The inside is even worse.
The signs of a struggle are everywhere – smashed vases, ripped furniture, torn curtains. Shards of glass lie like ice over the soiled carpets and a foul odour of mould and rotting food fills the house.
Alex is searching through the rubble almost robotically, without emotion, the only clue to her rising panic the wild look in her eyes.
I hang back, gazing at the debris. My eyes are on Alex as she continues to rifle through the heaps in desperation. I can’t help but feel sorry for her, despite knowing that she would rip me apart if she ever felt my pity. I can feel her tension building like storm clouds.
Turning away, I clamber over an overturned desk into a study. The window is a gaping, jagged hole and a bitterly cold wind blows through the room, making me shiver. I shine my torch around the room, searching for survivors, when the beam of light falls across and armchair and I freeze.
“Alex,” I call, softly.
She hurries over, frantic. “Have you found someone? Who is it?” She snaps her head back and forth.
I wordlessly shine my torch on to the armchair. Beside me I hear Alex gasp, the air roughly sucked in between her teeth.
Scarlet red – burgundy red – crimson red, soaked deep into the fabric. A chair dripping with blood. Someone had sat there, on that seat, someone that was bleeding profusely. Enough to turn a light green armchair the colour of old rust. I can smell it now, and I feel slightly sick.
Alex let out a strangled sound.
“No.” She stepped forward. “No, they’re fine.” She took a deep breath. “They’re not here, but they’re fine, they escaped.”
“Alex.” I spoke quietly
“No bodies means no deaths, they’re just in hiding, they’re fine.” She continued as though she hadn’t heard me, her words beginning to blur into one panicked rush. “I’ve just got to find out where they are, so we can meet up. It’s all good.”
“Alex!” I said, more forcefully.
“If the gangs had taken them, they would have left their sign on the wall, and they haven’t, so they’re safe.”
“Alex!” I screamed her name. She turned, her babbling cut short, shocked by the volume of my voice.
“Even if the gangs don’t have them yet, this is bad,” I pleaded. “Look at this. Look at that blood. This is too much for us, and we can’t go after the gangs alone. See reason, Alex!”
There was a moment of silence. Then the storm clouds broke. Fury twisted Alex’s face and she stepped towards me, threateningly.
“I’m not going to give up on them! We came all this way to find them, and we’re going to keep looking, you hear me? They’re my family!”
“If you get killed too, that’ll prove nothing!” I shot back.
“If they’re dead, then I don’t want to live!”
My eyes widened. Her anger fell away as quickly as it came, leaving an expression of absolute exhaustion. Her voice was broken, soft, and she spoke to the floor.
“I’ve… I’ve lost enough. I can’t – not anyone else. They’re all I have left. Please.” She looked up, and the loneliness in her eyes making her look like a child. “Help me find them.”
She has always been strong, the survivor, the girl that lost everything but stood tall. I envied her strength, her tenacious attitude. But who is she really? An orphan, traveling two hundred miles on foot in search of any surviving members of her family, completely alone in a world at war with itself.
Alone – accept from me. I looked at her and smiled, hesitantly.
“I’ll help you find them.”