As I walk through the tangled, sprawling mass of houses the women eye me reproachfully, their pupils like lumps of hard, cold flint. Anna Smith clings to her mother’s brown skirts, eyes wide, thumb jammed in her mouth. Her dad was supposed to be one of the last men to go rabid. I suppose Anna must have gone funny in the head after she watched him turn into a Lurker. Cynthia Dunst says Anna’s just simple, but I don’t believe her. Simple girls never last long.
I reach the well, unravel the rope and drop the bucket in. It takes both hands to pull it back up again, so I’m completely defenceless when someone comes up behind me and wraps her arms around my waist.
‘Hi Mattie’ says Cynthia, her breath tickling my ear. I’m so stunned the rope slithers out of my hands, and it the bucket drops to the bottom of the well with a huge splash.
‘Shit.’ Her laughter is horribly high pitched. ‘That’s not funny Cynthia.’
‘Yes it is.’ She says, absentmindedly wrapping a strand of light blonde hair around her finger. Her lips form a perfect bow.
‘I’m serious. The other villagers will kill me if they find out I lost that bucket.’
‘Just get another.’
‘I can’t just get another.’
‘Why not?’ asks Cynthia, her eyebrows raised in mock innocence.
‘Because not everyone’s got as many supplies as your mum.’
‘Maybe this should make up for it.’
Cynthia reaches into the cotton bag she’s been carrying and pulls something out. It’s a tin. At first I think it must be something processed like soup, or if I’m really lucky, tuna. Then I read the label.
‘Yep.’ Says Cynthia, and for the first time since we’ve met her smile seems genuine.
‘But… but… where did you get it?’
She raises one long white finger and brushes it against my lips. I shiver, not really sure how to feel.
‘Shhh… Just don’t ask about that. Ok.’
Cynthia takes my hand and drags me to an old barn. We used to use it for food storage, but fights broke out over who had taken what, and when part of the roof fell in nobody bothered to replace it. I look up at the bare rafters and the pillars they are connected too, imagining I am inside the skeleton of a giant beast. We sit down on the floor, breathless, not even caring if our clothes get dusty. Cynthia passes me the tin along with an old metal spoon.
‘Wait!’ she says ‘When did you last have something sweet?’ I shake my head.
‘Go slowly then. It’d be such a waste if you threw it all up.’
I dip my spoon in, and watch hypnotised as the sticky black goo runs off it and back in the tin. For a moment it’s all gone- Timmy, the deer, Cynthia, mum- everything. The first mouthful is wonderful, but after that it starts to taste a little too sweet. The sticky, syrupy mess coats my teeth, clamping my jaw shut. I swallow nervously. Cynthia is staring at me.
‘Aren’t you having some?’
‘Yes.’ She makes a show of searching her pockets. ‘Oh. But I’ve forgotten my other spoon. You’re going to have to feed me.’
‘Feed you? Look, there’s no way I’m-‘
‘Feed me.’ Cynthia says with more force, blue eyes narrowed, eyebrows arched, just daring me to challenge her. A creaking sound comes from the ceiling and I tense up, wondering if the whole roof will cave in and squash us both flat. I suppose that’s part of the appeal for Cynthia.
‘Jesus… okay then.’ I dip the spoon in.
‘No. Not like that. With your finger.’
I’m not sure if I’m excited or just plain uncomfortable. I sigh. I suppose she did give me the treacle. I dip my finger into the tin, wincing as it gets engulfed by sticky black syrup. Cynthia’s tongue is rough and wet, like the tongue of the pet cat we had when I was very small. I close my eyes and try to pretend that it is the cat, not Cynthia, who is licking the treacle off my finger. Her shallow, rapid breathing could easily be mistaken for purring. Then Cynthia leans in to kiss me.
I stay exactly where I am, eyes open, too shocked to push her away or kiss back. Cynthia eases her tongue into my mouth and my stomach lurches horribly. The kiss gets deeper. Her fingers clamp round my wrist, firmly guiding my hand to Cynthia’s left breast.
‘No. No not that.’ I say, pushing her away from me with as much force as I can muster.
For some reason I keep picturing Cathy Green’s face. Do I like Cathy? I didn’t think I liked any of the women. Cynthia has landed in the dust on her backside. For a moment she looks completely stunned, then she blinks and becomes herself again.
‘Oh come on. You know you want to.’ Her voice is smooth and cutting, like a slither of broken glass. One of her hands is in my hair, the other on my thigh.
‘No!’ I shout, starting to back away from her.
‘But everyone in the village wants to!’ Cynthia wines.
I look at her properly. Her curly blonde hair is dishevelled, her pink lips form an ugly pout and her blue eyes are just a little too wide and watery. She blinks rapidly- fighting back tears. Suddenly I am completely and utterly repulsed.
‘I don’t want to! Jesus what… what’s wrong with you? Just get away from me!’
‘But I gave you the treacle. I let you have as much as you liked.’
‘I’m not like your mother Cynthia! I don’t fuck anyone who’ll have me just to get my hands on the best supplies!’
Cynthia’s jaw drops. A single tear spills over her long black lashes and forms a pale line down her cheek. I’ve gone too far. I know I shouldn’t have said that, but the thought of her touching me again makes me shudder with revulsion.
‘Sorry. I’m Sorry.’ I mutter, patting her blonde curly head awkwardly. I’m almost at the entrance to the barn when Cynthia calls me back.
‘Matilda? How olds your brother?’
‘None of your business.’ I say, wincing at the slight tremor in my voice.
‘He must be at least eleven now… maybe older. It won’t be much longer before he starts to get… vulnerable…’
‘You leave him alone.’
‘Has he experienced any fever lately? Any tendencies towards… violence.’
I picture my brothers tiny, heart shaped face. I can’t imagine him going rabid. He’s never been violent towards anyone. Suddenly I’m standing next to Cynthia and my pocket knife is three inches from her throat. My hand is shaking. She doesn’t even flinch.
‘You lay one finger on my brother, and I’ll kill you. I’ll leave your body in the woods for the rabid men. They’ll pull out your intestines and munch on your pretty blue eyes.’
I lurch backwards, panting, the pocket knife slipping out of my clammy hands.
‘Oh. I won’t hurt your brother. But I can’t vouch for the other women.’
My head is spinning. I can’t kill everyone in the shanty town. I don’t think I could even kill Cynthia if it came down to it. She’s won. She knows she’s won. I unbutton my shirt and pull it over my head. Cynthia looks at my naked breasts for a moment, the expression on her face completely unreadable.
‘You idiot. You think I want you now? After what you’ve said to me?’
‘Go home Mattie. Go home and finish your brother before somebody else does. As long as he’s alive we’re all in danger.’
I leave the barn. The wind tears at my skin and I realise I’m still naked from the waist up, my shirt bunched up in one hand. I walk past row after row of dilapidated shacks, almost bumping into them in the fading light. Timmy. Timmy. Timmy. I reach home and pull back the strip of congregated iron. It’s completely dark inside. Mum and Timmy must have already gone to sleep. I put my top on for warmth and lay down next to them, glad it’s too dark to see their faces properly. Part of me wonders if I should wake mum up and tell her what happened, but I feel sick with shame when I think of what I said to Cynthia. That bitch. That slimy, wheedling, manipulative bitch. I rub at my mouth with my sweaty hands, wanting to wash away every trace of her kiss.