Chapter Thirteen

I WAKE UP STRETCHED out on the threadbare living room carpet of the apartment we broke into last night. I ache like hell, but I slept pretty well considering. Our position midway up the high-rise has kept us out of sight, separated by height from the rest of town. The apartment is filled with dark shadows and the dull blue-gray light of early morning. It's raining outside, and the rain clatters against the glass like someone's throwing stones.

Paul's asleep in an armchair in the corner of the room, looking up at the ceiling with closed eyes, his head lolling back on his shoulders. Carol's curled up on the floor near his feet. I get up and stretch, looking around the dull room in daylight for the first time. The decor's badly dated, and the entire apartment's in a hell of a state as aresult of its owner's self-imposed incarceration, but it still feels strangely complete and untouched-isolated to a surprising extent from everything that's happened outside. I glance at my monochrome reflection in a long-silent TV, then pick up a framed photograph that still sits on top of the set. It's a twenty- or thirty-year-old wedding day memory. The guy's just about recognizable as the man from last night. His bride is the corpse next door.

I find Keith in the kitchen with a map spread out on a small Formica-topped table.

"All right?" he asks as I trudge toward him, eyes still full of sleep.

"Fine. You?"

He nods and returns his attention to the map.

"We'll get moving in a while," he announces. "It's all quiet out there for now."

I look down at the map with him and start trying to work out the best route to Lizzie's sister's house. The same two circles representing the edge of the enemy encampment and their exclusion zone have been drawn on this map as on the one Preston showed me yesterday. Except the lines are in slightly different positions on this map. According to this, Lizzie's sister's house is just inside enemy territory. I point to roughly where the house is and look across at Keith.

"That's where we need to go."

"That's where you think you need to go," he answers quickly. "That's where we're going to try to go, but I'm not promising anything. We're out here to find recruits. If we get your kid it's a bonus."

"I know, but-"

"But nothing. We'll head in that direction and see how far we get."

"Is he still going on about that damn kid of his?" Carol says as she shuffles into the kitchen, bleary-eyed. She drags her feet across the sticky linoleum and lights up the first cigarette of the day.

"I've already told him," Keith starts to say, trying (and failing) to stop her from getting involved.

"You've got to let her go," she tells me, blowing smoke in my direction.

"No I don't-"

"Yes you do. What's the point of looking for her? What are you going to do if you find her?"

"I just want to know that she's safe. I want her fighting alongside me."

"And if you don't find her?"

"Then I guess I'll..."

"Assuming she's still alive, what'll happen if you don't find her?"

"She'll just carry on fighting wherever she is."

"Exactly. So what difference does it make?"

"She needs me. She's only five."

"I reckon you need her more than she needs you."

"Bullshit!"

"Not bullshit," she says, shaking her head and flicking ash into a sink filled with dirty plates and cups. "I doubt she needs you at all."

Stupid woman.

"Did you not hear me? She's five years old. I don't even know if she can fight-"

"Of course she can fight. We can all fight. It's instinctive."

"Okay, but what about food? What about keeping warm in the winter and dry in the rain? What if she gets hurt?"

"She'll survive."

"She'll survive?! For Christ's sake, Carol, she can't even tie her own fucking shoelaces!"

Keith folds up his map and pushes his way between us, clearly fed up with being caught in the crossfire of our conversation. I shake my head in disbelief and follow him.

"You need to wake up and start living in the real world," Carol shouts after me. There's no point arguing, so I don't.

***

We're back in the van and ready to move within minutes of Paul waking up. The rain has eased, but the ground is still covered with puddles of dirty black rainwater that hide the potholes and debris and make it even more difficult to follow the roads than it was in the dark last night. Keith manages to avoid most of the obstructions, but when he oversteers to avoid an overturned trash can, one of the rear wheels clips something else. We go a few more yards, and then there's a sudden bang and hiss of air as a tire blows out.

"Shit!" Keith curses, thumping the wheel in frustration.

"Got a spare?" I ask.

"No idea."

He stops in the biggest patch of dry land we can find, and I get out. Paul follows me out and opens the back. He rummages around and manages to find the jack and other tools. The spare's underneath. He starts to get it out. While I'm waiting I walk over to the other side of the road to where the contents of someone's front room have been strewn across the pavement. Their flat-screen TV lies smashed in the gutter, and an expensive-looking rain-soaked sofa hangs precariously out of the broken bay window. Before all this happened we each lived in relative privacy in individual brick-built boxes, what we did and how we did it hidden from view of the rest of the world by our walls, doors, and windows. Strange how the physical worlds of so many people are now as dilapidated and ruined as their emotional state. There's no privacy anymore, no boundaries. Everything we do is in full view and exposed. There's no longer any-

"McCoyne!" Carol shouts at me from the van. "Get out of the fucking way!"

I spin around quickly, but it's too late. Christ knows where he came from, but a powerful-looking man is running straight toward me. He's six foot tall and just as wide, and I can tell from the focus and intent in his wild, staring eyes that he's a Brute like those I saw back at the cull site. Does he not know we're on the same side?

"Wait," I try to say to him, "we're-"

His bulk belies his remarkable speed, and before I can move he's grabbed hold of my arm. He spins me around, then throws me over and slams me down onto my back. I'm already winded and gasping when he drops down onto my chest, his knees forcing the air from my lungs with a violent cough. I try to shout for help, but there's no noise coming.

"Get off him, you fucking idiot," I hear Paul say. I manage to turn my head to the side and watch as he starts hitting the Brute with part of the jack from the van. The Brute doesn't react, barely even notices that he's being hit. He bears down on me, a bizarre mix of terror and excitement on his face.

"Like you," I manage to squeak. "I'm like you."

Working together, Paul and Carol pull him away. They drag him back, drop him on his backside, then scatter like they've just lit the fuse on a stick of dynamite. I try to scramble away, moving back until I hit the wall of the house behind me. The Brute springs up with a low, guttural, warning growl and looks at each of us in turn. Then, painfully slowly, realization seems to dawn. He looks from Paul to Carol to me again. Paul moves toward him with the jack, ready to attack. Carol pulls him back.

"Don't aggravate him," she hisses. "Just drop it and walk away. He doesn't know what he's doing."

Paul does as he's told, dropping the heavy metal tool, which clatters loudly on the ground. Carol stands motionless as the Brute looks her up and down, her back pressed up against the van. Then he slowly turns and slopes away. He's barely made ten yards when something else catches his eye and he breaks into a slow, loping run.

"What the hell was that all about?" I ask as I pick myself up.

"No fucking idea," Paul answers as he returns his attention to changing the tire. I watch the Brute until he's disappeared from view. Did he think I was one of them, or was I just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Did he see me and think I was Unchanged? Are the Brutes really like us, or was he reacting to a difference between us?

***

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