As I rise a tremendous fart is released. Truth is a stomach cramp has crippled me and my veins flow with liquid fire. I’m swimming with sweat inside the leathers. The misery of my existence is unending.
The expression on Kristine’s face speaks volumes as she furiously waves at the stench. Embarrassed, I stuff my hands in the jacket pockets. Something crinkles under my finger and I drag out the map I thought I’d lost. Keeping its surprise discovery to myself I flatten it out and studiously examine the markings.
Plan B is in the making.
I’m well outside my known area. Despite this handicap I drag my nail down the map and trace a dangerously fast way home. A route involving the crossing of twelve lanes of a motorway. I choose to use a fortuitously close pedestrian overpass that will deliver us from evil. It’s supposed to be an emergency escape from my safe house in case I’m ever overrun. I ignore the glaring problem of its designation as a ‘Red Zone’. Hosts swarm along this freeway in large numbers, using it as a path of least resistance.
Crossing a Red Zone is a decision of last resort and I figure these circumstances met the criteria. Assuming we make it across this route will provide a short jaunt through some cleared bushland and from there we should enjoy a pleasant stroll through a Botanical Garden. I could be at the backdoor of my hidey hole in no time.
I prod at where we are on the map, and then point at the ground to indicate ‘we are here’. Kristine reluctantly comes closer to see, and nods her understanding.
I trace a crows flight with my finger to a building centred on a large, open property. She frowns and jabs a piece of the map between those two points.
“We can’t go through here. It’s been cleared, no buildings, no trees, we’ll be seen for sure. If we’re going up there...” she points at my home, “...then why don't we swing around to the north and go in from the front.”
“No? That’s it? No! Why’d you mark all this in red?”
This is not a frigging democracy. I’m the boss! I fold the map and head towards the highway. Kristine crosses her arms, fuming, and then shouts at my back.
“You’re a pig, you know that!”
I know it.
She follows, at a distance. Sulking.
We leave the suburban fringe behind, passing a huge sign that announces the imminent opening of an industrial subdivision. Kristine was right. A flat, exposed wasteland spreads out before us. The compacted, stony sub-soil supports no more than a few clumps of knee-high, wispy weeds.
A thick post stands motionless, far off to our left. I tell myself it’s a stump. Or perhaps a survey marker?
The survey marker moves towards us.
Kristine runs to catch up to me, bursting with palpable disdain.
“Happy now? One’s seen us already.”
I wonder if she realises how annoying people are when they state the obvious all the time.
We walk away fast, angling at a tangent to the pursuing Creep’s intersecting path. One of us puffs like a tired, old steam train with a leaky boiler; the other bounds around like an excitable puppy.
Our stalker steadily catches up each time I take a necessary rest. Kristine alternates between running ahead and then returning half the distance in agitated frustration, imploring me to speed up.
I can’t oblige.
A squeal of distress lifts my downcast head. I see Kristine has skidded to an abrupt halt. She looks indecisively to her right and left several times. As I come closer I see we’ve reached the outer edge of the subdivision. A deep, earthen drainage ditch stretches away to either side.
We must cross it and the encroaching Creep leaves me no time to assess the drop. Without a pause in my headlong rush I step over the edge and slide downs the embankment amongst a mini avalanche of dirt and stones. I try to lean into the pack to use it as a brake but it won’t dig in. The uncoordinated descent turns into a loose-limbed roll that finishes my trip to the bottom in a display that maximises my loss of dignity.
Kristine dithers at the top for another second before a final look back at what is coming for her helps her make a decision. She jumps off the edge and performs a controlled, graceful slide to the bottom and is gracious enough to help me up. I’m shoved towards a crevice in the opposite bank where storms have eroded a channel. The exposed rocks and ledges promise to supply foot and handholds.
Kristine leads. I am close behind and shove her butt to help her scramble up. I can’t help squeezing its firmness. My sex drive must be on a different circuit to the bits it seeks to excite as I am not moved in the pants region.
I stall when the last few metres are less accommodating to my handicaps. I bet Kristine is thinking about my arse differently when she has to reach down and haul me up. She tuts loudly.
I take a well-earned rest at the top, hoping the steep sided ditch should stop the Creepy. Far as I know they don't climb. To prove this theory I watch the Host arrive at the embankments edge. He stops and we face each other over the gulf. My fingers caress the grip of the Ruger.
“You going to shoot him?”
I shake my head. Attempting to show off my lack of shooting prowess, even without this double vision, would have few benefits. Even if a lucky shot did hit him, the echoing gunshot across this open area would draw a thousand others, like flies to rotting meat.
The Host fixes us with rapt attention. His slack, Botoxed face is hidden under an unruly growth of hair and ragged beard. However, his eyes are starkly visible; almost glowing, deep pools of forgetfulness. He’s prepared to stand there indefinitely.
I too might have stayed locked in his gaze if not for Kristine’s irritating demands to move and her tugging at my arm. Gradually she breaks through the fog that crept across my mind.
“Nnnnnnngggh, come on, snap out of it! Oh God, please don't lock up on me now.”
The Creepy’s death-stare really is hypnotic. Just like that Crawly. I see tiny words swimming in my head as I rise from the spell. Something repetitive and calming. ‘Stay. Be still. Stay. Be still.’
I shake Kristine off and break my feet free from the concrete thoughts that freeze them in place. We travel slowly. Kristine constantly checks over her shoulder in case our watcher learns to levitate. I concentrate on closing the distance to the shallow arc of a covered foot bridge. It was a major landmark in its day and looms large even at this distance. Its purpose was to provide access from either side for thousands of commuters to and from the train station sandwiched between the inbound and outbound highways below.
We meet a convenient cycle path that enables me to lift my eyes that where on the lookout for trip hazards and distract myself by decoding the distant signs that face an unnaturally quiet motorway. They advertise products that will never restock looted shelves. Some of the signs resurrect old advertising jingles which my brain annoyingly latches onto.
A large, fenced parking lot, covering several acres, comes up on our right. Only a handful of dusty cars remain inside the enclosure. As if guarding the vehicles, a great deal more than a handful of Creepies have scattered themselves about in there. Forty or fifty individuals in plain sight. Maybe more in the shadows and bushes.
They haven’t seen us.
I slip a Valium between my crusty lips and crunch it noisily. A stop gap measure to mask the anxiety of the next step. More Vodka washes bitterness down a parched throat. I need water bad.
Kristine hears the rattle of my pill container and complains.
“Are you taking more drugs? Why aren’t you dead?”
No wonder her friends ditched her, they probably got tired of all the whinging.
“Juss Tic Tac’s.”
I refrain from pointing out the motley collection of silent figures on our right. And I don’t wish to acknowledge, even to myself, that we’re now bottlenecked on this narrowing path. The further we go, the fewer options we’re left with.
Kristine is distracted by the effort she’s putting in to keep me moving. With her head down she shoves on my pack to help me along. I think she’d use a cattle prod on me if one was available. And it wouldn’t be on the lowest setting.
I’m quietly confident the two metre fence separating us from the car park inmates is sturdy enough. A guard rail protects us from a ten metre sheer drop on the opposite side. The Yin and Yang of my choice balances precariously.
We’re about a third of the way along the fence when the good old ‘we’re not alone’ feeling dawns on Kristine. She sees the silent statues and instantly scoots around to hide behind my bulk. Her hands clasp an elbow in a death-grip. That shoulder creaks with her anxious weight.
Congratulations, your prize is in the mail.
I forge on, emulating a prude short-cutting through a nudist colony by averting my eyes from the figures. The Valium’s soothing influence rests my fevered brain to a point where nothing much matters. In fact, I even stop for a rest, casually propping my arms on the railing to check out the view below. I should have warned Kristine. She looks down into six inbound lanes of the motorway. Hundreds of Creeps move purposely along it. The outbound lanes are no less congested.
Thanks for the confirmation, Bright spark.
Most of the city bound Hosts are carrying small, unidentifiable items. A few sentries loiter in eerie stillness, much like their car-park counterparts. Detached from the fear that so often colours my perception, I observe the Hosts objectively for the first time. Their apparent random patterns of movement are not punctuated by collisions or bunching. They weave complicated, harmonious patterns, efficiently navigating around each other to unknowable destinations.
Kristine’s freak out is progressing to flush faced hyper-ventilation. Thankfully she has not screamed yet.
“Ahh, ahh, ahh, oh fuck, oh God, shit! This place is crawling with them. We’re goin’ back, right? Right?”
Blissfully resolved in my intentions, I point at the bridge.
“No way! We’ll be trapped. They’re everywhere!”
“Juss wark slow ike ey do.”
Saw that in a movie once. Idiotic, but what better time to test the theory.
“Walk slow? Are you kidding? That’s fucking stupid.”
Finally, we can agree on something.
Leading by example, I stick my arms out in front of me to impersonate the Zombie I already feel like. Near tears, Kristine continues to nag at me to turn around. I push her away and she punches me. Our minor spat does not go unnoticed. I suppose a large man, wearing a helmet and huge pack being attacked by a scared girl is bound to hit a Creep’s radar eventually.
A tall guy in a dirty black suit step up to the fence opposite us. We freeze like spotlighted rabbits and are evaluated. I feel the pressure of his scrutiny. Maybe it’s the Valium opening my mind, or perhaps the Parasite’s poison unlocks something. Whatever the cause a second insight into Parasite behaviour is laid bare to me. The Creeps do communicate with each other. If my beleaguered neurons can be trusted, news of our presence is currently spreading; being broadcast; across the parking lot, without a single word or gesture from our business-suited discoverer.
There’s a ripple through their ranks as every Creep’s head turns in our direction.
Then they tramp directly towards us, like iron filings to a magnet.