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       Arcadium, p.1

           Sarah Gray


  Sarah Gray

  ISBN: 978 147 600 633 8

  Copyright © 2012 Sarah Gray. All rights reserved.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, places, and events are either the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead or undead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23


  About the Author


  Skylight (Book 2)

  Connect with Sarah Gray


  Choose Your Own Journey: Florence West

  Chapter 1

  LISS SHOULDERS HER backpack and waits in the middle of the road for me. The sun is white-hot today and a severe heat haze rises from the bitumen, making her look like a mirage.

  She’s so skinny and small, standing in her white linen summer dress and bulky black Doc Marten boots. Her hair is delicate and flyaway, as if the golden strands are trying to reach out to the sun the way plants do to stay alive.

  I know I’m a bad sister for allowing her to be exposed to the harsh Australian elements like this. She’s only nine. All she understands is that food comes from the fridge or the cupboard or the shop, that electricity just is, and that your house is the safest place in the world. How’s she supposed to understand there’s a big gaping hole in the ozone layer right over our heads letting in super sun rays, twice as hot and strong and deadly?

  I’ll have to find some sun-smart stuff on the road because I can’t stand to be in dad’s house anymore. I guess nowadays melanoma is the least of our worries but still, why give up good habits just because the world fell into some crazy apocalypse, right?

  I motion for her to come back, to stay closer. Liss dawdles over slowly and I reach for her pack. She slides it off her shoulders and sits on the fence, legs dangling.

  We each have a backpack and I can’t help but check hers to make sure she hasn’t put anything stupid in there that’ll weigh her down.

  I unzip her pack and shuffle everything around. She carries a plastic water bottle, an iPod shuffle, a toothbrush and band-aids. She also has a lighter and a can of aerosol deodorant that spits a mean flame when you use them together, but that’s the only weapon I’ll ever give her. To be honest, it’s a last resort thing. I don’t even know if she’d use it. Things have changed, the world’s gone crazy, but the thought of my innocent nine-year-old sister hacking into the flesh of an infected with an axe or something, well, that just destroys me, and I can’t imagine what it’d do to her brain. I mean, how do you come back from something like that? The infected chase us, try to kill us, but we can always hide away, somewhere out of reach. But I don’t know how to hide from memories of awfulness that sink like black tar through your insides and can’t ever be cleaned out again.

  With any luck Liss won’t have to deal with those kind of haunting thoughts, just me. It’s like I’m the courier and she’s the message, and I have to deliver her safely… somewhere. I just don’t know where yet.

  Right now all we have is our backpacks and each other.

  Suddenly my hand slips over something foreign — square and hard with lots of plastic corners. I dig out the offending item: a Nintendo DS… and charger… and five games in their original big plastic cases.

  “Liss?” I chuck the games on the front lawn and hold up the DS. “There’s no electricity, remember? You can’t charge it. It’s a useless hunk of metal now.”

  Liss crosses her arms. “But I want it.”

  I ditch the DS and zip up her bag. She slings it over her shoulders and pouts, but about five seconds later she seems to have forgotten and is sitting there swinging her legs like she’s bored. She accepts things quickly, but never thinks of the consequences of doing silly things. Like getting us killed for a game that doesn’t even work.

  A bubble of irritation slowly expands in my chest and I stand for a moment, balling up my fists, trying to imagine popping it with a needle. The last thing we need is to be fighting and storming off in opposite directions. So I say nothing.

  I take a deep breath and double check my own pack, just in case she’s put anything weird in there too. She hasn’t though, it’s just boring essentials: a siphon tube, a plastic water bottle, antiseptic wipes, a pocket-knife and a can opener. That’s it.

  We never carry food; in this world it’s the new gold. Everyone wants it and if they know you’ve got it there’s no telling what they’ll do. I’m no expert at this, but I figure staying as low and incognito as possible is the way to survive. No big flashy weapons, no large groups to slow you down. Just fast feet, great hiding skills and a place to run to.

  “Flo?” Liss says in her bored whiney voice.

  I shoulder my backpack and step into the baking sun. “Yeah?”

  “It’s hot.”

  Cue inward eye roll for my genius kid sister. It’s funny because before the infection we didn’t really get along. At all. When my parents got divorced we both took a side and joined the battle. I stayed with mum over the other side of Melbourne and Liss moved with dad to the northern suburbs, where we are now. But fear does weird things to a person, and my first thought in the outbreak?

  I have to get to Liss.

  And I did, and it’s the only thing that’s been driving me since. We don’t know what happened to dad or mum. I assume they’re infected like nearly everyone else. So now it’s just Liss and me.

  “Walk on the footpath,” I say quietly. “There’s more shade.”

  Liss slips off the fence, cruises over to the nature strip and we walk. The sun glare is insane, we’re both squinting. It must be thirty-five degrees minimum, but at least it’s a dry heat. I can’t stand muggy and humid.

  Within seconds I have an ultra snazzy sweat moustache beading on my upper lip. Thank god there are no remotely attractive guys around to see me like this.

  Usually I wear this brown leather jacket I flogged from a store (after the apocalypse began, mind you, I’m no thief) because I hate to bare skin. If I need to take out an infected person I can’t risk them biting me or flicking blood everywhere and infecting me too. But it’s just too damn hot today, so I’m down to my black skinny jeans and this flimsy white t-shirt that you can totally see my dark coloured bra through. Maybe if I’d known the apocalypse was coming I’d have dressed more appropriately. But it seems you don’t get a warning when your world’s about to collapse.

  Liss stops a few metres before the intersection and I creep along a fence. I tilt my head so I can just see into the adjoining street.

  It’s all the same as before, single story brick houses with parched front lawns and dried up plants curling in on themselves. The colour of brick varies from sandy beige to flat out brown to this dried blood red. Every house shape is different, set out on their blocks of land randomly like a Tetris game exploded. Most windows have shutters open or curtains closed; just a few are boarded over or blanked out with newspaper.

  Slowly I do a full scan from left to right. Movement is what the infected seem to go for, and people move an awful lot. I straighten and beckon for Liss t
o follow. We carry on to the right, along the shaded side of the street.

  Liss hooks her thumbs under her backpack straps. “How long till we get there?”

  I look across at her. It’s amazing what kids can take, she always seems so unaffected. “How fast can you walk?” I say.

  We carry on like this all day. Stopping at each intersection, checking the way is clear and then moving on. At noon we stop and drink half our water. Liss sits on the grassy nature strip and stretches out her legs. I stay standing, always on guard.

  Liss holds out her arms. “Do you think I’m getting a tan?”

  I quirk an eyebrow. “What do you need a tan for?”

  Liss thinks about it for a moment, shrugs and points straight ahead. “My school’s just over there.”

  “Yeah?” I screw the lid on my water bottle and shove it back into my bag. “Bet you’re glad you don’t have to go back.”

  “I bet you’re glad. You always complained about High School.”

  I wipe the sweat off my upper lip. “Yeah, but I only had one year to go and I would’ve been free at last.” I turn my head and listen for a moment, but it’s all quiet. I want to say fat lot of good school did for teaching us how to survive but I try not to get cynical in front of Liss because I know that no matter how much we might have fought in the past she still looks up to me. That she’ll become what I am. “Come on,” I say. “We should keep moving.”

  I pull Liss to her feet and we keep going. An hour or so later we pass two abandoned cars in the middle of the street. A red Holden t-boned into the side of a silver Volvo.

  Liss stops when I lift my hand. “Bloody Volvo drivers,” she says.

  I can’t help but smile. That’s something she got from dad. For him, any other car on the road was a pile of rubbish and must have had a blind driver at the wheel.

  I walk over and peer in the Volvo’s cracked windscreen. Thankfully there’s no one in it. I move around to the Holden and see the dried blood splattered across the inside of the windows. The passenger door is open, but there’s no body left. Actually that’s a lie, I can see a gnawed off foot, still wedged under the accelerator pedal. The rest of it’s gone; without a doubt eaten by the infected.

  I back away, and check the Volvo for anything we might need. The keys are still in the ignition but when I turn them over it doesn’t start. The boot is full of decomposing groceries but in the glove compartment I hit the jackpot: a pair of chrome aviator sunnies and a sealed bag of Chupa Chups.

  I head back to Liss and hand her the sunnies.

  “Cool,” she says, trying them on. They’re too big for her face and make her look like a bug.

  “Very terminator like,” I say, ripping open the bag of lollypops. “What flavour do you want?”

  “Is there any watermelon?”

  I rummage through the bag. Of course there’s watermelon, it’s like the best flavour they have. I throw one to her. Liss almost catches it but it bounces off her fingers and clatters across the concrete. I watch her chase it and wonder how she’d ever survive on her own. I take a cola one because I know Liss won’t eat those, and we head off again.

  By six o’clock a cool breeze starts to pick up and I swear it’s like freaking heaven. I can tell Liss is getting tired but she doesn’t complain. That’s not her style. She just states the obvious like it’s hot in the middle of summer or they’re coming when a horde of infected are heading straight for us. It’s super helpful.

  “What do you want for dinner?” I ask, trying to distract her.

  “Something cold like… peaches.”

  “Is that all?”

  “Maybe some Oreos too.”

  I wrinkle my nose just as Liss stops. We’ve come to a big intersection, leading to a main road. She hangs back and I creep forward. It’s clear in both directions, though I can’t see that far into the distance because the road curves away. In front is a big half-finished housing development, surrounded by a nice high chain-link fence.

  I wave to Liss and cross the road, waiting for her on the other side. “We going in?” she asks.

  “It’ll be dark soon. We’ll be safe here for the night.”

  Liss scratches her elbow. “Me first?”

  I glance over both shoulders. “Yep. Just stay at the top until I give you the all clear, yeah?”

  For all her visible frailness Liss is actually pretty decent at climbing. She scales the three-meter fence with no problem and straddles the top. “Kay, I’m good,” she calls down.

  Liss holds on as I climb, wobbling the fence back and forth. When I reach the top I realise we’ve got a pretty good view of the estate from here. The buildings on the left are just frames but the ones on the right have roofs and walls and hopefully lockable doors… not like the infected can turn door knobs, but normal people can be just as threatening.

  “What do you think?” Liss asks. The breeze plays with her loose hair.

  I point to the far corner. “I say we walk around to that side and find shelter. It looks quiet.”

  Liss nods. “No blood.”

  “No blood,” I agree. That’s a good sign. If the infected were in here they’d be trailing blood everywhere. “We’ll hole up in one of those houses. I bet that portable office will have food.”

  Liss nods and begins to climb down. I’m about to follow but I hear something and freeze. Liss pauses, clinging to the mid section of the fence, and looks up at me.

  I search for visual clues but can’t see anything strange. The noise is subtle and slowly growing louder: sweeping sounds like jeans scraping along the bitumen. I glance around but can’t see the source so I wave at Liss to keep going. I pause a moment longer, feeling an ominous chill spread through my bones.

  The sound is on the other side of the fence, somewhere down the road we just came off. Scraping and scratching and shuffling and moving, heading in our general direction. It’s a sound I’ve heard too many times before. Infected people are coming.

  Liss is watching me carefully as I step down. “What is it?”

  “Nothing probably.” My hand lingers on the fence. “Have you still got your iPod?”

  Liss nods.

  “Why don’t you put it on?”

  She stares at me for a second and then does a scan of the road before pulling it out of her bag.

  “What are you listening to?” I put my hands on her shoulders and walk behind her.

  Liss puts the buds in her ears, presses play and pauses it again. “Michael Jackson. Thriller.”

  I shake my head. “How ironic.”

  Liss presses play and I can just hear the tinny tune coming out of the headphones.

  A scream rips though the naked air. Liss hears it too and her head snaps round.

  A man, maybe late twenties, comes tearing out of nowhere, running toward us.

  His eyes lock onto mine and widen. “Help me, please!” he screams. He’s frantic, barefoot and there’s blood on his arm. Even if he weren’t possibly infected I still wouldn’t help him. My only priority is Liss.

  He smashes his whole body against the chain link fence making it wobble and clang. Bad move buddy. Noise is the infected people’s second favourite thing.

  Liss looks from the man to me. I place my hand over her ears, point her head in the direction I want to go. We keep moving. There are no deviations from the plan. We’re walking along this fence line the whole way, even if we do have a crazy man shouting at us.

  “Hey!” The man bangs the fence with his palms and tries to get me to look at him. I mean, really? Here’s a grown man asking a sixteen-year-old girl and her kid sister to help him. I press my lips together and keep going, trying to ignore his stupidity. I do want to say something helpful like just climb the damned fence or maybe run! These are two fantastic pieces of advice in any apocalyptic situation. But I never ever talk to strangers now, it’s just too dangerous. One word is enough to form a bond, and I can’t have anyone hanging off us. Everyone just wants somebody to look after them, s
o when things go wrong they can blame that someone else. I won’t be that person.

  I stare straight ahead and from the corner of my eye I see them coming. The man is jogging alongside the fence, following us and rattling the chain links, his back to the road. The infected zero in on him like grains in an hourglass rushing toward one tiny gap.

  I move my right hand forward so it acts as a blinker for Liss. It’s about to get very ugly for this man with no apparent running or climbing skills. I’ve seen it all before but I don’t want Liss to.

  There are eight infected people, running wildly towards him, arms outstretched and mouths gaping. The infection seems to suck all the pigment from their skin and renders them pale white. Not like sexy vampire pale, mind you, more like a weary faded fabric worn to its last threads. And they’re so gross with dirty flesh tendrils hanging from their teeth, beards of dried blood and fingers scratched down to bones. A few are missing arms or great chunks of flesh and one even has a giant hole in his stomach, through and through.

  Common sense says all of them should be dead, but nothing seems to stop them once they’re riddled with the disease, that is except for killing off their last driving engine: the good old brain.

  The man doesn’t even turn around when they reach him. He just keeps trying to catch my evading eyes. The infected slam him up against the fence and lose control. I concentrate on looking ahead, steadying my breath and steering Liss.

  The man screams, lips pressed against the wired diamonds of the fence. It’s soon accompanied by the porous sound of tearing flesh. Not a great sound. Not something anyone ever really wants to hear.

  The infected are probably ripping him limb from limb and feasting on his insides now. The screaming becomes wet gurgling and I can’t help it. I actually look down at him. He raises his twitching hand, reaching for me through the throng of bodies gnawing at him. All I can think is should have jumped the fence, mate. And if he had, he would have been fine. Part of me, some distant and pushed away part, feels bad for him. But like an echo it disappears. I snap my head away and focus on what’s in front of us. It’s every man, woman and child for themselves now.

  The infected aren’t interested in following us since they have an easy feed at their feet, and we kept on walking, slowly, slowly, so we don’t attract any unnecessary attention. Nobody ever notices someone calmly walking but we all notice the person running like a madman.

  At the end of the housing estate I can’t hear the gross moans and gargling sounds anymore so I drop my hands and tap Liss on the shoulder. When she turns around I mimic pulling invisible earphone from my ears. She puts the iPod away.

  “Should we get some food?” I ask.

  She gives a tiny nod.

  After my appetiser of human grossness, I’m not at all hungry but food is strength and we always need to be stronger.

  I decided to scope out a house first. Just to be safe, I leave Liss in an overgrown bush and head over to investigate.

  I suppose this is where a weapon would come in handy but my kid sister is watching my every move. Even now, I feel a responsibility to set some kind of example for her. I keep thinking if I can get Liss through this damned outbreak without grizzly memories of me chopping people up and what not, then she might actually stand a chance to grow up and be a normal person.

  Besides do I look like a samurai?

  I don’t know how to use weapons… wielding one probably puts me in more danger than it does any infected person. And in my experience, running and hiding is far more effective than roaming around like Rambo.

  I step through the empty garden and peer in the front window. It’s empty inside too, the walls aren’t even painted yet. I try the front door and it swings open. A musty smell lingers but it’s silent within. I move from room to room, checking every space a person might be able to fit before deciding it’s safe enough for Liss. I check the kitchen cupboards too but they’re empty. Figures.

  The garage is just brick and concrete and only enough room for one small car, so it seems like a good spot to hole up for the night. From what I can see there are three exits: the roller door, the door leading into the house and the roof cavity (the ceiling boards aren’t in place yet so we could get up there if needed). Perfect.

  I lift the roller door a crack and listen before lifting it higher and sliding out. After a slow and careful scan I head over to Liss.

  “It’s good,” I say. “We’ll stay here tonight but first we need food.”

  “What do you think builders eat?” Liss says, as we wander over to the portable office.

  “I don’t know. Snacky things, I suppose.” I stand on my tiptoes and peer in through the window. I have to cup my hands against the glass because of the late afternoon glare.

  “All clear?” Liss asks, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

  I look down at her. “I’ll go first.”

  The screen door and main door are both unlocked, which isn’t that strange I suppose. When the outbreak really took hold people just upped and left in such a hurry that locking doors wasn’t a priority. Looting never even got to be a huge problem because people on the streets just got infected so quickly. I sometimes wonder how many normal people there are left.

  Inside the metal cube it’s stonking hot and smells like sweat. There’s a desk full of paper, a phone that won’t work now, a couch and a vending machine. Jackpot.

  I wander over and touch the glass. “Find me something to break it with?” I say to Liss’ reflection.

  Liss puts her hands on her hips and surveys the room. “The chair maybe?”

  “Do I look like the hulk?” I’ve already worked out what I’m going to use but I want her to be able to figure it out on her own too.

  She looks back. “Umm.”

  “Quick. Think. Before we die from heatstroke.”

  Liss narrows her eyes. “That thing.” She points to the fire alarm where a glass-breaking hammer hangs.

  “Yeah.” I nod. “That’ll work.”

  Liss hands it to me and stands back. I take my leather jacket from my bag, wrap it around my hand and slam the hammer against the glass. The glass cracks and a shower of shards fall to the floor and I shake out my jacket. “Ok, what’ll it be?”

  Liss Grins. “One of everything.”

  “Two of everything it is.” I start pulling out chips and chocolate bars, and using my jacket as a sack, I stuff it full. “You want to check the desk draws, see if there’s anything interesting?”

  I hear her go through each draw. “Paper… stationary… gum…”

  “I like gum. Take it.”

  “Keys… asthma inhaler thingy… Panadol…”

  “Panadol, I guess. That’s enough, leave the rest. But grab those couch cushions. We should hole up before it gets dark.”

  I used to think night time was cool. At my friend’s (parent free) parties, we used to run around the dark streets, totally free, running amuck. Drunk of course, which probably made it feel all the more epic. But you wouldn’t catch me doing that now. The infected don’t sleep and they can sneak pretty well. I just can’t risk moving in the dark.

  The roller door locks from inside, which is super handy but I leave the house door unlocked in case we need to leave in a hurry. Liss has her M&M’s spread across the floor. She slowly sorts them into colour order.

  “Can you sort mine too?” I say.

  Liss nods but doesn’t look up, just grabs my pack, tears it open and starts sorting. I’m eating salt and vinegar chips, trying to chew them quietly if that’s at all possible because each damned crunch sounds loud enough to attract the dead. The couch cushions are positioned on the ground, right next to the brick wall. Liss always sleeps with her back to the wall and I sleep on the other side of her, so I get the bad guys first.

  We’ve made ok progress today, I mean it’s not like we’re up against the clock or anything. The place we’re heading too — and I don’t want to say where just in case I jinx it — will still be there in two days
or two months. One thing’s for sure: I want to bypass the city ASAP. It’s too dense, too concentrated with infected and it totally creeps me out. I don’t know this side of Melbourne so well but if I can get Liss to the South Eastern Suburbs, we’ll have a better chance. That side of town I know.

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