We had gotten lucky at our first stop, but the supplies we discovered were too few to call it a day just yet. We continued along our planned route, quickly but cautiously, stopping by each store along the way. Most had already been stripped bare, but a few bore fruit and our bags slowly began to fill with essentials.
At one stop I stumbled across an unexpected little gem – a portable radio hidden behind the counter; a rare collectible these days. I was relieved to find it still had batteries and packed it away, planning to test it later.
We stuck to the backroads as much as possible, and had so far encountered no signs of life anywhere. Many streets displayed the aftermath of the chaos and fighting we had witnessed on TV during the first day – burnt-out husks of cars, buildings scarred with bullet holes, and even an abandoned tank. I hadn’t realised just how close the fighting had been to our hideout.
One more thing I noticed was the lack of bodies. The clerk we had discovered in the locked supply room had been the only one. What did that mean? Were ‘they’ taking the dead with them? It wasn’t a pleasant thought…
We were now approaching the crown jewel of our journey – the supermarket. If ever we were going to make a large haul, it was here. Small by even Chinese standards, the supermarket was located within a local apartment complex and catered almost exclusively to the local residents there. Hidden from street-view, we thought there was a reasonable chance it might still hold some much-needed supplies.
As had been the case with every store encountered so far, the supermarket door was open, but at least it didn’t appear to have been broken down in a mad rampage like so many of the others. The complex too seemed relatively untouched. Was it too much to hope that this part of the neighborhood had gone largely unnoticed by looters and scavengers?
We entered the store, weapons at the ready… although depleted, several of the shelves were still partially stocked. Our persistence had paid off at last. We grabbed everything we could; fluids, cans, instant-noodles, even some blankets; this was the break we needed.
By now our bags were full, and weighed us down heavily. There was no need to continue our journey; we had enough to last us another few days at least. We reassessed our route back to the office via the shortest (and safest) path possible. It had been an altogether successful outing, and far exceeded our worst-case scenario. Each of us was, for the first time in a week, filled with optimism. We could survive this thing!
Before we left, I made one last fruitful discovery – a six pack of beer left in one lonely corner of the store. Why not, I thought. We deserved a moment of relaxation after all we’d been through. I passed a couple of cans to Charlotte and Vivian, and we sat down to enjoy ourselves for the first time in what seemed like forever, as if just another afternoon after work. As we drank, we even risked a quiet conversation, the first time we had done so all morning.
The beer was cheap and warm, to be completely honest, but it was refreshing to be reminded of what life was like back when everything made sense…
Suddenly, Vivian’s eyes popped open wide and she waved at us to get low. I ducked behind a shelf and strained my ears over the sound of my own heavy breathing. What had she seen?
Then I heard it – a faint whistling sound outside. As I listened, the sound grew louder and clearer until it sounded like it was just outside the door. I glanced over at the girls who were likewise taking cover, their faces stricken with terror.
A beam of bright light shone through the windows, passing over each shelf and aisle as if in a searching pattern; SEARCHING FOR US! They had found us… how? We had been so careful. Our only chance now was to stay still and silent in the hope that they might move on.
I looked back at the girls; Charlotte was motionless and staring dead ahead in a state of shock; Vivian was rocking back and forth, her eyes darting frantically, looking for an escape. Her eyes met mine and I silently mouthed the word ‘no’, but she shook her head and nodded towards a door at the far side of the store – ‘EXIT’ written above it.
‘Don’t do it Vivian, don’t do it’ I thought to myself. I shook my head again more forcibly, but she simply gave me a look which could only mean one thing – goodbye. She then leapt to her feet and sprinted towards the door. The beam of light stopped its search and focused its spotlight on her. She burst through the exit and the thing outside made a series of sharp metallic clanging noises in response before rising upwards with a jolt. I could still hear the same strange whistling sound it made as it passed over the building in pursuit of its getaway target.
No longer under immediate threat of being discovered, now was our chance to make a run for it. I slung as many bags over my back as I could, then grabbed Charlotte by the arm and dragged her towards the front door. From the direction of the rear exit, I heard another series of beeps and clangs followed by a loud cry of horror, and then silence. They and Vivian were gone…
to be continued…