I woke with a heart wrenching start, fury creeping over me as I woke, realising what I’d done.
Annie was still curled up tight against me, lightly snoring now – probably what had disturbed me. I gently nudged her, her snores subsiding as she shifted against my prod.
It was difficult to tell if I felt better or worse after sleeping. I shifted, trying to look all around us without waking Annie, trying to assure myself we hadn’t been seen.
Whatever little rest I’d had was laced with too much guilt to feel good.
I can’t have slept long, and nothing had found us. I chanted this to myself silently, trying to stay calm.
I thought about Jay and the creek, my throat itching as my mind dwelled on thirst. I was losing track of days, but we’d gone too long without proper food and even longer without any water. I thought of the things we’d foolishly unpacked at the first house, left behind in our haste.
My arm had gone tingly, numb from where Annie was resting on it, but I didn’t dare move any more. I wasn’t ready to answer her questions, or explain where Jay was.
I let myself sink deeper into self pity and loathing while I waited for him. I was so damn angry at myself for falling asleep.
I was sitting in the house with tears in my eyes, jaggedly pulling at my vision, when I saw movement across the other side of the play area. I wiped my face with my free hand and pulled the jacket slightly aside so I could look properly.
It was Jay.
My heart tapdanced in my chest – joy, nerves. I hated it when he left us and every time he returned, relief overwhelmed me.
He was moving slowly, carefully, but it wasn’t long before he was cutting across the bridge, the chink waking Annie. She rubbed her eyes and looked around, eyes wide with fear for a long moment until she saw Jay.
She knew more than we gave her credit for.
He pushed his way under the jackets and collapsed beside us. Without a word, he pulled the now full bottle from his pack and handed it to Annie.
“Slowly,” He cautioned her. “I know you’re thirsty, but you need to take it easy. Just a few sips, okay?”
She nodded and dutifully sipped the water, slowly and determinedly. He handed me the bottle once she was finished and I did the same.
Water was just not something I’d appreciated before. Now it was the most delicious thing I ever tasted, the corners of my mouth tingling as I held it for a moment, savouring. Stopping just a few sips in was torturous, but like Annie, I handed the bottle back to Jay.
He capped it and carefully, delicately put it next to his pack. “I’ve already drank, back at the creek,” he explained. “Are you guys alright? Did anything happen?”
“Nothing,” I said quickly, looking away. I was ashamed to admit I’d slept. “Annie had a sleep, right, Annie?”
She nodded, still quiet but visibly perked up after her rest and the water.
Jay had washed the blood from his face. He looked exhausted, but nowhere near as worried as when he’d left. “I want to wipe that wound clean,” he gestured to my side. “Annie, you play with Teddy, okay? Maybe you can give him a pretend-drink and a bath.”
“Okay, Jay.” She unzipped his pack and pulled out ratty old Teddy, giving him a cuddle before starting to pretend bathe him.
“Lift your shirt.” Jay had moved over beside me, sitting the water bottle between us.
I lifted my shirt gingerly, exposing the wound beneath. It wasn’t seeping anymore, it was dry and angry, stinging where the cloth dragged over it.
“I think this is going to hurt,” He warned me quietly. He uncapped the bottle and sat it beside us again, bracing himself and giving me a moment to do the same.
He tipped the bottle against my side, letting the water dribble down my side. It hit the wound, stinging along my skin like fine razors.
“Jesus,” I breathed through gritted teeth. I cringed as he raised the bottle to dribble some more water down my side.
“I don’t want to touch it and hurt you more,” He said, capping the bottle again. “Once it gets dark we might be able to get you down to the creek, wash it properly.”
I nodded, gripping above the wound and waiting for the stinging to fade.
“I met someone out there,” Jay said suddenly, leaning forward with his mouth against my ear so that Annie couldn’t overhear.
“Not one of them..?”
“No… One of us.” He paused and glanced over at Annie, who was still quietly busy with Teddy. “He wouldn’t stay for long. He saw the blood and it freaked him out. He kept asking me if I’d been bitten.”
“Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, he wouldn’t tell me. Wouldn’t even get close, really. But I managed to ask him about that thing attacking us.” Jay reached over and gently pulled my shirt back down. “He said if we didn’t get bitten we’re not infected. I guess he caught some later reports than we did.”
I felt a moment of relief, doused quickly with new worry.
“I think he’s right.” Jay continued, looking at the frown written all over my face. “We’re all still fine. We’d be sick by now, we saw how fast everything went to hell. It’s been too long.”
Annie had stopped playing now and brought Teddy over, sitting him in the middle of us as she sat down. “Can we go home now?”
“Not yet, Annie. Not yet…” Jay looked back at me. “But I met someone, Annie. He says if we get out of town and go far enough into the hills, there might be some people out there we can visit. Apparently they have some animals, too. Would you like that?” He ruffled her hair.
“What kind of people?” I asked, looking around us cautiously. I couldn’t explain it, but the idea of Jay finding a stranger so close spooked me. Of course there were other survivors, we’d known that, but until now we hadn’t seen any.
“People like us, I guess. A few farmers, that kind of thing. He seemed to think there’s a group of people hiding out there. As long as we’re clean, he said they’d take us in. Especially with Annie.” Jay pulled the jacket back to look around. Satisfied there was nothing out there, he let it slip back and leant against the wall, pulling Annie into a tight hug.
“How do you know we can trust him?” I couldn’t shake the spooked feeling.
“We don’t,” Jay shrugged. “He gains nothing by lying to us. He wasn’t even heading that way himself. Preferred to stay alone. I made sure he wasn’t following me back here, just in case. We don’t have a choice, Charlie. We need somewhere to go.”
I knew he was right. We’d been out of choices days ago, but at least now this gave us a goal. We’d be safer with a group, if this stranger had been truthful. And no good people would turn us away, not when we had Annie.
“We need to get some more rest and head out at night again.” Jay put the water bottle back in his pack. It was already half empty. “We’ll go past the creek, stick to this park as long as we can.”
“You sleep first.” I felt sweeping shame as I spoke, looking away from him again.
He started to protest, but I shook my head. “I’m okay, really. I’ll wake you up the second I start getting tired.”
I watched as he and Annie curled up together, trying to use my uselessly empty pack as a pillow of sorts. He tickled her and she smiled and within moments they were both asleep.
I set myself up as sentry, sitting up straight and checking all around us, the shovel reassuringly sitting beside me.
I wondered about this stranger Jay had met. I knew he was right – there was nothing to gain by lying to us. Especially if he wasn’t even planning to join them himself.
I wondered if anyone we knew had survived and if we might find them with this group.
I stared out at the park, the sun dipping so slowly in the sky.
Once again we waited for the security of darkness.