Whatever might have been left of our homes would now be gone. We stood in a rattled silence, allowing the commotion to slip away around us.
With daylight fully breaking all around us, the soldiers retreated, their groups and their shock dispersing into the back streets.
I tried not to think of our parents, our families, tried to quell the uncomfortable hope they had passed long ago, succumbed to an earlier horror than this death from the sky.
There was something terrible about this, some half formed fear to make it this far only to be struck out in an instant.
Ken made a noise as if about to comment, but he was cut off by Jay’s sudden, angered movement. He lashed, turned around and stalked back to the other room, his breathing heavy and jagged.
“Where are they?”
If I hadn’t followed him, clipping his heels, I would have missed his words. They were spoken in dangerously low tones, the kind reserved for when the speaker is too angry to shout. The kind that slice through you and cause a rift of open panic, the kind that sent Rachel stumbling backwards, hard against the wall.
“Where. Are. They.” He was spitting each word as he confronted her, closing the gap between her, effectively trapping her against the wall.
“Jay…” I reached out to grab at him, but he jerked away from me.
“Where the fuck are they, Rachel? Were they in town?”
She looked past him briefly, met my gaze. Her eyes were wide, full of terror. She opened her mouth as though to speak, but stammered over the start of her own words.
“Jay.” I repeated, urgently this time. I started to reach out for him again, but thought better of it, dropping my arms uselessly by my side.
“If they were there… If she’s hurt… I will kill you.” His voice rumbled low, the threats delivered flatly. “Tell me what you know, and tell me now.”
“This is not the way to do this, Jay.” Ken spoke from behind us, his quiet footsteps approaching.
I moved away, clearing his path directly to Jay.
“It’s not Toby out there, Ken. Fuck off. I’m handling this.”
Ken was right behind him now, tensed and about to reach out for him, more violently than I had, when Rachel finally spoke.
“It’s okay.” Her voice was quiet, shaky. “I’ll tell you everything, just back up, give me a minute.”
Jay stood still, shoulders heaving with angry breath.
“Back the fuck up, Jay.” I snapped finally. I stepped forward again and grabbed his arm, my rough nails digging into his skin through the worn jacket he had on. My own anger surging, I forced him away from her, pushed him back into a seat. Rachel, hugging herself, stepped away from the wall. She looked pale and small, her shoulders slightly hunched in defeat.
“Look,” She said quietly, keeping herself at a distance from Jay. “I can only tell you what I know. What I found out before… Anyway, I can’t guarantee… But they weren’t in town. Not unless he changed the plans completely.”
Jay made to move, to stand and confront her again, but Ken and I were ready. I stood between them and Ken shook his head and pushed Jay’s shoulders back, forcing him squarely back into the chair.
“We always heard rumor of another group like us, up in the mountains.” She continued, “But Harvey wanted nothing to do with them. As you know, he felt he had enough people, he wanted nothing to do with them.”
“He talked about going up behind McKenzie’s, way into the hills, where they used to mine. He was kind of… A prepper, before all this happened. It was a place he’d scouted before.”
Jay’s rage had cooled slightly at her words. “How was she?” He asked finally, softly. “Are they looking after her?”
“She’s his golden child,” Rachel said simply. “She is well fed, clean, safe. Frightened, but safe.”
She had given him something none of us had been able to – a promise that Annie was alright. I could feel the change in the room as his anger gave way to a quiet, reluctant relief. It was difficult to let go, to put faith in her, difficult to tempt fate and allow ourselves to feel hope.
Slowly, though, we did.
The change rippled through the room, a small beacon of hope. We could pin everything on it, plan.
“Okay. Okay.” Jay’s voice was rushed, excited. Almost feverish. “I need you to tell me everything. Even if you think it’s not important. Charlie – can you get something to write this down?”
For the first time, I looked around my aunt’s house properly. We didn’t know what had happened to her, but it seemed clear she had been a victim in one way or another. Nothing was disturbed, it was just… So lived in, peaceful. Like she had gone to work for the day and been unable to return. The only sign of intrusion were our packs strewn carelessly around, some of our supplies spread out on the kitchen counters.
I passed through the kitchen and into the small study she had, retrieving a notepad and pen from her cluttered desk.
Maybe I was avoiding facing it, or maybe because we hadn’t been that close, but for whatever reason, my aunt’s disappearance didn’t shake me as much as it probably should have. Not yet.
I paused to look at the mess she’d left in here, the piles of unfinished work, half-formed ideas, and I felt distant from myself. It was too easy to picture her just out for the day, about to return any time. She didn’t feel gone.
I shook myself and headed back out to Jay and Rachel. Ken had relaxed, taken a seat and left them to it, but Laura had disappeared into the house, probably tending to Toby somewhere.
“So they’re living in this old mining settlement?” Jay was saying. He was on his feet, pacing anxiously.
“I think so.” Rachel nodded, then continued hastily, “They never mentioned anywhere else to me, and so much planning had gone around the move. They’ll at least be there temporarily.”
“We might not have much time.” Jay grabbed the notepad from me, scrawling messily as they spoke. “What’s he planning? What’s the end goal?”
“A full rebuild.” Rachel looked disturbed by the thought. “It seemed normal while I was a part of it, but… Looking in from the outside, he’s dangerous. He doesn’t just want to start again, he wants to rule those people. He wants control.”
It was something we had recognised – and feared – of Harvey long ago, but Rachel spoke vacantly, slowly, in the dazed tones of someone only beginning to see just how harsh the light was.
They talked for what felt like hours – Ken joining in, me listening through my exhaustion – planning, arguing tactics, filling page after page of plans. The last thing I remembered was them arguing fervently about who would make the journey – Jay winning the argument with himself, me and Rachel, insisting Ken and Laura stay here with Toby.
At some point, I’d slumped in my chair and gone to sleep. Jay woke me gently, my eyes creeping open to find us alone in the room.
“Hey,” He said softly, pushing my hair back from my face, “you okay?”
“Yeah. Sorry, I just… It was kinda rough out there.” I felt bad, falling asleep during the planning, but even now, exhaustion shadowed my every thought.
“It’s okay.” He pulled me close, breathing into my neck. “Are you okay to come with us? We’re going to leave in a couple of days… We need to hurry, but we can’t fuck it up. We need to be prepared.”
“Of course. I want to go. I want her back.”
“Come on, let’s get some proper rest.” He pulled me to my feet, letting me lean into him and just stand for a long moment, feeling each other again. “We’ve got the spare. I didn’t think… I didn’t think you’d want her room.”
My aunt. I looked around her house again, her things, her strangely interrupted life.
I nodded my thanks.
We had a plan, something I’d have to review carefully after we slept. We had to get this right.
It was time to get Annie back.