- Richard Haywood
Her blood runs cold. Her stomach drops.
Fear in his voice that is sudden and loud. Terror grips her. Rendering her unable to move. Time slows. She looks dumbly at the door seeing the grain of the wood then round to the empty shelves of the corner shop. She catches sight of the motes of dust hanging in the air and the glossy smiling faces on the magazines that will forever be left.
She flinches at the sound that comes. A bone-jarring thud followed by silence. Still, she cannot move. She cannot run. She can neither move away nor move towards but waits with her heart booming and her vision closing in at the edges.
He appears suddenly at the busted in doorway of the shop. Blood on his face. Blood oozing down his neck and dripping down his chest. His blue eyes so full of pain and regret.
‘Emma…’ he whispers her name. Soft and forlorn. His hands come up to grip the edges of the frame. His chin lifts. Resolve steels over his face as his lips quaver and tremble. ‘Run, Emma,’ the same whispered voice but harder, firmer. ‘RUN EMMA….’ The body slams into him from behind. A female with torn out chunks of hair showing a bloodied scalp and red eyes so full of hunger as she sinks her teeth into his shoulder and rips a chunk of flesh away. He screams out as another comes into view. Another woman. Red eyes and her teeth showing through the ragged hole in her cheek. She bites deep while her hands wrap almost lovingly across his chest. Her hands tense to claws and pull back with broken fingernails scoring tracks across his flesh that rake and tear the skin open.
Utter confusion hits. The street was empty. They watched the shop for an hour. They stayed quiet. They did everything right. They were careful. So careful. Quiet too. So quiet. Always quiet. Never a sound. Never a peep.
The power in his voice spurs her to life. She goes to turn to run at him, to fight with him but he screams out for her to go. For her to run. She knows he is already dead. The virus is already in him. One cut. One bite. One drop of blood. They’ve seen it too many times now.
She falters, her body charged with adrenalin as the inner voice that desires life screams at her to move now. She locks eyes on him. Seeing the pain in his face.
‘I’m sorry.’ she whispers and runs. She runs through the shop past the door to the back storeroom to the exit she noted when she came in. She runs out into the rear yard to the gate that she kicks open and out into the street. She runs hard away from him as he screams her name. She runs as fast as she can from a man she doesn’t know who just gave his life for hers. From a man she only met a few weeks ago when this happened. She runs as the street behind her comes alive with the sound of pounding feet giving chase.
She cries out when she snatches a glance behind and spots three or four coming fast in her wake. She runs on and cries out again when she snatches another glimpse and sees over a dozen.
They did everything right. This isn’t fair. None of it is fair. They hid. They stayed quiet. They only moved in the day. They never made noise or fire. They never used lights when it was dark. They didn’t fight or attack them.
She snatches another glance. Oh god no. Not like this. So many of them. Pouring from houses to join the horde behind her. The noises they make are the worst. The hissing and howling. The animalistic screaming. The primeval inhumane nature. The projection of hunger. The way they sniff the air trying to detect traces of people to feast and cut and hurt and make bleed.
She watched them take down a child outside the house they hid in one night. She wanted to go out and do something but he held her down with a hand over her mouth. He whispered it was too late, that the child was already bleeding from a bite. To stay hidden and just listen was nearly more than she could take. If she’d had a gun, she would have shot the child then herself right there. Morning came as it always does and they later saw that same child in the new state of being. Red-eyed. Hungry and malevolent. The pain hardened her.
Now she runs. She runs through no fault of her own. She runs because they found him, bit him and now he is dead and changed and chasing her too. She runs through no fault of her own in a world ruined because something happened that no one has any clue about. Zombies are fictional. Made up. The same as vampires. The same as werewolves.
She looks back and feels a fresh surge of terror at the sheer numbers of them. It gives her more speed and strength. Her airways open to flood her body with oxygen. The food she ate yesterday helps to give fuel. The water she drank today gives hydration. She sprints hard, harder, fast and faster. She ditches the bag on her back to lighten her load and pumps her arms to gain distance. She is fit. She is healthy. She can do this. She can get away. She refuses to die now. Not like this. Please God, not like this. Not here in a town she doesn’t know.
She takes a hard right at the junction and down the street. She thinks fast and spots a garden gate hanging open. She remembers an ex-boyfriend boring her silly one night when he’d read a book by an ex-SAS soldier who said the best way to run away is to zigzag. She does that now. She goes for the garden gate then across a back garden and over a low wall into the next. She takes the fences and walls the same way. She goes over the back into more gardens and takes left and rights. She runs out into streets and across the road into more gardens to vault more fences and walls. She doesn’t stop. She doesn’t stop when she pukes but lets the spew fly from her mouth and down her front. She doesn’t stop when the stitch in her side hurts so bad she wants to cry. She doesn’t stop when she does cry either, but runs sobbing and refusing the death she should be given.
She has no idea of direction or aim. Only that she has to keep going. She can hear them behind her. The crashing of fences going down. The slamming of bodies into walls. The smashing of glass. The screeches and howls.
She thinks to grab a weapon from a shed but doesn’t dare slow long enough to look. She thinks to go through a house and grab a knife but again the fear of slowing long enough to look is too great.
She cuts her hands from scrabbling over rough walls. She grazes her knees and cuts her shins. She lands hard and feels a jagged shard of pottery slicing into her arm as she rolls over and over but gets up and runs on. She crosses streets, avenues and garden after garden as the sun beats down and the heat robs fluids from her body.
Summertime but it’s hotter than it should be. Far hotter. Something to do with the cessation of humanity he said. Maybe the lack of gases going into the atmosphere. Maybe it would always have been a hot summer. Who cares? It doesn’t matter. Staying alive is all that matters.
Then the town is no more. Instead, she sees fields and meadows, trees and forests, woods and undulating land. Is that better or worse? Will it help or hinder? Make a choice. Make a decision and either live or die by it. She goes for the edge of the field and dives through the barbed wire fence that snags and cuts and slices deep.
She runs on knowing she is bleeding and leaving a trail but there is nothing she can do. She runs over pitted grass and aims for the trees at the side of the field to the shade and promise of cover. She risks a glimpse back and sees figures running at the fence but fewer than before. They are still coming through. Even just one coming would be bad enough. She crashes into the undergrowth and starts along with branches whipping at her face and body. She trips over roots and cries out from the pain in her feet, ankles, knees, elbows, hands, and head. Pain everywhere. She rises each time she falls. She runs hard and heedless to the things that trip and stop her.
She hears animals scooting away in fear. She hears birds screech as they break cover in the canopy over her. She hears the crashing of heavy figures still following in her wake.
The woods grow denser. Thicker. Wider and longer. She cannot see the edges now. She runs and runs. It’s all she can do. She spots a shallow stream and aims to run through it. Splashing water up her legs in the hope it will rid the smell she is leaving. She crosses through the stream and follows it up on the other side and listens to the heavy figures labouring to give chase unseen but still there.
She spots places where the stream grows deeper. Places where the inlet is thicker than the outlet. She goes in, splashing and dunking as low as she can and as quick as she can. She emerges dripping and soaked but cooler. She runs on with heavier wet clothes that rub at her thighs and the tender skin under her arms. She is slower now. The simple act of stopping long enough to dunk seems to have robbed the energy she had before.
She goes deeper into the woods. Deeper into the darker, cooler interior where the foliage is thick and harder to get through.
She doesn’t run now but walks and jogs. She gasps for air and tries to gain composure but the fear of them coming makes her keep going forward. Still, she has no concept of direction. She could be walking a linear route or going round in circles. She could end up back at the barbed wire fence or die here in this forest without ever knowing where she is.
Daylight starts to fade. The same questions come as they do with everything. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Will it help or hinder? They always hide at night. They find a place and watch it for a couple of hours before making a decision. They always stay quiet. Silent almost. They find a dark corner and take turns to sleep. Not now. Not ever more. He is dead. One of them. She tries to stifle the sob but it breaks free of her mouth. She clamps her hand over to stop but the tears trickle down her cheeks. She sees him in the doorway. The pain in his eyes. The tone of his voice. The way he gripped on the frame and the stark red blood on his skin. She sees the hands of the woman embracing him from behind that rake and cut. She sees the terror and fear as she turns and runs. She shakes her head, desperate to rid the images but cries harder. She weeps as she walks. She sobs as she threads a route through a forest growing ever thicker and darker.
Night comes and brings true darkness. The canopy overhead too thick for the moon to break through. In pitch dark, she walks. Too afraid to stay still but the noises around her grow louder. Creatures of the night snuffle and shuffle. They break twigs and push dead leaves. They skitter and cry out. They have claws that scrabble up tree trunks. The fear comes back. Not just for the things that were chasing her but for anything out there watching her that she cannot see. Monsters and demons. Creatures with fangs that want to eat her. This is England. There are no big wild creatures. Those thoughts don’t help. Zombies have come true. What else can come true?
Night brings fatigue. A draining of energy that saps her courage and moral fibre and the need to keep moving. She weaves and staggers and it takes longer to rise when she trips and falls. On one fall she closes her eyes intending only for a few seconds but snaps awake a time later not knowing where she is or how long she lay still. She rises and goes on. She walks into trees and bushes. Hungry now. Thirsty too. The heat has dried her clothes but they feel stiff and matted with dirt. Her hair is matted too. Her skin is sore from sweating but her mouth is dry. Too dry. She really needs a drink. She should stop and rest but those things don’t ever stop and rest. They don’t sleep. They don’t get thirsty. She is not those things. She is a human who has run miles in blistering heat and as much as she desires life, so her body demands rest.
The next time she trips she stays there. Her eyes close and she sleeps deep and sound in the pitch darkness of the forest while all around the creatures of the night skitter and scatter.
The voice echoes and rolls within the confines of the infinite space of her mind and she comes awake too fast, too sudden and full of panic. She sits up gasping for air not knowing if she heard him shout for real or if it was just in her head. It’s still dark. Pitch dark. How long did she sleep? Have the things caught up with her? Are they close? She tries to hear over the sound of her own heart beating too loudly and the blood rushing through her ears. She strains to detect sounds and hears things rustling and things moving. She hears footsteps and monsters breathing. She hears demons and goblins snickering and laughing as they watch and gloat and make ready to pounce. She brings her knees up to her chest, whimpering softly but her own noise just seems to exemplify the solitude she feels. She has to keep moving. She has to make distance and go.
Which way did she come? How can she know she isn’t going back towards the things lying in wait with clawed hands and red eyes ready to eat and bite into her flesh? Her stomach knots in fear, she feels sick, light-headed, and so thirsty. She has to move. Move, Emma. Get up.
She rises and walks with her arms out in front to feel for the branches that come sudden and unseen. Things snag her feet. Cobwebs brush her face and she gains visions of giant hairy spiders landing on her head to claw down her back. Her imagination runs riot with every monster imaginable waiting to hurt her.
Pain everywhere. Everything hurts and the dull ache in the back of her skull is growing steadily worse. She blinks constantly into the blackness and stops every few minutes to listen and shudder with her arms wrapped around her chest.
Time loses the significance of existence and she has no grasp of whether she has been walking for an hour, a minute or a day. Maybe the world has stopped turning. Maybe she is stuck forever in perpetual darkness. Maybe she is dead and this is hell.
Something ahead. An organic transition of darkness to light so subtle it takes minutes for her to notice. A lifting of the pitch-blackness somewhere in front. She can make out the outline of branches and the solid form of tree trunks. Not light but more an absence of the darkness or a weakening of the black. No, no it’s light, like early dawn. She blinks and focusses then stares again, she stares so hard her eyes water and hurt. On she goes. Still tripping and stumbling.
A clearing. The moonlight above bathing the clearing in light that spills through the treeline into the forest. An outline of a building. The unmistakable silhouette of a solid manmade structure, of a low sloping roof and a jutting chimneystack.
She stares up through a gap in the branches to the silver moon so glorious and cold and far away but it’s giving light and right now she thinks it’s the most beautiful thing she has ever seen. Fresh tears prick her eyes to roll fat down her cheeks and that very act reminds her of the raging thirst and the dryness of her mouth. She has to drink. She needs water.
She looks to the house, searching for light or sign of habitation but seeing nothing. She moves out carefully, one step at a time. She can’t see features. No windows or doors. Just the outline. She has to go closer. Is it safe? Will it help or hinder? Is it refuge or a trap? Fear grips again. A crashing behind her. A thunderous noise of something chasing and something giving chase. A screech. Twigs break and snap. Something else cries out. Birds break cover from the canopy to fill the forest with noise.
Emma runs for it. The goblins, demons, monsters, and things are all coming for her. She runs from the forest towards the silhouette of the house. She breaks cover from the treeline and finds fresh fear-driven energy to sprint out and down a rough unmade track full of stones and holes that make her stagger and sway. Her ankles jar from the uneven surface but she runs on wildly. The crashing behind her grows louder as something is caught and killed that dies slowly while screeching.
Emma makes out the features of the house. Some of the windows are boarded up. Others are uncovered with filthy glass reflecting the moonlight. She spots the ornate carvings in the stones and the shape of the eaves that seem to bend and curve with the flow of the house. It looks sinister, dark and foreboding but it’s better than being out here. Anything is better than being out here. She spots the door and runs for it. A big wooden thing. Panels and plinths. Carvings and iron studs. Gothic and old. She spots something white on the front and gives a final burst of painful speed to reach it. An old faded notice with curled edges pinned to the centre of the door.
Fuck that. Out here is unstable. Out here is dangerous. The door isn’t locked or even closed properly and she crashes through to stumble and fall into a dusty hallway with a flagstone floor. She sprawls out, gasping and whimpering from the fresh blooms of pain. On her feet and back to the door that she slams shut and braces with her body. A drop-down metal latch clicks in place. A bolt, old and huge with ornate carvings that she rams home. It makes a good solid noise too. A thunk of metal slotting into metal. She looks down and peers in the gloom to another bolt at the bottom. She drops and rams it home to the same satisfying noise.
She backs away with her head snapping left the right. Rooms on both sides. Huge doorways. High ceilings. The hallway is wide. Weak silvery light comes through uncovered windows to cast shadows and bars of moonlight. She turns round and round, her heart still going like the clappers and breathing hard from running. She has to drink. She needs water.
The hallway leads to the kitchen. A big room with the same flagstone floor and high ceilings. Black and white stripes from the interior beams showing above her. She spots the sink. A massive old deep ceramic thing. Old spoked taps. She grabs and twists, begging inwardly for there to be water. The tap on the left refuses to budge. She grabs the other and twists. Nothing for a second then a bang from somewhere in the house that makes her jump. Another one comes quickly after. More come as pipes cry out at being used to funnel water. They rattle and groan. She flinches and jumps at the noises, her movements jerky and panicked. A splutter then a gush of water bursts from the tap and even in the darkness, she can see the brown filthy colour. She looks up to the window above the sink. Half the wooden boards have been pulled down. She can see the lay of the land outside and the forms of the trees and branches in the near distance. The tap sputters some more, puking brown water that spatters in the bowl of the deep sink. She waits, wishing she could drink now but knowing to drink tainted filthy water is bad. She has to let it run. She has to get clear water running through the pipes.
The noise of the pipes grows louder like a symphony building to a crescendo that booms and rattles then suddenly stops as the tap gives one final wretched heave then runs clear sparkling water. She drops quickly, lowering her head to get her mouth under the flow. Cool water rushes in, cascading down her parched throat. The feeling of relief is instant. She drinks deep, filling her belly and only stopping to gasp and draw air. She lets the water pour over her face and head, rinsing the sweat and grime away. For long minutes she stays put, simply letting the noise and sensation of the water fill her world.
With her head still bowed she reaches up and twists the tap off. Silence comes. Broken only by the dripping from the strands of her hair and the rivers still running down her cheeks and nose. She blinks slowly and rises feeling almost drunk from the sudden ingestion of so much liquid.
She screams at the sight of the man in the window. Instant fright that makes her turn and flail as she drops down and kicks out. When he doesn’t attack she opens her eyes to snatch a view and sees only the empty room. No one there. She lurches up to look at the window. She saw a reflection, broken and skewed but…no, it’s the light, the warped panes, the boards letting light in. She heaves for air, her nerves frayed and almost broken. She looks around again. Definitely no one there. She locked the door.
‘Shit,’ she whispers bitterly. She didn’t check the house. What if she has locked herself in with the things? The door was unlocked and open. They could be inside. She has to check. She looks around for a weapon but sees nothing. Side units still in place. Old dark wood things. She opens drawers. Empty. A larder door. Cobwebs inside and the shadows too dark to see. She gropes about, still whimpering at the feel of the cobwebs and insects scuttling away under her hands. Nothing she can use. Empty.
She goes into the hallway, creeping and slow. Listening intently. The doors on the left and right lead to big square rooms complete with stone build fireplaces. Big things with jutting out mantelpieces. No furniture. Windows cracked and broken. Some open. Some covered with boards. The smell of dust and stale air hangs in each room. Musty and dry. Only three rooms on the ground floor. The kitchen and the ones leading from the hallway. All of them clear. She finds the stairs. Old wooden and steep. She grips the railing expecting it to be rickety but finds it firm and strong. The wood is almost warm to touch and smooth from years of use. She goes up. Each step creaks. Each board seems to protest. Fear builds. Tension too. The feeling of being watched. Of being stalked and hunted grows. She wants to run and flee. She wants to get outside but she knows she’ll regret it the second she does so. She has to stay and wait for daylight.
She rises to the top of the stairs. Three doors. All wooden. All closed. She goes to the first and winces at the creak it makes as it opens on old hinges. A bare room within. Moonlight streams through the window. The second room the same. The third is a bathroom. An old sink. White tiles on the walls. A stained bathtub, big and freestanding. A toilet. Nothing more.
That’s it. It’s safe. The feeling of relief is strong. The instant relaxation of mind and body that is secured within a place. The fear and terror are still there. The immense pain of watching him being bitten and raked and the intensity of running and going through the forest but the immediacy of the peril abates. She has drunk water. She is locked in. She goes into the middle bedroom and looks out over the front of the house. The ceilings in here are low. The walls old lathe and plaster. She stands to the side of the window staring out to the moonlit treeline. Nothing moving. No noise either.
She eases into a corner and slides down the wall to hug her knees to her chest. Wait for daylight. That’s all. Just wait. Hang on. Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay.
Thirsty again. Her mouth is dry. Her body has already absorbed the fluids she took on. She ignores it for a while and tries to doze but her mind fills with images of the shop and the blood on his face and chest. She rises slowly using the wall to help gain her feet then crosses over the floorboards to stare out into the hallway.
It seems lighter. Dawn must be coming. Not soon enough. She heads for the stairs to go down and drink from the kitchen tap with a thought about the bathroom.
Halfway down she freezes and stares at the front door hanging open. Her hand on the railing to her right. Her left shoulder brushing the wall. The front door is open. She closed it. She locked it. It’s open. Wide open. Fear creeps up her spine. Hot air blasts past her ear. She whimpers and drops while turning and loses grip as her feet stumble down several steps before she can grip the rail. A draft on her neck. The front door is open. She locked it. Someone breathed on her. She saw a reflection in the kitchen window. The beliefs are strong but wane quickly. She didn’t see a reflection in the kitchen window. She didn’t lock the door properly. She must have shot the bolts home without engaging them in the clasps. A draft went past her neck caused by the displacement of stale air.
Her nerves are frayed. The world is over. She has seen too much death and suffered too much fright. Anyone would be like this. Take it easy. Calm down. Lock the door and drink water. There’s nothing here.
She goes down and smells smoke. Strong and distinct. The tang of a fire. Heat too. She hears a crackle of flames and panics, thinking the house is on fire. She runs into the first room, nothing. Into the room on the other side of the hall. Nothing. In the kitchen nothing. She goes back to the hallway. The smell is gone. No noises. She grabs the door to close it. It starts to swing then stops as though caught on something. Panic builds. She sobs out knowing what it feels like. Knowing from a life lived exactly what it feels like as she tries to close the door against someone stronger holding it open. She tries harder and finds it suddenly free and slamming home. She should go. She should get out and run but it’s not day yet and the things are out there somewhere. She grabs the bolt and rams it home, ensuring it goes firmly into the clasp. She does the same at the bottom. Ramming it through then checks it’s closed and locked.
Another warm blast of air on her neck. She spins around and presses her back to the door. Nothing there. Imagination. She’s losing the plot. She blinks rapidly and summons resolve. The world is over. Everyone is dead. How can she get spooked by an old house when the threat of real death lies outside?
She has to drink. She moves for the kitchen, ignoring the pervading feeling of being watched. The sense of voyeurism that makes the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She twists the tap and jumps again when the pipes bang and rattle. It ends as quickly as it starts. She ducks to drink. That creeping feeling grows stronger. She spins with water falling from her mouth with the belief of seeing someone watching her. Nothing. The room is empty. She breathes hard. Chest heaving and eyes glaring. She goes back to drinking.
A chuckle. Deep and low. A second in length.
‘WHAT?’ she screams out, turning again, water pouring down her chin. Eyes blazing. Nothing there. She heard it. She heard the noise. She imagined it. There was no noise. It was the pipes. They rattled and…and…made noises.
She rubs her face suddenly drained to the core. Exhausted. Strung out. Her mind in overdrive. The smell comes back. The pungent aroma of a fire. Not unpleasant either. She mutters softly, losing her brain, losing her marbles, losing the plot. She rubs harder at her eyes and forehead, feeling the acute tension and stress.
A scrape. Something heavy being dragged. Her heart booms. It comes again. Distinct and close but far away and from no real direction. The house is old. It must have stood empty for years and the sign on the door said it’s unstable. Oh my god! It’s unstable. No wonder she’s getting creaks and drafts. Relief floods in. The walls could be warped. Subsidence or whatever could have made the front door swing open. Jesus. It’s the end of days and she was worried about a ghost. What an idiot. Unstable!
The scrape comes again. She chuckles and shakes her head. The smell of fire wafts around her but she’s in a forest in a scorching hot summer. People could have taken refuge and got a fire going. The smell could be from miles away. Idiot. Think straight and stay alive. Wait for proper daylight then figure something out. Stay or go? Maybe look outside for a weapon. An old tool or something. She can’t stay here for long. There’s no food.
She blasts air and stares around. Calmer now. She thinks back to the shop and finds her mind filling with images of the shop again. The blood. The tone of his voice when he said her name. The nails raking across his chest. She starts to cry again. Her lip trembling as the pureness of the loss strikes deep. She hardly knew him. They met on the first night when it all happened. Two strangers running together who hid in the same place as the world around them broke down. They scraped by day after day. Learning about each other. It wasn’t romantic. It was the polar opposite of romantic. It was gritty survival and watching out for danger while the other person took a shit. That’s what it was. They had sex once born from the craving for human contact. It wasn’t romantic then either. It was quick. Hard. They fucked. They didn’t make love. They both wept after and tried to stay silent in the shadows.
Now he’s gone. Dead. She’d just started to think they might get through it. The skills and lessons they picked up had kept them alive. What happened? Where did they come from? She’ll never know. He’s dead. Gone. She is alone and crushed from the concept of the loss and grief and loneliness of the bleak future.
She walks without realising it. She walks through the kitchen with her arms wrapped around her chest and down the hallway. The sobs come harder. Weeping now. Tears streaming. Pain in her heart that is far worse than all the points of agony in her body. She stops in the doorway to one of the downstairs rooms. Her eyes misted and blurred. Her chest heaving with sobs. Fatigue hits again. She feels drained to the core and wants only to sleep. To sleep forever. To never wake up. The smell of smoke comes again. The crackle of fire. Her mind is fracturing. Breaking. She blinks in the abject misery of the moment and gains glimpse of a roaring fire and deep rugs on the floor. A big high backed armchair near to the fire and huge shaggy-haired dog with its head lifted and cocked as it looks at her. She feels the warmth of the fire. Spice hanging in the air. Laurels and wreaths on the walls. A huge axe resting against the wall in a corner of the room with a shaft as tall as she and a long shiny curved blade resting on the floor, and, in that blink of an eye she also gains glimpse of a big man with a big dark red beard and straggly red hair staring at her from the armchair. His arms knotted with muscle. His shoulders wide and solid. His neck thick. Panic hits and she screams out, spinning about only to see a bare empty room and no fire, no dog, no chair, no warmth, no axe, and no man.
She reels back into the hallway. The sobs coming harder. Her mind breaking, fracturing, falling apart. She sinks down with her back against the stairs. She slides to land heavy with her mouth opening and closing as though to speak but without words coming.
The grief pours out. The loss surges up to vent. The confusion makes it all seem worse and harder. The abject misery sinks her stomach down as her heart breaks and falls apart over and again.
She squeezes her eyes closed. The pain is so great it will tear her apart. When she blinks, she glimpses the fire and the man and the dog. She cries out. Then they are gone. Gone forever. They were never there. Delusional. Crazed. Her knees come up. Her arms wrap round and she rocks back and forth. Banging the back of her head against the wall. Her eyes closed as tight as they can be. When she looks the house is bare and barren. Empty and cold. When she looks the fire is there, the man is there, the dog is standing now. So tall and big. Like a wolf. Grey fur and deep dark eyes. She can’t take it. She can’t do it. She has to die. This pain is too much. She begs for help but the empty house echoes with her voice. She bangs her head back into the wall to feel something other than the pain in her heart. Warmth again. Light and smells. The dog is closer now. In the doorway. Head cocked. Staring hard. Alive and there. Right there. The man rises from the chair. So big. So real. Sadness in his eyes too. He tuts. She blinks and all is gone.
It’s too much. The outpouring of grief is too much. Something close to her face. A blast of air. A sniff. She screams and lurches away to drop onto her side and curl into a ball. She screams out. She screams and screams because the terror of the images that aren’t there render her lost and broken. She has no thought to the things that could be drawn by the noise. She has no heed to death or life. Only that she is broken and in hell and her mind is gone forever.
She wakes slowly from dreams of warmth and being carried then covered. Dreams of the crackle of fire and spices hanging in the air. Dreams of pressure against her back as something rested behind her. Dreams but only dreams and nothing more than dreams because she wakes on her side in front of a filthy old fireplace in the downstairs room of an empty house.
Daylight now. Strong pure daylight. She lifts her head slowly to stare up at the cracked and grimy windows. The emotion has been vented. Now she just feels numb and drained. The mind is a powerful thing. Hallucinations. Delusions. Vivid dreams brought on by incredible things seen and done and by pushing her body to the limit of endurance.
She blinks slowly and stares about. She needs the toilet. Pressure on her bladder from all the water she drank.
Emma rises to her feet, wincing from the pain in her joints. Her ankles are swollen. Her feet are really hurting. Everything is really hurting. She’s bruised, bashed, cut and sore. She’s alive though. She feels instant guilt at that thought. Of even daring to feel alive when so many are now gone.
She limps out into the hallway and stops to stare at the open front door to the forest bathed in golden sunlight. She doesn’t cry out or panic now. She is too numb. The house is unstable. The walls or the floor…something…who cares? She doesn’t care. She limps down the hall and grips the door but holds still to stare out. The day is beautiful and the birdsong coming through is glorious. She should go but she can’t run now. Not with this level of pain in her body. She needs to rest and heal. She must do what they always did before he got taken and stay silent and hidden. She swings the door closed.
‘Like it open,’ a deep voice, flat and real but not here.
That does it. That ramps the fear back through her mind and heart that booms and beats harder and faster. She lets go of the door that she couldn’t close because of the pressure preventing it. It swings open back to where it was. She stands frozen. Wide-eyed. Trembling from head to toe.
She can run. She can leave. Instant peril in her mind that works to weigh the options. She can barely walk. If the things spot her she won’t stand a chance in running again. But staying here? It’s not real. She knows it’s not real. It’s her mind breaking from the stress. Out there is real death. In here is just her mind fucking up.
The pressure on her bladder comes back. Pressing the immediacy of the need to urinate. She could go outside and squat to piss but that means the smell will hang in the air and this heat will only make it worse. No smells. No noise. Stay quiet. Stay hidden.
She backs into the hallway and turns smartly to face the stairs with that real belief coming back that she will see someone watching her. Nothing. The feeling is there. That pervading sense creeping up her spine.
She limps up the stairs using the handrail to aid her more than ever before. At the top, she turns to head into the bathroom and again turns to present her backside to the toilet. She has to pull her trousers and knickers down to piss but that feeling of being watched is too real and too strong. Defiance grows in her eyes. She unfastens her belt with almost angry movements as though daring and challenging. She tugs her trousers and knickers and squats quickly over the toilet. Her eyes darting left and right. There is nothing there. Nothing. Imagination. She heard a voice. She heard nothing but her own mind making her think she heard and saw things.
The relief is one tiny thing less to worry about but as that need is resolved so many more take up voice. She’s hurt, hungry, filthy. Whatever. Nothing matters now. Everything matters now. She stands and hoiks her clothes up, wishing she had paper to wipe with. What now? Wait. That’s all. Just wait and heal. Drink water and rest.
She heads down the stairs gingerly and careful, scowling at the open door. It shouldn’t be open. It should be closed. If the things come they’ll see into the house. She reaches the bottom of the stairs and moves as though to stare outside then slams the door closed and works to ram the bolts home before turning to press her back into it with a sense of victory gained for the defeat of her imagination.
Nothing happens. Why would it? There’s nothing here. Christ, Emma. Get a grip. She spots the motes of dust twinkling in the rays of sunlight and feels the surge of emotion at the memory of the shop. She closes her eyes from the sadness of it all then snaps them open, refusing to give her mind to the torment.
Drink. That’s what she needs to do. Take on fluids and let her body heal. A stomach full of water will help her feel full too. She heads into the kitchen then remembers the larder she groped about in last night. She goes over, opens the door and stares in at the empty shelves. Nothing but dust. Thick dust marked from where she groped about last night. Rodent droppings. Cobwebs. She turns to go but spots something on the floor at the back. Something round. She drops with a wince at the pain in her legs. A round metal tin covered in dust. She takes it out into the kitchen and wipes the layer of filth from the top. Faded colours start to show. Lettering too. Old style script in a rich italic style. She squints to read the words and rubs harder to rid the dust and grime. Tobacco? Oh. Oh shit.
Spiced Pipe Tobacco. The finest oriental blend.
She blinks and stares. No way. It can’t be. She grips the top with one hand and holds the bottom with her other. She twists, not expecting it to yield but it does. The top unscrews easily.
Old paper inside. Brittle and yellowing. She pulls it aside to see the mound of tobacco within. She lifts to sniff. Inhaling deeply of a scent she has only ever smelled once before. Discernible and distinct. Spices hanging in the air. That feeling of being watched comes back. The hairs on the back of her neck prickle. She freezes. Sensing something. Sensing nothing except her own mind making things up.
The sound of a breath. Of an inhalation. Of a big man breathing in with air rushing past the hairs of his nose. She swallows. Breath on her neck. Warm and real. She yelps, drops the tin and lurches shaken and trembling towards the sink and gains sight of the hallway and the front door hanging open.
She charges down as fast as her sore legs will carry her to grab the door and slam it closed. She rams the bolts in and turns to march back down towards the kitchen.
She freezes at the noise. Her face twitching.
‘NO!’ She snaps and charges back down to grab and slam and get the bolts home.
‘Like it open.’ The voice sounds, deep and real but not here. Not earthed. Not part of this place.
She lunges as the bolts pull back and the door swings open. She throws her weight at it, snatching it from whatever or whoever is holding it and gets it closed again. Fear mutates to anger. She works the bolts and glowers as she steps back.
A pause. Nothing. It’s in her mind. All of this is in her mind. The bolts fly back as the door swings open. She lunges in to grab and heave. Pressure against her. Pressure holding the door open. The house is unstable. The house is dangerous. The walls are warped. Subsidence or something is making this door keep coming open.
‘Like it open,’ the voice says again, firmer this time and very deep.
‘NO!’ she screams out, forcing her weight into it as anger mutated from fear morphs even more into rage. She battles against the warped walls and subsidence and the deep voice in her head that says like it open. She rages and pushes. She kicks and heaves.
‘FUCK OFF!’ she yells out with an explosion of emotion at having something she can be angry at. Something she can rage at. Something she can fight and refuse to yield from.
A hand on the back of her neck. A hand on her arse. Real and hard. Real and big. Her feet leave the floor and she flies head first from the door to sprawl in the weeds and grass under the blazing sunshine. She flips over and stares at the unmoving open door. A chuckle. Deep and low. A second in length. She surges up. All pain forgotten. Incredulous at being laughed at by a voice in her head. Incredulous at being thrown with such ease by a thing she chooses to ignore the source of right now.
She charges in to grip the door and slams it shut. It swings open. She slams it closed. It opens. Back and forth it goes. A bark sounds out. She doesn’t care. It’s all in her mind. In her crazy head. She opens and it slams shut. She goes faster. Wild and frenzied. Snatches of vision. Of a big man towering over her with an arm stretched over her head slamming the door closed. She doesn’t care. He isn’t there. The hallway is empty. The house is bare and barren. She slams the door. The big grey dog panting in the hallway barks again. Spice in the air. Rugs on the floor. Flowers in a vase on a side unit. She doesn’t care. The dog isn’t real. None of this is real. She rages and fights to keep the door closed but no longer cares about anything other than being able to shout and fight and slam a door.
‘JUST FUCKING LEAVE IT,’ she screams.
A hand on the back of her neck. A hand on her arse. Real and hard. Real and big. Her feet leave the floor and she flies head first from the door to sprawl in the weeds and grass under the blazing sunshine. She flips over to stare at the door that slams closed with the sudden feeling that offence has been given. She huffs and puffs. She glares at the door. She wanted it closed. She wanted it shut but she wanted to be on the other side. Not this side. Inside. Not outside. Whatever. She turns away to glower and glare. None of this is real. The dog wasn’t real. She’s mad. She’s gone. A lunatic that will soon be running round in her pants shouting at the moon.
‘FINE,’ she shouts at the house. At the thing that doesn’t exist. It’s warm out here anyway. The sun is nice. She stands slowly, the pain now back. She stalks back to the door and thinks to try and go in but then stops and tuts and walks off around the side of the house instead. She goes past windows half covered by boards while that pervading sense of being watched grows again. She hears sounds inside. Like footsteps. Big and heavy. Others lighter and made by the four paws of a big dog.
As she reaches the back she stops to stare in wonder at the explosion of colour greeting her eyes from the rose bushes in full bloom. Her breath catches in her throat. She blinks and forgets the door and the house and everything else. Rose bushes once trimmed and trained now growing wild and thick and all bursting with flowering heads. Reds of every shade. Gloriously deep and velvety. Yellows. Some deep. Some light. Pinks and whites. Reds and whites. So many of them. Bees moving between them. Buzzing lazily. Wasps too. Butterflies. Birds. The garden was once big and beautiful. She can see the shape of it. The long lawn now overgrown and full of weeds. The flowerbeds spilling out with thick stems and wild bushes. She spots old bird boxes ornate and carved and so heart-achingly beautiful. She sees a bird bath and a swing seat hanging from a tree now broken and frayed. She sees life as it once was and the colours of the flowers bring forth the tears that spill fast and thick down her cheeks.
The stark contrast to the death she saw. The destruction of a world imploding. The infected things so rotten and violent. Running and hiding. Scraping by each day in the blood-spattered houses.
The running yesterday. The way he died in the shop when they did everything right. They followed the rules. They waited and watched. They stayed quiet and silent. They didn’t fight or attack.
Now this. An abundance of colour and life. Fragrances in the air. Warm sunlight. Insects buzzing and not flies and writhing maggots in old bodies but things of colour and vibrancy.
She weeps now. She weeps for the shock of it. For the emotions that came out yesterday and the rage she just had. She weeps quietly, sadly but with control.
As she settles to discern the individual sights in front of her so she spots the berries hanging fat and plump. She goes forward to reach out and pluck a fat fruit that she mouths and bites to feel juices bursting over her tongue. A flash of red. She blinks again.
‘Oh my god.’
She leans in through the stems and stalks, through the vines and bushes to grab the big round fruit that she plucks and tugs free. A tomato. An actual tomato. She looks around seeing more then spotting strawberries growing further down. Her eyes drop to the fresh earth scattered and dug free by rabbits near to bushy green tops. Another blink. She ducks over and down to grasp and pluck and pull the carrots free. Small and slender but carrots nonetheless. A tomato in one hand. Carrots in the other. Berries everywhere. She has food. She has food to help her heal and grow stronger so she can run and stay alive. Fresh nutritious food. She goes to bite into the tomato but stops at the thought of creatures pissing and shitting on them. She gathers more, holding them in the crook of her arms before limping back down the side of the house to the now open front door. She pauses. Unsure. Unsure of anything. Unsure of how she got outside. She was trying to close the door and tripped.
Yep. Just shock brought on by everything. She chews crunchy carrot that tastes so good after days of tinned food and snatched meals. She drinks water. Eats tomatoes and berries and chews small slender carrots while standing in the kitchen at her now perceived place of safety which is the kitchen sink. This is her spot now. She can drink from here and see the door. She can turn round and look out the window to the forest at the back of the house beyond the beautiful garden.
She doesn’t believe in ghosts. Not one had ever been caught on film or in a picture. Not a real one anyone. Mind you, she doesn’t believe in zombies either. What’s next? Harry Potter and his ginger mate chasing dragons?
Yep. Just shock.
She swallows the carrot then bites into a tomato and uses the back of her hand to wipe the juice from her chin. She glances to the tin of oriental spiced pipe tobacco on the floor. That’s why she was smelling things. Because of that. If someone lived here and smoked a pipe for years the smell would have worked into the wood and fabric of the house. Emma knew a guy once who said his burnt down when he was a kid. It was rebuilt and made new but he said the smell of the fire remained for years, despite all the burnt materials being replaced.
The mind is a powerful thing and capable of weaving a fantastical world to fill in gaps or create quasi-comfort when despair is bad. She is very aware that the whole of this construct, this fantasy, these visions, smells, sounds, and beliefs are made by her.
Even that scrape now isn’t real. The sound of the heavy thing being dragged across the ground. She matches the sound to the shape and size of the axe she saw and in her mind’s eye, she creates a vision of the big man walking through the house pulling his axe behind him. Which is ridiculous. A big man like that wouldn’t drag his axe. He’d carry it. Anyway, something that size would mark the floor and gouge tracks in the floorboards. She tuts and walks down the hallway while chewing the tomato to see the gouged tracks in the floorboards that lead from the front door to the place where she thought she saw the armchair in the room.
She saw the gouged marks first and then built the fantasy construct around them. Like that sound now. The sound of a heavy metal blade being sharpened slowly and carefully by a stone sliding back and forth, rhythmic and purposeful. That sound isn’t real.
She goes back to her spot and ignores the smell of the oriental spiced pipe tobacco hanging in the air. Not the stale old stuff on the floor either but ignited and mixed with smoke.
She eats a berry and ignores the strobing effect of visual trickery as the kitchen is suddenly full of pans and pots hanging from hooks in the beams in the ceiling and the unit on the side is loaded with plates and cups. She pretends she doesn’t see the table at the side of the room and the old real fuel stove or the curtains or the light and warmth of the room.
Instead, she looks up to see the old hooks still in the ceiling of the bare barren house and over to the four marks where the table legs once rested on the floor and the faint outline on the wall from where the stove used to be.
Whatever. Shock. Maybe she has a brain infection. Or a brain swelling. Or something to do with the brain. She banged her head loads yesterday. She’s concussed and having delusional paranoia.
Like that sound now, that noise of a dog scratching itself using a back leg that thumps the floor as it cycles through the frantic scratching process. She can ever hear the dog’s groan when it stops and stretches out to sleep. Yep. The brain is a powerful thing alright.
She eats and chews. Swallows and bites. Flashes of vision. She closes her eyes. Maybe she needs some meds to control the hallucinations if they carry on. Nice rug in the hall though. She likes the pattern and bright colours. Stop it! She shakes her head and eats and chews while the sound of a stone being rubbed against a blade fills the house.
Time passes. She eats the food and rests with her back to the sink. She taps her foot, folds her arms. She taps the other foot and unfolds her arms. She sighs and stares down the hallway to the open front door and the beautiful day outside. She purses her lips, frowns, smiles without humour then tuts and looks up.
‘ALRIGHT!’ she snaps. ‘It’s bloody sharp now.’
The sound stops mid-stroke. She rolls her eyes and pushes her tongue into her cheek and looks at the hooks in the beams.
‘Well,’ she says into the silence, ‘it was going on a bit.’
She folds her arms again and stares down at the floor with her heart increasing at the strobing vision of the dog walking from the room into the hallway. It’s not there. She looks up. The hallway is old and covered in dust. Bare and barren. There is no dog. The dog is in her mind.
She refuses to see the dog come into the kitchen full of pots and pans and the table at the side. She stares down at the floor and keeps her arms folded defensive and scared. Scared of nothing because there is nothing there. She tuts at the sound of a dog drinking water. At the lapping noise. She stays looking down and ignores it when the drinking sound ends. The room is empty. There is no dog. She tenses as the dog comes close. She can hear it. The feet on the floorboards. The things is enormous. So bloody tall. She looks away and refuses to react at the sensation of a wet nose against her hand and a warm wet tongue licking her arm. She grits her teeth and does nothing as she listens to the dog walking back down the hallway.
When she looks at her hand she refuses to see the water there or the smear of moisture up her arm.
Yep, she definitely needs to get some meds.
She tenses again when she hears the creak of the armchair and the heavy tread of a foot. Arms folded. Stare down. Do nothing. Rest and recover. Her heart rate increases slightly at the second step that comes with a creak of a floorboard. Then a dull thud as though the axe is being placed down, then the scrape of the shaft on the wall. She breathes a bit faster and glances up to the front door knowing she has to stay vigilant in case the things find her. She looks down quickly at the strobing flicker of the big man walking from the room into the hallway and the way the sun caught his beard just then. Strong features. Kind features. Not strong, not kind, not real.
She swallows as the footsteps come down the hallway into the kitchen. Arms folded. Stare down. Don’t look up. It’s not real. An inhalation of air. The scent of oriental spiced pipe tobacco grows stronger. Other smells too. Woodsmoke and sawdust. A dull thunk as a kettle is placed on the stove. There is no man. No stove. She looks up suddenly to see an empty kitchen devoid of life. Old and decrepit. She’s alone. Mad but alone.
When she looks down she hears the sound of a mug being moved and the rustle of a packet. A teaspoon taking contents from the packet to the mug. She glares again. Seeing nothing. Hearing nothing. She closes her eyes and hears the water heating and the low hum coming from a big man as he waits for the water to heat. Tears prick her eyes. She glares around. Nothing. Empty. A void of life. She looks down. A creak of a floorboard. The water coming to boil. The low whistle building up as the steam pushes through the vent in the kettle. Her bottom lip trembles. The tears fall faster. The room fills with the sound of the kettle whistling then dying out slowly as the man lifts it from the stove. She tilts her face up and lets the tears roll down her cheeks while she squeezes her eyes closed at the sound of water being poured and the smell that blooms out into the room. She hears the kettle being put back on the side and the stir of the spoon but more than anything she smells the coffee in the air and that makes her cry. The smell of it. Hearing it being made. She wants coffee. She wants coffee in a house of warmth and light. She wants to make coffee at an old stove and not stand too afraid to move in case the things come.
She bites her bottom lip and stares up as he sips from the mug. She can hear him. She can fucking hear him and smell the bloody coffee. Oh god, she wants coffee too. The fear goes. The fear of either being mad or delusional or really being in a room listening to a ghost make coffee. Instead, she feels the loss of everything now gone from her life. Not just from her life but the lives of all.
She snorts and opens her eyes at the realisation that this is what it means. These delusions are a coping mechanism that reflect the losses and pain. She is fantasising about a glimpse into the life of a big strong man living alone in the woods that is capable of making life from the things around him, which is everything she is not, and everything that society at the time it fell was not.
Bitter sadness makes her draw a deep breath and exhale long and slow and for a second she is right there. In the room with him. In the lightness and warmth. She can see the contours of his face and the kindness in his eyes as he sips at the coffee. At the checked shirt he wears open at the collar and the stout boots on his feet. Then it’s gone and it was never there.
Two things of magnitude happen. At the same time as she determines that she is batshit nuts the infected things breach the treeline in plain sight of the open front door.
She hears them. She looks up and sees them. Her heart, already beating faster, now ramps and booms as she runs down the hallway to the door that she has to close. She grips to slam it. Resistance. She strains against the demons in her mind but the door stays open. Vision strobes. The man next to her. His arm over her holding the door open. The mug of coffee in his other hand. She looks out. So many of them. Too many of them. More coming from the forest. They’ve tracked her. They’ve found her.
She heaves with everything she has to close the door but it refuses to yield.
‘Please..’ she whispers, frantic and desperate, ‘please…not now…’ don’t be mad now. Don’t be delusional now. She has to get a grip and close the door. The flashes of vision come faster. The house as it was. The house as it is. The dog in the hallway staring towards the open door with his head cocked. The man drinking coffee while he holds the door open and stares past her to the forest.
‘Please…’ she whispers and tries again. Oh god no, the things are moving out. Filthy and tainted. Hunters from a nightmare. Beasts that never stop searching for the flesh they crave. As one they turn heads to face towards the house. As one they see the door and the woman inside.
‘No…no…please. Close the door…’ Terror inside. The voice that wants to live telling her to close the door but she cannot close it. She cannot run either. She is too sore. Too injured. Too beaten and finished. That’s it. That’s what this is. This is her way of accepting the end of the line is now. She can’t run anymore. She cannot hide. They are here. They have found her.
They come. They start moving towards the house. Fluid and evil. Blood stained clothes. Limbs bloodied and torn apart. Wounds everywhere. Hair lank and greasy. Hands clawed. Heads fixed and staring with red bloodshot eyes.
She watches them with pure unfiltered horror growing inside that twists her stomach and sends ice running through her veins. They’ll come inside. They’ll bite and rake her flesh then she will go out with them. One of them.
She tries again to close the door but knows it’s useless. Her mind, her delusional warped mind has made the decision to die and so it works to create the fantasy to prevent her delaying the inevitable.
He tuts and blasts air through his nose. She hears it. Right now while staring at dozens of infected pouring over the track and verges from the trees she hears him. Her mind clings to the fantasy but the death she faces is real and abhorrent.
The dog growls. She snatches a glance to see the lips pulled back showing big teeth and the hackles lifting. She sees an empty hallway bare and barren. She feels the presence of the man as he steps closer. His body next to hers. His hands on her shoulders as he guides her back from the door. She shakes from head to toe. She can feel his hands. The rough calloused skin. She can feel his breath on her neck and the pressing of his body behind as he leans round to place the still hot coffee cup in her hands. She shakes and trembles. Tears run free. The dog growls. The beasts come faster. The man goes. His heat and form fades from her back. There is no man. No dog. There is no coffee cup in her hands. She looks down in the abject surrealness to see the white mug and the black liquid inside as she hears the scrape of a shaft against a wall and heavy footsteps coming back down the hallway.
‘Come dog,’ the voice is deep, hard and real. He walks up behind her. A hand on her shoulder. A hand that doesn’t exist. ‘Wait here.’
Shivers run up her spine. The house is void of life. Old and empty. It’s a ruin and nothing more. This is her mind forcing her to find comfort at the point of dying. Oh shit. So many of them. So many running. Angry and wild. Not human. Things from nightmares that wish only harm and suffering.
He brushes past her. The dog too. The growling dog that goes with his master out the house as the man hefts his axe, rolls his shoulders and stops with his feet planted apart. They are not there. She blinks and sees only the infected. She blinks and sees the man’s broad back and his axe lifting as the dog lowers to a crouch ready to spring and fight.
There is no coffee cup. She looks down. She can see it. She can feel it. She can smell it. She lifts the mug in that abstract second and presses the rim to her lips as she looks up and out. The first one comes. The fastest one streaking ahead of the others. He’ll come through the door and slam her down to bite and kill.
This is it. It’s over. She closes her eyes and waits but lifts and accepts the delusion for the pleasure it gives in the taste and heat of the liquid going into her mouth. Bitter and strong. A growl, a snarl. A thud. She snaps her eyes open to the see the infected on the ground with the dog tearing it apart and the man striding out and past to slam his axe into the next one coming.
She flinches at the sight of the blade going through the torso, cleaving it in half. She flinches again as he swings again and kills the next one. He moves so fast. So bloody fast. The dog charges another one down. She sips the coffee and swirls the liquid over her tongue. Knowing it is not real. That it cannot be real but that it tastes too bloody good.
‘THERE! MR HOWIE, HORDE AHEAD. AT ‘EM JESS!’
Charlie rides hard from the trees to the man and the dog fighting against the dozens of infected charging at them. Howie and the others running behind her. Eyes blazing as they see the beasts ahead. Meredith streaks out. A blur of black fur that swooshes past Jess to the big grey dog that she helps as it takes one down.
Charlie rides through them. Her axe slamming left and right. Jess rears and whinnies and kills more as she drops. The man fights and kills. Cleaving bodies in half as he swings his axe and boots out to send bodies away into the mouths of the two dogs ragging them senseless.
‘INTO THEM.’ Howie and Dave reach the fray. Rifles slung. Axes and knives gripped as they run deep to kill and slaughter. Blowers and Cookey side by side. Nick hefting his double-headed axe with ease. Mo Mo dancing like Dave to spin and weave with blades that flash and slice. Blinky headbutting, kicking and hacking them down. Charlie now off Jess and fighting on foot as the horse slams them down with her flanks.
The red-haired man double-takes three coming at him. An arrow takes one out. Two left. He spins and roars taking both heads off with one slice. Clarence behind them, booting them away.
‘LINE ON ME,’ Howie roars. His team move to gain his sides with backs to house to face the rest that dare stay and fight. They hack and kill to make the ground run red with blood as bodies are torn and killed. The red-haired man fights with them. His size equal to Clarence. His strength the same. Meredith and the grey wolfhound tear them down. Two dogs. Two big dogs that decimate and destroy.
For a minute there is only hard work and to each their own they absorb in the thing they do until suddenly it’s over and finished. The last one falls and only the crawlers remain.
Howie stands heaving for air. His eyes dark and brooding. Blowers and the others glaring out with weapons gripped and ready.
‘CLEAR,’ Clarence booms.
Paula, Marcy and Reginald emerge from the treeline. The two women flanking Reginald with rifles raised and ready as they walk down and through infected bodies from the town that chased the woman and the white robes of the druids that held them for sacrifice.
As the battle lust fades so Howie looks round. Confusion on his face. He turns a full circle.
‘Where’d he go?’
‘Dunno,’ Blowers says, turning to look for the man.
‘His dog’s gone too,’ Nick says.
‘Eh?’ Howie asks. ‘They were right here,’ he adds.
‘In the house?’ Clarence asks, looking at the place behind them.
‘What’s up?’ Paula asks, seeing the confusion on their faces.
‘There was a man and a dog,’ Howie says.
‘Big man, red hair,’ Roy says. ‘Big dog too.’
‘Wolfhound,’ Nick says.
‘Must have gone inside,’ Paula says, walking through towards the door. ‘Hello? Are you inside? Do you need help? We’ve got a doctor.’
‘Not a doctor,’ Roy calls out. ‘More a medic…’
‘He shot off a bit quick,’ Blowers says.
‘Hard bloke though,’ Cookey says. ‘Strong as Clarence.’
‘Big lad,’ Clarence concedes.
‘Ginger though,’ Cookey adds, grinning.
‘Twat,’ Blowers says.
The tone from Paula has them all moving fast for the house. ‘What’s up?’ Howie asks. ‘Is he alright?’
‘Don’t know but she’s not,’ Paula says quietly, nodding at the body.
Roy goes forward into the house to drop at the side of the corpse lying on her side in the hallway. Blood on the back of her head. ‘Dead,’ Roy mutters.
‘Fuck,’ Howie says. ‘Where’s the bloke?’
‘How long she been dead?’ Paula asks.
‘I don’t know, I’m not a doctor,’ Roy says then shrugs. ‘Maybe a day. She’s very cold.’
‘Upstairs clear,’ Dave says, coming down the stairs with Mo.
‘Anything through there?’ Howie asks, looking past the body. He goes through to the kitchen and stops to sniff the air. ‘I can smell coffee.’
Marcy comes in behind him, looking round at the bare barren room. ‘I think you are wishing you could smell coffee,’ she says.
‘Probably,’ Howie says.
‘What’s that?’ Marcy asks, dropping to look at the tin on the floor. ‘Pipe tobacco? Smells nice though. Like spiced or something…’
‘No one here, Boss,’ Blowers calls out.
‘We’ve checked the back,’ Charlie says. ‘Nothing.’
‘Fucking bizarre,’ Howie says walking back down the hallway. He stops to look down at the body and tuts sadly. ‘Poor bugger.’
‘Come on, we need to get on,’ Paula says. ‘We’ve got new batteries to find.’
‘Yep,’ Howie says. ‘Righto, everyone out.’
Meredith watches her pack start filing out and waits for the wolfhound to finish sniffing her arse. She’s already sniffed his arse and greeted in the formal manner. She looks at the big fire burning and the man and woman in armchairs and wonders why her pack don’t come in and greet this pack. They just fought together. They should greet and sniff arses. She watches the big man smile at the woman who drinks from a cup then smiles back at him. Meredith senses the peace within them and the serenity of this place. No matter. Her pack are going. She walks off from the grey wolfhound through the hallway to the door and out into the world.
‘Like it open…’
‘Huh?’ Howie says from the doorway.
‘What?’ Clarence asks, already outside.
‘Thought you said something.’
‘Fair one,’ Howie says, his hand holding the door as he looks back in the empty house. He goes to close it but then thinks maybe the man will come back.
He leaves it open and walks off as Blinky tuts at the sight of Agnes’s decapitated head on the ground.
‘Fit,’ Blinky mutters.
‘Was,’ Howie says. ‘She ain’t now.’