By the time we stopped again, my throat had been itching and burning for what felt like hours, my muscles aching, hungry growls gnawing at my stomach, every part of me ready to quit.
We hadn’t spoken, not since I’d told him not to talk. I stopped suddenly now, my feet seemingly stuck to the ground, my body swaying in the long grass. I was unsteady, weak.
“Jay.” My voice was barely an echo of a whisper, but he heard me, his head lifting toward me. Even in this dark, I could see the trouble that brewed behind his eyes.
I sank to the ground, squashing the wild grass beneath me, slinging my packs onto the ground.
After a long moment of looking out into the night sky, he joined me, squashing his own patch of grass, his pack dropped beside mine.
“I lost it back there.” I started. I was genuine, but my mind was impatient with the apology, impatient with wasting our energy on being upset about trivial shit.
Rachel had mattered, Annie mattered – but this stupid fight, this punishment of silence – it fell away, drifting into irrelevance.
“So did I.” He said finally, his gaze lost somewhere else. “I just couldn’t…”
“I understand.” I leaned forward, unzipping Rachel’s pack. It made sense to use the items from her stuff, to ditch the excess weight sooner rather than later. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore, didn’t want to mend the void between us. I just wanted it fixed, gone.
I tossed him a can of sandwich meat, tugging on the ring pull of my own. “I don’t want to think about it anymore. I’m sorry I lost it, but I just can’t… I can’t think about it.”
We ate and drank in silence. The grass tickled my ankles where my pants had risen up. This could have been any winter night, camping or doing something dumb, but instead here we were, blood on our hands and our hearts, the weight of reality sinking us.
“I’ll take her pack.” Jay said. We’d sat beyond what was needed, lost in our own thoughts, our silence filled now only with sadness. “We should keep going.”
We had not long put McKenzie’s behind us, we’d passed it in our anger, refusing to look in its direction or comment. My heart had been panicked in my chest the entire time we were in its proximity, the place where it could have all gotten better but instead went to hell.
We had maybe a few more hours until daybreak, I guessed. We hadn’t been to mine up in the hills, so the rest of our journey was down to guesswork and luck.
We stood, the grass left crooked and broken under us. Jay pulled both packs on and we moved off quietly, the moon guiding our way.
“I think we can make it there. Tonight.” Jay spoke carefully, a few minutes after we’d started walking again. “Get as close as we can and try and find somewhere to hide.”
“I guess it depends how much we can see in the dark.”
We pushed on, a tired, peaceful silence falling over us.
McKenzie’s fell far behind us and the terrain became more difficult – wilder, steeper, rockier. We stumbled our way through carefully, Jay leading the way.
The further we went, the slower we could push forward. Harvey had chosen this spot well, it would take any people or zombies a significant amount of time to break through here. It was even less likely that the zombies, in particular, would ever reach here.
I was so focused on trying to see where I stepped I walked right in to Jay, who had stopped suddenly. At the same moment, we dropped to our knees, using the overgrowth to conceal us.
Faintly, almost hidden from view, we could see a flame flickering. It betrayed little of what was around it, but we could see the outline in the dark anyway. There were several small buildings here, probably not in great shape but fairly close together, sprawling over a considerable area.
It was surprising that Harvey had allowed fire of any kind, especially where it could be seen ten, fifteen metres out. I doubted he was being foolish, though – more that he felt safe and confident in their new living arrangement.
“We found them.” Jay’s whisper was barely audible, but I could feel the sense of relief. He nearly stood, but caught himself, lowering back down to the ground. “Do you think she..?”
“Shh.” My heart was caught somewhere in my throat, a surge of panic. We were so close to Annie, to our hope.
If anyone but her saw us, we were dead.
“We need to hide.” Daybreak was threatening us from overhead, we had to only be an hour or two out now.
As if on cue, the flicker we could see faded out to embers, and the camp seemed to come alive. We couldn’t see anyone yet, but we could sense them in the subtle break of silence, the almost indecipherable noise of movement.
We backed up silently, careful to keep our movement slow. There was nothing to hide under, nothing to protect us from being found.
“Up.” I said desperately.
“There’s nowhere else.” I looked behind us, back to the camp. Was that someone I could see now, moving around? “Go. Go!”
Awkwardly, with both packs hindering him, Jay scrabbled up the tree. It was a massive tree, with generous, sturdy branches. Too frightened to check behind me again, I followed him, squashing myself onto my own branch, trembling fingers digging into the bark, waiting for the inevitable cry of discovery.
When none came, I let myself breathe. Darkness was fading quickly now, and the scene was opening up before us.
They were so prepared. So much more than they had been at McKenzie’s.
We had managed to get up high enough that the branches and leaves covered us.
We’d made it. Now it was time to wait.
We watched between the leaves as dawn emerged, and the people in the camp rose. We couldn’t see Harvey, but I heard the noise Jay made and knew he’d seen her too.
It was Annie. She was alive.