The girl’s sunken eyes were glistening. Upside down reflections of the flames flickered within them as the fire licked the dusty air. Her expression was death. Hollow. She stood in the corner of the church and stared; he knew she was looking straight at him because he could see it in the periphery.
The rest of the room blurred in and out - the Russians were still talking. Dancing shadows made it difficult to make out anybody’s features but he knew there were new people in the church, uneasy, skirting the edges of the conversation.
Buko Preston squeezed his eyes closed. They were stinging again. When he opened them the dead girl was still there. The Russians were laughing at something so he played along and laughed too. Not too much. Just enough. It was important to humour the natives; they knew the country and there were lots of them. It was important to he kept them on-side.
He took a chance and glanced toward the young girl. She was dead alright. Her skin hung loosely from her bones like butter and the wound in her belly still seem fresh even after all that time. She still clung to it like she was cradling a baby. The blood stained her frock and had long since turned the white fabric scarlet.
It was her eyes that drew him in the most. Buko wondered why the reflections in her eyes always shined so bright compared to the blackness around them and why they always seemed upside down, like an old pinhole camera. Maybe it was a common trait that all the undead shared, though, he hadn’t noticed it in the flesh-eaters. Just ghosts, then. Or ghouls.
Whatever she is.
“You think that’s funny, brother?”
“Uh… What’s that?”
The question was a surprise. The Bear leaned in to the firelight from the shadows. A huge man who cut an intimidating figure when alone and an absolutely petrifying one when surrounded by his people.
“I said, do you think that is funny, brother?” his thick Russian-accent dripped from his lips.
Buko slowly shook his head.
The panic swelled within him. It was real but it was also familiar. Situations like this tended to have the potential for one of two outcomes and Buko was well-practised in erring fate towards the first. The one that kept him breathing. The second outcome was probably best left to the imagination.
The Bear scoffed and leaned back against his pillar; the show of submission was obviously sufficient for the time-being. The murmur bubbled up again and Buko fell back to default. He stared at the flames, avoiding glancing towards the shadowed corner of the church. He knew she was still there but he didn’t dare to look. If he had, he would have seen that she was smiling.
Soon the church emptied. People wandered into the night in search of safe lodging and warmth. Both had become rarities. Endangered species. Only a few men remained in the small church then. Outside the rain pelted the paving stones and shutters rattled against their frames, the sounds making a vacuum inside the church hall as the men listened.
Buko knew the men that stayed behind. Men that had nowhere to go. They all knew each other but they were still difficult to recognise. People changed so quickly these days. They sat around the fire for warmth and avoided each other's gaze. A warmth permeated the concrete tiles the fire and the men were seated on and was welcomed on the soles of his bare feet, sore and blistered as they were, the comforting ebb almost felt like it was healing him.
As the rain tumbled on the old church roof tiles above, Buko began to hear whispers riding the gale outside. There were no recognisable words but the rhythm was unmistakable as a spoken language. He shuddered despite the warmth. Ghosts rode the wind at night, he was sure of it, as they lamented the pain they suffered before the end. It was not good to be outside when they were whispering like that. He was sure they did not have sympathetic intentions.
Soon the whispers became words and the big oak door of the church rolled aside as the visitors stepped over the threshold. Flames drew away. The gust of cold, wet air abruptly died as the door rolled back into place. Buko sensed the presence of several men. He could hear the rainwater drip from their coats onto the tiles.
Lankin wasn’t from around here. Buko had just met the man and he seemed real enough. He had taken up position on the floor next to him, his eyes shielded by the cowboy hat on his head. Buko wanted to tell him it looked ridiculous on a Scotsman, but wondered if Lankin would be the type to take a swing at him for it. Lankin looked up to the door and then quickly back to the fire.
His Scottish accent growled under his breath. The new arrivals approached the edge of the firelight and Buko stole a glance. He was surprised to see the group of young, well-equipped and heavily-armed militia he hadn’t seen before. What was more interesting is how they were seemingly led by a female.
“They look more like puppies.” he muttered.
The girl raised her eyebrow and Buko immediately it. He could almost feel Lankin wincing next to him and realised he may have made a mistake. Again.
“It’s good.” Lankin spoke, “It’s good to see good people out tonight.”
The eyes around the fire locked themselves to the flames.
“What did you say?”
The girl spoke. Her voice was sweeter than expected, though it had a survivor’s edge to it. She was dressed in military garb and carried a rifle slung over her shoulder. She held herself with a professionalism that was rare amongst other militia groups Buko had seen.
“It’s good…” Lankin stuttered “Good to see…”
“You said we were more like puppies.” she cut him off, staring at Buko.
He cursed himself for the second time that evening. From the shadows another figure appeared wearing similar attire but with a black bandana covering the lower half of his face. He approached where they were still and stood above them.
“What the fuck did you say?”
His voice again was younger than he expected it to be. This was going to be bad. The young ones seemed more prone to impulsive decisions and reckless action. Despite his age he knew this kid would not think twice about cutting pieces from him, given half a chance. Luckily, the boy spoke again before Buko was forced to repeat himself.
“Don’t you fucking mock my family. Don’t you ever mock my fucking family.” he spat, “Do you understand?”
The air in the room was still. He could no longer hear anybody breathing. He could feel his own heartbeat thumping on his ribcage and took a chance.
He stood up.
“I’ll mock whoever I goddamn please.”
The kid twitched and Buko noticed he was holding a .44 Magnum at his side, wishing he could take back the last ten minutes of his life and start all over again. He may have made a mistake. He wondered if the kid was bluffing.
“No you fucking won’t because I am telling you, you don’t mock my fucking family you piece of shit. Do you understand?”
Buko felt himself stepping to the side as Lankin stood, seeming taller than usual.
“Hey, look let me say something.” the Scottish accent somewhat pacifying, “I know you guys.”
Lankin looked at each one of the Wolves.
“I know you’re good people. You don’t need to do this, he was just having a joke. You all know what it is like, these days, everybody needs a laugh every now and again. He was making a…” he glanced at Buko, “...a really shite joke.”
The kid was almost nose to nose with him now. Buko could feel his rage. He wondered if it was real. Lankin continued to advocate for him, talking with the girl as the kid stepped back and glared at Buko. Two of the Wolves at the door whispered and stared. He gave one of them a wink for good measure. The Wolf nodded.
Finally, the girl sighed, shaking her head.
“Let’s go, leave this guy. He was just talking shit.”
The air never left the kid as he followed his comrades to the door. Everyone left in the church kept their eyes locked to the flames.The Wolves left as quietly as they had arrived.
The streets were now empty and the rain had stopped entirely. It was almost pleasant. Lankin shook his head and let out a grunt.
“You’re a fuckin’ idiot, you know that?”
Buko smiled. There was something about the Scottish accent that made curse words poetry.
“Seriously, man.” Lankin continued, “You’ve got to watch yer mouth. Groups like that aren’t to be messed with. I’m serious, they’ll fuck you up.”
“I know, I know.”
They filled their bottles from the hose. Buko sat on the pavement and stared up at the night sky, hoping somehow to fall upwards into it and to be gone forever.
“This place may seem safe for now, but they… they will be back, you know that?”
Buko nodded. He wasn’t talking about the militias.
“We’ve just been lucky, that’s all.” Lankin stood over him, “And when they do come back you better be ready.”
Lankin held out his hand but Buko waved it away.
“I’m going to stay here for a bit,” Buko chuckled, “Take in the scenery.”
Lankin sighed, “Look after yourself then lad.” he turned away into the night “Stay safe out there.”
Buko listened to his footsteps fade into the nighttime ambience as he sat on the deserted street. Burnt out cars and trash littered the concrete and the only sounds were the wind, now a gentle breeze, and the sound of a can rolling into the gutter. A sharp gasp startled him from his daze.
Buko looked up to see a figure in the road twenty feet away. There was only one of them - that he could see. He dialled his panic down a notch.
“What are you staring at?” he asked.
“Oh” came a girl’s voice, “You startled me.”
What the hell was she doing out here all alone at night? He dialled his panic up a little.
“I’m sorry,” his voice cracked more than he would have liked, “Who are you?”
She shuffled on the spot, seemingly as uneasy as he was.
“Like the Pixar film?”
“That’s right, yes.”
Buko swallowed this information and found it hard to digest. He couldn’t make out her features but she was petite, definitely female and wore a white armband. Her voice was sweet but he couldn’t place her accent. All of these thoughts contributed to a prolonged, awkward pause.
“What’s the deal with the armband?” he finally managed.
“Oh, I’m a courier. I pick up and deliver packages for people.”
She spoke as if it was obvious. As if he was a moron for questioning it. What was she doing out this late at night at all?
“Listen,” he tried choosing his words carefully, “It’s dangerous out here. I’ve got a couple of tents not far from here. You can have one, I’ll take…”
Then she was gone, faded back into the shadows. An apparition. Buko tried to make sense of it but it was not the time. He needed sleep.
He felt her presence before he dared to look. It wasn’t the courier girl. She wasn’t back. It wasn’t the leader of the Wolves. It was her. She stood in the middle of the street; the moonlight casting shadows behind everything that surrounded her. But she did not have one. He urged himself not to look. It never worked. Why did he have to see her like this?
She wasn’t smiling anymore.