We stopped at a building site for the night. Corrugated steel covered half of its monstrous, metal framework, while the other half remained open to the elements. The machinery and scaffolding that should have been on the scene was nowhere to be found, which is why we felt secure enough to park the car inside the half-completed structure to take advantage of the shelter it offered from the rain and the wind.
It wasn’t a comfortable hideout – neither of us could get out of the car, not if we wanted to remain warm and dry, and the heating would only run so long before our petrol ran low. The possibility didn’t seem to bother Vaux, but I was more self-aware. I checked the back seat and the boot for supplies, hoping we’d stolen from someone who kept blankets in their boot, or sleeping bags. No such luck. All I found was another map book, an umbrella, and a plastic bag full of other plastic bags.
“We’ll have to buy sleeping bags tomorrow,” I told Vaux as I climbed back into the car. “My body’s in no condition to weather the elements.”
He perused said body with a heated look. “It looks perfectly warm to me.”
I thrived under his look like a peacock flaunting its feathers, but I didn’t let that influence my intentions. I was serious about taking care of myself. What if he wasn’t sexually healthy? What if he liked something weird? Something harmful? My libido might spike whenever I was near him, but that didn’t mean I had to indulge it.
“Don’t be a pervert,” I said. “I’m not in the mood.”
He didn’t give up after that initial refusal, but he didn’t persistently bug me either. I assigned myself the back seat, and used the clothes from my duffel bag to make a blanket. I debated offering him something, but the occasional seductive glance he sent my way persuaded me not to open a dialogue with him. That path would lead to a night on my back and no sleep.
Without Fortis, I’d never have been able to sleep in a car with a strange man in the driver’s seat, but because of it, I drifted right off. I could only have snagged thirty minutes of dozing time, tops, when I felt a hand on my arm, under my shirt. I opened my eyes, not bothering to move, and glared at him.
“A beautiful woman spread out in the back seat. How can I refuse?” He asked, with no shame whatsoever. His fingers gently brushed against my bandages, as if he thought they’d snag on his nails if he were rough.
“I’m injured, exhausted and immensely mardy,” I said. “If you don’t keep your hands to yourself and let me sleep, I’m going to take my knife and add another murder to my rap sheet.”
He very clearly didn’t believe me. His hand remained where it was, firmly lodged. It felt nice, that I had to admit, but I wasn’t going to let him sway me. I came first. My health. My needs.
“This is your last warning.” My fingers curled around the handle of my knife, which sat in the lining of my jacket, the only clothing I’d draped over my chest. I’d wanted the weapon within easy reach.
“I’m not scared of you,” he said. “And I’m going to make you feel really good, Sasha. Wait and see.”
“No.” I withdrew the knife and plunged the blade into the back of his hand. I didn’t exert too much force, since I didn’t want it to pierce his palm and go into my skin, but I buried it deep enough that he shied back, my weapon jutting from his hand.
“What did you do that for?” His fingers fluttered over the handle, gripping and releasing as if he couldn’t decide whether to pull the knife out or not. Personally I’d recommend not, but I didn’t say a word. It’d defy the whole point.
“I said no. You refused to listen, so I defended myself. Fortis doesn’t give you the right to rape someone. It doesn’t negate the need for consent, you asshole.”
“You stabbed me,” he reiterated, blatantly ignoring the words that’d come out of my mouth. “You actually stabbed me.”
“Count yourself lucky. I blinded the last guy that got frisky with me against my will.”
His baby blues widened comically, and Cole’s image imposed itself over his for the barest second, his face scrunched up, his eyes a red, burst mess, scientists in pristine lab coats gathered around him, hesitant to touch his injuries. Then he was gone, and I was back in the car with a suspected paedophile.
“I get it,” he said, his eyes firmly on his injured hand. “No means no. Even if I could overpower you and take what I want.”
“I have more than one weapon,” I told him, hoping the lie wouldn’t be exposed in the coming minutes. I had no other weapons, not unless I counted my own two hands, and my body hovered on the verge of oblivion. I needed to warn him off, and keep him away while I was dead to the world.
“I said I get it. I won’t try anything.” He was playing with his wound, drawing the skin around the puncture back with his fingers, examining what he could without removing the weapon. Blood soaked his fingers, but his fascination was undeterred. “You were right,” he said. “I can’t feel anything. It’s numb. I don’t care about the wound itself, but I’m aware that I need to stitch it up and stop the bleeding. I can feel the tug of it on my skin, and sense the blood leaking out. It leaves… an absence in my body? Does that make sense?”
“I don’t care, Vaux. Take the knife out, stitch it up, and go to sleep.”
“How do I do that?”
I found my first aid kit and passed it to him. “Figure it out. I had to.”
When I awoke, the clock on the dashboard said it was twenty minutes to midday, the sky I could see through the steel was grey and bleak, and Vaux was snoring away in the driver’s seat, a cascade of antiseptic wipes and stained bandages dumped on the passenger seat. My first aid kit was in the passenger foot well, most of its contents scattered on the floor in disarray. I understood Justine’s frustration in that second. I’d leant him my belongings, and he didn’t have the respect to treat them like the precious commodity they were? Not acceptable.
I shook him awake. When he did open his eyes, the expression in them was bleary and confused. I grabbed his chin and drew his gaze down my messy kit.
“You’re going to dispose of your rubbish, and re-pack my kit the way you found it. Then you’re going to show me how to start this car, and you’re going to let me drive.”
He looked at the clock too, and yawned. “I drifted off a couple of hours ago. I haven’t had twelve hours sleep like you, Sleeping Beauty.” I was losing him again – he closed his eyes and turned around in his seat to lean his head against the window. My eyes scanned the car, looking for my knife. I couldn’t see it out in the open, so I checked the glove box, and my duffel. Nothing. I checked the entire car. Nothing.
“Where is it?” I asked with clenched teeth, my hand on Vaux’s throat through the broken driver’s side window.
“Where’s what?” He asked on yet another yawn.
“It’s gone. I didn’t think it was the smartest idea to leave it in your care when you outright threatened to shank me if I came at you again. This way,” he spread his hands, “we’re on an even playing field.”
“Where is it?”
“Gone.” He repeated. “You won’t find it. I don’t even know where it is. I walked for a while in the dark and then threw it as far as I could. It took me an hour to find the car again.”
“Then it’ll take you all day to find it,” I snapped, “so you’d best get started.”
I’d always considered myself to be a peaceful, level-headed person, but ever since Fortis had been injected into my system, I didn’t feel the need to keep the peace. Violence was my first resort. Without my knife, I’d have the hassle of finding another weapon – one that’d have to fit perfectly into my jacket pocket, one that I’d have to become familiar with, one that I’d have to trust. I didn’t want to waste time replacing something that’d already proven its usefulness to me. I wanted the original back.
“I’m not leaving this car,” Vaux said. “I got rid of the knife because, as you proved last night, you’re a volatile psychopath who’s provoked by the smallest things. If I let you keep that knife, you’d have slit my throat in the next couple of days.”
“I’ll find a way to kill you if I really feel the need,” I hissed at him, thinking of a number of ways right then and there: using my bare hands; bashing his head against the car door; driving the car into an enclosed space, trapping him inside and leaving him to choke on the carbon monoxide.
“At least I’ll see it coming. And doesn’t every guy deserve the chance to defend himself?”
“You had no right to take my knife.”
“And you had no right to stab me with it in the first place. In fact, you don’t have any rights. You forfeited those when you killed that boy’s girlfriend and the other boy’s parents.”
My eye was twitching, something I hadn’t suffered with since my early teens. I resented him for that. For resurrecting an old weakness. “You,” I spat, “are unbearably annoying, Vauxhall. I wouldn’t try my patience too far.”
“You don’t scare me, Sasha. You’re like a wounded puppy with anger issues. You got lucky last night, landing this blow.” He waved his hand under my nose to emphasise his point. “In a fair fight, I’d have beaten you in a hot minute. I could beat you right now if I wanted to. Or I could have taken advantage last night.”
“Why didn’t you, then?”
Turning in his seat again, so he was cuddled up against the headrest and his delicates were out of my reach, I heard him say, “I told you I got it. And I’d rather make the beast with two backs with you when we’re both awake and consenting. More fun that way.”
“You’re deluded if you think –”
“Shut up,” he whined. “I’m tired and your constant talking is stopping me from getting some sleep.”
“You have my knife to find,” I reminded him.
“And you need an attitude adjustment.”
He refused to respond to anything I said after that. I could have kicked up a fuss, and made him regret pissing me off, but my heart wasn’t in it. I felt a grudging respect for him, if I set aside my anger. He’d measured up my weaknesses and my strengths while I’d slept and he’d taken action to safeguard himself. Those were instincts I could admire. I didn’t like the fact that he’d ditched my knife somewhere far away, but I understood why. It’d become an extension of me – I didn’t hesitate when it was in my hand. I stabbed and slashed when I probably should have been hesitating, and hearing my victims out.
After clearing up my first aid kit, I checked my wounds with half-hearted intensity. The consequences of infection or further damage weren’t able to motivate me – not completely. I was tired of cleaning the same wounds, nursing the same stitches, the same scabs, and the same puckered skin.
Why couldn’t the scientists who’d made Fortis have included a component for advanced healing? It made no sense to take pain and fear away without eliminating the cause of them. What was the point of living in the moment, with no thought for the consequences, if they caught up to you in the end? An amputation here, a terminal illness there. A dash of death if you weren’t lucky.
Vaux would be one of those unlucky people, like the first wave of people who die in fictional zombie apocalypses. He didn’t know how to care for his own injuries, and he didn’t know how to keep a low profile. There he was, snoozing away in the driver’s seat, dead to the world, after pissing me off. Didn’t he care that I could wrap my hands around his throat and squeeze until his life blinked out, like a finger flicking off a light switch?
“If everyone reacts to Fortis like you,” I told him, “the world doesn’t have to worry about an apocalypse. No one will be streetwise enough to survive it.”
As expected, there was no reply.
I slept. I re-packed my bag. I went searching (unsuccessfully) for my knife. I listened to the radio, each station that wasn’t static talking about Fortis, the infection camps, and Thomson, Cole and I, still dangerous and on the loose. There was no mention of Vauxhall’s kidnap attempt, or any other crimes for that matter. Obviously the media was prioritising.
I wondered how long it’d be before there was a full outbreak of Fortis. Thomson had volunteered his information eagerly, telling me he’d infected as many people and places as possible. Had he infected people who were scheduled to return to other countries? Had Fortis gone international yet? Had it impacted every city, every town, and every village?
Vauxhall snored, choked on the sound, and jolted awake.
“Good afternoon, Sleeping Beauty,” I said.
He rolled his eyes at my repetition of his joke, and started rubbing them with his fists. His bandage must have been unexpectedly rough because he paused, stared at it as if he’d forgotten the reason for its presence, and then realisation lit up his eyes. “I forgot that you’d stabbed me.”
“I like my sleep.”
“Obviously.” He finished messing with his eyes, yawned again and clapped his hands together. “Where are we going, then?”
I blinked at him. He stared at me. I blinked again.
“You don’t have a location in mind?” He finally said. “Don’t you want to go to the lab where you did the trial? Get revenge on the scientists?”
“If I go within ten miles of that place, I’ll end up in quarantine.”
With a shrug, he said, “Does that matter? You risked everything to get revenge on those boys who mugged you and your mum. You’re seriously telling me that you don’t want vengeance because you could get caught?”
“I will get caught.”
I wasn’t sure when I’d transitioned from apathy to a true desire not to be captured. I remembered vividly my disassociation with incarceration, my complete lack of concern for ending up behind bars, or strapped to a government operating table. What had changed? I was hardly living the high life – I was on the run, treating a nasty collection of wounds that were verging on infectious, and hoping to avoid Thomson and Cole, two individuals I most certainly did not want to meet again. I’d be safe from them if I handed myself in. My wounds would be tended to. We might even be administered a cure, if we were cooperative. Why was that unappealing to me?
Was it possible I didn’t want a cure? I didn’t want to feel pain, or fear. That’d mean facing consequences. Admitting to what I’d done. Accepting responsibility. It’d mean mourning for my mother, and the life we could have had. It meant a whole lot of painful recollections and a lifetime of guilt. I’d rather be a coward and remain as I was.
“The world is going to shit, Vauxhall. I don’t want to be at the mercy of the people who made it happen, intentionally or not.” It was pure crap, not a word of truth in the mix, and he didn’t buy it, but neither of us acknowledged that. He nodded like I’d delivered a carnal truth, and I sighed like I’d shared a dirty secret. When he spoke, it was to change the topic.
“We could go back to my village.”
“To your parents’ house?” The scepticism in my voice was something I didn’t bother to hide. He was crazy if he thought involving more people in this would solve our problems.
“I know it sounds crazy,” he hastily said, mimicking my reluctance perfectly, “but it’s honestly our best option. My dad works for a freelance company, so he’s not around during the week, and my mum is a complete alcoholic. She won’t even notice you’re there. And if she does, we can lock her in a closet, or in the attic.”
I waited for him to laugh (offering to put your mother in a confined space was not normal) but he remained straight-faced and completely serious. Part of me contemplated calling him out on the impulse, asking the reason for his willingness to restrain the woman who’d raised him, but I couldn’t rile up the enthusiasm to actually ask the question.
“You tried to snatch a child. Do you honestly think they’re not going to track you down?”
“Amongst the Fortis outbreak? Every police officer is busy dealing with frantic calls and infected loonies wandering around with no consideration for the uninfected part of the population.”
Raising an eyebrow, I put an arm on the passenger seat and one on the driver’s seat and loomed over him. “Loonies like us, you mean?”
Showing no obvious reaction to my intimidation tactic, he smiled. “Exactly.”
“Giving in to the familiar is never a good idea.” I warned him. “It makes you careless, and predictable.”
“But no one expects you to be that stupid, so it’s like tricking them at their own game. The last place they’re going to look for me is my parents’ house, because they won’t expect me to be there. And that’s if they actually manage to identify me. And if they realise who you are, they’re going to hesitant even more, because they’re going to think I’m infected, or I'm your accomplice or something.”
“Your logic is flawed.”
I didn’t feel the need to tell him exactly what about it was flawed: it was obvious. The police would check his home, because it was protocol, and they’d only bear down on him harder if they thought he’d teamed up with me to wreak havoc on an already vulnerable population. He was making his situation worse by remaining in my company, but I wouldn’t tell him that. Despite how infuriating he was, I kind of liked having someone to talk to.
“My point,” he said, “is that it doesn’t matter where we go. The world has gone to pot, Sasha, and because of that, it’s become our oyster. If somebody realises who we are, we threaten to infect them, or kill them. Nothing’s stopping us from indulging our every whim, our every fantasy, our every instinct. We’re a master race of people. Or the beginning of one.”
“We’re the end of everything, Vauxhall, not the beginning. We’re not a master race. We’re not elevated beings. We’re not Gods. We’re lessors. Fortis took something from us. Something essential. It made us less than human. Hell, maybe what it took was our humanity. What is a human in the first place? Someone with feelings, or an awareness of the world around them, or a desire for destruction? We have no consideration for the world around us any more. We’ve become a toxin. A scourge on the earth, poisoning it with our every step, our every action, our every thought.”
“Then let it die,” he said. “And we’ll make it into something better.”