Sat, 27 June 2009 - 6:49 pm

The Pride’s fall

Today, there were questions that needed answers. Our guests were quiet all night, and they looked frozen when we let them out this morning. Some of the boys had been through their gear and left it in a heap, having removed any potential weapons. It’s possible they took some other stuff too, but no-one’s willing to say.

We let them warm up near the fire, keeping them well distant from Dillon and Dale. I wasn’t the only one fingering the reassuring weight of a weapon and watching them, though I can’t see Bree as that kind of threat.

I don’t know if her friends were Pride too. The young girl, maybe; she speaks like she knew them. The other two are young men, scrawny and barely able to scuff their chins with hair yet. One of them keeps scratching at a dressing on his arm and coughing, and I think the gold smear on the back of his jacket might have been a Pride tag once. They all look strung out in that hungry, desperate way that means they could beg or bite at any moment. Bree’s the only one I know would never bite; she’s spent her life letting others do the heavy lifting for her.

Even dirtied and torn, she still looks gorgeous. When we were friends, I felt big, clumsy, and unpretty next to her, and now is no different. Damn her, anyway.

Things went quiet as the two groups looked at each other, basked on one side by the fire’s glow. Just two groups right now, us and the intruders; there’s no division between Seekers and Wolverines. I think that’s the only encouraging thing that’s come out of all of this.

I tried to keep track of where everyone was. Thorpe was standing between the injured and Bree’s group, firmly planted at Dale’s feet. Masterson was in front of Sally, looking like murder, but towards the back of our group. The rest of us were ranged in between.

I don’t remember who asked, but the first question that came up was about the Pride. We all want to know what happened to them, if what Bree said yesterday was true. And if it is, we want to know what could possibly have destroyed such a big, powerful group. It concerned all of us; I don’t think the Wolverines ever met them directly, but they had heard the rumours.

She cleared her throat and looked up at us. She was trying not to shiver as the fire warmed her and I tried not to feel sorry for her. Both of us failed.

“It’s hard to know where to start. Everything was fine until people started getting sick.”

There was a grumble from the back of the group – I suspect Masterson was behind it – in response to the notion that ‘everything was fine’. We all knew that when things were fine for the Pride, they were awful for anyone else.

No-one actually spoke, so she continued, “It took us one by one. It didn’t matter what we did, people just kept getting ill. They even–” She hesitated and looked sideways at the girl. The teen was hugging her legs to her chest and buried her face against her knees. No-one had to translate the expression of bad memories. Bree’s voice took on a note I’d never heard from her before: bleakness. “They started killing the sick ones. Leaving them behind, so the rest of us wouldn’t get it.”

She looked up and met my eyes. “It didn’t work. None of it worked.” Those words felt like a stab in the gut. Sax, the Wolverine boys, Alice, the Rats. All those we knew that we had hoped would get better and didn’t. I swallowed.

“Eventually there were only two of us left who hadn’t got it.” She nodded to her little friend. “Steve hadn’t been initiated, he wasn’t even one of them.” That was the boy who keeps scratching at his arm. “And we didn’t meet Phil until after.” The fourth member of their uncomfortable band looked like he would rather not be here at all.

There was a brief silence that no-one wanted to fill. Conroy broke first. “They all died?”

Bree nodded and Masterson spoke up, loud enough to hear this time. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of people.” I wish I could disagree with him.

Bree’s expression faltered and I wondered just how attached to Kingston she had been. Sex is never just sex. I’d have been screaming and shouting by then if it was me, if it was– I don’t want to think about that.

“So what are you doing here?” That was Thorpe.

“The- the dead people, the ones who got sick. They got up and started attacking us. They, they’re….” She stumbled for the first time, honestly at a loss to know how to explain them.

“Zombies,” Conroy supplied.

“We call them ‘shamblers’,” I said. I still prefer that name; it seems less horror-movie and more like something that could feasibly exist.

“There were so many of them. They kept after us, kept killing people. So we’ve been running.” Bree shrugged.

“What about all your weapons and vehicles? What happened to all of that?” Masterson was verbally sticking the knife in, but there was something else there too. As if he was afraid that this was all a ruse and the fully-equipped Pride was about to descend on us at any moment.

I looked at Bree and couldn’t quite believe it. She’s not that good of a liar. Is she? How long was she screwing my boyfriend behind my back before I found out?

Bree looked at Masterson and then at the woman standing behind him. She recognised Sally and dropped her gaze. “There wasn’t anyone left who knew how to start the cars and bikes. And we used up all the ammo trying to fight them off. There’s nothing left.” She shrugged.

I want to believe her, I really do. I just don’t know if I dare. It’s so hard to trust my judgement around her any more.

“What about the rest of the people running through here?” Matt asked. “Where did they all come from?”

“They were everywhere.” Bree was relieved to move onto a different topic. “There’s so many of the… ‘shamblers’, if that’s what you want to call them. I don’t know how it started – suddenly there were people running away from them. It’s been like that for days.”

“Where were you headed?” I put in.

Bree looked at her companions, who were all equally blank. “We were following everyone else. There didn’t seem like an alternative.”

My stomach went cold at that news. They’re all following the group in front, blindly running in a chain that might lead nowhere? I can’t think of anything worse. I feel like there’s a cliff waiting at the end of the road and all of those terrified people are piling off it, unable to see it in time to stop. I want to go and warn them, but I’m not sure that stopping is better than falling at this point.

The rumble of thunder put an end to the argument about what to do with these ex-Pride members. Another storm is descending on us, forcing us to stay where we are for now. On the plus side, it means that the shamblers chasing these people are just as stuck.

The Pride has fallen on us and none of us want them here. There are so many dangers whirling around us, acid and bile in the air. Something’s going to bite soon.

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Sun, 28 June 2009 - 6:08 pm

Stray Seeker

Yesterday’s storm lasted most of the day and into the night. The weight of water pounding on the roof found a weakness in the structure, working its way inside to dribble onto the floor. We’ve tried to make a channel for it, but it’s hard to find materials to make walls out of that it won’t just eat through. The floor is concrete, so there’s not much chance of being able to dig a channel for it.

The storm washed more than acid rain in our direction. We were all sitting around the fire when it finally stopped, listening to the drip-drip-drip of it hitting the floor where we had corralled it with some rubber sheeting. Bree’s little group was sitting in the offices – they had lit a small fire in a metal bin for warmth and were keeping to themselves. That was the safest thing they could do.

We talked quietly to stop ourselves from obsessively checking on whether the water had escaped and was running towards us yet. The soccer ball rolled between Dillon and Nugget, and we huddled in clumps of blankets. I was leaning against Matt, as usual, when Conroy jumped to his feet.

“The door’s open! Who left the door open?”

We all looked over and discovered that he was right – there was a door-shaped patch of deep black in the wall, showing us the thick night outside. Conroy hovered like he wanted to go and close it, but didn’t dare in case it was one of those things you should never do in a horror movie.

We all saw the shadow next to the door move; I imagine that Conroy was glad he didn’t go over there. The shape shifted and stepped forward until the firelight fell on it. My chest tightened abruptly and I couldn’t breathe, let alone speak. I felt Matt’s arms tighten around me but it was Dillon who identified our visitor.

“Ben?”

 

I didn’t think I’d see him again. I clung to his promise, but I was losing sight of his face in my mind. The shadows of everything that could have happened to him were rising up to obscure my hope that he would make it through. It felt futile to believe he was able to survive everything that was happening. And yet here he was.

I struggled to get up, stumbling and nearly falling twice as I untangled myself from the blankets. I wasn’t the only one clambering to my feet, but I was in the most hurry to get over there and hug the stuffing out of him. It wasn’t until I heard him grunt and felt his hand on the small of my back that I believed he was really here. Of course, the wash of emotion that came with the realisation that he was alive and all right made me want to cry. I fought it off as I let him go, giving the others space to welcome him back.

He looked exactly the same as he did when he left. I couldn’t look away from him as he was ushered to the fireside to warm up. Everyone was full of questions: where has he been, what happened, how did he find us again. Somehow in all of that, he caught hold of my hand and kept me next to him. I was doing a good impression of a stunned fish and stayed quiet, content to watch as he tried to field the queries coming his way.

He went back to look for his brother-in-law, he said. He searched for a while, but he couldn’t find any clues about where Hugh might have gone. Finally, he gave up and turned to come after us; he knew which direction we were supposed to be heading in, so he made a guess about where we’d be by now. Then the shamblers got so numerous that they were driving everyone out of their hiding places, pushing them to run in a wave that swept up others as it passed, and he was forced to follow them. He saw our light in the warehouse and came to see if he could take shelter for the night, and here we were.

It seems far too lucky that two familiar faces have found us, but I can’t bring myself to question it. Ben’s back and that’s all that matters.

I felt bad, abandoning Matt so I could spend time with Ben, but Matt doesn’t seem to mind. He came and gave me my blankets, and tried on a smile. The Wolverines look somewhat puzzled by all of this, but I think one of the others filled them in because they haven’t asked me about it. I would hardly know where to start, anyway.

 

I hardly slept last night, though nothing other than chatting happened. We spent most of today talking with Ben and settling him back into the group. He didn’t have many stories to tell; I don’t think things were easy for him out there on his own. “It was tough,” is all he will say about most things. He says he’s glad to be back, though.

He’s just as chilly as he was when he left – even close to the fire, he never seems to warm up properly. He says that he’s fine, though, and otherwise he seems okay. He’s not injured, at least.

It’s hard for me to know what to think right now. I feel knocked out of my usual orbit. I think there’s a part of me that’s scared to feel this excited and pleased, and it’s holding me down. Sometimes, I think that’s all that’s holding me down.

Tomorrow, we’re going to pack up and get out of here. No more delays. I’m looking forward to it.

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Mon, 29 June 2009 - 9:10 pm

Convoy rolling

Getting a group this size moving is like herding cats. Today, our cat was missing but everyone else sought to make up for it. The gear was still stowed in the vehicles from the day we first saw the flood of rat-people enter the area, but there was still so much more to do before we could actually leave.

On top of everything else, it was so cold this morning that we spoke through the apparition of our own breath, our words suspended on the air before us. We all moved quickly in an effort to get warm; there was much stamping and drubbing of hands over arms and thighs in between moving stuff around.

We were about to shift the injured when Bree’s group emerged from the office. They weren’t oblivious to what was going on – not that we were trying to be subtle about it. Even so, we weren’t expecting the question that came to us.

“We’d like to come with you.” It wasn’t Bree who spoke – it was the boy she had picked up between the Pride and here. The one member of the group unconnected to the bane of the western suburbs. The one we’d be most likely to listen to.

I could feel the group shifting around us. Masterson’s expression darkened immediately and several group members tensed. Ben looked displeased, bearing a dark look I haven’t seen on him before.

 

No-one had the chance to speak before a call came down from on high – Matt was on watch and wanted to show us something. About half of us peeled away from the matter at hand and jogged up the stairs to the roof access to see what was going on. The others stayed behind to keep an eye on things.

Matt didn’t need to point out what he called us up there for. They were like the scum on the tide, riding in sluggishly. They stuttered between the buildings – individual shamblers might slip and fall down, but the mass as a whole continued to press forwards. The inching death that had driven so many people into flight was finally arriving. They were rising towards us, as inexorable as the sand in an hourglass.

It changed things. We left Nugget up on watch with instructions to come down if they got to our block before we were ready. The rest of the packing-up was done in a hurry and the ex-Pride’s request was almost forgotten. Almost, but not quite.

Bree had kept out of the request because she knew she had a spoiled reputation here. But they knew what we had seen – we were talking about it as we came back downstairs – and she was desperate.

“Faith. We need your help. Please.”

Again, her begging didn’t please me the way I had once hoped it would. I looked at her and thought she seemed earnest. I just wasn’t sure that that was enough. Ben came to a stop near my shoulder and turned his attention onto her. I saw her shiver.

“We’re starving and we can’t run from them any more. Please. There must be something you can do. They’ll kill us.” She looked from one of us to the other and back again, then to Matt as he joined us, and Thorpe. I think the only reason she wasn’t crying is that she knew it wouldn’t help her case.

I told her we’d talk about it. After she went away, the others asked me if I was crazy. After everything she’d done to us, everything she’d let happen. Everything she’d done to me. They were right – I didn’t want Bree or her friends with us. We couldn’t trust them and I didn’t want the reminder of all the awful things she’s done to my life. I didn’t want Sally to have to look at her, or for Masterson to finally snap and strangle her.

“We’re not killers,” I told them. It seems like an important thing to hold onto. “We’re not the Pride.”

“So you want to take them in?” Masterson had joined us and decided to weigh in, derisive as ever.

I sighed and rubbed my head. Of course I didn’t want to take them in. We didn’t have time to debate this, though; the shamblers were approaching steadily across the ice-slicked roadways.

Sally, so far silent on the whole issue of Bree and her friends, finally spoke up. “What about the other van?”

I had forgotten about the second campervan. We had managed to get it running long enough to get it to the warehouse, but I haven’t had the chance to work on it since then. I don’t know how long it will run or how well it’ll resist the rain. I mentioned all of this to my group, and then to Bree’s group, and said they were welcome to take it if they wanted to take that chance. But we wouldn’t stop if they broke down, and they didn’t have to follow us. I didn’t say it, but I think it was clear that most of us didn’t want them to follow us at all.

I showed them how to get it started – it felt weird, having Bree watch me for instructions. Always, she’s been in the lead before; I don’t think she’s had to do as she’s told in her life. Maybe the Pride taught her that. I don’t like the notion that they broke her.

 

If they hadn’t turned up, we might have had a similar talk with the Wolverines. With the Pride looming around us, we’ve closed ranks and there hasn’t been any more talk of Wolverines against Seekers. I don’t know how long this will last, but hopefully it’ll be enough to get past the current conditions forcing us onto the road.

The shamblers were moving slow enough that we were ready to go before the wave had reached our block of warehouses. The wounded were loaded into the Seeker campervan and made as comfortable as possible on the beds in the back. That process wasn’t easy for any of us, not for those of us forced to watch or those carrying the injured, and certainly not for Dillon and Dale themselves.

Thorpe had to pick Nugget up, put her into the campervan and lock her inside. She kept calling out the cat’s name, but no-one has seen Jones since last night before we all went to sleep, not even those on watch. We tried to tell her that he’d catch up with us; he always did. She bowed her head miserably and refused to look at anyone when she finally gave up the struggle.

It was a relief to get out onto the road. We put the warehouse in our rearview mirrors and powered south, pushing on until the first spots of rain dotted the windscreen. We had run out of buildings big enough to house us, vehicles and all, so we wound up in a covered car park. That’s where we are now, scrounging enough debris and garbage to make a fire, and hoping that the roof holds the acid off us for the night. Bree and her friends are near us, but they’re keeping to themselves.

The air tastes clearer out here. That might just be me, though.

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Tue, 30 June 2009 - 9:27 pm

Circle the wagons

Last night was strange. I hadn’t realised how quickly I had become used to the walls hemming us in, even in the sprawl of the warehouse.

I feel exposed out here. I feel like something is going to rush in with the wind and steal something important from me. I keep catching myself checking where everyone is, counting heads and identifying outlines against the thickening darkness. My fingers twitch as I try to keep track of everything, as if they can tally it all, or perhaps try to hold on.

My shoulderblades creep and I can feel the tension knotting up my neck muscles. I don’t like it out here. The wind breathes and the rain searches for us, for a way in to get to us.

 

We built a little fire and tried to protect its sides from the wind that knifed across the car park. The chilled air just swept the warmth away to the low sky, far from where it might reach us. Its light stuttered and tried to give me a headache.

Conroy mentioned something from old western movies, about how pioneers would draw the wagons in a circle at night to protect themselves from the elements (and attackers, he added). We should try that, he said. It was a good idea, but by then we had used all the fuel we had managed to gather for the fire – with the wind whipping it up, it burned through our offerings too fast for us to be able to keep feeding it.

The vehicles retained at least some of the heat they had managed to build up during the drive, so we retreated inside them. A few of the others piled into the campervan to visit the injured, and I popped in to see how they were. The two boys seemed uncomfortable after the journey, but not in pain or trouble, and Masterson seems to think they’re doing okay. Even Dale, who is pulling out of trouble now.

Nugget still isn’t looking at anyone, firmly buried in her sulk. There still hasn’t been any sign of Jones, and this morning she wanted to wait for him, even asked to go back and look for him. Thorpe looked unhappy as he strong-armed her into the campervan again and swung into the driver’s seat. Maybe I should give him a break from looking after the kid and the injured tomorrow.

 

We pushed on today as soon as we freed the vehicles from the encroaching ice. Turns out that our credit cards are still useful for something after all: they make good ice-scrapers. The activity got us warm, but all of us had frozen hands by the time we were done.

We caught up with the back-runners of the human tide at about midday. They look exhausted and scattered before us like driven sheep. One older fella fell down and I watched his friend help him up as we drove past. They look faded, as if each steaming breath was taking something vital from them.

I wanted to stop. We have room. They’re slowing down – I can see it – and the shamblers don’t tire so easily. We could take more of them with us. We could help them.

I took my foot off the accelerator and Ben looked at me sharply. The people outside started towards us.

“We can’t take them all, Faith. Which ones are you going to turn away?” Ben asked me. I’m not used to that short tone on his tongue; it made my eyes sting. Or perhaps it was because I couldn’t argue with him. “They’ll tear us to pieces. Keep moving; you have to.”

I did as I was told. I pressed my foot down and we pulled away, and the other vehicles didn’t hesitate to follow me.

“You’re doing the right thing,” he said. I have no idea if I agree with him or not.

I couldn’t speak; I just kept driving until it was raining and then searched for a place to stop for the night.

 

Tonight, the vehicles are arranged in a circle. Conroy was right – it does help to keep the elements away. Our fire survived a bit longer this time, but I still miss the walls. I want to shut the world out, just for a little while.

Tonight, I’m not sure what – or who – the circle is supposed to keep out.

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Wed, 1 July 2009 - 9:08 pm

Mercy

Our convoy is making slow progress. We have to keep on the move constantly during the light hours, stopping only for comfort breaks.

Ben was right: the human tide will tear us to pieces if they can get their hands on us. We go slowly enough that we’re not going to hit anything, but too quick for anyone to be able to keep hold of the vehicles. They try – they leap onto the bonnets and cling to lines lashing gear to the roofs, feet scrabbling at the running boards. Sometimes, they manage to cling on for a block or two. We’re keeping a close eye on the damage they’re doing but we don’t dare fix it out on the road.

They’ve started to turn on each other, too. I’ve seen the stronger ones taking things from the younger and weaker along the roadside. Food and water, probably; we didn’t stop to check. I can’t begin to imagine how many are falling by the wayside.

Each time we pass by a group that I know we could help, my stomach empties a notch. It doesn’t matter how much I eat – I can’t get rid of that hollow feeling. I caught myself snacking on food we have to ration carefully and stopped guiltily. Ben doesn’t seem to have noticed but I have.

It’s wrong, what we’re doing. Each of our vehicles has room for at least three more people. We’re riding in warmth and comfort, easily putting distance between us and the threat gobbling up the city, and all around us people are falling.

 

I snapped finally. I couldn’t do it any more.

There were two of them, maybe nineteen years old. The boy was trying to carry the girl and failing; her head lolled and her feet dragged on the tarmac. The shamblers weren’t anywhere near, but he kept looking over his shoulder anyway. Something much closer was chasing them.

It was when the girl lifted a hand to try to push the boy away that I decided to stop. Leave me, save yourself, she was saying with that motion. But he was ignoring her, dragging her onwards.

I slammed the brakes on. Ben asked me what the hell I was doing and I ignored him, rolling down the window instead. I could feel the heat escaping from the car but I didn’t care. The lad shied back and stared at us.

“Get in,” I told them, twisting to unlock the back door.

They didn’t believe us at first and stood there gaping. I saw Masterson leaning his head out of the offroader behind mine, looking predictably pissed off.

“You asking for directions?” he shouted at me. I ignored him too.

“We can’t stay stopped,” I said to the lad. “Now or never.”

He chose now. He struggled to manage the door and the girl, and Ben turned around in his seat to help pull her into the back. He didn’t look happy about it but he did it anyway. I was grateful for that much.

In the rearview mirror, I saw a couple of striding stragglers homing in on the rear vehicle – I think Bree’s group was back there, trailing along in our wake. I hurried the boys up and gunned the engine, pulling away as soon as the door closed.

“Who are you people?” the lad asked. He was pale and shivering against the back seat. The girl’s eyes were closed and he held onto her hand.

“We’re the Seekers,” I said.

“Are you Faith?”

“She’s insane, is what she is,” Ben muttered.

The pair in the back warmed slowly in the heated air, and the lad told me a piece of their story. Their names are Terry and Tia – siblings that have managed to stick together all this time. A group of older men had taken their water a couple of days ago, and they had run out of food a day or two before that. He was afraid of what might happen to his sister if anyone caught up to them again – and himself, though he didn’t admit that – and so they kept moving. To the end of their strength and then some.

 

I asked Ben to give them some of our water and let them rest while we drove on. He had a silent, disapproving expression firmly set in place, so the offroader was quiet until we had to look for a place to stop for the night. That was harder than we thought – too many places were full of runners desperately seeking shelter before the rain came.

We finally managed to find an underground garage without any other inhabitants, except for some rats who were heard but not seen. We made our circle and I wasn’t the only one glad to have walls around us again. The car might have become claustrophobic, but I still preferred something to wrap between us and the broken world.

The others made tentative greetings to the pair, and Masterson grumbled but checked the girl out when I asked. We’re not sure what to do with them, but they’re with us for the night at least.

Tomorrow, I guess we’ll make that up as we go too.

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Thu, 2 July 2009 - 5:56 pm

Standing up

Ben and I had a blow-up today. The only saving grace about it was that we did it in private, not in front of the whole group.

There was a discussion about stopping to search for supplies over breakfast, involving everyone; we’re getting short on food and water, particularly. We’ve put a couple of days between us and the shamblers, so it should be safe to pause here, even if the car park is starting to creep me out. I can’t tell what time of day it is, and the rain runs down the entry ramp towards gutters that are sounding dangerously full. There are sounds in the dark corners that I have wish to investigate.

The question of the two newcomers came up as we talked. How we can’t afford to be picking up strays and how it’s dangerous to stop to do it. We can’t just leave all these people to die out here. The siblings haven’t been any trouble. They’re too weak to be a danger to us, but not to be a burden. We shouldn’t feed them. Our injured are a burden too – should we stop feeding them? Where do we draw the line?

The group split predictably. Matt, Sally, and Dillon (who had hobbled out of the campervan to join us) backed me up. Masterson, Jersey, and Thorpe disapproved with varying levels of voracity. Nugget, Conroy, Dale, and Ben all stayed silent but watched us to see what we would say. Bree’s little bunch and the siblings stayed well out of range, sensing that their presence wouldn’t help matters, especially not for themselves.

It was difficult to argue with them and not just because they’re friends. The problem is that they’re not wrong; we just disagree on what’s an acceptable risk and effort, and the level of compromise we’re willing to make. We didn’t come to any kind of agreement; we barely agreed to disagree before we all moved off. The whole episode left a nasty taste in my mouth.

 

A group of the boys went out to search for supplies and I turned my attention to the vehicles in the dim lighting. Some need minor repairs after all the grabbing-on that’s happened lately. Desperate people will ruin what they’re trying to get their hands on, if they can. That’s when Ben came to check on me. I thought he’d gone with the others, but there he was, standing at my elbow and making me jump. I nearly hit him with a spanner.

He asked if I needed a hand. It was a simple offer, but I was still stinging from the argument. I snapped at him about needing his help earlier; I didn’t realise until that moment just how much his lack of support had affected me. It’s not that I think it would have helped me ‘win’ the argument; seeing him standing on the sidelines, watching me fight my corner and not stepping in, hurt more than I’d realised. I had always been able to rely on his support before, he had always been rght there with me, but since he recovered from the Sickness, that has changed.

It changed him. Maybe it was the helplessness, maybe it was facing death and the prospect of becoming a mindless expression of hunger. Maybe it was because he had to fight to survive and now thinks that everyone should. Maybe something hurt him that I don’t know about.

“The problem with you, Faith, is that you think everything should happen your way.”

Those words still ring in my ears. I stared at him and it took a stunned moment for me to loosen my tongue enough to respond. Of course I thought that. Of course I did. Everyone wants things their own way! I stand up for what I believe in – when did that become wrong? But I’m not selfish with it. I’m not. I listen to the others and we make decisions as a group when we can. I try to be fair. I try to do what’s best for everyone. Maybe I don’t always get it right, but I try.

I haven’t changed, but he has. I told him that. The Ben I got to know wouldn’t have tried to turn those kids away. He would have shown them some mercy and understood what I was doing. The Ben I knew had a kinder heart than the one that’s here now. What happened? What’s wrong?

He wouldn’t answer the question; I tried a few times. Finally, he hit back.

“And what about you and your ‘friend’?”

It was such a change of tack that I struggled to keep up with him; it left me stumbling and breathless. Matt? He thought that Matt and I–

I told him no. I explained to him why some of the others might think that (and that I didn’t care what they thought now, with Ben back and me apparently switching beds). It was for safety, because being single and alone is dangerous. It was because he left me on my own. It wasn’t what he thought, dammit.

I missed him, and I worried about him, and I didn’t know if I’d ever see him again. Now he’s all distant and weird, and I still miss my friend called Ben. Not just my lover who slept with me, but my friend, the one who stood next to me,. He won’t tell me what happened to him, he won’t explain anything. I was crying then and I’m crying again now, because I don’t know what’s wrong, let alone how to fix it.

He looked at me as if he was trying to figure out the answer to eternal life from the trails on my cheeks, then cupped one side of my face. “I’m working it out,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

I let him hug me until I had calmed down, then I got back to work. The lack of proper lighting gave me a headache but I kept at it anyway. Anything other than dwelling on it all. Anything other than thinking about how he didn’t want me to help him work this out; he made that clear.

 

When the boys got back, Matt came over to ask me what was wrong. Trust him to spot it from across a room. I brushed him off, told him it was nothing, cut too freshly to know if I should open up to him or stay away because it might upset Ben. Then I got upset with myself for not daring to talk to my best friend and went away to smack at a stuck window lever for a while.

At dinner, Ben was attentive to me, as if trying to make up for the argument. I’m too off-balance to know what to do with him. I want to lean on him, but it feels like he might shift at any moment. I can’t tell which way he’d go any more.

I guess it’s time I learned to stand on my own.

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Fri, 3 July 2009 - 7:06 pm

The water truck

I kept to myself last night and was too distracted to listen to what the boys found yesterday. They were boisterous, far more high-spirited than I knew how to deal with; I went to bed early. Ben surprised me by coming along and cuddling up. Nothing happened and he didn’t say anything, but I appreciated the gesture.

This morning, Jersey bounced over to me with an expectant look. Was I ready to come look at the truck yet? I had to ask him what truck he was talking about, and he stared at me like I was a crazy person.

“The water truck,” he said. “The one we found yesterday.”

A truck full of water. I didn’t believe them at first, but the buoyed spirits of the others backed him up. I didn’t waste any time in putting on my boots and lashing myself up in scarf and coat and gloves. They led me to it at a jog. One of the others even carried my toolkit for me.

It wasn’t a big truck, but one of those ones with rolling doors on the sides, spooling up to reveal racks of fat plastic water bottles. The type that fit into water coolers and glug. It was a windfall, enough to keep us hydrated for weeks. We could afford to wash wounds with that much water. I got a sudden craving to wash my hair, though I wouldn’t dare waste it like that.

They wanted me to get the truck going so that we can take it with us, which was much more sensible than trying to load its wealth into our other vehicles. The boys had used some boltcutters to get it open (I have no idea where they got the ‘cutters, and probably don’t want to know), and from the marks on it, we weren’t the first to try.

“We’ll be an even bigger target with this thing,” Thorpe said, and he wasn’t referring to its size, though it would be our largest vehicle. The damned thing had a water company logo painted on the sides.

We still wanted to take it with us and I went to take a look at the mechanics of it. I haven’t worked on an engine of this type or size, but at least the basics are relatively familiar. It was a new truck before the rain took the shine off the paint, so its ignition is useless; the only ones I’ve got going without a push-start are the older models.

I sent a couple of the boys back to the car park to get one of the offroaders; there was no way we were going to push this thing far enough to start it, so we were going to try towing it. While we were waiting, I realised that there was a fresh coat of paint over the truck’s sides and a new padlock pinning the roller-door shut. They had been busy while I was buried in the engine.

“Does anyone have a dispenser?” I asked.

Thorpe and Conroy were the only ones left with me. They looked as if I’d suddenly spoken German: similar to English and yet still a mystery. I couldn’t help it; I laughed. All this wealth, so much time and effort spent to take it with us, and we had no way to get at it other than hacking the tops off and fighting over a straw. They didn’t want to leave the truck – or me – but I shooed them off to find a water cooler. Someone must have been making a delivery here when the bomb want off, so there has to be one close. There was no-one around and the others would be back any minute, so they headed into one of the office buildings.

 

I think that’s the first time in months that I’ve truly been alone. No-one within earshot to come if I screamed, not a soul within sight. A silence that I’m not used to descended and I caught myself holding my breath, ears straining to pick up any whisper of sound. There was nothing. Just the orange sky squatting over the stubbly remnants of a city. I was torn between revelling in the peace and panicking at the strangeness.

I stamped my feet and circled the truck to keep warm. On my third circuit, I saw a twitch of movement down the long stretch of the street, past where a set of blind traffic lights poked up. I stopped and squinted, and the twitch resolved into a patch of weary stragglers heading towards me. I was no longer torn; panic thudded at my breastbone.

I looked around for somewhere to hide but didn’t want to leave the truck. I could lock myself into the cab, but that would only trap me there. I didn’t know that they would attack me but it was a safe assumption, considering what lay behind those rippling metal panels. I didn’t even have a key for the new lock to bribe them with. I thought about following Thorpe and Conroy, but I was afraid that I’d get lost and no-one would find me in time.

I couldn’t see any Seekers coming, couldn’t hear the engine that was bringing them to me. I opted to try higher ground and scrambled up onto the top of the truck. The stragglers seemed closer from there and I felt even more exposed. One quick look around and then I sat down, making myself a smaller object. Smaller target. Still no sign of my friends. They were coming, I knew they were coming.

The stragglers shouted up at me when they were near, asking what I was doing up there; they seemed wary and curious, circling like dogs. Just a handful of them. Waiting, I told them and hugged my knees closer. Waiting for my group. They looked at each other, dubious.

Over the beating of my own heart, I heard the engines before I saw them – too loud to be just one. By then, I was so paranoid that I wondered if it was my friends or another group. Maybe it was the hidden remnants of the Pride, mobile and armed and looking for trouble. I wanted to lie down on the truck’s roof and hope that no-one would notice me up there. The ice from the metal roof was seeping up through my clothes, chilling me from the buttocks inwards.

It wasn’t just one of the offroaders – it was all of them, and the campervans as well. Our whole convoy was powering up towards the water truck with me like a cherry on top. I’m not sure who decided to bring everything but I’m glad they did. I was even glad to see Bree’s vans slinking up in the rear, keeping a cautious distance from the rest of us.

The noise flowed around us, engines and tyres, the rough squeak of brakes and the metallic chunks of the convoy juddering to a stop. They wrapped around the truck, drove in to take firm possession of it. The stragglers shied back from the aural assault and the sight of so many working vehicles. Sometimes I forget how strange it can be in this After world. Doors slammed and hands beckoned for me to come down while the engines growled around us. I jumped down into them, shaky with relief.

When Thorpe and Conroy got back, Ben tore into them for leaving me on my own. I tried to protest but he wasn’t listening. Conroy went pale and even Thorpe backed up a step under the verbal attack Ben levelled at them. He hasn’t been out of arm’s reach of me since that, which is both nice and a little disconcerting. On the plus side, the pair had managed to find a water cooler.

We hooked up the truck and got it moving, and its engine coughed to life. The stragglers were long gone by then, not even appearing in our mirrors as we drove away. I almost feel sorry for them and wish we could have left them a bottle.

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Sat, 4 July 2009 - 5:54 pm

Mine

We had a little celebration last night. So much water – we all drank our fill when we found somewhere to stop for the rain. Even the siblings joined in; it’s funny how they’re fitting in with us much easier than the ex-Pride group. No-one has mentioned that we should ask the siblings to leave since the big argument a couple of days ago, despite them getting their strength back, so they’re still here.

Bree and her friends hover on our edges and exchange supplies with us every now and then, but they aren’t part of us.

Then the Wolverines got out a few bottles of liquor and we drank some more. We lit a big fire and got merry. There was even a spate of messy, coat-flapping dancing that collapsed into laughter. I remember my head buzzing and Ben’s arm around me.

 

I was still floating this morning when I went around to rouse everyone. There were sore heads but plenty of water to ease them with this time.

I was slammed back down to earth when I got to Matt’s offroader (most of us are bedding down in the vehicles at the moment). Thorpe was asleep inside it, and Matt was standing on the other side, getting dressed. I didn’t need a diagram; the truth slapped me in the face. I hurried away before he saw me.

It felt like someone had stabbed me between the ribs and one lung wouldn’t reinflate. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had no right to be upset, but I was anyway. He was just my friend. I was with Ben. He had every right to sleep with whomever he wanted. I know it’s ridiculous of me to feel this way.

It felt like it had when I found out about Bree and Cody. There was a part of me that wanted to shout, ‘no, he’s mine’. But we’re not like that. We’ve never been like that. I wish someone would tell that to the feeling in my chest. It doesn’t understand.

 

Ben asked me what was wrong and I told him it was nothing. Then I told him it was the hangover and he smiled and patted me on the shoulder.

I remember kissing Ben last night, before we went off to find our blankets. There was only kissing, though, after we went off; he stopped and I fell asleep. He hasn’t seemed to want more than that. Is it him? Is it me? I have no idea what to think about that.

I’ve hardly seen Matt all day. A part of me thinks that he’s avoiding me, while another points out that I don’t usually pay this much attention to where he is. I haven’t seen him with Thorpe, either – they’ve been conspicuously apart.

I think I’m reading too much into everything and need to stop. I want to walk away from all of them but I can’t bear the thought of doing that, either. I’m bruised all the way through.

I feel like I’m standing on the point of the knife, wavering back and forth. There’s nothing to grab onto for balance. There’s nothing to hold me up. It’s already hollowed me out, but I don’t know what will happen if I fall.

Why does this stuff never make sense?

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Sun, 5 July 2009 - 4:07 pm

Guest Post: Gotta Have Faith

Just when the clouds started to thicken overhead, one of the offroaders got a flat. There was no time to fix it, so we all piled out.

I was the first one to spot the church, well the steeple actually. I pointed it out to the others and we headed that way to seek shelter from the rain we knew was coming.

We all stopped and stared in wonder when we got there. All the stained glass windows were intact and the colors hid the dirty streaks left by the rain.

The church looked so normal. I think we all expected to see a priest pop out to welcome us to mass as the door opened. The smiled disappeared from my face as I realized it wasn’t a priest. Well, I suppose once he was, but now he was a shambler.

We were too close to run away, so we had to fight him. We shoved Nugget and Dillion behind us and got our weapons out as the shambler lurched towards us. I looked into his slack face above the white collar, a big mistake. I could picture how his face would look if he was alive, welcoming his flock to his church. I froze.

Thankfully Ben and Thorpe had no problem fighting a dead priest. They ended him quickly. We all turned to the church but no more followed the priest out.

I don’t know who headed to the doors first but we all stepped inside as quickly as we could. We were greeted by silence. We listened for the tell-tale sounds of more shamblers dragging themselves around in the darkness of the church but heard nothing, not even our own held breaths.

We carefully walked down the aisle, looking down each pew for dangers. The main chapel was empty but when we arrived at the altar, we could see a door broken apart down off to the side.

We crept towards the door weapons ready. We smelled the blood before we saw the body, another priest torn apart by the shambler. I jumped a foot when I saw the body move. I realized the poor man was still alive and watched as Sally ran to him calling for Masterson.

Masterson took one look at the body, torn and bloody, and shook his head. There was nothing he could do. Sally tried to soothe the dying man, who whispered painfully, “Run, get out before he kills you.”

“Shhh, it’s okay, Father. He’s gone now. He’s in Heaven, at peace.” She said the words a priest would want to hear. I was surprised at first, then I remembered the rosary she wore around her wrist.

“What Heaven? God has forsaken his children.” Tears filled my eyes at his last words, as this servant of God lost his faith. Sally continued to murmur words of comfort of God and hope, but this priest, this forgotten child of God, couldn’t hear them anymore.

I prayed that his one moment of doubt wouldn’t stop him from getting into the Heaven he devoted his life to; somehow, that didn’t seem fair.

Masterson tried to comfort Sally when we all heard it, a noise outside in the chapel. Someone or something was out there. We all gathered our weapons and headed to see if it was friend or foe. We found him raiding the sacrificial wine. He didn’t seem surprised to see us, didn’t seem to care.

“Is he gone to see his God now?” the man asked indicated the room behind us.

“Yes, who are you?” I asked the man who continued to guzzle the wine.

“Name’s Jake. Is the other gone too?” We looked at the front doors where he was pointing and knew he was talking about the shambler. I nodded.

Jake sighed deeply, “Well at least I don’t have to feel bad about breaking my promise to stay sober if they’re both gone, anyway.”

“Isn’t there anyone else?” I asked him, surprised others hadn’t taken refuge here.

“Nope, not anymore, not even that guy.” Jake pointed at the crucifix above the alter before continuing. “There’s a basement used as a shelter for the homeless. We had a full house until a few days ago, when Father Marco was attacked while he was outside trying to find people who need help. No good deed goes unpunished, I guess.” Jake gave a flat smile. As he drank he seemed to want to talk more and more so we let him ramble on.

“He managed to stumble in and Father Anthony tried to save him. It was no use, though. His wounds were bandaged but the Sickness got in and he died a couple of nights ago. We moved him into the office over there and Father Anthony was giving him last rites when he became that zombie thing.”

“We call them shamblers,” I interrupted.

“Whatever. Father Anthony was able to get away from him and ran into the church yelling for everyone to run and save themselves. Bastards did just that, never stopping to make sure the good Father was with them. They fought their way to the door running and shoving to escape. I grabbed the priest’s arm and tried to pull him with me, but he wouldn’t go. He told me he knew that Father Marco was still in there somewhere and he was going to save him. I begged him to leave. I’ve seen those, uh, shamblers before and knew that there was nothing inside them but hunger. He wouldn’t budge.

“Guess his faith saved our lives; well, mine anyway. Just as we heard Father Marco crashing through the office, we heard the rain and the screams of the cowards who ran out earlier. None of them came back inside so I figure the rain got ’em all.

“Course we were trapped with that thing. Father Anthony shoved me towards the basement door and ordered me to lock myself in. He ran the other way to distract Father Marco. Luckily that basement had a good strong door and I was able to barricade it.

“Looks like Father Anthony managed to get back to his office and lock himself in, but the whole time he was talking to Father Marco, trying to find the human inside. He must’ve realized it was a waste of time though, because I could hear him through the vent praying and calling for God to save us.

“I heard the door being torn apart and then Father Anthony screamed ‘Run, Jake!.’ After that, he just screamed and screamed.” Jake paused and gulped down the rest of the wine. He rooted around behind the alter until he found another bottle.

“I tried, I swear, I tried to get to Father Anthony. I started to tear down my barricade until the screaming stopped. Then I just froze, didn’t matter though, that shambler smelled me or something. He started trying to open the door and I piled back my barricade. Ain’t never been so scared before. The door’s strong, built to survive during a natural disaster. But another day or two, it wouldn’t have mattered. He would have gotten in and I would have died. Guess you saved me.”

He didn’t actually say thank you, not that any of us cared. We shivered at his gloomy words and heard the rain begin.

Jake finished the second bottle and staggered unsteadily to the office. We didn’t want to disturb his goodbye, so we let him go by himself. He lurched out carrying Father Anthony in his arms. “He saved me twice, once from the bottle and once from the shambler. He wouldn’t want to become one of those things. I am taking him outside to let the rain have him.”

I tried to stop him but Ben held me back. I turned on him and said, “He can’t do it without getting hurt or killed.”

“He knows, Faith,” Ben explained in a soft voice. I understood then. He knew. Hell, he  was counting on it.

“Shoulda died years ago,” Jake said. “Shoulda crawled into a bottle and died but Father Anthony saved me, gave me a job and a home at this church. I got no reasons to stick around anymore. Besides, maybe God didn’t get the message that things are fucked up down here. I’ll be sure to tell Him. Take the supplies from downstairs. Bye.” Jake smiled at us and headed out in the rain.

Despite the pain being inflicted on him, he managed to close the door behind him, holding Father Anthony lovingly at his side. We braced for the screams that never came.

We all sat listening to the rain for a few moments. It was beautiful behind the stained glass windows. We went into the basement to see what supplies we could use and were shocked.

There was so much food and water we would be able to stock up our packs to the brim. Masterson was delighted at the medical supplies he found. There was even a camp stove we could use to have a warm meal for once.

Delighted, we put together a stew with rice and found packages of chocolate cake for dessert. We dragged everything upstairs, not wanting to be trapped down there if trouble came.

“Too bad we didn’t find this in time for the birthday party,” I said before biting into the chocolate cake.

Dillion grinned like a kid and said, “I love cake. I didn’t think I’d ever have cake again. How did we find cake?”

Matt grinned, “You just gotta have Faith.” He winked at me as the others groaned or chuckled. I sighed; if I could have reached, I would’ve smacked him.

[Guest post by Rissa Watkins.]

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Mon, 6 July 2009 - 8:42 pm

Rising words

I woke up this morning to the whispering echo of a prayer in the ceiling. In that strange land between sleeping and waking, it was a tug back to a time when I was small and my mother took my sister and me to a church.

I remember the hush that stole over my whole body when I stepped inside, and the quiet reverence it inserted into my shoes. I exchanged a glance with Chastity and she gave me a cheeky grin in return, clattering off down the aisle to poke into the side chapels. My mother took a firm hold of my hand to stop me thinking about following and drew me up the centre. There was that same indistinguishable murmur moving around in the air and I looked up; it felt like I might be able to see the words on their way up to God’s ears. Then it stopped and the robed figure kneeling before the altar stood up, crossing himself.

That was the last time I was in a church. This time, the priests were mindless and faithless, at least at the end. I don’t like the patterns this world has fallen into. I hope their God has mercy on them. It’d be nice if He had mercy on all of us down here too, but I’ll take what hope I can get right now.

I pushed the blankets off me and sat up, wincing at the hardness of the pew. It might have been nice to stretch out for a change, but at least the offroader’s seats were padded. I tried to be quiet, because that whispered prayer was real and I didn’t want to disturb it.

It was Sally, kneeling before the altar, her head bowed. She had lit five candles in the rack nearby and their ruddy light brushed her hair in highlights; the black dye was growing out, and I think the auburn underneath suited her better.

Ben was watching her pray too. He was sitting on the pew past my feet, silent as a rock. At first, I hadn’t even realised he was there. I don’t know how he does that.

Everyone else was still asleep when Sally finished her prayer and got up.

 

We didn’t waste much time in heading outside and fixing the tyre. There was an awful moment when the jack shifted: the whole vehicle nearly toppled onto Thorpe and Jersey while they tried to get a spare wheel on. Ben caught it in time to stop it crashing down and, a second later, a couple of the other boys jumped in to help too. Between them, they managed to keep it propped up long enough to fasten the wheel on.

We checked everything else over quickly before we got in and hauled ourselves into motion. I think we’re all paranoid about people getting to our vehicles and the gear we recklessly keep inside. We haven’t seen anyone else today, though, and after the incident at the church, I’m relieved. I’m not sure I can take another encounter like that. I remember Jake pulling the door closed after him, already dissolving, and I shudder.

We stopped a little early today to refill our cans when we found a gas station. We’re all topped up and trying not to think about the rain now. It’s hard when the damned stuff is hissing up the concrete just a short distance away. If we feed enough to the fire, perhaps its snapping will drown out the drizzle.

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