Sat, 28 February 2009 - 3:02 pm

Message

There was a crackling this morning that scared the crap out of us. It’s funny now, looking back on it – we thought that something had crawled into Ben’s pack and was trying to get into his food. So we were all shouting, and I was freaking out wondering what the hell was in there, and Nugget looked alarmed in case Jones had got zipped in somehow.

Ben waved us all back and opened up his bag, cautiously in case something leapt out at him. Once it was open, we could hear the sound more clearly and some of us laughed. Definitely not something alive – it was the radio sputtering. Ben dived in after it and immediately started fiddling with its little knobs.

He wound up having to take it outside before the signal would clear up. And then there it was, Sax’s calm voice repeating our names patiently. When Ben interrupted him to say hello, his response was, “Well, it’s about time.”

We all shouted hello, and then listened as Ben asked him how things were. He said they were okay – there had been a little bit of movement around, but no-one had bothered them. We should keep an eye out for another group, if we haven’t already seen them (it wasn’t until he mentioned it that I realised we haven’t seen much of anyone around here).

He asked when we’d be back, as their supplies were getting low. A couple of days, we told him. If we can keep the truck running that long, it shouldn’t take any more than that. Sax grumbled a bit and gave us instructions to keep the radio charged.

 

The good news is that the boat’s radio is working and the other part of our group is okay. I’m not so sure about Sax’s message. It’s not what he said so much as what he didn’t say. He thought we’d be closer to returning than we are. Or hoped we were closer. He didn’t say why. He didn’t say much about Sally and Masterson, either, except that they were still there.

I shouldn’t read too much into it. They’re all right and waiting for us – that’s all that matters.

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Sun, 1 March 2009 - 4:28 pm

Bait

We had a close call today. And when there are six of us crammed into one 4×4, there’s not a lot of room for a close call.

We had been making good time, weaving through the streets, powering past the debris. We were a couple of hours into the burned-out area when there was a splash of movement off to one side. I didn’t think much of it, but then we reached an intersection with all but one exit blocked. When we turned the corner, Ben slammed on the brakes, hard enough to throw us all forward.

There, standing in the middle of the street, was a little girl in a red coat. She was staring up at us and didn’t move a muscle when we slithered to a stop. There were some muttered words inside the car that Dillon and Nugget shouldn’t hear.

We looked at each other for a clue about what to do. I said that we couldn’t just leave her there, but Ben stopped me from getting out of the car. I was going to ask him what was going on, when I caught that scrap of movement again. Then Nugget leaned forward from the back seat so that she could see the other girl.

“Bait,” she said, quite distinctly. It was the first time I’d ever heard her speak.

Thorpe pulled the kid back and told Ben to drive around the girl in the red coat. I was shocked – she was a small child, standing here where there wasn’t much shelter, and the rain wasn’t that far off. Matt pointed out that she looked pretty well-fed, and he wasn’t wrong. None of them were wrong; I just didn’t like it.

Ben backed up, and that’s when they showed themselves. Pouring out of the buildings around us like cockroaches and swarming down towards the street, smeared in the soot from their hiding places.

We starting shouting for Ben to drive around the kid. There were so many of them – I don’t know what would have happened if they had got their hands on us. We banged on the door locks and clung on when the car mounted the pavement, ricocheting off a lamppost. I could hear the whooping of the cockroaches around us as we lurched back onto the road.

Some of them reached us before we could pull away – they were thumping on the sides of the 4×4, clinging to the lips and ledges, hanging off the windscreen wipers. My heart was banging as loudly as they were and I can’t even remember what I was telling Ben to do. Just keep driving, don’t stop, don’t stop.

One of them hit the car hard enough to crack the windscreen. Ben gunned the engine and shook most of them off. One fella was sprawled across the bonnet and we had to swerve to try to shake him off. It didn’t work until Ben accidentally rammed a parked car. Our cling-on slid off and we had to hurry to get going again before his mates caught up with us. They were pounding down the street behind us and the cling-on was getting up again.

Drive, drive, just keep going. Ben hauled the car around and pushed on, running over smaller obstacles in an effort to put the cockroaches behind us. We rattled and bounced on, well past the time when they were gone from our rearview mirrors – the little girl in her red coat and her militant friends. We even kept going when the rain started, wanting to put plenty of space between us and them.

We didn’t stop until we found a building that was both intact and big enough for us to drive right into. We had to wait until the water had drained off the car before could get out, which wasn’t a quick or comfortable time. Now we’re huddling here where it’s dry, not saying much, just glad we’re all in one piece. When I’m not typing or doing something else, I feel like my hands want to shake.

I feel like I should be shocked that they would use a kid like that, to make us stop, to make us want to get out and help her. But I’m not. Of all the terrible things that people have been doing since the world fell down, this is hardly the worst. What scares me most is that I almost fell for it. I almost stepped right into their hands.

I should go and see if Ben’s okay. He had to drive through all that, and I think he’s more affected by that than he’ll show. He’s always hiding when he’s struggling over something like that. I think we could both use a hug right now.

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Mon, 2 March 2009 - 5:31 pm

Cockroaches Return

After yesterday’s excitement, we were all a little wary of setting out this morning. We weren’t eager to climb back into the 4×4 again, but we weren’t exactly thrilled by the notion of walking, either.

One of the most shocking parts was seeing the car again, seeing the damage that the cockroaches had inflicted on it. The nearly-shattered windscreen, gouges in the bodywork, dents and scrapes where they’d hit and kicked at it. It hardly looked like the shiny beast we push-started a few days ago.

It was hard work pushing the stupid great thing out onto the road and then far enough to start it, but we were all glad to climb in and put some more distance between us and that burned scar on the landscape. Between us and the memory of that kid and her friends. We didn’t get very far before it all came back to haunt us, though.

It was no surprise when we didn’t want to stop on seeing another youngster running around. This one was older than the girl in the red coat, more like teenaged. It was hard to tell, as all we could see was the kid’s back as it hurried away from us.

Then we saw the soot-smeared figures of the cockroaches chasing the kid. There was no mistaking that sound, the slapping of their feet and their voices raised in pursuit. They must have been on the move half the night to close the gap we had put between us and them. That thought still makes me want to check over my shoulder, the skin on my back prickling.

Thorpe was driving and he braked as soon as they popped into sight, hot in pursuit of the kid.

We didn’t want to get involved. We’d already had a close call with them and none of us was eager to repeat that. I’m sad to say that we were going to drive on, we were going to leave that kid to the untender mercies of the cockroaches.

Then Dillon leaned past me to get a better look out of the window. Before I knew what he was doing, he wound the window down and shouted out of it. Alice. More heads than the kid’s turned towards us, but there wasn’t much doubt whose name he was calling.

“Dillon, you know her?” I had to ask him twice before he would answer me, he was so frantic. The look he shot Thorpe was all plea.

“Please, we gotta help her.”

We hesitated; it was a big risk. There wasn’t much time to make a decision, but no-one was saying anything. We were all waiting, and yet again, I blinked first.

“Anyone say no?” I asked finally. No-one answered, so we strapped in and Thorpe swung the car around towards where the kid was trying to evade her pursuers. Ben was in the front seat, with Matt and me in the back. I made Nugget get into the boot of the car with Jones and told Dillon to belt himself into the middle. My heart thumped uncomfortably as we passed weapons forward.

It’s hard to believe now that we did it. We had to drive through the cockroaches to get to the kid – a couple of them bounced off the bumper and a wingmirror knocked one of them down. Blows rained down on the outside of the car and I was terrified that this was going to be too much for us. Thorpe managed to pull ahead of the group enough to give us a few seconds to open a door and shout to the kid.

She wasn’t going to come to us, but she saw Dillon in between us, calling. Out of breath and out of room, it didn’t take her long to make up her mind. Thorpe barely waited for her feet to leave the concrete before he pulled away again, leaving us to haul her inside. The cockroaches had caught up enough to grab her and pull, and from there it was a tug-of-war. Alice screamed as they tried to drag her out, Thorpe wouldn’t stop the car again, and I wound up leaning over her to smack at the clingers until they let go.

It was close, but between the motion of the car and the fact that we weren’t going to let her go, we managed to shake them off eventually. One of them almost managed to climb into the car over the girl, but between me and Ben we beat him back. Someone lost fingers when the door was slammed closed, but not one of ours.

There wasn’t time for explanations, just holding on while the 4×4 bounced down the road. When it grew quieter, Thorpe eased off on the gas and we collected ourselves. Made sure everyone was okay. Matt was closest to the door we dragged Alice in by and took some punishment, I think. The kid was pretty shaken up, understandably, and I think it was only Dillon’s presence that kept her calm. She had to lie across those of us in the back as we powered on. She has a bandage around her head, covering one eye, but she says that she’s fine.

We kept going until the rain threatened again. We’re not far from the river now – shouldn’t take more than an hour to get there tomorrow. We’ve given Alice some food and are letting her calm down on her own. She hasn’t said much yet, though Dillon has tried to introduce us all. Hopefully we’ll get more out of her tomorrow.

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Tue, 3 March 2009 - 8:03 pm

Reunited

We made it to the boat today. It was such a relief – we might have heard them on the radio, but I couldn’t relax until I’d seen them for myself. Even Masterson with his weasely looks.

Sax looks better – brighter – and even gave me a hug when we arrived. Maybe it’s because his head has had a chance to heal, or maybe it’s something else. Perhaps I’m being unkind – he might have just been glad to see us. I know I missed his presence while we were away.

Even Sally seemed pleased to see us; I haven’t seen her smile like that in a long time. She has a bandaged arm now – the rain came before they had all the hatches closed and she caught the acid across her forearm trying to fasten it. She says it doesn’t bother her much, though – Masterson patched her up.

The doctor didn’t seem overjoyed by our return, but I think he’s had things a bit easier in our absence. No-one to rag on him, no-one to keep him in line. He hasn’t said much yet, and that’s probably a good thing.

 

I talked to Dillon about Alice. She’s a couple of years older than him, and lived down the street from his family. They pretty much grew up together – he stole the heads off her Barbies; she put lipstick on his toy cars.

She was out scouting for supplies when we found her – she has a group, but she says that they’ve been getting sick. That was why she was out on her own. She knew about the cockroaches – they call themselves the Northsiders, claiming everything north of the river as their own. Everything they can get their hands on, anyway, and they are running in wider and wider circles.

I made the doctor look at her. She didn’t want it, and he didn’t want to do it, but I was very determined. For some reason, that was enough to make them both do as they were told. Masterson said that she wasn’t sick, but the acid took the side of her face, along with her right eye; that’s why she keeps it bandaged. Poor kid. I can’t even imagine what that feels like.

I asked Dillon if she was going back to her group, but he didn’t know. I didn’t like the idea of leaving her there, not with those Northsiders running around, but if she had her own group, then I couldn’t stop her staying with them. Could I?

With the speed that the cockroaches seem to move, we didn’t want to hang around on the riverside. Once our gear was all packed into the boat and the doctor was done looking at Alice, it was time to go. She said goodbye, opting to go back to her group. I can’t blame her, though it’s a dangerous gamble. I wasn’t the only one unhappy with leaving the girl on the pier.

Dillon tried to convince her to come. He wanted to have his friend stay with us, he wanted to keep that bit of his life close. The same way that I was determined to have Matt stay with us when we first got on the boat. But this was her choice and we couldn’t fight that, not even Dillon.

We told her where we were headed in case she changed her mind. Then we packed ourselves into the boat again and headed out onto the river for another hellish journey.

 

We were a short way down the river when we heard the Northsiders’ whooping. I hope it wasn’t in pursuit of Alice. We couldn’t see her by then – she didn’t hang around to see us off.

Good luck, kid. I hope you’re all right, and so does Dillon. 

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Wed, 4 March 2009 - 5:43 pm

All about the journey

Today was back to normal. Which is weird, because this life is starting to feel normal to me now. Get up, scrape breakfast out of a can or maybe a box of unlubricated cereal. Change into a slightly fresher set of underwear and pack everything back into our bags. Scour the building for anything we can use, and put our shoulders behind a car until the engine catches. Then out onto the road for the day’s journey.

The world of hair products and worrying about getting to work on time seems like so long ago. It’s been over two months now. In the scheme of my life, that doesn’t seem like a long time. But it doesn’t jar me that the lights don’t work any more and I’ve stopped turning on taps in the hope of clean water. I’m getting used to sleeping in other people’s beds, though I do make them up in the mornings in case someone comes along to use them after us.

I still hesitate when it comes to taking things. Not food or water – we need those to survive – but clothes and equipment. Somehow it’s easier to take from other people’s houses than it is from stores – there’s something inherently naughty about tearing off the tags. Taking from someone’s wardrobe or shed feels more like borrowing, like one day I’ll come back and return everything. I know that’ll never happen – and after a week with us, no-one would want this stuff back – but that’s how it feels.

Then there’s the paranoia. The constant vigilance, the jumping at every noise that echoes down a street we thought was empty. The way we sit up in shifts through the dark hours, though we’ve never been attacked then. The way that each of us carries a weapon now – or two, in some cases.

It has all settled into routine, into habit, into normality. It frightens me sometimes. But at the same time, it’s a comfort. We’re surviving. We’re getting through this, and we’re finding the things we’re looking for. Some of them, anyway.

It gives me hope that Dad is still out there somewhere. That he’s surviving too. He’s a practical guy, he would be able to make things work. He’d know what to do. He’d tell me all the things I’m doing wrong right now.

We’re all stepping forward now. Getting closer to where we want to be. No-one asks what we’ll do when we get there; it’s all about the journey for us.

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Thu, 5 March 2009 - 3:47 pm

No-go zone

We’ve been travelling by car over the last couple of days, since we came off the river. It’s slow going, as always, thanks to all the crap on the roads, but we were making good progress. We’re about a third of the way to the next dot on our map from the river – to Ben’s sister.

This morning, we looked at the map and Matt spoke up. He hasn’t done that often when we all get together to sort things out – it used to be that he would always be a voice up front, but he’s taking things much more cautiously these days. Today, he was quite firm about being heard, in a way I’ve never seen from him before. He’s graver than he used to be.

He looked at the area that we have to pass through to get to where Ben’s sister lives and said that we shouldn’t go that way. There’s a group that owns that territory – they call themselves the Pride. They’re big and they’re famous for their cruelty. People have come running out of the Pride’s zone and found the Sharks to be more welcoming. He knows of others who went into the Pride’s territory and never came out. There are lots of stories, he says, and none of them good.

So we decided to go around their territory. We’re going to go on foot from now on – it’ll take longer, but won’t attract attention the way that roaring engines will. They might be faster and more comfortable, but subtle and stealthy they are not.

We’re not turning back and we’re not giving up. But we are taking a safer route. We just have to be more careful, more vigilant, and hope we don’t attract any unnecessary attention as we crawl through the shadows of tumbledown buildings. 

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Fri, 6 March 2009 - 4:55 pm

Making peace with old ghosts

Things are a different in the group. During the day, while we’re travelling, we don’t talk much. With the shadow of the Pride on us, we’re sticking to the edges of the streets and being as quiet as we can. It has settled on us like fog, all clammy hands and a vague discomfort in our clothes as it creeps all over us.

Without the lowgrade chatter to distract me, I’ve been watching the others more. Thorpe walks up front, as stolid as always, with Dillon on his heels. The kid is a highly alert terrier, eager to be the first to spot trouble. He seems to want to prove himself, though I couldn’t say why. I think he wants Thorpe to approve of him; the big fireman is making him work for it, giving as little away as always.

Matt is watchful, in a paranoid kind of way. He walks with a hand on the stick that’s lashed to his pack, ready to pull it out. Ready for someone to try to hurt him. I look at the bleached ends of his hair and see how much he’s changed.

Ben walks with me, his gaze turned outwards, but every now and then his hand checks that I’m still there.

Behind us, there’s Sax and Sally. Nugget is usually skirting around there somewhere, her little legs with far more energy than the rest of us. Masterson brings up the rear, barely even glancing around. He just puts one foot in front of the other and casts baleful looks at one or other of us as the mood strikes him.

The interesting thing is Sax and Sally. The old man hasn’t had much to do with Sally since she abandoned us at the hospital, but there’s a closeness to them now. The time they had on the boat seems to have done them good. And it’s not the way that Sally used to cling close to Masterson – there’s nothing sexual about it.

 

We retreated through a broken storefront when we stopped for a big of lunch, and I managed to speak with Sally. She seems more relaxed these days, too. The itch of the drugs is less now, I think, and she’s feeling more settled as part of the group.

She said that things had blown up between the three of them about two days after the rest of us had left the boat. They had all shouted at each other; it was vicious and brutal and over very quickly. Certain unspecified things tumbled out that shone light into sensitive places. Some time afterwards, they had talked. Not Masterson so much – he wasn’t interested in building bridges and kept to himself.

She and Sax managed to work out some of their differences. She found out why he took her actions so personally; she didn’t want to betray his confidence by telling me, but any fool can see he’s had someone he loved addicted to drugs. Someone he lost to them. Now, he’s making peace with that by making peace with Sally.

She seems almost scared by the attention. She likes it, this new understanding between her and Sax, but she has this way of letting her gaze dart off into a corner when she talks about it. As if she wants to run there and hide. But she talked to me more today than she has since we started out on this journey and she’s not shying away from his presence any more.

Whatever happened there between Sax and Sally, he’s walking forward again. I can’t say how relieved I am about that. He’s talking with the group in the evenings like he used to, and berating Nugget in that off-hand, put-upon way he has.

I’m taking every good sign I can and putting them down here, because I think we might need them later. It’s easy to gloss over the good parts and focus on the bad. On the blisters and the supplies that are running short. On the hard floors and the creeping hiss of the rain. No, here are some of the things that made today okay. The rest will still be here tomorrow.

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Sat, 7 March 2009 - 4:17 pm

And then there were two

We came in contact with the remnants of another group this afternoon. ‘Remnants’ because there were only two of them left, and from what they told us, there used to be more.

They came sprinting down the street so loudly that we had plenty of time to duck into the shadows. We watched them come, breathless and pounding away with terror on their faces. They kept glancing back over their shoulders and one of them tripped and sprawled, skidding painfully across the concrete. There was a noise down the street, the distant rumble of an engine, and the taller one grabbed up his companion and dived into one of the buildings.

Of course, they chose the storefront where Thorpe, Dillon and Nugget were hiding out. The rest of us listened for their pursuit, and when there was no sign of it, we piled in to join the fuss. There was no way that we were leaving three of our number in the lone hands of strangers.

The two of them were spent and shaking, and so scared of us that they hardly knew who to look at first. I don’t like being scary, but it was good not to be the one feeling like that for a change. I shooed most of the others towards the back of the store to give the strangers some room to catch their breaths and waited for them to get ready to speak.

The first thing that they said was, “We don’t have anything to give you.”

I was surprised and looked at Ben and Thorpe, who didn’t echo my sentiment. Clearly, they’re more used to this whole ‘might means we take everything’ thing. I was disappointed to be put into that category.

“We don’t want anything from you,” I told them.

They looked doubtful, but that far-off engine noise sounded again and we all hunkered down until it went away. When it was quiet again and we were breathing easier, I asked the scraggly pair what happened. They didn’t seem hurt, but they were definitely badly shaken by whatever it was they had seen.

“The Pride happened,” the taller one said. They said that they had been forced into the Pride’s zone by a maddened woman who wouldn’t leave them alone. She had chased them for two days and killed one of their younger group members.

He told us that their group had been six then, when they had strayed into the Pride’s territory. Things had gone badly, and two of their number had been staked out in the rain. Of all the things to do to someone, on purpose, I struggle to think of anything worse. I wouldn’t wish the rain’s kiss on anyone.

The survivors didn’t say what happened to the other two members of their group, just that they had managed to get away and were running for their lives. And they intended to keep on running.

They didn’t stick around to chat with us. They tugged themselves up as soon as they had the strength and excused themselves warily. They had no interest in sticking with us, not with the direction we were headed in.

It didn’t make us any happier about our path. We’re skirting out wider around the Pride’s territory now, watching for those little telltale tags they’ve left behind on the buildings. The tags are stylised around the image of a lion’s head – it’s no doubt what they’re modelling themselves after. We’re trying not to become even more paranoid than before. I think that’s a losing battle.

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Sun, 8 March 2009 - 1:31 pm

The conquered mountain

I saw the funniest thing this morning. I was up early – Ben (usually the first one up) was off checking out a nearby building for breakfast supplies, so I went to rouse the others.

We were spread out over several rooms in an empty house, stretched out on other people’s beds, couches and armchairs. I wiggled Dillon’s foot until he groaned and touched Matt’s shoulder. Nudged Sally, who elbowed Masterson in turn. Sax needed a little shake, and roused himself with a groan.

Nugget was already awake, sitting by the window and scowling at the empty garden outside. I sent her off to give Ben a hand – she’s a good kid, at least as far as doing what she’s asked most of the time.

I found out why she was so grumpy and eager to get away when I went to wake up Thorpe. He was in one of the bedrooms, one that used to belong to a little boy. There were footballs all over the wallpaper and posters of favourite players tacked up. The bed was too short for the tall fireman, so he was curled up on his side, knees drawn up and pillow hugged under his head. He looked like an oversized kid with his eyes closed.

The best part, though, was Jones. Curled up quite comfortably on Thorpe’s hip, he opened one golden eye when I appeared in the doorway. He looked so proud there, the king of his own hill. I doubt that the cat was there when Thorpe went to sleep – that mountain was conquered while it wasn’t looking.

I almost laughed out loud. It was so adorable, and so far from how Thorpe would ever wish to be seen. I managed to control myself and knocked on the doorframe to wake him up, trying to pretend I hadn’t seen.

When his perch stirred, Jones stood, stretched, and jumped down. Thorpe frowned muzzily at the cat and I tried not to smile too brightly as I greeted him. Then I left them alone.

He has been ignoring the animal ever since then, but I think Jones has decided that Thorpe’s a friend whether he likes it or not. Everyone knows that a feline’s desires are impossible to command. I wonder how long it will take Thorpe to give in to it.

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Mon, 9 March 2009 - 9:34 pm

No vacancy

There were engines in the distance again today, late in the afternoon when the clouds were gathering. We ducked under cover to wait for them to move away, only to find that we had chosen to dip into a house that still had inhabitants.

It was the strangest thing. We’ve been breaking into buildings, stepping through empty windowframes or kicking doors open, and then making ourselves at home with abandon. We’re used to empty shells, decorated with the shards of other people’s lives, faded and forgotten.

This one, though, was different. The door wasn’t locked, so we got in quickly and easily. We hunkered down in the lounge, trying to listen to the engines to judge how far away they were. But there were other sounds much closer, scratches and bumps and hushed movement.

It took us a while to find them. It was an old couple – they have to be in their sixties at least, and they were hiding in their pantry. They weren’t defenceless, though: the fella had a rifle that he had clearly handled frequently through the years. He almost took Dillon’s head off – I think the only reason that he didn’t fire was because a kid opened the door. The rest of us might not have been so lucky.

From there, it was all frantic explanations and trying not to raise our voices, and asking the old guy to please put the gun down. In the end, we had to leave. We went out the back way, little ones first while the adults kept an eye on that rifle, which the old fella didn’t lower for a second. We went in there to avoid violence, and almost got it anyway.

So there we were, outside with the sky darkening, shaken and listening to the engines approaching. We had to scrabble over the back fence and break into another house, which we did much more nervously than before. We were in a hurry; if the Pride didn’t find us, the rain would, so we had to get inside quickly.

Most of us stayed in the kitchen while the boys checked out the rest of the house, in case the old couple weren’t the only residents still in their home. We were all listening for those tiny noises, the signs that we weren’t alone, and for the engines to see if they had noticed us. There was nothing, though; the engines went away and the small noises were only in our heads.

I can’t believe that old couple were still there. Their house was so normal, tidy and clean. They must have been there all this time, keeping to themselves, waiting it out with the patience of ages. They had cans in that pantry they were huddling in – not many, but enough that the more ruthless voices in our group wanted to go back and help themselves. The rest of us stepped on that idea; that couple deserve their chance to survive this too, though I can’t help but wonder how much longer they can last. They can only have stockpiled so much food.

I don’t think any of us have relaxed since we found them. The kids are asleep now, and most of us have been talking quietly about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. Most of it has been going around in circles, nerves spouting into the lamplit air. We have a more solid plan now, but it’ll probably last the length of a block or two once we get outside.

It’s growing quiet now, finally. I should find Ben and try not to check in all the cupboards in case there’s someone hiding. I have no idea if I’ll be able to sleep tonight; it feels like the world has eyes on us.

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