Sunday, 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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