This part follows on from part 6, so click here for a recap of 6.13, the previous chapter in this storyline.
Click here to read 6.13
Part 8: The medicine man
Monique had found great solace on the shelves of the book store that she and Bennett had come to call home.
She read regularly from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Jurassic Park, the books that her late children had enjoyed so much.
She kept their memories close to her heart, but gave herself a little distance so she wasn’t wanting to join them in the grave quite so much.
Bennett had been a godsend, in more ways than one.
They’d fortified their new home, taping plastic from a nearby clothing factory across every window and door to prevent the radioactive fallout getting in.
They’d taken out every staircase – this was great for getting out the negative energy that seemed to be leeching her soul and happiness – making sure the only way up to the upper floors was the building’s lift.
Bennett had figured out how to isolate this so they were able to control when it came up; no sense in having a group of enemies sneaking up on them.
They’d set up alarms around the perimeter; nothing fancy, some trip wires with bells attached to alert them to anyone trying to sneak in, a few empty glass bottles in locations where careless feet might knock them over.
They’d also set up a hose down area where they could leave the clothes that had been tainted by the irradiated outside air.
After maybe a week of being cooped up inside – it was hard to tell as the night was seemingly eternal – Monique suggested they go out.
‘I mean it’ll be good to see what’s around. And also, we got plenty of food, but I could do with a bit of variety. I’m getting sick of eating the same old shit.’
Bennett nodded in agreement. ‘Only thing that worries me is if anyone else is sniffing around.’
Monique pointed through the plastic that covered one of the windows. ‘Are you seeing this shit? It’s a ghost town out there, man.’
He took a look, conceded the point.
Not even tumbleweeds blew up the main street, which was mostly intact.
There were a few chunks blown loose from the buildings, as if a giant had thrown a tantrum and pounded their corners as he stormed past.
‘OK, but only one of us needs to go out there.’
‘What? Are you fucking crazy?’
‘No. Listen. One stays here, holds the fort. They control the lift coming up as we discussed. We knock on the door downstairs. Tune of Staying Alive by the Bee Gees. You hear anyone knocking anything other than that song you know something’s up.’
‘Doesn’t CCTV cover down there?’ Monique said, smiling.
‘Yeah, of course it does. But first thing an intruder is gonna do is blow out the CCTV. Or say it just decides to stop working one day.’
‘Ok, ok. I’ll go with it.’
‘Main reason is there’s only one hazmat suit, so if we both went out, one of us is going to get real sick real soon.’
‘That’s a fair point and one I never thought of.’
‘Other reason is the person inside can give covering fire from the windows if needs be.’
‘Yeah, good thinking.’
‘I was thinking about this,’ Bennett said. ‘At work, we used to have a system. If you were in the building, you put your name card on the board. So the emergency team knew who to look for in case of a fire or an attack.’
‘Sounds a good idea.’
‘There’s a board down there.’ Bennett pointed to a wooden sign across the road from the library. ‘If we’re in the grounds or up here, we leave our mascot on the board. If not, we take it with us.’
‘Yeah, I getcha. So if that’s not there, you’re out.’
‘Why don’t you take a trail of breadcrumbs and leave it behind you too?’ she smiled.
He frowned slightly. ‘This is important.’
‘I know, I know. I’m just playing. You could take a ball of wool with you?’
‘If you’re going to take the piss don’t fucking bother.’
‘I’m serious. Then if anything happens, I just need to follow it to you.’
‘If anything happens I don’t want you coming after me. I’d have the suit on and you’d get ill.’
‘If anything happens to you, radiation poisoning would be the last thing on my mind.’
He went to reply, but saw the glare she was giving him.
He bowed his head, nodded.
‘Yeah. Me too actually.’
‘So who goes first?’
‘I wouldn’t mind a look outside. I’m a better shot too, so I’d be better at looking after myself.’
‘Wouldn’t that make you a better choice for looking out of the window with the rifle?’
‘I… just don’t like the idea of you out there on your own.’
‘Ok, you go out first. But you gotta teach me to shoot already. You’ve been promising forever.’
‘Sorry, I know. I’ve meaning to do it for a while now. When I get back I will.’
Monique nodded. ‘Good. Now you be careful out there.’
Bennett had dressed carefully, making sure he left nowhere exposed. Monique helped to seal the joins in his suit with thick layers of duct tape to minimise his exposure.
‘I’m just gonna explore the closest buildings,’ he said. ‘Unless something catches my eye.’
He had a couple of keyrings from the store’s bookcases.
‘Are these the mascots?’ Monique smirked.
He nodded. ‘Action man for me. They had a Willy Wonka one, so I had to get it for you, for obvious reasons.’
‘You’re so fucking sweet,’ she smiled, a tear glimmering in the corner of her eye.
She hugged him close. Her voice cracked a little. ‘You be careful out there.’
She handed him a ball of string.
‘Take this so I can follow you if needs be.’
He went to interrupt her.
‘I would die to help you,’ she said, before he said anything else.
‘You already nearly did. And I feel the same.’
‘I know,’ she beamed. ‘Now get your ass outside, action man.’
Bennett grinned at her.
‘Now, you need to get this door sealed up with the plastic ASAP, or else you risk some of this shit coming in.’
She pulled the door open.
The wind howled like a rabid animal.
It was cold and dark outside, on account of the sun still being obscured by the huge clouds of dust.
Bennett stepped out, his torch beam scything through the gloom.
She didn’t say anything, just shut the door behind him and resealed the plastic as he had advised.
She felt nervous as hell.
She tried to read to occupy her mind, but found she wasn’t able to concentrate.
If he didn’t return she was on her own.
She cursed going along with his idea; they should never have separated.
She was on edge the whole time.
It seemed she walked over to the window at least once every minute, checking through the sniper scope for the action man returning to the wooden sign board.
The faded bronze hook was still empty.
‘Shit,’ she said. ‘Why the fuck didn’t I go out there with him?’
To take her mind off it, she went to the kitchen and began to cook.
Just when she began to relax, she heard bells outside.
She ran to the window and stared out, seeing nothing to indicate that he was there.
She ran to the window on the other side of the building and saw that the action man was back on the hook.
Grinning like an idiot, she ran to the CCTV screen by the office.
Sure enough, he was there, striding purposefully towards the door.
His movements gave him away without her even needing to see his face.
Her face cracked in a grin.
It had only been three hours but it felt like a lifetime since she had seen him.
He unlocked the door and moved inside.
A tense minute later, she heard him knock out the song that they had agreed on: knock, knock, knock, knock, knock-knock-knock-knock, knock-knock-knock-knock.
She flicked on the switch that activated the lift.
Heard the doors open.
Heard him get in.
The lift began to ascend.
When the doors opened, relief overwhelmed her and she flung herself at him, but he pushed her away.
‘I might still be carrying some of that shit on me,’ he explained.
He went straight to the hose he’d set up in the customer toilets and hosed himself down for ten straight minutes.
Then he took off his spacesuit and repeated.
He came up, a towel around his waist.
His muscled torso was exposed, showing every scar and wound he’d had in his long career.
‘Where’d you get the scars?’ she asked, curious.
He felt as though she was testing him, as he’d already explained that he had been in the army as part of his cover up story.
‘I was a soldier,’ he said again, without a flicker of delay.
She eyed him warily. ‘There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there? I can smell bullshit a mile off, so don’t you fucking lie to me.’
‘No. I just don’t want to relive that time in my life. I lost a lot of good friends.’
She watched him awhile, deciding whether to buy it or not.
She let it go.
‘So what did you get?’ she said with a grin.
He pulled out a basketful of fruit, a few armfuls of tins and some cakes.
‘There’s a supermarket just around the corner,’ he beamed. ‘Looks like we hit the jackpot.’
They spent the next few days teaching Monique how to shoot.
She picked out some books that she didn’t like from the shelves.
She put them at the end of the corridor and used them for target practice.
‘Take your time, we got plenty of time to learn,’ Bennett said when she was annoyed at her initial misses.
With not much else to do other than read and eat, she found she was able to devote the necessary time to practise.
She also learnt hand-to-hand combat with Bennett. Learnt how to use a knife too.
He kicked her ass every time, but the karate training she’d done when she was younger soon began to come back to her.
It became an obsession for her.
Every day was about routine now, to try and keep her mind off the inevitable thoughts of her lost loved ones.
Breakfast, then she spent an hour shooting, then an hour reading.
Then hand-to-hand training.
Another hour reading to rest her meal.
Then knife fighting. Then shooting.
More reading in the night.
Talking to Bennett if he felt like it.
If she couldn’t sleep; more shooting, imagining she was putting a bullet between the eyes of the bastards who had hurt her loved ones.
Slowly, she became adept at firing sniper rifles and handguns. The bullets they’d found stashed in the back of the welfare block were sure to come in handy.
Now she felt confident handling sniper duty when Bennett was out.
And she felt she could handle herself when it was her turn out on the streets.
Being outside was eerie.
The darkness was absolute, save for tiny lights from the embers glowing high up in the sky.
It felt like she’d descended into hell.
The wind seemed harsh enough to strip the skin from her bones.
It was cold too, cold enough to make her breath burn in her lungs.
The wind seemed to shriek.
Bennett had warned her to be careful.
Had told her to be back within an hour or else he was coming looking for her.
He’d advised against using her torch, but wouldn’t tell her why.
This made it very hard to navigate, but she decided she’d do as he’d asked.
Bennett’s trail of wool was no longer there; which made it harder to find her way, but the supermarket was still lit up like a beacon.
Still, all this shuffling about in the dark was distinctly unsettling.
She wished she’d stayed in the safety of the book store, in spite of her newly acquired combat skills.
Bennett had given her a shopping list and told her to bring back a trolley full.
The doors were shut, but Bennett had told her they just needed a pull to open them.
She pulled, wincing at the squeal they made as they opened.
Her skin crawled with the sensation of being watched.
She looked around but could see no one, just empty streets.
She hesitated to say it was her town, as it felt so alien.
The store’s lights summoned her like a moth to a flame.
She pulled the trolley loose and began her trip round.
The supermarket’s walls felt like a haven from the darkness and the unknown outside.
She was reluctant to set foot outside again but was aware of the time limit she and Bennett had agreed upon.
She was about to leave the store when she heard a noise that was so out of place that it stopped her dead in her tracks; the revving of an engine.
Next chapter is here