Monday, 9 November 2009 - 8:05 pm

Punishing warning

I’ve been getting worried about my dad. I haven’t seen him in days – I’ve lost track of when I saw him last. I’ve been hoping that he’s in the same situation as Matt – many demands and too many eyes on him, even though he’s usually allowed to see me.

Now I wonder if he was breaking the rules by coming to see me, or just ignoring them. It’s typical of him to do something like that and not tell him; he knows that I’d worry and tell him off. Or maybe he got himself in trouble and I just haven’t heard anything on Haven’s strange grapevine.

I’m sure that he’s all right. I would surely have heard something otherwise. I have to keep that in mind. No news is good news, right?


Something weird happened today. Walking to the infirmary, Jonah and I got past the usual pleasantries, feet moving in time with each other. But the companionable silence didn’t fall. Without so much as a glance at me, he kept speaking past telling me that breakfast was awful this morning.

“Whatever you and your friends are planning, you need to be more careful.”

He sounded so calm and casual about it, like it was nothing. My heart thumped painfully against my breastbone and it was a moment before I could respond. I had to pretend that nothing was wrong; we were out in the open and anyone might be watching. Anyone at all.

“What do you mean?”

“The officers know something’s going on. You know that most of you are being watched.”

I swallowed and restrained the urge to glance around me. Just keep looking straight ahead. Nothing is wrong.

I collected myself enough to ask, “Are they going to do anything about it?”

“They will eventually.”

We were nearly at the infirmary door; there wasn’t time to ask him much more. We don’t stop and chat, ever, and I could feel the weight of attention on me. The pressure to act normal, like nothing was wrong, was suffocating. It made it hard to think, turning my brain into a rabbit desperately running around in circles on me.

“Why are you warning me?”

I felt him flick me a sideways glance. “Are you planning to kill anyone?”

“No.” Of course not. I almost added the last part but remembered that I was talking to a soldier. Their job is to deal with people trying to kill each other, so it’s not an unreasonable question. Especially not in the After.

“That’s what I thought.” I thought that was all he was going to say, then he added, “I don’t agree with all of their… policies.”

We were at the door. It was time for me to go inside; there was no room for any more questions. I swallowed and looked up at him, forcing up a smile from somewhere.

“Thank you.” The smile might have been pulled on, but the gratitude was real. He didn’t have to do that. Then I was inside and he was at his post outside, and the exchange was over.


Since then, I’ve been worrying about what the officers might know, and the Scouts, as Matt called them, with their sharp eyes and too-good reporting instincts. We’d be glad of their vigilance if we agreed with their policies, but in a police state, that kind of attention is heavy and painful.

Are the others safe? My Seekers, my boys so far from reach? My dad? Is it me – have I given something away? Do they know it was me who hid that food away? Why haven’t they approached me about that yet?

Perhaps they just like watching me twist under the stress of waiting for them to come. Perhaps this unknowing is my punishment – or the first phase, at least.

In a way, I’m furious with Jonah for telling me that the cutouts definitely know we’re up to something. Of course I’m grateful for the warning, but why couldn’t he tell me on the way back to the dorms? When I might be able to do something about it, pass the word along to Jersey so she can tell the others? Instead, I’m left fretting all day about things I can’t change. I’ve probably been acting guilty as a result and not helping my case at all.

Now, sitting here and waiting for the rain to stop, I wonder if they know about the laptop too and just don’t care. I’m exhausted. I want this to be over already, dust in the mirror.

When will soon be now?

Tuesday, 10 November 2009 - 8:42 pm

Soon is now

Today, I stopped worrying about Dad or myself so much. Instead, I started worrying about all of us.

This morning, while I was sleepily climbing into my stained jeans and wishing that Iona would quit sneaking into my bed and curling up against my spine in the middle of the night, Jersey came up to me. She barely paused next to my bunk, the hitch in her step giving her just enough time to deliver a single word. Just one.


I met her eye and there was no doubt about what she meant. None at all.

Tonight’s the night. The pieces are in place. Tonight, we leave Haven behind us.


I was vibrating with the news as I walked across the compound this morning. I wanted to tell Jonah out of some kind of reciprocal urge, to give him a warning in exchange for the one he gave me yesterday.

I bit my tongue all the way to the infirmary – I like Jonah, and the warning was kind of him, but I couldn’t return the favour. It would be unfair of me to put him in that position, having to keep another secret for us, even if he was inclined to. I can’t risk endangering everyone like that, anyway; I’m not sure enough of his intentions.


If I think about it too much, nerves claw up the inside of my throat and my field of vision narrows like a heart attack. At the same time, there’s a flutter in my chest that wants to take wing – part of me is already soaring free.

How’s it going to start? When will the tap come? And where – to my shoulder, the window, the door? It’s raining now – should I be trying to get some sleep while we definitely can’t go anywhere? I probably should. But I don’t think I could settle enough for that; there’s too much buzzing around inside my head.

Am I ready? Do I have everything? I shoved a few things in my pack this morning, but there wasn’t any time before I had to leave for the infirmary. Luckily, I keep my most precious possession with me all the time – namely, the laptop – and the few bits of clothing I have to my name will be all of a handful to scoop up and stuff in a bag. I’ll be ready. I have to be ready.


Deep breath. We’re as ready as we’re going to be. It’s time to leave. Time to put Haven in our mirrors.

I can’t wait. I’m terrified. Soon has finally come.

Wish us luck!

Wednesday, 11 November 2009 - 7:20 pm

Gathering storm

I don’t have much time. Last night was not what we expected – it was both better and worse than we had hoped.

It’s hard to know where to start. I suppose I should start with the end and say that we made it. Sort of.

We’re free. I can look around and see familiar, friendly faces. I don’t have to worry about who’s watching and what I’m doing, because they’re all friends, all in the same position as I am. I can sit here and post without fear of someone stealing the laptop.

But there’s no celebration. No smiles or hugs of joy. No song circling the firelight. Sombre faces and painful grimaces sit with us tonight.

We’re not all here. Not all of us made it, and we don’t have a celebration in us. It doesn’t feel right. Instead, we’re huddling in the dark and wondering if the cutouts will catch up with us.

There’s a part of me that wonders if all of this was worth it.


I should go back to the beginning. Tell all of this in order. Start in the black of last night, when the dorm was full of sleeping breaths and drifting snores. The sound of cloth moving against cloth pulled me out of a tense doze; there wasn’t any chance of sleep for me, not after I knew what was coming.

In the strange world between sleeping and waking, I wasn’t sure if the movement was real or part of a dream trying to drag me down. Then Jersey touched my shoulder and I was starkly awake, nodding and pushing myself up out of the bed. It was thickly dark in the dorm but I could see my friend’s face enough to know that this was it. Time. I tried to shush my heartbeat so it wouldn’t wake anyone.

The first thing we had to do was wake the other girls who might be coming with us. I nudged Jersey off to fetch Jaye while I went to wake Iona. The strange one had gone to sleep on her own bed for once, but she was already conscious when I touched her arm. I put a hand to her lips and tugged her up, leading her out to the disused bathroom at the back of the dorms. She didn’t make a sound. A few moments later, Jersey arrived with a sleepy Jaye in tow.

I explained what was happening in quick, hushed words. Iona watched me calmly without a flicker in her expression. Jaye’s mouth fell open and she shifted back from us a step, as if escape was contagious. She asked if we were serious three times, and then how we thought we were going to do it. I couldn’t blame her for the note of disbelief in her voice – we did spring it on her.

I tried to answer her questions, but I could see her withdrawing from the whole idea of it. Jersey looked from me to Jaye and asked her bluntly if she wanted to come along. Put on the spot, Jaye clearly wanted to fold in on herself. Leave? Leave Haven? No. Of course not. Are you insane?

Tia was the one who told us that she would want to come. But Tia wasn’t there and Jaye was obviously not as eager to be out of here as we thought. I was left wondering what on earth we would do with her. I wasn’t prepared for her to say no. She might run and raise the alarm, or wake the rest of the dorm, or cry until someone asks her what’s wrong. She might ruin us by accident.

Jersey wasn’t paralysed with indecision like I was. She just stepped up and punched Jaye in the face, before I could do anything about it. The poor girl crumpled and I struggled not to shout out. The last thing we needed was for the dorm to be brought down upon us right now. It took another punch before Jaye was unconscious and I flinched at the dull, painful sound. I couldn’t have done it. I’ve never just hit someone out of the blue like that, cold and unprovoked.

We had no way of knowing how long she might be out, so we bound her up with the ruins of my blanket: feet, hands and mouth. I tried to make her comfortable against the wall, murmuring apologies she wouldn’t hear. It wasn’t her fault; she didn’t deserve this. It’s just a shame.

When that was done, we turned to the one remaining recruit, who had stood watching us silently. To my surprise, Jersey stepped up to ask Iona gently if she understood what was happening, rubbing her sore knuckles.

“Don’t speak, shhh,” Iona said, nodding slowly. I guess that meant she understood. “Is it time?”

Jersey and I looked at each other and silently agreed that Iona wanted to come. We didn’t have time for any kind of in-depth assessment and she was willing enough. We had already talked about the alternative – leaving her here with the madams and the vultures – and decided we didn’t want to do that.

I told Iona that she must be quiet, not a sound, fetch her things and we’re going. She nodded and shrugged, and stood there waiting for us. Apparently, she already had everything she wanted to take with her. No-one wanted to fumble about in the dark looking for her clothes, so we left it at that. Grabbed our packs and slipped out of the back door.


Outside, I hissed at Jersey, asking her where we were going. To fetch the supplies, she said, leading me off down the back of the next building. It was difficult to see and we tripped over the uneven ground between the patches of light thrown by the floodlights in the courtyards. Staying out of the light meant much stumbling and fumbling – I think Iona made the least noise of the three of us, floating along in her private cloud as she does.

Jersey seemed to know where we were going, so I followed her. I didn’t dare ask her about what was going on and the plan for getting us out of here; we were having enough trouble keeping quiet. I was lost in this escape – I didn’t like trailing around after someone else and I didn’t like not knowing what was going on. I’m used to being in the know and in charge. Nerves swirled around me, twitching at every shadow.

The packs containing the supplies were stuffed in an empty refuse tank – they didn’t smell great but they were still there, safe and waiting for us. There were too many for us to carry on our own but we grabbed what we could. We would have to come back for the rest – the notion made my stomach flop over on itself with unease.

We had just shouldered the load of stinking bags when a beam of light slid over us, slippery as oil. We gasped and hit the ground so fast that the air was punched out of me. I pressed my lips closed to avoid an audible gasp. A pack dug into my back as I huddled down, trying to be small despite my snail-like burden. I felt huge and impractical, and as glaringly obvious as if a neon sign was hovering over me. I eventually dared a breath, kept small and shallow in case someone heard me. Boots crunched against the concrete and I saw a shape move against the distant floodlights. I don’t know how I knew, but I felt it looking in our direction and the beam swung past us again.

Then there was a thud near my head and I looked up. There was a boot. A flashlight’s beam pinned my hands down, the glare blinding me. This is it, I thought. This is the end.

We’ve been caught.

Thursday, 12 November 2009 - 9:36 pm

Dark clouds

We’re fleeing northeast at the moment. Putting the road under our tyres and just driving, trying to put as much distance between us and Haven as possible. We’re not heading to the University, not until it’s safe. We don’t want to risk leading the cutouts there .

It’s not safe yet. We have to keep our heads down.

Which is where I got to yesterday.


We were crouching on the ground, trying to pretend that no-one could see us. It didn’t work.

“Leaving already?”

The voice came from over my head. I froze, imagining a gun pointing down at me along with the flashlight’s beam, about to spit bullets. We shouldn’t have come for the supplies. We should have gone straight to the vehicles. We might have made it out of there.

Then I recognised the voice. I frowned and pushed myself up onto my knees, squinting through the glaring light.


I heard a shifting behind me and Jersey’s grunt as she pushed her burden out of her way.

“You know him?” she asked.

It was definitely him. I couldn’t see most of his face through the glare, but I could make out the pale line of the scar on his jaw through the shadow of his beard. The confusion behind me was almost palpable – like me, the others were wondering if we were actually as caught as we thought we were. Was this a disaster or a deal to be made? They were looking to me and I was looking up at Jonah, trying to figure out what to say.

“What are you doing out here?” It was uninspired, but it was short notice. It’s not like I was prepared for this.

“I think that should be my question,” he said. “So you really are trying to leave. On foot?”

I opened my mouth to tell him no, then closed it again. We might be caught but the others weren’t. They could still get out of here clean. Don’t make it worse, Faith. Don’t tell him anything he doesn’t already know. “We’re leaving tonight,” I said instead. “Are you going to stop us?”


My heart thumped uncomfortably. Here we go. “On what?”

“On whether you have room for a few more.”

It wasn’t what I was expecting him to ask for. I glanced over my shoulder at the others and then got to my feet. The packs were heavy, biting into my shoulders, and I adjusted them to rest on my hips more comfortably. I could feel bruises forming already. The pair behind me got up as well, and I noticed that Jersey was blocking Iona with her body.

I swallowed when I saw the rifle in Jonah’s hands, though it was held casually and not pointing at us. Not an open threat but not reassuring either.

“…A few?” I asked.

That’s when I realised that the shape against the floodlight was still over by the edge of the buildings. It hadn’t been Jonah making that shadow at all – it was a friend of his.

“Four of us,” he said.

“Why do you want to leave?” That was Jersey, stepping up behind my right shoulder. I suddenly felt less alone and out on a limb, teetering.

“Why do you?” Jonah countered.

“Jonah, please,” I said. The last thing we needed was testosterone getting in the way here. Every second we stood here chatting might bring another party into play, and we were running out of possibly-sympathetic ones.

He sighed and looked me in the eye. “I told you – not everyone here agrees with the General’s policies. Some of us are unhappy enough to leave. If you’re going, we want to come. And you owe me.”

There it was. The marker called in at the worst possible moment. My stomach sank – he was making it hard to say no while my head was screaming for me to. He had only caught three of us – the others were safe. Dad, Matt, Thorpe, Dale, and Dan. They could still get away, free and clear. We’d work something out for the rest of us. What if I trusted Jonah and he betrayed us? Raised the alarm as soon as we were all together? What if this was all some elaborate scheme to snag all of the troublemakers at once?

Then Jonah gestured and one of his friends stepped up. The new cutout placed a box on the ground and flipped open the lid so a flashlight beam could show me what was inside. I recognised the contents immediately – I had spent long enough looking for it all. It was the stash that went missing from the infirmary.

You took it?” I couldn’t believe it. After all this time, it was him?

“I told you that I knew you and your friends were up to something.”

I didn’t know what to say next. He kept quiet. Took the food, hid it somewhere, and kept his mouth shut. Another secret he kept for me, another marker he was calling in. The pressure buzzed in my ears.

The decision was bigger than just me. I looked to the pair behind me for opinions, for help. Iona was as blank as ever. Jersey’s expression was closed and unhappy as she stepped forward. She held out her hands towards Jonah , offering a pack with one and an empty palm with the other.

“Swap you.” She nodded towards the gun.

Jonah hesitated, eyes narrowing, and looked at me. As ideas went, it wasn’t a bad one.

“Your friends too,” I said. “We have to know you won’t betray us.”

“How do we know you won’t just kill us?”

“You don’t,” Jersey said. “You wanna come, you hand those over.”

Jonah looked at us with an unhappy tilt to his lips, then made a gesture with his flashlight. Two more pairs of boots clomped over to us and he explained the situation.

The cutouts weren’t happy but they did give up their rifles. At a nudge from Jersey, they also gave up the handguns they had clipped to their belts. I’m glad one of us knew about those – I hadn’t noticed how many weapons they carried on them, and after it was pointed out, I wondered about combat knives and other small nasties tucked where we couldn’t see.

The soldiers were given our smelly packs to carry and then loaded up with the rest from the hiding place. Jersey and I had two rifles and two handguns each – neither of us felt comfortable putting weapons in Iona’s hands. It felt weird, holding guns and marching people along before us, as if we were the cutouts all of a sudden and they were prisoners. How did that happen?

Then I remembered the last time I held a weapon like this, the sharp crack and the perfect circle punched into Ben’s forehead. I almost dropped the rifle, my hands gone numb. I wrapped them around the damned thing instead, gripping tight enough to make them ache and staying well away from the trigger. It wasn’t the time for crippling sentimentality.


The cutouts gave us no problems and moved quietly enough. We watched them closely but nothing seemed out of place. That was almost suspicious in itself.

I thought we’d go to the back of the compound where the vehicles were hidden, but Jersey led me in the opposite direction. On the way, a small group of men sauntered across a courtyard near us. The floodlights showed them their way and we crouched down nervously just outside of the light, silently praying for ignorance. My pulse hammered at me to get up and run, just run away. I had to force myself to stay down, to keep still, trembling like a rabbit desperate to bolt.

I started second-guessing everything we were doing. Trying to get out of Haven, risking the lives of everyone I cared about. Agreeing to Jonah’s request. Then I heard laughter coming from the brothel rooms and fought back a wave of anger. That’s where those men were going. It pushed me on, determination rising above the drowning fear. That was a reason to go all on its own. The reminder was a blessing.

The revellers didn’t notice us. The cutouts didn’t betray us. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jonah and his boys kept silent because we hadn’t reached the other Seekers yet, but I wasn’t going to question our slender good fortune. I was taut with fraying nerves by the time we got up again to move on. I didn’t say anything; from the look on Jersey’s face, I wasn’t the only one regretting the decision to bring the cutouts with us.

We skirted the light like rats, skimming the well-travelled areas, and wound up near the front gates. A hiss from the side of the road pulled us over there before we came in sight of the sentry posts, drawing us down into a ditch that ran down towards the outer fence. Until we got there, I had no idea the gates had sentry towers, let alone ones that were manned at all hours. The gates were floodlit, brighter than the orange sunlight.

Suddenly there was another hurdle we had to get past: through the closed gates and out before the sentries could shoot us down. I could see the reason for our position: the closer we were to the exit, the less time the cutouts would have to react to the sounds of the engines starting. We needed all the headstart we could get. But we still had to get past them.

Nerves were curdling in my belly when we reached the others. Greetings were muted. Jersey and I offloaded our burdens, and gestured for the cutouts to do the same. I peered into the dark to take stock, and the nerves in my belly joined forces with a fearful snake. My friends peered back.

We had brought more and found less than was expected. Surprise and dismay flared in both halves of the group and I desperately tried to figure out who was missing.


We have to get our heads down. I’ll post more later.

Friday, 13 November 2009 - 10:22 pm

The calm before

We think we’ve lost the Haven cutouts. It’s possible we’re finally free of them. We’re keeping our course as it is at the moment, though we’ll reach the coast soon and have to choose a direction: north or south. Hard to say right now which way it’ll have to be.


At the ditch, clustering together to prepare to bust out of Haven, we were a mixed group. Intentions, hopes, confidence – all muddled, all standing in the dark peering at each other. Words were exchanged in strained whispers.

All of the Seekers were there except Tia, Terry, and Dan Wu. Dan had decided not to come, I was told. He had had enough of scraping for a living in the ruins and thought that Haven was worth a chance. Tia and Terry’s absence was not a surprise, but that was the moment when I realised I hadn’t said goodbye to either of them. Not even Tia. Jersey hadn’t woken the girl at all; she wouldn’t know we were gone until the morning, like everyone else. It felt unfair. What if she was going to change her mind at the last moment? She never got the chance and we’ll never know now.

Iona hovered on the edges of the group, her fingers plucking at her sleeves restlessly. She was nervous and constantly gazing around with wide eyes, but she kept quiet and that was the important thing at the time.

Dad was a solid presence in the group – I handed him the guns I had taken from Jonah’s friend as soon as I saw him. I didn’t want them any more. I didn’t want to touch another gun again in my life and it was an effort not to remember that it had been Dad’s rifle that I had used on Ben. He gave me a quick, one-armed hug before we turned to the cutouts.

The four men were relieved of their burdens and made to kneel in the centre of our little group. Questions circled around again – what, why do you want to come, why should we take you. They didn’t jump up and raise an alarm, or shout for the nearby sentries to come arrest us. There were no flares, no sudden breaks for freedom away from us. They just answered us, their answers consistent with what they had said earlier, words murmured so that they settled in the bottom of the ditch with us.

I didn’t know what to think. I trusted Jonah, even though I barely knew him at all – it was a gut instinct and I knew it. I wanted to ignore it but we had so little to go on. I didn’t know the other guys at all, though Matt knew one of the others. His familiarity didn’t help much either.

There was no time for a proper discussion. We had to get out of Haven before we were discovered standing here, deep is conversation. It would have been the most ridiculous and useless escape attempt in the world.

We didn’t have many options. I thought about poor Jaye who was going to wake with a wicked headache. We could do to them what we did to her: knock them out, lash them together and leave them here in the ditch. No-one would know until the sun came up. Unless they fought us and shouted for help – that would undo everything. I talked about it briefly with Matt, Thorpe, and Dad, and saw Jonah watching us. The cutouts would get in trouble if we did that. There would be questions about why they were out here, how they got caught by us – us – how we got their weapons and disabled trained soldiers…. It wouldn’t add up and we all knew it.

And we owe Jonah. I owe him, for keeping quiet when he could have got me in trouble, twice now. I couldn’t let that decide us, but I couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there. Maybe the debt wasn’t this big, maybe it didn’t include our friends too, but I was beholden to him. It niggled at me even while I tried to stay distant and detached. Besides, trained soldiers might be useful for us.

There were dangers. Questionable motives and a further strain on our stolen supplies. Weapons, so many weapons. We didn’t have enough information to make a smart choice, so all we had left was the emotional ones. No-one in the group had the stomach to kill them, and leaving them behind would be too dangerous. So many things to think about and no time.

We decided to give them a chance and take them with us. It was safer for everyone. If they were going to raise the alarm and betray us, they could have done it by then and got us all caught – we were close enough to the sentry posts that shouts would be heard. Sounds carry far in the silent dark.

And if worst came to worst, we could deal with them outside of Haven.


The decision made, we turned to load the supplies onto the vehicles. I was expecting to see the hulks of vehicles crouching in the darkness, but there weren’t any. Instead, the bottom of the ditch where the Seekers sheltered held the slim lumps of motorcycles. I didn’t know what to think about it – riding those, we would be exposed, to bullets and the rain, painfully so. I had been told that the boys had found some unused vehicles, and I guessed that this was it. It was a case of making the best of it.

We had to lash the packs to the motorbikes and make room for weapons. There weren’t many bikes, and we were nearly done with the loading when I realised that it wasn’t going to work. Until then, I hadn’t had the chance to count bodies and vehicles. The numbers drew themselves together in my head while I wrangled a heavy pack into place on the back of a bike and I almost let the damned thing thud onto the ground. I struggled to lash it down and then stood back to count again.

The snake of fear in my stomach was still there, and I could feel its coils moving when my numbers were confirmed. There were five bikes, and eleven of us. Two per bike was already pushing it, especially with the supplies, but there were too many people. We would have to leave food behind to make room but the slender bikes still didn’t look like they’d take three.

I didn’t know what to do. Should we draw straws to see who would stay behind? Whoever it was would take the blame for all of this. Blame and punishment.

I was staring at the quiet motions in the ditch, frozen in place. Then Dad touched my arm and jolted me out of it, so he could ask me what was wrong. I told him in a soft, helpless voice and his expression clamped down into grimness. The snake moved in my belly; he already knew. He knew the numbers didn’t fit.

“Don’t worry, Faithy,” he said, not making any sense at all. How could I not worry about that? “Everyone will fit.”


His gaze was avoiding my face, even in the dark. “I should have told you this before. I’m sorry.”

The snake had fangs made of ice. It bit deep. “Told me what?”

He looked at me finally, so I’d know he meant it. “I’m not coming with you.”

Saturday, 14 November 2009 - 9:44 pm

Storming the gates

Where was I? Our time is so fractured right now – so many little things to take care of. Everyone’s lending a hand with few complaints now. There’s always one, though.

We’re still running. Most of us are still in one piece and we haven’t seen any signs of pursuit for a day or two now.

We’re in sight of the coast. There’s the tang of salt on the air and we’re up against that choice. Do we dare turn south, to head towards the University at last? Or should we be cautious and head away from it, in case we’re still being followed?

Either way, we have to keep pushing on, though I don’t think I’d mind being caught. Not entirely.


Being told that my dad wasn’t coming with us was like being punched. I was winded, my eyes pricking as I struggled to breathe. If anyone else had said they weren’t coming, I would have hit back, argued with them, but it was Dad. He’s solid and sensible, he knows what he’s doing, and he’s more stubborn than I am. He wasn’t coming. It filled my ears, trying to drown me.

“But-” All I was capable of was single bitten-off words. “Why-”

Dad shushed me, stepping closer to put a hand on my shoulder. “I have to stay,” he said. He had obligations in Haven, and he was too old to go running around the landscape. He’d only slow us down. He didn’t want to say goodbye to me, but it was for the best. We should leave, we should find somewhere better to be than this, and we didn’t need him. Besides, someone had to explain things to the General, and someone had to create a distraction while we got out. He’d sort all that out. He’d make sure we got away clean.

I tried to argue with him. He wouldn’t slow us down – but we were taking the girl with the disturbed brain with us, weren’t we? We’ve travelled with kids and people older than he is. We can’t leave him behind to take the blame for this. They’ll punish him. We can’t let that happen. We can’t. And he’s wrong; we do need him. “I need you.”

I was struggling not to cry and he cupped my face in his hands, making me look at him. “You’ll do fine without me,” he said firmly. “Same as you did before you got here. No tears now, Faithy.”

“But I only just found you.” I couldn’t pretend that I wasn’t upset. Of course I was. I felt so small in his hands.

“We’ll find each other again.” He sounded so sure about that but I couldn’t believe it. In the After, it only takes the tiniest slip to lose someone. Finding him once was amazing enough. I knew I wouldn’t change his mind but I couldn’t be okay with it. Every part of me wanted to fight it.

“It’s not fair.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

I hugged him then, burying myself into his chest and holding on as if that might make a difference. I breathed him deep and fought back the sobs that were making my chest tight. I wanted to break down, but this wasn’t the time for it. I needed to be clear-headed if we were going to make it out. I had to shut it away, shove the feeling down to where the treacherous snake in my belly could make it cold and numb. I drew in Dad’s smell, trying to fix it in my memory, and held him tight.

His voice had a rough edge to it when he finally took me by the shoulders and stepped back. “Go on, now.”

I felt Matt limping up to my side but I couldn’t look at him. I was barely holding myself together as it was; if I met the sympathetic look in his eyes, I knew I’d crumble. I had to keep myself in one piece until we were clear of Haven. I pulled myself straight and tried to remember how to breathe. It was harder than I thought it would be.

Dad tucked something into my jacket pocket – for later, he said – and asked Matt to look after me. Then he said he would go and create a diversion for us and said goodbye.

“I’m coming back for you. Someday,” I said.

He looked at me and touched my cheek, nodding solemnly. Then the darkness swallowed him and I stood exactly where I was, numb.

“Come on,” Matt said softly, tugging on my arm. “We have to go.”

There wasn’t anything else to do. Dad was gone and somehow, I had let him go. All that was left to do was figure out how to work the damned motorbikes and get out of there. Abruptly, I couldn’t wait to get it over with – I wanted to be gone, to run far away from this place. And maybe, to forget what we had found there. It seemed like it would be easier than remembering.


Thorpe gave me a quick tutorial on how to drive the bike. How to start it; what the levers did. I had to sharpen my attention to take in what he said and that helped me block out everything else. Focus, Faith. There was no room for mistakes – if I stalled the engine, there wouldn’t be time to start it again. Luckily, our time riding the scooters were of some use, even if they weren’t exactly the same.

“When we get to the gates, go straight for the centre,” he said. I nodded and filed the information away with the rest of his instructions.

We didn’t trust the cutouts enough to let them take charge of the bikes. So they would ride pillion, as would Iona on the fifth bike. Each of the Seekers had to drive, even Matt with his weak leg. Jonah was going to ride with me, but I told him to make sure that Matt was all right – Jonah was the only one of the cutouts I trusted enough for that. I took a stranger on my bike – I didn’t care which one; there wasn’t time to be choosy. Bobby, his name is. I didn’t find that out until much later.

Abruptly, we were ready. Everyone was on their respective motorbike, poised ready, even the pillion riders. The sound of the engines would attract attention, so we had to be able to go as soon as they were started. It made things awkward when kick-starting the bikes but the compromise was worth it.

Silence fell. I could hear the cutout breathing behind me and the shift of Matt’s glove against the handlebar to my right. I wondered what we were waiting for, what our signal would be, and looked around. Three bikes away, Thorpe was twisted to look behind him, towards the compound’s buildings. I remembered Dad’s words about a distraction and the snake weighed my stomach down like a rock. What kind of distraction? What was he going to do?

Floodlights snapped on behind us, pointed inwards and looking for something within the compound. Voices carried to us across the night air, raised in controlled urgency.

Then sound shattered the space around us: Thorpe’s engine coughed into life. Then another, and another. Hurriedly, I lifted myself up and lurched down on the pedal. Once, twice before the damn thing caught. I muttered through the instructions, trying not to forget anything. Kick that out of the way, nudge this, rev the engine so it doesn’t stall, make sure it’s in gear and let the clutch out. Don’t stall, don’t fall. Go, go, don’t be left behind.

We were a roar tearing along the ditch. I didn’t remember to switch the headlight on until we rose up out of it, cresting the edge in a shower of dirt and slithering tyres. One of the bikes skidded wildly in front of me – I didn’t see who was on it. The engine screeched as it pulled the bike straight again and I swallowed down a nervous lump in my throat. I wished that we’d had a chance to practise this. I wished that we had helmets.

We barrelled down towards the gate. The sentries were shouting in their towers but I couldn’t make out the words above the noise of the engines. Probably warnings. We didn’t waver, notching up the gears as the engines hauled us on faster and faster.

The gates were closed. Closed and locked. Punching through might work in movies, but we were far from Hollywood. I was sure it wouldn’t work now. Whoever hit them first would be thrown off and hurt, or worse. How can we not have a plan for this? Still we accelerated.

Gunfire punctured the air and kicked up the dirt around us. I hunched low, desperately hoping the cutouts would be unlucky in their aim. It was the only protection we had.

We were only a short distance from the gates when I saw one of the guys stretch up from his bike. One arm swung up, then forwards, snapping a small ball at the closed portal.

The explosion was the loudest thing I’ve heard since the bomb went off over my head. Something hit the back of the bike and it wavered. I fought to keep it upright. I wanted to brake but didn’t dare. My passenger’s arms tightened around me as I struggled, making it harder to breathe. Hair and debris whipped at my face. My knuckles stung. Keep going. We had to keep going.

Heat and smoke punched past us. My eyes stung and the headlight was useless. Aim for the centre, Thorpe had said. I had no idea where that was. The roar in my ears drowned out the other engines. I aimed for where I thought the centre of the gates was and sped on. Hoped for the best. Hoped the hole was big enough for us and we would hit it. Instead, it swallowed us.


The rest is a blur of dark and dust. Burning eyes squinting and trying to make sure that the road was still in front of the bike. Bullets pecked around us. My hearing was shattered, full of revving and roaring. The air tasted of dirt and ash, scouring my throat.

We pulled ourselves out of the other side of the smoke and the puffs of dust from bullets hitting the ground stopped. We kept going. The hulks of the buildings at Greenberry Junction rose up out of the darkness, picked out in headlight beams, and then fell behind us. We skidded around ninety degrees when we hit the highway. Tyres bit onto tarmac and we sped on.

I didn’t look back, not once.

Sunday, 15 November 2009 - 5:37 pm

Moving forward

I’ve been riding a bike for so long that I feel stuck in that shape now. My legs are stiff and my back crunches when I straighten it. My whole body has been juddered into pieces from the roughness of the ride.

That first night, we left Haven behind us and kept going until dawn seeped over the horizon to stain us blood-red. The bikes rattled off the side of the road and pulled up in front of a diner in a cloud of heavy dust. I’m not sure why we pulled off the road – it’s not like there was any traffic to get away from.

The pause lasted long enough for us to catch our breaths and take stock. We had lost one of the cutouts at the gates – I don’t know his name, just that it was the one sitting behind Dale. A bullet from the sentries got him, we think. Iona and another of the cutouts had been hit too – those on the backs of the bikes had been most vulnerable, protecting the drivers with their bodies. The drivers all had scratched and scraped faces from the explosion and debris.

We patched up the badly injured as best we could, and repacked some of the supplies where bullets had punctured them. We didn’t talk much. There wasn’t anything to say. The cutouts were tight-lipped and didn’t look at anyone – I think they were feeling the loss of their friend. I couldn’t meet anyone’s gaze, knowing that if I did, I’d see my father’s face as he said goodbye. He was a gape in the group for me, a palpable absence that sucked like the hole in an ice-cold mint. I couldn’t look into the abyss at that moment; we needed to move on, put as much distance between us and Haven as possible before the rain hit. We didn’t see any signs of pursuit but we weren’t going to waste time; it would only take them a few hours to fix the engines the boys had sabotaged. We had to make the most of our headstart while it lasted; we would be able to collapse later.

We topped up the fuel tanks, then hit the road again. We headed northeast from Haven, heading obliquely towards the University. If we were going to be followed, we didn’t want to lead the General’s men straight there. We hadn’t told our tagalong cutouts where we were going, or why, and they hadn’t asked. We just kept riding, weaving around abandoned vehicles, and then weaving from exhaustion as the afternoon wore on. It was a relief when the clouds cluttered up in the sky and forced us to find somewhere to shelter from the rain.

We broke into an apartment block and hauled the bikes into the foyer. It was strange, being in a place like that again, surrounded by the debris of shattered lives and a long-ago Christmas. The doors had all been busted open ahead of us; we weren’t the only looters to rake this place, but we were the only ones using it that night.

The quiet time was eerie. We settled down in apartments, on couches and borrowed beds, and ate our food cold. We looked at each other and checked our hurts. I had a cut on my cheek I hadn’t even felt, probably from shrapnel when the gates blew, and my hands had been scoured by the dirt and dust of our ride. Few had thought to wear gloves. My hair was so tangled form the wind that I couldn’t bear to think about brushing it out.

But there were familiar faces around me again. There were friends that I hadn’t seen in too long and people settling into well-known patterns. Jersey made a nest for herself on an overstuffed chair, hunching up in a way only she found comfortable. Thorpe and Dale bedded down near each other but not together – if they reached out, their hands might touch. And for the first time since it wasn’t about body heat or lies, Matt curled up with me for the night to sleep. I used his shoulder for a pillow and cried into it for a little while, before I was too exhausted to do anything other than fall into an aching slumber.


I forgot about the thing that Dad gave me until the second time we stopped for the rain. The boys went up to the roof of the building to look around – I was about to follow, but I put my hand in my pocket and felt the little object. Missing him was a sudden pain in my chest and I went into a side room to see what he had slipped into my pocket before we parted.

It was a small scrap of paper folded into an envelope, the creases hurried and off-kilter. I was touched that Dad had bothered to make it even though he’d clearly had no time. If he had mused over it, it would have been crisply folded and grubby with being rubbed by oil-stained fingers over and over. I looked at it for a long moment before I picked one of the sides open and shook the contents onto my palm.

My heart wanted to stop. Give up and stop right there. Sitting on my palm, bright and worn, was a simple gold ring. My dad’s wedding ring, the one he’d worn for thirty-odd years. The one he’d continued to wear even after my mother walked out on us. He’d kept it on and held onto that hope that one day, she’d be back and we’d be a family again. Even though we all knew that wasn’t going to happen. He didn’t want to show that pale, naked stripe on his finger to the world, never wanted to say that he was single again. He wasn’t available – he was and always would be taken. It wasn’t just about her: he was part of a family and that was who he was.

And he’d given it up. He had passed it to me, the way he should have when he died.

The wrongness of the timing – the fact that he wasn’t dead when I saw him last – was what broke me down in the end. He wasn’t expecting to see me again. He walked away, knowing he might be killed for what he was about to do for us. For me. He had said goodbye to me for the last time and I hadn’t even known it.

I could feel all the words I should have said to him queueing behind my teeth and backing up down my throat, throttling me. I slid off the chair I was sitting on so that I could feel the cold solidity of the floor underneath me as I curled up. I had promised to go back for him but he didn’t think he’d be there if I did. He was gone. I’m never going to see him again.

I was huddled and sobbing when someone found me. Legs hugged up and the heels of my hands pressing into my eyes. I couldn’t hear anything; there was a vague awareness of footsteps leaving and another set coming in. I wasn’t even sure who it was when arms slid around me and pulled me sideways into a steady chest. It was Matt – of course it was – come to comfort me. He held onto me and rocked me until I had sobbed myself raw. Then I had to explain to him what was wrong. I showed him the ring and managed to say whose it was, and then I broke all over again.

I don’t know how long I was there. The rain came and went, the sun went down, and I still couldn’t make sense of what it meant. Matt stayed with me, holding me and stroking my hair, listening when I managed to stumble words out. The rest of the group left us alone, giving me space until it was time to move on. I was grateful to them for that.

The ring doesn’t fit me. It’s too big for my fingers – I have to wear it on my thumb. Now it’s a bright reminder that catches my eye when I ride and tugs painfully in my chest. As the days pass, I’m getting used to it, though the hurt isn’t lessening yet.


We’ve been pushing on as long as our energy would allow. We have taken to sleeping while it rains and driving through the dark hours, after the puddles have dried. It’s warm enough now that the surface water is mostly gone an hour or two before dawn. We’ve had to scrape for fuel enough to keep going, but the further we get from Haven, the more untapped supplies we find.

We’re not doing so well on food and water. Most buildings have been broken into, their cupboards pillaged, and we’re almost out of supplies now. We stop more and more frequently to check behind any unbroken doors we come across, just in case. It hasn’t yielded much – most of them are businesses and offices, and might have a water cooler with a half-full bottle but nothing in the way of edibles.

We’re making do. We’re falling back into our old patterns, remembering how to be Seekers again. It’s hard and hungry, but the only time we look back is to check for someone chasing us.

Monday, 16 November 2009 - 9:44 pm

Dust in the distance

We haven’t seen any signs of pursuit from Haven for a few days now. Some of us are daring to believe they’ve stopped coming.

In that first long run, after the bullets ran out of legs to chase us, we didn’t see a whisper of a cutout or a military vehicle grinding down the miles. The sabotage on their vehicles gave us a good headstart. The boys removed all the distributor caps and hid them – or something like that.

After that first day of fleeing, we climbed to the roof of an apartment tower under clouds thickening with rain. We peered towards Haven and saw nothing but empty streets, broken cars and abandoned lives. No sparks of life showed themselves – not a whisper of movement or a flicker of light. Just the still and the quiet, stretching out from our feet to the horizon. It felt like Haven ceased to exist the moment it fell away from our rearview mirrors.

Haven and everyone else. The streets were bereft of bodies; even the hurried slink of stray cats was missing. After the bustle of the army base, the world feels like a gaping wound, empty and unable to heal.

It took me a while to realise what else was missing. No signs of life is one thing, but there weren’t any signs of unlife either. Not a shuffle or a lurch, or a hungry groan floating across the city. Where did all the shamblers go? They can’t all have followed us to Haven and thrown themselves on the bullets and bats of the cutouts. They hide from the rain, so the acid probably didn’t get them, unless they tried to trek across open land. They’re stupid enough to do that.


It was the third day when we saw it. High up on another rooftop, desperately searching the landscape for a whisper of movement, we found what we were looking for: a cloud of dust billowing up between buildings, moving with the kind of steady purpose that only vehicles can produce. It had to be them: the soldiers, the Generals men, cutouts instructed to find us and… what? Kill us? Bring us back? What did they hope to gain from finding us?

None of us wanted to find out. We hurried back inside and barricaded the building, trying to make it look like no-one was home. There was no fire or flashlight for us after dark fell, just softly murmured words and the comfort of warm bodies together.

We got up earlier than usual the next morning and set out in the deep dark. The streets were still damp and we had to ride spread out so that we didn’t accidentally spray each other with acid from our tyres. We pushed on through the whole day, stopping only to refuel body and bike, until the last minute before the rain. We dove into the first building with an open door, did a quick headcount, and counted ourselves lucky. All day, I wondered when the prickle of bullets would come, or the roar of engines overtaking us. What would we do if they caught up? Scatter, flee? Turn and fight? How much would we have left to lose by then?

The next morning, we moved on again without delay, despite the lack of signs of pursuit. We stopped to climb a particularly tall apartment tower to see where our pursuers might be, but once again, there was no sign of them. Not a single shadow moved. We looked at each other, wondering what it might mean, and lingered to stare at the ruinscape for a little longer. We left when the strangeness started to get to us – it prickled at my skin all the way to the bikes and I was glad of the roar in my ears and the wind tearing my eyes. We felt like the only ones left alive in the whole city.


We’ve been taking a snaking route, trying to make it harder for anyone to follow us. That’s why it was taking us so long to get to the coast. Straight lines are predictable, the others said. Be unpredictable. Don’t lead them to where you’re going. Now that I think about it, I wonder if it was one of the cutouts who said that. Jonah wouldn’t give us bad advice, but I don’t know about his friends.

Our path took us through familiar haunts. I recognised a street corner near the mall we had found the Rats in. I had no desire to look them up – the last time we had been there, most of the kids were dying of the Sickness. I didn’t want to look into the empty spaces where they used to be. I said nothing and we turned away from the mall, heading eastwards again. Other ruins assumed familiarity as we passed them. I knew I’d only remember things we’d lost and decided not to dwell on them. We were trying to move on – the past was dead and had to stay there. Memories were too heavy and sharp-edged.

I had agreed to our course without truly realising what it meant. Northeast, butting right up against the coast. It took us towards the district where my home had been, the place I had grown up, where I had lived with my dad. If we had turned north, we would have passed right by it.

I didn’t want to go there. I’ve been back once already. I’d found its clues and taken what I had wanted of my old life. I had followed the path it offered me to a reunion, and now that was gone too. I couldn’t look at it, at the mockery of my childhood, the stripped place I used to call home. I would have begged the others not to turn north if I had to.

This morning, we had to make that choice, staring through salty air at the rush of seawater against rocks. North to lead the cutouts astray, or south towards the friends we left behind so many weeks ago.

The cutouts haven’t caught up with us. We haven’t seen any sign of them since that one glimpse of shapes in a dust storm. No more clouds, no sounds of distant engines, no clicking of cocking guns over us while we slept. Our demons fell behind and we didn’t encourage them to catch up. We ducked and wove, unsure if we were deluding them or ourselves.

We’re not even sure they saw us at all. All of this could have been for nothing. Experience and survival make us paranoid – the hardest thing is to take that first, brave step in the direction that might hold a known danger. But at the same time, running scared from shadows and figments is foolish. We needed to stop and reassess things.

I pushed to go south. I know the location was pressing on me, and from the glances he gave me, Matt knew it, too. There wasn’t a lot of resistance – I wasn’t the only one looking forward to friendly faces and a familiar roof over our heads. A chance to stop moving and get our breath back.

Seekers wouldn’t be Seekers if we didn’t argue about it, though. The lack of food around here makes tempers short but it’s nothing worse than we’ve had before. We had a good go-around over it, tossing reasons at each other, and finally decided to take a chance. Turn south. Hope that Haven had given up on us and weren’t going to search for us any more. Hope we weren’t bringing the army to the friends we had tried so hard to keep safe.

It’s a relief for me – it’s selfish, I know. We put a good distance under our tyres today, weaving back on ourselves to head for the University. It feels like space I can breathe in. It feels like real progress, heading to something rather than away from it.

We’re on our way, and we’re leaving our shadows behind us.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009 - 9:16 pm


Another day, riding on. It’s just us: the old Seekers and our new additions. We feel smaller and stranger than we did before, even though our numbers are greater than when we reached Haven.

There’s Thorpe, as stoic as always. His affection is a hand clapped on your shoulder and a gruff word. Dale has easier smiles and a casually-slung arm around someone, though not so much with Thorpe. I think he knows his boundaries there. They’re still a constant pair, though, always sitting together when we stop to eat.

Matt is Matt. More relaxed now we’re away from the cutouts, and quicker to slip his arms around me when we’re not riding the bikes. His leg isn’t getting much better with all the riding, but he’s managing with it. I’ll be glad when we can switch the bikes for more practical vehicles, or get to the University and can rest. Whichever comes first, so he can let it heal.

Jersey is grumpy and coarse, the first one to burp at a meal. She pokes at Iona every now and then, watching out for the girl the only way she knows how. Her affection is rough around the edges and pretends to be more hard-earned than it actually is. I think Iona relies on her more than Jersey realises, even though she meets the snappy attitude with a vague smile and an offer to fix her hair. She diffuses Jersey in a way that I catch myself smiling at sometimes. Luckily, the ex-Wolverine hasn’t noticed me doing that yet. I have to be careful not to let that change.

Iona does as she’s told, which makes it easier to keep this pack moving. Her bullet-wound isn’t too serious but I know the pain must pull at her. She never complains, not even when she’s pale and quiet with it. We’re keeping it clean as best we can and there’s no sign of infection yet. She’s like a white flower with a bruised petal – somehow, the damage doesn’t detract from her purity though it is a great shame. She’ll come right again, I’m sure.

Jonah often bears a dark expression, I think for the one we lost. I’ve tried to talk to him a couple of times but he hasn’t been interested in sharing. He seems to be the spokesperson for our cutouts, keeping a close eye on them and their condition. He makes requests on their behalf and tries to ensure they have everything they need. We haven’t been skimping with them, giving them a fair share of the food and water. What would be the point in starving them? They’re with us now, and maybe they’ll become a real part of the group, given time.

We don’t know them very well yet. There are long silences in the group as we all adjust to the distance from Haven, physical and emotional. The cutouts don’t speak much at all, except for the perfunctory please and thank you. At least they’re polite.

The one who rides behind me on the bike is Bobby, though I think I’ve heard him referred to as Rascal or Radical by the other soldiers. A dark-skinned fella, maybe twenty-one, with a cheeky streak in him. He’s keeping his head down, but sometimes I wonder about the way he hangs onto me on the bike. I’m not sure why, but we have kept to our original pairings when we travel – maybe it’s intertia, or maybe it’s just another issue that we don’t want to deal with yet.

The other cutout, the one with the bullet in his back, is Warren. He’s about the same age as Jonah – roughly thirty – and much more disgruntled. I can’t tell if that’s just how he is, or if it’s the pain he’s having to deal with right now. We’re tending him as best we can, but we don’t dare to dig the bullet out. Hopefully Masterson will be able to sort that out when we get to him.

So that’s our little band right now. We’re still not comfortable with each other; we’ve talked in general terms about where we’re going and why, but no-one has been eager to share the details with the newcomers. I’m not the only one who wonders if we will wake up to find a couple of the bikes missing one pre-dawn hour, especially now that the supplies are getting low and everyone is feeling the gnaw of hunger in the belly.

I should try to get Jonah on his own and talk to him. Try to find out what they were hoping for in leaving Haven, what they’re looking for out here on the lonely roads. If they want to stay with us, or go their own way. No-one would begrudge them that, though there might be blows over what supplies they got to take with them. We still haven’t given them their weapons back, so we feel like we have the upper hand. I’m afraid of what might happen if a confrontation did occur – trained soldiers against us, who have only known the scraps and scrapes out here in the After.

In the meantime, it’s time to go and find our old friends. It’s time to link up and look for something new. There are intelligent people there; they’re bound to have thought of options by now.

I just hope they’re still there waiting for us, even though we’ve been gone for weeks without news. Sally and Masterson, Kostoya and Conroy, and little Nugget. So many others – it’s hard to think about all the ones we left behind there. I wish I remembered what their faces looked like. I wish we had better news to bring them.

I just hope they’re all right.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009 - 6:47 pm

A story in shambles

Yesterday, I was missing the sight of people outside of this little group. Today, I have a bit more perspective on the subject.

I never thought I’d be relieved to see shamblers. There was something especially eerie about their absence – it was easy to believe that living people might be hiding or have escaped elsewhere. But shamblers are stupid. They fumble about for food and batter their way in straight lines towards their targets. They’re smart enough to get in out of the rain, but that’s it.

The notion that something had wiped them out was terrifying. What could do that? Who could do that? And a lack of shamblers suggested a lack of people around to become them – new ones are always being made by the Sickness. So where are all the acid-splashed victims?

I don’t know about that last question. We still haven’t seen any other living people, distant or otherwise.

The pod of shamblers we found were stumbling listlessly in a street, their heads lifting and wavering as they searched for scents. Their skin was blackened and cracked from exposure to the sunlight, their hands ruined from grabbing heedlessly at food and obstacle alike. Their faces were slack and vacant, with mouths torn from trying to chew their way to their prey.

They didn’t notice us at first. They didn’t hear the noise of our arrival, engines rumbling up the street and slithering to a stop as we rounded the corner. Then the wind shifted direction slightly and carried the aroma of long-unwashed bodies over to them. Fresh meat, full of the right chemical to sate the imbalance in their broken bodies. More than one of them groaned in hollow hunger as they turned laboriously to lurch towards us.

I thought, briefly, of little Debbie. Of her pale skin burnt by a sun she was suddenly allergic to, with blood and bone tainting her pretty nightdress.

Then we were spinning the bikes around and heading back the way we’d come. Dale left black streaks on the tarmac as he made the rear wheel spin in a perfect donut. My own turn was more cumbersome but more than fast enough to take us away from the shamblers’ already-reaching hands.

On motorbikes, it wasn’t hard to leave the shambling dead in our dust. We turned purposefully downwind, to make it harder for them to track us, but I still wonder if they’re still doggedly walking on our path. Determinedly following the only scrap of meal they’ve seen in a while with the focus of a body that knows nothing else any more.


The shamblers changed something in the group, making us huddle closer together and loosening something at the same time. Bobby was confident enough to grumble over dinner while we listened to the rain from inside what was once a hardware store.

“We should’ve taken them out,” he said. It’s possibly the longest sentence I’ve heard from a cutout since we left Haven.

“Waste of ammunition,” Thorpe said in his usual argument-flattening tone.

“It’s not like we have a store any more,” Dale added, ever more diplomatic. It gave Bobby something to think about; they’re not used to having such limited supplies. Just like they’re not used to the tiny meals we’re rationing out at the moment.

Things fell quiet for the rest of the meal. It wasn’t until later that the subject came up again, in private while we were bedding down. I must have been quieter than usual, because Dale stopped by the patch of floor where I was putting down blankets.

“I’m sure he’s all right, y’know,” he said. He seemed to assume that I was preoccupied by something specific, but I couldn’t make the connection.


“Your dad. He knew what he was doing.”

My stomach clenched uncomfortably around the dregs of dinner. I nodded, and then frowned as I wondered why he would think I was worrying about Dad at that moment. It could be because I’ve been moping over leaving him behind since we left Haven, but that didn’t feel true in this case.

“What’s that got to do with the shamblers?”

Dale had been about to move on and stopped again, looking at me quizzically. “You don’t know?” Clearly I didn’t. “That was the distraction he went to create.”

I stared at him, horror seeping down to my toes. I would have thrown up if I thought we could spare the food. Dad released the shamblers in the basement to keep the cutouts busy while we escaped. How did he get close enough to do that without getting hurt? They’d tear him apart before he could touch the chains that bound them. Thinking about it, all I could see was hungry mouths and bodies with familiar faces breaking against a chainlink harness.

Dale put his hand on my shoulder to make me look at him. “I’m sure he’s fine. He got the shamblers out. He’s a smart guy; knows how to look after himself.”

I tried to make it make sense and wound up just nodding dumbly. My throat wouldn’t work; it was having a hard enough time just letting me breathe, never mind forming words. He gave me a squeeze and went on his way, leaving me to my thoughts.

Dale was right – the shamblers had been set free. I remembered the alarms going off, the hurried scramble to action in the compound. Something awful had definitely happened there.

I couldn’t shake the image of Dad being their first meal, left bitten and bloody in the basement while they sought other prey. Even if he survived, what would the General do to him? Freeing the lurching dead is yet another transgression, earning even more punishment on his head. It’s why he gave me his ring. It’s why he didn’t think he’d ever see me again.

We shouldn’t have left him there. I should have made him come. I want to go back for him. I need to see his face again, hear him tell me to stop being silly.

I’m so sorry, Dad. One day, I’m gonna go back to Haven and take you out of there. I promise.