Keep it pacey, get to the good stuff. Don’t fret - I’ve no intention of boring you with a detailed account of my drive around Shackleton Close and co that mental morning. Let’s just say it was a Godawful, life-sapping experience and probably even would have been even if everyone in the world didn’t seem to have disappeared in a puff of stuff. I appreciated for the first time how depressingly identikit those red-brick modern estates were, Shackleton Close photocopied over and over again with near-identical people living near-identical lives behind near-identical closed doors. Deserted and desolate they looked even worse, these cheerless charmless mausoleums. All I took from the drive was the realisation that whatever bizarre catastrophe had overwhelmed my safe little homestead had obviously done for the whole area too.
So I set off for the city. I threaded my way out of the estate and into one of the more picturesque parts of the outskirts; huge Victorian hotels rubbing shoulders with incongruous glass-fronted out-of-town office blocks and anonymous official-looking buildings which didn’t seem to see the urgency in advertising their purpose to passers-by. I was driving down St Willows Road where most of these uneasy architectural bedfellows jostled for attention. Despite the fresh-faced new boys on the block, there was a timelessness about most of the old buildings lining St Willows. Some of the hotels had been there for a hundred years or more, many of the occupants probably half as long again. Even though, as I drove past the Bernice Hotel with its narrow gravel drive and ornately-colonnaded entrance I could see no sign of animal, vegetable or mineral life, I felt my spirits lift. It was as if the faceless new estates deserved to have some strange disaster visited upon them; it seemed almost inevitable, in fact. But St Willows Road seemed to be indestructible; it was the gateway to the city itself – another great urban sprawl of aesthetically-confused new developments flung together in the names of commerce and progress – and it seemed to lay down some unacknowledged barrier between the real world and the plastic, apparently-temporary world I’d become used to living in without even realising it.
For some inexplicable reason I found myself in somewhat cheerier spirits as I turned off St Willows Road and onto the road bridge which arched over the muddy waters of the river which sliced through the city. I could already see the grey towers of the so-called commercial quarter of the city itself – in reality an angry square of rather characterless tower blocks with identical frontages. Just beyond, for it wasn’t a big city by early twenty-first century standards despite its affectations, were the fussy shopping precincts, a few open streets through which traffic usually sluggishly trundled, the inevitable covered malls, a handful of gruesome multi-storey car parks crow-barred in here and there for good measure. It was hard to ignore the fact that, although there were some cars and vans at the kerbs, I was alone on the road and nothing else was moving. Furthermore, there were no pedestrians on the streets; not a soul in sight.
A few minutes later I was pulling up alongside a long line of bus stops outside a row of granite-brick department stores. It was starting to rain, a fine drizzle, and I turned on the windscreen wipers and watched as the water smeared across the glass. I waited for a moment or two, listening to the purr of the engine, reluctant to turn off the ignition for fear of being swallowed up by that bloody silence again.
I felt a familiar shivery trepidation as I sat alone in the car, surrounded on all sides by tall and forbidding buildings. They were mostly three or four storey affairs, probably dating back to the early 1900s although I’m hardly an expert in these things. You may have been to one of the cities and you may have seen the sort of place; gawping display windows and fussy, angular nooks and crannies. Nowadays, of course, the buildings are starting to crumble and they’re covered with a film of moss and lichen so the grand effect isn’t what it was. Even then, thinking back, buildings like these were coated with filth and grime, our gift to them for surviving into the machine age.
Big, wide display windows were festooned with garish coloured banners advertising sales bargains and price-slashing extravaganzas; in one or two of the larger windows mannequins togged up in the latest unlikely fashion accessories had been contorted into awkward and self-conscious poses as their sightless eyes looked out onto streets as lifeless as they were themselves.
It’s hard to explain the novelty of seeing a normally-bustling city centre totally deserted. Early-morning street cleaners and crack-of-dawn commuters might have found little out of the ordinary; but to me, the cold empty streets looked alien and uncomfortable. There really was no sign of life; not a car, not a bus, not even a damned skateboard.
In time – and time was already beginning to lose its meaning for me – I turned off the engine and decided that squatting in the car feeling apprehensive wasn’t doing my spirits any good and certainly wasn’t getting me close to any answers. Trembling, afraid of the silence which seemed to have rushed at me like a well-built rugby player, I opened the car door and stepped out onto the street. Sheer force of habit caused me to turn and lock the door with my automatic key fob.
The ‘beep’ of the fob and the sharp ‘clack’ of the doors locking reverberated together around the barren streets, bouncing off the high walls and ricocheting back at me. Then there was just silence again and I stood for a while gazing along the main street.
I really wish I could remember exactly how I felt at the time; I mean, exactly what was racing through my mind, what I was thinking as I stood there alone, my jacket pulled up against the breeze, staring up and down the road like a man who’s just missed the last bus in the world. But I just can’t remember and truth is that there are plenty of occasions over the last few years where, whilst I can recall the mechanics of what I was doing and how and why I had come to do it, I just cannot recall the emotion of it. Others I’ve spoken to have said much the same; it’s as if those of us who lived through the shudder unconsciously taught ourselves how to set aside our own feelings and just got on with the business of moving on. I think we probably became so inured to the horror of it all that we couldn’t really stop to think about what we’d had and what we’d lost. I believe that if we did, if we sat and remembered and allowed ourselves to grieve for the world, we’d probably all go barking mad.
Sorry. Bit of a digression there – but I happen to think it was a worthwhile one. If this chronicle of mine is going to be of any worth to what’s left of Mankind I really think it’s got to be a bit emotive, don’t you agree? You need to get to know the real me, otherwise you might just as well read some fanciful work of fiction and what would be the point of that?
So there I was, standing at the side of the car wondering just what to do next. As it happened, the decision was largely taken for me by a sudden sound from somewhere not too far away. It wasn’t a very encouraging sound, in all honesty, but at the time it was music to my ears. I could have jumped for joy and I can’t say for certain that I didn’t.
Well, it was more a series of sounds. From about a quarter of a mile away, somewhere in the city centre I estimated, came the throaty roar of a motor bike engine. This was suddenly cut off, replaced by a loud crash and then, a split second later, by the unmistakable cacophony of a lot of shattering glass.
Then the bloody silence was back and I think it was even louder this time. I’d had enough of it by now so I gathered up my courage (after I’d managed to locate it hiding in the vicinity of my bladder) and set off at a brisk, cautious trot along the high street, trying to ignore the gaudy shop fronts with their reminders of the day before. It was only when I turned a gentle curve in the road that I saw what I later realised was my very first wraith, or at least the remains of one.
I stopped in my tracks. It was more a sensation that something was there, loitering at the edge of the kerb, rather than an actual sighting of something substantial. You see, it wasn’t a body or a shape or even an essence; it was a sort of hazy, indistinct fog, a gauzey haze hanging in the air and for just a moment or two when I saw it it looked as if it was vaguely man-shaped. Then it seemed to dissipate and disperse like a wilful unwanted cloud on a bright and sunny day. I suppose it was gone before I’d even really registered it as anything particularly out of the ordinary.
I just stood and gazed at this peculiar apparition – this shifting, shimmering, nebulous thing – until my attention was caught by a groaning sound from somewhere very nearby. I saw for the first time that the huge display window of the adjacent electrical retailers store had been totally demolished. There were jagged splinters of glass all over the pavement and the window displays themselves – laptop computers, mobile phones, DVD players – had been thrown everywhichway by the big motorbike which was laying just inside the window, steam hissing from its fractured radiator. There came another groan. I crept closer and could just make out a figure, clad in leather (but wearing no helmet, I noticed) pinned underneath the buckled chrome of the bike.
‘Shit,’ I muttered. I looked back towards the strange white fog and could see that it had almost completely faded away, just a few wisps of vapour dancing on a breeze. More pained groans drifted out of the shop. Looking up at the ugly shards of glass protruding from the window frame, I began to clamber over the debris. I circled the bike, stood on a fractured display of mobile phones, and made my way around to the biker’s head.
I didn’t know what the Hell to do. He was still groaning and moaning and I didn’t know if he even realised I was there. I couldn’t see any blood but of course that didn’t mean a thing. He could have been hemorrhaging to death for all I knew. God knows what bones may have been broken. I crouched down, reached out and touched his shoulder. He groaned again but at least he managed to turn his head towards me. He stared blankly at me for a moment. He was a whiskerless ruddy-faced lad of about twenty-three (although he looked about eight) with a mop of messy ginger hair and a bloody nose. His eyes looked cloudy and he squinted up at me as if he was trying to focus. Then a look of terror swept across his face and he tried to move, wriggling away from me but barely moving due to the weight of the bike spread-eagled across him. He winced in pain from the effort. I put a hand to his shoulder.
‘Take it easy,’ I said. ‘You’re making it worse for yourself.’ The sound of my own voice startled me for a second. I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone for hours. ‘Let’s get this thing off you.’
‘You…’ he said, his voice dry and agonised. ‘You’re…okay?’
I ignored the question, concentrating instead on maneuvering around the bike, trying to find the best place to get a decent grip on it. It was a big, extravagant-looking thing with a bright red frame decorated with flame decals and heavy-metal motifs. The handlebars, impact-buckled, were huge rubber affairs, jutting at awkward angles from the body of the bike. The windscreen was missing and it was apparent from the plastic shrapnel all over the boy’s body that he’d been thrown off the saddle and had fallen in front of the bike which had, in turn, smashed them both into the window display and then toppled over onto him. I straddled the bike and gripped the handlebars, trying to twist them back into place. Grunting like a weightlifter, I heaved and huffed but the bike barely shifted. I moved slightly to take up a better position and tried again. Something juddered under the bike and the machine slid back a few inches but the effort left me gasping for breath, my hands on my knees.
Meanwhile the boy had managed to twist onto his side, looking up at me with disbelief. He pushed his gloved hands onto the glass-littered floor and, biting his lip, tried to wrench himself out from under the bike. His right leg came free but the other was still trapped under the metal.
‘Are you all right?’ I said. It was an inane question and I realised it straight away. He’d just smashed through a glass window and had a couple of tons of motorbike fall on top of him. I suppose he’d had better days.
‘Fucking hurts, man,’ he groaned. ‘My bloody leg’s killing me. My guts are aching too. Christ, I feel so hot.’ I didn’t like the sound of any of this one little bit. The kid needed medical help as soon as possible and in the absence of screaming ambulance sirens or pushy paramedics it was left to me to save the day and maybe even the life. Great.
I redoubled my efforts, struggling to lift the bike enough for him to ease out his other leg. ‘We’ll soon get you sorted,’ I gasped between ragged breaths. I felt every muscle in my arms and upper chest (both of ‘em… who said I can’t do self-deprecating?) bulging with the effort of shifting the bike until suddenly, with a terrific wrenching of metal, the machine moved freely and I staggered back, colliding into a tottering display and sending myself and a couple of oversized flat-screen TVs and Blu-Ray players crashing out onto the street.
I quickly regained my footing and climbed back into the shop where, in the gloom, I could see that the boy was already hefting himself unsteadily to his feet, balancing himself against some nearby crooked shelving units. He was still wincing with pain and his left leg looked ominously limp. I could see a collection of scratches and gashes on his face and his leathers were torn in several places, exposing bleeding skin. I went over to him and put an arm about his shoulder to steady him. ‘We need to get you outside,’ I said. The biker was listing drunkenly and progress was difficult because he was clearly having trouble with that damaged leg.
‘I think my leg’s buggered,’ he said.
‘Looks like it,’ I had to agree. ‘I need to get you to a hospital or something. My car’s just up the road.’
The boy looked sharply at me. ‘Your car? Then let’s get the Hell out of here before we run into more…’ We’d reached the window frame and the boy became noticeably more agitated, glancing anxiously up and down the length of the street.
‘What’s wrong?’ I asked.
The boy shrugged. ‘That bloody thing,’ he said, practically spitting the word. ‘It just sprang out in the road in front of me. I’ve seen a few of them. Fuck knows what they are.’
‘What thing?’ I asked as we stumbled out onto the street. I kicked a few splinters of glass out of the window frame and sat him on the ledge so we could both get our breath back.
‘Haven’t you seen them? They’re all over the bloody place. They just…appear. From nowhere.’ The boy shook his head. I could smell alcohol on his breath. I had no idea what he was talking about and could only conclude that he was off his face and delusional. Just the sort of person I didn’t really need to spending too much time with in the circumstances I seemed to have found myself in.
‘Look, have you got any idea what’s going on? What’s your name anyway?’ I said.
‘Dave. Dave Dutton,’ he said. He was rubbing his dead leg with one hand. ‘I’d shake your hand but…well, you know… I’m as in the dark as you are. Got wasted last night at my mate’s place. Woke up this morning, they’ve all gone and there’s just me left. I got on the bike and went cruising… All I’ve seen are some dogs and all these floaty things floating around.’
‘Look, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about,’ I said testily. I made a quick decision. Suddenly I didn’t feel at all safe out on the street. ‘I’m going to get my car and get us out of here. I don’t know if there’s anyone around who can help you but I think we ought to get off the streets for now.’
‘Damn right,’ said the boy. He tried to get up but the effort was too much and he sank back again. ‘But you can’t leave me here.’
I put my hand to his shoulder. ‘You’ll be all right. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.’
‘Just stay there,’ I said, rather pointlessly as his injuries had left him with little choice. I started to walk back down the road in the direction of the car. It’s odd, now, as I look back. He was clearly in distress, he was obviously in extreme pain. But I walked away and I didn’t look back, give him a reassuring wave or even a high-five. I just called out over my shoulder, a rather callous-sounding ‘Sit tight, I’ll be back in less than five.’
But I didn’t wait. I just carried right on. Of course I suppose I was glad I’d met him really – if the circumstances of our coming together could be described as a meeting. He was human, he could speak the same language as me, he was company; these were the upsides. The downsides were just as self-evident. He was a bit knocked about and clearly confused and he was going to need the kind of medical help I was suspecting wasn’t going to be immediately available.
I was back at the car in about three minutes. I stopped as I opened the door and looked up the street again, up towards the bridge I’d driven over thirty or so minutes earlier. The city was as cold and silent as before, frozen like some tableau in a museum of paralysed cities. I slid into the driver’s seat, crashed into first gear and moved off down the main street at a leisurely pace, my earlier fears replaced by a morbid curiosity as I looked at the shops and buildings surrounding me.
Then I heard the screams.
At first I don’t think I registered them. I could barely hear them above the throaty throb of the car engine. Then they became louder and more desperate. As the car turned the curve in the main street I could quite clearly hear blood-curdling screams of terror.
It was Dave. Dave was screaming.
I put my foot down hard on the accelerator. The car shot forward and took the corner at a bit of an angle and with an impressive screech of tyres.
OK. I’ve seen some sights since all this madness started; sights that human eyes really shouldn’t witness, sights I’d never have imagined in even my darkest nightmares, sights I’d never seen in even the stupidest of fantasy films. Some of those sights have faded because others which came afterwards were far, far worse; some have disappeared because there were just so many others. But that one, as the car hurtled back towards the electrical store, was one I’ll remember until I die and maybe even longer - if that makes any sense and I’m entirely aware it probably doesn’t.
Dave was where I’d left him. But he wasn’t sitting patiently waiting for me at the remains of the window. He was on his knees on the pavement, but he wasn’t alone now. He was surrounded by four figures, tall, man-like ethereal figures, their features indistinct and shimmering like polished silver. It was as if they were there and I could see them and yet they really weren’t there at all. They looked like ghosts – there, I’ve said it. Tall, formless, human-like things which seemed to be moving without walking. These were my first impressions of my first proper wraiths and if the description is a bit inadequate then I can only apologise because I’m trying to tell it like it was and frankly I’d never seen anything like them in my life and my vocabulary was and still is singularly under-equipped to explain what I was looking at. Whatever they were, they had gathered around Dave, crowding over him. They seemed to be trying to swarm onto him and he was thrashing about with his arms, trying to cover his face whilst brushing them away. They fell back for a moment and then moved closer again, surrounding him and overwhelming him.
I mouthed the ‘f’ word. Sorry, kids. My hands came off the steering wheel, a shocked reflex. The wheel spun out of my control and the car swerved away, taking the sight of Dave and his attackers out of my line of vision. The car jerked forward and I saw a line of weather-beaten benches clustered around a group of half-neglected tubs of flowers and plants at the edge of the far kerb, just a moment before the car smashed into them. The radiator crumpled and the car ground to a halt. Something thrown up by the impact had turned the windscreen into a jigsaw.
I was winded for a moment or two. I pushed open the door and fell onto my knees.
‘No, no, stop… Christ alive, please, no… help me, somebody… someone!’ Dave’s screams had become long and anguished, filled with a terrible hopelessness. Still shaken, I clambered to my feet. I moved to rush to Dave’s aid but my legs were like jelly. My eyes began to focus and what I saw was something so incredible, so extraordinary, that I’m sure my mind really couldn’t take it in just then.
Dave was sprawled on the ground, on his back by now, his hands covering his eyes. The four wraiths had closed in around him completely…and then they seemed to overwhelm him, to roll over him and swamp him and… God, this is tough. They seemed to become one with him, as if they were occupying his space, his body. I could seem him hidden in a strange white haze, a confusion of the four bodies which had themselves melted into his. Dave himself was writhing in a suddenly-silent agony. His face was contorted in pain as the four entities invaded his tormented body.
Then it was over. Dave gave a long, blood-curdling scream, there was a blinding white flash, lightning without thunder, and the wraiths were gone. Dave was lying there, twitching, his eyes rolling in their sockets.
He was still alive. I ran over to him, crouched alongside him. I lifted his head. He lolled towards me and his eyes opened. I almost dropped him. His eyes were white, his retinas had disappeared. His body started shivering.
‘Dave! Dave, can you hear me? Dave, are you all right?’
Dave’s mouth opened, slowly. He seemed to be trying to form words and I remembered my own predicament, drunk and alone, a few hours ago back home. He suddenly swung his arm across his body and gripped my own forearm in a surprisingly tight grip.
‘I‘m… broken,’ gasped Dave in a voice which sounded strangely unlike his own. ‘Useless. I’m useless.’
I tried to pull free from his grip and was alarmed to discover that Dave seemed to have developed superhuman strength and his fingers were digging deep into my soft flesh. ‘Look, Dave, you’re not well. Let go and I’ll try and find some help…’ It sounded lame and I knew it. Dave tightened his grip. He had no intention of letting go.
‘Get the fuck out of there!’
This was a new voice and I had no idea where it was coming from. Dave looked away from me and he drew back his lips, baring blood-red gums, hissing and growling like a trapped animal. His body began to glow gently with a white iridescence which was becoming all-too familiar. Dave began to convulse, foam bubbled at his bloodless lips.
‘GET THE FUCK AWAY!’
Dave’s grip began to weaken as his body shivered and shook. I pulled free and fell back onto my haunches. I looked around to try and find the source of the new voice.
‘Move, you stupid fucker, unless you want to end up like your mate!’
Shuffling away from Dave’s glowing, shivering body, I looked quickly up the road in what I had established to be the direction of the voice which wasn’t mine. I don’t know what I expected to see but I certainly didn’t expect to see Rambo standing in the middle of the road a couple of hundred yards away, a vicious-looking automatic rifle cradled at his shoulder, swaying gently as the bullet-headed man holding it took careful aim through the telescopic sight.
Rambo? Oh, never mind. Some of our old pop culture icons are best forgotten. Suffice to say that I caught a quick, confused glimpse of a well-muscled young man with heavily-tattooed forearms and wearing army-fatigues. He turned aside from the rifle sight and glared at me, his stubbled face red with fury. ‘Get your head down or lose it!’
I managed to roll along the kerb until I found myself near the benches on the other side of my car. I sprang to my feet and dived for cover. I turned just in time to see what appeared to be the four wraiths literally flowing from Dave’s body and reconstituting themselves slowly nearby. Dave’s body was still, his head turned to my side, his cold eyes staring and yet sightless. He was clearly dead. I only became aware seconds later that the four wraiths were drifting - and that’s what it was, drifting, as they didn’t seem to walk although they had what looked like legs – in my general direction. Understandably, this perturbed me.
Then a couple of things happened in very rapid succession. I saw Rambo quickly drop to one knee and bring the rifle up to his shoulder. He took aim and let off three fast bursts of automatic fire. The sound was deafening. I saw the bullets slam into the wraiths. It didn’t make any sense but the bullets seemed to rip through them and their bodies seemed to disperse like clouds, puffs of smoke rising up where they’d been hit before their bodies came together again, like a piece of film shown in reverse. Rambo fired again and again. The street reverberated with the sound and echoes of gunfire and I put my hands over my ears. The wraiths were taking a pounding but still they seemed intent on moving towards me.
‘Run for it, you clown!’ came the cry from Rambo. He was taking a fresh magazine from his chunky belt and replacing the spent one clipped into the rifle. Then he pulled what looked like a dull grey pineapple from a rucksack slung over his shoulders.
I looked away from him and back towards the wraiths. They were alarmingly close now, just a few paces away. I could see them far more clearly and I was terrified to see that, despite the amorphous nature of their rudimentarily-human bodies, they seemed to have faces – faces with recognisably human features. They couldn’t really be defined as either men or women, they were too vague and ethereal for such specific distinctions. But I remember their features and the fact that they looked afraid, as if they were genuinely terrified of what they were. Mouths were twisted into ugly contortions, their black, sunken eyes looked like deep wells of sorrow and despair. But their arms were outstretched, reaching out to me.
I ran. I was on my feet and haring away from the wraiths, zig-zagging across the street with my hands over my head not daring to look either behind me or in front of me.
I stumbled over my own feet and fell to my knees, cursing my ungainliness. But I realised that Rambo was just a few feet away from me, drawing his right arm back behind his head. I saw the green pineapple flying through the air and then Rambo rushed towards me, hauled me to my feet and threw me behind a line of concrete bins. He dropped down beside me. ‘Cover your ears,’ he said gruffly.
I covered my ears just as the sky lit up and an explosion caused the ground to vibrate beneath my feet. I heard the clatter and crash of debris raining down perilously close to us and I flinched as fine sand and gravel cascaded over us. The roar of the explosion bounced around the street and seemed to take forever to fade. By the time I was ready to open my eyes Rambo was already on his feet, rifle in his hands, surveying the devastation. I stood up next to him. A thick fug of smoke was rolling along the high street and as it started to clear I could see that the hand-grenade Rambo had thrown had blown out the front windows of a nearby department store and effectively buried Dave and the creatures which seemed to have violated his body under a tangle of twisted, smoking debris.
Rambo gave a nod of satisfaction. ‘I don’t know if that’s going to have done for them but it should give us a bit of time. This location isn’t safe, friend. Time to move out. You’re lucky I heard the commotion. Not so lucky for your pal.’
Guilt and shame rushed me and I couldn’t sidestep them. I’d only known Dave for a handful of minutes and yet I’d let him down. If I hadn’t left him there alone maybe those things wouldn’t have been able to do whatever the Hell it was they’d done to him. Maybe. But then if I’d stayed what could I have done? How could I have defended either of us? He wasn’t the first to die and God knows he wasn’t the last. I tried to convince myself I really wasn’t a heartless bastard as I tried to put Dave out of my mind, as I tried to tell myself I’d done The Right Thing. I’ve never really believed it.
‘There was nothing I could do for him,’ I said, aware of my own inadequacies even as I spoke.
Rambo shrugged. ‘Whatever,’ he said. ‘My vehicle’s about 200 metres back. Let’s ship out of here.’
He turned away. I turned to join him. We both stopped dead in our tracks. I heard Rambo swear quite creatively. I nearly wet myself.
In the road behind us, moving forward like spectres, were eight or nine wraiths, almost identical to the quartet I certainly hoped Rambo had managed to bury. They started to fan out across the road, blocking our path to Rambo’s vehicle, whatever and wherever it may have been.
Rambo gripped his rifle tightly. ‘Bollocks,’ he said.
Do you ever get days when you really wish you’d stayed in bed?
THE SHUDDER continues in the next issue of Starburst Magazine.