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The numbers were dropping; we once walked a good ten meters from the train, with people, tightly packed filling the gap. Now we walked next to it, but not too close, people were being pulled and pushed off nearly every half an hour and the fights surrounding this never stopped. This put me on constant alert, my eyes and ears peeled, looking for signs of a fight coming too near to Alfie and I.
It was the middle of the night, there were huge bright stars in the sky and the moon was shining directly over my head, casting a dull glow on the scenery in front of me. It was beautiful countryside, the likes of which I had never seen before, everything was perfect, the trees tall, the grass lush and long, and every now and then these tall white flowers would appear, shooting out of it. They seemed to glow in the moonlight and I almost forgot about the horror I was living in right now. But I didn't.
I reached down and picked one of the flowers as I passed it, gently pulling it off the stalk. I sighed, what was the point of anything beautiful when it was about to be destroyed. If not by the people and the train, then by the thing that's following them.
I carefully laid the flower in the wheelbarrow next to Alfie, giving him something nice to wake up to in the morning. As I brought my hand back to the handle the wheelbarrow gave a violent jerk as Alfie started coughing in his sleep, his arm moved pushing the flower out onto the grass.
I was too tired to reach down and pick it back up again and instead I looked worriedly down at my little brother. He'd caught some sort of virus over the last few days and had a terrible fever and these huge, violent coughing fits whenever he was awake. It had weakened his body and as a result he was spending most of the time lying asleep in the wheelbarrow.
This also meant I was walking more and more each day. My legs were, undoubtedly getting stronger but they now carried with them a constant burning pain that never went away and I was only getting short naps in the wheelbarrow because that was all Alfie could manage.
I reluctantly reached down to nudge the sleeping boy, not wanting to wake him but knowing that I couldn't go on without a rest for much longer. He groaned and shifted to one side. I had to jerk down to pick up the weight, before reaching out again and this time shaking his shoulder.
Eventually he slowly peeled his eyes open and then immediately crumpled up as he fell into a violent coughing fit, still sitting in the wheelbarrow. I waited patiently for him to stop before I stopped walking for a second to allow us to swap over.
As he, shakily got out of the wheelbarrow he looked up at my face and immediately registered the huge bags under my eyes and the pain I was trying to hide.
"I'm so, sorry," he croaked, his eyes huge and sad as he took the handles and I moved to step into the wheelbarrow.
"S'alright," I mumbled too tired for anything else then collapsed into the wheelbarrow and fell asleep to the sound of footsteps… and fights, but I'd learned early on to block them out.
My eyes flickered open, and I groaned snapping them back shut, cursing myself for waking up by myself. I knew Alfie hadn't done it because I could still hear him walking steadily and he hadn't shaken me awake like he usually does.
I must have been sleeping for not even an hour, because I knew Alfie couldn't walk for much longer than two and right now he didn't seem to be struggling that badly.
Something else had woken me up, and I cursed whatever it was in my head and tried to get back to sleep when I heard something. Footsteps, not the usual ones. Another pair that was too close.
My eyes flew open just as a man came up behind Alfie and leant his face towards his ear.
"Son," a low growl issued from the man's mouth. "You're gonna give me that wheelbarrow and your lovely little sister, and I won't injure you bad enough to stop you walking. I'll still injure you of course, just not so bad," his voice sneered.
I immediately leaped out of the wheelbarrow, sending it flying out of Alfie's grasp and clattering onto the ground.
No one's going to hurt my little brother.
My hands were shaking with anger as I quickly took in the scene; Alfie's petrified face and the man's, foul smile, his face caked in mud and grime, with black teeth and pungent breath that I could smell from where I was standing.
Making a split second decision, I ran forwards and shoved Alfie to the side.
"Get away from my brother," I snarled at the man, who merely smirked. Then without giving him a chance to reply I swung round and with all the force I could muster, I slammed my foot into his stomach, spending him flying backwards to lie sprawled out on the ground three meters away.
I ignored the shocked gasps and the groaning of the man I'd just kicked and quickly turned away form the site, well aware that I had captured the attention of the other people walking near by. Not wanting any more trouble, I hastily grabbed the wheelbarrow in one hand and Alfie's arm in the other and dragged both of them forwards to get back to the front of the train and away from that man and anyone else who might be willing to join in the fight.
Alfie was staring at me, eyes wide, mouth hanging open in shock and awe as he stumbled over the rocks trying to keep up with my pace.
"Where the hell did you learn that," he croaked, before doubling over into another coughing fit. I kept my mouth firmly shut until we were clear of the majority of people.
"Hols?" Alfie pushed.
"If you watch something enough times it's not hard to replicate it," I mumbled, slightly ashamed at the fact I'd been paying close attention to the fights that Alfie, and I for that matter, despised so much whilst he was asleep, taking notice of what the people who generally won did.
Firstly they didn't give their opponent a chance to say something or react, they attacked first, and people who have been walking non stop for weeks aren't likely to reason with you so there's no point trying. Secondly, I'd been watching the few people who actually seemed to know how to fight and their techniques, especially the kicks, figuring my legs are the strongest part of me, after all the walking, that's what I paid particular attention to.
I slowed down to match the speed of the train as we reached the very front and let go of Alfie and grabbed both handles of the wheelbarrow. My arms were still shaking with anger at the thought of someone trying to hurt my little brother.
"Get in," I said, looking at Alfie and nodding at the wheelbarrow, my voice coming out harsher than it was meant to.
"Hols, it's still your turn for a few hours," Alfie looked up at me with scared eyes.
I suddenly felt like I had been the one with something slammed into my gut. My own brother. My Alfie. Was scared of me?
One of the wheelbarrow handles slipped from my grasp as my eyes widened with hurt and shock.
Alfie, as if reading my mind, quickly shook his head.
"I'm not scared of you, Hols," he said. "I'm just scared, you're gonna do too much, you're gonna hurt yourself."
I felt a momentary surge of relief; Alfie wasn't scared of me. But it was suddenly taken over by a wave of anger for myself. Alfie shouldn't be worrying about me; I'm the one who should be protecting him not the other way round. To prove my point Alfie started coughing again, clutching his stomach as he doubled over, coughing up phlegm onto the ground.
"I'm fine," I reassured him. "Don't worry about me, I couldn't go back to sleep now anyway," which was true. There was no way I was falling back to sleep in the dark with people like the man who tried to hurt Alfie still walking near us. From now on the only time I'd be taking naps would be in broad daylight when the fights tended to be at a minimum.
"Besides," I added. "You're ill, save your strength for fighting the virus, not pushing me."
I could see it in his eyes that he didn't believe me but he looked so pale, exhausted and even after less than an hour walking I could see that he was struggling to keep up with the pace of the train.
"Don't let me sleep too long," he said wearily, as he gave in and reluctantly got into the wheelbarrow, knowing I usually let him sleep until I absolutely couldn't go on any further.
"I'll wake you, as soon as I start feeling tired," I promised him, knowing full well I'd break it.
"You mean now?" he chuckled as he settled down and I smiled, glad that despite everything Alfie could still joke about things, could still find a small smidge of happiness in a world of pain and horror, as it was to us and everyone around us at the moment.
"Go to sleep, honey," I said calmly tucking a stray piece of my hair behind my ear, humming to him an old song that I'd learnt when I was younger. I kept humming the song for a while after Alfie had fallen asleep but eventually I stopped and just walked, too exhausted to continue.