Fri, 29 May 2009 - 6:20 pm

Rearguard

Last night, we found a row of shops with apartments above them about mid-afternoon. We settled the injured and ill upstairs to rest, and the able-bodied went to see what could be gleaned from the establishments below.

I didn’t like to leave Matt on his own – not with these Wolverines around – so I asked Sally to stay with him. To my surprise, she seemed relieved and went straight away. The kids were admonished to stay in sight, but of course Nugget disappeared as soon as we entered the first shop. On the plus side, she found a stock of canned drinks and that eased tempers all around.

I didn’t have to worry about Dillon straying too far away; he has stuck close to me ever since Ben left. He watches me with a worried expression, even when I tell him that I’m all right. It aches – of course it does – but I’m carrying on anyway. I give him hugs and we both feel better.

 

We retreated up to the apartments when it started to rain. Matt and Sally were fine, though glad to see us. I don’t know who visited them but someone clearly had.

Dillon called me over to the window just as the light was dying outside. The last slants of orange sun were reflecting off the windows opposite ours, and there were faces in them. My insides turned in chilled twists at the sight of them there like that, just standing there. Motionless, sightless, waiting.

The sun went down, and we kept someone on watch through the water-streaked windows. But it had been a hard few days and we were all strung out at the limits of our strength.

We fell asleep.

 

We were woken up in the early hours of this morning by thumps downstairs. We heard windows going, one pane at a time, under the weight of accumulated bodies. My innards lurched painfully as I pulled myself up out of sleep, knowing exactly what it was.

Kirk was outside our door when we got up to investigate – I think he was peeking in. I don’t know what for and there wasn’t time to ask. He just grinned at us and said that we’d better look lively, because our company didn’t. He’s about my age, cocky with a rakish edge that fails to be charming. There’s something calculating about the way he shares expressions with us. I’m not the only one he unsettles; Matt stays away from him and most of the Wolverines.

It was so hard to see anything while we got ourselves together. Peering out of the window revealed little except that there were a lot of them down there, making the darkness heave in jerky motions. They were unsubtle in their passage across the shop floors towards the stairs leading up to the apartments – we could track their progress in crashes and crunches.

We knew from our last encounter that it was easier to deal with them in the open, rather than in the confines of corridors. We also knew that we didn’t have much time.

 

“C’mon, we can take ’em,” one of the Wolverines said. I couldn’t tell which one just from his voice.

“In the dark, when we can barely tell each other apart?” Masterson’s tone was scathing and I could almost hear the other mens’ hackles rising in response.

I stepped in before he got himself smacked. Again. “We don’t know how many they are. If they got around us, we’d be overwhelmed before we knew it.”

“Yeah, right. And what else would you suggest? More running?”

I looked at the others in the castoff light of wavering flashlight beams, counting heads and trying to work out what to do. They were right: running wasn’t a good option, not with the ill and injured among our number and in the darkness.

“We need a rearguard,” I said. I have no idea if I even used the term correctly – too many movies, I guess. “Keep the shamblers busy while we get the rest of us away. Dillon, Nugget – you two run up ahead to make sure the way’s clear, but stay within sight of us. Do I need to ask for volunteers to help the injured, or to stay back and fight?”

The last was aimed pointedly at the Wolverines and their eagerness for another dust-up with the shamblers. They tossed it about between them while we got everyone downstairs and shouldered packs. In the end, I had Matt leaning on me, Sally supported one of the Wolverines, and another of their number – I think it was Jersey – carried the sickest one. That left Thorpe, Masterson, and three Wolverines to keep the shamblers off our tails.

It worked better than I had hoped. I had to shout for the kids to stay where we could see them, and eventually called Nugget back to run messenger between us and the boys behind, so that they didn’t fall too far behind.

 

We kept going until the shamblers were out of sight by a length of at least a few blocks, then the boys caught up with us and we found another building to break into. It was getting light by then, that odd seeping that tasted like an orange apology for sunlight. We collapsed for a while and tried to get some more sleep, though we posted stricter guards that time. No more sleeping on the job for any of us.

We had lost some supplies in the shuffle to get out of those apartments. Things we couldn’t really afford to lose: some food, most of those cans. We hadn’t packed them before we lost the light. What little daylight we had today between exhaustion and the rain was spent looking for replacements.

I can’t remember the last time I wasn’t running on my last thread of energy.

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Sat, 30 May 2009 - 9:02 pm

Lemonade

We are definitely not used to travelling with people we don’t trust.

The way we have always worked – the Seekers, that is – is that we share everything. Everyone carries a portion of what we find depending on what they can manage, and food and drink are handed around between us when we stop to eat. I think we just got used to it that way; we’ve had children and injured people with us so often that it wasn’t possible for everyone to carry their allocation of supplies. Things got tense when supplies grew thin and hoarding instincts kicked in, but we got through it. There was never any one person left hungry; it was all or nothing.

We’ve been with the Wolverines for a bare few days, and there hasn’t been a discovery of supplies without some kind of fuss over who gets what. We tried to agree to just let each group keep what they found, but that didn’t satisfy them. The other guy always has the better stuff and luck isn’t always fair.

 

Early this morning, when most of us were still asleep, a couple of the Wolverines caught Dillon alone while he was on watch. He wouldn’t tell me what happened, or what they took from him.

I found him sitting by a window, looking out, hunched up and hugging his knees. He had been crying; I could see where he’d scrubbed at his cheeks to hide it. He couldn’t hide the bruises, though. I made him show me how bad it was and saw florid colours on his ribs and arms. Nothing broken, at least, but that’s not a comfort.

The idea of anyone hurting Dillon like that made me feel sick, and then tense and hot all over. I hugged him carefully and stood up, ready to go and tear strips off the damn Wolverines. I was furious, partly with myself for not keeping a closer eye on all of this but mostly with them, and I intended to give them a piece of my mind. But Dillon grabbed my hand and asked me not to. Matt was in the room by then and agreed with the kid; confronting them about it was a bad idea.

“You can’t win with them that way,” he told me. He had a look about him that took me a while to place: it was the same one he carried when we found him with the Sharks. It was that look that made me stop.

“I’m not going to live this way,” I said. Matt looked away from me, uncomfortable with the whole thing. But I had to do something; I couldn’t just let this happen to the people I care about. It’s not good enough.

 

When everyone gathered to eat, I could see the Wolverines watching us, waiting to see how we’d react to the attack on Dillon. We did a fairly good job of acting like nothing was wrong, not rising to their bait, but supplies were still a problem. Our packs were lighter than they should have been, though theirs weren’t.

While we were all together, I proposed a new way of doing things. There are four able-bodied members in each group capable of searching. We would pair up, one Seeker, one Wolverine, and pool everything we found in one place. Mixed pairs would keep everyone honest, and we would split up the supplies so that everyone got an even share.

They didn’t like it, but their attempts at arguing fell flat. They tried to claim that the kids shouldn’t get full portions – they don’t eat as much, they can’t carry it – but the rest of us spoke up to counter it. Thorpe said he’d carry the kids’ food if necessary. And what about Jones? Does the cat get a share too? No. Nugget hugged the scrawny creature defensively when we said that we’ve never fed him anything except scraps.

Eventually, it was agreed.

Dillon stayed back with Matt, which meant I didn’t have to worry about either of them too much. I was partnered up with Conroy, who kept trying to impress me with chattering about how this reminded him of a movie he once saw, or a particular storyline in some comic book. As if any of that stuff mattered any more.

He sidled towards me a couple of times, as if he was going to try something lame like a yawn-stretch-arm-around-shoulders move. Making him carry our find kept his hands busy, though; it was worth the risk of him slipping things in his pockets.

 

Today’s supply-search went well, despite all the angling and grumbling. I suspect the Wolverines are still hoarding when they can, but our packs are filling up again. That’ll have to do for now.

As for the watches, we’re doing that in our own pairs – no single Seeker is going to get caught out again. It means that we’re getting less sleep, but better that than another beating, or worse. No-one is to go off on their own, for any reason. Both Sally and I tried to convince Nugget of the seriousness of this, and I think the solemn little girl understood.

I wish there was another way to do this, but I guess this is the best lemonade we can come up with right now.

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Sun, 31 May 2009 - 7:24 pm

The pretence

There’s still so many Seekers that we can’t all sleep in the same room – quite often there’s just not enough space to lay down our blankets. Even with it getting colder and people huddling together for warmth.

Sally and Masterson still share blankets, despite their recent upset. He frowns at her a lot, and sometimes his words are short and sharp, but they look better when they’re asleep.

I’ve seen Nugget cuddled up against Thorpe’s back over the past few nights. I think he finally gave up and spread his bedding out with room for her. Jones often pins them down, a ginger bagel in the blankets’ folds.

Dillon grew brave enough to ask if he could sleep next to me a couple of nights after Ben left. After yesterday, I won’t let him sleep alone. I wonder if we’ll all end up sleeping in one big heap if it gets much colder.

 

Last night, I did my usual after-blogpost rounds, looking for somewhere I could set the laptop up to charge where the Wolverines wouldn’t see it (the hardest part is getting the stolen car battery inside without them seeing) and checking on my Seekers. Everyone had settled down except for Dillon and me – we were on first watch – but a couple were missing.

I found them in the corridor. I was just starting to wonder where Matt was when I came across him with Kirk. The Wolverine was taller than my friend and leant against the wall in a way I didn’t like. I remembered him outside our door a couple of nights before. I don’t like the way he appraises us, especially Matt, and I hated the way he lounged with such intent there in the corridor, blocking the way.

I knew it wasn’t right from the look on Matt’s face. He was ashen and taut, as if a touch might shatter him. I felt the anger rising in my chest, lava begging to be spilt.

They saw me at the moment my flashlight beam pinned them. Kirk turned that cocky grin on me, the one that gave me an instinctive desire to smack him across the face, and Matt shook his head. He could see it in my face, in the shiver of the lightbeam when my hand tightened on the flashlight. Don’t do it, Faith. No trouble, please. Trouble with one means trouble with all of them, and we can’t afford a battle with them.

I hesitated, struggling for options. I wasn’t going to just walk away, not even if Matt had begged me. I just had to work around this.

I took a breath and smiled. I focussed on Matt, in case that made the expression more convincing. “Hello, boys. For a minute there, I wondered what was creeping around out here.”

Matt didn’t respond. Kirk flicked a glance down and up my body that made me want to go shower in rainwater. “No, just us.”

I moved over to join my friend and placed a casual kiss on his cheek. “Sorry to interrupt.” Of course, I wasn’t, and I couldn’t hide it. So I covered it up the first way that came to mind. “You ready to come to bed yet, Matt?”

I slipped my free arm around his waist and found that he didn’t just look taut: I could feel his muscles all knotted up and tense. He cast me a surprised look and hesitated before putting his arm around my shoulders in turn.

I glanced between him and Kirk, and immediately regretted it. The Wolverine looked intrigued, as if wondering how he could use this to his advantage. He made my hackles want to rise and that made acting casual difficult. It was easier to think about getting out of this peacefully if I kept my attention on my friend.

“I know, we’re not supposed to tell anyone about this. But there’s only so long that we can pretend, right? And Kirk here won’t tell anyone.” I tried on a smile for size.

Matt looked uncomfortable, which only made Kirk’s smirk widen, but that was okay. As long as he thought this faux-thing between Matt and me was a secret, he would think he had something over us. It would keep him busy, and we could throw it away whenever we wanted.

“Sure, okay,” Matt said finally, finding a smile from somewhere. I don’t think I’ve heard him so quiet and reserved for a long time.

“Won’t tell a soul, promise,” Kirk put in, crossing his heart. I restrained the urge to roll my eyes at him.

 

I bid him a cheerful goodnight and Matt and I headed off towards the rooms where the Seekers were bedded down. Once out of the Wolverine’s gaze, Matt sagged and pulled away, going to his pack to free his blankets. I closed the door behind us and watched him for a moment. He was more upset than he was letting me see.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he told me. He sounded angry with me.

“It was the first thing that came to mind.” I wasn’t going to apologise to him; I was on the verge of shaking after that encounter.

“Now they’re going to think you’re….” He shook his head, still facing away from me.

So I went over and touched his arm. “They think that none of us Seekers is on our own. Which we’re not. I don’t care if they take it down to that level, as long as they leave us alone.”

His head drooped and he still didn’t look at me.

“It’s not forever, Matt. Just until we’re out of… this place we’re in right now. Then we go our separate ways.” Of course, no-one really knew what that different place would look like. Less shamblers, I guess. “Think you can pretend you like me until then?”

That made him snort, and then he turned to hook an arm around my neck. “You’re crazy, you know that?”

I sighed with relief and hugged him. No-one’s allowed to be on their own, that’s all. We have to stick together and protect each other. It didn’t occur to me to ask him what he was doing out there alone in the first place; I was too glad that it had ended without any trouble. I grabbed my blankets and laid them out next to his, and told Dillon to settle down on the other side of me.

Everyone has company, even in sleep. It’s the way it has to be for now. Even the snoring doesn’t bother me any more.

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Mon, 1 June 2009 - 10:52 pm

MacIntyre’s Car Yard

The problem with secrets is explaining them without giving them away.

If Matt and I have been spending more time together lately than usual, no-one has thought much of it. Dillon was puzzled about the new sleeping arrangements but he understands enough about safety in numbers not to question it. Thorpe has looked at us sideways but he won’t say anything. Masterson rolled his eyes once; he thinks we’re overreacting. I wish it was just paranoia.

 

There hasn’t been a lot of time to focus on it. The two sick Wolverines have been increasingly slowing us down, but we managed to cover some ground over the past couple of days. We reached the car yard just after midday today (we’re getting used to telling the time by the weird orange blob in the sky, tracking its passage behind the low-riding clouds).

The yard itself looks much the way it used to, just with a ruddy orange filter and looking like elves had been industriously scouring the shine off it. Everything looks tired and worn, even the newer cars. The smart convertibles on pedastals by the roadside are hollowed-out skeletons, their leather interiors devoured by the rain. The sign was unlit and rubbed down, switched off for the endless night. I can feel my mental image of the place tarnishing, and my memories feel to bright and clean to be real. As if they were the dreams sent to torture me and this is the reality I should remember.

My heart still lifted at the sight of it. I could feel my steps getting lighter when we passed the lopsided golden arches – they’d always been crooked – and the scorched signs offering last-minute holiday car washes by the gas station. And then there it was and I smiled.

Matt told me to go on ahead. He’s still limping and leans on me sometimes; I slip under his arm when he starts to look white around the mouth. But when we reached the edges of the yard’s skirt, he stood up straighter and nudged me forward. I didn’t need much encouragement: I took off across the lot, weaving around the cars and up to the office. The front door was open and inside still smelt of leather, polish, oil, and new car mats.

The store had been turned over – someone had torn through there. Racks pushed over, wares spilt across the floor. I’ve seen so many stores like that that it seems normal now, though it jarred seeing it there. This is why I never liked the idea of causing such a mess; someone might come home to it. I did my best to ignore it and move on, but it settled down in my chest in a hot knot.

I stuck my head into the garage out back, and it looked like it always did. There was a car up on the big jack, as if our mechanic Mike had just stepped out for a while. It wasn’t until I’d turned away from the door that I wondered if that car would ever come down off that jack. There was no power to work it now.

The office was much like the store, but fewer cans of premium oil and more paper everywhere. It was so white it looked like it had snowed, even in the slant of orange light from the window. I moved through it carefully, nudging this with my toe, standing up a chair. I thought about how Dad hated filing and that he’d go crazy if he ever saw this mess, caught myself starting to pick up strewn invoices, and abruptly wanted to cry.

 

Conroy was the first to find me. If it had been a Seeker, I probably would have broken down. Instead, I swallowed back the knot that was working its way up into my throat and gave him a smile, telling him I was fine. He came over and put his arm around me anyway, making sympathetic noises. There was something about the way he did it that made my skin want to crawl off my body and hide.

I pulled away from Conroy before I got the urge to chew someone’s arm off. Not far behind him was Dillon, coming to see what I’d found and if I was all right. A shake of my head answered the question that the kid was about to ask – there’s no-one here. My dad’s not here. I patted him on the shoulder for his worried expression.

“There’s no blood,” I told him. Whatever happened here, I don’t think it was a fight. It seemed important to notice it at that moment.

 

It didn’t really hit me until it started to grow dark. I’ve been here so many times at sunset, when the lights on the yard and in the sign rise up to meet the purple darkening the sky. Mike swearing out the back and my dad avoiding the paperwork with that one last customer who just might make a deal. Locking up the cars and rubbing the scuffs off the tyres where someone just had to kick them. Mrs Kowalski clicking her tongue as she did the filing, trying to make sense of the mess on Dad’s desk. Polishing the fingermarks off windows and bodywork until everyone’s had enough and we can all go home.

Home’s empty now. As empty and hollow as this place with its acid-etched convertibles. Dad’s gone and I don’t know where. So is Ben. We’re walking on eggshells with our own travelling companions and fighting off twisted versions of people.

Sitting at Dad’s crumpled desk, his chair squeaking in the way it always does, I stared at the pen he’s chewed almost in half. I could smell him in here and all of a sudden it all got on top of me. Even putting it here in the blog hasn’t helped.

I’m crying and I can’t do a damn thing about it. I don’t know how we got here.

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Tue, 2 June 2009 - 6:19 pm

Luck be a lady

Last night, it was Matt who came limping in to find me. I didn’t want him to see me so upset – I didn’t want anyone to see me like that. I don’t have much pride left, not since I gave it up when Ben walked out on us – on me – but I do have some left. Some weaknesses I want to keep to myself.

Still, I was glad for the comfort. Matt always knows what I need when I’m upset: sometimes it’s a distraction; sometimes it’s an ear; sometimes it’s just a shoulder and a pair of arms around me. Last night, it was the latter. I don’t even remember stumbling to bed.

When Dillon woke me up for our watch shift, Matt was still wrapped around me, hugging me in his sleep. I didn’t want to get up – I was warm and comfortable right there, and my head felt heavy and burned dry. I wasn’t the most attentive watcher this morning, but nothing happened anyway.

 

Today has been all about supplies again. We’re going to focus on the vehicles more tomorrow. In truth, we haven’t really told the Wolverines what we’re planning to do with the cars. We’re hoping to not have to take them with us. I don’t even know if they’d come. Rico and Sean are getting worse – if they haven’t fallen into the feverish coma by now, I think they will soon. The sad part is that I don’t know if their companions would stay behind to look after them if the question came up.

I’ve stayed away from the Wolverines today. I can hear them, laughing and messing around with the gear in the store, banging and whooping and running over the tops of the cars. It doesn’t matter – none of that stuff matters any more – but I still hate it. I don’t like seeing my dad’s work destroyed like that. But telling them would only make it worse, and I think if I came up against one of them today, I’ll tear his head off.

I don’t want to cry any more. We all need to get on with what we’ve got, including me. I might want to shout and scream and tell the world how unfair it is, but that isn’t what we need right now.

Pull yourself together, Faith, and try not to uspet the delicate balance here. We’ll be leaving soon, with luck.

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Wed, 3 June 2009 - 6:23 pm

Drawn straws

Today, I went into Mike’s domain to see about fixing a few cars for us. Each step felt like an apology to him; he never liked anyone in his garage, taking up space and moving his tools so he couldn’t find anything. Even Dad was careful in there, even though it all belonged to him. Mike was a crotchety mechanic, but he could get any machine working and he and Dad were buddies from way back. He might not be here any more but I can still feel him, watching my every move from the guts of someone’s engine.

I think Mike was here, in the time After the bomb. It took me a while to figure it out, but that’s the only explanation. The best set of screwdrivers is gone, along with the one wrench that he swore by – Dad bought him newer, less battered ones, but he only ever used that red-handled wrench, adjusting it to fit every job. A thief would have taken the newer ones. A thief who didn’t know.

It’s possible that it was Dad who took it. If he came here, he would have loaded up with tools before he left again. Maybe he would have taken Mike’s wrench for nostalgic reasons, but I just don’t see it. Maybe that’s me being hopeful, but I think if someone other than Mike had been through here, taking things, it would be more of a mess.

That’s the other thing that it took me a while to notice: the garage wasn’t turned over like the rest of the yard’s buildings. Its barely-controlled chaos made sense to Mike and it was familiar to me. The tools still here lay where he left them, waiting for him to come back and need them again.

So it felt weird helping myself to the tools. At one point I stopped and dug out a pen and a piece of paper so I could write him a little note. I left it skewered on a nail in the wall; that made me feel better, as silly as it sounds. I guess I can’t just assume that he’s dead and past caring about this stuff.

 

I would have preferred to work alone today. There’s so much buzzing around in my head that I’m distracted most of the time and not great company. I can feel myself being quiet, watching the others talk, my mouth empty of anything to add. I don’t think I’ve got anything left in me right now.

It wasn’t really up to me, though. The others are still on supply-searches and that meant mixed pairs, Seekers and Wolverines. If I stayed behind, that meant a Wolverine had to, and I think they wanted one of their number to keep an eye on me. Of all people I wanted around me today, a Wolverine wasn’t one of them.

I saw Conroy immediately perk up at the idea and went chill all over. I glared at him, almost wanting him to be the one to stay; he’d try something, I just knew it, and then I’d snap and beat him with a spanner. I could feel it, that trembling thread of control that has held me back from so much since we met these guys. All it would take was a word, a smirk, a hand resting somewhere on me, the smell of his breath. I could feel my skin twitching already.

I knew that I would snap and that it would end badly, and while there’s a part of me that wants it, I’m not built that way. I can’t invite that kind of thing.

“Any of you know anything about engines?” I asked. That made them fall quiet. I was sure that Conroy didn’t, not with those soft hands, and I hoped that Kirk didn’t either. That was another encounter bound to wind up with someone in a bad way.

Glances were exchanged and to everyone’s relief, it was Jersey who spoke up. I haven’t had much to do with him – he tends to partner up with Sally and hasn’t caused much trouble. He’s as loud and obnoxious as the rest of his crew, despite being the youngest and leanest of them, but he doesn’t have the hungry look I expected from someone at the bottom of the group like that. I think he makes up for his lack of size with bravado and noise.

Sean had that look when we first met them, before he got too sick to sustain it. I think he’s unconscious now, and probably Rico too. The Wolverines don’t want us ‘messing’ with their boys and won’t even let Masterson check on them. I’d fight harder if I thought there was anything we could really do, but there isn’t. The Sickness hasn’t responded to anything we’ve tried; I don’t think Ben survived it because of anything we did. If it was, we don’t know what that something was.

Conroy was disappointed to have his place here in the garage stolen by his companion, but they all went off to search for supplies anyway. It was interesting watching them leave – Thorpe marched off with Kirk and Masterson shoved Conroy out ahead of him, abandoning Dale to partner up with Sally. The doctor might act like he’s not paying attention or doesn’t care, but he wasn’t going to let that particular Wolverine be alone near his pregnant girl.

 

That left me and Jersey to go over the off-roaders to see what we could get working. Once the others were out of the way, I asked him where he wanted to start and he shrugged; as it turned out, he didn’t know much about engines at all, but he didn’t fancy traipsing through other people’s homes all day. I have a suspicion that there’s more to it than that, but I wasn’t going to press him. I was mostly glad that it wasn’t Kirk or Conroy here.

Jersey actually turned out to be fairly useful. He wasn’t as boisterous or obnoxious without his friends around, and some of the time he honestly tried to lend a hand. I showed him how to siphon fuel out of the gas station next door and he whined that carrying food was easier than lugging full cans around. Still, by the time the others got back, we had a healthy store piling up.

And I wasn’t tempted to hit him with a spanner once.

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Thu, 4 June 2009 - 7:36 pm

Glass walls

They found us just before the rain today. The supply-searchers were on their way back from their searching with a hefty haul when they stumbled across the shamblers – from the way they told it, almost literally.

They hurried back to the yard and shouted for everyone to get armed. I think it was Dale who pointed out the colour of the clouds, a thickening ochre with purple undertones that meant the rain wasn’t far away. We couldn’t risk getting caught outside in a fight.

We couldn’t run either, so that left barricading ourselves inside and hoping that we could hold out. It wasn’t a great option, because the showroom’s front wall is mostly glass, of course. Sturdy enough against the sorts of things that usually throw themselves at it, but what about the heedless hungry that’s stumbling around now? We had no idea, but there were no other options, so we had to give it a try.

While the clouds swirled together to let the acid fall on us, there was a storm inside as we tried to close up all the entrances. The hardest part was getting the garage doors to come down without power – a couple of the lads had to swing on the metal shutters to get them moving. On the plus side, they seem sturdy enough to stand up against a physical assault. Furniture went up against the front doors – I still had my keys and had locked them, but that’s not much protection against the weight of bodies.

 

I never thought I would pray for the rain to come. Not this rain with its deadly, disfiguring bite. But watching those shamblers stutter across the car yard, that’s what I did. They bumped into and over the cars, intent on their destination and the food that lay inside. The more I watched them, the more my stomach tightened into a small, roiling knot.

One of them was missing an arm. The torn sleeve dangled in a ruddy stain the extended down the shambler’s side. A part of me wondered if the dismembered arm was somewhere in the group too, fingers wearing down their bones in a jagged effort to keep up.

All of them looked scorched, their skin reddened as if they’ve been out in the desert too long. They’re dry and cracked, and some even blackened. The sun is so filtered by the low cloud-cover that we walked through the heat of summer without needing to worry about it, so I don’t know how they got that way. A man with a blowtorch or a flamethrower comes to mind, but their clothes are unaffected. Some of them even look clean, apart from the bloodstains.

I think it’s their faces that bother me most, even more than the inexorable way they just keep coming, despite logical and physical obstacles. Slack mouths and empty eyes, facial muscles that one held lively expressions now have listless hands. Gazes rove around but fix on nothing, as if looking is a habit they can’t make sense of any more. There used to be a person in there. There used to be a soul behind those eyes, but the window has misted over. I can’t tell if there’s anything left inside any of them, except for the hunger and the animal desire to survive.

That’s what they looked like when the rain neared: animals lifting their heads to scent a threat. Like rabbits or deer, but ugly and slow and with the intent to be predator, not prey. Then they moved faster – barely – and our building was the closest one.

We all flinched when the first ones met the glass wall. They thudded into it one at a time, out of rhythm, and fumbled at the glass for an opening. One pair of hands was scraped down to bones, and the sound of bone sliding over glass set my teeth on edge, like nails on a blackboard. Most of them gravitated towards a door, as if they could scent the opening as well as the meat behind it. Rusty streaks were left across the glass in their wake.

 

We had naturally put the most effort into barricading the main doors, assuming that they would go there first. It was the logical, most obvious entrance. But that’s not how the shamblers work; they go for the most direct route, the first one they come across. The main door is around the side of the showroom, while the smaller side door is down the other end of the front wall. It split the group outside into ragged halves and we were forced to mirror them.

The doors didn’t hold. They creaked and the hinges squealed before they gave way. We could hear the moans outside as the shamblers crushed up against the doors, trying to force their way in. We were putting our shoulders against the barricade, desperately trying to keep them back. An arm with flaking skin snaked in through the gap between the door and the frame, and waved around trying to grab onto something. Dillon tried to beat it back, but that was never going to work – pain wouldn’t deter it, so the best thing we could all do was push. Push, and hope we could hold them off for long enough.

 

We almost didn’t make it. We were slipping back, strength was failing and arms starting to shake. Pieces of the barricade were breaking under the strain and a shambler was determinedly hauling itself through a pried-open gap, hand over hand towards us across the braced furniture.

The rain took its legs off. It started so suddenly that we cried out in shock, flinching back from our posts. The shamblers outside had no chance at all and I almost felt sorry for them. Almost.

I was too busy being horrified as they were devoured in front of us. The downpour was so forceful that they splashed against the windows, reddish-yellow streaks peppered with bits of melting bone. I stared, wishing that I could look away but unable to help myself. It took less than thirty seconds for them to be gone completely and the windows to be washed clean of their remains.

I thought I’d be glad of the rain getting rid of the shamblers for us. There was a karmic rightness about it: our two biggest threats cancelling each other out. It just left me sickened and hollow.

 

The shambler that had pulled itself inside was dispatched by a couple of the boys. One of them had found a sledgehammer from somewhere and I don’t want to think too deeply about that or the mess it made.

Afterwards, we all gathered around and looked at it, while its fingertips twitched brokenly into stillness. No-one said anything. Matt had an arm around my shoulders – he’d strained his healing leg in the mad barricading effort – and I turned to wrap both arms around his middle. It’s strange how we crave contact at a time like that.

Then we had to sort the supplies out. Luckily, we had managed to get the haul indoors before the doors were closed, but it was still a headache to portion out.

Why does everything have to be a battle?

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Fri, 5 June 2009 - 7:14 pm

Bravado

Everyone remembers now why we’re all together; yesterday was horrific and a stark reminder that we need each other. If there had been any fewer of us, the shamblers would have got in and we might not have fought them off. Either group would have been overwhelmed on their own.

For that brief spate, none of the awkwardness between Seekers and Wolverines mattered. We trusted everyone to protect the group as a whole and that was the only important thing on our minds.

The boys are getting cocky, and I’m starting to worry about that. Last night, some of them were joking about the shamblers, about them being taken by the rain. In a couple of cases, I’m fairly sure that it was just bravado, the lively talk that boys do because boys do. But there was a cruel glint in Kirk’s eyes, and Jersey sounds like he’s looking forward to the next encounter, the next chance to beat their brains in. They’re getting confident because we haven’t screwed up in a while, because we’re doing okay.

I wonder if they’ve forgotten about Dennis. I wonder if they remember his name.

I wonder if, next time, they’re going to be so cock-sure that they decide to throw something else in. A little revenge on someone for a minor slight, a little flourish to show off against our slow opponents. The small things that we’ve been too scared to do yet, things that might be the straw that tips things out of our favour. The sorts of things that can get people hurt, and killed.

Of course, I can’t say anything about it; that’ll only make them worse. I sighed and left them to it, but I spotted something that turned my stomach before I went. Dillon was standing on the edges, watching, with an amused grin. He was absorbing it all, and I wished that he would go back to following the taciturn Thorpe around. Don’t learn from them how to be a man. Not from them.

 

I worked on the cars again today, trying to make sure that they’re all sealed against the rain, and I had a few helping hands, mostly Seekers. Jersey came to help out, but I didn’t quite know what to do with him after last night’s display, so I sent him on siphoning duty again. Might as well get as many cans of fuel as we can.

With such an exposed journey ahead, I don’t want to take any chances, so we’re making sure that everything is as good as we can get it before we leave. A couple of the vehicles had minor leaks, so I’ve filled the cracks with rubbery sealant. All the tyres have been replaced with new ones, including the spares, and an additional spare has been strapped onto the back of each off-roader.

I’m also ripping out some of the rear fittings and putting on roof-racks, to give us more room to carry tools, fuel and supplies. We can’t risk putting too much on the roof – more spare tryes, perhaps, and the cans of diesel. They’re the only things we carry that won’t be damaged by the rain, and with the cans, we’ll have to be very careful with leakage. Who knows what acid would do to an engine, especially when exploded?

Let’s just hope the seals hold, on the cans and cars.

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Sat, 6 June 2009 - 7:57 pm

Turtle talk

The rain has pounded on the roof all day today. It slacked off a little during the night, but it didn’t stop like it usually does. Green-tinged rivulets run down the glass walls, with the orange tint of the sun throwing shadow snakes across the floor. Thunder has been circling us like a wolf scenting out its prey, or perhaps it’s just trying to make us nervous.

It’s working. Tensions have been bubbling under every encounter today. I’ve had to pull people out of discussions that were escalating towards violence a couple of times, and a hushed agreement between us Seekers has at least two or three of us watching over the packs all the time. We don’t trust the Wolverines not to steal what we’ve so painfully collected. Stay in pairs, I told them. Don’t go anywhere alone.

 

So we stayed together and chatted today, just us Seekers. We left the Wolverines to their own devices and I ignored the sounds of them playing some kind of game in the showroom. Things broke. I tried not to care. Our group made up games and talked, huddled in mounds of blankets against the cold. Like turtles fighting off hibernation, not quite ready to pull our heads in and sleep.

Some of us did sleep. I nodded off on Matt’s shoulder at one point, and I caught sight of Sally doing the same, curled up with her head in Masterson’s lap and her arms wrapped around the bundle that had Nugget in it.

As days go, it was better than most we’ve spent recently.

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Sun, 7 June 2009 - 9:07 pm

The prey’s claws

Don’t go anywhere alone.

I should learn to take my own advice. I wasn’t paying attention – too busy making sure that everyone was where they should be and running through mental lists about what we need to do before we can get out of here, keeping busy through another day of continuous rain. Something occurred to me between the garage and the showroom, something I hadn’t thought about before today, and I diverted towards the office.

Suddenly, my way was blocked by Kirk and his grin. He wouldn’t let me past, so I turned to head back the way I came. He grabbed my arm and I stopped, glaring at him. Fingers bit into my arm.

“So, what’ll you give me to keep your secret?” he asked. I hated the way his gaze moved over me, the way he leaned in. I couldn’t help but wonder how long he’s waited for the opportunity to snag one of us alone.

“Secret? Nothing. Tell the world if you want.” I refused to look away from him; I wouldn’t give him even that tiny victory.

“Oh, I will. In detail. And then I’ll take it out on him.” He pulled me slowly towards him. “If you make this difficult. Come on, make it easy on all of us.”

He might be lean, but he has inches on me; I couldn’t hope to match his strength. I turned my head away when I was close enough to smell his breath. He put another hand on me. I knew what he wanted and my whole body was saying ‘no’. I thought my stomach would climb out of my mouth.

But a small part of my mind wondered if it was so much to give. It was just sex. Right? Give him what he wants and he’ll go away. I thought of Sally and the Pride. One sacrifice to save so much. I thought about how badly she moved afterwards. I thought about Masterson’s reaction. I thought about Ben and, for some reason, Matt.

Is it ever ‘just’ sex? I was kidding myself if I thought letting him have it would make him go away. His eyes were laughing at me as he leant in to lick my cheek. He’d never ‘go easy’ on any of us. I squeezed my eyes shut.

No. This wasn’t an answer, and it wasn’t going to happen. No.

 

I’ve never pulled a blade on someone before. Months ago, I was frightened enough to arm myself with a knife and it has lived in my pack or on my belt since. I’ve never used it. I’ve worn it for so long that I forgot it was there. Today, I remembered. Today, something in me gave way when my hand scrabbled over the wall behind me, looking for something, anything, and bumped against its sheath. My fingers closed around the hilt as if it was begging to be freed.

It’s not a big knife. It’s not even impressively barbed. But it was sharp enough to open up a line across Kirk’s cheek, from his jaw towards his nose. I think I was as shocked as he was, though it hurt me far less than it did him.

He touched his cheek to see if he was really bleeding – he was, a lot – and I took advantage of his stunned moment to pull away. I hoped he wouldn’t notice the awkward way I rearranged the knife in my hand, trying to find an intimidating way to hold it without dropping the damn thing. It’s harder than it looks. It’s difficult when your heart is racing; it felt like my pulse was going to vibrate the hilt right out of my fingers.

He swore at me, spat awful names that I can’t even remember. I was too focussed on the knife and the distance between us. He lunged and I swiped madly, back and forth, back and forth. I missed entirely but he got the message: this wasn’t going to go down easily.

I didn’t want to hurt him. I wasn’t going to attack him, but he didn’t know that. I was going to defend myself and he saw that in my face. He shouted at me, threatened me but I was concentrating on backing up without falling over or dropping the knife. There was blood streaming down his face, down his neck. I couldn’t quite believe I’d caused it.

“Just stay the hell away from me,” I told him. “Stay away from all of us.”

He gritted his teeth and lunged at me. I jerked backwards, slammed a shoulder against the wall, swiped again. He tried to avoid the blade and a foot slipped on the strewn paper leaking out of the office, sending him down to one knee. That was enough of a gap: I turned and ran.

 

I didn’t stop until I could put my back against the door of the storeroom us Seekers were holed up in. I ran right past the bemused Wolverines and even a few Seekers. None of them tried to stop me. I don’t know what I would have done if they had.

Thorpe was there and came over to frown at me, asking what was going on. I had no breath to tell him and no idea what to say even if I did. He gave me a strange look and I realised that I was still gripping the knife. I wanted to drop it, throw it away, never see it again, but my fingers wouldn’t let go. They trembled, but they wouldn’t unfold.

Matt came over, took one look at me, and asked, “Shamblers?”

I shook my head and fought for control of my tongue. “Kirk.” No point hiding it, not with that cut across his face. Stupid, Faith.

Matt went pale, while Thorpe flushed with anger. He reached to gently but firmly move me out of the way of the door. “I’m gonna shove his head up his ass.”

The notion that he would do that for me made my eyes prickle. I grabbed his arm – remembering to use the hand not holding the knife – and begged him not to. No more trouble, please. Leave it. Don’t make it worse. Please. He growled at me and shook me off, but he relented. Turning to stomp off, he muttered about it needing to be done. I wish I could argue with him.

I looked down at my hands and noticed the wetness on the blade. Blood. My stomach flipped over.

“Did he hurt you?” Matt was still standing there, staring at me with such heavily weighted eyes.

No. It didn’t get that far. He didn’t get the chance.

Then, suddenly, Matt was apologising, stumbling to say how sorry he was. It was my turn to stare and my eyes stung again, filling. He thought it was his fault because of the lie that had protected him. But I wouldn’t let him take the blame, not for this. If not for the lie, Kirk would have found another excuse. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been Conroy. If not me, another of our number.

He asked if I was all right, and I said no. I was a lot of things, but far from all right. He took the knife gently out of my hand and then we just held onto each other.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know that next time, it’ll be much worse.

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