Ben cursed under his breath as he stared at the crude handwritten sign hanging over the grimy yellow petrol pump. His teeth clenching together, his hands balling into tight fists, he turned towards his brother, hoping for good news. Mason shook his head, lifting a similar sign on the other pump and twisting it around so Ben could read it.
“Shit!” he growled, turning and kicking a pebble on the ground in front of him, watching as it skipped over the forecourt and out over the narrow road, disappearing into the long grass on the other side.
“How much fuel do we have left?” Mason asked, approaching him slowly, cautiously.
“Not enough,” Ben sighed, shaking his head. “A little under quarter of a tank.”
“There's a town about thirty miles away, further along this road,” his brother informed him. “We should have enough to make it there.”
“And what then?” Ben asked, struggling and failing to conceal his frustration. “Either the place will have been stripped bare like the last town, or it'll be occupied and we'll be chased away by men with guns.”
“Or maybe they'll trade with us?” Mason suggested. “We've got a good supply of food and medical supplies...”
“All of which we need,” Ben stated.
“Then maybe they'll let us join them?” Mason shrugged.
“Is that what you want?” Ben frowned at him. “I thought we were going to look for a little farm somewhere, build a place on our own terms, live by our own rules.”
“I know,” Mason nodded, “but...we've been on the road for four months now, Ben. Every time we find a place that looks suitable, there's already someone there. I'm tired.”
“I know,” Ben sighed, turning away from his brother, walking to the edge of the road.
He stared into the woods, a barricade of silent soldiers guarding the roadside, wondering what it would be like to just run, to flee into them, allowing their shadowy darkness to claim him. He imagined himself racing through the trees, ignoring calls from his brother, not stopping until he could no longer hear his voice, until his legs could carry him no further.
He wouldn't do it, of course. He couldn't. But for a few blissful seconds the idea was intoxicating.
He turned, gazing over the roof of the gas station at the mountain towering above it, a rocky behemoth climbing high into the sky, its peak hidden by a sea of fluffy white clouds. There had been a time in his life when he could have appreciated its beauty, marvelled at the wonder of such a spectacle, but now all he saw was another obstacle looming in his path. Beyond it he knew lay lush valleys, fertile arable land, dozens of farms, many of which he felt sure would still be unclaimed.
Had the mountain not been there, had the land before him been flat, it would have been a journey of just forty miles. Their quarter tank of gas would have seen them there easily, perhaps with a little to spare, but getting around the mountain, that was a much longer journey. More than a hundred miles of road winding through the trees, over hills and rivers, twisting and turning its way around the sleeping giant.
He sighed, shaking his head. There was no way to avoid it. They would have to try their luck at the next town, hope that they could find fuel there, that if there were people still in the place they would be friendly, welcoming, open to the idea of trade.
In the first few weeks after the plague, people had been more willing to help each other. There was a sense of comradeship as people mourned the loved ones they'd lost, as they celebrated their survival, but as soon as people began to realise they were on their own, that the government was gone, that no help would be coming, things changed. They began hoarding, stockpiling food, water, fuel, anything they thought they might need to survive, most willing to die to protect the things they had, others willing to kill to acquire more.
There were some, a scarce few, who were still willing to help their fellow man. Ben smiled as he recalled the elderly couple they'd encountered nine weeks into their journey, a couple who had welcomed them into their home, offered them soup, water, a comfortable bed for the night, asking nothing more than companionship and conversation in exchange for their generosity. Then there were the teenagers who had set up camp in a mall, more than a dozen of them, kids really. Ben had been wary when first he'd seen them, and had almost turned away, but they'd welcomed him and Mason with a healthy dose of cautious kindness, trading bottled water and a change of clothes for a few cans of soup and beans.
Such people were few and far between, though. Most seemed interested only in taking care of themselves, looking out for their own interests, driving away anyone they perceived as a threat. Ben had little hope that if anyone remained in the next town they would be welcoming, open to the idea of trade, willing to consider parting with anything they had no matter how generous the deal, but what other choice did he have?
“Let's get back in the car,” he said finally, offering his brother a weak smile.
“It's going to be ok,” Mason told him as he ambled slowly back to their vehicle. “Even if we don't find what we need in the next town, we'll walk if we have to, carry as much as we can. You'll find us somewhere safe to call home.”
“I hope you're right,” Ben said, climbing into the car. “I really do.”
Pulling off the gas station forecourt and back onto the road, Ben glanced at his brother, wondering how the boy could be so optimistic even after all that had happened. Throughout their journey, not matter how bleak things seemed, Mason always managed to smile, to find a kind word to say, to look to the future with hope. Ben had tried to share his brother's outlook, but as the days became weeks and the weeks became months, he'd found it increasingly difficult.
Too often he'd found himself dwelling on the past, wishing everything could be as it was once more, even though life had been no picnic before the plague. Three weeks before the first mention of the virus on the evening news, Ben's biggest concern had been that the company he worked for might not survive the recession. He worked as a graphic designer in a big advertising company, and though the company was doing better than most there were still talks of cuts, job losses, efforts to cut spending in an effort to keep the business afloat.
Unlike many in his firm, Ben had no family to support, no mortgage to pay, and if he lost his job and could no longer pay his rent he knew his parents wouldn't see him homeless. He knew there was always a bed for him in their home, just a few miles from where he was living. As much as he loved his job, he'd already told his boss that if there were jobs to go he wanted his name to be at the top of the list. He was good at his job, one of the shining lights in his department, but he knew he couldn't justify staying in his job while others with homes and families to support were dismissed.
His boss had assured him that the company was a long way from laying people off, but still Ben had spent many nights lying awake, thinking about what he would do if he found himself out of work. Such was his concern that it barely registered with him when the news reported an outbreak of a deadly virus in Mexico. At the time it hadn't seemed important. Of course, he had sympathy for those infected, those who had lost loved ones, but every other week there seemed to be a report of suffering in some distant part of the world. An earthquake in Turkey, a drought in Kenya, flooding in Bangladesh. It was tragic, but he'd become hardened to such things, donating whatever money he could spare to alleviate the suffering of the victims then putting it out of his mind as he was sure countless others did.
Even when he heard that tourists had returned from Mexico, carrying the virus to the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, it seemed less of an immediate concern than the economic crisis. But then the disease had begun to spread, infecting a handful of people in France, a dozen in Egypt, three in Chicago, eight in London. Every time he switched on the news he heard talks about a global pandemic, seemingly hysterical talk by some about the potential for hundreds of thousands, even millions, of deaths if urgent action wasn't taken immediately.
Still he didn't take it seriously. Not until that Tuesday morning when he turned on the radio and heard that the worldwide death toll had risen by nearly a thousand overnight. He'd arrived at work that day to a very different atmosphere. His colleagues no longer seemed concerned so much about losing their jobs as losing their lives. Even when the government announced that they had ample medicine to deal with any significant outbreak, claimed that those initially infected were recovering well, the virus was all anyone seemed to talk about.
And for good reason.
The next morning the death toll had risen to eight thousand. The morning after to just over twenty. By that Friday there were reports of governments closing their borders in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease. By Sunday news came that they were burning bodies in India, and by that evening his own government was urging people to stay at home, ordering the closure of all schools and non-essential businesses, advising of symptoms to watch out for and what action to take if anyone thought that they or someone they loved was infected.
Mason had called him the following afternoon to tell him that their mother was sick. Ben had packed a bag immediately, driven the few short miles to his parents' house, finding his mother lying in bed, pale, drenched in sweat, almost delirious with fever. By that night his father, too, had begun to show symptoms, taking to his bed beside his wife. He'd urged his sons to leave the house, to stay away from them, but they'd refused. After all, they had already been exposed, and if they were going to become sick they wanted to be in the home they'd both grown up in, where they felt safe.
But neither of them had fallen ill.
For four days they'd stayed with their parents, tending to them, caring for them, watching on the news as the situation worsened, as the death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands, as there were reports that the number of infected had reached the tens of millions worldwide. All news reports ceased the day their mother died. Only a few local radio stations continued to broadcast, and they seemed to know little more about what was happening than Ben did.
His mother passed away in the late afternoon, relatively peacefully considering the distress she'd been in for days. Ben had tried calling for an ambulance, contacting their local doctor, while Mason struggled in vain to revive their mother, but nobody answered his call, and finally they had to concede that their mother was gone. They had wanted to move her body, take her downstairs, down to the cellar, but their father had insisted she stay beside him, telling his sons that she had been at his side for thirty years and one more day wouldn't hurt.
But their father hadn't lasted another day. He'd slipped away during the night, his hand wrapped tightly around that of his wife. At first they'd left them where they lay, certain that sooner or later they would be able to contact someone, an undertaker, to arrange a proper funeral for them, but after two days it became clear that waiting was pointless, that no one was coming to help them.
They'd buried their parents in their back garden, digging a single grave, wider than typical, wide enough to accommodate them both, laying their bodies side-by-side, their hands still interlocked, covering them with a plain white sheet before piling soil on top of them. Ben had sat beside the grave all through that night, ignoring the frigid winter air, just staring at the spot where his parents lay, unable to accept that they were gone.
The following morning Mason had come out for him, encouraged him inside, fed him a bowl of steaming soup as they sat silently across from one another at the dining table. And there they'd remained, in the house they'd grown up in, unwilling to abandon it. But abandon it they had.
In early March, as the weather warmed, they began to notice the smell. At first it was merely a faint, unpleasant odour, but within a week it had become an unpalatable stench, the smell of thousands of bodies decaying left to rot where they lay. Initially they'd talked about travelling from house to house, burying the bodies, but they'd quickly realised how unrealistic that plan was. There were too many. Far too many. And so, reluctantly, they'd decided to leave their home, leave the city they'd grown up in, setting out on what they'd hoped would be a short journey to find somewhere new to live.
For the first month they'd driven aimlessly, gathering supplies, piling them into the back of Ben's ageing Landrover. Sometime in mid-April they'd come up with the plan to find a farm somewhere, a small place large enough to accommodate some chickens, a couple of cows, a plot of land where they could grow fruit and vegetables. They didn't need much. Just enough to feed the two of them and possibly a few others, kindly people like themselves, willing to work together to survive.
But they'd left it too long. Too many others had come to the same idea, claiming land for themselves. Some had been willing to take them in, to give them beds, food, water in exchange for work, but on each occasion Ben had refused their offers graciously, determined that he would find a place for himself and Mason where they could live according to their own rules, where they would not have to be dictated to by others.
Perhaps he'd been short-sighted, stubborn, even foolish, but in his mind he'd lost everything and he needed to have something of his own. He needed security he didn't think he could find living in someone else's house, working on someone else's land. And so they'd travelled, moving from place to place in search of a house, some land, somewhere away from towns and cities, somewhere they could defend if they had to. A place where...
“Stop!” Mason shouted, shaking Ben from his thoughts.
Ben slammed on the brakes, his heart pounding in his chest as the car skidded to a halt. “What is it?” he demanded, staring hard at his brother. “Did I hit something?”
“Back up,” Mason instructed. “I saw something.”
“What?” Ben frowned, barely able to contain his annoyance.
“Just back up!” Mason stated, glancing over his shoulder.
Taking a deep breath, Ben pressed his foot down on the clutch, shifting the car into reverse. He rolled back slowly, carefully, using the mirrors to ensure he stayed on the narrow road, his hands still trembling from the start his brother had given him.
“Here!” Mason announced excitedly.
Ben moved his foot to the brakes, slowing the car to a halt before shifting the gear to neutral. Only then did he look at his brother. Mason was pointing to something on the side of the road, gesturing fiercely for Ben to look. He followed the line of his brother's finger, frowning as his eyes fell upon a wooden sign beside a dirt track on the right side of the road. At the top of the post there was a wooden plaque, into which two words had been carved in neat italic lettering.
Beneath it another sign had been added, a plane slab of white-painted wood upon which had been written a simple message.
Food, fuel and water traded. All welcome.
“Well?” Mason grinned at him.
Ben shook his head. “There's no way of knowing how long that sign's been there, Mase,” he sighed. “It could have been put up before the plague.”
“No,” Mason said confidently, shaking his head. “Think about it. It says food, fuel and water traded. Before the plague, back when money meant something, it would have said sold. And look at the handwriting. It looks like the same writing we saw on the pumps at the gas station.”
“You can't possibly...” Ben began.
“What does it hurt to check it out?” Mason asked. “If it's a bust we'll still have enough fuel to get to the next town, and at worst it'll mean we'll have to walk a few extra miles when we run out of gas. But if we can get fuel here...”
Ben sighed, nodding his head. “I guess it's worth a try.”
“Damn right it is,” Mason grinned.
“Just in case we run into any trouble,” Ben said, “grab Dad's gun from my bag in the back. It's loaded, so be careful. First sign of trouble, hand it to me.”
“Sure thing,” Mason nodded, turning to reach for the bag.
* * *
Ben grunted as the car bounced over yet another pothole in the road, his teeth clacking together as the vehicle lurched from side to side. He sighed, turning to his brother and rolling his eyes. For his part, Mason was gracious enough to offer an apologetic smile, shrugging his shoulders as the car hit yet another bump, throwing both a couple of inches into the air, off their seats, as the car crunched down on the other side.
“Two miles,” Ben sighed, glancing briefly at his brother. “That's how far we've come up this road. How much more fuel are we going to waste getting to this place?”
“Just another mile,” Mason pleaded with him. “I've got a good feeling about this.”
“I'm glad one of us does,” Ben said, though he couldn't deny that his brother's enthusiasm was infectious.
“Hey,” Mason grinned, “worst case scenario we find the place abandoned and we have somewhere we can bed down for the night.”
“No,” Ben corrected him. “Worst case scenario we find the place occupied by a group of armed crazies who'll start shooting the moment they see us.”
“If you want to think that way,” Mason winked at him, “the real worst case scenario is that we'll be ambushed by a group of escaped mental patients who'll rape us then eat us alive.”
“That's it,” Ben grinned, “I'm turning around.”
“Where?” Mason asked, nudging him with his elbow. “This road's far too narrow to turn around in.”
“Then I'll reverse all the way back down,” Ben said, slowing the car.
“Don't be a dick,” Mason grinned. “Let's just keep going. Where's your sense of adventure?”
“Packed away in the back under my sleeping bag,” Ben laughed, shaking his head as he eased his foot back onto the accelerator.
“I know you're worried and I know there's lots to worry about,” Mason said, his voice soft, “but I've got a good feeling about this place. We'll get the fuel we need, the price won't be too high and we'll be back on the road again within the hour.”
“I hope so,” Ben replied. “It's starting to get dark and I really don't fancy driving back down here at night.”
“I'll second that,” Mason nodded.
“Let's just hope that if there are people there and they're willing to trade, they don't make us barter for too...” Ben stopped as a building came into view, a neatly-kept three-storey wooden structure.
Slowing the car, he studied the building as they approached, scanning it for signs of life. The building was larger than he'd expected, more like a hotel than a house, with a long porch running across the front of the building and down the right hand side. In front of the building was a gravel car park, two vehicles already sitting there, one a white van, the other a black sports car, both empty, as far as he could see.
Hanging baskets swung in the gentle breeze either side of the large double door at the front of the building, both filled with an array of small pink and red flowers, the plants cascading over the side. A neatly trimmed lawn crept along the right side of the building, broken by a gravel path lined with small grey stones. To the left of the building there were trees, dense woodland that reached so close to the structure some of the branches were actually brushing against it.
Beyond the building, Ben could see a lake, it's shimmering water reflecting the light of the failing sun, a mixture of amber and orange waves flowing peacefully towards the rocky shore. As the drew closer Ben caught sight of a jetty, a narrow wooden pier stretching ten feet into the water, a small rowing boat moored to the far side of it, bound to one of the wooden posts with a thick rope.
On the far side of the lake, the mountain began, its barren rocky face climbing almost vertically from the far shore before easing to a more gentle ascent. In spite of his concerns, Ben couldn't help but feel relaxed as he surveyed the idyllic vista, wishing he had come upon the place under better circumstances. Though he'd worked in graphic design, painting had always been his first love, and it was a view he would have dearly loved to have captured in watercolour.
As they pulled onto the gravel car park the front doors of the building opened, a young man stepping through clad entirely in white, his neatly pressed shirt billowing in the gentle summer breeze. He paused on the porch, regarding them carefully as they pulled up, frowning as Ben parked his car beside the others. A woman, no more than twenty years of age, stepped out of the building, joining the man, whispering to him as she stared at them.
“Ready to be raped and eaten,” Ben whispered to his brother.
“As long as she's the one doing the raping,” Mason grinned at him.
Ben reached for the gun, taking it from his brother's hands and tucking it in his belt before opening the car door, stepping out into the sultry evening heat. He waited for his brother to climb out before locking the car, then turned, smiling at the couple on the porch, attempting to appear as friendly as possible.
“Can I help you?” the man called down to them, reaching to his side and guiding the young woman behind him as his eyes fell on the gun tucked beneath Ben's waistband.
“The sign on the road said you had fuel to trade,” Ben called up to him, keeping his voice amiable in spite of the anxiety that was slowly building within him.
“We do,” the man nodded, “but you'll have to come back in the morning.”
Ben frowned at him. “We're not from around here,” he replied. “We've barely enough gas in the car to get us to the next town. If you'd be willing to part with some, we have food and medical supplies we could trade...”
“We are happy to trade with you,” the man said, cutting him off, “but it's getting dark. We don't leave the lodge after nightfall.”
“We'll be quick,” Ben assured him. “Please. We really need some fuel.”
“I'm sorry,” the man replied, “but...”
He paused as the woman leaned over his shoulder, whispering something in his ear. The man turned to her, frowning at her for a moment before nodding, turning back to Ben and Mason.
“We are happy to offer you food and lodgings for the night,” the man said. “No charge. In the morning we will give you enough fuel to get you where you're going, for a fair price, of course.”
“That's very kind,” Ben nodded, “but we're not looking for a bed for the night. We really want to keep moving.”
“I'm sorry,” the man said, shaking his head firmly. “That's the best we can offer.”
Ben turned, glancing at Mason, rolling his eyes. “Then we'll spend the night in our car,” he said, turning back to face the man.
“No,” the woman said quickly, stepping out from behind her companion. “It's not safe.”
The man raised a hand, beckoning her to be quiet. “There are wild animals in the woods,” the man stated. “Bears, among other things. I really wouldn't advise staying in your vehicle. Not here.”
“I don't...” Ben began.
“Please,” the man said, glancing up at the sky, a sense of urgency in his voice. “I assure you we mean you no harm. You will be safe here. Others have told us of the welcome they've received elsewhere, but we are a peaceful people. If it makes you feel better, you are welcome to keep your gun with you, but I promise we will give you no cause to use it.”
Ben turned to Mason, a frown furrowing his brow. “What do you think?” he asked softly.
“They seem genuine enough,” Mason said. “If they really meant us harm they could have shot us already. All they'd need would be one guy with a gun at one of the windows and they could have taken us out while we stood here.”
“True enough,” Ben nodded. “Even so, these guys are odd. I'm not sure we should stay here.”
“It's up to you,” Mason said, “but I'd much rather sleep in a warm bed than out here in the car.”
Ben sighed, nodding to his brother before turning back to the man. “OK,” he smiled. “We'd be honoured to accept your invitation.”
“Please,” the man said, relaxing slightly, “bring what you need from your car. We have ample food, blankets, even hot running water if you'd like to take a shower, but if you'd like a change of clothes...”
“Thank you,” Ben nodded.
Walking the short distance back to his car, he unlocked it before opening the rear door and retrieving his backpack. Reaching over the assorted supplies, he grabbed Mason's bag, handing it to his brother before closing the door again, locking the car. Swinging his pack over his shoulder, he led the way to the steps leading up to the porch, climbing them slowly. The man smiled at him, extending his hand as Ben reached the porch.
“My name is Matthew,” the man told him before beckoning to the young woman. “This is Caroline.”
“I'm Ben,” Ben told him. “This is my brother Mason.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you,” Matthew smiled. “Please, come inside. I'll introduce you to the others.”
“Others?” Ben frowned as they followed the man into the lodge.
The moment he stepped inside, Ben realised just how right he'd been when he'd first seen the building and considered that it looked more like a hotel than a house. To their right stood a long wooden counter, a reception desk, a door behind it leading into an office. Two further doors led from the large lobby, one large, arched doorway just passed the counter leading into what looked like a dining room, a second to the left that appeared to open into some kind of lounge.
A large wooden staircase led up to the second floor, three numbered doorways visible through the railings of the balcony above. Directly above them was open space all the way up to the rafters, three large skylights staring down at them from the sloped roof. Not only was Ben sure the place had once served as some kind of hotel, but a high quality one at that.
“There are nine of us here,” Matthew told him. “Seven adults, two children.”
“Is this your place?” Ben asked as the man closed the doors behind them, watching as he twisted the key in the lock, as he slid a bolt on the top of the door. “I mean, was it yours before the plague?”
“No,” Matthew replied, smiling at him. “It belongs to Mother.”
“Your mother?” Ben frowned.
“Not exactly,” Matthew replied. “Her name is Abigail, but she insists we all call her Mother. She has lived here for decades. She was good enough to open her door to me when I stumbled across this place, and since then we've taken in others, all wanderers searching for a place to call home.”
“So this is some kind of...commune for survivors?” Mason asked.
“In a sense,” Matthew smiled at him, “though typically when you talk about communes you think about crazed religious cults. We're simply like-minded people looking for a place where we can rebuild our lives in peace.”
“If you're looking for peace you're taking one hell of a risk advertising you have food and fuel,” Ben said. “If we hadn't seen that sign on the road, we'd never have come up here. We mean you no harm, but there are others out there...”
“We can take care of ourselves,” a voice announced from the top of the stairs.
Ben looked up, his hand moving instinctively to the gun in his belt as he saw a tall, broad shouldered man watching them, a rifle clasped firmly in his right hand. He looked to be in his early thirties, a severe-looking figure with a couple of days worth of stubble on his narrow, pointed chin. He wore a blue plaid shirt and jeans, and something about him reminded Ben of the men he'd encountered the one time his father had taken him hunting in the woods near where they lived.
“You'll have to excuse David,” Matthew said, sighing as he shook his head at the man. “He's a good man, but naturally suspicious of strangers.”
“You'd do well to learn from my example,” David stated, descending the stairs slowly. “Who are these people?”
“This is Ben,” Matthew informed him, “and this is Mason. They've come here looking to trade for fuel.”
“Then give them what they need and send them on their way,” David replied gruffly.
“It's getting dark,” Caroline told him meekly. “We've invited them to spend the night here, and will give them all they need in the morning.”
David sighed, shaking his head as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “You people,” he growled. “Always welcoming strangers. When are you going to learn?”
“If we turned away everyone who came here,” Matthew stated sharply, “you would never have become a part of our family.”
David grunted, nodding abruptly before turning and walking into the lounge. Only when he'd left the room did Ben release his hold on his gun.
“I'm sorry about him,” Matthew said quietly. “I'm afraid he has not had the best of experiences. He and a friend were ambushed a week before he came here. David escaped with just a gunshot wound to his leg, but his friend was not so lucky.”
“I understand,” Ben nodded. “There are plenty of crazies out there. To be honest, I can't say I entirely disagree with him.”
“Nor do I,” Matthew conceded. “Regrettably we have had a few visitors with less than honourable intentions. We've been lucky so far. We've sent them on their way and suffered no harm, but David is right. Sooner or later our luck will run out.”
“So why advertise this place?” Mason frowned at him.
“If society is to rebuild,” Matthew answered, “we need to learn to cooperate. Not just small groups like ours working together, but everyone. Already we've established reasonable relations with the people in the next town. They have a factory that used to produce bottled water, so they have more than enough for their needs, but insufficient food to last them throughout the year. We, on the other hand, have an ample supply of food, but a dire need for fresh drinking water.”
“I thought you said we could take a shower?” Ben frowned. “If you have a water shortage...”
“The water for our showers is pumped directly from the lake,” Matthew explained. “It's fresh and clean, though sadly not of good enough quality to drink.”
“I see,” Ben nodded. “But you have ample food?”
“This was a hotel,” Matthew explained. “Actually, a hunting lodge. Mother used to buy more than enough canned food to see her and her guests through the year, so we have sufficient, with our current population, to last at least two. Plus, of course, we can hunt, and Mother has her own vegetable garden out back that yields more than enough for our needs.”
“This is quite a set up you have,” Ben smiled.
“We are blessed,” Matthew nodded. “Though it's not without its challenges. Now, if you would like I can show you to your room. I'm afraid we only have one spare in the main building. There are cabins scattered through the woods, but we don't use them anymore. The room has twin beds, so you and your brother will not need to share.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Ben smiled, grateful that he would not be separated from his brother during the night.
“If you want to have a shower,” Matthew said, “I'm afraid there is only cold water in the bathroom in your room. The toilet is functional, but in order to conserve power we only heat the water in the showers in the lodge's fitness suite. To get to it, go through the dining room and take the door on your left. Though the lights and power sockets work, we ask that you don't use them. I will fetch you a couple of oil lamps from the stores. We usually eat in about an hour, if you would like to join us then?”
“Great,” Ben nodded.
“Just one last thing,” Matthew said. “We must insist that you stay inside the lodge until morning. Please do not open any of the windows or exterior doors for any reason, and keep all curtains and blinds drawn.”
“May I ask why?” Ben frowned.
Matthew shook his head. “I pray you will never have to know.”
* * *
The room Matthew offered them was better than Ben could have expected, furthering his belief that the place had once served as a luxury hunting lodge. The beds were both longer and wider than a standard single, covered in lush cotton sheets. The bare floorboards had been polished and treated, a glossy shine combined with natural knots in the wood pleasing to the eye.
Apart from the beds, the room had two bedside tables and a large dresser, complete with a mirror, radio and television set, though Ben was sure it would be a long time before the latter two objects would serve any real purpose. The bathroom was exquisite; the floor and walls covered by black and white tiles, complete with a white enamel bath, toilet and pedestal sink, all with gold-coloured metal fixtures. There was also a shower in the corner, a large cubicle easily big enough to house four people at once, if anyone should ever desire to share their shower with so many people.
There was running water in the sink, shower and bath, though as Matthew had cautioned the water was unheated. Even so it was far from freezing, doubtless heated by the summer sun. While Mason settled into the room, Ben stripped and jumped into the shower, relishing the cold water as it cascaded over his burning flesh, washing away several days worth of sweat and grime with the soap provided. Stepping out of the shower, he dried himself with one of the three soft white towels that hanging on the rail before wrapping it around his waist and returning to the room.
Mason grinned at him as he entered, bouncing off the bed and immediately beginning to undress, demonstrating absolutely no modesty as he cast off his clothes and trotted into the bathroom. Ben couldn't help but grin at him. At fifteen he'd been horrendously self-conscious about his body. One of his worst nightmares had been the communal showers at school, standing naked beneath them surrounded by other boys his age, constantly worried about how he would measure up beside them yet too afraid to actually look.
His brother seemed to possess no such anxiety. In fact, before the plague he wasn't sure his brother had a care in the world. He was popular at school, athletic, and though he was not the most academically gifted kid in his class, he frequently performed well in tests. Had it not been for the plague, Ben was sure his brother would have had a bright future ahead of him, but all that was gone now.
As he dressed, Ben considered, not for the first time, what life would be like for his brother. He wanted so badly to give Mason the life he deserved, but he knew that no matter what he did he would never be able to achieve that goal. He would never be able to provide him with a career, at least not one he was sure Mason had ever dreamed of, not one that would truly suit his abilities, but more fundamental than that, he would never be able to guarantee him a wife, children of his own.
Of course, Ben knew that it was not his job to provide his brother with those things any more than it had been before the plague, but he wanted those things for himself as much as for Mason. He wanted a wife. He wanted children. He wanted a good job, a nice car, a dog, a cat, a four-bedroomed house with a large garden and a white picket fence. He wanted holidays in far away places like Rome, Paris, Venice. He wanted to go to bars with his friends, get stupidly drunk on a Saturday night. He wanted all those things he'd taken for granted would come to him eventually, if he worked hard enough, but now he felt sure they were things he would never have.
Buttoning his shirt, he cursed under his breath. Cursed those tourists who'd come back from Mexico carrying the virus with them. Cursed the government for not acting faster to contain the disease, for not doing more to treat the infected, for not finding a cure. Cursed his parents for dying, for leaving him and his brother too soon. Cursed the old world for slipping away and the new one for all its limitations, for its cruelty, for its emptiness.
Ben turned, sighing as his brother stepped from the bathroom, a towel wrapped tightly around his slender waist. “I'm fine,” he said, shaking his head.
“No you're not,” Mason said, stepping over to him. “You were brooding again.”
“I do not brood,” Ben replied, a smile arching his lips.
“Sure you do,” Mason nodded, patting his brother on the back as he passed, as he made his way around Ben's bed to his own. “You're always brooding. But it's going to be ok, you know?”
“No,” Ben sighed. “I don't know.”
“Well, I do,” Mason nodded, discarding his towel and snatching a fresh pair of shorts from his bag, stepping into them as he stared at his brother. “We'll find a place, we'll build a big fence around it to keep people out, and we'll be happy.”
“Just the two of us?” Ben frowned at him.
“Hell no,” Mason grinned. “You're a good looking guy, but I'm not into incest.”
“But you are into guys?” Ben teased.
“I'm open-minded,” Mason grinned at him. “If you can find me a hot, leggy blonde guy with big boobs, I'll give him a go.”
“Duly noted,” Ben laughed.
“That's more like it,” Mason smiled. “Look, Ben, I know this is hard for you. You're twenty-two. You should be enjoying life, getting on with your career, out drinking every night with your mates, not stuck looking after a fifteen year old kid.”
“Let me finish,” his brother said, holding up his hand. “Neither of us can change what's happened. Life has thrown us a curve ball, and now we've got to get on with it. It's ok to miss what we had, but we can't dwell on it. I miss my Mum and Dad. I miss my mates. If you repeat this I'll deny it, but I even miss school. I had dreams, plans, but all of that has changed now and so we have a choice. We can either mope about it, or we can set about making the best of what we have. We're alive, and really that's all that matters.”
“When did you get so smart?” Ben smiled at him.
“I've always been this smart,” Mason grinned at him. “You've just been too dumb to notice.”
“I may be dumb,” Ben laughed, “but I can still kick your ass.”
“I don't doubt it,” Mason chuckled. “Now, how's about you quit brooding and we go meet the rest of our hosts? Who knows? Maybe there are even a couple of hotties here.”
“Maybe even a leggy blonde guy with big boobs,” Ben grinned.
“As long as he's hot,” Mason laughed. “Don't forget that part.”
Ben sat on the bed while Mason dressed, folding up his dirty clothes and stuffing them into his bag. When his brother was ready he opened the door to their room, waiting for Mason to exit before closing the door and locking it. It was only when he reached the top of the stairs that he realised he'd left his gun behind. For a moment he considered going back and getting it, but he decided against it. Mason was right. If their hosts had intended them harm they would have shown their hand already.
As they descended the stairs, Caroline stepped out into the lobby, smiling up at them.
“I was just coming to get you,” she said. “Everyone's in the dining room already.”
“I thought dinner wasn't for another twenty minutes?” Ben frowned at her.
“We have kind of a loose schedule here,” she replied. “It can wait, if you'd prefer, but it's ready now.”
“Well I'm starving,” Mason grinned at her, skipping down the remaining steps to the lobby.
“You're always starving,” Ben teased him.
“I'm a growing boy,” Mason retorted, winking up at his brother.
As Caroline led them into the dining room, Ben smiled at the people within who turned to watch them. Matthew and David he already knew, both seated at either end of the long table in the centre of the room, two large candlesticks the only source of light, but sufficient to allow Ben to see their faces, to see his hosts clearly. An elderly lady was sat to Matthew's right, and Ben guessed right away she was the woman they'd referred to as 'Mother'. The others, however, were strangers to him.
“Everyone,” Caroline announced, pausing a few feet from the table, “this is Ben and Mason. They're our guests this evening.”
Her announcements evoked a series of welcoming nods and a couple of friendly waves.
“OK,” she said, turning to the brothers. “Matthew you already know. Beside him is Mother. Next to her is Nathaniel,” she said, gesturing towards a timid looking teenage boy. “Beside him is Cass,” she said, indicating an attractive young woman with long black hair. “You know David, of course,” she continued, “so on this side of the table we have Anna,” a middle aged woman with short-cropped brown hair nodded to them, “and finally Tim,” she pointed towards a young boy of no more than eight who offered them a toothy grin at the sound of his name.
“I thought there were nine of you?” Ben asked.
“My daughter, Francesca,” Anna said, smiling at them. “She's only fourteen months old, so I'm afraid I've settled her down for the night.”
“Of course,” Ben nodded, returning her smile. “Well, it's a pleasure to meet you all. Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Think nothing of it,” Mother stated, nodding politely to him. “I'm sure you can repay us by telling us what life is like outside this place. It's been a while since we last had visitors.”
“We have visits from people in the next town,” Matthew said, “but it's been almost a month since the last strangers stopped by here, and they were hardly the talkative kind.”
“Well I'll be happy to oblige,” Ben said, smiling gratefully at Caroline as she beckoned him to a seat beside Matthew, glancing at Mason as he took the chair next to him. “I'm sorry to say, though, that the picture I have to paint is a fairly bleak one.”
“As I would expect,” David mumbled.
“I'm sure you would,” Ben said, nodding to him. “Matthew told me what happened to you and your friend, and I'm sad to say that if anything the situation has worsened since then. My brother and I have kept to ourselves as far as possible, but when we have encountered people their response has been far from welcoming.”
“That can't be true of everyone,” Matthew frowned at him.
“No,” Ben nodded. “We've encountered people on the road, like us looking for a place to settle, who have been willing to sit and talk, share their food, trade for supplies. Unfortunately, the stories we've heard from some of them...”
“Go on,” David said, leaning forward with interest as Caroline returned from the kitchen carrying plates of food.
“Tell them about the cannibals,” Mason said.
Ben winced. “I'm not sure if how much stock to put in that particular story,” he said, “but one guy we met said that he'd come from a city where some people had turned to cannibalism to feed themselves.”
“Surely things haven't become that bad?” Caroline frowned, setting a plate of food in front of Mother. Ben glanced at the plate, smiling as he saw a large portion of meat surrounded by boiled potatoes and green beans.
“That's what I thought,” he nodded to her. “There's still plenty of food around, so I don't see why people would need to resort to such things so soon, but I suppose it's possible. I've also heard talk of brothels,” he said. “Places cropping up all over the country where kids, boys and girls, are taken and forced into prostitution by their captors who take food and water as payment.”
“The return of slavery,” Mother sighed, shaking her head. “I expect we'll see more of that in time.”
Her words evoked a flurry of conversation around the table while Caroline ferried plates of food from the kitchen, setting one in front of each person at the table. When finally her task was complete she sat, observing the conversation as Ben did, but adding nothing, content merely to listen as the others speculated about what else they might see emerging in the future. Some spoke of strange religious cults, others of fortified cities ruled by vicious dictators, while few more spoke of isolated feudal communities. The only thing none seemed to expect was a new government to unify the land. At least, not for some time and not without much bloodshed.
Ben listened intently as each of his hosts detailed their own experiences of life outside their commune. He shared his outrage when Nathaniel spoke of how he'd initially survived by searching the many abandoned shops for food in the city in which he'd lived since birth, a life he'd sustained for almost two months until a gang claimed the city for their own. He told of how he'd been caught 'stealing' bread from one of the stores, how he'd been taken before the leader of the gang, stripped, beaten and doused in petrol, telling of how the gang intended to burn him alive and would have done so had a passing stranger not put a stop to their activities. Ben watched the tears slip from the boy's eyes as he told of how he fled, naked and bleeding, while the gang attacked that stranger, the man's screams echoing in his ears as he fled down the city streets.
Anna's story was far less brutal, but no less tragic. She spoke of her husband and the four children she'd lost to the plague, how she'd nursed them all as they slowly died, then carried their bodies to a local park where they'd often picnicked together, burying all five side-by-side. She told of how she had walked from her town, her surviving child, Francesca, in her arms, carrying only a picture of her family and a few other sundry items, wandering until Caroline had found her, taken her into her car, driven with her until they'd stumbled across Tayburn Falls.
Perhaps the most tragic of the tales belonged to Tim, though in truth the plague had spelled not the beginning, but the end of his torment. He'd been taken into foster care as a child, placed with parents who were only interested in the money they received for having him and their other foster children in their house. He told of how he'd shared a bedroom with another boy, Chad, and how for as long as he could remember the boy had crept into his bed each night, using Tim for his pleasure, how his foster parents knew of the nightly rapes but did nothing to stop it.
Ben couldn't blame the boy for smiling when he talked about how he'd watched them die, each of them in turn, and almost joined his laughter when he told how he'd set light to the house before he'd left it, just to make sure none of them could rise again and hurt him. Cass had found him two weeks later, virtually feral, and had chased him for nearly an hour before catching him, taking him into her care.
Cass herself had been a schoolteacher before the plague, an orphan who had lost no family she knew of to the disease, spending those final weeks tending to an elderly neighbour. She briefly mentioned the violence she had encountered in her journey before she found Tayburn Falls, but glossed over much of it, suggesting to Ben that much had happened to her that she was unable or unwilling to share.
The meal was nearing an end when something caught Ben's eye, a movement outside the large windows that lined the far wall of the dining room. At first he dismissed it as a mere trick of the light, a shadow passing in front of the moon, but then he saw it again, a figure moving beyond the blinds, visible through the small cracks between the canvas and wooden frame.
“I thought you said no one was allowed outside at night,” he said, interrupting David as he spoke of the incident in which his friend had died.
“I did,” Matthew nodded to him, his brow creasing into a deeply furrowed frown. “Why?”
“I swear I just saw something,” Ben said, rising from the table, his eyes fixed on the window. “Movement outside.”
Silence descended over the table immediately, a sea of anxious faces glancing from him to the window.
“Are you certain?” David asked, his voice trembling as he spoke.
Ben frowned at him, nervous as he saw the obvious fear in the man's face. “I suppose I could be mistaken,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “but I'm sure...”
His words caught in his throat as he heard the voice, a girl's cry coming from outside, from the back garden. It was faint, distressed, as though the girl was in pain. Without waiting for anyone at the table to react, Ben rushed around the table, ran to the window, pulling back the blinds.
“Stop!” he heard Matthew shout to him, his voice urgent, but Ben ignored him, leaning close to the glass, peering out into the night.
He could see the girl. She was stood on the lawn about twenty feet from the back door, the moonlight reflecting her pale, naked flesh. She looked up at him, her eyes pleading with him as she silently mouthed the words she'd previously cried allowed. Ben reached for the key in the lock, twisting it, but before his hand could even touch the handle arms surrounded him, pulling him back.
“Get away from there you damned fool!” David growled at him, dragging him back from the door.
“She's just a little girl!” Ben shrieked at him.
“You don't understand,” Matthew told him, rushing to his side. “It's not what you think.”
“What the hell is wrong with you people!” Ben demanded, fighting against David's hold, struggling to free himself from his grasp.
“I'll get her!” he heard Mason shout, his eyes darting to the door, watching as his brother pulled it open, as he raced out into the night.
“No!” Caroline screamed as David released his hold.
Ben ran to the door, forcing it open even as Matthew tried to close it, pushing the man aside, knocking him to the floor. He wedged his foot beneath the door, preventing anyone else from shifting it as he watched Mason running towards the girl, racing to help her, but as he drew close the desperation disappeared from her face, the fear, the anguish seeming to subside in an instant, replaced instead by a smile so wicked Ben felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise.
Mason skidded to a halt in front of the girl, obviously seeing the same thing as Ben, and then he began to back away, just a few steps. The girl seemed to transform, growing in height by over a foot in the space of a second, her skin swelling, throbbing, expanding. Ben watched in awestruck silence as grey hairs began to sprout from her flesh, as her breasts shrunk into her body, as her face began to mutate. Her jaw seemed to shoot forward, her slender nose pulled with it, turning upwards, forming a snout as her soft blonde hair fell from her scalp.
Ben opened his mouth to shout to Mason, to plead with his brother to return to the lodge, but no words would part his lips. He could do nothing but watch as what had been a small girl of no more than fourteen years transformed into a beast, a towering monster coated in grey hair, claws sprouting from its hands and feet, its body hunching as its spine mutated, dripping fangs emerging from its fearsome jaws.
“Mason!” Ben shrieked, panic gripping him. “Get the hell out of there!”
His brother turned his head, his eyes wide with fear, but before he could move the beast struck, swinging its arm, striking Mason with its savage claws, sending him hurtling through the air back towards the lodge. Ben moved instantly, giving no thought to his own safety, racing to his brother's side as the beast advanced. He crouched beside his brother, grabbing his arm, his eyes falling upon the deep, bloody gashes in his torso visible through his shredded shirt.
He pulled, dragging his brother to his feet as the beast began to advance towards them, walking tall on its hind legs, a guttural growl emanating through its jaws as it moved. As he lifted Mason, Matthew ran to them, grabbing his brother's other arm, helping Ben to lift him. Together they ran, carrying the limp boy back towards the building, but before they could reach the door David appeared, a rifle in hand, raising the barrel high.
Ben ducked, pulling his brother down as a sharp explosion filled the night air, glancing over his shoulder, watching as the beast was knocked back a few paces, the bullet tearing into its chest, but still the creature stood. David fired again. And again. Four times in total, hitting the beast with each shot, but all he did was slow it down.
“Come on!” he yelled, stepping aside as he reloaded, allowing them access to the lodge.
Ben moved again, pulling his brother upright, dragging him up the three wooden steps to the deck and then in, through the door, back to the dining room. As David fired again, Ben tore at his brother's shirt, ripping the garment down the middle, exposing Mason's bloody torso. The gashes were deep, three parallel tears seeping blood over his pale flesh. Ben tore off his own shirt, ignoring the buttons as they flew off, balling the garment up and pressing it tight over the wounds, attempting to stem the flow of blood.
“We can't stop here!” David yelled, pulling the door shut and locking it tight. “That thing could break through the window at...”
His words were silenced by the sound of smashing glass. Ben watched as a clawed hand shredded the blind, grasping David's arm before the man could move. He screeched, pounding the beast's wrist with the butt of his rifle, but with one swift yank the creature pulled him through the door, through what remained of the window, out into the night. Ben watched in horror as it carried David away, dragging his thrashing body across the lawn, towards the woods.
For a moment the room was silent, everyone save Mason staring at the spot where David had stood just seconds before, but then everyone started moving at once. In an instant Matthew and Nathaniel were overturning the dining table, dragging it across the floor towards the shattered door. Anna hurried Tim and Mother from the room, pulling them through the arched doorway to the lobby, away from the chaos. As Ben struggled to stem the flow of blood from his brother's wounds, Caroline dropped to her knees beside them, taking his hands, guiding them away.
“I was a medical student,” she said in a soft voice, “only in my second year, but I know enough to help.”
Ben nodded to her, relinquishing his hold on the bloody shirt, watching as Caroline pried it from his brother's chest. Mason moaned, his face contorting with pain, as Caroline gently probed his wounds.
“The look worse than they are,” she said softly. “So long as we can stop the bleeding and prevent infection, he should recover. He'll have some nasty scars, but right now that's the least of his worries.”
“What was that thing?” Ben panted at her, glancing at Matthew and Nathaniel as they struggled to move the table into place.
“A werewolf,” she said, shaking her head. “I know you're going to think I'm crazy for even suggesting it...”
“Crazy?” Ben frowned. “It was a girl one minute and then...right now I'm ready to believe just about anything.”
“Then believe this,” Matthew said, striding towards them. “We've been hiding from those creatures for months, keeping the windows closed so they wouldn't detect our scent, keeping the blinds drawn so they wouldn't see us, but now they know we're in here.”
“They?” Ben gaped at him. “How many of those things are there?”
“Four that we know of,” Caroline said, snatching the tablecloth from the floor, folding it up before pressing it against Mason's chest. She raised her head, staring at Matthew, “And they've always known we were in here, so don't start pointing fingers. We should have warned them.”
“We did,” Matthew retorted. “We told them to stay inside, to keep the blinds drawn...”
“But we didn't tell them why,” Caroline stated, cutting him off. “They didn't know.”
“What do we do now?” Ben asked, glancing between them.
“We hide,” Cass said, grabbing Nathaniel's wrist and pulling him towards the lobby.
“It's the only thing we can do,” Caroline stated. “The table might slow them down, but they have our scent. It's only a matter of time before...”
A low growl from outside the building silenced her. Ben felt his heart begin to pound in his chest, his eyes widening as he stared at the table, a feeble barricade against the creatures. No one moved. No one spoke. No one did a thing until something outside the building nudged the table, knocking it, shifting it slightly.
“Move!” Matthew hissed, grabbing Mason's arm pulling him upwards. Ben grabbed his brother's other arm, helping him to his feet, carrying him towards the door as the table was knocked again, this time with sufficient force to send it crashing over, exposing the opening in the doorway.
Ben caught a glimpse of two of the creatures before they slipped through the door, a terrified scream catching in his throat as one of the beasts forced its way inside. They hurried to the stairs, dragging Mason up them as quickly as they could, but the first beast was in the lobby before they even reached the top.
“My room!” Ben shouted, pulling Mason up the last couple of steps. “My gun's in there.”
“Guns are useless against these things!” Matthew yelled at him.
“It's the only weapon we've got!” Ben retorted, pulling his brother down the corridor towards their room as Caroline ran ahead, grasping the door handle and tugging it.
“It's locked!” she shouted.
Reaching into his pocket, Ben pulled out the key, tossing it to her. She caught it, slipping it into the lock as the beast bounded upt the stairs behind them. She thrust the door open, jumping inside, holding it open just long enough for Ben, Mason and Matthew to enter before slamming it shut again. As she twisted the key in the lock something on the other side crashed against the door, pounding it with such force that the frame cracked.
“Help me with the dresser!” Matthew yelled to Caroline, dropping Mason's arm.
Ben moved Mason to the bed, lying him down before hurrying over to the pair, helping them as they pushed the dresser over to the door, yet another feeble barricade, but the best they could do. As soon as it was in place, Caroline rushed over to Mason, lifting the tablecloth and studying his wounds again.
“Fetch me a towel from the bathroom!” she shouted.
Ben moved quickly, running through the open door and across the tiled floor, snatching one of the white cotton towels from the rail before returning, handing it to her.
“How's he doing?” he asked.
“He's lost a fair amount of blood,” Caroline told him, pressing the towel hard against the wound as Mason whimpered, “but I think the bleeding's slowing. He'll need medicine.”
“We have penicillin in the car,” Ben said. “Will that help?”
“Absolutely,” Caroline nodded. “Provided we're still alive in the morning we should be able to...”
Her words were silenced once again, this time by the sound of wood splintering from down the hall, a piercing scream filling the corridor outside. Ben snatched his gun from the bedside table where he'd set it before his shower, clasping it firmly, pointing it at the door as the commotion continued, fearful screams turning to pained cries. Ben heard growling, snarling, the smashing of glass, wood splintering, and then nothing.
“Who was that?” he asked, turning to Matthew.
“Anna,” Matthew replied, his eyes brimming with tears. “That means the creatures have them. Anna, Mother, Tim, Francesca...they're all...”
“Maybe they got away?” Ben suggested.
Matthew said nothing, just shook his head, slumping down on the bed beside Mason's feet.
“So what do we do?” Ben asked, pacing the room frantically. “We can't just sit here...”
“That's all we can do,” Caroline told him, shaking her head. “We stay in this room and wait.”
“For what?” Ben demanded. “For those things to break through the door?”
“For morning,” Matthew stated. “We wait until sunlight and then we can...”
Ben span around as something pounded the door, his eyes widening as one of the panels cracked beneath the force of the impact. He felt his breath catch in his throat, his heart thundering in his chest. Something hit the door again, harder this time, and then a third time, a clawed hand smashing through the wood, shattering the panel. Ben raised his gun, firing at it, watching as the bullet tore through the creature's grey, fur-covered paw.
The hand disappeared, retracting through the door, but as quickly as it departed it was replaced by the beast's head, it's jaws breaking through the door, it's head following, then an arm. Ben raised his gun again, firing once, twice, three times, emptying his weapon at the beast, but still it kept coming, unperturbed, as though the bullets were mere insect bites on its leathery flesh.
Matthew leapt from where he sat as the dresser was pushed back, as what remained of the door began to open, fighting to hold it in place, to keep the creature from the room. Ben glanced at the bathroom, wondering if they had time to move Mason in there before the beast broke through, before it was in the room, but even if they did he knew they would be no safer in there. There was nothing inside the room they could use to barricade the door, nothing but a small metal bolt to keep the creature out. Nothing to...
As the beast tore through the door, its entire upper body now in the room, Ben charged at it, raising his gun high, striking it hard across the snout. The beast recoiled, not much, but far enough to reach his goal. As a powerful arm swung towards him, Ben flicked the switch beside the door, flooding the room with light as the beast knocked him hard throwing him against the far wall. Ben slumped to the ground, pain reverberating through his skull. He managed to catch one last glimpse of the creature as it retreated through the shattered door before the darkness claimed him.
* * *
“Ben,” a voice called to him softly. “Ben, wake up.”
Ben opened his eyes, groaning as a searing pain spread from the back of his head to his temple. He winced, closing his eyes again, raising his hand to shield his eyes from the light as he opened them once more. Caroline was crouched in front of him, a delicate smile on her pretty face.
“What...” Ben frowned at her. “The creature!”
He bolted upright, almost knocking Caroline over as he struggled to his feet, but she caught his shoulder, guiding him back down onto the bed.
“It's ok,” she said, her voice barely more than a whisper. “It's over. It's morning.”
“The beast,” Ben muttered, shaking his head. “It...”
“It's gone,” she told him.
Despite her assurances, and the pain in his head, Ben clambered to his feet, gazing at the shattered door. The dresser had been pulled away, set back in its original place, and what remained of the door was now open, a stream of daylight filtering through. Ben turned, his heart racing as he looked upon his brother's motionless body, his skin pale, deathly, almost as white as the bandage wrapped around his battered chest. Ben felt tears burning his eyes as he moved around the bed, his brow creasing into a tight frown as the first pangs of grief began to etch deep into his heart.
Mason stirred, moving his head just a little, a faint whimper escaping his lips.
“He's alive?” Ben gasped, turning to Caroline.
“He is,” she smiled at him. “I hope you don't mind, but just after dawn I went down to your car and raided your medical supplies. That's quite a stash you have.”
“We found a small hospital about a month ago,” Ben told her. “We had no idea what we were taking. We just grabbed everything we could.”
“Well it's a good job you did,” she said. “I managed to stitch his wounds. It's not pretty – I'm afraid sewing was never my forte – but it did the job. I bandaged him up as best I could and gave him a shot of penicillin.”
“He's going to be ok?” Ben asked, a tear slipping from his left eye.
“He should make a full recovery,” she told him. “He's going to need to rest for a week or so. He lost a lot of blood, but he should be just fine.”
“Thank you,” Ben nodded to her. “What about the others?”
Caroline shook her head. “Cass and Nathaniel hid in the attic,” she told him. “They're fine, but the others...”
“I'm sorry,” he said, reaching out and taking her hand. “So what are you going to do now?”
“I don't know,” she sighed. “Cass, Nathaniel and Matthew left first thing this morning. I managed to convince them to leave you enough fuel for your car, as well as some food, but they packed everything else into David's van and left.”
“You didn't go with them?” he frowned at her.
“No,” she sighed. “I wanted to wait and make sure you were ok, but they wouldn't stop. I think Matthew understood that you weren't to blame for what happened, and Nathaniel's not one to hold a grudge, but Cass...she was in half a mind to tie you up outside and leave you for those creatures.”
“I'm glad you talked her out of it,” Ben smiled at her.
“You can thank Matthew for that,” she said, “but the only way he could appease her was to agree to leave right away.”
“I understand,” Ben nodded. “So what about you?”
She shrugged. “Mason's going to need someone to take care of him,” she said. “I was thinking that maybe...”
“I'll clear some space in the back of the car,” Ben smiled at her. “So when do you want to go?”
“Mason shouldn't really be moved for the next couple of days,” she said, “but I don't really think we should hang around.”
“Agreed,” Ben nodded. “I'll get Mason down to the car if you want to grab a few of your things.”
“Already packed and in my room,” she smiled at him. “I'll go get my bag.”
* * *
Caroline watched from the top of the stairs as Ben carried his slumbering brother across the lobby, waiting for them to leave before making her way down the corridor. As she passed Anna's bedroom door she glanced inside, wincing at the sight of the carnage within. Taking a deep breath, she stepped through the shattered door, careful to avoid treading in the pooled blood on the bare floorboards, nudging an arm, Tim's judging by the size of it, out of her way as she made her way across the room.
As she reached the shattered window on the other side, she leaned out, sighing at the sight of Mother's mauled corpse lying on the lawn below. Shrugging her shoulders, she drew the curtains, plunging the room into a half-light, then turned, cocking her head to the side as a grey, fur-covered snout emerged from the shadowy confines of the bathroom.
She smiled as it snarled at her, stepping towards it fearlessly, shaking her head. “You've made quite a mess here,” she said.
The beast exposed its fangs, lunging forward, its teeth snapping at her, but it stopped short, halting a few feet away from her.
“That's quite enough,” she sighed, shaking her head. “Show me your human form.”
Snarling, the beast rose up on its hind legs, a guttural growl escaping its jaws as its body began to contort, fur retracting into flesh, its body shrinking, its snout retreating towards its skull. Finally he stood before her, a young man of no more than twenty, naked, panting, his lips curled into a hateful sneer.
“That's much better,” Caroline smiled at him. “Quite the pretty shape you have. Such a pity it's only a mask.”
She stepped over to him, running her hand over his lightly-muscled torso, her smile growing as he winced beneath her touch.
“Tell your people they have served me well,” she said, caressing his arm before turning away, stepping to the door. “I shall be leaving now, but I have left you a small gift, a token of my appreciation. Three ripe humans in the shed out back.”
The man smiled, bowing his head gratefully.
“Just do me one favour,” she said, pausing in the doorway. “The oldest male, Matthew, make sure he is the last to die. Make sure he watches as you devour the other two. Then kill him. Slowly.”
“I understand,” he nodded.
“I sincerely doubt that,” she laughed, shaking her head.
“And what of you?” he asked.
“My task here is complete,” she answered, glancing back at him from the doorway. “I have found a compatible mate, a worthy human to father my children. With his help my race will be reborn, and with the human population diminished it is only a matter of time before my kind take their place as rulers once again. Now, stay inside this room, out of sight until we're gone, is that understood?”
The man nodded, spitting out his reply as though the very words offended him. “Yes, Huntress,” he answered.
I’d like to say a special thank you to my wife, Alicia, not only for editing my story, but also for being an endless source of encouragement and support. Without her editing skills my story for this anthology would not have been anywhere near as good as it is, and without her I don’t think it would have been written at all. Thank you, Alicia, for being all that you are.
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