“So now we’re dealing with a semi apocalypse and putting up with him? Sure. Great. That sounds absolutely amazing.” I get up from my crouch at the corner of the room and walk across to the table laden with food.
“You know you can’t eat any of that, right?”
“Very well aware, thank you.” I say disinterested. I run through the various items in front of me. The tremors running through my hands are visible. A thousand gory images, horrid scenarios clog up my mind and I close my eyes, exhaling a shaky breath. My hand is still running over the twisted end of the candelabrum. I map out the grooves and the barbs, I press my fingers further into the metal. It singes. It doesn’t ground me.
“Yeah? Yeah, I’m good. I’m just shaky you know.” I chuckle dryly not meeting Jake’s eyes. There is still residual anger seething in me, but it just barely cloaks the fear. The quaking, ever present fear that’s been binding us. My gaze travels around the room, huddled figures all around. Hushed voices and tense shoulders. I grab onto Jake’s arm again and throw him a strained smile. He returns it with a warm, real one. We walk back to our dark corner and huddle amongst the tapestries again. We wait for Tim to return.
~4 hours earlier~
We run across the front yard, hearts pounding, breath racing. There isn’t an explanation for what’s happening. It’s bizarre and very possibly a hallucination, but someone just died and it seemed very, very real. So, we run. We run from that abandoned building into the next one.
Someone trips and somewhere else in the periphery of my vision someone screams. They are wide eyed, terror etched in every crevice of their face as they stand absolutely still. And I almost slow down, to watch to assess, to help but then Jake is there and he grabs my hand and we continue running. I can hear him shouting over the din all around, but my eyes are trained on the figure that grows farther every instant. Just as we enter the porch of the run-down house, I meet their eyes. They smile, it doesn’t reach their eyes, their face an eerie calm. Cold fear grips my heart, its icy fingers twisting up in my throat and just as they move, we’re inside.
People rush around shutting doors and windows.
“Hey?” Jake touches my shoulder lightly and I look up to find concern in his eyes. We’re both a little breathless from that run, and we’re on edge but he checks up on me, he always checks up on me.
“I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t… ghosts aren’t…I, I don’t know.” I sigh heavily as I scrub a hand down my face. I can’t shake off the trembling in my shoulders.
“It’s going to be fine. I mean we’re going to be okay. We’ll figure it out, okay? Besides you can actually run so at least we don’t have to worry about that,” he grins at me and I laugh a little, for the first time all day. Its short and out of place but at least it still feels like us. I look around. There are 12 people in the room counting us in. There’s a family of five huddled together in a corner, a group of three friends, probably in their twenties, across the end of the hall and an elderly couple hovering just a few feet away from us.
There is a tense silence settling in. Everyone is looking at everyone else. It’s clear there isn’t any trust here.
I mindlessly trace patterns across the back of Jake’s hands. His eyes are trained on door on the far side of the room. His expression is grim, brows slightly furrowed. There is a shuffling outside the door and like a switch flipped all eyes are trained on it. I can feel Jake tensing up next to me, every muscle in him pulled taut like wire.
There is a heavy strained silence in the room. The air seems still, a croaking sound cuts through it, slow and grating. My hands grip his tighter as the knob turns, the door barely moves inches.
There is another beat of silence. Two. And then the door swings open and a bloodied Tim falls through.
Somewhere there is a gasp in the room. And then Andrew is moving towards his friend’s body. And before I know it, I have moved to stop him.
I hold him back, even stricken with fear and grief he’s stronger than I am.
“No, Drew No.”
“Don’t be stupid. Alright? He’s dead, gone. Now step back and stick to the plan.”
As I get Andrew back to his corner where Tim’s sister is silently sobbing, Jake looks over the body. There is scrutiny in his gaze. His jaw is set, his hands fisted by his side. He looks taller with his frame tense. He tucks his tongue between his teeth, eyes narrowing, as he thinks. I can almost hear the cogs whirring in his mind. The worry etched in the lines of his face is evident. We are not safe.
We all stand huddled in a corner of the room now. Tim lies unmoved by the door, covered with a sheet. We talk in hushed fast tones. A disagreement brews in the tiny cluster of people. After the twins disappeared, we had agreed to let Tim search the house.
“We have to look for them, they’re kids. I am not abandoning my children.”
“My brother died over it. For all you know they’re dead too.”
“They could be the things that killed Tim.”
“It’s perfectly plausible. What do you think makes them immune? Its not safe to look for them, we should stick here.”
“Look, hide if you want to. I am going to look for my children.”
“We shouldn’t split up. We wouldn’t know who to trust.”
The bustle gets more heated by the second. And there’s no conclusion to get to. I stand next to Jake, hands crossed at my chest. He’s leaning against the wall, head tipped against it. His eyes are closed. The shadows of his lashes are soft on his delicate skin. He looks worn out, upset. He has been keeping the troop together, resolving differences, making sure everyone stays safe, but we’ve already lost 3 people. I let my eyes rest on him, let all other noise bleed into a buzz in the background. His presence is grounding. Almost as if he can sense my eyes on him, his lifts his lids slightly. His raises his brows slightly, a teasing twinkle in his eyes. I shake my head giving him a smile.
I turn the other way and look towards the door, now shut again, and my heart stops short for a moment.
“Wait,” I start, eyes flitting between the door and the now silent group, “that thing, whatever killed Tim, it brought him to the door. It unlocked it and let him fall through.”
Jake’s brows are furrowed deep now, comprehending. As the realization starts to dawn, faces pale and we all exchange fearful looks.
“It knows where we are. At this point it probably knows everything.” My voice is thin.
Jake pushes off the wall, walking towards the door. “It was a gift-wrapped diversion. For all we know, its in here, among us.” The door creaks, he leaves it wide open.
“What are we going to do?” “We can run.” “To where? And what then? You want to just-”
There is a resounding crash in the room. We all look around frantically. The table top is more scattered than before, half its contents now on the floor. There’s one muffled scream from nowhere in the room. By the time my eyes have moved around the room, everyone is panicking.
Tim’s body is gone. So are David (the old guy) and Susan (Tim’s sis).
We all bolt out from the room.
There’s no plan this time.
~An hour later~
“You should eat.” I say placing my hand on the table, standing with my hips against it.
Jake lets out a huff, eyeing the plate in front of him as if it were a personal offence to him. “I don’t want to.”
I walk around to stand behind him. Even with him perched on the stool, I am only slightly taller than him. I loop my hands around his torso. He’s solid and warm, his flannel comforting. I run my hands over it softly.
“You need to eat something. Burning yourself out is not going to help anyone.” I mumble with my chin on his shoulder.
He closes his eyes, jaw working.
“How did I not notice?”
“It’s not on you Jake. It wasn’t possible to know.”
“We just waited there in that room, for what must have been two hours, and for what?” he turns towards me, “we could have all died.”
I hold his gaze, “But we didn’t. We are safe, okay? For now, at least. We couldn’t have known what was going on. And yeah, I get that people got hurt, got dead. But you can’t keep everyone safe. That’s not your responsibility. Its not a fair enough responsibility to be anyone’s.”
“So, we just wait to lose?”
“Right now? I am waiting for you to eat. Then we rest, we haven’t caught a break in hours, you don’t want to be exhausted when we have to start running from something all over again. And then we can figure out what to do. We will.” I shrug.
He sighs in defeat, and picks at the fruits, popping a piece of bread in his mouth. It is almost dark outside, and the room looks dingy. Bella (the old woman) walks across us, her eyes are on Jake. A need to shield him flares up in me. We all stopped trusting each other. No one knows who to run from, who to chase after. There is a twinge of sympathy at her loneness, it is shadowed over by the urge to survive.
There is a streak of blood at his jaw. His hair is now shabby, falling into his eyes, framing his face. He pants tucked into the wall. Light from the flames contouring across his skin, his hands are steady, gripping the iron rod he got from an abandoned gate in the garden. There is a sheen of sweat on his skin, from the running. Next to him I am crouched against the wall. The twist in my ankle flaring up now and then. My hair has come undone. My shirt is grimed from having crawled on my front. My dirty hands hang limply, arms resting on my knees. I am breathing just as hard.
When a pile of junk had caught aflame with no explanation whatsoever, people had flipped. The fire started to spread. Most of us ran, some attacked the others. Jake and I had been separated. From what he’d told me when we stumbled into each other, purely by accident, but fortunately so, he had tried to get out. He had learned it wasn’t possible. I had run through the house, from one room to another. Running and barely escaping, I had found a trap door. The basement had been murky and damp, and with a ceiling that kept getting lower. It let up to a tunnel that opened into the garden. I had climbed out into the cold night air, the moon high. That is where I had found Jake, a bewildered expression on his face. I could hear the shuffling behind me get louder. I didn’t wait for him to contemplate whether I was trustable. I grabbed his hand, and we ran.
We had only seen Cole and Jessica (the parents) on our way into the hallway. There was no time or reason to slow down and convene. We had come back to the room where the fire had started, as a silent agreement.
Now we are crouching against a cover in the stone fall next to the supposed fire place, waiting for a sound.
“Andrew attacked me,” Jake says in a voice raspy from the run “kept lashing at me like an idiot. Wouldn’t believe I was safe.” There is a smile on my face from the annoyance in his voice. In all this mess, his intended joke is a buoy.
“You okay Liz?”
“Yeah, I’m good. Parched, but good. You?” he nods his assurance. “You think we are going to get out of this hell hole?”
“Giving up so soon? Not liking the adventure?”
“Not liking the heat,” I say, shifting to get rid of my shirt pricking my skin.
My mind wanders over everything that has happened; my eyes unmoving. The barely twelve twins lost, even with their calls for help. Tim ending up butchered as we waited, plan in place hopes high. Susan and David disappearing, none of us know which one of them was guilty, or if either of them was responsible for it at all. Running then, looking for a safe place, not knowing what it would look like. Finding the crumbs which led us to a room, dark in all that sunlight. Susan perched on an armchair, like a corpse queen on a throne, a dead threatening look her eyes. That was when we decided there was no point in looking for who we had lost. We had looked for food then, ended up sharing what Riley (kid) and Andrew had in their backpacks. And then the fire had happened. We didn’t know how many of us were still left. We did know that we couldn’t stay here and that we couldn’t go out.
My fingers run over each other and I fist and unclench my hands. I absent mindedly pick at the dirt etched in the lines of my palm.
“Yes.” Jake says softly. I tear my gaze from the opening to the room and look at him. His eyes are trained on me. His gaze is tender, caring. “Yeah, I think we are going to get out of here.” I stare at him, my face blank. “What? We’re tough,” he says, with a small smile and a shrug. He moves his hand to take mine in his. I entwine our fingers. My palm is small in his, but it fits. I put my head against his shoulder, steady. We wait.