Her hair was a mess, once held up in a ponytail but it now hung low, most of the strands of her hair pulled free and sitting on her shoulders, matted and thick.
She had stopped and was looking at the ground, one filthy, bare foot slowly kicking at the twig she’d crushed.
Her legs were thin and caked in dirt, her jeans ripped and jagged at the knees. Her arms were spindly messes of dirt and blood.
Her height suggested she was maybe only a couple of years older than Annie.
I relaxed my grip on the shovel, lowering it to my side, trying to find my voice, to call out to her.
I couldn’t see or hear anyone else – was she really on her own?
“Hey – ” My sudden voice caught her attention. She looked up, slowly.
Her face was mottled with bruising and blood, her mouth gaping, slackjawed. We were only a few feet apart, and I could see the drool pooling in the corner of her mouth even from here.
Her eyes were a milky grey, now locked on me.
I took a stumbling step backwards. She tilted her head to one side, considering me. Her movements had been slow and fumbling, but after a long moment of watching me, she made to rush forward, suddenly coordinated, fast.
Not just hungry. Starving.
I made to back up. My instinct was to run. Without looking behind me, I found myself pushed up hard against a tree trunk, the rough bark digging into my skin where my jacket was ripped, leaving me exposed and bare.
She was only a child. I couldn’t… My hands tightened on the shovel, but I was watching her speed, her strength. Could I outrun her?
Not her, a voice muttered at the back of my mind. Can you outrun it?
She was a grotesque reminder of Annie. A child who hadn’t been as lucky as we had.
I couldn’t –
She stopped her trot towards me, maybe a metre away from where I had pinned myself against the tree. She tilted her head to the side once again, watching me. The drool escaped the corner of her mouth and slid down her chin. She grunted, then inhaled a deep breath, eyes fixated on me.
Her lips peeled back in a snarl.
Instantly, before I’d had a chance to think about her being a child once, before I could be reminded of Annie again, I gripped the shovel with knuckles so tight they felt ready to burst.
I raised it high in the air, trying to build speed, strength, with my swing. It connected with her head with a sickening, wet thud.
As I raised the shovel again, she started to scream. The terrifying scream of the monster she now was, but with fragments of the cry of a child. It was a scream of pain and fear as the shovel hit, and in the next moment a battlecry – a scream of desperate hunger as she shook her head to recover from the blow.
Calling for more of the fucking things to come and feed.
Everything blurred and I lost control. Somewhere far away, I could feel my arms aching with each swing, could hear each thud.
The wooden handle of the shovel bit into my hand, tiny splinters emerging as I flung it to the ground finally.
She had fallen into a heap before me, and I sank beside her, my entire body shuddering.
She didn’t move, didn’t make a sound.
I felt as lifeless as her form was before me.
I had no emotion, I was shutting down. The memory of her screams hung in the air, and I knew I had to go. She might not have been alone after all, she might have called more of them, who even now would be stumbling their way towards me, hellbent on a feast.
Covered in the blood of a child, I retrieved my shovel and headed deeper into the park.