It was only as we were leaving the destroyed gate that i realised I had no idea where we were going.
“Where now?” I asked plaintively.
Jacques nodded towards the map. “Scotland. MoD, like Divya said.”
Reflecting that we didn’t even know if Divya was still alive, i pulled out the map and tried to orientate myself. The countryside rolled by as i studied it. Occasionally i glanced over at Jacques, who was grim and silent, sunken in his own thoughts. Finding sanctuary in York had obviously been a big deal for him. I had had less emotionally invested in it, but i understood that it had been our last major hope. I had no idea where any of these supposed Scottish mod installations were, and i suspected he didn’t either. They didn’t seem to be marked on the map.
After a few minutes of futile searching, i screwed up the courage to ask him.
“which base are we headed for?” i asked hesitantly.
Jacques shrugged. “Fort George?” he suggested. Seeing me searching on the map, he tapped it. “Here, north of inverness somewhere.”
I traced the roads back down to york. There seemed two ways to approach it: take the motorway past the major cities or take the A roads again, avoiding the cities but having to go through smaller towns and villages. I had no idea which was less dangerous.
“Motorway?” i questioned.
Jacques seemed to think about this. I noticed that he was rubbing the cut on his forehead from the crash. Worryingly it was visibly red and puffy now that the dried blood had mostly flaked away from it.
“We should get something for that.” i commented.
He dropped his hand and then laughed ruefully. “Yeah i’ll just pop down to the local chemist.” he joked, and then grew serious again. “You’re right, can’t afford to have it get infected. Let’s take the side roads once we get past York; some of the smaller places might’ve avoided looters.”
We were currently on a major A road that circumvented York, and i started to look over the map to see if i could find somewhere likely. Not for the first time i wished that google maps or phone gps were still available. I hadn’t even thought about cell phones since this whole thing had started.
“Do you have a mobile?” i asked wistfully.
Jacques snorted in reply. “No point, reception was the first thing to go. Wish i still had a radio though....”
I sighed. Oh well, i’d tried. We were heading east now, and the still rising sun shone in my eyes. Blinking, I pulled down the passenger mirror and then did a double take at my reflection. My face was dirty and surprisingly gaunt, hazel eyes staring back at me with abnormal intensity. My normally sleek brown hair was a birds nest wattled with mud.
Jacques saw me looking, and reached over to tousle my head. “Think we could both do with a bath.” he told me almost cheerfully. His hand lingered on my hair for a second, and then he tweaked it playfully. But almost immediately his cheer faded, and he rubbed his forehead with his palm again.
“Yeah, gotta get something for this.” he repeated. There was an undercurrent of fear in his voice that i didn’t quite understand.
Feeling a sense of urgency, i looked over the map again. “What about this nether place?” i suggested. It was ahead of us before we had to change roads to try and meet up with the A1 going north.
Jacques gave a grim chuckle. “Sounds about right. How do i get to the village centre?”
“Turn off onto millfield lane up on the right.” i directed. “Take a left on long ridge and that’ll take us to main st. sounds like town centre to me.”
“Alright.” he agreed. There was a pause, and then he asked cautiously, “rachel, can you drive?”
I looked at him, and then looked at the gear shift. “Automatic yes. this? Not so sure.”
He waved his hand dismissively as he turned onto long ridge lane. Suddenly we were in the middle of detached suburban housing, and already a few glombies were stumbling out to greet us.
As he drove past them Jacques spoke to me quietly. “Its better if you stay at the wheel; you don’t have much combat experience.” he touched his cut gingerly. “just keep the engine going and be ready to kick off once i get back. And step on the horn if you see anything. Anything at all, ok?”
Feeling more than a little pressure, i nodded carefully. I didn’t like the idea, but he was right; there was no way i could be so ruthless about killing. Some part of me still saw the glombies as fellow human beings.
We had turned up onto the road that became main street, and already the residential housing was interspersed with village shops. I stared as we passed the steepled church. Tattered banners still proclaimed a church fete, but the grassy graveyard was dotted with glombies, standing staring into space. The sound of the car turned all their heads in creepy unison, and i shrank back as rage animated their slack faces.
Jacques sped up as they started to chase us, but his brow was creased in a frown. “More than i expected.” he murmured to himself.
I could see them following us in the passenger mirror, and suddenly the idea of waiting in the car alone for them to catch up seemed suicidal. I opened my mouth to say so, but Jacques beat me to it.
“Change of plan,” he told me quickly, his eyes searching for a pharmacy, “too many of them for you. Going to pull up right at the door - ah, there it is!” he exclaimed, and turned the car in a screeching curve towards a small shop with the words ‘chemist’ in blue letters outlined with gold above it.
“I’ll hold them off, you go in,” he said without looking round. “Grab what you can - hydrogen peroxide, polysporin, any antibios, anything for cuts or infections. Don’t forget your gun.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but he was already up on the pavement, pulling in so that the car blocked the shop door. The drivers side was closest to the door, and he jumped out, pulling me after him by the scruff of my jacket. He was already raising the semi-automatic as he pushed me behind him.
“Go!” he yelled.
Cursing him under my breath i pushed open the chemist door, glad to find it wasn’t locked. The bell tinkled cheerfully as i stepped through. A last glance behind me showed a semicircle of glombies closing in on the car. I jumped as the sound of shots rang out, some of them falling in their tracks.
Remembering what i was there for i grabbed a my little pony backpack from a rack and ran to the nearest aisle. This one was filled with cosmetics, but i was lucky with the next one over. Trying to steady my shaking hands i shoveled bottles of peroxide and alcohol into the bag along with every kind of wound ointment and dressing i could see. Moving along i added painkillers, and then the thought struck me that most of the good stuff would be behind the counter.
I was in mid dash towards the back when a scuffling noise from that direction stopped me in my tracks. Fumbling in my jacket pocket i brought out the revolver and raised it with both hands.
“Hello?” i called in a quavering voice, then bit my lip. How stupid was i? the chance that anyone back here was friendly was minute, and now i had alerted them to my presence.
Sure enough i heard a howling scream and a large figure burst out from the darkness behind the counter. I had just enough time to register the black on black eyes and the fact that he was an elder male before i squeezed the trigger and saw blood fountain from his shoulder. It was not a killing shot however, and i steeled myself to shoot again as he reeled back, knocking over one of the aisles. Trembling with fear i found myself unable to advance until he had regained his footing and was lurching back towards me. In the distance i could hear another burst of gunfire. He was an old man, and somehow his white hair and lined face made his expression of mad hatred all the more terrible. I pulled the trigger again and again, squeezing my eyes half closed against the sight of all the blood that sprayed from him. He went down again, his body jerking spasmodically, and then was still. Instantly the room spun and i doubled over to throw up. In spite of my qualms, i had killed my first glombie.
Suddenly an explosion rocked the place, and some of the window glass shattered. Jacques had been forced to use a grenade, and this woke me up to the fact that time was running out. Expecting the old man to reach out and grab my ankle at any second, i ran past him behind the counter. The shelves and cupboards were in disarray, so i just snatched whatever was closest. Some words stood out to me, and i took anything that even sounded remotely familiar.
Another explosion sounded, and now i was worried Jacques wouldn’t be there when i got back. Tripping over myself in my haste, i ran back to the door and barrelled through it.
He swung round with a revolver pointed at me, then lowered it with an expression of relief as i stopped, staring stupidly at the chaos in the town square. Bodies fanned out from a couple of craters, and there were many more piled in the car park in front. I could see more glombies scrambling out of the pub opposite and clambering through the trees. It looked like the whole village had come out to greet us.
“Took your bloody time!” yelled Jacques. He opened the driver side door and pushed me through it. I clambered into the passenger seat as he took the wheel. A pub glombie reached us just as Jacques fired up the engine, and he knocked her aside as he pulled away from the chemist. The tires screeched as he accelerated fully, leaving our pursuers behind.
Meanwhile all i could do was clutch the pink backpack, unable to control my shaking.
We had left the village and regained the more remote environs of the A road before i managed to get myself somewhat under control and thought to put my seatbelt on. I felt really slow and like my head was filled with cotton wool. My hands were shaking too much to do the seatbelt catch, and suddenly this seemed the last straw. I broke into snivelling sobs, curled around the child’s backpack with its comforting cartoon ponies. I could hear Jacques speaking to me but it seemed to be coming from far away. My reaction made me angry at my weakness; why was i breaking down now, after i had done so well in the aftermath of the car crash?
I felt his hand shaking my shoulder, and that snapped me back to reality.
“Rachel! Pull it together!” he wasn’t shouting, but there was the whip crack of authority in his voice.
Those last words penetrated the fuzziness in my head, and i looked round at him through my tears. Still cuddling the backpack, i nodded stiffly to show him i’d heard. My face must’ve looked dire, for his stern expression dissolved into sorrowful empathy. He stroked the side of my head and face, keeping one eye on the road.
“I heard shots in there…” it wasn’t phrased as a question, but i knew he was asking what had happened.
I squeezed my eyes shut and shook my head violently. The last thing i wanted to do was talk about it. Gently but inexorably i felt him hold my chin, turning my face towards him.
“I need to know.” Jacques said quietly but firmly.
I realised he was asking if i’d been exposed to whatever made the glombies the way they were. Taking a deep breath i answered. “I....killed...an old man. He was one of them. But he didn’t touch me, i swear it!” i opened my eyes to see his reaction.
He was watching the road rather than me, but his profile showed relief and sadness combined. His hand rested on my face for a few seconds more, and then he put it back on the wheel.
“First time is hard,” he said softly, staring at the road ahead of him with fixed intensity, “hate to say it gets easier, but it does.” he shot me a quick glance, his face twisting in a wry smile. “Now i need you to do something for me.”
“What?” i asked eagerly. The idea of being useful felt absurdly comforting, something to do rather than having time to think.
He tapped the cut on his forehead, wincing as he did so. “Clean this out. I’m gonna stop for you to do it.” suddenly he grinned. “too much of a coward to do it myself. It’s going to bloody hurt.”
“Ugh, alright.” i said, feeling a bit squeamish about the whole thing, before realising that was pretty silly considering i’d just killed someone.
The road was travelling through flat countryside, fields hidden behind the trees that bordered it. While i rummaged in the pack for suitable equipment, Jacques pulled over to the verge. After a minute of watching for non-existent glombies, he cut the engine and took a look at what i’d pulled out.
Quickly he selected both the alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, as well as some antiseptic ointment and pads. Then, to my surprise and horror, he took out a bowie knife and a lighter.
“What are you doing?” i asked uneasily, as he ran the flame up and down the blade of the knife until it was blackened.
“Need to open it up a bit; no good just smearing stuff on the surface.” he told me calmly, and then stopped as he saw my expression of revulsion. “You can do this.”
I was tempted to tell him to fuck off and do it himself, but that undercurrent of fear in his eyes prevented me.
After a final check to see that no one was around, Jacques cranked his seat back and pushed his fringe away from his forehead. He gripped the sides of his seat and took a deep breath.
“Let’s get this over with.” he said sharply.
Taking a deep breath of my own, i doused the knife blade in alcohol and leaned over him. It was now just after midday and in the clear light i could see the ragged and puffy edges of his cut and the mottled flesh inside it. There was no doubt it was infected, and probably causing him quite a bit of pain and sickness.
Dithering, i soaked dressing pad in hydrogen peroxide and dabbed at the cut with it. He winced, and i could feel his body tensing. Not wanting to draw this out any longer, i sliced along the line of the cut and poured peroxide into it. Jacques went rigid, breathing heavily as he kept a death grip on the edge of his seat. Wherever there was infection the peroxide bubbled frothy white, and i kept applying it over and over, until his wound was drenched in it. Last came the antiseptic ointment. Then i put more on a large dressing pad and taped it over the cut with surgical tape. By this time his whole body was shaking. Hurriedly i searched in the bag for some painkillers, and came up with some percocet. I knew these from when i’d had a kidney infection a couple of years earlier, and knew that they were pretty powerful.
He looked at me askance for a couple of seconds when i offered these to him, but then a spasm of pain twisted his face and he took them from me with shaking hands and gulped them down dry.
“You’ll have to drive.” he said muzzily.
I went to open the passenger door but he shook his head and motioned for me to climb over him. It was a quirk i was starting to notice, like his trademark shrug; that he never wanted me to leave the car on the opposite side from him.
As he slid aside under me to make space in the driver’s seat, i reflected that although physically this was relatively intimate, it was about as unarousing as it gets. He stank of peroxide and alcohol and his face was almost bluish under the large dressing. For his sake i hoped the drugs kicked in quickly.
I eyed the clutch uneasily, and then tentatively started the engine. Driving standard was as annoying as i’d always thought it would be; the car lurched as i started off, and there was a horribly grinding of gears.
“Jesus, go easy on it will you?” exclaimed Jacques in a pained voice, his fingers pressed to his temple.
“Sorry, sorry.” i apologised.
“Hit the A1 and head north until the turnoff to the Pennines. We’ll rest there; no houses, no glombies.” i was watching the road but i could feel his gaze boring into me as he spoke. “I’m going to be pretty useless. Don’t stop til you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
There was absolutely no other traffic. we were going through an area that was mostly flat fields, the road lined with a thin layer of trees, and my heart thumped everytime we passed a house or turnoff that led to a village. Jacques became less and less alert until finally he was dozing in some drug haze. I glanced over, noticing his dark lashes fluttering. Hopefully he hadn’t had too much percocet, but at least he didn’t seem in pain.
I kept driving at a steady pace, trying not to be too nervous. But i couldn’t help jumping the first time a glombie ran screaming out of some house as i passed it, sprinting down the laneway towards us. I accelerated away, feeling even more vulnerable because Jacques only stirred a little at the sound.
The fields became larger and larger until they become just large areas of grass stretching to the gentle roll of the horizon on either side. I came to the turnoff for the A1 and experienced a pang of anxiety. There were wrecked cars choking the turnoff. Part of me wanted to shake Jacques awake to get his advice, but I chided myself for being so timid, and girding my courage guided the car onto the grass. I was lucky there was no ditch here; the gap between road and field was just dusty tarmac and earth.
Circumventing the pileup, i breathed a sigh of relief as i felt the wheels reach tarmac again. In spite of the emptiness of our surroundings, a few glombies must’ve survived the pileup, because I saw a couple of figures rise up out of the wrecks and start towards the car. But I was long gone by then, bombing down the A1 at well over the speed limit.
The road ran through a grass cutting, so my only real idea of how populated the area was came from the many turnoffs to towns and villages. It became a dual carriage motorway soon, with signs for glasgow and edinburgh, although still far away. At first i was worried that i would miss the Pennines, but soon i saw signposts for tourists marking the way. It was early afternoon but as i drove a grey mizzle began to turn onto heavier rain, darkening the sky.
I passed a services and shuddered as a few glombies followed me screaming through the downpour. They paid no notice to the water streaming off them, in spite of the fact that one of them was only half dressed. I wondered how long it would be until the elements had killed off many of them. This brought me to thinking about whether they ate anything other than humans. Were they also cannibalistic? I hadn’t seen any hurting each other, or being interested in other food.
My musings were interrupted by signs for Scotch Corner where i needed to turn left onto the A66 on my way to the Pennines. There were travel hotels on either side of the road, and i gave them a wide berth. They loomed glowering and ominous in the rain, their darkened windows like clusters of eyes watching the car as it passed.
Jacques was still unconscious while i navigated along this smaller road through more of the ubiquitous fallow fields and small patches of woodland, until i reached the right turn that took me north again. This road was not much more than a country lane, and i was thankful that the cottages dotted along its hedgerowed edge seemed to be abandoned. I got the feeling on a sunny day this would all have looked idyllic, but in the pouring rain with dark clouds scudding across the horizon, it only reinforced my sense of rootlessness and melancholy. I was starting to get worried Jacques was sicker than i’d thought, and resolved to change his dressing once i’d stopped, whether he woke up or not.
A river on my right curved to run parallel with the road, and without warning the fields gave way to terraced houses. A bridge crossed the river leading up to a medieval ruin and onto what looked like a large town. I stayed on the road i was on, driving faster to escape the increasing number of glombies running after us. One of them almost intercepted, his hand slapping and scratching the window on Jacques side. My companion stirred in his sleep and seemed to try to wake up for a second, before his head fell back again.
Biting my lip against panic, i skidded around some tight bends before shooting off along lartington lane. This narrow road, edged with stone and trees, took me out of the populated area and back amongst meadows with sodden grasses and dripping broadleaf trees. I bypassed a tractor crashed by the side, and saw a couple of incurious sheep, but i seemed to have left the glombies back in the town.
But there was no getting away from people in this crowded island, and soon i saw with trepidation that my way led directly through a village up ahead. Praying that there would be no blocks in the road, i stepped on the accelerator again and barrelled through it. I was lucky, and the glombies were only gathering in force once i reached the other side.
Signs proclaimed i was now entering the Pennines. The land grew wilder and more hilly as the light started to fade. I drove until i reached what did seem like the middle of nowhere. I was on top of a gentle but high hill, and the only sign of human habitation was the road wending its way to and fro beneath us. All i could see through the evening rain was hill and grass and sky.
Feeling very weary i pulled over to the side of the road and cut the engine. Instantly silence enveloped me, broken only by the pattering of the rain on the car roof and Jacques’ regular breathing. I knew how he would feel about me turning on the light but i had no choice if i wanted to change his dressing. Armed with peroxide and ointment, i peeled the bandage off and inspected it. It seemed less puffy and angry already.
The light combined with having his wound prodded and doused in peroxide again finally roused Jacques. He started up, grabbing my wrist and looking around wildly.
“Turn off the light! Turn it off!” he hissed.
“No.” i replied ruthlessly. “We’re in the middle of nowhere like you said, and i have to change this.”
I pushed him back down on his seat. To my surprise he let me, and sat still as i dabbed ointment over the cut and applied a clean dressing. I could feel him watching me as i worked, but i ignored him until it was done. Feeling suddenly very hungry, i leaned over to the back and grabbed a couple of tins. They turned out to be custard, but i was too ravenous to care.
“You got a tin opener?” i asked.
Jacques, who had been staring numbly at me, shook himself slightly, and reached in a trouser pocket. It was only an army knife opener, but that was enough to pierce the tins. I handed him one and started to drink the other. The thick sweet liquid would have been nauseating under better circumstances, but right now it seemed heavenly. I saw him raise the other tin to his mouth, noticing that his stubble was now thick and dark, before he reached out and turned off the overhead light.
I blinked as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. With the lack of any man-made light and the rain obscuring everything, it was very dark. Jacques was just a black shape against the sheen of the window.
“You got us here.” he said softly. Maybe it was just because i wanted to, but i thought i heard a note of respect in his voice. “I was totally out of it: did we, was there any trouble?”
I shook my head before realising he wouldn’t be able to see it. “No, not really.”
I finished my custard and set the can on the floor by my feet. Jacques reached out and touched my shoulder.
“I feel a lot better. You should rest; i’ll take first watch.” he told me.
I glanced around at the curtains of rain and dark silent hills. “You think that’s really necessary?” i questioned. After functioning for the day essentially alone, i felt less willing to automatically defer to his decisions.
“Yes.” the tone of command was back in his voice.
I shrugged. I was tired and it was good to have him back as a conscious companion.
“Alright.” i deferred.
“Move over then.” he ordered, pulling me over him as he slid underneath. He still smelt unpleasantly of peroxide, but his hand was warm on my hip, and i felt a sudden flash of desire as we switched places.
I curled up on my side in the cranked back passenger seat, gazing at his profile as he settled in. he felt me watching and looked around, reaching out his hand to stroke my shoulder.
“You did brilliant today.” he whispered, his hand travelling down to rest on my hip.
“Thanks.” i yawned, and closed my eyes. It was cold, but i felt safer than i had in days, alone with him in that wilderness.His hand stroked gently up again until it rested in my hair, and with that comforting touch, i fell asleep.