Authors: Ryan Casey
no idea how long the three of them had been traipsing through the desolate woods and over the barren hills when he finally had to stop.
His legs wracked with the pain of all the running he’d done. His lungs were weak and raspy. Sweat dripped down his face and coated his entire body, but the temperature was so low that it felt like he was taking a cold water shower that he couldn’t step out of. He could taste all kinds of combinations of foods he wanted—burgers, curries, chips, all sorts of fatty and greasy products—but couldn’t have. Foods he hadn’t been able to have since the world fell apart just over a week ago.
And now the three of them were being expected to march on to Warrington.
Clarice rested her hands on her knees as they stood at the top of a field. It wasn’t particularly distinctive. The sun was low and the frosty ground was beginning to thaw out, just in time for it to freeze all over again that night. In the distance, Hayden could see a motorway filled with cars. Cars that had been abandoned long ago. Cars that would eventually rust away, that weeds would work their way around and make a part of the landscape, of the surroundings.
Cars that would rot away, just like everything did in this world, now more so than ever.
“We’ve been walking hours,” Clarice said, panting. “We … we need to take a breather or we’ll—”
“The sooner we get to Warrington, the better,” Newbie said. He kept on walking. Kept his head up. Stayed focused on the countryside ahead.
Hayden put a hand on his sister’s back. “We’ll find somewhere. Somewhere to stop and recharge our batteries. Somewhere maybe Sarah can—”
“Sarah isn’t coming after us,” Newbie said. He didn’t turn around. His tone was cold. It was like he’d snapped the second he’d heard that radio transmission, like all his hopes and focus were pinned on the chance that his ten-year-old daughter that he hadn’t seen for seven years might, just might, be in Warrington. “She did a selfless thing. But she isn’t coming after us.”
Hayden couldn’t argue with Newbie’s judgement. The last time he’d seen Sarah—the last time any of them had seen Sarah—she’d been drawing the zombies towards her so that the rest of the group could flee, giving them a slightly greater chance of escape.
And they’d taken that chance. They’d taken that chance and they’d ran.
When they looked back, Sarah was already too far gone.
“We could at least do with a car,” Clarice said, stretching out her arms.
“We could do with a lot of things,” Newbie said. “But we don’t exactly have a lot of options right now.”
Hayden looked at Clarice as she stood beside him. He half-smiled at her, then tilted his head at Newbie, just like he used to when he was about to have a quiet word with Mum and Dad about something he and Clarice wanted when they were younger.
Clarice half-smiled and nodded, and Hayden jogged after Newbie, his jelly legs barely carrying him.
He walked beside him in silence for a while. In a way, Hayden wanted Newbie to break the quietness. They hadn’t discussed Newbie’s flip in temper back in the tunnel earlier. Hitting Hayden across the cheek with the axe, a wound that still stung to this moment, but was numbed somewhat by the cold.
But he knew one of them had to address it eventually. And if Newbie wasn’t going to be the one to start it, it looked like it was up to Hayden.
“About what happened before. Back in the tunnel. I—”
“It’s forgotten. You were only doing what I did when you went after your parents. Trying to stop me.”
weren’t exactly the words Hayden wanted to hear. How about “sorry for smacking you across the face with an axe”?
“I … Newbie, we’re behind you. We’ve got your back. All of … both of us. We’re here with you. But right now we’re exhausted. We’ve been running all morning. We’re lucky we haven’t crossed paths with a large group of the zombies, but we won’t get lucky so long. And I don’t want to be knackered when we do lock horns.”
The pair of them walked through the field, Clarice just behind them. Over to the left, flies swarmed around the malnourished remains of a sheep, left out in the cold to starve by its undead farmer.
“When you got that phone call from your parents,” Newbie said. “Can you remember how you felt?”
Hayden could remember it all too well. Hope mixed with fear mixed with worry and joy. “Yeah. Just about.”
“And can you remember what your thoughts were like at that time? Can you remember how much your mind was filled with that one sole goal: get to my family?”
Hayden couldn’t argue with Newbie. “But I heard first hand from my mum. Not to put a downer on the Warrington transmission, but it’s a bit more speculative than an actual—”
“And do you really think your reaction to the call would’ve been much different if it had been from, say, a neighbour? Some sign of life on your parents’ street? Wouldn’t you have, like, believed the smallest glimmer of hope if it was right in front of you?”
Hayden wanted to protest, but he knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t because Newbie had a point. “I guess I would still have tried to find some kind of answer. But—”
“Then there you have it. We need hope, Hayden. I need hope. Otherwise, what’s the point in living in this world at all?”
He looked at Hayden when he said that, and Hayden lowered his gaze to the ground. Speaking was helping him keep his mind off his light-headedness and his hunger, so it counted for something.
“I’m sorry about your face. I shouldn’t have hit you. But I think you would’ve done the same if I’d tried to stop you going after your family. And if you had … well, I think you’d have done the same.”
Hayden had an idea what the “and if you had …” was going to end with. “If you had the balls to stand up to me.” And Newbie was right: he was taller and beefier than Hayden, so maybe he’d be unwise to pick a fight with.
But if he’d stopped him trying to save his family? He had no idea what lengths he’d have gone to.
“I feel bad for Sarah,” Hayden said. “I … She held back. For us. I’m not sure if … I don’t know why she’d …”
He couldn’t finish. He didn’t want to accept the reality: Sarah had sacrificed herself for the survival of the rest of the group.
“She did a good thing for us,” Newbie said. “A horrible but a good thing. And … and we can’t underestimate how different people react in different situations.”
“I know she wasn’t happy,” Clarice cut in.
Her voice made Hayden jump. He hadn’t realised she was right behind them. “What do you mean?”
Clarice looked over the fields at the endless hills. “She talked to me a bit. About having nothing to live for. About … about there being no point to anything anymore. I’m not saying she … she killed herself. But maybe she, I dunno. Maybe she found her ‘point’ after all.”
Hayden tried to digest his sister’s words. He knew Sarah wasn’t happy—who
happy, after all? But the realisation that she may well have intentionally given up her life … Hayden wasn’t sure how to feel about it.
There was something about Sarah. Something about her that made him feel … comfortable. And he wasn’t ready to let that feeling go just yet.
“Wait, is that a cottage?”
Hayden stopped. He saw his sister squinting into the distance. She pointed her shaky fingers into the middle of nowhere.
Hayden looked too. He couldn’t work out where she was looking. “I can’t …”
“Shit,” Newbie said. He slowed to a halt. “And is that … is that a car?”
Hayden searched another few seconds with his myopic eyes and then he saw it.
A grey stone cottage in the middle of the field.
Barbed wire wrapped around the fences.
A Range Rover parked in front of the cottage.
And then, by the door, he saw movement.
Three people emerged from the cottage. Three men. They were wearing thick black body armour and carrying … were they rifles?
But even more importantly, as the men walked out of the grounds of the house and headed over the field on foot, Hayden noticed they were carrying something else. Something that made him grin.
A can of beans. Each.
“They’ve got a car,” Clarice said. “And … and they’ve got food. Are you two thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Hayden said.
And it was unfortunate. But it was dog eat dog. Every man for themselves. Survival of the fittest.
“I think we’re gonna have to pay them a visit,” Clarice said.
“A very quiet visit,” Hayden said, as the three of them crept slowly down the side of the hill and towards the cottage.
, Newbie and Clarice descended the hill slowly and prayed to whatever god was in the sky that the occupants of the cottage wouldn’t get back any time soon.
The hill down to the cottage was slippery and it was impossible to avoid the sound of squelching that their boots made. Hayden kept his eyes on the cottage at all times. He kept his eyes on the leaded windows, looked for a sign of movement, a sign of life inside, but it seemed to be empty.
“So how are we gonna do this?” Newbie asked.
They dropped down the hill and came within metres of the cottage. The trio that had left the cottage were nowhere to be seen anymore. But they could come back at any time. They could come back with their guns. Blast them into oblivion. And that was a risk Hayden wasn’t willing to take.
“We’ve got to go in, take what we can, then get out in the car.”
Clarice sighed as they walked past the wooden fences that were lined with barbed wire. “Can’t we at least try being diplomatic?”
“They had guns,” Hayden said.
“Just like we’d have guns if we were lucky. Come on, bro. There’s no need to … to just go in there and steal their livelihood. How would we have liked it if someone had done it to us?”
“They didn’t do it to us,” Hayden said. “It’s … it’s just survival.”
He walked past Newbie and Clarice and headed towards the front door of the cottage.
There was something weird about this cottage. There were no signs of violence. No evidence that any zombies had even been around here, except for the barbed wire around the tops of the fences. The windows were boarded up with plywood downstairs, but the upstairs windows were empty, vacant. There were no lights on inside. No signs of shadows or movement.
It was like whoever owned the cottage had just taken a long weekend away.
Or at least, Hayden had to hope that was the case.
“Can’t we just … just take the car?” Clarice asked.
Hayden stepped up to the cottage door. “With what keys?”
“And what makes you so certain we’ll find the keys just lying around in there?”
Hayden put a hand against the door. “I just … I just have a feeling.”
Clarice tutted. “Yeah. Right. A feeling. And what makes you so sure the front door will just be…”
She stopped speaking when the front door creaked open as Hayden pushed it aside.
He turned to look at both Clarice and Newbie. Clarice looked shocked. Newbie had narrow eyes. “I don’t like this,” he said.
“Me neither,” Hayden said. He turned and looked into the cottage hallway. “Which is why it’s even more important we get this done with.”
He held his breath and stepped inside.
His footsteps creaked against the wooden floorboards. There was a faint smell of smoke in the air like a fire had been burning some time ago. There was a warmth to the place, too. A warmth that he hadn’t felt in what seemed like forever.
“I could get used to this place,” Clarice said.
Her words sparked an idea in Hayden’s mind. “Maybe we
get used to this place. Four walls. Relatively untouched. Seems pretty safe. What do you—”
“We keep on moving to Warrington,” Newbie said, not even giving the idea any thought. “We take some supplies, grab their keys and then we move on to Warrington.”
Hayden could feel his idea burst in his face.
They walked over to a door to the left of the stairs and pushed it open. Inside, there was a well-lit kitchen area with clean white tiles and black granite surfaces. There was a delicious smell in the air. A smell like … like food. All sorts of spices and herbs and … wow. Hayden could feel his taste buds exploding.
“We take enough to get us through the next two days,” Hayden said, as he walked over to a cabinet above the worktop and opened it up. He salivated as tins of beans and tuna stared back at him—and he didn’t even like canned tuna. “We … we don’t get over-indulgent.”
“I think taking a car qualifies as over-indulgence,” Clarice said.
“Well, except for the car.”
They grabbed a bunch of tins and cans and shoved as many as they could in their pockets and under their arms. Hayden couldn’t help but fantasise over every bit of food he took. Sweetcorn. Tinned mushy peas. Stuff that he would never consider eating warm, let alone cold, in the days before the collapse. But foods that seemed like the most amazing things imaginable right now.
“Any sign of the keys?” Hayden asked.
Newbie searched the drawers around the kitchen. “Plenty of bottle tops. Plenty of old bills and invoices. But no keys.”
Hayden scratched at his greasy head. What he’d do for a shower right now. And truth be told, it didn’t feel right raiding this place. Clarice was right—this place was somebody else’s work, somebody else’s haven.
But Newbie hadn’t given any of them a choice. They were moving on. There was no sticking around here, as tempting as it was to try and make peace.
Plus, who said these people wanted to make peace at all? Would Hayden want to make peace with a bunch of strangers who’d tried to ransack the bunker but had a change of heart all because they couldn’t find the car keys?
“There’s other rooms,” Hayden said, walking to the door with cans of food stuffed under his arms. “They have to be lying around somewhere.”
“Or maybe they aren’t lying around at all because they aren’t complete idiots and wouldn’t leave their car keys on the side in a shitting zombie apocalypse,” Clarice said.
Hayden smiled at her. “Right. Sure. Just like they’re not stupid enough to leave their front door unlocked in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.”
“Did you hear that?”
Newbie’s voice caught Hayden’s attention. He turned to him, frowned. “Did I hear what?”
Newbie didn’t respond. He just looked around the kitchen, slowly.
“Come on,” Hayden said, grabbing the kitchen door and trying his best not to drop any of the cans. “We need to find the keys and get the hell out of here. We’ll check the lounge first. And then we’ll take a look upstairs and—”
“Wait,” Clarice said. She walked up to the washing machine and opened up the door.
“Sis, we’ve hardly got time for laundry, as nice as it would be.”
She reached her hand inside the drum. “If you were trying to hide something, you’d choose a place that you
would be the least likely place for people to look, right?”
She pulled out a hole-filled old sock that definitely didn’t smell like it had been washed any time recently.
“I … I definitely heard something,” Newbie said.
Hayden shook his head. “An unlocked front door and keys stuffed in a spunky old sock. I’m not sure I’d insult their intelligence
But when Clarice opened up the sock, something tumbled out.
A set of car keys in the palm of her hand.
Hayden stood and stared for a moment. His sister smiled. Newbie kept on looking around the room, uncertain.
“Let’s … let’s get out of here,” Hayden said. “I don’t like this.”
“Amen to that.”
They rushed out of the kitchen and towards the front door. Hayden could hear creaking now, too. Creaking, like there was somebody else in the cottage after all. Creaking, like they weren’t alone.
And then through the front window, well in the distance, he saw the men who had left the cottage returning.
“We … we need to get out before they—”
Hayden didn’t hear the rest of Newbie’s words.
An explosion rattled against the wall above the door. Made Hayden’s ears ring as he tried to figure out what it was.
He had his answer when he looked over his shoulder and saw a man and a woman, both of them holding pistols, both of them pointing them at Hayden, Newbie and Clarice.
Both of them squeezing their triggers and getting ready to fire another set of bullets.