We woke lifetimes before I was ready, the day closing to a cold, grim twilight as I stood at the window and stared out, my grimy face a sorry reflection in the dusty glass.
A part of me had wanted to stay next to Jay, pressing myself against him as hard as I could, sleep through the night and forget about our journey.
Annie’s face haunted every normal or selfish thought I had, spurring me to move, pushing me out of bed and waking up at the window, shaking in the sudden cold of being away from the blankets.
When I turned away from the window, Jay was sitting up, pushing a hand through his hair, his face tense and exhausted.
“Did you sleep?”
“Not really.” He shrugged and stood. “I kept thinking of everything that could go wrong.”
He didn’t answer, just made his way to the door, pausing so I could follow. He took my hand as I caught up, and we left the room together, our scrawny frames slipping easily through the doorframe.
Laura, Ken and Rachel were already up, sitting formally around the table, packs and a pile of clothes stacked neatly before them.
“Everything you’ll need is in there,” Ken nodded towards us, his arms crossed firmly across his chest. “We kept most of the knives, but there’s two in there for you guys.”
“Thanks.” Jay unzipped the packs and handed Rachel and I a knife, sitting the pistol on top of his pack.
“The clothes were your aunt’s, Charlie,” Laura said. “We thought you might want to get changed.”
I nodded my thanks and picked up a replacement outfit – jeans, jacket, t-shirt – and handed the same to Rachel. They were plain, solid dark colours – Laura had obviously gone through the items carefully, choosing items that would be the least memorable, the least noticeable, and the least painful for me to see, not knowing what fate had met my aunt.
I retreated back into the spare room to change, leaving Jay to finish discussing the plan with the others.
I tugged at my clothes, so worn and dirty they clung to my skin, the ripped fabric snagging on the various scratches and scrapes along my body. Inside the jeans, Laura had folded a pair of underwear, their stark white cleanness a blinding contrast against my grimy skin. I wiped myself down with the inside of the t-shirt I’d pulled off and slipped into the new clothes. They were a little musty and crinkled, no doubt having come from the depths of a drawer somewhere, but my skin tingled with the feel of the crisp fabric against it.
I let myself enjoy the clean feeling for just a moment, refusing to dwell on whose clothes these were, and left the pile of filthy rags in a corner of the room, opting to rejoin the others before I could think too much.
Rachel had also changed, and we exchanged a cautious smile.
“Can you guys try and get through the info Charlie brought back?” Jay was finishing up now, Ken and Laura looking tired and serious.
“We’ll take a look.” Ken agreed, nodding his head slightly.
“Thanks. I’m going to get changed, and then… Then I think we go.” Jay looked to me for approval. I flashed him a crooked thumbs up, clearing my throat to shake the lump of fear lodged there.
“Thanks for these.” I said to Laura, tugging at the bottom of my jacket. “I almost feel human again.”
She smiled, but there was nothing for either of us to say. We were strangers, connected but distant, on the verge of a difficult goodbye.
Jay was back quickly, disturbing us all from whatever silent thoughts we held. “Right.” He said, looking around at each of us. “Are you guys ready?”
We nodded and he rubbed a thoughtful hand along his chin, stalling. “Right. Okay. I don’t think we really want to run into the soldiers, so we’re going to need to take it easy out there.”
We moved to the packs, picking up one each, hoisting the fat straps our our bony shoulders. I was grateful for the jacket, cushioning the strap’s bite, but they’d obviously crammed a hell of a lot of supplies in these packs.
“There should be enough food for just over a week for one in each pack. Each has a little extra, for Annie on the way back. You’ll need to find water pretty fast, and we need to do a bit of searching for more around here too,” Laura warned us, gesturing to a dismally small row of beaten up water bottles on the table. “That’s all that’s left.”
“Got it, thanks.” Jay said. “We need to try and start moving, it’s properly dark out there now and the sooner we can get away from town the better.”
Ken was at the front windows, twitching the heavy curtains back and forth. “It’s looking clear.”
“I’m going to go first. Straight across the road – that house has been empty the whole time, and we can run through the yards and into the back streets.” Jay paused to shake Ken’s hand and give Laura a quick, awkward hug. “We can’t afford to let the soldiers see us. They’ve been okay with leaving us be, but I doubt they want people coming and going freely.”
“Okay, sure,” I met Jay’s eyes over Rachel’s head. “I’ll go last – Rachel can follow you.”
He nodded, understanding. If she tried to do a runner, if she tried anything, we’d have the best chance of stopping her if she was in the middle.
“Once Charlie reaches us, I’ll move if it’s clear. You guys need to follow immediately and just stick to me. The soldiers will be out in full force – we can’t afford to stop or talk unless we have to.”
The next few minutes happened at double speed – we left Ken and Laura, not stopping to wake Toby – and before there was time for any more discussion, Jay was crouched and jogging across the road.
Rachel hesitated for just a moment, only checking briefly for anyone around.
I watched her jog – it was impossible to see her actually meet with Jay in the darkness, but she had stuck to his route and disappeared into the shadows at the same spot he had.
I took a long, searching look up and down the street, heart drumming frantically somewhere between my throat and my chest. Without so much as a look back, I followed them, colliding with Jay as I reached them.
He ignored me and moved forward, with us silently following him.
We caught a break, with no soldiers apparently anywhere this side of town yet. We’d slipped silently out of town with no stopping or angry shouts following us.
Jay zig zagged us out of town, not pausing for a breath or to even check we were keeping up. He knew I was in the back, and would raise the alarm if Rachel tried to run.
The moon hung low in the sky, the stars vibrant overhead with the lack of civilisation and power. The highway opened up before us and I ran without looking forward, my gaze drinking in the night sky.
We ran for ten, maybe twenty minutes, when Jay turned and ran backwards, his eyes looking past us, watching for anything following. Satisfied, he slowed to a slow jog, and finally stopped, his heaving breath blowing steam in front of his face that disappeared by the time it would have reached me.
“We’re fine.” He clicked the safety on the pistol and slid it under his waistband, his relief obvious. “Let’s keep moving.”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned away from us and broke back into a run, Rachel following him silently. I took one last look behind us and followed, satisfied in our safety for now.
He led us through the thick overgrowth, dropping us into a ditch that ran parallel to the highway, our footsteps pounding the dirt.
We’d made good ground and Jay finally let us stop for a drink and a quick break. Without our footsteps and heavy breathing, the night fell around us audibly. The odd insect noise, the grass rustling with the wind, the fumbling noises as Rachel struggled her backpack off and sat it on the ground.
We felt so safe and untouched, making it out of Lakes without raising any alarms. We’d walked and run for hours, and we focused on the satisfaction of making it this far, squashing any wandering thoughts of Annie or the battle to come.
I heard it first, I guess. The others didn’t react initially, but my ears pricked, thinking I’d heard something twitching in the night.
“What was that..?” I asked, not keeping my voice as quiet as it could have been.
The first of many mistakes.
The second was to push my way through the overgrowth, my chest bursting with fear and adrenaline, my brain lagging behind, my instinct out of sync.
“Charlie, what the – ?”
He didn’t get to finish the sentence, and although I tried, I didn’t get to stumble backwards, away. I tripped over something – my feet, a rock – and fell on my arse.
“Jesus Christ!” I heard Jay shout from behind me.
I was moving at half speed, the world running circles around me, as I stumbled to my feet, threw the pack off my back and searched for the knife.
“Fuck.” Jay had retrieved the pistol now and I heard the safety click off, a sharp sound that interrupted the jagged rasp of the zombies in front of us.
My hand closed around the handle of the knife and I pulled it, throwing my pack to the side, falling back behind Jay to give him a clear shot.
There were at seven of them, standing in a lopsided formation, most of their heads cocked to one side, watching us.
Jay started firing, taking one out with his second or third shot. Three of them converged on him – two moved slowly, sluggishly, but the third one was quick and agile, on top of him before he’d had time to take aim.
One of them had been working its way toward me, but I ignored it and lunged for the one on Jay, dragging it off him with a sudden burst of strength.
“Are you bitten?” I screamed, pushing the zombie to the ground between us, backing up to find the knife I’d dropped in the struggle.
“Fuck – no – I’m okay.” Jay was sitting up now, and shot the zombie in the head, his first shot hitting its mark at this range. Its head blossomed in front of me, a spray of blood wetting my face.
Sickened, I coughed into the grass, falling on my hands and knees as I found the knife.
Jay had worked his way back to his feet now and taken care of the other two after him, they slumped between us, bodies writhing for the briefest of seconds before falling still.
“Charlie – get down!” Jay shouted, and I fell flat into the grass, praying for the earth to swallow me. He shot several bullets over me, and the zombie that had been after me dropping somewhere in the middle of the rapid fire.
We realised what we’d done at the same moment, another mistake. The worst of our mistakes.
She had fallen in the grass behind us, the remaining two zombies hovering over her. One of them had her pinned to the ground, its arms gripping her shoulders, towering over her.
She was fighting under them, her legs kicking up, her arms fighting to get free.
Agonised screams broke through the night, piercing my ears, my heart.
Jay ran past me, ramming into the one that had her pinned down, knocking it to the ground, firing a bullet directly into its forehead.
The last one took an uncertain step backwards, but Jay had taken it out before it had time to do anything else.
Rachel was lying very still.
Jay got to her first, dropping the pistol as he fell to his knees beside her. “Are you okay? Rachel? Rachel?”
She didn’t answer, but we could both see it, even in the moonlight. The bites all over her arms, her neck… Her face.
They bled and wept. Her death sentence.
She looked up at me, her expression blank. Empty. She knew. We all knew.
She was quivering in the dark, in the cold, her jacket in bitten tatters around her.
We’d made this mistake, Jay and I.
“Do it.” She said finally, closing her eyes. “You have to do it. You have to find Harvey and…”
Jay’s body spasmed. He struggled to his feet, backing away. His eyes met mine and he shook his head desperately.
I pushed forward, past emotion, past instinct. I let the cold feeling in my stomach guide me. I bent and picked the pistol up, kneeling beside Rachel.
Her eyes already looked vacant, a slip of drool pooling in the corner of her mouth. I told myself it was already happening.
She was already gone.
I pointed the pistol at her, maybe half a metre away.
I closed my eyes.