Jay, who had lost his temper so many times before, who had been almost frightening on so many occasions.
Jay, who could scream and yell and completely lose his mind in reckless bouts of rage.
Jay, whose sister had been taken, whose whereabouts were unknown.
I couldn’t see his face clearly in the dark. I could see the way his entire body slumped, as we realised they were gone.
Jay, whose voice was now dead, the spark doused.
I had nothing for him, no clue of where they might have gone or hint at what we should do next. An urgent need to get away from here, away from our biggest mistake – exposing ourselves to Harvey – overcame me. I grabbed Jay’s hand. It hung cold and limply in my own, the energy sapped from his entire being.
I led us out of there. We didn’t bother looking around or pausing to show any caution. They were gone and we were completely free to leave.
We crossed the bitumen of the car park in silence and headed back into the fields. We weren’t headed back to the farmhouse, not really. We had no destination, no place to be.
I noted bitterly that someone had come and taken the signs down that had first led us here.
We’d probably made it halfway back when Jay just stopped. He looked up at the sky for a long, searching moment, then sat down where he stood. We’d been walking down the middle of the highway, our caution completely discarded. Maybe we wanted to be seen, or maybe we just didn’t care anymore.
I sat beside him and just waited in silence. We look for comfort in times like these, times when there is none. I couldn’t give him any false reassurances. “We’ll find her”? “She’s okay”? Nothing but empty words.
All I knew was what lay immediately before us – a ravaged city and our slowly crumbling will to fight. What was the point of anything we’d done to survive if it only led us here?
The road lay empty before us, the median line stark and crisp under the moon.
“It’s my fault.” He said finally. “I should have followed them. I shouldn’t have waited.”
“No,” I whispered. “It’s mine.”
I expected tears to fall as the guilt embraced me, but I felt almost nothing. An ugly, sick feeling slid from my heart to my stomach, the residue of guilt and blame and a missing child.
“You weren’t there, it couldn’t – ”
“I wasn’t there. I was…” My voice hitched. I was in town, holding a father hostage. Taking his supplies – supplies that were now useless to us, forgotten back at the farmhouse. What a pointless, selfish display of greed and cruelty. Whatever I had sentenced Ken’s family to, we were paying for it tenfold. The universe had observed that I’d become a creature of this new world, and it had dealt its next hand accordingly.
I wasn’t ready to tell Jay everything that had happened. I let my voice trail to nothing, and sat in the dark silence.
“The mountains?” Jay asked finally. “Maybe Rachel told him about the other group too.”
“She could have been lying about that too.” Nothing she had said or done could be counted on now.
“Fuck!” Jay shouted into the night, his voice cutting through the stillness, interrupting the natural hum of the evening.
If anything had been listening, it didn’t react. We sat uninterrupted on the road, the remnants of his shout settling around us.
“We need to get back to town.” He said savagely. “Find that man who told me about Harvey. Find out what else he knows.”
“He might not – ”
“It’s a fucking start, Charlie. He knew about the group out here, he knew they had animals. We don’t know what else he might know.”
It wasn’t much of a plan, but Jay was right – it was a start. A slight chance that a stranger might know something that could help us.
If we could find him.
It wasn’t even much of a start.
We shared a tin of cold meat and drank small portions of the water. We were going through the motions, eating and drinking only to keep some energy up.
Without speaking, we started the trek back to town. Jay had seen the guy somewhere near the creek and that was all we had to go on. There was nothing to discuss or even think about. Once again, our destination was the creek.
We moved quickly with just the two of us.
Left alone with just the sound of our footsteps and the silence of our thoughts, we passed the farmhouse and were at the familiar outskirts of town before we’d needed to pause or speak.
“Still dark for a few more hours.” Jay said finally, as we hovered at the border. “We should start looking for him.”
“You think he’ll be here, in the park?”
Jay shrugged. “It’s the only clue we have.”
There were so many places to hide here in this sprawling park, and little to draw the zombies’ attention, at least compared to the more condensed part of the city.
With little else to go on, we followed the border of the park until we reached the end, and headed in. The darkness was so much thicker here under the trees, making our search slow and difficult. Despite the patches of grey sky peeking through the trees as the sun fought its way up, it stayed dark and silent this deep into the park.
It wasn’t until we’d covered more ground and the grey dawn started filtering through the leaves that we came across a small maintenance building.
It was a small, rundown building, little more than a shack, the kind the council workers would use to store their equipment. Usually these were kept locked, but the door on this one was slightly ajar, fresh scratches showing where the lock had once been.
We stopped walking and stood in silence. There was no stealthy way to enter this building, and little protection once we’d opened the door. If there was anyone in there – if they were armed, like us – this was a risky move.
“Hello?” I called out, keeping a few metres clear of the building. “Hello, is anybody there?”
“What are you doing?” Jay hissed.
“It’s safer for us if we can draw them out.” I felt defensive.
Jay nodded after a moment, but with no response, it was time to make a decision. “I’m going in.”
I shadowed his steps, keeping a couple of paces behind.
He pushed the door open as quietly as possible and entered the building, pistol first.
I watched as the shadowy depths swallowed his back, then quickly followed. Nothing but silence in here.
It took only a moment for our eyes to adjust to this new darkness. The weak morning light hadn’t made it much past the doorway yet.
My eyes were still taking in the assorted collection of mostly useless items that were still here – a rake, a wheelbarrow – when I heard it. The tiniest of whimpers, followed by an almost inaudible Shh.
“Hello?” I said again. I pushed past Jay, into the next part of the building, that had been separated from this main part with a dividing wall and a doorframe with no door.
I could only just make them out – a woman nursing a boy, a little younger than Annie – hiding in the shadows. She looked up at me, her face filled with the same kind of terror I held of Harvey.
Before I could speak again, Jay had pushed me aside, and was holding the pistol towards them. “Is it just you two here?” He demanded. “Are you bitten?”
“No!” The woman cried. “No! My husband – he’s coming back. We… we’re not bitten. We’re clean. Please.”
“Stay there.” He barked. It was Jay’s voice, but only just. It had a rough, hard edge, a complete lack of humanity.
Even I was afraid of him, in that moment.
“Jay. Jay. She’s unarmed. He’s only young. Let’s – ”
I didn’t want us to take this path. We could stop now, and it would be okay. We could leave her alone, just get out of here.
I inched closer to Jay until I was right beside him. Slowly, I put my hand on his arm. “It’s enough.” I whispered.
He shook himself and let his hand drop back down to his side, holding the gun in between us. “I – ”
He’d lost himself in the moment, let his desperation take over. The four of us had spiralled dangerously for a long moment, lost to fear and urgency. Lost in the energy of the moment, we didn’t hear the footsteps approach behind us.
The woman was smart. She pulled her son close, hid his face, and didn’t react to her husband’s arrival.
The realisation hit us with full force. The rake handle was slammed into Jay’s head, so hard it sent him into a messy sprawl on the ground, the pistol slipping out of his hands and clattering on the concrete floor as it landed.
I reacted quickly, reaching for the pistol, but he was faster. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me back, hard – I slammed into the wall and he held me there, pinned.
I closed my eyes against the pain of the impact, certain I was about to be shot.
I could hear Jay scrambling – the hit hadn’t been enough to knock him out. “Stop!” I heard him cry. “It’s me! I saw you, at the creek, we – you told us about the others.”
I heard a click and opened my eyes.
He no longer had me pinned to the wall, but he’d reached out and now held the pistol towards Jay. He gestured with it, indicating Jay should join me against the wall.
As Jay struggled to his feet and ambled over to me, the husband followed him with his aim, showing me his face for the first time.
“So,” Ken said to me. “It’s you.”