Wednesday, 19 August 2009 - 6:41 pm

Hungry magpies

We’re almost free of the foothills. It’s slow going up here, between the ice and the skinny roads easily blocked by abandoned vehicles. We’re stopping at every gathering of buildings to look for supplies. The process is getting faster with familiarity, but it’s still not easy to coordinate seven people.

Seven. We’re uneven now.


We’ve seen more signs of landslides, too. Naked slopes have sheer angles and spaces where the hillside used to be. Stone is pale where it has been stripped bare and exposed to the fresh onslaught of the rain. Rocks and dirt scatter over the road, around and on top of houses. Blocked and swept-away roads have forced us to re-route several times.

Matt and I have been travelling with Thorpe and Dale in the offroader, and all of us went quiet when we saw the first one. Thorpe’s eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror to meet mine and I leaned forward to put a hand on his shoulder. Matt did the same to Dale; we all needed the contact. None of us remember the landslide happily, though for different reasons.

Tia is the most obviously affected. She keeps refusing to sleep under blankets, preferring to be cold so she can be without their weight. I think she was completely buried under the dirt for a few seconds before someone pulled her out. Now, the pressure is too close to her surface and she can’t stand to be wrapped up.

I don’t blame her. If swimming was a possibility, I’d be afraid of it too. The thought of water closing over my head, of being bowled over like that again, of my whole body being completely victim to another force and unable to even scream – it makes my heart thump uncomfortably and my breaths come short and shallow. I have to close my eyes and suck in a deep lungful of air to make it go away.

I often find myself making a conscious effort to avoid looking up at the rippled earth rising above us. Paranoia prickles, and try not to look just to spite it. The only one I’m proving anything to is myself, but that’s all right.


As if the looming danger wasn’t enough, we’re finding that everything is barren here. The only other people we’ve seen alive are Dillon’s family, but every building around here has been stripped. Food, liquid, fuel, tools, clothing. The only things we’ve found that might be of use are scraps, cast-offs and rejects. We’re running short of everything; even the big bottles of water are emptying fast enough to be a concern. We’re rationing everything as much as we can, but we have to live, too.

It all makes us chafe at the slow pace. We want to get back to the city’s suburbs where there are houses and corner stores to visit. At the same time, we don’t dare pass by a building without checking it, just in case it has something we might be able to use. So we stop and we hurry, and then we grumble as we get back into the vehicles empty-handed again.

Taking things used to bother me. I used to offer small apologies as I did it, running through the excuses of survival and need in my head. I used to feel bad, or naughty, or just a bit wrong. I don’t know when, but somewhere along this road I stopped doing that. There are no apologies for those who didn’t come back here, though sometimes there’s a wish that we could spare enough to leave for those who might follow us. We never have enough, though. We never leave anything we might be able to use. We’re magpies, scarecrow-thin and hungry. I can’t apologise for that. I have enough callouses to be selfish.

We’re almost free now. Almost out of the clutter of hills that makes us hunch our shoulders up. The suburbs aren’t far, with its hopes of forgotten supplies and other people’s beds.

I used to like visiting the mountains, with their landscapes and fresh air. It’s just another thing that has changed, I guess.

Thursday, 20 August 2009 - 10:32 pm

To fight for

We finally left the hills behind today. The road levelled out beneath our tyres and the loom of unsteady earth lifted away from our shoulders. We’re all breathing easier now.

Sometime in the night, there was the underground rumble of rocks giving way, shaking us up out of our slumber. The rain had leeched away enough earth to send scree tumbling down to reshape the land, close enough to make the windows rattle.

Needless to say, more than one of us panicked. We fumbled for lights and then for faces with our beams. I had to count heads twice to be sure that I had everyone, and almost did it a third time because of a niggling feeling that someone was missing. Oddly enough, it was the brace on Dale’s arm that reminded me who was gone.

Once we were sure that everyone was together, we started to look for the rockfall. It was quieter than the last time, though that might have been because of the rain, so we rushed around inside the gutted corner store we had chosen to shelter us for the night. Flashlight beams just didn’t reach far or wide enough – everything is disorienting in the dark. Shadows play tricks, slipping around corners and across surfaces like liquid, making objects look big, or flat, or just not there at all. The faint slither of acid glinting off building exteriors didn’t help, either. I’d have given anything for a good floodlight.

It had been quiet for a while before we were satisfied that we weren’t close to the rockslide, or mudslide, or whatever it was. We peeled ourselves away from our chosen windows and gathered in the middle of the little store, and just looked at each other. Then we shrugged, someone gave a wry laugh at our skittishness (I think that was Matt), we all relaxed and Tia burst into tears. I think it was relief. I looked at Dale and found him pale-faced with tension. Thorpe hovered behind him like an angry bear.

The boys went and stirred up the fire; no-one was going back to sleep after that. Terry was trying to comfort Tia, but she kept shaking her head and hiccuping as if her tears were choking her. He looked so strained that I went over to see if I could help, put my arm around the girl’s shoulders and suggested that he let me try. He looked relieved as he went to join the others; he loves his sister, but I don’t think he gets girls well enough to handle this kind of thing.


I got her to sit down a little way from the fire where we could talk undisturbed. It took a while for her to calm down enough to speak, and I tried not to listen to the dripping of the rain in the meantime. It has taken on a menacing tone now, worming its way in, as inexorable as the monsters it creates if it doesn’t kill us. Watching the ceilings is a common pastime for us.

I tried to tell her that I got it, I understood – she was scared after what happened a few days ago. Afraid of being buried, afraid of dying.

She looked at me with awful eyes and said, “That’s not it. That’s not it at all.” Her voice was torn from the crying, but there was no mistaking her words. “I wasn’t afraid of dying: I wanted it.”

I had no idea what to say to her. The tears weren’t relief – they were disappointment. It wasn’t exactly a problem I had anticipated. The only thing I could think of was to keep her talking, so I asked her what she meant.

“When the ground closed over my head, I thought, ‘this is it, I’m gonna die’.” She sounded reluctant at first, but then it just spilled out. “I thought I’d panic, but I didn’t. I knew I was gonna die, and that was… okay. I could just let go and everything else would go away. This nightmare, this year – all of it. I wouldn’t have to worry about anything any more. All I had to do was take a breath. I was ready, and then… then someone pulled me out.”

She covered her face like that was the worst thing in the world. I mentioned her brother and she shook her head.

“Terry doesn’t understand. He’s been carrying me, this whole time. Making sure I’m all right, making sure I’m safe. I’m a burden; I make things harder for him. After we joined you guys and he didn’t have to worry so much any more – I haven’t seen him that happy in ages.”

I stared at her, mentally filling in her gaps. It’s not what she thought that horrified me: it’s that I could understand how she got to that place. My feet have touched that path before. “He won’t be better off without you.”

“You don’t know that. It’d be easier without me.”

I couldn’t bring myself to lie to her, to make up stuff we would both know wasn’t true. “There are plenty of people who need others to fight for them, to get by,” I told her. “I’m one of them.” I step up when I have to, when there’s no choice, but I know I wouldn’t have got this far without the protection of the others. I’m one of the weakest fighters. “And there are people who need to fight for someone else, or they won’t fight at all.”

She looked at me dubiously. “So what, I’m doing him a favour by being useless?”

“…in a manner of speaking, yeah.” It wasn’t exactly how I’d put it.

To my dismay, her eyes filled up again. “But I don’t want to be here any more. I don’t know if I can fight it any more. What if I’m not strong enough?”

I reached out to squeeze her hand. “Then let us help you. We’re all each other has got.”

I don’t know if she heard me. She nodded and seemed to take it on board, but I really don’t know. I asked her to think about it and left her to collect herself. Dale and Matt were singing some kind of ditty that stopped as soon as I came over and left Terry grinning. I rolled my eyes and told them to sing something we all knew. Eventually, Tia came to join us and even helped us fill the room with sound. We’re not the most musically skilled bunch, but we have bravado and the ability to make stuff up as we go.


We left the threat of landslides and being buried in displaced earth behind, but there’s a part of it still with us. Not just in the cuts and bruises we all bear; there’s that temptation still eating at Tia. We’re going to have to protect her from herself as much as from everything else.

The thing is, if she puts herself in danger, I’m not sure that we should stop her. None of us would blame her for choosing to get out of this life. She’s old enough to make her own decisions, but she’s not even twenty yet.

Once upon a time, I would never have considered this a question: the answer was always ‘no’. Now I’m not sure what I’ll do, faced with her choice. I’m not sure what this says about me.

Sunday, 25 October 2009 - 8:24 pm

Options open

I finally managed to catch up with Tia today. She’s usually up and gone with the bulk of the female population, but this morning she dithered long enough for the dorm to empty out and leave her behind. Jonah was late, so I wasn’t dragged off either.

She listened to my proposition with solemn eyes, giving little away. I knew that she was weighing things in her head – all the benefits and security of Haven against the freedom of the Seekers. Freedom from many things.

“Can Jaye come?” she asked. I had to ask who that was, afraid she wanted to bring one of her new friends with her. They all believe in Haven – pregnant Phoebe is one of them, and they’re even more bright-eyed with the hope of it all now. But no, Jaye was the girl that Jersey got beat up over, the one that was abused and almost raped. I haven’t seen anything of her – she certainly didn’t bring her bruises to the infirmary – and apparently she keeps to herself now. I don’t blame her.

I had no idea that Tia even spoke to her. I only ever see the young Seeker with her gaggle of friends, or desperately trying to be with the gaggle.

“We’ll see,” I told her. I felt like someone’s parent – it’s the sort of thing my dad would say. Tia’s expression gathered into clouds, so I added, “We have to be careful, Tia. This has to stay secret. If she wants to come, I’d like her to, but… carefully, y’know?”

“We can trust her.”

“I hope so. I’ll talk to her, okay?”

Tia seemed satisfied with that. Then she asked a question that no-one else had thought to: “Where are we going?”

I was so startled that I just stared at her for a moment. It’s an obvious thing to ask but I hadn’t given it a single thought until then. I had been focussed on not being in Haven any more, getting out and away from the cutouts without getting anyone killed. We’d go back to the University initially – that was a given. We wanted to hook up with our old friends again and bring them news of what we found at the other end of the radio signal. From there… our options were open. Frighteningly open.

Tia frowned when I told her that. I could tell that she was thinking over the time before we reached Haven, how hard to was to find food and water, the threat of the shamblers dogging our heels. She wasn’t eager to risk all of that again, but she wasn’t saying no, either.

One of her gaggle of friends poked her head around the door to see where Tia had got to.

“Just think about it,” I told her. “And keep it to yourself. You have options, Tia.”

She nodded and hurried off. It didn’t occur to me until Jonah turned up that she hadn’t asked about her brother and if he wanted to come. I don’t know if she assumed he’d follow her lead or if she was too caught up in her own issues to include him. I don’t know when they saw each other last.


Figuring out who Jaye was wasn’t easy. I had to try to find a quiet voice among the rabble of chattering women that filled the dorm tonight. If I hadn’t been looking for her, I would never have noticed her when she slipped out. I caught sight of a scrap of auburn hair ducking through a back door and followed it.

She’s a tall girl, all long limbs that she tries to keep folded close to make herself look smaller. She has a scar cutting through one eyebrow and another marring the line of her lower lip, both fairly recent. She probably got them in the incident that got Jersey in so much trouble.

She assumed that I was going to ask her to join Mama Prusco’s group tonight, off to meet a contingent of men for entertainment. After I had told her my name, she believed me when I said I would never do that. Apparently, I’m a well-known troublemaker.

I didn’t ask Jaye if she wanted to leave Haven. There was something shifty in the way her eyes kept darting past me as we talked, as if she was looking for a way out or an excuse to leave. She kept pulling her sleeves down over her hands and hunching her shoulders, which made me wonder what she was hiding. Something about her posture reminded me of the girl I saw after the bombs went off, cutting stripes into her arm because she didn’t know how to deal with it all. I wasn’t sure how to handle that, then or now.

I tried to let Jaye know that she could come to me if she ever needed help or if she was hurt. I told her that I understood why she hid and I’d be there if she ever needed support against Mama Prusco’s pressure. She nodded and tugged at her cuffs, but I’m not sure that she believed me.

She’s far from happy here in Haven, but I don’t know if she’ll want to brave the world outside it with us. I don’t know her well enough yet. We have until the Seekers are ready to leave to sort it out.

I hope that’s enough time for all of us.

Thursday, 5 November 2009 - 7:33 pm

Plus one, minus two

No matter how much I try to hold things together, shards still slip through my fingers. There are so few pieces that I have any contact with now, and I can’t even keep a grip on those.

Tia has been trying to speak with me for a couple of days. Every now and then, she flicked me hopeful looks across the dorm and nodded towards one of the back rooms, but then someone would turn up and pull her away. The girls have been fussing over her more than usual and I can’t help but wonder if they were keeping her away from me on purpose. I’m not sure what they hoped to achieve with that, but I don’t pretend to know those girls well.

I’m feeling so well-watched right now that I haven’t had the courage to press the issue. I could have gone over there, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her off to talk. I doubt they would have been able to stop me, but it wasn’t a battle I wanted to start. These girls don’t tend to fight physically – it’s all tongue-lashing and voices that spiral up into uncomfortable octaves, sharp with barbs. And their fights don’t finish when someone walks away: they swirl around the dorms, rising and falling like the scum on the tide, snapping dirtily at our edges.

I’ve always hated how girls fight. I used to watch Bree at work and smile, even though it unsettled me. I’m ashamed to admit that I joined in sometimes. Then she turned on me and I realised why I disliked it so much. Girls are vicious. Bruises heal so much easier and cleaner.


Today, I finally got the opportunity to talk to Tia alone. It wasn’t in the dorm at all – just after midday, she slunk into the infirmary looking like a mouse who knew she was sitting in the middle of a trap but hadn’t a clue about where the cheese might have got to.

I was just heading over to snaggle her up before she got lost when Simon was suddenly there beside her. He spoke to her and she looked up at him with wide eyes, and to my surprise, she nodded and went into an exam room with him. I stopped, staring after them, the sheets from the bed I was changing still in my hands.

Peter chose that moment to brush past me – there was plenty of room, but he had to rub his way past anyway – and he chuckled in my ear. “You know what she’s here for,” he said with a grin. I got the sudden urge to slap him, but managed to restrain it until he’d gone away.

I forced myself to finish making the bed up, and then the next one too, while I waited for Simon to come out of the exam room again. I didn’t realise how much I was watching the door until it opened and my hands were only too glad to put down the pillow I was putting a cover on. I was pushing my way into the room when he was still in the process of closing the door behind him. He let me past with a disapproving scowl.

Tia was leaning against the exam table, straightening her clothing and looking paler than usual. She’s an elfin thing at the best of times – if she was any paler, she’d be translucent. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, though she wasn’t comfortable either; she shifted stiffly, as if bracing herself. I asked her if she was all right and she sighed, biting her lip.

“I don’t know,” she said, which only worried me even more. “Has he gone?”

She meant Simon. I glanced over my shoulder to check that the door had closed behind me – it had – and then nodded. “What is it?”

I knew what she was going to say next, but that didn’t make her words any easier to hear. They fell into the room likes stones, toppling into a messy cairn between us.

“I’m pregnant.”

There were so many things I wanted to say. Congratulations. Do you know who the father is? When are you due? That’s wonderful. The words clamoured in my throat but didn’t make it anywhere near my tongue. I put a hand on her arm.

“Are you all right?”

She gave me a look that reminded me how young she is. Eighteen, maybe nineteen by now, forced to take on an adult’s role long before she had ever planned to. Now she was going to be someone’s mother and she was completely unprepared. She was a tiny person lost in a sea of giants and her legs just couldn’t keep up.

The next thing I knew, she was sobbing on my chest, her arms clenched around my middle. I hugged her and stroked her hair, instinctively rocking her while she cried. It’ll be all right, I told her. We’ll get through this. Everyone will help her. Shh, it’ll be okay.

It took me a moment to realise that she was shaking her head. She took a shuddering breath and lifted her head, quietly picking herself up off me. I let her, helped her, made sure she was steady before I let her go completely.

I wasn’t expecting what came next.

“I can’t come with you.”


“When you go. I can’t come, not now.”


“I can’t, Faith. I just can’t.” A sob caught in her throat and she swallowed past it painfully. She stumbled on to tell me about how unsafe it was out there, about how they’d be able to take better care of her here. There was a doctor and an infirmary here. A safe roof over our heads every night and food on the table. No searching, no scratching, no shamblers tearing us down one by one. They were trying to build a future here – there was even a school for the little ones, they said.

“It’s too dangerous out there. I can’t risk it. I can’t,” she told me several times, between pointing out Haven’s virtues.

I tried to reason with her. I pointed out the flaws in this place, and the short-term nature of its virtues. We’re going to look for a future too, something better than this. We’re going back to our doctor, who’ll be able to make sure she’s all right.

“But what if there’s no better future to find? What if there is nothing better than this? What if he’s not there any more, too?”

I couldn’t argue with her. She wasn’t wrong, not about those things. Haven’s promises are so bright and warm, and she’s clinging to them. She won’t see how thin they are – they’re solid enough for her, more tangible than the promise of what lies before us. The Seekers have a lot of shadows to pass through before we have a chance of finding something better than Haven. For most of us, that’s something we’re willing to face. But Tia has her baby to think of and a wealth of fear to keep her exactly where she is.

She looked at me with defiance, tears streaming down her cheeks and her chin trying not to wobble. I closed my mouth on the arguments I wanted to spill on her. She had known that I would argue against her staying – she had been ready for this. She had made up her mind as soon as she suspected she was pregnant. She was trying to do the right thing for herself.

I didn’t agree with her – I couldn’t – but it didn’t feel right to bully her into leaving either. So I hugged her again and told her that I respected her decision. I didn’t like it but it was hers to make. She’d always have a place with us if she changed her mind anyway.

“There aren’t any ex-Seekers,” I told her. “You’ll always be one of us.” It’s who we are, even if we’re not together, even if we’re not out on the road.

Tia was puzzled at first and then she smiled and wiped her cheeks.

“I’ll still help you,” she said.

I thanked her for that and let her go. She slipped out of the room and returned to her work crew, probably to tell them the good news. I, meanwhile, sagged against the exam table and fought back a sudden wave of tears.


She had promised she would still help us get out of here, but I don’t think she will. She’d be a fool if she did. If she got caught, she’d ruin her own position here. She’d end up like me, watched and suspected and judged every second of every day. Pregnant or not, she’d be in trouble. To protect herself, she should separate herself from the rest of us.

And then there’s her brother. Terry is helping the boys out and I have no idea if he knows about this latest development. I don’t think he’ll come without his sister. Families should stick together.

Where does that leave Jersey? She’s attached to Terry, though she’d never admit it. They can’t be together here – even if he wanted to be, which he’s shown no sign of – so what will she do? What will she want to do?

There were so few of us already, and now our numbers are even smaller. With so many barriers rising around us, how will we ever get out of here? There must be a way to make this work. There must be a way to get free of all of this.

I just wish that I could see it.