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From there, they headed out through the ruins of the suburbs, back around towards the city.
They reasoned that the city had been a safe zone, so to go the other side of it should be safe.
There sure as hell wasn’t anything worth salvaging around these parts.
The roads were clear, save for mangled vehicles which had piled up in an immense collision.
‘Road’s all fucking snarled up,’ Bennett said.
‘I can get through this way.’
Monique pulled onto the other side of the road and headed past it.
Bennett tried to count the cars, but in the darkness it was hard to see.
The way they’d crashed had made it all look like one long vehicle anyway.
They saw no one on the roads, not even the spacemen as Bennett had come to call them.
It was creepy as shit; not a single soul in the world.
‘Do you think anyone survived?’ Monique asked.
‘The people in the city. Apart from that I really don’t know.’
‘So do we head to the city?’
Bennett shook his head. ‘I can’t go back there.’
Monique furrowed her brow.
‘The city did this,’ he said.
Monique already knew him well enough to know that the haunted, faraway look in his eyes meant she was not going to get any more out of him on the subject.
‘Where do you go?’ she said.
‘When you’re thinking like that. Where does your mind go?’
A flash of him pulling the trigger on a group of innocent concert-goers flashed into his head.
Bullets chewing away the skulls and torsos of revellers, transforming their gyrations into the dances of death.
He shook his head vehemently.
‘I’m trying to figure out where your daughter could have gone.’
She nodded, seemingly buying the lie.
‘I haven’t a fucking clue.’
They found somewhere that seemed pretty safe – nowhere would be completely safe now, they both realised that – but there was none of the eerie warm snow falling.
There weren’t any spacemen or dumper trucks around.
It was fucking creepy.
But nice in a way.
‘People always did do my head in,’ Monique smiled. ‘This might be better.’
Bennett shrugged. ‘We’ve got no fucking choice, so we might as well make the best of it, I guess.’
‘So, Monique. You’ve got pretty much an entire abandoned city to call your own. Where do you wanna live?’
They found a place that was secure; lift access only with a shutoff switch which kept it up on the first floor.
The bonus was that it was a book store; perfect for an avid reader like Monique.
They set about making it hard to break into; they figured anyone around now would be desperate and dangerous.
They barricaded most of the windows shut.
Sealed the windows with sheets of plastic to prevent the fallout getting through.
The CCTV system in the building was still working, so they used this to monitor the streets around them.
After they had finished fortifying it, Monique looked around the store. She was as excited as a kid in a sweet shop.
So Bennett was surprised when he found her crouched by the shelving in one of the corners, a book in her hand, her body racked with sobs.
‘What’s the matter?’ he said, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder.
‘This was my daughter’s favourite book,’ she said, holding up a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Bennett nodded sadly.
She stood slowly, moved further round the book shelves. ‘And this was my son’s.’ She held aloft a pristine copy of Jurassic Park. ‘He must have read this book a hundred goddamned times. The pages were all falling out,’ she said, sniffing and wiping tears from her eyes. ‘Isn’t it funny how the littlest things can remind you of them?’
‘It’s the little things that make life.’
Monique nodded and smiled, tears still rimming her eyes. ‘I’m gonna go straighten myself up now.’
When she came back, she looked everywhere for Bennett but couldn’t find him.
She looked around for the two books she had found but they were also nowhere to be found.
Bennett emerged from the corridor, took her gently by the hand and said, ‘I want you to come outside with me.’
She looked puzzled and scared.
‘You remember I said I had a surprise for you?’
‘Oh yes. What is it? Should I be excited?’
‘I don’t know if excited is the right word.’
‘You’re teasing me now. Just tell me already.’
‘Come outside with me.’
They went outside and, in the dirt outside the back of the store were two freshly dug holes, roughly six feet by four feet.
Monique looked puzzled. ‘You lost your fucking mind?’
He smiled kindly.
Shook his head.
Thumbed his eye.
He went to the back of the dumper truck they’d stolen to drive here.
Disappeared over the lip of the tipper.
‘What the hell are you doing out here?’ she asked.
He appeared a few seconds later, and what she saw once again made her weep.
‘They deserve a proper burial,’ Bennett said.
She was stunned. ‘But how did you…’
‘Before we set off. I told you to hang around a minute. I went and found them. I dropped the spaceman helmet right next to you. It stuck out like a horse’s cock.’
‘Why would you be so nice to me?’
‘I said to myself that your children deserve a proper grave.’
‘I don’t know what to say.’
Bennett smiled sadly. ‘You don’t have to say anything. Consider this my thank you for you saving my ass.’
Monique watched, gobsmacked, as he carefully carried her son over to the furthest grave and laid him in the dirt.
‘What’s his full name?’
‘Zeke Thomas Lomino.’
‘Zeke Thomas Lomino, I commend your body to the dirt. And now I will read from the good book.’
He cleared his throat theatrically and read aloud a few pages from Jurassic Park.
Then, his expression solemn, he bent down, placed the book on Zeke’s chest, placed his hands on the book and gently flicked his remaining eye shut.
He picked up the shovel and began to cover the child with soil.
‘Wait,’ Monique said. ‘I want to say goodbye.’
She bent down and said some words that Bennett couldn’t make out, then she kissed her son’s forehead.
She took him in for a moment then nodded to Bennett.
She openly wept until the grave was filled.
Then a little longer.
Bennett carried her daughter over next.
He was just as gentle, just as reverent.
He read from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory this time.
Monique watched him, a sad smile on her lips.
He placed the book on Freya’s chest, again placed her hands on the book and flicked her staring eyes shut.
Monique again knelt and whispered something then kissed her child.
‘OK,’ she said.
Bennett covered the grave, smoothed them both over so they looked perfect and put the wooden crosses he’d made at the head of each grave.
‘That was a beautiful thing you’ve just done,’ she smiled.
‘I just thought they’d want something to read up there in heaven.’
‘You’re a good man.’
Bennett frowned. ‘Just trying to right my wrongs,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Sooner or later we all gotta take our medicine,’ Bennett said. ‘If you’re good, your medicine cures ya. If you’re bad, you sure as shit don’t wanna be getting it. I just wanna make sure I’m on the right side of the scales.’
‘You mean like karma?’
‘Yes. Exactly like that. Only we – I – call it medicine.’
They watched the graves for a moment.
One unforgettably beautiful moment.
With the eerie warm snow beginning to fall it was almost like something out of a Christmas scene, albeit a fucked up one.
Then they went back inside.
‘Say, where did you learn to shoot like that?’ Monique asked out of the blue one night in the middle of a meal foraged from out of date items in the book store’s café.
The question caught Bennett off guard and he reacted badly to it.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Just brings up bad memories,’ he said, an involuntary shudder running through his body. ‘I was in the army. Long time ago now, but I was one of their top marksmen. I always kept my skills sharp, hunting and such.’
Monique nodded. ‘Can you teach me to shoot?’
‘I suppose I could.’
‘I wanna be a badass like you,’ she grinned.
‘The fuck you talking about? You’re already a badass.’
They both laughed.
‘It will come in handy if we need to go out,’ Monique said.
‘Yeah. We’re gonna need to defend ourselves if shit hits fan.’
‘Besides the books there’s not much else to do.’
‘There’s gotta be a coupla thousand books in here.’
‘Yeah, but I want to pace myself. We might be here a long time yet.’
Next chapter is here