Mass Extinction Event: The Complete Third Series (Days 46 to 53) (4 page)

BOOK: Mass Extinction Event: The Complete Third Series (Days 46 to 53)
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Elizabeth

 

"It's okay," I say as I hold Rachel in my arms, "there's no need to cry. Everything's going to be okay."

I've been pacing around the room for the past few minutes, desperately trying to get her to stop screaming. After several weeks of almost preternatural quiet, she seems to have suddenly erupted into a bawling fit that shows no sign of stopping. If I'd perhaps allowed myself to start thinking that I had a natural touch when it came to babies, those beliefs have been completely swept away now that Rachel seems to be turning almost red in the face as she screams. In fact, if she doesn't stop crying soon, I think I might lose my mind.

"Come on," I say, forcing a smile as I walk to the window and look out at the fire burning in the distance. "It's all fine," I continue. "I burned the nasty monster, see? He's gone. We should be happy, not sad."

Looking down at Rachel, I see that her face is screwed up in a fit of absolute despair, and tears are rolling down her cheeks. It's a horrible sight, and I can't help feeling that if her real mother was here things would be very different. Shauna might not have been the most reliable person in the world, but I'm convinced she would have at least known how to look after Rachel. I figure that along with motherhood, there must come some kind of instinctive knowledge when it comes to looking after babies. Plus, Shauna would have been able to provide breast milk, whereas so far Toad and I have been having to feed her water, normal milk and pureed vegetables. I have no idea if we're doing the right thing, but I'm starting to wonder if her diet is the cause of her problems.

"No luck?" a voice asks from nearby.

Turning, I see that Toad is standing in the doorway, watching us.

"She started up a few minutes ago," I tell him, even though Rachel's ear-splitting scream shows no sign of abating. "I don't know what's wrong with her, but it's like all of a sudden she's desperate about something. I don't think she's in pain, at least not from anything I can see. I'm worried it might be something internal."

"Seems a bit unusual," he replies. "Is it normal for babies to change so suddenly?"

"I don't know," I tell him, gently rocking Rachel in an attempt to get her to calm down. "What if we're not giving her the right food? You have to be careful what you feed to babies, don't you? We're probably giving her all the wrong things."

"That noise is driving me crazy," Toad continues. "Maybe you should take her outside or something. It's gonna drive me over the edge if she just keeps on screaming."

I turn to him, and for a moment I actually feel as if I want to hit him.

"What's that look for?" he asks. "Can't you just take her outside for a bit 'til she calms down?"

"
Now
who's making assumptions about roles?" I ask, feeling as if Toad's finding it very easy to put all responsibility for Rachel on my shoulders. "You said I needed to stop thinking like a child," I continue, "and that's fair enough, but
you
need to stop assuming that I automatically know how to look after a baby. I don't have a clue what to do with her. I mean, hell, nothing seems to be working. I've tried singing to her, talking to her, rocking her, leaving her alone... Short of dumping her in the woods, I don't know what else to do."

"Have you checked she's not soiled herself?" he asks.

"Of course," I reply. "I guess she'll calm down eventually. I don't know if maybe she's teething or something like that. She's only a month old, though... I thought things like teething took longer." Looking down at Rachel again, I can't help but wonder how much longer it'll be before she runs out of energy. "I hope she's not sick," I add. "If something's wrong with her, I won't even know where to begin. I know Patricia had some medical books, but still, I'm not a doctor." After a moment, I lean down and kiss Rachel's forehead. "Then again," I mutter, "I guess I'll just have to learn."

"I'm sorry about earlier," he replies.

I look over at him.

"I was trying to make a point," he continues. "It was a valid point, and I'd been thinking about it for a while, but the way I put it across... I acted like an ass, and I'm sorry." He pauses. "You know, I think that's the first time I've properly apologized to anyone for a long time."

I force a faint smile, but I'm sure as hell not going to thank him.

He stays in the doorway, clearly wanting to say something.

"You were right," I tell him eventually. "I
have
been thinking of myself as a child. I have to be more independent. I have to stop waiting for you to make decisions. Before all this started, I just spent my time in Manhattan, arguing with my parents and my brother, trying to have fun. It's hard to believe it's only a month or so since all of this started, and I'm pretty sure I've already changed a lot. I know I've got more to do, though, and I'll get there. I also figure, when we get to wherever we're going, Pittsburgh or whatever, there's no need for us to stick together, not if you don't want to. If we find other people, maybe we'll go different ways."

He stares at me, and it's clear that he wasn't prepared for me to say anything like that.

"Sure," he replies finally. "I mean, totally. It's not like we're..."

I wait for him to continue, but he seems lost for words.

"I'm just guessing," I tell him. "Right now, even getting to Pittsburgh feels like a huge challenge. I don't even know if we'll make it."

"We can try," he replies. "I have maps, and I'm hoping the weather turns in our favor. There's a lot of farmland to the west of here, which hopefully means we don't have to go through a whole load of towns along the way. If we get to Pittsburgh, we'll have to see how things are. There might be other people like us, or there might be no-one. We can't plan ahead too far."

I force myself to smile, even though Rachel's continued crying is starting to drive me crazy. I know it's an awful thing to think, but I can't help wondering if maybe I should just put her on her bed and then go out of the house for a few hours. If there's nothing I can do for her, I might as well just let her keep crying, but at the same time I feel as if that would be a cruel way to treat her. The poor little thing is probably just scared, and I'm convinced she must be able to sense that Toad and I aren't her parents.

"I'll let you get on with it," Toad says finally. "Remember, we're setting off bright and early tomorrow, so we need to be ready."

Once he's gone, I continue to pace the room with Rachel in my arms. After half an hour or so, I happen to pass by the window and see that the fire in the pit has finally begun to go out, probably thanks to the fact that the rain has returned. Still, there can be no doubt that as the last of the flames die down, the creature must have been completely destroyed. I'll go and check later for sure, but I imagine there's nothing left but a pile of charred bones. In a strange way, it feels good to have destroyed that thing.

Suddenly, as if a switch has been flicked, Rachel stops crying.

I look down at her and find that she's staring up at me with a look of wonder in her eyes. I can't help but smile as I realize that somehow, miraculously, her crying fit has come to an end.

"Okay," I say with relief, carrying her across the room and setting her down on the bed, "just for that, I'm going to give you something to eat, okay? Some of that vegetable puree you like so much. Just please,
please
try not to get sick, okay? I have no idea if I'm doing this right, and I know I'm not your Mom, but I'm trying as hard as I can. If you don't like something, try to give me a hint, okay?"

Reaching over to the bedside table, I start pouring out some of the pureed vegetables I prepared earlier. It takes a moment to stir them, but finally I turn back to Rachel and find that she's staring at me with an expression I'm not sure I've ever seen on her face before. Usually, there's a hint of curiosity in her eyes, as if she's trying to understand who and what I am, but this time she seems to be almost frowning. I stare at her, feeling a little disturbed by the look in her eyes, and finally I realize that a faint smile is slowly creeping across her face.

"Rachel?" I say, trying not to panic. "Are you okay?"

The smile lingers for a moment, and then she looks at the cup of puree. I scoop some out with a spoon and feed it to her, and she seems to be back to normal, but for a moment there she definitely had a very different expression. Although I try to tell myself that I mustn't panic, I can't help thinking that I've seen a very similar expression once before, back when I was talking to the creature in the pit. Then again, there's no way a baby could be infected. The world just can't be that cruel. I'm just imagining things.

I pause for a moment.

"Don't worry," I say finally, giving her another spoonful of puree. "Everything's going to be fine." Telling myself that I'm being paranoid, I focus on feeding Rachel, and I try to put any other worries to the back of my mind.

Thomas

 

"Christ, boy," George says as he examines the haul I've managed to collect on the back of the truck, "you're not doing too bad for yourself here, are you?"

"I've been saving," I reply, watching the end of his shotgun carefully and wondering if there's any way I can overpower him. So far, he doesn't seem to be quite as crazy as the old Eads guy, but I still don't like having a gun pointed in my face all the time and I definitely don't want to have a passenger on the drive to Chicago. Then again, right now I don't seem to have much of a choice.

"Wouldn't take much to get a run on him," I imagine Joe saying. "Come on, Thomas. You can't seriously let this old bastard tell you what to do. Wait 'til he's not looking and make sure you finish him with one good blow to the head. There's no room for being sentimental, not with the world ending all around you."

"You can stop with all your plotting," George says with a smile as he opens the bag of energy bars. "I know that's what you're doing every time you fall silent, and it won't work. I don't wanna pull the trigger on you, but I'll do it if that's what's needed. All that matters to me right now is getting to Chicago." He turns to me. "Take a few steps back, boy."

"I just -"

"Take a few steps back," he says again, more firmly this time. "I don't wanna start saying everything twice, you understand?"

Reluctantly, I step away.

"That's better," he replies, before hauling himself up onto the back of the truck. For a fraction of a second, he has to swing the gun away from me, but it's aiming at my face again before I have a chance to contemplate any kind of a move against him. He might be getting on in years, but he sure as hell seems pretty nimble. "So I heard you talking to yourself earlier," he continues. "Are you crazy?"

I shake my head.

"But you hear voices in your head?"

I shake my head again.

"Just a way of passing the time, huh?" He pauses. "I guess I can understand that. We've all gotta do whatever's necessary if we wanna stay sane. I used to think that all the noise of the world was pushing me to the brink of madness, but now it's all suddenly gone..." He wipes his brow on the sleeve of his coat. "Humans are pack animals, aren't they? Some of us like to be alone, but we're the weird ones, we're the..."

I wait for him to continue, but he seems to be just staring at me for a moment, as if he's still not quite sure what to make of me.

"Course, you can always just stay put," he says eventually, with a faint smile. "If you prefer, I'll take the truck and you can hang around here. I'd understand if heading into the heart of the city doesn't really appeal to you."

"It just seems like..." I pause for a moment, trying to find the right word.

"Suicide?" he asks.

"There are probably creatures there," I point out.

"It's quite possible," he replies, "but if I had to put money on it, I'd say something's holding 'em back. And even if there are some of 'em still going, there are probably people too, at least in the city. I figure it's time to take risks. Do you know how long it's been now since all of this started? Have you been keeping track?"

I shake my head.

"This is day forty-six," he continues. "That's a month and a half. I've been playing it safe, hoping that things would get better, but I'm just about out of patience now. There's no point clinging to life out here, desperately waiting for someone else to ride along and make everything better. I'm fully aware that by going into the city, I'm most likely signing my own death warrant, and maybe the fact that I'm an old man makes that easier to accept. The world has always been divided into two groups: those who go for the safe option, and those who take risks. Only difference now is, the safe option isn't really very safe, and the risks are much bigger."

"I know about risks," I tell him. "I killed my brother."

"Huh. Well, I'm not sure I wanna ask about that right now -"

"He got taken," I continue. "He became one of them, and then he tried to fight back. It didn't work out for him in the end, but he never went for the safe option either."

"Sounds like a good guy."

"He was an asshole," I reply. "I think he would've done better the way things are now, though. Maybe he was better suited to this kind of world. He had, like..." I pause, wondering whether it'd be disloyal to say what I'm really thinking. "He was one of those people who doesn't really have very good morals," I say eventually. "He looked out for himself more than for other people. That's not to say he was a complete bastard, but he definitely focused on himself."

"My daughter's the opposite," he says. "She's always been a good girl, the kind who'd do anything to help a stranger, and..." He pauses. "Well, I have to try, don't I? Even if the odds are a million to one, I have to go and check on her. 'Cause all over the world, there might be people like us, separated from their families, and at least some of 'em have to have a chance of being reunited, don't they? All that's left is family."

"Should I get in the front now?" I ask.

"Hold on a moment," he says. "I want to make this crystal clear, boy. I'm going to Chicago 'cause that's where my daughter and granddaughter are, okay? I need to check that they're okay, and nothing else much matters to me. So you see, I have no real need to keep you alive at all, and it wouldn't make much difference to me if I pulled the trigger right now and took your head clean off your shoulders. However, I like to think of myself as a good man, and for that reason I'm willing to give you a chance. You understand?"

"Sure," I reply, keen to defuse any suspicions he might have.

"Before you go thinking I'm some deluded old fool," he continues, "I want to make it very clear that I know full well how hopeless this is. If things are even half as bad as they look, the odds of finding my family alive aren't good, but I have to try. I don't care what happens to me, but if there's even a chance that I could locate them and help in any way, then I have to give it my best shot." He pauses, and for a moment there seem to be tears in his eyes. "If I find them, we'll have to work out what to do next," he adds finally. "If we
don't
find them, I'll just let you get off on your way."

Without saying anything else, I turn and make my way around to the front of the truck. I'm quite sure that the old guy has got his gun trained on me through the window in the back of the cab, but right now I don't even care. I was planning to go to Chicago anyway, although I was going to turn back at the first sight of any trouble. Now, however, it looks like we're going to go straight into the city, regardless of what we find at the limits. In a way, it feels good that the decision has at least been made, but as I start the engine and ease the truck away from the gas station's forecourt, I can't help thinking that this is most likely going to be my final journey. The creatures have to still be around, and sooner or later they'll catch up to us.

"You're gonna die in Chicago," Joe's voice says. "You know that, right? Maybe it'll be disease that gets you, or maybe it'll be one of those creatures, or maybe it'll even be this crazy old bastard with his shotgun, but you're gonna die there. This is the single dumbest decision you've ever made, and let's be honest, you've made a lot of dumb ones already."

"You're the expert," I whisper, making sure to keep my voice low so that George can't hear me.

"Just make sure it's a decent death," I imagine Joe saying. "My death was fucking horrible. God, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. Can you imagine what it was like under that sheet, waiting for you to smash the spade down? Those final few seconds seemed to unwind like eternity, and then just when it seemed like you maybe weren't gonna go through with it, that goddamn thing came crashing down and split my head in two. I really thought..."

"I did what I had to do," I reply.

"I know you did," he'd say. "Just make sure you go out in style, okay? It used to be that people wanted to live as long as possible, but now I reckon the aim is just to search for a decent way to die. Maybe even noble. Do you think you can do that, Thomas?"

I don't reply, but then again, I don't
need
to reply. The whole conversation is going on in my head anyway, and Joe's voice is just a manifestation of my own thoughts. I know full well that heading to Chicago is suicidal, but even before I met George I was probably headed that way anyway. I don't want to die and I sure as hell don't want to run into any more of those creatures. Still, the old man is definitely right about one thing. It's better to face the risks than to die a slow, lingering death in the margins.

If Chicago's a brick wall, I'm driving straight into it at full speed.

BOOK: Mass Extinction Event: The Complete Third Series (Days 46 to 53)
4.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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