Split into two parts because it’s probably going to be about 6000 words long, and I think that’s a bit too much for one blog post. Second part tomorrow hopefully.
Hallowe’en special, nothing to do with any previous story series.
It Felt Like Freedom
by Liberty Gilmore, 31/10/12
‘If we do this,’ he says, ‘we have to do it now.’
‘I know.’ I can hear the baying of the Fleshers, my heart beats in time to the sound – somehow slow and frantic at the same time. This is it. ‘Tim, I…’
His hands are in my hair, tugging at me, the pain sharp. I gasp, then his lips are on mine and the pain is different – the pain of losing him, boiling inside me. Tears scald my cheeks and mingle with our kiss, the taste of salt cutting through the moment. He pulls back from me, disentangling his fingers, disconnecting our lips.
‘Run, Zo, run fast.’
‘Like the driving wind,’ I say, repeating the mantra of my coach.
‘Faster,’ he says.
The Fleshers have broken past the fencing. It’s now or never. I look at him one last time as he back pedals towards the house, cocking his shotgun with its final four bullets. I try to fix him in my memory.
I take a deep breath. The smell of rot fills my nostrils and I turn. And run.
I ignore the Fleshers, I try to ignore Tim, just focusing on the rhythm of my legs as they push off the ground, giving me speed, momentum. For a moment the rush takes me. All my Olympic training slots into place and I can almost hear the roar of the crowd.
Adzo Belewa takes the gold for England!
It’s funny. But it almost feels like freedom.
Mum used to say my running was my ancestry coming out.
‘All that time your great-great grandparents spent hunting and running from leopards. The genes don’t forget, even if our minds do.’
I would have pointed out that the only leopards any of my ancestors had seen for a long time would have been in zoos. We were five generations English, but Mum loved to cling onto anything that made her sound exotic and interesting – not just a forty-year-old waitress with a borderline drinking problem. If we’d been white, we’d probably have descended from King Arthur’s court. Or something.
The last time I saw her, I was running away from her fast enough. She’d just turned Flesher – along with the rest of the adults in the world. I probably should have killed her, but even if I’d known how back then, I doubt I could have done it. For all her flaws, she was still my mother.
I was lucky in that respect. Of our group, I was the only one who hadn’t had some horrible experience with their parents on the day of the turn. Brent Coben had hacked his father’s head off with a kitchen knife after he found him chewing on his little sister’s leg. The sister went septic and died two days later, and he had to repeat the whole process with her. Brent still woke up some nights screaming.
Along with Brent there was Karen, a wiry white girl whose father was a farmer. He’d taught her to shoot air rifles before she hit double digits, and she’d moved on to hunting rifles and shotguns soon after. Her hands were callused and she always smelled slightly of gunpowder. We picked her up with Miri, an eight-year-old, found by Karen crying in the back of her parent’s store, where she’d barricaded herself in the freezer to stop them eating her. The power went off the night of the Turn, otherwise she would’ve frozen to death before anyone found her. As it was, she was half starved and probably permanently traumatised. Karen was tight lipped about her own trauma, but the grey colour she turned whenever anyone mentioned it was enough to convince me there was some horror story there.
And just because I didn’t have that first trauma, didn’t mean I had many afterwards. I was fast, but after days of living on what sweets and fast food I could find, holing up in some damp attic, I was tiring. I think I’d have died if the Kwongs hadn’t found me when they did.
Lee Kwong, twelve, was the most beautiful boy I’d ever known. Wide brown eyes, long dark hair, delicate, almost feminine features and a cheeky grin that I thought would break hearts one day. If there were any left to break. His older brother was our self-styled leader, and insisted we just referred to him as ‘Kwong’, like that made him sound more than just some shit-scared nineteen-year-old. We humoured him.
‘They’re getting faster,’ Lee said, watching the Fleshers out of the window of our self made fortress.
I sat beside him, peeking out between the curtains. They did seem to have evolved from their shambling lope to a definite walk.
‘Probably just getting used to their bodies,’ I said. ‘They’ll start rotting soon. That’ll slow them down.’
‘Can’t run if your legs fall off,’ he said with a wide grin. ‘Crawlers would make good target practice too.’
‘Wouldn’t waste ammo on Crawlers,’ Kwong said with his usual harshness.
Lee sneered at him, but shrugged. ‘Fair enough. Lop off their heads with the axe then.’
I didn’t mention how much it hurt me to hear Lee talking about lopping off heads with such a casual air. Kwong may have taken a very hard line, but he was right about one thing. This was our life now. We had to suck it up.
‘We can’t stay here,’ Kwong announced one night.
‘Why not?’ Brent demanded, quietly. Everything at night was done quietly, and by the glow of a night light, bright enough to soften the darkness, but not to alert the Fleshers to our presence. Its batteries were dying now, it’s light even dimmer.
‘We need to be somewhere with land, fields. Tin cans and dried stuff won’t last forever.’ He looked to Karen for her support.
She nodded. ‘I don’t like it. We’re safe enough here, we know the lay of the land. But Kwong’s right. We stay here in six months, maybe twelve, we’ll starve. We need to think long term.’
‘You have a place in mind?’ I asked.
Kwong shook his head. ‘I’ve been thinking about scouting.’
‘Dangerous,’ Brent said. ‘Don’t know who you might bump into out there.’
‘Yeah, another bunch of frightened kids. No one over twenty survived the Turn, you know that,’ I said.
In the early days, we’d seen a few more people about. None were older than Kwong. None had seen anyone older than Kwong.
‘Kids can be sick, just the same as adults,’ Brent said with a shrug.
‘Vote?’ Lee suggested.
Brent voted against, but Karen and I saw the sense in what Kwong was saying. Lee always voted with his brother and Miri always voted with Karen. Brent knew he was outnumbered before Lee mentioned voting, but the voting made it feel like there was a chance for him. I think he appreciated that.
Kwong and Karen did most of the scouting, riding an old motorcycle Miri spotted when we were on a reccy into town for food a few days before. It took them almost a week, but one day Karen returned, eyes alight, talking about irrigation, wells, cultivation and livestock. I had no clue what she was saying, but her passion told me enough. They’d found the place.
We packed for two more days, Kwong and Brent taking our heavier equipment – petrol cannisters, an old generator we’d salvaged from a hardware store, tools and our wood stock – out to the farm. When the time came for us all to leave, we bundled into a car Kwong had found for the purpose. Karen rode the motorcycle alongside us. She gave us the thumbs up as she turned the engine on and pulled a helmet on. Miri waved at her from her seat next to me in the back of the car.
‘It’s not a long drive,’ Brent said to Lee. ‘Just out of town and about ten minutes on top of that.’
‘Will we have our own bedrooms?’ Miri asked.
‘Sure thing, kiddo,’ Brent said.
‘I’ll help you decorate, Miri,’ Lee said. ‘We can find some paint in a hardware store. Any colour you like.’
I relaxed into my seat as they talked about colours and painting and the new house. To Kwong and Karen, the new house meant food, a future. To the kids it was hope. I gazed out of the window to where Karen was riding the bike just ahead of us, wind blowing the tresses of hair that strayed out of the bottom of her helmet.
A figure ran in front of her. Karen spun the bike sideways as she tried to avoid them, tipping over and grating against the road several hundred yards, trapped beneath the weight of the bike. Kwong swore and slammed on the brakes, the rear end of the car squirrelling as the wheels locked out. He avoided the figure, and Karen, coming to a halt in a crunch of g-force and burned rubber.
‘What the hell was that idiot thinking?’ Brent cursed.
The figure hadn’t moved. There was something about the way it swayed on its feet that…
‘Shit,’ Kwong said. ‘That’s a Flesher.’
‘No way, it ran. Flesher’s don’t run!’ Brent said.
Kwong had his rifle out, but a second, third, fourth and more Fleshers ran onto the scene, dispelling any doubt that the first hadn’t been moving fast. As the odds stacked against us winning a fire fight, a horrible thought occurred to me.
‘Kwong,’ I said. ‘There’s no way Karen won’t be bleeding.’
We shared a look. We’d both seen the blood rage come over Fleshers, how it sent them crazy. The day was still, but the smell of Karen’s blood would reach the Fleshers soon, and then….
He hands it to me. ‘Five minutes, Adzo, I’ll get Karen and get her back to the car. Brent, in the back, kids, up front.’
‘I’ll get the bike,’ I say.
‘Adzo, if it doesn’t work…’
‘Then I’ll pile in with Karen and Brent. No time now, Kwong. Move.’
We got out of the car. The first Flesher turned to us, but a gust of wind wafted the blood smell towards it. I saw the change come over its ruinous face, the bloodlust twisting what was left of its rotten features into a monstrous snarl.
I gripped the knife in my hand and sliced it across my palm. I felt no pain until a few seconds later, and when it came, it came in intense waves, but I wasn’t thinking about that.
‘Hey,’ I called to the Fleshers, waving my dripping hand at them. ‘Tasty meal, right here, come and get it.’
I don’t think Fleshers understand language. But they understand blood. As they gave chase, I turned and ran.
We’d done this before, but usually Fleshers were slow, clumsy. These were a long way from winning sprints, but they had a decent pace. I didn’t understand. Their bodies were rotten, stinking, but whatever force drove their carcasses was obviously building, strengthening. They were faster, stronger, more coordinated. It began to occur to me that I might not be able to outrun them.
It didn’t need to be for long, I reminded myself. Five minutes. Time enough for Kwong and Brent to get Karen into the back of the car. I checked over my shoulder every so often, monitoring their progress. I wouldn’t turn and sprint back to them until I was sure they could escape.
At last I saw Kwong shut the driver’s side door, heard him start the engine over the frantic slobbering of the Fleshers. He rolled the car forwards towards the bike, and I turned, opening my stride to pick up speed.
The Fleshers were faster than usual to turn. I felt one grab at the tail ends of my hair, tangle its horrible fingers in and yank. I pushed forwards, feeling a clump of hair come away from my scalp with a fresh burst of pain.
With the Flesher’s behind me again, I really powered forwards, pushing every ounce of speed out of my legs that I could, like this was the last 100m of a race. The gap between me and the Fleshers opened, but would it be enough time to get the bike started?
Kwong had propped it up for me and started the engine. Forgoing the helmet, I leapt onto the seat and gunned the engine, roaring away from the Fleshers in a cloud of exhaust smoke. I heard Brent whoop in the back of the car, and Kwong sped up to match me, pulling ahead to lead me to the safe haven I’d not yet seen.
Behind us the Fleshers stopped running, knowing the game was lost.
‘I think we have to wake up to the reality that she isn’t going to survive if we can’t find some sort of help,’ I said.
‘What help?’ Kwong said, eyes burning into me. ‘A convenient doctor who just happened to survive when no one else did. We need to be here for her, doing what we can, not off looking for something we aren’t going to find!’
‘A medical student, maybe,’ I said. ‘There has to be someone out there!’
We’d been trying to keep our voices quiet, but as our anger grew, so did our volume.
‘Be realistic, Adzo – if you go off looking for a one in a million Med Student, you might not come back, and where would that leave us?’
‘I won’t just sit around here and wait for Karen to die!’ I snapped.
‘Guys,’ Karen’s voice sounded weak. ‘I can hear you, you know.’
I winced, heading into her room. ‘Sorry, Kay. We just…’
‘You ever think of asking me what to do, boneheads?’
I glanced at Kwong, who was hovering in the doorway. ‘What should we do, Karen?’ I said.
‘You should listen to me,’ she said. ‘There’s a lot I need to tell you if you’re going to stand a chance of running this place without me. And I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to tell you it.’
She was remarkably calm.
When she died three days later, Kwong found his way into my room at night and I held him as he let go of his grief in the safe certainty that I would never tell anyone I’d seen him cry.
‘I thought I saw something,’ Lee said, peering through his binoculars. He was thirteen now, and his voice was starting to break, cracking every now and then when he spoke. His hair came past his shoulders. I tried to cut it short like I’d cut mine, to avoid grasping Fleshers, but he refused.
‘What?’ Brent asked, taking the binoculars from him and having a look himself. ‘Is that a car?’
‘That’s what I thought,’ Lee said.
Brent passed the binoculars to me so I could make my judgement. It was tiny, but it was moving at some speed. ‘Definitely a car.’
‘Do we roll out the welcome mats, or close up the gates?’ Brent asked.
‘Guess we need to speak to our esteemed leader,’ I said.
Kwong had been harder since Karen. He worked us harder, treated us colder. For a while, he’d been very afraid that he’d Turn like the other adults when he turned twenty, but his birthday had been and gone with no sign. He was still the oldest person we knew.
‘Close the gates,’ he said. ‘Turn down the lights. Don’t let them know we’re here.’
‘They might not be bad news,’ I said.
‘And we could use some fresh company around here,’ Brent added.
‘Be easier running the fields with a few more hands,’ Lee put in, with a special smile for his brother that wasn’t returned.
‘I said close the gates.’
Brent set about closing up the perimeter while Lee had Miri help him switch off all the lights. I headed for the garage and took out the motorcycle. No one had ridden it since Karen died.
‘What are you doing?’ Brent asked as I pushed it past him.
‘Going to find out if they’re bad news.’
‘Kwong can’t tell me what to do.’
I turned on the engine, revving it. Brent sighed, and I could see him thinking about trying to stop me, but he didn’t.