I dragged the shovel closer and hauled it up with me as I staggered to my feet, each bit of progress marked by a pulsating string of pain stabbing my ankle.
It was covered in blood and grit, loose gravel sticking to the blood from where Jay had beaten that thing’s skull in. It clanged, loud and clear in the night, against the car as I stood upright.
Sudden noises usually filled me with dread, but not this one. Those things had either heard their hunting companion screaming, or they hadn’t. If they had, they already knew we were here and it was worth the risk of that single noise to be equipped with some kind of weapon, no matter how rudimentary that weapon was.
Jay had looked alarmed at the sudden noise, but the same calm I was experiencing slipped over his face when he saw the shovel in my hand. “Can you walk?”
I tested my weight on my ankle. It hurt, but the throbbing was already easing away. “Not fast, but I can move.”
The stars were slowly but steadily fading above us as nighttime crept to a close. Our safety in the darkness was rapidly dwindling.
“To the park.” Jay shifted Annie’s weight and made his first trudging steps forward. I could hear the tremble in his voice, but he gave nothing else away. I trailed after him, caught between taking care of my ankle and trying to keep up.
The park which had been so tantalisingly close only took seconds to reach. We strayed off the loose gravel path, favouring the quick, silent grass to travel across. Deep under the darkness of the trees, Jay stopped and set Annie down on the ground.
“We don’t have time to make it much further.” He gingerly handed me his pack. “Could you, uh, get the crackers out? Annie, you want a couple of crackers?”
“Okay.” Her voice was even tinier now, those same sobbing hiccups from the car returning with a vengeance.
I sank down to the grass next to her. As I unzipped Jay’s pack, I realised why he didn’t want to touch the food. “The blood, is it… Can we…” I didn’t know how to ask.
“Jesus christ, Charlie, not now.” He was furious suddenly. “Not fucking now.”
I felt a rise of vomit lashing at the back of my tongue. The horror of the last few hours washed over me – the blood, the screams, the being hunted like easy prey.
The blood… All over Jay. Probably on me, on Annie. The box of crackers shook in my hands, the contents rattling as I handed it to Annie. She silently took a couple of crackers and handed me back the box, not even looking up at me. I reached out to hug her, and then recoiled back. I couldn’t touch her. What if there was blood on my hands?
I dropped the box back into Jay’s pack and held my hands, fingers splayed wide, in front of my face, eyes darting from my fingertips to my palms, checking for anything.
I couldn’t see any blood, but the darkness blotted my vision.
I ran my hand over the scratches on my side. They were welts, bumps and cuts etched into my skin. My hand came away sticky and I dry retched, turning away from Jay and Annie with tears pricking at my eyes.
Jay collapsed on the grass next to his pack, dragged it back close to him. Each movement was slow and deliberate, but punctuated with silent rage. “I don’t know where to go.” He admitted finally. The fury had quieted in his voice. “We just don’t have any time.”
“I know this park…” I spoke aloud even as I realised it.
We’d brought Annie here once, months ago. It had an impressive play area, bridges and little houses built scattered all around enormous tree trunks, climbing areas snaking around winding paths and swings between the trees.
I forgot about the pain in my ankle as I stood, a whisper of an idea forming in my mind.
“Follow me. Annie, come on, just a bit more walking, okay?” I retrieved my shovel, feeling better as I gripped its splintered wooden handle.
She wasn’t crying anymore, or hiccupping, or reacting much at all. She’d managed one of her crackers and put the other one in her pocket now, then reached out a hand, searching for my own.
I pulled away from her, stumbled backwards as I tried to hide it. “We’re… we’re going to try not holding hands this time, okay?”
She didn’t react beyond her hand dropping limply to her side.
If I was right, the play area wasn’t far from here. It was deeper into the park, further under the cover of trees, but we were close.
Without a word, they wandered after me. Jay was lost in himself, and I knew the realisation about the blood all over us wasn’t only on my mind.
I kept walking, checking every few moments to make sure they were sticking behind me. Annie stayed fairly close but Jay trailed behind, dazed.
Within minutes I knew I was right. The play area sat before us, the bridges and houses barely visible in the shrinking darkness thanks to the shadows the trees branches threw out from above us. I stopped to view the entire area, Jay and Annie stopping just behind me, still silent, still not really here with me.
“That house, there.” I pointed, looking to Jay for approval. He gave me nothing.
Calling them houses was a stretch – they were small sections of the playground, each with a flimsy plastic roof and walls made of plastic slats with bigger gaps between each one than I would have liked. The one I’d chosen was in a corner of the area, one side backed up against one of the biggest tree trunks here. The only way for anyone other than children to get to it was a bridge, designed to wobble gently as you crossed it, the chains hitting one another with a telling chink.
“Come on Annie, follow me.” I led her to the end of the bridge closest to our chosen house. “I’m… I’m going to lift you up, okay? Then climb into the house and get as close as you can to the tree.”
I didn’t want to touch her, but the sky was turning a milky grey now as the sun threatened to emerge. And I knew, as much as it pained me to admit it, that if the blood on us carried infection, it was too late. For all of us.
If I lifted her over the bridge, she could be inside the house quickly and without making the bridge rattle too much. Jay was silent behind us and I grabbed Annie swiftly, supporting her through the gap between the bridge and the house.
The chains chink, chink, chinked for a few seconds as she wriggled off the bridge.
“We’re not going to fit going that way.” I turned back to Jay and grabbed his hand, squeezing it harder than I’d meant to. “Here.”
At the other end of the bridge, we climbed onto the play equipment and I led him across, my heart faltering with every chink that accompanied our footfalls.
Even if we hadn’t made it, Annie was safer in there than on the bridge.
We made it as the first glimmer of sunshine started peeking over the horizon.
Despite the cold, I pulled my jacket off, using the arms to tie it across the entrance to the house we’d just used. We still didn’t know how they tracked us, or how good their senses were. The dark jacket over the biggest open space seemed to be the last thing I could do to keep us safe here.
I sat back next to Jay, my hand resting lightly, briefly, on his knee. He looked at me then, for the first time since we’d given Annie the crackers.
Silently, he pulled his own jacket off and used it to cover more of the open space. We could still see out at each corner where the jackets sagged under their own weight.
As the sun crept its way over the horizon, we waited, huddled together, blood drying on our skin.
We waited for darkness of night.