Betrayal, revenge and murder; lovely meaty sounding terms, eh? They’re such thrilling, blood dripping and juicy words that I’ve always loved, but only in fiction of course. I mean… I never thought, not for one second, that I’d ever become the central character in such a terrible story myself, but I have. And that’s the thought that runs through my mind as I move sneakily up behind Tommy O’Brien to push him over the edge of this high sea cliff.
Opportunistic murder is a tricky thing – or so I’ve read, I’m no expert – but this is the perfect time to repay him for what he did to me. Just look at him there; he’s so intent on watching seagulls dive on the broken bodies we’ve just dumped that he doesn’t notice me closing in on him.
There’s a fifty fifty chance that his daughter might turn and spot my evil purpose but she’s far too busy peering through the grubby murk for prowling corpses, otherwise I should expect nothing less from her than a bullet in the brain, and quite understandably so.
I stare intently at the back of Tommy’s head, remembering how we were once the best of friends, but well, some things can change in a flash, so I held my breath and moved in for the kill…
Long before this awful nastiness kicked off, back before the whole world changed, Tommy told me and Joanie over dinner in our local Italian that he’d bought himself an old Martello tower on the Atlantic coast of Galway. My jaw nearly dropped at this surprising little snippet. He said his plan was to renovate it and hold parties there for his clients (a tax write-off, in other words) or for anyone else willing to make the four hour trip out of Dublin. (Anyone else meant any woman – not his wife – who fancied a weekend alone with this handsome, callous charmer).
“It could even be a great night spot,” he added thoughtfully. “And it’s really very scenic, so Charlie, be sure to bring your water colours when you visit.”
“A Martello Tower,” I exclaimed, turning my attention to Tommy’s unusually silent wife. “And did you have any say in this, Jenny?” I asked her. “I mean, surely you’re not the type to entertain businessmen and their spoilt trophy wives, are you? Certainly not in the wilds of Connemara.”
“No,” she said flatly. “I’m not. And anyway, the place is a ruin, a money pit. But we all know what an eejit Tommy is with his money sometimes, don’t we, Tommy?” She poked her husband hard in the arm and turned irritably back to us. “And did he tell you what else he’s getting?” she asked indignantly. “No?” She dropped her voice as we leaned conspiratorially across the table, me and Joanie grinning with delight at her uncharacteristic tetchiness. “Well, he’s only gone and applied for a gun licence, that’s what.”
I nearly choked on my bruschetta. “Aw, Tommy, that ruins everything!” I cried in mock outrage. “How can I possibly make passes at your wife if firearms have entered the equation?”
“Oh, come on now Charlie,” my Joanie said, putting a sly hand on my thigh where Jenny could see; winking broadly at her. “Since when have you disliked guns? I mean, you’re continually obsessing about your own.”
“Um, well…” I said, shifting uncomfortably. “What you’re referring to isn’t technically a gun, snookums. I only said it was so you’d take it out for me every now and again and give it a good oiling.”
“Snookums,” Jenny laughed.
“A good oiling,” Tommy snickered, looking at Joanie a bit more lasciviously than I’d normally like him to.
Not long after that evening my best friend Tommy, that dirty treacherous bastard – as if he didn’t have enough women on the side – took it upon himself to bed my Joanie. The circumstances are unimportant but he spotted a weakness in her defences and fully exploited it. I’d seen him do this with other women and I always accepted it as Tommy just being Tommy, the ladies’ man; I neither approved nor disapproved but this time, I mean…my wife.
I took the blame entirely upon myself for Joanie’s part in this, though. As far as I was concerned, rightly or wrongly, it was my failure as a husband that drove her to do this in the first place, so it was only Tommy that I targeted with my outrage.
Another friend of mine mentioned that Tommy was more distraught by the ending of our friendship than he was about Jenny sensibly kicking him out of the family home. It was also said that I was far too hard on him, especially in light of his open, frequent and public apologies, yet he sickened me with his pathetic nighttime phone calls and his shameless use of mutual friends to intercede on his behalf. He’d caused me real damage; deep down damage and I had no intention of ever forgiving the backstabbing bastard.
Then I heard, much to my disgust and annoyance, that Jenny’s resolve had crumbled under a barrage of silky lies and she’d allowed him back home again. As for me and Joanie, well…to make a sad story short we did our best to reassemble the shards of our marriage but the brutal knowledge of what had happened built a wall between us. What finally killed our relationship was her bitter and incorrect belief that it was Tommy’s betrayal – and not hers – that had wounded me the most. I’m still trying to get my head around the logic of that one.
Then one stormy evening a taxi called and took her away for good; off to her big sister on the far side of the world. I lay on the floor for a full day – it might have been two – just looking at the ceiling, raging and raving, before eventually calming down and accepting the permanence of this vacuum in my heart. Life must go on but my anger never left; nor did my sense of betrayal and loss. I was angry for weeks. I was angry for years. I still am; but not at Joanie; never at Joanie. No, all my bitter antagonism was blindly aimed at Tommy, and someday I’d make him pay.
Anyway, one evening I realised I was watching the End of the World on TV. I also realised, because I’m no fool, that this undead maelstrom would simply swallow me effortlessly. Despite my modest wealth I had nowhere effective to hide that wouldn’t have a thousand frightened souls already there before me, all clamouring violently for entry. I was sitting there in my armchair, numbed with growing terror, when the phone bleeped. I picked it up fairly quickly as I always do; always hoping that one day it’d be Joanie telling me she’s coming home.
“Tommy,” I said coldly. “Why don’t you just fuc…”
“Hear me out Charlie, please,” he interrupted nervously. “Things are getting sorta dodgy out there on the streets so I’m just checking that you’re okay, y’know?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Well, because it’s just not looking good, is it? I’ve already moved Jenny and Debbie out to Connemara.”
Something pinged in my head. “Your Martello tower?”
“Yeah. But hey, the Living Dead; can you believe it?” he snorted as if it was a joke. “Anyway listen; I’ll cut to the chase. Me and Jenny were talking and…look, Charlie, I know you don’t want to know me, but… But I owe you a big one and it’s just that we’ve got a spare room up for grabs in the tower – if you’re interested, that is,” he added quickly. “I mean, I’ll fully understand it if you’re not… after, you know…. that’d be quite alright. It’s small, but it’s totally secure. And we’re well stocked too.”
I held the phone and watched the smoke and the madness blossom on TV. An offer like Tommy’s at a time like this was pure gold dust except…except that Tommy would be there too, wouldn’t he? But beggars can’t be choosers and I reasoned quickly that Jenny and Debbie would be distraction enough for me so I decided to accept his invitation. It was a no-brainer really but it took all my willpower to actually say yes to the creep.
“Ah, Charlie, that’s brilliant! Brilliant!” He gushed, maybe mistaking my acceptance as forgiveness. “It’ll be great to see you again. Do you know what Jenny and Debs said when I suggested calling you? They said you’d bring a touch of class to the old place – what with your good table manners and charm and all.”
“Well Tommy, tell them that I only use my charm when I’m dealing with scumbags like you. Or with the judiciary, I suppose.” There was a dead silence at his end until I laughed; letting him know I was only kidding. Then he laughed, too. Prick.
“Yeah, scumbags and the judiciary,” he agreed uneasily. “And I’ll tell you what else as well, Charlie; I’ll even let you play with my new guns if you promise to leave that sharp tongue of yours at the door. I’d hate for it to go off by accident and cut the head off one of us.”
“Perish the thought,” I said. “Anyway, I expect you have a big shopping list all ready for me, don’t you?”
Tommy’s Martello tower stood well off the beaten track at the top of a lonely Atlantic cliff. When I saw it silhouetted against a vast blue sky filled with soft edged cirrus I thought I might actually like it here. I drove my packed van through an ancient roadside gate and up a steep, windswept, stony track. A couple of other vans were already parked in the Martello’s squat shadow and three figures waved at me from the rooftop parapet.
Tommy once described his tower as… an upside down flowerpot. It even had a bloody big cannon on the roof to blow Boney back to France! The structure stands fifteen metres tall and about the same in diameter. A small wind turbine had replaced the old gun on the flat roof, its flashing blades like vertical car spoilers spinning in the fresh Atlantic breeze. The only entrance is through a small reinforced door situated halfway up the tower. Directly overhanging this is the sinister stone box of a murder hole.
Blazing white gulls wheeled and screeched above the spray of the boundless green ocean. I got out of the van and admired the sweeping panoramic views until Tommy ruined it all by poking his head through the door above.
“Charlie!” he yelled down the lightweight metal staircase. He wore his familiar stupid grin and had his arms open wide in welcome, the idiot. My initial instinct was to run up the steps and throttle him on the spot but I’d promised myself I’d play the game for the sake of Jenny and Debbie, both of whom I was genuinely fond.
“My god, Tommy,” I exclaimed, impressed, as he guided me deferentially up the stairs, through the thick stone wall and into the body of this solid edifice. “How did you get planning permission to revamp all this?”
Everything is curved and rounded and tasteful; even the ceiling. This mid-level area is divided into three small, windowless bedrooms and a bathroom. Whatever floor space remains is considered living area. The interior is dark by default and the roof mounted turbine powers the lighting that Tommy had installed.
Jenny and Debbie clattered their way down a stairway concealed within the wall itself. Seeing the girls after so long gave me an unexpected boost. Jenny looked really good. I smiled sadly, feeling Joanie’s living ghost hovering nearby. She’d always stuck very close to me whenever Tommy’s wife was in the vicinity. Jenny threw her arms around me, gave me a big wet kiss on the cheek and refused to let me go.
“Jaysus Jen,” Tommy said with forced joviality as the embrace continued. “Don’t break him. He only just got here.”
“I won’t break him,” she smiled and held me out at arm’s length. “Oh Charlie, you look really good.”
Debbie hugged me, too. She’d always been a fantastic, funny kid and I was really pleased to see her. “Look at you,” I said. “You’re growing up lovely.”
“Oh, go on with you, Uncle Charlie,” she smiled. “It’s great to see you again. And you don’t smell of pee at all like Dad said you would.”
“What?” Tommy yelped in alarm. “I never said that.”
“Just kidding,” she whispered and we snickered together.
“This place is so cosy!” I said. “It must have cost a bomb to renovate.”
“Well, it’s about to pay for itself,” said Jenny. “Have you heard the latest news?”
“New York? Yes.”
“Unbelievable,” Tommy sighed as we trooped from the tower to unload the van. “An unarmed, brainless, undead rabble routed the US Army. Can you imagine that? Attack helicopters and all. The centre has fallen, Charlie.” We packed everything into the windowless cellar. Tommy reckons we can hold out for a year or more and I took his word for it; him having cooked the books for the most pious in the land and, as he liked to boast, for one or two of the bishops as well.
Later, on the roof, he made a big show of activating a winch, which raised the hinged outer stairs away from ground level. He’d really thought of everything. We watched it climb slowly above the reach of any raiders.
“That’s it now, boys and girls,” he announced cheerfully. “The door is locked, the drawbridge is raised and we’re fully stocked for siege.”
“So, who brought the can opener, then?” I asked innocently, smiling at his unsure expression. He’d obviously never heard that old joke. “Seriously though, what happens if people come along and ask to get in?”
“Well, we take their can opener, I suppose,” Debbie said brightly. “Why?”
“Because some are coming up the track.”
“Oh god,” Tommy whispered, staring over the parapet. “It’s the Dead. They’re already here. They’ve seen us.”
“Maybe we should go below for a little while,” suggested Jenny nervously and that’s exactly what we did. As I followed them down this claustrophobic, shoulder hugging vertical pipe I decided that the Brits of yore must have hired the shoemaker’s elves especially to build these terrifyingly narrow spiral steps.
There was no escaping it. This morning we held a polite, mature and calm discussion in which Tommy painfully bared his soul about how much he desired to atone for all the misery he’d caused and it made for cringe inducing listening. As he blathered selfishly on about how much he’d suffered for his badness I quietly refrained from mentioning that my Joanie is still gone, my heart is still broken and my former best friend is still the conniving, deceitful cause of it all. So, in the true spirit of forgiveness, I decided I was going to kill him. I mean, why not? I’ll just wait and see how things pan out in the coming weeks and months – you know, bide my time. Then I’d stop his clock. But in the meantime I’m quite happy to have him believe that our animosity is over and he’s absolutely delighted to think that he has his old friend back.
In the end we all shared a few wry smiles and some agreeable nods. I also felt a palpable sense of relief that we’d gotten through all this stupid soul searching without the horror of a group hug rearing its ugly head. That would have blown my cover for sure, and probably my breakfast too.
We’re seeing a lot more of the Dead. Over the last few days we’ve watched them stumble in packs along the road out of Clifden. The infection seems to be spreading fast. What a nightmare it must be for those unfortunates with nowhere to hide.
They move pretty aimlessly unless they catch sight of us on the roof; then they lurch with purpose up the steep stony track and bump stupidly against the base of the tower. Unfortunately we can’t see directly downwards from the roof as the parapet wall is two metres thick. It also slopes down and away from the top, which means it’s too dangerous to stand on, so we’re effectively blind for a fifty metre radius all around.
However, the commotion the Dead makes attracts others. To keep them quiet Tommy and I squeezed into the murder hole chamber and began to nervously pick off any that wandered below the tower door. We took turns firing his Winchester .308 rifle and I soon discovered that this pastime satisfied me immensely. Killing seems to feed some creepy, untapped part of my nature, which is a deliciously nice thing to discover – what with my growing intentions towards Tommy and all.
Once I got into it I refused to give him back the rifle and by the time I got the call for dinner there was a respectable pile of corpses slumped motionless below. We later agreed to take turns. Each of us will have our own designated killing days.
Today being Tommy’s killing day I broke out my watercolours to capture the wildness and beauty of this wonderful countryside. I’m years out of practise so I must admit that my efforts are pretty laughable but everyone is very polite and complementary; except perhaps for Debbie who, as a prank, attached one of my failed sketches to the fridge and wrote: Uncle Charlie, aged 4 on it in crayon. I made a passable show of chuckling along with her little teenage joke but later, as I prepared dinner, I covertly spat a fat green one into her mashed potato. This helped me to tolerate some additional comments at my artistic expense as we dined.
Towards evening Debbie’s muffled voice echoed down the spiral stairs. “Come on up and take a look at this,” she cried. We clambered out on the roof like submariners emerging on a conning tower to gawp at the strangest, reddest sunset I think I’ve ever seen. The western heavens were awash with dull, dusty reds. Unusually too, there were subtle patches of green in the mix.
“That looks so weird,” said Jenny. “Like it sort of… lacks something,”
“It does seem a bit flat, all right,” the artist in me agreed as orange tinted seagulls wheeled about the spinning turbine blades. I briefly considered going below to grab my watercolours but I was afraid I’d miss some aspect of this rare display if I did.
After several days of enjoying the most colourful morning and evening skies the weather has finally taken a turn for the worst; clouds and rain rolled in from the choppy Atlantic and the temperature dropped dramatically. Visibility has closed right in. On waking, we spent a large part of the morning searching the tower for the source of a burning smell but it transpired that it came from outside. The best theory we have is that nearby Clifden must be on fire.
Dark, heavy clouds remain low overhead and it’s been particularly gloomy all day. The only patch of colour I saw was a bright corporate logo on a corpse’s shirt and the gouts of brown liquid I subsequently blew from its head as it climbed up the mound of its fallen comrades to get at me.
I’m increasingly concerned by the growing number of dead lying packed and crushed against the stonework below the murder hole. With every bullet fired this mound grows higher and I fear that soon the Dead will simply walk up this fleshy embankment and knock politely at our door. I suggested over lunch that we should go out and clear away these accumulating bodies before they pose us all a serious health risk. I used words like cholera, hepatitis and tuberculosis to bolster my argument. There was some sensible grumbling about it being too dangerous at the moment so I considered myself outvoted. I’ll just continue to thank the god of sea breezes for keeping the stench away.
The ever-present gulls seem to have developed a curious taste for corpse meat. Flocks of them descend on the pile and devour whatever they can get. The braver birds even dine directly off some of the walking ones. Debbie and I watched what must have been a particularly tasty, plodding corpse make its way up the track wearing a rather fashionable crown of squawking gannets, its entire head buried beneath a frenzied mass of flapping wings.
“Hey, Uncle Charlie,” Debs laughed. “Let’s go down there and get ourselves some of that tasty corpse. I mean, all those birds can’t be wrong. That one must be delicious.”
“I’m game,” I said. “But best not. You’re cooking tonight and you’ll probably just burn it.” Eventually, almost as one, the gannets exploded raucously from its stripped down skull when it strolled eyeless over the cliff.
“Wow,” said Debs. “That was pretty cool.”
It hasn’t rained for days but nevertheless the cloud cover is getting heavier and heavier. These are by far the dullest, darkest days I can ever remember. It grew even colder overnight and the roof is slippery with frost. This is unusual for this time of year so I stayed below for most of the day.
Every now and again I heard the muffled crack of a gunshot as Debbie de-brained another cadaver. She says it’s getting increasingly difficult to see through the midday murk; that the Dead emerge from it like ghosts, only becoming visible when halfway up the track.
“The mist is that heavy, then?” I asked.
“But that’s just the thing, you see?” she said. “There is no mist, it’s just plain dark.”
As a solution to our narrow field of fire problem – that is, only being able to shoot the dead through the murder hole, Tommy triumphantly produced a safety harness that the renovation crew had discarded. We went to the roof and he put it on, clipping the lanyard to an old gun bracket and climbing up on the sloped, frosty parapet wall. He moved with confidence knowing that if he slipped and fell he could be hauled back up again. He even leaned out over the brink and took some shots directly downwards. I neglected to tell him that this was really, really stupid because he’d irritated me immensely with his smug, I’m so inventive attitude.
He leaned even further out, showing off now, and I gazed thoughtfully at the taut lanyard and wondered what would happen if I was cleaning my nails with my knife and… oh, accidentally slipped on the frost, you know… tragically slicing through the cord as I grabbed it to save myself from stumbling. I began patting my pockets in earnest for my blade when Debbie emerged from below.
“Daddy!” she yelled abruptly. “Get back in here at once!” Goddamn meddling kid.
Well, it had to happen, didn’t it? I said we should clear away all those stinking corpses, right? Well, we didn’t, and over the last couple of days we’ve all become sick; headaches, fever, nausea and worse. The bathroom is continually occupied and I’m fearful for our toilet paper supply. We’ve tried every medication in the kit but to no avail. Debbie and Jenny seem to be the worst hit; Tommy maybe not so bad; and me even a little bit less, I suppose – and I feel really awful. Tommy actually blamed Debbie’s cooking, can you believe that?
I suggested once again that we go outside and move the corpses before we get worse; just toss them into the ocean or something, and that’s exactly what we did. When the coast was clear Tommy winched the outside stairs to the ground and we ventured into the miserable morning gloom.
The dense black cloud was like a weight on our shoulders. Flocks of irritated gulls took flight from the corpse pile and settled on the parapet wall above, fouling it and cursing us loudly from the upper shadows. Debbie kept a lookout from the door with the rifle but Jenny remained inside, too sick to help. There was a considerable amount to do; over eighty bodies of various shapes and sizes to dump.
“Why aren’t those bleeding gulls bigger,” muttered Tommy through his paper mask. “Then they could’ve eaten this lot and made our job so much easier.”
It was the most unpleasant thing I’ve ever had to do. It was tough, wet, stinking work, and the rats didn’t help. The smell was beyond belief. We began at the top, close to the underside of the door. We climbed up the decomposing pile and pulled the corpses down one by one. Each time we shifted a body a new reservoir of maggots and liquidy decay was exposed with stomach-churning consequences. Unspeakable fluids ran in viscous rivers from the bottom of the mound and pooled in little lakes against the base of the stonework. Small wonder we’re sick. Those crushed lower down tended more towards liquefaction and I could feel the meat slough off their bones through their wet clothes as we pulled them from their resting place. We dragged each one to the cliff with gloved hands and pushed them over the edge with our feet. As we laboured through this foulness Debbie put down several incoming corpses. We dumped those too.
As the last cadaver tumbled into the sea we felt so wretched that we slumped miserably to our knees at the cliff edge, panting thinly through our masks. A dry wind cooled our dripping brows and gulls flew from the shadows of the tower and dropped gracefully through the dark to the broken bodies below. Tommy’s gaze followed, engrossed by the seagulls antics as they fought for decomposing scraps on the sea washed rocks. It was here that I saw the perfect opportunity for retribution. I decided to deal with Tommy right here and now, for me and for Joanie. It would be so easy to explain how he got careless and just slipped…
I staggered as I stood and moved into position behind him, glancing quickly towards the tower. Debbie was just a vague shape in the murk. She seemed to be looking the other way but I couldn’t be certain in this light. I gazed at the back of Tommy’s head; my heart pumping, and I raised my shaking hands and moved forward…
“Dad! Uncle Charlie! Hurry up! Come on!”
Feckin…goddamned…bastarding Debbie! Tommy, oblivious of his narrow escape, backed away from the edge as I mentally screamed in frustration, cursing Debbie and her timing. I was furious that my opportunity had been thwarted at the very last second.
We pulled ourselves wearily up the clanging metal steps and paused at the tower door to catch our breaths again. Tommy took the rifle and went to the roof to winch up the stairs. I shut and bolted the heavy wooden door, seething coldly. Debs brushed at a patch of dried puke on her blouse as the stairs began to rise, the skin on her hands was red and chaffed, her chin spotted from a nosebleed.
“Uncle Charlie,” she whispered. “Will we have to do all that again? That was really scary out there today.”
Was it? Well good, you interfering little sow. “Oh, don’t be scared, Debs.” I said. “You did really great out there.” If she’s really that fearful, then I knew exactly how to repay her for scuppering my impulsive plan.
“Oh my god!” I whispered in fake alarm. “What on earth was that?”
“What?” she said. “Where?”
“Just there. I thought I saw a large shape move across the outside of the door.” I made a big show of peering into the night-dark evening through the little inset window. Debbie pushed me aside, pressing her face hard against the glass.
“Where did it go?” she whispered urgently.
“I don’t know, but you stay here; I’ll go up on the roof and check. If it’s nothing I’ll be right back down, okay? Straight back, I promise.”
“Hurry, Uncle Charlie,” she cried. “Hurry! Okay?”
“Back in a jiffy,” I lied, cruelly intent on letting her sweat it out for a half an hour or so. I made my way painfully up the spiral steps on all fours, utterly exhausted by my long day’s toils. I stank of sickness and death. A pall of decay clung to me, seeping out from my soiled clothes. I could taste it on my swollen tongue and ragged throat.
Tommy lay near a fresh puddle of puke, half slumped on the frozen rooftop, his shoulder and neck leaning uncomfortably against the parapet as he gazed dully at the louring cloud. He looked almost dead but no such luck. I sat heavily across from him and coughed, tasting blood. Unseen gulls cried sharply in the dark.
“Those feckin seagulls,” he whispered faintly. “I can’t stand them. They never shut up squawking and bellyaching.” After a while he shuffled to his feet and staggered off below, clutching his guts and shaking his head. He’d left the rifle behind and so, having time to spare, I pulled the harness on and climbed heavily up on the parapet wall.
A newly arrived corpse was already poking around below so I brought the rifle to my shoulder and took a lacklustre shot at it.
“Oh!” It cried.
I gasped in shock. A woman; a survivor. It was just so hard to see properly in this cursed light.
“Move out to where I can see you,” I croaked, and when she did I lined her up carefully and popped her neatly in the brainpan.
I couldn’t sleep with the stink in the tower so I crawled up to the rooftop in the dead of the night in search of fresh air. As I sat with my back to the parapet I heard a low grumbling noise. It was distant; no doubt about that, and powerful. I clutched my blanket tighter around me knowing it wasn’t thunder. It wasn’t an earthquake either because the tower remained steady. I got to my feet and peered myopically into the surrounding darkness, seeing nothing but listening hard.
These noises were deep and grinding, at the very limit of my hearing; low and huge and threatening. My primordial hindbrain was convinced that something monstrous lurked out there in the night, regarding me unblinkingly, preparing to snatch me clean off the roof at any given second, whereas rational thought kept me rooted solidly in place. Nevertheless, every part of me that could stand on end – or shrivel up – stood on end and shrivelled up, so I scuttled shamelessly off to the murder hole chamber and cowered in a corner until the noises eventually faded away.
I described the sounds to the others but they’d heard nothing. They were so preoccupied with their worsening symptoms that I’m not even sure that they listened to me.
Debbie has taken up residence in the narrow entry door alcove. She sits there for hours just cradling a shotgun and gazing through the inset windows.
“What’re you up to Debs?” I asked, noting the dark rings below her eyes.
“Oh, just keeping watch, Uncle Charlie,” she rasped through her inflamed throat. “I don’t want them getting in the door. You know, catching us by surprise.”
“But the Dead can’t climb, Debs.”
“But… but you saw something outside, Uncle Charlie, didn’t you?”
Oh, shite. Now I understood. I’d only meant to scare the girl but it looked like I’d knocked something askew in her poor, weakened mind. I was genuinely disgusted with myself. Tommy was right to tell me to leave my tongue at the door.
“Aw, now listen Debs,” I said very carefully. “I’m not really sure that I actually saw anything at all that time. I even put on the harness and looked around the outside walls so I’m positive I just imagined it, really, so there’s no need for you to be sitting here. Wouldn’t you prefer to be taking pot shots on the roof with your Dad?”
“I haven’t the energy to climb the steps, so I’d prefer to just sit here. Anyway, I’m happier here. You know, keeping an eye out, just in case.”
“But Debs,” I persisted. “I saw nothing, honest. Really I didn’t. Besides, the murder hole is directly above us. Our bullets go whizzing by less than half a metre from where you’re sitting.”
“I’ll be okay. You all know I’m here.”
Shite. I really need to convince Debs that I’d seen nothing at all, but in such a way that won’t expose me as a mean spirited bollocks. I considered discussing it with Jenny but she’d kept to her bed and I won’t talk to Tommy if I don’t have to. Frankly I feel so sick and weary I’m not really bothered doing anything about Debbie right now, anyway.
We’re getting worse. The sour smell of sickness permeates the tower like an unclean miasma. We sprawl limply across the seats in the living area, wheezing and coughing and bleeding. The bathroom is constantly in use and the chemical toilet bucket has gotten too heavy for any one person to dispose of alone.
The power failed unexpectedly this afternoon, plunging us into darkness. Tommy stumbled off with his toolbox to check the turbine while I fumbled around blindly looking for candles. Jenny crept from her room to see what was up. I got a real shock because she looked like she’d aged twenty years. She had a nosebleed, and more alarmingly, a clump of her hair was gone.
“Jenny,” I gasped and she touched her lip in the flickering flame. “Oh no,” she said. “This is becoming a real pain.”
“No, I mean your hair…” I began.
“My hair?” she muttered sarcastically. “Hairdressers just aren’t taking appointments these days, Charlie…”
“I didn’t mean that,” I explained, but she’d already shuffled off to the bathroom. When her shocked cries rang through the tower Debbie just stirred at the door whereas Tommy almost fell down the steps in his rush to see what was up.
“It’s Jenny,” I explained. “It’s really quite odd,” and off he scurried to investigate. I waited until they reappeared, Tommy leading her gently by the arm.
“Charlie,” he said. “Can we have a little bit of light over here please so I can settle her back into bed?”
None of us ate today. Debbie sits and stares through the little window with lifeless, dull eyes; unwashed. I sat and held Jenny’s hand while Tommy continued to work on the turbine. She’s withdrawn entirely inside her own head; lethargic, anxious and unable to sleep. She asked me nervously if Joanie was out on the roof with Tommy and I told her no, she wasn’t. At one point she slouched from room to room, tapping the walls; looking for the source of a murmured conversation that I couldn’t hear. As I watched her I felt one of my teeth click loosely around in its socket.
Tommy got the power back up and both he and I left the tower briefly this afternoon to clear away our more recent kills. There were noticeably fewer seagulls lining the parapet and I lacked the strength and the will to push him to his death.
“Your marksmanship’s improving,” he grunted as we rolled the carcass of the woman I’d shot over the cliff. I’d already rummaged through her backpack and presented Tommy with her can opener. He just smirked wanly and threw it after her.
Tommy absently tossed several dead gulls off the roof before slumping down heavily beside me, both of us wrapped up in blankets like refugees. We glumly eyed a solid black cliff of slick, oily clouds as they crawled in low across the invisible sea. It was only eleven in the morning. I could see in the gloaming that he looked as bad as I felt, and for the second day running I lacked the energy for antagonism.
“What did they infect us with Tommy, do you reckon?”
“Who, the Dead?” he said softly. “Nothing, Charlie. Forget about them. They’re no longer a problem. In fact, they’re just an inconvenience compared with what’s coming.”
“What? What’s coming?”
He nodded towards the sky. “See that? That’s not a normal cloud, is it? It’s too dark, too deep. There’s no rain in it. I suspect it’s mostly smoke and soot because no sunlight’s getting through.”
“Soot? From where?”
“Pakistan probably,” he said slowly. “Iran. They were butting heads, remember? Well, I think they’ve gone and nuked each other and if they did, then maybe fifty or sixty big Middle Eastern cities have gone up in smoke, along with refineries, oilfields and all the rest of it. The detonations and the burnings would have lifted all this soot and shite into the stratosphere. I guess the Jetstream took it from there and plonked it right down here on top of us in Galway.” He paused to cough. “So, you see that there, Charlie. See that dirty plume? That’s probably a bit of Karachi, that is. And that one over there? A small suburb of Tehran, complete with local populace.”
“Jaysus.” I said. “Are you sure? How long will all this stay overhead?”
He shook his head. “Hard to say. I’m only guessing; but I’d say the U.S. nuked some home targets too to sterilise urban centres. That’s what I’d do, anyway; so see that billow passing us by? That there’s the Brooklyn Bridge. And that burning smell? Ha! We thought it was just our own little Clifden aflame when really it was the whole world. And just look at the state of us now, Charlie; exposed to all this dirty fallout.”
“Fallout?” I gasped in alarm.
“Well yes, of course. What did you think is causing our nausea and bleeding bowels? My loose teeth, Jenny’s hair loss? Even our blistered skin indicates radiation poisoning. I only realised it after we’d dumped all those bodies and still got no better. I should have herded us into the cellar last week but I just didn’t recognise the symptoms, feckin eejit that I am. I’m sorry Charlie, but I think it’s already too late for us. We’ve been overexposed.” He shuffled uncomfortably and looked at his feet. “Jenny, already I think, is…Jenny is…”
But I wasn’t listening. I was in shock. I gazed blankly into a bowl of darkness and imagined the harsh radioactive dust tingling in my lungs. I couldn’t really take this in; that it’s really, really over; that we aren’t going to make it through alive. Radiation. My head was abuzz with this devastating bombshell but I wasn’t ready to give up, not just yet. Certainly not before Tommy snuffs it, anyway.
“…but this is nothing,” he was murmuring. “There’s a lot worst to come.”
“Worse?” I snapped angrily. “How could it possibly get worse, you twat?”
“Well,” he said tiredly, ignoring my tone. “What about all those nuclear plants that’re dotted around the globe? Eh? I mean, who’s maintaining them? Is the power to keep their reactors cooled still flowing? I’ll bet it’s not. Maybe a handful of stations held out against the undead but that’s about it; a handful. So logically all the rest are melting down; all four hundred plus worldwide. Most have multiple reactors too, not to mention tons and tons of untended spent fuel rods.”
I stared at him as he shook his head in horror, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I guarantee it Charlie, Chernobyl and Fukushima were just little gnat’s farts compared to the radiation storm that’s about to sterilise this planet, land and sea.”
Jenny died. We were with her as she breathed her last and Tommy asked for some time alone with her body. Debbie crawled up the steps to the roof but I remained outside of Tommy’s room and waited.
The door was open a crack so I sat and watched him place mittens on Jenny’s bony hands and tape them to her wasted wrists. I saw him cut a pillowcase in half and force it gently between her toothless gums, filling out her cheeks. Then he kissed her softly on the lips and sealed them shut with strips of duct tape. Funny, really. Here we have the most adulterous bastard in the universe yet he still loves his wife. I picked up the Winchester in preparation for the inevitable.
“Tommy,” I said, when he came out, “we’ll have to eh…you know, look after Jenny. You know what I mean? What I’m talking about?”
“I do. But I’ll organise that end of things myself Charlie, if you don’t mind. Okay?” he said, avoiding my gaze. Lying sod.
“I’ll do it for you if you like.”
“I said I’ll look after it.”
We stood there wearily eyeballing each other, too sick to argue. I considered just wasting him there and then like I’d promised myself but Debbie needed him right now. Then I considered just shunting him aside and doing it myself anyway but the idea of him shooting her was much more satisfying.
“Do what you like, then,” I said, pushing the rifle on him.
I found Debbie collapsed on the roof; a woollen cap pulled tightly over her balding head, loose strings of mousey hair twirling in the frigid wind. I felt a sudden gush of compassion for this sociable girl. She was only a kid, after all. She felt tiny and fragile as I sat her up and wrapped my arms protectively around her. It was like holding a bag of sticks. I averted my face from the tang of sickness on her breath.
“I’m so sorry about your Mum,” I said. “I don’t know what to say. We all loved her.”
“Thanks, Uncle Charlie,” she whispered, her dark rimmed eyes barely visible in the light.
“Anyway, your dads looking after her now,” I said. “You know… so she won’t come back.”
She nodded meekly as I gazed into the howling dark, wrapping us both in my coat to keep her warm with my body heat, waiting to hear that single, telling gunshot from below which never came. After a while Debbie said: “I’m cold, Uncle Charlie. I’m going to go back down now.”
I leaned against the cold parapet wall and considered what was coming. I thought about all of humanities wonderful inventions, our technologies and art; of all our advancements since we first crawled from the ooze. Soon it would be utterly meaningless, a total waste of time; tens of thousands of years of our labour and brainpower was about to fall outside of any living memory.
Debbie’s gone. I didn’t think she’d leave so soon but she did. I found her this morning in her chair; eyes open, staring through the window. Tommy shut himself into her room with her body to “look after the necessary arrangements.” I was depressed beyond words. I was like a lost little boy; utterly lonely and thoroughly frightened. For the second time in two days I sat and waited while Tommy prepared his dead for…I don’t know what for – I just don’t know.
We sat together after, our lips stained red from bleeding gums, our shirt fronts spotted from nosebleeds. Exposed skin covered in weeping sores. I picked at a fingernail and it just fell off.
Jenny stumbled from her lightless room and wrapped her mittened arms tightly around me. She pushed her face roughly into mine and snarled through her duct tape gag before I remembered she was dead. I yelped in fright. I realised that this yellow, hairless, bony creature was starving; simply ravenous, and had more than enough strength to overpower me.
“Now, Jenny,” Tommy scolded her stupidly as he bundled her corpse back into their bedroom. She struggled and moaned. I don’t know where he found the strength to overwhelm her. I just stood there watching, furious. He’d chickened out of shooting her and she could have infected me just there. I’m already a dead man but that would have been a stupid way to die. I shook with anger and picked up the Winchester.
Tommy secured his dead wife somehow and returned, leaning heavily against the bedroom doorframe exhausted, his legs close to folding. He smiled a ghastly, gap tooth smile full of apology and regret.
“I’m finished, Charlie,” he whispered. “So I’m going to leave you now. It was really, really good to see you again. I’m genuinely sorry for what I did to you and Joanie, really I am, but well, I’m just so glad you came back to me.” He began to shut the door; to lock himself away with Jenny’s corpse forever, but I had a different notion.
“Wait, Tommy,” I croaked and fired from the hip. The bullet took him in the side and he folded to the floor with a grunt. With a weak, fragile old man’s caution I stepped gingerly over him and into his room. A single plastic cable tie was all that secured Jenny’s wrist to an old wall ring. As she reached out to tackle me I shot her in the head.
Debbie seemed only ten years old as she lay peacefully on her bed. Her mouth was taped and her hands were gloved but she hadn’t turned yet. Tommy had carefully braided her hair and I found this rather touching. “Sleep tight, little Debs. I’m so very sorry for frightening you the other day.”
Tommy hadn’t moved when I returned. I poked him with the hot gun barrel, my ears still ringing from the shot that finished Debs. He moaned weakly, his eyes opening and meeting mine.
“That was for Joanie.” I told him. “Do you understand?”
He seemed confused, betrayed even. I almost laughed. How ironic. “Do you understand me, Tommy?” I repeated, and when he gave me a tiny nod I plugged him right between the eyes. I gazed expectantly at his body for about five minutes, waiting for that glorious feeling of victory to suffuse me.
“Well, bastard on it,” I eventually hissed bitterly and threw the rifle aside. I still felt empty and befuddled.
I stood on the roof confounded by the dark, by the freezing wind, by the black, scudding clouds; by how utterly, existentially alone I was. It was much too dark to see very far but I could hear the grumble and hiss of the waves beyond the cliff. I ignored the harness and climbed out on top of the parapet wall. I stood at the brink on wobbly legs and faced into the west. I had no idea what I was doing; I just knew I had no interest whatsoever in taking another breath on this bleak, bereaved day.
Then, to my astonishment, a low angled sunbeam flickered into existence and bloomed in the dark smoky distance. It flared across the faraway whitecaps like a searchlight, gaining strength, soft edged and silent; a warm reminder of the sunshine that exists forever above this treacly, tumbling filth. My heart lifted at this spectral sight.
This incandescent shaft of light cut through the darkness as it cruised smoothly landward, dimming and brightening as high altitude clouds billowed and parted. A few kilometres offshore it revealed to me the source of those mysterious nighttime noises. A maritime graveyard of distressed ocean going vessels flared starkly into view and dissolved back into shadow as if scrutinised and rejected. They’d been beached chaotically by the poisoned westerly’s; tilted and angled, their ruined keels ripped to pieces by the offshore rocks as powerful Atlantic rollers pounded their sides.
I deliberately waited until the sunbeam slipped over the cliff top before gazing skywards and when I did I was rewarded with a precious glimpse of glorious blue before growing dazzled by the ever-brightening glare.
“Oh, Joanie,” I murmured. “You should see this.”
Then the tower and I blazed out like beacons in the polluted night. I opened my arms to gather in the fleeting sun. The heat baked my emaciated, freezing frame. The air sizzled with life giving radiance. Oh! This surge of well-being; this flood of goodness, this utter warm delight…I shuffled three steps forward to meet it… for I mustn’t let it end…