Sodden sadness is all I can find to wrap up sharp-edged guilt. Packing it into a flimsy cardboard mind is careless.
The route I drive becomes more familiar with each turn, allowing me to descend deeper into self-pity, numbly selecting gears on cue, glancing occasionally at the child. The truck’s vibrations and harsh suspension take their toll on her patience. She digs deeply into a large repertoire of screams and cries a detailed critique of my driving skills.
I’m powerless to comfort her; too engrossed with steering to provide the proper attention. My absent-minded touches are merely to prevent her from sliding while cornering.
She winds down. The quiet breaks into my daze. Her little hand has found the fake furry rabbit’s foot attached to my pocket-knife.
If it keeps her amused she can have it. Never brought me any luck anyway.
A smoky-lens filter drops over eyes that wander from the appointed task of driving. As if on cue a pure white cat crosses the road well in front of us.
Is that some twisted superstitious symbolism? Is my psychic ability being invoked to reassure me? Can a white cat equal a reversal of failing fortune?
Or is it just a scared moggy, running from the humans who once nurtured it? Owners who now attack warm-blooded creatures on sight.
I’m too tired and jaded to read into the depths of this rare sighting. The filter wavers at my disinterest then clears, leaving eyesight poorly equipped for steering duties.
We are nearly there. Our home’s fence line unspools on our left. An already irregular heart-beat hippity-hops at the damage human hands can inflict on steel. Sections of mesh are crushed and trodden into the ground. Its valiant resistance before surrender is evidenced by ragged scraps of clothing that flutter in broken wire fingers, trophies clawed from passing Creeps who’d trampled the weakest link.
I turn in and idle at the imposing gate, grimacing at the grey facility in its encroaching ocean of greenery before winding the window down. Swiping the proximity card rolls back the obedient gate. I’m silently grateful to the Creeps' ignorance. The importance of power to us is beyond them. Strategic damage of machinery would have brought us to extinction by now.
I’m well aware that their base desire is consumption. I’d felt their burning appetite while sharing their consciousness and I’d fed those flames with my secret infatuation for Kristine’s desirable flesh. The Parasite sorting machine had squeezed my shameful carnal fantasies and prioritised her as a target on a mistaken recommendation.
I drive in. Darting eyes populate wild foliage bordering the driveway with moving figures. Every waving shadow tugs at peripheral vision’s acute perception, though each occasion is belatedly recognised as a tree branch or a piece of rubbish.
Each false alarm stresses a core resolve.
Every part of me wants to flee this city; to drive far away from the treachery and pain I seem to deliver and receive without end.
I don’t run because the cold, logical part of me knows we lack the fuel and energy to do so.
I back onto the dock, pushing the sunnies over my brow when shadows fold around the windscreen. The mirror reflects worry and fright until I tilt it away. Rear bumper meets rubber stoppers, stalling the engine.
A cold breeze moans around the dock. Fine dust, carried on its breath, eddies across laser beams of late sunlight. The warm rays are erased by a cloud the moment I touch the door handle.
Bare leg skin unpeels from vinyl with a tearing sound. If that was unpleasant, hopping to the ground is the agony I need to stoke my anger. It keep me from collapsing. Shoving the huge dock gates closed, I crash them shut. They lock automatically.
The sound brings to mind a condemned man’s cell-door slamming for the last time.
The thin shell of courage I’ve relied on to keep me going cracks at the thought. Denying myself an escape route is almost as bad as leaving it open.
A convenient wall supports me on the way to the dock steps. A forgotten baby senses abandonment, stalling me halfway with muffled bawling. For the first time I recognise she has a positive use - she's reminded me that the shotgun and keys are still in the truck.
Returning, I retrieve two items I want and one I don’t. In the absence of pockets, and before I run out of hands, I clamp the swipe-card holder between my teeth. Dangling keys stab my chin and cheeks at violent neck twists.
I’m on high alert for an ambush.
Tucking the fragile baby beneath one arm and the gun under the other I squeeze each with care. Both stay silent, even with rough handling.
Mounting the dock involves a mountainous trek of singly taken steps. I look up from the fifth and last, preoccupied by the logistics of juggling this load and unlocking the outer doors.
Uh oh. The keys aren’t needed.
A stupid riddle pops into my head: when is a door not a door? When it’s ajar!
Hundreds of muddy footprints on white-painted concrete embellish the groan-inducing answer with a chilling punch to the gut.
The Creeps are inside.
The ramifications seize and loosen my knees randomly, resulting in a spastic, stiff-legged, geriatric robot walk. The conflicting urges to fight or flee returns. I lean across one door and peek in, inviting a severe fright if anything lurks on the other side.
No monsters await me. No sounds or movements either. The intruders leave their calling cards of dragged feet and scuffed shoe prints in scattered dust.
Masochism goads me to slip inside. I jam the gun between my legs as I purposefully entomb us further. Locks click loudly in the cavernous, echoing hush. The baby senses a change of atmosphere. Her whimpers cease abruptly. A last cry dies in her throat. Scrunched up eyes open and find mine expectantly, as if seeking permission to start again.
I hold a finger to my lips and listen hard. The utter silence is worse than her irritating background drone.
The toted gun hangs heavily from my arm, and I tell cold, sore feet to move towards Checkpoint One. They collect grit in cuts and leave behind faint smears of blood in protest.
I’d renamed Checkpoint One the wagon wheel due to its layout. Its central hub is an impervious glass-encased octagonal office and corridor spokes radiate from it provide access while limiting movement to and from every part of the building.
No one occupies the guard office nor the circular ring around it.
Two stout barred doors stand open, impotently chocked by me from performing their function, in violation of old rules and new.
Niggling fears of having left every door like this are being realised. I’d relied on paranoia to curb laziness. Even under the influence of chemicals I’d always locked up after myself. So why, on the one time that it really mattered, had I left us exposed? The Creeps hadn’t even needed to search the place. I’d left them a single route to travel and they’d taken it.
I kick the chocks out and swing the doors closed, drawing small comfort that my exposure to danger can be limited from here. The compartmentalised nature of the building allows each area to be locked down yet still be accessed by alternate routes.
For now I won’t use them. I follow the Creep’s tracks; the most direct path to the staff quarters. Hopelessness builds but the importance of witnessing Kristine’s fate cannot be explained. I cannot run away to forever wonder if she wanders the earth in that undead state. If I must end her suffering so be it. I owe her that much, and more.
I labour forth up stairs and down corridors. Journey's end is a four-way intersection. The ways ahead and to the left are shut and locked. But the third way, the penultimate door to our quarters presses against the wall, pinned by a milk crate full of golf balls I'd left there for use as a canny defensive weapon at some stage.
I round the corner moving under pure momentum, and take delivery of a shocking discovery. The short corridor leading to the Staff Quarters security door is empty.
Tension and fear, used unsparingly to get me this far, call a confused conference. I turn around to back down the empty aisle, covering the way I'd come, thinking hard.
All rooms along the route had been empty. Where could the Creeps possibly hide?
Halfway there I turn again, very carefully scutinising the blue, steel-cored door. The hosts certainly got this far. The stench of human waste and body odour hangs in the air, and dirty handprints cover the walls. The floor is slippery with urine from instinctual releases.
Yet, the Staff Quarters door is shut tight and undamaged.
I would never, and I mean never, have left this door chocked.
Or had I?
The blacked out section of memory is so maddening. The only thing that allows me to contain a mental explosion is the thought that much screaming is likely to be required in the very near future.
I continue, treading in more puddles, muttering a comforting mantra. They scarpered when the leash came off their minds. Yes, they would have. Why would they hang around this sterile place?
Then there’s the more likely possibility. Kristine had heard them tapping and shuffling around out here and opened the door, thinking it was me.
Trust pessimism to kick the shit out of hope.
I prop the shotgun against the wall. It seems the better choice compared to putting the baby on the unsanitary floor. The proximity card is slick with my breathed out dribble. I drop it and bend, finding the right key by feel. My eyes are constantly moving, on everything but the lock.
The dual-sided key zips home and I twist hard, pulling the door towards me. I brace to slam it shut, again anticipating a surprise party from Hell to be in full swing. Dead silence, warm air and the smell of spoiled food are the only things that rush out at me.
No-one is in the kitchen.
The shotgun, chosen for the lead role without consultation, trembles. I swing its deadly snout to cover innocent, humming appliances and sidle in behind it. An impatient closer rudely ushers me in, pushing the door hard against my heels.
It snaps closed with authority at my back.
Extending my arm to full reach I centre the gun on the swinging doors leading into the lounge room. Sighting down the barrel with painfully widened eyes, I part the doors.
The skinny vertical slice of lounge room revealed is dishevelled, but it too lacks a level of destruction I’d expect from an army of hosts.
None of whom are showing their faces.
A noise from Kristine’s room! The attempted covert entry is announced by doors that flap noisily behind me.
An all too familiar pre-killing coldness spreads across my brain, conversely accompanied by the sensation of soft, warm carpet.
Kristine’s door creaks open dramatically. Broken-nailed fingers wrap around the jam, supporting a slow moving body that shuffles out.
I squeeze the baby tighter and snug the gun’s butt into my shoulder, tensing in preparation to fire. A cry of anger settles into a constant wail the child has made her own in her short time alive. I swallow a knot in my throat
Kristine emerges, pushing stringy hair aside when it falls to hang over her face.
Her baffled, stiff expression does not unlimber my finger from a tensioned trigger. Dead eyes meet mine with frightening disinterest.
One tiny wrong move decides if she lives or dies.
“Whass that noise? Why haven’ you got any pants on? Don’ point that gun at me!”
Her drugged expression and concentrated drawl releases me from the edge of murder. I relax one hand’s grip, letting the shotgun fall. Holding out the wrapped baby to her is the end of that arm's usefulness. Kristine instinctively takes the package with bleary incomprehension.
The combined weight of all that has happened crushes any remaining senses. I manage to take the few extra steps into my room on stabbingly painful feet.
I see heaven.
My unmade bed and dirty sheets are achingly beautiful.
I fall towards it...