Bright sunlight. Cheery/cheesy birdsong (delete as applicable). The unmistakable aromas of freshly-brewed coffee and lightly-toasted bread; maybe even a bagel or two. Hmmm – this is Heaven. Who could ask for anything more?
I opened my eyes slowly, reluctantly. Daylight was streaming in through the window as Lis, facing away from me, pulled open the floral curtains, whistling so tunelessly that it was hard to tell if she was making it up as she went along or if there was a real song in there somewhere. Perched on the edge of the bed was the breakfast tray; a bowl of my favourite snapping and crackling breakfast cereal, a rack of hot brown toast, a plate of scrambled eggs, a mug of steaming coffee.
I heaved myself into a sitting position, yawned and stretched and scratched my belly. I squinted at Lis, fussing at the curtains. ‘What’s the occasion?’ I said woozily.
Lis just shrugged. ‘Saturday morning,’ she said without turning to face me. ‘I thought you deserved a treat.'
‘Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining,’ I said, reaching carefully for the precariously-balanced breakfast tray, conscious that I was starting to salivate. ‘It’s just that a man could get used to being treated like a king.’
‘Make the most of it,’ said Lis. ‘It’s back to serfdom for you when you’re done.’
I grinned and was about to tuck into the scrambled eggs when there was a knock at the bedroom door. I heard the sound but it didn’t really register. A knock at the bedroom door?
‘Oh yes,’ said Lis brightly. She was still busy at the window, still turned away from me. ‘You’ve got a visitor.’
‘A visitor?’ I protested, struggling to put the tray onto the bedside table with one hand while pulling the bedcovers protectively up over my chest with the other. ‘I’m naked here! What are you doing, Lis, we don’t have visitors in the bedroom? No-one has visitors in their bedroom!’
The bedroom door swung open. Oh God. Oh dear God…
It was Dave. Dave Dutton was standing in the doorway – and he was bleeding. He was bleeding from his mouth and he was bleeding from his nose. He was limping as he shuffled across the threshold and he held his lacerated arms out imploringly towards me. ‘You left me,’ he groaned. ‘Why’d you leave me? I never had a chance…’
Puzzled, frightened, I looked across towards Lis. She turned slowly towards me but, in turning, she seemed to fade away before I could even make out her features…and in her place stood a tall, vaguely-defined figure in white, a shimmering hazy translucent shape of fog and mist. It was a wraith and somewhere in its faceless face I could see cold, scared eyes staring unblinkingly out at me…Lis’s eyes…
‘Lis!’ I cried out. ‘Lis, I don’t understand! What’s happening?’ The creature – the wraith – drifted towards me, moving across the room like a cloud. Dave was coming closer too, dripping fresh blood onto the carpet.
‘You shouldn’t have done it, darling.’ It was Lis’s voice but it was coming from nowhere and yet it was everywhere in the room. ‘You shouldn’t have left him. You shouldn’t have left me. I was so frightened, darling, really I was. And you weren’t there. I thought you were going to protect me? I thought you said you’d never leave me? But you left me, Paul, you left me all alone. I knew you would in the end. I knew you’d just think about yourself. I never really mattered to you, did I? Not really. If I mattered to you, you wouldn’t have left me, all alone in the dark and so scared…’
I was cowering in bed now, the sheets pulled right up around my throat. I was staring at the wraith and then back across to Dave, reaching out pitifully towards me. ‘But Dave’s here, too,’ the everywhere-voice of Lis went on. ‘So it wasn’t just me you let down. You let everyone down, don’t you, darling? Even the people you say you care about get left behind. Even the people you love…’
The wraith was suddenly right at my bedside. I stared aghast at it and watched appalled as the featureless face seemed to resolve itself out of the mist…and became the face of my wife, the face of Lis. She looked down at me and the look of contempt was enough to turn my blood to ice. Then her face became a grimace of agony and then her mouth fell open. Blood started to flow from her mouth as she started to scream…
‘Lis! Lis, no….No!!!’
I sat bolt upright. It was dark and I was cold. My scream had disappeared but the dream was still there. For one awful moment my mind was a clean slate; I had no idea who I was or where I was and then it came back in a giddy rush. All of it. Lis, home, the day before, the wraiths, poor Dave and his bike, crazy Rambo… I felt physically sick.
It was some time well after dark. I’d fallen asleep at the table in the pub and, in the gloom, I could see that the seat across the table from me – where I’d seen Blake drift into a fitful sleep before dozing off myself – was empty. Beer bottles lay all over the table and the floor and the remains of our impromptu savoury picnic were on the table as well as still on my tongue. Seeing that Blake was gone threw me into a flat panic. I sprang to my feet, felt a bit woozy, made my way unsteadily around the table to the bar. My eyes were slowly adjusting to the dark – and boy, was it dark.
‘Blake?’ I hissed. ‘Blake, where are you, you bastard?’
The only reply was the gentle sigh of a breeze outside on the street. I could just about see that the door to the pub was closed. An awful thought came to me. Blake had woken up, seen me sleeping, decided he wasn’t particularly bothered about me and what might happen to me and, not to put too fine a point on it, buggered off and left me. Jesus…was I alone again?
Before I could even begin to think about what I was going to do next I saw a shadow pass by outside through the opaque glass of the pub’s long window. Then the door handle began to rattle. I had two choices; I could either lose control of my bladder and/or my bowels (and there was a distinct chance that this was an option over which I had no control) or I could take up arms and defend myself. Well, I was no Rambo, bristling with grenades and flares and pistols and rifles and other things which went ‘bang’. I grabbed the nearest empty beer bottle and prepared to brandish it at whoever – or whatever – was about to come crashing through the pub door.
The door flew open and bright torch light swept into the bar. I could see a figure just behind the beam but the unexpected glare dazzled me and I dropped my bottle and heard it smash. ‘Stay back,’ I cried out, moving away. The torch beam danced around the bar before falling right onto me, blinding me so I had to look away. I heard footsteps as someone came towards me. ‘Stay away from me!’ I shouted in what sounded suspiciously like a girl’s voice.
‘What if I don’t?’ growled a voice which seemed familiar. The torch beam moved away and behind it I could see Blake grinning like a halfwit. ‘What’s your plan? Gonna lash out with your handbag or just burst into tears?’
Relief swept over me like a tidal wave, quickly replaced by anger. ‘You stupid bastard,’ I found myself saying. ‘You nearly gave me a bloody heart attack.’
Blake shrugged. ‘One less idiot for me to worry about,’ he said. ‘I thought you needed some beauty sleep. I was planning on coming back in three months.’
‘Funny man,’ I said. ‘Where have you been? How long have you been gone? What have you been doing?’
Blake grimaced. ‘I thought I’d heard the last of all that shit when my girl vanished. I went for my jeep, for your information.’
‘Your jeep? But I thought that was in town…’
Blake was busy at the bar. He’d produced some sort of rucksack and he was busy shovelling bottles into it – beer, lager, spirits. ‘It was,’ he said absently, studying the label on a bottle of malt before leaving it on the bar. ‘But you knew I was planning to go and get it. Thought I’d leave it till dark. I didn’t need you following me like some old woman, slowing me down.’
‘Thanks a lot,’ I snorted, secretly more than a little relieved that he’d gone off on his little adventure on his own. I’d not been looking forward to going outside again. I’d have been quite happy to spend the rest of my life hiding in ‘The Half Moon’ pretending that whatever was happening outside wasn’t actually happening at all. ‘What’s it like out there?’
Blake stopped what he was doing. He’d stood the torch on its end on the bar and an umbrella of light lit up the centre of the room. ‘Weird, man,’ he said. ‘It’s dark…like, really dark. There’s no street lights, no lights in any of the buildings and it’s cloudy so there’s no stars or shit. The only light is…well, from those fucking things. They’re sort of shining like they’ve got those little candles inside them, lighting ‘em up. I only saw a few of ‘em, but they’re still out there, just wandering around glowing...’
His vocabulary may not have been all that impressive but he’d painted an evocative, chilling picture. I didn’t have to open the door to imagine the streets of the once-bustling city dead and dark save these strange, drifting figures, pulsating with their unearthly light…
I tried to blot out the image and thought about something else. ‘So where’s your jeep?’
‘Parked it round the back, tradesmen’s,’ said Blake, zipping up the bulging rucksack. ‘Don’t need to draw attention to ourselves, at least not until we’re established.’
‘Until we’re established?’ I said. I felt relieved; at least he was figuring me in his future plans. ‘So you think we should stick together?’
Blake scooped up the torch and the beam bounced around the room again. ‘Why not? I don’t need people around me to survive but I reckon you do. I wouldn’t honestly give you twenty minutes out there on your own.’
I felt honour-bound to disagree but two things stopped me. Firstly, he was very probably right and secondly…well, I didn’t want to risk him challenging me to get by on my own by abandoning me. Besides, he might not have needed the company but I certainly did. ‘So what do you think we should do?’
Blake looked oddly pensive, as if he’d thought about it but not really made up his mind. ‘Well I reckon we ought to get out of the city for a start.’
‘Fair enough. But where do we go? I mean, what do you think it’s going to be like out there, away from the cities?’
‘No idea. But we’re drawing attention to ourselves staying around here. Whatever those ghost things are they seem to be hanging around the city because that’s where they think people will be. Maybe out in the country it’ll be a bit clearer, we’ll have a chance to think a bit.’
I was impressed by his logical thought processes. But one or two things bothered me. ‘But do you think we ought to go too far? I mean, we don’t know that all this…whatever’s happened…is permanent. Maybe tomorrow things will be different…’
Blake grabbed the rucksack and slung it over his shoulder. He was grinning again and shaking his head sadly. ‘I don’t know what fucking planet you’re on, mate, but it’s next door to cloud cuckoo land. There’s only one way things are gonna be any different tomorrow; they’re gonna be worse. Much worse. Haven’t you got it yet? This is it, the world’s done, knackered. I haven’t got a fucking clue what’s happened; maybe it’s the Arabs and their chemicals, maybe it ain’t. Maybe we’ll never know. But the world ain’t going back the way it was, pal. Not tomorrow, not ever.’
‘You can’t know that for sure,’ I said, but I sounded pitiful and I knew it.
Blake was starting to lose his patience. ‘You wanna hang around here and wait for the buses to start running again, that’s up to you. Me, I’m out of here and I’m not coming back. You’re either with me or you’re not.’
‘I’m with you, you know that, it’s just I’m not sure we should write everything off just yet,’ I protested.
‘All right, maybe the Yanks will come sailing over the horizon tomorrow morning and tell us it’s all been a War Game, a bloody big laugh. That’ll be great and we can all have a beer together. Until then, I think we should fuck off out of the city while we still can.’
‘Yes, but…’ I fell silent. Was it me or was it getting lighter outside? It was still dark and gloomy in the pub, of course but, even with Blake’s torch pointing in the other direction, I couldn’t help noticing that there was some sort of light source outside, clearly visible through the thick grey glass of the pub. Blake had seen it too. ‘Oh fuck…’ he said in a whisper. ‘Wait here…’ He put down his rucksack and crept towards the half-open door of the pub. I wasn’t inclined to wait anywhere so I followed him. He was at the door, slowly prising it open. ‘Oh bollocks…’
‘What is it?’ I looked over his shoulder and craned around the door to look out onto the street. I instantly wished I hadn’t.
Yep, you’ve guessed it. Out on the street outside the pub, milling around aimlessly but drifting slowly towards our hidey hole, was a little gang of twenty of more shapeless wraiths, glowing with that eerie iridescence and quite clearly aware of our presence.
‘Shit, shit, shit,’ said Blake slamming and bolting the door. He had a pistol in his hand as he backed away, almost knocking me over. ‘We shouldn’t have hung around so fucking long. That’s thanks to you and your fucking yakking.’
I was going to protest but I knew he was right. If only we’d gotten out of there when he’d come back with the jeep… ‘What are we going to do?’
‘Jesus H!’ I turned to see what had caused such an extreme reaction from Blake. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Some of the wraiths were coming into the pub – but they were coming right through the walls and the window and the door; they were just melting through it like mist through gossamer, floating towards us, reassuming their shapelessness and with what could charitably be referred to as their arms reaching out mistily towards us…
Thank God we were in a pub. If I’d ever needed a drink I needed one then.
THE SHUDDER continues in the next issue of Starburst Magazine.