I opened my eyes to darkness. Something had disturbed my sleep. I blinked and sat up. Rain streamed down the window glass. All of a sudden a white palm slapped against the glass. Another and another, until every inch of the windows was covered by pale rotting hands, scrabbling with broken nails. The glass began to crack under the pressure. I shrank back in my seat, screaming for Jacques. A dark shadow loomed up from the seat beside me and placed a cold blue white hand over my mouth.
I thrashed into real waking. Jacques did indeed have his hand over my mouth, but it felt warm and alive. There was nothing to see in the windows but hills and rain. With a stifled sob i bolted upright and launched myself into his lap, clinging to him like a child.
He tensed for a second, before relaxing and wrapping his arms around me.
“Ssh, ssh, it was just a nightmare,” he said soothingly, smoothing my hair. “Sorry, you cried out in your sleep.”
“It was so real.” i whispered, hearing my voice crack. The primal terror of it still lingered.
“It’s ok, you’re ok now.” Jacques was murmuring platitudes, but all that mattered was his tone and the reassurance of his touch.
I buried my face in the curve of his neck, his stubble scratching my skin. There was warmth there, and i could feel his pulse beating. I wanted very much to kiss him but it seemed a little inappropriate on my part, given that I was clinging to him like a little girl lost. Yet neither of us showed any inclination to separate, and I curled up on top of him. We sat like that for awhile, until our breathing was slow and synchronised. Finally he stirred, lowering his head towards me.
“I’m going to fall asleep if we stay like this. You sure you’re ok now?”
Jacques kissed my forehead, then my cheek. I tipped my face upwards, meeting his next kiss with my lips. He hesitated before his hands gripped me tightly as he leaned into it, his tongue touching mine. Every point of contact with him inflamed me with lust, while a small voice inside me screamed that this wasn’t going to end well. Our situation, the feeling of danger and despair, made physicality almost too intense. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue, but I couldn’t stop; I felt an overwhelming desire to lose myself in sensation. I buried my fingers in his hair, pressing myself against him.
He ran one hand up from my knee to my hip, the other delving under my jacket and pajama top to touch the skin of my flank. The touch of his fingers on my skin felt electric, but it seemed to jolt him back to reality.
Jacques pulled away from the kiss and although he still hugged me tightly, his body was suddenly tense in a different way. He rested his face in the space between my neck and my shoulder and shook his head.
“Don’t think we should do this right now.” His voice was muffled, reverberating through me.
I tensed myself, feeling the disappointment of rejection, and yet a certain relief. After that nightmare the sensations had had almost a surreal quality. I expected him to push me away, but his arms remained wrapped around me, the pressure of his fingers resting on my ribs.
His short laugh was bitter as he raised his head from my shoulder. “Don’t want to let go though; that’s a bit fucked, isn’t it.”
In the darkness I could see the glint of his eyes as he stared past me. I got the feeling that he was internally wrestling with some past trauma. I hugged him back tightly, kissing the nape of his neck, and then tried to push myself away back to the passenger seat. His hands gripped me for a second convulsively, before releasing, fingers maintaining a trailing contact.
“Your turn to have nightmares.” i told him in a lame attempt at a joke while I squeezed his hand.
He gazed at me and took a deep breath, nodding slowly. I thought he would switch to the passenger seat, but instead he tipped the driver seat back, lying on his back with his head towards me.
“Please, you will keep watch, right?” he pleaded.
I nodded back at him. Satisfied, he closed his eyes and I heard his breathing become deep and regular. He seemed to have the enviable ability to fall asleep at any time.
It was hard to maintain any kind of concentration, sitting there staring into a featureless dark world, with only the rain thrumming on the roof and streaming glistening down the windows. I still held Jacques’ hand - Simon, his name’s Simon, my inner dialogue corrected.
My mood matched the weather outside as I considered the future gloomily. We had basically been fleeing from one hope to another for three or four days now. Fort George seemed like another unreliable option. I wondered how long Jacques had spent at the base where he’d first taken me, whether he’d seen it as home or if it was just another stop in a long line of failed refuges.
The blackness became greyness while I thought about everything that had happened to bring me here. I realised I still wasn’t convinced by the shock amnesia theory; why would i still be in my pajamas if that was the case? I knew beyond doubt I was wearing the same pajamas I’d gone to bed in that night. Shaking my head, I glanced around outside.
The rain was still coming down, but lighter now. Dawn hadn’t improved the view much; grey grassy hills, grey sky, low grey stone wall along the black snake of the road. In the valley I saw something I’d missed last night; a shallow stream following the road. In spite of the weather and the morning chill, i suddenly wanted very much to wash in it.
Hunger prodded me. Putting aside thoughts of warm baths and hot cups of tea i rummaged in the back for a couple more tins. I let out an involuntary snort of laughter as i saw what it was. Obviously i’d grabbed the custard stores when we’d looted York.
The sound of my puncturing the cans stirred Jacques. He squinted and stretched his arms over his head yawning. I handed him a tin.
He looked at it and then looked at me dubiously. “More custard?” he complained.
I shrugged in response. What had seemed glorious last night was hard to choke down this morning, but it wasn’t like we had much of an alternative. We drank in awkward silence, last night’s events hanging between us.
Finally Jacques set down his tin and pressed his fingers to his dressing. “I can probly change this now.” he offered.
I shook my head. “I’ll do it.” i replied.
I was surprised how much better his cut seemed when i peeled the dressing off. It was puckered and dry, already healing at the corners. While i was going through the ritual of peroxide and ointment, he cleared his throat and then started to speak haltingly.
“It’s not like i don’t think you’re fit...” he started.
I stopped what i was doing and looked down at him in confusion. “Fit?” i asked, not really understanding.
To my amazement i could see a flush of embarrassment under the stubble on his cheeks. He brought one hand up to rest on my waist.
“Y’know, uh...attractive.” his eyes slid away from mine. “It’s just too dangerous…” he winced as i applied ointment and then hurried on, “for both of us to be that distracted.”
I looked around at the grey empty hills, the deserted road, and then looked down at him consideringly. Either he was completely paranoid, or something else was going on. Whichever it was, i felt too emotionally drained to deal with it.
“I understand,” i told him wearily, “don’t worry about it.”
I made a motion to return to my seat, but his hand on my waist held me there. He raised his other hand to brush my cheek with his fingers. I closed my eyes, feeling an absurd urge to cry. Angry at myself, i pushed his hand away and retreated.
“Ok, enough with the mixed messages.” i snapped, opening the car door.
Before he could stop me, i stepped out and stood up, taking a deep breath. The air was chill and crisp, smelling of grass and rain. I inhaled deeply, blinking tears away. i could hear Jacques coming to stand behind me.
“I’m going for a wash in that stream.” i told him, pointing down the hill.
I took a step away and instantly his hand gripped my elbow, holding me back. I spun around, ready to shout at him. The fear and anguish in his expression stopped me.
“We go together, in the car.” he said grimly. “Take turns keeping watch.”
I shook my head in disbelief. “There’s nothing fucking around.” i said through gritted teeth, gesturing at the emptiness surrounding us.
Jacques’ nostrils flared and i could see he was not happy i was challenging him.
“I don’t know how the fuck you survived before i saw you running for your life on that hill,” he said angrily, shaking my arm for emphasis, “but i’ve learned not to take stupid risks.” this last was delivered in a hiss.
His words brought back to me all my thoughts about how i’d got here, deflating my anger.
“I don’t think i did,” i replied hesitantly, biting my lip, “survive, i mean. I really don’t remember anything between that one moment and the next. Maybe there’s nothing to remember. Maybe i really did just appear in that field.”
Jacques frowned and grasped my other elbow, pulling me closer. He stared down at me, his gaze intense and searching.
“As a physicist, i have to say that’s impossible.” he told me finally, incredulity colouring his voice. He no longer seemed angry either, more concerned and sad. He put his arms around me, resting his chin on the top of my head.
“It’s ok. We all have things we’d rather forget.” he sighed deeply. “Maybe once we’re somewhere safe it’ll come back to you.” his words had a tone of finality that told me the conversation was over.
“I still want to wash.” i pointed out stubbornly. There seemed no point trying to argue with him about my lack of memory. Logic was on his side, but i felt strongly that i was not suppressing anything.
I felt the rumble of his laughter as my head rested against his chest. He held me away from him and opened the car door.
“Get in then.”
I admit, i did roll my eyes a little at what i saw as unnecessary caution, but i didn’t protest. I was too glad that we seemed to have resolved some of the animosity between us. It took all of a minute to drive to the stream. Jacques parked and got out, hefting his semi-automatic with him.
“Come on.” he waved me out after scoping the area.
I stepped carefully over the grass and stones at the edge of the stream and squatted down. The water was icy, but i scooped it up liberally and doused my hair, face and neck. My teeth were chattering by the time i was convinced my hair was clean, but it was worth it. Briefly i considered disrobing to wash my myself all over, but it really was too cold. I stood up and walked back to the car, combing my wet hair with my fingers.
Jacques gave me an appreciative look and grinned. “Much better.” he commented. “My turn now; where’s your gun?”
Dutifully i took the revolver out of my pocket. He took it from me and tutted over the fact that i hadn’t checked the clip after i shot the old glombie. Making sure it was fully loaded and cocked with the the safety off, he handed it back to me and then made his way over to the stream. Shouldering his rifle he squatted as i had done but then leaned forward and dunked his whole head under the water.
“Ugh, what i wouldn’t give for a shave.” he said ruefully, running his thumb over what was rapidly becoming a beard.
He had returned to the car, standing tall beside me. On impulse i reached up and ran my fingers over the stubble. It was long enough now to feel softer, almost fur-like.
“Flirt.” he teased me, pushing strands of wet hair away from my forehead. He bowed his head to kiss me, then quickly drew away and opened the car door.
“I’m going to fill the tank, pass me one of those petrol cans.” Jacques pointed in the back.
I climbed between the front seats and hefted one of the cans. It was very heavy, so i pushed it out of the back passenger door rather than lifting it. He grabbed it from me and carried it to the petrol spigot. In spite of my earlier bravado, i felt uneasy with him out of sight, and took the revolver out of my pocket again. It was a relief when i saw him stepping back to the driver’s door.
Once we were both inside Jacques took the map back from me and studied it carefully. I could see by his frown and the fact that he was biting his lip that our route concerned him. Finally he tossed me the map and rubbed his temples.
“About six hours drive to inverness, but there’s a population choke point between glasgow and edinburgh. That means,” he added as i raised my eyebrows questioningly, “we’re going to have to go through a lot of glombies, whichever route we pick. Maybe roadblocks too, i don’t know.”
Depressed by this, i looked around again at the silent grass of the hills. “Can’t we just stay here?” i asked.
“If you want to starve.” Jacques retorted, then gave me a longer look. “Look, I know It seems quiet here but it’s still not safe. Fort George will have defenses, supplies, other people. A chance to rebuild rather than just being on the run.”
I nodded slowly. I understood what he was saying, but the thought of another madcap flight through crowds of glombies scared me to death. It seemed so peaceful where we were, i didn’t want to leave. All this must’ve showed in my face, for he gave me a pitying half smile and lifted my chin with his finger.
“Chin up,” he told me, “we’ve got a good chance of making it.”
“What if it’s like York?” i pointed out in a last ditch attempt to change his mind.
Jacques sighed, and shrugged. “Then we’ll be pretty fucked and you can say ‘i told you so’.”
There wasn’t much i could say to this, so i picked up the map and started to trace our route. While i was doing so Jacques started the engine and eased the car into motion. The mizzle of rain faded in and out as we drove along the deserted road, rolling hills of grass turning to bracken on either side.
I felt anxious and withdrawn, waiting nervously for our first glombie sighting of the day. Instead it was a body, a half eaten woman leaning against the low stone wall which edged the road. Her clouded sightless eyes held mine as we went past, her entrails spilled over her lap, black and rotting. I shuddered and turned my attention to the road ahead. Jacques had been right; even this lonely place was not safe.
Soon the road bent to the left, skirting the hills. It was still quite remote, but i could see villages off north to our left.
“Side roads or motorway?” i asked.
Jacques scratched his stubble considering. “Motorway for as long as we can,” he said finally. “We’ll have to leave it after Glasgow, but those B roads all go through towns: deathtrap after fucking deathtrap.”
“Ok turn left when we get to the brampton bypass then, that should take us to the M6.”
He nodded, keeping his eyes on the road. As if to underscore his point about towns and deathtraps, the road suddenly turned and ran through lines of whitewashed terraced houses. Before long glombies were darting out of these behind and in front of us, howling as they threw themselves in our direction.
“Hold on!” yelled Jacques as he sped up, knocking their bodies out of the way.
I gripped the sides of my seat, glad that i’d put my seatbelt on again. Hyperventilating, i bit my lip hard to suppress crying out. The tang of blood filled my mouth. The car bucked as we careened over some railway tracks on the edge of the village. I could see the glombies still pursuing us in the rear view passenger mirror. I thought of a thousand more towns and villages like this standing between us and Inverness, and buried my head in my hands, unable to stop sobbing.
I felt Jacques’ hand on the back of my neck. He spoke no words of comfort, but his touch helped. Gulping, i pulled myself together and raised my head.
“You’d think i’d be used to this by now.” i said bleakly, staring at the road, which was now surrounded by fields and woods once again, with only the occasional farm house.
Jacques’ expression in profile was just as bleak. “Think when you get used to it is when they get you.” he said brusquely.
And with those pessimistic words ringing in my ears, we turned onto the brampton bypass and the next leg of our search for sanctuary.