It’s the same name of the nursery where I’d been captured.
Is it a mirage?
Am I really having a nice lie down somewhere, dreaming this?
Hot sunshine burns into my face, thawing the icicles of disbelief that lock me in place. I lean down, looking over the stupid glasses to read the last faded line: 1.3 kilometres, left turn at Hanson Street.
Yes. I can just manage that distance if I walk slowly.
A bullet spangs off the sign, approximately where my head had been and paint flecks sting my face. The half-crouch of surprise causes my jumper to ride up, exposing more butt crack than a seasoned plumber. A chaste downward pull corrects this, but my mate, Greybeard the Pirate, takes offence.
He yells through that giant beard while hobbling towards me, using of the gun as a crutch. I hope he’ll shoot himself each time the stock thumps the ground.
“Christ will not suffer a child murderer! Ya infested, fat pervert, I’ll kill ya!”
Oh great. A religious nut. I’ll admit our new world is an incubator for mental instability, but I resent being called names under false pretences. The kid’s not dead. In fact she’s bawling loudly; but I’m getting used to that.
If called upon to provide a swift summation I’d label him the Creep. He parodies them perfectly in those grotty, lived-in clothes and hitching walk. Only by his crazed voice do I know the clothing results from intentional neglect, and his gait is a result of arthritis or poorly mended bones.
The devil’s advocate briefly considers my own modicum of clothing. Creeps favour an unflattering randomness of apparel it is true, and my foot-sore hobbled gait could be construed as a zombie-like shamble.
Regardless of my bizarre appearance, I view his religious-tainted vendetta and blatant persecution with dread. This old mind-broken freak will track me to the ends of the earth. Why can’t he shoot one way and run in the other like I always did?
Though bruised and battered, my feet cover distance faster than his acute limp. I hop between grassy tufts sprouting at the edge of the asphalt and the footpath’s cracks, weaving around trees and power poles to frustrate a clean shot from behind.
A brief breather behind a post office box doubles as an opportunity to update the loony’s progress.
He’s still coming; gamely swinging his dicky leg. He spots the sweaty face peering around the red box and reshoulders the rifle. Fortunately he’s exhausted and the heavy barrel droops before the trigger is pulled. He doubles over, clasping a hand to his knee, breathing hard.
I try to reason with him.
“Go home you silly old bastard! I’m not a Creep.”
He glowers at me. Maybe they call Creeps something else around here.
I race off; down to a fast walk now, but reach a small roundabout well in front of the murderous oldster.
Remembering the sign’s instructions I break left down Hanson Street. This is not the route I’d driven in on, however from this direction fewer houses separate me from my goal. The nursery’s triangular, bright orange roof is a highly visible landmark. A few hundred wincing steps more brings the large, shade-clothed greenhouse into view.
Risking a shot in the back, I leave the road. Striking out across a thickly grassed stretch of land adjoining the nursery will get me there that much quicker.
I reach a sagging, triple wire fence that protects the property and stand outside the legal boundary, swamped by uncertainty. Fate’s fickle hand has been firm against my back, speeding me along at a pace that encourages accidental deaths. A hiatus from my usual progression of bad to worse might be halted if I had time to think.
The rolling echo of a high powered rifle discourages deep contemplation. It will also be attracting the attention of everything in the vicinity. Very cautiously I grab a handful of barbed wire and swing my dangling manhood clear. I tense again when a second report trails another bullet which misses.
From the wire straddled position I look back to see the old gunslinger at the roundabout corner. He leans against a signpost, steadying his aim for another shot.
I’m well over two hundred metres away. Providing life’s roulette wheel isn’t rigged by Bad Luck’s hand I’d wager I'm an impossible target for his marksmanship. On second thoughts, when it comes to Bad Luck’s mischief, a million-to-one chance pays out more often than I like.
I hunch, thinking small while moving at a swift trudge towards the shade structure.
The greenhouse is torn to shreds. Pots and racking are in disarray, trashed by a hundred careless hosts who’d broken in to get at me. Thankfully the vandals have been called away. Judging from the Creeps I’d seen inside the barrier there’d been a massive redeployment back to the hive.
I could probably take the credit for that occurrence.
So here I am, brought full circle back to the spot I’d been taken from. So many things had happened in so short a time span I get dizzy thinking about it.
My beautiful, beaten up truck is right where I left it, poking out from the broken gates. I approach, hearing my feet tacking loudly as I peel them from sticky scraps of meat. Gnawed bones are also scattered, and I notice the stack of dead hosts, shot between the truck and fence post no longer fill the gap.
Survivors of that fight have dragged them about and feasted after my departure.
Upon reaching the truck I hunker to survey the interior of the shade house. Surprises will not be tolerated.
I listen long and carefully.
A closer bang from a familiar rifle makes me jump and curse. I open the truck’s door and toss the baby onto the seat, reassuringly touching the swipe-card that dangles from the key-ring.
Forgetting to take it with me when I got out is rare good fortune.
I turn the key until the dash glow plug symbol lights up then twist it further. The engine growls into life, puffing black smoke into the air.
Jumping in to drive away is almost irresistible, but I know the loading ramp is down. Much as it galls me, I have to raise it. Dragging it in the lowered position will strand us at the first speed bump.
I squeeze through the gap between the bent and bloodied gate and truck, watching every direction at once for unfriendlies. Nothing moves except torn shade-cloth in the light breeze.
My shotgun lies where it had fallen, next to a torn, burnt, and bloodied jumper of previous multi-colourations. There is some kind of bird knitted into the pattern. It wasn't something I’d noted whilst in the throes of my killing spree.
A large water feature's mirror provides a sudden revelation, I stretch out the front of the purple creation I’m wearing and stare at the dirty-white duck embossed on its front.
Another troubling moment of synchronicity and troubling coincidence.
Shaking off the spooky feeling that my life’s troubles are orchestrated by higher beings for their amusement, I pick up the shotgun and collect cartridges from the ground. Reloading the gun, I scurry to an intact corner and look out.
The red-faced, swearing, gun-toting maniac is about fifty metres into the paddock I’d crossed. I raise the shotgun and shoot at his head. I miss of course, but the reaction is priceless. He stops, confused beyond comprehension, and then drops his rifle-crutch, reaching for the sky in surrender.
Uninterested in prisoners I fire again. The 00 buckshot tears a hole in the grass at his feet. Damn barrel must be bent; I’m still aiming at his head.
He turns tail quick smart and skedaddles.
Angry at being chased so far for no good reason I fire one more time, shrugging when fleeing figure doesn’t fall.
I sigh before running to the truck where I grab up the ramp controls. The electric motor whines and the metal plate rises in slow motion. I constantly shift and twirl, examining every tiny movement in every direction. Paranoia builds a sense of impending doom that no amount of lip-biting can calm. The ramp isn’t quite closed when the fear takes over.
I drop the rubberised controller and have scraped through the too-small gap before bringing myself under partial control. I’m hyperventilating as I clamber aboard the truck. My head is so full of the most efficient sequence to get us rolling I almost forget the baby. At the last moment before my butt crushes her I reach behind to scoop her up then fall back heavily. A quick look at the glove box is rejected as an appropriate place for her, leaving the document tray the next best spot. I displace most of the sharp objects and place her in it, then slam my door shut and slap down the lock.
Thus secured I let in the clutch and punch the maxi-brakes button in.
We’re moving! The pall of doom around me is pushed back, the way a recovering patient would reject his prematurely placed funeral shroud. Flagging spirits draw hope when each second passes and that constant last minute disappointment doesn’t show its dreaded self.
The truck engine growls smoothly under load. Whatever is on board is heavy and loosely packed. I’ll need to drive carefully if I am to get us home safely.
And here I allow myself to wonder.
Do I even have a home left to return to?
Is my only friend in the world alive?
Is she hurt?
Or worse; is she possessed?