Short Story #20: January, 2018

29th January 2018

This snow-covered countryside has never looked so sinister.

Tiny icicles hang from the bare tree limbs, glinting like rows of teeth in the shadows. Patches of red lie scattered across the whitened ground, a grotesque dotted blanket over a wretched planet. Sometimes the bodies of animals—rabbits, sheep and, once, a deer—claim ownership of these claret-coloured spots.

I can get used to the sight and smell of the rotting flesh of animals, but not that of humans. The revulsion is the same every time: my gut feels like it’s being pummelled by a heavyweight boxer and I gag sharply, desperate to be anywhere else, to not be a witness to the devastation. If there is a body on the floor, it means that there is not enough of it left to rise—mauled beyond all recognition, limbs scattered, heads destroyed. These deaths are not peaceful; never do they invoke the comforting image of eternal sleep.

I write this from the relative safety of the branches of a large oak tree somewhere outside Castle Combe. Despite wearing four layers of clothes and being wrapped in a thick sleeping bag, sitting on this cold bark is like sitting on a cheese grater.

I shouldn’t complain. These woods have become my sanctuary. There’s less of those things out here and more places to hide. Hoisting myself up the comforting solidity of a frozen tree dozens, if not hundreds, of years old gives me hope that, even during these cold months, life continues to find a way to survive.

Tonight, I’m lucky. Tonight, I’ll get some rest, although my nights these days are spent in a state of restless half-sleep. Partly it’s the discomfort of these ancient, whorled beds, but mostly it’s the languid, guttural moans that ring out through my dreams that keep my sleep restless. I find myself startled awake by sounds that exist only in my head.

At least, most of the time.

Sometimes I wake with a start to find myself lying above a wretched soul trying its damnedest to scratch and crawl its way up the trunk. The sounds are always worse than anything my imagination can conjure and these moments keep the moans of my dreams fresh, and my sleep broken.

Tonight, things are quiet. I’m nestled in a crook between three large branches, trying to get my thoughts down before the sun disappears and all that’s left is the horror of the darkness. A lot has happened since my last entry and, now I’m on my own, my odds of making it to the river have dramatically decreased. If I don’t, you should know how it all went wrong.

There was no official warning, and most people had no time to prepare. An hour after the first of our team saw reports of multiple brutal murders by anonymous maniacs, we were already on our way to our safe house—an abandoned barn deep in the Wiltshire countryside. By the second day, reports came through the radio that the cities were overrun.

The safe house was temporary and we left it a few days ago, a decision that I’ve regretted a number of times since then. Our final destination is the remote North West highlands of Scotland. The seven of us pooled our money and we collectively own an old lighthouse (converted into a holiday home) up there on the coast. Located up on a hill and backed up against the tall, ragged cliffs that drape like dirty brown linen into the sea below, it’s the perfect location from which to defend ourselves—on a clear day, we can see miles in every direction.

What we didn’t foresee in our preparations—and what I curse myself now for not even considering—were the actions of our fellow humans. Mindless though the creatures are, they can be relied upon to act predictably. Make a noise, they’ll head towards it. Reach an obstacle and they’ll continue scratching and pushing and scrambling against it for as long as their decaying muscles hold out, or something else sends their single-minded attention elsewhere.

People, on the other hand, will always surprise you. Decades of friendship are eroded in seconds as supplies run low and the incessant moaning of the marauders work through the emotionally eroded defences of the psychologically vulnerable.

That quiet guy in the corner that you never talked to turns out to be exactly the kind of courageous, cool-headed thinker that you wish for in a crisis while the muscle-bound meatheads with all of their masculine bravado fall pathetically by the wayside. These illusions we created for ourselves—these out-of-date ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman—are the reason I am on my own now. We had cultivated caricatures, focusing too much on learning how to carve spears out of branches or find water sources in woods as if the sudden disappearance of civilisation would also take with it all the artefacts of that civilisation.

Food, weapons, shelter—when it all started, these weren’t the problem. The problem was us. I now believe that our modern life had become so easy and abundant that the friendships I had were never truly tested. Self-actualisation was the only part of the pyramid left—it’s one thing have a friend that validates your self-expression, it’s quite another to have one with unshakeable courage in the face of unimaginable horror.

I now believe that’s the reason I found myself with my hands around what I thought was my best friend’s throat.

Lucas had been the most excited by what we were doing. I’m not sure if that was a sign or not—in retrospect, everything looks inevitable—but he was forever buying books and survival tools and booking us on training courses. He had even spent over a grand on a semi-automatic pistol (which you’ll find at the lighthouse in the safe, pin: 2997). I’m not sure I want to know how he got hold of that.

The rest of us thought it was ridiculous. We’d sit at the pub and joke about how we’d be eighty, living on Mars in some futuristic utopian community and laughing about all the time and money we spent preparing for the apocalypse. But this idea of the end of life as we knew it had permeated so much of our culture that once we had exhausted all of the “what if” discussions the only thing left was actual preparation.

After Lucas had bought us each an identical backpack one hilarious Christmas, we really had no choice but to fill them up. So we did, piece by piece, and that’s how it began.

Despite our reluctance, we had allowed Lucas to encourage us. It was actually a lot of fun, bringing us closer together in this shared conspiracy. Weekends spent on survival courses, hikes to scout possible safe houses, and all-terrain driving had taken us out of our otherwise comfortable and safe existence. Having a reason to do these things—even if we didn’t believe it—gave these adventures a more urgent and exciting edge.

A year later, we were even buying property together. According to Nick, the lighthouse was a solid investment which made it was easy to justify, even as we continued to convince ourselves we weren’t taking this seriously.

Lucas, though, he did take it seriously. As time went on, he became less appreciative of our joking. At our weekly meet ups he’d sit down with a Guinness and pull up yet another article on his iPad Pro that proved conclusively that genetic engineering had gotten out of control, or that the overuse of antibiotics had finally caused the rapid evolution of an horrific new superbugs that threatened to wipe out humanity, or that an asteroid had crashed into earth and brought with it some insane alien virus (which, of course, the government was keeping quiet about). As time went on, the articles got weirder and weirder. We’d laugh it off and most of the time he eventually would come around, laughing with us. Sometimes, though, he’d storm out, angry at our casual indifference. These incidents became more common towards the end.

After leaving the safe house, Lucas and I had been separated from the rest of the group. We found ourselves in a deserted village which, in another time, would have been a picturesque little place: little grey-green stone cottages with pleasantly overgrown front gardens and welcoming white gates lining a single cobblestone street that led to a village square.

Now, though, it was derelict and abandoned. The gates hung limply off their hinges, leading to kicked in front doors and broken windows. Dark patches of dried blood were splattered over the cobblestones. We ignored the houses and went straight to the square.

This being England, there was a pub in the village: a large, two story stone building that fronted one side of the cobbled square and, we assumed, a good place to restock.

But the pub had already been raided, multiple times it seemed. The low wooden beams that held up the white ceiling were covered in more dark patches of blood and liberally peppered with bullet holes. Broken glass covered the paisley carpets and the small stools and stout tables were overturned or had been smashed into kindling. Most of the booze had been taken, though Lucas found a half bottle of a twelve year old single malt hidden in one of the cupboards under the ransacked till.

We started necking it from the bottle. This maybe wasn’t smart, but it was nice to turn down the internal monologue which had been set to “frantic” for almost a week now. We’d been on edge since it had started, barely sleeping, but I hadn’t realised how bad things had gotten until I felt the warm liquid working its way through my body.

Lucas continued on upstairs. I righted a table and sat down at one of the corner booths that had avoided the carnage to lay out the map, checking our location and route. The GPS satellites were still orbiting overhead and, thanks to some careful rationing and a supply of portable battery packs, our phones still had power but onscreen we were just a little blue dot in a grid of identical grey lines. Paper maps, on the other hand, didn’t require a working Internet.

I don’t know what happened to Lucas upstairs. I don’t know if all it took was finding the weapon, or if he saw something that finally made him snap, but about ten minutes after he’d left, I looked up from the map and found him pointing a shotgun at me.

His shaved head was covered in sweat and he was visibly shaking, but his features were determined and angry. I could only hope that he was kidding by ignoring the thick tension that had followed him into the room.

“Cut it out Lucas,” I said, as breezily as I could manage. “Come help me figure out our route.”

“You never believed me.” Despite his demeanour, his voice was eerily calm.

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re all in this together.”

He shook his head. “No. No, no. No we’re not. We’re really not. You never believed me. None of you did, but you especially. All your laughing and joking and poking fun. But I was right, wasn’t I?”

“Yes, Lucas. You were right.”

“You’re god damn right I was right. Not so crazy now, am I?”

“Lucas, we never thought you were crazy. We thought some of the stuff you read was a little…out there, but you were one of us, man. We love you.”

“Bullshit!” The shout was sudden and I jumped at the violence of it.

I tried changing tack: “Lucas, come on! Think about what we’ve been through! We’ve only got this far by sticking together!”

“No. Nope, no. You just haven’t the opportunity to ditch me yet. Know why? Cause I’ve been watching you.”

“What? Don’t be crazy.”

This was a stupid thing to say.

“I’m not crazy!” He screamed suddenly, storming forward, waving the shotgun. I sunk further back into the booth, throwing my hands up in defence.

“Alright, alright! Sorry. Figure of speech. Sorry.”

Seeing me cower made him calm down.

“Goddamit, I’m not!” He continued. “First chance you get, you’ll get rid of me! I seen it in your eyes! I seen how you watch me carefully.”

“I watch OUT for you, Lucas. I’ve been watching out for you this whole time. I know all this stuff is insa…different now but the only way we’re going to get out of this is if we stick together. Think about it! Think about all the times you were asleep and I was keeping watch. Could have done something then, right? But I didn’t, did I?”

This made him pause. There was a long silence and the barrels of the gun (which I had been keeping a close eye on) wavered as he tried to figure out what to do next. It was like he had jumped in to the ocean from a high cliff and was only just realising he had no clear route to shore, or at least not one that he was quite willing to take.

“OK, listen,” I said finally, seizing the opportunity. “Why don’t we just have a drink, yeah? We’re all a little on edge. We just need to calm down and we can talk about it, alright?”

I slid slowly out of the booth with my palms up, gingerly grabbing the neck of the whiskey bottle on my way. Lucas kept the barrel trained on me but allowed me to stand. As I approached him, holding his gaze and moving almost imperceptibly, I switched my grip on the bottle, holding it out by the base in order to let him grab the neck, my arm fully extended.

I saw the tension change in his shoulder and he started to reach out and take it. I lunged forward, turning my body away from the long dark barrels and, with everything I had, pushed the bottle into his face.

There was a loud explosion as the gun went off. I was already to one side and without his steadying hand the shot was wild. Between the kick of the gun and the bottle’s neck catching him in the face at an awkward angle, he was sent stumbling backwards. He tripped over a broken chair and fell, letting the gun fall out of his hand as he landed badly on a broken chair leg.

I was on him in a second, lying on his chest, pinning his arms down with my knees. Without even realising I was doing it, my hands were around his neck. He writhed and shouted underneath. He cried out that he was sorry, that he hadn’t meant it. Between sobs, he told me he was scared that I would abandon him because I thought he was crazy. He said that he wanted to be sure and that he was now. Entirely sure. He said didn’t want to die.

Believe me when I say that I wish it didn’t have to happen like this, but there was no coming back from where he’d taken us. I could never turn my back on him, or sleep in his presence, ever again. I could never trust him again—none of us could—in a time where trust is the only currency left.

Eventually, he stopped struggling.

It’s getting dark now. If you’re reading this, then, well, you already know what happened. I need you understand that I had no choice. I did it for the good of the group.