You could hear them, that was the worst of it. The stumbles and thuds and half choked rattles as they slid through the corridors spread through the gap beneath the door like the wheezing of a dying man.
‘They’re still out there,’ Laura’s voice sounded small and alone, ‘aren’t they?’
Hank nodded, he‘d almost forgotten he had company. After the last attack the girl he was sharing the stores narrow space with had been catatonic. Now she’d resurfaced he could see her eyes were glued to the splinters round the lock with the same desperation as a rabbit caught in headlights.
‘Yeah, but they must be weaker. When was the last time you heard anyone scream? Couple of days, maybe?’
If there’d been any nails left on her fingertips Laura would have gnawed them, but she’d long since stripped her hands bare leaving raw nubs of tender flesh. She jabbed her knuckles in her mouth and sobbed instead.
Hank was wondering how she’d take it when they tried to leave. Back when he’d come barrelling in it had still been quiet. He pushed the thought aside and wondered how Mum and Dad were doing; then wished he hadn’t. Judging by what he could glimpse through the cracked safety glass of the room’s solitary window it wouldn’t be good. Half the street was invisible behind the plastic laced exhalations of a dozen fires, and no one had come to rescue them.
‘Hank, what are we going to do?’
‘I don’t know Laura, but we have to do whatever it is soon.’
They both looked at the corner they’d been using as a garbage can. You couldn’t really call it that anymore; landfill would be a more appropriate word.
‘Can you drive?’ asked Hank.
Neither could he, not really, but there was a car Hank could see that looked like an automatic. Maybe that would be, ok?
‘Listen, we could make a run for it. They might have forgotten we’re inside.’
‘What if they haven’t?’
‘Laura, we stay here much longer everyone will be dead. Don’t you want to get out of this place?’
There was a pause and then she answered, reluctantly.
‘Then we’re driving.’
That meant crossing what was fast looking like an ocean of tarmac not to mention the window was so small it barely deserved the term. If Hank hadn’t spent enough hours truant to be familiar with escaping a building unobserved he’d have rated their chances as worse than a snowball’s in hell.
‘We’re going out the fire escape. I’ll pull the wires off the alarm; no one will be any the wiser.’
Even to his ears it lacked conviction.
‘I hate them.’
For a minute Hank’s confused, cars, or the deserting addicts? The work raddled automatons that should be in the fields not populating the town’s centre inspired a lot of emotions in him but hate wasn’t one of them.
‘No, you don’t.’
This time she does lose it, and her feet beat a rising tattoo on the linoleum.
‘I do, oh god, I do. All I ever did was try and keep my head down. I wanted to be something. Now they’ve gone and mucked it all up.’
Hank has to admit she’s got a point. The streets of Newford have never looked so bad. In a way he’s impressed. It had taken a serious effort to turn a dump into a hell hole.
‘Come on let’s just get it over with, shall we?’
At least he manages to make it sound reasonably steady. With any luck Laura will be taken in by the illusion. The girl already has the track of too many tears drying on her cheeks.
Outside its worse than he’d thought, bodies lie twisted about each other like energetic lovers illuminated by the light from a dozen fires. He supposes he shouldn’t be all that surprised. There’d been enough combustibles around after years of drought to keep the party going for weeks.
‘See that?’ The words bring the rustle of arid leaves with them, and Hank’s head comes up fast. He knows that sound, but at least Laura’s nearing the vehicle now. Fat and shiny the SUV better have the keys still inside.
It’s not long before they have company and at first Hank notices how close to death they look with discomfort, the terror comes later. It’s an easy mistake to make. The drugs wearing out have definitely left their users looking the worse for wear.
‘What’s wrong with them?’ says Laura.
‘They’re crashing. They were fed just enough they’d keep working even without regular hydration. Now it’s running out.’
Hank’s father had been a specialist. One of the corps designated to look after the labour pools. It was a well-known family secret what that entailed.
‘Are they dangerous?’ said Laura and Hank had to hold down the urge to say what was on his mind. She already looked terrified and the addicts were moving forwards.
The murmur from the crowd’s throats redoubles as Hank’s first blow barely cracks the car’s glass. The second swing does better and the driver’s window goes in. Hank hopes he has time to learn from his mistakes as a dozen heads snap up.
It’s one of the women that speaks first. Although speak is an exaggeration it’s more of a rasp than a normal voice. Judging by the state of her it’s a miracle she can talk at all. All Hank can see when he looks at her face is huge pits where her eyes should be. Somewhere in them there might even be the glitter of pupils. He can’t be sure though.
‘We’re not going to hurt you.’
Hank had heard threats sound more enticing
‘We just need more’
‘You’ve got more haven’t you?’
Never has Hank been more aware that the human body is sixty percent water.
Evidently, he’s not the only one who knows it either.
‘Water…need more water.’
‘We’ll only take a little bit.’
He might have been tempted to believe them, but even from this distance he can see that the only thing showing between their eyelids is a bloodshot white.
‘Just leave us alone,’ says Hank.
‘Can’t do that,’ she croaks as her companions join in again.
‘See they took ours.’
‘All of it.’
‘Every last drop.’
This time it’s all of them, the words like the waves of an arid sea crashing against the shore.
‘Look, it’s not our fault. We had nothing to do with it. You’re criminals, water hoarders. That’s the law.’
The rest of the crowd’s heads finish coming up but Hank dives under the dash. He can see where the conversations going and it’s not any place he wants to visit. But his shoulder blades hunch under their attention even in his bunker. If he was younger, he’d be tempted to try and use it as a hiding place. But these bogey men look a bit realer than the ones that used to live beneath his bed.
The ignition wires refuse to still in his trembling fingers and Hank tries desperately to remember what the older kids had said. Laura’s gone quiet on him and he daren’t look up to see why. When the engine finally catches, he nearly knocks himself out.
‘Get in Laura; we’re leaving.’
They’re so close now he can smell them.
‘Laura, come on.’
‘No stay away, leave me alone. I haven’t got any.’
Laura’s hands paddle at nothing but Hank’s touch snaps her out of it, and she’s through the torn window in seconds.
‘Adios muchachos.’ He shows the crowd the finger and listens to the joyous sound of gravel spraying into the air. Another few minutes and it would have been like trying to drive across a football pitch mid game. There’s a bump as one worthless water traitor goes under the wheels and then they’re bouncing down the nearest one way. Hank’s always wanted to do that. It’s only a pity the circumstances stink.
‘Hank, what have they done?’
It looks like some of the citizens had tried to build barricades and there’s holes punched through all of them wide enough to take the jeep with ease.
Hank can only shake his head, gobsmacked at the devastation.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Dunno really, I was thinking get out into the hills,’ says Hank.
‘What about my family? For that matter what about yours?’
Pictures of happier times flash across his mind but Hank’s having none of it.
‘Laura look out the window again. They’re not going to have lived through that. My Dad said it was coming if the supply disappears. When the addicts run out, they’ll rise. Of course, everyone laughed at him. Most of the time they’re so doped up they don’t even remember their names.
There’s an itch behind his eyes at the thought of Dad, but taking a hand off the steering wheel to deal with it seems like a bad idea. He’s easily got enough imagination to see what a mistake in his driving abilities is likely to cause right now.
‘Alright,’ Hank relents despite himself. ‘If we go by our driveways will that be enough for you?’
‘No, but I have to see. It will do.’
‘This is going to be quick.’
When it’s over they sit in silence. Somehow driving the massive automobile any further doesn’t feel like a good idea.
‘Do you think they…?’
They hadn’t found them, not breathing at any rate. They hadn’t even found much of their homes either. Just smoking ruins and bits of their relatives scattered over the lawns. Laura has yet to shed a tear. He thinks its shock but it’s hard to tell. She looks like she’s watching things unreel in some place that has nothing to do with the torn remnants of the town they’d both grown up in.
‘When your rested well we’ll leave. I know a place,’ says Hank.
‘There’s a reservoir. We used to go fishing there. It’ll be alright you’ll see.’
‘I wish I believed you.’
‘Why wouldn’t you?’
Laura makes a quick nervous movement as she pulls down her sleeves to hide the marks there and finally the penny drops.
‘Oh…you’re one of them. How long have they been siphoning you?’
‘Since Dad got into debt. He said it would only be a little too. But then…it’s why I was hiding in that building. I didn’t want to go home.’
Embarrassment erupts over him like bitter drain water. He should have known, and here’s him so fat with H2O he can feel the car seats sticking to his skin. The sun’s going down now, leaving the city for night time’s outliers, and the cicadas have started up. The last rays skip off her face like feathers, but her eyes have him fast.
‘No, I bet you didn’t. You can take some of mine if you’re desperate.’
Hank thinks about this, turns it over in his head like a stone he’s found at the beach. He’d seen her father once, a tall man with a salesman’s greasy smile. Outside the flames are finally poised to win their lopsided war.
‘Hell, take it all if you want, but I won’t look so pretty afterwards.’
‘What about the others?’
‘Let ‘em burn,’ says Hank.
Turns out he wasn’t as bothered by the destruction as he’d thought.
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