Tue, 1 December 2009 - 8:04 pm

Fields of glass

It has been a few days since the foragers managed to find any supplies at all and we only had one meal today – over-watered soup eking out the dregs of our supplies. Tomorrow’s looking worse.

This has happened here before. They would send the foragers off for a few hungry days, searching further afield, and survive on whatever they brought back. They always brought something back. But each time they have to go for longer and travel further, in the hopes of finding anything of use. We have decimated areas in several directions now; our options are badly whittled down now.

In between intruding on Sally and annoying Masterson, I’ve been spending my days outside with Thorpe and Dale, fixing up the vehicles. We’re keeping the bikes inside, but the station wagon needed to have the ignition fixed so we didn’t have to push-start it any more. One part of the legacy of our time at Haven is the knowledge of how to make the ignitions work again. We fixed the vehicles used by those we left behind as well, even the ones with fuel tanks a sniff from empty.

It has been nice, working outside with my friends, even with empty stomachs gnawing at us. It was a chance to avoid the dwindling mood inside and the futility of the foraging party. Then the rain would come and we’d all have to go inside, and we couldn’t escape the atmosphere. Even the new baby couldn’t lift us for long, despite him being healthy and unmarred by his pre-natal experiences. Hunger pulls on all of us now; I think Sally is the only one on full rations, and no-one begrudges her that. As un-pragmatic as it might be to feed a sick and possibly dying person, none of us can bring ourselves to abandon a new mother. We aren’t that monstrous.

Something has to be done. We can’t carry on this way and I think everyone can see it now. Cracks are forming in the group; those who stayed here at the University are resentful of those of us who left, mostly because we brought so little back with us. Apart from the medical supplies and bad news, we had nothing of use to give them. We’ve hurried them to this place of empty bellies and blame, and now we’re going to hurry them out of here entirely.

 

When the rain came down today, we were a disgruntled group in one of the downstairs rooms. For some reason, everyone was there, even Bree and the cutouts, who usually keep to themselves. Poisoned water hammered on the glass and hissed in denial of our sustenance. Grumpy glances were exchanged; with no meal to prepare and eat, there was little else to do. It was only a matter of time before someone said something.

I felt the pressure like a hand between my shoulderblades. Jump in, Faith. Speak first. Break the silence before it breaks you. Take that first step; others will follow. They always do. One of these days, I’m going to end up alone on the end of a plank. I know that every time I step forward and clear my throat, waiting for eyes to turn on me.

Spiders crawled around in my stomach as I suggested to those nearest to me that we should talk about our options. Heads turned towards me as the message rippled back through the room. They all looked at me, waiting for my move and I felt like a butterfly, speared by a pin and spread on a board. All I needed was a frame and a pane of glass.

“We need to figure out what we’re going to do,” I said, loud enough for them all to hear me.

Voices broke in immediately with suggestions, most of them unhelpful and pessimistic. Go to Haven and eat their supplies. Go find some shamblers and roast them. Go further afield to find food. Grow flowers. Curl up and die where we sit. Sell the kids. Go to the country and raise chickens. Kill and eat the next living person we find.

I was too busy staring at them all to put my head in my hands. I didn’t know it had got that bad. I was surprised by some of those who spoke up – even Janice and Dale were making suggestions and they were the most solid, sensible ones in the group. Kostoya looked mortified; he thought they were serious. I tried to stop them, tried to wave and shush them into silence, but they weren’t listening to me any more.

Eventually, Thorpe stood up and shouted at everyone to be quiet. He towers over almost everyone even when they’re not sitting down and he can make himself be heard when he wants to. Silence fell like a surprise, slapping everyone about the ears. Then Thorpe turned to me and asked what I had in mind.

I didn’t thank him for putting me on the spot like that. There was expectation in the room and it weighed on me. I had to scrabble for words and an order to put them in.

“We can’t keep relying on leftovers from Before,” was where I started. Someone grumbled about there not being any anyway and Thorpe sent them a glare as he sat down again. I was perched on a table and kicked my feet, nervous and feeling like a schoolkid all of a sudden. I took a breath and plunged on before anyone else could interrupt.

We had to find a way to sustain ourselves without foraging. We already had a sustainable water supply, thanks to Kostoya; we needed to do the same with food. Grow it ourselves. We had talked about it and knew what we needed to get to make it work, but we had to figure out how and where to get those pieces.

While I was speaking, a scratching started up behind me. I turned around and saw the professor there with a piece of chalk, listing out the components we needed. It made me feel less like I was on the spot and I started to go through them with him. The water wasn’t a problem – we could filter what we needed. A way to protect the plants from the rain but also allow them exposure to sunlight – someone said a greenhouse would do that.

Gradually, others spoke up to add in suggestions and the tone of the room started to turn. We could make a greenhouse easily enough. Seeds – gardening centres should have those. They’re one brand of supplies unlikely to have been raped by looters. Same with tools and probably even fertiliser. Soil – that was a problem. The water filter needed stones and soil to work and had used most of the clean local supply. In order to keep producing unpoisoned water, the soil and stones had to be replaced periodically due to the residue build-up on them. There wasn’t much left in the University now, and finding dirt that hadn’t been pounded by the rain day after day was a struggle.

So where might we find protected soil in the kinds of quantities we needed? Jonah mentioned a farm with a couple of greenhouses that Haven’s foraging party had found, but the bomb’s shockwave had shattered all the glass. If we found something like that outside of the blast’s reach, the soil inside the greenhouses might be untainted.

That’s when I remembered Iona. She was always talking about fields of glass and flowers – perhaps her random images were fragments of a flower farm. I asked her about it and she smiled and told me how pretty it was. Reflecting orange and red, such beautiful colours above and below. So, presumably, it was intact after the bomb went off. Where, I asked her, where was it. Days away, she said. Days and weeks and so much walking, it was like an adventure. Up hill and down dale and around and around. She took my hand and tried to dance around in a circle with me. I could see the eyes rolling around me and felt like joining in. As directions go, it wasn’t useful.

Bobby spoke up and said that he was part of the patrol that had picked her up. She had been with a group who had walked up from the south. That’s all he could remember; if a more detailed debriefing had been done, he hadn’t been part of it. A direction was better than nothing, though. We got out maps and started to look for possible locations, down past the mountains and the empty Emergency Coordination Centre.

“So you think we should leave?” Masterson asked, interrupting the cluster around the maps we had stuck up on the wall.

I was trying to get Iona to point to where her fields of glass were, but never got her answer as we all turned to look at him.

“We can’t stay here,” I said. We were all so hungry.

“Some of us shouldn’t travel. What are you going to do with them? Leave them behind again?”

He knows how to needle me and make me angry. A retort was rising up my throat, but Jersey stepped in to tell him to shut the hell up. Then Dale pointed out that we have the old campervan, and we can get more vehicles to carry them if we need to. We’ll make sure Sally and the baby are okay.

I looked at how many we are and knew that we would need more vehicles. We might be able to cram ourselves into the few we have now but it wasn’t going to be comfortable. But then, our empty stomachs were even less comfortable.

Other protests came up. We have no guarantee that there’s a flower farm there at all, let alone an intact one. What if someone else is already there? What are we going to eat on the way there? (Probably the same as we’re eating now, someone pointed out.) Conroy piped up to say that his mother used to talk about a gardening centre down south that supplied many of the stores up in the city, but he didn’t know where it was.

At the end of the day, we have nothing to lose. We’re starving here, slowly and surely, and foraged supplies are always going to be limited. It’s time to take a chance and move on; at least we have something to aim for. Despite all the protests, the general mood of the group is to go. We hunger. It’s time to make like a shambler and lurch out of here, towards food.

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Wed, 2 December 2009 - 7:55 pm

Holding on to what’s important

Getting nineteen people moving is harder that you think. I stopped and counted heads today, and that’s how many of us there are now. Nineteen, if you count the baby.

Mother and child are doing all right. Masterson and Kostoya can’t find anything wrong with the baby and fear over that is fading. I check in on Sally when I can, but it’s difficult to get around her over-protective Masterson. I’ve seen Bree and Mira going up there, so hopefully she has company and help with the little one.

As for the rest, most of the group has put their backs to the packing effort. We’ve been getting together gear and clothing, and loading up the vehicles. The atmosphere has been almost cheerful, except for the undertones of hunger. Everyone is painfully aware of how little we have right now. A mouthful each at a mealtime, if we’re lucky. The rest is vitamin supplements and as much water as we can drink. Sometimes it feels like we’re washing ourselves away from the inside out.

Explaining it to the kids is hard. Nugget never complains but Estebar whines whenever he has an audience. He’s just voicing what we’re all feeling right now. We’d give them more if we had it, and I think they get more than the adults anyway, but it’s not enough. It won’t be enough for a while yet.

The main problem we’ve had with packing is with Professor Kostoya and his equipment. He wants to bring everything. We’ve had to devote the back of the station wagon to his gear but it still wasn’t enough room for him. We wound up with components and tools and the great tank of the water filter all laid out on the tarmac in front of the biochemistry building. As much as we tried to play the tetris game from hell, it just wouldn’t all fit. Kostoya fussed around the place, back and forth, wringing his hands and muttering like a mother hen. He needed all of it, had to have everything. Didn’t we understand? It was all vital. Terribly, awfully vital. If we were going to do anything of use, of course. He was already leaving so much behind – this was just the absolute essentials. Bare minimum. And be careful with that!

I’m not sure whether Kostoya’s idea of ‘bare minimum’ is the same as it is for the rest of us. Some of the guys tried to just say no and started taking stuff back inside, but the professor turned an alarming shade of red and flapped around them with such enthusiasm that Thorpe and I were forced to step in. Conroy hurried over to weigh in as well, bouncing up in angry defense of the scientist.

Still healing hands or no, I thought that Thorpe would start hitting people for a little while there. He hasn’t been able to help much so far, thanks to the burns and bandages, and his frustration shows more readily than any other emotion right now. I wound up bouncing like a pinball, asking Kostoya to please calm down, telling Conroy to step back, begging Thorpe to ease off, and instructing the cutouts to put the equipment back down so we could sort it all out.

In the end, it was decided that the water filter tank didn’t need to go inside a vehicle, and it was strapped to the roof of one of the offroaders. It was filled with dirt and stones according to Kostoya’s tense instructions – he was still sore about the whole thing – and left open to catch what rainwater it can. They think the offroader can take the weight. I hope that turns out to be true.

The inside of the old campervan has been made over to accommodate Sally and the baby. The reams of baby supplies have been stacked into every available cupboard – the foragers were thorough in collecting that stuff before the little one was born. Mira and Bree are determined to ride with her, along with Masterson, of course.

I feel like I should talk to Bree, after everything that has happened between us. First Cody, then Ben, and our broken friendship – even with all of that, I can’t think of a single thing to say to her. I don’t trust her. I don’t like the dramas she creates. But she seems to be keeping her head down and that leaves me with nowhere to go with her.

If I’m honest, I can see the place she has made for herself here. While we were gone, she has made friends. She looks after young Mira and even the kids. Estebar and Nugget are always running over to show her something or ask her a question. I would be glad of that, but it’s Bree. It feels like reflex to distrust any good thing she does. She made a place for herself with the Pride, too. I’d like to believe that she has grown into a better person in the After, but I’m not ready yet. There’s too much blood between us, bad or otherwise.

Our injured are mending. Iona never complains, but her wounds are healing all right. She understands about infection and keeping them clean – or at least, she does as she’s told in that respect. She doesn’t seem to feel any pain – I think part of her brokenness blocks that out. She just smiles and tells me how pretty my hair is, focussing on me rather than the injury I’m redressing. She never flinches. She reminds me a little too much of a shambler sometimes, too damaged to feel the world right, but I don’t know how to fix her.

Warren is still restricted to only using one arm, the other slung tightly against his chest. He chafes at it but every time he tries to use his right arm, he grimaces and puts it right back into the sling. Masterson rolls his eyes at the matter and leaves him to it; it’ll take time to come right. There’s a chance that he won’t regain full use of his arm, thanks to the depth and position of the bullet. He’s lucky to have survived being shot in the After at all, but I guess he’s not feeling that right now.

Thorpe’s burned hands are going to take a while, but between Dale and me, we’re keeping them clean and bound. If he’s lucky, they won’t be scarred – the burns weren’t deep. He doesn’t like letting people do things for him but we’ve found that bullying works. If you make him, he’ll do it, and I choose to believe that his scowls are for the pain and inconvenience rather than our care.

Matt grinned and told me yesterday that if he didn’t know about Thorpe and Dale, he’d be jealous of the attention I give the big fella. I think that was his way of telling me that he feels a little jealous anyway, even though he knows there’s nothing in it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t fond of Thorpe, but it’s not like that, not on either side. Matt’s words made me stop and wonder if I’ve been neglecting him with everything else that’s been going on. Last night, I stole him away so we could spend some time alone together, and I gave him all of my attention and care. He seemed to appreciate it, if the affection I’ve been receiving is anything to go by.

His leg is doing better; his limp has faded now. He has an impressive scar – he asked me if it made him seem more manly – and I have to try not to think about how sick it made him. Remembering that makes me hold onto him tighter, which he likes more than he wants me to know. Does he know how much he means to me? I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell him without dissolving into tears.

He’s the last one I have left. There was Ben, and Dillon, and Dad. Before then, there was my sister Chastity, and my mother. I loved them and they’re gone. Now it’s just Matt and me, and we’re closer than I ever thought we’d be. When he’s with me, I feel like we can do this, we can find a way to make it out of this place we’re in. The hunger doesn’t hurt so much. When I think about what it would be like without him, it’s hard to breathe, let alone think about doing anything else. He’s not allowed to go anywhere. He has to stay.

 

I’m getting distracted. The rain rolled in early today, interrupting the last stages of our jigsaw vehicle assembly. It fell heavily on our heels as we hurried to get the remaining gear inside, and it chased us with thunder. Lightning is hard on the eyes – after so many months under an orange sky, white light is painful, even in brief flashes. It’s still working hard out there, rolling out and around us, making the windows shake.

We should be ready to go by tomorrow. The vehicles are fixed and as fuelled up as we can get them at the moment. We’re going to have to stop often to look for supplies but we’re prepared for that. There are still grumbles about this whole course of action but no-one has refused to lend a hand. They’ll all come, piling into the vehicles and allowing themselves to be dragged along with the rest of us. Maybe there’s a spark of hope still glowing under the weight of pessimism and experience.

We’re not done yet. Tomorrow, we set out again. It’s time to start Seeking.

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Thu, 3 December 2009 - 6:44 pm

Who and why

We didn’t get off to a good start this morning. We sorted out the obvious hitches without any problems; it was the unforeseen that tripped us up.

Loading in the last of the gear went just fine – we got it all stowed away and sorted out who was going where. Sally, Masterson, Bree, Mira, and the baby were in the campervan. Warren, Iona, Thorpe and Dale took one offroader, and Janice drove the other one carrying Jersey and the kids. Kostoya rode in the station wagon with Conroy driving. That left Jonah, Bobby, Matt and me on the bikes. Matt insisted on riding behind me, and I didn’t mind in the least. It’s nice to have him leaning on me like that.

We had everyone organised and in or on their vehicles. The biochemistry building was shut up, the doors and windows locked, and I caught a few eyes lifting to its familiar shape as we were about to say goodbye to it. It could have been a reflection on the glass, but I think Kostoya’s eyes were damp. This place has been his home for a long time now. His sanctuary. Even I was sad to be leaving it.

Then the campervan wouldn’t start. Every other engine chugged into life and we pulled away from the building’s entry one by one, stretching our tyres onto the road. Dale was driving the lead vehicle and stopped when he saw the van wasn’t following. We all stuttered to a stop, and a couple of us turned bikes around to see what the problem was. I had to shut off the bike to hear it – the tick tick tick of the starter that couldn’t find anything to catch onto.

I ended up elbow-deep in the engine with Jonah lending a hand, trying to find the problem while everyone else milled about aimlessly. In the end, it was the distributor causing the problem – we had to dig around for replacement parts and wound up rigging something together. It worked – barely – and I caught Masterson’s displeased scowl through the windscreen when the engine started. I don’t blame him. It didn’t sound good.

We encouraged everyone back to their respective vehicles and got them started again. Blessedly, everything sparked to life and the convoy started off again. I waved the campervan on ahead of us, so that Jonah and I could bring up the rear on the bikes. We’d be able to check for anyone falling behind, that way. Unfortunately, it meant driving in the dust from the other vehicles, but we didn’t figure that out until we were on the road and getting facefuls of airborne filth.

 

Just before we set off, Jonah pulled his bike up next to mine and gave Matt and me a searching look.

“You think that was what it looked like?” he asked.

I glanced at Matt, but we didn’t know what he meant. I shrugged.

“You think it wasn’t?” Matt asked.

“I just think it’s curious that we’re having so many technical issues,” Jonah said.

“You think someone did this on purpose?” I couldn’t help but sound surprised. Who would do that, and why?

Jonah shrugged in that way that means yes, he does, but he can’t give us anything more than that. Then he put his bike into gear and set off after the convoy.

I twisted to look at Matt and found a sour expression on his face.

“We’d better get going,” he said, patting my hip. I sighed and turned around again, gunning the engine to catch up.

 

I haven’t had a chance to talk to Jonah – or anyone else – about it since then, but there was plenty of time to mull the issue over. He’s right – we have had a few technical difficulties lately, all of which have slowed us down. The bullethole in the bike that didn’t show itself until days after it was supposedly done. The blowout that ruined another bike. Both of those endangered people – Thorpe and Bobby were lucky, considering what could have happened. And now an engine that won’t start, even though we’d checked it just a day or two ago. Fixed it, even, so that it would start.

But who and why? I keep coming back to those questions and I can’t find any answers. It had to be someone who had been with us out of Haven. One of the soldiers? But one of their number was almost killed, one of them can’t use an arm, and the third one warned us. Iona is strange and disturbed, but never violent and I can’t see her being capable of sabotaging a distributor like we found this morning. That leaves the Seekers, and even considering them goes against everything I know about them. The boys wouldn’t do that, and Jersey might be a lot of things but ‘sneaky’ isn’t one of them.

Besides, if they’re trying to slow us down so that Haven can catch up with us, why didn’t they just stay behind? Hell, they could decide they’re going back there and none of us would hold it against them. We’d see them on their way. They know that.

It doesn’t make any sense. It’s making me look at the group differently, weighing up motives and dangers. I hate this. Matt’s arms wrapped around me tighter than usual today; I think he’s feeling it too.

At least we made fairly good headway today, despite our delayed start. We’re setting a guard tonight, sitting up in pairs to keep watch. I’m going to suggest we mix the pairs up and see what happens. I guess that’s as much as we can do right now: wait for the person to make another move and hope we catch them in the act. At the least, we might find it before someone else gets hurt.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about right now.

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Fri, 4 December 2009 - 5:45 pm

Biting in the belly

Despite yesterday’s disappointing start, we’re making fairly good time. Thanks to the foraging party’s forays, they know a clear route to the south, so we haven’t hit any roadblocks yet. Unfortunately, because the foraging party has been this way, it has already been picked clean of supplies.

Nothing untoward has happened. No more signs of sabotage, and the watches all reported a quiet night.

As much as it can in a group this size, things are going pretty smoothly. The mountains are rising against the horizon already – we’ll be skirting around them this time, sticking to more built-up areas and closer to the coast. We need to stay nearer to where there might be supplies to leech, and there isn’t much up in the foothills, let alone higher up the mountain roads.

There’s a part of me that wants to go back up there anyway. There’s sky up there – real sky, blue and clean, above the poisoned cloud layer. Green things are growing and if we don’t look down too far, it’s like Before. Shards of an unbroken world.

Thinking about that reminds me of Dillon. Playing soccer with the others in unfiltered sunlight, smacking the ball around with his crutch. The memory makes me sad and smile at the same time – that’s how I want to remember him. Not how he was those last days, in the back of a campervan in so much pain, but when he was grinning and running around like the kid he was.

I still miss him. Sometimes I still expect him to come up to me out of the blue, with some small gesture to cheer me up. He was so good at that. The little brother I got to have for such a short time.

 

Anyway. Here we are, heading southwards. Tomorrow we’ll move from suburbia into the outlying areas, passing through small towns with houses scattered between them. The air tastes of the salt already; we’re skirting closer to the coast than we have in a while. It feels cleaner down this way than when we butted up against the sea on our way between Haven and the University, as if there’s less poison weighing down the sea’s effusiveness. Maybe it’s just that the breeze is coming from over the water today.

A part of me wonders if we’ll find more people down this way. So far from the bomb’s blast, shouldn’t there be more survivors? The land is as stripped and barren as everywhere else – the rain still falls here, eating through anything soft and growing – but it feels like people should be holed up in the remote areas. As if the farms and sprawling houses on their huge blankets of bare earth should have been more prepared for the end of the world than the rest of us.

Maybe that’s silly. Maybe it’s dangerous – they’re likely to be armed against invaders alive or undead, if they’ve survived this long. I don’t know. But I hope. We haven’t seen any other living thing in so long that I’d welcome someone with a gun pointed at us right now. Just so we know we’re not the only ones left.

It makes those we have with us more precious. We don’t all get on – some parties actively despise each other. We settle into little groups when we stop for the night, not even coming together for food because there isn’t any to give out. I wish there was a way to mend the divisions in the group, but I can’t see it. Tempers are too short right now, worn thin and sharp by the empty feeling in our bellies. I don’t want to fight those battles right now.

Tomorrow, we’ll get out of the area that the foragers have been through. We’ll stop to look for supplies again. Food, fuel. We’re doing all right for water – the water tank is precarious on top of the offroader, but it’s doing its job and we have enough to drink. But we need food. I don’t know how much further we’re going to get if we don’t find some soon.

There’s that word again: soon. Everything has to be soon, but it never comes soon enough. We can’t ever catch our breath.

I’m so tired of all of this, and we’ve barely got started.

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Sat, 5 December 2009 - 9:02 pm

Holding the baby

We’re out of the area that the foraging party has scoured now, so we’ve been stopping to look for supplies again. We managed to siphon enough fuel out of abandoned vehicles to keep ours going, and there’s a gas station down the road from where we’re staying tonight that we’ll try in the morning.

We managed to find some food. Not much, barely enough for half a meal each, but it’s more than we’ve had to share around for a while. We thought about rationing it more strictly, watering it down, but it’s been so long since any of us had a decent meal that we couldn’t do it. I’m not the only one feeling the effects of hunger, with exhaustion that comes on so easily and tremors in my limbs. Jonah’s bike was wavering badly this morning, and I’ve been getting dizzy every now and then as well. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets hurt.

So now we have our bellies working on a plate of preserved meat and beans. It was pathetically small but the best thing I’ve seen for a while. There was even a handful of smiles around the fire tonight.

I sat in front of Matt while he fiddled with my hair, combing his fingers through it and patiently working out the knots. It’s the sort of casual intimacy I missed in Haven. There, this kind of thing carried a weight of shame with it, because dedicating this sort of attention to one person wasn’t allowed. Even if you were in love with them. Tonight, I could close my eyes and feel Matt taking quiet care of me, and it was easier to believe that everything would be okay.

 

Sally is still resting up in bed in the campervan. Those who have seen her say that she’s doing better; I haven’t dared Masterson’s wrath by trying to visit her myself, but I trust the others are telling the truth.

This evening, Janice brought the baby out to the group to give his mother a chance to sleep. He was a fretful thing, but he didn’t howl as he was passed around the circle. Most of the group took a turn with him, even Jersey. She liked it more than she let on, I think.

He’s tiny. I didn’t really appreciate that until I held him. I felt big and clumsy, so afraid I would drop or hurt him. Then he made an odd sound and I was abruptly more worried about him throwing up on me. I didn’t want to hand him on – it felt good, cradling the little body against my chest, more than I had expected. I haven’t had a lot to do with babies before but I guess it’s true what they say about maternal instincts.

The boys were the funniest ones. Kostoya was open about being a big sap, cooing and tickling. Matt grinned and looked like the proudest thing in the whole world. Dale peered at the baby curiously, like he’d never seen one before, and then started making little baby-noises. I wasn’t the only one laughing at – and along with – him. He handed the little one on to Thorpe, who promptly went all rigid and disapproving, only partly because his hands are bandaged. The baby fit snugly in the crook of his arm and he looked like he didn’t dare to move in case he shook it loose.

That was the perfect time for a noise to go off further inside the parking garage we were sitting in. It was only a small structure: two levels and ramps with viciously sharp corners designed without offroaders in mind. Immediately, most of the group were on their feet and grabbing for something weapon-like, and Jonah and Bobby led the charge to see what it was. The bulk of the group moved towards the noise, forming a protective barrier between it and our vulnerable ones. Mira had the kids herded back and Bree was sending Iona in that direction too.

It was nothing. It took us a while to confirm that it was nothing – we were all imagining shamblers hiding in the shadows, I’m sure of it, but all we could find was a puddle of acid on the concrete. We think that something in the ceiling must have given way, letting the rain leak through, and something had fallen when enough of its housing had disintegrated. There was no sign of anything worth worrying about, so after some milling around to double- and triple-check, we headed back to the fire’s circle.

Thorpe hadn’t moved. He looked like he wanted to get up and see what was happening, but all he could do was screw his head around and scowl after us. Other than that, he hadn’t dared to move himself. He had one hand hovering above the baby, just in case, and he kept glancing down to check that his charge was still there. The contrast between his gruffness and carefulness was endearing.

He hissed at me when I passed by his shoulder. “Faith, can you take him?”

I looked down at the pair and couldn’t help it: I smiled at the sight. Thorpe was being so protective, and the tiny one had his eyes closed in perfect trust. “Why? He likes you. Look, he’s gone to sleep.” That was the first time I’d seen the baby sleeping. They really are much cuter when they’re asleep. And quiet.

“Faith, please.”

The others were almost on us and I think it was the first time he has been close to begging me to do something for him. I took pity on him and gathered up the little one, who woke and promptly started crying. I rocked him, feeling deaf and clumsy again, and gave Thorpe a sigh. “See? I told you he likes you.”

That’s the only time I’ve ever seen him look helpless. He has no idea what to do with something like a small baby’s preference. He’d be the most protective, devoted, and clueless father in the world, if there was ever a chance of him sleeping with a girl. I think it might be good for him. Children soften men’s edges. Except for Masterson. His defences are still firmly in place.

 

A couple of the girls are asking about sanitary supplies; they haven’t found any new ones in a while and it sounds like Mira just got her period. As if it isn’t hard enough to keep clean in the After. I’d better go help out; I have plenty in my pack, left over from my last cycle.

Wait. Oh, shit.

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Sun, 6 December 2009 - 4:04 pm

Zombie sharks

Hey, it’s Matt here. Filling in for Faith because… I’m not sure why. She’s off with the girls. If something’s wrong, they’re not saying. But she left the laptop behind with me, so here I am, whiling away the time without her.

It’s only in these pauses that I realise how much I’ve grown used to being around her. Since Haven, we’ve been living in each other’s pockets and loving it. With some people, you’d get sick of them being there all the time. We’re still catching up on the time we were apart, and making up for all those chances we missed before we realised how much we should be together. I’m still grateful every time she comes to sit next to me, never mind the moments we get to spend alone.

Without her leaning back against me, I’m at a loss for what to do with myself. My hands have nothing to do. I want to go and find her, but I don’t think that would be a good idea. Whatever’s going on with the girls, they don’t want the rest of us to know. They’ll tell us when they’re ready.

It’s weird if I think about it too much. Her and me. But right, too. I can’t imagine anyone else I’d want to be with, Before or After. And that’s not something I ever thought I’d be the one to say.

She has hardly said anything to me today. I’m fairly sure it’s nothing I’ve done. Oh God, I’m not turning into one of those guys, am I? Faith isn’t a passive-aggressive kind of girl – if I had done something wrong, she’d tell me. I’m sure I’d know if it was anything serious. I think. Ah, crap.

 

I should probably just talk about what we got up to today and stop thinking about all that. We’re still heading southwards, creeping around the foothills and hugging against the coast. We’re close enough to the sea to smell it – the salt-laden breeze reminds me of holiday trips when I was a kid. Those trips were about as cheerful and fun-filled as this one. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the air feels tainted, as if it’s not just carrying the salt. Could the offshore wind have scooped up some of the poison out of the seawater, too?

There isn’t much point worrying about it. By now, we’ve all breathed in enough to be in trouble, if that’s the case.

I wonder just how poisoned the seawater is. Unlike the river, it doesn’t seem any different just to look at it; the last time we saw the river, it was churned mud-brown with hints of sickly green. The waves on the shore look as turquoise as they always have, though the reflection of the orange sky lends it an odd cast.

In those times we’ve strayed near beaches, I haven’t seen any dead fish washing up. Has the poison already stripped the fish out of this area? I guess the rain would have cleaned up the sand. That’s one good thing about the acid: we don’t have to worry about corpses clogging up the world. They’re washed away under God’s great new hosepipe.

I wonder if there are zombie fish. Zombie sharks – now there’s a terrifying thought. If we were ever likely to get into the water, we certainly won’t now.

I get why Faith can’t call them ‘zombies’; it is ridiculous. The notion of zombie sharks makes me smile, even while I decide that swimming is not in my immediate future. But sharks don’t exactly ‘shamble’ – what would be a good name for them? Floppers? Not exactly less comic, is it?

I’m getting off-topic again. It’s easy at the moment – there’s not a lot to say. We’re making pretty good progress, though a flat tyre slowed us down again today. Nothing really exciting happening.

It’s all small clusters of buildings down here, picturesque once upon a time but reduced to sad collections of walls and roofs by the After. They’re far enough away from the city to have avoided the destruction of the blast wave, but the rain has rubbed away all the green and softness. Even the paintwork is eroding.

We think a group of shamblers must have passed through here: there are doors and windows broken in, sometimes whole walls, where something determined had wanted whatever was inside the buildings. We’ve only seen one thing with that kind of heedless purpose. There’s no sign of them now, though, or anyone else. Maybe the living are just too scared to come out. I wouldn’t blame them, not with how many we are now and the obvious soldiers riding armed among the group.

I’m still not sure that’s a good idea. Faith told me about her sabotage fears. We’re keeping an eye on them, the five of us – Thorpe, Dale, Jersey, Faith and me. We haven’t seen anything untoward yet but we’re keeping an open mind about it anyway. Just in case.

You know, come to think of it, Jersey has been acting strangely lately too. She has been hanging around the soldiers a lot, especially Jonah. I’d think that she was trying to get close to them to find out who was sabotaging us, but she’s not that kind of girl. I’d expect that kind of thing from Bree, not our little transvestite. The thing is, if I’m not mistaken, she has been flirting.

If I’m honest, I’m glad that she has picked Jonah to focus on. Maybe he’ll get together with her. It’s not that I’m jealous or anything – I know there’s no reason for me to feel like that. But I’ve seen the way he is when Faith’s not looking. Unless I’m way off – and I seldom am – he likes her. So yeah, I’d be happy if Jersey managed to distract him, even though I know nothing would ever happen between him and Faith. I’m sure of that. Everyone would be happier.

 

The girls are coming back from wherever they went. Faith’s smiling and the rest are giggling. Does this mean that everything is all right?

Oh, stop being silly, Matt. Go and ask her. If nothing else, a kiss would be nice.

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Mon, 7 December 2009 - 8:25 pm

All the unsaid

Today we stumbled into farmland. It was the strangest thing – one minute we were passing over rolling hills, winding our way between one tiny town and the next, and then we fell out onto open land. It was probably once a pretty green tablecloth, flicked out at the edges and decorated with trees and flowers. Now it’s a patch of bare, abused earth, naked and stripped, stretched out like not enough skin over old bones. The world has had a bad facelift and looks anything but young. Old, dry, overdone, and not at all graceful.

We came to a stop to look at it. It was about lunchtime anyway, and we’ve had a little bit of luck lately so we stopped to eat. We’re short on fuel but we have food for now – it looks like the shamblers ploughed through this area and ate all the people, leaving us their supplies still in the cupboards, gathering dust.

We found bones in one house. They had been gnawed on – I’m no great detective or hunter, but even I could tell that teeth had made those marks on the bones. I couldn’t tell if they were human teeth or not; it could have been animals, I guess. Maybe that’s what we’ll hope. Like the crows at the prison, feeding off those who fall and aren’t taken by the rain.

In a car, we found the remains of a couple of people. They were a mess – the acid hadn’t been able to get to them and the shamblers had missed them. The car had crashed into a pole and the windscreen had been cracked by the impact of a skull, so they probably died when the bomb went off. We didn’t open the car for fear of the smell and what we would find pooled in the footwell. Perhaps they were too decomposed to be interesting by the time the shamblers crawled out of the Sickness.

It’s sad, thinking that there’s something in the world that not even a shambler would bother to eat.

 

We talked about where we should go next, and decided to stick to the road, following it through the open land to the next spatter of buildings. We don’t want to stray too far from shelter out here – there’s too many of us to fit comfortably into the vehicles and four of us riding motorbikes. We don’t want to end up crammed together for hours, waiting for the rain to stop. Also, we don’t have any way to protect the bikes.

I keep talking to Iona in the hopes that she’ll give us some guidance about where we should look for this flower farm of hers. I hope, more than anything, that I’m not wrong about the interpretation of her babblings. She seems to think we’re on the right path and she’s getting both brighter and more erratic by the day. I saw her lose her smile completely for the first time yesterday. We’re definitely getting close to something. With how disturbed she’s getting, I’m starting to get nervous about what we might find.

We haven’t seen any signs of glass yet, though. Not even a glint on the horizon. There’s a lot of open ground to explore, though; we’re bound to find it soon.

 

Matt keeps looking at me like he wants to talk to me. He tried last night, but I didn’t know what to tell him, so I shrugged him off. I don’t have any answers, just possibilities and fear. The snake in my belly has abandoned me; there isn’t room for it any more. It’s too full of an uncertain clenching. I’d like to think it’s just underriding hunger – we have food, but not a lot and we’re trying to be careful with it – but I don’t think that’s it.

I should tell him what’s going on. I don’t know how. Every time I think about it, the words run away from me and I’m left gaping at myself. I want to tell him, I want to ease that expression of his, but I can’t. Instead, I end up avoiding him and that only makes me feel worse.

I feel bad, talking about this here when I haven’t managed to tell him yet. But it’s on my mind and I think I need it. I had to look at this blog; it’s the best way to work out the dates. I had to figure out when Matt and I were together for the first time in the After, back at Haven. We were so caught up in each other, passion and love and such a desperate need to be together, that we didn’t think about anything else. It’s the only time we forgot to use protection.

That was about six, maybe seven weeks ago. With everything that was going on, I didn’t realise how late I was. I didn’t notice what hadn’t happened until Mira asked for sanitary pads and I had far too many. And now… well. Now I know I’ve missed periods.

Yesterday, I went to a little pharmacy with the girls. I got a couple of small boxes that promise to answer the question buzzing around in my head. Maybe they’ll help me sort this out. They’re not what I really need, though, but I’m scared of that, too.

The only person I can get a straight answer from is Masterson. I have to approach him and ask a favour, ask for discretion. I’m not looking forward to it. He’ll say something awful and I’ll want to slap him. Or he’ll reduce me to tears like he nearly has so many times. Or he’ll just refuse to deal with me at all and send me on my way, empty-handed and empty-headed.

Matt’s coming – I should go. I’m terrified to tell him. I’m terrified of everything.

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Tue, 8 December 2009 - 5:10 pm

Mindless prophets

We found the garden centre we’ve been looking for. Tucked away in a back-street of a little town, with acid-scoured signs limply pointing the way.

The front doors were broken inwards and some of its tools are missing, but there wasn’t anyone here. There are rusty stains on the floor that I think were blood pools, once upon a time. Something terrible happened here. Something else cleaned up the bodies. I don’t particularly want to find out either part of that equation.

We’ve stopped to take stock and see if there’s enough equipment for us to build a farm with. So far, it’s looking possible – most of the stuff here isn’t a lot of use in the After, unless you know of a way to make things grow like we do. There was even a couple of boxes of food tucked in a corner, probably belonging to the people whose blood stained the floor out front. We’ll be able to eat for a couple of days, if we’re careful.

They have a small greenhouse out the back here, but it’s not big enough for us to grow as much as we need to. Some of the panes are broken and we don’t know what kind of damage the rain might have done to the soil inside. We still need to find the flower farm to make this work.

 

Late last night, I finally snagged an opportunity to use the tests I had stolen from the pharmacy. It turns out that peeing on a stick is harder than you might think, especially when you’re trying not to get it all over your hands. My nerves probably had something to do with how difficult it was.

Waiting that full minute for the line to show itself was hard. It felt like forever, pacing around the little public toilet at the back of the store we had stopped in. I wondered if anyone had noticed me sneaking off. I wondered if any of the girls had seen what I took while they were looking for sanitary items. I wondered if someone was listening at the door. More than anything else, I wondered how a minute could take so long to tick by. I guess it’s true: a watched stick never changes colour.

Except that it did. I got hopeful at one point, sure that the time was well past and the stick’s paleness meant I was in the clear. But it had only been forty-five seconds (I was using the laptop to time it) and as my excitement faded, the blue line filled up. I stared at it, as if it might be a blip, as if it might fade again right away.

It stayed. A slender blue marker to tell me that what I had feared was true. It felt like a neon sign burning in my hand – I wrapped it up and stuffed it into my pack, in case anyone might see it through the closed door. Then I got out the second test kit and tried again. I barely had any pee left in me, but I managed it. Once could be a fluke, after all. A kit spoiled after all this time sitting on a dusty shelf. Two felt like a chance for reprieve, or confirmation.

Both plastic peed-on strips are tucked in my pack now. They match. Stupid little mindless prophets, telling me my future.

 

I’m going to be a mother.

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Wed, 9 December 2009 - 6:42 pm

Examination by an unfriend

I didn’t entirely trust the pregnancy tests. I wanted them to be wrong, or at least unreliable. Not just because it’s terrifying to think about having a child; there’s also the After to consider. Pregnancy is dangerous and birth is worse. Sally is lying in the campervan, pale and wasting, and possibly on her way out. As births go, she didn’t have an awful one, and she’s still in trouble. No-one’s sure if she’ll recover, even though it’s been days now.

There was only one thing left to do. I had to see a doctor and get myself checked out.

 

I screwed up my courage and went to speak to Masterson late last night, after the rain had stopped. He looked like hell, like he’d barely slept in days. He stays in the campervan at night with Sally. The girls who ride with him bring the baby out to be with the rest of us, so that his mother might sleep. The little one still new enough that none of us mind, though being woken up by that shrill crying isn’t fun for anyone.

I don’t know if it helps. The girls said that Sally misses the baby when he’s not near. I know the doctor can be a cruel bastard, but never when it comes to someone’s health. We have to believe that what he’s doing is for the best.

Masterson doesn’t usually come inside at night, but he’d come for some food after the rain had stopped. It wasn’t exactly the best time to go and ask my question. His girl is struggling at the end of a pregnancy and I’m starting one. Maybe. I couldn’t think about that.

I could see his shoulders go all tense when I approached him. As if he was expecting trouble from me. I’ve done my best to leave them alone! I gave them space, even though I didn’t want to. I haven’t visited Sally lately, though I said I would, because it’s what he wanted. It’s never good enough for him. As if I wasn’t nervous about this already, seeing him prepare for a battle with me made it worse.

I grabbed my courage by the throat and lifted my chin when I spoke to him. I nearly choked off my own words but I got them out. I think I might be pregnant. I need to know for sure. No pleasantries, no wasted breath. Just business.

His look was full of edges and I thought he’d throw it back in my face. I braced myself for whatever he was going to spit at me. How long? Seven weeks. How late? I’d missed two periods now. Had I ever missed them before? Never. Sometimes it varied by a few days, but they always happened. Before now. And I’m only thinking about it now? I’ve been too busy to notice. It’s not something that I thought to worry about.

He started on a lecture about ‘how these things happen’, but I cut him off. I know. I know all of that. What I need is to know if I really am pregnant, and if I’m okay. That’s what I need from him.

He grumbled and took me into a back room where we could have some privacy. What followed was one of the most uncomfortable, humiliating experiences of my life. I’ve been examined by doctors before, but I didn’t know any of them. I wasn’t painfully aware of any bad feeling between us before.

With Masterson, I was vulnerable and at his mercy, and we both felt it. I had to close my eyes for most of it, trying to think of him as a doctor and nothing else. Certainly not a man, with troubles and feelings and a grudge against me. Even when my eyes were open, I couldn’t look at his face, and all I could manage was single-word responses to his questions.

He didn’t do anything untoward – he was very professional. That almost made it worse. Afterwards, he gave me a moment to dress and then told me that everything looked fine. I asked him if I really was pregnant – I needed to hear it, I needed someone else to put it into words for me. I thought that being given those words by a doctor might make it more real.

“Did the pregnancy test come back positive?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’re pregnant.”

“They’re that accurate?”

“They’re accurate enough.”

That made me feel worse, too. He could have said that to start with.

I thanked him awkwardly and we went out separate ways. The episode didn’t mend anything between us. If anything, he seems more put-out than ever. I don’t think anything will make our relationship pleasant, but at least I know that he’ll be a doctor for me. He hasn’t ever refused to treat someone and I guess that’s what’s important, for all of us.

 

I thought I’d feel better once I’d had it confirmed. I don’t. There’s a weight on me, pressing all the air out of my lungs when I least expect it. I’m pregnant. I look at Sally’s baby and try to think about something that tiny being a part of me, and my body doesn’t know whether to yearn for it or run away. It feels like it’s doing both.

I think I wanted Masterson to tell me that I was mistaken. There was some other problem and that’s why I had skipped periods. Maybe it was the hunger or the stress – it can do that. I wanted him to tell me it wasn’t true. Trust him to tell me exactly what I didn’t want to hear.

Then I catch sight of Matt and feel awful all over again. He still has that look about him, wanting to ask me what’s wrong. He asked me once and I couldn’t answer him. I didn’t know what to say to him. Now he’s trying to give me space because he can see I need it, but he wants to help. He wants to be with me. It’s cruel to keep him in the dark like this.

At first, I didn’t want to tell him in case it wasn’t true. I didn’t want to worry him – or get him all excited – about it until I was sure. Now I am sure and that excuse has gone away. There aren’t any more reasons not to tell him.

So that’s the next step. I don’t know why I’m waiting – I should just do it. He deserves to know. I have to tell Matt he’s going to be a father.

What if he’s furious with me? We’ve never talked about the possibility of children. We haven’t even talked about settling down together. What if he doesn’t want this? What if he leaves?

I guess I should find out, one way or the other. Get this over with. I’ve had all day to get used to the idea, but I don’t feel any better about it. I wish my hands would stop shaking.

Deep breath, off we go.

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Thu, 10 December 2009 - 8:15 pm

Write it on the broken sky

I’m gonna be a dad. Holy shit.

I’m going to be someone’s father. Responsible for a little tiny thing, like Sally’s son. I can’t wait! I know I’ll have to wait about nine months – or rather, seven, according to our calculations – but even that seems too long.

Oh yeah – this is Matt. Should’ve said that earlier. I guess it’s pretty obvious by now. I’m all – what’s the word? – discombobulated. I love that word. Also, I can’t stop grinning. She told me last night, and I still can’t stop grinning.

 

Faith’s terrified. She works so hard to hold everything else together, but she doesn’t do half as well when it comes to herself. Of all the things that have come up in the After, it’s the simplest, most basic human function that has knocked her sideways. I guess it’s always the thing you least expect, huh?

When she told me, my first instinct was to be angry with her. Not for being pregnant, or getting pregnant, or any of that. She thought I might be angry with her over those things, though really, she should know me better. She didn’t do it on purpose – she’s not that kind of girl, to use something like her own fertility against a guy. It was an accident – I believe her and the stricken look on her face when she talks about it.

It’s like they say – it takes two, and we both did it. The two of us, together, we made this tiny little thing that’s just starting to come to life inside of her. If I think about it too much, my head starts reeling, like it’s all too big for me. It’s the most wonderful thing in the whole world.

My impulse towards anger was because she waited so long to tell me. We’re in this together, I told her. She doesn’t have to do it all on her own. Isn’t that what she’s always telling everyone else? It’s especially true with this. She can tell me anything. Anything at all. We always have, our whole lives, and now we have even more reason to. She and me – we’re a pair, a couple, and we’re in all of this together.

Now we both know and we can work together on this. Start thinking about what we need to do next. I don’t know where to start! Gather up more baby supplies, I guess, to make sure we have enough? We’re both as clueless as each other.

I had to stop myself from following her around today and making sure she was all right. She thought that a baby might cause problems between us, that it would change things for the worse. Of course it won’t. She doesn’t understand that she was the best thing in my life yesterday, and today she’s more precious than ever. I’d tell her, but I don’t think she’d believe me.

She doesn’t want to tell the group yet. A lot can happen in seven months, she said. Give it another month, until she’s starting to show. Then we can tell them.

I don’t think she’s afraid of losing the baby, though that’s a worry too (like I said, I keep getting this urge to wrap her up and make sure she’s okay). She needs a chance to get used to the whole idea. There’s no reason for us to tell the others right away, so there’s no problem with keeping it to ourselves for now.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t want to announce it to everyone. I’d write it on the broken sky if I could. Me, a dad! And maybe I will, but not yet. When we’re both ready.

If she’s not careful, Jersey’s going to beat her to it. Unless I miss my guess.

 

I think this is the best feeling, after the time when she told me she loved me. How sappy does that sound? I never thought I’d be a lovestruck puppy. I promised myself a long time ago I’d never get here, to this place when another person meant so much to me. I’ve seen Faith get wound up in other people and what it does to her when she loses them. I’ve got close to people and lost them too, but it wasn’t like this. Nothing like this. I think about losing her and it’s suffocating, like all the light and air has been sucked out of the room.

If I didn’t love her so much, I’d hate her for making me love her so much. But I can’t hate this.

I’m gonna be a dad. I wonder if it’s got toes yet. Or ears. When do they get ears?

I want to go and hug Faith and our little tiny proto-baby. In fact, that’s what I’m going to do.

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