Such a useless word, but all I could manage with the wind knocked out of me. I searched his face. There were deep worry lines etched all over, shadows lurking under his bloodshot eyes. He had ages years since I’d been gone.
Without waiting for an answer, I ran through the house. Up the stairs to the bedroom we’d been using. Some of our things were there, but Annie was not. I flung each door open and was greeted with grey empty rooms at every stop.
Jay caught me at the top of the stairs. He’d silently followed me, watching me go through the desperately useless motions.
“She’s not here.” I told him, my voice flat. “Where is she?”
Silently, he led me back to the bedroom and we sat on the floor together, backs against the bed. It took him a long time to speak.
“What happened?” I asked finally. “Where’s Annie?”
“They came in the middle of the day,” He was mumbling through a wall of tears, his voice fading in and out, trembling over every word. “There was no time for… I mean, we were sleeping. They broke down the barricades downstairs without us hearing it. I don’t know how long they were there for.”
“Who?” I thought I already knew, but I wanted to hear it. I wanted confirmation of the nightmare.
“Harvey.” Jay spat his name with such venom I instinctively shrank back from him. Then he laughed, a twisted, dry rattle. “Not Harvey himself, of course. He sent the others. Colin. Rachel.”
“Rachel?” She’d helped us, all those days ago. She was the reason the three of us had made it out of the dairy plant. My mind stumbled over what Jay was saying. Why had she helped us, only to betray us? Why risk Harvey’s wrath back at the plant if only to carry out his wishes anyway?
“What did – ”
“They found us in here.” Jay was flatly retelling it, his voice now dead, no more emotion. He was reciting an event he had tried to remove himself from. “They just rushed in here, Colin had grabbed Annie before I could even work out what was going on. He said – he said he’d shoot us both if I tried anything.”
He paused, took a moment to stand and stare out the window. “I watched them, from here. They didn’t even look back. Colin just kept pushing Annie, rushing her forward. They were so damn sure I couldn’t do anything.”
“You couldn’t have done anything.” I said fiercely. “He would have done it. He would have killed you both.”
Even from what little we’d seen of Colin, this I was sure of.
With no answer from Jay, I found myself climbing under the covers, burrowing into the bed where Annie had last been. Seeking comfort, trying to feel close to her. The bed was cold and she felt further away than ever.
Eventually Jay joined me without a word, our thin, cold bodies nestled together under the blankets.
“What now?” He asked me after a long silence.
I didn’t hesitate – there was only one answer. “We get her back.”
He didn’t ask me how, just then, and I was grateful. After some time, he fell into a fitful sleep. I knew he probably hadn’t slept since they’d taken her. Despite my own exhaustion, I lay awake, listening to his uneasy breathing and calming him when whatever nightmare he was trapped in got too much.
None of his stirring got so bad I wanted to wake him back to our real nightmare.
We needed a plan. Colin would have taken her back to McKenzie’s, and the place was a fortress. We’d only ever escaped because of Rachel, and we could no longer depend on her.
Slowly, a cautious, impossible plan formed in my mind, which gradually gave way to me sleeping beside Jay.
We woke some hours later, to find late afternoon around us.
Wordlessly, we went downstairs and looked over everything I’d found for us. There was no ceremony, no feeling of joy. We had enough to survive for quite some time now, but what was the point without Annie?
We forced ourselves to eat and drink.
I was beginning to unpack everything and free our packs up when the question I’d been dreading finally arrived.
“What are we going to do?”
“We have to go back to McKenzie’s.” I’d left food and drink for a couple of days in each pack, the rest I stowed in the back of the kitchen cupboards and would hope they remained undiscovered. “That’s where they’ll have her.”
“How are we – ?”
“I don’t know yet.” I interrupted him, feeling helpless. “We just need to get there and work it out.”
It was a terrible plan – it wasn’t even a plan, really – but it was all we had. Once we got there, we might be able to get close enough to see Annie. We’d have to find a crack in their defenses, a way to get her out.
But mostly… Mostly we at least might be able to see that she was okay. I felt uncomfortably certain that Harvey wouldn’t harm her, but Colin – and now Rachel – weren’t sure bets.
Knowing that Harvey’s group felt comfortable enough to travel during daylight was both alarming and useful. It empowered us to take off before darkness had truly fallen, towards the dairy plant. We knew it would be dark before we got close.
I wondered, briefly, if they knew there were no zombies out this far yet, or if they just felt equipped enough to take them on.
Without discussion, Jay took the pistol. He was the better shot, and it was the smartest way to proceed.
We covered ground quickly with just the two of us and light packs, and before we were quite ready, we had reached the last of the long grass before the bitumen car park of the dairy plant. We stood staring at its hulking mass in the dark, straining our eyes to try and see any movement, any presence, before the security gate.
“If we circle around, I think we can get closer.” Jay whispered. “Around the edge of the car park. Try and see who’s on the gate.”
“Okay.” Sticking to the tall grass, we made our way around the bitumen, shrinking back a few metres as we got closer to the security gates.
After a long silence of watching the darkness, Jay made a frustrated noise. “I can’t see a fucking thing.” He was whispering so quietly I could barely make out the words, but my adrenaline was screaming at me. Just shut up, just don’t make a noise, they’ll hear you, they’ll kill her.
Before I could protest, he’d shuffled forward in the grass. We were up against one of the building walls now, almost parallel to the security gate. He kept pushing forward, so dangerously close it was all I could do to not scream at him to stop.
Just as suddenly as he’d moved forward, he was retreating, and fast. As he reached me, I could make out the puzzled expression on his face.
“There’s nobody on the gate.” He whispered.
As far as we knew, Harvey always kept a sentry on the gate. It was part of his plan, and his pride at not having had a single zombie or intruder except for the three of us. It seemed impossible that he would relax that now. Surely he would realise we might come looking for Annie? Was he really so confident?
We watched for what must have been at least an hour. Nobody moved in the security booth, and nobody came to take over.
“Let’s go.” I’d had enough watching. Annie was in there somewhere. If they weren’t going to run security, we could get closer. It was stupid, and dangerous, but Jay’s desperation to see his sister had him agreeing without question.
We crept forward, taking extra care that each step landed softly. We reached the security gate and as Jay had thought, there was nobody there. The booth was empty and nobody stood nearby.
Waiting to be discovered, expecting to be shot, we kept going. When we were well and truly in the plant without a single interruption, we silently made our way towards Harvey’s office.
The door was open.
Harvey wasn’t there.
Gesturing wildly, Jay and I had a silent argument over what to do next. Without waiting, I pushed forward. I knew where I wanted to check.
I had a bad feeling. Something was very wrong.
The deeper we got into the compound, the more careless I became. There were no interruptions here, no shouts of discovery or bullets chasing us.
Completely uninterrupted, it didn’t take us long to reach the sleeping quarters. We stood and listened for a long moment, trying to gauge how many people would be inside. Trying to see if we could sense Annie.
A strange, silent emptiness was our only reward.
It was Jay who had had enough waiting this time. Suddenly he surged forward, and pushed the door open. Without hesitation, I followed him. It was the sleeping area Rachel had shown us, all the useless equipment casting shadows everywhere.
At least, it had been the sleeping area.
Everything had been cleared out. Even in the darkness, we could see there were no more sleeping bags, tents, or pillows. The area had been stripped back to what it had been originally – a defunct processing plant.
My mind raced to process what we were seeing. Rachel had said Harvey had wanted more – to rebuild, start over. More land, more control.
We moved further into the building, but it was pointless.
Everything – and everyone – was gone.