breath before lifting the fabric. A pale pink light flashed my eyes shut, but as the image went to black, I’d seen enough to regret not bringing the gun.

Chapter One Hundred and Four

Flinching away, falling, I pushed my eyes wide as my good hand grasped for something to hold, something to pull up, to strike out with. Ignoring the stars pinging across my vision, a clawed hand shot from the right to block my view as I collapsed, rolling left, falling between the seats, stunned, eyes fixed on the hand grasping through the missing clear partition. My back crunched into the cubes of glass, but despite my vision still stained with what I’d seen through the blood-smeared windscreen, I scrabbled backward across the line of seats in the dark to the strobe of light flashing as hands reached through the covering. No longer paying attention to the pain in my hand, adrenaline compensating, I reached the canvas where I’d entered and pushed against it hard with my back. It bowed outward but still left me trapped.

Breath drew in shallow and fast. I couldn’t tell left from the right, couldn’t tell from which side I’d entered. I’d turned, scratching at the canvas, still ignoring the pain, but it stayed firm, despite my frustration. I called out, my words getting weaker. His name ringing out, all the while knowing he would be too far away, he would be where I’d told him to stay, not close enough rip open the cover, to free me from the heat beating down inside the dark greenhouse.

My face dripping with sweat and about to stand, to push against the canvas, light flashed on for longer than it had before and I glanced around fearful, but excited to see Ryan saving the day. Instead I saw a gruesome head in the light, its face patched dark, soon joined by another as I stared, captivated by the dead soldier falling through the gap, its gnashing teeth energised by my panic.

I backed up, turned, forcing my trainers to kick out at the stiff canvas. Breath ran away, darkness descending as the first of the creatures fell through the partition, the sheet of olive drab covering the window, obscuring my only light. I screamed, the feminist inside me dying a little, but those concerns were nothing in the moment. I couldn’t see its advance, but its crawl was as clear as if I could, the scrabble over the canvas seat, the trickle of the glass to the floor as it follow in my journey. I screamed again even though I knew it would just remind the creature of my location, even though it was already so close, the stench of death I would never get used to stingy my lungs, bile rising as I coughed between gasps of air.

Why had Ryan listened? Why had he done as I asked and not followed me into danger, at least he could have stood to the side ready to help? Amid my panic I saw the faces of my parents, saw my colleagues in their buildings around the world, the buildings they thought they would be safe in, with the twenty-four-hour security guards and thick concrete walls. But how wrong they were. The army couldn’t protect us from these creatures, most of them were the enlisted. I’d yet to see a battle where we had won, where the mental jar of the creature’s appearance didn’t cause us to pause, didn’t stop us from striking out, didn’t prevent wasting those first precious moments.

They were relatively easy to defend against, if only you knew you had to protect yourself, if only you didn’t stand there transfixed, eyes wide trying to figure out if the creature from so many horror movies was real and how could it exist. Their main advantage was forcing us to kill our friends and family if we wanted to survive. If only people knew they were already long dead.

Chocking down a deep breath, I balled my fist, knowing it would be of little use, but at least I would go down trying, pausing my thought as I wandered if what I’d just felt was its rancid breath blowing across my face.

Light came from the front of the truck, the other creature falling through, but I barely took notice as I saw the first soldier, half his face covered in blood, nearly on me. Throwing myself back against the canvas in a vain hope it would give way, but I wasn’t surprised when didn’t. Instead I kicked out my legs, grabbing on to whatever I could in the dark, gripping tight to anchor myself down, ignoring the pain in my bulging hand. My foot made contact. Kicking again, harder this time, spurred on by the slap of my sole against something giving way each time I connected.

Another shot, followed quickly by my other foot, both hitting home, the creature snarling as it took the blows. I imagined its mouth lashing out, lips curled. I kicked again, following through with my left, then pulling back for another volley, I realised my foot was trapped, the pressure on my toes immense as tried to throw my legs left and right. The muffled sounds of effort told me what I already knew. My foot had clamped in the creature’s mouth. I felt the scratch of fingers, nails scraping down my jeans. I pushed my right foot out as hard as I could, but it sailed through the air not making contact. I closed my eyes, the intense pain in my foot sapping all my energy. This was it.

Chapter One Hundred and Five

With the cold blast of air chilling the wet skin around my neck, my eyes leapt open to the truck bathed in light, revealing the blood soaked teeth clamped around the toes of my left foot, hands scratching at my jeans and the other soldier on the first ones back, competing to get passed and rend my flesh.

I felt pressure around my chest, hands interlocking across my breasts, grabbing tight, tugging hard, but I hadn’t moved, the weight of the two creatures and the vice-like grip too much for Ryan to overcome. He let go. Fear flooded through me, he’d given up, he’d decided it was all too much to be around me, too demanding. He could survive alone much better. But no, he was at my side, climbing up, his struggle sounding out from his lungs like a foghorn.

I screamed again, a long high pitch I couldn’t hold back as my toes crushed, vision blurring, going dark as I closed my eyes, nausea rising as I slumped backwards, dangling over the edge.

My senses exploded as the gun went off, the release instant before the echo died. The second explosion so much quieter. I was already on the ground, the pain in my shoulder taking my notice as I slumped.

He was by my side helping me up sooner than I’d expected, sitting me with my back to the hard metal of the truck without me realising.

“Can you stand?” he said, the concern in his voice secondary only to his urgency. I nodded, letting him help me up as I tested pressure on my left foot. I could walk, slowly, but could travel forward, which had been more than I expected. I followed Ryan’s gaze to the coach and the heads butting against the glass as we passed slowly, their touch leaving bloody shadows. So many times I flinched against the pressure, expected the glass to spray over, forcing us to have to run for our lives again. Instead the creatures moved along with us, following inside, not fighting one another, but bumped together like they didn’t see each other, had no consideration there was anyone else, anything else in existence as driven to feast on our flesh.

Arriving at the coach’s flimsy doors, Ryan held my arm tighter, hurrying me past, my eyes on the gap growing wider with every surge from the other side.

“Can we get through?” he said, jumping into the driver’s seat as he let me down softly the other side.

I stared on through the windscreen. I’d forgotten what I’d seen as I stared through the truck’s blood dripping glass, but again the vision was as clear as if still in the moment.

“Yes,” I said, nodding, my eyes fixed of the doors of the coach as they snapped open both sides. The plastic pushed open under the pressure and the creatures who’d lived such short lives, fell to the floor, faces hitting the road, not flinching, eyes not taken from the van and us inside. One by one they struggling to get up, despite more of a similar youth falling onto their backs until they could just step off and start their journey towards us.

After checking the van doors were locked and the windows were closed, the engine roared to life and we rolled. Ryan’s face hardening, his eyes tightened together, mouth bunching as each of the black veined faces disappeared below the view one by one until our bumper nudged against the back of the truck.

He looked at me and I turned his way, trying to ignore the faces past him, trying to ignore the marks left behind as bloody hands slapped against the window. I nodded and he revved the engine, slowly letting out the clutch.

We didn’t move, smoke billowed from the engine, the smell of burning plastic clawed inside our noses and I coughed, Ryan copying my action despite his best efforts, knowing to open the windows would be even more unpleasant. I could see he was about to let up, to let the engine relax and push the gear into reverse, when we moved forward. It was slow at first, but progress had started.

I closed my eyes, trying to ignore what would happen the other side of the truck as we rolled, not wanting to see its rise and fall as we pushed on relentless. Opening my eyes, I saw Ryan steering us close to the coach to despatch the creatures following, crushing their heads when the pressure grew too much. I closed my eyes to the sound of cracking bone, the faces gone from the window, nausea drawing up from my throat.

On hearing Ryan’s intake of breath I knew the time had come to open my eyes, to see what I knew would be the other side, but even as we edged forward, I struggled to bring myself to face the view again, despite knowing from his quickening breath, Ryan had taken in the full horror.

Chapter One Hundred and Six

I heard Ryan’s breath stop as the roar of the engine slowed and I opened my eyes, air drawn away from my lungs as I saw the sight, saw the road blanketed in bodies, not a head intact amongst them. Resting my hand on top of Ryan’s, together we pushed the stick back in the gear. I held on as he forced the truck clear, watching the line of water down his face glint in the low sun. With my hand on his shoulder gripping tight, my eyes fixed on his face while he turned the wheel, wincing as the van rolled up and down, the wheels spinning for a moment until they caught and speed built, all the while his eyes were high, trying to block out the worst of the view.

We stopped for a long moment when the ride smoothed out, lingering for a long while not saying a word. He knew without asking I wouldn’t let us drive away, didn’t want to leave these people alone without making a record, without putting their horrific deaths to some good.

As Ryan filmed out of the open back doors, I forced myself to look at every body, to stare at their erased identities and massive wounds. I lingered on flesh turned to pulp from the finger sized bullet, their empty brass cases littering where the van rested. With the final shot panning along the sides of the road, the camera tracing the river of blood long dried in the sun, we pulled the doors up as the first of the young creatures peered around from where we’d left them, driving away as they stumbled to get a footing on the carpet of the dead.

Neither of us talked as the van wound its way around the thin country roads. Neither of us spoke as we travelled barely making a detour in the hour, skirting around road blocks, through fields either side. We weren’t the first, instead following paths smashed through stone walls either side. The going was slow, but we weren’t in a hurry, although my time staring across the horizon kept the bodies of the dead repeating over and again only the glances to the Sat Nav shook the sights away, the dot on the white road, the number in the corner ever decreasing.

It was as the number fell below five miles, we first saw the metal fence circling, our eyes heading to the sky as Ryan slowed us down. For a moment I thought we might have headed in the wrong direction. We saw nothing in the air, instead turned our view to the fence stretching out across the road, curving inward as far as we could see either side.

“Left or right,” Ryan said, his voice devoid of energy, but still I raised a smile. I’d half expected him to turn the van around.

“You choose,” I said. “It won’t be long now.” He manhandled the wheel around climbing up the shallow grass bank to the left.

“What happens when you’ve got what you need?” he said, his eyes fixed forward like mine, following the sweeping  metal, my eyes tracing out deep ruts compressing the stoney mud.

I didn’t hold back my reply for any reason other than I didn’t know. I hadn’t considered a next step, still didn’t want to think of what would happen next. I hadn’t thought I would survive last night without another dose of Toni’s medicine. I didn’t know if I would survive the next. Now wasn’t the time. I’d spotted the end of the fence, a panel yet to be fixed leaning against the side of an olive drab flat-bed truck.

I nodded towards the army vehicle, turning to Ryan, his eyes already set straight.

I expected the body to rise from its lean against the fence when it saw us. Ryan didn’t slow, he’d expected it too, but neither of us anticipated the call from the soldier’s mouth, the hasty reach for the rifle. Neither of us expected another to appear around the side, fingers pulling up his trouser’s fly in a hurry as he searched for a weapon, finding it close at hand.

Ryan slowed at the solder’s demand, his breath remaining calm as I raised my hands to the air. Ryan did the same, but either of us expected the shot which rocked the van, slamming hard, sending shattered dark plastic shards high in to the air as it hit the engine’s grill.

Chapter One Hundred and Seven

They were on us before we had time to flinch, the doors wide, dragged to the ground to the shouts I could barely make out for their volume. The soldiers seemed to call for an answer, expecting us to say something, but I couldn’t understand the question, their energy masking the words. I kept quiet, trying to protect my hand, then I rolled, dragged around to see the barrel of the rifle in my face, voice blaring, spit raining down as shouted for me to call him out, his view fixed onto my left eye then my right.

“Clear,” came a voice from the other side of the van, strong and confident, but with a question.

“Clear,” the guy said still leaning over me, but his brow told me he wasn’t sure. Then I got it. Although we’d been in the van, Ryan driving and we’d slowed when asked, despite all this they couldn’t be sure we were still human. Perhaps they thought this would be their first experience.

Was it disappointment I read on the soldier’s face?

“I’m okay,” I said, the words timid, voice trembling as I guarded my hand. His brow evened out, his expression falling as he stood upright to draw the long gun around the horizon.

“Clear,” he called again and I heard Ryan’s voice, his hand reaching down to help me from the ground.

“I’d keep your voice down,” he said in a light tone, his brow low as he turned, looking me up and down, mouth forming silent words. I nodded, confirming I was fine.

“What do you know?” said the soldier rounding on us. Ryan moved to block his path, raising his head high like a strutting stag. I smiled within, letting a flutter of laughter rise from my chest as he drew himself up to protect me.

“More than you, it would seem. They can’t drive,” he said, his words slow, head tilting to the side. The soldier narrowed his eyes, leaning forward, looking like he’d done this in a hundred bars around the world, when the other arrived at his side, pulling him away to a huddle for words we couldn’t hear. As he turned back mid conversation, his face lit up as he saw me, eyes widening as the rest of his features narrowed.

He stepped forward, keeping his eyes on mine, a slight smile on his lips, flinching a look at Ryan who flashed a raise of his brow as the soldier stepped past. Stopping a pace away, he brushed his hand through his short blonde hair, narrowing his eyes as he wiped his hand across his mouth.

“Private Jordain,” he said and held his hand out. I smiled, looked to Ryan whose eyebrows were lower than I’d ever seen, looked down to my right hand still ballooning and pushed out my left. Jordain swapped his hands after sucking through his teeth when he saw my injury and gently shook my hand. “Has anyone looked at that?”

“Jess,” I replied shaking my head.

“Can I?” he said and I nodded as my eyes fell on the camouflaged bag strapped to his belt with a dark olive cross in the centre.

I sat back in the passenger seat with my legs dangling out of the van while Jordain took great care checking out my hand, tracing the bones from my wrist to my finger, lightening the pressure each time I winced. As he examined, I watched out across the horizon, the other soldier scouring, his eyes through the rifle’s sight.

“Have you seen any?” I said. His hands paused and he looked me in the eye, shaking his head. “You’ll know when do you, there’s no mistaking.”

He nodded.

“I don’t think it’s broken,” he said, keep it elevated. I laughed. “If you can,” he added. The other soldier called at his back. Ryan cursed.

“They’re attracted to noise. They’ll be here soon. The gunfire,” he said catching my eye. I nodded, jumping down from the seat as we stood in a square, our backs to each other, covering all points of the compass.

“Why weren’t you evacuated?” said Jordain.

“We’ve got a job to do,” I said. 

“What job?” said the other soldier and I turned just as Jordain jabbed him in the back with his elbow, pointing to the three burgundy letters on the side of the van. “Oh,” he replied, turning, his eyebrows raising as if he’d caught my eyes for the first time. “Oh,” he said again.

“Where are you going?” Jordain said.

“St Buryan Hospital,” I said after a pause, holding my breath for their response. Their reply was instant, but not with words. I heard them turn, Ryan and I twisted around and we all faced each other. I could see the tension in Ryan’s fists, could feel mine in the rising beat in my chest, but their rifles still pointed to the ground, their faces open, surprised at my words.

“That’s our FOB,” Jordain replied, the other nodding.

“FOB?” Ryan replied.

“Forward operating base,” I said, the words flowing out, leaving the soldiers to nod, trying to hide their surprise.

“But there may be a problem,” the other soldier said. The pair looked at each other, faces turning stern. Jordain stepped back, sweeping his eyes across the horizon before returning to the square.

“Our Oppos went back to collect more concrete blocks in the HIAB, but we’ve lost contact with them and Buryan.”

“When was this?” Ryan said, stepping closer toward the group. The two soldier’s looked at each other, Jordain pulling up, twisting his wrist to look at a bulky metal watch.

“Three hours ago,” he replied, his eyes catching on mine.

“You should come with us,” I replied, seeing Ryan flinch at the words. The soldiers exchanged glances, turning back when I spoke. “One question though?” I said, looking to the unfinished wall. “Were you building it to keep them in or out?”

As my words finished, the wind blew across my face. I didn’t need to look to the break in the wall, the breeze carrying with it the rancid answer to my question.

Chapter One Hundred and Eight

Jordain shrugged, his eyes following mine, weapon raising as my face opened wide. I pushed my hand out, resting on his forearm, but still it climbed. I saw the resolve in his eyes as he first caught sight, the training racing through his brain with no thought, hands settling on the grip of the rifle as it travelled through the air to find its target.

This was a man who’d raised his weapon in combat before. The lines across his face set with a glare I’d seen so many times in the battlegrounds of Afghanistan, on other faces in other time zones and on both sides other the line. It was the look of someone who knew they would take a life. Knew they were putting themselves forward for the ultimate sacrifice, but never had I seen the pause, the raise of the head, the widening of the eyes as he pulled his head up from the sight, his humanity pausing for thought before he pulled the trigger, despite his most recent training telling him he had to put the woman with half her clothes missing and a great wound on her shoulder, down and down hard.

“No,” I said keeping my voice calm despite my inner panic, Ryan doing the same with Jordain’s colleague, the one we’d yet to know his name. Jordain turned, his fair eyes asking a question, a thought so obvious to anyone looking on, anyone seeing this played out in their mind’s eye, but not to those in the flesh, only moments from the creatures touch, the creature’s hungry bite. “We need to run, you’ll only attract more.” 

I turned around and saw I hadn’t needed to say the words, others followed behind the pace setter passing between the fence and the flat bed truck, with it their foul stench followed on the wind.

“No,” I said. “We need to go.”

Jordain nodded, turning to his left, his weapon gripped hard, but pointed to the grass.

“Let’s go,” he said, following my example with his volume, but his colleague’s rose as his head shook to the side. Ryan backed off, knowing what would happen next, ushering me in through the van door before he ran around the front.

The round went off and the woman’s head exploded, sending her body to the floor, the remains of her brain covering the creatures at her back as they passed over her body without a pause. Jordain knocked the muzzle of the rifle down before he grabbed his colleague by the arm and dragged him towards the van.

No one spoke as Ryan rolled us over the ground, the van pitching up and down, leaving the creatures to follow until they shrank to nothing in the mirror leaving us alone to skirt with the houses at our right until the wheels bumped through ruts and we joined the tarmac.

With the engine left to settle to a low murmur, I was the first to speak, peering over my shoulder, catching Jordain as he looked back. His colleague sat against the rear doors, eyes fixed to the side, his view somewhere else altogether.

“This road is a straight run to the hospital,” I said, switching a quick glimpse to the small screen suckered to the window. Jordain nodded.

“There are three checkpoints along this route, the first should be over the horizon,” he said, leaning forward and raising his rifle to look through the scope. “But take it real easy on the approach. They may have seen a little more action than us. May not be as controlled.”

Ryan interrupted.

“You mean don’t count on them knowing their arse from their elbow.”

I paused my breath, waiting for a reaction.

“He didn’t,” I said, but Jordain shrugged, letting a playful smile flash across his face before I could finish.

“Touché,” he said. “It might be better if I walk alongside.” My eyes darted around the view as I twisted back in my seat, searching out across the flat scrub rolling either side. Unless the creatures hid in the undulating ground, ducked down ready to pounce, we weren’t in immediate danger. As the thoughts settled I remembered the creatures who were different, those who displayed a higher level of intelligence, those who I’d fought in the compound where this all started, those who’d killed the pair of joggers. But they were rare, I told myself, nodding back towards Jordain, all the while trying not to think on the feral woman’s words. Forcing myself to think of anything other than how they connected to the creature’s intelligence.

“Let me drive,” I said, much to Ryan’s disdain. “We’ll be slow. It’s getting better,” I said, trying to hold back the muscles in my face from reacting to the pain as I raised my right, slowly flexing each of the swollen fingers. “He says there’s nothing broken.”

“I should drive,” Ryan said.

I shook my head.

“He also said you should keep it elevated,” he replied flinched a look into the back.

“I need you out there walking alongside. I need you to film what we’re seeing,” I said, raising my brow as I widened my eyes in a smile. His protest sank and as the corners of my mouth raised, guilt gathering in my chest.

“What’s your name?” I said calling into the back. My eyes flitted between Jordain walking with his rifle in both hands across his front, his eyes scouring the view and Ryan at his side matching his pace, the camera on his shoulder pointed forward and along the shallow climb of the road to the seemingly endless appearance of another over the brow.

“Sheppard”, his reply came after another minute of silence.

“I’m Jess,” I said.

“From the news,” he replied, but it wasn’t a question. I nodded anyway. “We were told it was an exercise,” he said, his voice flat. “Then we were told there’d been a chemical release. They issued NBC suits, sent us out on patrols. Then just as we got the orders to go build the fences, we’re not engineers mind,” he said shaking his head. “Patrols came back with men missing and entire patrols not returning at all. Then they told us about the disease, about people being bitten, coming back to life. They showed a presentation in the briefing, a Powerpoint with bizarre footage. We all thought it was a joke, checked our watches for the date, making sure we hadn’t skipped three months without knowing it. They were showing a horror movie for fuck’s sake. We still didn’t believe it even when we were out there, but when we lost comms with our oppos, with the FOB, it all became real.”

I didn’t fill the pause, had no words to help.

“I’m sorry for shooting at you,” he added, his words soft, distant.

Shaking my head, I was about to say how I understood, knowing how crazy, how fucked up the whole situation was, but I’d seen something, a building rise from the side of the road straight ahead as we slowly rolled forward. I soon realised it was a shipping container painted dark green, the first sign of movement raising the corner of my lips and seeming to brighten the sky, until I realised there was too much movement, too many people. My breath stopped, soon forced down in a sharp inhale. The checkpoint lay ahead, but we could barely see the concrete blocks in the road for the dead ambling around, the odd head turning to us, already drawing in our direction.

As the shot exploded in the back of the van, every creature in view turned in our direction. I twisted, a scream coming unbidden when I saw Sheppard’s body settling to the carpet, his brains running down the white paint of the bulkhead, fingers wrapped tight around the butt of the pistol.

Chapter One Hundred and Nine

I fell through the doorway, scattering to the cold road as the pair rushed the other side, calling through the sobs, the back of my good hand brushing across my eyes, smearing away the tears.

“Pick it up,” I screamed, regaining my feet, Ryan flinching back as I arrived at this side. “Pick it up,” I said wiping my face dry, letting the sharp wind lick with each shake of my head. “The camera,” I replied forcing Ryan’s shocked expression to the ground and away from the scene I had to capture. He nodded once, in a daze, stooping to grab from the ground on his second attempt, raising the camera on his shoulder as I checked for the red light. “The microphone,” I pleaded, stepping forward with his shrug, breath flinching in my lungs as Jordain clattered around inside the van.

Taking the microphone in hand, I stepped back, not looking to see the distance they’d closed, my already words pouring out, raw, unprofessional, less than a rookie could manage. I tried to slow, to cool my hurry, adding definition to the speech I hadn’t needed to prepare. When the flow stopped, I knew I’d done enough. The picture over my shoulder would have alone done the job. My emotion a ripe illustration of how worried the viewers should be, hoping they would take my pleading to prepare, to not sit back and hope to be served their life on a silver platter. Hoping I’d made them understand life was no longer a right. Life had become something you had to fight for.

Like a director in my ear, the stench told me my time was up.

I held the camera on my lap as if it were a child, fragile, precious, in need of constant care while Ryan reversed along the road. As the van slowed, in silence we took up our tasks, each knowing what the other was about with no need to ask.

Ryan circled the van, a rifle slung over his shoulder, every other moment sweeping the sight across the view, lingering on where they we’d come. He calculated we’d have half an hour if they’d continued to follow, but he wouldn’t let his guard down, knew the danger could come from any angle, even the sky, despite it having been empty for some time.

Jordain worked at a considered pace, taking care with the body as he lay what remained in the grass at the side of the road, covering him with a sheet of plastic, finding stones, boulders, what he could to give Sheppard the privacy he deserved.

I played the controls in the back of the van, ignoring the images uploaded to the suite of screens, there’d be no editing, a raw version is what they’d get, the images ready, the van giving the familiar shudder as the satellite transmitter raised.

Until its premature stop.

Pushing the button a second time, I heard the groan of mechanisms above my head, the whine of gears locked together unable to fulfil their task. I pushed the system into reverse, felt the shake as the metal settled home, then lift one more time, counting the seconds, finishing before it should.

With a deep breath I stepped to the road, moving away to get a better view. I didn’t need to climb the ladder held to the back doors, didn’t need to get up close to see great splinter of wood, no shorter than my forearm, wedged in the mechanism, just like I didn’t need to hear Ryan’s words. Our time had gone again.

“They’ll have what you need at the hospital,” Jordain said, his voice close at my ear making me jump. “All sorts of comms gear,” he said. “We can still deliver the message.”

I smiled at his unbidden words, turned and took his hand, squeezing until he pulled away before his pain rose any further.

“We’ll find another way,” Ryan said, his eyes, like ours, scouring the sea of bobbing heads, moving from hair matted with what could only be blood, to great rends of flesh across those leading the way with their wide, slack, but determined expressions.

“No,” Jordain and I replied in unison as he sat in the third seat to my side, his fingers pushing my seatbelt into place.

“We’re going right through them,” I said, bracing my good hand against the dashboard, the engine flaring as Ryan’s right foot grew heavy.

Chapter One Hundred and Ten

I kept my eyes wide. Chose to watch as our speed built, taking in the view, my body gripped with anticipation, head practicing for how the first impact would feel. I kept my eyes wide when the first clash of flesh and bone sent a shudder of emotion though my body, watching each creature mown down, heads splitting from their bodies by the neck, rolling up the windscreen, not able to un-listen to the solid thumps against the roof as they travelled along to echos of decapitation. I thought of the debris getting caught in the satellite transmitter, but tried to force my imagination not to picture tufts of hair wedged between the mechanical parts, eyes dangling down by connective tissue from where the metal connected.

With the windscreen wipers fighting to clear the blood, only smearing the liquor left and right, I could feel the van slowing, the metal complaining as I tried to relax back into the seat, tried to let the pressure of my blood release, only to spike again as a new horror presented.

The children were the worst. My imagination fixing panic on their features. Hands grasping for parents, instead of their expressions devoid of any reaction, even as they hit the metal, even as what life remained finally expired. I took a great gasp, seeing nieces and nephews I’d barely spoken with in the past few years. Their perfectly formed features showing no sign of affliction, their veins buried deep and out of sight, not raised to the surface, black and bulging.

A hand gripped my left, Ryan to my right shooting a look as I gasped for air, hoping it was my imagination alone which felt our momentum slowing with each hit.

We were slowing. My look to Ryan, then to Jordain confirmed, neither of them able to hide the fact from their features as we each tried to look on, to look beyond the sea of creatures which seemed unending.

“What’s your name?” I shouted out above the din of each impact, the complaint of metal, plastic, the fabric of the van now so fragile. I didn’t look as he kept quiet, just repeated. “What’s your name, your first name?” I said, shooting a look to my left. “It can’t end this way without knowing who you are?”

When he still didn’t reply I twisted for a look to see his expression narrowed, eyebrows heavy as he caught my glance, trying to ignore why no one had corrected my thoughts on how this would turn out.

“Don’t you know your name?” I said, nervous laughter spilling up from my throat. Ryan gave a flurry of air from his lungs and I turned to see his lips set in a smile as he shot me a look, the smile dropping, eyes widening as he looked back through the windscreen. I turned back to see Jordain’s eyebrows even further down his face, weathered skin lined across his forehead.

“Liam,” he replied, his white teeth on show as a smile soon parted his lips. Each of us flinched back to the windscreen, rocking against our seats as a dark shape disappeared at the top of the glass, leaving behind a great crack radiating where it had hit.

I renewed my grip on Liam’s hand, wishing I could hold Ryan’s in the other, but the tension alone caused pain to pulse up and along my right arm. With the last hit, the van seemed to have slowed more than ever. There had been hope before, we’d known the crowd of undead couldn’t have gone on long enough for us to slow to a stop, but now with the path unending it felt as if it we were only moments away from the worst situation.

Just as my mood sank lower than I thought I could recover from, I saw light, saw spaces between the bodies and their grasping hands. Air pulled into my lungs and I raised myself, squinting through the sheen of orange, the darkness filling the crack. I was right, the crowd was defiantly thinning. I could see the darkness of the road between and we had more than enough speed to carry us through, to knock the bodies to the side, to roll over those who wouldn’t get out of the way. I gripped Liam’s hand tight, pulsing my fingers, nodding towards the screen, hoping he’d seen the same, then turned to Ryan, my smile full of enthusiasm to end this part of the journey.

His face dropped as I caught his view. I flinched to the screen, but nothing had changed, our view was clearing, we were coming out of the danger. Then I felt it. Felt the rumble of the engine, the hiccup of our movement despite no impact from outside, despite having cleared the last creature Ryan couldn’t just avoid.

It came a second time and I twisted around to Liam, let go of his grip, hoping someone would say something as the engine stuttered for a third time. Blood drained from my head as on the fourth it failed to recovered and we slowed, rolling in the silence.

Chapter One Hundred and Eleven

It didn’t matter which way he turned the wheel or how many times the key clicked in the ignition, the engine wouldn’t pay attention to his command. We soon travelled too slow to outrun, only heavy breath filling the cab as those we’d barged our way through gathered back around, hands slapping, clawing, scratching against our thin metal skin. A rising pressure gripped my empty stomach, a dread expanding deep down inside as the windscreen filled with faces, jaws slack, bloodied teeth bared and broken.

For the first time since we’d stopped, I glanced to Ryan and his stern expression, face fixed on the gathering crowd, but I knew he wasn’t looking, something else in his mind. I leant across, peering at the dashboard and lights of all colours flooding the view. With the fuel gauge hovering high above empty, I guessed the damage to the front had been too much, but still the question slipped from my mouth.

“What’s wrong with it?”

Ryan shook his head, looking down to the rainbow of colours staring back, none of which said anything other than we needed to find another ride.

“I won’t know anything until I can have a look,” he said, standing and heading into the back. I didn’t need to follow to know he was checking the rear doors were locked. I looked to Jordain, watching the raise of his brow in agreement. Ryan didn’t return and with a shot of energy surging from inside, I flashed a look around the cab searching for the guns, trying to remember how many we had. Not finding any of the weapons, but the rifle in Jordain’s footwell, a pistol back in the holster at his hip, I lifted out of the seat, lowering myself beside Ryan, moving the pistol from the seat as I planted, placing it out of reach on the shelf above my head with my eyes not leaving the tops of his hands as he buried his face deep within them.

“How long do you think it will take them before they move on?” I said, cringing each time I picked out a scrape of nails, the echo surrounding us. He lifted his head out of his hands, eyes searching when he’d found me in the seat. 

“I don’t know,” he said, voice lowering as he spoke, his expression set on mine with a question he seemed reluctant to ask. My eyes fell on the back of the van and the far corner sprayed with blood, drips clotting to a stop, dried as they’d rolled from where they’d first hit. Light disappeared and I silently thanked Jordain for blocking my view as he stood, coming through from the front, taking the seat opposite me, his voice only just above the dim echoing through the thin metal skin.

“We wait?” he said, nodding as Ryan gave a weak reply, watching as I repeated the gesture. He sat back, closed his eyes while mine searched, skipping the corner, body rolling with the gentle shake from side to side as the suspension absorbed the slap of hands and bump of the crowd, my mind all the while trying to judge if their activity was retreating or getting worse.

I could see no food, my hand reaching for my stomach as a cramp held my insides to ransom. I hadn’t eaten since the night before and it hadn’t been enough to hold back the pain. I kept telling myself over and again the same would be true if Toni, her name sticking in my thoughts, hadn’t done what she had to me. Anyway, I’d was cured. Right?

Jordain snored. The noise light and barely there, but from his posture, the slow rise and fall of his chest, it was obvious he was asleep, confirming my previous experience with the military. Rest when you can because you don’t know when you’ll next get the chance. Was he right to feel safe with me trapped inside?

Soon, like rain battering the canvas of a tent, the scratch and scrape formed a pattern and although my fear didn’t subside, my breath slowed as I concentrated on Jordain’s rhythmic rise and fall of his chest, the slow, gentle pace of his breath I imagined over the din and with it my eyes grew heavy.

I woke to silence, fearing the quiet had brought the end, but as my eyes adjusted, I saw Jordain leant against the metal opposite, Ryan to my side, asleep still with his head in his hands. The scratch and scrape had gone, but I daren’t move, instead sat there listening for any clue of what was happening beyond the metal.

With each passing moment without action, without conversation, trapped in the tin can, I felt the pressure in my gut tighten, pain radiating up and down. My body’s way of telling me it needed sustaining, needed fuel, but did it have to make me hallucinate?

First came the smell. Steak fresh from the packet. An odour I’d never been a fan of. I’d always held my nose until it sizzled in the pan, but now I craved to slide back the plastic and take a deep pull. The thought caught me off guard, but as soon as I backed away from the image I felt a fist gripped tight to my stomach, twisting my insides. Licking my lips without command, another smell, lamb I thought, came to mind and the pain relented. I stood, Ryan lifting his head out of his hands, asking a question with his eyes. I nodded as I trod my feet light with every step, swallowing down saliva and his face dropped back to his palms.

With my hand at my chest I looked out past the windscreen, heart leaping to see the crowd had dispersed. Creatures still walked around with no aim, but they no longer crowded the van. A hollow victory if anyone made a sound.

Tapping Jordain on the shoulder, I felt a rush of energy rise through my body, it was all I could do to stop the pain pulling my features down. His eyes lit up, blinking fast to clear the downiness. He stood, his movements slow and silent, air wafting all around and the pain relented. He followed my look through the window, followed me as I trod lightly across the back of the van. With his mouth opening wide, his pace quick, but it wasn’t enough to get to me before I’d slid the bolt across and pushed the handle open. Before the light and wash of cold air streamed from outside. Before I stepped to the tarmac, leaving the door open and wide.

Chapter One Hundred and Twelve

The road felt cold even through my trainers, the light brighter than I remembered. I moved to the right almost bumping into a tall man, half his face dangling at his side. I didn’t take a deep breath, didn’t scream, my blood pumping at the same pace as he pushed me to the side. I let him. Jordain’s feet slapped to the floor and I turned much faster than those heads all around making their long slow twists toward the noise, their bodies following.

I heard my name on the breeze, heard the sweet scent unlatching my stomach, turned as another shoved past to push a smile on my face. Jordain’s eyes were wide, his expression holding mine only for a moment, his concentration elsewhere, hands grasping to pull his only chance of survival from the holster. I didn’t waste the time on an apology, my hands busy pushing the door closed as the first of the mouths took hold. I didn’t waste time watching his reaction, watching his hands give up on the weapon, instead fists balled for a moment, striking out at the growing crowd. I gave in, let myself be consumed, taking my place, falling to my knees as he did, crouching to the ground, my face almost touching the tarmac as I filled like a baby sucking on a teat.

Full. Senses dulled from the feed, the man before no longer recognised. I rolled under the van, my stomach griping with pleasure as it gurgled, excited at the contents.

Coming to a rest in the centre I felt the van’s warmth all gone, but had no care. Tears streamed, rolling to my ears, but my mind wouldn’t let me linger on his face, pulling away time and again as the taste filled my senses, energy radiating from my core as I turned to my side and watched the sun slowly disappear like my humanity had drained away. Like my dreams flowed down the plug hole. Like my hopes for an ending which involved Toni paying the price for what I had now become.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirteen

The cold, hard ground felt like it had drawn every degree of warmth from my body, while sound pounded across my head, booming through the fresh air. Pain traced my eyelids as they opened, just like when I’d cried the entire night after coming home from a week of bliss with the woman I could no longer bear to think of. 

A new day had started, the signs obvious in the chilled air, the sky brighter than when my head had first rested, exhausted to the cold ground. I looked around, taking in the narrow picture, but turning my head and body together I could get a full view despite the tyres and a thin spear of something hanging down near the front. Turning to the other end of the van, I saw a body, or what remained. Bone and ragged fatigues drenched a dark shade told me what lay by the rear. I hadn’t needed the reminder, the moments still as fresh as if they’d just happened.

Wandering feet, some with shoes, some not, hung around in the distance, but were few and far between. The noise still lumbered in the air, a pounding, rapid battery of pressure. A helicopter, I said to myself. Pleased my mind had jumped back on the track, pleased I’d woken to conscious thought and I’d found my groove despite my eyes drifting back to the body every other moment. I knew there was only one way to get past this and I fixed my eyes on the remains, listening to the sensations radiating from my head.

After a few moments I knew I didn’t feel guilt. This had not been my choice. She should have to bare the pain. The regret hers, not mine.

Pleased with my conclusion, I turned away from the skeleton, flitting back to the noise of the helicopter, but fixing on what stuck out from below the engine.

Crawling along the road on my elbows to the rhythm of the battered air, soon my eyes caught the long shape, the white of the bone stripped of flesh, only sinew remaining to hang like thick white hair. With my right hand I took hold, first noticing the blood streaked across my fingers, nails jagged and broken, then wondering at the lack of pain, the return of definition in my touch as I gripped tight. Face distorting with the effort, I felt the pull of something across my skin, but didn’t need a mirror to know what had dried, soaked into my pores.

With the bone removed, rattling to the road as it dropped, I rolled from under the van, my blood brimming with energy as I stood. I felt invigorated, could feel no pain, no aches, the cold air so refreshing as I pulled it deep into my lungs. My eyes caught on the helicopter, now a dot in the distance as it lowered, the sound shrinking as it fell behind the far away buildings. I smiled, dried flakes falling as it cracked on my skin, pleasure rising from my chest as I knew I hadn’t lost my cause. She was still mine for the taking, she still had to pay. Jordain just another victim of the crime I would make her account for.

Pulling my t-shirt over my head, the cold air sending shivers of sensation across my bare chest, I did my best to wipe my face, but I wasn’t hopeful, the t-shirt already too far from its original colour. The dead still paid no attention as I walked around the van and I stared, taking a moment to linger on the bare bones close up. The body stripped clean, fatigues shredded, the laden holster at his side. I dragged it away from the door. No need for Ryan to see what had happened. Kicking the holstered gun under the van, I pulled up the handle, the creatures around only taking notice as tapped a light request on the metal.

Ryan’s bleary-eyed reaction paused much less than I’d expected, his look going from my face, from my chest to beyond my shoulders, returned to lock eyes again, my breath stopping as he spoke through the crack.

“Do you feel better now?”

Chapter One Hundred and Fourteen

First eye contact had been the test. His and mine, but for different reasons. The door creeping open as I gave the nod, told me I’d passed his. The muscle still beating in his chest as he pushed the door closed at my back meant I’d passed mine too.

“I thought you were dead,” he said through a grey smile, his hands reaching to the floor to pull up my red jacket before handing it over. I didn’t reply when he looked away while I dressed, grabbing the skirt with both my hands, clenching it hard in my right fist. I took joy in the sensation, pausing only a moment before pulling down my jeans mottled with darkness. Turning around, prim and proper again, my clothes at least, he drew me close. After only a moment’s hesitation I let myself in for the embrace, guilt rising, but the sensation dissipated when I couldn’t taste his scent, no desire building, no will pushing me to rend flesh from bone. As the realisation took hold, I drew in closer, gripping tight, letting the tears of joy, of relief, flow down to his shoulder. He didn’t jump back, his face not full of fear at my deathly cold skin as he burned against me. I couldn’t help but wonder if he knew what was going on inside my head or was it all in my imagination?

“What happened?” he said as we released, answering one of my questions. Perhaps?

The scratch and scrape on the thin metal came back, but we barely noticed as we looked with intent into each other’s eyes. He broke off first, leaning to hand me cleaning cloths and a bottle of fluid intended for the cameras. He didn’t press me for an answer, he didn’t need to know and I didn’t need to sully Jordain’s name with a pack of hastily prepared lines.

“The helicopter,” I said, my voice croaking, his head spinning to the windscreen as he nodded. “She’s getting away.”

“The engine?” he said returned with his face in a grimace, eyes wide as they locked back to mine.

“Try it now,” I said, scraping the wet cloth between my fingers, whilst Ryan dabbed his hand to his left cheek.

In moments we were pushing forward, my right hand gripping hard as we slid sideways and back again to avoid the swarm gathering. We’d been quick enough not to let the crowd build, quick enough to find the gap in the blockade, the small groups easy to avoid as we swerved in and around the cars abandoned in the road, leaving them instead to follow, forming on mass in our wake.

We didn’t stop at the second olive container by the roadside, slowing only to take the slalom of the concrete blocks without scraping, but with enough pace shed to know the position, like the last, had long fallen. As the road rolled under the tyres, the rest of the streets were no surprise, the desolation, the vacancy, even the lack of creatures didn’t cause me to look twice. Soon we could see every other panel of the hastily erected fence had fallen, the outer perimeter ineffective and we drove right through a gap, slowing only to stop the skid. No point in swerving the bodies when there was no way to avoid. Ryan drove us toward the building crowned with the swirled blades of the helicopter, turning away only as I put my hand to his shoulder, the view in the mirror forgotten, the crowd so much thicker than we’d already failed to get through, but it didn’t matter. I’d seen the communications truck Jordain had mentioned and with my beat so hard in my chest, I ran into the back whilst the wheels slowed, watching the equipment’s lights flashing green as it picked up the surrounding network.

We pushed the doors open at the same time. I straightened my skirt and jacket, staring into the tall wing mirror, pleased with what I saw, only needing to give a slap to each cheek to draw out the rose colour, the faint darkness in the grooves serving well to highlight and contour. With energy rising deep from with inside me, I took a breath and with my back to the hospital building, the destruction and carnage all around, I stared with the morning sun in my face and beamed at the red light shining back from the camera.

Chapter One Hundred and Fifteen

I’d done it.

It was prize winning material, even capturing the figures running across the roof. Sighting what could have been Toni, could have been her, miniature on the monitor screen. I was sure as she climbed to the helicopter. My breath caught, or almost, as the children were guided high along the roof. I carried on despite the woman’s words from the days before, the best hosts, hoping my words streaming from my mouth weren’t catching as I thought about a fate similar to mine.

But my power was to let everyone know, to use my words to narrate the story over the horrific pictures from the journey. Others could zoom and identify the culprits, could track the helicopter and end this madness.

They had more time left than we did.

Ryan left the camera rolling as I waiting for the upload to finish, staring at the destruction, only turning away as the automatic reply flashed across the screen telling me the footage had been received by the editor.

Now it was up to them to do what they had to do. I had to rely on them to make the choice to send it out to the masses, to push out my warning as far as it would go.

“What now?” Ryan said from the open doors of the van, his voice calming my rising beat.

“There’s probably a thousand, maybe more on their way here,” I said sighing through my smile.

“So what do you want to do? You’ve done it despite everything,” he said, his eyes wide, face beaming a mirror image of mine.

“We did it. Thank you,” I said letting my shoulders fall.

“Do you think they’ll use it?” he replied, his face set in a scowl as he nodded to the images still playing on the wall of screens.

“We’ll probably never know,” I said with a sigh.

“Doesn’t that bother you?” he said raising his eyebrows.

I nodded.

“But what can I do?” I said not letting my lips deflate.

“I don’t think this story’s over yet,” he said raising a smile in the corner of his mouth. The pop of a gunshot barely broke the tension in the air and he turned toward the hospital while my eyes caught on the one screen showing the feed from the camera. I watched the wide angle as the helicopter lifted, the wind picking up even inside the van. My eyebrows raised at the sight as Ryan spoke.

“There’s two people on the roof,” he said, squinting as I turned. “A dog too,” he said, uncertainty in his voice. “We should go see if they’re okay,” he added turning back.

I closed my eyes taking a slow breath.

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” I said as I held my hand to my stomach.

Roll credits….


…that’s it for Season Two. Watch this space for a few fun posts while I recharge my batteries before I get back to these words I’ve so enjoyed creating. Thank you for reading and staying this long. If you enjoyed, let me know in the comments or Like my Facebook page.

Know who it is walking across the roof? Want to know what they had to go through to get there? Check out Season One.