Friday, 6 February 2009 - 4:46 pm


The good news is that we didn’t get into a fight today. Nothing really went to plan, but at least no-one got hurt any more than they already are. Not physically, anyway.

We started out just after dawn, in the hopes that the other group might not be around that early. It didn’t work; we got as far as the end of the block before we heard a weird hooting noise from a nearby rooftop. I wondered then if we should have sent the others away from this area, in case these watchers had seen where we came out and went to check for more. I wanted to turn back then, to make sure that the others were all right.

But it was too late for that. The hooting was echoed down the next block, and then the one after that. How many pockets of these people are there? And, more importantly, how organised are they? That thought brought both hope and dread as the patter of distant feet drifted down to us through the deserted streets.

We started to back up, to shift away from the oncoming danger. Thorpe was reaching for the length of pipe he had stuck through his belt and Sax was fingering the throat of his battered instrument. I put a hand on the tall fireman to stop him, pointing out that maybe we shouldn’t take an aggressive stance. We should stand our ground and wait for them to come to us, as if we’re not afraid of them.

It’s a gamble, but I couldn’t help but think of some advice Dad gave me when I started going out at night. I was sixteen and thought I was invincible, and he was desperately worried about me. But he looked at me and he told me to keep that attitude. Don’t look like a victim, Faithy, then they’ll be less likely to make you one.

The boys weren’t pleased by that idea. They played along anyway, mostly because they didn’t have any better ideas, and we waited. That was the worst part, I think: feeling my pulse climb along with the volume of the footsteps; being aware of the tension in the fellas either side of me.

Then I noticed the pile of clothes in the gutter just a few paces away and felt sick. Last night, there had been a person in them, beaten and melted away to nothing now. Maybe we should have run after all. Abruptly I recalled that my little knife was still in my pack, and I had left my pack with the others. All I had in my hand was a bottle of water. So much for planning.


There were eight of them, maybe ten. A lot more than us, anyway. All with those fluorescent yellow strips on their legs, bright even in the orange-tinted sunlight. They eyed us sharply as they jogged to a stop, swelling out to almost encircle us. It was an effort to keep my face calm; my heart was trying to thump its way out of my throat as if it wanted to offer itself up to their tender mercies.

“You’re trespassing,” one of them said. He was a foot shorter than Thorpe and had a burn scar down one arm, still healing.

I had to think quickly to figure out which way to jump here. To find an answer that wasn’t going to make things worse. “We weren’t sure who this area belonged to. That’s why we waited.”

He sneered at me and some of his friends snorted. “Weren’t sure? What, you haven’t heard of us?”

“We’re just passing through. And people have been surprisingly difficult to get straight answers out of.”

“Oh, well then. We’re the Stripers.” As names go, it wasn’t very intimidating, but I didn’t point that out. “And this is our zone.”

“Are the tags around here yours, then?” If I tilted my head and squinted a little bit, those tags almost looked like they said ‘Striper’. Thank goodness they can spell and didn’t put an extra ‘p’ in there.

“Of course they are. What are you, stupid?”

“No, just checking.” I was determined not to rise to his bait. I wasn’t going to crack first this time, and I wasn’t going to make it easy for him to turn this into something awful. He was going to have to do better than that. “So we know what’s yours.”

He didn’t seem to know what to do with that. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re looking for family. We’re headed for– where is it again?” I turned to Sax and he gave the street. He looked stressed out, still gripping his saxophone tightly, but he was keeping to himself. I didn’t quite dare to look at Thorpe.

“So you want to just walk into our zone, huh?” That sent a murmur around the group that disapproved thoroughly.

“Well.” I eyed the Stripers in front of me and tried not to look like I was making this up as I went. I’m not always a good liar, but it’s amazing what a person is capable of under pressure. “With your permission, yes.”

“With our permission?” That made him grin. It was better than a frown, so I wasn’t going to complain. “What makes you think we’ll give that to you?”

“I guess asking nicely isn’t going to work here, huh.” I tried to smile back but it came out wary. “Look, we don’t want any trouble. We just want to go check the house out and then leave. That’s it. What’s it gonna take?” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have asked them that. I shouldn’t have put that ball in their court.

There was something hungry lurking in his grin then, this Striper with the scorched arm. “I can think of a few things.”

Before I could answer, a hand fell on my shoulder. My heart nearly fell right out of my chest before I realised that it was Thorpe. “Not gonna happen,” he told them flatly. I was grateful and swearing at him in my head at the same time. Support is always nice, but scaring the crap out me isn’t.

The scorched arm was starting to frown, so I didn’t have much time to collect myself. “Come on, we can do better than that. We’ve got water.” I hefted the bottle in my hand.

“So? Not enough to make a difference.” I could see them checking us out; all of our packs had been left behind, so we clearly weren’t carrying much of value except what they could see. Which was one bottle on each of us. “Don’t think you’ve got anything we want, now have ya?”

I hadn’t prepared for this. I hadn’t thought about what we might need to do here beyond ‘not fight’. I caught sight of a big, shiny SUV and wished we’d just stolen a car and driven over them. We hadn’t even tried for a car in days, and the roads were clear enough to be able to start one here.

“Do you want a car?” I blurted the question out before I had time to think about it much.

The Stripers laughed and the scorched arm gestured at the street around us, littered with vehicles. “We’ve got lots of cars.”

I knew I had something then. I knew I had something they didn’t and that made me grin. “Do you want one that runs?”

That made them stop and think. There were sceptical glances and murmurs, but they were definitely interested. Thorpe squeezed my shoulder and let it go; apparently, he thought the signs were good, too. Another one of them spoke up in the scorched arm’s confusion.

“If you’ve got a car, where the hell is it?”

“We don’t have one. The roads have been too clogged to drive, till we got down here. But we can make one of yours run.”

There were a lot of questions then and it was hard to keep up. No, not any car – it had to be a manual transmission. Yes, I know that hotwiring them doesn’t work – we don’t use that to start them. No, there’s nothing wrong with the engines themselves. No, I can’t prove it without doing it. No, I’m not going to say how to do it – if I did that, we’d have nothing to trade, now would we?

I don’t know how long we stood there, back-and-forthing. I could feel myself relaxing into it, losing the fight-or-flight edge of adrenaline, and from the postures around me, so was everyone else. Well, almost everyone – Thorpe still looked ready to punch someone in the face, but he often looks that way.

We came to an agreement, finally – I’d start a car, and they’d let Sax visit his daughter’s place. It took me a few minutes, but I managed to convince Thorpe to go with him. I was confident that these Stripers wouldn’t bother me while I was fixing the car, and I worried what might happen to the boys once they were out of sight. And if Sax found something awful, well, he might need someone there. The big fella didn’t like it, but he agreed eventually. I wished that Ben was there to stay with me, more than anything else in the world.