“Run! Charlotte, take James and run! Go while you still have the chance! Please…” Such bravery in his voice.
“Lottie, they’re going to catch us.” Such worriedness in his voice.
“Ahhhh! Run! Ahhhh –” Such pain in his voice.
“No, Dad!” Such despair in her voice.
“Daddy…” Such child-like-ness in his voice.
I scream and wave my Silver Birch wood stake at the rabid that is no longer there. I have the same dream every night, every night since my father was ripped apart by Rabids. It’s my fault that I wasn’t strong enough to save my father and I can’t let myself forget that. The only thing more important than remembering my mistake, is James - my only remaining family member. If I constantly remind myself of what not to do wrong, then I’ll be able to save him if anything were to happen again.
I’m proud of James. After my father was taken away from us by those monsters, he was the bravest little eight year old on the planet. He took watch shifts, even if they were only an hour or so long – he’s seven years younger than me so I guess I could put up with less sleep than he could. He carries some of the heavier items like cans (when we can find them) and only a few months after his tenth birthday, he asked me to teach him how to hunt, so I wouldn’t have to do it all – though catching prey that isn’t infected is hard.
“James, we’re leaving in twenty minutes and by that I mean if you aren’t ready then I will leave without you.” I joke, though I hear the hollowness in my laughter. “If you want one of the apples we found yesterday then come quickly… before I eat them all.” I tease him and he squeals.
“No, no, no, I want one, just wait.” James hurries to pack his tent into the small bag.
I grab an apple and bite into it. The crunch of the rosy apple is sensational. I smile because I haven’t had fresh fruit in months – only the occasional can of sliced peaches. Yesterday we were walking through yet another empty village and we were both exhausted. We were going to stop and camp for the night when we saw the apple tree. The branches were so heavily laden with fruit that they were touching the ground. I take it as a sign of hope. After all this hell, if an apple tree can survive, even after all the harsh winters, then Tierra de Esperanza could be real. It could be minutes away.
“Come on, James, they’re really good.”
“I’m here.” James says, holding out his hand for an apple. I pass him a large red one, I know what’s coming next. “Tell me about it again.” I sigh.
“I tell you every morning James; why do you make me do this?” I ask tiredly. James looks slightly embarrassed.
“We walk for hours and hours every day; I need something to make me want to carry on. I would ask for chocolate but I haven’t seen any in over a year.” He explains simply. I’m surprised how old he sounds. I assume it’s because he’s been through a lot of hell, it has made him grow up too fast. I can’t give him much and I don’t want to dish him another serving of disappointment. I settle into the branch I’m sitting on.
“Tierra de Esperanza, land of hope, what all survivors wish to find. It’s like what life was before the plague spread, except it’s underground. It’s a maze of tunnels where hundreds of adults and children of all ages live. There are farms above and below ground, so there is always enough to eat. I don’t think we’re far away now; we might even reach it before Christmas. That can be your present, it’ll be way better than your one last year.” I got him a picture book that I found in a child’s bedroom, when we ‘borrowed’ a house for the night. “Right, get your bag packed, we’re leaving in exactly seven minutes and thirty seven seconds.” James laughs and leaves to pack up the rest of his belongings.
I take down the tent in minutes and attach it to my rucksack. I’m ready to go. I don’t have many belongings. When I left home I was only eleven and at that age I had barely any possessions with any sentimental value. I have my mother’s locket which I wear around my neck because it makes me feel as if she is still a part of me, protecting me from danger. My only other possession is a wooden frame containing my most precious memory.
It was my seventh birthday and my mum, dad, little baby James and I sat in the garden for the entire day. The weather was on our side – the sun was shining so brightly. We had a picnic for both lunch and dinner and played good old fashioned board games all day. I will never forget a single moment of that day. It was only two months later that the first victims died of the plague.
We walk for several hours before we stop for lunch. I pull out two cans of beans from my rucksack and chuck one to James. I crack mine open and chug down the contents. I’m so used to being hungry that I don’t mind the foul smell or the rough texture. If it keeps me moving then it’s good enough. I look around, scanning the area. I feel relaxed.
I see a movement in the trees ahead and I am suddenly alert. It’s happening again, I panic.
“James, put on your rucksack and be ready to run. I think there is something in the trees.” James, who was licking the inside of the can, slips on his pack in silence and stands up, next to me. “Get out your stakes, we may need them. Right, now move backwards.” I see something move at the same time as James. We look at each other and I mouth: ‘Rabids!’ “Run, James, run, GO!!!!” I shout. We run and our packs bounce against our backs. I was scared that it’s happening again but I know that it won’t be. I won’t let it be.
After minutes of running, my breathing starts to get hard. My chest protests and my legs are numb; I haven’t done much running recently, my stamina is getting worse. James is fifteen or so metres behind so I slow to a jog so he can catch up. I couldn’t leave him to be caught by the Rabids – he’s all I have left in this world and I don’t want to be alone.
I hear his footsteps getting nearer and as I turn to face him I see James trip on a tree root and land on him face. He moans and rolls over; I am at his side in a second.
“James, you have to get up! The Rabids aren’t far behind; they’ll catch you!” I whisper franticly. James tries to stand and as he does blood trickles down the side of his head. Blood = bad news, I think. As if my thoughts are being read, a rabid screams in the near distance; the smell of blood has made him hungrier. James puts weight on his right foot and gasps in pain. He tries again, but it’s the same. His face goes very white.
I know his foot is hurt badly so I drag him over to a tree. I know that I will have to kill the Rabids for them to leave James alone. ‘Once a rabid finds prey they do not give up until they have caught it, you have to kill it’, my father’s voice rings through my head.
I pull myself up to full height and speak.
“I’ll find you when I’ve…dealt with them. Remember that I love you.” James’s watery eyes meet mine and he nods once.
Having walked barely ten metres, I see two Rabids staggering towards me. I take a deep breath, preparing and calming myself.