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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
To be continued….A new chapter added daily. Subscribe or like my Facebook page for updates.
Not read Season One? Here it is.