The muzak suddenly cut out and was replaced with a tremendous roaring noise that seemed to make the air around me throb. The sound was ear-shattering, and I clamped my hands over my head and threw myself down on to the carpet, almost sending a mannequin toppling as I banged heavily against its legs. Then, as quickly as it had started, the sound cut out. My ears buzzed, and I realised I’d been holding my breath. I stayed where I was for a few seconds before finally shuffling forwards. Nothing. Whatever it was had gone. I started to get to my feet, but before I was even, halfway up, I felt a hand clamp down over my mouth. I didn’t have a chance to struggle – the next thing I knew I was being dragged into a curtained-off changing room.
I twisted to get away, but whoever was holding me was incredibly strong. In desperation, I bit into the hand clamped over my mouth, and, suddenly, I was free. But even as I turned to run my legs were swept out from underneath me, and I landed with a thump on my back, staring up at a dark-haired guy who was looking at me with a combination of fury and exasperation.
Moving faster than I thought possible, he dropped to a crouch and clamped his hand over my mouth again.
For a couple of seconds I just stared up at him. Using his free hand, he brushed his floppy black hair out of his eyes and leaned closer to me. ‘Shhhh!’ he hissed into my ear. ‘Keep still.’
I tried to speak, but my words were muffled against his palm.
‘Just be quiet!’ he whispered. ‘You have to trust me.’
He had to be joking. Why would I trust someone who’d just knocked me to the floor and had his hand over my mouth? I struggled again, trying to lash out at him with my legs.
‘Do you want to die?’ he hissed in my ear. I stared straight into his eyes. They were different colours: one was dark brown, one greenish grey.
I shook my head.
‘Good. Keep very quiet. Don’t even breathe. Okay?’
For the first time it really hit home that I was out of the enclave and none of the normal rules applied. Anything could happen to me. Anything at all.
Several seconds later I heard the same roar I’d heard earlier, but this time it faded in seconds. The dark-haired guy didn’t move a muscle until the sound had totally disappeared. Then he removed his hand from my mouth and shook it. I could make out teeth marks in his palm where I’d bitten him, but I hadn’t broken the skin.
I sat up and glared at him, not sure whether to be furious or terrified. ‘What the hell is going on?’ I said.
‘We have to get out of here,’ he replied. ‘And we have to get out of here fast.’
‘Questions later,’ he snapped.
He held out his hand to help me up, but I ignored it. He was dressed in scuffed black jeans, a leather jacket and a plain grey T-shirt – and under normal circumstances I would have said he was cute. Or he would have been if he wasn’t staring at me as if I was a piece of crap he’d found on his shoe. It was then that I noticed that he had something strapped to his back. When I realised that it was a large curved panga, I wasn’t sure whether to scream or laugh out loud.
‘Are you going to kill me?’ I said, struggling to my feet under my own steam.
‘Don’t be stupid!’ he snorted, shouldering a huge rucksack. ‘I just saved your life. Now, let’s go!’
He grabbed my arm and almost effortlessly propelled me towards the exit. I shrugged myself out of his grip. ‘I can walk by myself.’
Then I remembered something. I scooted away from him and raced back to retrieve my backpack. He shook his head again and rolled his eyes at me. ‘Follow me,’ he said. ‘And keep close.’
He paused at the shop’s exit and looked in both directions before setting off. Taking a left, he bounded down corridor and onto the escalators, taking the stairs two at a time, the heavy leather boots he was wearing somehow barely making a sound. He didn’t run, but he was way taller than me – Thabo’s height at least – and I had to take two strides to every one of his.
At the bottom of the escalator he put his fingers to his lips and gestured towards the end of the hallway. I stopped dead, heart leaping into my mouth. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A bunch of Rotters were industriously slopping water over the shop windows, pausing every now and again to dunk their sponges into the buckets at their feet.
‘We’re going to have to go past them,’ he whispered. ‘You going to be cool with that?’
I shrugged, not willing to let my fear show. What if they could actually see me this time? But the guy didn’t seem that concerned about their presence, which helped.
I kept close to his side as we made our way past them, but they didn’t even turn in our direction; they just carried on sloshing water across a shopfront as if we didn’t exist. Clearly the guy was as invisible to them as I was.
I followed him down a side aisle and down towards a revolving glass door. I could see the blue glimmer of the sky beyond it, and I quickened my pace.
We pushed through and out into the fresh air.
Grumpy Panga Guy strode down a weed- and bramble-infested ramp that had once ferried cars into the multi-storey lot, and we crossed what was clearly a grassed-over highway as we made our way towards the theme park’s walls, the concrete at our feet lumpy with fig tree roots. There was someone leaning against the wall directly in front of us. At first, with the afternoon sun blinding me, I only saw whoever it was in silhouette – a tall chunky figure with spikes sticking up from its head. But as we got closer I could tell it was a girl; the crazy spikes were backcombed hanks of hair. She was dressed in a similar fashion to the guy: black jeans, heavy lace-up boots, cropped leather jacket and a bag as large and bulky as his lay at her feet. Thin chains were laced around her hands and forearms and she was wearing mirrored shades, so I couldn’t read her expression. Like Grumpy Panga Guy, she seemed to be about my age, maybe a few years older.
‘Took your time,’ she said to him. She didn’t seem to show any surprise at the sight of me.
‘Tell me about it,’ he said. ‘You won’t believe what this chick has just done.’
‘Hey!’ I snapped. ‘My name’s Lele, not “this chick” and will someone please tell me what the hell is going on?’
‘I’ll tell you what’s going on, Zombie Bait,’ the girl said, her voice slightly accented – Malawian, Batswana, maybe. ‘Ash here just saved your ass.’
‘Ash?’ I said to him. ‘Is that really your name?’
He nodded curtly.
‘And you are?’ I said to the girl.
‘Saint,’ she said with a curl of her lip.
‘Lost your hearing as well as your sense of self-preservation?’
‘No need to be such a bitch,’ I said. ‘I was only asking.’ I thought of adding that at least my name wasn’t as lame and clearly made-up as theirs, but something made me keep quiet. ‘Where are you from?’ I asked her.
‘Later,’ the girl said. ‘We have to get out of here. It’s going to get dark fairly soon.’
- Deadlands by Lily Herne
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