Sunday, 22 November 2009 - 8:28 pm


I never imagined the circumstances of our return to the University before. I always knew it would happen one day – of course it would. We didn’t say goodbye forever, just for now, just until we had found that something better we were looking for. We’d be back for them. I had promised.

We thought Haven was our something better. I had dreams of calling them on the radio and telling them to load up and come on over, because we had found everything we needed. A safe place, food, shelter, water. A sustainable future. What we found was a sheet of tissuepaper laid over the problems we faced everywhere else. It was pretty tissuepaper but so easily torn.

We still haven’t found that place to stop, the nirvana the Seekers keep seeking. Not even a scrap of hope to bring back and show them for all the time we’ve been away. All we have is more bodies to tend, more mouths to feed, and bad news.

When we left, I was glad to go. After all that happened with Ben, I wanted to get far away and forget about what he had become and what I had done. I didn’t want to be in the room where the gun went off or to look at the place where the acid finally destroyed him. I wasn’t eager to look into the eyes of people who had seen it happen and haven’t known me since.

But I had missed them, too. I wanted to know how they were, if they were all right, if they had forgotten about us after not hearing from us in so long. I wanted to know how many were left, because the After has a way of erodiing a group.

I had to struggle not to think too hard about the group that left the University with me and the shape of the one returning. I failed and remembered Dillon, so worried about me, so ready to make me smile. They knew what happened to him – they had been told over the radio – so I wouldn’t have to explain all over again, but I knew they’d see his space in our circle. Along with Tia and Terry and Dan. Gone but not forgotten.

And Dad. It was hard not to think about how he was missing from our ranks, too. Those at the University might not miss him, but I did. I twisted his ring on my thumb and tried not to think about what it meant. I had to smile for them; I had to be pleased for the ones still with me.

It looked exactly the same when we pulled up in front of the biochemistry department. Pipes twisted into a metal wreath around it and the windows were all closed. I thought I saw a fllurry of movement up in the building somewhere while we parked the bikes and the car spilt its passengers onto the tarmac. Then we were there, gathered and looking up, wondering who and what might be there for us to find.

We had to stop the cutouts from leading the charge. Don’t go up to the door, we said. They’re not expecting us and the place is booby-trapped. With acid. That was enough to stop them.

We had to shout a couple of times before one of the upper windows opened. A familiar white-haired head popped out – Professor Kostoya is looking more and more like a crazy scientist as the weeks add inches to his tameless mane. He squinted at us and then burst out in a grin. Come in, come in, he said.

When we approached the front door, we could hear the thudding of feet on the other side. The kids beat us there – Nugget and Estebar flung it open and came barrelling out. The little girl went straight for Thorpe – whose face promptly went red while he patted her back – and Estebar hugged the waist of the first person he came to, which happened to be Jersey. She looked nonplussed by the whole thing and covered up her confusion with a frown when he let go.

We made our way inside slowly, stopping to greet those coming down to meet us. Introductions were made between new faces. Janice hugged everyone. Masterson stood by, nodding and clapping shoulders if we strayed close enough. Kostoya got hugs that bewildered him, which made them more irresistable. Conroy was all grins for us. Bree looked pleased to see us, though I kept my distance from her. Things felt far too complicated between us for me to fathom just then. Mira was a good little shadow to my one-time friend and greeted us shyly. The kids hung off everyone, and Nugget rode inside on Iona’s back. It’s the most I’ve seen Iona grin since I’ve known her.

We wound up in one of the larger teaching rooms, where everyone could gather and talk all at once. After the loneliness of the road, it was loud and busy and so full of people that I didn’t know where to look next. But it felt good. It felt right. Better. It was the kind of clustering that Haven should have been.

If was inevitable that the missing pieces in our groups started to be noticed. Someone asked after Tom, and Janice immediately looked strained. Masterson was the one who told us that he’d fallen Sick a month ago. Janice was still grieving for her husband and no-one asked if his shambler was still around.

Other names came up. Old Iris, so sad since her husband Norman went missing, disappeared as well one day. I get the feeling that she might have followed him into the rain. Scott is gone too – a victim of a shambler attack, he’d died defending the building when the acid curtain had failed. Kostoya went quiet when that came up; he obviously believes that was his fault.

I was afraid to ask where Sally was, knowing that she had been acid-burned. The baby must have been due some time ago, too – the baby we all feared would have been twisted and warped by the poison in its mother’s veins. I wasn’t the only one looking for her in the group, though, and it was Bree who picked up on it.

“Sally’s upstairs,” she said. “Resting.”

So she wasn’t dead. That was a relief, though one greeted with reservation considering the circumstances and caveats on her condition. Masterson told us to leave her sleeping, so we decided to bring in the gear and settle in before we bothered her. Everyone helped and there were so many hands and bodies that we wound up getting in each other’s way. No-one minded, though. We laughed and stepped around our obstacles, high on the reunion.

We’re still getting ourselves settled, but it’s good to be back. It’s good to find out friends again.