I woke to Jay nudging my shoulder. The sun had all but slipped away again, our filmy cover of shadows creeping back to us.
I’d let Jay and Annie sleep until there was nothing more I could do to stay awake. I’d guess it had been a few hours. Jay had kept watch over us while I’d passed out.
Now we were getting ready to move again, planning to stop at the creek to refill our bottles and wash some of the grime off our skin. We slipped back into our jackets and shrugged our packs back on.
We waited until there was nothing but darkness around us, our eyes slowly adjusting until we could just make out each other’s shapes. Under these trees the moon barely made an impact.
“Let’s hold hands,” I whispered, “Annie in the middle. We’ll never keep track of each other if we don’t.”
“Yeah, let’s do that, good idea.” Jay’s voice murmured through the darkness.
We fumbled around, falling into a line, gripping each other’s hands. My fingers curled protectively around Annie’s little hand, my other hand gripping my shovel even more tightly.
We’d all but emptied the two water bottles and eaten some more crackers before setting out, but I was already fantasising about reaching the creek, rinsing off, and getting more to drink. We’d been taking it easy, drinking slow, measured amounts, but now I was ready to gulp an endless stream until I felt full and sick.
“We’re going down to the creek for a splash and then we’re going to go find some new people, okay, Annie?” Jay ruffled her hair, his other hand clutching tightly to hers.
“What will they be like?” Her voice was so small, so weary. The voice of someone too young to feel so defeated.
“We don’t know yet, but we’re going to find out first. They’re the ones who might have the animals, remember? Let’s go.”
He started walking and the links – me, Annie – in his beaten little chain trudged after him. The thought of another drink would keep me going until the creek. I tried not to think too much about the people we were going to look for.
Jay had been right about the creek, we reached it within minutes. Annie and I stood and listened while Jay crept forward and checked the area. The overhead trees were thinner here, and we could see him gesture us over.
“It’s safe,” he whispered when we reached him. “Get a drink of water and we’ll fill the bottles again. Wash your face.” He added, tickling Annie as she edged past him toward the water.
I knelt in front of the creek, knees sinking into the damp grass. The water moved slowly, trickling over rocks and pooling around stray blades of grass that had grown out on their own. Moonlight shimmered on the surface in glowing ripples.
I cupped my hands and dipped them into the water, rubbing them together, letting the cold splashes rinse the layers of dirt and blood of my skin.
I drank greedily, messily, the water dribbling down my chin and all over the front of the borrowed jacket I wore. I thought about rinsing the wound on my side again, but the water was too cold and it wasn’t hurting at the moment. I helped Annie wash her face and took the now full bottle Jay handed me.
“We’ll keep one each. We need to keep moving,” Jay helped Annie up from the side of the creek, drying her hands on his jacket.
“What’s our plan?”
“Let’s head out of town. It’s a good idea even if that guy was wrong. We can’t stay here forever.” Jay used his jacket sleeves to dry Annie’s face. “We’ll go as long as Annie can last, and then we’ll find somewhere to take a break. We all need to stay really quiet. No talking unless you see … Something.”
We both just nodded. I could only imagine how Annie felt. The little sleep we’d scraped had mostly just made me feel worse, like I’d had a tease of what rest would feel like but it danced just out of my reach, mocking me.
The wind buffeted at our backs, pushing us forward, chasing leaves around our feet and masking the sound of our steps. Each breath puffed in front of our faces before floating away.
We walked forever in silence. I concentrated on the ground in front of me – what I could see of it – and wiping tears away. I could barely bring myself to look away from the ground. I kept flashing back to the zombie that had found us in the car, my mind silently screaming as I remembered its own wail. If I tripped again, if one of them heard me again…
We’d been walking for what had to be a few hours when Jay led us in behind some thick bushes and let us sit, sharing a few stale crackers each and a small drink of water.
The park was long behind us now and we were cutting through streets with blocks that grew bigger and bigger, the signs of looting and violence more subdued out here on the very outskirts of the suburbs. We hadn’t seen anyone or anything, just destruction and abandonment at every turn. Despite the fear prickling me, we’d hidden behind fences and husks of lonely cars, staying still and just observing before moving forward from each stop.
Annie hadn’t complained once, but even in my zoned out state I’d noticed her little shoulders trembling as she cried and her grip on my hand slacking as she grew tired.
The rest and the snack brightened her, but only a little. I could tell by the way Jay was looking around and fidgeting he wanted to keep moving while we still had plenty of darkness left.
“If I carry you for a bit, do you think you could walk some more after that?” I whispered. I didn’t even know if I could carry her, but we couldn’t stay here. Jay and I seemed to have silently agreed that hiding out in another house in town just wasn’t safe.
“I think I can.” She whispered back, leaning into me. “I’m sorry Charlie.”
The tears running down her face nearly broke me. She was so defeated. She had been living on the edge with us for nearly two weeks now and she was apologising for being tired. I hugged her close. “It’s okay. It’s okay. Hey, when I get tired, you can carry me, okay?”
The tiniest of giggles. “I can’t!”
“Are you saying I’m too big?!” I ruffled her hair and looked away so she wouldn’t notice the tears freely running a race track down my own face.
I reluctantly handed Jay my shovel, a layer of my security going with it as it left my hands, and scooped her up. “Hold on tight, we’re going to follow Jay. Quiet like before, okay?”
He stared at me for a long moment over her head. Out in the open, away from the canopy of trees in the park, we could make each other out a lot more clearly. “Thank-you,” He mouthed.
I just nodded. He needed to concentrate on watching our surroundings and taking us the right way. If I could carry Annie, even for a little while, and if we could just encourage her to walk a bit more after that, we’d be safer.
We both felt the further away from town we were, the safer we would be.
Annie’s small frame quickly became heavy as we trudged after him. Just as we reached the welcome sign announcing the town’s population – the official boundary – I set her back down on her feet.
Her steps were small and tired, but she moved on without complaint.
The growth along the road was high and wild. Jay led us to walk against it, sinking into the ditch that ran alongside the road. This provided us with some cover but gave him a good view of what might be coming.
He stopped and turned back, looking behind us. “I’ll take Annie for a while if you can lead?”
“I can’t – ”
“That was just shit bad luck back there, Charlie. It wasn’t your fault.”
He knew, of course. I was thinking about getting us stuck in that damn car. About what might have happened to Annie if he hadn’t saved us. I shuddered involuntarily as I felt that thing grabbing at me again. Its strength, its hunger.
Jesus. Annie’s tired little slump pushed me forward with a surge of fleeting courage. I nodded and took my shovel back from him.
I walked around them to get in front, flattening myself into the growth to get past.
We walked. So many forevers passed this night.
The population sign was far behind us, well out of sight, when I first saw it. A small sign, crudely stuck in the mud right next to the road. It leaned on an angle as though it were about to come loose and fall over.
It was probably just a leftover sign for someone’s garage sale, I reasoned. I looked behind me – Jay was close, and it looked like Annie might even be asleep in his arms.
The sign had a plastic bag pulled over it that I hadn’t been able to make out at first. Now that we were closer, I could see the plastic handles, pulled tight but the ends blowing in the wind. I stopped dead.
Given no warning, Jay walked right into me. “What is it?” He hissed.
“I’m not sure… Look.”
He looked around me, frowning as his eyes found the plastic wrapped sign. Annie had stirred in his arms when they’d walked into me, but was already falling back asleep.
“Wait here.” I left them there and snuck forward, every sense on fire. A strange feeling was sinking over me, mixing with my fear.
As I reached the sign, I realised it was in the wrong place to be advertising something. Nobody would see it until they were on their way out of town, and there hadn’t been any earlier signs to indicate it was for something all the way out here. The way it was stuck in the mud – like it was a rushed afterthought. The size – too small to catch the eye of anyone driving by.
It was all wrong.
I reached out and pulled the plastic bag tight around the sign, which was actually just a square of ripped, flimsy cardboard.
The man at the creek, it seemed, had been right.
The makeshift sign had only one message: