The inside of the car was clammy. It made Joss’ parents, Pete and Shirley, listless and irritable. Joss had insisted on playing Kansas’ Greatest Hits. I had a headache that crawled around the inside of my skull like a thousand tiny spiders.
A typical vacation.
We were passing through a bleached stretch of desert. Shirley had given Joss unsolicited advice on his driving whilst Pete pretended to be asleep and I stared out of the window.
They were lean, shirtless and tanned to the same colour as the dirt beneath their feet. Three of them, with bows slung across their backs and knives at their hips. They chased a fourth boy, stocky and shiny with sweat where he had been running away. I touched Joss on the knee.
‘Stop the car.’
Joss chuckled and asked me what was wrong. He sounded grateful for a chance to deny his inadequacies through action.
‘They’re chasing that boy. They’ve got bows and knives.’
‘Out here, if he’s running, he’s deserved it. We want to make it back on time, don’t we?’
Shirley sucked on her teeth and tutted.
‘Stop making out Jackie’s a flake, will you? If she’s seen something, that boy might need our help.’
Joss gave me a pointed look. His pout verged on a sneer and the waddle of flesh that his beard had stopped being able to hide shook with his efforts to remain calm. He stopped the car.
‘So?’ he said.
Irritation jolted me into a rigid posture, tight across my chest and thighs as I glared back at him. I squeezed my eyes shut and unbuckled my seatbelt.
Opening the car door invited a solid bank of dry heat that slapped me with its intensity.
I got out and waved, shouting to them with the fitful desire to do good, to care.
He turned and stared at me in disbelief.
The arrow punched through his throat. He coughed a spray of blood and a gout of blood spat down the front of his t-shirt as he buckled at the knees and fell onto his front.
Staggering backwards, scrabbling for the door to remain upright. Joss stared through the glass with his eyes were wide with shock.
I heaved the door open and jumped inside.
There was another crack of glass A wet punching sound. The sudden, thick sweet stink of wet pennies
Shirley screamed in instalments as she looked at where Pete sat with the arrow through the side of his head.
I gripped the front of Joss’ shirt and screamed for him to drive.
I looked over my shoulder and saw that two of them were coming to us. The third straddled their prey, bringing his knife down in a two-handed grip and stabbing it down, raising his head to the sky and grinning with joy.
The arrow sunk into her throat. She stared at me, then flopped to her left against Pete. It would have been touching, but the arrow stopped her short and she lurched forward as much as the seatbelt would allow. Joss gave a guttural cry as he jammed his foot down on the accelerator.
He grunted. The arrow penetrated the headrest and the back of his skull with awful ease. His eyes rolled up in their sockets as he bucked, gripping the steering wheel as he died.
I opened the door and threw myself out.
The hot asphalt took flesh from my shoulder and thigh, engulfing me with bright, hot agony as I rolled away.
The car ran off the road with an ugly crumpling thump. I got to my feet but I could not look at it. It would have broken me to do that.
The third man ran towards us and at this distance, something became apparent.
Their mutations. Distended foreheads and acromegalic jaws. Their black, thirsty eyes and the rows of needle sharp teeth set into black, infected gums. The pair who had pursued us stood with their bows up, arrows cocked to take another shot.
The third one spoke to the others in a language that sounded like the screams of small animals.
They lowered their bows and set them on the ground. Unsheathed their knives and set them down next to them.
He nodded with satisfaction and unsheathed the knife on his belt.
He tossed it in my direction and it clattered against the ground. Through my tears, I picked it up and turned it over in my hand.
Chipped from black stone, worked into a perfect study of brutal economy and the handle wrapped in strips of leather, turned white from endless hours spent learning to use it.
I met their eyes, allowed the knife to feel good in my hand and stared back at them.
My headache had gone.