Chapter Twenty-Nine

I cycled nervously into the village, my heart beating quickly through a combination of the overpowering heat, the effort of the final stage of the journey and my excitement at the prospect of finally being with Samantha again. Finding the village had been nowhere near as difficult as I had originally expected it to have been - now I just hoped that the directions Sam had given me to her grandmother's house were clear enough to get me there without any further delay.

The road which I had followed for such a long distance stretched out ahead of me and cut a straight line through the centre of the village, dividing it into two roughly equal halves. I pedalled quickly into the village and felt a considerable amount of relief when there were finally little brick buildings on either side of me again instead of parched trees, dry hills and barren fields. Thankfully, unlike the city which I had left behind, the streets were quiet although they were still littered with rubbish, refuse and other remnants of the confusion and uncertainty which appeared to have spread across the nation like a bushfire.

A little way ahead of me stood a picturesque grey stone church and I remembered Samantha's instructions having told me that the road where her grandmother lived was not far from that landmark. When I had memorised the route to the village earlier in the day, I had taken the opportunity to remember the directions to and, providing that I had managed to enter the village from the right direction, I felt sure that I would have no trouble in finding the right house. I needn't have worried anyway - the village was so small that it would only take a short while to walk all the way around it.

In front of the church lay a wide village green which had quickly come to resemble more of a dust-bowl than a place on which cricket matches had once been played and cream teas served only a few weeks earlier. I rode onto the brittle grass and climbed off the bike, pleased to be able to walk for a while and to take some of the strain off my backside which was aching from miles of constant riding on the hard seat. Just past the church I could see the centre of the village proper which consisted of a collection of shops, banks and offices and from which ran little roads which were lined with dusty homes.

My satisfaction at having completed the journey to the village was tempered by the overpowering feelings of exhaustion and tiredness that had plagued and dogged me throughout the dragging day and I was keen to finish the rest of the trip as quickly as I could. Pausing at the church to orientate myself and collect my thoughts, I wiped dry my sweat covered brow and turned around to survey the darkening village. To my incredible delight and relief, I found myself standing directly opposite. Still breathing heavily, I stumbled towards the junction of the roads, leaving the now redundant bike lying on the grass for someone else to use. I gazed hopefully down the little street and could almost sense Samantha's presence there. Her grandmother lived at number seventeen and, while I struggled to work out which way the houses were numbered, I was reassured by the fact that the road was so short that, if I needed to, I could knock on every door and ask for Sam until I found the right building.

I walked along the middle of the road, relaxed and yet becoming increasingly nervous at the thought of finally being with Samantha again. I squinted through the gloom towards one of the little cottages but could not make out any numbers on the walls or door. Tired and hot, I stood on the dotted white line in the centre of the road and looked about. Imagine the irony. I thought, if I'd managed to struggle through literally hundreds of miles of unfamiliar countryside only to be unable to find a single house in a little street. The light had faded quickly and I looked about for signs of life, for someone who I could ask for help.

For reassurance, I glanced back over my shoulder, just to make sure that the road I was standing in really was. When I was younger I had heard stories of the heat in the desert causing unsuspecting travellers to see mirages and apparitions and today there had been little difference between the countryside that I had travelled through and the Sahara or Gobi. I was on the right road, however and, as I turned back to walk further along the dusty street, something happened that chilled me to the core and froze me to the spot where I stood.

The wind began suddenly to blow wildly. Slow and light for the first fraction of a second, the breeze gusted around me and I wondered if it might be the beginning of the energy wave that would end my life. I held my breath as the mild draught was quickly transformed into an uncontrolled, raging gale which knocked me off my feet and which left me sprawled helplessly on the hard ground. With a sickening fear and desperation rising in my stomach, I struggled to pick myself up in the ferocious wind and find shelter before the light struck.

Rubbish and refuse blew all around me and the gale was so powerful that I felt as if I had become trapped in a laboratory wind-tunnel. I shielded my eyes from the dust and debris but glanced up briefly to see that slates and tiles were being torn from the roofs of houses and that chimney stacks and lampposts were being thrashed about, threatening to tear themselves from their previously secure moorings. In almost a blind panic, I stumbled on towards number seventeen but, before I could take more than a couple of steps forward against the wind, its direction was reversed and I was thrown to the ground once more. Lying flat on my stomach, I held my head tightly and covered my eyes as the world around me turned a brilliant white. Before the heat, light and wind had died down, I blacked out.

In the last fraction of a second before losing consciousness, I had wondered if the heat and light that had suddenly descended had heralded the arrival of the final energy wave that would destroy me and, for those first few agonising seconds after I had come around, I almost wished that it had. My bare back had borne the brunt of the force of the energy pulse and it stung viciously. Although I suspected that it felt worse than it really was, my body burned and stung as if it had been stripped of skin and the wounds filled with salt or some other foreign substance. I could feel my back blistering and the pain made me writhe in agony.

I fought to get back up to my feet in the suddenly still air and, although I could not yet focus my tired and confused eyes, I was sure that I could see movement in the street ahead of me. Snatches of muffled conversations told me that an unidentifiable number of people approached and I struggled to call out to them. Having managed to pull myself up onto my knees, I fell back down again and lay squirming in agony as the unprotected wounds on my tender skin made contact with the hot, rough and dirty ground.

In the gloom and semi-darkness and with my eyes still struggling to readjust after the brilliance of the energy wave, it was difficult to see just what effect the pulse had had on the defenceless world around me. All that I was able to see with any real clarity as I lay on my back were the brightest few stars glistening in the sky above which was struggling to change from the purple of sunset to the deep black of night. Slowly and cautiously, shapes began to cloud my view and I fought to focus on the faces of the people that stood over me. At first blurred and indistinct, the figures waited and spoke amongst themselves before crouching down to help me.

A gentle hand touched my shoulder reassuringly and I winced at the first, stinging touch on my naked, tender skin. The silence and confusion that had rung around my head slowly cleared until the muffled noises I heard became clear as distinct, chattering voices. Although I could not yet make out what was being said, one of the voices was immediately and reassuringly familiar. All the fear, the tiredness, the exhaustion and the effort drained from my body in seconds as I realised that it was Samantha standing next to me.

In spite of my pain and of the fact that I did not know the full extent of my injuries, I was suddenly concerned with one overwhelming and irrational fear - I was worried that Samantha wouldn't recognise me. It was not such a ridiculous thing to think, after all, I lay unannounced in the middle of a dirty street, virtually naked with my skin blistered, tanned and peeling. My face felt haggard and tired and I had not been able to shave or wash for days. I knew that the effort of the journey which I had just completed had cost me dearly and I guessed that I had lost the best part of a couple of stone in weight. My face felt tight, taut and stretched by the sun's constant rays and I struggled to clear my throat and try and speak to the girl I loved. With effort, I lifted myself up onto my elbows. My shoulders were held gently and I was pushed back to the ground.

Soft fingers began to run through my damp, sweat-soaked hair and I knew at that moment that my journey had been worth every single difficult moment that it had taken - I had not wasted the last days of my life. I turned to face Sam who looked down at me and my eyes began slowly to focus on her beautiful face. She smiled, and all of the tensions and apprehensions that I had felt quickly disappeared.

'Did you come all of this way just to see me?' she whispered in my ear. The sensation of her breath tickling the side of my face was incredibly relaxing and I smiled and nodded as best I could. 'You're a bit late!' she added, jokingly and I laughed softly as she leant down and kissed my dry, chapped lips.

Sam stood up and went across the street to speak to some of the other people who were gathered around. They were only a few metres away but it was impossible to hear what was being said. I recognised one of the people as her father and another as her mother. Mr Hill looked down at me with a disapproving look on his face. The other shadowy figures were all unfamiliar.

Samantha seemed to be pleading with her father and I presumed and hoped that she was asking him for help to get me inside. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he did not seem that forthcoming and I wished that I had the strength to get up, to take Sam in my arms and to run away from her family. Moments later, Mr Hill relented and I heard him tell Samantha and her mother to go inside - he would make sure that I was safe. I watched them as they slowly walked back towards the house.

Once they had gone and were out of sight, a rough pair of hands grabbed mine and another took my feet. I was unable to protest at my treatment and had to be content with being half-lifted and half-dragged across the hard street. I wanted to release myself from the tight, vicious grip of my helpers but had neither the energy or the strength. My hearing was improving, however, and I could hear Samantha's father grunt, groan and complain as he struggled in the relentless heat to carry my useless bulk into the house.

Slowly, and with a great deal of effort on the part of my carriers, I was hauled towards the building which I presumed to be Samantha's grandmother's house. I could hardly believe how close it was to where I had collapsed in the street and I thought that had I woken a few minutes earlier in the barn that morning or had I spent a little less time searching for food in the supermarket, then I would have reached the house well before the energy wave had struck. I would have been able to present myself to Samantha in a tired and yet much less pitiful condition than the one in which she had just found me.

We were soon at the front of the house and I was taken inside. It was almost impossible to tell which way I was being carried but it was only a matter of seconds before I found myself being hauled into a cool and dark room. For a few long moments I could do little but breath in deeply the air which was ten times more refreshing than that outside. I was unceremoniously dumped onto a hard, warm concrete floor and I spread myself out on the ground as Samantha's father and his assistant left the room and slammed the door behind them. The room was suddenly silent and the quiet echoed around my exhausted and confused mind.

I looked around in the gloom for a moment and noticed that the room that I had been left in was a garage that was obviously used more for storage than anything else. The ground was cluttered and littered with junk and odds and ends and I had little space in which to move. I knew that I could not complain - at least it was somewhere safe to relax. Although I wanted nothing more than to be with Samantha and despite the fact that she was only the thickness of a wall away from me, I could do nothing to stop myself from quickly falling into a deep and soothing sleep.

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