Tuesday, 3 November 2009 - 7:23 pm

No sweet sorrow

“You two are insane.”

My heart was thudding so loudly that it took me a moment to make sense of the words. I couldn’t see, my eyes narrowed to painful slits in the white light, and I struggled to untangle myself from Matt enough to shield myself from the beam.

“Could you lower that, please?” Matt was quicker than I was to form the question.

The flashlight beam continued to pin our heads for a few long seconds, and then moved down to our bellies. Thrown-up light still illuminated our faces, but we had a chance to let our eyes adjust and see what was around us. It took much blinking and squinting, but eventually the dazzle faded.

I was relieved to see that Jonah was alone. For a stomach-clenching second, I was afraid that he had grabbed some backup before coming up to spring blindness on us. I desperately tried to think about what he might have overheard and when we had last mentioned our escape efforts. He had come in just as we were moving on to more innocent stuff, but I had no idea how long he might have been standing outside. Fear curled up in my belly, cold and scaly.

Jonah was scowling at us over the dipped beam, his mouth set into an unhappy line. The expression pulled at a scar on his jaw, making it stand out in the shadow of his stubble.

“Don’t you know how much trouble you’re in already?” he said. “This will only make it worse.”

“Only if you tell them,” Matt said. That was when I noticed that he was standing slightly in front of me, an arm held out across my front. Protecting me. I stepped up behind his shoulder and took his hand, trying to offer him support and solidarity. I didn’t need protection but I was grateful for the gesture.

“Jonah, we’re not doing anything wrong.” The lie curdled around the snake in my belly and it was an effort not to let it show on my face. I hoped my desperation was coming across as earnestness.

“If I tell the officers about this–”

“If?” Matt moved to take a step forward and I had to hold him back. I tightened my grip on his hand and he stopped, standing tautly. I could tell he was glaring at the cutout.

“We know,” I said quickly. “We know. Please, don’t. You know what they’ll do. You don’t have to, right?”

“Technically, I do.”

“But are you going to?”

Jonah paused, watching us narrowly. Weighing us up, judging our worth. I could feel Matt vibrating with tension.

“What do you want?” he asked before Jonah came to a decision. “For not telling them?”

“Have you got something I want?”

I felt Matt tense when Jonah’s gaze flicked to me. By then, I was holding onto my boyfriend with both hands, just in case. The last thing any of us needed right now was a physical fight – the noise would bring everyone down on us, and if I’m honest, I don’t think that Matt would win. Cutouts have training in this kind of thing, and Jonah knows that my boyfriend has a weak leg. It could only end badly for us.

“Might not get exactly what you’re after,” Matt said.

Jonah frowned. “That goes for both of us.”

“Guys, please.” My desperation was rising quickly – I didn’t want testosterone or pride from getting in the way of us reaching some kind of agreement. I wanted a solution that didn’t mean something awful for any of us. “We have to find a way to resolve this. Jonah, what do you want? To keep this just between us?”

“A promise that you’ll never do this again, to start with.” As demands go, it wasn’t a horrible one, though it still made me shift closer to Matt. I didn’t want to make that promise; I didn’t want this one warm hope to be taken away from me. Even if we were leaving soon. Whenever ‘soon’ was.

Jonah went on to say that he never wanted to be in this position again – that was why he wanted us not to meet up like this after tonight. One secret was all he was willing to keep. The more we meet up, the worse he’ll look for not noticing, or they’ll suspect that he didn’t report it. So no more. For his sake as well as ours.

I hadn’t ever thought of it like that. I hadn’t thought about how our deceptions will reflect on him. What will they do to him when we leave? When I slip away from him and leave him without a charge to watch over? Will they accuse him of being involved, or incompetence? What will his punishment be?

I couldn’t think about that then – the matter at hand was far more pressing. Jonah was talking about us owing him a favour – nothing he would define now, but a token he would call in when he needed to. Matt and I were both nervous about agreeing to it.

We didn’t have a lot of choice. We had to agree now and hope that the request wasn’t too awful later; better that than reaching no agreement at all. Better that than being turned in. So it was wrung from us, reluctant words passed over the flashlight’s beam.

Jonah nodded uncomfortably and left us alone. For a while, Matt and I just hung onto each other.

“Soon,” he promised me. “We’ll get out of here soon.”

I nodded and wrapped my arms around him, and we didn’t say anything else for some time. It was almost dawn before we kissed and said goodbye, and he said he’d see me again before long. One way or another.


I haven’t heard from him since. Little Debbie gave up her fight this morning, after such a long battle. By lunchtime, she was gone completely – I don’t know where they took her and I don’t want to ask. I can’t picture her like that, chained up in the basement like a tiny animal. I’d rather remember her pale, still face, greying as the blood settled in gravity’s grip.

I’m trying not to let her fate mean more than it does. I’m trying to believe that it’s not a metaphor for this world After the bombs, succumbing to the poison that surrounds us every day. We can get through this. We have to.

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Monday, 9 November 2009 - 8:05 pm

Punishing warning

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

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

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


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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

“They will eventually.”

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

“Why are you warning me?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

When will soon be now?

Friday, 20 November 2009 - 9:35 pm

Motives and open mouths

We don’t scrape ourselves out of bed before dawn any more. None of us can be bothered to stir up the fire so we can see what we’re doing, and we don’t have flashlight batteries to waste. Too many cracked shins and bruised elbows have punctuated our mornings, and with no signs of pursuit, we’re allowing ourselves to relax a little. Just until dawn oozes over the horizon, sending ruddy light stumbling into wherever we’re holing up.

There’s resistance to the movement towards complacency. Haven looms large in our rearview minds, sending out posses of Scouts to track us down and bring us back. Or just shoot us in the street, like they did to those people asking them for help. No-one wants to risk being caught.

It doesn’t seem like they’re coming. Not after so long – it’s been over a week now. They know we’re no threat to them – at least, I can’t imagine what we could do out here that would make any difference to them. We might send more people their way, but they’re equipped to deal with that. Shamblers don’t take directions. So what do they lose by letting us go free? Other than what we’ve already taken? What would they gain? Some retribution, perhaps? Is that worth the fuel they would have to spend to get to us now?


I was determined to talk to Jonah today. He was packing up with the other two cutouts this morning, and I noticed that they are still segregated from the rest of us. They’re getting closer to us a little at a time, but they still keep themselves separate.

I shouldn’t call them ‘cutouts’ any more. That’s not what they are – they turned their back on that when they asked to come along when we left. They have names now: Jonah and Bobby and Warren. They’re starting to have personalities beyond military stiffness and duty, though we don’t know them yet. They don’t talk to us much but we’re growing used to them anyway.

Before today, I hadn’t noticed the erosion in their uniforms. In Haven, they were always very proper in their dress, identical shirts, t-shirts, and combat trousers, tucked in just so, with neat creases and the belt’s shiny buckle fastened just right in between. Since the escape, that has been slipping away. We’ve all been appropriating clothes from the homes we use at night and they’re no exception.

Jonah’s belt was used to lash packs to a bike when one of the ropes snapped. He has a leather one now, old and scarred. Warren’s t-shirt was thoroughly bloodstained after he got shot, so he’s wearing a new one, covered in very un-military slogans. He wears his shirt unbuttoned over the t-shirt, mostly because of his injured shoulder. Somehow, Iona ended up with Bobby’s shirt and wears it like a jacket, with the cuffs covering her hands and the tails reaching almost to her knees. Bobby has a denim jacket now and thinks himself very cool.

Their belts and hands haven’t borne weapons since we left Haven – we don’t trust them that far yet. They haven’t asked for their guns back either, which is good. It’s a battle no-one wants to have.

They’re all crumpled, and a couple of them bear streaks of ash after yesterday’s adventure with fuel and fire. Their military lines are blurring and I like that. They seem more like people. They feel closer to being future Seekers, but this morning I stopped and looked at them, and wondered. Is that even what they want now?

So I went to Jonah and asked him. I picked a moment when his friends were off packing their vehicles; for some reason, I feel uncomfortably outnumbered when they’re all together. I’m familiar with Jonah. I feel like we have some kind of connection. And now that my debt to him has been paid – by allowing him and his friends to escape with us – we’re on a more even footing.

“What are you guys looking for out here?” I asked him. Everyone was busy, so I lent a hand while he tied a pack to the back of his bike. It was sadly empty.

“Same as you,” he said. He barely looked at me, but when he did, there was curiosity.

“Are you looking to join us? Permanently?”

“Maybe. Depends what that means.”

He seemed to be looking for terms, but it’s not like we have a contract all drawn up and ready. We make this stuff up as we go. I had to stop and think about that.

“It’s what you see. We look after each other. We share everything.”


I caught the twist in his tone and clarified. “Supplies.”


“Everyone’s equal.”

“Except you.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You haven’t seen us argue yet.”

“So we get a say?”

“If everyone agrees you can stay, yes.”

“And the weapons?”

I suppressed a sigh. Of course he had to ask. I hate that they’re so important. “We don’t know you guys, Jonah. We don’t know if we can trust you or not. Who’s to say you won’t call Haven down on us? Or decide to take everything we have?”

“We say.”

“And we’re taking you on your word. But we’re not stupid enough to let you be armed until we’re sure.”

He scowled, not liking that at all. It occurred to me that we had continued with these guys for far too long – this conversation should have been had days ago. Tomorrow, we’ll reach the University, and we’ve talked about what we’re hoping to find there, right in front of the cutouts. If they were going to leave, we should have kept quiet on all of that. We’ve led them right to our friends. The cat is not only out of the bag – it’s had time to screw the tomcat, get fat and have kittens.

I looked at Jonah and then laid a hand on his forearm to make him look at me. “We’ll talk about it all tonight. All of us. Okay?”

“You think that’ll make a difference?”

I shrugged and pulled my hand back. “I hope so. We can get stuff out into the open. You too.”

Jonah didn’t look too happy about that and I was abruptly frustrated with him. I was trying! What more did he want?

“It would help if you guys said something. About why you left. Right now, we don’t know anything about you or your motives. Why don’t you help everyone out and say something for a change?”

“I thought you liked it when I kept my mouth shut,” he said, words like a slap.

“This isn’t Haven. We do things differently.”

That’s when I walked away, before words I’d regret fell out of my mouth. Ten minutes later, we pushed the car started and climbed onto the bikes, and were on our way. True to form, the cutouts – ex-Havenites? Ex-soldiers? I need to think of a better name for them – have continued to keep their own council. Soon, it’ll be time for dinner and the Talk about them.

Here’s hoping that something better comes of that.

Saturday, 21 November 2009 - 8:01 pm

Seeking affirmation

I managed to get everyone together last night, and keep them together long enough to talk. It wasn’t easy – we were all tired and yearning for our beds, as hard and uncomfortable as they might be.

When I gathered my courage to start, the flutter in my chest knew it wasn’t destined to go smoothly. Maybe I should have listened to it, but I think I’m glad that we went ahead with it anyway. It needed to be done.

After dinner was the best time – everyone was grouped together anyway and relatively comfortable. I stood up and they all looked at me in that way they always used to – the Seekers to listen and the cutouts with their impatience and wariness. I’m not sure which of those expressions was the hardest to face.

I explained why we needed to talk: we had to decide whether the three soldiers were going to stay with us or not. I turned to Jonah first and asked him whether they wanted to stay – that was the first hurdle we all had to get over. There was no point in us all arguing about it unless the men actually wanted to become Seekers in the first place.

Jonah looked at his friends, then stood up.

“You all know why we left Haven,” he said. I was afraid that he was going to stop there but, to my relief, he continued. “It didn’t have the future it claimed and it was starting to come apart. I don’t know if any of you saw it, but there was a lot of unrest in the ranks.”

I hadn’t seen that, not until I found out that I was Jonah’s punishment. The soldiers did a good job of being faceless cutouts, homogenous in intention and action. I wondered how many unhappy soldiers hadn’t come with us.

“We’re sick of the ‘accidents’ that kept happening. We’ve all been caught up in it.” He gestured to his friends to clarify his ‘we’. “Or know someone who was hurt by it.”

I looked at the scar on his jaw and wondered if that’s how he got it: some fake accident to hide the fact that the Converter is nothing but a device to keep everyone too busy to notice the end of everything. I wondered if they knew the guys killed in the last Converter ‘accident’. They must have.

“We’re looking for something better. You were leaving anyway, so we thought we’d come along.” Jonah shrugged. “We might find that something better on our own, but we’re far more likely to find it with you. We have a lot to offer the group.”

He didn’t list their abilities; he didn’t need to and we all knew it. Everyone was perfectly aware of what they could do.

He gave me a pointed look and said clearly, “We’d like to be equal members of the group.”

It was a dig at me but I let it go. He said what needed to be said; personal stuff could wait for later. Instead, I looked around at the Seekers, trying to gauge their expressions. They were mixed, showing doubt and distrust, and a hefty share of wariness. Iona was smiling blissfully but that’s nothing unusual.

“We’ve all seen what Haven’s soldiers do outside of its walls,” Jersey said. Trust her to be the first to weigh in with something negative. “How do we know you won’t be like that?”

The soldiers were confused at first – we had to explain the incident by the food depot, the gunning down of innocent people.

“We don’t do that,” I said and gestured to Iona. We had no children with us this time, but she was a good example. “We protect those less able than us.”

She nodded cheerfully and responded by saying something about lambs and lions. I wasn’t really paying attention.

The trio on trial scowled. They said they weren’t keen to do stuff like killing innocents – it wasn’t what they were here for. They didn’t say if they were involved in the food depot incident and I thought it best not to ask. This was about the future. Our future.

“So if we tell you not to attack something, you’ll listen?” That was Thorpe, doubt riding on his words.

“Listen, yes,” Warren said. He’s older, senior to Jonah, I think. He has an indistinguishable age about him and an air of experience.

“And act anyway?”

“When it comes to battle tactics, I really think–”

“We’re not talking about when we’re in battle,” I said. “We’re talking about before then.”

“We don’t want any of that pre-emptive strike crap,” Jersey put in.

The trio closed their mouths and considered it. There was reluctance in their nods. They thought they knew better than all of us when it came to violence, and maybe that’s true, but we’ve fought hard to keep our morals intact. It’s all about when we let ourselves do violence and how far we let it go – that’s what makes the difference between us and the Pride, and even the Wolverines. When we find mirrors, we’re able to look ourselves in the eye. We’re trying not to succumb to the dog-eat-dog nature of the After. We don’t want to be dogs.

Even with all that struggling, I have trouble looking myself in the eye. Even us Seekers do things we hate sometimes, when we’re forced to. When there’s no choice. But we’re not lost yet. We want to stay as free of that burden as we can be, even me, as bloodied as I am.

So we can’t have them shooting up everyone we meet. There’s always that risk of them turning on us, deciding that we’re not worth the supplies and killing us in our sleep. Or maybe siphoning off the weak ones, picking off those who can’t pull as much weight as the rest. We have to believe that the risk of that is small if this is going to work. We all have to make compromises to live in this world – the question was whether this was a compromise that the soldiers were willing to make.

Finally, they agreed to our restrictions. That had to be enough. It wasn’t long before another issue cropped up, and another. Each one came back to the same thing: you’re dangerous and how do we know we can trust you? With our lives, our loves, our futures? Are we safe with you?

It’s strange – none of the Seekers have talked about this before the cutouts. Not in so many words. We’ve never laid out our ethos so thoroughly before, placing words on the ground in the middle of the group as if scratching out a contract. This is what had grown between us over the months. This is the basis of the lives we’ve chosen to live.

I’m more than a little proud of it. Things don’t always go the way we want them to. We try, we slip, and sometimes we fall down. But we keep trying. We look after each other and we try to hold onto the shards of who we were Before. We try to be something better.

In that meeting, we laid out the people we want to be and asked everyone to agree to it. With each round of questions and answers, the Seekers solidified behind the banner of words. Our own manifesto.


What it came down to is that the three soldiers agreed to our terms. They weren’t comfortable with all of it and I don’t think it will go smoothly, but they’ve agreed to try. We have agreed to let them stay and be Seekers.

We’ve given them their rifles back – possibly not the smartest move, but after all the talk about truth and trust, we didn’t have a whole lot of choice. We kept the handguns with various Seekers, so everyone is armed. I haven’t got a gun at all – I don’t want one – but I’m now guardian of the ammunition. For now, it’s working well enough.

Today, we were due to show them one of our secrets: the people we left behind at the University. One of the bikes lost a tyre – almost disastrously for Bobby, but he managed to skid to a stop before bike and rider tumbled into a mess of metal and limbs. We lost time putting more gear into the car and rearranging passengers. Now, we’re three bikes carrying double and the car bearing three injured, stopped only a few blocks away from the University by the rain.

Tomorrow, we’ll reach the others. They don’t know we’re coming and with the cutouts sorted out, I’m starting to get nervous about what we’ll find. Who we’ll find.

I wish it was a better kind of homecoming.

Thursday, 3 December 2009 - 6:44 pm

Who and why

We didn’t get off to a good start this morning. We sorted out the obvious hitches without any problems; it was the unforeseen that tripped us up.

Loading in the last of the gear went just fine – we got it all stowed away and sorted out who was going where. Sally, Masterson, Bree, Mira, and the baby were in the campervan. Warren, Iona, Thorpe and Dale took one offroader, and Janice drove the other one carrying Jersey and the kids. Kostoya rode in the station wagon with Conroy driving. That left Jonah, Bobby, Matt and me on the bikes. Matt insisted on riding behind me, and I didn’t mind in the least. It’s nice to have him leaning on me like that.

We had everyone organised and in or on their vehicles. The biochemistry building was shut up, the doors and windows locked, and I caught a few eyes lifting to its familiar shape as we were about to say goodbye to it. It could have been a reflection on the glass, but I think Kostoya’s eyes were damp. This place has been his home for a long time now. His sanctuary. Even I was sad to be leaving it.

Then the campervan wouldn’t start. Every other engine chugged into life and we pulled away from the building’s entry one by one, stretching our tyres onto the road. Dale was driving the lead vehicle and stopped when he saw the van wasn’t following. We all stuttered to a stop, and a couple of us turned bikes around to see what the problem was. I had to shut off the bike to hear it – the tick tick tick of the starter that couldn’t find anything to catch onto.

I ended up elbow-deep in the engine with Jonah lending a hand, trying to find the problem while everyone else milled about aimlessly. In the end, it was the distributor causing the problem – we had to dig around for replacement parts and wound up rigging something together. It worked – barely – and I caught Masterson’s displeased scowl through the windscreen when the engine started. I don’t blame him. It didn’t sound good.

We encouraged everyone back to their respective vehicles and got them started again. Blessedly, everything sparked to life and the convoy started off again. I waved the campervan on ahead of us, so that Jonah and I could bring up the rear on the bikes. We’d be able to check for anyone falling behind, that way. Unfortunately, it meant driving in the dust from the other vehicles, but we didn’t figure that out until we were on the road and getting facefuls of airborne filth.


Just before we set off, Jonah pulled his bike up next to mine and gave Matt and me a searching look.

“You think that was what it looked like?” he asked.

I glanced at Matt, but we didn’t know what he meant. I shrugged.

“You think it wasn’t?” Matt asked.

“I just think it’s curious that we’re having so many technical issues,” Jonah said.

“You think someone did this on purpose?” I couldn’t help but sound surprised. Who would do that, and why?

Jonah shrugged in that way that means yes, he does, but he can’t give us anything more than that. Then he put his bike into gear and set off after the convoy.

I twisted to look at Matt and found a sour expression on his face.

“We’d better get going,” he said, patting my hip. I sighed and turned around again, gunning the engine to catch up.


I haven’t had a chance to talk to Jonah – or anyone else – about it since then, but there was plenty of time to mull the issue over. He’s right – we have had a few technical difficulties lately, all of which have slowed us down. The bullethole in the bike that didn’t show itself until days after it was supposedly done. The blowout that ruined another bike. Both of those endangered people – Thorpe and Bobby were lucky, considering what could have happened. And now an engine that won’t start, even though we’d checked it just a day or two ago. Fixed it, even, so that it would start.

But who and why? I keep coming back to those questions and I can’t find any answers. It had to be someone who had been with us out of Haven. One of the soldiers? But one of their number was almost killed, one of them can’t use an arm, and the third one warned us. Iona is strange and disturbed, but never violent and I can’t see her being capable of sabotaging a distributor like we found this morning. That leaves the Seekers, and even considering them goes against everything I know about them. The boys wouldn’t do that, and Jersey might be a lot of things but ‘sneaky’ isn’t one of them.

Besides, if they’re trying to slow us down so that Haven can catch up with us, why didn’t they just stay behind? Hell, they could decide they’re going back there and none of us would hold it against them. We’d see them on their way. They know that.

It doesn’t make any sense. It’s making me look at the group differently, weighing up motives and dangers. I hate this. Matt’s arms wrapped around me tighter than usual today; I think he’s feeling it too.

At least we made fairly good headway today, despite our delayed start. We’re setting a guard tonight, sitting up in pairs to keep watch. I’m going to suggest we mix the pairs up and see what happens. I guess that’s as much as we can do right now: wait for the person to make another move and hope we catch them in the act. At the least, we might find it before someone else gets hurt.

As if we don’t have enough to worry about right now.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009 - 7:03 pm

Teeth and bone

It has been months since we faced shamblers. We saw some on the way to the University, but they were easy to avoid. That was a month ago – since then, we have only seen the signs of their passing in broken windows and bashed-in doors. Blood stains on the floor tell of the taste of hunger.

When we saw that group of shamblers, the ex-soldiers with us asked us why we ran. Why we didn’t just stand and fight them. Today, we answered that question. We had no choice.

It was another regular foraging day. Yet another small town, another huddle of buildings on the side of a dirty road, the roadsigns so eaten by the acid that we couldn’t make out its name. There were no vehicles suitable for stealing, so we split into our pairs – and one threesome, as Mira decided to join us today – and scoured empty homes and businesses for food. We’ve found tools and equipment enough to keep us going, but food is still our biggest problem.

I don’t know which of us saw them first. If someone shouted a warning, I didn’t hear them.

Matt and I were in a sprawling house, set back from the road a little. It probably used to have a pretty garden out front; now it was just heavy dirt to wade across to get to the front door. We’re settling into a routine with these things. He stopped in the kitchen and started on the cupboards there, and I went further back to check for a pantry or laundry. There wasn’t much, but I did find a shelf of mason jars full of preserved fruit. My stomach growled at the sight of them: apricots and apples, and more I couldn’t quite see. I lifted myself onto tip-toes to try to take a count of them.

There was a shuffle against the floor. I turned towards it with a ready smile, so pleased with myself, thinking it was Matt.

Its skin was like burnt leather, blackened and cracked. Something had torn its mouth wider than it should have been – I could see teeth through its cheek. Clothes hung off it in rips and shreds. Its eyes were wrong. And it was right there, right beside me, close enough to smell the scorched, stale, bitter copper of it.

I screamed and did the worst thing I could have: I lifted a hand to fend it off as I stumbled backwards. A broken hand closed around my wrist. I felt the bones moving against each other as I tried to yank myself free, hard things shifting beneath the flesh, tearing at it from the inside. But it just kept pulling me, pulling and pulling towards its stretched mouth. Terrifyingly inexorable.

I tried to keep it away from me. I braced my other hand against its skull, pushing to keep those teeth away. I have no idea, but I think I was shouting at it, as if battering it with sound might make a difference. It was stronger than me. It didn’t care if I damaged it, but I shied away from breaking my own wrist to get free. Every instinct told me not to, even when its teeth were opening and closing just an inch from my forearm. Even when it moved itself closer and closer, backing me up against the counter and bearing down on me.

There was a rush of movement – Matt. Matt was coming. I just had to hold on a little longer, but it was so strong. I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t stop its mouth from closing on my arm. The pain was sharp and hot, and wet when teeth tore the skin. I screamed all my fear and hurt at it. I could feel its teeth scraping against bone as it clamped down and down..

Then Matt was shouting something at me – let go, let go of its head. I yanked my free hand back and there was a flash and a deafening crack. The shambler was suddenly a dead weight on me, gravity pulling it down and my arm with it. I fought, trying to get free. Matt had to grab its head and lift the teeth out of the imprint on my arm. He still had the gun in his hand.

I was free. I gulped in air, staggering away from the crumpled body until my back hit a wall. My whole arm was molten fire and I was afraid to look at it – I just clamped my hand over it, aware I was bleeding. Matt got a clean shirt from somewhere and wound it around my arm, while I just stood there, staring at the damned dead thing on the floor and shaking. I couldn’t stop shaking.

When Matt was done tending my arm, he looked into my face, his expression all torn up with earnest pain. “There was another one,” he said, gesturing towards the kitchen where he had been. I jerked around to look and saw a crumpled arm lying across the doorway. It took me a moment to realise that he was trying to explain why it took him so long to get to me.

I lifted my hand to touch his cheek. “We’re all right,” I said. “We’re okay.” He’d saved me, saved my life – I knew it, but I had no idea how to put it into words.

A sharp crack from outside interrupted us. The others. There were more. Matt and I grabbed our weapons and ran outside, following the shouts and shots to our friends.

They were clustered near a store front: a straggle of hungry dead and five friends. Mira had been scavenging with Dale and Bobby; the three of them were tackling the loose shamblers at the edges of the group. Jonah and Jersey were inside the store, fending off front of the group through the shattered front window. The rest of the Seekers were back at the Farm. Every now and then, a shot punctured a skull and a body fell bonelessly to the ground.

Matt and I ran up and got to work. One immediately turned and reached for my arm. I realised with a lurch that it could smell the blood and wanted it. Matt shouted at me to get back, but I had a bat in my hands and our friends were trapped. I could feel the fear of the first one rising in my throat, trying to choke me the way it had grabbed my wrist. No. I struck out. No.

It still frightens and disturbs me to know just how easily a human skull can be caved in. I’ll never forget that sound.

There were so many of them. Matt’s gun cracked beside me. Our footing was treacherous; I couldn’t think about it too hard, or I’d know we were stepping on bodies. I got grabbed again and he peeled it off me. A shambler latched onto his shoulder and I smacked it in the head until it let go. The air was full of gunfire and shouts, and the sound of desperate bodies hitting the ground. The shamblers didn’t make any more noise than they always do, straining and moaning, and falling down.

The five of us outside managed to get to the window and regroup with the pair inside. Jonah was in a bad way – one of his legs was a mess. We finished off another couple inside, and I managed to get enough space to look at the injury. Jersey looked fit to murder another wave of the hungry bastards if they should happen to appear.

They had literally torn chunks off Jonah’s lower leg. I knew it was bad when I dabbed blood away and could see bone. He clenched his teeth and couldn’t keep still under the pain. There wasn’t much I could do, so I used my belt as a tourniquet just below his knee and told the others that we had to get back to the Farm, right now.

Bobby picked Jonah up and dragged him towards the vehicles while the rest of us ran in a group around them, watching for any more shamblers. Nothing was moving anywhere any more; the silence was as heavy and complete as always, with only our huffed breaths and hurried instructions interrupting it. Car doors slammed and we kicked the engines into a roar, tearing away from that awful, bloody town.

I don’t think we’ve driven that frantically in a long time. I was crouching in the back, trying to keep Jonah’s bleeding under control while I was being thrown against the seats and doors. He clung to consciousness, though I’m sure he wished otherwise.

The others knew there was something wrong when we got back so early. A few came out to meet us and there were plenty of hands to carry the injured man inside. Masterson descended from his rooms on high to take over; I was only too glad to see him. He snapped at everyone, but in that professional way that we all obeyed because he’s the doctor. We wanted him to save Jonah.

He banned me from helping when he saw the blood leaking from my arm. He didn’t want me contaminating everything. Then I heard him asking for a saw and went back, because he couldn’t possibly be about to do what I thought he was going to do.

“Has to come off,” he said.

I felt like throwing up. Jonah was shouting, begging him not to, his pride as shredded as his leg. No, please, anything but that. I wanted to join in, but I’d seen the mangled mess. It was horrible. There was so much missing.

Masterson pinned him to the bench by his shoulders and leaned over him. “If I don’t, you’re going to bleed to death. Do you understand?” He stood up and looked around. “Hold him down.”

No-one moved. We were all too shocked. Then I asked Jersey for her belt. She unthreaded it and handed it over without asking why. I stepped to Jonah’s head, folded the belt over, and said, “You’d better bite down on this.”

Jersey started to swear at me but the others moved to help. Thorpe held Jonah’s shoulders down and Bobby took hold of his legs. Janice was at his feet, ready to assist. I stroked Jonah’s hair apologetically. He knew that it had to be done, that Masterson wouldn’t demand this if he didn’t have to. Knowing didn’t make it any better.

I wish I hadn’t stayed. I wish I hadn’t heard the sound of a saw on bone, or Jonah screaming around the leather in his mouth. Masterson’s calm, sharp demands undercut the scene in an oddly comforting way, but it was a relief when the patient finally passed out. I couldn’t watch. I couldn’t help, so once he was still, I escaped. I ran to Matt and clung onto him, trying to forget the rasp of the saw. I tried not to think about what was going on in that room, or how close the man I was holding onto came to the same fate, back in Haven.

It took a long time. It was hours before Masterson finally showed himself. Jonah is still sleeping; he’s lost a lot of blood, but the doctor seems to think he has a chance.

Dinner is nearly finished. I should ask Masterson to look at my arm. I wish today was over.

I wonder if tomorrow is too soon to send someone back for the fruit I found.

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