The call had come in just after eleven. It was usually not advised to travel at all when it was this late, let alone into the fray that would await them, but this was a code red. The first code red they had had in six months.
The summer day had faded into an uncomfortably warm night. The air conditioner on the dashboard groaning as it struggled to filter the heavy air, jarring with the music droning from the speakers above it. The sealed windows silenced the birdsong from outside, and even the rumbling of the passing freight train alongside the road was barely audible through the thick glass.
The recruit watched it as it cut through the countryside, its sleek chrome body glinting in the roadside lighting. It looked startlingly different to the rattling metal carriages he used to watch shamble past the boundaries of his father’s farm as a boy.
Almost unconsciously, he felt inside his pocket – it was still there. The letter knife which had been the only intact thing found in the ruins of his parents’ house. He did not know why he still carried it around with him, but it brought him a strange kind of comfort.
“So, this your first code red, Ev?”
The question stirred the recruit out of his reverie. He turned to the other in the driver’s seat.
“Yeah. Is it yours?”
Her mouth twisted in a smirk, her eyes still fixed on the road. She did not answer him, and he began to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t have asked.
“Nah,” she said, finally. “My third. And I’m telling you now, it ain’t anything like the simulation.”
“I figured that,” said Ev, with a faint chill as he remembered that part of his training. “I guess nothing prepares you for it.”
“Not a case of preparing. Each time is different. This isn’t something you prepare for-“
“Can’t we open the windows just a crack, Wilson?” one of the men crammed into the backseat interrupted. “We’re roasting back here.”
“Even if I would, I wouldn’t open it a crack,” snorted Wilson, her hands tightening round the steering wheel. “I’d open it wide enough to throw you all out so I didn’t have to listen to your whinging anymore.”
“They actually physically can’t open,” said Ev. “New regulations state that all windows must be deadlock sealed.”
The three men snickered, mumbling things that Ev could not hear.
“Huh, I can see why you graduated top of your recruitment pool,” said Wilson. “You sound like you swallowed the protocol manual.”
Ev felt his nerves, which he thought had been dulled by the drawn-out journey, return with a twist of nausea. He knew there were high expectations placed on him after his performance in the trials. While he was proud of his achievements, he could not deny that the additional pressure was something he could do without.
“Yeah, well, when you get in there, it ain’t about books and degrees and rememberin’ facts,” sneered one of the men, leaning forward until he was almost talking right in Ev’s ear. “That ain’t gonna help you when one of them scourge is about to rip out your throat with its teeth.”
“Alright, Matthews,” Wilson snapped, stabbing the power button of the car radio. “Sit back down now, or I’m leaving you outside for the dingoes. Enough joking around. We’re nearly there now so we need to focus. Ev, if you’d run us all through the facts of the case again?”
Ev racked his sleep-deprived brain, trying to remember the brief explanation he was given when he was pulled from his bed four hours ago.
“House was broken into, the security fence was breached,” he said. “Three people have been attacked before the rest of the family managed to escape. All three are in a critical condition.”
“And the scourge?” Wilson prompted.
“There’s five of them. They appear to be travelling as a pack. Seem unusually intelligent.”
One of the men whistled, a long and low sound. “Five?”
“The man who raised the alarm – Graham Porter, the father of two of the kids who were attacked – managed to kill one of them. Managed to get a bullet in the back of its head. So there’s four waiting for us when we get there.”
“So we out-number them at least,” grunted the man sat to the right of Matthews. “That’s somethin’.”
“That does not mean it’s going to be easy,” said Wilson, curtly. “Right, we’re all going to go in different entrances, trap them in the house. Then as soon as we corner them, they’re gonna start panicking and lashing out so we need to attack quickly.”
“The ol’ stake through the heart?” chuckled Matthews.
The stake was a nickname for the large syringe, fired from a gun-like apparatus, filled with the only toxin that seemed to have any effect on the creatures. Even then, it only slowed them down long enough to allow a clear shot at the head. It was a fitting nickname, given the shape and target of the weapon, but it still made Ev cringe internally.
“Or the neck. Or shoulder, or whatever part you can hit,” said Wilson. “If the eye witness reports are anything to go by these bastards move fast. I mean, fast even for scourge.”
One of the men snorted. “Yeah? I saw one running at seventy kilometres per hour once when I was in Townsville-“
“And how much had you been drinking that night again?” Matthews snickered.
A glare from Wilson silenced them immediately.
It only felt like moments later that they slowed to an eventual halt just outside the place the sighting had been reported. It was a fairly small farm for the area, the perimeter of which was now cordoned off by hastily constructed wire fencing. Makeshift floodlights had been set up at the boundaries and beside each building, bathing the dusty land in a stark glow that extinguished the starlight in the clear sky above.
The engine died with a shudder.
Ev peered through the window at all the parked vehicles. They were full of people who were sat behind locked doors and windows, waiting.
“Right, now I think is the time we addressed the elephant in the room,” said Wilson, undoing her seatbelt. “Code one hundred.”
A collective shudder went through everyone in the car. Ev found himself reaching for the knife, rubbing his thumb over the cool, smooth stone of the handle.
“Now, of course I am hoping it doesn’t come to that, but as Ev would probably tell you, it’s mandatory that before every code red operation I remind you of it,” said Wilson, quietly. “If one of them bites you, and it injects… I have clearance to enact code one hundred. On any of you, without prejudice. Is that understood?”
Ev nodded. Even the men in the back looked sombre.
“And trust me when I say I would make it quick,” said Wilson, hesitating to clear her throat before continuing. “It would certainly be better than letting the venom they inject do its job. On my second code red, a guy got injected, and, well… he begged me to do it.”
Wilson turned away, and for a moment Ev thought he could see something in her eyes other than the usual cold stare.
“So, you boys ready?” she said, her voice hard once again. “Let’s go catch ourselves some monsters.”
As he stepped out into the night, Ev breathed the night air in deeply, glad to be out of the stuffy air of the car. His relief did not last long before a uniformed, stern-faced man walked over to him.
“The building and surrounding areas have been evacuated,” he said, without any greeting or preamble. “The livestock are all either dead or have fled. Looks like they attacked the cow sheds and the coop before moving to the house.”
“Is there still only four of them?” asked Wilson.
“Yes, thank God. We’ve been watching all exits, they just seem to be hiding in there.”
Ev glanced at the house, and saw for the first time that the windows were dark.
“What happened to the lighting?” he said. “Wasn’t there an emergency back-up system?”
The man laughed. “You’re joking, right? Nobody out here has one of those.”
Neither did Mum or Dad, Ev thought. Always too much money, too much effort to install…
“What happened to the main power, though?” Wilson’s voice cut through the errant memories.
“Cut out. One of the beasts destroyed the fuse box. Yeah, I know,” the man snorted at Ev’s expression. “It’s like… it was like it knew what the box was for.”
“Impossible,” grunted Matthews. “They can’t think.”
“Let’s not waste any more time,” snapped Wilson.
She went to the boot of the car, unlocking and opening it. She began passing weapons to each of the men – light guns, UV torches, distress flares, and the stake. As Ev slotted each of these into the appropriate holster on his belt, he felt more and more weighed down. He did not like the thought that his heavy, clumsy uniform might prevent him from being able to run fast enough.
“Get in positions. Matthews, you’re with me. McGowan and Doherty, go through the gate and to the back entrance. Ev, you’re taking the side.”
The air began to feel heavier as Ev approached the house and stood poised by a side door that led into some sort of porch. Everything was too silent, too still. There was no birdsong, no insects chirping. No breeze blew through the sparse trees.
The small speaker plugged into his ear crackled into life, the sudden sound making him wince.
“We enter when I say go,” Wilson’s voice hissed amongst static. “…Light up.”
Ev slid his helmet on before reaching down to the small button near the chest of his uniform. He held it in, counting to five, until the glare that seared his eyes told him that the small lights embedded into the material had switched on. Almost everywhere on his body was covered with a yellowish glow, accompanied by a row of lights along the top of his helmet. He slid down the visor, grateful that it was tinted enough to filter out the glare without compromising his vision.
The door took a few slams of his shoulder before it finally fell from its hinges. The sound echoed through the silence of the building. His path lit by his own body, Ev stepped into the room beyond the porch. He did not remember taking the gun from his belt, but felt his arms ache as he held it out in front of him. He moved from room to room alone, finding nothing but the mess and debris left behind from the struggle earlier. He strained his ears for any non-human sounds, and heard nothing but his own frantic breathing as it misted the inside of his visor.
He detested even holding a weapon designed to kill. He had always been used to using his hands to heal; applying bandages, administering medication, feeling for a pulse. Resting his finger on a trigger should have felt more alien than it did, but at that moment it felt like a natural, automatic response. Like choosing fight over flight.
He started at a sudden cracking noise, only to glance down and realise he had stepped on the shattered glass of framed photograph left lying on the floor.
“Any sign of them?” Wilson’s voice hissed in his ear.
“Nothing my end,” Ev muttered, trying to keep his voice from shaking.
“Check cupboards, under tables… anywhere dark,” McGowan’s voice said. “The noise and light will have forced them to find any kind of shelter, no matter how small. Then you can corner them.”
“No. A trapped beast is much more aggressive and harder to deal with,” snapped Wilson. “Take it slowly.”
The last thing Ev needed was Wilson and the others arguing in his ear. He reached for another button on his suit, and switched off the communications. He knew he would probably get a verbal warning for this later, but it was worth it for the relief.
He spent some time in what appeared to be a living room, checking under tables and in cupboards as suggested. He found nothing. He moved on through an open doorway into a larger, cooler space. The light from his suit fell on something that shimmered and reflected ripples on the ceiling. A pool.
A pool that was not empty.
“You won’t find nothing in here. They hate water.”
Ev started, and as he spun round he ended up pointing his gun directly at Matthews.
“Woah! You’ll have someone’s eye out,” he chuckled.
Ev slid the visor up from his face. “Where’s Wilson?”
“Gone to search upstairs.”
“Where did you hear that from?”
“Uh… well, she said ‘Matthews, I’m going to check upstairs-“
“No, not that,” Ev snapped. “About them hating water.”
“Well… it’s common knowledge, isn’t it? That’s why you don’t find them in the ocean-“
“Humans don’t live in the ocean either. You gonna say all humans hate water?”
Matthew’s face hardened into a scowl. “Look, mate, I know you think you’re some sorta expert just cos you scored highly on the written tests-“
Ev took out his UV torch, aiming it directly into the pool. The beam of blueish light landed on a dark shape that moved back through the water, cringing away into a corner.
“Oh…” Matthews’ eyes widened as he took in the sight of it.
Ev walked around the pool’s edge, keeping both the torch and gun trained on the shadow in the water. He could not tell exactly what kind of creature it was. They all differed in shape, sometimes drastically – some looked almost wolf-like with pelts of coarse grey fur, some were shambling, long-limbed creatures with hairless grey skin. All of them had similar features in common – pale eyes, grey skin, unnatural speed and strength… claws that could tear through flesh like a hot knife through butter...
“What are you gonna do, kill it yourself?” Matthews chortled. “Would like to see you try.”
“Shut up,” Ev hissed. “If you want to make yourself useful, let the others know we got one.”
This was the closest Ev had ever been to a real, living one. He expected to feel fear, or maybe even awe. But instead, all he felt on looking down at this thing… was rage. Pure, unfiltered rage of a kind he had never felt before. So much of it that he could not keep his arms from shaking, sending the light from the torch skittering across the water’s surface.
Broken memories flashed before him. His parents’ home, destroyed. His home town evacuated, left to be buried by sand and forgotten. His youngest son physically shaking because he was too afraid to go out in the dark just to take out the garbage. And the girl he loved…
He wanted this thing gone.
Over the roaring in his ears, Ev just about heard Matthews calling for Wilson and the others… followed by a terrible crashing from above. Dust fell from the ceiling as it shook.
Ev only looked away from the creature for a second, but it was a second too long.
It leapt from the water, launching itself at Ev. His back hit the concrete floor with a blow that knocked the air from his lungs, and pain splintered through his chest where the creature’s head had impacted him.
Before he even had chance to process what had happened, more pain shot through his arm as its claws pierced his through the sleeves of suit and into his forearms, pinning him to the floor.
Impossible, he thought, before the pain drove out all other reasoning. The suit was designed to be impervious to their claws. This one was much, much stronger than anticipated.
When Ev screamed, the creature screamed right back – a throaty wail of foul breath in his face. The lights on his suit flickered and died, his torch rolled out of his hand.
“Oh my God, Wilson, get here now! Hale’s down! Wilson?”
This one was wolfish – a type A, they had called it in training. Its dog-like jaw opened so wide it looked almost as if it might distend, revealing teeth almost as long as its talons. Its eyes were colourless slits, empty of any feeling beyond hunger.
Time slowed down.
In that moment, Ev knew that he could not die here. Not like this.
“Hale’s down! Wilson, do you copy?”
His gun had fallen from his hand, and was too far to reach. The torch was also gone. All he had was…
The blade pressed against his skin where it was hidden. The metal felt like ice, even with the heat of the blood soaking his sleeves. If he could just move his arms from where they were pinned even an inch…
Gathering all his strength, he wrenched his arm out from under its claws. Biting back the scream as agony tore through him, he flexed his arm just enough for the blade to slide downwards and into his waiting palm.
As the creature reared up to attack again, he plunged the blade deep into its neck. He angled it upwards, digging into where he knew the brain stem was. Deeper and deeper, twisting the blade.
Kill or be killed.
The creature let out one last strangled cry before its full weight fell on top of him.
“Focus only on your breathing. Breathe in… and breathe out. Breathe in… and breathe out. Feel the tension flowing away from your muscles. Breathe in…”
Amie sighed, stabbing the ‘pause’ button with as much malice as she could muster. Well. As much as she could muster without cracking the screen. As irritating as the woman’s flat, monotonous voice was, this was a phone she had only had for two months and it really was not that often that she got to own something so new and shiny.
She pulled the earphones from her ears, placing them on her bedside table. She slid her finger across the screen of her phone, exiting the sleep meditation app. The home screen that greeted her informed her that it was five minutes to midnight.
“Only seven hours to go ‘til I need to be awake again,” she mumbled to no one at all.
This was not the first time that Amie had had trouble sleeping. This was, however, the first time she really had tried everything to drift off. A bath, a cup of hot milk, no web-surfing or streaming shows an hour before her designated bedtime… everything on the list. Including the sleep meditation app, newly downloaded today on recommendation of April.
According to April, it was approved by some big shot sleep psychologist, who was like a celebrity in the world of psychology. She had raved on about it at length. But so far all it had done was lull Amie into boredom rather than sleep. The kind of boredom that itched at her, nagging her to get up and just do something.
Earlier, before she had subjected herself to the awful droning of the app, she had listened as April had gone to bed. And then Aria. Trent had gone to bed even earlier than that. He always did, so he could be up at six to make absolutely sure that he had everything he needed for school. Amie wondered what it would be like to be Trent at bedtime, able to fall asleep as soon as your head touches the pillow. Just, like… clonk, you’re asleep now, hope your dreams aren’t too weird and don’t involve monster clowns or being naked in front of the entire school campus.
But she generally wondered what it was like to be Trent, full stop.
Then again, despite the recurring nightmares about the latter scenario she had often had in her earlier teen years, it had been so hot and humid here the past few weeks that had it not been for the whole ‘social taboo’ and ‘getting arrested for public indecency’ thing she might have been tempted to show up to school naked. She could not get cool enough this past week, the air was too heavy and damp. The earlier short shower of rain had done nothing to freshen the air.
Now that spring was fast approaching as August faded into September, it was surely only going to get worse. Amie thought almost longingly of this time of year at her old home thousands and thousands of miles away, literally the other side of the world – of big baggy jumpers and yellow leaves and pumpkin-spice flavoured everything. She even remembered, with a pang, the sound of the rain pounding almost horizontally against her window in the midst of a storm.
Of all the things she thought she might miss about England nearly three years after moving, the rain was definitely not the one she expected.
Amie and April had come here as a fresh start, and so far, a fresh start was definitely what Amie had got. Even if the air felt anything but fresh right at this moment. April’s sister Aria had pleaded and begged with them to consider emigration, even before April had been made redundant at the psychiatric unit she had worked at back in one of the micro-settlements on the outskirts of Manchester. And, after years of scoffing at it as an impossible idea, she had relented. When proposing the idea to Amie, April had been all wide-eyed and hand-wringing nervousness, clearly anticipating Amie to be dismayed. She certainly hadn’t seemed to anticipate Amie’s reaction to moving to the other side of the world to be a shrug and ‘sure, let’s do it’.
But truth was, Amie did not have the usual ties that she expected most other girls her age had that would have made moving away painful. No immediate family. No boyfriend. No girlfriend. No close-knit group of best mates that she couldn’t live without. Sure there had been a few people at school – Peter, Ian, Smithy, Wade – but been as most of their meet-ups outside of school hours had involved holing up in one of their rooms playing video games, the dynamic of their friendships hadn’t changed all that much now that they could only meet or talk online. Well. Except the massive time difference, but for Wade in particular even that didn’t seem to be an issue as he was pretty much nocturnal.
So am I now, it seems.
Amie stopped herself, shaking her head to stop the relentless loops of her thoughts. Maybe this was why she had trouble sleeping so many nights. Her thoughts seemed to wander much more at night, going in directions that often took her by surprise.
There was only one thing that would stop her thoughts from driving her to the brink of insanity.
She swung her legs out of the bed, feeling the plush carpet beneath her toes. She looked around the room that had only just started to feel like it was actually hers. It was small – much smaller than her old bedroom - but yet not uncomfortably so. When they first moved in, Hollie had felt some sort of terrible guilt about her having to sleep in the spare room that was usually just used as a dumping ground for all the junk they ran out of space for in every other room to avoid paying for storage. She had insisted that Amie move into her now-vacated bedroom when she moved into her university accommodation, but Amie had politely declined. And then, when her insistences got more forceful, she flat-out refused. Amie had decided that she liked the spare room. She liked that it was small and that there were no dark or hidden corners. She liked the bare neutral walls, as opposed to the pink shimmery floral print wallpaper of Hollie’s room with the insipid pastel curtains and duvet set to match. But most of all, she liked the window. Not because it was wide and curved, like a mini bay window. Not because it was right beside her bed so she could look up at the sky while lying down if the blinds were pulled back. But because it was faulty.
The entire apartment block was fairly new and designed with protection from the outside in mind, so of course all the windows were fitted as standard with automatic night locks, which in the hours of darkness would seal down the windows. Tiny vents around the top of the windows would open so air could filter in, but couldn’t unlock and open the windows at all. Unless a fire or intruder was detected, then it went into an ‘emergency’ mode and unlocked everything. However, Amie had learnt fairly soon into her new life here that this window’s lock didn’t work. The automatic lock didn’t engage, and she could still slide it right open even when it was completely dark outside. Presumably it had been like this for a while, but because it was in the room that was basically used as storage and not much else before her arrival, no one had noticed. This did not surprise because Aria was the only person Amie had ever known who was even more scatter-brained than April.
As quietly as she could, Amie put her clothes from earlier back on, but with the addition of a scarf. It was long, black, and hastily homemade from an old maxi dress from a few years ago. During the increasingly harsh winters back home it had always been ineffective at keeping her warm, but it would serve the purpose she needed it to tonight pretty well. She practised pulling it up over half of her face, winding it round her neck, and brushing her fringe down until it lay flat against her forehead and almost completely obscured her eyebrows. Then she pulled the scarf up further, aligning the badly cut-out eyeholes with her line of vision.
That’ll do, she thought as she pulled it back down to hang loosely round her neck. There had not been working security cameras in the place she was going to for a while now, but she still liked to make sure she was prepared just in case…
She grabbed her bag, emptied the school books and her pencil case and all the other things she didn’t need. She turned off her phone, as that was the only way to reliably disable the GPS tracking altogether – but still stashed it inside her bag just in case she needed it. Then she went to her desk – or rather, Aria’s old wonky desk that she had left in here. Sat on the scratched and pock-marked wood, its plastic surface reflecting the dim street light filtering in through the gaps in the blinds, was what was easily Amie’s favourite possession. She held it in her hands for a few moments before placing it inside her bag.
It was a camera she had found last year while trawling through vintage and second hand shops, her sixteenth birthday money burning a hole in her purse. It was an SLR from when digital photography had only been around for about a decade, just before everyone decided that phones were the best way of taking photographs. Considering its age, Amie was amazed at what good condition it was in. It had none of the features that her in-phone camera probably had – instant airbrushing effects to get rid of imperfections, filters that made background surroundings look instantly more exotic, hologram makers, whatever. Its plastic skin bore scratches and marks that showed signs of its previous lives. She had to physically unscrew the lens to replace it with different ones. But she thought it was honestly one of the most beautiful objects she had ever owned.
Amie zipped up her boots and drew back the blinds. The harsh LED lighting from outside flooded the room so suddenly that her eyes stung, and she had to hesitate while she adjusted. She placed her palm on the middle pane, the one that stuck furthest out, and pressed on it.
The window began to slide open, making an odd scraping noise as the pane rose. Funny. It was normally silent. Maybe it needed oiling or something…
Then she realised the sound was coming from behind her.
“What are you doing?”
Amie turned around slowly, fully aware of how guilty she looked. Trent stood in the doorway, arms folded. He was wearing that tatty old navy blue dressing gown he always wore at night. It hovered several inches above his ankles, revealing some worn-looking novelty slippers in the shape of a cat’s face.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Amie. “I was worried it was someone important.”
He stared at her, the little permanent frown etched into his forehead deepening by the second. Amie backed away from the window, sighing as she steeled herself for a lecture. She already began scripting what he would say in her head.
You shouldn’t be opening the windows after dark, Amie. It’s not SAFE. Besides, you can get fined for that these days. The risk warning is amber now, don’t you ever watch the news? Blah blah blah, I’m a boring goody-two shoes etc etc
But instead, he did something that surprised her. He stepped into the room fully, pulling the door shut behind him.
“How are you even doing that?” he said, quietly.
“The window,” he pointed at it, as if Amie was somehow unaware that it was now ajar, the sounds and smells of the city drifting in. “How have you been able to open it all those times?”
“All those…” she stared at him. “Oh my God. Have you been spying on me?”
“Amie. The balcony goes right past my window. And you aren’t exactly a quick or quiet mover. You seem to trip up or stumble on something almost every time.”
He laughed. His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes, but still. Trent was actually laughing. Despite her surprise, Amie stared him out.
“Did you really think I’ve never heard you sneaking out?”
“I always thought you were asleep.”
“You’re not the only one who’s been having trouble sleeping lately.”
His smile was gone now. He stared down at the floor, dark hair falling across his thin face.
Amie watched him, almost feeling as if this was the first time she had really seen him in, well… weeks. She supposed to the uninitiated, from a distance, they probably looked like they were siblings instead of cousins. They were both pale with long dark hair, even though she was much shorter than him. Trent towered above everyone else in their household, having reached six foot when he was fifteen. Though as opposed to being naturally brown-black like his, Amie had been dying her hair since she was fourteen to darken the dirty blonde natural colour she had always thought of as nondescript and mousey.
But those weren’t the only differences. In fact, Amie thought that their hair and skin tone was about where the similarities ended. Well, that and apparently now the fact that neither of them sleep much at night anymore.
She stopped kneeling on the bed, and sat down on it properly. Behind her, the blinds swayed gently in the breeze from the window.
“It’s because of your girlfriend, right?”
“Still not heard from her?”
He paused, tucking some of his hair behind his ear. “…No. Nothing.”
“Oh. Well,” Amie didn’t really know what to say, so it took her a while before she spoke again. “I guess no news is good news, though…?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” his frown returned. “Not when she’s been gone for over a month with no contact at all.”
“Right. No, I suppose not. I’m sorry.”
He hesitated, then sighed. It was a long, heavy sigh that sounded as though he had been holding it in for a long time.
“I’ve tried going to the police, but they won’t do anything,” he said. “Apparently she’s still in contact with her mother every now and again via texts from a new number, so she and the police don’t think there’s any need for concern. She’s pulled disappearing acts like this a few times now, albeit not as long as this. Usually to prove a point, her mother apparently said to the police. They seem sure that she’ll be back. As does Sophie.”
Amie bit back the urge to say something in agreement with the police.
She had only had the misfortune of meeting Evie Stryder a couple of times. The first time was when, on hearing a series of loud insistent knocks on the door when she and Trent were the only people in the house, she went to answer it. She was expecting Sophie, but instead was greeted by a blonde, obviously-fake-tanned girl in tiny denim shorts and a cropped t-shirt. She had lifted her sunglasses onto the top of her head and glared at Amie like she was something disgusting that she had just stepped in.
“Who the hell are you?” she had snapped.
“Uh… hello to you too, I guess?”
She had then proceeded to screech at Amie from the doorstep, asking her again who the hell she was, and then what the hell she was doing in her boyfriend’s house. Her dulcet tones thankfully attracted Trent’s attention quickly, who bolted from his room to calm her down and explain that she was just his cousin from England who had come to live with him for the time being.
From then on, Amie had only seen her in passing, usually when she picked Trent up from the flat to go on a date, or on her way to sneaking into his room after school when April and Aria were both out working late. Admittedly, Evie was a lot more civil to Amie the few times she did see her, but when your first meeting with someone starts with them accusing you of being some random that their boyfriend has brought home, it’s kind of difficult to shake a negative impression of them.
From Amie’s limited viewpoint, Evie did seem the type to take off just so she could have everyone at home worry about her. But she tried to be diplomatic.
“If that’s what they all think… then maybe she will. Maybe she just… needed to get away for a bit.”
“Well. The police are definitely not counting it as a priority. But that many people our age across the entire state have disappeared and then turned back seemingly fine, that they’re not that concerned about it anymore.”
Amie stared at him. “Is that… literally what they told you?”
“Yeah. Pretty much. Apparently it’s happening more and more these days. they say they’re going off on journeys, or just are staying with friends… either way, most people these days seem to think a sixteen or seventeen year old disappearing for a few days or even a few weeks isn’t really that strange anymore.”
“Not even for their parents, or friends, or family…?”
“The only recent exception is that Marc Vane case, but that’s because he never did come back. Marc Vane, a boy in Wollongong who went missing, remember?” he added when Amie looked blank. “He walked out, rang his parents to say he was OK… basically did exactly what Evie did. Only, he never did come back, even after months. Six months later, his parents were murdered in their home, and Marc still hasn’t been seen since.”
“Jesus,” Amie shuddered. “And nobody at all is freaking out about this?”
“Yeah, well, a virus wiped out forty per cent of the population within a decade, and now there’s previously unseen violent and dangerous creatures roaming the countrysides at night-“
“I know, Trent, I do watch the news occasionally,” snorted Amie.
“And they’re picking off anyone who dares venture too far,” Trent continued as if she hadn’t interjected. “I think it takes a lot to freak people out in these times. We’re all too busy just trying to stay safe and stay alive, Amie.”
They were both silent for a while, before Trent breathed out slowly and continued talking a bit more quietly.
“She’s getting into massive trouble at school. I’ve overheard teachers saying she’ll have to resit the whole year if she misses any more coursework deadlines.”
Trust Trent to worry about schoolwork, thought Amie.
“She was starting to really try and work hard in her classes, too. She wanted to try and get into university. It just doesn’t make sense that she’d want to throw all that effort away just to…I don’t know…make some sort of statement, or just to spite people.”
As he often did these days when talking about Evie, he looked completely and utterly deflated. Literally, like the air was slowly being let out of him. His shoulders slumped as he stared at the ground.
“Trent… lying awake at night worrying yourself sick won’t make her come back any quicker.”
“Why are you lying awake, then?”
Amie shrugged. “I just can’t seem to drop off. I get… restless.”
He looked as if he was going to press the subject further, ask more questions she couldn’t answer. But thankfully, he didn’t.
“You never said how you managed to get that window open,” he said. “It’s supposed to be auto-locked until daylight.”
“Supposed to be, yeah. But isn’t,” Amie tapped the window sill triumphantly, even though it wasn’t really her doing at all. “It’s faulty. Been faulty for a while, it seems.”
“I haven’t tampered with it, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s probably been like this since I moved in.”
“That’s a shame. I might have actually been impressed if you had managed to tamper with it. Do you know how difficult to hack the security systems in this block are?”
Amie snorted. “Really now. And you definitely wouldn’t have complained to Aria or April about it, telling them that I was up to no good by breaking open the window and sneaking out at night?”
“No, actually,” he glared at her. “Frankly, it’s none of my business what you get up to, even if what you’re doing is stupid and dangerous.”
The ‘stupid’ comment stung. She had always planned her outings to be risk-free. Or as risk-free as was possible, considering...
“Stupid?” she snapped. “You really think-“
“Just because I told on you that one time you helped yourself to the buffet at Uncle Bryn’s wedding when we were thirteen, doesn’t mean I’m some sort of tell-tale-“
“Alright. One – I had had to skip breakfast to get to the bridesmaids’ hairdressers on time because we woke up late, because April had set the alarm for the wrong bloody time,” the memory flooded back with surprising clarity. “So I was starving. Two – it wasn’t just that one time you told on me, there were a lot of other times you told tales on me to April about stupid things. Three – it was only two sausage rolls. Well, two sausage rolls, a macaroon and a handful of roasted peanuts. But still! You made out like I had eaten enough food for an entire rugby team!”
Trent laughed. It was a small laugh, and he did that thing where he covered his mouth with his hand – a throwback from when he had had to wear old-fashioned train-track braces and was self-conscious about it. But still, Amie felt a bit cheered to see him actually laughing.
And she still felt relieved that it seemed she didn’t have to worry about him telling anyone about her outings.
“Aren’t you at least going to ask where it is I go when I sneak out?”
“I figured it was to meet someone.”
“Meet someone? Who?”
It took Amie a few seconds to realise what he was getting at – and when she did, she was disappointed. She rolled her eyes and groaned.
“Ugh. Why does everyone always assume it’s always about something as boring as a crush? No, Trent, I do not have some secret boyfriend or girlfriend or… or any kind of significant other that I’m meeting up with. Don’t even ask.”
“If it isn’t that,” Trent smirked, clearly revelling in Amie’s discomfort. “Then what are you doing?”
She fished around in my bag, and carefully removed her camera. She held it up reverently, as if it was some sort of Holy Grail. He looked understandably perplexed.
“I just… go out. And take photos. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.”
“Photos of what?”
That was when Amie stopped, wondering just how much of the truth to tell.
She wondered if she should just tell him she was just taking night time landscape shots. Or maybe she had made some friends who wanted to model for her in portraiture shots – even though he would probably laugh at that too, considering they went to the same school and he knew damn well that she didn’t have any friends there. Maybe she could even try and blag it was for art coursework…?
“…Alright, but if I show you, you’ve got to promise not to tell anyone. And I mean literally anyone, not even Sophie. Though you probably will anyway, cos you tell Sophie everything-”
“I don’t tell her everything,” he snapped, his cheeks flushing a little.
“But you can’t tell Aria or April, because they will murder me,” Amie continued. “I mean it.”
“Alright, alright, I won’t,” he hesitated before saying: “I promise.”
Amie beckoned him over as she switched on the camera. He sat on the bed, looking over her shoulder as she began to scroll back through her most recent photos. Even if it was only Trent, she was glad she finally had someone to show her work off to in real life, rather than just more faceless strangers online.
There were obligatory gloomy shots of nearby buildings and trees in the hours of darkness, of course. And some attempts at long exposure shots of the street lights; including a lot of horrifically blurred ones from when her hands had trembled too much, that looked like blobs of yellowish lights streaked across an empty black background. She had tried to pass those ones off on her blog as being experimental arty shots. Amie flipped past them impatiently, stopping when she found the first one of any real interest.
“What’s that?” he whispered, pointing to the dark figure looming from behind the sparse, thin trees.
Amie tapped the screen, zooming in further. “Guess.”
It was a lucky shot, and had turned out very clear considering how dimly lit it was and how far she had to zoom in from her position up on the wall. It had stood between the two trees, staring up at her with those large dark eyes, before baring its cruelly pointed teeth in a snarl.
Trent’s eyes were wide. Maybe it was just a trick of the blueish lighting from the camera screen, but he seemed to have paled even further.
“You’ve been taking photos of Shadowborn?”
“Attempting to. That’s one of my best shots. It’s hard to get a decent picture of things that move so fast when-“
“You’ve been taking photos… of Shadowborn.”
This time, his tone was much flatter. He shook his head at her slowly.
“I don’t believe it,” he said quietly.
“Look, I know what you’re about to say. And you can lecture me as much as you want about how dangerous it is, how stupid I am et cetera, but you’d better keep your promise about not telling anyone else.”
“No, I… I just can’t actually believe it… How did you manage to get that close?”
Amie gaped at him, silenced for a moment. Trent seemed to be out to surprise her as much as possible tonight.
“Uh, well… I was on the inner wall. The sector not too far from here,” she said. “I climbed down onto the ledge just on the outside. There’s an area a few feet across where one of the floodlights is off – either it needs replacing, or they’ve started turning off the odd one to save electricity. I saw it there. It went right up the edge of that patch of trees there. It looked right at me,” she shivered at the memory. “It was watching me.”
“Weren’t you afraid?”
Trent was eyeing the dark figure on the screen warily, as if it might leap out through the illuminated glass.
“…No. I… I wasn’t. I felt…” Amie closed her eyes, the image of its face appearing in the gloom. “Kind of awed, you know? I mean, they’re our only natural predators. This was the most dangerous and feared creature in the world, and I was only just out of reach of it.”
Trent looked at her, his eyes widening further. Their roundness and light brown colour reminded Amie of a slow loris peeping out from behind his curtain of hair.
“And then I threw some segments of the tangerine I was eating down to it. You know, to get it come up onto the ledge so I could get a close up shot.”
“Psych,” Amie laughed. “Honestly, Trent. You would believe anything.”
“To be honest, after finding out you’ve been doing this,” he gestured to the Shadowborn on the screen. “I could believe anything you say.”
“And is this really harder to believe than that I have some sort of secret date I’ve been meeting up with all this time?”
“That’s a good point,” he smirked. “So… is that where you’re going tonight?”
“And I guess there’s nothing I can do to stop you.”
That was when a potentially awful idea came into Amie’s head. She voiced it before she could dismiss it.
“You could come with me.”
“Don’t you want to see one?”
Trent seemed frozen for a few moments before shaking his head. “Amie, I – it’s not-“
“Come on. You can’t sleep, I can’t sleep. Might as well get out the house for a bit rather than just lying awake wishing we were asleep,” she said. “We don’t necessarily have to look for Shadowborn. I could just show you my usual shooting locations.”
He hesitated for a worryingly long time. Then, he sighed.
“I have school tomorrow.”
“So do I.”
He closed his eyes, putting his hands to his temples.
“OK. OK,” he mumbled. “I don’t know how, but somehow you’ve convinced me. God’s sake. I must be crazy.”
“Great,” Amie grinned. “Now I finally have someone to carry my bag for me when I climb over the wall.”
“We are not climbing over the wall,” he snapped. “That’s my only condition. I’m not going over there. Where they are.”
“No worries. I promise we won’t become some Shadowborn’s next meal. Not on my watch.”