"I can still see it, vivid as a nightmare," Jim told them, sprawled on a ratty couch next to Selena, a chipped red mug in one hand. Hannah was on the floor in front of them, letting Selena work through the knots in her hair. "Every single one of their senses was completely focused on food – completely. Nothing would get in their way. They were practically crawling over each other. The expressions on their faces, it was like they weren't human any more." Jim shook his head and took a gulp of his tea. "They were like a swarm of locusts, I swear to god. You couldn't pick a sliver off the turkey at the end of it. I don't know how my nan put up with it. She must have spent every December cooking for three weeks solid."
"How many of you were there?" Hannah asked, tipping her head back in Selena's hands.
"My dad was one of eight, and they all had kids of their own, except my uncle Sean. He had dogs instead." Selena glanced over at him and he shrugged. "Think he liked them better than people."
"Understandable," Selena muttered, and paid no attention to Jim rolling his eyes.
"No one ever missed it either. It would have been the ultimate family crime. You could have been in the space programme and my nan would still have demanded you get the fuck off Mars and back to Ballintemple in time for midnight mass." He looked up and grinned at Selena. "I should be thankful they've got us in here, really. Finally free from Christmas in the ancestral home."
Selena turned her attention back to Hannah's hair, feeling grim. "There's no fucking way we're spending Christmas in here."
Safe Haven, they called it, a concrete block somewhere between a hospital and a prison. Selena could hardly remember how they'd made it here at all. The helicopter had taken them from the cottage to an airbase near Dover, and the first few hours had been pure elation: they'd been found, they'd been rescued, they had clean clothes and hot water and proper medical attention for Jim. It hadn't taken long, though, for the wariness to creep back in. Partly it was force of habit, and partly it was the presence of the soldiers, tooled up and polite, directing all their movements. Selena kept Hannah close.
There were other survivors there, too: a handful of bedraggled men and women, one tiny, squalling baby who'd been born in a stone bunker without running water. They were to be evacuated, they were told, to a facility in Pennsylvania. Selena's memories after that were fragmented. She remembered blankets, and valium, sleeping with Hannah on the seat next to her, curled halfway into her lap. In her dreams, it was always Hannah who'd been caught, on her knees, covered in blood, screaming, "Kill me! Kill me!" while Selena stood, machete pointless in her hand, watching the life twist out of Hannah's face. On a comfort break somewhere in rural upstate New York, Selena had locked herself into a toilet cubicle and cried silently, a hand over her open mouth.
"You okay?" Jim had asked her quietly on the bus, squeezing the back of her neck with one cold hand, gentle.
"Fine," she'd said, managing what she hoped looked something like a smile. "I'm fine."
They weren't told much when they arrived, and most were too sick or sedated to care, beyond the need for a bed and a hot meal. After a few days, though, Selena felt fractious. The first set of medical checks made sense, but they'd tested her again the following day, taking samples of blood and urine,making her run on a treadmill and monitoring her lung function. On the third day, X rays, more blood tests. The facility had no television, no computer access. There were no survivors here other than the people they had arrived with.
"What are you testing me for?" she'd asked on the fourth day.
"Just routine checks, Selena. You've been through so much. We're just making sure you're okay."
They'd discussed it that night over dinner. "You've got nothing to complain about," Jim grumbled. "They made me jizz into a cup." Hannah snorted behind her hand.
"Are you sure that was a medical thing or had the doctor just taken a shine to you?" Selena asked, grateful for the flush pinking Jim's skin.
"Shit, do you think that's what it was? A date? I didn't even take flowers."
"I'm sure you'll have another chance tomorrow."
"Great. You can help me pick an outfit later," he said, pulling at the sleeve of his uniform-issue shirt.
"Seriously, though. How long do you think they'll keep us in here?"
"It will be six months, won't it?" Hannah said. "It's six months at home."
"What's six months at home?"
"Quarantine. You know, for pets. To make sure they don't have rabies."
"Oh shit," Jim agreed.
She'd spoken to the doctor about it the next day, when she was called in once again, this time for grip strength analysis and yet more blood work. The doctor, a young, white guy who seemed to grow more patronising every time she saw him, listened to her with an insufferable smile that tried to say I understand. She resented the game, but she played it, polite and logical. "Look, the thing is, I'm not infected. None of us are. That's why we're here."
"Of course we know that, Selena. But the virus is so new. We have to take the chance to find out what we can about it."
"Yes, I understand that. But you can't find out anything from us, because we're not infected."
"Well, we don't know how it develops. We're trying to figure out the best approach to making a diagnosis."
"You can make the diagnosis pretty fast," she told him, feeling murderous. "You don't even need to be a doctor. You tend to notice when someone is trying to bite your fucking face off."
"Please, Selena, calm down. This is all routine procedure." He smiled at her benignly. "You're distressed. Will you let me give you something for that?"
It had been another few days before they were gathered together in the lounge by a woman who identified herself as the "facility manager", a military officer in an expensive-looking civilian suit. "On behalf of the President of the United States, the US government and the American people, I want to offer my most sincere condolences for the tragedy which has befallen your country. We are anxious to do everything within our power to assist refugees from our sister nation in this time of great loss. In turn, I know you will all be happy to co-operate with us in doing whatever it takes to protect the world from the spread of this terrifying disease."
It was pretty clear she didn't want to be asked questions but Selena was way beyond the stage of standing on ceremony. "Are we the only survivors?"
"No. Refugees are processed in batches for your own safety."
"When can we leave?"
"We need to do the paperwork first," the woman said with a smile and Selena wanted to scream in her face.
They'd been there four months. Most days there were medical tests. They had filled in endless reams of paperwork with US officials, British civil servants from the embassy, human rights organisations, until eventually they had identities again, and passports to go with them. Slowly they began to receive news from the outside world. Rage had been confined to the UK and Ireland. There had been some signs of infection in Western Europe, but it had been contained. Newspapers, initially censored, were gradually provided to them intact and later they were given a television. All the survivors sat in front of news channels for hours, watching images of Britain abandoned, under military occupation. The infected, gradually dying without anything to feed on, were being pushed back into secure zones, "zombie ghettos", the tabloid press called them. Selena shook her head. They had been people's families once, people's homes. Her home. If the tabloids wanted to see a zombie ghetto, she thought, they should come to Safe Haven.
"My mum would get homesick at Christmas. I think she tried to fight it off by making everything as loud and as colourful as possible in our house. There was no decoration too tacky, no Christmas song too cheesy. She had this CD, god, Reggae Christmas from Studio One. She would play it incessantly from, seriously, the middle of November. It used to drive us round the twist. The house would be full of people the whole of December, mulled wine in one hand, sorrel in the other."
"Ah. That explains your sociable, outgoing personality," Jim said, nodding sagely and Hannah laughed, shoulders shaking.
"Oi! You two are not allowed to gang up on me."
"There's no ganging going on. I'm just saying. You're a people person, Selena."
"Fine," she said, crossing her arms. "I don't even know why I bother talking to you sometimes." Jim reached over and squeezed her thigh.
"Did you have turkey and stuff?" Hannah asked. She had turned round so that she was facing them, arms clasped round her knees. She was still too thin. Selena was sure she hadn't had a period since they'd been in this place – not that Selena had either. For all the good food and medical care, Safe Haven felt deeply unhealthy.
"My mum kept it traditional - goat curry, rice and gungo peas. Her food was so spicy, I actually didn't realise that for years. I remember the first Christmas my brother brought his wife to our house." Selena closed her eyes, thinking of Eleanor with her face as red as her party hat, eyes watering. "I don't think my mum could understand what the problem was," Selena said, suppressing a giggle. The last time she'd seen her brother, he'd told her Eleanor was pregnant. They were keeping it under wraps until she had her first scan, he'd said, to be safe. "She ate every mouthful, though."
"Will you make it for us, so? This Christmas, when we're out of here," Jim asked, his hand still resting on her thigh.
"I can't believe you're already trying to weasel out of all the work," she said, wondering whether to extinguish the glimmer of hope she could feel when he spoke about it. It was just a glimmer, she decided. She'd stay careful not to hope too much.
Twenty-eight days later, the facility manager called another meeting. "If you are healthy, your paperwork is up to date and your passport has been issued, you are free to leave." A cheer went up around the room and Selena danced with Hannah, bumping hips against each other.
"Free to leave," Jim whispered, putting his arms around Selena from behind, holding tight. "We are free to leave."
The freedom wasn't absolute. They had to notify the CDC of where they intended to go, somewhere within ten miles of a police station and four miles of a medical centre. They had to report to the police by phone every two days and have a medical examination once a week. It still felt exhilarating.
"I have family in Chicago," Jim offered. "I haven't seen them in years but I'm sure I'd be able to find them, once I can get online. I'm sure we'd be welcome."
"No," Hannah said, her voice unusually loud. "No cities." She didn't explain why, but she didn't have to. Selena could still see it, the sea of bodies, the infection spreading, the panic. At least in the mountains, you had a chance. Eventually they'd settled on New York State, a town called Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks, suggested by another survivor. They'd cleared it with the CDC, organised a hire car and left as quickly as they could, before anyone had a chance to decide Safe Haven wanted to keep them a little longer after all.
Freedom. They drove slowly and stopped often, trying to readjust to life outside, to people. In a mall just off the interstate, Hannah shopped with Selena's credit card while Selena sat opposite Jim in a coffee shop, half-heartedly playing footsie under the table.
"She's buying us Christmas presents, you know. I bet that's what she's doing."
"No. Is she?" Selena hadn't even considered it. "You really think she is?"
"I'm convinced of it."
"What on earth is she going to buy?"
Jim shrugged. "What would you like?"
"Oh, I don't know, Jim," she sighed. "I'd like an ipod. I'd like my life back. How can I answer a question like that?"
"I know what I'd like."
"Okay, then. What would you like?"
"I'd like to make love with you." He took a deep breath and looked up, meeting her eyes for a second before looking away again. He hadn't cut his hair all the time they'd been inside and it curled around his face, glossy and black.
"You would like to make love with me?" she repeated, trying hard to control the hysterical edge to her voice.
"I'm serious, Selena." He looked at her, a deep line between his eyebrows. "With all this stuff, it feels like we're married, sometimes, you know? Like I couldn't know you any better than this, or like I've known you for years." He made a gesture with his hands, impatient, irritated with himself. "But you're – I don't – I've never even seen you naked and I don't mean it to be crass, Selena, but you know, you know, I do – love you. I do love you."
It wasn't that she hadn't thought about it. But Safe Haven had its single sex dorm rooms and there had been so many other things to get through, every single day. He touched her a lot and she'd grown to rely on it, those fleeting moments, his fingers on her skin.
"I've seen you naked. I was trying to pull bullets out of you at the time."
"Well," he said, with a sigh, "that's not my sexiest look." His eyes were exceptionally blue. She took one of his hands and rubbed her thumb across the bone of his wrist.
"In that case, I would like to make love with you too." He smiled at her, almost shy, and she felt a sudden urgency to have him warm under her, to feel his skin against her skin. "Jim."
He leaned forward and kissed her, one hand against her cheek, until Hannah reappeared with a meaningful cough. "Finished sucking face?" she asked, grinning at Jim's discomfort and Selena tried to make sense of the fact they hadn't known each other six months ago.
"Our Christmas day was always quiet, really," Hannah had said. "There would just be mum and dad and me, and my granddad. He died a few years ago." Selena slid off the couch onto the floor and sat next to Hannah, one arm around her shoulders. "They'd always have a fight about the Queen's speech. Mum thought it was nice to watch it but it would set dad off about the monarchy. What did they ever do for us, except steal our tax money?" she said, mimicking Frank perfectly and Jim threw his head back and laughed. "He would always drink too much and fall asleep by the time it was on anyway. Mum would give me a sherry and we would watch it together."
"What does she say in it, old Liz? Does she do some jokes from a Christmas cracker?" Jim asked, and Hannah shrugged.
"She just says stuff about the year, how hard it's been, how much she cares about all her subjects. Stupid, really."
"If it's just a question of someone talking shit in a tiara, we can get Jim to do it this year," Selena suggested, and Jim nodded enthusiastically.
"She died, my mum," Hannah said, looking at Selena with a determined expression.
"Oh sweetheart, I know."
"No, it wasn't rage. She had cancer. We were in the hospice last Christmas."
Jim slid to his knees and took both Hannah's hands in his own. "Fuck's sake," he muttered. "Fuck's sake."
"There could be worst Christmases, my dad said." Hannah shrugged again, eyes bright with unshed tears. "He was usually right about stuff."
"He was a grand guy," Jim told her, as Selena leaned forward to kiss the top of Hannah's head, determined to hold back her own tears. "A grand guy. We'd never have got here without him."
"Yeah," Hannah said, muffled between the two of them. "Thanks a lot for that, Dad." They laughed, huddled together until Selena's chest hurt and Jim had to lie flat on the floor, a hand over his stomach where the wound was still healing, tears running down his cheeks.
In Schroon Lake, in their tiny rented apartment, Selena cut the pages of the newspaper into long strips and then cut each strip into three pieces. She closed one piece into a loop and fastened it with a stapler before using another piece to make another loop through it. The news outlets were reporting that Britain would be habitable again in a few months, once the clear up operation was complete. Any infected would be contained, and the majority were already dead. The remaining members of Parliament had formed an emergency executive and were organising a survivors' register. Selena hoped the three of them would be ready for it. They hadn't tried to contact anyone yet.
She kept making loops until the paper chain was long enough to cross the room from one corner to the other. Jim had made her a card with a drawing of himself in a tiara on the front. There could be worse Christmases, it said inside. He and Hannah had gone out to find some sort of tree. When they got back, Selena had decided to take the car somewhere she could buy a bottle of sherry.
"I was wrong to say that staying alive is as good as it gets," she'd told Jim once.
She wouldn't make the same mistake twice.