Darkness Comes To Woodford Bridge
Part II – The End Of The Road
by Rich Wilson
The wind was cool against my face as I gave the engine gas and we accelerated away from my house. Natalie had a tight hold around my waist and I kept the speed down to thirty, knowing how powerful and fast the bike was and not wanting to scare her. I also stayed slow so I could see everything that was around me. I’d ridden this stretch of road thousands of times and yet on that morning it seemed like it was my first time. It seemed like I was looking at Woodford for the first time as well. I’d never seen the place I called home
deserted, and yet that’s exactly what it was. There wasn’t a soul.
It was less than a quarter mile to when properties ended and the open country began, and the road dipped down a long, gradual decline, a strip of perfect black tarmac stretching out before us with a white broken line running the centre. Away to the right was the Mackenzie farm which virtually marked the boundary of this end of the village. The three-story farm building was Dutch-colonial, whitewashed timber almost luminous in the morning light, with a collection of barns and outbuildings spread around it. I slowed as we passed but saw no-one working in the yard or moving around the sheds, thought about going up to the house and then picked up speed again. The next time I saw people I needed it to be a lot of them, and Shelby would be able to offer that.
I noted that the fields were empty as we hit the bottom of the incline and started back up the other side. Crops were still wilting in the heat, acres of corn were ready for harvesting and the pasture land was as lush as the summer allowed, but nothing grazed in the meadows. Pete Mackenzie kept five hundred-plus milking cattle, but not one of them was to be seen. I took a look back over my shoulder to see if Natalie was okay. Her hair whipped around her face and she gave me an unconvincing smile, gripped on to me even harder, and like me continued to scan the surrounding area for anything moving.
Out of the small valley we’d descended the road rose sharply, and I gunned the throttle, picking up momentum as the exhaust of the bike chugged behind us. At the top of the bank was a small wood, really nothing more than thick groups of trees for a few hundred yards, but the sun was blotted out behind the canopies as we approached and first the road and then we were smothered in shadows. Just before the road plunged through the natural tunnel of foliage I drew the Harley to a stop, swung it off the road onto the dusty earth at the edge and turned ninety degrees so we were across the tarmac. If a car had come speeding out over the crest of the hill we’d have been sitting in the firing line, but I didn’t really care. I’d be more than happy to dive for safety if someone decided to pay us a visit.
I balanced the bike and looked back along where we’d just come from. At the few houses, the many fields, the single main road that led into and through Woodford Bridge. I could even see the meadow that bordered the back of my house. Above the rooftops peeked the spire of the church that was at the centre of the village.
‘There’s no one there,’ said Natalie, her voice in my ear.
‘We’ve only seen one side of it,’ I replied. ‘We can only see one side of it from here. There must be eighty, maybe a hundred houses in total, plus the store and the little school.’ I looked over my shoulder directly at her. ‘We’re here. Others will be too.’ I tried to sound convincing and probably failed, judging by the look on her face.
‘Why hasn’t a car come past us, Dave?’ she asked, although I don’t really think she was looking for or even expecting an answer. Just as well, because I had no idea. But I did know that as every minute passed I started to feel an increasing swell of dread spiraling in my stomach.
‘Let’s keep going,’ I said, and she held me tightly once more as I wheeled the bike back onto the road and headed into the trees. The sun left us completely as we passed under the canopies of tightly knit branches, although here and there shafts of light burst through like golden fountains and dappled the road like torch beams. The gloom of the wood seemed to be a little disconcerting, probably for no other reason than it matched the mood I was in, and I hit the throttle, eager to be back in the brightness of the morning. I also knew that when we emerged the country opened up before us, and on a day like this the view could be seen for many miles. The open road, farmland, a gas station a mile or so on, and then clearly in view, the town of Shelby. Few thousand population, a handful of bars, a rundown bowling alley and a cinema with one screen run by a manager who still wore a dinner jacket and dicky bow. Small town USA, to be sure. But surely filled with people.
The light increased as the trees thinned and the tunnel-like wood came to an end. I squinted as the sun hit me full in the face as we emerged, and wish I’d had the sense to wear shades. My vision adjusted as I blinked, and then I thought that the light was playing tricks on me. I blinked again, rapidly trying to clear the mist that must have been clouding my sight, but when nothing happened I realized I was actually seeing what was there. I backed-off on the throttle instantly and applied the brakes, perhaps a little harder than I meant to, and I felt Natalie’s fingers dig into me as she held on while the back wheel drifted away from us. And then we were stopped, and her hands continued to hold me, and I knew that she was seeing exactly what I was.
‘What is that?’ Said Natalie, her breath fast on the back of my neck.
We should have easily been able to see Shelby from our vantage point. It was close, just a few miles away as I’ve said. At night from the crest of this bank the town lights looked like a hundred stars had dropped from the sky and settled on the earth. Now though, it wasn’t there. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. I couldn’t swear that it wasn’t there, because I couldn’t see it. I Couldn’t see past the shimmering haze that filled the view. It looked like a bank of mist had settled across the land in a line, from as far left to right as I could see, blocking land, road, everything.
‘What is that?’ Natalie repeated.
‘I don’t know. It looks like Fog, or a heat haze.’ That was more than possible. The weather had been scorching hot for the last few weeks, and I’d often seen the air wobble and distort as the heat affected the atmospheric pressure. It’s the kind of effect that at extreme conditions causes a mirage in the desert. You read old stories of explorers running towards a lake in the middle of the Sahara and diving into nothing more than sand. But this was no desert, this was middle-America, and I’d never heard of a haze that was so big, or that blocked whatever was behind it.
I got the bike moving again but this time kept the speed well below twenty, the engine virtually ticking over in first gear. The shimmering air was at least two miles in front of us, and didn’t appear to be getting closer, but I still wanted to be cautious. We passed a field of yellow rapeseed, the flowers in full bloom, brilliant and heavy with pollen, and then we came upon the gas station. A typical country place, independently owned and proud of it, fighting off the global corporations that would have loved to replace it’s ramshackled old pumps and workshop with a modern overhaul. It was run by one family and Jim Callan and his son Jeff still worked there everyday, and they were good people. Jim suffered with arthritis and mostly kept himself behind the counter in the little store, selling brake fluid and passing the time with whoever was passing, and Jeff pumped gas and worked on whatever was up on ramps in the shop. Last year I’d had a problem with the bike and Jeff had fixed it within hours, got her purring better than ever, and the charge was very reasonable. He had a lopsided grin and a string of bad jokes, and everyone instantly took a liking to him.
This time of the morning the station would have been alive with activity, a radio blaring out across the dirt forecourt, Jeff wandering around in his faded overalls. But the place was deserted, even though the workshop doors were open and I could see tools scattered around the back wheels of a Ford pickup that had seen better days. Through the dusty windows of the store I could see shelves, coffee machine, even a calendar on the back wall, but no Jim. I stopped the bike and looked for a minute, then called both of their names, but neither of them appeared around a corner or stepped from the shadows. I sighed, pulled back onto the road and kept going.
I glanced back over my shoulder, and Natalie gave me the sweetest smile, full of hope and sadness, and I yearned to find someone just to make her feel better, let alone myself. The thought of-
I jumped as she shouted in my ear. ‘Where? I don’t-‘
‘There, look! Infront of us.’
And she was right. The road was flat and straight before us, leading directly to the shimmering air, and I’d been so preoccupied with thoughts about what it could be that I hadn’t seen the vehicle that was parked at an angle in the middle of the road. I looked harder and saw another one, a four-by-four, again parked at a weird angle. And then, although I had no idea who it was, I saw someone. A figure moved around the car. I didn’t know if it was man or woman, and I didn’t care. I heard Natalie’s breath quicken against me and I knew she had seen it as well.
‘Hold on,’ I said, and twisted the throttle back towards me. The bike roared and leapt forward, eating up the road markings like a hungry wolf, and Natalie’s hands clutched against my stomach. The vehicles quickly enlarged themselves in my vision, and I saw a third car, and then mercifully a couple more people. I’d had this horrible, doom-laden feeling that the two of us were the only people left on Earth, but now that wasn’t true. Everything was going to be all right.
Except, even as I thought it, I knew it wasn’t true. Because although there were people, living and breathing, there was also that huge bank of heat haze. I slowed the bike as we approached, and it was obvious even from the initial view that this was no mirage, no hot air. I didn’t have a clue what it was. Infact I don’t think I’d ever seen anything like it before in my life.
We were close to the three cars and what looked like five people who stood solidly in the middle of the road, and at the sound of the bike’s engine first one and then all of them looked around at us. There was Marcia, a middle-aged, plumpish woman who lived up the street from me and who I never usually saw out without a crowd of small dogs around her stocky ankles. Two guys both wearing shirts and ties stood next to each other. One was Steve Marsellus, around my age but with hair buzzed short against his scalp which made him look about eighteen. The other guy I didn’t recognize, but his tie was pulled loose against his open collar and he was the colour of rain clouds. Jeff from the garage was there, wearing his usual trademark overalls. His permanent grin was nowhere to be seen, but he raised his hand as I pulled the bike to a stop behind the four-by-four. The fifth member of the group, Jessie Phillips, a nice kid in her late teens who lived almost opposite my house, saw me and gave a small wave. She was leaning on the hood of the car. Her arms were folded around herself in some form of thin embrace and her hair was tied back and away from her pretty face. Her eyes were as brown and wet as riverbed stones, and I could see streaks of tears against her cheeks.
I kicked the Harley up onto the stand and climbed off quickly, feeling the shaking in my legs as I did so, before helping Natalie off. She kept her grip on my hand as she stood next to me.
‘You okay?’ I said.
She shook her head. ‘No, I’m not. What is that?’ Her voice was trembling.
Together we took a few slow steps towards what was blocking the road and then stopped. Jeff watched us for a moment, possibly to gauge our reaction, and then he turned back to look at it. Trouble was, I didn’t really know what I was looking at.
It looked almost like a waterfall that had been put into reverse. It rippled as it rose up straight from the Earth, a huge wall that went up towards the ultramarine sky. It was clear yet you couldn’t really see through it, looked a little like clear paste or gelatine in a bowl. I could make out shapes behind it, but they were so blurred I couldn’t see what they were. The best way I can describe it is a bank of Energy that rippled and wobbled. I say a waterfall, because it looked like flowing water, and yet there wasn’t any dampness over the road before it, and there was no sound. That was probably the most disconcerting thing. Something on this scale, curving away from us as far as the eye could see and reaching perhaps a height of one hundred feet, the noise should have been tremendous. The power used to push this thing skywards should have been deafening. Yet as the seven of us stood looking at it you could have heard a pin drop.
Natalie’s hand gripped mine tightly, and I could feel a layer of sweat between our palms. I took a couple of steps forward until I was standing beside Jeff, and I looked at his deeply tanned face. His cap was pushed back on his head as he leant back and stared at the wall. When he spoke he didn’t look at me. ‘Any ideas?’
I shook my head. ‘No. I’ve never-‘ my voice faltered and I stopped. ‘I don’t know what I’m even looking at. How long have you been here?’
‘About a half-hour. Steve and his buddy where here when I pulled up. Then Marcia, Jessie, now you.’
‘Seen anyone else?’
‘No. No-one else.’
‘What about your Dad?’
He looked directly at me, and I saw fear in his eyes. ‘No. I don’t know where he is. Excuse me a minute.’
He span quickly on his heel and walked back to his truck, his head down. I watched him for a moment and then turned back to Natalie. Light was flickering across her face and I realized that it was coming directly from the energy infront of us, and I thought of rippling water again. ‘Hey.’
‘What,’ she answered in no more than a whisper.
‘It’s going to be all right, I swear.’ I kissed her ear. ‘I’m going to take a closer look.’
‘Don’t. Stay here.’
I pointed at Steve Marsellus and the guy I didn’t know, who were no more than a few feet from the wall. ‘Look, they’re okay. I just want to see what it is. I’ll be careful, I promise.’ I kissed her ear again and she reluctantly let go of my hand.
My heart was thudding as I took one slow step after another towards the wall. As I got closer I expected to feel heat, but with the exception of the sun it was cool. The energy, plasma, whatever the hell it was still rippled and shook, but it was impossible to tell how thick it was, or what was on the other side. I thought I saw a shape move until I realized that it was nothing more than my own image in some form of murky refection. So strange, and as I said to Jeff, like nothing I’d ever seen before.
Now I was only five or six feet away, and I could see that the wall itself rose directly out of a split in the ground. It was as if a huge knife had carved a groove across the road and the land beyond and released this phenomena from the bowels of the earth. I’d seen footage on TV of the aftermath of earthquakes where the earth had been ripped apart in great jagged lines, but this was totally different. This was a neat, deep cut, like a surgeon slicing through skin. I followed it’s path away to my left, saw it run through a fence that separated the road from a field, the fencing wire disappearing neatly into the wall, and looked as it curved away across the land. The energy continued to rise powerfully upwards along it’s length, never faltering, and without a break.
I turned around. Jeff was sitting in his truck, a CB radio mike in his hand but nothing more than Static coming out. Natalie was looking small and lonely, her eyes on me. Jessie had started to cry again, her gentle weeping echoing exactly how I felt.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Does anybody have any idea what is going on?’ As soon as I said it I knew it was a pointless question. Of course they didn’t. They had no more idea than I did.
Steve loosened his tie fully, balled it up and stuffed it in the pocket of his slacks. ‘All I know is I woke up this morning with no power and no-one around except Jack here.’ At the mention of his name Jack raised a hand but kept quiet. He was still a distinct shade of gray and looked as if he was about to collapse at any time. ‘We got in the car and started to drive, and ended up at the end of this road.’
For the first time Marcia spoke, her voice shrill and full of panic. ‘Where is everyone though? Is this it?’
‘It can’t be,’ replied Steve, and he looked at me hopefully. ‘You seen anyone else?’
‘No.’ I shook my head and swallowed hard. ‘We thought it was just the two of us.’
‘Have you tried the other way out of Woodford?’
‘Not yet. We came straight here. But Natalie walked from my place as far as the store, and she didn’t see anyone.’
At that point Jack threw up, gasping as cramps hit his stomach and whatever he had eaten in the last few hours splattering onto the hot tarmac of the road. I felt bile rise in my throat and turned away, closing my eyes and rubbing my damp palm across my forehead. When I looked again Jack was wiping his face with a large off-white handkerchief. ‘Sorry about that,’ he said apologetically, trying to smile at all of us at once. No one smiled back, and Jessie’s sobbing became louder.
I started towards her but Natalie laid a hand on my arm and stopped me, then quickly walked over to the hood of the car where she leant and sat down beside her, putting an arm around her shoulders and hugging her close. Jessie cried against her, and when Natalie looked back at me, rocking the girl she didn’t know in her arms and with tears in her own eyes, my heart went to her. And I knew that standing around here would achieve nothing.
Jeff came back from the cab of his truck, loudly cursing that he could find nothing on his radio, either on the short or longwave bands. The seven of us got together in a tight group, Natalie still comforting Jessie, and Steve passed around a bottle of water that had been heating up rapidly in the front seat of his car. We were all hot and scared and the water didn’t last long, and after Jeff had finished it he twisted the plastic container around in his calloused hands he looked up once more at the energy wall.
‘This thing, whatever it is, goes up high. But there is a top to it.’ He pointed and we all looked. The shaking plasma rose for perhaps eighty, maybe ninety feet, several stories in height, but then above it was the blue sky, clear and unchallenged by any force. ‘So something can get over it. A plane or helicopter. Something to rescue us.’
‘What if there is no-one?’ Marcia’s hands were trembling as she held the lapels of her cardigan around herself. I wondered how she could stand wearing something like that in this weather.
‘Shut up,’ said Jeff, but there was no malice in his tone. ‘Of course there’s someone. People always get rescued.’
‘Sure,’ said Jack, still wiping his face with his handkerchief. ‘I’m sure the army will be coming any minute now. Heard a plane have you?’
‘No, but that doesn’t mean a damn thing.’
‘Like hell. I mean, we’re like the only people left. Perhaps anywhere.’
‘You can’t just jump to conclusions straight away.’
Jack snorted. ‘Here’s a my conclusion. We’re fucked. Look at this thing.’ He waved a hand at the silent wall that held us trapped.
I held my hands up between the two of them. ‘All right, shut up. This isn’t helping us, guys. Jessie doesn’t need this, she terrified.’ The girl still rested her head on Natalie’s shoulder, and she looked at me with eyes that were raw and swollen. ‘Christ, I’m terrified. We all are. But arguing or making rash assumptions won’t do us any good. Okay Jack?’ I put a hand on his thin shoulder, felt bone and sweat beneath the cotton of his shirt. ‘There’s a lot we can do before we start to panic.’
‘We don’t know it’s just us here,’ said Steve. ‘People might have gone the other route. That way may even be clear.’
‘It probably is,’ I said, ‘and we need to check. Need to check Woodford and find everyone that we can. For all we know people might have seen this and gone home hiding, think they’re completely alone. We need to let them know that we’re alive.’
‘And just because this road is blocked, doesn’t mean they all are,’ Natalie said.
‘That’s right,’ I replied, giving her a smile. ‘Unless this, whatever it is all around the village, then we can find a way out. That also means someone can find a way in.’
Jessie had finally stopped crying, although her voice still shook with tears when she spoke. ‘My parents are gone, my Brother has gone. Even Chuckie’s disappeared.’
‘Who’s Chuckie?’ Natalie said.
‘My dog. My little dog. All my family has gone.’ She coughed against the back of her hand. ‘Does that mean they’re dead, Dave?’
The thought of death had been trying to push it’s way into my mind, and I in turn had been trying to push it back again. But now the word was out in the air, and it couldn’t be ignored. Was everyone except for us dead? Every human, every animal, everything? They couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible. Wasn’t possible that I had gone to bed late at night and woken up the next morning alone in the world except for a beautiful girl that I had just met and the five other people around me. Couldn’t be dead. But then, where were they?’
‘Jessie, I don’t know,’ I said truthfully. ‘You know as much about what’s happening as I do. But we’ll try and find out, okay?’ She shook her head and Natalie squeezed her hand.
Steve had turned away from the group and was concentrating once more on the energy wall. ‘This might sound like an obvious thing to say, but why don’t we just try and get through this?’ he said. ‘I mean, we haven’t a clue what it is, but it’s not harming us.’
‘So far,’ Jeff said. ‘I don’t trust something I don’t know.’
‘I’ll accept that. But does anyone else think this looks like water? Like thick water?’
‘It does,’ Natalie said, and pushed herself up from the hood of the car. ‘But it obviously isn’t.’ Steve turned around and looked at her, let his eyes travel up and down the length of her, and I didn’t like the way he did it. If Natalie saw she ignored it. ‘I think we should try and find another way out before we do anything rash.’
‘She’s right, Steve,’ I said. ‘It looks dangerous. Look at what it’s done to the earth.’
He took another step towards the shaking wall, and now was only a few feet away. ‘Yes, but there’s no heat, nothing. It’s not like this is volcanic lava, is it? This is the opposite, clear and cool. We’re scared there’s no way out of here, but we might just be able to go through it.’
‘I don’t know about you, but I’m more frightened about the fact that nearly everyone in this place has vanished,’ Natalie said. ‘This thing has obviously got something to do with that. As far as I’m concerned that makes it very dangerous.’
There was a mutter of agreement from Marcia, who appeared as if she was about ready to collapse at any moment. I looked at Jeff, and although he remained silent I could see the concern about the whereabouts of his Father written all over his face.
Once more Steve looked Natalie’s lean figure up and down. ‘I’m sorry, but who are you?’
Natalie’s eyes flickered and she looked down at her feet for a moment. ‘I’m a friend of David’s,’ she said softly. ‘I’ve moved here for just a couple of weeks, and-‘
‘Well I’ve lived here for nine years, honey.’
Jeff chuckled and shook his head. ‘What the heck difference does that make?’
‘I think it gives me more say about what happens than some newcomer.’
‘Perhaps if we were debating ways to raise funds for the church,’ Jeff said. ‘Maybe you’ve noticed that this isn’t a normal kind of morning, Steve? Or a normal kind of situation.’
I could see the anger flush across Steve’s face. ‘I just want to do something, that’s all,’ he said. ‘Standing around here isn’t achieving anything.’
‘We all do,’ I said. ‘But let’s just take it easy, come up with a plan, and go from there. Okay man?’
He let out a deep breath, as if he’d been holding it for several minutes, and looked at me with a hollow expression. ‘All right. I’m cool.’ He once more looked at Natalie, this time apologetically. ‘I’m sorry.’
She smiled. ‘It’s fine.’ I turned to look at her, and she looked back at me through a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. I thought of the first time I’d seen her walking through her back yard yesterday afternoon. If I’d known that I’d wake up to this nightmare I would have been happy to stay locked in the previous day forever. Our first kiss now seemed like it came from another decade. I was about to say something when I saw her eyes widen. Her shout was loud in the still air. ‘No, wait!’
I looked around at her cry and saw Jack mere inches away from the wall, the reflections from it playing shadows across his body, his hand raised before him. He looked back at us over his shoulder, red patches of colour on his hollow cheeks. ‘It’s okay guys. I think this is pretty harmless.’
Steve tensed himself but before he could move Jack pushed his finger against the wall of silent energy. Jack froze as he touched it, and so did we, as if we were a still photograph taken from some cheap action movie. And then everything seemed to happen very quickly.
Jack’s finger pushed into the wall like it was spongy rubber, and in return the wall spat out a shard of energy which covered his hand. I see his body go rigid, almost into a spasm, and then his fingers started to disintegrate, started to melt like soft wax held over a hot flame. He let out a terrible high pitched wail which split the silence and made us all jump, and then his body was lifted and thrown backwards to the ground, his head cracking sharply against the road. And his hand was still melting.
Jessie screamed and her hands flew over her mouth as Jeff leaped towards him, skidding down on his knees next to Jack’s twitching body. He put his hands over his chest and held him down, shouted for us to help him. I got on the other side of him and felt my stomach churn as I looked at Jack’s hand, which was now almost gone. There was white stump of bone and blood flowed out in a rapidly spreading pool of crimson on the tarmac. And still the limb continued to melt, that’s the only way I can describe it. It looked like acid was eating away flesh and muscle. Now his wrist was gone and his forearm was starting to go.
‘A belt. Use your belt,’ Jeff shouted hoarsely, and I scrabbled with the buckle and pulled my belt free from my jeans. ‘Get it round his bicep, quickly,’ he added, and I twisted the leather around Jack’s shirt between his shoulder and elbow and pulled hard, cinching the belt as tight as I could. His muscle bulged out on either sides of the tourniquet, and I tugged it until there was no slack at all. I allowed myself to look again at the destroyed limb, and there were spots infront of my eyes as I watched a tattoo of a bird on Jack’s arm disappear as the flesh fell away. His body stopped convulsing as his head slumped against the road, unconscious with the pain.
Steve dropped to his haunches by me, his face ashen. ‘Is it stopping? Jesus Christ, what the fuck is that thing?’ His breath came in harsh gasps. ‘Is it stopping?’ He repeated, and laid a hand on my forearm. I shook it off, still gripping the belt tight. ‘Christ. If I hadn’t had the idea to-‘
‘Yeah, it’s stopping,’ Jeff said, cutting him off quickly. ‘Shut up, Steve. Blaming yourself won’t help.’ He bent his head to Jack’s face and paused, his hand on his chest. ‘He’s in shock, but he’s breathing. We need to get him inside right now. If he-‘
This time is was Jeff’s turn to be interrupted as what sounded like a heavy sack hit the floor. Natalie called my name and I looked around to see Marcia twisted awkwardly on the road, one of the single white lines on the tarmac running out from under her back. I grabbed Steve’s hands and put them on the tourniquet, pushed myself up and ran over to Marcia on shaking legs. Natalie was already on her knees, pushing the hair away from Marcia’s eyes as she held her head in her hands.
‘She just fainted I think,’ I said, as I noticed her eyelids flutter, and then lazily open. She looked up at me, and then Natalie, who smiled down at her.
‘It’s okay, you just passed out for a moment,’ Natalie said, still stroking her fingers across Marcia’s brow. ‘Take it easy for a while.’ She looked up at me, dark eyes wide and full of fear. ‘This is horrible, Dave. I’m so frightened.’
‘Me too.’ I squeezed her hand and kissed her cheek, then turned to Jeff. ‘How is he?’
‘The bleeding’s stopped, but he’s in a bad way.’
‘We need to get away from here, Jeff, get inside.’
‘Let’s get back to the garage. I got some first-aid stuff in the workshop. Not much though.’
‘Better than nothing.’ Marcia had sat up and was looking more together. Natalie asked her if she was all right and she shook her head slowly, and between us we helped her to her feet. I left Natalie holding her while I went back to Jack’s unconscious body.
Between us we lifted him carefully, his ruined arm laying across his chest, the sun glinting off a knuckle of bone that poked out of the tattered flesh below his elbow, and carried him to the flatbed of Jeff’s pickup, laying him carefully on an old tarpaulin. Steve jumped up in the back and supported his head, then looked back at the wall with unblinking, hollow eyes.
Natalie walked Marcia over to the truck and sat her in the passenger seat, and Jessie climbed onto the tailgate of the pickup, her legs hanging over the edge. I asked her if she was all right, and she nodded, wiped her sleeve across her eyes, gray and pretty despite her streaked makeup and tears. I slapped the back of the truck and Jeff fired the engine, swung around in quick U-turn and started back towards his garage. He gave me a raised thumb as he left and I returned it, pointed to my bike to indicate that we’d be right along behind them.
I ran my hands through my hair as I crossed back towards the bike, feeling hot and trying to fight the sickness in my guts. Natalie stood next to the Harley, and as I reached her she threw her arms around me and hugged me tightly. I held her close and breathed in the scent of her hair and felt her heart beating against my own.
‘We’re in real trouble, aren’t we,’ she whispered.
‘Yeah, I think we are.’
‘How could that thing do that to his arm?’
‘I don’t know.’ Still holding each other, we both looked at the huge, ominous wall of plasma energy that ripped itself up from the earth in silence. It towered above us, mocking us with it’s power and even more terrifying now we knew what it could do. I felt Natalie shudder, despite the heat.
‘C’mon, lets get back to the others,’ I said, and brushed a finger over the exposed skin on her shoulder. ‘You’re gonna get burnt if you’re not careful.’
‘That’s the least of my worries.’
I dropped my head and kissed the reddening skin. ‘We’re going to figure this out,’ I said, unconvinced even as I said the words. ‘And you were planning on ripping my shirt off later, remember?’
She turned her brown eyes back to mine and smiled sadly. ‘That seems like a long time ago.’
‘Yeah. It sure does, baby,’ I sighed. ‘Lets get out of here.’
The bike started on the first kick and Natalie slid into the seat behind me. The other two cars that less than a quarter-hour before we’d been so glad to see were still angled across the road. The passenger door on Steve’s Ford was still open, but that didn’t matter. I had a feeling that vehicle security was going to be the last of our concerns for a while. I took one last look at the plasma wall, at the way it curved away to our left and right, and wondered if it completely surrounded Woodford Bridge, if we really were trapped like mice in a cage. I also wondered if this was happening anywhere else, if other people were missing in other communities. And then I thought of my Father, retired and living alone, becoming an old man, struggling with high blood pressure, and Josie’s question asking me if everyone was dead rang clear in my mind. An icy hand gripped my heart, and when I looked at my fingers resting on the brake lever they were shaking. I gunned the throttle and got moving, away from the end of the road and back towards the garage, and as we picked up speed I could convince myself that it was simply the wind in my eyes that was the source of my tears.
The interior of the garage store was in shadow and a blessedly cool relief after outside. There were racks of motor oil and brake fluid racked against one wall, and several stands with novelty air-fresheners, bumper stickers, even some furry dice left over from another age. Several standalone shelving units held dry goods and tinned food, and two large coolers were stocked with soda and beer. A rack was filled with newspapers and magazines. The restroom was through a marked door at the rear of the store.
By the time Natalie and I walked inside they’d got Jack up on the counter, a blanket underneath him for comfort and his head supported by an old sweater. He was still unconscious, his ruined arm still draped across his stomach, and Jeff was rooting through cupboards beneath the counter. Jessie and Marcia were sitting next to each other at the only table and was leaning against the counter drinking deeply from a can of iced tea.
‘How is he?’ I said.
Jeff shrugged. ‘God knows. I’m not a… Yes, here it is.’ He stood up with a green first-aid box in his hands. ‘Let’s see if we can find something in here.’ He snapped the box catches and started rooting inside.
I asked Marcia and Jessie if they were okay, and they both nodded, Jess giving me a small smile, and I crossed to the coolers and pulled out two bottles of water. My throat felt sandblasted and from the way Natalie drank I knew she was feeling the same way. She handed me the half-empty bottle.
‘I’m just going to the bathroom,’ she said quietly.
‘You all right.’
She nodded, tucked a strand of hair back behind her ear. ‘Yeah. I just need to freshen up, that’s all. Go and help Jeff over there.’ She ran a thumb over my chin and turned, and I watched her walk into the restroom, wishing more than anything that I’d never moved from where we had been lying in each others arms on my sofa the night before.
Jeff was pulling bandages and surgical tape out of the medical kit, laying them out neatly on the counter. He raised his brow questioningly at me as bent down and examined Jack’s arm. The stump was a couple of inches below the elbow, the flesh ragged and torn and a knob of bone protruded like a shell in the sand, but what surprised me was there was no blood. Sure, there had been some as soon as it had happened – I had a stain on my jeans to prove it – but now there was nothing. I was far from a medical expert, but I knew an injury of this kind could cause death just from blood loss, let alone anything else.
‘It’s like whatever that thing is has cauterized it,’ I said. ‘Is that the right word?’
Jeff nodded. ‘I guess.’
‘But you need heat for that. You have to burn the wound closed. Could that wall be some kind of electrical force?’
‘I don’t see how. No noise, for a start. Even if you stand near electric cables you hear a hum. Something on that scale would be deafening. And anyway, did you see what it did to him.’ He looked me directly in the eyes. ‘His arm was melting, Dave. Like it was paper dipped in acid.’
‘Yeah, I though that when it happened. But the power is all out, maybe the electricity has been channeled through the earth, and…’ I stopped, unsure of what I was even thinking, let alone saying. I let out a deep breath. ‘Oh, I don’t fucking know.’
‘Me neither. Let’s just get this arm dressed. Can you lift it for me?’
I did, held it carefully while Jeff swabbed the wound with disinfectant on a cotton ball, then started to wrap a clean white bandage around the stump with a delicacy that betrayed his large calloused hands.
‘Seems like a nice girl you got there,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know you were seeing anyone.’
‘I’m not, not really. We just met yesterday. She’s renting the house next to mine for a couple of weeks.’
‘What, Jim Edgecombe’s old place?’
‘So where’s she from?’ He was now securing the dressing with the surgical tape.
I remembered what Natalie had said about wanting to disappear from the spotlight for a while and keep a low profile, and I didn’t really want to say much about her. ‘Back East, I think. We haven’t really talked that much,’ I lied. ‘You know how it is.’
He chuckled. ‘Yeah, I can just about remember.’ He snapped a last piece of tape in place. ‘One thing’s for sure, I bet she wishes she was back home right now. There, that should be okay, as long as infection doesn’t set in. Then I don’t know what the hell to do.’
‘It looks fine, Jeff. You’ve done a good job.’
‘Maybe,’ he muttered. ‘There’s some super-strength Ibuprofen for when he wakes up, should help with the pain.’ He paused and looked worried. ‘If he wakes up.’
Before I could answer I felt a hand on the small of my back. I looked around at Natalie, her hair now tied back in a long ponytail that lay over her left shoulder. The skin on her face and neck were still damp and droplets of water had dripped in a line down her shirt from where she had washed. It looked as if she had been crying a little, but I decided not say anything about it infront of Jeff. She linked her hand in mine and looked with concern at Jack. ‘Is he okay’
‘Not bad,’ said Jeff. ‘How are you doing?’
‘I’m all right, I think.’ She let out a deep breath and rubbed her face. ‘Scared, confused, worried. Apart from that I feel wonderful.’
Jeff laughed. ‘I know exactly how you feel.’
‘So what’s the plan?’
I looked at Jeff and he met my gaze, and it was obvious from his eyes that he had as little idea about our next step as I did. But there was something I wanted to do. ‘I think we need to find out if that wall is all around us.’
‘You think it is?’ Jeff frowned.
‘Well, you saw it on the road. It was curling away from us back towards Woodford on both sides, as if it was circling around us. And the way that we’ve seen no traffic must indicate that nothing is getting through the road. On either side.’
‘And where the hell is everyone? Where’s my Pop?’
I shrugged, and thought once more of my own Father. ‘I guess that’s the second thing to figure out.’
‘Okay,’ Jeff nodded. ‘But we can’t move this guy for the time being, and he can’t be left alone. I’ll stay here with him.’
I shook my head, and lowered my voice before I spoke, keeping my words away from the others. ‘Listen, I don’t mind going back to the Bridge, but I want you with us, Jeff. I trust you.’
‘I’m not going anywhere until Dad comes back.’
‘Jeff, what if-‘ The look in his eyes stopped me. He’d already made his mind up. I patted him on the arm and then turned around. Steve still leant against the cooler, staring off into space with a can of something cold in his hand. From the look on his face I could tell he was blaming himself for planting the seed of suggestion in Jack’s mind that we could get through the wall. Jessie had twisted around in her chair and was watching us, and I knew she was waiting for something to do. She was mature beyond her nineteen years, and although she’d been upset at the wall I known her long enough to know that she didn’t just want to sit around and wait for something to happen. Marcia kept her eyes on the table, a deep scowl on her brow as if she was intently listening to a voice giving instructions inside her head.
‘Okay, listen guys,’ I said. ‘We need to start making some moves. Jack is gonna be okay, but he’s pretty beat up and isn’t going anywhere for a while. Jeff will stay here and keep an eye on him.’
‘And also keep an eye on what’s going on at this end of the road,’ Jeff said, as if he was uncomfortable with the idea of just nursing Jack while all this was going on, and needed to make his role more important. ‘I can see that… Well, whatever the hell it is, and if something happens I’ll be the first to know.’
I nodded. ‘And the rest of us need to get back into Woodford, see if we can find anyone else, see if we can find a way out of here, and just try and come up with some answers about what has happened.’ Everyone looked at me, and no one answered. I raised my palms out flat. ‘Just shout out if anyone thinks we should do something else?’
‘Have we tried to call everyone that we can?’ Said Jessie.
‘Phones are all dead, Electric is down.’ Jeff shook his head. ‘I think we’re on our own at the moment.’
‘What about the water, anyone checked that?’ Natalie said.
‘So what?’ Steve answered. ‘We’re not going to swim our way out of here, sweetheart.’
I saw a frown cross Natalie’s face and just for a moment I was positive she was going to give him a mouthful back, but instead she just shook her head, and I knew that she’d weighed Steve up straight away. Accurately too, if she was thinking the same as me. ‘Yes, I know that,’ she said calmly, ‘but if the water is off we need to think about collecting some. It’s pretty damn hot out there.’
‘That’s right.’ Jeff pointed at the can in Steve’s hand. ‘You can’t live on Soda and beer my friend.’
‘And what about when it gets dark,’ said Jessie. ‘No power means we’ve got no light.’
‘Let’s hope we can get this sorted out by then,’ I said, trying to reassure her with a smile I wasn’t too sure of myself.
‘If we don’t we’ve got a couple of generators back in the workshop,’ Jeff said. ‘They’re old and noisy, but they still work. Run on gas, and that’s something we’ve got plenty of. We can hook ’em up and have light at least.’
‘Okay, it’s starting to sound like a plan.’ I said. ‘I just wish we could all keep in touch. Don’t suppose you’ve got any walkie-talkies in all this lot have you, Jeff?’ I swept my hand in the direction of the store.
He grinned. ‘No. I had a couple of my own last year, but I threw them out with my G.I.Joes. Sorry.’
‘What about cell-phones?’ Natalie was pulling a little silver mobile out of her pocket and flipping the screen open.
‘Phones are down,’ said Steve flatly.
‘Yeah, well when I tried to call home this morning there was nothing, but we might be able to call between us,’ she said. ‘Even if we can’t call past that wall, doesn’t mean we can’t-‘ she stopped and looked up at me with the spark in her eyes that I’d seen yesterday. ‘I’ve actually got a pretty good signal.’
Jessie took out her own phone and asked Natalie for her number, then dialed it quickly. The store was dead silence for a moment, and then a quiet, three note melody began to beep from Natalie’s phone. She activated it, held it to her ear and Jessie said hello.
‘I can hear her fine,’ she said. ‘Looks like that’s working.’ The smile on her face remained.
Jeff reached for the garage phone on a shelf behind the cash register, held the receiver to his ear and tapped the connect button several times, before slamming it back down into the cradle. ‘Well, there’s still nothing from this. Phone lines must run out through that wall, or whatever it is, and it’s just dead. But at least we can still keep in touch in the village.’
In addition to Natalie and Jessie, both myself and Steve had cell-phones. Jeff didn’t, and he joked that modern technology had passed him by. He’d only just moved to CD from Eight-Track, he said. We all fed our numbers into the phones, and I gave mine to Jeff, which he placed carefully on top of the register as if it was a miniature bomb.
‘What about Marsha?’ Said Jessie.
As we’d been talking Marsha had just sat silently, not moving, not even looking at us, just staring out of the dusty windows towards the deserted highway. Truthfully I’d forgotten all about her, I think we all had. Before I could move Natalie crossed over to her table and squatted down by her, placed a hand on her knee. After a moment Marsha looked down at her with a weak smile.
‘Are you okay, Ma’am?’ Natalie said gently.
‘No, not really.’ She patted the back of Natalie’s hand and looked up at all of us. ‘I’m really having a hard time with all of this,’ she said.
‘We all are, Marsha,’ I said. ‘We’re all frightened, but we’re going to try and sort it out. You with us?’
She looked at me with tired eyes. ‘I don’t think I can stand. I just feel so sick.’
Natalie gripped her hand. ‘Don’t worry about it. You can stay here where it’s cool.’ She looked around at Jeff. ‘Can’t she?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘So just stay here,’ she continued, ‘and we’ll go back to the village, find out what we can, and then come back here and tell you all about it. All right?’
It was at that moment I saw the kind of girl Natalie was, and I fell for her there and then. She was sweet and kind, tough enough to shrug of the couple of wiseass comments Steve had thrown at her, and smart enough to be strong with all that had happened this morning. Despite everything my heart still beat that little faster when I looked at her or heard her voice. I just wish that our time together had been like the day before, and not the nightmare we now found ourselves in.
Marcia nodded, and Natalie returned to the where we all stood. Quickly we decided what we were going to do. Steve and Jessie would ride in Jeff’s pickup and Natalie and myself would take the bike. The two of us would check out houses, look for any other signs of life, and Jessie and Steve would head through the village and see if the other road led anywhere, or if that too was blocked by the wall. We’d meet back at my place, then come back to the garage.
‘Keep the phones on at all times,’ Jeff said, as he followed the four of us out into the relentless sun. My boots kicked up little storms of dust as I walked. ‘Let’s not lose any more of us.’
‘We’ll let you know anything that happens,’ said Steve. ‘And we’ll be back soon.’
‘Call if you need us, Jeff,’ I said, as I fired the Harley into life. He nodded and Natalie gave him a small wave as she slid into the seat behind me. She held me tightly as I found first gear and pulled out onto the road, still checking for traffic out of habit, although the highway was as deserted as it had been all day. I felt Natalie’s chin on my shoulder as I accelerated, and I looked in my right view-mirror and saw Jeff’s beaten old truck rattle onto the road behind us, Steve gripping the wheel tightly and Jessie looking small in the passenger seat. Jeff stood on the dirt shoulder and raised his arm to us as we left him behind, and I kept watching him until he was nothing more than a dot in my mirror. Then we went over the crest of a hill and into the small wood, and he disappeared, and I had the terrible feeling that I was never going to see him again.
I think I’d have been more surprised if we’d actually seen someone as we rode into Woodford. The deserted road and houses were already starting to look familiar. I wondered if a huge group of confused residents would just be standing in the street as we rounded the sweeping bend into the main part of the village, but it was as empty as when we’d left. From what I could remember of the cars that had been parked none of them had moved, and certainly no more had appeared. I slowed the bike and turned it into my driveway, and as we were getting off and I was kicking the Harley up onto the stand the pickup passed with a rumble of engine and a cloud of diesel fumes. Jessie waved at us as they passed, and we both watched until they were out of sight heading for the centre of the Bridge.
‘You think they’re going to be all right?’ Natalie said.
‘I think so. You can tell Steve is blaming himself for what happened to Jack. He can be an idiot, but he’s okay really. He’ll look after Jess.’
‘She seems like a nice girl.’
I nodded. ‘She is, that’s her house just over there.’ I pointed across the street. Her little Volkswagen was parked in the driveway, as were both of her parents cars. That was one of the first houses I wanted to check on. I checked my watch. 10.40am. A lot seemed to have happened in two hours. ‘I could use a drink before we start searching around. I’m roasting out here.’ I said. The skin on Natalie’s shoulder was looking redder than before, and I touched it with my little finger. ‘You need to get some lotion on that.’
‘Come into my place,’ she said, ‘and I’ll change into a shirt or something.’ She took me by the hand and we left my bike still ticking and cooling in the driveway and walked around to the Edgecombe house. The porch was cool in the shade as we climbed onto the walkway by the front door, and Natalie pulled a group of keys out of her pocket and led me inside.
There was a lot of old wood and framed photographs, even a grandfather clock ticking methodically in the hallway. It had been a while since I’d been in the house but it appeared unchanged. I followed Natalie down the hallway into the Kitchen, bright with sunlight that flooded through the large bank of windows overlooking the back yard. A traditional farmhouse table stood in the middle of the kitchen with a few bags of groceries on the surface, and as Natalie went to the sink and searched around for a glass I started to put the food away.
‘The water is still running,’ Natalie said.
‘Good.’ I slid two packets of pasta into a cupboard. ‘I still think it would be a good idea to save some though, like you said before. Just in case. What do you think?’
I looked around when there was no reply. She leaning over the sink, water splashing into the drain, and from the way her shoulders where shaking I could see she was crying. I quickly went to her and as I touched her back she turned and pressed her body against mine, her hair in her face and her cheeks flushed red. I stroked her hair and felt hot tears trickle against my neck and she sobbed against me, and I didn’t offer any words of comfort because I didn’t know what to say. I just let her cry, let all the built-up fear flood out of her, and held onto her with my eyes closed. After a while her weeping slowed, until there was a little hitch of breath and I heard her sniff. I opened my eyes and looked down at her. When she spoke her voice was a whisper so slight I could barely hear it.
‘Are we going to die, Dave?’
I shook my head. ‘No, we’re not. Why would you say that?’
She rubbed her hand against her eyes. ‘Because if we are trapped in this place by whatever is coming out of the Earth, we can’t get through it and no-one can get through to us. We’ve got no power, we can’t call anyone, and now we’re thinking of collecting water. And when that runs out, what then?’
‘We don’t even know if we are trapped yet. Steve may at this moment be driving on a clear road.’
‘But what is that thing? I’ve never even heard of something like that. And where is everyone, did they all just walk into that wall and die, fall apart like Jack’s arm did?’
‘Natalie, I just don’t know.’ I said, stroking the small of her back.
‘When we were at the garage and I said about the phones all I could think of was what could be happening to my parents back home. To my friends. They might be in the same situation as us. They might be dead.’
‘My Dad lives alone. He’s getting old and suffers with back pain, and I would give anything to just know he was all right. I’m terrified by what’s happening in here, but I’m also scared about what’s happening on the other side of that wall. But if everyone is okay out there, and we have to believe they are, then they can see what’s going on will be trying to help us. Just think of that, okay?’
She was silent for a moment, looking down at my shirt, her breathing becoming calmer. ‘I was in New York on September the Eleventh,’ she said. ‘Not Manhattan, but close enough to see the smoke and dust across the entire city. I thought that World War three had started.’
‘I watched it live on the TV. I thought the same thing.’
She swallowed hard. ‘D’you think that’s what happening here, some kind of terrorist attack?’
I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head. ‘No. I don’t see how it can be. Terrorists would just detonate a bomb or shoot people. That thing is just some kind of natural phenomena. I was thinking about it as we rode back here. Maybe it’s just something that’s come from deep down, split the earth open and forced it’s way out. But I don’t think it’s the work of men. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever seen anything like it before.’
She leant forward and kissed my adam’s apple, her lips brushing lightly against my skin. ‘I’m sorry that I cried.’
‘You don’t need to apologize, I feel like it myself. You were brilliant back at the garage.’ I raised her chin with my finger and smiled. ‘Getting everything organized. I was really proud of you.’ I returned the kiss she had just given me, this time to her mouth. ‘I wish you weren’t here for all of this, but I’m glad you are. If that makes any sense?’
‘It does. I’m just glad that I met you last night.’
We looked into each others eyes and then kissed again, longer this time, as if we both needed the closeness of each other. We only stopped when the cellphone in Natalie’s pocket rang loudly, making us both jump. She pulled it out, glanced at the screen and then handed it to me, the worry once more in her eyes. Steve’s name was flashing on the blue backlit screen. I looked at it for a moment, felt a snake coil into my stomach, then flipped it open. ‘Steve?’
‘You hear me okay, Dave?’ His voice was metallic and raw.
‘Yeah, I can. Found anything?’
He paused before answering, and I desperately hoped that he’d found help, a squadron of emergency vehicles shrieking down the road towards them, bus loads of villagers coming back from some secret night-trip that we knew nothing about. An open clear road.
‘It’s here. Whatever that fucking this is, it’s all around us.’
I closed my eyes, felt bile rise in my throat. Natalie knew from my expression that the news wasn’t good, and she slipped an arm around my waist.
‘No way through?’ I said.
‘Not that I can see. It’s a solid and huge as it was at the other end of the highway. And it looks like it curls away back around Woodford. It runs away across the meadows to the left of me, same on the right. Jessie! Be careful there honey.’ His voice faded as he moved the speaker away from his mouth, and then in the distance I heard the girl say that she was all right. ‘Still there, Dave?’
‘Yeah. Is Jess okay?’
‘She’s fine, I just don’t want her getting to near that thing, is all.’
‘Take care of her, man.’
‘I will. Listen, as we’ve got the pickup I thought we might drive it across the fields, follow the line of this wall and see if anything happens.’
‘Good idea. Just watch your backs, okay?’
‘We will. Where are you two?’
I looked out through the windows into the backyard. ‘Just at home. We’re going to check out some houses, see what we can come up with.’ Natalie now sat on the kitchen table, feet up on a chair and her elbows on her knees, watching me as I talked. I smiled at her. ‘Hopefully we’ll come up with something positive.’
‘I hope so too. Talk to you later.’
‘Call Jeff,’ I said. ‘Let him know what you’ve found.’
‘I will. Be careful.’ There was a crackle as the phone went dead, and I looked at the cell for a moment before snapping it shut. Natalie let out a deep sigh.
‘I assume it’s not good news?’
‘Not really, no.’ I leant on the table next to her. ‘It’s there, just the same. I think it’s all around Woodford.’ I pushed the hair back off my forehead and felt sweat on my brow. ‘Whatever it is, it’s got us trapped.’
She leant into me, her thigh against mine, and looked down at the natural slate that made up the kitchen floor. Her breathing was shallow and I thought she was going to cry again, but just as I was reaching to put an arm around her she looked up with clear eyes. ‘Then we’ve got to do what we can to get out of here,’ she said firmly.
‘I wish I’d met you in New York, Nat,’ I said. ‘And not here.’
‘So do I. But we’re in this thing together now.’ She stroked a hand over my cheek and pressed her face to mine. ‘I’m glad we’re together,’ she whispered.
‘So am I.’
She kissed me again and jumped down off the table, pulled me up by my arm. ‘I’m going upstairs to get a shirt on.’
‘Want me to come up with you?’
As soon as I said that I realized that it could be interpreted in two ways. Go upstairs with her in case she was frightened of being alone, or go upstairs with her for a different reason entirely. She stopped at the doorway and leant on the frame, looking back at me. ‘Listen, I didn’t mean it like that,’ I said. ‘What I-‘
‘Yes. I want you to come up with me,’ she said, and turned around and left the kitchen.
I followed her out and down the hallway, up the wide staircase with it’s crimson carpet running down the centre of the treads and it’s polished banister, and down a long hallway to an open door at the far end. The room was dominated with a large bed, old-fashioned with it’s brass fittings and steel frame. Some of Natalie’s clothes were laid out across the pristine white bedspread, others draped from hangers hooked over the wardrobe door. On the dresser were some of her personal items, a ring and purse, some cash and an I-Pod. She’d left the large white drapes half-drawn to keep the heat out, and
The room was bathed in a creamy softness that was comforting.
Natalie kicked her sandals off and walked into the adjoining bathroom, and as I heard water running I went to the window and looked down on the beautiful garden below, at my own less beautiful one to the left of it, and further on across the cornfield and meadows with their yellowed grass. At the patches of trees and lines of hedgerows that broke up the fields, and at the silent road away in the distance. The world looked so beautiful, but how could it be so bare and devoid of life? And if we were trapped in Woodford Bridge, imprisoned by strange forcefield that had ripped itself free of the Earth, how were we ever going to escape. I thought back to Jack, and how one tiny touch of his finger against the wall had resulted in him losing his arm up to the elbow. With that kind of devastating power, who knew what it was capable of?
Before my thoughts could get any darker I heard Natalie behind me. I turned from the window and the sight of her made me forget for a moment that there was anything ugly and dangerous in my life. She’d pulled her hair loose and it framed her face in a messy tangle that made it look just that little bit sexier, as if she’d just woken up. She’d lost her vest and the bra she wore was small and white, edged with tiny lace trim and covering the swell of her small breasts. The skin on her flat stomach was lightly tanned and toned firm, a faint line of muscle snaking down to the dark smudge of her bellybutton, and although she still wore her faded jeans the top couple of buttons were open, giving me a glimpse of matching underwear and making what I couldn’t see just that more exciting.
‘You’re so beautiful, Natalie,’ I said, trying not to stare at her and aware of the croak in my voice.
She smiled softly and dropped her eyes from mine for a second. ‘Could you put some of this on my shoulders for me,’ she said, holding out a small tube towards me.
She stood in a shaft of sunlight that spilt across the polished wooden floor, and I kissed her, wet strands of her hair against me as I did so. I took the moisturizer from her and she turned around, pulling her hair forward and revealing her slim shoulders and the graceful curve of her back. The skin on both shoulders was pink where the sun had bit into her with light strips from where her vest had offered protection. I flipped the cap on the sunblock and squeezed a blob of white onto my fingers, pressed lightly against her skin.
She shivered. ‘That’s cold.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I muttered, and started to rub the cream in tiny circles across the sunburn. Natalie reached up and slid the thin strap of her bra out of the way, pushing it down to her upper arm and giving me full access to her skin. It was as soft as anything I had ever felt in my life. She leaned her head forward and I worked the cream across the base of her neck, the tiny bump at the top of her spine, and then onto the other shoulder. I hooked my finger under the other bra-strap and pulled it free, worked the moisture into the burnt skin. I let my gaze travel down her back as I did so, to the flare of her hips and the jeans that were low on the curves of her butt.
‘You’ve got gentle hands,’ she said quietly.
‘I’m not hurting you?’
‘No. It feels nice.’ She took a step until her back was pressed against me, her hair against my chin. ‘Put your arms around me.’
I dropped the tube on the bed and ran my hands over her stomach, pulled her back against me and hugged her tightly. She turned her head until my lips brushed her ear and I kissed her, moving my mouth down onto the nape of her neck and dotting it with tiny kisses. She held my hands on her belly and pushed herself back against me, her bottom against my crotch, and it was obvious that I had an erection yet she never moved away. I started to tease my fingers around her bellybutton and that was when she pulled my hands upwards, over her ribs and onto the fabric of her bra. My thumbs moved up the curve of her breasts until I felt her nipples pushing hard against the cotton. I circled them and she moaned, and I carefully kissed the burnt skin on her shoulder, smelt the scent of vanilla on her body.
She turned around, and my hands dragged the bra from her as she did so, and I looked down at her perfect breasts, the cream of her skin capped with dark points. I felt my breathing quicken as I looked at her nakedness, then watched as she opened the remaining buttons on her jeans and shrugged them over her hips. Her panties were small and white, thighs smooth and tanned as the jeans fell to her ankles, and she wrapped her arms around my neck and kissed me with her tongue pushing into my mouth. One hand went into my hair, another slid under the hem of my T-shirt, caressed my skin, drew and line up my stomach. I lifted my arms and my shirt was off me in a moment and dropped at my feet, and then a rush of lust hit me as Natalie’s hard nipples pressed into my chest and I cupped her tight buttocks in my hands and lifted her petite body up against mine. And then at that moment she shivered. It was hot in the room and our skins were even hotter, and I knew she wasn’t shivering through cold. When our kiss parted and I looked into her eyes I knew there was something wrong.
‘What is it?’ I said.
She held me tightly and looked towards the window. ‘I don’t know. It feels like someone is watching us.’
‘Can’t be. There’s no-one around, and even if there was they couldn’t see in here.’
‘I felt it, Dave. Didn’t you, just a moment ago?’
As a matter of fact I had felt it. I’d had a feeling we were being watched from the moment we’d walked into the bedroom. I’d tried to forget about it, and if I’m honest a nearly naked Natalie kissing and rubbing against me had helped to do that. I figured it was just guilt that we were being intimate together while everything else around us was happening. Although I knew it would probably mean that our imminent love-making would stop, I said this to her.
She looked at me sadly. ‘Perhaps you’re right. We’re supposed to be out there looking for people.’
‘I know. It’s just that…’ I stopped and looked down, unsure of what I wanted to say. ‘It’s just that today has been so weird, so frightening, and being here with you is just so real.’ I looked back into her eyes. ‘I just want to stay in this room and not go back out there and just kiss you and hold you and forget everything else. And I know that’s selfish, but that’s how I feel.’
She stroked my neck. ‘You know I feel like that too, don’t you? All I wanted to do today was spend time with you, have breakfast, let you walk me around where you live and then fall into bed with you for the rest of the day.’
‘Showed you some of the place, at least,’ I said.
She smiled and leant her head against me. ‘Yeah, I just thought there’d be more people here. And a way out.’
I managed a laugh at that. ‘I know you wanted to get away from it all. Just not like like this.’
She kissed me once more, and everytime she did it felt that little bit sweeter. ‘Listen, we’ll get dressed, go back out there and find what we can,’ she said. ‘No matter what happens, we’ll be with each other tonight, and believe me I am not going to be sleeping alone. They’ll be plenty of time for just me and you. I promise.’
‘Well, regardless of what happens, I promise you that I’ll never forget just how beautiful you look at this moment,’ I whispered.
‘I think you’ve been in the sun too long,’ she said, blushing slightly red, but the look in her eyes was something to behold, and I knew that what I’d said had meant something special to her. We hugged each other, arms tight around our backs, knowing that when we let go it was time to go back into the heat and the fear of this crazy day. And it was then that the phone rang.
I groaned and looked down at Natalie’s cellular on the bed. She let go of me and stepped back, bending over and pulled her crumpled jeans away from her ankles, never taking her eyes off me as I sat down on the cool sheet and opened the phone. Steve, calling again. I felt the sickness of dread once more and forced it away. This time it could be good news. I pressed the activate button. ‘Steve.’
The line was faint, but I could still hear clearly enough. ‘No, it’s me Jessie.’
‘Jess. You okay?’ As I said her name I saw concern in Natalie’s eyes.
‘No, well yes,’ she said with a tremor in her voice. ‘We’ve found someone else.’
‘You have? That’s great. Is Steve all right?’
‘Yes. He’s just helping them into the truck now. He says they’re in shock.’
‘Them? How many people have you found?’ I felt a snatch of hope come back to the tone of my voice.
‘Two. They were in this field, near the… the wall thing. All they can say is what happened to their parents. It’s awful, Mr Emerson.’
It was odd to hear Jessie calling me by my last name, a politeness I wasn’t used to, especially from a nineteen year old. ‘What happened, Jess. How old are they?’
‘Just about ten or eleven, we think. They can’t tell us anything about themselves, and-‘ I heard the phone being shifted. ‘Hold on, Steve wants to talk to you.’
I looked at Natalie, still watching me but now starting to button a white shirt closed. She hadn’t put her bra back on. ‘What’s going on?’ She whispered, and I shrugged, then Steve came on the line. His voice was urgent.
‘We’ve found two kids, Dave. Out here in the middle of nowhere. We must be a good mile off the road.’
‘What where they doing?’
‘Just sitting by this bank of energy. They look terrified.’
I swallowed hard, felt dust in my throat. ‘Jess said they were talking about their parents. Where are they?’
‘I don’t know.’ I heard him clear his throat before he spoke again. When he did I knew why. ‘Dave, all they keep saying is that they were taken away. That they were dragged away.’
My hand was tight on the cellular, the blood in my ears crashing like the ocean. ‘Taken away by who?’
‘They keep saying one thing. They keep saying that monsters took their Mummy and Daddy away.’
To be continued next month…
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