Beneath the weak shelter of the trees, sparse at the edge of the hillside littered with their growth, the two figures move together as though tied by thread so thin that it is impossible to see. They move with an exaggerated slowness, a kind of shambling exhaustion which makes the third figure, hidden in the undergrowth behind them, wary. She smiles to herself at that thought, a bitter smile; over the past few days when had the sight of another figure not made her tense, like a snake facing a predator? One of the figures appears to bend forwards for a moment, as though reaching to hold its knees in order to draw in the great, gulping breaths of respite she has come to know too well.
Ahead of the two silhouettes, the wheat fields stretch into the distance, dotted at irregular intervals with large houses and small sheds or workshops. She can see a disused farming vehicle, a thresher, she thought it was called, sitting amongst the wheat like a faithful dog waiting for its master to return. She wouldn’t have bet anything she had owned on that joyous homecoming.
The woollen cap she wears is itching at her hair, a few strands curling up beneath it adding to the discomfort, and she pulls it away to scratch at her head. Her hair is greasy, unwashed for days now, and she grimaces at the oily texture beneath her fingertips. She remembers the last time she’d had a shower, imagining again the scent of man-made eucalyptus from the white froth of shampoo, the feel of the old sponge, fractions of it torn away with use, gliding over her exhausted flesh, reddening beneath water heated to such a degree that it came close to burning her.
Too late; she hears the radio, a wireless responder like the walkie-talkie her nephew had owned, crackle into life at her breast and she swears, already rising from the thick patch of long grass with her hand tightening about the police baton she had rested the tip of on the dirt.
‘Gab? Any luck finding them?’
The two figures turn towards the sound, arms hanging limply by their sides, even as she crosses the distance. She moves quickly, walking at the same pace she had seen lazy charity-runners do in city streets, and rolls her arms to loosen their stiffness.
She tries not to look at them closely as she moves, tries to think of them as mannequins, but survival dictated her observation and she was helpless against herself. The nearest of the two is a woman, a little shorter and slighter than she, and only has one arm, the other ending in a jagged stump of meat from which the white of bone, stained yellow with spilt marrow, could be glimpsed. She wear a loose summer dress, yellow with a red floral design curling around it, and it billows out around her knees. Without the missing arm, and the bloodstains it had left along her left-hand side, she would have been a beauty with grey skin. Her hair is long, falling to a little below her breasts, and bare shoulders can be seen through those golden-strands.
Gabriella curls her left hand into a fist and swings the baton in her right, emptying her lungs at the motion. The stick, long and black and already scratched with a dozen such impacts, cracks against the woman’s cheekbone and she staggers to the left, blocking the second figure from view. Gabriella swings again, an overhand strike which cracks the woman; no, not the woman, she corrects herself, the thing, on the temple and she hits the floor lightly, the curling leaves beneath her crackling under her weight.
She turns her attention to the second figure and grimaces. That thing had once been a man, a handsome young man with a strong jaw and a high, intelligent forehead. Now, its eyes are bloodshot and its lips gone, no doubt eaten by itself as it shambled, gone to fill the hungry void which drove these creatures. It, too, is dressed smartly, with a loose white shirt, buttoned to the chest over blue jeans. The shirt is half black now, the days’ old blood from the great wound in the things throat having crawled down his body with some insidious intelligence. She steps back a little, letting the thing stumble on the still form of its companion and swings the baton again.
The thing jerks from the impact, but begins to snarl, a feral sound which reminded her of the wild dogs which used to eke out a living in the alleyways of the city. She swings again, and again, and again until the thing finally slumps to the ground, lying atop the other body. There was blood on her baton, and she attempts to clean it on the white part of the man’s shirt, only succeeding in removing some of the foul substance, leaving a gummy streak on its clothing.
‘Gab? Gab, are you okay?’ The voice which creeps through the radio is rising in volume, bordering on the hysterical, and she snatches at the radio angrily, dislodging it from the arm of her backpack and raising it to her lips.
‘For fuck’s sake Lily, you’re going to get me killed!’ She snarls in a hushed voice, already turning to survey the undergrowth behind her. There is silence for a moment, and she sighs heavily. ‘No. There’s no one here, just a few more of them.’ Her hands start to shake with reaction, and she looks down at the couple. She can’t help but think of them as such, and it was all too easy to imagine them walking across these hills together, hand in hand. Perhaps they had lived in the farmhouses she could she, or were taking a needed break from the city and the hectic lives of young professionals?
She tried not to think that she had killed them, that she had murdered two innocents when she could have avoided them, but she still felt the same sense of guilt that threatened to overwhelm her. They had been younger than her, and better looking than her, and now they were dead.
‘Look, I’m sorry, alright?’ Lily’s voice was weak, distant, and she regretted snapping at her, however much she deserved it. ‘I hadn’t heard from you in a while.’
‘I know, I know,’ she replied quickly, feeling her own anger fade as she imagined Lily sat in their small room, drumming her fingertips on the table and waiting for the radio to sound, ‘I’m close to the building now, but I haven’t seen anyone yet. You sure you got the co-ordinates right?’
‘Please,’ Lily responds with mock offence, ‘don’t insult me!’ She chuckles and Gabriella stands, the young couple not forgotten but pushed to a deep, dark recess of her mind. There would be a reckoning, she knows, a time when all these things she kills come for her on a still night and the last of her humanity would snap beneath their onslaught. Not now though, she tells herself, when Lily’s safe, when I am safe, I will break.
‘Trumbull really was a beautiful place’, she thinks, sad that it had taken the end of the world for her to notice it. The sun was beginning to gently lower now, the heat of midday weakening a little as the shadows lengthened. The wheat field looks like it is on fire, the orange light of the sun turning the vision into a waving ocean of gold, and the dirt was red with the same light. On her right, two buildings stand, a storage shed and a quaint little farmhouse of white-washed slats and irregularly fitted stone, with a long grey chimney emerging from the roof.
Were it not for the figures she could see amongst the wheat, and the three silhouettes directly ahead of her, she could have sat there for hours, watching the sun crawl across the sky and enjoying the peace. The bodies behind her stank, and she considered burying them, but dismissed the idea. They were gone, all that remained was meat and bone and there would be no sense in wasting what strength she had left, even had she the tools to do so.
‘We’re not the only survivors around, you know.’ Lily’s voice holds a certainty that Gabriella tried to find hopeful, but she can only hear the plaintiff desperation. ‘There’s a few other groups scattered around the valley.’
She pulls the hat from her head again, and runs fingers speckled with the creatures’ blood through the strands. She enjoys the sun on her face for a few moments more, and could have cried for all they had lost. Then the cap is pulled back with severity, letting the trailing ends of her hair peek out from beneath its elasticised rim, and she walks towards the farmhouse like a soldier, her baton held loosely in one hand to trail by her ankles and her feet loud against the dirt, baked into solidity by the summer sun.