Fear the Dead
Also by Jack Lewis:
[+ Haunted Shadows+]
[+ The Dying & The Dead 1+]
[+ The Haunting of Towneley Manor+]
Shadows slid from the spines of the trees and covered the woods in darkness. Night was nearly here, and soon it wouldn’t just be the infected lurking in the forest; the stalkers were coming.
Rain fell on my windbreaker in patters that soaked into my shoulders and weighed me down with each drip. My back was slick with water from where the waterproof lining of my coat had faded. In the distance, an infected stumbled through the trees and crunched on the twigs beneath it with clumsy footsteps.
I had a revolver in my bag, but gunshots were the last thing I needed. That was a sure way of getting the infected to come for you, drawn in by the prospect of a meal. I walked quieter and breathed softer, hoping it wouldn’t look my way.
The sky darkened. My stomach ached with hunger, and each step was a chore. I needed to sit down, I needed food, and I had to get to shelter before the stalkers came.
There was a town called Vasey less than an hour’s walk away. There would be a roof to guard me from the elements, and walls to protect me from the things that walked in the night. There would be food, warmth and if I was lucky, maybe even a beer. My mouth watered at the idea of gulping on a bottle of cold ale.
The problem with going to town was there would also be people there, and lots of them. Vasey was the biggest survivor settlement in Lancashire, and it was as safe a place as you could get in this new world.
It had been fifteen years since the dead had first started to rise, and a lot of things had changed since then. People had changed since then, and not for the better. I would give town a miss. I knew better than to seek out the company of people, and I’d learned that there was no man who cared about your survival as much as he did his own.
I thought about the old days. I thought about Clara, and the way she used to grip my hand when she saw an infected, and about how good I used to feel knowing I could keep her safe. So much for that.
The sky was darkening. I had pangs in my stomach and my legs felt like they were going to collapse underneath me.
The lone infected seemed to be walking in the other direction. I moved my hand away from my knife, knowing that for now at least, the danger had passed. A single infected fifty metres away didn’t pose much of a threat to me. Their vision was poor and so was their sense of smell, unlike the stalkers. If that was a stalker it would have seen me straight away, and it would have leapt through the trees and pounced on me before I could reach for my knife.
I shuddered at the thought. I pulled my hood over my head and walked through the wet woods. Soon I saw a wooden building. It looked like some kind of storage shed, small with a jagged tin roof and wood-panelled walls that would blow down in a gust. Not a place to wait out the apocalypse, but it would be good for a night. I’d go in there, drop my stuff and grab a few hours of much-needed sleep, because it had been way too long since I had last got some of that. There was something a little more reassuring about putting your back against a solid wall than the trunk of a tree.
I could even risk cooking something. My mouth watered at the idea of eating for the first time in hours. I didn’t have much on me – just some tins of beans and sachets of soup. It was crazy that tinned food was still edible so long into the outbreak, but I guess those survivalists knew what they were doing. The general rule was, anything vegetable-based was safe to eat, whereas anything meaty wasn’t worth the risk.
I reached behind me and felt the bump of a tin of beans pressing against the side of my rucksack. It wasn’t much but it would taste like a king’s feast. My stomach ached for it.
I got closer to the shack, and my heart sank.
Through a small frosted glass window a dim light flickered. I couldn’t make out anything else inside, but light meant people, and that meant I wasn’t staying there. I walked away from the shack. My stomach reeled from the prospect of food that had just been snatched from me. My legs felt a hundred times heavier and the pack on my back, filled only with my meagre possessions, felt like a boulder. If I didn’t find somewhere soon, I was going to drop.
Behind me a door opened. I spun around, reached to my belt, and in one motion slipped my knife into my hand and held it ready to strike.
“Whoa. You won’t be needing that tonight.”
A man stood in the doorframe. He was tall, bald and a wild beard sprouted from his chin. He wore a baggy white t-shirt covered in red food stains, and jeans that were splattered with mud. His fly was unzipped, and he wore unfastened workman boots. I got the feeling he hadn’t expected company outside the shack. He took a step toward me.
“Evening,” I said, and looked away. I went in the opposite direction, having no interest in conversation.
Boots crunched on the forest floor behind me.
“Gimme a minute, stranger.”
I turned round. He smiled awkwardly.
“Need something?” I said.
The man looked around him. The forest was denser in the dark. “Where you goin’ this time of night?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
He took another step toward me. “Do me a favour?”
He grinned. “I got a call of nature. I know, I know – worst time for it, eh?”
“Why not take a piss in there?” I said, nodding at the shack.
“We got a bucket, but I don’t like using it. Something about the sound the spray makes on the metal. It don’t seem right to do it indoors.”
I tried to keep my irritation under control. “So what, you need me to hold it for you or something?”
He laughed. “Nah. Just keep a look out. Make sure nothing takes a chunk out of my arse.”
I didn’t feel any threat from him but I wasn’t going to let my guard down, nor did I have the time to stand around while he urinated. The sky was black and it wouldn’t be long until the stalkers were prowling. I had to have shelter before then.
I knew how I must have seemed to him. Where strangers were concerned, I wasn’t a nice person. I didn’t want to be that way, but since the world ended I had seen what happened to nice guys. I never wished for the outbreak to happen, and I would have given anything to rewind time and make things how they used to be, but I couldn’t. That meant that no matter how much it went against my natural instincts, I had to play the bad guy.
A spurt of liquid hit a tree behind me. “It’s getting late,” said the man, as he released his bladder. “And town’s an hour away. Say, I don’t remember seeing you there before.”
“I don’t live there.”
“Really?” His voice seemed incredulous at the thought that someone might not be from town, that someone might spurn the safety of its walls. “At any rate, you’re gonna need to get yourself under a roof.” The stream of urine stopped and he zipped up his pants. He motioned behind him to the shack. “It’s not the Hilton, but you’re welcome to stay for the night. We’re seeing it out until morning then heading back.”
Part of me was already walking over there and setting down my bag. I wanted to get in the shack, take my boots off and sink to the floor. I would have done anything to fill my belly with beans and then sleep for a week.
The man seemed genuine enough, but the shady ones always did. The only people you could count on to show you their intentions were those who didn’t care to hide their bad ones.
“How many of you are in there?”
“Me, Dan and Faizel. My name’s Noah.”
One stranger was bad enough, but three was too many.
His voice became patronising. “I don’t know if you’ve checked your situation lately, but it’s night-time. ‘Scuse me for being blunt, but if you’re out here at night you are screwed. I don’t know you from Jack, but I don’t want to hear you screaming out here when I’m trying to sleep.”
I needed to go inside. It was crazy to stay out at night, and I wanted the shelter so badly. I didn’t want to spend another night shivering in the woods, not daring to shut my eyes. But I couldn’t. In there, in the same room with three strangers, I would keep one eye open all night.
I turned away. “Thanks for the offer.”
My boots felt heavier with every step. The man called out behind me. “You’re going to get yourself killed, you idiot.”
Tell me something I don’t know, I thought.
I carried on walking. I judged it to be around midnight, and being out in the open at this time was like swimming in shark infested waters with a steak on your back.
To my right was a thirty-foot oak tree, standing in the same spot that it had probably stood since way before the world fell, maybe even before I was born. There was something that looked a little odd about it, and when I got closer I found that the trunk was hollowed out. Whether it was through old age or the work of some forest animal, I didn’t care. I was thankful for it. It might not have been the Ritz, but it would do.
I lowered my head and squeezed my body into the tight space. The inside of the tree smelt like sodden earth and felt soggy on my jeans, and my back was bent so much that it hurt. I wasn’t looking at a comfortable night’s sleep, but then, when was the last time I had one of those?
I couldn’t go on like this.
I thought about the shack and felt a pang of regret. Why didn’t I stay there? Plenty of people would have trusted the men, gone inside and got a good night’s rest.
I shook my head. Those were the kind of people who died. Every time you trusted a person you had another spin of the chamber, hoping this time it wasn’t your turn to take the bullet.
From my hole in the tree I had a limited view of the forest in front of me. If something suddenly spotted me, I would be screwed; there would be no way to escape, no back exit. It was still better than being out in the open, though. Out there an infected could come out of nowhere and bite you, or a stalker might leap from a tree and take a chunk out of your neck.
To take my mind off the infected and the stalkers, I put my pack on my lap. I unzipped it and looked at what I had with me. Somewhere at the bottom were some fireworks – useful for distracting the infected – and a lighter.
I rummaged in my pack and took out the revolver that I had found a few months ago in the pocket of an infected. The handle was scratched and the brown paint was flecking away, and when I opened the chamber the smell of gunpowder cut through the soggy aroma of the tree. I only had three bullets left but that didn’t matter. I rarely fired the gun if I could help it; the sound of a gunshot might as well have been a siren call for the infected.
I checked my food. I had two tins of bargain bin kidney beans in brine. As hungry as I was, the thought of the slimy beans put my stomach in a knot. My only alternative was a sachet of powdered chicken soup, but I needed to boil some water to cook it with. Right now, lighting a fire would be suicidal.
I dug down and felt the cold touch of metal. It was Clara’s gold bracelet. I had bought it for our five year anniversary, back when things were good. Now it was a grim reminder of what I had lost. I felt a sentimental wave wash over me, so I put it back.
Tucked at the bottom of my bag and wrapped in a waterproof plastic sheet was my prized possession, my GPRS tracker. I looked out into the woods, and seeing that nobody was around, I took it out. I pressed the ON button and the screen came to life, a blue light that illuminated the darkness. I covered the top of it with my hand to stop the light being seen by anything that lurked around me.
The GPRS loaded and the route displayed. It showed my current location, and the route I needed to take to get to the farm. Thank god that the satellites were still working, because without them I would never find my way. The farm was tucked away in a remote little spot in the countryside, so hidden away that it was impossible to just stumble on it.
Why had we waited so long to try and find it? Why had we wasted so many years in the Wilds looking for other survivors, when we could have just isolated ourselves completely, made something of a life for ourselves?
The farm was my salvation. Once I got there, everything would be okay. I’d be alone, far away from people, and I would be self-sufficient. And the GPRS was my only way of getting there. I checked the mile section in the corner, and saw that I had 400 left to go. The thought of the journey ahead made my body heavy, but nothing would stop me.
As I enjoyed the images in my head of how good life would be once I reached the farm, my eyelids fell.
Later, I don’t know how long, I jerked awake. I looked outside of my little tree hole. My breath caught in my chest and a shiver ran through me.
Ten metres away, a stalker hugged the ground and sniffed the earth for my scent. It slinked in my direction, with hunger on its lips and death in its eyes.
I had nowhere to run. Even with a head start on the stalker, the way those things moved meant it would be on me in seconds. I could have grabbed my knife, but for all the good it would do me against a stalker I might as well have used it to slit my own throat.
I put my revolver in the pocket of my coat. I wouldn’t fire it. To kill a stalker I’d need to get a head shot, and despite having three bullets I would only get the chance to fire one. My aim was average at best, and right now my head spun so much it felt like I was on a boat.
Although my eyes stung I didn’t feel tired anymore, as though seeing the stalker had shot adrenaline through my body. I was wired; my pulse raced and my legs were restless, and part of me just wanted to stand up and bolt through the woods.
I didn’t have long before the stalker caught my scent. It sniffed at the forest floor, and slunk across the earth like a snake. It was strange seeing something that used to be a person moving in this twisted way, and watching it made my skin clammy.
I looked up and saw the night sky, black and endless. A few stars dotted the canvas, illuminating a dark sea that threatened to drown me. I needed something to take the stalker’s attention away from me and give me enough time to get the hell away. But what would make a good distraction?
I had an idea, and I felt stupid for not thinking of it before. I still had the fireworks. What better time than now to light up the sky and send the stalker off chasing an explosion? It would get me the time I needed to escape.
I pulled the fireworks from my bag, but the cardboard cases were soggy. It was probably from where the rain had leaked through my bag. Why did this happen now, of all times?
The cardboard tore away and covered my hands in black gunpowder. I dropped my head. Now I was in trouble. I thought back to the shack and the men inside, and I felt like punching myself for my stupidity. Why had I not gone inside? If I’d just trusted them, I wouldn’t be in this mess.
What the hell was wrong with me?
The stalker looked up. It moved with purpose, and it looked straight at me. My blood froze. I held in my breath and tightened my body, willing myself not to move an inch.
Maybe it wouldn’t see me. Maybe it was looking beyond me. I still had a chance to get out of this.
But then it moved in my direction.
I took the revolver from my pocket. I flipped the safety and pointed the gun at the stalker ahead. The noise didn’t matter anymore, because the gun was my only option. My arm shook but I tensed my muscles and bit down on the glob of bile that slid up my throat.
The stalker got closer. It moved in on my scent, testing the ground and making sure of its trail. Any time now it would pounce. I wouldn’t give it that chance.
This was it.
I held my breath to steady my aim, the way I had seen snipers do it in films before they took a kill shot. The stalker moved into a crouch and got ready to pounce. I pulled the trigger.
The barrel of the gun exploded. Sparks shot out of the chamber and filled the hollow tree. A searing pain burnt through my hand, and I dropped the revolver in my lap. My hand throbbed in agony so badly that I couldn’t even check to see if the stalker was dead.
The firework powder on my palm had caught fire from the spark of the gun. My skin was burnt and all I thought about was the pain as my nerve endings cried out. I shoved my hand as deep as I could into the wet earth and tried to cool my skin.
The stalker roared and staggered toward me on all fours. My bullet had torn a hole in its left leg. It was a good enough wound to slow it, but not a lethal one. Bleed, you bastard, I thought. If you want to eat, you’re going to have to fight for it.
I held the gun in my good hand and tried to aim, but my left hand hurt so much that I couldn’t focus properly. My ears rang from the explosion of the gun and threw me off balance, making it impossible to know if I was even aiming straight. I lined up the sight as best I could and fired.
The shot disappeared into the trees.
The stalker moved closer, unperturbed. Did these things have no fear?
I pushed back the pain of my hand and tensed my shoulders. One last chance. I fired again.
The bullet was swallowed by the darkness.
The stalker got closer. My body shook, and I had the sickening feeling that I was going to die. Fifteen years a survivor and this was how it would end; packed up in a hollowed-out tree stump with a stalker chewing through my intestines. Whatever happened, I would give it a fight.
The stalker was six feet away. It stuck its long wet tongue out and trailed it along its bottom lip. Spit pooled down its chin. This was the closest I had ever been to one of them, and the reality of it sent shivers through me. I saw the vague remnant of the person it had once been, but now it was more monster than human, a grotesque contamination of a tainted gene pool.
I grabbed my knife from my belt and prepared for my last fight.
“Over here!” said a deep voice.
To the right of me were flames; orange and red and glorious. They got closer, and as they came near the stalker shied away. It took a cautious step back and looked at me and then the fire, deciding whether the proximity of an easy snack was worth enduring the heat.
The flames were from torches carried by three worried-looking men. I didn’t need to be told who they were; it was Noah and the others from the shack. They had come back for me.
The adrenaline seeped out of me.
Noah’s face shone in the flames. “He’s alive,” he said.
I pointed to the stalker to warn them. This simple act drained me, and my head was light. “It’s wounded,” I said.
They crowded around the stalker and beat it with hammers and bats. It fought back ferociously, sinking its teeth into Noah’s shin bone and breaking it with a crack. He screamed and dropped his torch into the wet earth, where it extinguished with a fizz. The stalker pulled back its head, taking half of Noah’s shin bone with it, and looked to the others. Noah crashed to the earth like a felled tree and was silent.
The other two men rained desperate blows on the monster the way only those facing death can. The stalker didn’t have any fight left in it. As one of the men caved its head in with a hammer, my vision blackened and I fell back and smashed my head on the tree behind me.
When I woke the sky was light. I was in a bed in a strange room, the bed sheet drawn up to my chest and tucked tightly into the sides of the mattress. My head throbbed and my body felt like tissue paper. I wriggled into a sitting position, but when I put my weight on my left hand a shock of pain ran through me. My hand was covered in bandages, and I remembered the previous night and how the gun powder had exploded on me when I fired the revolver. I winced.
There was a window to my right. A few people stood shooting the breeze on the street below. Rows of rooftops spread out in a curve in every direction, terminating only when the town met the countryside. Though most of the houses and shops seemed lifeless, a trail of smoke drifted out of the chimney of one of them. Far beyond the buildings and toward the woods, a giant stone wall ran the entire circumference of the town.
I was in Vasey, the only survivor settlement in Lancashire. How did I get here?
It was probably the men who had helped me fight the stalker, the ones who had offered me shelter. They must have carried me here during the night after I blacked out. However I got here, it didn’t matter. All I knew was that I wasn’t staying. I had avoided Vasey all this time for a reason. If I wanted to be around people, I would have come here a lot sooner.
I put my weight onto my right hand and swung out of bed. An ache ran from the bones in my toes up to my skull. My lips were dry and my left hand stung. I put my feet down on the floor. I wasn’t sure I could even make it to the door, let alone outside.
How had I let myself get this drained? I remembered images of the previous night, of the men beating the stalker to death, and its blood splashing out onto their clothes. The stalker clamping its teeth around one of the men’s shin bones and squeezing until it snapped. The man screaming, and falling.
My stomach gurgled. I felt bile rush up my throat, and I sank to my knees and heaved. Nothing came up but air. I wheezed and wanted to die.
The door opened and a boy walked in. His hair was buzzed to the scalp so that the top of his head was dotted with little black pin pricks that looked more like a five o’clock shadow than hair. He was tall and looked like he needed a few good meals to add a bit of meat to him. He had an awkward way to his walk as though he wasn’t fully in control of his own body, like a moth bumping his way along.
When he saw me his eyes widened.
“What are you doing down there?”
He walked over to the side of the bed and stuck his arms out as though to help me up.
“I got it.” I waved his arms away.
“How’s your hand?”
A stinging pain ran through my burnt palm. “I’ll live.”
“Did one of the infected do it?” he asked, and scratched the back of his head.
I put my right hand on the ground and pushed down, using it to support my weight. My body didn’t want to respond, but I managed to get to my feet. My head was spinning.
The walls of the room were stripped down to the stone, as though someone had been decorating, and there was a wooden dresser pushed against the wall opposite me. Otherwise the room looked like it had been emptied.
The boy was about fifteen years old, sixteen at a push. He looked green, like he’d never spent a day outside of the town in his life. Fifteen years into the apocalypse, some kids were being born into this nightmare. They didn’t have to make the transition from the old world to this new, dangerous one – this was the only life they knew. This kid was one of the lucky ones; he had been born in town and lived here all his life. The walls protected him from what was outside, and he didn’t have to give much of a thought to survival.
I considered the question he had asked- "Did one of them do it?" - and I couldn't keep the scorn out of my voice as I spat an answer.
“Kid, if one of them did it, do you think I’d be here?”
He screwed up his face. “What do you mean?”
“If someone was bitten, I don’t imagine you’d let them back into town.”
“Jesus. Kid – “
He interrupted me. “My name’s Justin.”
“I don’t care.” My head was pounding and the corners of my eyes were blurry. I heaved myself onto the bed and let my body sink into it.
Justin walked over to a dresser on the far side of the room, opposite the window. He poured water from a plastic bottle into a chipped white mug. He brought it to the side of the bed and offered it to me, but I waved him away.
“Where are you from?” asked Justin.
“Were you looking for Vasey?”
“Then where were you going?”
Blood rushed to my head and my face started to turn red. I felt like giving the kid a clout behind the ears, anything to get him to stop asking me questions. “For god’s sake, give me some space.”
Justin grabbed a wooden-backed chair and dragged it to the side of the bed. He sat in it and stared at me with curiosity, as though I were the new animal in a zoo.
The door opened and an old man walked into the room.
His face was beaten and wrinkled like a crumpled leather purse. His hair was grey, wiry and ran down to his shoulders, though on top it was noticeably thinning toward his crown. I wondered why he didn’t just stop pretending and shave it all off, but I guess he was too stubborn for that. He gave a wide smile when he saw me, but I didn’t read anything remotely friendly behind it.
“You’re a lucky man,” he said. He had a thick Lancastrian accent but his pitch was higher than I expected.
I looked down at my stinging, bandaged hand. My head throbbed and my body felt so brittle that I couldn’t even get out of bed without heaving. I didn’t feel too lucky.
“Yeah, guess I really won the lottery here.”
The man motioned at Justin to get up. He took his place in the chair beside the bed.
I let the seconds drag out and a silence took over the room. I wasn’t going to tell him a damn thing. The only thing I wanted to do was get the hell out of here, because every second I spent in bed was time I could have spent getting closer to the farm. I had to leave, and to do that, I needed to feel better. I looked over at Justin. He was perched on the edge of the dresser.
“I’ll take some of that water, please,” I said. If I was going to leave, I needed to get hydrated.
Justin looked up at Moe, and the old man nodded.
I couldn’t see any facial similarity between them, so they probably weren’t related. What was their connection? Self-respect oozed from Moe, the kind that you only got through surviving fifteen years of the apocalypse. The boy was like a nervous student eager to please.
Justin brought the cup of water over and offered it to me. Before I could sit up, Moe grabbed it from him and held it away.
“What do they call you?” he said.
He was going to withhold the water unless I answered him. I counted to five in my head, trying to bite back on the annoyance rising in me. I looked at the cup of water in his hand, and I felt my mouth try to salivate, except that it didn’t have the moisture to do it. My lips were dry and my tongue was rough and fuzzy.
“Kyle,” I answered.
He offered the cup to me. I took it, and sniffed at the water. It was a little musty, and there were flecks of white powder at the bottom.
“What the hell is this?”
“I crushed up a paracetamol for you,” said Justin.
“Paracetamol?” I said. “Hasn’t that stuff all gone out of date yet?”
“Still works,” said Moe.
“Drink it,” said Justin, and nodded at the glass. “You’ll feel better.”
The kid had a trustworthy face, almost plain in its honesty, whereas Moe looked like a man you’d hide your cards from in a poker game. It was obvious he was a boss of some sort to Justin, and the kid seemed so naive that he’d follow any instruction.
A dagger of pain shot through my temple, and another dry heave rose from my stomach. My body was crying out for the water. I looked up again at Justin’s honest face, and I reminded myself that the most conniving people are brilliant at making themselves seem truthful.
I set the water on the nightstand beside my bed and licked my cracked lips.
“They said you were a suspicious one,” said Moe.
“Faizel, one of our scouts you met last night. He said that Noah offered you shelter, but you said no.”
“I don’t like having to sleep with one eye open.”
Moe’s old eyes turned dark. “And I don’t like losing a good man because of a stranger’s stupidity.”
I bolted into a sitting position. The movement nauseated me, and I choked back on a heave that rose from my stomach. Anger made my chest feel tight. Who the hell was Moe to speak to me that way? On a different day, I would have put him on his back for talking like that.
I looked at Moe and Justin, and didn’t like my odds; I was down two to one, and I was an invalid right now. If something was off about these two, and I needed to get out of here, I doubted my body could even get me to the door.
Outside, where Vasey’s walls met the wilds, I could see the route I needed to take. The farm was waiting, and every second that went by without progress was wasted.
I choked back my anger and kept my voice calm. “If there was some stupidity last night, it wasn’t mine.”
Moe snorted. “So what do you call pissing on the offer of shelter when there are stalkers around? That sound wise to you?”
Put like that, it didn’t sound too clever. I looked Moe up and down. He had to be in his sixties, so he must have been around before the Fall. He would have seen how the world used to be and how much it had changed, and not for the better. God knows how long he’d lived in Vasey, tucked up behind the town’s walls, but surely he knew the laws of the wilds? You didn’t trust anybody, ever. Any man could turn on you and any person could do you harm. Giving your trust to a man wasn’t free – it might cost your life.
Moe crossed his legs. “Noah was a good man, and so are Dan and Faizel. They meant you no harm.”
“Good is an objective word. You have to know something to judge it as good – and I didn’t know shit about them.”
Justin snapped his head in my direction. I realised I was raising my voice and my tone was getting mean. This always happened whenever I spent too much time around people.
Moe stood up. He was an old man, and on equal terms I could beat him. But now, in my weakened state and with him towering over me, the odds were even.
“I spoke to Faizel. They saw where you settled for the night, some grubby little hole in a tree. Maybe you were sharing it with a squirrel or something. At any rate, they kept an eye on you. They saw a stalker coming, and they rushed in and saved your life. What do you have to say about that?”
I clenched my left hand and felt it burn. “It was the smell of your man’s piss that brought the stalker. There were three of them crowded in that shack. You know what crowds of people tend to attract? Stalkers. And infected. If you’re going to blame anyone, then blame your guys for being too scared to travel alone.”
“A man can’t live alone,” said Moe.
“I do pretty well.”
He looked at me and grinned, as though he had made his point. “Yeah, you sure are living the good life.”
I felt fatigued beyond belief, and my head was clamped in a vice. My clothes wore the stains of months of travel. I'd been walking for so long and I was still four hundred miles away from where I needed to be, and I only had provisions to last me a day. The only things I had were my dead wife’s bracelet - useless unless I came across an infected with a taste for fancy gold -, a revolver with no bullets, some soggy fireworks and a GPRS which, if it broke, would ruin everything.
Maybe Moe had a point. I wasn’t living, I was getting by. At least in town they had supplies, walls and something of a life going for them.
They also had to live with each other, and that wasn’t a good thing. Every day you spent in the company of another person was a day you trusted your life to them, trusted them not to make some stupid decision that would get you killed.
It was time to go. I sat up and tried to spin my legs round to the side of the bed. It took all the effort I had and the strain made me sweat. Justin moved away from the dresser and moved to help me, but I gave him a glare that stopped him cold. I got my feet on the ground, though I didn’t want to risk standing up yet.
“Where are my things?”
Moe nodded to Justin. The kid walked to the other side of the room and bent down to the side of a book case. He picked up my bag and put it on the edge of the bed.
“Not sticking around?” said Moe.
“Got somewhere I need to be.”
“Where?” asked Justin, his eyes alive with curiosity. Any mention of anything outside town seemed to excite him.
“Unless you got a reason to know, I’m not saying.”
Moe stood up and reached into his pocket. As well as a stray piece of fluff, he pulled out my GPRS. I felt my blood rush to my head and I saw spots, but I fought the feeling and stayed upright. What was he doing with it? The sight of him holding my GPRS, my only link to the farm, made me want to knock him out cold.
That wouldn’t be the right thing to do. I couldn’t show him what it meant to me, because that would make it all the more valuable in his eyes. I had to play this smart.
“You went through my stuff?” I said.
He nodded. “Think healthcare is free? This ain’t the NHS.”
“No. They had a better bedside manner.”
Moe smirked. “I was old and set in my ways long before things turned to shit, so I’m not going to pretend to know what this is.” He tossed the GPRS on the bed.
I cradled it in my hand and inspected it, but thankfully there didn’t seem to be any damage. I let out a long breath. I put the GPRS carefully in my bag.
“You can take your gizmo or whatever it is. But I need paying.”
Outside the sky was white and the sun was shining. It was a beautiful day. It was the kind where, long before the Fall, Clara and I would grab some sandwiches and go for a picnic. Looking at it, you could almost imagine there was nothing wrong with the world. It wasn’t true, obviously. The infected didn’t care whether the sun was shining or it was pissing with rain. They’d tear your flesh apart whatever the weather.
“Fine,” I sighed, “what do you want?”
He nodded down at my revolver. “That’s a nice piece.”
I shook my head. “No chance.”
“Not much good to you without bullets, unless you think waving it at one of the monsters will stop it.”
“I’ll take my chances on finding more bullets. I’d rather have the gun and need the bullets, than find the bullets and need the gun. “
He stuck his hand in my bag, and a knot tightened in my stomach at the invasion of my space. That pack had been my only means of living for months now, and I had carried food, ammo, clothes, and everything else I needed to stay alive in it. Seeing someone else going through it made me clench my fists.
“Take your fucking hand out of there,” I said. Something was bubbling up inside me, and this time it wasn’t dry heaves. I filled my lungs and tried to bury the feeling, knowing that if things kicked off here I would likely have a whole town to contend with.
“I’d much rather take this,” said Moe, and he pulled his hand out of the bag. In his curled fist he held Clara’s gold bracelet.
I took a step toward him. My tiredness was gone, replaced by the energy only fury can give you. Moe moved back, but he tightened his right fist into a ball at his side. Near the dresser, Justin twitched. He looked from me to Moe, as if weighing up what to do.
I might have been able to deal with the old man, but Justin was different. Sure, he was wet behind the ears and had probably never stepped foot outside town in his life, but he hadn’t spent the last few months walking on empty. I had survival instincts and experience, but right now he had the physical edge.
“You’re not having that,” I said.
“What good is it to you?” said Moe, letting the gold slink through his cigarette-stained fingers.
Moe looked at the bracelet and then at me. He gave a wide grin, and his whiskered cheeks tightened. “I didn’t have you pegged as the sentimental sort.”
If he didn’t stop I was going to punch the smile off his face, no matter what the consequences were. This was why I stayed away from people; you couldn’t trust their intentions, and I couldn’t trust myself not to beat the hell out of them.
“I suggest you take your fingers off that bracelet.”
He threw it on the bed. “Sure. But it’s either the bracelet or the gun. I’m a generous man – I’ll let you pick.”
I glanced sideways at Justin. The kid looked jumpy.
“Suppose I just beat the crap out of both of you.” I said.
Moe laughed. “Even if a fine physical specimen as yourself were able to do that in your current state, do you suppose you’d get a foot out of Vasey without getting a bullet in your back?”
He was right, I knew. There was no way I was getting out of here by force. I had two choices. I either gave him the gold bracelet, my last memento of Clara, or I gave him the revolver. What a choice. The bracelet was the only thing of hers that I had, but the gun that could easily be the difference between living or dying.
The way I saw it, memories wouldn’t do me much good in the grave, and I thought Clara would respect that. She wouldn’t want me to lessen my survival chances to keep hold of a piece of jewellery.
“Take the gold,” I said.
“A pragmatic choice.” He stood up, rubbed the bracelet on his jumper and then stuffed it in his pocket. “There’s a pretty girl in town. She’s got an ass you could eat your dinner off, but she costs too much. Maybe this will buy me a few hours with her,” said Moe.
His words hit me in the gut. I’d picked the slim chance of survival over keeping the memory of Clara with me, and now it was going to be used as currency to pay a whore.
Moe was a piece of crap, and meeting him confirmed what I had known about Vasey all along. The idea of sticking around had some comfort to it – walls, warmth, and protection – but it came at a price I had no interest in paying. If being around people was the cost of security, I’d rather take my chances outside. It just wasn’t worth it. At least alone I could control what I did, and any mistakes I made would be my own. If you spent time with someone else, you were at the mercy of whatever dumb decision they made.
I walked down the pothole-ridden road that led out of town. A bunch of shops lined the high street, though none of them were used as businesses these days. What used to be a bakery was now packed with blue gas canisters, and a yellow-walled hair boutique with a “Village Supercuts” sign had the skins of various animals hanging up on the walls. It was a strange choice, because further down the road was a butcher shop and that would have made a better choice to store animal hides.
From another doorway a man watched me. He was topless and the curve of his stomach poked out above his jeans, the beginnings of a beer-belly that he had no business growing in this new world where food was rare and beer even rarer. He rested his arms on the doorframe and let a cigarette hang from the corner of his mouth. He never took his eyes off me as I walked passed him and toward the gate that guarded the town exit.
The gate was twenty-feet high, black and made of steel. On either side were stone turrets, and in each turret stood a guard with a gun. Vasey, like many places in the North of England, was once home to a Norman stronghold, and the black gate was a remnant of its ancient defence. Now though, instead of protecting the townspeople against invading armies hungry for territory, it was protecting them against the living dead who were hungry for brains.
I walked up to the gates. The guard in the left turret twitched at every step I took, and when I stood in front of the bars he raised his gun at me. It was only an air rifle so it wasn’t lethal, but I didn’t want to take a shot in the head from it. Still, there was no way I was going to let them keep me here. I took hold of two of the steel bars, which felt cold against my skin, and I shook them. They didn’t budge.
“Need you to step away from there,” said the voice above me.
I looked for some sort of latch or bolt so I could get the gate open, but there didn’t seem to be anything. On the side, where the gate joined the turret, a chain fed into a pulley system. That was why it wouldn’t open, then. Although the gate was a relic from centuries past, at some point it had been mechanised, and now the gate would only open if someone operated it. I guessed the controls were in the turret.
Above me, the guard raised his rifle a little higher. “I won’t ask again, back away from the bloody gate.”
I needed a little diplomacy here. I had to persuade him to open the gate for me, and getting angry would earn me nothing but a pellet in my skull. I tried to breathe in and control my pulse, but the feeling of something being outside control made me feel trapped. I wanted to climb up the gate, jump in the turret and knock the guard out, but I wouldn’t get more than halfway up before I was peppered with shots from the other one.
I looked back toward the street. The man in the doorframe was still staring at me. He spat his cigarette onto the floor. Above me, both guards had their air rifles trained on my head. I felt my chest tighten, and my palms were getting clammy. The gate loomed over me, unmovable, and I felt the hairs on my arms raise. Who the hell did they think they were to trap me here, to stop me from leaving?
Nobody did that to me – nobody. I was going to show them what happened when you did.
I took my bag off my shoulder and reached inside. I knew what I was doing was stupid, but I couldn’t stop myself. I felt around for my revolver and, with the handle in my grasp, I was ready to pull it out. I didn’t have any bullets, but I wanted to see how cocky the guard was when I waved a real gun in his face. I pulled my hand out of my bag, knowing that as soon as they saw the gun they would shoot me.
Just as the silver of the chamber glinted in the sun, I heard a voice call out behind me.
I turned round. Justin was running toward me in a strange shuffle. He wore a thick coat that was too long for him at the sleeves, and his body was unbalanced by a rucksack on his shoulder.
I looked up at the guard. “Get this open, now.”
The guard acted like he hadn’t heard me. Justin got closer, and he had a nervous grin on his face.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“You don’t need to know.”
He stood in front of me and dropped his bag to the ground, and there was the clang of something metal. There was a pause, and Justin seemed to be thinking of what to say to me. What could he possibly want?
“Take me with you,” he said.
So that was it. That’s what the coat and bag were for. I wondered what was in the bag; it was probably full of provisions, but for all I knew it could be his toys or something. The kid had never set foot out of the town in his life, so I dreaded to think what he’d packed as necessities for his “trip.”
I stopped just short of sneering at him. “The class trip’s not until next week.”
Justin looked at me, puzzled. I realised that he had been born straight into this new world that even after fifteen years hadn’t stabilised enough to establish a ‘normal’ way of life for people. Justin didn’t have a clue what things had been like before. He didn’t know what a class trip was, because he’d never been in school. I realised how alien the experience of the world was for kids like him, those who were born into it rather than adapting to it. He couldn’t help how he was.
This time I spoke in a kinder tone. “You can’t come with me.” I nodded at what was beyond the gate. “There are no walls out there, Justin. There’s nothing separating you from them, and one wrong step will get you killed.”
He shook his head. “I’ve been out before. Not so far, just round town, but far enough. I know how to avoid them.”
“You ever been out at night?” I asked.
He looked to the ground. “No.”
“Then you don’t know what’s out there. Those pathetic bastards are nothing compared to what comes after it gets dark.”
“I know about the night things.”
I sighed. Above me the guard listened to our conversation with interest. I wondered if he had ever been out at night, or whether anyone in this town had ever spent a night in the dark hoping a stalker didn’t catch their scent. Then I remembered Noah and the others in the shack, about how they’d risked their lives to help me with the stalker.
I took a step toward Justin. “The things out there will tear you apart.”
His eyes were wide. “I can handle it. Or you can show me.”
“I’m not a babysitter.”
“And I’m not a baby. I’ll pull my weight. I’ve got supplies,” he said, and gave the little bag in front of him a kick.
The bag was packed tight, and I saw the outlines of tin cans busting against the fabric. The stuff would have been a godsend for me, considering I only had enough to last a couple of days at a stretch. But the price was having a tagalong, a kid who was so green that he’d blend into the grass, someone who would undoubtedly make the wrong move somewhere down the line and get us both killed.
I believed his intentions were honest in wanting to join me, but it wasn’t a chance I was willing to take. I shook my head softly. “Why do you even want to come?”
He leaned in a little closer. His voice was quieter. “This town, there’s nothing to it. No future. The people here are drinking themselves stupid, and they’re not thinking about what’s coming. We should be doing something; farming, expanding, I don’t know what. But they’re sinking into a rut and they’re smiling about it.”
The kid was making some sense. “It’s not much better out there,” I said, and nodded back toward the gate.
He looked at me in a strange way, almost knowingly. “I bet you have a plan.”
He was right, though there was not a chance I was telling him what my plan was.
“You’re not coming – end of discussion.”
His shoulders sagged, but he didn’t say anything else. Maybe the message had finally gotten through to him.
“Look, kid, stay behind your walls. It’s safe here. It might not be much of a life, but at least you got one. The second you step outside these walls, it’s forfeit.”
He said nothing, just stood there and sulked.
I gave his bag a tap. “Take these back to wherever you got them; people will need them. And look, can you tell this guy to open the gate?”
Justin looked up and the man in the turret. “Moe says let him go,” he said.
The guard pressed a button. The chain and pulley on the gate creaked into motion and the black bars swung open. I stepped through them, out of the safety of the town and back into the wastes. Behind me I felt Justin’s eyes following me every step of the way.
I walked out of town and into the woods. The temperature was warm and the leaves on the trees were still. Although the sky was sunny, a grey cloud was gathering to break it. I could smell the earthy aroma of the pine trees, and for some reason it made me feel hungry. How long had it been since I’d eaten?
There were a few lone infected walking lazily through the trees, but there was nothing to worry about unless I planned on making a racket. My most pressing need was to find shelter before night came. There I could get some food in my belly and fire up the GPRS, because I needed to get my bearings. The last two days had knocked me off course, and I didn’t have a clue which direction I should be heading in. I could have turned it on there and then, but I didn’t trust doing it out in the open. There were too many places for bodies to lurk and eyes to see.
I walked for forty-five minutes and I found the shack that Noah and his friends had stayed in. I didn’t know whether I should use it; for all I knew, it was a regular spot for the Vasey scouts, and some of them could easily turn up while I slept. The last thing I needed right now was to run into anyone from Vasey.
Then again, I doubted they’d be making any runs anytime soon after what happened to Noah, and besides, the sky was starting to turn a little too dusky for my liking and I didn’t want to get caught in the open. I didn’t have a choice.
I went inside the shack. It was just one room, and it was empty. At some point it had probably been used as a storage shed for park rangers, but now it was just four walls and wooden floor boards. There was a faded poster imploring the use of walky-talkies on patrols on one wall, and from another a sink stuck out from the plaster, though the water had long since been cut off. I dropped my bag and sank to the floor, resting my back against the wall that was furthest away from the door. As soon as I touched the floorboards, I felt my energy seep out of me.
In the corner of the room I found a small grill camping stove with a rubber tube that connected it to a gas canister, as well as two bottles of water that I deemed drinkable through their lack of any offensive odour. I twisted the knob of the camping stove to feed it gas, and I pressed in the ignition to create a spark that sent blue flames shooting underneath the grill. Despite it being evidence that the Vasey scouts used this shack on their trips, it was a fantastically lucky find. If I’d had a calendar with me, I would have checked to see if it was my birthday.
Five minutes later I had a chicken soup sachet cooking in the pot. The smell was salty and about as far away from chicken as you could get, but the aroma of warm food was enough to make my mouth water. I could almost hear my stomach thanking me in anticipation.
While the soup simmered I reached into my bag and took out my GPRS. I turned it around in my hand looking for nicks or scratches, and once I was satisfied there were none I rotated the screen toward me. It was time to see just how much further I had left to go. I thought of the detour of the past two days, and I felt tired. I knew I had at least four hundred miles left, and I could cover about twenty five each day if I got my arse in gear. This had been two days wasted. Fifty miles not walked.
I pressed in the rubber ON button and waited. It usually took a moment and then the screen turned blue, but now it was blank. I left it a few more seconds, but the tight feeling in my chest made it hard to be patient.
I pressed it again. And again. This time I pressed the button in deeper, held it in longer. The screen stayed black.
I ran my fingers through my hair. If the GPRS was broken, I was screwed. The farm was so far away that I would never get there without directions, and though I’d been told where it was, I had never been there myself. My only link was the GPRS, into which years ago Clara had programmed the coordinates ready for a trip that we never got to make.
The idea of the farm and carving out a life there was a dream, because there was no telling what kind of state it was going to be in. But I had to make it. I owed it to Clara, because I’d promised I’d get us there once. I promised her that no matter how run-down it had gotten, we would put the work in and make it our own; that we’d make a safe home in a world where death stared in from all sides.
And now the screen was black. I twisted the unit in my hands again looking for signs of damage. In my haste I dropped it to the floor. I snatched it up again, held my breath, and pressed the button.
I stood up. I put my hands behind my head and paced the room. It was broken, that much I was sure of, and the chances of getting the parts to fix it, even if I had the know-how, were slim.
I couldn’t breathe, but I couldn’t stay still. Everything was ruined.
The door of the shack burst open. I snapped my head to the doorway and every nerve in my body fired. I tensed my muscles, ready to turn on anything that moved.
A thin figure stepped out of the night. It was Justin. He looked at me, and then looked at the GPRS on the floor.
“Damn, that’s too bad,” he said. His voice was hollow and his lips curled up into a smile.
That was when I knew it was him.
Before I knew what I was doing I had stomped across the room. I towered over Justin, my nostrils flaring as I took big breaths. I knew that he had done something with the GPRS but I just didn’t know what, and it was going to take every ounce of my self-control not to beat it out of him.
I wasn’t a violent man, and he was just a kid, but if he had broken the GPRS then I was screwed. Stupidly, I didn’t know the way to the farm by heart; I relied on the machine to tell me. I’d once tried to learn the way so that I’d have a back-up in case the worst happened, but after two days of straining I had to give it up. I guess my brain just doesn’t work that way. It’s not like I could just ask someone where it was either; of the two people in the post-infected world who knew the farm, one of them was dead and I never wanted to see the other again.
I poked a finger into Justin’s chest. His body was so soft that my finger seemed to sink in, and he took a faltering step back toward the wall. He looked strangely calm.
“What the fuck have you done?” I said with a tight voice.
Despite how I loomed over him, Justin didn’t shrink away. This was a far cry from the kid I had seen in town, the one with the awkward gait who couldn’t even balance his own shoulders. He cleared his throat. “Does it really matter, now, huh? It’s done either way.”
I turned away from him. My face went red. I walked across the room in three strides, picked up the GPRS and then walked back. In front of Justin, I pressed in the ‘on’ button, but the screen stayed dead. Justin watched me with a bored expression. I shook the GPRS in his face.
“Tell me what you did. Show me how to fix it.”
He took the GPRS out of my hands, flipped it over and slid a finger along it. A plastic latch opened.
“This is the battery compartment. See how it’s empty?”
If I weren’t so furious, I would have felt stupid for not checking that. “So you took it.”
Justin nodded. “Not only that,” he said with pride, as though I was supposed to be happy with what he had done, “I broke it so you can’t put a fresh one in.”
I felt my face burn, and I clenched my teeth. As if picking up on my cues, Justin carried on explaining himself. “Before you go crazy, hear me out. I did it to help you. I took the battery, so that way, if someone were to find it they’d have no idea where you’re going.”
The blood was pounding in my ears so loud I almost couldn’t hear what he was saying. I might as well have turned the cooking stove off, because right now my face felt red enough to start a fire. I tightened my fist and felt my skin wrap around my knuckles. I looked at Justin and the placid smile on his lips, and suddenly I wasn’t seeing a kid anymore, I was seeing a face that I wanted to smash. How dare he do this? Did he even realise just what he had done? Without the GPRS route everything was ruined, because I had no idea where I was supposed to go. Without that, without something to aim for, I was lost.
The vein in my temple twitched. “Are you actually trying to get me to kill you? Do you have a death wish? Because there are easier ways, I promise.”
He dropped the GPRS to the ground. My stomach jumped at the thudding sound it made on the wooden floor. Justin looked up at me. “I gave you a chance to say yes.”
“You’re trying my patience.”
“I asked you nicely to take me with you. I even brought supplies, but you’re so stubborn. You’re like Moe – you don’t listen to anyone but yourself.”
I could have laughed if it didn’t feel like my throat was tightening up. “And you think I’m going to take you with me now? I’d rather kill you,” I choked out.
My shoulders shook and there was a tension in my legs, a restlessness that made me want to pace around the room. In the corner of the room the chicken soup bubbled and soon it was going to start spitting out onto the floor, but I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the smug boy in front of me. My physical advantage was so big as to make the idea of a fight laughable, but all I could think about was punching him in the face.
For a whole year I had travelled alone toward the farm, and in all that time I had stayed away from people. Well, look how right I was. The second I came into contact with someone, he had purposefully messed with my plans.
My head throbbed and it was getting harder to think. All I felt was the rush of anger, the hot feeling as blood flooded to my head. I reached out and grabbed Justin by the throat.
I pushed him back, and his head hit the wall with a thud. I squeezed my hand against his windpipe and I felt the jagged contours of his neck bones as they met his Adam’s apple. Justin let out a choking sound, but he didn’t struggle against me. His eyes watched me in an almost interested way, as though he were curious as to what was going to happen. I squeezed his neck tighter. It felt so fragile, as if I could snap it if I applied more pressure.
“I’m giving you one chance here,” I said. “If you don’t give me the battery and fix it, I won’t just kill you; I’ll squeeze until you pass out, and when you wake up you’ll be in the middle of the forest, alone and far from here, and I’ll make sure the infected can smell you. It won’t be a quick death. You’ll scream so loud that you’ll wake Moe from his sleep.”
He stared at me with his wide bug eyes. He blinked once but said nothing, and this made my temple throb even harder. I tightened my hand a little and felt the sinews of his neck move like gristle. It would be so easy just to squeeze a little more and snap his neck. My breath caught in my chest and my heart pounded.
As I squeezed his neck, consciousness came back to me and my head cleared. I looked at my hand and realised what I was doing. The image disgusted me, the idea that I’d fallen this far. I wasn’t this sort of man. I might be many things, but child killer wasn’t one of them.
I loosened my grip. Justin’s body sagged a little, and he breathed in. He made raspy sounds as he struggled to fill his lungs, and there were red marks on his neck from where my hands had been. He looked at me calmly, which made my anger rise. I shoved him into the wall then walked away from him, scared of what I would do next.
“Dammit! When a man is strangling you, you better show some fear,” I said to him. “Because next time it won’t be someone like me, and your stupid stare will make them go all the way.”
I was sat on the floor with my back against the wall. Justin walked over to the end of the shack. He looked at the chicken soup bubbling in the cooking pot.
“It’s boiling dry.”
He turned off the stove, wrapped the sleeves of his jacket around his hands and picked up the pot. As he moved it onto the floor the smell of the chicken wafted over to me, and the way my mouth salivated reminded me of how long it had been since I had eaten.
Justin walked over and sat in front of me, cross legged. His eyes stared straight at mine. “I know I’ve not seen much of the world, and I know in some ways I’d hold you back, but I’ve got skills. Sure, I’d need you to look out for me with the infected for a little, but I’d get used to them. And there’s other stuff I can do to help you.”
His voice sounded as young as he actually was, but the way he spoke was so much older. He was obviously intelligent, which was a trait I never had. I was more of a practical type, a reactionary kind of guy. I could fight fires, but I sure as hell couldn’t figure out a way to stop them from happening.
I looked down at the ground, because I couldn’t look at Justin’s face anymore. The GPRS was broken, and on my last count I was four hundred miles away from where I needed to be. If I was closer – maybe ten miles away – I could have gotten lucky and found it myself. But four hundred miles was impossible. There was someone else who knew where the farm was, but going to see him wasn’t an option.
“I can tell you’re a little sceptical,” he continued, “but I learned lots of stuff growing up; things you couldn’t learn out here. For example, I can remember every Prime Minister and the term he served going back to 1721.”
I felt him poking at my patience. “Take a look outside. I can’t think of a more useless skill to have these days than knowing who ran the country in 1968.”
Justin’s eyes darted to the corner of his eye sockets for a split second. “Harold Wilson. But that’s not the point. I’ve got a memory palace.”
Maybe he couldn’t sense how brittle my will power was and how bad it would be for him if it broke, because he took my silence as a sign that he should explain himself. He looked me in the eyes, gave me a beaming grin, and then spoke. “What I’m saying is, I’ve got an amazing memory.”
“Then maybe you better remember how close I was to snapping your neck.”
“I do. And there’s all sort of other things I can store up here.” He tapped his temple. “Really interesting things. When you were unconscious in Vasey, for example, I memorised the route stored on your GPRS tracker.”
I lifted my head. “What?”
“Your route – I memorised it, every single step.”
“Are you screwing with me?”
Justin smiled, and I saw that one of his teeth was missing on the bottom row. Too bad there were no dentists around these days. “Nope. I can tell you every step you need to take to get to wherever it is you’re going.” He cleared his throat. “But just where is it we’re going to end up, exactly?”
“You should know, apparently,” I said, ignoring his use of ‘we’ for now.
“I know the route, but I don’t have a clue what’s waiting there. The end point you set means nothing to me.”
It was clear what he wanted. The GPRS unit was broken, and the kid had memorised the route. He was my only lifeline to get where I needed to be, and he knew it. I only had two options – give in to him and let him come with me, or give up on the farm.
Was he worth the risk? The boy was as naive as it got when it came to surviving, and not only would I have to look out for him, but any wrong move he made would put me in danger as well. At some point, too, I was sure that I was going have to dig a grave for him, because nobody lasted long in the wilds. And I had already done too much digging.
I thought about the farm and my promise to Clara. I thought about having to see yet another person die, and then having to bury him.
When the time came, I would do it. Until then, I didn’t have much of a choice.
I stared at him intensely and kept my tone firm. “You don’t move unless I tell you to. You don’t do anything unless I give you permission. You don’t use this genius brain of yours to decide anything for yourself, and you definitely don’t speak unless it’s an answer to a question. Got it?”
“And the second we get to the end of the route, you’re gone.”
Justin’s feet thudded on the forest floor and smashed every twig and leaf in their path. With each crunch and snap I looked around me to make sure we hadn’t drawn the unwanted attention of an infected.
“Do you have weights in your boots?”
Justin looked at me. His face was looking wearier, a little less cocky and there was two days of stubble sprayed on his cheeks, though most of the hair was light and the growth was sparse. “What do you mean?”
I put a hand on his shoulder and forced him to move slower. “Walk a little quieter. It’s like you’re trying to invite them over for a chat.”
We had covered thirty-five miles in the last two days. The first day after Justin had joined me we only walked fourteen, because despite getting something to eat, I still felt zapped. I also found that travelling with someone else held you back in other ways. The kid couldn’t match my pace, and though he never asked me to stop or take a break, there were times when his breathing got heavy and I could tell his steps were tough for him to take. The second day was better, and we managed twenty-one miles, but this was because we got out of the woods and managed a full day’s walk over flat terrain.
We moved over the English countryside, and under different circumstances I might have said it was beautiful; it was green, hilly and clear for miles. You didn’t have to worry about an infected jumping out at you because you saw everything around you in all directions, and that meant you could afford to walk a little quicker. For two days our view had been nothing but swaying fields with grass high enough to reach our ankles. Now though, we had hit woodland again.
“How thick is this patch?” I asked him.
His eyes looked up and to the side, as though he were searching his brain for data. “I don’t know. The GPRS didn’t have a route through the trees. We should be on the road somewhere over there,” he said, and pointed east of us.
Through the slots of the tress the sky looked grey. Darkness was starting to creep in, and soon the whole woodland would be black. I looked as far through the trees as I could but there didn’t seem to be any shelter. There wasn’t going to be any scout shack like back in Vasey, because there were no populated areas in this neck of the woods. This made me sweat. I didn’t want to be out in the open again when the stalkers came.
“How far’s the nearest town?” I asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I dunno.”
“I forget that you’re not Google.”
I shook my head. “Never mind.”
“Are we stopping?” asked Justin.
I dropped my rucksack to the ground. It was five times heavier than it had been two days ago, and though this meant extra weight to carry, I was glad of it. Justin brought enough supplies with him to get us a hell of a lot closer to the farm, and the first thing I’d done when I agreed to let him join me was to transfer most of them to my own bag. The kid thought it was because I wanted to help him carry the load, but it was actually so that if he screwed up and got himself killed, I wouldn’t be left starving.
I took a look round us and, seeing nothing, lowered myself to the forest floor. The mud was a little damp from a light shower in the morning, but it had been a long time since I had cared about something like that. Justin sat down, felt the wetness of the dirt and instead put his bag underneath him.
“Think we’re going to have to hold up here for the night. Don’t know exactly where we are, but I got an inkling there’s a village a few days away.”
Justin blinked. “You don’t trust me, but you’ll trust an inkling?”
“An inkling never got me killed.”
The truth was I had been here once, many years ago, so I had a dim recollection of the area. Back then though, I had been with Clara, and I had been too focused on how beautiful my new wife was to take in the scenery.
“Won’t ‘they’ come out? The things?”
“Stalkers.” I said.
“That’s what they’re called?”
I nodded. “That’d be the dictionary term, if someone out there was still printing them. Truth is I don’t know if they’ll come out here. But I think we’re good for miles on either side – there’s nothing here but fields. Stalkers stick near towns and villages where they know there are people.”
Justin tilted his head to the side. “What are they?”
I swallowed. I didn’t want to spend time thinking about the stalkers. “Don’t ask. Just if we ever see one, for god’s sake do what I say.”
A few hours later the woods were cloaked in darkness. Somewhere in the trees above me a bird shuffled in its nest, and aside from that the only sound was the regular chirp of crickets. A breeze blew cold on my cheeks, and with it came the smell of spring onions from a patch that must have been growing nearby. The sky was so black that I couldn’t see whether it was cloudy or not, though the absence of stars wasn’t a good sign. The last thing we needed when we didn’t have shelter was for it to start raining. I’d spent some long, wet nights out in the open over the last few years, and I didn’t plan to spend many more if I could help it.
Justin had his back against a log that was laid horizontally on the forest floor. The middle of it was hollow and looked like it had been chewed by something, but the hole wasn’t big enough to get inside. I rested my body against a tree, but I kept my mind alert. It felt good to sit down. I could actually feel the tiredness seeping out of me; it was like a warm energy that drained from my limbs. It was a good feeling, but it would have been even better to get some sleep.
I looked over at the kid. He had his eyes focused on his hands, and he seemed to be picking dirt from underneath his fingernails. Could I trust him to keep watch tonight, I wondered? I needed to get some shut eye, even if it was just for an hour, but I didn’t want to go to sleep and leave the kid watching out for me.
No, I couldn’t do it. No matter how scratchy and red my eyes were, no matter how much my shoulders felt like a weight crushing me down, I couldn’t sleep while he sat watch. I was just going to have to snatch ten minutes here and there when it was light. My body ached at the thought of the next morning, of another day of hiking on tired limbs.
“Justin,” I said.
He looked up. His eyes were puffy. “Yeah?”
“You should get some sleep.”
He put his hands on his lap. “How long’ve you been out here Kyle?”
“Don’t talk, just go to sleep. I’ll keep watch.”
Justin put his bag in front of him then laid his head on it. He wrapped his green raincoat round his body and tucked it tight up to his chin. It only took fifteen minutes, and then he was out for the count. As the kid lightly snored the night away, I began to wonder how we were going to cope for the next few hundred miles. He wanted to experience what it was like out here in the wild, in the real world, but he had no idea whatsoever how to live in it. If we were going to make it to the farm without further incident, then I was going to have to teach him how to survive.
The fact was, as soon as we reached the farm he was on his own, and whether he decided to carry on living in the wilds or he decided to go back to Vasey, he was going to have to do it independently. I knew I would never buckle from the decision to leave him, but I could at least prepare him better for when the time came.
The night sky reached its peak of darkness and the visibility in the forest was less than a couple of metres. The temperature had plummeted, so I zipped up my coat and tucked my chin inside. In a way I was thankful for it, because the cold helped keep me alert.
Despite having potential hypothermia on my side, my eyelids were starting to feel heavy. My head was light, my body drained of energy, my eyes closing. I struggled to keep them open as my brain coaxed me into a soft sleep, and soon I felt myself surrendering against the feeling.
I opened my eyes. My brain felt fuzzy from the sleep I had just accidentally taken. Somewhere to my right, I heard something crunch. My face drained of blood, and one word automatically leapt into my brain: Stalker.
My shoulders went tight and my hands were clammy, but I took a breath, held it in and tried to control myself. I looked at Justin. The only movement coming from him was the rise and fall of his chest. I turned my head to the right and listened. If it was a stalker, it probably wouldn’t make another noise, I knew. There were two possibilities: either it had caught our scent and it was working its way toward us, in which case the first we would know about it would be when it tore one of us apart. The second possibility was that it was a lone infected, just another corpse shambling through the forest.
Please just be an infected.
Justin stirred. No, I thought, don’t wake up. That would be the worst damn timing ever. To my right there was another crunch, and the sound of something dragging. I stared as intently as I could but my eyes couldn’t puncture the thick curtain of darkness. Whatever it was could be metres away, and we wouldn’t have the slightest idea. I looked up at the sky. Never in my life had I wished more for a little bit of moonlight.
Justin moved again. I got to my knees and crawled toward him as quietly as I could, brushing my path for any twigs that could snap underneath me. When I reached him, he was waking up. He mumbled something unintelligible, and then shoved the rain coat off his chest. He was about to sit up when I put my hand firmly on his chest, pushed him down and put my hand over his mouth.
“Don’t make a sound. There’s something out there, but I don’t know what and I don’t have a clue where it is,” I whispered.
I moved my hand away from his mouth. Justin quietly sat up. He squinted at the darkness.
“Stalker?” he said.
I listened again. The dragging sound was faint, and it seemed to be going further away. I let out a breath and felt a wave of relief. This was no stalker, and if it was, it was a pretty damn bad one. At any rate, whatever was out there was moving away from us. What worried me more was falling asleep while on watch. That was dangerous for both us.
“Talk to me about something,” I said to Justin.
He straightened up and rubbed his eyes. “You actually want to talk to me?”
I nodded. “Got to keep awake somehow, unless you got some coffee tucked away somewhere.”
“What should we talk about?”
“You got a water bottle?” I asked.
“Pass it here then.”
I took a big drink, letting the first few gulps of the cold water take care of my thirst. I sloshed another gulp round my mouth to clear the dryness. I spat it out onto the forest floor. “Ask me a question,” I told him.
Out in the distance, the dragging sound got even fainter. “What happened to your wife?” Justin asked.
It was like a sucker-punch in the stomach. I’d expected him to ask something light and easy, but instead he’d gone straight in for the big question.
“Not about me,” I said. “You wanted to know about the world and what it’s like living without Vasey’s walls. Well, I’ve lived out here almost as long as you’ve been alive. So ask me about it.”
He cleared his throat. “Why do you let some of the infected walk away? How come you don’t kill all of them?
I sat back against the tree trunk. There was something sticking out from it into my back, but I didn’t move. The uncomfortable sensation made it easier to stay awake.
“Just a case of conserving energy and making as little noise as possible. Don’t kill something that you know isn’t going to kill you, because it’s a waste of time. Plus, killing things at night attracts stalkers. They can smell blood being spilled, even if it’s the clotted stuff that leaks out of the infected.”
“So it’s not because you think they’re still people?”
I almost laughed at the thought. “Fifteen years ago they were people, kid. Those days are long gone.”
“I always wondered what it was like to live back then. Moe told me you could get on a plane and visit other countries.”
I looked up at the sky and thought about the last time I’d seen something flying up there. It was seven years ago, when I was with Clara, her brother David and the rest of the group. We’d seen a helicopter hover over us for a few seconds, and then it flew away.
“Is Moe your dad?” I asked him.
“My dad’s dead,” said Justin. His words were automatic and sounded hollow, as though it was an answer he’d been taught.
It made me think of my parents. I wondered what had happened to them, how things had ended. I liked to think that they’d died peacefully, but somehow I doubted it.
“Why did you really want to come with me?” I said. “And don’t give me this ‘seeing the world’ bullshit.”
He took a few seconds to consider the question. When he spoke, his voice was a whisper. “It’s too confined there. They’re just waiting to die, all of them. They never think or plan, they just drink and smoke and fight. One day they’re gonna run out of food or someone’s gonna leave the gate open and a load of infected will get in. Either way, I had this feeling that if I stayed there, I was gonna die.”
I nodded. “You’re not wrong.”
Justin looked at the ground. “I had a dream where Moe let one of the infected into my room while I was asleep and it ate me.”
I shook my head, though in the darkness I doubt Justin saw it. “It’s not much better out here,” I said.
I was starting to feel sorry for him. Sorry that he had been born into this world and had never known anything else. At least I’d had something of a life before all this – I had a job, a house, a beautiful wife. I was forty-two now, so I’d already had twenty seven years on earth that I didn’t have to spend worrying about being eaten or seeing other people get eaten. This world was all Justin knew, and all he’d ever know. I didn’t blame him for wanting to leave town, because I felt the same way as him. But that didn’t change anything.
“Justin,” I said.
The kid looked up.
I stretched my legs out in front of me. “As soon as we get to the farm, you’re still on your own. If it comes down to life and death along the way – between me and you – I choose me every time. Don’t ever forget that.”
A thick cloud hung above us in the night sky. Rain dripped down, hit the leaves of the trees in heavy patters and then fell onto us. It soaked into my clothes and skin, and made me shiver. Despite being cold and wet, I was thankful for the rain, because at least it helped me keep my eyes open.
“Stop being so stubborn.”
Justin stood in front of me and stared. I sat down on a rock and put my head in my hands, ostensibly using the time to think, but really trying to snatch every second of rest that I could. The kid was getting used to our long walks now and we had fewer rest stops. It was amazing what a good night’s sleep could do for you.
I didn’t know, of course, because I was sleeping only an hour or two a night. My body ached like it was held together by tape. I rubbed my head and my skull felt hollow.
“We have to take the motorway, Kyle. I know what you’re saying, but just trust me,” said Justin.
The word ‘trust’ snapped me out of it. I lifted my head. “We don’t have to go anywhere except where I say so. The village is quicker.”
We were on the top of a grassy hill, high enough for the wind to collect and snap around our heads. The view was spectacular; to our west was the Riddle Valley, a collection of hills that stopped just short of being mountains, but none the less attracted waves of hikers during the summer.
Clara and I had climbed one of the modest peaks once, and I remembered having to stuff my pockets with the contents of her handbag when the handle snapped. I could remember it in minute detail, the smell of the grass as it cooked in the sun, the feeling of the breeze on my freshly-shaved head. It was stupid that this was the stuff I remembered, yet despite being together most of sixteen years Clara’s face was fuzzy in my mind. It was strange, the little memories that the brain filed away and marked as relevant while forgetting other things. I ran my hands through my now-thick hair, messy from months without a cut.
Below us was a fork in the road. One track would take us through a village called Blackfoot, and the other route was on the M7C motorway. Given that I’d been here before, I knew something about this place, and I knew which route to take. Justin might have liked being the guide and telling me which direction to go, but today I didn’t need him.
“I really don’t want to go through the village,” said Justin.
He scratched the back of his leg with the tip of his right foot. He still wore the raincoat that was so big on him it reached his knees, and tucked into his belt at the front of his trousers was a hunting knife that he had gotten from a hardware store in Vasey. The silver of the blade was still gleaming. In contrast I looked down at my own, and saw the dirt that collected in the ridges, and a blade so dull that it was more useful for spreading butter than cutting. It would have to do. You could still use it to smash through a skull if you used enough force.
“What’s wrong with Blackfoot?” I asked.
“The GPRS said take the motorway.”
I shook my head. “Of course it did. They all say that because they assume motorways are quicker. Only this time, I know more than that piece of crap. Going through the village is better. It’ll cut a day’s travel at least.”
Justin scratched the back of his head. “Won’t it be dangerous down there? Won’t there be more of …them?”
“Nothing we can’t handle if you can learn to walk a little quieter.”
Justin took a few steps toward me and bent down. His face looked a little white. “Look, Kyle. There’s something else. I know this place too.”
Justin turned round and pointed. I followed his outstretched hand and it led over passed the village and to the east, where there was a warehouse building about five miles out. “Down there’s a wholesalers. Our scouts used to come this way and make runs – the place is still full of stuff. Only, they had to stop.”
I strained my eyes and tried to make out more detail on the warehouse – there was a sign on the front, but it was too far away to read. If Justin was right, though, maybe it was worth a look. A wholesaler that was still full of stock was a rare thing indeed, and my mouth watered at the prospect of the things that might be there – food, chocolate, beer, maybe even a whiskey.
“So why did they stop?”
Justin shoved his hand in his pockets. “There’s a group that lives in this area. They call themselves a family, but I never heard of a family who did the things they do. They’re hunters.”
“What’s so bad about that?” I asked. I’d caught and skinned more than a few rabbits in my time in the wilds. You ate what you could to survive.
“They hunt men,” he said, and tucked his chin into his coat.
The streets of Blackfoot were dirty and empty. The whole place was so silent that not even the wind dared make a sound. Despite the fact that Justin was probably talking crap, I still found myself scanning the windows of the buildings and looking out of the corners of my eyes to see if anyone was watching us. Hunters of men. What a load of bollocks. I’d lived in the wilds long enough to know that men did whatever it took to survive, which sometimes meant killing others. But there certainly wasn’t a group out there making a game of it.
We walked as quickly as we could without making any noise, and I had Justin walk close to me to keep an eye on him. Like it or not, after we got a few miles out of the village I was going to need him, because from then on I didn’t know the way to the farm. As soon as we got within spitting distance of it, though, he could do whatever the hell he wanted.
There was a rotten smell in the air, and somewhere in the distance I heard a feral dog bark. I reached to my belt for my knife and gave the handle a tap. Dogs were a problem whenever you got into a village or town. They ran in packs, five or six beta dogs subservient to an alpha, and they were ridiculously aggressive against anything that moved. Who would have thought that man’s best friend would turn on him so easily?
“How far do we need to go?” asked Justin. He stared straight ahead, oblivious to any danger, whereas I jerked my head from left to right trying to scan every conceivable place an infected could be lurking.
“Through the high street and straight on out of town. That way, we make a detour that cuts out half the terrain that the motorway can’t avoid.”
“And what about them?” he said, nodding to the infected that were in front of us.
Two of them stood in our path, and when they saw us approaching them they turned and moaned. I tried to make out what they had once looked like, but fifteen years after infection it was tough to see any humanity in them. Their faces were full of sharp edges from where their bones pressed against their skin, and their scraggly hair tumbled to their shoulders. They stretched out their arms, and at the ends of their fingers long, dirty fingernails pointed at us. That was one of the more disgusting things about the infected; the fact that their hair and fingernails carried on growing after death.
“Is this one of the times we ignore them?” asked Justin.
I reached for my knife, took hold of the handle and pulled it out. I turned to the kid. “Think about it. Which direction do we need to go?”
“And where are they?”
I pointed my knife at them. “Then this isn’t one of the times we ignore them. You take the smaller one on the left – he looks your height.”
I walked forward, poised and alert. Justin kept pace with me, and when we got closer he pulled out his knife. He held it at an awkward angle, almost at his waist, which meant that he had more work to do to stab the infected in the head. I held mine at head height and tensed my arm. Set on earning their meal, the infected let out guttural moans and stumbled toward us. They were only metres away now, and my pulse quickened in anticipation. I steadied myself and got ready to stab.
The infected launched at me clumsily, hoping to grab onto some part of me with its outstretched arms. It was tall and its belly was bloated, and it wore a ragged football shirt. I stepped to the side and let it stumble by me. I reached forward and grabbed the back of its collar, but the material was so rotted that it tore clean out of my grasp.
To my left, Justin cried out. I snapped my eyes on him and saw that he had lodged his knife in the smaller infected’s chest just below the collar bone, and he was trying to push the straining monster away. I took three strides toward him, raised my knife in the air and then planted it in the top of the infected’s head, caving in its skull like a meringue. I let it drop to the floor.
Justin sank to the ground, his eyes wide and his face a deathly white.
The infected to my right growled. I turned toward it but it was already in my face, so close to me that when it snapped its teeth I heard them clacking together. I took hold of it by the neck with my left hand, raised my right and then brought my knife down into its skull. As the dead body fell to the floor, I let a long breath escape my lungs. After a few seconds, I got myself together.
“Did it bite you?” I asked him.
He shook his head. His face was pale and I saw that his hands were shaking. This was the first time that I had ever seen the kid scared – he hadn’t even blinked when I’d strangled him back in the shack. I knew I should ask him if he was okay or show a little concern, but I didn’t have time for that.
“Pull yourself together,” I said. “There will be more.”
Sure enough, behind us at the bottom of the high street a couple of infected had gathered and were picking up our trail. More would appear before long, I knew, and soon we’d have a crowd of them chasing us. The chase itself wasn’t a problem, because they could never pick up enough speed to catch you. The problem was that they were relentless. Once they got on your trail – that was it. They wouldn’t stop and rest, they wouldn’t sleep. They were driven by only one basic impulse, and they would stop at nothing to get it.
“Pick up your pace,” I said.
We moved quicker down the high street. I looked behind me and saw that the two infected were now six. Ahead of us, the street twisted round a corner. I knew that round it there was another short walk and then we were out of Blackfoot. I couldn’t wait to leave.
I looked behind us again. Now there were ten of them. Where the hell were they coming from?
“Just around this corner and then we’re home free. Come on, speed it up. And don’t look back.”
As soon as he heard me say the words, Justin looked back. “Shit,” he said.
We were moving just short of a jog now. We travelled through the high-street and turned the corner, after which we would be golden.
As soon as we turned the corner though, I froze.
“Oh, fuck,” said Justin.
I would have scolded the kid for his language, but his sentiment was right, because in front of us was a giant makeshift barricade that blocked the way out of the village. It stretched twenty metres from either side and was made of various items of scrap metal – steel sheets, kitchen sinks, shopping trolleys – that were arranged like a madman’s game of Tetris. There was no way through it, and there was sure as hell no way to move it.
Behind us, a couple of hundred metres and closing, fifteen or so infected chased us.
“Now what?” said Justin.
“Give me a minute,” I said, and put my hand to my forehead.
Justin stared at the makeshift barricade that blocked us in. His eyes seemed to light up, and a little of the colour came back to his cheeks. “There’s a way through,” he said.
I looked at the barricade again. It might not have been air tight – there were gaps in it here and there – but there sure as hell wasn’t enough room for a person to fit through.
“Don’t be stupid,” I said.
He looked at me with a wounded look on his face. “I’m telling you, Kyle. There’s a way. Stop being so stubborn and listen to me.” He walked over to the barricade. “Lemme go first then, and prove it.”
I was going to tell him to shut up and let me think, but before I could say anything he moved a shopping trolley as much as he could to one side to work enough room to squeeze into. With that, he squirmed his way through the barricade. I looked at the hole that he had left, and there was no way I was going to fit my frame through it. I was considerably bigger than Justin, and I was nowhere near as agile. The kid was like a rat.
I bit my tongue and tried to push back the anger that was building inside me. Why had he gone off like that? Way back when we started, hadn’t I specifically told him that he had to do everything I said, that he mustn’t act on his own? Yet he had gone and done just that, leaving me stood on my own, trapped and with twenty of the infected closing in. Just wait until I got hold of him; the strangling was going to seem like a treat compared to what I would do this time.
The infected were close enough now that I saw what passed for their faces. Their expressions were blank for the most part, yet there was something like desire in their eyes, something in their stares that glimmered. It was likely a hunger for my flesh, but it was proof enough to me that something about them was still alive even though they weren’t people.
At their pace, I had five minutes until they reached me. I still had my knife, and with that I could probably take a few of them out, but with no space to fight and nowhere to run, this was a battle I was sure to lose.
Above me the sky had taken on a late-afternoon grey tint. It was getting dark, and we were supposed to be out of the village by now. I looked at the barricade. Where the hell was the kid?
“Justin?” I shouted, no longer caring about making a noise.
There was no answer.
I weighed up my options. As I saw it, I only had two; fight the twenty infected on my own, or try and get through the barricade.
I put my knife back in my belt and walked up to the wall of scrap metal. I found the part that Justin had squeezed through, and I pushed on the shopping trolley to try and make a little more room for myself. Blowing out as much air as I could to make my body smaller, I crawled forward. I worked my way through the barricade, squeezing my body into a much smaller space than it had any right to fit. Through squirming carefully and sucking in my stomach, I could almost see an exit.
And then I got stuck.
I tried to move my body, but it was wedged right between two blocks of metal. I felt my chest tighten and adrenaline shot through me as the panic took over. No matter how much I tried I couldn’t move. Outside the barricade and on the high street, the infected were so close that I heard them moan. My legs poked out of the barricade and soon they would be an open target for the infected to chew on. I was going to be eaten alive. Or half of me was, anyway.
I started breathing heavily through my nostrils, and it was all I could do not to shout. “Justin,” I said in as calm a voice as I could. “If you’re here, I need your help right fucking now.”
When no reply came, I suspected the worst for him. For now though, his well-being was the furthest thing from my mind. This was it for me. The infected were getting closer to my outstretched legs, and I was stuck.
From outside the barricade, a gun popped off. There was the sound of bodies hitting the pavement as the gun exploded several times, and then it stopped. My heart hammered. I shifted the metal off me and backed my way out. I managed to move my body around so that the top half of me was out of the barricade, but my leg was still trapped. I looked up and saw what the sounds had been.
A man was there. A man with a gun and a grin.
There were still five stray infected all within a foot of him, but the man didn’t seem to care. One of them stumbled close, but he sidestepped, got behind it and drove a hunting knife through its head with a crack, sending bloody skull fragments to the floor. He wiped the blade on his green khaki trousers.
As he walked over to me his steps were almost playful, and despite how heavy his boots looked, they didn’t make a sound on the ground. Justin could learn something about stealth from this guy. He had a thick brown moustache that curled over his top lip and into his mouth, which must have been irritating, and his eyes were small, squinty, and gave him an almost sneering look. I wondered if his army khakis meant he was in the military, or if he was one of those guys who just loved to pretend he was.
Before getting to me he stopped above the body of one of the infected. It was a little boy who wore a blue t-shirt. The man put his foot underneath the boy’s body and gave a kick, flipping him over. On the boys t-shirt, faded but just about there, was the outline of a train. The man looked at the boy’s face as though he was trying to recognise him, but attempting to see any facial features was made impossible through fifteen years of infection. He shook his head and turned his attention back on me.
I moved my foot and tried to pry it loose inch by inch, but it wouldn’t move. The weight of the metal on it was such that if I moved too much, the whole barricade was going to shift itself onto me and break my foot, and then I would be screwed. I could still move my arms though, so I reached to my waist and pulled out my knife. I looked at the man and wondered if I’d get time to use it.
He lifted his gun up in the air and gave a sideways nod to it, with a mocking look in his eyes.
“Gun beats knife,” he said. His voice was rough, like a boot crunching on glass.
He was right, I knew. If things went bad I could swing my knife all I wanted, but all he had to do was take a step back out of my reach, pull the trigger and I’d be done. With the metal sheets trapping my leg, I was at his mercy. Behind him, the four infected were making their way toward us. I felt sweat trickle down my forehead.
The man took a step closer and knelt in front of me so that his head was only a little higher than mine. Up close he had the same unwashed smell that most of us travellers had, so it was obvious he wasn’t from Vasey. He also smelt faintly of Old Spice, and I didn’t know where he could have gotten that from, or why. What did it matter how we smelt these days? He had a dark leather belt around his waist. On one side of it was a sheath for his knife, and then wrapped around the rest of it were what seemed to be parts taken from various animals – a couple of rabbit paws, presumably for luck, and some teeth that looked like they were from an alligator. I followed the trail of animal memorabilia hung around his waist, and my eyes snapped onto something. A cold shiver ran through me.
There was a human ear on his belt. It was torn and mangled, but unmistakably human.
I remembered what Justin had said about the hunters, and suddenly it didn’t seem so stupid. The need to free my leg became more urgent, and the feeling of being trapped jabbed at me. It was a struggle to control my breathing. Behind us, getting closer still, the infected moved toward us.
“Name’s Torben,” he said in a voice like sandpaper. “Torben Tusk.”
I looked down at my leg, but there was no way I could get myself free. It would take someone to hold up the metal while I dragged myself out, and Torben didn’t move to help. I still had my knife in my hand, but he was knelt in such a way that he could easily move himself back if I took a swing at him. The infected were moving slowly toward us right now, but they would speed up when they got closer, and at that point I would need Torben to take care of them or they would be on me.
Where the hell was Justin? I wanted to look at the other side of the barricade to where he had squirmed his way through, but I didn’t want to draw Torben’s attention to it. The longer he thought I was alone, the better.
My only option was to see what he wanted, and hope that he didn’t want one of my ears for his belt. I was conscious of the fact that my bag was on the floor a few feet away from me, and in it were the bulk of our supplies as well as the broken GPRS. I prayed Torben didn’t notice it.
Torben wiped his knife on his khakis again. He brought the tip of it toward his mouth and stuck his tongue out so that it was millimetres away from the blade. I thought of the lingering infected atoms that would still be on the silver, just waiting to enter a new host.
“Peculiar, don’t you think? One little nick from this blade, and in a few days I’ll be one of them,” he said, gesturing behind him. He didn’t seem to care that the four infected were only fifty feet away and headed in his direction.
I stayed quiet and kept my gaze focused on him, waiting for the slightest of movements in my direction. As silently as I could, I twisted my foot and tried to make room to pull it out.
He held the blade of the knife in front of him as if transfixed. “We’re all living like this – inches away from the knife edge. Makes you wonder if it wouldn’t be better to just give in and become one of them.”
The infected were forty feet away now. Where was Justin?
Torben leaned in a little closer. “How’d you come to be in this fix?”
I feigned a smile. “I slipped.” I needed to play nice as much as I could, but I wasn’t telling him anything.
“Accidents happen easier than you think, especially now. You from town?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
He turned his head away from me and looked at my rucksack on the floor. As he moved, I saw an infected closing in behind him less than ten metres away. My heart pounded. Should I warn him, or should I let it pounce on him? I didn’t trust the guy an inch, and he gave off a vibe that made me want to get far away. But once the infected was done with him, it would eventually turn its attention toward me. Justin was gone and I was stuck, and I’d be helpless as all four of the infected ripped me to pieces.
The infected was five steps away.
“Behind you,” I said.
Without looking Torben readied his knife and span round, connecting with the stomach of the infected and slashing a deep gash through its skin. Through the tear in its abdomen the infected’s rotten guts slipped out and slapped onto the floor. Torben sprang to his feet, hooked his right leg behind the infected and pushed it to the ground. He walked around to its head, lifted his boot in the air and brought it down with all his weight. The infected’s skull caved like a watermelon and sprayed bits of blood and bone onto the road.
Somewhere behind me, I heard the sound of someone retching. I couldn’t move my head because that meant taking the effort to reposition my whole body, and this would draw Torben’s attention to what I was trying to look at. I knew who was being sick behind the barricade. It had to be Justin. I just hoped he had the sense to keep quiet.
In front of me, Torben lifted his leg, propped it awkwardly on his knee and tried to balance. He picked at the grills of his boots with his knife and dug out a piece of flesh that had lodged between them.
“These are great in the snow, but they’re a bitch to clean,” he said, smiling. “Anyway, what’ve we got here?” He walked toward my rucksack, unzipped it and began to look through it.
The sight of the stranger fishing through my things made my blood run hot. I tried to pull my leg toward me, but the metal wouldn’t budge. As Torben looked through my bag, I moved my body so that I could get a view of the other side of the barricade. I managed to do it without him seeing, and on the other side of the barricade, there he was. Sure enough, it was Justin, and his face was pale.
I flicked my head to the side, trying to tell him to run. Justin took a few seconds to comprehend my instructions, but he got them wrong. Instead of running, he climbed the barricade. He put his foot onto a metal dustbin and began to work his way up.
To my left Torben pulled his hand out of my bag, and he had my GPRS in his palm. My heart pounded.
“Haven’t seen one of these in years.” he said excitedly. “Good thinking, using one. Course I remember once getting re-routed fifty miles and almost driving into a lake on account of one of these buggers.”
He pushed the on button. For a second, I worried that it would work, and that the route to the farm would flash on the screen. I didn’t want Torben to know where we were going.
“Broken?” he asked.
“It’s a piece of shit,” I said.
He put it in his jacket pocket. The sight of him taking what was mine made me want to get up and beat the crap out of him, but all I could do was grind my teeth and keep calm.
“Where were you headed?” he asked.
“A fella from the town, leaving behind those cushy walls with a GPRS and a bag full of food? I’m no Sherlock, but to me that ain’t just wandering. ”
What could I say to him? That I was a scout sent by the town to see what I could find? That I just fancied a road trip? I needed something to tell him; anything but the truth.
“I got kicked out,” I said.
Torben walked over to me. He raised his boot and then brought it down onto my arm, pinning it to the floor. I felt the moisture on his boots from where he had stomped on the infected’s head, and the pressure of his foot made me drop my knife. I was powerless.
Behind him, the three remaining infected were closing in on their meal.
Torben’s eyes narrowed on mine now. “Don’t fuck with me. Nobody leaves that town, nobody. Doing with a bag full of food means you got a plan. It must be pretty damn important to risk the wilds.”
He pushed down a little harder on my arm, and I felt it go numb as the blood drained away. I said nothing.
“Now either you tell me where you’re going, or you can talk to the freaks behind me instead,” he said, gesturing toward the infected.
As I contemplated what to tell him, there was a clang of steel from the top of the barricade and Justin leapt off it, slamming straight into Torben and knocking him to the floor. The man laid there for a second and tried to breathe, but he was winded.
Justin was the first to his feet. He readied his knife in his hand with an awkward grip. Torben looked up at him from the floor and grinned.
“Look at the little stalker boy,” he said.
Justin looked like he was shaking, and his face was still white, but he didn’t take his eyes off Torben.
“Come to rescue your dad?” said Torben.
“He’s not my dad.”
“No. You’ve got more guts than him by the looks of it.”
Torben took a step toward Justin. He held his hands up, as if to show there was nothing in them.
“Come now, let’s play nice. No need for us to get off on the wrong foot.”
I was about to tell Justin not to trust him but he had already dropped his knife, suckered in by Torben’s gesture of peace. Torben took another step, raised his fist and punched Justin in the face, sending him straight to the ground.
I tugged my feet but the metal wouldn’t budge. I still had my knife, but it wasn’t going to help much. Blood rushed through my skull. What was he going to do? Was he going to kill Justin in front of me and leave me for the infected?
Somewhere in the distance, an engine droned. I tried to reposition myself to see where it came from, but the effort was too much. Justin sat up and shuffled away from Torben. The sound of the engine got louder. Torben turned his attention toward it, and a vehicle drove round the corner.
It was a four-by-four pickup truck with two guys sat inside and another man and a woman sat on the back. Next to them were lots of bags and crates. The truck smashed into the three infected, sending their frail bodies flying.
The driver wound down the window. “We found it, Torbs,” he said.
Torben nodded. He turned and looked at me, and gave me a smile so cruel that it made me itchy.
“I have to go now. But don’t think this is the end for us. I still have this,” he said, and patted his pocket where he had the broken GPRS. “I’ll find out where you’re going, and whatever it is that you’re looking for, I’ll take it for myself.” Then he looked into my eyes. “As for you, you’re too good to waste with a bullet. You belong on my belt.”
He patted his belt and the animal parts swayed. He walked over to my rucksack on the floor, picked it up and threw it onto the back of the pick-up truck. Then he turned back to me.
“Have your boy help you get free, and then go. We’re going to play a game, you and me. You’ve got a head start, but you’re going to need to hurry. From now on, you’re hunted. Try and give a better sport than this one,” he said, and pinched the human ear on his belt with his fingers.
He walked to the truck, put his foot on a tire and heaved himself onto the back. He gave the side of the vehicle a knock with his hand and the driver started the engine.
“Been a while since I got to hunt. Good luck,” he said, and smiled.
We needed shelter before the sun disappeared and the countryside was covered in darkness. We left Blackfoot as far behind us as we could, and as we climbed a muddy hill I looked over my shoulder from time to time, checking there was no movement coming from below. There was no sign of Torben and the hunters.
I didn’t know where they were headed but I knew one thing – they were hunting us. Torben wasn’t just a survivor in this world, I realised; he actually relished it. The trophies that hung from his belt said as much. Everyone in the wilds had to hunt to survive, but I hadn’t yet met anyone else who wore the spoils of their hunt around their waist. And I had never met a man who hunted humans before.
Justin took big strides beside me. He curled his hands into fists at his side, and he was full of nervous energy.
“Did you see it? The way I smashed into him?”
“I saw him punch you in the face.”
Justin’s cheek was red from where Torben’s fist had connected with it, though mercifully the hunter had missed his eye.
Justin turned to me. “You could at least say thanks, you know.”
“For nearly getting us killed?”
He shook his head. “For saving you.”
I stopped walking. The side of the slope was slippery and the darkening sky didn’t give us much time, but I felt that if I didn’t straighten this out now I was going to end up pushing the kid down the hill.
“When we set out, when I agreed to let you come with me, what did I say?” I prodded his chest. “I told you that you do exactly what I tell you.”
He scratched his ear. “But you weren’t – “
“Shut up,” I said. My body tensed up. “If it weren’t for you climbing through the barricade like some clumsy chimp, we wouldn’t be in half the shit we are now.”
“I just thought – “
“Shut. Up.” I said, through clenched teeth.
We walked up the hill for thirty minutes, enough for my calf muscles to throb. It would have been more of a struggle of course, if I had my rucksack with me. But thanks to Torben that was gone, and along with it were ninety per cent of our supplies and the GPRS tracker.
A freezing breeze lashed at my cheeks and nipped at my skin. I felt my chest and arms go cold, but I didn’t zip up my coat. I was thankful for it, truth be told, because it would make it much easier to stay awake, and I had a long night’s watch ahead of me. The sky was black now save for the glow of the moon and stars.
“Here’s good,” I said.
We stopped fifty metres short of the summit where some natural force had carved a small recess into the side of the hill. It wasn’t a four-star room with a king-sized bed, but it would be good enough to give us some protection for the night. Besides, there wasn’t much likelihood of stalkers all the way up here.
Justin threw his pack on the ground and was about to sit on it.
“Wait. Open that up and tell me what we’ve got.”
He knelt down and unzipped his bag. He put his hands in and fished through it, and then sighed.
“Pass it here,” I said.
With my rucksack gone, whatever was in Justin’s pack was all that we had. Now that the shortcut through the village was out of the question due to the barricade and the hunters, taking the motorway route was our only option. I needed to see if we had enough supplies to make it.
I opened the bag and tried to see what was inside by the dim glow of the moonlight. I couldn’t read the labels on the tins, but I could see how many we had, and it didn’t look good; a few tins, some water, a can of fizzy pop and a bar of long-life chocolate. We had enough for a few days at most, nowhere near enough to make it to the farm. All things considered, we were screwed.
“What do you reckon?” asked Justin.
He was already a skinny boy, despite living in the safety of Vasey where food wasn’t much of a concern. He was probably just a naturally thin person. God knows what he was going to look like after a month in the wilds.
“I think you’re going to need to get a belt soon,” I said.
Justin rubbed his hands together. His coat was thick and it was zipped all the way to the top, but his body still shook.
“Can you light a fire?” he asked.
“But I’m freezing.”
I clenched my fists, breathed in, and fought back the rising irritation. I couldn’t afford to spare the energy it would take to be angry with him. “Weren’t you listening back in the village?”
“Then use that genius memory of yours and tell me what Torben said.”
He stuck his hands in his pockets. “That they’re going to hunt us.”
I nodded. “And evidently this is a game to them. If we light a fire up here at night, we might as well throw them a welcome party. Wait until the morning.”
The only sound was that of the wind as it blew through the grass. From our shelter we had a perfect view of the countryside for miles around us, though in the night time, that didn’t help much. Even the most innocent of shadows took on a menacing form; the branch of a tree became the spindly arm of a stalker, the swaying of a bush in the wind became the movement of an infected. Now though, we didn’t just have the stalkers and the infected to worry about. For all I knew, the hunters could be sneaking up the hillside ready to attack. Maybe Torben would tire of making this a game, and would just decide to kill us instead.
Justin’s eyes were wide open, and he stared into the distance.
“You sure they can’t fix it?” I said.
He turned toward me. He had faint rings under his eyes, the beginnings of the marks of those who lived in the wilds. Sleep was hard to come by, and it was already showing on his face.
“I told you, I took the battery out and I broke it. Even if they got another one, they wouldn’t be able to do anything. I’m not stupid.”
I let out a long breath. “I hope you’re right.”
Justin picked up a stone from the ground. He twisted it in his hands, moving his fingers along its surface. Then he pulled his arm back and threw it down the hill.
“None of this would have happened if you’d listened to me,” he said.
He scrunched up his face. “I wanted to take the motorway route. I told you that’s the route the GPRS programmed. But no – you didn’t listen to me. Because you never listen to anyone.”
“Listen to people and you’ll hear the wrong things,” I said.
“If your way is right, then I’d hate to be around when you’re wrong.”
“Shut up and get some sleep.”
He was right, I knew. This time, just this once, he was right. If we had taken the motorway route, none of this would have happened. But then, how was I supposed to know Blackfoot would be barricaded? There was no way to predict something like that, and on paper it was a good shortcut.
Still I should have listened, because now our situation was a hundred times worse. We had hardly any food, and as well as the stalkers, infected and whatever the hell else was out there, we also had a group of men hunting us for fun. We were hundreds of miles away from the farm, and the idea of getting there seemed so far in the distance that if it weren’t so damn cold, I would have said it was a mirage.
“Want me to take watch tonight?” said Justin.
“No,” I said, my body screaming at me as I spoke the word. I was tired all the way down to my bones, but it was too dangerous for me to sleep.
It was going to be another restless night.
Dawn broke and the sun hung weakly in the sky, the gas giant finding it as hard to rise as I did. My back ached from a night spent propped up against the side of a hill, and there was a deep pain in my stomach.
Justin was already awake. He’d arranged a pile of twigs in front of him and he was furiously rubbing two stones together.
“Why didn’t we just take the stove from the scout shack?” he asked.
I shook my head, trying to clear away the fog.
“It wasn’t ours to take.”
“It would have been easier.”
I stretched my arms and felt my elbow joints crack. “Tell me I didn’t fall asleep.”
He nodded. “You were out of it when I woke. I thought I’d let you get a couple of hours.”
That worried me. I knew my body needed sleep as much as the next man, but I couldn’t let myself drop off while there was nobody on watch. I didn’t know what to do. I needed some rest, and I didn’t know where I was going to get it. My head pounded.
Justin carried on banging the rocks together, and I almost laughed.
“What’re you trying to do?”
His cheeks were tinted red. “I was going to cook us some beans.”
“By smashing rocks together?”
“Thought that’s how you did it.”
I grinned. Through all his learning and his amazing memory, he still had no clue. “Where’d you get the sticks from?”
He gestured toward the pocket of his raincoat. “Collected them when we were in the woods. I got sticks and kindling, now I just need the spark.”
“You’re not going to get it that way. Hand me the chocolate and the can from the bag.”
He passed me the items and I spent twenty-five minutes showing him the chocolate-and-can method of lighting a fire. It took a hell of a lot of patience, but if you were in the wilds with nothing to get a fire going, it was as good a method as any. All you had to do was use the chocolate to polish the can until it was nice and shiny, then angle it toward the sun and use it to get the tinder smouldering. It acted like a crude magnifying glass.
“Wow, where did you learn that?” he said.
“I used to do a bit of camping back in the old days. It was just a hobby then. Never thought it would become my life.”
Justin had a wide smile on his face. “I love learning this stuff.”
“Remember it for when I cut you loose,” I said.
I hated to admit it, but a small part of me got a kick from teaching him. He was an eager student, and he seemed to be getting the hang of knowing when to shut up. Back when I was a hiking enthusiast, I’d always looked forward to the day me and Clara would have a child – obviously a boy – and I’d get to teach him things like this. Then the world decided to give us a big ‘fuck you’ and any plans for the future rotted away.
As the beans cooked, the smell of the tomato sauce drifted through my nostrils, down my throat and put my stomach in a twist. It was so overpowering that I felt spit collect in my mouth.
“What are we going to do?” said Justin.
I scratched my chin and my beard felt rough beneath my fingers. When had I last shaved? It must have been weeks ago. “We don’t have a lot of options.”
Justin looked into the distance. “The GPRS said – “
“Enough with the GPRS.”
“Is this just because I know the route and you don’t?”
Of course it is, I thought. If you hadn’t have taken it upon yourself to screw me over just so you could tag along, I’d be fine. I felt my chest tighten and the familiar feeling of anger welled up inside me. I tried to let it settle back down, because I didn’t have the strength to get mad.
“If we’re taking the motorway, we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got supplies for another couple of days, and that isn’t going to get us far,” I said.
Justin bit his lip. “We could ration ourselves.”
I shook my head. “Still won’t cut it.”
“Either we get a car and cut our travel time, or we find more food from somewhere.”
On hearing the word ‘car’, Justin’s eyes lit up. I wondered if he’d ever actually seen one before the pick-up truck yesterday. Working cars were rare these days. There were plenty of them scattered around and most of them still had the keys in the ignition, most likely because their drivers had met an untimely death. The problem was that batteries soon drained, and there weren’t exactly any mechanics out there waiting for a callout.
“Let’s get a car!” he said.
“Not that simple.”
Rare as they were these days, I knew someone who had one. He was also the only man alive besides me who knew where the farm was. The problem was, I didn’t have any desire to see him again. It wasn’t that he was a bad guy; more that he reminded me of what I had lost and who I had failed to protect.
Getting a car would be easier than getting enough food to last the trip, but it wasn’t an option.
“How dangerous is the wholesalers, really?” I said.
Justin looked at the floor. “Kyle, please. Let’s not do that.”
“Come on kid, can’t be that bad.”
A grey cloud had gathered above us. Its edges were white, but in the middle there was a heavy darkness. It started to spit, and the flecks of rain dropped on my head. I was in for another drenching if this carried on. I should have just picked up a new raincoat when I was in town.
Justin pulled his hood over his head. “Moe sent five guys there once. They were supposed to be gone a week and come back with loads of stuff. Two months later, we’re still waiting.”
“Hunters or infected?” I said. I hated having to ask that question, and I thought back fondly to the time when the stalkers and infected were all I had to worry about.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Justin.
The rain came down heavier, and the storm cloud seemed like it had deliberately positioned itself above us. That was the way the world was now – it actively worked against you. Once man was the king of the planet, and now our home was trying to destroy us. How else could you explain all this shit? The infected, the stalkers, men hunting men. This was the end.
“They must be ready now,” I said, nodding at the beans. My stomach ached.
Justin dished us both a share. The smell of them was intoxicating, and my mouth watered as I lifted them to my lips. They tasted amazing; it was the most glorious breakfast I’d ever had.
So here was the choice then. We could go get a car, and I’d have to face someone I had no interest in ever seeing again. The other option was to go to the wholesalers and run straight into a den of either the hunters or the infected. It all came down to this question; would I rather risk emotional pain, or would I rather risk my life?
I shovelled another spoonful of beans into my mouth and felt a warm glow in my stomach. Above us the rain cloud was bloated, and its grey mass blotted out the sun. The rain thickened into a torrent, the water battering the grass as it landed. I closed my eyes and made my decision, knowing the choice I made could mean the end of myself mentally, or the end of us both physically.
I looked at the message painted in red letters on the wholesaler wall and I wondered if we should listen to it. The building was a giant warehouse with a main entrance that faced us. There was a row of windows, though the glass was dirty to see anything inside. Around the back a truck was parked up, and although I couldn’t see it, I guessed there would be a larger entrance that was used for deliveries. The whole place was deathly quiet, and if there were any infected hanging around I couldn’t see them. Above the main entrance there was a sign that read ‘NJB Foods”. The place looked so silent I wouldn’t have believed Justin’s warning of how dangerous it was were it not for the spray of bullet holes carved into the brick wall facing us, and the long smear of blood on the floor.
“About as optimistic a welcome as I expected,” I said, looking at the crudely painted message.
Justin squinted. He was starting to look more and talk less, a turn of personality that I welcomed. “Doesn’t look like the hunters.”
We sat on a grassy embankment a few hundred yards away. We’d been here two hours so far, and my feet were starting to itch. I wanted to get in, grab enough supplies for the journey and then get on our way. We’d already wasted too much time over the last couple of days, and with the hunters lurking out there somewhere, I needed to get as far away as possible.
“Tell me everything you remember about this place,” I said.
Justin looked confused. “I’ve never been here.”
“I mean what Moe or the others told you.”
He took a breath. “They said it was well-stocked and untouched, and that’s why Moe sent a scout party here. But like I said, they never came back. People assumed they got killed.”
“Could have been the infected.”
I looked up at the sky. The storm cloud had decided not to follow us here, though my back was still wet from where the rain had seeped through earlier. I shivered.
“I don’t want to spend any more time here than we have to. Follow my lead, keep your mouth shut and for god’s sake do exactly as I say.”
Part of me had expected to find the wholesalers locked shut as if the owner, sensing the shitstorm that was about to engulf the world, had locked it up tight. Instead I twisted the handle and the door opened, and for a second I was so surprised I almost didn’t want to step inside.
As soon I walked in a sour smell hit me. It was the smell of rotting food, a stench so thick that it stuck to the back of my throat. Justin lifted his sleeve to his face and covered his mouth. We walked around a corner, opened another door and then we saw it.
There were rows upon rows of shelves, but most of them were empty. Of those that did have food, most of it was thick with what looked like hair, but I soon saw that it was mold. Apparently there had once been a fresh produce section, but now it had rotted so badly that it resembled a mossy tumour. On the other rows there were a few cans scattered here and there, but most of the shelves held only dust. My heart sank.
“Could be more at the back. It’s a big place,” said Justin, trying to reassure me.
Something was wrong here. All my nerve endings were on edge, and all of them were firing a message up to my brain that translated as ‘GET OUT’. Maybe the sign on the front of the building had been right; perhaps it was best to just go away. But who had written it? Who had taken all the food? Whatever had happened, we were going to have to explore more before giving up.
The warehouse seemed to stretch far back, endless rows of metal shelves that were as long as a bus and reached up to the ceiling. I couldn’t see the back of the room, because the further back the warehouse stretched, the darker it got. I guessed if I walked to the end I would find the delivery doors.
With so little natural light coming in from the windows and the complete failure of the electrical ones, the place was an abyss.
Justin took a step forward. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Remember what I said; you’re not Indiana Jones. “
“Who’s Indiana Jones?” he said.
“Just don’t go running off. I don’t trust this place.”
The sound of every step we took echoed off the floor and drifted up toward the ceiling. It was like walking in a cave. As we walked beside the rows of empty shelves Justin ran his finger along one of them, disturbing the dust.
The further into the warehouse we went the dimmer it became, and we had to stop to let our eyes adjust. It was an eerie place; so black, and so still. The hairs on my arms stood on end, and I saw things in the shadows. Part of me wished we hadn’t taken this route; surely the threat of emotional pain couldn’t have been as nerve-racking as worrying about what lurked in the shadows? Should we have just gotten a car?
“Kyle, look,” Justin whispered.
I followed his outstretched hand and when I saw where it led, my breath caught in my chest. Wedged between two shelves was a small tent, and inside it was the faint shape of a person.
My pulse quickened. Someone was definitely in there, and from the outline of their shape, they were sitting up. That meant that they were aware of us.
So why weren’t they moving?
I reached for my knife. Whoever it was, whatever their problem was, I wasn’t taking any chances. Nor was I leaving here with nothing. They would have to be dealt with right now. I took a step toward the tent and crouched at the entrance. I flicked my hand in the air and beckoned Justin over to me.
He moved hesitantly, and his steps were quieter than usual. Maybe he was finally getting the hang of this.
“You pull the zipper,” I said.
He looked at me and swallowed.
“I’m right here,” I said, and held my knife in the air ready to strike.
The darkness of the warehouse seemed heavy now. The utter silence was so thick that it was like another presence in itself. It could be our ally or our enemy, I knew. Silence helped you hear what was there, but it could also betray your own footsteps.
Justin grabbed the door zipper with shaking hands. I took a breath and tensed my arm. Whoever came out of that tent, whatever their state, I wouldn’t give them the chance to strike.
He moved his hand. The sound of the zipper moving was louder than it should have been, and out of instinct I looked around me as if someone were listening. Justin stopped, and looked at me. I nodded for him to carry on. He moved the zipper all the way to the top, and the tent door flapped open.
I thought whatever was in there would come charging out, but for some reason it didn’t move. I waited, my bicep tensed, my hand wrapped tightly around the knife, but there was nothing. I was going to have to get in the tent.
I got Justin’s attention and pointed at his belt. By now he was beginning to understand my unspoken commands better, and he reached down and took hold of his knife. He held at shoulder height, his arm stiff. I pointed at him, then at my eyes and then at the tent. He nodded.
I took a breath and dropped to the floor. My body shook, so I tensed my muscles and crawled into the tent. Adrenaline shot through my body, and my veins throbbed. I felt panic rise up in me, so I cleared my thoughts and kept my knife held up, ready to kill whatever was in the tent.
It was for nothing.
There was nothing in there but a pile of cardboard boxes. I let out a breath and almost smiled at my idiocy.
Behind me, there was a moan. Justin screamed out, and I had just enough time to see something move out of the shadows and toward him before he fell into the tent, sending the fabric crumbling around me.
“Justin!” I shouted.
I hunted for the entrance. On top of the now-collapsed tent Justin wrestled with the thing. From the snarls it made it must have been an infected, and both it and Justin were so heavy that they weighed down the fabric of the tent on top of me.
Taking care not to hit Justin I swung my knife and sliced the tent, cutting an opening big enough for me to escape. Justin lay on the ground with his hands wrapped around the throat of an infected. His arm muscles strained with the effort. The monster struggled against him, snapping its teeth so close to Justin’s eyes that it nearly took off his eyelashes.
I took a step forward and grabbed the infected by the hair, but the scraggly strands tore from its skull too easily and sent the infected’s face closer to Justin.
“Hold it up,” I said.
The infected snarled and gnashed its teeth. Justin let out a grunt, and with all his strength he held the infected’s head toward me. I gave one short, strong stab with my knife and pierced its skull, sending the metal deep into its brain.
I took a breath and let my heartbeat settle.
“You can put it down now,” I said.
Justin let the infected’s body drop to one side. His eyes were wide with shock and he was panting.
“Deep breaths, kid,” I said.
I looked around me. I couldn’t see more of them, nor could I hear the tell-tale moans that told me they were near. That didn’t mean we were alone, though. I looked up at the shelf next to me, and suddenly my eyes were as wide as Justin’s.
“Think we got lucky,” I said.
Justin followed my gaze and saw what I was looking at. The shelf next to the tent was empty, all save one row at the top, on which were several boxes full of tins. I couldn’t see what they were and I didn’t care; they could be tinned fruit, beans, chili or spaghetti, it didn’t matter. It was food, that’s all we needed. That would be enough.
“Okay, monkey boy, time to climb again.”
Justin put his hand on the shelf and shakily pulled himself up. I put my hand on his shoulder. “Think you can do this?” I said.
He nodded. His breaths were steadying and his eyes came into focus.
“Good. I’ll let a little light in here,” I said. I didn’t want him climbing twenty feet up the shelf in the dark, because the last thing we needed was him falling and breaking his leg.
I walked by a row of shelves and to the back of the warehouse. There were two enormous metal shutters, which as I suspected, were used for trucks when they made deliveries. If I could open them and let a little light in, it might just have given enough visibility to let Justin climb safely to the top of the shelf. Then we would get the hell out of here.
I unhooked the bolt, took hold of the door handle and put my weight behind it. The shutter opened and cracks of daylight seeped in. I strained against it and slid the door all the way to the end, then stood to admire the afternoon sun. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I stopped dead. My breath choked in my mouth.
In the yard outside, a mere twenty feet away, there were over fifty infected walking around. They all saw me and then turned in my direction, their arms outstretched and their teeth clamping together. They starting moving in my direction, toward the warehouse.
I turned and ran over to Justin. He had started his climb onto the shelf, and he was about halfway up.
“Jump down, we need to get the hell out,” I said.
“What’s wrong, we need to –“
“Just get down!” I shouted.
My heart was pounding and my body was covered in sweat. From the other end of the warehouse I heard the infected moaning. It didn’t matter how dark it was in here; their hunger was so powerful a drive that they would find their way to us eventually. If we stayed, we would die.
Justin looked back toward the shelf, but I grabbed his arm and pulled him along with me. I wasn’t taking any chances. We just had to get out, and we’d figure out what to do later.
“Kyle!” Justin said, and he stopped. I tugged at him again, but he wouldn’t budge.
“What is it?” I said
Despite the blood throbbing in my eardrums, I listened. That’s when I realised how screwed we truly were. From the front entrance, our only way out of the building, I heard laughing and voices. One voice was louder than all the rest.
It was Torben’s.
The vice around us tightened with the infected on one side, and Torben and his hunters on the other. Without any clear escape and certainly no chance of winning a fight, I was struggling to work out what we could do. I knelt down in front of the shelf and tugged at Justin’s coat. He got to his knees.
Torben turned the corner and entered the checkout area of the warehouse. One of the hunters walked next to him, and two others hung behind. From their faces, and their lack of curiosity about the place, I got the impression they’d been here before.
“You reckon they’re still around?” said one of the hunters. It was the driver of the pick-up truck. He was tall and his belly pressed tightly against his shirt and spilled over his belt.
Torben looked down and spat on the floor. “I imagine that on foot and with nothing to eat, they won’t get far. Come on, let’s load up and head out. I want to be back on the road before it gets dark.”
The driver shoved his hands in pockets. On his left arm he had a tattoo sleeve, but I couldn’t make out any other detail of it in the dark other than the fact it covered all of his skin. “Not many shelves left.”
Torben brushed his thumb across his moustache. “Just find one with food and take it all. I don’t want to kick my heels here when I could be out there finding them.”
Listening to Torben talk about us like that made it hard to stay hidden. I’d never let a man make me hide before, and doing it now was like swallowing glass. All things being equal, I could beat Torben. That was the problem though; nothing was equal. The gun slung around his neck and the three guys he had with him guaranteed that.
I looked at Justin. “We can’t hang around,” I whispered.
Justin turned away from me and looked back at the shelf. The food crates were twenty feet up at the top. “We’re not going to get another chance like this. Look at it all, it’s enough to last a month.”
“A month of food is no good if we’re going to die in a few minutes. We need to leave.”
Across the warehouse Torben’s footsteps echoed up to the rafters. He coughed, cleared something from his throat and spat again on the floor. He turned to the driver. “They’re still around here, I know it. Lancashire’s a big place, and they won’t have left it yet.”
“What if they don’t want to be found?”
“Just because someone doesn’t want to be found, that doesn’t mean they can’t be. “
He was talking about us, I knew, and he was right. There was no way on earth I wanted him to find us, but then again, that didn’t mean he couldn’t. This was a prime example – here he was, just metres away. We were both here by coincidence and with the same goal, but nonetheless it showed how easy it was to slip up.
Fifty yards behind me, toward the back of the warehouse, I heard the faint cries of the infected. The ones from the yard were piling in now, and it wouldn’t be long before they reached us. With them on one side and the hunters on the other, we didn’t have the luxury of choice or time. We either fought our way out of either side, or we found another way to escape.
I turned back to Justin. “You see any other way out?”
He looked around him, but his gaze drifted back to the food behind us. “No,” he said.
“Forget about the tins,” I said.
Torben pulled a torch from his belt and turned it on. The beam of yellow cut through the shadows and moved through the shelves like a search light. The driver walked up to him and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Torbs,” he said, “it’s been two months. Think we gotta accept that Alicia and Ben are gone. I’m not saying they’re…no longer with us…, but if they’re still breathing then they don’t want to do it around us no more.”
The familiarity of the name ‘Torbs’ as well as the hand on the shoulder told me that these two men were friendly. Yet when Torben turned his face toward the driver’s, there was a definite look of scorn.
“I’m not giving up on my wife and son,” he said.
My head span. The driver mentioned searching for someone for two months. Justin and I only met Torben a day and a half ago, and if he’d been tailing me for a couple of months I’d know about it. Now there was the mention of his wife and kid. What the hell was going on?
Who was Torben looking for? Justin and me, or his wife and son? I hadn’t just imagined him telling me he was going to hunt us.
Either way, I knew that if he saw us, he would kill us. That much was obvious, and I wasn’t staying here to chance it. We were going right now, and no matter how screwed we were by leaving empty-handed, we would deal with the consequences later.
I turned to look at Justin, but I saw that he was gone. I looked back at the shelf with the food on it, and I saw that he was already halfway up. I felt my face heat up. He’d done it again; he’d disobeyed me when I specifically told him to do exactly as I said. The kid was a cheeky little bastard and a liability, and I was done with him. I clenched my fist and felt the blood drain out of it.
I was going to have to drag Justin off the shelf and pull him out of the building by his hair. After that, I didn’t know what I would do with him. But I couldn’t trust him to do what I said, and that made him a danger to me. I’d already broken enough of my rules by taking him with me, and now it was time to stop.
As I got to my feet I banged my head straight into the shelf next to me. A metal clang rang out into the acoustics of the warehouse, and I saw Torben’s head snap in my direction. Out of instinct I ducked down. My head stung from where I had hit it, but for the moment my heart was beating so quickly that I couldn’t pay attention to anything else.
Torben flicked his torch in my direction and the beam of light hit my eyes. I squinted and ducked my head.
“Boys,” he said with joy in his voice. “They’re here. The hunt is on!”
There was no point in subtlety now. I ran over to the shelf, not caring about the sound my boots made on the floor. As I ran I could just about make out the bodies of the infected as they shuffled closer toward us. When I got to the shelf, Justin was already at the top of it.
He looked down at me. “Kyle – heads up.”
Trying to keep track of both the scuffling of the oncoming infected and the scrambling movements of the hunters as they ran toward us fogged my brain, and I couldn’t comprehend what Justin was saying.
“Stop screwing around,” he said. “Catch!”
When the crate was halfway through the air my brain cells fired and I realised what he meant – he wanted me to catch the crate of cans that was hurtling down toward me. I took a step back, tensed my muscles and readied myself. As the crate hit my forearms my thigh muscles buckled a little, but I steadied my feet and stood firm. I put the crate down on the floor next to me. My face felt hot with the strain, and I realised I was badly out of shape.
“Flank them,” said Torben somewhere behind me. “Trap them in, but if they come at you, don’t kill them.”
Footsteps scattered out in all directions. Although opening the delivery doors had let in a little light, the warehouse was still too dark to make out anything but the most immediate space around me, so I couldn’t see where the hunters were coming from. The only person I was sure of was Torben, and that was because he pointed his torch in my direction.
Justin looked down and waited for me to tell him what to do. This wasn’t a fair fight, and if all four of them managed to corner me then my odds would drop to zero. I had to act.
To my right the shelves were arranged in rows, and they were all so close that if one fell, the rest could topple. If I could start a domino effect, maybe I’d get lucky and hit one of the hunters. Perhaps this was a ridiculous plan, but in my head I saw the shelves toppling. At the least, a bunch of giant metal shelves falling in front of the hunters ought to slow them down.
“Hang on,” I said to Justin.
I walked to the shelf next to us and pushed against it. Although this one was empty it was still a twenty-foot high metal construction, and I wasn’t exactly in a peak physical state. It took a lot of straining, but soon I managed to get it moving. I kept my weight on it and shoved, and the shelf rocked with its own momentum. It tipped so far forward that for a second I thought my plan was going to work.
When it turned the other way and rocked back in my direction, my chest flooded with panic. I moved out of the way and watched it fall. It was going to hit Justin’s shelf, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
“Jump,” I told him.
I was too late. The shelf leaned back like a tower block blasted with a demolition charge and it smashed into Justin’s shelf. Both metal structures made a creaking sound and fell to the floor, spraying metal and loose cans around the warehouse.
“Justin!” I said. I couldn’t see where he had landed.
The hunter’s footsteps were closer now, but I still couldn’t see them. To my left the moans of the dead were getting louder. I looked around, but I couldn’t see Justin’s body, nor could I hear him. This worried me; if he had fallen and hurt himself, I would have heard him shout about it. Injuries meant pain, and pain meant screaming. Screaming meant you were still alive. Silence could mean anything.
A boot stomped on the floor to the right of me. I turned my head and saw a hunter walking in my direction. He was a giant; he was six foot four, bald and he held a butcher’s knife in his hand.
“Got ‘im!” the man shouted.
There were a few acknowledging shouts, and footsteps started in our direction.
He looked at me and a smile spread across his lips. “The man who catches the pig usually gets first choice of cut,” he said.
I thought about reaching for my own knife, but judging from the size of this guy there was no chance of me beating him. I looked over at the collapsed shelves. If Justin was buried underneath them there was no way he’d be coming out of nowhere to help me, like he had back at the barricade. I hoped he wasn’t buried. Wherever he was, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do.
As I desperately tried to think up any solution that didn’t result in my complete surrender, an unseen ally came to my rescue. Behind the hunter, the head of an infected appeared, and he had his eyes set on the human flesh in front of him. I could have warned the man, I could have told him what was happening, but I said nothing. The sight of the infected made me instinctively flex my hands, but this time I kept them at my sides.
The infected sank its teeth into the hunter’s shoulders and tore at the skin and flesh that covered his shoulder blade. The man screamed, and blood splashed all over his clothes and onto the floor. He made a sound that was almost a gurgle as the infected dragged a stringy sinew of skin off his back. He turned and tried to fight it, his eyes wide with sheer panic.
This was my only chance. Torben and the others would be here in seconds, and the other infected were closing in. I looked across to my left and saw a sign for a manager’s office. Surely there would be a way out through there?
The only problem was that escaping now meant leaving Justin behind. I still didn’t like the kid, but there was a chance he was still living. And if he was, it meant that he’d feel it when the infected found him and tore shreds off him. I couldn’t abandon him to that.
I sprinted over to the collapsed shelves. My heart juddered like a drill, and the adrenaline shot that had been dumped into my bloodstream was so intense it felt like I was on speed. Just before I reached the shelves I heard a voice above me. I looked up. Justin poked his head out of the opening of an air vent.
I opened my mouth to speak.
“I’ll explain later,” he said, cutting me off. “Meet me out front. And don’t forget the food.”
I found the crate of tins on the floor and heaved it onto my shoulder. My body was so jacked up that I could have carried six of them. I left the moans of the infected and the cries of the hunters behind me and ran toward the manager’s office. As I grabbed the door handle and turned, I heard a familiar voice.
“Didn’t expect this to be over so soon,” he said.
I span round and saw Torben stood there, his gun pointed at my chest. Behind him was the body of the giant hunter who I had let get attacked by the infected. The monster that had bitten his shoulder was dead, its head crushed, but two other infected had taken its place and they dug through the hunter’s stomach with their hands and shovelled parts of him into their mouths.
Torben stood in as casual a posture as you could imagine, oblivious to sounds of the monsters eating his friend and the danger of the other infected that moved through the darkness.
“How about we pause the game,” I said, knowing I didn’t have many options open to me but to buy a little time.
Torben raised his rifle at my face. He was fifteen feet away, and something told me that there was no chance he’d miss.
“I think not. I promised I’d hunt you down, and I’ve done it. I hope the boy isn’t dead yet though; he looked like he had potential.”
He moved his finger to the trigger and was about to pull it, when the driver ran up to him. His shoulders were tight and there were beads of sweat on his forehead.
“Torbs – we gotta get out. Mick and Bailey are dead, and there’s about forty of the fuckers coming in.”
This was my chance to leave. The manager’s office was behind me, and through it there had to be an escape. As I was about to turn I heard a gunshot and felt the impact of something hit the front of me, knocking the wind out of me. I dropped the crate of cans to the floor. I couldn’t breathe, and for a second, I couldn’t even think. I’d been hit. This was it.
Only I wasn’t dead yet, and while I was still living, I wasn’t giving up. I turned and stumbled into the office, slamming the door behind me. From the warehouse I heard the cries of the infected and Torben’s gun fired again, but this time it wasn’t in my direction.
In the manager’s office I stopped to catch my breath. I looked down at my chest and expected some gaping hole from the gun shot. Instead, I saw red spaghetti stains splotched down my shirt. Torben’s bullet had hit the food crate. I let out a sigh and then collected myself.
I followed a series of doors that took me out of the manager’s office, and sure enough they led me out of the warehouse. When I got outside and the sunlight hit my eyes I felt a wave of relief. I squinted and let my eyes adjust to the sunshine.
I looked up. Justin was perched above me on a ledge about thirty feet in the air. His eyes were wide, and he shook slightly as he stared at the ground.
“Get down, we need to move,” I said.
He held the ledge tightly. “I can’t do it,” he said.
I didn’t have time for this. Right now, the hunters were occupied by the infected. This was the best chance we would have to get out of here.
“Kid, get the fuck down or I’ll leave you. That’s your choice – jump or die.” I moved away from the warehouse, my pulse racing and my lungs struggling to take in enough air. I had to get away.
Justin let out a cry behind me, and then there was a thud as he hit the floor. He screamed. I snapped round, and saw him on the ground. He lay there like an injured footballer, clutching his ankle and groaning.
“Can you walk?” I said.
He put his hand on the floor and tried to move his weight onto it. I walked over, put my hand under his armpit and pulled him up. He tried to take a few steps on his hurt ankle, but he winced with each one.
“Think I’ve wrecked it,” he said.
I looked at Justin nursing his ankle and I wondered if things could get any worse. The hunters knew exactly where we were. We were leaving without any food, and after his injury, Justin was going to slow us down even more.
Waves rippled out from one end of the reservoir to the other. The water beneath was murky and gave no clue as to the depths it held, and the darkness inside it seemed to hold the promise of dark secrets. I wouldn’t have liked to swim in there.
The path to David’s ran alongside the reservoir and span out into a countryside full of knobbly hills and, further on, patches of forest. This particular route had once been used by seventeenth century merchants who shipped wool across Lancashire, and years ago, Clara and I had walked it on sunny Sunday afternoons when we wanted to get out of the house.
Justin sat by the smouldering fire. The embers glowed red, and smoke drifted up into the sky in patches. He had his right leg crossed over his left and he was tying a sock around his ankle.
“What the hell are you doing?”
He looked up at me and blinked. “It’s for support.”
I shook my head. Since leaving the wholesalers it had been tough to keep a handle on the burning feeling that rose in my chest every time I looked at Justin. My fists were constantly clenched and my whole body was so tense I felt like I was going to snap in half.
At the warehouse Justin had done what he swore he wouldn’t; he’d ignored my instructions and acted like a fool. I told him to stick with me and we’d escape, but instead he had tried to be a hero and climbed to the top of a twenty-foot shelf to get food. His ankle was screwed and he walked like a damn cripple, and the journey to the reservoir had taken us two days longer than it should have.
I should have left him. Why should I set my journey back days just because he couldn’t match my pace?
He did this to himself.
But I couldn’t leave. He knew where the farm was, and I wasn’t giving up.
My face felt red again. I walked over to the fire and stomped on it. The embers hissed under my boot and sparks shot out from the side. I ground my teeth and then spoke, trying my best to keep my tone level.
“What did I tell you, Justin? What did I make you promise to me?” I said, contempt seeping out of my voice.
He stared at the floor. “To listen.”
“So why didn’t you do that, damn it?”
I curled my right hand into a fist and pressed the middle of my palm with the tip of my fingers. It was a technique Clara had shown me to calm me down, but this time it didn’t work. I looked at the kid and all I could think was how he’d broken my GPRS and forced me to take him along, about how he’d ignored my instructions at every turn and got us in such a mess that we weren’t getting to the farm this side of Christmas. All I saw was someone who was ruining things for me.
Everything I did was for my promise to Clara, and he was fucking it up.
Who the hell did he think he was?
My veins pulsed, and my skin was hot. My head started to go fuzzy and I knew that soon I wasn’t going to be able to think properly because anger was taking over. I raised my right boot in the air.
“God damn it!” I screamed.
I kicked what was left of the fire and sent red embers flying in all directions. Justin twisted his body away and moved back to avoid being hit. His eyes were wide and his face drained white. As the last of the red embers turned black and fell to the earth, I picked up my bag.
Justin didn’t move. He drew his knees up to his chest and rested his head on them.
“Get up. You’ve wasted enough of our time.”
He still didn’t move. Was he crying? I couldn’t tell. I felt a pang in my chest, and the heat burning through me faded.
This wasn’t me. It was just the situation making me feel like this. It was like everything turned to shit at the slightest opportunity, and my options were narrowly dwindling away.
We had no supplies, no energy and we had a group of hunters close on our tracks. The only thing we could do was get a car, and to do that I had to go see my brother-in-law, David.
We crossed the road and walked by the side of the reservoir. Something about the way the hills were positioned around it collected the wind and made it snap around our heads. My ears hurt, and Justin’s were red.
“Put your hood up,” I said.
He reached behind him and lifted his hood over his head, but he didn’t say anything. He hadn’t spoken since I had gotten mad and kicked the fire. There was nothing wrong with the silence, but I couldn’t have him in a mood. I needed him to listen to me and do what I said, so I needed to snap him out of it.
We reached the merchant’s path that turned away from the reservoir. If we followed it for ten minutes, we would reach the old building that David had taken as his home sometime after Clara died and we went our separate ways.
“Sit down a minute,” I said.
I sat down on a bench next to the reservoir, and Justin did the same. Behind us the waves lapped. Today would have been a perfect day for wind surfing.
There were dark rings under Justin’s eyes, and his face was drained of colour.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He arched his eyebrows.
“It’s important to me,” I said, “getting to the farm. And when you do something to fuck it up, I can’t help but get a little upset.”
He cleared his throat. His voice was the quietest I’d ever heard it. “What’s so special about it? You obviously can’t stand having me around. What’s so good about the farm that you put up with me just to get there?”
His voice sounded hurt, and I knew everything he said was true. If I had my way, the GPRS would be working and Justin would have been back in Vasey. But things hadn’t worked out like that, and you had to shovel the shit you were given. Besides, there were some things he could do that came in useful. He wasn’t a total pain in the arse.
I suddenly saw him for what he was; just a lonely kid with no family. He wanted an escape route, and when he saw me, he took it. He knew he didn’t belong with the people in Vasey, that he was different from them all. Maybe Justin and I were similar after all.
I thought about his question and what to say to him. It was hard, the feeling of having to share something, but the hurt in the boy’s voice stung me. It wouldn’t kill me to tell him a little more about the farm.
“I promised someone special to me that I’d get them there. It was a few years ago. After everything kicked off.”
“Who was it?”
I coaxed out the words. “My wife. The farm was her father’s. We didn’t live up North – we’d driven here to visit before everything went tits up. That’s why I still had it programmed into the GPRS.”
“You’ve got a northern accent though.”
“I was born here, but Clara and I left Lancashire and moved to London. My mates never forgave me.” I smiled to myself when I remembered the stick my friends would give me for becoming what they called a ‘London yuppie’.
Justin wiped his nose. “So you’ve been to the farm before then, if it was her dad’s?”
I shook my head. “All the time I knew her – Christ, a decade – Clara never spoke to him. No family meals, no birthday cards, nothing. They couldn’t stand each other, and it was over something so damn petty. One day, out of the blue, bastard picked up the phone. So we loaded up the car and drove up here.”
“How come you didn’t make it?”
I looked at the reservoir and tried to see to the bottom, but it was too dense to make out anything but a dark brown tint. The wind nipped at my ears.
“Take a guess,” I said.
There was a few seconds of silence as we both stared into the pool of water. Somewhere above, a bird squawked. I turned my head to Justin. He was leant forward with his elbow propped up on his leg and his chin resting in his palm. His eyes were deep and engrossed in thought.
I cleared my throat. “I promised Clara I’d get us there. Whatever state it was in, we would fix it up and make it our own. It wasn’t the greatest plan but it was the best we had, better than living day to day with a target on your back. We’d never need anybody ever again.”
“Sounds like a great idea,” said Justin.
We walked through the merchant path. Years ago it had been a stone walkway that cut a clear trail through the grass, but after fifteen maintenance-free years it was covered in weeds and the stone was cracked. The hills to either side of us offered some protection from the cutting wind.
My heart hammered as we got nearer to David’s house. I hadn’t seen him in years, and the way we left it hadn’t exactly been friendly. I knew he’d be pissed off at me, especially when I came to him asking for his car. If I could have thought of any other solution, no matter how difficult, I would have turned around in an instant.
Justin kept his head down and walked, which hopefully meant his curiosity about me was satisfied for the time being. I still felt anger faintly twisting in my chest over what he’d done, but I knew it wouldn’t do us any good to take it out on him.
“Your steps are getting quieter,” I said.
Ten minutes later we reached what passed for David’s house. It was a red-bricked building that had once stored pumps that filtered water from the reservoir. The pumps had been removed years ago, and ever since the building had been left to fall apart. There were four windows cracked with dust and at one side of the building there was a power generator, though it wasn’t switched on. There was space at the back of the building for a yard. That was where his car would be.
Justin started to walk ahead, but I put a hand on his shoulder.
“Hang on a sec.”
“Isn’t this where your brother lives?”
“Whatever, what’s the problem?”
I scratched my chin. “You’ll see. David’s…not quite right.”
I stared at the building to find a sign of life, but I couldn’t see anything. I looked at the generator again. It wasn’t humming right now, but I knew it would be a working power supply. David was a genius at things like that, mechanical stuff. Electronics, cars, computers, power, you name it, he had a working knowledge of it. These days they were valuable skills to have.
It was a pity his personality made people want to get a hundred miles away from him.
I opened my mouth and filled my lungs. “Let’s go.”
We walked down a path and toward the front door. I gave it three taps that shattered the stillness of the air.
“David?” I said.
There was no answer. Maybe he had left.
I knocked again.
“David, you here?”
I turned the handle and opened the door. David’s home was a draughty one-floored building with a stone floor and walls that felt cold to the touch. In one corner of the room there was a pile of hay that was spread into a makeshift bed. There was a carpenter’s table with a basin of water and a razor on one end, and some nuts scattered on the other. It seemed like this was his bathroom sink and his dining table all rolled into one.
Scattered around all over the floor were bits and pieces David had scavenged; batteries, smoke alarms, jumper cables, screwdrivers, copper wire, rope.
“What the hell?” said Justin from the other end of the room.
I walked over. There was a table and two chairs. On the table there was a mug with coffee stains on the sides, and across from it there was an ashtray with a single butt stubbed out. I saw what Justin was looking at and what had confused him.
A female mannequin was sitting in one of the chairs. She had long dark hair that was so slick it looked like it had been brushed every night. There was a book in her left hand, and it was open in the middle to give the impression she were reading it.
I shook my head. Was David pretending she was real?
“This is so weird,” said Justin. He ran his hand down the arm of the mannequin.
“I told you, David is strange.”
“Guess I believe you now. But why do this?”
I looked at the mannequin again. She was wearing a t-shirt that I swore was one of Clara’s. But it couldn’t be, could it?
“Loneliness,” I said. “He misses people.”
Justin sat down in the chair opposite the mannequin. “Then why not go to town? What comfort can he possibly get from a doll?”
I ran my fingers through my hair and sighed. “David is scared of being alone, but he doesn’t trust people anymore.” I looked down at the floor and tried to blot out the memory that was coming back to me. “Someone let him down,” I said.
Justin stood up. “But why the dolls? What comfort does a block of plastic give you?”
I was about to answer, when the door opened behind me.
I reached for my knife and span my body round toward the sound, but it was no use. David stood in front of me with a shotgun pointed at my head. His arms were shaking and his eyes were wild. I couldn’t even tell if he recognised me.
“Sit on the floor. Hands behind your heads. And get away from Leila.”
He pointed the shotgun at us but he couldn’t seem to choose between me or Justin, and he adjusted his aim so that he was in the middle. Presumably this meant he’d be able to shoot either of us should he need to.
How long had it been since I last saw David? It must have been half a decade at least, and those five years hadn’t been kind to either of us. The hair above his temple had receded so that his fringe was reduced to just a small patch just above his forehead, and his once dark hair was flecked with grey. His cheeks were sunken and the bones protruded against them.
He was six foot two inches tall, but his back was slightly crooked and his arms were definitely thinner. Although he looked straight at us, there was something vacant in his eyes.
“C’mon, Dave, lower the piece,” I said. “If you fire that thing we’ll be covered in infected, you know that as well as I do.”
Instead of putting the gun down, he levelled it at my face.
“I’d rather see an infected than you.”
He didn’t mean that, I knew. David was terrified of the infected, always leaving the killing to Clara and me.
“Where’d you even get it?” I said, trying to think of anything to say to calm him down.
He sucked in his cheeks. “Lots of farmers round here. Farm houses. Animals. Guns. You can get a lot of stuff if you look for it. Found the generator outside a barn.”
His words spilled out of him in quick-fire succession, so fast that it was like they were on a spinning conveyor belt that David couldn’t control. He’d always been like this; a little on edge, the wrong side of erratic. He’d gotten a lot worse since I last saw him.
He took a step forward. “Hands behind your head. Move away from there.” He jerked his gun to his left. He looked at Justin.
“You asked about Leila, about why I have her. Simple – I like people but I don’t trust the real thing. Leila doesn’t get angry, doesn’t talk back,” he said. He looked straight at me. “Leila wouldn’t just abandon me.”
The way he spoke worried me. David was the cleverest guy you could meet when it came to anything practical. But, as Clara had explained to me before I met him for the first time, he had some problems growing up.
There were some things about the world that David couldn’t comprehend, and things like emotion were always a foreign language to him. Clara always knew how to handle him, but it had taken me years to get on his level.
“Who are you?” asked David, looking at Justin.
“He’s with me,” I said.
David tutted. “Watch this one. Your sister will die and then he’ll just leave you to fend for yourself.”
Justin nodded. “He’s already said I’m on my own when we get to the -”
I interrupted him before he said the word ‘farm’. The last thing I needed was David knowing where we were going. If he knew we were heading to his dad’s house he’d want to come with us. Part of me knew that I actually owed it to him to let him come along, but I tried to suffocate it.
Justin didn’t seem to be scared by David, but I was worried. He had a kind heart, but sometimes it got clouded by poison. He used to have rages that he struggled to control, and you didn’t want to be around when he took the lid off.
David took a step backwards, never taking his eyes off us for a second. He reached to the counter behind him, took hold of some rope and threw it at our feet.
“Tie your wrists together.”
The rope was ragged and worn, and there was what looked like a chicken feather embedded in it.
David had an intense look in his eyes, and he rested his finger on the trigger of the gun. Could he really kill me? The old David couldn’t have, but it had been so long since I last saw him. A man could change a lot when he was left on his own.
I put the rope on my wrist. The material was rough and scratched against my skin, and I struggled to tie a knot with one hand.
“No,” said David, “not your own wrists. Tie yours to the boy’s.”
My head sunk. The last thing I needed was to be tied to Justin. He made enough dumb decisions for himself, and there was no way I was letting him get me killed too.
“No, David,” I said in as calm a voice as I could. That was the trick with David when he was mad; soft words and soothing tones.
He walked across the room and stood over us, the shotgun bearing down on our heads.
“Tie them together. Now. Won’t ask again.”
I looked at my brother-in-law’s face. I remembered how, years before this, we used to go to the footy together. He’d buy the pies and I’d buy the beer – that was our system. We watched our home town get promoted one season and then relegated the next. He’d been groomsman at mine and Clara’s wedding, and he’d helped me rewire our house after a dodgy electrician screwed us over. He wouldn’t hurt me.
I got to my feet and stood in front of him. I forced a smile on my face, and I reached over to grab the shotgun. “C’mon Dave. Don’t start things like this,” I said, and moved my hands toward the gun.
David took a step back. Quicker than I could react, he turned the gun around and then jabbed the butt into my face. My nose cracked and a fizzy pain exploded in my head. Blood spurted out and dripped over my skin, warm and thick, and dropped onto the floor. I put a hand to my nose and when I pulled it away, it was covered in red stains.
Pain screeched through my head. My heart hammered and rage flooded my chest. I looked at David.
This wasn’t the man I once knew.
My breaths came quicker and shorter. My face heated up, flushing my capillaries with blood as my brain took in the sensory stimuli of a broken nose and translated it into anger.
I gritted my teeth.
“You motherfucker,” I choked out.
I leapt forward and smashed my fist into his face. David’s nose popped, and he cried out as the bone crunched. He dropped the shotgun to the floor. Water welled up in the corner of his eyes.
I dropped my fist and took a step back.
“You big baby,” I said, trying my hardest to cool down.
His eyes were so intense they almost burnt red. Blood spilled out of his nose and over his fingers, and when he touched his cheek he left a red smear.
“You left me,” he said. “We both lost everything. You went right when I needed you.”
I shook my head. Right now, getting a car didn’t seem worth facing this.
David’s faced heated up, turned red. He moved toward me. “You left me to die!” His screaming voice echoed off the stone walls.
He swung his fist at me, but this time my reactions were quick enough for me to move my head to the left and make him miss. I ducked down a little and sank my fist into his belly. The wheezing sound told me I’d struck home, and he bent over and sucked in air. I pushed him to the floor.
I got on top of him and sank my weight into him. I raised my fist and was about to bring it down on his bloody nose, when his knee sprang up and smashed straight into my groin. The world turned white, and the only thing I could think about was the utter agony in my testicles.
For a second, the twin forces of pain and anger fought for control of my brain. I wanted to kill him. The rage was taking over me. I forced myself up off the floor and turned to him, ready to tear him apart.
Then the shotgun fired, the loud boom almost rupturing my eardrums.
Justin held the shotgun in the air, smoke drifting from the barrel. There was the strong smell of gunpowder, and my ears rang from the explosion. Above us there was a hole in the ceiling. Flecks of slate and dust fell onto the floor.
What the hell was the kid thinking? He’d just made a noise so loud that every infected within five miles was going to set their radar on us. This very moment they would be turning their feet in our direction, a swarm of them intent on tearing us apart.
Before I could reprimand him, Justin pointed the shotgun at me.
“What the hell?” I said.
He flicked his head in my direction. I turned around and saw David standing directly behind me.
“We need a car,” Justin demanded.
David’s eyes were hollow, as though he were struggling to process the situation. He had a lot to take in – his broken nose, the shotgun blast, seeing his brother-in-law for the first time in years.
“A car? For what?” His voice was nasal from where he pinched his nose to stop the blood.
We didn’t have time to mess around. I didn’t want David to know where we were going, but I couldn’t just steal his car. I needed him to agree. “We’re going to the farm,” I said.
David thought for a few seconds, then nodded. “Okay. Good plan. The farm. Haven’t seen it since dad died.” He looked at Justin. “Give me the gun, I’ll show you the car.”
He’d agreed to this far too easily. I was about to tell Justin not to give back the gun, but the kid had already passed it across.
I closed my eyes and let out a long, frustrated breath. How many times did he have to make the same mistake? I thought back to Torben at the barricade. When was this kid going to learn?
When I opened my eyes, David pointed the gun at me.
“I’ll ask again. Tie your wrists together.”
After smashing me in the nose with the shotgun, it was clear that David was no longer the gentle person I had once known. I didn’t recognise this man, and I had no idea what he was capable of. He posed a threat to me most of all, because he resented me for what I’d done.
“Go and wait outside,” he said to Justin.
Justin looked at David and then back to me, as though he were asking me what to do. I nodded at him. He walked over to a door at the far side of the room beyond the table and chairs. There was a padlock on it.
“Use the door you came in,” said David.
Neither of us spoke once Justin left. David kept the gun pointed at my chest, but he stared at the floor.
I wondered what he wanted and why he had sent Justin out. Was he going to kill me? Despite how unsure of him I was, it was a big leap from anger to murder.
My nose stung with pain. I put my finger to my nostrils and scratched away some of the dried blood. “Don’t suppose you have any paracetamol? I heard most of them still work,” I said.
He shook his head.
I needed to say something to get him out of this state of mind. The infected weren’t here yet but the shotgun blast was sure as hell going to draw them to us, and when they got here I wanted to be long gone. Not only that, there were people out there who could have heard it.
Torben. The hunters.
“Remember when we were drunk in Brussels and we had to pay out for another night because you were so wasted? They wouldn’t let you on the flight.” I said, trying to break the mood.
David looked up. “Remember when my sister died and you abandoned me?” he spat.
I hung my head. I couldn’t have this conversation. I knew he was hurting, but it was something I just couldn’t face. “Look, Dave – “
Justin came running in, his eyes wide with panic. He stopped just short of us and caught his breath. “They’re here. Fucking loads of them.”
I snapped my head to the doorway but I couldn’t see them yet. That didn’t matter. Justin had seen them, and as I predicted, they were going to swarm us. The tendons in my neck pulsed.
The first of the infected walked through the doorway. It was a male, slim body with skin wrapped around his bones like Clingfilm. He growled at us, snapped his teeth.
I got to my feet. “We need to move.”
David wrapped his hands around his body and stared at the infected. He blinked. The infected had always terrified him, and I guessed that hadn’t changed in the last few years.
The shotgun was on the floor next to him. I reached down and picked it up. The handle was clammy from David’s sweaty palms, so I wiped it on my jeans.
Justin tugged at my sleeve. “More of them are coming.”
I glanced at David. The infected was lurching toward us, but David didn’t move. His breath was raspy, and his eyes were squeezed shut.
“Justin, take care of it,” I said, and nodded at the infected.
Justin took his knife out of his belt and held it at head height. His stance had improved, and I was glad to see that he’d actually paid attention to the things I taught him. Most of his awkward posture was gone now. He was surer of himself, better at handling his own body.
He took a step forward and sank his knife deep into the skull of the infected, splitting it open with a crack. The infected sank to the floor, brain fluid leaking out from the knife hole.
“Hold this,” I said, and passed the shotgun to Justin.
I hooked my hands underneath David’s armpits and hauled him to his feet. Evidently he hadn’t enjoyed a healthy diet during his time alone, because he weighed nothing. Standing up seemed to shake him out of his trance a little. He opened his eyes and there was a hint of alertness.
Three infected struggled to get through the doorway, blocking each other’s way like commuters fighting to get on a train. Behind them, the others strained to get at us. Soon the room would be filled with dead faces and snapping teeth.
“Where’s your car?” I said.
David didn’t answer; he was too busy staring at the infected as they groaned with their desire to eat us.
I slapped him on the face. He blinked, and looked at me. He rubbed his reddened cheek.
“Where’s the damn car?” I said.
He pointed at the door. “Through there.”
“You’ve got the keys?”
Here was the choice then. I could take the keys from David, get in the car and drive away. Or I could still take the car and let David come with us. I didn’t want to take him, but there wasn’t much of a choice to make. I wasn’t going to leave him here for the infected to get him. Not again.
“Good. You’re coming with us.”
I dragged him toward the door. The infected spilled into the room, pushing and shoving against each other to get to us. I raised the shotgun and fired it at the padlock. The blast rang in my ears, and the metal smashed into pieces. I kicked the door open.
The car was outside. A red Peugeot 107, a dent pressed into the bumper. I grabbed Justin and hauled him outside. David hovered in the doorway. The infected were a few feet away from him now, but he didn’t move.
“What the hell are you doing?” I said.
“Leila,” said David, looking at the mannequin as the infected filled the room and swarmed around his doll, leaving her out of reach.
“Leila will be fine. They don’t eat plastic.”
I grabbed his collar and dragged him back. We got in the car. The engine choked and sparked to life. We sped away, leaving the infected-infested building behind us. My pulse raced as I turned the steering wheel and followed the road.
We had the car, but it came at a price. I looked in the rear view mirror and saw David. His eyes were blank, his mouth open. He had retreated to wherever it was he went when things were too much for him.
I gripped the steering wheel. I hadn’t even wanted one person travelling with me. Now I had two.
I steered the car through the corkscrew country roads. I hadn’t been in a car for years, and I’d forgotten how easily you could lose your driving skills. When the outbreak started Clara and I had her beat-up Yaris, and later we found a Mercedes with the engine still hot and the keys in the ignition. I loved driving that.
The roads were tiny and they ran any way but straight, and sometimes they shrank so much that the wing mirrors scraped ramshackle stone walls alongside us.
Justin stared out of the window with his eyes wide, taking in every centimetre of scenery. To him, someone who had fifteen years of his life living behind walls, everything in the Wilds was a wonder. To me, the way the roads twisted made it feel like we were circling a drain.
“David,” I said.
He was curled up asleep on the back seat.
“How long’s he been out?” I asked Justin.
He looked away from the window. “All day, pretty much.”
I nodded. I’d rather he was asleep and quiet than awake and asking me questions.
Justin leaned in a little toward me. “Is there something wrong with him?” he whispered.
I thought about a tactful way of putting it. “Being alone does strange things to some men.”
“Yeah. It made you the most distrustful person I ever met.”
I didn’t even have the energy to argue. Last night we’d pulled over on a layby to get a little rest, but I hadn’t managed more than two hours.
The country was a foreboding place at night-time, and at one point I had seen reflective eyes staring at me through the darkness. My first thought was stalker, and it set my heart pounding, but then I realised it was a fox.
My head throbbed. I was starting to worry that the blow from David’s shotgun had given me a concussion, because every twenty minutes my eyelids flickered and my attention drifted.
The road in front of us ran straight for a while, so I moved into fourth gear and picked up speed. The engine hummed in the car bonnet and David snored in rhythmic breaths on the backseat. A stone wall ran alongside us, hundreds of rocks piled together to keep livestock from getting into the road.
The sky was mostly blue but with a few rain clouds drifting through it. Patters of water trickled onto the windscreen, so I turned on the wipers and watched them sway hypnotically from side to side. My eyelids felt heavy. They started to close.
My brain sent soothing messages through my body and told me it was okay to sleep. My thoughts drifted from my head, out of the car and into the ether.
There was a loud scrape and then a thud as the car swayed to the left and smashed into the wall. The impact of the metal against the rocks woke me up, and behind me David jolted upright. My pulse raced and my breaths were shallow. I looked at Justin.
“You hurt?” I asked.
He shook his head, his eyes large and white.
The wall in front of us was destroyed and some of the rocks had crumbled onto the car bonnet. I hoped the car was okay; the last thing we needed, only fifty miles from the farm, was for it to break down.
The worst thing was that I was to blame. It was my stupid inability to sleep properly that had made me drift off while I was supposed to be watching the road. Now I’d probably wrecked the car and I’d also put Justin and David in danger.
If David hadn’t already done it for me earlier, I would have punched myself on the nose.
David rubbed his eyes. “Back it up and I’ll take a look,” he said.
“Want me to –“
“I’ll sort it,” he said, cutting me off. From the way his eyebrows slanted I could tell that he was annoyed.
I put the car into reverse and moved away from the wall. Luckily it responded to my actions, but something about the engine sounded a little strange. David got out front. There were a few rocks on the bonnet, which he picked up with considerable strain and then threw onto the road. He popped the bonnet and his head disappeared behind it.
I put my hand on Justin’s shoulder. “Sure you’re okay?” I said.
I thought about what the kid had been through in the past month – getting choked by me, punched by Torben, twisting his ankle jumping thirty feet off the warehouse, and now getting in a crash. He didn’t complain much about any of it, and I knew he made an effort not to slow me down. He was tougher than he looked.
“How does he know about this stuff?” asked Justin.
I found the lever under my seat and moved it back a little to give my legs more room. “He used to be an engineer, always tinkering with stuff. When other people were out getting drunk, David would be bent over a soldering iron.”
“What happened between you two?” he said.
I looked out of the window. There was nothing coming up or down the road, not that I expected anything. This place was so remote that even if the world hadn’t ended fifteen years ago, cars would probably still be a rare sight.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
Justin slammed his hand on the dashboard. “I’m sick of you, Kyle. That’s what you always say. You never tell me anything! All this time on the road and you won’t tell me a frigging thing.”
He opened the door, got out of the car and went to the front to watch David work. I wound the window down a little and let a breeze into the car. As well as bringing in a little wind, it also brought the smell of manure.
After a few minutes, David opened the car door and climbed in the back. Justin followed him, this time getting in the back to sit next to David rather than in the front with me. I rolled my eyes.
“It’ll be okay. I should drive now though,” said David.
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“You’re going to fall asleep again and wreck my car,” he said.
“It’s only fifty miles.”
David grabbed hold of the seat in front of him and leaned toward me. “In your state you can’t drive five.”
I gripped the steering wheel. “I’ll be fine.”
“Sorry Kyle,” said Justin, “but I agree. You look like shit.”
The countryside floated alongside us and we wound our way through the roads, but this time I watched them from the backseat. David concentrated on the road, his eyes wide and alert.
“Sorry,” I said.
He turned his head slightly, keeping his eyes on the road. “For what?”
I was going to apologise for everything. Say sorry about all the stuff that had happened and all the shit I had done. But when I tried, my throat tightened and the words got stuck.
“Sorry for ruining the paintwork.”
There were two big dents and a few scratches on the car bonnet. “I was going to get an MOT soon anyway,” said David.
I smiled and let my eyelids fall as the hedges and the walls went by.
When I opened my eyes later, we had stopped in the middle of a wide road. There was a pub in front of us on the left. It had white walls and a wooden sign that read ‘The Babe and Sickle’. A gleaming blade and a tiny lamb were painted on the side.
Up ahead was a roundabout with overgrown grass spilling over the side. A few cars were abandoned here and there, and on our right there were a row of shops with window panes so covered in dust that it was impossible to see inside.
David and Justin sat on the car bonnet. I unclipped my belt and got out of the car.
“Evening,” said Justin.
I looked up at the sky and saw that light of the sun was getting weaker and the sky was losing its colour. Somewhere, wherever they nested, the stalkers would stir and get ready to prowl in the night-time for their meals.
“Where are we?” I said.
“Edness,” said David, and pointed to a large sign in front of me that said ‘EDNESS’ in capitals.
“Why’ve we stopped?”
“No juice,” said David.
Being stuck in the middle of a village when night was coming was the last thing we needed. Even though there didn’t seem to be any infected nearby, this was once a human habitat and that meant there was a good chance there would be stalkers in the area.
“What do we do?” said Justin. He put his hands in his pockets.
There weren’t any petrol stations nearby, that was for sure. We were only twenty-odd miles away from the farm so we didn’t need much fuel, just enough to last that short journey. It’s not like we needed anything for a return trip. For me, there was no return.
There was a white transit van parked across the road. I nodded over to it. “Think you could siphon some from there? We only need a little.”
David put his hand to his chin and looked at the van. “Worth a try.”
I nodded. “Good. Take the kid with you, show him how to do it.”
I leant against the car and watched David show Justin how to siphon fuel. I hated to admit it, but part of me was starting to like having them around. Sure they annoyed the hell out of me sometimes, but it was nice to have the company. I wondered if I would still be able to dump them off, when it came to it.
Fifteen minutes later David poured the petrol into the car, closed the cap and gave the roof a tap. I sat in the driver’s seat.
“Start her up,” he said.
I twisted the key. The car coughed, but the engine didn’t roar. I twisted it again. It sounded like the spluttering chokes of a dying man.
“What now?” I said.
David shook his head. “Must have been the crash. I thought it would make it to the farm before it died.”
I thumped the steering wheel with my hand. It was all my fault. If I’d just kept my eyes open and not crashed into a wall, we’d be fine.
I got out of the car. The sun was gone now, and we only had a couple of hours before the sky turned black and the stalkers came. I looked over at the Babe and Sickle pub. Should we shelter in there? We could have a pint and wait for all this to blow over.
“Guys,” said Justin.
I turned around and looked at him. His arm was outstretched and pointing at a bend in the road less than fifty metres away.
“Oh shit,” I said, and my blood ran cold.
A sea of infected were walking down the road. There were more than I had ever seen in my life, an endless procession of rotting faces.
The sheer number of them made my mouth fall open. There were at least a hundred dead faces, some with their lips torn off, eyes missing, arms cut in half, entrails hanging loose. Some stumbled into one another and fell to the floor, only to be trampled on by those behind them. There were so many that it was like a travelling battalion marching to war.
David leant so far back against the car that it was like he was trying to melt into it. He clutched for the door handle behind him, as though he didn’t dare turn round to find it in case one of the infected pounced.
We needed to escape or fight. Those were our only choices. The car was dead, so that was out of the question, and I didn’t want to set out on foot during the night. There were other things to worry about apart from the infected.
Fighting them would be foolish. I could take three of them, at a push. Justin could handle one, and David was only good for standing there in shock. That left a hundred of them still left to fight.
A sheet of black had covered the sky and blotted out the light so that not even the stars were shining.
I took a step forward, grabbed the handle and opened the car door. I shoved David down so that he didn’t bang his head and pushed him into the car. Justin opened the passenger door, got inside and shut it as quietly as he could.
I looked at the infected getting closer, their numbers large enough to trample anything in their path, and something inside me wanted to shout out. I felt a cold panic in my chest, and my skin was tingling. I had never seen this many.
“Kyle, get in,” said Justin.
I opened the driver door, sat down and tried to get my breath back.
“Now what?” asked Justin.
David spoke from the back of the car. “Seen this lot before. They’re like a shoal of fish, they wander around and any infected they see get swept up with them. When I saw them there was half this many.”
“How do you know they’re the same ones?” I said.
“I recognise some of them.”
The infected got closer, so that now they were ten metres away from the car. It was clear that they were going to walk in our direction. I gripped the sides of my seat and sucked in my cheeks.
“What can we do?” I said.
David looked at my eyes in the rear view mirror. “Just wait it out.”
I shook my head. “No fucking way I’m just sitting here with a hundred of them filing by us.”
David leaned forward. His voice was a whisper. “Nothing else you can do. You can’t run. You can’t fight. You have to trust me. Just wait it out.”
I banged my head back against my seat. Yet again I was in a position where I had to go by someone else’s word. I never wanted any of this; I was just fine on my own. Maybe not fine, but I survived. It was the end of the frigging world and it was still impossible to avoid people.
I sighed. “Not much of a choice.”
The infected stumbled passed us. There were way more than a hundred of them; it was possible we were looking at a thousand. How had they all collected together? Was it a conscious decision to group up, or did they just go with the flow?
Some of them brushed against the car. A rotten smell drifted in and clogged up my nostrils, and I realised the driver window was still open. As quietly as I could, I wound it up. The infected let out an orchestra of moans as they passed us.
“It’s going to take an hour by the looks of it,” I said.
I remember once Clara and I were driving home from the Lake District when we got stopped in the road by a herd of roaming cows. The farmer leading them apologised, but we were stuck in the road for half an hour waiting for them to pass. I remembered being pissed at the time, but looking back I didn’t realise how lucky I was. After all, cows couldn’t eat you.
Justin leaned back and spoke to David. “What do you call a group of infected? Is it a pride?”
“Probably a herd,” said David.
“More like a murder,” I said.
David frowned. “That’s crows.”
“A parliament of infected,” said Justin.
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“A group of owls is called a ‘parliament’. It fits the infected I think.”
My calf muscles started to cramp, so I stuck my legs forward and stretched them out. I looked to the trees in the distance and wondered if any owls were nesting in there, whether any owls were even still alive. Most of them had probably already been killed by stalkers.
The night wore on and the infected shuffled by. We were about halfway through now, and it gave me the feeling of being in the eye of a tornado. My stomach sank.
Next to me, Justin was asleep. I looked at him and blinked, marvelling at how the kid had managed to sleep with hundreds of infected just feet away.
David cleared his throat, and leaned forward.
I turned round. “Yeah?”
He paused for a second, as though he were trying to compose his words.
“I still need to know why.”
I knew what he was asking me. He wanted to know why I had left him after Clara died. For years I tried to bury the memories of that night; of our group being attacked, people being ripped apart, turning round and seeing one of the infected tearing flesh from Clara’s arm. I gritted my teeth and tried to push the images back.
“What does it matter now?” I said.
David hung his head. “You know me, Kyle. Better than anyone. Like a brother.”
“So I need to know why you abandoned me. We were the only survivors. I needed you, and you left me alone to die.”
The sky was bloated with darkness as though it was going to vomit on us. The faint moans of the infected floated into the car.
“I’d just lost my wife,” I said. “No, not lost. I’d let them kill her – I couldn’t protect her. And when it was all done, and it was just me and you, I couldn’t even look at you. “
I put my hands on the steering wheel and gripped it. “I failed her, David. I failed everyone.”
The only sounds were the scuffling of the infected. I took deep breaths. Tears welled up in the corners of my eyes. I’d never spoken about this before. I’d barely even allowed myself to think about it.
David leaned forward and put his hand on my shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault,” he said.
I let the words sink in. My whole body shook, and emotion overtook me. It ran through my arms and legs like adrenaline, but thicker and heavier. I blinked, put a hand to my eyes.
I turned round and looked at David. Although they were brother and sister, he looked absolutely nothing like Clara.
“I’m sorry, David,” I said. “After it happened, I couldn’t face anyone. I didn’t trust myself to protect anyone again, because I knew that I’d only let them down.”
He nodded and squeezed my shoulder.
Weariness overtook me. The energy seeped out of my arms and legs, and my eyelids drooped. I looked at the infected outside and forced my eyes open. Now wasn’t the time for sleep.
“Go ahead,” said David. “Get some sleep. I’ll keep watch tonight.”
I shut my eyes, but I couldn’t let myself sleep.
Five hours later I watched the sun rise to the east of us in the direction of the farm. We were only twenty-five miles away, which was walkable in a day or so. As long as we avoided the parliament of infected, we would be okay.
I reached across and shook Justin’s shoulder. He groaned and turned away from me.
David was asleep with his hands covering his face. I stretched my arms and legs, felt my joints crack and my muscles expand. I tried to fill my lungs with air, but I spluttered. It was so stuffy.
I grabbed the window handle and wound it down. As the cold morning air blew into the car, something else also drifted in.
It was the sound of an engine. I looked in the rear view mirror and there, getting closer, was another vehicle.
“Shit,” I said.
It was a pick-up truck, and it was driving down the road toward us. Torben Tusk was behind the wheel.
I slid down in my seat as much as I could, leaving only the top of my head on show. David was curled up on the backseat with his eyes shut. Justin was asleep in the passenger seat, looking way too visible. If Torben glanced at the car as he drove by, he was sure to see him.
I tapped Justin on the shoulder, but he didn’t stir. A bubble of spit blew from the corner of his mouth and popped. I gave him a shove. His eyelids flickered and then opened.
He looked at me, blinked, and then went to say something.
“Don’t move or speak,” I said.
He nodded. I moved back down my seat and beckoned Justin to do the same in his. He moved his body down the seat, finding it a lot easier than I did. Now we just had to hope that David didn’t decide to wake up.
The truck got closer and soon it was next to us. I instinctively held my breath as it passed, as though breathing might somehow give away our position. The truck rumbled to a stop outside the Babe and Sickle.
Torben got out, followed by his friend who, the last time we saw him, was the driver. I saw why he wasn’t anymore; he had a make-shift sling around his right arm and part of it was smeared red.
I wound down the window. The pub was only twenty feet away and it was a calm day, so we could hear their voices.
“Pass me the tracker,” said Torben. His voice was rougher than normal, his tone clipped.
The driver reached over to the truck, picked something up and passed it to him. “What do you think they’re doing out here?” he asked.
Torben twisted the device in his hands, pressed something and then stared at it.
When I got a good look it at, I felt something sharp twist through my chest. That was my GPRS. Torben Tusk was holding my GPRS, and it seemed like it was working. I snapped my head to Justin to see if he was watching this. His wide eyes and furrowed brow confirmed that he was. I was dying to saying something, but now wasn’t the time.
Sweat pooled on my forehead. My hands shook. There was no way this was a coincidence, no way that Torben had gotten hold of another GPRS and just happened to be going in the same direction as us. There was only one explanation for this. He’d gotten my GPRS to work, and he knew where the farm was.
I calculated our odds. There were four hunters that I knew about – minus the one who got eaten in the warehouse – and there were probably a few more that I hadn’t seen yet. They had at least two guns, double what we had, and they actually knew how to use them. That put us at a pretty big disadvantage.
There was nothing I could do other than listen and hope to get some idea of their plan.
“This fucking thing,” said Torben. “Never works properly. Thought you fixed it?”
The driver screwed up his face. “Got us here, didn’t it?”
Torben held the GPRS in one hand and picked at his teeth with the other. “Should have just snatched the kid,” he said.
He pointed at the Babe and Sickle. “Anyway, get in there and see what they got. If you see any bottles of stout, grab me a couple,” he said.
While the driver searched the pub Torben rested on the bonnet of the pick-up. From time to time he’d glance back in our direction, making me sink lower in my seat, but mostly he stared at the road ahead in contemplation.
After ten minutes the driver came back out. They got in the pick-up truck, revved the engine and then left.
As soon as they were out of sight, I turned to Justin. I poked him in the chest so hard it made him wince. My head felt like it was being squeezed.
“I thought you said it was broken? That nobody would be able to use it? That’s the only reason I didn’t beat the crap out of you when Torben took our stuff – because you promised me he wouldn’t be able to work it.”
Justin chewed his lip and furrowed his brow. “I’m sorry Kyle, I didn’t know. Really – I thought it was trashed.”
“Damn it,” I said, and pounded the steering wheel. The horn went off.
David jumped awake. He rubbed his head. “What’s going on?”
“We’re fucked, that’s what’s going on,” I spat.
I got out of the car and slammed the door. I didn’t care who heard us now.
I walked to the boot, opened our bag of supplies. I tipped most of it back into the car and left a fifth still in the bottom of the rucksack, which I slung over my shoulder. Next to all the food was the shotgun. I thought about taking it, but then I put my hand on my belt and rested on the handle of my knife.
The blade would be enough for me. They needed the gun more than I did, and I wasn’t a total monster.
Justin opened the passenger door and got out. He walked over to me and looked at the food scattered across the boot of the car.
“What are you doing?”
My blood ran hot. Right now Justin’s face annoyed me too much. Did he realise what he’d done? Did he understand that ever since he stuck his nose into my business, things had turned to shit?
I reached forward and shoved him in the chest, sending him down onto the floor.
“They know where the farm is, and they’re headed there right now. It’s all fucked Justin, and that’s on you.”
Justin sat up and drew his knees closer to his chest. His eyes looked scared, as though he didn’t know what I was going to do next. I could tell that for a second he was thinking about arguing with me, but then he thought better of it.
“Look, Kyle, what can I say? I’m sorry.”
The back door of the car opened and David stretched a long leg out. “What’s happening?”
I slammed the boot of the car and looked at him. “I’m leaving,” I said. “You two can go to hell.”
I walked away from them. My skin was burning and my blood boiled in my veins. My mind was so clouded by a fog of anger that I didn’t even look where I was going; as long as I got away, that was all that mattered.
I put my foot on a stone wall and hopped over into the field. The earth was sodden and my foot was covered in mud before I’d even walked five steps. Behind me, the car door opened.
I picked up my pace. I wasn’t turning back this time. I wasn’t forgiving another one of Justin’s mistakes. He’d screwed me over from the start, and now the only thing I had to cling on to was gone. The farm belonged to the hunters now.
I heard David’s voice behind me. He grunted as he climbed over the wall.
I turned round. David had slipped in the mud and he was flat on his back in the field, his coat covered in the brown mess. He seemed to be waiting for me to come and help him up. I turned and carried on walking.
A few minutes later he caught up with me. He put a muddy hand on my shoulder.
“Fuck off, David,” I said.
David scratched the back of his neck. Something weighed on his mind, but as usual he struggled to get the words out.
I put my hands in my pockets. “Just save it. There’s nothing you can say. The farm is theirs now. It’s all pointless.”
Finally the words came to him. “It’s not pointless. Not at all. You were right. The farm’s the answer; dad knew it, Clara knew it – I know it.”
His words spilled out fast. He stared at me with narrowed eyes that were like brown marbles.
The field in front of me seemed to stretch for miles, and it merged into other fields in an endless bed of green and brown. I tried to see what was beyond it, whether there was anything worth looking for, but there was nothing in the distance to cling on to.
I looked at the floor. “Even if you’re right, the farm’s out of the question now. Torben has it, and there’s no way I can take on him and his guys alone.”
David sighed. “You’re not alone. You never were. You’ve always had people with you Kyle, you’ve always been a leader. But for some pig-headed reason you choose not to act like it.”
I saw the sincerity on his face. “A leader wouldn’t have watched as many people die,” I said.
“You can’t do this alone,” said David.
The wind blew through the grass, sending the long stalks dancing in different directions. Miles into the horizon the fields all blew in unison. They were all overgrown and muddy, same as the farm would be, but with enough time and hard work something could be made out of them.
With the farm in the hands of the hunters, I felt empty inside, like someone had opened my chest and scooped everything out. I’d clung onto the idea of getting there for so long that it was all I had.
Maybe David was right. Maybe we shouldn’t give up. Perhaps it was time to fight.
I looked at him again. This time I felt resolve welling up in me. But there was still something I had to say, things I had to get out of the way.
“I can’t watch someone else die,” I said.
“Everyone has to eventually.”
I nodded. “But you and Justin – I don’t want to see that happen on my account.”
David screwed up his nose. He wiped his boot along the grass and let the mud slide off it.
“Sometimes you have to throw the dice,” he said.
He was right. For all this time, all these years of travelling alone, it wasn’t other people that I’d avoided. I had been running away from fear. I was scared that if I let my guard down and allowed people inside, then sooner or later I was going to have to watch them die. I’d thought that being alone was better than risking losing someone, but I was wrong.
A man couldn’t live alone, especially not in a world like this. Man was on the ropes and the world was delivering the knockout blows. Unless someone did something, unless we stuck together, we were going to hit the floor.
I took my hands out of my pockets and turned back toward the car.
The passenger door was open but there was no sign of Justin. I looked around, but couldn’t see anything, and he certainly hadn’t followed us onto the field.
So where was he?
When we got to the car it was empty, and blobs of blood were on the floor beside the passenger door. I couldn’t see Justin anywhere, nor could I see any infected. If an infected had got him, they would have started eating him there and then. They didn’t drag away their kill to eat it later.
David walked round to the boot and popped it open.
I shut the passenger door and walked around. I saw what he meant; the boot, where I’d left all the supplies, was empty.
Who had done it, and why hadn’t we seen them? How did things get screwed up for us at every turn?
I slammed the boot shut so quickly that David had to yank away his hand. He turned round and lent on the car.
“Who could have –“
“The hunters,” I said.
I had been stupid to think that the hunters would drive so close to us and not see anything. Torben was a hunter, so he wasn’t oblivious to the clues and trails that people left behind. I guessed that their stop at the Babe and Sickle probably wasn’t about checking it for supplies. It was more likely that they stopped because they wanted me to know that they had the GPRS and were headed to the farm.
Torben was laying a trap for me.
I snapped my head toward David. He had a faraway look in his eyes. “They’ve taken Justin, and they want us to come find him.” I said.
“So what do we do?” he asked.
The old me would have taken what supplies I could, turned around and walked in the opposite direction. But I knew what the hunters were and what they were capable of, and I couldn’t just abandon Justin to that. Whatever the risk, no matter the cost, I was going to have to try and do something.
I was going to run into a death trap, but maybe it was better to sprint into a quick death than walk into a lingering one.
“I can’t ask you to come,” I said.
I opened the car door and searched for supplies. I looked under the passenger seat and gasped. Our shotgun was tucked underneath. Justin must have hidden it before the hunters had grabbed him.
I took it out and showed David.
“Clever kid,” he said.
“I’m coming with you,” he said.
He nodded his head. “You have to be able to depend on people.”
I slammed the car door and looked to the east, where the farm was waiting. I already felt the adrenaline flowing inside me. This was it.
Above us, a mean-looking black cloud loomed.
We ducked into a ditch so that we had a wide view of the farm but couldn’t be seen by the hunters. I counted six hunters patrolling the farmland, and passed the fields there was a farmhouse where there would probably be even more of them.
Outside the house there was a large tank with ‘petrol’ written in red letters, no doubt used in better days to supply the tractors with fuel.
The farm wore the scars of fifteen years of neglect. The fields were choked with weeds, a lot of the fences had blown over and water poured into the farmhouse roof through gaps left by missing slates. The place had gone to hell, but I saw potential in it. If you looked beyond the weeds and the mess, the heart of the farm was still there and it could be turned into something good.
Some of the hunters walked up and down the fields, stopping occasionally to stub a cigarette under their boots or talk with another hunter as they passed. Across the fields and under two branching elm trees were two tractors, their paintwork flecked with rust.
David was quiet.
“Wishing you hadn’t come?” I said.
He shook his head. “Wishing we had a lorry or something. We could just ram into them.”
“If we’re going to wish, then let’s go big. A tank would be pretty handy right now.”
David smiled for a second, but the gesture dropped from his face. “We’re going to have to fight, and I’m gonna hold you back,” he said.
His body was wiry and his pants were held up by the last rung on his belt. His eyes were small, his hair receding. His hands were bony and white at the knuckles. I tried to think of something to tell him, something that would reassure him, but he was right. He wasn’t a fighter.
I passed him the shotgun.
He waved his hands. “No Kyle, you have it.”
I pulled out my knife from my belt. “I know how to use this,” I said. “You’re more useful if you’re armed.”
He nodded, took the gun from me and then laid it down next to him. He pointed out across the field, toward the tractors, and whispered. “Suppose we steal a tractor. Smash into the farmhouse. They won’t know what’s happening.”
A distraction would be good, but it was risky. “You think they’ll still work?”
David shrugged his shoulders. “Maybe, Maybe not. Probably not, actually. But we won’t be worse off for checking.”
We snuck over to the tractors. Along the way, we got within a few feet of two hunters as they stopped for a chat. Their eyes were dark and their skin was pale. I guessed that lately the world had been as harsh to them as it had been to us. Their voices were hushed.
“He’s got a thing for the lad,” said one of them, and took a long drag on his cigarette. The wind whipped at his coat and made the material flap.
The other hunter screwed up his face. His long fringe blew across his forehead. “Nah, he’s using him for bait. He’s obsessed with catching the other fella.”
“So he doesn’t really want the lad to join us?”
The other one shook his head. “Once we catch the bloke, Torben’s gonna gut the boy.”
I shuddered at the idea of what Torben had in mind for us all. I knew they were hunters and that he loved his trophies, but were they also cannibals?
From their tired eyes and their sunken cheeks, I guessed the hunters weren’t getting their five fruit and veg a day. Hunters tended to eat what they killed, and there was no reason for these guys to be any different.
We moved around the sides of the farm and toward the tractors. One of them was so rusty that it was practically orange, and it looked like if I tapped it the whole thing would fall apart. Next to it was a newer one that looked slightly more stable, though I didn’t know if it would start.
“I never found a car that worked, “ I said. “That’s why we had to come to you. So I doubt we’ll have much luck here.”
David held his hand to his chin. I knew he was scared of the hunters and the potential of fighting but right now, stood in front of this machine, he was going into engineer mode.
“Hang on,” he said.
He walked to the side of the tractor. The vehicle was fifteen feet tall and the wheels were large enough to crush a man. David put his foot on a step on the side of it and reached up and grabbed the handle of the driver door. The door opened, and something large spilled out from the seat.
He crashed to the floor and landed on his back with a thud, followed shortly after by an infected. David’s face went white and his eyes widened. The infected struggled on top of him, trying to get a grip on his limbs.
It all happened so quickly that I struggled to process it. My veins ran cold and my breath caught in my chest. I grabbed my knife and moved toward them as quick as I could, but I was already too late.
David pushed the infected off him. He turned his body round, held up the shotgun and pulled the trigger. The gun exploded with a booming sound that broke the stillness of the farm.
To our left a bird flew from a tree, and even the wind died down as though it were surprised to hear the noise.
The infected’s head was sprayed across the floor in so many pieces that even if I had been a jigsaw genius I wouldn’t have been able to piece it back together. I wondered who the infected had been, and why it was sat in the tractor.
I looked at David. “Was that your – “
He shook his head. “It wasn’t dad.”
I scratched the back of my neck. “You okay?” I said.
David was quiet for a few seconds. Then, he stuck his arm out toward me. His coat was ripped down to the skin, and there were grooves in his flesh from where the infected’s teeth had punctured him. Blood oozed out of the holes and dripped onto the ground. He had been bitten.
Before I even had time to process what this meant, I heard a voice next to me.
“Torben’s been looking for you,” said the hunter with the long fringe. Next to him were two other men, and one of them pointed a rifle at my chest.
“Drop the knife,” he said.
I weighed my odds, and I came up short. I dropped my knife to the floor.
The farmhouse was dirty and a mouldy smell seeped out from the walls. Cracked wooden beams ran along the ceiling to support it, though in some places the roof bulged as though it would cave in any second. There was a dining table in the far side of the room, and a tattered couch that looked like it had been salvaged from a rubbish tip. On a dresser next to a wall there was a solitary photo frame, and in it was a little girl with auburn hair and a wide grin.
I knew that girl, or I knew the woman she had grown up to be. It was Clara.
I moved my arms and struggled at the ropes that tied me to the chair. They were wrapped so tightly around my wrists that it felt like they were cutting off my circulation.
I looked up at the photo again. Clara had never shown me photos of her as a kid before, and it was almost like her childhood had never existed. Yet here was something; a memento her dad had saved and given a prominent place in his house despite the fact he hadn’t seen his daughter in decades.
Torben followed my gaze to the photo. He walked over, picked it up and studied it. Seeing him with his hands on a photo of Clara made me want to kill him, but I said nothing. Instead, I looked toward the door.
“Can’t we bring him in?” I said.
When they had escorted me into the farmhouse they had left David outside on the porch.
Torben put the photo face down on the dresser, walked over to the dining table and pulled out a chair. He sat in it and faced me. Despite how pale and tired his men looked, Torben’s face glowed red. There was no doubt that he was getting enough to eat.
“Your friend was bitten,” said Torben. “And soon he’s gonna turn. Or he would, if I wasn’t here.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked around him. “We’re on a farm. What do farmers do with sick animals?” he said.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“They take them in the barn and shoot them.”
I looked out toward the porch, but I couldn’t see David. I knew he was hurt, and I knew he’d be scared. I didn’t want to admit it, but deep down I knew that Torben was right. David was infected, and soon he was going to die. I pushed the thought down as far as I could.
Footsteps walked down the stairs across from us. They got closer and then the door opened, and Justin walked into the room. His clothes were tattered and his nostrils were bloody, but otherwise he seemed fine. He saw me, stopped, and his eyes grew large.
Torben stood up, walked over to him and ruffled his hair.
“Here’s my lad,” he said, and give him a punch on his arm. Justin looked away. Torben smiled. “Kyle, I’d like you to meet our latest recruit.”
I shook my head. Did he mean that Justin had joined the hunters? The way I saw it, he had been kidnapped. There was no way he’d ally himself with them.
“Looks more like a prisoner than a recruit,” I said.
Torben walked back to the chair and took a seat. He nodded at Justin and beckoned him to do the same. “I gave him a choice,” he said. “Join us, or die. It looks like his survival instincts kicked in.”
“He’d never join you,” I said, feeling a lump in the back of my throat.
Torben closed his eyes and shook his head. “You make it sound like we’re monsters. All we’re doing is surviving, just like you. We’re a pack. We trust each other with our lives.”
I scrunched up my face. I couldn’t shake the feeling of disgust. “There’s something rotten at the core of your pack.”
Torben stood up and perched against the dining table. A revolver hung from a holster on his torso. I recognised the gun – it was mine, the one I’d kept in the rucksack that the hunter had stolen.
“It’s not man versus man anymore, Kyle. There are no cliques, no armies. It’s man versus infected.”
“So why hunt people?”
“Some men just don’t belong in the pack,” he said, and stared at me. Then he turned to Justin. “But others fit right in.”
I struggled against the ropes on my wrist but I barely had a centimetre to move. My skin burned from where it rubbed against the rough material.
Torben reached into the holster and took out the revolver. He opened the chamber and checked the bullets, and I saw gold circles filling three of the holes. The other four were empty. Torben span the chamber round to line up the bullets and then closed it with a snap.
My breath caught in my lungs. The bullets had only one purpose; I knew it, and Torben knew it. I was tied to the chair so tight that there was no way I was going to move. I looked over at Justin and tried to get a sense of what he was thinking.
Had he joined them, or was he just playing along? Maybe he had weighed up his options and come to the conclusion that sticking with the hunters was the only way to stay alive.
Torben walked over to me and stopped inches away. He pressed the revolver into my forehead. The cold metal dug into me, and Torben pressed it harder so that it broke the skin. It was like he was trying to push it all the way through my skull and into my brain. The metal stung against my head, but I wasn’t going to show him that. I took a breath and held it in.
“The farm’s ours, and so are you. You lost,” he said.
I opened my mouth and spat. Torben wiped his khakis with his hand. He turned, put the gun on the table and slid it over to Justin. The boy looked up in surprise.
“Pick it up,” said Torben.
Justin looked at the gun and then at Torben. I could tell what he was thinking; he was wondering if he should pick it up and fire it in Torben’s face. At least, that’s what I hoped he was thinking. Then again, there were six hunters outside who would come running in the minute they heard a shot. Whether Justin was on my side or not, we were still outnumbered.
Torben nodded at Justin. “It’s okay,” he said. “You can do it.” His voice was soft. He pointed over at me. “This man doesn’t care about you, but you’re one of us now.”
Justin picked up the gun, but his hands were shaking.
Torben stood up and put an arm around his shoulder. “Every man has to die, Justin. At least you won’t have to do it alone. You have us now.”
Justin raised the gun at me. His pupils were so big that it seemed like his eyes were completely black. His arms trembled and his cheeks flooded white. He pointed the gun at my head.
I looked deep into his eyes and tried to guess what he was thinking. Despite the gun aimed at me, I knew there was no way that he would pull the trigger.
There was a yell outside, and the farmhouse door burst open. A worried-looking hunter ran in.
“They’re here,” he said, and hung his head, panting. Then he looked up, and his eyes were wide in shock. “There’s hundreds of them!”
Torben walked to the door as though he were in no hurry at all. He opened it and went outside. The hunter trailed after him. As soon as Torben left the room, Justin walked over to me. He pulled a knife from his belt and sawed at the ropes around my wrists, and as he cut them away I felt my skin loosen.
“You okay?” I asked him.
He nodded. “They’re a bunch of idiots.”
Torben and the hunter walked back into the room. Justin straightened up and backed away from me, hiding the knife behind him. I grabbed the ropes and held them so that it looked like I was still tied up.
Torben looked at me. “Well, he wasn’t kidding,” he said, his voice controlled. “Never seen so many before.”
I twisted my head to get a look. I could only see through the square doorway, but across the farm and over the fields I spotted them; there was a sea of infected headed in our direction. Was it the same ones we had seen in Edness? If it was, then there were thousands of them, and none of us stood a chance.
Torben turned and looked at me. His face was void of emotion, a stark contrast to the terrified hunter next to him.
“This is what happens when you fire a shotgun out in the open,” he said.
I thought about David, wondered how he was doing, how hurt he was. The bite wasn’t bad but I knew that eventually, whether it was in hours or days, it would kill him. And when it did, he wouldn’t stay dead for long. Emotion welled up inside me, but it wasn’t the time.
Torben looked over at Justin. “Come on, boy, time to earn your place.”
“What?” said Justin.
Torben pointed at the door. “We didn’t drive all the way here just to give up. Come out and fight.”
He strode outside. Justin looked over at me, and I nodded. He walked after Torben and out of the door.
When the room was empty I stood up and let the ropes fall off me. My legs ached and the skin around my wrists was raw. I looked for my belt and knife, but I couldn’t see what Torben had done with them.
If I was going outside, I needed a weapon. I didn’t know my plan yet, but going out there unarmed would be crazy. Any weapon would do, any blunt instrument. It just had to be solid enough to smash through bone.
I pulled a chair from under the dining table and tipped it onto its side. I lifted my foot and brought it down on the chair leg, snapping it from the base. I picked up the block of wood and twisted it in my hands.
Outside the sky was black. The first wave of infected had reached the farm and their faces were illuminated by the dim glow of the porch lamps and the flashes of the hunter’s guns. The sound of the gunshots made me flinch, but it didn’t matter about the volume now. There were already enough infected coming our way, and drawing in a few more wouldn’t make a difference.
The hunters and the infected fought each other. The driver held a machete in his hand and swung it at the head of an infected, splitting it down the middle. Across from him the hunter with the long fringe held the neck of an infected woman as she struggled to bite him. With his right hand he lined up a screwdriver and drove it into her eye socket, splitting her eyeball like an onion.
A man to my right cried out. I span round and saw him fall to the floor. Two infected fell on top of him and didn’t waste a second in tearing pieces out of his neck and chest, their teeth clacking as they bit through his skin. One took a big bite of his chest, chewed and pulled away a long strip of flesh. The man’s screams of agony rose above the collective cry of the infected, but were quickly silenced as the infected ate his vocal chords.
David was sat against the porch. His face was drained of colour and he held his bitten arm tight against his chest. He pointed to my left. I turned and saw an infected inches away and lunging at me.
I grabbed hold of the infected’s hair, held it tight and then smashed the end of the chair leg against its face. The leg was so blunt that all it accomplished was breaking the skin and making putrid blood ooze from the infected’s face. I pushed the infected to the ground.
When it was on the floor, I lined my boot up with its face and brought it down as hard as I could. Its head didn’t smash straight away, and it took three tries before I heard it crack. When I looked down, my boot was covered in dark red blood and bits of grey flesh.
I knelt beside David.
“You need to go,” he said. His voice was so quiet that it was hard to hear him over the battle cries of the hunters and the groans of the infected.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “We need to go,” I said, and give him a squeeze.
Footsteps ran over to us, and then Justin was next to me. He bent over and took a few shallow breaths. His hands were covered in blood.
“You okay?” I said, looking for the tell-tale marks of a bite.
“It’s not mine,” he said. He held his hands up.
Someone screamed behind us, and I knew another hunter had been taken by the infected. How many more were left? I glanced over, but I couldn’t see them all. It didn’t matter; the hunters were hopelessly outnumbered.
Justin leaned in to David. Panic spread across his face. “Shit,” he said.
David nodded. Shit. No other words were needed.
I looked at Justin. “We need to go, right now. I don’t care where, we just need to get out of here.”
Justin swallowed. “Their truck,” he said, and pointed beyond the farmhouse. The hunter’s pick-up truck was parked on the stone driveway that led to the farm.
I nodded. This was as good a plan as any. Right now we just needed to get as far away from the farm as possible. Whatever we were going to do later didn’t matter.
“What about the keys?” I said.
“They keep them in the ignition for quick getaways.”
I grinned. “Smart.”
We picked up David and between us we supported him over to the truck. The sounds of the gunshots faded as the hunters ran out of ammo, and I knew that most of them would now be reaching for their knives. If they had any sense, they would slit their own throats. There were too many infected swarming in for the hunters to have any chance of winning.
We set David down next to the wheel of the truck. I opened the door, jumped in and reached for the keys. The ignition was empty.
My heart pounded and my chest flooded with panic. The keys had to be here somewhere. Our luck just couldn’t be this bad, surely. I looked around the dashboard and found plenty of junk, but no car keys.
I got out. Justin and David looked up at me, but I shook my head.
“Shit,” said Justin.
I knelt down next to David. His face was so grey that he looked like he should be in a morgue. I put my hand on his arm. “Listen, pal. We need to leave, we can’t stay here. Think you can make it just a little bit further?”
He looked up at me. His lips were dry and his eyes were dark. “Just leave me. I’m dying anyway.”
I couldn’t leave him. I’d already done that once, and I was going to have to live with that for the rest of my life. I couldn’t change the past, but what happened in the present was still up to me. I wasn’t abandoning him again.
I grabbed his arm. “Nobody’s leaving you. Get up and stop moaning,” I said.
Justin and I heaved David to his feet. For a second he was able to support himself on his own.
“Thanks, Kyle,” he said, and smiled at me. “Let’s go.”
A shadow leapt over the truck, and quicker than I could react it pounced on David, pinned him to the floor and tore a chunk out of his neck. Blood sprayed out like mist and covered the ground. I looked at the creature on top of him, and every nerve in my body screamed. My blood froze, and for a second I couldn’t move.
It was a stalker.
By the time I forced myself to move, David had stopped breathing. The stalker turned its head toward us, and despite its disfigurement I swore I saw something of a grin; some sort of human expression. It stared at me with hatred. It knelt on its legs ready to pounce.
I reached for my knife but then realised I didn’t have it with me. I gulped.
The stalker twitched and got ready to jump. Then, something next to me exploded and tore away half the stalker’s face. It made a rasping sound and fell back to the floor with a thud. I looked to my left, and Justin stood with the revolver in his outstretched hand, smoke drifting from the chamber.
I looked at David’s body on the floor. A huge chunk of his neck was missing, and blood sprayed out from the torn veins like water seeping out of a broken pipe. I felt his wrist, but his pulse had stropped.
I had failed him, I knew. I had brought him into this, and I had let him die.
“We need to leave,” said Justin.
I nodded and stood up. It was time for us to go. The farm was lost, but at least we could escape with our lives.
“Here,” he said, and passed me my revolver. The barrel was hot to the touch. I slipped the gun into my pocket.
We walked down the driveway and away from the farm. Something crunched on the stones behind us.
“Where are you going?” said a voice.
I turned round and Torben stood in front of me with his rifle raised. He pointed it at me and pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore a hole in my leg.
I clutched my left leg. The hole burnt from where the bullet had pierced it, and I felt like shouting out with the pain. I looked up at Torben. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing me like that.
Torben’s face was weary, his hair was messed up and his jacket was smeared with blood. There was a dark look in his eyes, the expression of a man who had stared too long into the abyss and had been broken by it. His jacket sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and there were long red scratches across his arms.
Justin twitched, and I could tell he wanted to do something.
“Don’t get yourself killed,” I said.
Torben took a few steps closer. “That’s what we’re all doing though, isn’t it? Getting ourselves killed.” He lifted his hand to his face and wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about our differences,” he said. “And you know, I come up blank. My thinking is, me and you are pretty much the same.”
I clutched my leg and felt it throb. “The classic villain speech,” I choked out.
He knelt down so that our heads were level. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and had lost some of its usual roughness.
“I’ve always felt alone. Even when there were twenty people in my group, I still felt like it was just me and a bunch of shadows.”
He looked at the ground. I thought back to the warehouse and the conversation I had heard, about how Torben was looking for his wife and boy who I assumed had run away.
I knew the pain of losing someone, but it wasn’t the pain that defined you. It was what you did after it.
The things we’d both done spoke volumes about us. I wasn’t proud of abandoning David and going my own way, but at least I’d never gone down as dark a path as Torben.
The hunter propped his gun next to him. “You were right to be alone. On your own, you’re safe. Where men gather, death hovers.”
I would have believed that too, once, but not anymore. I looked at Justin and saw how tense he was. He was waiting for an opportunity to strike. I shook my head at him.
“There’s hope for the future, Torben. There’s something in it for all of us – just not you.”
I pulled the revolver out of my pocket, raised it at Torben’s face and before he could react, I pulled the trigger. The bullet blew a hole in his forehead. The lights in his eyes dimmed, and he fell back and thudded onto the stone.
The field of the farm was full of infected now. There were so many of them that it was impossible to see the grass beneath their feet. I looked through the dead faces searching for anything that was living, but it seemed that the hunters had all fallen in battle. Out across the field, where the farm met the road, even more infected streamed in. Soon the whole place would be awash with them.
That was when I knew for sure that the farm was done. No matter how remote it was, this just proved that nowhere could ever be safe. I thought back to Vasey and its walls, and for the first time ever, I wished I was there.
I looked at the farmhouse and watched dozens of infected stumble inside.
I’m sorry, Clara. I got here like I promised, but look what I brought with me.
I turned to Justin. The boy knelt on the floor. He had a knife in his hand and tensed his arm. He couldn’t have been any more different from the kid I had first met back in Vasey, the one who was so unsure of himself that he could hardly walk straight.
I let out a breath. “It’s time to go,” I said.
He nodded. “We’re going together?” he said.
I arched my eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
“Don’t you remember? ‘When we get to the farm, you’re on your own’. That’s what you said to me.”
The words stung. I had said them a lot, and I meant them every time. But things were different. A man couldn’t survive by himself. I knew that now. I got to my feet.
“What about the farm?” said Justin.
The farmhouse swarmed with infected. I imagined them walking through the rooms and passing by the photo of Clara as a child. Lurching upstairs into her childhood bedroom and infecting it with their rotting flesh.
My chest burnt. I screwed my face up.
I wasn’t going to have the farm. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to let them take it.
I pointed the revolver at the field. I guided it across until I had the tank in my sights, the one with ‘petrol’ painted across it in red. I took a breath and held it in. I remembered being back in the tree with the stalker coming at me, about how I wasted three bullets trying to hit it. Now, I only had one, and I wasn’t going to miss.
I squinted and pulled the trigger.
Three hundred metres away the tank exploded, and an orange fireball spread into the sky. The bodies of the infected were flung in every direction. Flames engulfed the field and spread to the farmhouse, the heat licking at the old timber and setting it alight.
I sat back. Even so far away the heat warmed my face as the farm burnt to the ground.
Five miles in the distance the smoke billowed into the air in thick grey columns that diluted the blue of the afternoon sky. At the farm, the night before, the air had been so heavy that it choked me. Now, with a little distance between us, it was cleaner.
I sat back on the grass as Justin lifted the shovel and piled the last of the earth back onto the mound. The milky-brown soil stained the green of the lawn, but I doubted the owners would care. I looked behind me at the house. The windows stared back at me, dark and empty, and nothing moved inside. We had already checked every inch of the place, of course, but it didn’t hurt to be wary.
David was buried in a garden that belonged to someone he had never met, but I don’t think he would have minded. To have any sort of burial was rare these days, and David had never been a sucker for attention.
“Think anyone will see the smoke?” asked Justin.
He rested on the shovel. He wore a blue shirt that he had taken from one of the bedrooms, and he had rolled the sleeves up to his elbows. A long hunting knife was tucked into his belt. The handle was worn and the blade was dull.
“Who said you could have my knife?” I asked.
“Someone had to take care of the owners,” he said, and jerked his thumb back at the house.
A shot of pain jolted through my leg. Last night I’d cleaned the wound and wrapped a bandage around it, which I hoped to God would be enough to stave off infection. Walking was going to be tough until it healed.
“What now?” said Justin.
I stretched out my leg and felt a scream of pain. “We’re not going anywhere in the near future.”
“And after that?”
“I can’t see that far.”
Justin sat down next to me. Something moved in one of the branches of the oak tree at the end of the garden. I couldn’t tell what it was.
I cleared my throat. “I’m thinking we go back to Vasey.”
He turned and looked at me. His right eyebrow arched. “Really?”
I nodded. “They’re not bad people,” I said, “They just need someone to set them straight.”
I thought about the journey back to Vasey, about the hundreds of miles we’d have to travel, and my leg ached in anticipation. It would be a hell of a tough trip, but we’d do it. The town wasn’t the greatest place in the world, but right now it was all we had.
A breeze blew on my collar and the sun disappeared behind a cloud.
“C’mon, let’s go inside,” I said.
Justin got to his feet. He stood in front of me and held out his hand.
I waved him away. “What do you think I am, a cripple?”
He laughed. “That’s exactly what you are.”
I took his hand, got to my feet and let him support me inside the house.
The sun set and darkness trickled into the sky until everything above us was black. Outside, in the oak tree, an owl hooted. Something about the sound reassured me; that owls were still a thing, that the stalkers and infected hadn’t gotten all of them. I wondered if there were a parliament of them out there somewhere.
I stretched my leg out on the couch. My eyelids were heavy and my eyeballs itched.
“One of us needs to stand watch,” I said.
Justin drew his knife in one hand and then dragged a wooden chair to the window. Outside there was a clear view of the garden.
He turned to me. “You can hardly stand, so I guess it’s going to have to be me.”
I tried to sit up. I wanted to argue with him and tell him that I was going to do it, but my weary body dragged me back. As soon as I hit the couch I felt every last scrap of energy seep out of me as though all the cells in my body had given up trying to pretend.
I thought about the night’s sleep I was going to have. I thought about the next day, and the day after that. About how my leg would heal, and soon we’d set off back to Vasey. We would make something of the town, I decided. We’d make a go of it.
I glanced at Justin. He gripped the knife tightly in his hand and he looked out into the night, the depth of his stare making him seem much older than he was.
I closed my eyes and let myself drift into sleep, for a brief moment not caring about the darkness that waited for me outside.
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FEAR THE DEAD 2
Kyle Vauss wants to build a safe haven from the horror of the infected. Vasey, the largest survivor town in the North, is the best chance they’ve got at staying alive.
Being anywhere else post-apocalypse means death. By day the zombie infected roam the streets, and at night the stalkers leave their nests to kill. Nobody knows what they are, or where they’re from. But anyone caught outside after dark will find out how dangerous they can be.
A leader has to do dark things to stay alive, black things that leave a stain on their soul. Kyle doesn’t know if he has what it takes. He doesn’t know if he can lead the survivors out of the dark age. But there isn’t just the infected to worry about. There are other things waiting to destroy it all.
A man who claims to have found a cure.
A survivor who is trying to tear the town apart.
A 500,000 strong army of infected headed in their direction.
Read it on your Kindle here:
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Also by Jack Lewis
THE DYING & THE DEAD
When people started eating each other, the government sent guns.
When the virus became airborne, they sent masks.
When it spread beyond their control, they gave up.
And when they found those who were immune, they hunted them.
Years after the virus claimed the mainland, the Capita seized power. They offer safety from the infection, and all they ask in return is your freedom. All they want is unswerving loyalty. All you have to give them is everything that makes you human.
Bounty hunters pursue the immune so they can sell their flesh. The Resistance conspire against the totalitarian regime. Isolated islands discover the horrors of the infection for the first time. Survivors, killers, protectors and pursuers, all try to survive in a world spiralling into hell.
Read it on your Kindle here:
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This book is dedicated to my wife, who has the patience to listen to me, and to my mum, who knows that asking for honest feedback means ‘tell me what you like about the book’.
Copyright 2015 by Jack Lewis. All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this publication may be replicated, redistributed, or given away without the prior written consent of the author.
Fear the Dead
Kyle wasn’t always like this lonely or distrustful, the kind of man who’d take a fifty-mile detour to avoid a conversation. Watching the infected tear your wife apart will do that to you.
Fifteen years after the outbreak, he has learned to survive. He lives one day to the next, avoiding the infected and the deadly stalkers as he travels to a farm. It was the last plan he and his wife made together and now, years into the apocalypse, he has decided to see it through no matter what he has to do.
When a naïve teenager called Justin tricks his way into Kyle’s company, his survival rules are shattered. Will Justin’s mistakes get them both killed? As they journey through a country filled with the undead and are pursued by a man-hunter named Torben, Kyle has to learn to trust others again. Both of their lives rest on it.
- Author: Jack Lewis
- Published: 2017-04-03 15:35:19
- Words: 45996