The flames of Greywood cast an orange-black glow over the ruins of the city.
What remained bore little resemblance to the Tilgreen she’d grown up in. The city she’d fallen in love with. What remained looked to be little more than rubble and toothpicks. And what remained had sapped the last vestiges of love from her heart. Had drained her of her fondness for the streets she’d once called home.
Polly used the inferno as cover and made a break for it. What else could she do? Sit and burn as the conflagration swallowed all four buildings and the neighbourhood? When she weighed up her possible demises, they balanced each other out in terms of sheer terror and agony. Burn to death? Or get eaten alive? Neither outweighed the other. The former was a certainty. The latter was a probability. Polly went with the odds. Roll the bones.
If she waited too long, the infected would come to the glow like literal moths into the flame. And then it wouldn’t matter if she escaped the apartment complex. She’d be out of the frying pan and into the fire — if fire consisted of the ravenous hands and teeth of undead cannibals.
So, she ran. Ran alone, without a weapon to swing. At least she’d retained the “sort of” armour she’d fashioned. Washing up gloves to the wrist. Swimming goggles over her eyes. A bandanna tied around the mouth — that had helped her survive the coal-black plumes of smoke. And double denim — both a jacket and jeans. “Let’s see ‘em bite through that,” Polly had said to her mirror. A lifetime ago. Now, out in the crumbled streets of Tilgreen, she regretted her bravado.
Down the alleyways and back alleys, she ran. Polly avoided all the major routes and big roads. Common sense told her she’d find most of the zombies there. Still, the paths she wound her way down weren’t unpopulated. Solitary figures swayed, here and there. A couple huddled by a park fence, both throats ripped out. A man with eyes reduced to shredded jelly stumbled around behind the back of a pub. A woman with a pram, her arm torn off, black-red blood stained across her pretty dress. They reached for her as she sprinted past. But she held one advantage against the cannibals who outnumbered her. She moved faster.
Polly sprinted until her jacket stuck to her back with sweat. She ran until the veins in her head throbbed, dull pain in her temples. Went until her lungs burned and every breath panted in and out, like a dog. When she could go no further, Polly slowed to a half-jog, half-stumble. And forced herself onwards. Onwards, onwards, onwards. To stay still would be to die.
Her dry lips cracked, her body cried out for water. Her tongue detached from the roof of her mouth like velcro. Dusty hardpan, through which no plant could grow. She’d had no time to grab supplies — no water, no snacks, nothing. In hindsight, she should have prepared a quick-escape bag. But, as they say, hindsight is always 20-20.
Polly staggered — an errant pinball in a maze. She had no destination, knew not where she headed. Away, her mind screamed. Away, away. Away from the fire. Away from the dead. The red alert in her brain had served her well this far, but now that her body had begun to cave, Polly needed more.
She slowed to a hobble, her right ankle sore. A small track behind a row of houses. To her left lay a field, separated from her by a chain-link barrier. Open and green, unmarred by signs of humanity’s struggle against itself. To her right, the wooden fences that kept the pint-sized backyards private. Through holes and broken slats, scenes of overgrown grass and overflowing bins. Trampolines, bicycles and tricycles. Barbeques and slabs of concrete. Behind, the glass of the houses’ backdoors, dark like lidded eyes.
Her respiration wheezed in and out. Polly grimaced as she sucked in breath after breath. She looked over her shoulder. An empty path for at least a kilometre. Ahead, the same. Safe, if only for the time being. She crouched down and prodded at her ankle. It throbbed, swollen. She must have twisted it at some point between Greywood and now.
“Goddamnit,” she whispered to herself. Polly took a few tender steps, to test the foot, which up until now had run trauma-free. She could put weight on it, which calmed her worries. But anything more intense than a hurried hobble would cause great pain. And further injury.
It was as she bent down to feel around the swellings of her foot that Polly became aware of a noise.
She jerked upright, glanced around in a panic. It didn’t sound like the groans or shrieks the infected made — either when stationary or on the hunt.
Big and loud. And getting louder. Nightmarish visions of a horde moving as one. Breathing as one. Like a swarm of insects. Hive mind, herd mentality.
Nothing behind her. Nothing in front. A black and grey patchwork of tarmac and gravel. The field to the left lay in the summer sun. The chest-high grass swayed in the breeze.
Polly craned her neck to stare at the heavens. The tendons creaked like an old door.
Blue sky, dotted by fluffed-up clouds.
And a pea-green Boeing Chinook. It emerged from behind the row of houses, a whale from the deep. Its twin rotors spun faster than the eye could detect — two black halos above the angel from the RAF.
Excitement and hope swelled in her chest, rose like a helium balloon. At first, Polly found herself too dumbfounded to act. All she could do was take in the glorious sight of this goliath of the skies.
And then the paralysis broke. A bullet through the glass.
Her sprained ankle forgotten, Polly leapt into the air. She waved her arms like a madwoman, drunk. “HERE!” She screamed so hard her voice box threatened to burst. “DOWN HERE! HEY! HEY!”
Local infected might see or hear her. But so what? So f****ing what? Here came rescue. She’d have to be an absolute moron to not draw attention to herself. If she could get on that helicopter, she’d survive. At least for today. If Polly let this opportunity fly past her, death may well be waiting for her around the bend up ahead.
“HEY!” She sprung up and down, like a character from a cartoon. Boing. Boing. Boing. “HEY! DOWN HERE! I’M HERE! GUYS! GUYS!”
The Chinook flew past.
“HEY! DON’T YOU SEE ME? HEY!” Polly cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled with all her might. “HEEEEEY!” The back of her throat grated, the sensation of churned gravel. “HEEEEEY!”
And still, the helicopter drifted overhead. It flew over the path and the field, its course unaltered.
Polly slumped. “Hey?” Her limp arms thumped to her sides. She panted. Her heart jackhammered, a madman who beats his head against the bars of his cell.
But, of course, they hadn’t seen her.
Why would they have? She was but a speck.
And even if they had, would they have landed right there in the narrow lane for her? Rescued her, who could carry the infection? No. That would be madness. She almost didn’t blame them for ignoring her.
Polly watched as the Chinook neared the horizon and began to disappear.
Only that was wrong.
It didn’t disappear over the skyline.
Into the field.
They were coming to land.
“Oh my god,” she whispered. “Oh, my g—”
A smack against the fence behind her. A snarl.
Polly leapt away and yelped. She spun around. Her bad foot cried in misery. She backed into the chain-link fence, the field to her rear.
Through the splintered fragments of a wooden board, a gnarled and twisted hand groped. The flesh ripped and torn like scrap paper. The blood congealed to a gooey black jam. Bits of shredded gore messed the fingernails. The joints popped and clicked as the fingers flexed.
“Oh god,” Polly said again.
“YOU THERE. YES, YOU.”
A voice, big and loud from the field behind. The helicopter. A megaphone.
“IF YOU ARE ABLE, COME THIS WAY. OUR SOLDIERS WILL MEET YOU AWAY FROM THE CHOPPER. I REPEAT, COME NO CLOSER TO THE CHOPPER UNTIL OUR BOYS HAVE CLEARED YOU. IF YOU DO NOT—”
But Polly had already climbed halfway up. The wire mesh of the fence dug into her fingers. The tips of her shoes wouldn’t fit into the diamonds of the links. And still, she scrambled. Still, she scaled the fence. Polly climbed by sheer willpower alone, driven by the will to survive.
Before she knew what was up, she tumbled over the precipice and landed on her back with a smack. The air escaped her, knocked out by sheer force.
Polly clambered to one knee, staggered to her feet. A confusion of black uniforms and aimed assault rifles. Complex masks that covered the face, the pneumatic hiss and wheezed of filtration.
The next few minutes blurred past her in a hungover haze. She obeyed every order, followed every command down to the letter. Even the instructions that humiliated her. Polly stripped naked and let them seal her clothes inside a yellow back. They prodded and searched her body, investigated every laceration and bruise. Without so much as a hello, one of the faceless soldiers shoved a bundle of clothes into her hands.
“T minus two minutes ‘til takeoff. Hurry up ‘n’ get these on.”
A pair of black trousers and a black jacket. No underwear or anything to protect her from the rough material. But they gave her something. And they’d take her away from this hellhole. Away from Tilgreen. Away from home. Polly covered herself up and zipped the clothes shut. The heavily-starched cloth already harsh against her skin.
“Climb aboard,” said a faceless soldier. Might have been the one who gave her clothes, might have been someone different. Hard to tell, without the eyes visible.
“Thanks—” Polly glanced at the nametag “—Miller,” she added. She offered a polite smile, but the soldier didn’t respond. She climbed onto the rear cargo door and up into the hold. Other civilians — recognisable by the fear and weariness in their eyes — watched her. Their glares had the twitchiness of those who’ve left a warzone. The thought of social actions and idle chit-chat filled her with dread.
So, she turned and watched out of the window as the helicopter took off. The pilot wasted little time between Polly’s embarkation and the ascent.
Through the circular view hole, the crumbled remnants of the city continued to burn. The tower of smoke on the near horizon could only be Greywood. Reduced from a warm, happy place to live. To a literal hell on earth. Polly only hoped the inferno swallowed as many of the demons as possible, before it burned itself out.
Tilgreen held all her childhood memories. She’d grown up there. Went to all the Tilgreen schools, got her first job in the city. Granted, it had taken her friends, family, and everyone she’d ever loved. But it had also given her everything.
Didn’t the world retain a right to take back that which it has gifted?
“Goodbye,” said Polly. The ground lifted away. The overgrown grass danced and quivered beneath the wind from the Chinook’s rotors. Great circular motions carved in the greenness below, like waves upon the ocean.
And then they were up, high above the city that was.