An excerpt from Adam’s upcoming novel, As The World Turns.
It didn’t really matter, it just wasn’t there. Whatever portal had spat Jack through from the cinema toilets had disappeared. When it had put him in the car it had remained, awaiting the completion of his task, but now it simply didn’t exist.
The landscape looked scorched and hateful. Weeds, bricks, and rubbish scattered the earthy ground. Twisting, gnarled trunks of a few long dead trees stuck out of the barren earth like broken arrows from a human torso. The air tasted vile; arid and noxious, hateful, the sky rumbling and roiling restlessly. The clouds bubbled and folded, broke and adhered. The sun, a deep orange behind the clouds of dust (or was it smoke?) seemed to bleed its light slowly, not wishing to light the devastation that is this land.
In the distance he could pick out the shape of two huts silhouetted on the horizon, across the barren tundra he now stood upon. He three-sixtied on the spot and saw much of the same behind him in the quick glance he got, broken things and choking weeds, crumbling bricks, and litter. A red glint caught his eye and he looked at the floor. Pinned under a rock was a piece of plastic, dusty and faded with words printed on it. He knelt to pick it up and as he touched the thin piece, a shiver of bad feeling slowly meandered up his spine, leaving him nervous and nauseated. Jack closed his eyes and gripped it, returning to a standing position. Taking a deep breath he opened his eyes and ogled the thing in his hand, he folded it out.
“Well I…” he started and never finished. The wrapping he held was from a bottle of Coca-Cola. Faded and dusty it may be, but seeing it caused his heart to clench a little. He let it go and watched it flutter over the door like a freed butterfly. What’s happening to me. Dark thoughts plagued his mind as he stumbled, still feeling groggy from the
alcohol pre-journey, but not drunk. Whatever had brought him had sobered him up, but Jack could still smell the sweat from his body, sickly and sour. With a shake of his head, he decided to head towards the two shacks on the horizon. It didn’t look far and there may be people there who could explain all of this. Where was he? The wrapper had convinced him that this home, but what had happened? Stumbling across the dusty, maimed land, he started wondering just what exactly he had done. The memories of the car swirled. Hitting the wall, not hitting the wall, hitting the wall, not. The boy, the boy, the boy.
Nigh on an hour later Jack reached the shacks. The journey had been longer and tougher than he expected. Roots and weeds snagged at him, twice removing his right shoe, once even snagging his sock as well. The sock now had a big hole revealing his hammer toe. He could feel it rubbing against the soft leather inside his boot. Jack’s jeans had taken a couple of tears, too, once from a tall blackened shrub that looked burnt and tortured, and once from a worn, illegible sign that had fallen on (at) him as he stumbled by. In a light breeze, one of the few stumpy trees had even made a grab for his shirt like the gnarled hand of a half buried mummy, but it had missed. He was grateful for that. It was a most comfortable shirt.
But where was he? He had wondered whether the Coca-Cola bottle sticker had come through with him considering that they sold them in the cinema he had been in. He considered that it may have stuck to him on the toilet floor while he brought up the semi-coagulated cider and the remains of his cheese and onion pasty, which was something he really regretted eating now. The regurgitated taste of it filled his mouth, even over the alcohol and cigarettes. He had considered also that the landscape was almost like an old western and wondered if he had been teleported (which still seemed ridiculous, regardless of the conclusive evidence) to wherever they had filmed ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’. As ridiculous as it sounded, stuff happened in movies all the time and he had been watching it before this…event, had he not?
The shacks loomed over him. They weren’t tall, but ominous, shadowed, and they resembled nothing more than the outhouses where Clint and his young companion shot the main bad guy on the crapper in one of his movies, he couldn’t remember which one. He remembered the rain when Clint blew away pretty much everyone in the saloon at the climax and wished that a few spots would grace his brow (and his lips, amen) right about now. The blistering heat out here was deadly, he desperately needed shade.
He walked up to the shack and knocked hastily on the weathered, battered door. Without any warning at all a sudden wind caught it and slammed it open with a loud splintering crack, the hinges creaked and the door swung to again, but before it had a chance to shut him out, he caught it and wrenched it open, peering into the gloom. It was dark in there, darker than he thought it ought be and he decided to wait for his eyes to adjust to the dark before entering, because who knew what surprises he could stumble in to. The last thing he wanted was for a rattler to bite him or some kind of scorpion to sting him. In this barren waste that’d be hasta la vista, baby, and it would be one lonely way to die. He didn’t like the gloom of the creaky shack but knew it was respite from the heat for a while, there may even be a bit of water, and if he was really lucky, something to eat. He realised the chances of any decent grub around here were slim, but he figured hope was all he had right about now, especially of removing that damn pasty taste. The dark made his back hairs stand as he crept into the gloom of the shack, muscles tense and ready to jump back if he encountered anything out of the ordinary. He considered the term ‘out of the ordinary’ and thought this all to be rather ‘out of the ordinary’, and that was followed by the thought that if jumping backwards was how you dealt with it then he should be moon-walking all the way to the loony bin. He realised he was probably just lying on the floor of the cinema toilets, shame revealed, and fervently hoped he would wake up before he was discovered. All this is happening and all I can think of is some shitty little cinema worker seeing my member! He laughed at the thought and quit when it echoed into the gloom.
The shack had a sick smell to it, of a room that the previous night had seen it occupied by fifteen alcoholics, and upon inspection it wasn’t so far from the truth. He took his lighter from his pocket and struck it, noting a small rag covering a window to his left. He tugged it and it came down easily allowing the sun to beam through the glass and light to spring forth in to the gloom forcing it to retreat. He had a brief moment to think of Galadriel and her gifted vial of light before shock took him.
Six men sat on a large rug on the floor, or what remained of them. Empty Stella Artois bottles and playing cards littered the floor between their feet. Clothes hung limply on the rotting bodies which looked rubbery in the beams of sunlight. None of the bodies had decomposed too badly, looking almost like those Egyptian Pharaohs or that ‘Man in the Ice’. Somehow, these bodies were preserved despite the pounding heat and flies, except that they had no eyes. The flies buzzed around the bodies, landing and rubbing their legs together in that almost ceremonial movement. The corpses were strangely devoid of maggots, and of smell. The alcohol and sickness stink was there but no rot. What caused you to die but not rot? The looks on the faces were calm, almost as if they died in the middle of their game, and judging by two of the six who were miraculously still gripping their cards with waxy fingers, they had done just that. So, all of them sat and played cards to death. That seemed highly illogical. He remembered when he used to go to his mates and play cards for hours on end and drink exactly the beer these poor dead fucks had. No matter how bored of the cards they had got, neither he nor his mates had died. He looked at one of the corpses still holding cards. He wore a green flat-cap and a t-shirt with “Just Do It” printed across the chest. His eyeless sockets stared back almost questioningly. What you lookin’ at, man? those eyes said, just what the fuck you lookin’ at, and it was those eyeless sockets that made him realise, despite how old and withered these faces were, they looked like they had been no older than maybe twenty-five! Shit! They all wore trendy clothes and the ash-tray was full of half smoked joints. One of them’s even wearin’ a backwards red cap and if THAT didn’t signify youth, he thought, then sorry but I’m gonna have to see some fuckin’ I.D. A shiver ran up his spine as he realised he was sharing a rather small shed with six dead youths. Still, there were a few cans of beer around and surprisingly, a bottle of water. He picked them all up one by one, checked the dates. 2021? What? How? He wondered what the date actually was, because he was pretty sure they didn’t put labels on bottles of water saying it’d last twenty years. No time to worry about that now though, he thought, opening the water and sniffing it he noticed nothing odd, so he took a sip. Perfect, he thought, confused, but no time to worry about that now. He put them in a discarded carrier bag where he found a brand new pouch of tobacco and all the necessary equipment to smoke it. He realised just how much he was dying for a smoke and immediately sat to roll. First he took the water back out of the Tesco bag, realising that he must be near some kind of village, surely? Maybe even a city. Surprisingly, it never occurred to him that he could have been sitting in what were the pitiful remnants of a once beautiful town.
He looked at the water bottle and its label. Brief panic hit him – what if the water was tainted by something? What if it was the water that had killed these young guys? He then discarded that theory on two grounds. One, the bottle was sealed water. It had been unopened, untampered with. Surely they tested it before they sent it out? Obviously there had been a few problems in the world before with poisoning but nothing to kill six kids playing cards with what seemed like no pain. Couldn’t it be some mass poisoning, like the virus in those Resident Evil games? Made by a company with some weird agenda? He cast that idea away, too. Second, who drinks water when they have beer? Certainly not young guys, smoking weed and playing cards that’s for sure. Anyway, he thought, this could be all the water for miles. If I don’t get water I’ll die anyway. He unscrewed the top again, lifted it to his lips and this time took a deep drink. The water was warm but it felt cool as it went down his throat and sat in his empty belly. In for a penny, in for a pound, mother always said.
As he brought his tilted head back down, his eyes fell upon the corpses once again and he realised with a little bit of shock that he was sat like the seventh member of their group. Feeling oddly fated to die along with them he immediately stood and thought of moving on, maybe checking the other shack. Before leaving he thought about taking the dead kid’s red cap for a bit of sun protection. He leaned out to grab it, his fingers barely a centimetre away from it when one of the corpses to his right fell sideways to lie on the floor, knocking bottles over on its way. He jumped at the sound. His first thought (which in two hours time would be an embarrassment) was SHIT! ZOMBIE! As if he had switched from a Sergio Corleone film to a George Romero one, or maybe a combination of the two. Either way it wasn’t a zombie, thank the lawd! But he never leant back in for the red cap. He was too shaken. He sparked his cigarette, picked up the bag, and stepped out into the day’s harsh light.
He looked up at the sun and guessed it was around one or two in the afternoon. Impossible the rational side of his brain said. It must have been eleven at night when you were watching the film! How can it be two in the afternoon? Nevertheless, it wasn’t dark out here and the sun signalled not long after mid day in the sky, like a road sign reading ‘Birmingham, 3 miles’. No questions. Take it on faith, buddy. He figured he could actually be on the other side of the world, perhaps, but for someone who suffered drinker’s dawn -which was what his mother used to call the inability to get back to sleep after a heavy night- he doubted he slept the whole night away Regardless of what his inner clock said and where he was in the day, who was he to deny the sun? He accepted it and walked the hundred metres to the other shack. This one was bigger, maybe fifty foot long and equally wide. It looked sturdier than the shack the boys had died in and he briefly wondered why they picked the shitty one before he realised he was prying the wooden door open. This one opened with no tricks or scares, it just calmly opened as if knowing that what was inside was bad enough without the added pranks of the building itself. It opened as if it didn’t want to wake anybody. Or anything, he thought. He looked through the open maw of the door.
The first thing that hit him as he descended was the stench. As soon as his eyes adjusted to the gloom of the shack he could see a large dead dog a little further in. It was chained to the wall and looked as though it had starved, for despite its size it looked skinny, and whatever was preserving the dead lads in the other shack wasn’t weaving its magic here. Jack crept forward still mildly afraid that there were zombies about waiting to jump him, waiting to feast on him. He stepped over the dog and the shack opened out into an underground warehouse. A metal grate in the ceiling let in light, illuminating a large circle in the centre of the floor; standing at it’s centre, Jack looked around. Boxes upon boxes were stacked against the walls and were labelled with all sorts of logos. Jack knew what they were straight away and couldn’t believe his luck. They were full of tinned food. Suddenly he was hungry, and forgetting his precarious and unexplained predicament, he ripped in to one of the boxes and found it crammed with tinned beans and spaghetti. He stopped as the stench hit him again. As hungry as Jack was something had to be done about the dog. Eating here wouldn’t be fun. Jack turned to look back at it, and as his eyes rested on it, his hunger departed. Jack looked around at the boxes, looking for anything that might indicate it contained a large canvas, or bubble wrap, or anything that he could use to wrap the dog but he couldn’t see anything so, plopping down on to the floor he took the rolling tobacco and made a cigarette as his mind wandered back to the other shack with the boys in it. The cloth! The cloth that covered the window! That’d be perfect, wouldn’t it? Jack shot to his feet.
Two minutes later, Jack stood before the six dead teenagers, one now prostrate. He could see the cloth on the floor and went to it; it was a dark brown material, thin. The prospect of having to pick up the rotting dog with this made him want to be sick right there and then, and he knew he couldn’t do it. He pulled it out between his hands and saw that when stretched it was semi-transparent, and through it he saw the rug the boys were sat on. That’s thick, he thought. That’d work, I wouldn’t be the first guy to roll a dead body in a rug, but how do I get it from under them? He looked up again, in to the eyes of the flatcap wearer, and then down at his t-shirt. Just Do It. Jack cocked his head to the side in a “well, I guess I gotta” and rolled his sleeves up, breathing deep, ready to pull. “Just Do It,” he whispered. “Just Do It.”
* * *
Five minutes later saw him stumbling out of the door, heaving and spluttering. It would seem that Mr Just Do It also believed in his t-shirt’s motto as when Jack pulled the rug Mr Just Do It tumbled over, letting out an horrendous fart in the process. As he fell so did Jack, slipping backwards as the weight of the six gave way and he didn’t compensate for it. There was a dry crash as one corpse fell in to another, and another in to a third, and repeat. Like a morgue’s game of dominoes. Some of the limbs popped and oozed as they landed, releasing smells he’d never even considered existed. He heaved again and then fought to gain his breath. Breathing slowly, looking down at the nothingness he had vomited. Jack still clung to the rug in his left hand and he looked down at it now. “God, you’d better be worth that,” he said between ragged breaths.
Now he stood, hands on knees, rug at his feet, eyeing the dog. The problem he was having was getting the dead dog on to the rug without touching it. Jack had considered actually picking it up despite not having the light cloth in his possession, or even just rolling it on to the rug until he knelt next to it and he could see the slowly liquidating parts. Jack’s now severely empty stomach rolled at the sight, and he realised he couldn’t even do it with his feet. He looked to the boxes; if he emptied a couple he could put them together and use them to push the dog on to the rug. Also, it would give him a look at what was in some of the other boxes.
Jack started with the box with the beans in, laying out a total of twenty-four tins of beans, twelve spaghetti, and eight tins of tuna – at least he wouldn’t starve just yet. Jack flattened the box and started on the next one; it contained a whole lot of tupperware. Two others contained more tins which he neatly stacked in the corner away from the dog, and valuably, a box of water. Maybe if there were other people, and he couldn’t find a way back, he could be a vendor? Unless all of this belonged to someone, although he doubted it considering the dead boys and the dog.
Jack took the empty boxes and flattened them, adding them to the first one, and shuffled them over to the dog. He had already laid out the rug behind the dog, and he began sliding the cardboard under its legs, levering the cardboard to raise them, rolling the dog as he did. He met some resistance as the cardboard slid further under as the dog had begun to putrify and adhere to the floor but he pushed on through and covered his mouth with his t-shirt in an effort to stop the stench getting to him. It flopped over on to the rug, when it did he quickly dropped the cardboard, encapsulated the dog in the rug and began to laboriously drag it sideways up the stairs so that it wouldn’t slide out. It took him longer than he thought it would; it had been one long and strange day, and as much as he hated to admit it, he was getting old. The alcoholism certainly hadn’t helped his body.
Jack went back down, cleaned the floor where the dog was, using a couple of bottles of water and some ripped up cardboard and then collapsed in an exhausted pile in the shade on some boxes. He rolled a cigarette, smoked, eat a tin of beans cold, and drank the two beers he had found in the other shack. He washed those first, too. He broke up some more boxes, again filled with tins, and he wondered if there was just an endless supply of food, or whether he could find other precious things in here. Right now he was too tired, he flattened the boxes, lay down, and slept.
* * *
It was dark when Jack woke.
He was illuminated lightly by moonlight through the roof window. His back ached as he sat forward and looked around slightly delirious, not fully awake. He panicked when he realised he wasn’t in his little flat but he soon remembered his situation. Jack shook his head to clear it and leant over for his tobacco. As he scooped it up and proceeded to roll, he wondered about what this was. Jack had been drunk, he had been sick in the cubicle in the cinema, and then things had got strange; he passed out, awoke to a light buzzing, turned, and saw the door. On the first “do over” he had failed, watched his son die again, and had systematically been spat back out back in to the cubicle…but it was still there. He had stepped through again and this time he was prepared, he swerved in time in to oncoming traffic, had somehow avoided it, and saved little Jesse, but just as he thought he was being given a second chance he saw himself pulled away, back through the strange mystical door to now, to this weird place. Where the Hell was he? What was he to do? Stay here with his supply of tinned food and ample bottles of water or walk out in to the unknown looking for civilisation? If he was to go, which direction was he to go in? Jack felt that if he weren’t meant to be here, he wouldn’t be, and he certainly wasn’t here to sit in a storage facility and wait forever. In the morning he would gather up what he could carry and set out along the line he’d already started with the walk to these shacks. Right now, he needed more sleep.
* * *
Jack rose later than he intended.
He must have needed it. He was used to sleeping on hard surfaces but he wasn’t used to being physically tired due to exercise. The warehouse was warm and muggy; it was a beautiful day judging by the light beating through the ceiling window and remaining here was a bad idea; as much food as their was, it wouldn’t get him anywhere. God, he wanted a drink. He hadn’t gone a day without a beer in a long, long time but here he was, in the middle of nowhere with no alcohol at all now, two beers gone, and lots of water. Maybe he had been given a second chance. A strange one but a second chance. He got up, gathered his stuff, including the food, bagged it, and climbed the stairs. The dog he’d chucked out looked worse in the sunlight, and smelled even worse than it looked, it was everything he could do to hold down last night’s beans. Jack stepped over it, looking around at the vista; to his right, the direction he was planning to head, he could see further than he could yesterday due to the blazingly gorgeous day around him. He could see tall silvery silhouettes some miles away, rising in to the sky like nuclear armaments ready to fire. They could only be towers; towers meant cities, and cities meant people.
Some five hours later saw him stumbling towards the outskirts of the city.
The suburbs looked beaten, overgrown, and empty. Detached houses sat swamped in weeds, windows boarded or simply broken in, doors lay splintered, a swing set rose out of an overgrown lawn, drowning in vines like a ship being dragged down by a Kraken. Cars sat desolate, unused for an eternity, tires gone. Jack wondered just how long it had been since anyone had lived here. One of the houses was still pretty much in shape so he went to have a look, treading lightly in case anyone was here that he was unaware of. It was definitely empty so he threw his bag down on a worn sofa and then threw himself down, too. From his seat he had a nice view out over the street through a broken window, and he could imagine what life was like here before everyone vanished. A friendly neighbourhood, children playing out together, kicking a ball around, parents having barbecues and drinking beers, this was that kind of neighbourhood. This was the life he had wanted with his family, this was what life was all about. He hadn’t been man enough to make it happen. Instead he had cowered from the challenge, resorted to drinking, and killed his own son. He was a monster. He didn’t deserve life, but here he was clinging to it like a cockroach.
Jack cried. Jack slept.
* * *
“There’s fuck all here, there never fuckin’ is!”
Jack woke with a start at the voice. People! There were people! He was ready to jump up and run out to them until he realised that they might well be hostile. Jack didn’t know where he was so hiding was his only option. He ducked under the window, it was dark outside now, he listened on.
“Shut up, Wragg. You never know, we might find something. Have you syphoned all of the petrol?”
“Yeah, of course. I did it months ago, you know I did,” he spat and sniffed. “This fuckin’ cold is getting’ t’me.”
“You wanna be careful. Any more tablets?”
“Nah, fuck all,” he sighed and spat again. “Roy said he’d try and get me some off the Doc but he’s got nothing yet. Sellin’ for a fuckin’ bunch in the city, though. Soon as everythin’ went to shit people were raidin’ the chemists. Money, money, money.”
“Damn right. Gonna be honest, as soon as that bomb hit London I was planning on it, too. There was a Lloyd’s Chemist about three hundred metres from my house but fuck, when I got there it was already burning. Gold mine just melted away. Check one of the houses. Suburban housewives are always loaded down on some drugs, aren’t they?”
Wragg laughed and it turned in to a cough. “You’ve got that right. I once had an affair with one. The husband was nowhere to be seen. I think they were getting a divorce or somethin’ but I still think it was cheatin’. Anyway-” the voice was getting closer “-she was so out of it most o’ the time I was basically fuckin’ a doll.”
Jack shifted from the window and scrambled under the sofa. Of all the houses he could have picked Wragg picked this one, he heard a metallic snap and he knew; Wragg had a gun. Wragg stepped through the doorway in to the hall and Jack remembered he’d left his bag on the sofa but there was nothing he could do now. They’d know someone had been here recently, or even worse; they’d know someone was still here. Wragg passed through the room first, inches from Jack, but didn’t apparently look over towards the sofa, he sailed right on through to the kitchen. “She was crazy, man. God fearin’ woman but had no problem takin’ it up the shitter while off her tits on Codeine, not to mention it bein’ behind her fella’s back. People really do fit their beliefs around their bullsht, eh?” He rummaged around in the kitchen, smashed a few plates accidentally, “Fuck, cut m’damn fingers.” Jack slid out from under the sofa a bit and wrapped his arm upwards, grabbed the bag and pulled it. It made a sound hitting the floor around his arm. Jack’s heart leapt in to his mouth and he screwed his eyes shut. “Fuck was that?!” Wragg said, coming in to the room just as Jack got the bag under the sofa.
“All I can hear is you banging on about some housewife and breaking plates. Have you checked the bathroom for tablets? Why are you even looking in the damn kitchen?”
“Huh,” Wragg grunted, walking through the room again. “I dunno, I’m hungry.”
“Just hurry up? This place is a God damn ghost town.”
Wragg proceeded through and hit the stairs, pounded up them, and erupted in to the bathroom. “Fuck. Nothin’ just some weird tablets and a toothbrush.”
“What kinda tablets, Wragg?”
“They jus’ look like normal painkillers.”
“Can’t you read what’s on ’em?”
Wragg pounded back down the stairs and out of the door, “Nah, never learned. I was a handyman before shit went bad. What I need to read for.”
“I don’t know. Instructions?”
“Heh, fuck that. Makin’ and fixin’ shit is an adventure, Johnny,” he said, throwing the tablets to the other man, Johnny.
“These are Amoxycillin, you burk. They’ll fix you right up! If you could read something you’d know that.”
“Alright, alright, I trust y’judgment. Can’t be too careful these days with the old tablets.”
They walked down the street and drifted out of Jack’s hearing and he allowed himself to breathe. Jack rolled out from under the sofa and peered out of the window in time to see the two men sauntering down the road, one laugh and clap the other on the back, and continue on. Jack wondered if he should have announced his presence. They seemed like nice men. Nice men with guns, he noted. Nice men with guns are not nice men, but then again, neither are drunk drivers who kill their sons in crashes.
Jack recognised his own city even before he saw the road signs. It was two days later and he’d worked his way towards the centre of the city. He thought he was about four miles from the centre but the going was tough. He often had to clamber over cars or find alternative routes because of collapsed buildings or pile-ups. Whatever had happened in this city had absolutely devastated it. There were more corpses here, some whole, some obliterated, all old. They’d been here a long time and Jack wondered if anyone here had survived only to succumb to an airborne disease caused by the mass corpses. It was clear there had been mass explosions and it was clear the people here hadn’t had a chance. It made him feel sick.
Jack hadn’t seen anyone since Wragg and Johnny a couple of nights before. There wasn’t even a sign of anyone; the streets were silent, there was no breeze, no animals, everything in this city was dead. Nearly every window on the towers around him were broken, the ones that weren’t shimmered in the light, reflecting a time where the city was thriving and magnificent. He heard the echoes of traffic and car horns in his mind, the people laughing, the children laughing on their way to school. He wondered if they even knew what was happening when it happened, when whatever catastrophic event struck, that they were all of them doomed. Jack imagined the childlike smiles and laughs turning to confusion, and then fear, and finally to ash. Jack imagined the people hustling through the streets, eyes on their phones, stopping at a sound, the same confusion and then fear, the same ash. Jack imagined the windows blowing out because of the concussion, the people screaming, he imagined the hot gale force wind battering everything, carrying the shattered glass ahead of it like a skin of razor teeth. He didn’t know at the time just how accurate his imagination really was.
As he wandered and wondered, he realised how eerie it was to be in a city entirely alone. It made him think about that movie, 28 Days Later, where Cillian Murphy escapes from a facility to find a city empty. Later, Murphy finds a lot of running angry semi-dead people and he remembered that it actually scared him. Was this so different? He’d seen two armed men before, and why would they be armed if they didn’t expect people around to use those weapons on? What if there were crazy zombie-like people around and he was going to run in to them? He felt exposed and at a loss. He had nowhere to go, he was wandering around literally just trying to work his way to the centre of the city, and what was he going to do when he got there, shout from the buildings and bring the angry hopefully imaginary zombie horde down on him? On top of that he was running out of food and water. He naively had no doubt that he could get more of both but his main fear was not finding any other people. Would he wander for the remainder of his days looking for people? Was this his punishment? He deserved it.
Jack was so deep in thought that he didn’t even notice the sound of someone cocking a rifle some thirty feet away, but he did hear the sharp report of it firing, and the pain that lanced through his spine and kidneys. He turned as he fell, and just as he was about to pass out he saw Wragg closing in on him. “Gotcha!” Wragg chuckled.
Then Jack passed in to unconsciousness, and for all he knew; death.
* * *
Jack awoke with a gasp, his hands instantly coming to life and checking his sides for wounds. He winced as his hands came in contact with, as he looked down, some pretty impressive bruising. No bullet wound though, he sighed with relief. His eyes hurt, the back of his head sore, and he moved his hand up and felt tender skin and a small cut but nothing further. Assured that he wasn’t dying, Jack took a look around and found himself on a bed in a room decorated for a little girl. He was just getting his bearings when he heard a lock enter the door. He quickly lay back down and closed his eyes.
“Wonder where he came from. He could have come from anywhere. No serious wounds and Doc said he’s going to be fine. Must have been tough travelling alone, eh?”
“Aye, without you, Doc, Ron an’ the others, I’d ‘ave cashed out long ago.”
“Don’t we know it. I remember finding you on the street, trying to open a can by hitting it off a curb. We watched you for five minutes before we rescued you from defeat. I’ve heard some colourful language in my life, but you must have really hurt that can’s feelings judging by its resistance.”
Wragg laughed, “Heh, can openers weren’t exactly growin’ on trees when y’found me, Johnny. An’ that can ‘ad it comin!”
“No, Wragg,” Johnny laughed, “but there was a Wilkinson’s right next to you. I doubt there’d been a mass can opener robbery before you got there! Hey, Wragg. What were you before all this kicked off?”
“Me? Fuck all. I did odd jobs ‘ere an’ there. I did a lot of gardenin’ an’ buildin’. ”
“But you couldn’t open a can without a curb, eh?” They shared a laugh again. “Was that housewife you mentioned one of your employers?”
Wragg chuckled, “well, that’s a tale, my friend. That is a tale! I came in one day and she was cleanin’ the kitchen. I walk in with my tool box an’ she turns and drops her robe, an’ she says, ‘hey, big boy, before you fix the dishwasher, I want you to fix me.’”
“Oh, she did, did she? I believe every word of that, Wragg. Sounds like you walked in to a porno.”
“It’s true, mate! Honest!”
Jack, his eyes still closed, could feel the way Johnny was looking to Wragg in that moment. It was the flat stare of a man that knew he was being lied to.
Wragg laughed, “okay, one time I came in and she just put it on a plate, mate. She was obviously lonely, didn’t get out much, an’ I liked her.”
“That’s fair enough, my friend. We take what we can in life.”
“Yeah, we do. Anyway, is this guy ever gonna wake up?”
“Oh, he’s going to wake up. In fact, he’s already awake, he just doesn’t want to let us know that because he doesn’t know who we are or whether we’re dangerous.”
“How’d you know?”
“He isn’t snoring, “Johnny said, and Wragg collapsed in to laughter. “Come on, buddy. We know you’re awake. Get up. You must be hungry.”
Jack stirred and sat up, scratching at his head. He turned and sat on the bed and for a couple of minutes he looked straight at the two men responsible for his being here, and they just looked straight back.
“Have you realised that we aren’t gonna kill you yet?” The man named Johnny asked, breaking the silence. “Yes, Wragg here shot you with a beanbag round to put you down, but the real kicker was you whacking you head on the floor.”
“Yeah, sorry ’bout that,” Wragg added. “We weren’t sure who you were an’ in these times it’s better t’be safe th’n sorry.”
“Better to be safe, yeah,” Jack winced, hand to cut, “sure.”
“Anyway, some formal introductions are in order, I’d say,” Johnny continued. Jack eyed him as he spoke. He was a handsome man, if a little ragged but then again, considering the surroundings, Jack doubted anybody would be exactly tip-top shape. He had short roughly cut hair as if the person cutting it didn’t exactly know what they were doing, but he had chiselled features. “My name is Johnny, and this here chap is Wragg.” He gestured to the man next to him.
Jack looked across to Wragg and took him in as he spoke. “Yeah, I know your names.” Wragg was a bigger, broader man. Older. He had probably been a very muscular guy but it had begun to run to fat. He had an open face and a nose that looked like it had been broken more than once. “I was in the house when Wragg was rummaging round for antibiotics. When I heard you guys I hid under the sofa. I saw guns and–”
Johnny held up a hand. “We suspected someone had been there. We’ve swept the place a few times on our rounds and Wragg noticed that things had been disturbed a little. Dust by the door and the like. It’s not unusual people hide when we come around. These aren’t exactly trusting times, are they?”
“I don’t even know what times these are,” Jack said, rubbing his head again. “I have no idea what’s going on.”
“Where have you come from…”, he paused waiting for a name.
“Jack. Where have you come from, Jack?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” Jack took a deep breath, “that not two days ago, I was in a cinema watching a film, and then I went to the bathroom, and I was here.”
“We haven’t had working cinemas in–”
“I wasn’t here.”
“I was… before…”
Johnny sat in silence, looking thoughtful. Wragg looked stunned, “well, ain’t that some shit!”
* * *
Jack sat at the table, laughing.
He had been introduced to the remainder of the group as they sat around eating a makeshift dinner in a large relatively undamaged room and found himself really enjoying their company already. He had been fed and he felt good. They’d cracked open a couple of bottles of wine and even a bottle of whisky to welcome Jack to the group. It wasn’t the best whisky he’d ever had, and he’d had many, but it hit the spot after the previous few days. Plus, it was alcohol.
There were four of them present not including Jack, as Johnny and another man were absent.
“Honestly, I didn’t know she was behind me,” the one called Doc laughed. He was a tall man, gaunt, with thick black hair and a constant smile, “I was walking singing along to my Walkman, and I just needed to, and I don’t know if you’ve ever farted whilst walking, but it’s not the best sound. I’d had a crush on her for so long. I went bright red, she did, too, and I jut ran off.”
“Oh, shit, Doc.” Wragg laughed around a mouthful of beans.
Doc laughed, “No, there was no shit, I promise you.” Wragg, forever laughing, laughed more.
“Can we please talk about something more sanitary and less cringy? I’m tryin’ to finish my sausage and beans and all I can picture is you propelling yourself down the street in front of your poor crush!”
“Sorry, Ron.” Doc took a deep breath and exhaled slowly to calm his laughing. “Ah, memories. That was a great time in my life. Well, except that. I was only fifteen or sixteen. Just finished school in Manchester.”
Ron smiled. He was an older man, maybe mid-sixties, but he looked like he still retained much of his vigour. He was shorter than Doc, but not by much, and his body showed years of hard labour which hadn’t diminished given their current circumstances. “I’d been working in construction for a good fifteen years then, lad. Better times. Had a wife an’ everything.”
“You’ve never mentioned a wife before, Ron.”
“Aye, I’ve not. Still, I ‘ad one for a good amount of time.” His eyes showed he didn’t much want to speak about it so Doc and the rest let it slide.
The door to the room opened and in walked Johnny, looking windswept and a little tired. After making introductions he had departed to scout around the block to make sure they were alone, and he had taken a younger lad, Tom, with him. Johnny was clearly the leader of this group, not that there seemed to be much in the way of rank here, but if there had been, then Johnny would be top dog.
Marie leaned forward, quiet until now. “Anything?”
Johnny shook his head and Tom replied as he slumped in to an armchair on the far side of the room, “Fuck all. It’s a ghost town out there. Not a sight nor sound of anyone.”
“Maybe now that we are all back together, we can fill Jack in on what’s been happening. Tell him about what we’ve seen, what we know, what we are doing.”
Marie sighed, pushing back her long blonde hair. “Now’s the best time. Some of you will take a trip over to the other side tomorrow, so best he knows ahead of then.”
“Other side?” Jack asked.
“We will get there, Jack.” Doc’s face wasn’t smiling. It was the first time Jack had seen his face not smiling, and it radiated anxiety. “Best to start at the beginning. Johnny?”
Johnny took a deep breath and looked at his feet. “I’m not going to go in to all the details of before, but suffice it to say that, post two-thousand and one, and the September 11th atrocity in New York-”
“The what?” Jack interjected.
Tom looked up, eyebrows raised. “You don’t know about September eleventh?! Where have you been the last twenty year, man?”
“We will get back to that,” Johnny said, waving his hand at Tom to stop. “We have a stack of newspaper clippings from before about all of it. Suffice it to say that there was an horrific attack on New York, killing thousands, and after that, the west declared a war against terrorism.” Jack sat open mouthed as Johnny went ahead. “They bombarded the east with all sorts of assaults in the name of freedom.” He snorted in derision. “I was twenty-five at the time it escalated off the scale, two-thousand and nine, and I’d just…”
Johnny sat with his back to the wall eating his sandwich. He was deeply unsatisfied with said sandwich. He’d been starving all morning and lugging furniture back and forth was hungry work. The sun beat down on what was a beautiful August day, but he sat back in the shade, avoiding adding to his already burnt arms.
Marvin, his boss, came over and sat next to him, handing him a bottle of water, “Fuck this all day, mate. Let’s knock off early and enjoy some of this sun. I’ve had enough. One afternoon won’t hurt.”
“That’d be much appreciated, Marv. Honestly, I’m shattered. This heat is killing me.” Johnny looked at the remainder of his sandwich, threw it at the nearby bin, and missed. Almost immediately a seagull swooped and snatched it up. “Saves me a trip.”
“Let’s just make sure all is secure on the lot and then we can make a move. Honestly, this is close to the heat in Barbados last year when me an’ the wife went. Can’t cope with it. No one should be expected to work in this.”
Twenty minutes later they were sat in the van, radio blasting something awful, and waiting to pull in to traffic to get back to the city which was a good hour and a half away. The radio signal was terrible, so rather than listen to one third of Lady Gaga at full volume, Marvin just turned it off. They drove in silence as they often did on the way back from a job. Johnny regularly slept on the way back if there was time, but the heat kept him awake today, he couldn’t remember a day so hot. Instead he stared at the sky in front of him, daydreaming of sitting in the shade of his garden with a cold beer.
Around forty minutes later, Marvin shook him, and he realised that he had dozed off despite the heat, he came to slowly, looking at Marvin through hooded eyes.”We back?”
“No, man.” Marv looked worried. “No, but something is happening. We aren’t moving, and people are out of their cars, arguing with what looks like the army. A few of ’em were strolling between the cars tellin’ people to stay in their vehicles. There was a guy with a speaker shoutin’ to stay calm. What the fuck.”
“Maybe there’s been an accident?”
“That they have to bring in the army for?!”
“Good point,” Johnny sat up, wiping his eyes. He looked around and could see the traffic, all lanes blocked, bumper to bumper, and people were out of their vehicles, shouting forward, talking, or on mobiles. ”I’m gonna go and ask what’s happening.”
He popped the door and got out. “They’re asking everyone to stay in their cars, there’s a guy with a megaphone thing, remember?” Marv called after him.
“Fuck them,” Johnny looked back. “I want answers.”
Johnny strode forward with purpose, eyeing the other commuters who had exited their vehicles. Some were arguing loudly with other people in their cars, and some sat on bonnets, basking in the sun, seemingly as calm as anything. Some stood looking forward towards the city for signs of movement. One man stood on the roof of his van, eyes shielded. Johnny shouted up to him asking whether he had seen anything.
“Fuck all, buddy,” the man shouted back. “Can’t see anything at all. Just more cars.”
Johnny waved and continued forwards, hearing snippets of confused conversation and bickering. No one seemed to know what was going on. He couldn’t see any soldiers.
Fifteen minutes and half a mile later he saw a low barricade of soldiers and a makeshift wall. There was a press of people already there, clamouring at the soldiers for answers as to what the issue was, but from his position he couldn’t make out what the soldiers were saying to the press of people questioning them. There were a lot of patient waving gestures from them which looked to Johnny like they were being waved back to their cars. Johnny stood and waited, and as he did, three fighter jets flew over his head and raced across the sky. Whatever was going on, it was serious. As they passed overhead, vehicles began to depart on the other side of the motorway at an alarming rate. None had passed before now as the barricade had seemingly blocked the entire motorway, keeping people in as well as keeping them out. Some of the standing people tried to stop the departing vehicles across the divide but not a single one stopped to inform them of what was happening. People were starting to panic. The soldiers were now relating something to the people, and they were turning and running from the barricade back to, he supposed, their vehicles.
“Hey, what’s going on?!” He shouted, but no one replied. He tried again, still nothing. Finally, after shouting a third time, he decided to run. Alongside him ran another man, and he asked him as they ran.
“Bomb, dude. A fuckin’ bomb.”
A bomb? Like a pub bomb or something, like the IRA had planted years before? Didn’t warrant this much panic, surely?
“Yeah, a real monster of one. A big one. Inbound from God knows where. The soldiers just said to get as far from the city as possible.”
“I don’t understand, we are five miles fro-”
“A bomb, like, Hiroshima? Fuckin’ Nagasaki? Just run and get in your damn car!”
“Holy shit! You’re serious!”
The man didn’t answer he just picked up the pace, and Johnny decided to do the same. He ran at a steady pace back to the van but he was blowing by the time he got there. Marv leaned out of the window as he got there, “What’s happenin’? Heard somethin’ about a bomb? What kinda bomb needs thi-”
“Turn the fuckin’ van around, Marv. Do it quick, we ain’t getting in to the city now. It’s barricaded and being evacuated. It’s a real bomb, Marv. A real bomb. A big bomb.”
“Holy shit.” He swung the van round as Johnny got in, using the grass at the side to manage it. Fortunately, there hadn’t been a large build up behind them, and after ten anxious minutes of people pressing their horns, they were rolling.
“Fuck, man. My family, what the fuck am I gonna do! Fuck!” Marv slammed his hands on the steering wheel in frustration.
“Try and stay calm, Marv. Just drive. I’m sure they’re out, too. I’m sure.” Johnny thought of his parents that didn’t have a car and wondered, worried, about them. He prayed to a God he didn’t believe in that no bomb was coming, and he prayed to a God that he didn’t believe in that if it did, they’d be safe.
As if his prayers were prophecy, a light as if the heavens had opened behind him filled the sky to fulfill his wish, and to spirit his parents away from the danger, but that image was expelled when a heavy oppressing heat rolled over him, bringing to the point of nausea. Suddenly, an eruption exploded as if God himself were tearing up the surface of the world. The sheer force of it rattled Johnny’s teeth so hard it hurt and he bit his tongue, all of his hair stood on end and the van rocked so hard he thought it would flip. Marv crashed forward as the eruption jarred them, hitting his head on the steering wheel and clearly losing consciousness, the sound of him hitting the horn was lost in a cacophony of rushing wind and screams. The howling outward blast continued, and dust filled the air. Johnny found that in the heat and dust he couldn’t breathe, he tried to cover his mouth with his shirt, but as he did so, something large hit the rear of the van at high velocity, slamming it forward in to another vehicle with enough force to roll it. Johnny fell to the ceiling of the now upside down van, and joined Marvin in unconsciousness.
Johnny came to some unknown time later. He coughed and felt a pulse of pain lance through his nose as he did so, raised his hand to it, and felt another lance of pain shoot through it as well as dried blood. He pulled himself to the right and looked up at Marv, still seatbelted in, and still unconscious and with one eye black and swollen shut.
Shit, he could be dead, Johnny though, surely being upside down for that long was a negative, as well as being unconscious. Johnny crawled over a few feet and reached up to Marv’s face.
“Marv,” he croaked. “Marv, are you alive?” He reached up and lightly slapped Marv’s cheek and Marv groaned. A couple more slaps and he came slightly awake. “Come on, Marv. We have to go. We have to get out.”
Marv groaned again, moving slightly, and his one good eye came open.
“Come on, buddy,” Johnny said, reaching up to the seatbelt clasp. “I’m gonna have to undo this and get you out.” He put his hand under Marv’s head and undid it, and Marv fell to join him on the ceiling-become-floor of the van.
“Damn, that hurt, Johnny.”
“At least you’re alive,” Johnny smiled, and winced as another pain went through his nose. “Let’s get out of this van and see what’s going on. Then I need you to reset my nose. Hold on and I’ll come around to that side.”
Johnny popped the door open awkwardly and fell out on to the street. The first thing he noticed was how hot the tarmac was. It figuratively torched though his shirt in to his back and arm but he couldn’t bring himself to move just yet. He lay looking at the sky, straight up. It was dark. It wasn’t night time, he could tell, but it was dark. The clouds above roiled and fluctuated rapidly, moving outward, and he realised they weren’t what he thought they were – this was smoke. Vast clouds of smoke and dust filled the air, sailing outwards. He let his eyes follow the trail of these clouds back to the source, and what he saw filled him with dread. He wondered how he hadn’t noticed it as soon as he fell out of the van in to the street. A mushroom cloud towered over them, seemingly only meters away, although he knew it was over the city. The reddish-orange glow it emitted from within scared him to his core. It appeared possessed of an inner devil, it seemed to rage and coil, as if it wished to expand and cause more chaos. His eyes panned down from the destructive marvel of the mushroom cloud as he got to his knees, to the city itself. He could make little out in the darkness, especially looking in to the dust and heat, but he thought he saw some buildings shrouded in darkness, and he hoped it wasn’t just his imagination.
The heat was unbearable, not just from the ground, but the debris in the air that touched his skin was hot, the air he breathed in was hot in his throat and lungs, it stung at his eyes. He tore his eyes away from the catastrophe behind him, thoughts of his family, friends, his cat, everything flooded through his mind. He couldn’t see any way past it; they were dead, they were all dead. Everything he had ever known, everyone he had ever loved.
“Johnny, where are ya? Door’s stuck.”
Johnny came out of his reverie, came to his feet and moved quickly around to Marv’s side. “Sorry, buddy,” he yanked on the door and it budged a little. Two more hard pulls and it came free. “Come out slowly, Marv. Be warned, it’s not nice out here. We need to move quickly.”
Marv came out looking all the worse for wear, his black eye seemingly bigger by the second. Slowly he turned his head back towards the city. “Holy shi-,” he fell to his knees, tears coming to his good eye. “My wife! My fuckin’ wife! Oh, no, Becky, no!”
Johnny knelt next to him, his hands on his shoulders, his body blocking Marv’s view of the city. “I’m sorry, Marv. I’m so fucking sorry. Maybe she got out. Maybe they all got out. Maybe my parents got out, I don’t know.”
“But my wife, I… I need my wife.” His sobs wracked through him, and he kept saying her name.
“Marv, we have to move. We have to move. We could die here. You’ve seen how this goes! First the bomb, then the fallout and all the radiation, what happens if she got out and you die here? We have to stay positive. We have to move.”
Marv looked in to his eyes and Johnny could see the rage of the mushroom cloud in them though the tears, reflected from over his shoulder. He swallowed hard. “Okay. Okay, Johnny.”
Johnny helped him to his feet. He tried to smile at Marv, “Take some of the pain out on resetting my nose, eh?” The joke fell flat, Marv looked at his nose but didn’t reach for it. “It’s too swollen to reset right now. We will have to wait.”
“How’s your head? It took quite a blow on the steering wheel.”
Marv reached up and touched his eye. “I feel okay, considerin’. Headache and the eye, but I think I’m okay.” Tears still leaked from his other eye, but Johnny appreciated the attempted stoic demeanour. He’d always been a tough man on the toughest of days, but life didn’t throw you a challenge like this often.“We have water in the van, but I got no food. We’re just gonna have to hope we find something along the way.”
Johnny went to the back of the van and got the water. “Yeah, I kinda wish I hadn’t thrown that sandwich away.” He took a sip of water from the bottle and handed it to Marv who did the same, and looked towards the opposite horizon. “No time like the present, eh?”
He helped Marv to his feet with a grunt, and together they began to walk away from the city, toward whatever lay over the horizon.
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