Jacques still had his arm around me when I awoke. Grey dawn was replacing the darkness, and someone was kicking my foot. I drew my legs up, and raised my head just as Jacques stirred into consciousness.
Jensen was squatting next to our feet, his grinning face barely visible in the feeble light.
“Get a room mate.” he told Jacques with a leer.
Jacques sat up and ran his fingers through his hair. Completely ignoring the innuendo he asked, “no word?”
Jensen shook his head, becoming instantly serious. Jacques sighed and rubbed his brows with one hand. “Well, fuck.” he said meaningly.
He took Amy’s place in the front passenger seat, looked around outside quickly, and then motioned for the older man whose name I still didn’t know, to start driving.
I’d been feeling fairly relaxed up to that, point - although maybe a little embarrassed by Jensen’s comments - but as if to underscore the constant danger, there was a thumping noise as we pulled away. I saw grasping hands slide past Jacques’ window, and heard them scraping along the side of the vehicle.
But once we were away everyone seemed to cheer up except Jacques, and the road ahead was surprisingly clear of debris. Instead of being a straight arrow cutting through the countryside, it now began to bend in gentle curves. This limited visibility as it wound around hills and woodland.
Looking around the inside of the vehicle I could almost forget about all the stress and chaos that had come before. Kamal and Andrews were talking animatedly about some video game, while Amy munched another power bar and looked out of the window. Jensen and Jacques were engaging in a half-hearted game of ispy, “Something beginning with G.” “Glombie!” which even Jacques seemed to find quite funny. Only the older nameless man still seemed depressed.
Now that the landscape was a little more diverse, I decided to look out of the window too, but I couldn’t concentrate. I felt edgy and isolated. We would soon be at York, ostensibly amongst the remnants of civilisation. What would happen to me then? Would I become just another nameless soldier fighting what seemed like a bit of a futile retreat? I glanced over at the back of Jacques’s head as he sat in front of me, joking around with Jensen. Although I liked him, the thought of being some ragtag mistress didn’t really appeal. I knew the value of independence, and also knew what happened to women in war-torn situations who didn’t maintain that independence. I also had a burning desire to get back to where I’d come from, to discover how I had travelled from Canada to the UK without even being aware of it.
Was Jacques right, was I in some kind of extended state of shock?
I was still mulling this over when the vehicle rounded a bend and a strange sight appeared out of the cover of the trees. A little way in front of us the road was barricaded by buses, with makeshift sentry towers made out of those utility cranes used to repair telephone or power wires. There were burnt out wrecks in front of this construction, and piles of rotting bodies strewn hither and thither. The stench floated over to us even from this distance.
Jacques leaned forward in his chair to get a closer look at it, and even from my seat behind him, i could see the blood drain out of his face. Our vehicle was still driving pretty fast towards the barricade, the older man looking over at Jacques questioningly.
Suddenly Jacques yelled out, “Stop! Stop now!” and at the same time grabbed the wheel. The older man panicked and they wrestled for it momentarily. The vehicle swung around dizzyingly and then without warning, everything exploded.
It’s hard to describe, it was like a giant hand picking the car up and throwing it. I remember the feeling of spinning, the sky whirling around me, and then an impact that knocked the breath out of me. There was no sound, just a high pitched ringing in my ears. It took me awhile to figure out I was hanging upside down in my seat. I was staring stupidly at a large ragged hole in the side of the vehicle. There was blood and smoke everywhere. At first I thought no one else was alive, but then I saw Jensen freeing himself from his seat belt. He collapsed onto what I guess was the ceiling. Copying him, I freed myself, and winced as my shoulder hit the hard armoured plastic of the roof. I sprawled there stunned as he seemed to be shouting at me. I still couldn’t hear anything, but his intention was clear as he grabbed my shoulder. Remembering Jacques, I looked around at the front seat. The driver’s side was just a mess of twisted metal and plastic and flesh, but his side was clear. He hung upside down with his eyes closed, blood dripping from his forehead.
I shook Jensen off and crawled over to Jacques. As I fumbled with his seat belt I saw Jensen out of the corner of my eye. His face was white under dirt and streaked with tears as he turned away from me. I tried to lift Jacques and failed miserably, falling back on my arse in the upturned car. I knew why Jensen was crying; because I and Jacques were as good as dead. Jacques was unconscious and going nowhere, and I knew I should leave him. I knew the glombies had to be close, but I just couldn’t do it, I couldn’t abandon him.
So I dragged him along the roof and through the ragged hole, cringing every second in expectation of the sensation of dragging hands and ripping teeth. I don’t know how I found the strength to, my arms felt like they were on fire with the effort. Luckily the hole faced away from the road onto a field. Between the road and the field was a deep ditch, filled with water at the bottom. I dragged Jacques over broken glass and sharp plastic until I reached the edge, trying to stop the fall of his body as I drew him down into the ditch. As if to taunt me, I heard the howls and shrieks of glombies incoming.
There was a crumbling overhang where the water had carved away the bank, and I rolled him under that as best i could, squeezing in after him. As a hiding place, it was pretty pathetic. The overhang only just covered him and I was mainly hidden only by mud. I had to hold his head out of it so he could breathe, although I wasn’t sure if he was even still alive. I didn’t dare move my head to look at his face; so I just lay there, praying that I wouldn’t be noticed. I could hear the slapping of running feet on tarmac interspersed with wild shrieks and that definitive howling that characterised the glombies.
I tried to remember if I’d seen anyone else apart from Jensen in the vehicle but my memory was very fragmented. I couldn’t hear any non-glombie screams, but there were horrible wet tearing sounds which indicated they’d found something. I tried not to shudder as I cowered in the mud. My arm ached from the tension of holding Jacques’ head up and it was hard to brace myself against his dead weight. The potential meaning of that phrase echoed through my head, and only the terror of being discovered stopped me from throwing him off with a yell. It was entirely possible I was hiding with a dead man. And I couldn’t stop hiding; danger was all around me, and it was much too late to run away.
So I lay there immobile as the sun climbed high in the sky, warming the mud around me. The sounds of the glombies waxed and waned, fading to silence as the sun faded. I don’t know how I managed to avoid being noticed, but I did. I ached all over with the tension of remaining still. Jacques remained unconscious and the only sign of life i took hope in was the fact that his body remained pliable and warm. I had been present at the death of enough pets to know how stiff and cold bodies become after life has fled. But as the sun dipped below the horizon and the temperature began to drop, I started to think about deserting him. Whatever head injury he’d sustained, it was enough to knock him out for over twelve hours, and at this point, i had no way of knowing if he would ever wake up.
The thought of abandoning the only person who had given a shit about me since I entered this strange reality made me want to weep. Adding to my indecision was the fact that I had no idea where to go if I did leave him. I cursed myself for not being sensible and following Jensen, while at the same time fighting the weight of guilt over leaving Jacques to die in that ditch. It was fully dark now, and getting colder, and I knew that neither of us would avoid hypothermia for long if we stayed the night wrapped in freezing mud.
Through silent tears I cradled his pale face and kissed him on the forehead, a gesture of regret which did nothing to assuage the conflict inside me. I wanted to shake him and scream at him to wake up, but that wouldn’t have been wise. So instead I raised my head carefully, surveying the land around me for danger. There was nothing in view, and I was just taking a deep breath trying to psych myself up to a decision to leave, when I heard a low moan. Instantly I froze and then almost jumped out of my skin when I realised it had come from Jacques.
Filled with new fear, I clamped my hand over his mouth. His eyes flicked open and blinked in a groggy attempt to focus. Jacques’ body went rigid, and for a moment I thought he was going to panic and struggle. But his self-control was admirable; he merely breathed deeply a couple of times and then raised one hand slowly to touch my face. It was a questing touch, obviously trying to figure out who I was without having to speak. As his fingers brushed my lips I leaned as close to his ear as possible and whispered, “It’s me, Rachel.”
Jacques’ head inclined in the barest nod, and he buried his hand in my hair, bringing my ear to his mouth. I thought he was going to ask about other survivors or what had happened, but all he whispered was, “Thanks.”
I could feel the strain in his body as he tried to move. Worried about being noticed, I slid away from him into the water. His eyes followed me as, nervously daring, I raised myself to a half crouch and looked around. The coast seemed clear, so I dug my hands under his armpits and dragged him out from under the bank. Jacques’ weight wasn’t so dead this time, so it was easier to move him, but it was still difficult, and ended with us both sprawled against the other side of the ditch. The sound of our fall and the splashing of mud and water sounded horribly loud in the silence of our surroundings.
I recovered first, and poked my head up to check there was still no immediate danger. As I was doing this Jacques grabbed my arm and used it as a crutch to haul himself up. I ducked my shoulder under to support him, and then looked over at his face, trying to figure out what to do next.
His head was bowed as he took a couple more deep breaths. Even in these stressful and dangerous circumstances, I had time to register a feeling of deep warmth towards him. Jacques was alive and conscious, and had spared me the terrible decision of abandoning him.
It took him awhile to recover enough energy to take stock of the situation; long enough for me to start shivering and wondering if I should suggest something - what, I didn’t know. Fields led into woodland on either side, but the road was covered in debris from our vehicle, and there was the chaos of bodies and live glombies all around the blockade. This was still about fifty feet away, but as I stared in that direction I could see the sharp shadows of craters pockmarking the road between us and the wall of buses.
“Mines.” whispered Jacques, following my gaze.
He grabbed my arms and pulled me further down into the ditch. Leaning close, he spoke quietly and slowly, stopping every few seconds to gauge if any glombies looked like they’d heard us.
“We need weapons, food too.” he told me. “Wait here.”
I stared at him, stunned. He could hardly keep upright, and he was talking about what, salvaging our wreckage in full sight of the glombies? Emphatically I shook my head. I pointed at myself and then at the gutted vehicle. I didn’t want to go, but I had a better chance, surely. The thought of crawling over the road and into the wreck made me want to be sick, and I experienced a guilty feeling of relief when Jacques shook his head in response. We crouched in the ditch with our heads close together. I gripped his forearms, stifling a desire to try to argue with him. That would draw more attention than we could afford. It was too dark to see his expression as I bowed my head in something close to despair. I felt his fingers caress my cheek, urging my face up. His lips touched mine for a lingering second of warmth, and then he squeezed my shoulder and turned away.
Very carefully he crawled out of the ditch, keeping his body low to the road, while I watched with my heart in my mouth. He edged slowly along on his stomach, again, stopping intermittently to check he was unobserved. The most dangerous moment was when he had to get up to pull himself over the large rip in the side of the vehicle. He clung to the shadows, moving only as much as he needed to. It was doubly nerve-wracking once he had disappeared into the belly of the wreck; I strained to hear any noise, knowing that if I did it would probably be too late for him. I had no idea what to do if that happened; running would probably just bring pursuit.
Twice I heard the slack stumble of glombies nearby, and ducked down until only my eyes were above the ditch. No one had explained what glombies did when they weren’t hunting for normal humans, but their behaviour seemed quite random and unmotivated to me. I had seen no sign of intelligence or forethought so far, but my experience was admittedly limited. Probably everyone who had survived them had the same problem; if you got close enough to understand them, it was too close.
It seemed an aeon before my eyes caught slight movement from the wreckage. Jacques was coming out cautiously, a bulkier shadow than before. He waited in the lee of the vehicle as another glombie shuffled past not far from his position, and then slowly lowered himself down until he was crawling back on his belly. I could see the partial outline of a rifle barrel on his back, and knew he had been somewhat successful.
The final feet between the vehicle and the ditch was exposed road, and I clenched my jaw as I watched him creep across it. All it needed was a glombie to turn this way before he could stop moving. Belatedly realising that danger could also come from the field behind us, I crouched lower and slowly turned my head to see if anything was there. There was nothing but long grains and the dark blocky shapes of trees. I turned back as he slid down the bank back into the ditch, breathing heavily. I could feel his limbs trembling from effort as he leant back beside me.
Finally his breathing calmed, and he pressed the cold weight of a revolver into my hand. Fumbling, I shoved it into my jacket pocket, wishing I had managed to keep that satchel I’d taken out of the base.
He leaned closer to me. “Follow me. And stay down.” he whispered.
Quaking, I copied him as he stepped across the water at the bottom of the ditch and then dropped to a crawl, slipping into the spaces between the rows of wheat. I didn’t like the fact that these were not quite wide enough to accommodate us, causing the tips of the long plants to sway slightly as we passed through.
It was hard going crawling along on our stomachs, trying to stay quiet and unobtrusive. Vision was limited to the stalks on either side of me, and the soles of Jacques’ combat boots as he cleared the way in front. My knees and elbows were scraped and raw by the time we reached the edge of the trees, and I was finding it hard not to pant for breath. But I was doing well compared to Jacques, who had to grip the nearest tree trunk to pull himself to his knees.
He looked around, and then sank back against the bark. The moonlight caught his upturned face for a second, and I saw how drawn it was, his eyes sunk in deep shadow. He shook his head slowly, and passed a hand across his brows.
“Sorry, can’t go much further.” he whispered. “Need to rest.”
I nodded silently, and looked past the tree we leaned against to see if there was anywhere likely to hold up. A little way into the wood I could see a tangle of brambles and ferns, half covering a dead tree standing blasted in place. A sapling grew out of it halfway up the trunk, and the brambles and ivy had formed a sort of tent around it. It was in the shade of larger surrounding trees and the undergrowth looked impassably thick. I tugged Jacques’ sleeve, and directed his gaze towards it. I could just see him frown in the darkness, but eventually he nodded wearily and started to crawl towards it, looking from side to side to see if any glombies were around. I followed him and saw with satisfaction that whether by natural growth or the diggings of some animal, there was a rent in the brambles big enough to crawl into. The space inside was tight and the thorns pricked and tugged at my clothing. But the dead tree trunk made a good back post, and once we’d drawn our feet inside I arranged the undergrowth to hide the gap we’d come in through.
While I was doing this Jacques had dragged himself so that he was sitting with his back against the tree trunk, his knees bent in front of him, the rifle by his side. I shuffled closer to him and he reached out and drew me in until I was sitting with my back pressed against his chest, his arms circling me. I felt his body shuddering - with cold or shock, I wasn’t sure. Suddenly concerned, I wriggled out of my jacket and placed it over his shoulders. The cold night air cut through my pajama top like a knife, and now I was the one shivering. Jacques pulled me back to him and wrapped himself around me. The combined heat from his chest and my back helped a lot, and his shudders faded. His stubble rasped my neck as he rested his chin on my shoulder. I let myself relax against him. I’d thought I’d be too uncomfortable and cold to sleep, but my eyelids felt heavier and heavier with each breath, until finally I fell into an uneasy doze.