Somehow Annie and I had slept through the night and a good part of the day without stirring.
When I finally woke, Jay was sitting on the floor beside the bed, our backpacks open and a collection of odd items before him. He’d obviously searched the house while we were sleeping, and his reward was an aged first aid kit, two packets of potato chips, a packet of dried fruit, another empty drink bottle and even a can of soda. There was also a hairbrush with a broken handle and a couple of kid’s reading books.
He’d also found a third backpack, on top of which sat Teddy.
As I moved to sit beside Jay, Annie woke, still looking brighter and happier after eating dinner the night before. “Come on, kiddo,” I waved the brush in the air, “I’ll brush your hair.”
She sat in my lap and I started brushing, the teeth of the brush snagging every matted knot, every tangled strand of hair. I went slowly, admiring and regretting the quiet fortitude she showed, not even wriggling or crying out as the brush pulled.
“I want to split all this stuff up kind of evenly,” Jay said quietly. “A drink bottle each, some food. Just in case.”
We sat and brushed while he worked, dividing the food up as evenly as he could, carefully tipping a third of the water into the new bottle, putting one with each pack.
We decided to share the spaghetti, eagerly slurping the cold slimy delicacy. It was probably the best and most filling bit of food we’d found, but we needed the energy to find these other survivors.
By the time we’d split the packs and made sure Annie could carry hers, the sky was beginning to loom dark and moody overhead.
Our old friend darkness was ready to pay another visit.
The wild fields surrounded the house, overgrown and undisturbed. We pulled our makeshift barricade away from the back door slowly, silently.
The muted noise from outside throbbed around us as Jay slid the door open, insects and wind but little else. The moon was paler tonight, but guided us along a safe path to the shed we had used last night.
We cramped in the doorway and waited, Annie in the middle, clutching both of us again.
“It’s clear.” Jay finally decided.
We cut our way diagonally across the fields, back toward the road but still making progress, heading further away from town. Once we reached the road we dropped into single file, Jay in the lead, the overgrowth our cover again.
Maybe I should have been planning, preparing myself for what we’d do if we found the survivors. Or didn’t find them.
Instead I concentrated on walking. I let myself slip into a stupor, the only thing dragging me out of it was to encourage Annie when she flagged. After what had to be at least an hour, we fell into step, our hands weakly linked. We took a break, drinking some of our water and sharing one of the packets of chips.
And so it went, all night. We walked until Annie could barely lift her feet, and then we either took a break or one of us carried her. We pushed her, and ourselves, so hard I was dizzy on my blistered feet. After I took another turn at carrying Annie, I set her back down and dragged myself behind her, closing my eyes against the cold night breeze.
My grip on consciousness was so weak I doubt I would have even known if one of them came screaming at us.
It was stumbling straight into Annie that shook me back to reality.
They’d stopped dead in front of me. “Wha – ?”
“It’s McKenzie’s.” Jay had detoured slightly off the road and was standing in front of another clumsy sign, this one well hidden in the overgrowth. It was just dumb luck he’d even seen it. “They’re hiding at McKenzie’s.”
McKenzie’s was a massive dairy processing plant, the biggest supplier in the district. Normally you could see it lit up impressively, a monster of a building lording over the surrounding farmland. There had been the usual outcry when it had been built, the concrete and steel offending the farmers who had been here for decades.
Progress had won, though, and McKenzie’s had elbowed its way into the industry seemingly overnight.
“We’d be in about the right place,” I said at last. There were no security lights guiding our way now – not even the industry powerhouses were still on any kind of grid.
“The milk place?” Annie asked now, her little hand snaking its way back into mine.
I squeezed it reassuringly. “That’s right, Annie, the milk place. Jay’s driven us past a few times, remember?”
“Let’s get a bit closer, then we’ll have a break, okay? Some more water and maybe a snack.” Jay didn’t wait for our answer.
We followed after him, heading inland now. It only took a few minutes before we saw its hulking shadow, the entire area lit only by the moon.
We hid in some wild shrubs and took careful sips of our water. Despite all our care and attempts at rationing, our bottles were all nearly empty now. If we were wrong about McKenzie’s, we’d have to find more water, and fast.
“It’s impossible to tell,” I whispered, dropping the bottle back in my pack and quietly zipping it up.
“I think we’ll just have to try and get in.” Jay said finally. “You guys – ”
“No way.” I interrupted. “We’re coming with you.”
I couldn’t stomach the idea of being without him out here, and I couldn’t admit I was terrified of falling asleep again, like I had back at the playground. I was past the point of exhaustion, heading rapidly towards delirium. Annie’s head was constantly drooping, her grip on my hand slipping every few moments.
Maybe because I’d been so adamant back at the farmhouse, or maybe he recognised the determination in my voice, but Jay didn’t argue. He looked around cautiously, then motioned for us to follow.
Through the long, damp grass, we approached McKenzie’s. Our sneakers kicked up loose gravel as we suddenly hit the bitumen of the carpark and we froze, slowing our hesitant walk to the pace of a neverending crawl.
We had reached the security gate when we heard it. I’m not even sure what we heard, just something that disturbed the natural hum of insects. Something that didn’t match the rhythm of our careful steps, or our hushed breaths.
I saw him first.
I shoved Annie behind me. Instinct wailed in my ear. Run. Protect Annie. Run.
He had a rifle.
We couldn’t run.
Like deer mesmerised by headlights, we stood still as the world spun around us. The man took a few quick steps towards us, careful to stay a few metres back. He raised the rifle, swinging its aim between me and Jay, his finger on the trigger.