My vain hopes were dashed as the sun released its white knuckle grip on the horizon and fell finally away. Now it was night. Now they would come.
I sealed tight the remaining blackout shutter on my attic window, making certain not even a speck from the flickering candle I kept inside could find its way out. I could hear Hilltop Harry crackling through the radio. I could picture him willing what signal he had to leak across our town as he spoke. He was a true hero for us and God knows how he’d lasted so long. Not that there was any sign of God paying attention. Harry was reading the code words for the morning. The same ones he’d been repeating for an hour. The only way we’d know it was safe to release ourselves again.
‘Hot summer… fzzzz… Ice cream… ekkekk… Pu… shhh... Puffin’
I loved him now for the joy in the phrases he chose. I hadn’t always.
Silence. We wouldn’t hear him again now until dawn.
The first scream came quickly. They often did. Some unfortunate who hadn’t shut down quickly enough. Who had let their light be seen. It ended in a gurgle. Then I felt the fizz in my guts, knowing what would come next.
I was no longer sick every time I heard the wail, but it had taken a long time to get here and the enamel of my teeth still clawed at my gums. It took thirteen seconds for one of us to become one of them. I’d timed it over and over. The wail stretched across every last second then nothing. Stillness. Somewhere, the grim pack, now increased by one, scanned for another breach.
I lay down on the single mattress I called my bed, not that I would sleep, I wasn’t at that place in my cycle. I’d woken disorientated that morning so it’d be another two nights before I was exhausted enough to fall again. I picked up my map and marked on it where I thought I’d heard the scream, then I listened.
The next one was close. I slammed my palms over my ears for fear the wail might empty my bladder if it came through at full force. One, two, three… I released at fifteen and found myself clammy with sweat. I marked the map. It wasn’t precise but I’d become pretty good at working out the locations by now. It would be easy enough to check in the morning. For each scream, someone would be missing from somewhere.
I don’t know why they didn’t take the birds, just as I didn’t know an owl had been innocently working away at the insulation I’d stuffed around the point where the roof beam pushed through my wall. The chink it made was not much, but it was enough to let a flicker of light out.
I could never have marked my own scream on the map, it came from everywhere.
The wail, however, was ecstasy.