TAKE A LEFT, THEN straight to the top of this road," I tell Keith, my voice so quiet I have to repeat myself twice before he hears me. We're very close now. I used to walk this way when I came home from work at night. When we turn the corner I'll be able to see the apartment building at the top of the hill. I brace myself, not looking forward to going back. Keith stops the van suddenly and waits. He's finally been forced to use the headlights and the bright beams of light illuminate several flashes of sudden, darting movement across the road in front of us. We watch in silence as a pack of stray dogs streaks through the ruins in search of food. Once probably lazy, well-fed, pampered pets, they're now nervous, thin, and savage creatures. One of them, a mangy fawn brown mongrel with protruding ribs and ragged fur, stops in the middle of the road and stares defiantly at the van, ears twitching, light reflecting in its eyes. The standoff lasts for just a few seconds before something more interesting causes the hound to turn and chase frantically after the rest of the pack.
The interruption over, Keith drives on again, and in seconds I can see the outline of the house I used to share with Lizzie and the kids. In the winter I was able to see the lights on in the windows from here, and sometimes I could see the shadows of the kids as they ran from room to room, aggravating their mom and each other. I've got to forget about all of that now, but it's hard. As I get closer, each new wave of familiarity hits me like an undefended punch in the face. At the same time, I feel a nauseous disgust-shame almost-that I was ever a part of this place. I can't believe I allowed myself to stay trapped in such a pathetic, restricted, and pointless life for so long.
"Lovely spot," Paul grumbles sarcastically as he surveys the battered remains of the run-down development I used to call home. The sky's clear tonight, and the moon's severe but limited light illuminates all the details I was hoping not to see.
"It's hardly changed," I tell him, semiseriously. "It looked this bad before the fighting."
Another helicopter flies overhead, the constant chopping of its rotor blades audible even over the rattling engine of this ancient van. The others watch anxiously as it banks high above us, then turns around and flies back on itself, but I pay it hardly any attention. I'm focused on the dark apartment building we're fast approaching, wondering what the hell I'm going to find inside. I know Ellis won't be there. I just want to find a trace of her, an indication, no matter how small or how slight, of where she might have been taken.
Keith stops the van in the shadows, nestling it up against a tall wooden fence, and switches off the engine. Two more helicopters drift overhead. Are they tracking us? None of the others seem overly concerned.
"You've got five minutes," Keith says with a slight trace of urgency in his voice. "Spend too long screwing around in there and when you come back out you'll find us gone. There's a fair amount of activity around here tonight, and I don't want to get caught in any crossfire. Understand?"
"I get it."
I reach up to open the door, then stop when Keith speaks again.
"Just remember," he warns, "we're here to find other people like us, not just your kid. If she's not here or at the other house, you forget about her. Is that clear?"
Who the fuck does he think he is, talking to me like a goddamn drill sergeant? I ignore him and get out of the van before anyone can say anything else. I slam the door without thinking, and it echoes around the desolate neighborhood like a gunshot.
I stand at the end of the path that leads up to the communal front door of the apartment building, carrying only my backpack, a flashlight, and a knife. Except for the broken window and the ragged curtains whipping in and out in the wind, the apartment looks just like it always did. Seeing this place seems almost to cancel out the last three months. It feels like only yesterday that I was last here...
Keith angrily blasts on the horn, the uncomfortably loud sound forcing me into action. I walk down the uneven path and push the door. It sticks at first but opens when I shove it hard, making the same loud, ear-piercing creak it always did, except it sounds a thousand times louder tonight because everything else is so deathly quiet. I step inside and shine the flashlight around. The shared lobby has been trashed, and the ground beneath my feet is covered in bits of broken furniture and other rubbish. I recognize some of these things. They used to belong to me and my family. The kids used to hate being out here.
The front door of the apartment is open. It swings to and fro slightly in a gentle breeze. The wood is splintered and cracked across its width, and there are several dirty boot marks, most probably left by the soldiers who were forcing their way in as I was trying to get out when I was last here. With trepidation I push it open and go inside, and immediately I'm sucker-punched by the familiarity of everything again. I kick my youngest son's upturned stroller out of the way and move farther down the hall. The first room I reach is the kitchen. I go inside, and I can smell my father-in-law's corpse before I see it. He lies exactly where I left him, still covered in his blood-soaked duvet shroud, decay having deflated his lifeless bulk down to half its former size. Hard to believe that this rancid, shrunken, germ-filled mass is all that's left of Harry. When I think of him I still remember the man who used to look after the kids and who always gave me such a hard time, a crotchety, white-haired old bastard who did all he could to make my life difficult. In spite of everything that's happened it's hard to look at him in this state.
I look up and shine the flashlight back across the room toward the doorway, suddenly remembering the screams and the terrified faces of my family when they saw what I'd done. I remember Ellis's frightened face clearest of all, desperate for answers that I didn't yet know I could give her.
I retrace their steps, moving back along the hallway until I reach the living room, the small circle of light from the flashlight providing more than enough illumination, and step over what's left of the furniture Lizzie stacked up here to keep me out. It's cold and damp in here, the broken window having left the room open and exposed to the elements for weeks on end. There's black mold on the walls, and the paper's peeling. The apartment has been ransacked, but I don't think Lizzie did this. Our things have been trashed by scavengers looking for food, weapons, and valuables. They were wasting their time here. We never had anything worth taking.
A missile or jet roars through the air above the apartment with a piercing scream. Silence returns in seconds, but Keith blasts the horn again, and I pick up my pace. I don't bother with Edward and Josh's room. Instead I go into the bedroom Lizzie and I shared, and I look down at our bed. The thought of being so physically close to her makes my skin crawl. Surprisingly, the thought of being so far from her now makes me feel equally bad. I grab a change of clothing from the wardrobe (all of Lizzie's clothes are still here-proof that she never came back), then run through to Ellis's room. I shove some of her belongings into my backpack-a doll and a rainbow-colored sweater she used to live in-figuring that the familiarity will help when we're together again. Didn't matter what she was doing or where she was going, when we asked her to get dressed, this sweater was what she always chose. I hold it to my nose and sniff it, hoping to remember her scent. It just smells of the apartment, damp and musty.
I take one last look around, then make my way back out to the others, knowing that whatever happens, I won't be coming back here. Keith hits the horn again as I run through the lobby. I push my way back out into the open and take a deep breath as soon as I'm outside, relieved to be out of that foul-smelling, claustrophobic hellhole full of reminders of the person I used to be. I hear gunfire nearby, followed by a scream that could be either rage or pain. I throw my bag into the van, then climb in and slam the door.
"Any sign?" Paul asks.
Yet another helicopter hovers nearby, this one using a searchlight to illuminate the ground below.
"We're not going anywhere else for a while," Keith announces as he starts the engine and pulls away. "This place is too damn busy for my liking tonight. Anywhere close where we can hole up until it quietens down?"
All eyes are on me, and the pressure is unwelcome. The only thing I'm sure about is that I'm not going back into the apartment. I try to think of other places nearby that might still be standing. Through a gap between two houses at the very bottom of Calder Grove I see the tall, dark outline of a high-rise that looks reasonably intact. That'll do.
"Turn left at the bottom of the road," I tell him. "I know somewhere."