By the time I’d mustered the confidence to go back upstairs, Jay and Annie were reading one of the kid’s books he’d found the first time we had stayed in this house.
Jay looked up as I entered the room, his eyes searching my own. Are you okay? He mouthed, and I just nodded, annoyed. Not with him, not for a second. With myself, with the ball of misery I could still feel sitting heavily in my chest.
“Hey kiddo,” Jay said suddenly, brightly. “Why don’t you take teddy and look through one of these picture books, okay?”
“Okay,” She agreed, and quietly set herself up on the bed with teddy.
I sat beside Jay on the floor, my nerves rattling around as I tried to make sense of the disjointed thoughts racing through my mind.
“I’ve been thinking.” I said finally, my voice rushed, each word clipping the next. I didn’t want to pause, or even think. I hadn’t really had a chance to process what I was about to say, it was all just half formed ideas that had crept into my mind. “I’ve been thinking about heading back to town.”
It was something I’d thought about when I’d been on my own downstairs. A nagging whisper that we had so little food or supplies. That the three of us travelling together was becoming too dangerous. That we couldn’t possibly ask Annie to be separated from her brother.
“We are going to need stuff,” Jay agreed. “We – ”
I shook my head and his voice trailed off. “No, Jay, I just mean me, on my own. We can’t keep moving around as a group like this. Annie can’t keep up, and if anything else happens… If we meet another Harvey. It’s best if we don’t all get caught.”
“It makes sense.” I said quietly. I could already feel the too familiar panic creeping its way back over me, the instant anxiety I felt when I was away from Jay or Annie, even for a second. I would be away from them for days, and I felt jittery just considering it.
But it did make sense. I steeled myself against the wall of anxiety bricking itself over my chest.
Jay looked away, up to Annie on the bed. Her impossibly wiry frame, her straggly hair. The dirt and grime caked on her skin. She was a miniature form of all our struggles, the problems we faced emphasised and exaggerated on her tiny frame.
Finally he nodded. Just as she was for me, Annie was both his weakness and his strength. She was the beacon that pushed us forward and lit our way.
“Okay. Okay. When?”
“I’ll leave tonight.” The decision had escaped my lips before I’d really absorbed it. It was the right decision, though, and we both knew it. We looked at each other in silence, Jay reaching out to grasp my hands.
We broke apart and Jay started separating our supplies. I could take a tin of the chicken, some dried fruit and even some crackers. The rest of the food would stay here.
I carefully poured half of one of Rachel’s water bottles into my own and stowed the rest of the empty bottles in my pack. I’d need to fill them if we were going to survive.
“Charlie, where are you going?” Annie had slid off the bed and was standing next to me, worried eyes taking in the packs open on the floor, the supplies split up.
I pulled her into my lap, pressing my face into her hair. “I’m going back to town, kiddo. I’ll bring us back some more food.”
“Are we coming too?”
“Annie, you’re going to stay here with me, okay? I need your help with some stuff here.” Jay grinned at her, the smile not quite reaching his eyes, a stormy worry building behind them.
Annie pulled away from me, a frown creasing her face. She didn’t answer, just walked over to the window and looked out silently.
“I’ll talk to her about it later,” Jay told me quietly. “And our parents.”
I zipped up my pack and set my shovel on top of it. The whole thing – the decision, the packing – were rushed. We were doing it intentionally – avoiding the arguments, the discussions we could have. Looking at Annie was the reason and the motivation we both needed and accepted, wordlessly.
“How long will you be gone?” Jay asked finally.
We didn’t know what was out there, or who. We’d come full circle, back to worrying about who as well as what might be hunting us. Harvey had done that to us.
“I don’t know. Wait a week and if I’m not back…”
“We’ll come for you.”
“No. You won’t.” I hugged myself, arms trembling as I tried to contain my fear. “You’ll take Annie and do what you need to do to see that she makes it. That you both make it.”
“Charlie – ”
“Jay, for Christ’s sake. We have to get real.”
Harvey had taught me that.
“And what are we meant to do? Without supplies?” Jay argued.
“Then you’ll have to do what you said. Find the other group.” The words felt toxic in my mouth, fears and memories of power hungry, crazed people surfacing. “If I don’t make it back… A week.”
Jay turned away from me then, silently watching Annie, his shoulders slumped helplessly. As I watched him, the reality of leaving them hit me like a freight train. I felt winded, shocked. Dark thoughts battled for priority in my mind – what if I couldn’t find anything? What if the zombies got me? What if I couldn’t get back here?
What if I got back and I was too late, what if Jay and Annie were gone?
It was sometime mid afternoon the second time I ran downstairs to be on my own. My entire body was quivering and my stomach was under fire, turmoil and nausea churning.
Eventually, Jay and Annie came downstairs and we sat together quietly, a huddle of sad, desperate people, clinging to each other like it was the last time we’d be together.
Waiting for and dreading nightfall, once again.