Chapter Three

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The rain had fallen non-stop for two days, backing up the ageing sewer system again. The power had been out for twenty-four hours and it didn't help that the temperature had plummeted overnight.

"Zak, please stand still and stop fidgeting. Molly, make sure you take his hand as we cross over this road," she instructed the children.

Hannah's hands, were, as usual, carrying two heavy shopping bags full of water and essentials. Their trip to the market had been quite successful. It had only taken forty minutes to queue for the bread, and she'd even managed to buy three fresh apples.

Just then a large, military vehicle surged through a puddle in the road sending a tidal wave of muddy water over them. One of the paper bags split and her groceries fell out and onto the curb. The fresh bread now lay sodden at her feet. Zak and Molly began to giggle. Hannah sighed, bent over and collected the other items that were salvageable. "Come on, kids, let's get you home. Your mum will be wondering where we are."

Within a few they reached the house- a narrow two-storey dwelling on the outskirts of town. Green paint peeled off the door and water had penetrated the wood making it swell so that it didn't close properly. Hannah knocked.

"Coming, Hannah," came a voice from inside.

Mary Jackson rented the house and lived there with Molly, four and Zak, three- her adopted children. Bob, her husband, had been dead for just over a year following an industrial accident at the steel plant in the next town. As a result, Mary now worked all hours to keep a roof over their heads. Hannah lived two doors away and regularly looked after the children, while their mother worked.

"How've they been? Be honest," Mary asked, holding an old gas lamp. The flames flickered around her face highlighting the weary lines and wrinkles.

Hannah followed them into the house and helped remove Zak's wet coat. "They were great, Mrs. Jackson; we had a lovely time together."

"I don't believe a word of it, Hannah. I know exactly what my two can be like." She laughed. "Now, come into the living room and get dry by the fire. I've some tea in the pot to help warm you up."

Hannah was pulled into the living room by Zak. "Read me a story, Han-Han," he asked, his cheeks rosy, his nose running.

"Hush, Zak. Hannah's had enough of running 'round after you two today. Go upstairs and play with Molly," Mary ordered, gently.

Zak gave Hannah a quick hug and then rushed upstairs to play with his sister. Hannah sat down in the threadbare armchair and gratefully soaked up the heat coming from the small fire in the grate. Happy giggles and the noise of small feet thundered above.

"Listen to them," Mary laughed, "happy now, but just wait five minutes and they'll be arguing over some silly toy. I'll just go and get you that tea."

Outside, night was drawing in. The darkened room, was lit only by the glow of the fire, the light from the flames flickered and danced around the room. Hannah's eyes grew heavy as she felt warm for the first time that day, and slowly she dozed off.

A loud, high-pitched scream pierced her sleep. Hannah sat up abruptly, just as a door slammed upstairs. She jumped up, disorientated in the dark, and stood for a moment, collecting herself.

"Mrs. Jackson, are you okay?"

She waited. The house, normally so full of happy little voices was eerily silent. Hannah walked towards the door, which was slightly ajar and peeked through the gap. A tall, dark figure moved silently past. Her heart thumped painfully in her chest and the hairs on the back of her neck rose. Instinct told her something was very wrong. She jumped back and ducked behind a chair just as the door was flung open and somebody entered the room. Hannah froze, not daring to take a breath as a thin beam of light swept over the room.

"Room clear," the owner of the torch shouted and then walked out of the room.

Hannah's thigh muscles burned from crouching in the tight space. She could hear other male voices coming from upstairs as the sound of heavy boots came down the down the stairs.

"Found him," a female voice this time. "Come on child. Your mother and sister are waiting."

Hannah gasped; they were talking about Zak. She clamped her hand around her mouth, desperate not to make another sound.

"Owl!" The woman shouted, which was swiftly followed by a slapping noise and Zak crying out in pain.

Hannah was used to fear; it helped you survive in this world, but this was different. Hannah was terrified and disgusted at herself in equal measure. She wished she was brave enough to shout out and try and tackle the bitch who'd hurt Zak, but she found she couldn't move, her body frozen in fear.

"The little brat bit me," the woman spoke again. This was followed by laughing.

"Control, this is Alpha group 2. Situation contained and awaiting instructions. Over."

Several pairs of heavy-booted footsteps walked out of the house and then the front door closed with a bang. The silence that returned was deafening. Alone, Hannah's body shook wildly. She knew she had to get out and find help, but she daren't move.

"Breathe," she said to herself, fighting off the urge to panic. As she sucked in the air, she caught the sweet scent of burning. She inhaled again. The cloying aroma of smoke was growing stronger and it wasn't coming from the fire in the hearth where only a few glowing embers remained. Hannah pulled up the scarf from around her neck and used it to cover her nose and mouth. Trying to control the urge to run, she began to move cautiously across the dark room, avoiding tripping up on the coffee table. Reaching the door, she pushed it open and was hit by a wall of thick, acrid smoke, through which she could make out a dull orange glow upstairs. Unable to keep her stringing eyes open no longer, she hurried along the wall to the rear of the house, feeling her way. She didn't want to risk going out the front door in case 'they' might be there. Reaching the rear door, she cried out when she found it locked and the key missing. Panic rising, she pushed at the door several times but it wouldn't budge. The exertion stole the last good air in her lungs as she began to succumb to the toxic smoke enveloping and invading her body. With the little remaining strength in her body, she repeatedly banged her hand against the lower panel of the door until she could do nothing at all and became lost to the darkness.

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