Jay, ever impatient, had followed closely behind me instead of waiting. Annie was awake once again and he gently set her back down on her feet, letting her lean into him.
“Do you think this is theirs?” I’d let the bag billow out, making the sign unreadable again through its crinkles. “The survivors that guy was talking about?”
“I guess so. Ten k’s out?” Jay looked ahead, but the road lay flat and empty before us. The moon still hung high in the sky, letting us see quite far ahead, even if our vision was muddled with shadow. “We’ll never make it tonight.”
I’d been thinking the same thing: it was just too far for us, especially with Annie and running on empty like we were.
“We could use one of the farmhouses?” I didn’t really like the idea, but it was the only one I had. Where else would we go, on the outskirts of town, on the brink of collapse?
“We’ll have to. Let’s just keep going for a bit longer. We passed a house not long ago and I don’t want to backtrack.” Jay picked Annie up and wordlessly started moving forward, past the strange little sign and further away from town.
There weren’t many houses out this way, but those that were here were big, sprawling farmhouses set well back from the road, surrounded by enormous blocks of farm or vacant land. The kind of houses you whispered about at slumber parties, where odd people who rarely came to town lived, and when they did, they moved with the unmistakable air of someone who just doesn’t belong.
We headed to those creepy houses we’d feared as kids with purpose now.
The wind had quieted down but I still took each step with a shiver. The night was sharp and cold, and the ratty jackets we’d found did little to protect us. Even stopping briefly to look at the sign had let our body temperatures sink back down and the cold seep over us.
At least with Jay carrying her, Annie wouldn’t be so cold.
We walked in silence. Eventually Jay put Annie back down to walk by herself, so we formed our little chain again, which slowed us down but made me feel slightly safer. I’d been looking constantly over the top of the overgrowth, hoping to see a house. The moon was bright enough out here we could see far enough inland to spot most houses or barns.
I finally spotted one and joy bubbled in my chest. I was so tired just the sight of it brought tears to my eyes – there might be food, blankets, new clothes – and probably at least one bed. “We could head in now, Jay,” My voice sounded stark, cutting through the silent darkness. “There’s a house if we head inland.”
“I guess we should check it out.” He agreed after a pause. “I feel like we’re wasting the night.”
“Jesus, Jay, we can’t just keep going forever.” I found myself angry with him. We’d walked for hours, for days, hiding and starving. The anger sat on my chest and I wanted to scream at him for everything we’d been through. I was furious with him for everything – for making us jump the roof, for making us try and get across that damn road… But mostly for finding that stranger by the creek and sending us out here, looking for others.
I dropped Annie’s hand and stopped walking. I could feel the rage resting on my cheeks, a swell of nausea rising in my stomach, tears gathering like a storm about to unleash. “We can’t keep going. Fuck.”
I couldn’t understand or explain why I was so furious with him. I hated that he could keep going forever. That he seemed to expect that Annie and I should be able to do the same. I was tired and I could feel my control slipping, the rage sweltering inside me. I had no grip on it, it roamed free, growing as it fed on my exhaustion.
“Okay, Charlie, shit.” Jay had stopped walking now, and reached out for me before changing his mind. “I just really want to find these people. They might have food – ”
“I don’t! I don’t want to find them!” I’d snarled at him before I had a chance to realise what I was saying. I’d been anxious about the stranger, anxious about others, but in my rage I was scared of them. Scared of a group of unknown people.
The real reason for my fear flitted at the back of my mind, trying to surface. I’d hoped one of our families might be there – alive, healthy – and finding this group of survivors meant knowing the answer before I was ready.
I could feel my anger ebb away as desperation crashed over me.
“Okay, hey, it’s okay. Let’s go check out this house.” Jay knelt down and picked Annie up again. “What do you think, Annie? A night at a farm? Sounds pretty cool, right?”
I followed them blindly through the overgrown field. We stuck to the thickest part of the growth, but most of the walk was lost to me. I just put one foot in front of the other and stared at the house, watching it grow bigger as we approached, until it loomed in front of us, as dark and spooky as we’d whispered about as children.
There was a small worker’s shed beside the farmhouse, a couple of broken tools littered around the door.
Jay creaked the shed door open. Annie sneezed and cough in the sudden dust and cobwebs and we all froze, mesmerised by the sudden noise and our immediate fear.
Hearing nothing, Jay shook himself and pushed the door open the rest of the way. “You two wait in here. I’m going to go check the house.”
Annie and I scuffled into the shed. Once Jay closed the door shut behind him, we were engulfed in total darkness. I reached out for her and we just held each other, both quivering with cold and fear.
The silence outside stretched on once again as Jay’s quiet footsteps had retreated.
I could feel my mind clouding over as Annie and I huddled together. Exhaustion snaked around us, my mind slipping away from consciousness as we waited. Annie was silent beside me, her head heavy and still on my shoulder.
We might have slept.
Before time could have had a chance to pass, Jay was slowly pushing the shed door open, the calm expression on his face silently reassuring us both.
“All clear,” He grinned and ruffled Annie’s hair. “The back door is busted but we can barricade it up.”
We lumbered after him as he led us away from the shed and into the farmhouse. The back door had been beaten up pretty badly, by looters no doubt. We pushed it shut behind us, but it wouldn’t click properly shut.
Silently, completely in sync, we moved the heaviest furniture we could manage and wedged it up tight to block the door shut and hopefully keep anything else from coming in.
I moved to the pantry which had clearly been quite thoroughly searched. Empty packets crinkled under my feet as I approached the door which had been left flung open. The only item left on the higher shelves was a packet of dusty, unopened water crackers. I stashed it in my pack and kept searching. On the floor under the bottom shelf, well out of plain sight, I found two small tins of tuna and a dented can of cold spaghetti.
I held them up, victory coursing through my veins, my heart thumping. The grin that broke over Jay and even Annie’s face was even more reward than the food itself.
Our exhaustion kept at bay, we sat on the floor in the middle of this stranger’s kitchen and opened one of the cans of tuna.
We feasted on tuna and water crackers like kings. We were all so happy in this moment. We could barely see one another in the dark but I could feel their happiness, radiating around me.
Being in this house felt like wearing the safest of security blankets. The tension around us had eased, and even Jay was calm and moving slowly, more relaxed than any of us had been for nearly a fortnight.
He stretched out on the floor on his back, eyes closed with lazy contentment. “Compliments to the chef, that was amazing.” He sat up, grinning. “Wait until you girls see the bed upstairs!”
Even Annie was all smiles now. It was infectious, this slow, easy happiness that had fallen over us as we ate. I grinned back at Jay, and carefully packed our new supplies back into my pack.
The room he showed us upstairs had been searched, but they’d left the bed practically untouched. We picked up the pillows and blankets that had been thrown around and tucked Annie into the bed, right in the middle of two fat pillows, covered up to her chin in thick fluffy blankets. Her little face was still so tired, but it had a glimmer of joy we hadn’t seen for days. We kissed her goodnight and sat quietly until she was asleep, which took only moments.
“I feel like we’re okay here,” Jay whispered finally. “Nothing’s coming in that back door without us knowing about it, and we can lock the door in here. Tomorrow we can search the place properly.”
He walked over and locked the bedroom door with a satisfying clunk.
“You don’t want to find the others?”
I’d known the question had to be coming, but now that he’d said it, I cringed away. He waited patiently, sitting on the edge of the bed beside me, looking out the window at the darkness.
“I’ve been hoping…” My voice hitched. “I thought maybe we might know someone in their group. I don’t want to find out we don’t.”
“I had the same thought,” Jay said finally, after a long heavy pause. “Our parents won’t be there… But yours might.”
I both loved and hated him for saying it. It filled me with a piercing hope quickly overshadowed by fear.
Annie stirred, rolling over until she was curled up on one side of the bed, lost blissfully in dreams.
“I think we could all have a sleep.” He added, when I didn’t reply. “I feel so safe here.”
I climbed into the bed next to Annie and felt Jay lie down beside me. He wrapped his arm around my waist and held me close. It was the hug of a friend, of family, a hug for comfort.
With the wind billowing around the farm and my heart sick at the thought of finding – or not finding – my family, we took a chance and fell asleep together.