Extract from Changing of Faces

October 13th, 2000 • Posted in Extracts |

A full moon brought the first tide of death.

They saw them in the distance, loping along the beach, crawling through the sand, ducking and diving in the air, leaping from the sea where waves dashed whitely against the shore. The curved bay was wide, the approaching shadows at least a mile distant, and this far out the threat could only exist in the minds of the observers. But after all they had been through they were attuned to dangers, both apparent and potential. They had come to expect the worst.

“We haven’t seen any walking dead since you got here,” Janine said, looking accusingly at Jack and his father. “But no walking living, either…” She trailed off with the same note of subdued panic that Jack had come to recognise amongst the adults. Nothing they could do, no one they could turn to, no one in charge.

“This looks different,” Oscar said. He was a tall man, middle-aged, physically and mentally strong, and he’d quickly become the leader of their group. They stood on the slanting deck of the beached ferry and Oscar was the calmest. He hadn’t lost anyone, he told them, because he’d had no one to lose.

“I can hear them,” Jack said. The sea hushed onto the beach, a sound he had already become so used to that it became background. But now between each surge there was something else, a distant whisper like a storm approaching in the night. He held his breath and closed his eyes, trying to make it out.

“I can’t hear a thing,” a man said. Jack thought his name was Steve, although he rarely spoke.

“Whatever it is, I think we should get inside,” Oscar said. “Lock all the doors and windows. Batten down like we’ve discussed.”

“But I thought it was all over,” Janine said. “I thought it was just a case of waiting!”

Jack took a final look across the bay at the advancing threat. In the night, lit only by moonlight, it looked like waves of shadow twisting and flipping towards them, one end splashing in the sea and breaking its natural rhythm, the top edge grasping at the sky and blocking out the stars. There was a definite sound now. Splashes, a rhythmic flapping at the air, the dull impacts of feet on sand, running. And behind it all, something else. Jack strained, hoping for voices. He heard growls and grunts instead.

“Its them,” he whispered, grasping his dad’s hand, needing to feel safe. Safe was somewhere he had known once, safe with his family, but with half of them gone the word had lost meaning. Safe was a fantasy place now, like Narnia or Never-Never Land or Middle Earth.

“It might not be,” his dad said, still so full of doubt and dread.

“Inside!” Oscar hissed. Nobody argued.

There were noises now, strange cries in the night. Jack listened as he hurried along in front of his father. Sometimes, beneath those screams, he could hear voices.

The ten people filed across the uneven deck and through the open door. Oscar slammed it behind them, shutting out the hush of the sea and the violence in the noise slowly drowning it.

“We need to lock as many doors and windows as we can,” he said. “Then we’ll meet in the bar and shut it up. We’ve got the guns. We’ve got the gas canisters. If it is them, we can hold them off-”

“It isn’t,” Jack said. He was panting with fear, sweat tickled his sides and his father’s hand squeezed his shoulder. “Not them, not the walking dead. Something different.” He closed his eyes and wished he could scream. The dark behind his eyelids bulged and swam with threat, and his spine seemed to stretch with an awful promise of pain. “Something worse,” he said. And then they heard the first of the long, dreadful screams from outside.

“What the fuck was that?” Nathan said. He was a young lad, little more than sixteen, but to Jack he seemed all grown up. He smoked and swore, and swore he’d screwed Janine.

“Doors!” Oscar said, trying to control the panic that buzzed around them. “And windows!”

“Come on,” Jack’s dad said. He held onto Jack’s arm as he moved away. “We’ll close up this way. Meet you all in the bar.”

“I think we may have three or four minutes,” Oscar said, and then another scream came, closer, higher, already victorious. He looked at them all where they stood silent and cold, and whispered: “Let’s hurry.”

Jack and his dad dashed away and turned the first corner in the wide corridor, checking windows, slamming and locking them where necessary.

“How do you know they’re not the walking dead?” his dad said as they hurried from window to window.
Jack checked a catch and moved on to the next one. “Just do. It’s … obvious.”

“To you.”

He nodded. “Yeah, to me.”

His father had reached a door that hung half-open. He pulled it shut and twisted the catches at the head and foot, kicking it once to make sure it was secure. “Your mum always said you had a touch of your grandmother’s insight.”

“It’s nothing like that!” Jack said, surprised at the anger in his voice. The last thing he would do, could ever do, was to hurt his dad. Even disagreeing with him felt bad since his mother and sister had died. But this … Jack was scared. He felt things, knew things he didn’t want to know, and he had no idea how.

His dad looked at him and smiled in the weak light. “Down to the next floor. Then the bar.”

“Will we hold them off in there?” Jack asked. When he’d closed his eyes earlier he’d sensed something out there, a raw power born of desperation and hunger. He wondered how determined something would have to be to get in. As he glanced at the door his father had just bolted, the thin metal handles of the locking plates, Jack thought of those fluid shadows they had seen rolling along the beach.

Another cry from outside, as if in answer to Jack’s thought. It was a scream in the dead of night, too loud and powerful to belong here. Jack shivered, coolness flooded his spine and for a brief, awful moment he thought he was going to piss himself.

“How far away-?” his dad said quietly, but when the thing struck the metal bulkhead outside, they knew.

“Dad!”

“Keep still!” Something solid scraped across metal, screeching in places, scoring, testing. They heard a snort or a heavy breath. Then, nearer and louder than ever, another screech.

Something began smashing against one of the small windows they had just locked.

They heard shouts back along the corridor – Oscar or one of the others. Jack couldn’t tell what they were saying, if anything at all.

“The bar!” his dad said. “Quick!”

The window obscured and the next impact drove something through — something long and ridged, solid as stone, fresh scrapes along its length a muddy golden colour.

“A beak…” Jack said. And then his father picked him up and ran.

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