When I woke, Jay was lying beside me, quietly staring at me, his hand resting on my stomach.
“Hey,” He said, his voice soft and calming.
“Hey.” I felt strangely comfortable, in this house I knew, in our own room, with authority on the streets, taking care of outside threats.
“Did you sleep okay?” He tried to run his hand through my hair but got snagged on the tangle of uncombed strands.
I laughed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d brushed my hair, and I forced my fingers through the mess, wincing at each tug on my scalp.
“Didn’t even get dressed up for our hot date, huh?” Jay grinned at me, and I felt more at home than I had in weeks… Months?
We didn’t speak, just sat enjoying the stolen moment of happiness.
“Okay,” He said after a while. “As much as I want to stay here forever…”
“Right. We’ve planned on going day after tomorrow.”
“Let’s go tomorrow.” I said immediately. I could feel my heart start to race with adrenaline, fear, the constant feeling of being chased, always. “I’m okay. The sooner we go…”
“I don’t know, Charlie…” I could hear the edge of adrenaline in his own voice, knew my nervousness was infectious. “You had it pretty rough out there.”
He didn’t know most of what had happened, and I had no plans to tell him now. Not until we got Annie back.
“I’m okay.” I repeated, carefully. “Once we get Annie back, once we make it back here – we’re safe. We can rest for weeks.”
The adrenaline surged between us, ruling our decisions, our hearts in unison. There was an unspoken anxiety – if we didn’t leave as soon as we could, if we delayed…
We left the bedroom in a hurry and found the others at the long dining room table. Toby was sitting next to Laura, and I gave him a smile and a wave. He waved back, but didn’t return the smile.
Rachel sat awkwardly next to Laura, looking down quickly as soon as Jay entered the room.
Someone had set out a selection of the various bits of food we’d scavenged, including some new stuff I hadn’t seen. I held up a relatively new packet of plain biscuits, and Ken offered,
“The soldiers. They have the occasional rations to give out.”
It was already open, so I took a few out and sat heavily beside Rachel, giving her even more space from Jay.
We ate whatever meal it is you eat after waking up to the night in silence for a few minutes.
Jay shifted beside me and began, “Charlie and I have been thinking… What if we left tomorrow?”
Rachel had barely looked up, and gave no noticeable reaction to his question.
“Rachel,” He added softly, “this mainly affects you. Ken and Laura are staying here… I’m so- I shouldn’t have given you such a hard time. We need to work together on this.”
She looked up, the surprise on her face matching the surprise I felt.
“I know,” He continued hastily, “I know this is a complete turnaround… I’d be lying if I said I don’t still… Well, have a problem with you. But the way I see it, we’re each other’s best hopes right now. You get us to Annie, and we’ll keep you safe. We’ll help you get that bastard Harvey if we can.”
She nodded finally, but her posture didn’t relax. “Tomorrow is fine.”
“Thank-you.” Jay told her, the sincerity causing his voice to waver with emotion. He composed himself, clearing his throat and turning towards Ken and Laura. “Can you guys get us some packs sorted? Enough for a week… and for half a week, for Annie, for the way back.”
“Of course.” Ken nodded, finishing up his own food. “We’ll sort it.”
“And Ken…” Jay looked thoughtful for a moment, then seemed to decide. “We’re going to take the gun. We’re going to be grossly underpowered as it is. But I’ve thought about this a lot, and keeping you guys safe. You have the soldiers, and we’re pretty sure they’d take it off you if they found it anyway.”
Ken’s jawline tensed, his eyes falling on his wife and son, but he nodded.
Laura made a noise as if to speak, but fell silent and carried Toby out of the room, towards the kitchen. After a moment, Ken followed, his body still tense and defiant.
Jay sighed heavily. “Well… Hopefully that works out. Rachel, you’re sure we can make it there and back in a week?”
“It’s going to be tight,” She said, “but if we push hard to get there… We’ll have to push Annie hard on the way back too. We won’t have much in the way of spare time.”
“We don’t want to fuck around once we’ve met Harvey and co anyway,” I spoke up. “We’ll carry her if we have to.”
Someone had dug out some old maps my aunt had of the local surrounding areas, and we pored over them now, plotting out the best way to get there and back. The dairy plant wasn’t on these maps, but the old mining settlements were marked, and we knew the area well enough to take a damn good guess at where McKenzie’s should be.
“And when we get there?” I asked. It was the one thing nobody was mentioning, we had a plan of getting to near the settlements, but then… Nothing.
“We’re going to have to wing it.” Jay said, his voice suspiciously calm.
“Jesus.” I said.
“Rachel doesn’t know what he’s going to have set up there. So we’re going to have to spend some time checking it out, figure out the best way in.”
“I guess it will be like what they had at McKenzie’s,” Rachel offered. “At least one sentry, and Harvey will be well protected. It’s safe to assume Annie will be too.”
“Do you have anyone there that might still be an ally?” Jay asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t know anymore. I have no idea what Harvey told them I did.”
The lack of a concrete plan ate at my nerves until they felt raw.
They kept talking, but I only half-listened. At this point, they were only passing ideas back and forth about how to infiltrate. There was nothing solid we could discuss. We had our route planned to get there, we had picked out a couple of possible vantage points on the map – beyond that, we were going in blind.
“Charlie,” Jay said quietly. “This is no different to everything else we’ve already done. Look how far we’ve come, what we’ve achieved. We’ll be okay.”
It was difficult to accept his comfort, difficult to shake the feeling of running out of luck at last.
I could feel fear lurking, my adrenaline ebbing away to hesitation. As Ken and Laura came back, with the packs mostly ready, and an understanding word from Ken about the gun, I sat lost in what felt like certainty that disaster was about to strike us, the unprepared.
The feeling stayed with me for hours, until it was time to sleep, our last sleep in a bed before we left. Despite the comfort, I struggled to drift off, and eventually fell into a nightmare fuelled maze of chaos, where all the demons wore Harvey’s face.