SANCTUARY

Part Three

  "Do you want me to cut it?" I turn my head toward Rick. "Your hair, do you want me to cut it? I have a knife."

  I don't answer anything and turn my back to him. He takes all my hair in his hand and with one movement, cut all of it at my neck. I slide my hand in it. It's much better this way. "Thank you."

  I can shower my hair now. One after another, we used water and soap to shower ourselves a little bit. Now, I can do it with my hair. I take the soap and wash my hair. It's better. I take the hair comb, and try to brush it.

  "Come here, sweetheart. I'll do it, I'll make myself useful."

  I give him a little smile and get up, walking toward the bed. I sit next to Jonathan, my back to him. I give him the hair comb and he starts to bush my wet hair. Rick gives me a chocolate bar. In silence. The three of us haven't said much since we got here. And it's probably better this way. I play with the chocolate, taking little a bit of it. It's disgusting. I love chocolate, but this one has melted and then has been frozen. It's gross.

  "Tell me, Antonina. If I may ask, how old are you?"

  "I'm twenty-two."

  "Oh, you're not a lot younger than Richard, then. He is just twenty-nine. Right, Richard?"

  Rick doesn't answer. He is counting what food and water we have left. He seems to be a very organized person. Jonathan finishes brushing my hair.

  "Here you go, pretty girl. Stay here, with me. Tell me about your life, would you? So we can know you better. I think we have to tell our stories. Richard, come here. We will know each other better, and it's going to help us during this surviving mission." He is smiling. This man is always smiling. Always. "You start, Antonina."

  "I... err... I'm twenty-two. I was born in a small town in the north of England. My parents' names were Nathalie and Edward Anderson. I have Spanish origins. I have a little sister, Camellia. I don't know if she's still alive or not... Before all of this, I was in college studying literature. And err... I used to read a lot, and sing too."

  "Oh, you're a singer, then! That is very interesting! Do you think you could sing us something?"

  "Err... A little bit later? I've lost some of my memories... I have to recall the lyrics." I smile a little. It's a lie. I just don't sing in public.

  "Richard, your turn!" Sitting on the wheelchair, he takes a deep breathe before he starts talking.

  "As John said, I'm twenty-nine. My complete name is Richard Smithson. I'm not English, I'm American. I was in England for my best-friend's wedding. I'm a soldier, I mean was. I did Afghanistan for seven years before I got injured and had to stop my career. I was a P.E. teacher after that, in high-school, in Tennessee."

  Soldier. It explains a lot.

  "You must have had a difficult life, Richard. I'm sorry to hear that." Jonathan has a reassuring smile, but it doesn't seem to be useful on Rick. It hardened him. I can tell.

  "My turn, then! As you both know, my name is Jonathan Wright. I'm fifty-three, or four. I'm not sure; I've stopped celebrating my birthdays after my fortieth. Where you found me, earlier, it was my apartment. I was living there on my own. My husband, Eli, died five years ago in a car crash; it was a horrible time for me. As a living, l was a bus driver."

  I listen carefully to what Jonathan is telling us. He seemed happy about his life before all this. I smile a little as he speaks. This old man puts me in a good mood. It seems to have the same effect on Rick who is smiling too at an anecdote Jonathan tells us about his job.

  We talk for a few minutes. Or maybe hours; we don't know, we had fun anyhow. At one moment, it is starting to get seriously dark. We all start to feel tired. Rick decides to go find another bed so both of us can sleep while one stays awake. We'll take shifts. He comes back with a bed, and offers it to me.

  "You two sleep first. Then I'll wake you up, John. And John will wake you up, Tonie. Okay?"

I want to say that I should be the first on guard because Rick is injured but my eyes are closing by themselves. I just nod and go onto the bed. Fast, I drift into sleep. A deep sleep. With dreams. A lot of dreams.

 

  I see the man, again; this man eaten by cannibals. I'm trying to stay calm, to think of something else. To escape from it. But I can't move. Yelling echoes around me. My eyes are wide open and they fall on faces. Anonymous faces. All around me, people are walking slowly toward me. They have no eyes, no noses, just mouths. Slobbery mouths. I try to run away, to scream. But I can't. My legs are numb, my mouth is dry. I'm stuck here, with them. I see them approaching very slowly toward me. Their hands touching me slightly, almost caressing. Their mouths turn into smiles. Baleful smiles. I'm shaking, twisting in every direction, trying to escape. I try to scream but I'm mute. My cheeks are soaked with tears, my heart is pounding. Let me out of here!

 

  "Tonie! Tonie! Open your eyes!" I wake up. Cold. Shaking. Terrified.

  The first thing I see is Rick's worried look. I stare at him a few seconds with round eyes and then possessively wrap my arms around his neck, crying and breathing fast. He puts one hand on the back of my head and the other on my back. Shushing me.

  My head in the crook of his neck, I finally calm down. I recede away from him, sniffing. I put my hands on my eyes and let out a long and shaking breath.

  "Tonie, you okay? Do you wanna talk about it?" I shake my head no and look at him. It's still his round? How long have I been sleeping?

  "You're still up? Isn't it John's turn?"

  "He already did his. He woke me up instead of you because you were so peacefully sleeping. It was just an impression, apparently."

  "You should have woken me up. It's not fair if you sleep less than us. You're injured. Actually, let me see how it is." Yes. I am trying to think about something else than my dream... nightmare.

  Rick sits down on the bed and takes his shirt off. I untie the bandage and look at the injury. It's not pretty.

  "There is an infection. Give me your knife." I take the bag from the floor and take the alcohol. I sterilize the blade and start to cut the pus. Rick does weird faces, it probably hurts.

  "How do you know... how to do that?"

  "My dad worked at the E.R. in a hospital like this one. He taught me a few things." I finish getting the pus out of the wound and clean it. I disinfect the injury once again and bandage him again.

  "Rick, do you have something planned for tomorrow?"

  "Why?" he says, putting his shirt on.

  "My little sister... I want to find her."

  He looks at me for a moment. I know he is going to tell me there is no chance she is still alive. I know that. It's not the problem. I want to find her body. I want to be sure she can't be alive anymore.

  "Okay, we'll do that." I look up at him with surprise. There's no pity in his eyes; I think he understands. "Do you think you can go back to sleep?"

  I shake my head no. Surely not. He sits in front of me, properly. And starts to ask me things. He wants me to talk to him. About my parents, my sister... my life before it all happened. He tells me he is going to do the same thing afterwards. So we know each other. The same way Jonathan did earlier. Opening his heart to us.

  Surprisingly, l do it.

 

  I wake up to the sunlight. "Morning sunshine."

  I open my eyes and see that my head is on Rick's lap. I straight up and run my hands over my face. "Sorry."

  "Did you sleep well, Antonina?"

  "Yes, thank you." I smile at Jonathan. Rick gets up and he looks out the window, chewing on a piece of burned bread.

  "What is the plan for today, Richard?" He turns to look at us.

  "We're going to find a cart; it'll be more convenient than this chair. And we're going to find Camellia, Tonie's sister. Do you know where the London Christian School is, John?"

  "Oh yes, l know where it is. Just a few streets away."

  I'm very grateful to Rick. I stand up, and help him carry Jonathan to the wheelchair. Soon enough, we are out the hospital and following Jonathan's directions. The clouds have vanished and there is now a film of ash; as if it had been snowing.

 

  We walk for a few minutes, maybe an hour or so. Just doing small talk. At one moment, we arrive in front of a collapsed building. There is a burned sign where I can see "London Christian School" written on it. I take a deep breath, my sister is there. Under the rubble. I wipe a tear and Jonathan takes my hand and squeezes it. We stay here for a moment, in silence. I hesitate to go see if I can find the body, but Rick tells me it's probably not a good idea. I believe him.

  We start to walk again. I still have my hand in Jonathan's. I knew Camellia wasn't alive, but it is still hard to process her death. It'll be hard forever.

  "Is there somebody here?" I look up. What is that? I look at Rick who is searching where the voice came from, and Jonathan is about to say something.

  "It's a little girl's voice. I'm not crazy, right, you heard it too?"

  I nod and look around. The voice rises up again and I feel like it's coming from underground. "Excuse me? My brother is hurt, can someone help us? We are down there!"

  It's definitely a little girl. Fast, Rick runs to the voice and finds a vent to the subway. He looks inside, and gets rid of the debris in the way. I drive Jonathan - who is now sitting in the cart we found earlier - to where Rick is. Apparently, there is someone. I look closely and see a little girl with long red hair and next to her is a boy a bit older, with his arm stuck under a steel pipe.

  "You can't get in, Rick. Let me do it." He doesn't say anything. I kneel at the entrance and look inside.

  "Hello, sweetheart. Are you okay down there?"

  "My brother is hurt, but I'm okay. Are you nice people?"

  I smile a little. "Yes, sweetheart. We're nice people. I'm here to help you with my friends, okay? My name is Antonina, what is yours?"

  "My name is Alice, I am six years old. George is my big brother: he is ten. Can you help him? He is very hurt."

  "Of course, I am going to help him. But first, sweetheart, I want you to tell me if George can speak? Is he breathing, sweetie?"

  "Yes, yes, he is breathing. I did all the things the fire men told us in school. But he is very weak, he can't speak. Can you get him out, please?"

  As she speaks, Rick helps me tie an old rope around my waist so I can get down to get the kids. "Great job, Alice. It is very well, what you did. Listen to me, now. I am coming to you, and I'm going to help you out first, okay? Up here, my friends Rick and John will give you food and water. I hope you are hungry. Okay, Alice?"

  "And my brother?"

  "When you're out of there, I'm going to take your brother out. It's a promise, Alice. Are you ready, now?"

  "Yes, I am." I get down in the hole. There are pieces of rock to help me so I don't put all my weight on the rope that Rick is holding. I'm going slowly, so I don't fall and scare the little girl. Soon, my feet hit the ground. I kneel next to Alice who is looking at me with big eyes.

  "Hi. You come with me?" I smile to reassure her. But I can see she is quite afraid.

  "We will see each other soon, George, and you'll be better without this on your arm. Promise." Alice puts her little arms around my neck and I hold her so she doesn't fall.

  "Rick! Up!" Slowly, Rick pulls on the rope to bring us to the surface. Alice hides her face on my neck as we reach the top. "Here you go, sweetheart. This is Rick and this is John. Don't worry, they are nice pals. They won't hurt you, promise. I'm going to get George now, okay?"

  Alice seems afraid of Rick and Jonathan. I suppose she has had bad experiences with men. She looks at me and nods. Jonathan, being himself, gives her chocolate and water. I look at Rick and gesture him that I'm going down again. I do the same thing as before, but more confident and get to the bottom rapidly.

  "George? George, can you hear me?"

  He nods slowly, his eyes closed.

  "My name is Antonina. Your sister is safe, out of here. It's your turn, now. Can you feel your arm?" He nods again.

  I examine the steel pipe. It is not a long piece but it is big enough to crush an arm. Carefully, I try to lift the pipe. I think I can do it. I kneel next to the young boy.

  "George, listen. I'm going to lift what is hurting you as high as I can. And when you feel it's gone away from your arm, you roll over. Okay?"

  He nods again. I stand up and put my hands so I can lift the thing up. Slowly, very slowly. It's harder than I thought. I lift it for a few seconds and I finally hear George rolling on his side away from the pipe. I let it fall loudly on the ground and go next to George. He is very weak; his arm is completely crushed. I take him in my arms and tell Rick he can lift us up.

  Rick helps me get George into the cart with Jonathan so he can take care of him and give him water. When I'm completely out of the hole, Alice comes to me and hugs me. I take her in my arms.

  "Thank you for helping my brother."

  I smile at her and kiss her cheek. Rick comes to me, and put his hand on my back. "We better go. We are not alone."

  Alice squeezes me, and I look at Rick and nod. He pushes the cart and I carry Alice. We start walking quite fast to get rid of the cannibals. We know it"s them. I don't want my nightmare to become real.

 

  We succeeded in outwitting them. The cannibals. It's been a few hours. We are still walking quite fast. I have looked at George's injury, and bandaged him. He can speak now and has explained us that he and his sister were with their nanny, taking the tube when it happened. They take it so well. The apocalypse, I mean. I don't know if they really understand what is happening now. They are incredible.

  At one moment, Alice says to me she wanna talk to me in private so I slow down the pace to put a little distance between us and the boys. She looks at me with her dark eyes.

  "Are they nice men?"

  "Who, sweetheart? Rick and John?" She nods. "Yes, they are nice guys. Why do you ask, love?"

  "Because... two days ago, my brother wasn't answering me, so I called for help. Two men heard me and they got down with us." She hangs her head down. "They weren't nice guys."

I know inside of me what they did to her. But l need to be sure. "They hurt you, sweetheart?" She nods. "Can you tell me where they hurt you? Or show me?"

  I see her hand going down her frail body. It is enough. I hold her close to me and kiss the top of her head. "Rick and John would never do that to you, love. No one is going to do that to you ever again. I promise you, Alice. Never again."

  Alice puts her face in the cook of my neck and I start to hum a little song, as she probably drifts to sleep. I walk to Rick, who is looking forwards, pushing the cart in which George and Jonathan are playing games and laughing. As I get next to him, Rick looks at me and glides one arm around my shoulders and brings me close to him. We walk this way. We progress this way.

  I am feeling good. I am feeling peaceful. I haven'tknown these people for long - actually I don't know them at all - but they arewhat look the most like a family. A new family in a new world. It may be how itshould start.