Anne had packed tins of food into her backpack.
“Come with me?” she said. I shook my head; there was no point discussing it again.
“Where will you go?” I asked.
“Does it matter?”
She was right. They’ll find us no matter where we hide. They are everywhere.
“I’ll wait until it is dark,” she continued.
“That’s still a few hours away,” I said. “They might get here before then.”
“I know, but If I go in daylight, they’d be sure to spot me.”
She would have been better to go there and then. Darkness would give her some cover, but in the end, there was no hiding, not from them. She’d be better to make some distance; to start running and keep running.
“Have something to eat before you go,” I said. “There are plenty more tins, and I doubt that I’ll have time to eat much before they arrive.”
“I’ve got plenty in my bag. It will do for now. Anyway, I’m too nervous to eat. I don’t know how you can be so calm. Are there any more cigarettes?”
“Bad for your health.” I joked but handed her my last packet. I was always going to quit. Why not now?
I drew back one of the curtains, and outside I could see the sun dropping below the horizon.
“Not long now,” I said, and Anne nodded.
“I should be going.” I could tell that for all her talk, she was reluctant to leave.
“If you strapped up your ankle, you wouldn’t hold me back too much,” she said.
“Yes I would,” I replied. Besides, I was so tired. I couldn’t make myself run anymore. How long had it been? I started to track back the days and weeks, and then I realized that I had lost count. It could be weeks or months; it didn’t matter. I couldn’t remember a time before I was afraid. I knew there had been a time, I had photographs in my wallet. But when I look at the pictures of Mary and the kids, all I can see is them lying there screaming for help, and me running and running and not looking back. Perhaps if I stop running, they will forgive me for letting them die. I’m going to die anyway. It would have been easier to lie down and die with them instead of running. All that fear for nothing.
“I should go now,” said Anne. I looked up to see her backpack slung over her shoulders.
“Yes, you should.”
“Take this.” She thrust a revolver into my hand.
I didn’t have to check the chambers; I knew there was only one bullet. I closed my eyes and imagined my death; sitting terrified in the bottom of a cupboard with the barrel thrust under my chin, sitting thinking every creak and groan from the old house was them. Is that how it will end? Me pulling a trigger alone and frightened? I’d be as well shooting myself now. I wanted to. Just a little movement of the finger and everything would be over. Why wait? Why not do it now?
“No,” I said and handed it back. “I don’t want it. It’s just giving up.”
“Isn’t that what you’ve done?” she asked.
It’s not giving up, I told myself. But when I tried to think of other words for it, I couldn’t.
“It’s the coward’s way out,” I said. But if it was, so what? I’m as much a coward as anyone else. Tears that had not come for so long were flowing.
“Alright,” she said, “I understand.” And she tucked the revolver back into the waistband of her pants.
“Goodbye,” she said and turned to go. But she was too late. They were here. There was no mistaking it; the clanking of metal, the rumble of engines, the smell of war.
“Oh God.” I could hear the scream building in her voice, and I put my hand over her face and pulled her tight.
“They will hear you.” All thoughts of meekly accepting my fate gone, I looked out towards the trees and wondered if I could make it without being spotted. It might be possible in the gathering dusk.
“They don’t know we’re here,” I whispered, holding her still.
I could feel her shaking, or perhaps I was shaking, and she was still, or perhaps we were both still, and the earth was shaking.
Anne started fumbling with the revolver and loading it with bullets.
“Don’t be silly,” I said. “Put it away and let’s get out of here.”
She couldn’t load the bullet for shaking. She passed the revolver to me and pulled the rifle from her back. Her eyes glazed over. I had seen that look before. I’d seen people just too tired to run anymore, who just want to die and get it over. I thought I felt that way, but, I knew I wanted to live, even just for a short time; hours, days.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” she said, “I just can’t take this torture anymore.”
She should be afraid, I thought. She was afraid; all of us are afraid of something. Some of us like me are afraid of dying, and others like her are afraid of living, and some of us are afraid of living and dying.
“Come with me,” I said, but she wasn’t listening. I slipped out of the house and left her behind, just like I had left Mary and the kids, just like I had left everyone else.
Under my breath, I muttered “coward, coward,” over and over again. I was a coward, and that’s why I was still alive. Cowards live longer. The faster you run, the longer you live.
David Rae lives in Scotland. He loves stories that exist just below the surface of things, like deep water. He has most recently had work published or forthcoming in THE FLATBUSH REVIEW, THE HORROR TREE, LOCUST, ROSETTA MALEFICARIUM, SHORT TALE 100 and 50 WORD STORIES. You can read more at Davidrae-stories.com