Click here to read the previous chapter
Click here for a recap of the previous chapter
Monique saw her husband take a burst of rounds to the chest and, since she could see floodlights through a couple of the holes, she knew it wasn’t good.
She knew her priority was now the kids, something reinforced when Sal fell to his knees and gurgled ‘Run,’ through the river of blood that already coursed from his mouth.
Self-preservation was all that mattered now, so she felt no shame in hiding behind an old man and his grandchild.
Better them than me.
Better me than the kids.
That was the insane thought process she now applied to everything.
She was managing to make her way to the right, along with a few more runners, and was beginning to think she and her children were moving towards safety, when the sniper’s bullet tore through her son’s chest.
She cried out in terror and helplessness and despair.
Another round hit him in the face, obliterating his left eye.
Hot blood sprayed her face, mingling with the tears which had already begun to blur her vision.
A shot whistled over her shoulder as she went down with her son, cradling his body.
While she did this, another bullet blew out the right side of her daughter’s face in hot chunks of bloody flesh.
Her daughter’s scream was the worst sound she had ever heard in her life.
Until she heard the hitching in her breath as blood ran down into her lungs and began to suffocate her.
Monique landed on her back on the road.
Her left arm cradled her son tight to her chest.
Her daughter was held just as close in her right.
She held them, sobbing, until their blood ceased to pump out onto her face and chest and neck.
Then she sobbed some more.
‘…And more bodies fell onto us, hiding us from the gunmen,’ she said. ‘I somehow managed to survive. I’ve got pretty good at playing dead.’
‘How long were you there?’ Bennett said.
‘Not a fucking clue. As you’ll have noticed there ain’t really a sunrise or sunset these days. But it felt like a long-ass time.’
Bennett grabbed her, hugged her close. ‘I’m so fucking sorry for your loss.’
‘Thank you for that,’ she said. ‘And thank you for stumbling along when you did. Meeting you was the kick up the ass I needed.’
Tears filled his eyes as he tried to imagine the plight she’d endured.
He struggled to picture it; men like him were not permitted to have families.
You have a family you go soft, everyone said. Hard to blow up innocent women and children when you got some of your own back home.
All too easy to picture their faces instead of the ones you’re killing and before you know it you have a killer who doesn’t want to kill.
He couldn’t even begin to imagine her pain and suffering.
He almost told her of his profession, but stopped himself.
He didn’t quite have the heart to tell her that, up until very recently, it could have been him pulling the trigger on her family that day at the mall.
They drove on, searching for somewhere safe.
The giant cloud of smoke and ash and pulverised humanity still obliterated most of the view, so it was hard to navigate.
They drove up the central spine of the road that led to the charnel pits.
From up here, Bennett got a good look at the true scale of the operation.
The pits were roughly the size of a football field.
There were some lying empty, but already dug out, as if this had been planned out months ago.
The spine ran down the middle, roads leading off to the left and right like the branches of a tree.
‘The tree of pain,’ some of the guards had referred to it as, and at the time he’d wondered what the hell they were talking about.
Now he knew.
Again it was something he wished he didn’t know.
The floodlights cast everything in an eerie glow.
Dumper trucks arrived at the other pits, sending more bodies falling like rag dolls into the mangled mass of dead men, women and children.
He lost count of the pits after a dozen, but there were many many more.
It saddened and sickened him to think that he had very recently had a hand in this.
He tried to estimate how many of these pits he had personally filled in his lifetime.
He didn’t want to pursue this line of thought so he shook his head violently.
‘Something wrong?’ Monique said, glancing over at him.
He debated telling her, but again bottled it.
It weighed heavily on him all of a sudden, as though the fallout in the air had awoken his conscience.
Once again, he vowed to somehow make amends for it.
Out from the tree of pain were JCBs working to dig out more charnel pits. Obviously the excess of people was still a problem, even in death.
The entire area was dedicated to mass graves, so sprawling that it was like nothing Bennett had ever seen.
It was like a new Holocaust.
‘There’s just so much death,’ he said, shaking his head, forlorn.
Monique nodded. He noticed she’d backhanded a tear from her eye while she drove.
As they passed the outer perimeter of the new pits being dug, it looked as though snow was beginning to blizzard into the windscreen.
It was like driving through a snow storm.
Like being a spaceship pilot, he’d always thought when he was a kid.
He idly wondered what the ten-year-old version of him would have thought of him now.
He shook his head, feeling deeply ashamed.
It felt as though all the blood on his hands had seeped through and stained his soul.
‘It’s snowing,’ Monique said and wound the window down.
As the flying flakes hit her arm, she recoiled. ‘Eerugh! It’s hot.’
Suddenly everything clicked in Bennett’s head and he bellowed at her to shut the window.
‘It’s fucking ashes,’ he sobbed. ‘It’s the ashes of the poor bastards vaporised in the explosion.’
She gawped at him.
‘Get it off you, it’ll give you radiation poisoning.’
She tried wiping it on the side of the truck.
‘Pull over,’ he said.
She found a safe spot where there were no guards or diggers and stopped.
He grabbed a pack of industrial wipes from the passenger door and started wiping her arm frantically. ‘That shit could kill you,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘Calm down, it was only on there a second,’ she said.
‘You should be fine,’ he said, as if he’d never heard her.
She pulled away, headed down a long, dark road away from the mass graves.
‘The fuck do we head now?’ Bennett said, upon coming to the end of the long road that led to the charnel pits.
Monique looked around, shrugged.
‘There’s nothing here any more. The whole world’s fucked.’ He began to sob.
‘Listen. I’m going through my own shit over here, Bennett. I’m not sure if I’m strong enough to deal with that right now. But I can try and help you. You have to talk to me. There’s obviously something wrong.’
‘You got that right,’ he muttered.
‘So spill the fucking beans.’
He shook his head, tears rolling down his cheeks. ‘I don’t even know where to start.’
A thought suddenly hit him.
‘You’ve been out there in this for days with no protection. You’ll make yourself ill.’
She looked round at him, puzzled.
He frenziedly began to take off his protective suit. ‘Put this on,’ he said. ‘It’ll keep you safe.’
‘No, I’m good, thanks.’
‘Put it on.’
‘No, really, I’m good.’
From the corner of her eye, she saw the gun barrel appear by the side of her head.
‘I’m fucking insisting,’ he said, an insane grin on his face.
She saw the mad look in his eye and relented. ‘Ok, but only so you stop waving that fucking gun in my face.’
The areas surrounding the mall were badly hit by the bomb.
Buildings were reduced to rubble, scattered across the landscape in every direction.
Some buildings were just holes in the ground now.
There was a mangled mixture of broken bodies, buildings and vehicles.
And all above, the eerie dark clouds roiled and twisted. Blazing embers rose and fell within the black swollen mass.
The horrible warm snow fell on the shattered remains.
Nothing moved in the bleak vista which seemed to stretch to every horizon, save for the wind rustling the clothes of the dead.
A red and black penny floater football rolled around the debris, stopping next to the outstretched hand of a dead man.
It stopped for a few seconds, then the wind sent it flying across the debris once more.
‘Fuck,’ Monique said, stopping the truck to take in the scene. ‘There’s just… nothing.’
Bennett shook his head.
She closed her eyes, thought of all that she had lost, ‘My eldest daughter is still out there somewhere.’
‘She’s probably dead by now,’ Bennett said, unable to come up with any sugar coating.
Monique looked him dead in the eye and nodded. ‘I know that. But until I know for definite, I have to keep looking. I could sure do with a hand, it’s a hell of a mess out here.’
Next chapter is here