As the battle zone of the farmhouse faded into the distance, I started to take more interest in my companions. The one other woman was slight and fair, almost anemic looking in her paleness. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but she had an air of femininity which struck me as lovely. She constantly worried her lower lip, making it raw and scabbed. Her large pale blue eyes protruded with anxiety.
I spent more time looking at her as she was the only other woman in the vehicle, but the three other men in the back and the driver were all fairly average looking. There was one who seemed older than Jacques, in late middle age. He had sagging skin as if he had once been much heavier, and thinning sandy hair going bald on top. The other two in the back were young, and were recovering their cockiness. One of them had a buzz cut of tight red curls and as I looked at him curiously, he winked back at me and snorted.
“See you brought your good luck charm, Sarge!” he called out, raising one eyebrow in my direction.
I flushed; so that was what they thought of me.
Jacques twisted around in his seat and made a rude gesture.
“Fuck off Jensen.” he replied amiably.
He flashed me a grin and I let my lips twist in an awkward smile. I didn’t want to be a good luck charm, or a mascot or a ‘camp follower’. I determined to show them that I could in fact be a survivor in my own right.
“Bloody superstitious for a scientist, if you ask me.” continued Jensen unperturbed.
Jacques seemed about to retort, but then the driver, a young south asian with striking blue eyes, pointed ahead urgently.
We all craned to see what he was pointing at; from my limited perspective in the back it seemed like there was a barricade of burnt out cars up ahead. The road had led us into a more populated area, and terraced houses huddled close on either side of the barricade.
“Through or round?” asked the driver in a quavering voice.
“Looks like you can make it on the right.” offered Jacques, his eyebrows drawn down into a frown.
With shaking hands the driver swung the wheel and pressed forward, bringing us closer to the barricade.
“Don’t stop.” ordered Jacques tersely.
Giving him a look of pure terror, the driver climbed the kerb and scraped past the pile of cars, smashing a low garden wall as he did so. Dust billowed up around us, and as he rounded the last of it i saw shadowed figures rising up around us from the wreckage of the barricade.
“Floor it!” shouted Jensen from the back.
The driver responded and the vehicle lurched into motion, clipping a postbox as it did so.. A confetti cloud of letters rained down on us. With my face pressed against the side window i saw a lunging figure, and then another. There was a loud smacking noise and the driver yelped as a flailing body careened across the bonnet. He spun the wheel this way and that, trying to dislodge the thing. I was terrified he was going to crash, but somehow he made it through, speeding away from the terrace of houses. I had a fleeting glimpse of a snaggle toothed roaring mouth, and then our glombie hitchhiker was thrown clear, tumbling away into the verge. Wild creatures ran after us, surreal in such a suburban surrounding.
They chased the vehicle unflaggingly even as we drew away from them out of sight. Finally they disappeared into the distance, and the vehicle was the only source of movement and noise, alone on a wide straight road surrounded by fields once again.
Once we had been travelling for a little while without any sign of pursuit, Jacques leaned over to the driver and said, “Kamal, pull over. Jensen’s going to drive for a bit.”
Kamal glanced at him gratefully and immediately pulled over to the side of the road. Leaving the engine running, he unbuckled his seatbelt and climbed into the back, moving aside so that the swaggering Jensen could climb into the driver’s seat.
While Jensen was cracking his knuckles and setting the car in motion again, Kamal sat there with his head in his hands, breathing deeply in an obvious effort to calm himself.
Embarrassed by his open display of emotion, I turned to look out of the window at the countryside going by. It was flat and open, shades of green and brown and grey flowing past in an endless river. I tried not to look at the road, with its burnt out hulks of cars and rotting bodies. The smoke and fire and violence were long over, but they had imprinted their presence on the landscape. Suddenly depressed, I turned my attention indoors again.
Kamal had perked up and was eating one of the ubiquitous power bars, chatting to the pale girl. The older man was sunken in on himself, staring at the floor. The other young man was leaning his arms on the back of Jensen’s driver’s seat, and talking animatedly. He had hair pretty much the colour of my own, mousey brown.
I started to listen in to their conversation, some chatter about internet celebrities I’d never heard of. It seemed a surreal subject, given that there didn’t seem to be internet anymore. This brought me back to my own circumstances, something that i’d been too busy fighting to survive to think about. How was it possible for me not to remember any of this, to have such a massive gap in the continuity of my consciousness?
I tried to think back to my last memory before this had all started, but it was no good, I had absolutely no recollection of anything out of the ordinary. I could not bring my mind to close the gap between blinking in a darkened room and blinking in that dew laden field. I kept going over and over those first seconds, the disconnect between one environment and the other.
So absorbed was I in brooding about this that I didn’t notice someone looming over me until a power bar was thrust in front of my face.
“You must be hungry.” said a light voice, the voice of the pale girl.
I looked up at her and gave her a wan smile. “Thanks.” I said, taking the power bar from her. “I’m Rachel.” I added by way of introduction.
She sat down on the edge of the next seat beside me and smiled back. “Amy.” she offered by way of return, holding her hand out.
We shook hands solemnly and then both grinned at the strangeness of it.
“I’m glad I’m not the only girl.” she mentioned after I’d been eating the power bar for awhile. “Things can get weird when you’re the only girl.”
I gave her a sideways look at that, wondering what kind of ‘weirdness’ she’d been subjected to, but not daring to ask. Up until now no one except Jacques had really bothered to make conversation with me.
She looked like she was about to say something more, but a loud burst of static from the vehicle radio interrupted her.
Jacques grabbed the radio microphone and practically yelled into it. “Here, we’re here! Sergeant Jacques here, report!”
There was a long moment of silence and then the radio crackled into life again. “….burning….no way through….”
We were all tensed listening to this broken message, and at the words ‘no way through’, Jacques took a deep hissing breath.
“What do you mean no way through? Please repeat!” He was obviously quite agitated as he spoke into the microphone.
There was no answer save for the buzzing of static. Jacques repeated his request for answers over and over, but there was no response. Finally he gave up, throwing the microphone away from him in a fit of pique.
Jensen was surveying the road ahead with uncharacteristic nervousness, fingering the wheel and peering from side to side.
“What do you think they meant Sarge?” he said finally.
Jacques shook his head. “I don’t bloody know, maybe just a break in the road or something.” He shrugged and I got the feeling he was trying to reassure Jensen and the rest of us, but that he was deeply worried. I saw him look at the dashboard clock, and then he unfolded a battered looking map.
“We nearly there?” asked the mousey haired soldier from the back eagerly.
Jacques gave him an amused look. “Not too far, Andrews, not too far,” he frowned and pursed his lips, looking at the map again, “but now I’m wondering if we should take a detour.”
The others all looked round at him, consternation in their faces. For the first time the older man spoke up, his voice full of anxiety.
“Divya said to take the A1!” he protested. “It the quickest way to York, the most open.” his voice started to take on a tinge of panic. “We’ll get trapped in the by-roads; there’ll be tons of them there!”
Jacques nodded. “I know, I know.” he agreed. “But there’s other things to worry about.”
“Like what?!” yelled the man.
Jacques held up his hands in a gesture of placation. “People do crazy things to stop them,” he started slowly, “and we don’t know what’s out there...booby traps, gangs? Just cos they’re uninfected, doesn’t mean they won’t kill us.”
“So what’s the plan?” asked Jensen, not taking his eyes off the road.
Jacques shrugged. He bit his lip and seemed to be having trouble making a decision. He kept poring over the map, looking up every now and then to take in the surroundings, his face tense.
Finally he looked over at the dashboard clock and seemed to make up his mind. He fiddled with the radio and spoke into the microphone.
“Jacques, repeat, Jacques here. Received partial report. Stopping until further instructions.”
The others with me except for Jensen start to protest, but Jacques waved them down.
“We need more information. They wouldn’t have contacted us if it wasn’t urgent!”
Jensen was still driving, but slower now. “Can we, can we keep from attracting attention that long?” he asked doubtfully.
Jacques ran his fingers through his dark hair, and for the first time I noticed the beginnings of a streak of grey at his temple.
“We stay low in the back til nightfall, one watcher only. We should be ok after that if we stay quiet.” he gazed around at us intently, obviously trying to win us over. I didn’t really understand what the fuss was about, so I just sat there trying to gauge the other’s reactions.
“And the radio?” asked kamal anxiously.
Jacques looked at him with serious intensity. “I’ll turn it down. I’ll watch from the floor here.” he tapped the floor under his seat. “If we don’t hear from them by morning, we go on. Deal?”
Jensen slowed the vehicle to a crawl and said in a wry tone, “this only works if we can stop without them hearing, right?”
“Right.” agreed Jacques, flashing him a grin.
“Ok, let’s do this.” retorted Jensen, and slowed to a halt.
Both he and Jacques shunted down in their seats, looking over the edge of the windows. The others in the back carefully and quietly lay down on the floor, beckoning me to do the same.
The silence stretched from moments into minutes, until finally Jacques breathed a sigh of relief.
“None around.” he whispered.
Yet still they all stayed still and quiet as the minutes dragged on into hours.
Overcome with curiosity I ventured to ask, “Is their hearing really that good?”
“Sshh.” came the instant whispered replies. Peering round the chair back, Jacques gave me a sympathetic look.
“She doesn’t know,” he explained in a whisper, “shock amnesia.”
“As long as she doesn’t get us killed.” frowned the old man on a hoarsely whispered retort.
“Too much talking.” hissed Jensen, shaming us all into silence.
It was very tense, all of us straining to hear any sound of movement outside, as well as the added worry of why there was no further noise from the radio. From time to time Jacques pressed his mouth to the microphone and whispered requests for confirmation, anything, but there was no response.
And so the hours passed, lying there trying not to fidget. It wasn’t a good time for me; the inaction made it hard to avoid thinking about the strange way I’d arrived in this situation and the danger I was still in. I seemed to be at a disadvantage in that everyone else knew certain facts about how these glombies operated, but I didn’t. I worried this over and over in my head and it wasn’t until i realised that it was becoming hard to see my hand in front of my face that i woke up to the fact that we had survived the first ordeal. The others relaxed a little and Kamal handed out some power bars without speaking. Jensen and Jacques eased up in their seats, carefully surveying the outside area as they did so.
“Still nothing,” whispered Jacques, “that’s good.”
He jerked his head at Jensen, “You try and rest,” and then pointed at me, “you’re taking first watch with me; time to give you a 101 crash course on glombie behavior.”
As Jensen silently crawled into the back and lay down, Jacques slipped into the driver’s seat and I took the passenger’s. He stayed low in his seat, so I did too, trying to copy him. He didn’t move his head much, but his eyes were constantly searching.
After confirming that there was no imminent danger - I could see nothing except for fields and woodland with the peaked houses of a village off in the distance - he started to talk to me in a low, quiet voice.
“Movement, light and noise attract them,” he told me without looking over in my direction, “but some noise they ignore. They’re not interested in animals, but they seem to be able to recognise anything man-made.”
“Is there a cure?” I whispered, trying not to glance over at him.
“Not that we know of.” he answered. “All they live for is food, and we’re the only thing on the menu.”
The twilight had now deepened to dark night, and I felt more and more uneasy. It was hard to see if anything was moving in the fitful moonlight, and I found myself jerking my head around at the slightest noise.
“Stop that.” commanded Jacques in a hiss. “Quick movement is exactly the kind of thing they key on.”
I started to nod and then quickly stopped myself, digging my nails into my palms to try and remain completely still.
“Why glombies?” I asked as a sudden thought struck me. “Are they really zombies, like undead?”
I never knew you could whisper a chuckle, but Jacques managed it. “So many questions.” he teased. “No, they die like anything else. But at the beginning it was the bums infected first, people thought it was some kind of drug thing; glue zombies...etc etc.”
I opened my mouth to ask how long since this had all started, but he silenced me by gripping my hand in warning. Following the direction of his gaze I saw a tall thin shadow stalking across the indigo field to our left. It hadn’t noticed us, and it was quite far away, but I froze in fear, wondering if it would sense our presence. Jacques hold was bruisingly tight, and I guessed he was not as sanguine about the glombies as he made out.
After what seemed like an eternity the figure disappeared over the crest of a low hill in the direction of a cluster of houses. Jacques and I both exhaled as if we’d been holding our breath the whole time.
“Ok lesson over, go get some sleep.” he told me.
“What about you?” I whispered.
“In a bit. Wake Andrews, it’s his turn.”
Awkwardly i shuffled out of the chair and crawled through the back until I was kneeling beside Andrews. He was awake the instant i shook his shoulder, hands flexing on the rifle he’d been sleeping with.
I took his place on the floor as he crawled over to the passenger seat and made himself comfortable. I however, didn’t seem able to find the same comfort. The floor felt colder and harder than it had earlier in the day, and I still found myself straining to hear any outside noise. I felt lost and frightened and alone; to compensate I tried to wedge myself against the wall of the vehicle under the put-up chairs. It didn’t really make me feel any safer. I was too conscious of staying quiet to toss and turn, so I lay on my side staring into the darkness. Sleep wouldn’t come, probably because I’d done nothing physical the entire day. All I had done was wallow in stress, and now i continued to do so.
I was still lying there wide awake when I heard Jacques leave the driver’s seat and tap Kamal on the shoulder. I expected him to take Kamal’s spot on the floor, but instead he stepped over the prone figure of the older man and lay down in the space I’d left wedging myself against the wall.
All I could see was a dark outline as he stretched out on his back with a sigh, crooking one arm behind his head as support. I watched him relax with a kind of envy, sure that he would be asleep soon, leaving me to the dark watches of the night. I was so convinced of this that it came as a surprise when, without looking round, he stretched out his free hand towards me. It rested palm upwards on the floor in invitation. Slowly I reached out and took it. The subtle pressure as he squeezed my hand brought sudden tears to my eyes. Such a small gesture, and yet it made me feel instantly less alone.For a long time we lay like that, connected only by our palms. For some reason this released a tide of emotions within me, everything i’d been bottling up inside since i blinked into that field. Silent tears dripped sideways down my face while i bit my lip hard to stop from sobbing. Impulsively, I found myself wriggling closer to him, until my head was pillowed on his shoulder. Jacques - I still didn’t even know his first name - released my hand and put his arm around me. Slowly my tears dried up, and i began to relax. I’d been a little worried he might take it as invitation for something more, but all he did was pull me a bit closer, so that my head and arm were resting on his chest. I experienced that same sense of comfort I had in the barn, and drifted off to sleep.