I'd been driving for hours now. Before this, the longest I'd ever driven was for four hours straight. My eyes were gritty and I'd taken to having my window down so the cooling air forced me to stay awake. I chatted on and off to Paige, but she'd fallen asleep quickly. We'd stopped next to open farmland and had a quick lunch of baked beans. I'd even ran around the car a few times to get the blood pumping again, so I wouldn't fall asleep behind the wheel.
The car beeped at me and I glanced down at the dashboard. The little arrow was hovering above empty, right in the red zone.
For how big the car was, I guess I was surprised it had lasted this long on the one tank. Up ahead, I saw an intersection with a road and took it, feeling relieved as we drove across a smooth surface once again.
"We're not there yet, are we?" Paige asked.
"No hon, I'm just stopping to get some petrol."
"Won't that be dangerous?"
Probably. But I was quicker than any biter and we needed petrol, fast.
So all I said was, "It'll be fine."
We drove for a few minutes through large farming areas, passing a stray biter only once, until we were suddenly in a town. It was the kind where if you blinked, you missed it. All it seemed to consist of was a grocery store, pub, motel and petrol station. I was wary of the sound the car was making, but I hadn't spotted any biters so far.
I pulled into the petrol station, keeping an eye scanning outside.
"We're at the petrol station so I'll be gone for a bit, okay?"
Paige nodded, eyes closing as she leant back in her seat.
I kept my machete drawn as I hopped out, looking at the fuel on offer. I smiled to myself and decided on the most expensive one – it's not like I had to pay.
I filled the car up, not relaxing once. But I saw no signs of life, or the dead. What I did see, however, was a row of big containers stacked in the windows of the petrol station's shop.
I bit my lip, mind going over it. The petrol nozzle clicked and I made my decision as I screwed the lid to the SUV's tank shut. After placing the nozzle back, I strode towards the shop. No use being hesitant. I peered through the windows but couldn't see much. I threw open the door and the bell tinkled.
I stayed where I was and listened.
There was nothing for a moment until I heard something crash to the ground out the back. Then my ears picked up the sounds of a low moaning. I grimaced, but stepped into the shop.
I moved cautiously, scanning the aisles before proceeding towards the moaning sound. At the back of the shop, there was a door that was propped open by a fallen tin. I kicked it open.
The door flew back, smacking into something and slowing. I stepped through just in time to see a biter stumbling backwards. By the time it had regained its footing, I'd thrust the machete through its head. It fell to the ground.
Back in the shop, I grabbed two of the 50 litre containers, as well as one of the backpacks on sale and loading it up with water and food. The food was mainly junk food, but I wasn't going to let it go to waste.
I managed to fill up the two containers with the expensive petrol without attracting any more biters. I jumped back into the car and Paige turned to me.
"Anymore of them out there?"
"Only one. But I you know what I did find there? Maltesers."
Paige's face lit up in a brilliant smile.
"I thought marshmallows were your favourite?" I asked as I opened the packet and handed it over to her. Paige snatched it up and dug in. She'd said that she could still see faint differences in light, but nothing much other than white blurs. It was unerring how quickly she'd picked up on relying on her other senses. They were already much more heightened than mine – she could hear and smell things before I'd even gotten a whiff of it. She knew where I was even when I hadn't said anything and knew where things were from their sound. It was great that she'd adapted so well, but it also worried me. How long had she been like this to have become so used to it? She hadn't complained much about it; that was for sure. Or was it something else?
I shivered and put those thoughts out of mind.
I started the car and we drove back the way we had come, Paige munching happily on her snack.
The sun was on its way down now, becoming more vibrant the closer it got to the horizon. I stifled down a yawn and wiggled in my seat, stretching my back until it made a satisfying crack. The clock on the dashboard said we'd been driving for around nine hours. It was 4:17. I glanced over at the open map book on Paige's lap and saw that we were getting closer to the fort. I carefully manoeuvred the SUV off the train tracks and across a paddock, heading back towards the road. Off to the side, I saw a herd of horses grazing with a few gangly-legged foals peeking their heads out from behind their mothers' tails.
I wasn't sure if the horses had been lucky or if the biters really didn't go after animals.
At the change in bumping, Paige stirred and opened her eyes. She yawned widely and stretched, joints cracking, before opening her eyes. She sat up and tilted her head, eyes widening.
"So we're close?" she asked, leaning forward and straining to see anything.
"Yeah, just down this road up ahead."
"Where are we now? It's less bumpy than those tracks."
"We're doing a bit of cross-country here," I said with a slight smile. "We're in the middle of a paddock. We just went past some horses and I think I just drove over some of their feed."
I winced when we ploughed straight through a fence and bumped onto the gravel road. Despite being gravel, it was still a lot nicer than the train tracks we'd been bumping along for the past nine hours.
"What breed were those horses?"
"I think they're thoroughbreds, honey," I said. I'd been horse crazy when I was younger, even though I'd only ever ridden a horse three times. "Thoroughbreds have long legs and are tall, with skinny shoulders. They're used for racing because they're what they call 'hot-blooded'."
Paige frowned in thought.
"So is that like how snakes are cold-blooded?"
"No, since they don't actually have hot blood, like a reptile has cold blood. All horses are warm-blooded, but hot-blooded refers to their temperament, so how they act. Thoroughbreds are really energetic, so they're hot-blooded."
"Are there cold-blooded horses?"
"Yep, they're ones that are a lot calmer and pretty quiet. Like a Clydesdale – you know those really big horses that are tall and super wide? They have really long manes and tails too."
"Yes, I saw one on TV! So what about warm-blooded horses?"
"Well, they're more the horses that are used in competitions now, but can also be when a hot-blooded breed is crossed between a…"
I trailed off and squinted. That looked like smoke in the distance. It was just a haze on the horizon, a slight differing in colour, but it was enough to start a foreboding feeling in my stomach.
That didn't mean it was from the fort though. It could be from anywhere.
As we got closer though, the likelihood of that faded. Paige had spotted it too and gone silent. Her knuckles were turning white as she gripped her shirt tightly.
We turned around a corner and there it was. Fort Connor.
It wasn't a very big one, compared to other Forts, and the actual buildings were the same ones that had stood there for the past 100 years or so. It had been done up a few times and there was a new, intimidating wire fence surrounding it, but it was still relatively tiny. Forest surrounded it but there was still a twenty metre or so ring around the fort where it was just open grass.
The first building I saw was intact, but as we got closer, I noticed the smoke was coming from the building behind it. I went off road and circled around until it came into sight.
Other than that first building, the rest of the Fort was a smoking wreck. Some of the foundations still stood but everything was covered in thick black ash, even some of the trees outside the Fort. Nothing was on fire and the smoke wasn't that thick, so it had to have happened a while ago. How long ago had dad left that message for us? I still had no idea how much time had passed since I'd been thrown in that cell. There wasn't really anyone around to ask – anyone viable, that is. There were enough bloody biters around.
"I smell smoke," Paige said. "Is something on fire?" There was an edge of panic in her voice.
"Not anymore," I said reluctantly. "We're at the Fort but it looks like half of it has burnt down."
"Do you think daddy was in there?" Paige asked in a tiny voice.
I breathed in deeply.
"I don't know, but I don't think so. Dad's too smart for that." I tried to keep my voice light. "I'm going to go look around anyway. Honey, can you hide down on the floor for me? I'll keep the doors locked but I don't want anyone seeing you." Or anything. I didn't want to freak her out, though, so I kept it to myself.
"Okay," she said softly, unbuckling her seat belt and sliding down. It was hard getting out of the car and leaving her there, but that was the safest thing I could think of.
The air was warm outside. Every so often, a gentle puff of wind would blow smoke and heat patches into my face.
The main gates were slightly ajar, so it was easy to slip through. I hadn't spotted any biters yet. Worrying.
Cautiously, machete in hand, I made my way towards the first building. It looked empty. I circled around it and the ruins came into view. I could see the next building over had been completely wiped out – maybe an explosion had come from there and spread to the other buildings? Dad wouldn't have come here without knowing it had a decent lab. Maybe the explosion had come from there?
My stomach clenched and I buried the thought.
A flash of movement caught my eye and I froze. After a moment, I slowly walked toward it.
There, lying in the black wreckage of what had once been a building, was half a biter. Less than half – it only had its head, neck, and one arm. I watched in sickened fascination as it pulled itself along with its one arm. Everything was black except for the mouth that gaped and eyes that stared at me.
I sucked in a breath, grasped my machete in two hands, and stabbed it through the head.
It stopped moving and I could breathe a tad easier.
I looked around for a bit longer, but all I saw were burnt buildings and half-exploded biters. I was beginning to think that the explosion had been on purpose. Maybe the biters hadn't overcome them and they blew the Fort to hide their retreat? Plus, that way no scavengers would be running around with whatever they'd found in those labs.
Paige was where I'd left her, crouching on the floor. Her sightless eyes darted around and settled on me unerringly just before I opened the door.
"If dad left us a second note, where would it be?"
"He always hid the second ones up high. Once it was his attic, another time it was the tree out the back."
My brain was already whirring. "I'll be back in a sec."
I slammed the door closed again and jogged towards the gates. On either side of the gates were old-fashioned guard towers. One side of each was black from flying soot. They were made of huge blocks of sandstone and looked about three stories tall. I kicked down the door to the first one and took the stairs two at a time. They spiralled up dizzyingly until I burst out of a trapdoor at the top. The floor was made of wood in need of a good polish and was completely empty. My stomach sunk and I was about to go back when something caught my eye.
One of the wooden boards was at an angle. It wasn't flat.
I crawled over, fingernails prying at the edges. It lifted.
And there was another piece of ripped notepaper.
My breath came out in a rush and I couldn't describe the emotions rushing through me. I was glad he wasn't dead, but the thought of him still made me sick to my stomach.
Had to move again. A herd is closing in, bigger than we anticipated. Heard that there's a place where the army is concentrating their efforts at, so will head there.
I felt along the paper and felt the telltale bumps. I grinned and stood, looking out of the guard-tower.
My heart stopped.
There, circling the car, were at least five biters. More were coming out of the woods, stumbling along slowly, in all stages of decay.
I couldn't see Paige through the window but I could imagine how scared she would be. Heart in my throat, I ran down the stairs, but it was too slow. The stairs curled around the outside of the wall with only a flimsy handrail on the inside. I boosted myself over it with one hand and fell.
I landed with bent knees, one hand on the ground to catch myself. Tiny cracks splintered the stone beneath my feet. The sound echoed up the tower, bouncing off the walls and coming back down to me.
I didn't wait.
I sprinted out of the tower, running full pelt towards the car. The biters had heard the sound and were beginning to shamble towards me.
The first one reached me and I checked my footing, slowly down slightly and thrusting the machete through the eye of the first one. I pulled it out quickly, whirling to the side to put more space between myself and the next biter that had reached me. I dispatched of him quickly, slicing through his spinal cord from behind as I continued my dash.
I ran in a wide arc around the car before looping back and diving into the driver's seat. The door shut just as a biter thumped into one of the backseat doors. Its fingers groped along the window, leaving dirty streaks, as I turned to Paige. She was cowering on the floor, hands on her ears.
"Kara?" she said, voice watery.
I breathed a sigh of relief, starting the car up and getting the hell out of there.
"I'm here, sweetie. Are you okay? I'm so sorry. You can sit up now."
She did so, limbs trembling and making my heart ache.
"It was my fault," she whispered. "I peeked out the window which was so stupid, because I can't even see, and then I heard one begin bashing against the window. I tried to hide, but they knew I was there."
I reached over and entwined her hand with mine, giving it a squeeze.
"It's not your fault. You were right to be curious, all right? And I did find something. Another letter. Can I ask you to use your skills again?"
Paige brightened, but her hand still shook minutely in mine.
"Let me see it."
I'd stuffed it in my pocket on my run to the car. My heart was still beating rapidly and I took a few deep breaths to calm down. I got it out and handed it to her. She ran her fingers over the paper again, lips forming the letters soundlessly.
"Pel ham… Pelham. He's gone to Pelham!" Paige said excitedly. "I've always wanted to go to Pelham! And there's something else…" She was silent for a minute. "It says… Jackson Centre? Is that in Pelham?"
"Yeah, its in the CBD."
I'd been to Pelham a few times and knew my way around the centre fairly well. I allowed myself to smile and relax back into my seat. My heart was still pounding fast, sweat springing up all over my body, but it was gradually getting slower.
"Pelham seems as good a place as any," I said.
"I heard there's the world's biggest M&Ms shop there! Can we go?"
"I think we'll see how it is when we get there, okay? Who knows, maybe the looters headed there first and there are no more M&Ms left."
"There will be," she said confidently. "But please tell me we're not going on the train tracks again! I'm liking this smooth road."
"Sorry chicka," I said with a rueful smile. "Railway is the fastest and has no car pileups! You found it easy enough to fall asleep last time."
She sunk down in her seat, muttering to herself, but there was still a small smile on her face. The crinkled note stayed clutched in her hands.
Pelham was hours away and, unfortunately, I had to sleep some time. I'd planned to sleep during the day and drive during the night, but it hadn't worked out that way. We'd only been driving for an hour before I made the decision to pull off into a nearby field filled with maize crops. Paige sat silently as I eased the SUV through the fields, making sure to create the least amount of noise possible.
There were ups and downs to this. I couldn't see anything or anyone coming, but conversely they couldn't see us either. Although the car was covered in dirt, it was still a nice car and I didn't want any scavengers harassing us during the night. I wouldn't be able to see a biter coming but it'd be too dark to see them anyway, even if I'd parked in an open space. I'd briefly considered finding a house to hole up in, but I didn't want to risk it. Plus, I'd want to do a full sweep of it during daylight hours and the sun was already half gone.
"Are we in a paddock?" Paige asked, brow crinkled.
"Yeah, we're sleeping with all this maize around us tonight. Bet you haven't done anything like this before."
"That's silly because this has never happened before, so of course I've never done this before!"
She was a logical little thing.
We had a dinner of cold tinned soup and more chocolate just as the rays of sun disappeared from the sky. It was eerily quiet once again and the stars shone brighter than I'd ever seen them. A gentle wind rustling the maize around us was the only sound.
I gave Paige the sleeping bag and the back seat, while I just put my seat all the way back. I cracked the window of the passenger seat down a little and left the keys in the ignition.
I thought it would take me ages to get to sleep, but I was more tired than I'd thought. I still hadn't recovered properly from being kept in that cell for weeks and the adrenaline from Fort Connor had worn me out.
I was out like a light almost straightaway.
A/N: I'll be the first to admit that I am so dodgy at uploading this story! I just got so caught up in uni, but I'll try and make up for that in these holidays!
Thanks for all the lovely support :)