They’d been driving for at least four hours, maybe five. Dionne’s back ached, her bad knee throbbed and her eyes were dried out and burning. Time to get off the road.
The village was one of the empty ones--creepy, but better than the alternatives. Past the clusters of cottages, the tiny post office and dark stone church, she saw a big white building with wide leaded windows, three tall chimneys and a tangle of ivy climbing the brickwork to a sloping thatched roof. A wooden sign at the front called it The Willow Tree Hotel.
She knew the sort of place it must have been, once. Locals on their regular stools at the bar, visitors driving in for rustic, homely food and pints of amber coloured ale beside the fireplace. Music from a jukebox, maybe a live band on weekends. Good days.
Dionne drove into the car park and waited for the others to catch up. For a moment it looked like Julian’s car wasn’t slowing, that he was going to carry on straight past. But at the last minute he turned and screeched through the gate.
Would she have been surprised, if he’d decided to drive on? No. Every time they stopped, she expected to find herself alone. Why should they follow her, these people? She’d survived by nothing but chance--just kept driving past the burning wreck that used to be her home. Her town. Kept driving, fighting panic with speed while the skies boiled. She’d picked up other people along the way, and every time it happened she expected them to laugh at her, demand to know what the hell gave her the right to make decisions for anyone. She’d waited for it, looked forward to it. She still did.
The rest of their pitifully small convoy filed in behind Julian and parked in a huddled group. Rachel helped her brother out of the van and he lifted his head, scenting the air. To Dionne, it smelled like all these places did--flat and stale. Old. Wrong.
Ben stared into the sky, unblinking. She wondered what he saw, with those clouded eyes. And was grateful that she didn’t know.
‘They’re gone,’ he said.
Dionne went around to those still waiting in their cars. ‘It’s clean,’ she said. ‘Let’s get some sleep, and in the morning we’ll stock up.’
Stock up. Such a harmless phrase. As if they were going on a camping trip, instead of looting the possessions of the dead.
The breeze whipped Ben’s hair back, exposing the scars. Julian, walking past with Lucas, shielded the boy’s eyes. Rachel glared at him until Julian turned away from her, too.
Dionne pulled her jacket closed. The wind was always warm now, but somehow it still made everyone shiver. Like the breath of ghosts.
Ben began to hum softly, an old pop song she recognised but couldn’t name. The weight of it, of everything that was gone, sat heavy on her chest. Rock stars and musicals and talent shows, things people did simply because they were fun. Things that had nothing to do with trying to stay alive.
‘It’s not fair,’ she said.
‘No, it isn’t,’ Rachel said, but she was looking at her brother.
‘How’s he doing?’ Dionne asked quietly. She wasn’t the worst off, here. It was a fight to remember that, sometimes, but she kept trying.
Rachel shook her head. ‘I’m worried about what this is doing to him.’ She put her thumb to her mouth, snagged the nail between her teeth. ‘They’re in his head, Dionne. The bats. Can you imagine, just for a second, what that must be like?’
‘No,’ Dionne said. She couldn’t. Didn’t want to.
Bats. The word was inadequate by a dozen orders of magnitude, but there wasn’t a better one. Whatever they were--aliens, demons, creatures from some unknown hell--they weren’t bats. But maybe it was the closest approximation the mind could stand.