Jay waited. There was no audible reaction to the broken glass, human or otherwise.
He tossed his pack inside, then struggled through the window himself. It was an awkward height, with a slim frame that made it difficult to fit his broad shoulders through. He looked in both directions then turned back to us. “I’m going to check this floor. Stay here.”
I crouched down to Annie’s height as Jay disappeared into the house. She hadn’t said a word in hours, but she wasn’t crying anymore. Her cough was starting to return, but it was quieter, calmer than before.
I could feel panic wrapping itself around me, tightening its grip every second Jay was gone. I hugged Annie close to me, Teddy firmly between us. “You okay?”
“Are we still playing the game?” She asked. “If we win, will we find mummy and daddy?”
I hated lying to Annie. We were all she had right now, and we lied to her constantly. But the truth… The truth was her parents had been working in the city that day. The truth was her parents were most likely dead, or were now things we didn’t want to find.
“Hey, we might,” I said at last. “Let’s ask Jay later, okay? Once he’s had some sleep.”
It was a terrible thing to say, the worst lie yet.
“It’s okay. You guys can come in.” The panic that had been swelling in my chest eased slightly. Jay had some cloth – a t-shirt from the house, maybe – that he wrapped around his hand and quietly punched the remaining glass out with. “Hand me Annie.”
I scooped her up and tickled her sides. She squirmed, even almost smiled, but didn’t make it to a giggle. I passed her through the window and Jay set her down on the floor, roughing her hair like always. Another smile, but no more.
“I haven’t checked downstairs properly, but I couldn’t hear anything.” Jay kept his voice low. “You guys start here… I’ll make sure downstairs is safe, check the kitchen, and then I’ll come back for you.”
I took Annie’s hand and we watched while Jay descended the stairs. He was right – all was silent. The moment he was out of sight, I felt panic slithering back in.
“Okay, Annie, let’s go look for stuff. We need to be really quiet while we look, okay?” I led her down one end of the hallway and cracked the first door open.
From what I could see in the dark, someone had already been through here, the dresser drawers were flung open and the bedside table was on its side, useless contents spilling out around it onto the carpet. I sat Annie on the bed with Teddy and looked anyway, just in case.
Nothing in the way of food, first aid, the really useful items. In the bottom of the closet, I found a couple of bits of clothing. I helped Annie shrug into a ridiculously oversized jacket.
We could try and keep her warm, if nothing else.
I put one on myself and dug deeper. Like my own closet back home, whoever owned this stuff had a collection of slightly ratty, old clothing balled up into a heap at the bottom of his closet, forgotten and musty. I found a third for Jay, a faded skull pattern all over it. A couple of holes in one sleeve. I stuffed it into my pack anyway.
“Let’s go Annie.” We moved to the next room and found more of the same, the room ransacked and anything that might have been useful already gone. We kept moving down the hallway until we reached the master bedroom, complete with ensuite.
Annie was silent apart from an occasional sniffle or tiny cough. She really was a great kid.
I took her into the ensuite with me, if Jay had to be out of sight, I at least needed Annie right beside me.
There was nothing but silence in the house.
The ensuite was in the worst shape of all the rooms we’d seen. The mirror over the sink had a huge crack right through the middle of it. I stared at my reflection. My entire cheek was bruised where I’d smacked the roof, and I must have cut above my eyebrow on the tiles. The gouge ran deep, red and angry. My bottom lip was bleeding from the constant chewing I found myself doing. My hair wasn’t dirty blonde anymore, it was just a dirty mass of knots on my head.
I twisted the tap, of course the sink remained dry. I’d done it more out of habit than anything, and I could feel sudden tears nipping at the corner of my eyes.
I gripped the edges of the sink until my knuckles went white, taking in a deep breath and then sliding the medicine cabinet open. Useless to cry.
The cabinet was barren. There was a sad, squashed box of kid’s bandages in the corner, a near empty tube of toothpaste and a small cake of hotel soap. I grabbed all three and stuffed them into my pack.
I dragged back the shower curtain just in case. Nothing but a bottle of shampoo on the floor, a slow green trickle oozing out of the open cap.
Still no noises from downstairs, but it felt like time to go. I grabbed Annie’s hand and we slowly worked our way to the stairs, glancing quickly in the other two bedrooms we passed. We’d just about reached the top of the stairs when I sensed movement at the bottom.
I pulled Annie back with me, crouching in the corner. From here, even in the dark, we had a small hope of seeing who it was before they’d taken the final step.
“It’s me.” Jay had spoken quietly before he was even halfway up the stairs. “Downstairs is okay. I even found some food.”
Annie brightened up visibly as he handed her a couple of dry crackers from a beaten up looking box. He handed me the same and then stuffed the box back into his pack.
“That’s all we can have for now, Annie, okay?” He looked up at me over the top of her head and frowned, shaking his head. I knew what that meant – the box of stale crackers was probably all he’d found.
“I’ve been watching the street, I think they’ve moved on. The ones we saw earlier… I think they keep moving as a pack unless they’re chasing something.” Jay paused, watching Annie eat her crackers. “I think we leave while we can.”
I just nodded. It still felt like time to go. If we stayed here, even for a rest, we’d have to spend all of tomorrow here too.
“I’ll go first. I’m going to take us straight to the back door. If I’m right, there’s a park across the street, with some pretty decent trees. You’re going to take Annie and hide as best you can.”
I said nothing as we followed Jay down the stairs.
Before I was ready, he’d stopped at the back door and turned back to us. “Straight across the street to the park. As soon as I say it’s clear. I’ll wait a minute and then I’ll follow.”
It was just across the street. All I had to do was get over the road and hide in the trees. It was nothing. My heart thundered in my chest.
Apart from hiding on the roof, we’d spent the last week completely inside. I wasn’t ready to go outside. I wasn’t ready to face what waited out there.
“Charlie.” Jay. I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t tell him this was worse than the roof. I couldn’t admit I was incapable of crossing the street.
Panic slinked its way around my heart.
“I’m going to check one last time, then you have to go.” I was ignoring him and he was steamrolling me. “Annie, you’re going to hold Charlie’s hand and you’re going to do everything she tells you. Then we can have some more crackers.”
He eased the door open. The silence that greeted us was overwhelming. No cars, no blaring TVs, no sirens from the city.
No groaning, no dragging of decaying limbs, either.
Annie had taken my hand, and with panic screaming in my ears, I took my first step outside.