When convinced the Host army has dispersed, we stiffly exit our hidey-holes and return to Hadley's car-park. At face value this action may appear foolish, but we’d agreed that looting its stockpiles before we scarper was easier than foraging through the picked over homes and businesses around us.
We are unlucky enough to be caught by two soldiers who have returned for the same reason. I perform my first ever murders by reflex; pulling the trigger of a loaded and cocked machine gun. It’s surprisingly easy to kill without aiming when your weapon sprays rounds like a garden hose. I kid myself later that I’d acted deliberately, but the bloodlust had only kicked in after the fright of being discovered twitched my trigger finger.
One of ‘my’ people is hit by a stray round. His cries are taken up by others as I walk up to the twitching soldiers and put an extra bullet through their chests. My hate is powerful and the group I almost belonged to backs away from me, some of them crooning pitifully. I turn my blood-splattered face towards them and they flee. I let them run
Hosts have appeared to investigate the gunshots. The figures approach and I depart, ditching most of the loot I’ve gathered in preference to speed. I sprint up the easiest route; a wide riverside walking track. The group of fellow slaves that abandoned me are strung out along it. They are mostly elderly and some are already out of breath. I overtake them with loping strides, shutting out their beseeching cries for mercy as they mistake the reason for my pursuit.
I dimly realise, at this inopportune time, how badly the words ‘survival of the fittest’ is applied to humans. I’m not at all fit to survive. I can only perform extreme acts of self-preservation as a means of last resort. My mind is numbed by what I’ve done, and the shock to my mind allows me to run through a pain barrier that would normally be crippling.
More Hosts have joined the hunt. They track my flight from the road above my tree-shaded path, and wander down the grassy verges to intercept the straggling oldies behind me. I hear their cries but run on.
By the time my quivering muscles have me performing a faltering fast walk, I am alone again, and clearing the heart of the city.
A cafeteria/ticket office for river boat cruises is the closest shelter I can see so I make for it. The last boat is long gone from the lengthy jetty. Breaking into the building is easy; a doorway gapes emptily. I stagger inside slam the unlockable door shut before collapsing to create a sweaty shape on the leaf and dirt littered floor. Silence returns after my rasping breaths up and down a raw throat slow. A foul stench of rotting food is pouring from an open fridge and the raided storeroom is full of buzzing insects attracted to broken jars of food. The offensive smell and insect bites prompt me to rise sooner rather than later.
I’d discarded the machine gun back at the car park but I’d jammed a pistol in my waistband. Now that I feel for it I find it is gone. Must have worked free during my epic escape. Perhaps it’s for the best. Copying stupid gangster acts like that would only result in me blowing my balls off or shooting myself in the arse by. Still, it’s a shame to lose the weapon. I’d rather liked the way it felt in my hand.
To distract myself from dwelling on what to do next I eye off a four-wheeled electric scooter that is plugged into a power outlet. The bright red loaner must have been used to transport elderly passengers on and off the boats.
With zero expectation of it being charged I unplug the ride and twist its throttle. It jerks forward, slamming a hard rubber bumper into my shins. Its unprovoked attack is forgiven as I climb aboard. Sitting on silent transportation is far preferable to running; and besides my shins are bruised now. I ram the broken door open and cruise contentedly from the hut and hum serenely up the path, throttle cranked fully open to a heady jogging pace.
A kilometre or so rolls beneath me before the battery reveals its deceit. The cart begins to slow at about the same time I notice movement in the scooter’s dinky rear vision mirrors. The Hosts I’d outdistanced had not stopped for a rest like I had. They are relentless pursuers. I search the dash display and find a ‘Super charge’ button. This sounds promising and I brace for neck-snapping acceleration. Nothing happens when I switch it from ‘Normal charge’.
The stupidness of my stubborn refusal to give up the ride is fully exposed when an obese, puffing woman waddles sweatily past me. Her bugged out eyeballs roll incredulously at the sight of me on the whining machine, ducking my head to cut wind resistance. She overtakes us and begins to pull away, gasping hoarsely for air.
A red light flashes and the motor whines in complaint when we encounter a steep grade. The Hosts are still gaining and as the closest victim I’m their prime target. I curse when the motor stops altogether. Repeatedly twisting the throttle on and off results in tiny jerks forward. Then it rolls slowly backwards.
I check behind and a Host’s slack face fills the mirror.
Bailing from my lame steed I become a sprinting maniac again. I only have to catch up to the fat woman’s bouncing buttocks and leave her behind as a Parasite distraction. There will be plenty of time for my troubled conscience to find a category for this act.
I pause my story here; ashamed; unable to meet Kristine’s eye. But now that I’ve left the safe bunker of silence, I am compelled to recount the rest of my deeds.
Hiding is an endless pastime of fright and boredom. A destructive trait is triggered after I wind up a grandfather clock in a retirement home. It counts out my terrors with loud ticks until I snap. The smarmy clockwork innards meet a violent end beneath the sole of my boot. I set the building on fire when the ticking echoes continue unabated.
The conflagration I start spreads to neighbouring buildings and then moves on to eat everything in its path across a wide swathe of town. Awed by the flames and smoke that reach into the sky, I finally depart. Hosts will probably be on the way to investigate from kilometres around.
Already wearied by my deteriorating mind I sink further into a malaise. An isolated highway motel provides a bare mattress where I dream, and sweat, and wait for a knock on my door. Days later, neither miracles nor demons have sought me out. I'm brought back to reality and chased from the stinking bed by cockroaches that had become brave enough to pluck dead skin from my unmoving, chapped lips. Clothes stick to raw bedsores. I search the tomb of a supermarket for nappy-rash cream, with the need of a Knight questing after the Holy Grail.
God did feature in some of the visions I had while in that fugue state. But escaping the city is achieved without supernatural guidance. I slog across its roads in short hops, and rest in basements to rooftops and everywhere else in between. The destination-less journey is a harrowing saga of fright and exhaustion. The quick, painless demise I pray for during cold, long nights isn’t forthcoming.
Increasingly bizarre suicidal thoughts highlight my mind’s cracks. They are in stark contrast to the body’s resilience. Oh, How I wish for a simple ‘off’ switch to flick. Something fatal that is also clean and quick is proving hard to come by. So far this is the only reason I haven’t killed myself. I have fear of badly injuring myself instead of causing instant death. Being left vulnerable and available for a Parasite’s feast is worse than living.
I am drawn from my tale by the dark shadows that cross a hollow well where my soul used to dwell. Momentarily I exist amongst broken thought particles that rotate and collide. Sanity catches and releases its hold on me like worn brake pads against a warped disc.
Kristine’s hand carries a reviving slap. The sting of her hand against my cheek slams the door shut on a vault I’d only meant to crack for minimal withdrawal. The images I flounder amongst are still on display, but they have lost their gravity and I am able to shuffle them away into the dungeons I made.
I cling to an offered hand. It buoys me from swift waters a psyche this fragile is not meant to sail. Tethered to reality by her touch I allow myself to drift freely for a time before dogpaddling to the familiar shallow waters of self-centred cockiness. But like chewing gum in carpet, a residue of those experiences will ever linger at the back of my mind.
For better or worse I fully return to Kristine’s presence. She has moved to sit beside me, earnestly looking into my eyes with concern. Her hands are clamped in mine. It is a crushing, sweaty grip and my fingers twitch as I resurface. She shows great relief at my resurgence and pulls free with a wince of pain. I give her a pale smile of apology.
I still have to finish this story before my high completely runs down.
Carefully I return the raw edges of my tale and attempt to convert it into dry documents of fact to described endless days of walking and scavenging.
The highways were clogged with a million abandoned cars, most with idled-empty fuel tanks. My aching feet follow routes determined by pilfered glove-box maps.
I divert from main roads to tramp less congested byways. The artful lines of silent metal boxes were more than my delicate emotional state could stand. Huge wheat and canola fields, destined for rot and wild rebirth, were preferable companions.
The catalyst that brought me to this Detention Centre, and to the end of this story, is an old F100 truck parked in a shady nook, alongside an unnamed bridge. Curiosity and hunger prompts me to search it. There is a note beneath a wiper that I hesitate for many seconds before plucking it out. The message is confusing, apologetic and rain damaged. It pleads for the brave reader to complete a task that he, or she, could not.
There’s no signature.
I look over each side of the bridge. A deep dive into the shallow water below may explain the absence of the despondent owner, although no corpse is in sight to confirm this. I see no point searching further for evidence.
The truck has fuel and the keys are in place. A glossy black briefcase rides the passenger seat. It is unlocked for my convenience and contains a swipe card, keys, and case files for several juvenile offenders. For reasons unknown to me I fall for the owner’s pleas and drive the hundred kilometres north to trace the address given.