Her fingertips disappear through the holes in the grate. She grips the metal with both hands and pulls down hard, trying to get it open.
He’s watched her over the last few weeks, seen how much she’s been looking at the grate. She wants to leave, he knows it. But he can’t let her.
He sets his can down and pulls the gun from his pocket. He found it the very first day he was down here, back when he was alone. It might not have any bullets in, he hasn’t checked because he doesn’t know how.
He grips the gun and places his fingers where he thinks they should go. He’s shaking. He steadies it with his other hand, lifts and aims at her head.
“Get the fuck away from there.” He’s still shaking but the girls don’t notice in the dim light of the candle.
Claire takes a step back, throws her hands out. “Where did you get that?”
“What, my gun? Well, I haven’t needed it up until now, but I think it’s about to come in right fucking handy. See, you and her seem to think going for a little stroll upstairs is a great fucking idea.”
She sighs. It’s too dark to tell for certain but he thinks she just rolled her eyes. It’s something she does so often he’s sure he can sense it now.
“Ethan, do you really think we want to go up there for a stroll?”
She doesn’t say anything more. She’s giving him time to think. He hates how she talks to him, like he’s a stupid kid, even though there can’t be more than a year or two between them.
He doesn’t speak, just focuses on keeping the gun steady.
“Ethan, we’re leaving. We can find somewhere better than this.”
He shakes his head, purses his lips. “You see, love, that right fucking there is where you’re wrong. If you and her go up there, you won’t find somewhere else, ’cause they’ll find you first. And you’ll lead the fuckers right down on me.”
“No, Ethan, of course we won’t. You’re coming with us, that was always the plan.”
She steps forward, positions herself below the grate again.
“No-one’s leaving,” Ethan says. His spray of spittle catches the candle light as it showers through the stale air. “All three of us are staying put right here. So get the fuck over here and sit down!”
At first she doesn’t move and he fears she might be calling his bluff. His finger trembles against the trigger, not knowing if he could really do it. But, finally, she takes a step, and then another five, back to her spot against the wall. He follows her movements, gun aimed at her head the entire time. She slides down the decaying brick and places an arm around the other girl. Only now does Ethan realise how much the other girl’s shaking.
“They won’t catch us,” Claire says, almost under her breath.
“Course they fucking will, they didn’t exactly come in peace, did they?”
Claire leans forward, closing the gap of musty air between them. “Jade heard something on the radio, before everything stopped.”
Ethan takes a deep breath. He places the gun down beside him and picks up the can. He runs his fingers round the inside, scooping out the last bits of food. “What she hear?”
“That they look like us. Exactly like us. Do you know what that means?” Claire pauses, allowing him some time to catch-up. “If we walk slow, blend in, they’ll think we’re the same as them.”
Ethan chucks the empty can and looks at Claire. He puts a sauce covered finger into his mouth. With a moist pop he sucks it clean.
“There’s only one difference,” Jade says. Her voice is grainy, barely audible. It’s the first time Ethan’s heard her speak. “They’ve got less fingers, that’s it.”
“Oh, that’s it?” Ethan says, wiping his hands on his jeans.
Ethan rummages about where he’s sitting, making noise as he searches for something. “One minute then, love, there’s gotta be a knife amongst all this shit. I’ll just amputate a few, we’ll fit right in.”
“Ethan, this is our only chance,” Claire says. “If we stay here we’re going to die. We need to–”
“Look, love, we’re not leaving so you may as well shut the hell up.”
Claire takes Jade’s hand and kisses it. She places it back down, leans forward and crawls towards Ethan.
Ethan grabs the gun, holds it straight out in front and lines the sight back up for her head.
Claire doesn’t stop crawling until the gun rests against the greasy hair on her forehead. She’s staring right at him, not even blinking. She smiles and sits up, kneels back, her hair peeling from the gun. “Then maybe we should get to know each other a little better.”
She unbuttons her shirt.
The gun’s shaking all over the place.
Claire undoes the last button, slides her shirt down, over her shoulders, and off.
Ethan tries to stay focused but he can’t help glancing down as she unhooks her bra.
“Give me your hand,” she says.
He takes a hand from the gun and places it in hers. She pushes it against one of her breasts. Without thinking he lowers his gun hand, rests it to one side.
She moves in closer, straddles him.
He feels her breath on his face and her nipple in his fingers. He moves his hand over to her other breast.
She leans back. “Why don’t you use both hands?”
Ethan looks down at his right hand. The gun’s almost slipped from his fingers. And she’s right there, poised and waiting.
He grabs at the gun, lifts it to her breast and pops the tip of the barrel over her nipple.
“You fucking whore!”
He shoves her off him, hard, using his hand and the gun.
She cries and tumbles over, scrambling back to her place on the wall.
Ethan stands. “You’re right, love, I’ve realised now. You should leave.”
Claire’s wet eyes look up to the grate.
Ethan tilts the gun at Jade. “But she’s staying.”
“Look, I’m the one with the gun, bitch. You get that? I make the rules. Either you get over to the grate right now or I’ll shoot you.”
Claire covers her breasts with her hands as she runs. She pauses beneath the grate and looks at Ethan.
“If you shoot me they’ll hear it. They’ll be straight down.”
“Well, it’s like you said before, we’re all going to die here, right? Why not go out with a fucking bang?”
Claire doesn’t make a move for the grate. She’s stands beneath it, trembling, staring at Jade.
“Fine, if you really want to watch that bad,” Ethan says. “I guess I can’t fucking stop you.”
Ethan keeps the gun on Claire as he grabs Jade up by the wrist and shoves her against the wall. “I thought me and your mate here could get a little bit more friendly.”
Ethan sweeps the gun around and rests it against Jade’s temple. “You make one move,” he says. “Just one. And she’s dead.”
He pushes himself up against the girl, pins her to the wall while his free hand finds the zip of her jeans.
Ethan puts his hand over her mouth. She bites it until he takes it away. She screams again, louder and louder.
The grate falls to the floor.
It whooshes up a cloud of dust into a beam of red light.
Claire jumps out of the way. She’s pushing herself into the wall, making sure none of the red light touches her skin.
There’s shouting from above, languages Ethan doesn’t think are from his world.
Something’s coming through the opening, hanging from the hole.
It’s facing the wrong way, staring at the back wall.
But it’s turning.
Turning. Still turning.
It stops at Claire.
She throws her hands out in front just as fire blasts from the gun.
It consumes every bit of her, snatching the skin from arms, her cheeks, her breasts.
The room fills with her smell, burning fat and muscle and bone.
The gun stops but she’s still burning. Burning until there’s nothing left of her.
A smoking lump of black char collapses into nothing on the cellar floor.
Jade’s behind Ethan, shaking and screaming, crying and moaning like nothing Ethan’s ever heard.
The gun moves.
It’s searching the rest of the room.
It stops dead on Ethan.
They stare at each other, Ethan and the gun.
He prays and hopes that nothing will happen.
But deep down he knows what’s coming.
He pushes back, wedging the girl between him and the wall. He wants to shield her, he doesn’t know why. He drops the gun and shoves his hands out, the same useless primitive response as Claire.
And he waits.
Just him and the gun.
And seething pain.
The flesh on his hands dissolves into nothing.
The flames eat away every one of his seven fingers.
© 2017 Rebecca Delphine
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.