Besieged and attacked, a mother and her children must escape a post-apocalyptic nightmare world of cannibals and betrayal
Jack Murphy thought he’d found the perfect escape for his family from a world gone horribly mad. He thought wrong. Matthew Costello’s Home begins mere minutes after the terrible sacrifice made by Jack to save his family at Paterville Camp. Barely escaping, Jack’s wife, Christie, and two children, Kate and Simon, must accept that their lives and their future have changed forever.
In this intimate and human survivalist horror story, the three of them will face even greater dangers, as well as yet-unknown horrors, to simply stay alive as together they search for a road “home” in this intense and original postapocalyptic thriller.
After being stopped by the Highway Authority, Christie and her two kids get back onto the highway…back to their home.
Kate and Simon both had questions. What did the officer want? Why were they talking so long?
And then the last, eternal question from Simon…
“Mom? How long till we’re home?”
She actually smiled at that one.
As if maybe, perhaps, some things would never change.
“About two hours,” she said. “Maybe a bit more.”
Then, for added assurance: “It won’t be long.”
In the quiet, she drove in that same steel-armed position she had held since they escaped the camp –two hands on the wheel, slightly hunched over, as if that increased alertness.
She tried to take stock of…herself.
First, there was the pain. A dull ache in at least four different parts of her body. Though she worked out –the government ran ads promoting the importance of being in shape…
When you might need to run, to be fast…
—still, her upper thighs hurt, too much sprinting, clambering. She didn’t know. The ibuprophen didn’t seem to do anything. (And she had to be careful—she didn’t have a lot of that. She didn’t have a lot of anything.)
And her arms, shoulders, all achy. Was that from the kick of the gun as she fired, or just the incredible tensing of those muscles as she blasted at the things that attempted to grab them as they raced – still a family, still together – through the woods, down to their car?
She rolled her head, a relaxation exercise, hearing the tiny cracks of the stretching muscles as she did so.
And then she asked herself a question.
And inside? Inside my head?
How is my thinking? Is it clear? What about — what the hell — how about shock. Am I in goddamn shock? Are my kids in shock?
And if I am, what do I need do? What do I need watch out for?
She thought of how Jack had prepared their SUV for the trip, all that armor. The weapons he had told her about, and then the ones he didn’t. He did the same with their house, with the roll down metal windows at night, the reinforced basement doors and windows. Trying to make their home a fortress even though their development was surrounded by a fence that would toast a Can Head in seconds.
The big question…
Can I think like Jack?
She knew one thing. Doubting herself wouldn’t help. No, she needed to stay focused. All the time.
She nodded at that. That would be her mantra. Stay focused. One thing at a time.
She rolled her head again.
And in mid-roll, she heard the explosion.
The Honda immediately swerved violently to the right, into the far right lane and nearly onto the side of the road. She quickly over-corrected, and nearly sent the Blair’s beat-up car streaming into the guard rail on the left.
From the back seat, squeals, yells, and the ever-present shouting…
A loud clatter accompanied the car’s swerving, a thunka-thunka-thunka sound that now only took her seconds to identify as she began to slowly apply the brake.
“It’s a blowout kids. Just a tire.”
Do. Not. Need. This.
Now she steered the tilted car, limping on what was left of a blown left rear tire, to the right lane. And then — the car crawling at fifteen, ten miles an hour, off to the side of the road, onto the brown crunchy grass.
She felt the tire’s rim dig into the dirt as she got the car fully off the highway.
Another few feet, and she was off the road.
But she had her hands still locked on.
She reminded herself –so soon! –of her mantra.
Stay focused. One thing at a time.
And now that one thing was checking that the kids were okay.
She released her hands from the wheel and turned around.
Kate looked at her mom, and then she turned to Simon.
When she had felt the car seem to sink to the left, Kate had yelled, as if her mother had done something wrong.
Simon had also screamed and he quickly turned to her.
Turned to me, Kate thought.
As if I could –what?– protect him?
But Kate looked back to her Mom, her dark eyes, looking right at them.
She looks so different, she thought.
Something different in her eyes. She’s still my mom, Kate told herself. But a lot of things have happened.
Things like running away. Like killing the Can Heads that had attacked.
Kate reminded herself of one unbelievable fact.
I killed one.
I used the gun. I shot it in the head. And then it stopped.
Simple. Easy. Just like Dad taught me.
(And I could do it again.)
And she had this thought, though not clear what it meant…
Simon had seen it all too. Had seen us shooting, fighting our way out of there. My little brother had seen me kill one of them.
So—if my mom’s eyes are different — that shouldn’t be surprising at all.
“Mom. What happened?” Simon said.
Kate noticed that her brother’s voice sounded different. It always used to bother her, so loud, so whiny, always wanting things. Now it seemed quiet. Just asking a question now and then again.
She wanted the old Simon back.
“Well, we just had what’s called a blowout. A tire blew.”
That’s not supposed to happen, Kate knew.
She had heard her father talk all the time about how strong the tires were. How they couldn’t get a flat.
But this wasn’t their car, the one Dad had made so strong.
And even that car hadn’t been strong enough to save him, Kate knew.
Mom had gotten them out of the camp…but when she heard the explosion, she knew.
They’d never see their father again. It was just the three of them.
Kate had been glad that they drove in the darkness so she could, for all those hours, sit in the back and cry quietly, hidden from her mother, muffling the sounds, the pain twisting so hard at her insides.
Now it was morning.
A new day.
“How’d it happen?” Simon asked, his voice unable to hide his concern.
“I don’t know, Simon. This—isn’t our car. Maybe the tires weren’t that good. I—I—”
Kate rushed in to fill the gap, suddenly afraid that her mother might lose it.
“Mom, there’s got to be spare, right? We can put the spare on, and—”
Then Kate did something that felt so natural but – if you had asked her – she would say that she had never done it before.
She smiled at Simon, making her face bright, a slight smile, widening her eyes that had squinted closed with tears all night—
“We can just…get the spare on and get going again.” Back to her mother. “Right?”
Her mother nodded.
“I’ll help,”Kate added. “I’ve seen Dad—”
That word again.
Her mother looked as though she was about to say ‘no’….but Kate held her mother’s gaze, her eyes tight on hers.
Then a nod. “Okay—we can all do it. Just stay close.”
And her mother turned to open her door. A look at the nearby woods, and in the distance, sections of the highway fence.
The door popped open.
“C’mon, Simon,”she said to her brother, and they got out of the backseat.
Christie used the key to pop open the trunk.
“Now stay close. I’ve done this before, but this isn’t our car. Just stay near me, okay?”
She looked towards the woods. Quiet. No breeze. The air warming as the sun climbed higher.
Maybe the kids would be safer in the car?
But if they wanted to help, to be part of this—maybe that was a good thing.
She looked down into the trunk.
Three or four different sized bags, one purple, another red, one black, one small and filled with ponies the color of rainbows.
The Blair’s bags.
She said nothing.
But she grabbed the heaviest bag and lugged it out of the trunk.
At least when it hit the grass, it had wheels, though the small rollers didn’t seem too effective in the crumbly mix of dry grass and dirt.
Kate had already grabbed another one, and with a big oomph pulled that out as well.
And then, sweet God, Simon grabbing the one with ponies.
“Look at this! Who’d want a dopey bag like this!”
Christie almost laughed at…Simon being Simon.
The pink bag with rainbow ponies.
That belonged to a little girl who a terrible thing had happened to…
Simon didn’t ask though.
Who’s this bag belong to? What happened to them?
Some magic wall that kept him from those next few thoughts, those terrible questions.
About what might have happened to the people whose things they had just pulled out of the trunk.
Christie quickly grabbed the last bag, and tossed it to the side.
“Okay. Thanks, kids. Now, let me see—”
No tire visible; probably, she thought, under the trunk’s floorboard.
The tire, the tire iron, the jack.
She looked around again. Everything so still around them. That’s good, she told herself.
But then, why doesn’t it feel good?
She leaned into the trunk and started running her fingers around the edges, digging her nails under the trunk’s matting, until she made a gap and could get both hands in and pull the trunk floor mat up.
To see: a tire.
“The spare,” she said.
“Doesn’t look so good,”Simon said. “Sure it’s okay?”
Good question, Christie thought. She leaned close and felt the tire.
Nice and firm.
“It’s fine. Just got to—”
She grabbed a large bolt that kept the tire in place under the trunk. At first, it wouldn’t budge.
Going to have to get stronger, she thought.
No man to depend on to turn and twist the hard things, to lift the heavy things, to do all the goddamn—
She stopped herself again.
The screw loosened, and spun off.
She reached in, and though the tire and rim were heavy, she could lift the spare out and place it against the back of the car.
She looked for the jack.
Kate came and stood beside her.
Sensing something wrong.
“Mom, what is it?”
Christie leaned in again, and began feeling all around the bottom and sides of the trunk, nearly her whole body in the trunk, thinking that the car’s jack had to be fixed to the side, or hidden in the back, somewhere…
But it wasn’t.
“There’s no jack,” she said dully.
A quick look around.
After all — she had been rooting around in the trunk for a good minute or so.
She thought of those old nature programs, showing African animals at a water hole. How they’d lean down for a sip, then raise their heads, look left, right, then another cautious sip.
“What are you going to do?” Kate asked. “Can you do it —”
Christie had begun shaking her head.
“No, I can’t. You can’t get a car off the ground…without a jack.”There was a bite to her words which she immediately regretted.
Simon. Where was he?
But then she saw him at the front of the car.
“Simon. Back here. Now.”
He came back.
(Don’t cry, she thought. Please. No matter what.)
Then a sound.
They all turned, the three of them standing close together, the luggage strewn around them, the sun beating down hard, the clouds all burnt away.
As a car headed down the highway…right towards them.
A Helping Hand
Christie thought of how they looked. The trunk open as she stood there with the two kids looking down the highway.
She needed help.
But did she really want the car to stop?
Did she have a choice?
She could wait there until a Highway Authority patrol car came by—but how long would that be? From what the officer had told her before, they had their hands full.
She raised her hand. A quick wave.
At the same time, “Kids — get in the car.”
“Why?” Kate asked.
Christie kept her hand up, another wave.
“Kate — just do it. Please.”
“C’mon,”Kate said to her brother, giving him a nudge.
Christie kept her eyes on the car…which slowed, moving from the far left lane, to the right lane near the shoulder, slowing down.
We could have been waiting here for hours and no one would have come by.
The car slowed even more, then pulled off the road just behind them. A sturdy SUV. Bound to have a jack.
The car stopped, engine killed, and a man got out.
She saw him look around as he walked toward them, his pace slow, cautious.
Good. That means he’s as worried as I am.
The man looked right at Christie.
Being real careful.
“Miss, you have a problem?”
Another smile as the man stopped, keeping some distance between them.
“Yes. A blowout. And somehow—” she tried to act as though she didn’t understand how this could happen – “there’s no jack in the trunk.”
How could someone be on the road without a jack?
What the hell could Tom Blair have been thinking?
Unless he just assumed that it was there. People assume a lot of things.
After all, he wasn’t a cop, wasn’t like her husband who always assumed bad things could happen…would happen.
“Wow. And it’s just you—”
“And my kids…”
Again Christie was reminded of how she looked. In fact, she wondered if the man stopped walking towards her because he was simply being cautious or because he saw her now, so disheveled, spatters here and there, the dark stains.
Maybe — we look like a family of Can Heads.
Because, in her paranoid mind, in the morning light, they now quite clearly looked like the dried spatters of blood.
“If I could borrow your jack. That’s all. The spare is good, I just need—”
She suddenly realized how close she was to begging.
And wondered how close she was to scaring this man away.
He licked his lips. Thinking.
Another look around by the man.
“Been trouble up and down the highway. You heard that? You don’t want to be out here—”
A small laugh from Christie now.
Of course. So damn obvious.
“Right. Love to get going. Taking the kids home.”
“Okay. I have a jack, tire iron. Sure. But—” another look – “best be fast, right?”
She nodded. Then:
Christie stood in place, by the trunk. She didn’t want to do anything to scare the man off.
He walked back with the tire iron in one hand, the jack in the other.
This time, he closed the distance between them.
As he came closer, she felt him look her up and down, taking in what a mess she was.
“Something happen to you folks?”
She nodded. “Yes. But we—” another reassuring smile –“got away.”
He nodded at this, what passed for small talk these days.
Had a problem with some Can Heads…yeah and except for losing my husband, it all turned out fine. And you?
“Look—let me get the car up for you. Slap your spare on. I know how the jack works. It’ll be faster. Get you, and me going faster.”
“Thank you. I would appreciate that.”
She stood back as the man went headed over to the flat tire and knelt down beside it.
A look up at Christie.
“Name’s Martin, by the way. Heading home myself.”
He turned to the car and fit the jack into place, then the tire iron into the socket and began turning it as the flat left rear tire began to rise off the ground.
Christie went from looking at the man working on the exchange of the flat for the spare, to scanning the road, the open space all around with not another car in sight, and then – just to be sure – a glance at the nearby fence.
It’s quiet. So damn quiet… she thought.
The man focused on the job, hurrying. Only asking a few questions when maybe the stillness got to him as well.
“Spring Lake here. Jersey. It’s on the shore. They did a real good job of making it safe. Wife, three kids. Pretty good setup there. Pretty safe. Good security. Though—”
He grunted as he grabbed the spare and slipped it on.
“—they hate it when I have to leave.”
She was going to ask what he did. Why did he leave his fortress by the shore?
But then she figured—if he wanted to tell her, he would have.
He began tightening the nuts on the new tire.
“Almost done. Get you—and me –back on the road….no time at all.”
He turned and looked around. Gave her a smile. “My good deed for the day.”
“Thank you. I can’t tell you how much—”
The words caught in her throat.
Because, in the quiet, with the highway empty, the still trees, most of them just dead stalks, and with the fence so close to the road…
She heard a sound.
A dry crack.
The splintering sound of wood being broken.
The man finished putting the last nut on the wheel’s rim, not hearing, not noticing the sound.
Christie slowly turned from him, and looked over to where she thought the sound had come from.
Towards the fence.
When suddenly, there were so many more sounds.
The sounds came from the nearby fence — rattling, shaking as a number of bodies hit the mesh, like flies caught in a web.
That’s what it looked like.
Except they weren’t flies. And they weren’t caught.
The Can Heads scrambled to the top of the fence so quickly, determined, moving almost impossibly fast, to the top, then over.
In those seconds, Christie hadn’t moved.
She realized that she was standing there without a gun as a group of Can Heads landed on the other side of the fence, rolling crazily on the ground.
She turned and bolted for the front door of the car, even as she realized that Martin, who had been crouched by her car, had only now stood up.
Now…only just started running towards his vehicle.
Barely taking it in, as Christie ran the few yards to her door, and then freezing as one Can Head leaped atop the car, a crazy move that had it rolling over the top, then onto the ground – blocking Christie
And as she stopped, the Can Head sprung to his feet, then another one came running around the back of the car, and they had her trapped.
While barely taking in Martin running to his SUV, full out.
Probably to his guns, but then seeing the other two Can Heads tackle him, sending Martin sliding to the ground, feet short of his car.
Christie backed away from the car even as the two nearby Can Heads kept their eyes locked on hers, perhaps both realizing she had no way to escape.
She thought: The car is locked.
The kids are in there.
They’ll be okay.
And there are guns inside. They can stay in there. They might be safe.
In minutes, maybe seconds, it would end for her.
So much…for protecting her family. So much…for getting them home.
The Can Head from the front charged her, Christie’s head spinning right and left, looking for the other to move on her as well.
This wasn’t like last night when the crazed Can Heads from outside the camp’s fence got in, and darkness made them black hulks chasing her family, attacking them.
This was daylight.
She could see them so clearly.
A lunge. And one Can Head’s hands closed on her left forearm, the grip excruciating, then yanking her close. The smell of the thing overpowering.
She kicked, pulled back, all of it doing nothing.
When the thing’s shoulder erupted in a mass of oozing red and bone.
As if something had exploded inside.
The thing released her, one of its claw-hands going to the missing part of its shoulder.
The other Can Head to the right fell at her feet.
And only then, did she look up…
Christie saw her daughter standing there, holding the gun—
(Holding the gun!)
Exactly the way her father had taught her.
(“Keep your arms straight, keep the site, the barrel, your eyes in a nice straight line…”)
(“Two hands. Wrap one hand around to the other. Keep it as straight and steady as you can….”)
“Mom! Get in!”
“Get in the car!”
The sight of Kate holding the gun had stopped her, but now she moved, hearing more rattling as another batch of Can Heads hit the fence.
She ran to the front door and pulled it open.
She slid onto the seat, Kate beside her.
And a bit of her mind returned.
“Check the locks, Kate.”
Christie pushed hers down, and she saw Kate double check the two back doors.
Thumps, as one Can Head crawled onto the front hood. Another thump as one came from the back, then right on top of the car. The thumps repetitive as the one on the roof started jumping up and down
“Mom,” Simon pleaded.
The word a cry.
Christie looked back at Martin, the good Samaritan who had stopped to help them.
He lay on the ground, feet from his SUV with three of them squatting around him, picking, pulling. She saw one dig into the body, pull something out and then crazily wolf it down.
Her stomach tightened; she gagged.
That was almost me, she thought.
He stopped to help us…
And again: That could have been me.
If not for Kate.
Her daughter still held the gun in her lap.
Christie started the car, which is when another bit of crucial information entered her racing mind.
The car was still on the jack.
The left rear wheel, the spare tire on, had been replaced.
But the car was still tilted, askew.
On the roof.
Accompanied by Simon’s wails.
“Mom! Can we go?” Kate said.
That was the question
Can we go?
Her voice quiet.
In minutes, the roof might give way, or the other Can Heads could join these two and begin pounding the car as if opening a massive clam, trying to find a way to pry it open.
“I don’t know.” Then:
“Hold the gun tight,” Christie said.
She put the car into drive.
What would happen? With only one tire in on the ground? Would the car careen to the right, spinning, or even roll over as the left side fell off its jacked-up perch. Or would it somehow land, and she could floor it.
A fast as the damn car would go.
Not a second more to be wasted with thinking, wondering.
She hit the accelerator.
The car started a spin, a semi-circle as the one tire on the ground provided one-sided traction, and the car moved like an erratic firework, spinning, not going forward but around.
It didn’t seem as if it would come off the jack, that the replaced tire would simply spin uselessly while they did circles, the Can Heads still hanging on.
The car tilted again as the jack somehow flew free, and now the left tire hit the ground, and, with the two Can Heads on it, rocketed straight for the guard rail at an insane speed.
No way she could avoid hitting it. Still, Christie turned the steering wheel as sharply to the right as fast as she could.
The car — a bullet aimed at the rail — screamed as the extreme turn made the tires screech.
But she avoided a dead-on hit of the guard rail.
She had gained enough of an angle that the car hit the rail on its left side, pushing the rail free of moorings, a metal rubber band now stretched out as it helped point the car in the right direction.
She could see out the windshield now.
The front Can Head shot out, across the rail.
The one on top—probably stopping its mad jumping and holding onto the roof, fingers dug in.
But the car was now at last aimed forward, both tires working together as it hit 50, 60, 70 miles an hour, racing.
Was the Can Head still above them? Somehow magically holding on, hitching a ride with them like a parasite, a human sucker fish attached to the top of the car?
Christie waited until she felt they had put enough distance between the scene of the attack, and then—
With her right hand, she grabbed her seat belt, snapping it on, asking the question—
“Seat belts on?”
Two voices, quick, a quiet ‘yes’from Kate, then Simon.
She stopped, applying the brakes hard.
The tires screamed, but she saw the thing clutching onto the hood go flying frontwards, a human rocket shot out onto the empty highway.
That is, if you called it human.
And not a monster, a creature, a Can Head that had left humanity behind.
For a few moments, she sat there. No one said anything.
The strangeness of their life, this new world so clear that what could anyone really say?
But it was time to get moving again. If the fence was down, power off, there could be more attacks.
Christie turned back to Simon.
He nodded, his blue eyes never more intense.
Then over to Kate.
Riding – what did Jack call it? – shotgun. Only now, with a gun cradled in her lap.
“Kate. You okay too?”
Her daughter turned to her.
Christie had the thought that she was glad that Kate sat there, beside her.
Except for one thing—
“Think you can put the gun back down, under the seat again? And make sure—“
“The safety’s on? I know.”
Christie heard the safety latch of the handgun being thrown and Kate slid it under the seat.
She saved me, Christie thought. My little girl. Not so little, and – apparently a damn good shot. And more—
She acted, did what she had to. Fast, apparently with no thought to the danger to herself.
My sweet little girl.
“Okay then—let’s go.”
For more in the Vacation universe, read Matthew Costello’s original prequel story on Tor.com: “Day One”
Home © Matthew Costello 2012