Decisions, decisions. Snap decisions. Live or die. For terrible, endless moments we both stood there, rooted to the spot by the dreadful sight of these things, these wraiths flooding like steam through the walls of the pub. We probably had seconds to make up our minds… Live or die?
‘Let’s get out of here,’ said Blake, gathering up his rucksack together with his wits and backing away from the advancing wraiths. He rushed behind the bar and began wrenching open the locked door behind it. I was still standing there when the door flew open and he disappeared through it without even a backward glance in my direction. I gave a little yelp and ran after him, slamming the door behind me, pressing my back against it and gasping for breath. So the wraiths were quite capable of passing through solid objects and I was no safer on this side of the door than I would have been on the other but I just needed to get my bearings for a second. Blake was in front of me, his flashlight beam dancing around the dark narrow passageway. A telephone stood on a small table near the door, a hat stand loomed out of the gloom. A flight of stairs led up to the first floor and there were three other doors, one leading to the kitchen and one down to the cellar. The third door was pretty much just a sheet of frosted glass in a sturdy frame and it clearly led out into the yard at the rear of the building.
‘Where’s the jeep?’ I said, moving away from the door to the bar.
‘Parked in the access lane behind the pub,’ said Blake, striding towards the rear door. He grabbed the handle and cursed when he discovered the door was locked. ‘Stand back, I’m going through,’ he said.
I grabbed his arm. ‘Wait a minute,’ I said. ‘Those things may be out the back too.’
‘What do you suggest?’ he snapped. ‘Stay here and invite them for a lock-in? Shut up and let me get us out of here. Now get back.’
Before I could protest further – which I don’t think I was inclined to do anyway – Blake pushed me out of the way, took a few steps back and, his arms crossed protectively over his face, ran straight at the glass door. I closed my eyes because I couldn’t bear to look but I heard the crash of the glass as he ploughed through it. A second or two later I looked up and saw that the glass was gone and that Blake was on his knees amidst the debris in a square cobbled yard outside. I looked back nervously, saw to my horror that something white and wispy was starting to drift through the door from the bar, and I stepped as gingerly as the situation would allow through the shattered doorway into the yard.
Blake was picking himself up, brushing bits of glass off his clothes and skin. I could see that his hands were bleeding and he’d cut his forehead. ‘Are you all right?’ I said.
‘Always looks easier in the films,’ he said, clearly a bit winded. He swung up his torch and in a second we could see that the yard was a small enclosure with a wooden gate at one end and barrels and crates piled up every which way. ‘I remember that gate,’ said Blake. ‘The jeep’s in the lane on the other side.’
‘But we’re locked in, surely?’ I said. Blake was already at the gate. A big padlock was swinging from the handle. He drew a small hand pistol from his belt, took aim, fired once and shot the padlock off. It clattered to the cobbles. He tore open the gate and disappeared into the darkness beyond. My ears ringing from the gunshot, I ran after him.
My relief was almost a physical thing as I stumbled out into the damp, dingy little lane and saw the jeep parked a few yards away. Blake was swinging himself into the driver’s seat and the machine quickly sprang to life, its headlamps cutting through the darkness of the lane like searchlights. The jeep was moving – rolling slightly – as I sprang into the passenger seat. Blake kicked the jeep into gear and the vehicle sprang forward, hurtling down the lane and out on the main street. We veered wildly across the road, crossing the carriageway in a manner which would have, in the normal scheme of things, guaranteed Blake a fistful of penalty points on his driving licence (sorry, that’s the lawyer in me coming out). The wide headlights picked out the dark shadows of buildings, traffic islands, bus stops. It also picked out a number of wraiths, idling in the road or on the pavements. ‘The Half Moon’ swam into view and I could see what looked like dozens of white shapes, clustered so close together they were practically one glowing mass. They were besieging the place, disappearing into it either through the door or through the walls or through the windows. They became even more formless when they moved through solid objects but I remembered with a shiver the way they seemed to resolve themselves back into their human parody shape when they came out the other side. What the bloody Hell are these things? I asked myself as Blake turned the jeep in a tyre-screeching U-turn and raced off in the opposite direction.
The subsequent journey out of the city was a bit of a blur, to be honest. Blake was driving like a bloody lunatic, mounting kerbs and grass verges and turning even the sharpest of corners at suicidal speeds. There was a look of grim determination on his face and his hands were gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles were white. As we rattled through the streets I could see vague white shapes here and there, sometimes just feet away from us. Blake dodged them expertly, screeching along narrow roads and maneuvering into tight passageways I never knew existed and crashing through debris left in the streets by the civilisation which had passed away the night before.
After a few minutes which felt like an hour or more we were on the outskirts of the city, moving back into suburbia. Tree-lined streets, dark, sullen houses, only the odd white shape, lost and forlorn, drifting spectrally through the darkness. We stayed silent during the journey, lost in our own private thoughts.
Predictably, despite the terrible reality of what was happening all around me, I was still trying to deny it all, something in the back of my addled mind desperate to convince me that this was all a particularly-vivid dream and I’d be coming out of it any minute now. Rambo/Blake? God knows what was cantering through his mind; guns, death, bombs and naked girls, probably. Much as I needed human company and much as I was brutally aware that he’d now saved my life twice I wasn’t sure how much more of Blake’s Hollywood-fuelled testosterone I could take…
I was still knee-deep in my own thoughts when I noticed that the jeep was starting to slow down. I looked across at Blake and saw him craning forward, studying the road ahead. It was starting to rain, a miserable drizzle smearing the windscreen. ‘What’s wrong?’ I said.
‘We need to park up,’ he said. ‘I think the engine may be attracting too much attention. I’m trying to find some cover for the night…what’s left of it.’
I realised I had no idea what time it was or how long I’d been asleep back in the pub. I glanced down at my watch. I could just make out that it was a little after 5.15 a.m. As I looked up I saw that Blake was pulling off the road and through the open gates of a car showroom. A big glass-windowed warehouse building was displaying gleaming brand new cars and the courtyard area was clustered with other vehicles. Blake slipped into first gear and made his way through the forest of cars, found a quiet spot somewhere at the back of the yard and killed the engine. He released the steering wheel, sat back in his seat and let out a long, low gasp. ‘Jesus,’ he said.
‘You okay?’ I said.
‘I think so,’ he said. ‘Just need to rest up for a bit, an hour or so.’
‘Then what?’ I said. ‘We start looking for other people?’ Blake looked at me as if he thought I was a complete idiot.
‘Other people? What makes you think there are other people?’
‘Well there must be. There’s got to be. There’s you, there’s me…Dave the guy on the motorcycle. We can’t be the only ones. You’re not going to tell me you think we’re the only survivors in the whole world?’ I said.
He didn’t really seem to care. ‘I really haven’t thought about it much,’ he said.
‘It’s this shudder you told me about – that’s the key to it, that’s what’s caused all this. Something happened and somehow we came through it. But it can’t only be us, can it? Not if this is happening…all over.’
‘We’ll probably never know,’ said Blake. ‘All we need to know from now on that the world’s changed and we’ve come through it. Survival of the fittest?’ He gave me a rather contemptuous look which I found offensive but decided to let go.
‘So there’ll be other people then. There’s got to be,’ I said.
‘If those spooks haven’t picked ‘em off,’ said Blake. ‘If anyone else came through they may not have had their wits about them. I wouldn’t hold out much hope, mate.’
‘I can’t believe we’re the only ones. I won’t believe it,’ I said, becoming more animated. ‘We need to get out there and start looking for people.’
Blake regarded me with one lazy eye. The other was closed; he was cat-napping, his arms folded across his broad chest. ‘We?’
I was taken aback. It hadn’t occurred to me that we wouldn’t stay together now we’d got this far. OK, maybe he wasn’t exactly the person I might have chosen to survive a world-wide cataclysm with and I had my doubts about him in the long-term but at least he was human. My experiences early the day before had brought home to me quite clearly how incapable I was of functioning adequately as a single, isolated unit. I knew Rambo/Blake would need to be treated with kid gloves and that I was going to need all the patience and diplomacy I could muster but Hell, he was better than no-one…
‘Just help me to find some others,’ I said. ‘I don’t expect you to tag along with me for keeps. I can see that’s not your style. It’s your life at the end of the day and you can do what you want with it.’
Blake grunted approvingly. ‘You said it, friend. It’s my life and I’ll play it my way from now on.’ He paused for a moment, as if amused by some private joke. Perhaps he’d just realised that he was free, maybe freer than anyone had ever been before. So was I, of course – but the difference was I didn’t want to be. ‘Maybe I’ll stick around for a few days. I doubt you’d make it to breakfast without me behind you.’
‘Breakfast?’ My stomach rumbled as soon as I said the word. Our snacks in the pub seemed like a long time ago. Blake pointed out through the window. The garage we’d holed up in was just outside the city, and from where we were we had a pretty spectacular view down over the city itself. I used my sleeve to rub away the condensation and felt a cold clamminess in my heart as I saw the grey towers of the city, dark and lifeless, its once-beating heart suddenly silenced. Just over the horizon the sun was starting to rise, the first orange fingers of a new day spreading out across the black night. There was a mist-haze in the air.
‘Looks like it’s going to be a nice day,’ I found myself saying.
THE SHUDDER continues in the next issue of Starburst Magazine.