Noah prised open the train door and jumped down onto the tracks, Emily threw the backpacks to him and stumbled down herself before taking Ben from Lily, they must have been quite far between stations as there was no sign of life around them, a faint yellow glow lit up the horizon behind them, the light was all that was left of London.
‘We’ll follow the tracks,’ said Noah, pulling a torch out of his backpack, ‘We can’t be too far from a town. Everyone ready?’ He shone the torch at the girls, and they nodded.
Noah set off first, dimming the torch to its lowest setting, only lighting a foot in front of him. Lily followed close behind, she was carrying Ben, who had begun to cry now, the shock wearing thin.
‘Shhh Ben, it’s gonna be okay,’ her arms felt as though they were about to rip away from her body from the effort, when did he get so heavy? Noah glanced over his shoulder, he seemed annoyed at Ben’s crying and Lily shot him a dirty look, once again pulling Ben closer to her body and patting his back.
‘Do you need me to take him?’ Lily was surprised by Noah’s question. No one ever offered to help them with Ben, he was no better than a dog in their eyes.
‘No, I’m fine, he’ll settle in a minute I’m sure, do you have any idea where we are?’
Noah slowed and fell into step next to her, ‘We can’t be too far from the city, maybe a two hour walk, three at most, there’s not much else left around here, this area was badly affected by the fires.’
Lily was silent, she remembered how the smoke had blocked out the sun for days, and how they stayed locked inside, unable to leave and risk breathing the air polluted with death.
Emily trailed behind them, she felt woozy. Her vision was blurred, and she stumbled frequently. The pain in her skull was excruciating and her hair was caked with dried blood. Every step was nauseating. She was vaguely aware of Ben’s wailing, but it came through in waves, she couldn’t put her thoughts into a sensible order, everything was messy, confused. She stumbled and fell and the darkness she had fought so hard claimed her.
Noah bent over at Emily, his fingers resting on her neck, her eyes were still closed but her pulse was steady. He was concerned she had hit her head again going down, but there was nothing he could do, best to let her sleep it off. They had set up a makeshift camp a fair distance from the track, a thin blanket spread over the ground with the torch in the centre. He had shoved one of the backpacks under Emily’s head and the other two were on either side of Ben, forming a makeshift bed. The grass, where it had recovered after the fires, was dry and sharp. He turned back to Lily who was stroking Ben’s forehead and singing to him gently, the child was already asleep, but she sang anyway. He watched her, the soft light of the torch casting a radiant glow onto her pale skin.
‘It’s rude to stare, you know.’ She didn’t look up and Noah flushed at being caught.
‘Sorry, just thinking.’
‘About what?’ She looked up at him now, her eyes were sharp and alert.
‘All those people, I guess. I didn’t think I would feel so guilty, I could have warned them, I could have done more.’
He sat next her, staring down at the sleeping boy. He could feel the heat of her skin on his arm.
‘Would it have made a difference? Even if you warned them, most of them would have nowhere to go,’ her voice was low, ‘I thought about it too, telling others, but I couldn’t risk our plans, I just wanted us to be safe.’
Noah stared ahead in silence.
‘Can I ask you something? Lily turned to him, ‘Why did you come see me that day? You said you had given up.’
Noah flushed, his voice hoarse, ‘The truth? I was scared, I wanted to feel close to someone, anyone. I had resigned myself to my fate, told myself it would be easier.’
They were both quiet, the moon hung low and fat in the sky, sheathed in a red fog.
‘We used to camp out in our back garden when we were kids,’ Lily said softly, ‘Em was always a bit scared, but I loved it, the freedom, the silence.’
‘You’re lucky to have each other,’ he said, unconsciously he had moved closer to her, their arms were just about touching.
‘She drives me nuts, but yes, we are lucky. I can’t imagine what I would do without her and Ben, the loneliness would be unbearable. She is my voice of reason.’
Noah looked down at her, his eyes traced the sharp point of her collarbone and the smooth hollow of skin above it, he felt compelled to lean down and kiss it softly, to drink her in.
Emily could hear whispering, for a moment she panicked, unsure of where she was and why her head was pounding, she opened her eyes and the scene in front of her came slowly into focus. She could see the back of Lily’s head, she was sitting next to Noah, their heads were close together. She craned her neck, looking for Ben, and saw him sleeping between the backpacks, a sweater draped over him despite the heat. She couldn’t make out what Noah and Emily were saying, she was still weighed down by the darkness that had engulfed her. She pushed herself up onto he elbows, the pain was sudden and intense, her eyes swam out of focus and she was convinced she was going to be sick.
‘Em, you’re awake!’ Lily turned at her sharp intake of breath, she scrambled to kneel besides her, ‘sit back, It’s okay, we’re all okay.’
Emily pressed her head back into the backpack, she gasped in pain.
‘Let me see, turn your head,’ Emily did as she was told and Lily winched at the sight of the matted gash, ‘Jesus Em, you’ve really done a number on yourself. Noah pass me my backpack, I have antiseptic in there.’
Emily yelped as the alcohol touched the open wound, the pain shot through her body, inhabiting every pore. Lily wiped gently at the tangle of blood and hair, she was relieved to find that although the cut was wide, it was not particularly deep. Once she had wiped away most of the blood, she combed her fingers through Emily’s hair, as she had done so many times since Emily was a baby.
‘So, what’s the plan?’ Emily pulled away and attempted to keep the pain out of her voice.
‘We’ll move on in the morning, I think we all need the rest, you should drink some water.’
She helped Emily over to the blanket and passed her the bottle, Emily drank heavily, she didn’t realise how overwhelming her thirst was until half the bottle was empty. She stopped, ashamed at her actions, she looked over expecting anger, but both faces in front of her were passive, only concern in their eyes.
‘You hungry?’ Asked Noah.
‘Yeah, you should eat Em, you’re really pale. You lost a lot of blood back there.’
She took the food replacement bar that Noah held out for her and bit into it unenthusiastically.
‘How long do you think our food will last?’
‘Two, maybe three days, if we are careful. I’m hoping we can stock up when we get into the city. I have some money,’ Noah said, he looked towards the horizon, which was still glowing faintly orange, ‘I’m certain that was a nuclear weapon, that means we are in the fallout zone, we need to move at first light, in the meantime keep as much of your skin covered as you can, and don’t touch anything that we didn’t bring with ourselves, it may be contaminated.’
Both girls turned their heads in the direction of the bomb.
‘I hope it was quick,’ whispered Emily.
Lily reached across and grabbed her hand, ‘I’m sure it was.’
None of them slept particularly well, Noah kept his eyes open most of the night, he wasn’t sure what he was afraid of, the stars seemed to burn more brightly overhead, and every gust of wind send his pulse racing. Emily slipped into sleep but dreamed in short fitful bursts, each nightmare ended in losing Ben and she turned fretfully. Lily slept a short time until she could not bear the twitching of Emily next to her, she sat up and watched Ben’s steady breathing, pulling the jumper over him which he had pushed aside.
Finally, the sun showed its mercy and crept into the horizon, they were all keen to move on from the shabby campsite and they sat up almost in unison. Ben was awake, staring into the lightening sky, his expression far away.
Noah peeled a banana and passed it to Ben who sat up and surveyed the fruit wearily, he ate it slowly, his face pinching at the soured flavour, the girls shared one meal replacement bar, Noah sipped on the water but ate nothing.
‘We’ll head along the train tracks again, if we see a village from there, we can make a detour, be on alert, people are desperate around here, they won’t hesitate to take us out if they get the idea that we have something they need. I don’t even think they get rations out here.’
‘Jesus, how do they survive, there’s nothing out here!’ Lily looked horrified.
‘As bad as things seemed in London, it’s worse out here, they don’t have the money, the government all but abandoned them.’
‘These poor people, as pitiful as the rations were, we wouldn’t have survived without them.’
They packed as quickly as they could and Emily strapped Ben to her chest, he was quiet and watchful as they made their way back towards the train tracks. Purple and blue clouds bloomed like bruises as the sun crept up, ‘What’s going on with the sky?’ Emily asked, craning her still aching head up.
Noah looked up too, ‘I’m guessing it took a pretty big bomb to take out London, I assume it blasted some of the debris into the atmosphere.’
Lily felt her stomach turn, ‘Come on, let’s pick up the pace.’
They walked for some time in silence, their breath growing more ragged as the heat intensified. Following Noah’s advice, they were wearing long sleeved shirts and jeans, which clung uncomfortably to their skin, they had shredded a t-shirt and tied them around their mouths, like a bunch of makeshift bandits. Ben was moaning and trying to pull his shirt off and Emily had to wrestle it back on. Vast, empty fields flanked them on either side of the train tracks, the grass was short and blanched yellow from the sun. Every so often they passed a farmstead, most were razed to the ground in the fires, leaving nothing but the stain of black ash on the land, the ones that survived were deserted, looming darkly amongst the barren terrain. Emily’s feet were swollen, she could feel the blood pulsating with every step, her head felt as though it was splitting open, but she bore on, she wouldn’t be the one to slow them down.
They walked as the sun beat down relentlessly.
‘Hey, you see that?’ Noah slowed, both Lily and Emily stopped and squinted ahead of them, they could just make out the shape of a body lying next to the tracks, it didn’t seem to be moving.
‘We should cross, I don’t want to get involved.’ Emily said.
Lily hesitated, ‘We can’t just leave them there.’
‘We should go check it out,’ agreed Noah, ‘if they’re dead we need to check for anything that can help us, we’re short on water already.’
‘Jesus, this seems like a bad idea.’ Emily took Ben from Lily and hugged him closer to her body as they walked slowly towards the motionless figure.
‘He’s definitely dead,’ Noah said, poking the body with a stick, they were close enough to see that the body was in fact a man, he was lying on his side, one hand stretched in front of him as though reaching for someone. He looked maybe fifty, his face so pale it was almost white.
Lily bent down and pressed her finger lightly to the man’s neck, she could feel the very faint throb of blood in his veins, ‘He’s alive! Pass me the water, we need to help him!’
Noah bent down, rolling the man onto his back and pouring some water down his throat, the man choked on the water and opened his eyes, his pupils were dilated, and his eyes were an unnatural grey and they rolled back in his head like frightened horse. The man scuttled backwards away from Noah and shielded his face with his arms, ‘Please, don’t hurt me! I have nothing left’
‘Hey, hey, calm down man, we’re not going to hurt you,’ Noah backed up and ushering the girls behind him, ‘we were just trying to help, we thought you were dead.’
The man looked up at them, he was painfully thin, his cheekbones prominent, he crumpled as the adrenaline wore off.
‘What happened to you?’ Asked Lily, again kneeling at his side.
The man coughed and answered in a laboured voice, ‘I had been to the town for supplies, someone must have robbed me, I need to get back.’ He tried to push himself up from the ground, but his arms buckled, and he fell back into the dirt.