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‘You’re trespassing in my home,’ came a rough female voice. ‘That coffee? That’s mine. Them cups? Mine.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Monique said. ‘I didn’t realise anyone lived here.’
‘Oh, you’ll be sorry alright.’
‘I can leave. I won’t come back.’
‘How’d you find this place?’
The barrel of the gun moved forward slightly, tapping Monique on the back of the head.
Her eyes clapped on a potential solution to her problem.
‘I was in the next town over, you know, the one with the big graveyard.’
‘Oh, I know it. My boy’s buried in there.’
‘I’ve lost my family too. I’m searching for them, town by town.’
Monique hoped this would get her a little sympathy, but it seemed she was pissing in the wind.
‘We’ve all lost, lady. Everyone in this fucked-up world is damaged goods.’
‘Ain’t that the truth.’
‘You got a gun on ya?’
Monique nodded. ‘In the holster on my right hip.’
‘You take it real slow. I’m gonna pull it out and I want you to co-operate. Otherwise I plug you with this.’
She leant down to help the lady get the gun out.
While she did, she edged the cup of coffee over.
‘Can I turn around?’ Monique said.
‘Go on then. I wanna see the face of the person who’s gonna join my Liam at the pearly gates.’
A jolt of alarm went through Monique.
‘There’s no need to kill me,’ she said. ‘Just take my gun. I’ll leave here and I won’t come back.’
‘And how do I know you ain’t gonna come back with an army? Fuck this place over? I helped my dad build this store. Worked here since I was nineteen. I will die to defend it.’
‘I appreciate that. It’s a great place, by the way.’
‘Tell me something I don’t know.’
Monique turned around slowly, hands behind her.
‘What you got there?’ the woman snapped, eyes on stalks.
‘Just a coffee. May I take a drink? It’s been so long.’
The lady thought about it for a second. Nodded.
‘Think of it as your last meal.’
Monique thanked her.
She stirred the sugar in, feeling the heat of the cup’s contents.
It was so hot it burnt the top layer of skin from her mouth, but she played it down.
She hadn’t had chance to add milk, and this had worked out in her favour.
Her eyes darted to the window.
‘What is it?’ the woman said, turning slightly to look.
Monique took her chance, hurling the red hot coffee in the lady’s face.
It hissed as it connected, scalding her eyes and face.
She let out a shrill cry and began trying in vain to claw it from her skin.
Monique knocked the shotgun from her grip and kicked it into the corner out of reach.
Then she smashed the cup on the edge of the work bench and moved in.
The woman was still trying to stop the burning in her face, but she was now hissing curses.
It was too late; Monique grabbed her hair and pulled back hard to expose her throat, then dug the sharp porcelain in.
Blood raced out, staining the white porcelain.
Monique drove it in until the blood flow became a tidal wave.
Until the woman stopped twitching.
She just hoped no one had heard.
She wrapped the woman in bin bags and dragged her outside.
There was a half-empty dumpster out back and she lifted the woman’s body into it.
‘Sorry,’ she said, then regretted it instantly; the woman had been about to kill her.
Her or me, and no fucking way was it gonna be me, she thought, a grim smile upon her lips.
She locked the door again, then washed the blood from her hands in the tea rooms’ white Belfast sink.
The blood made crimson swirls on the stained white porcelain.
She shook her head at the thought of what she was becoming.
But she was damned if she was going to die so easily.
The ticking of a clock on the wall of the book store was her only companion.
The cartoon man’s eyes clicked back and forth every second, sounding like the indicator of a car.
Too…much…coffee, the speech bubble coming from his mouth said.
His eyes were wide and crazy, the face of a true caffeine junkie.
If she ignored the fact she’d just murdered someone downstairs, this was her kind of place.
She made another coffee, got herself a scone from the freezer and took a closer look at the book store’s shelves.
This was as close as she’d come to comfort, now that her family was dead.
Josie could still be out there somewhere, she thought, the idea hitting her hard.
Hope could drive you crazy these days.
Once again she forced it out of her mind and picked a book.
Her coffee resting on her lap, she sat and read for a while.
Some time later, she awoke, the book tented on her lap, her head propped up against the back of the chair.
What kind of book store has such comfy chairs? she smiled to herself.
She put a bookmark into the book, set it carefully down on the table and curled up in the chair.
Sleep was something her broken body craved right now.
A noise from the far side of the room jolted her back to consciousness.
The crawling feeling on the back of her neck gave her the horrible realisation that she was being watched.
‘Shit, Mon, I’m sorry,’ a familiar voice drawled and she was so taken aback that she didn’t react for a good thirty seconds.
Then she hurled herself out of the chair and threw her arms around Bennett.
‘Holy shit, I thought you were dead,’ she gushed.
‘Me too, actually,’ he said, seeming a little embarrassed by her outpouring of emotion.
‘Whose blood is it?’ she said, noting her front was sticky with gore.
‘Don’t worry it ain’t mine.’
‘Redneck arseholes bit off more than they could chew,’ Bennett smiled.
‘Did you kill them all?’
‘No. I got a couple, but there are quite a few of them. My priority was getting here to make sure you’re ok. Although I did manage to raid the Pharmacy on my way here. I take it from the bloodstains on the carpet downstairs that you’ve dipped your toe in the killing waters?’
‘I’ve killed three people since the last time I saw you.’
He nodded proudly. ‘I told you that you could do it. When you have to, you just act.’
She smiled. ‘You were right. I did.’
‘Let’s get that wound sorted out and you can tell me all about it.’
It was surreal sitting and shooting the shit with Bennett after she’d assumed he’d been killed by the assholes back at the graveyard.
The feeling of relief was overwhelming.
And she imagined it would be ten times that when she was eventually reunited with her daughter.
Part of her wanted to embrace this fantasy, part of her wanted to shut it down before the hope tore her heart clean in two.
‘If I didn’t feel so shitty, I’d go back there and burn that fucking place to the ground,’ Bennett said.
Monique had to agree that he didn’t look right.
‘So what do ya want to do?’ Monique said.
‘I like it here, but there’s too many people watching. That and the fact that someone has already tried to kill you makes me think we may be safer elsewhere.’
‘And don’t forget, those assholes from the graveyard might be looking for us.’
‘Yeah. So, as much as I hate to say it, I think it’s time we moved on again already.’
‘There’ll be other book shops,’ she sighed.
They were back in the transit van within the hour, after cramming the back with food and books.
‘I’ve not read some of these in years,’ Monique smiled.
Curtains had twitched as they’d passed through town, putting them on alert, but nothing had happened.
It seemed this town just wanted to protect their own.
And there was nothing wrong with that.
High-force winds buffeted the van, rocking it from side to side.
‘You’re going too fast,’ Monique said. ‘These roads are fucking lethal.’
Sure enough, Bennett had to swerve at the last minute to avoid a three car pileup.
He took the lesson and slowed.
‘Wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t for this fucking fog,’ he said. ‘The fuck’s it coming from?’
The main roads were only filled with crashed cars.
Again, not a soul in sight.
Considering this road had been one of the main arterial routes of the area, it was a strange and unsettling experience seeing it like this.
They carried on in the same direction, seeming to get further away from the blackened husks of buildings that were close to the site of the bomb.
They turned off, found a small, secluded village and drove through it.
And the next one.
Nothing moved in them, but it seemed there were people here.
There were lights on at least.
‘We find one with no lights on and we stop,’ Bennett said.
It took a while, but they finally found one.
It was similar to the one where they’d been reunited, only a little bigger.
‘Might be some people kicking about, but it looks pretty quiet,’ Bennett said.
‘Do a lap, we’ll check it out.’
The place was dead.
A few candles burnt behind the blackout curtains, but for the most part, it was a ghost town.
‘Looks like home to me,’ Bennett grinned.
They found a book store on a side street and made it their home.
It was unoccupied, save for some rodent droppings.
‘Looks like we might have food after all,’ Bennett grinned.
Life was pretty good.
The haul of books they’d taken from Benny’s Books n Brews, combined with the books on display here, plus Bennett’s laugh out loud way with a story, meant that the days they spent were full of laughter and light.
She even educated Bennett – a staunch non-reader – on the finer points of Stephen King’s work.
But, as life had a way of doing, Monique found she was going along nicely then someone kicked her legs out from beneath her.
Bennett began to get real tired all of a sudden. His hair fell out in thick clumps.
His skin began to redden and swell up in horrific blisters.
The skin on his little finger began to come away all together.
Most alarmingly he began to throw up blood.
His nose wept blood, the pupils of his eyes were red and it looked as though he was crying blood at times.
Slowly, the penny dropped for both of them.
‘I’m sick,’ he said.
‘Ya think? I told you that you should have worn the suit sometimes.’
‘But then you’d be like this too.’
She shrugged. ‘Sometimes you gotta look after yourself, Bennett.’
He wheezed in breath.
He grew weaker and weaker, unable to even lift a glass to his lips to wet his perpetually dry throat.
She helped him, of course.
Cared for him in every aspect of his daily life.
She even washed him down, fixing him with a stern glare and saying, ‘Don’t get any fucking ideas mind.’
The way he couldn’t laugh without choking on loose blood terrified her.
‘When it gets too bad, I want you to put me down,’ he said, one day, blood-flecked tears glimmering around the edge of his eyes.
She didn’t catch his meaning at first, then it hit her hard.
There was no coming back from this.
He was going to leave her again and this time there would be no glorious reunion.
Just her and the books.
And the emptiness.
And the memories.
‘It pisses me off that I never got chance to finish what I started,’ he wheezed.
‘What do you mean?’
‘My medicine. I never got to turn it around properly. And here we are; I’m paying the piper at last. He’s forcing every rancid spoonful down my throat, smiling all the fucking while.’
She nodded. ‘But you did what you could,’ she said, tears rolling down her cheeks now. ‘That has to count for something.’
He smiled. ‘You’re a good one, Mon. Promise me you’ll go out there and search for your daughter. She’s still alive somewhere out there, mark my words. And also promise me you’ll kill as many bad people as you can, for me.’
‘They’ll all take their medicine,’ Monique smiled, squeezing his hand so hard she heard the bones crack. ‘Don’t you worry about that.’
‘I think it’s time,’ he said. Another wave of coughs hit him as more blood pooled in the bottom of his lungs. ‘Can’t even take a fucking breath in peace.’
She hugged him in close, kissed his forehead, tears falling like rain upon a face which had begun to crack and bleed in places.
‘I’ll miss you,’ she said. ‘I’ll never forget you. Or what you did for me.’
He nodded, bloody tears rolling down his cheeks too.
Too weak to speak now.
He gazed up at her for the last time, locked eyes with her.
The sadness and pain she saw in there broke her heart anew.
Then he gave her a sad smile, gulped and closed his eyes.
Hands trembling, she lifted the gun to his head.
She finally pulled the trigger.
Though she’d done it for the right reasons, Bennett’s death still weighed heavy on Monique’s soul.
But whenever she felt down about it, she pictured his agonised last moments and the weight lifted.
She had done the right thing, she had no doubt of that.
But it still hurt like crazy.
He’d been her only friend in the after.
And he’d taught her so much about life just in the short time they’d known each other.
He’d taught her how to fight off fear.
And she vowed she would honour him with her words and deeds.
The first thing she thought to do was to go and bury him somewhere.
He had been good enough to bury her kids for her, which had restored her faith in humanity.
She would never forget him for that.
The only problem was that she had no idea where to bury him.
Yes you do, she thought with a scowl. You’re just too chickenshit to do it.
Not any more.
She loaded him in the van and set off for the only place it made sense to bury him.
She thought she’d have gotten lost, but the trail of places they’d lived seemed to run pretty easy to follow.
The outskirts of the graveyard in which she’d almost died appeared out of the billowing fog and she felt a grim shudder run through her.
She felt panic rise up a little at the thought of what had been going on in this town – specifically the girls in the vans – but she forced it down.
Bennett deserved better.
She knocked the lights off and set off back to the first place she and Bennett had called home.
The uncomplicated crosses that he had made for her children were still there, though the wind had smeared them with what could only be the ashes of the town’s dead inhabitants.
She blew a kiss at each of the graves, doing her best not to think of the well of memories that was suddenly dredged up.
Holding each of them as babies, cooing as they smiled and laughed and began to explore the world around them.
Seeing them asleep on her husband’s hairy chest, their little chests rising and falling in time with his.
Them taking their first steps, then the look of pride as they realised what they had done.
She shook her head violently as the tears began to come.
The shovel they’d used to dig the graves was still there, its handle smudged with grey sludge, but the blade surprisingly intact.
She took a quick look around to make sure there was no one watching and began to dig the grave.
The grave was hard to dig and she felt a great sense of achievement once it was done.
He still deserves better, but this is the best I can do.
She held him close, startled by the cold, clammy feel of his skin.
It brought back unwelcome memories of holding her dead children.
She kissed his forehead, thanked him for the last time, then carefully laid him in the grave.
She raised one of the beers they’d used to drink together and tipped it over his dead lips.
Then she drank one herself and covered him with soil.
After a moment of reflection, she got back in the van and went to leave town.
Then she had a change of heart and drove very slowly in the opposite direction.
She pulled up a fair distance from the garage and used the sniper rifle to survey the scene.
The vans were still there.
If anything there were more of them.
The music was still blasting.
Nothing had changed, in fact, it seemed it had gotten worse.
More idiots drinking and hollering.
More girls chained up in the vans to fulfil their sick desires.
She took a deep breath in.
She longed to burn the place to the ground.
But she didn’t have the heart today.
One day, she thought, then drove off back to her home. One fucking day.
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