That afternoon I dream of cheese platters and eggs. Then I dream of the dead. Always the dead. They gather around the department store in their billions.
“You’re letting the team down,” they say through puckered holes where their mouths should be. “Come back to us, and we can all move on. No more ripples in the pond.”
“I’m not ready yet. Everett needs me, and I can’t find Jason.”
The dead laugh: the sound dry and rasping. They have no eyes, just ruined holes that leak black fluid. Their bodies are malformed, crudely constructed, as if made from memory and then dimly recalled.
“Jason’s with us,” they say.
A ripple passes through the crowd. Their bodies twist into new shapes: young, old, male and female, but no Jason.
My turn to laugh.
I awake to find Everett smiling. The sun is low in the sky. Its thin light plays across the wall in a mix of shadows. The fire has long since gone out and my wood pile has been reduced to twigs and scattered leaves.
“Why so happy?” I wipe sleep from my eyes and prop myself up on my elbows. My gums ache, and I can taste blood at the back of my mouth. A tooth wobbles when I probe it with my tongue. Despite that, it’s good to see Everett smile.
He doesn’t answer, and that’s when I notice Sal has moved closer. She bobs like a discarded cork, her rifle caught in the stunted growth of a hawthorn tree.
Sal won’t take the plunge tonight. Which means Sheila will have her. She’ll smack her lips on those juicy thighs; she’ll lift Sal’s shirt and run tendrils across cold, white flesh.
“You wouldn’t want that, would you?” I shout through the window. Sal’s swollen tongue lolls within her mouth. I think she wants to kiss me.
I could eat her up. She could do her duty even in death. It’s not such a strange concept. It’s not. Many people have eaten alternative foods in difficult times. Their names escape me, but they did what they had to do. Why should I be any different?
Everett’s head dips.
“No. Don’t be like that.” I lift his chin and look him in the eye. “I have to eat.”
My head feels heavy from sleep, my legs ache from cramp, and my bladder is fit to burst.
Barely manage to get to the toilet in time before I go, soaking my crotch as I pull my pants down. My urine is all dark and red. It’s not big on dignity and as I squat there filling a plastic bottle with half-piss and half-blood, the stench is near-awful. I wish for adult diapers. You know the type: big wrap-around-your-butt ones that the old dears wear in Nursing Homes. The ones your mum would hurry you past in the supermarket aisle before you started laughing. But what did I expect my piss to look like? I’m no piss connoisseur, mind. But to hazard a guess: no food, water you wouldn’t let your dog drink, damp and cold all must have played their parts. A group mugging between circumstance and situation. The bastards. I’ve done well to get this far - better than most. So what if I pass blood. It’s nothing a course of antibiotics wouldn’t put right. Must stop at the next Pharmacy and stock up on supplies. The Pharmacy here closed forever a few weeks back when the ceiling took a tumble and the shop above it, hardware and supplies, moved in instead. Managed to scavenge a few aspirin since and a half-torn packet of lactulose, but nothing more inspiring. But you never know what tomorrow may bring.
The room sways and the ground turns unsteady beneath my feet. “Falling apart. If I don’t eat, might not see tomorrow. Certainly won’t manage the night.”
Sal continues to float, her skin the colour of lard.
“Don’t worry, I’ll save you some. You’re not a big eater; I can see that.” I pinch Everett’s arm. “Hardly a scrap on you, but Sal could keep us full for days.”
He doesn’t answer. I can’t blame him. It’s a difficult decision to make, and he hasn’t been outside since coming to the department store.
The others – when there were others – all died in the open. They were fellow refugees finding shelter from the chaos the world had become: shop workers still in uniform, commuters, a couple of gangly teenagers. When the food ran low they left and promised they’d return. None ever did.
And Aunt Sal comes each lunchtime without fail. Everett looks up to her. God knows he needs a mother in his life. I can’t be expected to do all the work. But without food . . .
I rest my head against the wall and close my eyes. Jason waits within the woods, between ancient trees, underneath a curious orange sun. He waves me on.
Everett will have to understand. I’ll make him understand.
And making another torch helps. I lash together sheets and curtain poles. There’s enough gas left within my Harley’s tank for the task, but afterwards it’s empty. My bike’s gone anyway. Pointless to try and fix it: two flat tires, engine ruined. I’m no mechanic, and even if I were, without spare parts there’s nothing to be done. I give Everett a hug, turn him towards the window, and without giving myself time to think, step outside.
The coldness of the air catches my breath, and I’m aware of every sound I make, like the world is watching. It’s impossible to be quiet: each footfall echoes within the stillness of the late afternoon. Sheila sleeps during the day – or at least is inactive when the sun is highest. She will come if I make too much noise.
I think of Jason. It will be his fifth birthday soon. I’ll buy him a bike when I get into Bristol. Hell, I’ll buy him one for each day of the week. It’s been two months since I’ve last seen my kid. Luke made sure of that.
“You’re a dreamer, Paige. You’ve got no money and no brains,” Luke had said. A semblance of a smile curled his lips as he spoke. “Your head is so far in the clouds you can’t see the world around you. Why would I want my son to be raised by a woman like you?”
“But I love you. I love him.”
“It isn’t enough.”
Sal rolls within the water, her eyes fixed across the marshes. Despite myself, I glance in that direction. A white object gleams in the ice and winks between the trees.
“What is it, Sal?”
Sal isn’t speaking. I don’t know what I’ve done to upset her. I’m sure she’ll tell me in her own time.
Inching forward, I push aside the dead branches to get a better view. I’ve not been out this far before. The cold needles my skin. It hurts to breath, like I’ve swallowed glass. I could die out here, and who would know? Everett’s still there in the store, watching. I could make it back. There’s time.
The white shape floats upon a frozen river: small, round and unobtrusive. I crouch down, rest my torch across my knees, and pull out a human skull joined by ribs, spine, and a rusted pocket watch that slips free from the bone and slides out across the ice. Despite the odds, it produces a faint ticking sound.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a pocket watch, and I cross onto the ice, my intention to pick it up. The watch is a memory, one I can touch, hold, fee--
With a powerful crack, the ice breaks beneath my feet. Stupidly, I tense like an animal sensing danger, thinking that if I don’t move it’ll somehow settle. But fate has other plans and I watch thick lines sneak past my feet and the ice snaps into smaller sheets. There’s time to lunge towards the nearest tree, but I’m not Wonderwoman, never really bothered with the gym and I get nowhere close. On the way down, my head strikes a protruding branch in mockery of my failed lunge. I open my mouth to scream and get two lungs’ full of water for my trouble. The cold rips my spluttering breath away and makes my limbs feel like lead. An iron clamp tightens across my chest, and I clutch at roots and broken branches. Anything will do. Spots of garish red explode before my eyes like a private firework show, and I sink beneath the surface.
The world dims, as if the light has been funnelled out, it’s not an unpleasant sensation – like coming home. I wonder how Everett will fare without me. He wouldn’t survive a day. He’ll die. Then I think of Jason. I want to hold him and say: “I’ll never let you go again. Never let you out of my sight.” His hair smells clean, freshly washed. His jumper is made from wool, rough against my fingers. He still wears those stupid over-sized Wellington boots. If I could only catch my breath. It’s difficult. I want to. Can’t seem . . .
My feet hit something solid. I want to live - oh, how I want to live - and kick out. The barrier breaks, and water explodes amongst the trees.
Near frozen, I’m deposited on the banks. Can barely move my fingers – like five brittle branches, easy to snap. Tongue feels odd: bloated and big. I can’t feel my legs. Should cut them off and eat them. Always recycle, why stop now, just because the world has come to an end doesn’t mean I should stop doing my part. My laugh sounds like the sudden cawing of a crow, takes a while to recognize the sound for what it is.
Won’t cut my legs off. Stupid. I slide onto my stomach. The ground is odd, hard and white. There’s a stench in the air, the charnel smell of meat, the sharp tang of blood. The ground gleams ivory in the half-light.
I’m lying on the dead: hundreds of leering skulls, broken bones and shattered lives stretching into the depths of the earth.
Into the pit.
A sound like paper being shredded breaks the silence. A faint grunt of satisfaction – of a job well done - and a hand appears from the gloom.
The flesh is yanked away like a magician’s new trick. The rigid muscle, congealed blood, and shrunken veins exposed for an instant, then they too are gone, suckled into the dark. What’s left is discarded like a child’s broken toy.
Sheila watches from the shadows. She is the shadows.
I want to run, but my legs won’t work. Fear swells inside me like a monstrous growth, and I’m rooted to the spot.
“Don’t,” I manage to say. “I’m not ready. I’m your friend.” The words just come out. I’d say anything to stay alive.
Sheila ripples as if in the grip of an alien tide. If she wanted, she could kill me in a thousand different ways. But she doesn’t. She hesitates, unsure of herself, and a crazy thought occurs - an impossible thought.
She’s afraid of me.
Faces emerge across her surface. Hundreds at first; each jostle for space until it becomes difficult to distinguish them apart, and they burst like pustules from a necrotic wound. Two faces remain, larger than the rest and both recognizable: Mum and Dad, their expressions a mix of sympathy and pain.
“No more ripples in the pond,” I say, remembering the dead from my dream. “It’ll be night soon. Wait until then. No more fires. I promise.”
Sheila clucks, and my parents move in and out of focus. They seem swollen, gorged, and flushed crimson. A reddish stain swirls through the darkness like strawberry sauce stirred into chocolate.
“Save me for later,” I say, “when you’re hungry. I’m worth the wait.”
Sheila reaches out a tendril of black tar and caresses my cheek; her touch is cold like the space between stars. Yet my cheek smoulders then burns. The pain doesn’t seem real. Like it’s happening to somebody else.
“No!” It comes out in a hot rush of air, more force than noise. I grasp the first thing that comes to hand – a skull – and send it spinning towards Sheila. It passes straight through as if she were no more real than a ghost.
Then it’s Sheila’s turn. She lashes out, strikes across my chest in a fluid blur, and I tumble into rocks. Something gives in my side: the wet snap of a rib.
I grab the walls and try to stand. A black tentacle whips out and sears flesh from my shoulder, passing through cloth, sinew and muscle. My screams turn high-pitched before the pain leaves me breathless. Half my shoulder is missing, sliced free as if under a surgeon’s knife.
Sheila lunges forward, and the blow takes my feet away. I experience a sensation akin to flying before crashing back to earth with enough force to make the world shift out of focus.
Blood, hot and sticky, runs down my face. Two of my teeth have been knocked out, and I spit them onto bone like twin red dice. They bounce across the dead to stop against my torch.
My torch! How could I forget my torch? My hands are heavy and unresponsive. I need my lighter, but groping inside my pocket is near impossible. Sheila slides towards me, enjoying the moment, playing with her food. The lighter’s cold edge brushes against my fumbling fingers and I pull it free. It’s wet, soaked from my time in the marsh. Please, God, let it work.
A strike against my knee: nothing. Sheila rears back, she blocks out the day, small bulges like writhing teeth squirm inside her. Mum and Dad watch, their expressions one of rapt attention.
The lighter strikes, it flares and the flame springs into life. I throw it onto the torch and – whoosh – a beautiful orange nimbus. The sizzle of soaked curtains - has there ever been anything more beautiful?
I launch the torch like a javelin. My strength has faded, and the torch carries a few yards at most. Sheila tries to pull away, but the torch drops into her dark folds. Mum and Dad’s face explode into flame, and a rolling wave of blue fire shoots across her body. She gives a high shriek and writhes on the ground, black tentacles flailing.
“Burn,” I whisper. “Just fucking burn.”
Sheila drags herself back into the pit, whimpering and grunting as she goes. The top layer of her skin has gone. Thick smoke curls above the pit. The smell of oil and charred meat hangs heavy in the air. Still the flames dance, melting away her innards. Slops of burning liquid are deposited in her wake. She gives one last mournful cry and slithers into the dark. The light in the pit flickers for a moment before going out.
In the silence that follows, I’m reminded of my pain. My legs don’t want to work. They tremble and spasm. The skulls now regard me coolly, as if uncertain of what I shall do next.
“Me too,” I say. The skulls shift, blend into each other, becoming an indistinct blur. My shoulder feels cold and itches like crazy. I want to scratch it, reach into the ragged flesh and get my fingernails into the spoiled muscle, but one sight of the torn shirt stained crimson is enough for my stomach to buck.
The sun has almost set: a sliver of light amongst the half-drowned trees. It’s dangerous to be out in the dark.
Far away there is a soft murmur, like a stirring of leaves. A babble of voices follow, a gibbous mishmash of sound, part human, part animal, part something else. Nothing human could make that noise, but it doesn’t come from Sheila, or the pit, but rather out there . . . in the marsh.
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