The alarm was distant. The high-pitched whine cut through everything. Far off, though. Not close enough for her to consider moving on, but she’d keep an ear open for it, experience outweighing any comfort she could take in the distance. Trouble came up fast. She raised a hand to her shoulder, the stiffness a reminder of when she was complacent, a broken bone that never quite healed right the best outcome she could have hoped for when they’d caught her unawares.
She continued her search through the abandoned house, but there was little of value left; the town had moved on a good few months before, if the encroaching wildlife outside the broken-down door was anything to go by. Other travellers had passed through here, stripping the house of any food, clothing or useful items that they could find. If the mumblings she heard in the camps were right, copper and lead seemed to be the latest necessity. People trying to manufacture their own bullet casings, though where they planned to get the gunpowder from she didn’t know. She’d given up her own gun at what now felt like the outbreak of the Journey Times; too cumbersome, heavy, and difficult to keep in good working order on the road. A knife was better. A knife didn’t run out of the number of times you could stab someone with it. She’d got to thirty-three once. He’d been persistent.
What had previously been the living room was populated now by broken furniture: the shell of a television stripped of its component parts, a sofa stained by many a traveller who had dared pass a night outside of the camps when four walls felt safer than no walls at all. They would have done better to keep moving, even in the dark. How long had it been since she’d sat on anything other than the ground or a harsh pallet bed in an overcrowded tent? It was almost a temptation to sink down into the abandoned, torn vestige of the life she had known in her own house. It was not far off the pattern she had in her own front room: sofa, television, bookcase, sideboard. All those things that had felt like so much and had proved to be worth so little when life had changed. In not even a week she had abandoned it all, only a rucksack on her back, and joined the waves trying to find a better place.
She should have stayed where she was. There was no better place, just the journey, the never-ending trudge of survival. If she’d stayed, it would have ended quickly. She shook off the thought. It would have ended quicker than the journey had taken, but it wouldn’t have been quick; they would have seen to that.
The kitchen should have been the next port of call for most travellers, the place to scavenge for food or weapons, but she was sure that would be as stripped as the front room. Instead, she took the stairs carefully, knife in her hand and her ears trained on any sounds from above. The step beneath her foot creaked and she froze, waiting, her breath still in her throat. The seconds passed like hours, until she could hear the rush of her own pulse in her ears in the effort to listen for anyone above. Slower, she continued upwards, grateful at least that the curtains had either been left open or torn down, the landing bathed in light, leaving no shadow for another to hide in. No one was considered a friend, even if you slept next to them in the camps.
She reached the landing, heart dropping as she saw the rooms leading off it.
Two. One pink, one blue. Such a simple definition. A broken name plate hung from the door to the pink room, only two letters visible. S U – Susan, she supposed, or maybe Susanna. She wondered if the child who owned the broken name still breathed. Was her family walking the endless journey like so many others?
In silence, she searched the rooms, picking over what the others had left, broken toys, memories of a childhood that, if it still existed, would be empty of such comforts and baubles. She found the first in the pink room, the fur loved off it and an eye sewn back on more than once. Perfect in its imperfection. The second was harder to find, but the blue room finally gave up the treasure she was searching for, and she almost broke her silence to make the childish sound of a train.
She pulled the bag off her back and opened it, placing the toys amongst the many others she had collected on her journey. Worthless junk, some would call it, but to her it was worth more than any of the riches they had known before. She closed the bag, making sure the straps were tight before she headed back down the stairs.
The sun was blinding as she stepped outside, and she cursed the fact that her destination meant she needed to walk towards it. The buildings began to dwindle as she pushed on, leaving the nameless town behind, having long since given up the need for a map. Sun at her back in the morning, sun before her in the afternoon, guiding her towards her destination even as others fled the other way.
It was said, at the beginning, when the Journey Times began, that if you went to them and told them why the world should be spared its fate, they would listen. So many had tried at first, thousands upon thousands walking west in the hope of finding the place where their plea would be heard. All had failed. They had fallen in the hope of saving humankind, or perhaps it was in the hope of saving themselves. Who was she to judge? Who was she to even try?
She growled as the finger of self-doubt crept up her back once more. She shoved it away. She needed every ounce of strength she had left. She didn’t know when she would find the next camp. She didn’t know when the alarm would sound too close and her only hope was the speed of her own feet.
The bag was heavy on her back as she pushed forward for hour upon hour, following the sun’s path as it dropped in the sky. Her mouth ached with thirst, but the filth that sloshed around her canteen wasn’t fit for human consumption. Death floated in every mouthful, and she’d only dare a sip if her body was threatening the outcome anyway.
As the light grew dimmer, she saw the remnants of others who had taken the lonely road. Abandoned tents, packs, a pair of boots lay beneath a hedge that may still be attached to a body. Once she might have seen what she could find. A dead man had no use for his possessions; there was nothing waiting on the other side of that void. Now, though, they were pointless artifacts. Forgotten moments of forgotten people.
When she lost the sun, she broke her nightly rule and paused, not wanting to lose her direction and have to double back come morning. The woods were not safe, but the shadows were deeper than the road, sheltered as well by the hills that had been slowly turning to mountains as she walked. Beautiful. That’s what she would have called them once when her eyes had time to stare. Now they were too concerned with watching every movement, every twitch of every branch in the trees. She would not rest. Sleep was too close to dying, too close to the spectre that followed her, dogging her steps with the sound of alarms and the sensation of breath on her neck. Sleep was more frightening than living. In sleep, her mind was weak and remembered. She couldn’t remember, not yet.
The sky was pinking as she heard the haunting wail of the alarm, too close, far too close. She broke from her hiding place as the sun broke the horizon and she raced away from it, not daring to look back.
Her lungs were screaming when she reached it. It was the place. No distinguishing marks, just a feeling, the white noise rushing her mind, drowning out the alarm behind her. She stopped in the road, tearing the bag from her back and spilling its contents into the dust. So many broken toys, memories of childhood, her own doll amongst them. Fourteen years old, brand new on the day of her birth.
‘Stop this!’ she screamed over the sound of the alarm, freeing herself with the words she had carried in her silence from home, even if she knew they would be her last. ‘Stop this for us!’.
Elizabeth Montague is a multi-genre author from Hertfordshire, England. Her short story collection, Dust and Glitter, was released by Clarendon House Publications in May 2019. She has also featured in over a dozen short story collections from various publishers including Iron Faerie Publishing, Clarendon House Publications, Scout Media and Black Hare Press. She is currently working on her first novel alongside continuing to produce short stories in several genres.