Tue, 5 May 2009 - 8:57 pm

The ‘z’ word

I don’t like to go to sleep on an argument. I’m not alone in that feeling, and that’s part of why we were up so late last night.

We tried to make sense of what we saw, but there was no reason or rhyme to it. Nothing logical we could unravel and learn from, except a few basic truths.

Being caught by someone like that is a bad idea. Sally’s arm muscles are all torn up under fingermark-bruises, and Ben’s shoulder has vicious teeth-marks in it. Sax was strong, far stronger than he should have been; it took three of the guys just to pry one hand off Sally, and most of us just to keep him from grabbing anyone else. Masterson said that it was probably due to the insensitivity; Sax didn’t seem to feel any pain, and the human body can do amazing things when it ignores all its own warnings. On the plus side, he didn’t move very fast, so it wasn’t difficult to stay out of reach once we figured out that it was the best thing to do.

We’ve been hearing stories about these mindless attackers for a few weeks now. Unstoppable, people said. They just kept coming, no matter what. They tore others apart with their bare hands, intolerably slowly. I can feel my stomach curling up and trying to hide at the thought.

No-one could answer the question of whether Sax was still in there or not. Masterson was more grim-faced than I’ve ever seen him; I don’t think he likes the conundrum. He said that it seemed like a drug fugue, but we all know there aren’t any drugs around here for that. He’s certain that Sax was dead when he announced it, and he doesn’t know if there’s any way to bring someone back from the state our friend was in.

Our ex-friend. Sax is dead. It’s too upsetting to think of it any other way.

It went quiet, and then Dillon piped up, darting glances between us as if hoping that someone would smile and tell him that it was all some elaborate joke he hadn’t understood. “So, Sax is really a zombie, then?”

I wasn’t the only one to stare at him, though most of the group avoided looking in his direction.

“Don’t be ridiculous; there’s no such thing,” Thorpe said.

“You sure?” Matt asked.

“The sky is orange and it rains acid every day,” I said. “Is anything ridiculous now?”

No-one was laughing. I wished someone would; I wanted Thorpe to be right. I wanted this to be something that we could breeze past and leave behind, one of those silly little thoughts that comes and goes because someone has seen too many movies. But it wasn’t like that.

There was no answer to my question and Dillon was looking around hopefully, because his hadn’t been answered either. I caught his eye and couldn’t glance away without saying something.

“I don’t think we should call them that.”

Zombies. There’s a twitch in the corner of my mouth whenever I hear that word, either in my head or on someone else’s tongue. I’m afraid that I’ll laugh at the worst moment when I hear the name. Because it is ridiculous. They’re a made-up thing from books and horror movies and our own nightmares. They don’t exist in the world.

“Someone must know more about them.” That was Ben, all taut jaw and a gaze that refused to rest on anyone.

There was only one person we knew who had seen them before. One person who had had her own group fall sick, die, and then be devoured. It turns my guts over to think that they might have devoured each other, friendly faces risen into something twisted. I don’t remember which of us said her name.

Alice.

The decision to try to find her formed quickly. We were all relieved to have a purpose, some way to chase this thing down and make a difference. The promise of answers, or at least confirmation of what we fear, is bright and reassuring. We’ll seek it out like magpies, and we’ll line our nests with it as if shiny means comfortable.

I don’t think we’re all looking forward to answers. Some of our number still blame her for bringing this to us. There’s revenge behind some of our hearts and I don’t know what to do about it.

A part of me hoped that we wouldn’t know where to look. But Dillon spoke up, the person that Alice was closest to, her friend from before and after all of this happened.

“She went to the mall,” he said. “She went to join the Rats.”

So that’s where we’re heading, heading backwards so we can move forwards. There’s going to be more blood before this is over, and more of the ‘z’ word, I know it.

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Wed, 6 May 2009 - 6:34 pm

Guest Post: Paige

The rain came early today and forced us inside, still about half a day from the mall. We found ourselves holed up in a tiny restaurant, a poky little place that was Greek once, made even pokier by the scooters and all our gear. 

A scuffle out back put us on the alert and a couple of us went to investigate, weapons at the ready. It was just a girl – she can’t have been more than sixteen, all boy’s clothes and scrawny limbs. I think she had a scar on the side of her head, but the rain had started by then and it was too dim to make it out.

We weren’t going to chase her out into the acid, so we wound up sitting down and talking. No-one wanted to talk about Sax or the things that are going on right now, so the conversation turned to other things. Older things. I hoped she might have news of something else, something more organised, some promise that there was hope.

She said her name was Paige, and this is what she told us:

Me and my mum and my older brother Nathan came from out west to visit my aunt over the holiday, up in Cairns.  My mum had this job in the bank that she had to be at, so we packed up the evening of the 23rd when she got home from work and flew out first thing on Christmas Eve.  My mum was going to stay for a few days, but me and my brother were going to spend our summer holidays up there, until school started again in January.  My mum was seeing this yobbo from the interior, you know the type, big guy who drives a ute and watches car races and drinks beer until he’s sick.  I didn’t like him much, but me and my brother liked the idea of Mum finding someone, and anyway, our aunt, she’s great, she does a lot of baking and knows bloody everything about nature and she’s the closest thing to a grandmum that Nath and I had.

So there we are on the tarmac getting ready to go.  There was this huge line of planes ahead of us.  I was so tired.  I’d been up all night from excitement about the trip, and the airport here was too noisy to sleep in, all the travellers and the screaming children and the holiday crowds.  I can’t sleep on a plane, and I wasn’t being very nice to Mum, and she leans forward, digs in her bag and pulls out a pressie for me and says, “Here, maybe this will put you in a better mood.”  She could have smacked me or something, but she didn’t, and I felt bad, like I didn’t deserve it, so I said, “Thanks, Mum,” and stuck it in the pocket of the seat in front of me.  I’m glad she did that.  I hope she knew that I felt bad.  I been carrying it with me.  I haven’t opened it yet, I think it’s a DVD or something, and I don’t think I’m going to.

Finally it was our turn.  We took off, the plane went up, and then everything went wrong all at once.  The sound… it was bloody horrific.  It caught us not even… [trails off and shakes her head] I don’t know how far off the ground, but the plane went over sideways and the noise from the engines was so loud.  You know how in all those TV shows they say whatever thing that happened, it happened in slow motion?  I never believed it, but it was really like that.  The sky was in one place and then it wasn’t, and then all the luggage fell out of the overhead bins when we hit the ground.  Next thing, Nath is shaking me awake and my head hurts so bad the first thing I do is throw up.  Half the plane is dead.  We were upside down and Nath unbuckled me and I fell on my head, and when I got upright again I could see Mum, still buckled in, her eyes open and her arms dangling over her head like she was just stretching.  She looked like a mannequin.

I don’t know what she died of.

The other passengers huddled in groups, some of them inside the plane, but most of them went back to the airport.  Nath and I didn’t want to leave Mum.  She was gone for sure, but leaving her there seemed like such an awful thing to do.  If it happened today I’d have buried her, but it was all so new — we were going on holiday, we were going to see Aunt Kate in Cairns, it was Christmas, it wasn’t a thing that could have happened.

After awhile we got hungry and thought to eat the airplane food, but it was a domestic flight, so mostly they had just biscuits and bags of pretzels.  After a couple days the dead started to smell and there was no more food, so we walked to the airport.  There was a load of people there and mostly they’d eaten everything already, so we had stuff like old bread and uncooked chips, whatever wasn’t touched.  Me and Nath were getting ready to leave when the rains came for the first time.  After it was done we pulled Mum out onto the runway and covered her with some of the clothes from her carry-on.  She wanted to be cremated when she died, and that was the best we could do.

Nath had this crazy idea that we could walk to Cairns, but I thought that eventually someone would come, maybe the army, and we had a big fight about what to do.  I told him that we’d probably get stuck out on the road and get dissolved, and by that time the rain had come often enough and all at the same time so he knew I was right.  What if we’d got caught out in the bush with nowhere to run to?  Seeing all those people screaming just at the touch of it?

So we wandered.  We picked rubbish out of bins for a little while and broke into houses.  Nath about got himself killed trying to go into a house in the suburb north of here where a fellow had a gun, one of those big long ones for hunting, but mostly people had left, and we went house to house in this one neighborhood eating baked beans and things out of cans, horrible things like spinach.  For a long time the only drinks we could find were cans of soft drink and beer and wine and things like that.  I never thought plain old water would be something I’d crave, but it was.  Canned meat, too.  Whenever we broke in somewhere, the first thing we’d go for was cans of tuna and Spam and sardines, bread that might not be moldy, things like that.  Lots of times there’d be stretches of houses where people had already been, but the beds were comfortable if there weren’t any dead people around.  Nath found a dog at one of them.  I don’t even want to say what happened to it, but we ran into a group of people and I guess they saw an opportunity.

Nath left about a month ago.  There was this other group, they were a bit to the west of here.  They called themselves the Pride, they had tags all over the place.  [looks up to see Faith’s reaction]  They wanted one thing from him, and another thing from me, and we had a big blow-up about it because he thought the best thing to do was stay with them, and I wanted to keep on wandering.  I guess Nath was upset over us not walking to Cairns, because the army hadn’t come, but I bet the whole bloody country is in bits and pieces over this.  The whole bloody world, even.  No one’s invaded that I can see, and no one’s come to rescue us.  We were on our own already, but Nath and I come to blows over this and he joins this group and tells me to just get lost already.  So I been walking around on my own.  It’s tough without him.  I mean, he didn’t protect me when he was supposed to so I guess I’m not any worse off if anyone comes by wanting something I don’t want to give, but he was my goddamn brother.  Mostly I been looking out for myself, you know?

[Guest Post by Julie]

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Thu, 7 May 2009 - 7:02 pm

Stormclouds gathering

We hit the road again this morning. Before we left, I asked Paige if she wanted to stay with us. We don’t know her, but she’s a young girl on her own; that wouldn’t have been safe in the time Before and it’s even more dangerous now. She would be safer with a group.

She refused. She believes that she can take care of herself. We’re not inclined or equipped to force her to come along, and I don’t think the others are eager to have a stranger join us right now, so I didn’t press her on it.

I also asked her if she had seen Alice, the girl with half a face. She said she might have seen someone like that a way west of where we were; that’s where the mall lies.

It wasn’t until after she had already given us directions that she asked why we were looking for the girl. Her mild curiosity was fobbed off with a shrug. We didn’t want to get into the truth, partly because we don’t know Paige and because none of us want to think about what happened with Sax. It’s going to be hard enough when we actually find Alice.

Paige slipped away while we were still packing up. I hope we see her again, or that she does all right, at least. I hate goodbyes. I hate not being able to believe that the poeple I can’t see right now are safe somewhere.

 

Our mad flight from the cafe and that awful ‘z’-word took us in completely the wrong direction. We had to pass back over our own footsteps to get to the mall, and that meant a big detour around the place we last saw our ex-friend. We don’t want to think about what we found there last time, and we certainly never want to see it again.

On the way down towards the mall, the frontrunners slowed their scooters. I made mine whine a little higher to catch up so I could see what had caught their attention. Ben gestured towards a couple of dark shopfronts we were passing: they were marked with fresh tags. The Pride. They have been extending their reach eastwards, and from the look of that paint, they’ve been doing it recently.

Our path turned us south to take us to the mall and we left the tags behind. The Pride don’t seem to have forayed into this area yet but none of us want to linger here in case they decide to start.

 

It was strange, arriving back at the mall and walking into its dim, quiet echo. Its heavy arms were familiar, as was the pelt of candles and ornaments that rained down at us. We retreated and shouted to the Rats until they stopped.

They weren’t pleased to see us. They hadn’t liked us being in their domain the first time and they were even less eager to entertain us again.

Thorpe looked ready to start banging heads together and Ben was carrying a stormcloud with him – they really weren’t helping things. I had to send them off to sort out somewhere for us to spend the night, and doing that much took me ten minutes of pleading, demanding, chivvying and being testy with them. I asked Dillon to explain the situation to the kids, though without saying anything about Sax or the sickness. No need to panic them; just ask about Alice.

They had become braver: they demanded a toll for coming into the mall. We gave them a couple of bottles of water.

When we asked about Alice, they said they’d have to check on whether she had come back or not. Which meant she was here but they didn’t want to tell us until they had talked to her. Dillon was going to argue with them, but I put a hand on his shoulder and told them that we’d look forward to hearing from them.

We haven’t seen them since. We retreated to a rundown store across the street from one of the mall’s entrances; the Rats didn’t want us staying in their home and we were happy to oblige. Now we’re settling down again and no-one is really talking. Ben won’t speak to me, caught up in his own fear and recriminations. He looks at me when I take his hand but glances away again quickly. I don’t know if I’m helping him or not.

Hopefully we’ll hear from the Rats tomorrow. And Alice.

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Fri, 8 May 2009 - 11:24 pm

Shamblers

We were woken this morning by a dull, repetitive thudding. Nugget pulled a blind aside and got us all up with a sharp, high-pitched scream. There were faces at the window, lining the front of the little store, vacant and slack-jawed.

Things happened very quickly, though I can’t say who did what. Nugget was pulled away from the window, the door was bolted, shelves were pushed up against the front wall, gear was scooped up and stuffed into packs, a scout was sent out the back to check for activity. I did a headcount twice; the second time was because I was sure I was missing someone. Then I realised that there really were only eight of us and my heart sank to rest on a sickened stomach.

The blinds had fallen back into place and it was difficult to see what was outside. I didn’t want to look at them, but I also wanted to know what was out there. How many, how bad it was. I wanted to hide, but I didn’t want to sit and wait for them to find me. The unknown fluttered around in my chest like a battered bird.

At one point, I realised that I was holding Dillon tightly against me, having pulled him out of the way of the bigger boys moving furniture. Arms wrapped around his shoulders, we stood staring at the frenetic action around us. I let him go with an apology and he gave me a strange look; I don’t know if the look was for hanging onto him so hard or for letting him go.

Then the lock on the door gave way and the panel scraped open an inch. The weight of a shelving unit stopped it opening any further, but the complaint of the metal grumbled through the little store. An arm wormed inside with blind determination and waved around, grasping. It was blackened and bloodied, and was missing a couple of fingers. I could see the broken ends of bones where the digits had been torn off and the smell was awful, rolling thickly through the gap in the door.

I would have vomited if I wasn’t so keyed up. None of us knew whether to fight or flee; our adrenaline was ready for either, teetering us on tiptoes.

Matt came in to tell us that the back way was clear, but there was no way to get the scooters out – there was a fence to climb. That gave us pause; we didn’t want to give up our best and only means of transport. We hesitated and I got the feeling that our hourglass was dribbling away sand we couldn’t afford. The shelving unit complained again, more strident this time.

“Well, they are hardly going to drive off with them,” Masterson pointed out drily.

He was right and that was enough to send us spilling out the back door, grappling our packs to us. We ran in that headlong way that is a shred of nerves away from a heedless stampede. We shouldered our gear as we went, fighting straps, and heaved each other over the back fence. Garbage cans clattered behind us, falling out from under our feet.

We ran a couple of blocks before we dared to stop, and then we were all about snatching in breaths and blinking the spots out of our eyes. Looking back, we couldn’t see anyone – or anything – following us. I wondered if they were still there, pressing at the door, ruining their limbs in their efforts to get inside the shop. The stillness was punctured by the sudden shatter of glass; they had figured out how to break the front window.

We looked at each other for direction, and I blinked first. The mall, I reminded them. Those kids might need our help, but it also might be more secure. As it turned out, malls have a hundred doors and wiindows, millions of ways to break in, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. No-one else had a better suggestion, so we agreed to circle around to the mall.

Jones had done his usual disappearing act and no-one noticed until much later. That poor cat is usually left to his own devices; I think only Nugget would noticed if he stopped finding us.

 

We moved as quickly and quietly as we could, down back alleys and empty streets, heading around to the mall entrance from the other direction. We had widened our route enough to completely avoid the road the attackers had been on. Attackers – I don’t know what to call them. I don’t like the ‘z’-word.

By the time we were sneaking over to the dull mall doors, they were gone. I glanced over to see the shop front in tatters, the glass in jagged shards, the blinds half-torn down, the door listing off its hinges, shelves leaning at improbable angles. Brown smears of old blood marked where they had climbed inside.

We didn’t stop; we just went inside. All thoughts of Alice were gone by then – we grabbed the Rats and demanded to know if they had secured the mall at all. Some, they said. Some.

Some was not enough.

We spent the rest of the day boarding up the place. Moving furniture, equipment, poles, beams – whatever we could get our hands on. The Rats tried to obstruct us, and I rounded on them to tear a strip off. Didn’t they know what was out there? There was an enemy they couldn’t scare away with raining ornaments, one that they couldn’t reason or bargain with. There was an enemy that would keep coming, that was stronger than them, that would tear them apart with bare hands given the chance. Now, did they want to help or get out of the way?

They got out of the way. After watching us for a while, they helped.

Now, the rain is falling and I am trying to believe that we are safe. I just wish I could convince my body to relax.

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Sat, 9 May 2009 - 11:45 am

Missing

Last night was awful. Add it to the list of things I never want to do again.

We barricaded ourselves into a clothing store. It had been thoroughly gutted to block up the rear door and side window, so there was plenty of floor space to sleep on. I don’t think any of us did, though, not for long. Sleep was snatched in unwary breaths.

We took turns at keeping watch. What it meant was that we walked around the room one pair at a time, checking the doors and peering out the windows. Only Nugget wasn’t asked to do it, but she got up and trailed around after Thorpe when it was his turn anyway. I think she needed to feel like she was doing something just as much as the rest of us.

 

The day turned over into tomorrow during my watch shift. I had stopped by the window when I saw them and I was so shocked that I froze. The acid was still dribbling down the glass, a faint mist of steam hovering a few inches above the ground. It’s usually difficult to see anything outside at night – there are no stars, no streetlights, no moon to help us, just a black blanket ruffled by the meagre flickers of whatever light we can make. Perhaps it was the rain, carrying that faint glimmer over to the little store we had slept in the night before.

That’s where they were. Standing there, faces at the window, staring sightlessly out into the downpour. Lined up, perfectly still, waiting behind the broken shards of glass on the edge of the rainfall. The catch of my breath brought Ben over to me, followed by the others. We stood and stared through the gaps in the shelves and poles blocking up the window.

The shamblers didn’t look towards us. One lifted his head as if snagging a scent; his mouth opened but I couldn’t tell if he made a noise. I remembered that low, hollow moan of Sax’s, so divorced from his warm voice, and shuddered.

The rain fell between us, a thin veil of deadly liquid. We all hovered in our refuges: us in our barricaded shop and them just behind the teeth of the broken storefront. None of us moved while the downpour dribbled itself out and stopped.

 

When the rain stopped, the faint sheen of light faded with it. Dark wrapped us up as we fumbled for our flashlights; then thin beams of light cut the shop. A couple of us returned to the window and peeked the beams across the street, to check on the shamblers.

They were gone.

The shop window was empty, the gape of its broken mouth eyeless and deep. A piece of shattered blind waved back and forth, a last memory of its own demise.

Things turned frantic for a moment as we tried to see where they had gone, pressing ourselves against the window and peering up and down the street. Nothing – all was empty, all was quiet. It was like they had never been there.

Ben shushed us all and we fell silent to listen. I could hear us breathing and the faint shifts of the floorboards under our weight. That was all. No thumps, no moans, no distant shatter of glass. We waited, strung taut across the still air, but there was nothing. Minutes stretched out so long that I could feel the tick of the seconds falling past us.

There was a brief, hushed debate about whether we should go out to look for them. It got heated as paranoias fought – go out and find them, or wait here and hope for the best. It was a tough choice, and at the end I stepped in and said that we should try to get some rest and not fumble around in the dark. It wasn’t great – we weren’t going to sleep knowing that they were out there somewhere. But it was better than the arguing, and we’d probably only hurt ourselves trying to make our way around here in the dark.

We didn’t sleep again. We sat and we listened, and hoped that the sun would come up soon. We didn’t hear them, but I know I wasn’t the only one imagining them stumbling around in the mall, searching for us.

Today, we are checking the mall, all the places that we boarded up yesterday, to see if they did find their way in. I don’t know what I hope to find.

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Sun, 10 May 2009 - 10:28 pm

The back room

Yesterday, things got heated. I didn’t dare to post until now.

We spent the morning scouring the mall, checking all the exits and entrances. Wherever those shamblers went, they didn’t come into the mall. Not that we could tell, anyway.

The Rats came to harry us as we got into the northern end of the mall. It seems we had finally stumbled near to the parts that they call home. They’re getting braver and better armed; they were confident enough to try to scare us off. They weren’t to know that there are far scarier things than them around these days.

They came at us while most of the boys were in the back room of an electronics store, shouting and waving sticks and barbecue forks, and banging on pans. The sound was shocking in the quiet mall, enough to set my pulse racing even before I knew what was causing it.

Sally, Masterson and I spun to face them, weapons in hand; the Rats weren’t expecting that. But with the threat of the shamblers hanging low on our heads and shoulders, we weren’t going to be chased off by kids and noise. We backed up, shouting for them to stop, shouting… I don’t even know what we were saying. It all melded into one morass of words and warring intentions, each side trying to be louder, be heard. Then the boys came out from the room behind us, swelled our size until the kids looked up and stopped. They knew when they were outmatched.

Thorpe looked like he was going to cuff each and every one of them, and as he had his short metal pipe in hand, I thought it best to stop him before he got carried away. So I stepped forward and shouted at them instead, barely taking the time to catch my breath before I launched a tirade at them. Didn’t they know what was out there? Didn’t they know that we were making sure that this place was secure? Did they really think that we were here to steal from them, or attack them?

“No, but we know what you did to Alice.”

The words stopped me in my verbal tracks so abruptly that I forgot how to breathe for a moment. I stared at the kid and his thrust-out chin, and tried to work out what the hell he was talking about.

“We didn’t do anything to Alice.” Dillon stepped forward and I put a hand on his shoulder; he looked like he was ready to punch the kid in the face.

“You did, you got her sick,” the kid replied, unintimidated.

“We did nothing of the sort,” I said, before anyone else could wade in. I could feel the control between us slipping; it wouldn’t take much for someone to fall, and I didn’t want to know what that would mean. “The sickness is all over the place.”

She brought it to us,” Thorpe put in before I could stop him. I shot him a look that I hoped would quiet him; the last thing we needed was a reason for them to argue with us.

“Alice is sick?” Dillon had shifted under my hand. I didn’t need to see his face to know that he looked stricken.

“We just want to see her,” I said before they could speak.

The Rats scowled at us, then withdrew a few steps so that they could exchange glances and hushed words. They finally came back to say that they would let one of us see her. We told them that that would never happen, and we came to an arrangement: most of my group would continue to check out the security of the mall to see if it had been breached, and three of us would go to see Alice. Dillon, because he’s her friend; Masterson, because he’s a doctor; and me, because someone has to get something useful out of the girl.

 

I wish that Dillon hadn’t come along with us. I didn’t want him to see what the Rats showed to us.

They took us to a small backroom in a clothing store, where beds had been made up between the racks and boxes of stock. Only one was occupied, the half-visible face pale and sweaty with fever. Alice looked like she had shrunk in the wash and still hadn’t dried despite being thoroughly wrung out. She blinked her good eye and hardly seemed to see us at all.

Masterson checked her over first, despite her protests. When he withdrew, Dillon said hello, said her name, and that was all he could manage. She looked at him and gave half a smile, and then he tore out of there. He couldn’t stay and watch his friend in such a state, knowing what had happened to Sax. Fearing it would happen to her.

I would have gone after him, but I couldn’t. Not until after I had spoken to her. I asked the doctor if it was safe to hold her hand and he shrugged, so I did it anyway. I do worse with Ben and he’s almost as sick as Alice now.

“Alice, your group – we have to know if they really died,” I told her.

She looked at me; she had been vague before, but the question had sharpened her attention. She knew what I was asking her about and the pain of it showed in every line of her. Her hand felt like thin, damp paper between mine.

“They did.” Her voice had been sandpapered and stapled to the back of her throat.

“And the attackers you saw – were they your friends?” She looked away from me; I had to press her. “Alice, we have to know. Sax, he–” I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say what had happened to him. The thought of it made the words stick in my throat and prickle at my eyes like hot needles.

She shook her head and at first I thought she was giving her answer. Then I saw the tears in her eye and knew that she was refusing to answer the question. She was a girl who didn’t want to say ‘yes’, to acknowledge such an awful memory. As if admitting it made it real, made it impossible to hide from any more.

I was going to press her again – I wanted more, I wanted her to confirm the horror of it, for all of us, for Sax. But Masterson put his hand on my shoulder and told me to stop. Him, of all people. I think the shock of him stepping in for another person’s sake was what stopped me in the end.

I patted her hand and stood up. I apologised and told her that we weren’t angry with her. Then I painted on a smile and told her to get better soon. By the time I was out of the door, there were tears on my cheeks even before I asked Masterson to confirm what I already knew. She had the same sickness as Sax, the same creeping rash. He didn’t say how long she had.

 

It was on the way out that I caught sight of what was in the next store. Five or six beds – I didn’t stop to count – each of them with an occupant tossing back and forth, or lying very very still. I kept on moving until I made it back to my friends, where I could give my report and break poor Dillon’s heart again. There were arms to hold us there, comfort for us to lean on. And Ben with his irrepressible cough and the clammy heat on his skin.

He’s getting worse. I don’t know how long he can keep moving. I don’t know how long he’s got left. The worse he gets, the more he pushes me away, as if creating a festering bubble around himself will help.

There were no signs of the shamblers yesterday, and we took today to try to decide what to do next. We need to talk to the Rats, need to make them believe what’s coming. They need to know the danger they’re in, though I’m afraid of what it might make them do.

I wish I knew how to help them, and us.

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Mon, 11 May 2009 - 6:30 pm

Gun

Don’t have long – I don’t know who’s watching. Have to make this quick.

 

A couple of us tried to talk to the Rats today. We had decided to leave, but I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them barricaded in the mall with friends that might turn on them. So we tried to tell them about the shamblers and where they came from.

They thought we were lying. Even with Dillon backing us up, even with the drawn looks on our faces that not even the best actor could fake, they didn’t believe us. I can’t blame them. It’s an unlikely tale.

“Just be careful,” I told them. Wariness would cost them nothing and might save them.

They’re just children. None of the Rats are older than fourteen or fifteen. There are maybe twelve of them up and about now. I would take them with us if I thought they’d come, but they won’t. They don’t want to rely on adults again; they have a home and they’re taking care of themselves, so nevermind anything else. They don’t need or want us.

 

Dillon went to say goodbye to Alice. We all knew he’d never see her again, not in a good way, but no-one said it. I sent Ben an apologetic look and stayed with the kid while we finished packing up. Dillon needed the support.

We left just as the morning was waning over into another dull orange afternoon. We were eyeing the store across the street while the Rats secured the doors behind us; none of us wanted to go back in there, but that’s where our scooters were. We hadn’t seen the shamblers since the night they disappeared but we still felt their shadows in that place and their eyes at the window.

I asked Dillon quietly if he would be able to drive himself today; I was worried that he was too upset. We spilled down the steps and across the road, fanning out warily, and Dillon said he would be all right. Ben’s shoulder was doing better while the rest of him got worse; he would have to ride behind me again.

We got to the broken-down door when we heard them. Movement inside the store, the breath of a chuckle, the clip of a bootheel on concrete. A strange, metallic click I had only heard in a movie before, rougher and sharper in the real world.

I looked around at the barrel of a handgun hovering in front of a grin.

 

Have to go – they’re coming back.

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Tue, 12 May 2009 - 7:35 pm

Toll

Couldn’t get back to post again yesterday – things are crazy right now.

 

So there was a gun pointing at me.

The gun-bearer let out a short, high bark and more sounds cascaded around us. They swarmed out of the stores lining the street, including the one that hid our scooters. Our transport had been discovered. Worse, the barker wasn’t the only one carrying a firearm – there were shotguns, handguns and even a rifle. They lifted to point towards us and gestured for us to drop our own blunt, fireless weaponry. We had them in-hand in case of shamblers, but we put them down in the face of bullets.

It took me a moment to figure out who they were. One of them turned around to pass a signal up the street and I saw the tag on the back of his jacket – a few efficient lines suggested a head with a mane and bared teeth. We had seen that tag on buildings, but now it was on people. The Pride.

There weren’t many of them – less than there were of us – but their arsenal meant that we weren’t going to try anything. They surrounded us and we shifted into a defensive circle, with Nugget and Dillon in the middle. Nugget was smart enough to keep her head down.

There were taunts and jeers, all ‘what do we have here’ as if they were taking their cues from bad teen movies. The looks that they gave us were less fake and even less funny, though; they made me push Dillon back into the centre of our group when he tried to stand out with the rest of us. Their hungry looks would’ve stripped us naked right there and then, if they could.

But they were waiting for something. In the meantime, they demanded our food and water, waggling gun barrels towards our packs. We complied with reluctant movements and plenty of glares; enough rumours about them had passed our hearing for us to believe that they weren’t bluffing when they threatened to take the supplies over our dead bodies. Even Masterson had the good sense to keep his mouth shut, though the worry that he would say something wound me a notch tighter every time I thought about it.

 

They were hard-looking, lean creatures, these Pride members. They watched us like whips with lip-parted grins, pleased with their catch while they waited for their leader. There was something particularly narrow and calculating about the way the girls in the group looked at us; I couldn’t figure out if we were competition or reprieve for them.

The leader didn’t take long to show up – the roar of motorcycle engines foreshadowed his arrival. His leather jacket had a tan-coloured fur collar – he took the whole ‘Pride’ thing quite seriously and I made a mental note not to call them kittens. He was tall and bore the mark of an acid burn across one cheek, the work of a single drop that had hit and dribbled through this flesh, now healed to an angry red scar.

He swung off his bike and swaggered over to us, mouthing off cocky statements like, “What do we have here?” He said his name was Kingston. I heard Masterson draw breath behind me and hoped that he wouldn’t say anything. Not him, not now.

Kingston babbled on, looking very pleased with the find and walking around us slowly. He paid particular attention to me and Sally, enough that Ben put his arm across in front of me protectively. The Proud one smiled, knowing he’d found a nerve. He stopped in front of me and asked, “Who are you?”

He meant me, but I opted to ignore that. “We’re the Seekers. Just passing through.”

“Oh, are you really?” he said, and I wanted to smack that look off his face. Smug bastard. “We’ve heard about you. Aren’t you supposed to be all sweet and fluffy?”

“Depends on who we’re talking to.”

He was expecting me to say that it depends on who he’s talking to, and my answer made his eyebrows lift. “Well, you wanna pass through here, you gotta pay a toll.”

Thorpe spoke up from Ben’s other side. “You’ve already taken all our food and water.”

Kingston smiled at me, not even sparing the big fella a glance. “You’ve got other things we can… use.”

I felt something moving at the small of my back and it took me a moment to realise what it was. Matt was standing beside me; I could feel his fingers curling into the beltloop of my jeans. As if he might be able to hold me back from this. I was stronger knowing that he’d try. I’d do the same for him.

“We’ve paid all the toll we’re going to,” he said.

“Fighting it just makes the price higher, you know.” Kingston crossed his arms smugly and, again, I had to fight the urge to slap him.

I felt Ben’s fingers tighten on my hip as he drew breath to add his own thoughts on the matter, but then I saw the girl who had ridden in on the back of Kingston’s bike. I pushed his arm away as I leaned to get a better look.

All blonde hair and high heels, perfect clothes and lipstick, she was done up as if the bomb had never gone off. With a sigh, she slid off the bike and wandered over to see what all the fuss was about. I froze, staring at her.

“Bree.”

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Wed, 13 May 2009 - 8:25 pm

Bree

I didn’t realise I’d said her name out loud until I noticed everyone staring at me.

But there she was, right in front of me. She was my best friend once. She was the person I confided in and shared everything with, including and unknowingly my boyfriend. She had taken him away from me, just before the End. Seeing her brought it all back in a rush that wanted to crush my chest. I forgot how to breathe.

The strangest part was that she didn’t look any different to the last time I saw her. She looked like a piece of the time Before that had stepped into After, barely pausing to flick dust off her designer sleeve. Only she could do that; looking perfect was a skill she had cultivated all her life.

 

I found my tongue again as she put a hand on Kingston’s shoulder, with a traitorous little thought: it was typical that she had latched onto this awful, powerful excuse for a man. “What the hell are you doing here?”

She was staring at me with a puzzled frown that took a few seconds to clear. “Mac? Oh my god, Mac?” She hadn’t recognised me at all; had I changed that much? I wasn’t sure whether or not I should be offended. She had the grace to look stunned, at least.

Seeing her, hearing that name – it all jarred horribly with what I knew the world was now. Things suddenly made less sense. I was aware that people were looking at us curiously, Pride and Seeker alike, but I couldn’t think about them.

“I go by Faith now,” I told her.

“I thought you hated that name.”

“Used to.” I glanced at Kingston, who was taking all of this in with a calculating air. “So. You’ve been all right, then.” I couldn’t help it; I smiled a little bit. Typical Bree, always coming out exactly where she wants to be.

“Oh, yeah. You know how it is.” Her fingers curled around her fella’s shoulder and she smirked. I remembered abruptly why I didn’t like her any more.

“You know what happened to Cody?” Not that I cared. I hadn’t wanted to see either of them again, not even after everything that’s happened.

The name was enough to dent her smile. “No, haven”t heard anything. You?”

“Nothing.”

And there it was, the frost between us. We weren’t friends any more. She had taken all the warmth and good feeling and ploughed it into illicit sex with someone I thought I loved. Strangely enough, the coldness helped. It crystallised the situation and I was brighter, clearer. I straightened my shoulders and felt better than all of this.

“Your boy was just propositioning us,” I told her, as if it was nothing. As if I didn’t mind. “Bit of a turnaround, isn’t it?”

Kingston didn’t like being talked about as if he wasn’t here; his expression gathered threatening clouds. Bree’s face hardened and I could see the veneer of cultivated bitch sliding into place. “The world’s different these days.”

I looked at the Pride leader and felt Matt’s hand tightening on my beltloop in warning. Careful now. I aimed my words at her again in an attempt to not provoke him. In truth, I was furious and frustrated, and nowhere near as calm as I thought I was.

“Don’t worry, Bree. I’m not interested in your leavings. Screwing other people’s men is your speciality.”

Bree bristled and Kingston drew himself up straighter, eyes narrowing. It was the sort of scene that didn’t need subtitles.

“Oh, don’t be offended,” I told him. “You’re already getting the better end of the deal. She’s much better at that than I am. So I hear.” She looked away from me and I was surprised at how satisfying that tiny victory was.

Behind my shoulder, Matt hissed my name, barely loud enough to hear. Had I gone too far? I looked around and was rudely reminded of the guns that surrounded us. We were trying not to get ourselves killed and here I was mouthing off over something that happened a world ago. I took a breath and tried to steady myself. I needed to be smarter than this.

Than I realised that Kingston was smiling at me. “And you don’t want to even the score?” In truth, I was tempted to sleep with Kingston to get back at Bree; it was a small, mean voice in the back of my head. She deserved it.

I smiled back at him with no mirth whatsoever. “I wouldn’t lower myself to her level.” I wasn’t prepared to do something like that. I still needed to be smarter. Watch your tongue, Faith.

“Maybe she should show your boy what he’s missing, then.”

I was speechless for a second; the notion of that happening all over again stopped the air in my chest. Bree glanced at Kingston in surprise, but then the corner of her mouth twitched and I knew she’d do it. Out of spite, out of pride. I could feel Matt’s hand at my back, keeping me close for everyone’s safety, and it felt like it was all that was holding me up. We were outside and there was no air.

 

“Sure, if she wants to get sick,” Ben said suddenly. I looked at him in surprise and saw the anger in his face. It was well-covered, but I knew that taut line in his jaw and the flat look in his eyes. He was glaring at the pair of them, both healthy and clean and so damn cocky.

“Sick?” Kingston looked more closely at Ben; his skin was pale and bore a sheen of sweat. There was doubt now and a whiff of distaste.

“Yeah. You know, the sickness that causes those… what is it you call ’em?” Ben glanced at me.

“Shamblers,” I said, mentally begging him to stop there. Don’t give them an excuse to put us down like rabid dogs. Luckily, he didn’t seem inclined to push the issue.

It didn’t take long for the Pride to recover their composure and determination. “You still have a toll to pay,” was Kingston’s decision.

There wasn’t going to be any backing down about that. He had decreed it, and even with the complications, had to see it through. It’s all about pride and status. He was looking at me differently – he suspected I was sick too, and I think Bree’s sour expression had something to do with it, too. His gaze moved on to the others in the group, sizing up Matt and Thorpe, and then those gathered behind. He smirked and my stomach lurched.

“You’re got a nice young thing hidden in there.”

I felt my hand curl into a fist at the thought. He wasn’t joking, and neither were the hungry grins around us. My belly briefly considered throwing up, right on his shoes. I drew breath to answer.

 

“I’ll do it.”

It wasn’t me who said it. I turned to look along with everyone else, and Sally stepped forward. She knows how to hide, that one; I had forgotten she was back there. She drew her tiny self up and the rabbit sought the lion’s eye.

“I’ll pay your toll.”

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Thu, 14 May 2009 - 8:27 pm

Sacrifice

Everyone was stunned when Sally volunteered to pay the Pride’s ‘toll’.

Then a verbal maelstrom erupted. We were all refusing to let her, half of us talking to Sally and the other half warning Kingston off. I grabbed her arm and when we got too vehement, the Pride reminded us of our predicament with the eloquent, unmistakable cock of a gun. In the corner of my eye, I saw Thorpe gripping a fistful of Masterson’s shirt to hold him back.

Sally looked at me with those dark eyes of hers, the ones that know what’s coming, and she patted my hand. “It’s okay, Faith. I’m not like you.”

I didn’t know what to say. It wasn’t fair. She shouldn’t have to do this. There was a rock in my throat and I didn’t know how to hold her back when she gently drew her arm free of my grip. It wasn’t okay. It was so very far from okay. She told me kind lies, said it was all right, and then walked away into waiting hands.

I caught the look on Kingston’s face and almost lunged at him. If Matt hadn’t still been holding onto my beltloop, I probably would have. He was enjoying it: our upset; our frustration; our friend giving herself up to the predators to save the rest of us. He probably enjoyed it more than the sex he was going to have. He liked manipulating people, watching them bend and break. He was watching me at that moment to see if I’d cry. I almost satisfied him.

I think Bree was the only reason I didn’t. She was right there, tight-lipped in a way I hadn’t seen her before. She had learned not to argue, even though she didn’t like it when Kingston put a possessive hand on Sally’s shoulder. So, she didn’t like this either. Regardless, I didn’t want to show that kind of weakness in front of her.

The Pride put Sally on the back of a bike and took her away. I don’t know where. The ones on foot scooped up their stolen food and water, and then shoved us into one of the shattered stores. We were to stay put, apparently, until Kingston was done with us. Thorpe was the only reason that Masterson didn’t try anything.

It wasn’t until the door closed on us that I remembered about the baby. Then, I cried.

 

We stayed in the store all that night. Everyone was unhappy and quiet. Tension ran high as we didn’t dare relax in case the Pride saw weakness; I wiped my tears away quickly before they could latch onto them.

The Pride checked on us periodically, all grins and needling comments, particularly in Masterson’s direction. The doctor sat like a stone, refusing to look at anyone or respond to the taunts. They had read his connection to her but he didn’t let them benefit from it, and the fight seemed to have gone out of him now that Sally was out of sight.

The others had questions, of course – about Bree at first, and then about how we were going to get out of this. I told them about my history with that girl, the words sticking in my throat. I didn’t want to tell them about that shameful, hateful part of my life, even though it was probably obvious from the exchange outside. A part of me had hoped that I wouldn’t have to deal with it after the bomb went off and the rain sought to wipe the world clean. But now here it was, making things better and worse. I don’t know if it saved or doomed us.

Matt and Dillon were attentive, worried about me and my reaction to having Cody dragged up again. Of all people, Matt knows what it means to me, how much Bree and Cody hurt me. Dillon looked like he’d do anything to change the look on my face, even when I told him that I was all right. I hugged him and tried not to think about it all too deeply; there were far more important things going on that I should have been worrying about. But I was grateful too. I felt less alone under their attention.

Ben stuck close to my side too, as if Kingston had reminded him that we were together. When no-one else was near, he told me that he wouldn’t have done it – wouldn’t have gone with Bree – even if the sickness hadn’t put them off. I believe him despite that awful little voice inside, the one that knows I believed Cody too. Ben had said no this time, and I clung to his hand tighter because of it. I had to hold onto what I had.

 

I tried to talk to Masterson. I shooed the others away and went to sit next to him, and had no idea what to say. We haven’t got along very well, the two of us, and I didn’t know where to start. He still wasn’t looking at anyone, wasn’t taking any notice of us or the Pride when they passed through.

“We’ll get her back,” I told him. I wanted to ask if he knew about the baby, but what if he didn’t? I knew how tight-lipped Sally was and was afraid of making things worse.

He didn’t answer me. He blinked and turned his head away a little more, so I knew he heard me.

“We’re not leaving without her,” was all I could think to promise him. Then I left him alone again.

 

As the light fell away from outside the window, talk turned towards our predicament. We didn’t think that the Pride would let us go when they were done with Sally; that would be too easy. We would have to make a break for it, but not until they brought her back to us. We wouldn’t leave her here with them.

We heard the Pride moving around in the store where we had left the scooters, and then the scrape of an engine starting. The chances of us getting our transport back were slim and we grimly decided to discount that possibility. On foot it was, then.

We would have to overpower at least two of them; they went everywhere in pairs or quartets. Surprise was our best weapon, and for that to work, we needed to get them to let their guard down. So we tried to appear pathetic and broken while we waited.

After the scene outside, they were cocky and it was easy for us to spend the night looking whipped and beaten. Far too easy. None of us got any sleep except Ben – the sickness was taking a toll on him. It didn’t take any acting on our part to look worn out by the time the sun came up.

 

They brought Sally back to us in the morning. She was pale and not moving very well, and the Pride members who escorted her made crass comments with sated grins. I tried not to think too deeply about how badly she might be hurt; I was afraid I’d break down again. The guilt that curled around my innards was a cold snake, one that knew it should have been me and was glad it wasn’t.

Before we could do anything, Masterson snapped. He saw their faces, heard one too many taunt about Sally’s performance, and he went for one of them before anyone could hold him back. We should have watched him more closely.

We hadn’t planned to make our break for it just then. There were four of them, four guns, though the weapons were held lazily. We hadn’t had a chance to regroup. But Masterson was flying at them, shouting, and the rest of us had to step in. He would have been shot if left to his own devices.

It was brief and nasty. All I remember is my heart beating out through my ribs, grabbing and wrenching someone’s arm, shouts banging around my head, and a shot or two going off. The sound was enough to give us all pause and there was a terrifying moment when I wondered if I was hit. Time just shortened on us alarmingly – the rest of the Pride would come and so we had to leave, right away.

The Proud four were put down as quickly as we could. We had to pull Masterson off one of them and manhandle him out of the building. There was more blood than I was expecting; I stopped and stared at it. I have no idea if they died. I hope not. Then someone grabbed my arm and shouted at me to run, and I did. I followed the others, diving down alleys and sidestreets, weaving away from that awful scene. Run, just run, bodies pumping as fast and as far as possible.

 

We kept going until even the strongest of us was stumbling, and the weaker ones were barely dragging one foot after the other. It didn’t help that it had been nearly a full day since any of us had had any food or water. We staggered into the first unlocked door we found. All we wanted was a place to hide, and the house had a basement, so we went down there to collapse.

We were a mess. Most of us were hurt, Ben could hardly breathe. But we were together. We were free. At that moment, panting into the daytime shadows and listening for signs of pursuit, that was all that mattered.

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