Excerpt from The Renegade
Due for release September 2015.
Alex Clarke tried to keep her composure, afraid that if her true emotions surfaced they would only add to her dad’s suffering. She bit down painfully on her tongue, silencing the hysteria clawing up her throat. A hot trickle of coppery blood was enough to keep her screams at bay.
She watched as her dad suffered yet another violent coughing fit, his gaunt face contorted with pain as he struggled to catch each labouring breath. The rattling sound from his chest had grown louder. His bulky frame was misleading, as his body was helplessly weak and frail. His clothes were saturated with sweat and bloody mucus. A thick layer of perspiration coated his skin, while his body shivered as the raging fever continued to ravage him.
Alex looked away. She knew he hated her to see him so weak. In truth, he no longer resembled the strong and powerful protector of their family. The anguish of remembering him as the gentle giant who’d taught her how to ride a bike, told exciting bedtime stories, and taken her on adventures hurt more than she’d believed possible.
As an only child, she’d never wanted for anything or been lonely. The three of them had been content and happy with their little family unit. Her parents wholeheartedly supported her in whatever she’d endeavoured to do. At sixteen, she’d finally gathered enough courage to tell them she was a lesbian and they’d accepted her without judgement. In later years, her partner Dianne had been warmly welcomed into their family, and for eighteen months they’d all been happy together.
Things had been perfect.
The perfect days they shared had turned into perfect months and had passed by quickly. In the blink of an eye, all hell broke loose. Within months, everything had gone to shit. Everyone and everything she loved, except for her dad, was gone. Soon he’d leave her, too.
She sensed the coughing fit subside and reluctantly returned her gaze to him. Besides herself, he was the only living person that remained.
“You’ve everything packed…like I showed you?” he asked, his voice nothing more than an audible rasp.
“Yes.” She grimaced at the pain it caused him to speak.
He gave a weak nod and his gaze met hers for a fleeting second before she looked away. The familiar blue rings of his eyes were set against the startling red backdrop that had once been white. Although his eyes had been this way for two days now, she still found it impossible to bear. The cause of the unnatural red eyes hadn’t been properly explained. It’d been listed as one of the main symptoms of the strain. She guessed it probably had something to do with the pressure caused from the violent coughing. Regardless of its cause, it was another indicator of the final stages of the Red Death. The sensational name was first used by the media, and by the time scientists had come up with an official name for it, the Red Death had already stuck.
She’d witnessed its devastating course from beginning until end twice before—first with Dianne, then only days later, with her mum. She was certain her dad was in the last and most horrific stages. Worse still was the knowledge there was nothing she could do to help or even mildly relieve his suffering.
He coughed again and thick bloody mucus, more black than red, spilt down his chin. With a trembling hand, he wiped himself with his soiled cloth.
Alex fought hard against the urge to heave and clenched her hands into painfully tight fists. Her nails cut into her palms, verging on breaking the skin. Hysteria stalked close to the brink again, and she mustered what little resolve she had left to swallow it down.
“Your mum and I love you—” Another coughing fit cut him off. The pain was obvious, but a few moments later, he continued, “You’re destined for something big, Alex. I’ve known it since the day I held you in the hospital. I’m just sorry I can’t be with you.”
A searing lump of emotion lodged in her throat. She forced her words over it. “I’m destined to die like Dianne, Mum, and the rest of the world. In a few days, I’ll start with the symptoms.”
He shook his head. Pink tears tainted with blood streamed from his burgundy eyes. “You’re immune.”
She glared defiantly and tried to swallow, but the lump made her wince. Boiling tears welled in her eyes. “That doesn’t make sense. Just because you’ve always said I was your miracle baby doesn’t mean I’m immune to this. You only started with it a few days ago.”
“I was lucky to last this long. It allowed me to teach you how to survive. I’m ready to be with your mum and Dianne. There isn’t time to go over this again.” Another coughing fit tore through his body, crippling him with pain.
Alex couldn’t hold back the tears. “I don’t want to be alone. I can’t go on without you. I can’t…I’m not this special person you think I am. I’m just me.”
“Alexandra,” he said, his lips and teeth coated with rank blood. “You will go on. You swore to me on your mum’s and Dianne’s graves that you would go when I told you to and never come back. We didn’t raise you to be a liar or a coward.”
She felt like a berated child, which made her sobbing worse. “Dad…please—”
“Promise me again, now.” His voice was raspy and disjointed because of his shallow breathing, but she still heard his steel determination. He wouldn’t back down.
In desperation she tried to get him to see sense. “I’ve nowhere to go. And I need to look after you—”
He lifted a weak hand, immediately silencing her. “I don’t need looking after. There’s nothing you can do for me. You know it. You’re not going to watch me turn into a corpse.”
Alex knelt before him. “I need to be with you until the end. I can’t just leave you. I won’t do it.”
“We went through this with Dianne and your mum. We both know what happens in the end. Soon, I won’t even know you’re here.”
“But I have to bury you with Mum.”
He sighed, which turned into another coughing fit. When it lessened he whispered, “I’ve made my own plans. This pathetic excuse for a body is nothing more than a slab of rotting meat. Burying it is pointless. Your mother and I will be reunited in whatever comes after this life. Now, promise me that you will go on living and never return.”
Alex couldn’t speak. The words were stuck behind the lump that choked her.
“Please?” He reached out and gently held one of her hands. “Promise me.”
His huge hand felt clammy as it trembled in hers. His desperation was so urgent and intense, it was claustrophobically palpable.
“I won’t come back here,” she said, swiping tears away. “I promise.”
He closed his eyes for a moment. “Thank you. Now take your things and leave. You’ll need to find somewhere away from the town to set up camp before dark. Try to remember everything I’ve taught you. Keep your wits sharp and avoid people.”
“Everyone’s dead!” She felt guilty for shouting, but her frustration and anger at their situation was too much. “We haven’t seen anyone in weeks. Months even.”
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “You’re still alive and there will be other survivors. Everything’s changed now. Survival and self-preservation will rule people’s minds and hearts. You must be wary, sweetheart. Now, please pass me my box.” He indicated to the silver box resting on the coffee table.
Her stomach lurched as she got to her feet and picked it up. Inside was his Beretta handgun. She had the exact same model upstairs. They’d spent many hours practicing with them in recent weeks. Confused, she offered the box out. He’d emptied the fifteen-round magazine the previous day, ordering her to pack it with the rest of her ammunition.
“Thank you. Your mum and I couldn’t have loved you any more even if we’d tried. We’re so proud of you. We’ll be with you, watching every step. You’ve got to be brave. It’s going to be hard, really hard, but I know you’ll make it.”
Unable to speak, she tried to convey everything she felt and wanted to say in the fierce hug she gave him. His fevered flesh shook beneath her touch. She could already smell the familiar sickly sweet and pungent stench that came with the last stages. He didn’t have long.
“I love you,” she said, choking through muffled sobs.
“I love you, too. Now leave me.” His voice strained trying to remain strong and commanding.
She held on all the tighter, not ready to let go of him. When she did finally pull away, she refused to meet his eyes. She’d be strong for him. She’d gather her things, leave, and then when she was far enough away, she’d allow herself to break down. But not one second before, because she was brave, just like her dad.
She went to her room and checked everything one final time. It was hard to resist the urge to take more. Her bag was packed solid and heavy. But as she longingly surveyed the room, she saw photos and other sentimental belongings that she’d always taken for granted. Every single one of those items now seemed invaluable.
She laced her boots with trembling hands, shouldered her large rucksack, the weight pinning her. She slung the shotgun over her left shoulder and checked the gun holster on her right hip. Her own handgun was safely in place. She adjusted the leather sheath attached to her belt, allowing her fingertips to briefly caress the familiar smooth hilt of the six-inch hunting knife. In theory, she was ready to leave. The stark realization that she was ignorant and unprepared for what lay ahead was enough to physically paralyze her.
The sound of her dad coughing downstairs snapped her from her thoughts. It was time to go. She gave one last longing look around the room that had been hers for her entire life. Even when she’d moved into a flat with Dianne, her parents had remained adamant that this room would always belong to her. They’d never changed a single thing. She stepped onto the landing and closed the door behind her, resigning herself to the knowledge she’d never enter again.
Downstairs, she lingered at the front door. She could hear the sound of her dad’s gasping breaths from inside the living room. She waited silently. A sharp pain stabbed through her heart. Neither spoke. The foreboding filled the silence between them. She racked her brain for something to tell him, desperate to initiate one final conversation or to just hear one more word from him. But there was nothing left to say. It’d all been said, and there were no words that could voice her heartbreak and grief. She refused to make this harder for him. She knew intuitively that however unbearable and painful this was for her, it’d be worse for him.
She gripped the door handle, pressed it down, and pulled open the door. She stepped over the threshold like she’d done thousands of times before and was greeted by the warm June morning. With bated breath, she paused one final time, her ears straining for the familiar voice. After a few long torturous seconds of silence, she closed the door behind her. She followed the orders he’d given her; she engaged the lock, pushed her keys through the letter box, and heard their jingle as they landed on the welcome mat.
She took her first tentative step away from the house, her heart tearing in her chest. She took another step, leading her away from the home and burial place of her mum and girlfriend. She wanted to go back to the garden one last time and say good-bye, even though she knew it was useless. There would never be enough time to grieve fully, or enough ways—or words—to say good-bye. Although the solitary future she now faced would probably offer her ample opportunity to try.
She reached the end of the driveway and closed the creaky iron gate behind her. Without purpose she allowed her feet to carry her down the familiar but deserted street. Cars lined most of the driveways and pavements. She numbly passed by each house, remembering the familiar faces of those who used to live there. She’d babysat for most of the kids on their street at one time or another. She’d laughed and danced with them during their street parties only a few years ago. They’d celebrated the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the 2012 Olympic Games with quintessential homemade buffets, plastic cups, patriotic bunting, and a mismatched variety of tables and chairs.
She rounded the corner as a sudden loud bang erupted, causing her to flinch in shock and grab for her gun. The silent morning echoed with the resounding sound of the single gunshot. Familiar. She knew it’d come from her dad’s handgun. With startling clarity, she knew if she checked the rounds in the magazine he’d given her yesterday, there would be one missing.
A single renegade tear escaped. She briskly wiped it away with the back of her hand. Inconsolable hurt filled her to the brim, but there was also a flicker of relief. He wouldn’t suffer the same excruciating, degrading, and horrific fate that her mum and Dianne had.
She’d never return to the house and break her promise.
There was nothing to go back for now.
“I love you,” she whispered, looking up to the sky, then bitterly chastised herself. Whispering was pointless when there wasn’t another living soul around to hear. Truly alone for the first time in her life, she began walking again.
No destination in mind.
No end in sight.
The Renegade can be purchased from the following links.