I woke slowly, surrounded by the quiet peace that blankets you before you fully join the land of the living.
Maybe I’d give Jay a call, see if he wanted to catch a movie. We could try that new pizza joint, maybe even take Annie along. She’s a nice kid, even if she gets in the way sometimes, with her endless questions and constant giggling.
I rolled over, stretching, thinking about reaching over with my foot and trying to drag the curtains open. The cosy burrow of my blankets was fading away and I could feel the cold sneaking in.
Yawning, eyes still closed, I stretched my leg, blindly reaching out for the curtains. My foot scraped the wall…
It didn’t feel right. Had I worn my shoes all night?
Lazily, I yawned again. I –
My eyes jerked open and I sat up with a start. There were no billowing curtains beside me to open, no sunshine ready to stream through the window.
It was dark. The silent form beside me was Jay.
He was a thinner, more exhausted Jay, but he was still Jay. Annie wasn’t an annoying, giggly kid anymore.
The strangers in the bed – I could just make them out – Ken, Laura. At some point in the afternoon, Toby must have woken and he was nestled between them.
Darkness was here now.
The content, lazy feelings I’d drifted along with were gone now. The past few weeks rushed at me. This is where we were now. No calls, no movies, no pizza.
No mild annoyance at a little kid who just wanted to hang out with us.
“Charlie?” My stirring had woken Jay, and he looked at me in the thin darkness, eyes searching my face.
I wasn’t certain what he was looking for, only that I couldn’t provide it.
“It’s dark,” I kept my voice to a whisper as the last comforts of being half asleep fell away from me. “It’s time.”
Jay had woken abruptly, with no nightmare of being tricked into thinking everything was okay for a few peaceful moments. He didn’t look for Annie, the hollow look on his face meant he still knew she was gone.
“We can take a few minutes.” He pulled me into him, fought shaking fingers through my tangled hair. “I can’t let you go again.”
“You have to.” I grimaced as his fingers caught in a stubborn knot, tugging at my scalp. The sharp pain was almost a relief, a brisk tug that was tied with no emotions.
“I can’t.” He repeated, giving up on my hair. “I can’t lose you too.”
“We haven’t lost her.”
“It feels like we have.”
“No.” I pulled away from him, locked my gaze with his. “We’ll find her, Jay.” He didn’t answer, his eyes meeting mine but not really seeing me. I heard my voice rattle on, the thoughts barely formed before I spoke them: “It’s the only way. The best way. You’ll go to Lakes with them, get something set up. I’ll get the rest of the food and meet you. If you’re ready before I get back, you can start looking for her.”
“I can’t fucking do anything on my own!” His voice raised above a whisper now, but still Ken’s family slept, undisturbed.
“You can find her. Find her and come back with a plan.”
We sat in a heavy silence, carefully avoiding looking at each other. Just as Jay appeared ready to speak, the others started to stir.
None of them seemed to be lulled into the same trap I had been. Even Toby seemed to wake, instantly, filled with fear.
“Have we overslept?” It was Ken who spoke, managing to sound both concerned about delaying the trip and as though it was irrelevant. I couldn’t help but feel that the concern was directed at Jay, while the briskness was only for me.
“It’s alright.” Jay got to his feet quickly and twitched the curtain aside slightly, looking out at the street below. “We all needed the rest and it’s still early.”
Ken was giving Toby some more of the water and a snack to eat, but none of us bothered. I was too rattled by my sudden reconnect to reality, and the others seemed too anxious to even consider eating.
Jay pushed the curtain open further, pale moonlight spilling onto the floor in a crooked square pool.
“Bring your pack,” He instructed. “We need to split what we’ve got.”
Without speaking, we divided the supplies we’d brought, the bulk of it going to Jay’s pack, along with the gun and the spare ammo.
It was to be me heading into town, then.
“You’re right.” He said quietly as he zipped his pack up. “I hate it, but you’re right.” “Jay will head to the farmhouse and on to Lakes with you,” I said, noticing Laura watching our every more. “If it works out and we can set up safely at my aunt’s, he might leave before I get back – look for Annie.”
“How much food do you have there?” Laura, looking anxiously at Toby now.
“Enough until Charlie gets back with more.” Jay said. “Easily.”
“I got back well before a week last time,” I said to him, “let’s plan for a week again.”
“What if you don’t make it back? What do we do for food then?” Ken’s tone softened halfway through his questions, as though he realised the bleak effect his words might have on us, but not fast enough to stop the words tumbling out.
“Then it won’t matter, to me.” Jay’s tone was dark, flat. “And you’ll be no worse off than you were.”
Another reckless answer, an impatient, angry statement he didn’t really mean, but that felt right in the moment. My stomach dipped at the thought of not returning, of Jay stuck in Lakes without his sister, only to not know what had happened to me either.
I was the lucky one, then. If I didn’t make it back, it wouldn’t be me making a hopeless trip to search for a body or worse.
“We need to go.” Jay continued, his last heavy statement inflicting a silence on the group. “We’ve got a pretty big hike with Toby, and I want to stay out of the daylight as much as possible.”
As it had so many times before, the darkness stretched out before us, blanketing the world in a distorted security.
Toby fussed a little as we cautiously made our way back downstairs, but they shushed him quickly. There was precious little time or energy for comforting.
At the door, we paused behind Jay, waiting for him to give us the all clear. After a long, searching silence, he gestured us forward.
“Take care.” Laura told me quietly, embracing me in a quick hug. Ken silently shook my hand, and they moved away, leaving me with Jay.
“Get the food and come straight to Lakes,” He placed a hand under my chin and lifted my face, eyes searching mine. “That’s it, okay? Forget the other stuff.”
“Sure,” I said the words he wanted to hear, but my mind was elsewhere. I wanted to know what these things were too. With all communications down, our only chance seemed to be in the city, at the medical centres.
“I love you Charlie.” He pulled me close and murmured into my neck. “I can’t do this without you. Come back to me.”
“I promise.” It was getting difficult to speak through my tears. “I love you too.”
He pulled away then, before the goodbye got too much. It never got any easier, and the sick twisting panic was gnawing at me, the fear of being away from him that never dulled.
“Let’s go.” He said it gruffly, an order to Laura and Ken.
I couldn’t afford the time, but I watched them go. I stood and watched them until they were indistinguishable from the shadows. They moved slowly, on high alert, constantly watching, guarding.
They left uninterrupted.
Desperation at him going slowly burned to desperation to get back to the house. I was unarmed, I needed to retrieve my shovel. Despite what Jay said, I knew what I was going to try and do.
I checked my surroundings one last time and silently slipped further into the darkness, hoping to remain mostly invisible as I weaved through the street.
I wanted answers. I was heading into the city.