We moved at an uncomfortably relaxed pace. Our world had been invaded and taken from us and yet we didn't seem to be in any immediate danger. I felt as if we should have been sprinting and running for our lives but there wasn't any apparent point or, bizarrely, anything much to run from. The aliens were still very visible in the skies over our heads for sure but, fortunately, that was where they seemed to be staying for the time being. Instinctively we still took care to keep ourselves hidden as much as possible. We walked in the shadows of hedges and fences as often as we could, hoping that we would soon find the winding coast road.
The day now moving towards its end had been so long and painful that it felt as though weeks, not hours had passed by. All that had happened today seemed so ludicrous, far-fetched and unreal and yet, in a peculiar way, the lost normality of the life I'd lost seemed even stranger than the twisted present. I guess it was because I knew there was no going back. Everything I had classed as normal before was now gone forever.
I was conscious that Clare was beginning to tire and lag behind.
'You all right?' I asked, turning round to face her. I struggled to keep my voice at a volume that was sufficiently low and yet which could still be heard over the howling wind. She nodded.
'Fine,' she grunted.
Yet another enormous ship powered overhead. We both stopped moving instantly and pressed our bodies tight against the brittle hedgerow which ran alongside us. No matter what we had been told, instinct forced us both to try and get out of sight when the aliens were close. The massive machines were so quick, powerful and quiet that we had no way of knowing when one was nearby until we saw it like this, vast and impervious. Once it had gone I gently pushed Clare forward again.
'We must be close to the road now,' I whispered. My breath condensed in cool clouds around my mouth. My face felt battered and raw in the cold autumn air.
'You've been saying that for the last half-hour,' Clare hissed. 'Still think we're heading in the right direction?'
I shrugged my shoulders and swapped the heavy holdall from my left to right hand.
'Don't know,' I replied truthfully.
'Still think we're doing the right thing?'
'Don't know,' I said again. 'Do you?'
'Got to have been better than just sitting there and waiting for something to happen though?' I suggested. Who was I fooling? At that moment I would have given anything to have been sitting back in Clare's dark house again. It seemed the easiest option but I knew there was no going back.
It began to pour with rain. It had been spitting since we'd set out but this was much worse. A cold, hard downpour. Icy, relentless and showing no signs of stopping. There were low, heavy clouds all around us.
'Fucking hell,' Clare cursed. She stopped walking.
'What's the matter?'
'What do you think's the matter?' she snapped. 'Fucking hell, Tom, I'm cold, I'm frightened and now I'm fucking wet. What in God's name are we doing out here?'
She wiped dribbles of water from her face and stood and stared at me. I stared back. Her body was haunched forward, and it seemed as though everything required more effort than she could muster. 'Come on,' I insisted, trying to calm and reassure her. 'The road's not far ahead now. All we need to do is...'
'Is what? What's the point? What are we going to achieve?'
I couldn't argue and I couldn't answer. I felt as dejected, empty and frightened as she obviously was. I turned my back on her and walked away. It was easier than trying to reason with her.
'Just keep moving,' I shouted. 'The aliens aren't interested in us. We'll be all right.'
'But what about the others?' she yelled back at me angrily. 'What about Penny? I don't know where my little girl is. I'm out here with you, walking through the countryside in the middle of the fucking night, and my daughter's out there somewhere on her own. I should be with her.'
I shook my head and kept going.
'There's no point.'
'Just trust me, will you?'
'But I want to see her, Tom. I want to go back to the village and see if I can find...'
I stopped walking and turned around to face her again.
'There's no point,' I repeated.
At the last second I stopped myself from telling her about the cull. I couldn't bring myself to break the news to her. She still believed that Penny was alive and I didn't want to be the one to shatter her illusion. I was sure she knew in her heart that she wouldn't see her little girl again, but if she admitted to herself that Penny was gone she wouldn't have any reason to keep moving.
Like a coward I just kept walking. I turned my back on her again and kept walking.
'Tom!' she screamed after me. 'Tom! Come back you bastard!'
I ignored her and walked, hoping that she would follow. Almost a minute had passed before I heard her footsteps at my side again.
'Just trust me, Clare,' I whispered, wiping drops of rain and tears of frustration from my eyes. 'Please just stay with me.'
Clare said nothing.
The hedgerow we were following gradually grew taller and taller. I stopped for a second when something caught my eye. Dense and tangled for the most part, there were other parts where the hedge seemed thinner and almost passable. Crouching down on my hands and knees in the mud, I pushed my head and shoulders through at one of the thinnest points. 'What is it?' Clare asked from behind me.
'The road,' I grinned, standing up again.
'Haven't got a fucking clue. But it's a road, and that's all that matters. I'm sure we'll recognise it if we follow it for a while.'
'You're completely sure?'
'Not completely sure, no. But...'
'Christ, Tom,' she moaned. 'I'm sick and tired of...'
'Listen,' I said quickly, covering her mouth with a muddy hand and silencing her. 'It doesn't matter what fucking road this is, the point is we've found it. We've been travelling in the right direction and we've found a road. If this isn't the road I was thinking of, then there's a bloody good chance that this is the road that will take us to it. Understand?'
I dropped my hand away to give her a chance to respond.
'I just want to stop walking,' she whined. 'I'm cold and I'm tired and I'm scared. I...'
'Shh...' I soothed, pulling her closer to me. 'Let's just get down there and see where we end up.'
I slid the holdall over to the gap in the hedgerow and kicked it through, listening out for the heavy thump as it hit the tarmac. It sounded as if there was a drop of a few feet from the bank down to the road. I took Clare's rucksack from her and pushed that through before doing the same with my own.
Crouching down on my hands and knees, I shuffled backwards until my feet were through the hedge. I felt my way down the bank.
'Come on,' I whispered, looking up at Clare who stood watching me. 'Follow me and keep close. There's a bit of a drop from the field to the road but I'll help you down once you're through.'
She nodded. Once I was sure that she was ready to push her way through the hedgerow after me I scrambled down onto the road. Seconds later the soles of Clare's muddy boots followed me through. I grabbed her legs and guided her down.
'Got you,' I said quietly.
I looked up and down the narrow, twisting lane.
'Well,' she asked, 'know where we are?'
'Not sure,' I answered truthfully.
'Brilliant,' she sighed.
We picked up our rucksacks and the sports bag and walked on.
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