The heat of the morning sun forces me from my canvas home and out onto the flat gravel world. I drink greedily of my meagre water and wrench the two foam stops from my ears. The low monotone rumbles becoming distinctive moans from my dead neighbours below. My heart sinks.
I crunch across the gun shop roof towards the door, locked and wedged shut with my heavy pack. Sliding it out of the way I listen. Six days of scratching and shuffling becomes seven and I don’t know if I have the will to open the door. Slowly, I turn the key and hear excitement rise from below. Hesitantly, I open the door and the carpet of foetid stinking hands below grasp through the broken stair well to the bottom edge of the door, hunger increasing every day. I close the door quickly, lock it and wedge the pack back against it. One more day trapped in my new home, my new prison.
I don’t want to look over the edge just yet so I retrieve a tin of beef stew. It was all so rushed I packed food for a month before retreating up here but it was all dried meals, and I didn’t have time to lug all the water up here I needed. The relentless morning beats heat against my scalp so I sit half in half out the tent for shade while I finish and rub my finger against the tin insides to get the last gravy. I throw the tin over the edge and stretch, clicking my back in several places. My routine finishes with the wind up radio but each morning I spend progressively less time flicking through the channels as hope fades in the sea of static and low moans around me. I lay back with my head inside and close my eyes. I want to sleep but I’m well rested, at least sleep takes me from this nightmare, even if it is just temporary transport through a moments blessed blankness to another nightmare. Nothing left now but to survey the kingdom.
Under the tarp sunshade I find the rifle, powerful, accurate, silenced, with a high magnification sight. I nestle it into my bruised shoulder and lie under the tarp. Boxes of ammo form one side of my shelter, yet I took this over water? Idiot. I check the gun over ignoring the mag within, I know it’s full, the gun looks ok. I place it reverently on the ground for in it lies the seed of hope, now shrivelled and warped by sheer numbers below.
First of all I slide forward and peek at the street below, just before I look I imagine it clear, with a few cars parked and a man posting letters across the street. The cute girl with the terrier sashays past my window at eight twenty three, just like every morning. After a week my mind still expects this view even with the sounds rising from the street below. Below the Zombies wait, unmoving, passive. Like a snapshot of a normal world they stand resolute. I look round for my favourites, Clown Boy, Skater Chic, Mr Banker, are all there, somewhere in the street. I avoid looking at the horrible ones, Spiderman, the young boy with the flesh flayed off his back, Ironside, the disabled guy still in his wheelchair rolling around in circles with his one good arm and worst of all ‘Mother’. I recognise with my peripheral vision her outline and that marks the spot where I won’t look today. I just hope she doesn’t move and if she does I hope she moves far away, dragging the thing on reins with her, once again I toy with shooting her but it would mean looking at her again and I just can’t face it. From three stories up a quick look would tell you it was a busy morning on a normal city street, but look again and the pools of blood and missing limbs appear as a record of horror and death etched on each face and body. Smashed cars, overturned trucks and the tanker slewed into the wall of the music shop complete the vignette.
I look up and down the straight city street, in the distance the heat makes shimmering heads of the distant crowd, as far as the eye can see in any direction they wander aimlessly or stand staring at a world that no longer exists.
Suddenly I feel a ripple go through the crowd below, flock-like they turn towards something unseen. I can hear the screech of tyres on tarmac. I go to the edge of the roof in the direction the Dead below are looking. Over the engine I can hear whump, whump. The sound of body panels hitting bodies. Looking up the street I see about thirty zombies on the street corner go shambling out of view up the road. More screeching tyres and I run and pick up the sniper rifle and a few mags. I lay them on the low wall in front of me, put on leg on the wall and rest my elbow on it, settling into the sights. More Zombies run down the side street towards the noise just as a large SUV careers, screaming round the corner towards my position. Its battered and several Zombies are hanging from the roof rails and spare tyre. It straightens up to go down my street but the driver over compensates and ends up on the two opposite side wheels. Closer now, he tries to correct again and clips the corner of an upturned truck.
The SUV spins stalling to a stop, flicking bodies off it like a pinball bumper. It’s two hundred feet away, nicely in range. I flick the safety and get ready. There are already hundreds of Zombies closing on the truck and more on their way as the sunroof opens and a head pops out with a pistol in front of it.
A woman in her forties climbs out of the sunroof as frantic hands grab at her. She shoots a few around her, desperately looking for escape. This wakes me from my reverie. I shoot, single shots, each as accurate as the last into the heads of those around her. She spots the dead drop but doesn’t panic or try to see me. Above her she sees the Stop Sign. She tries to lean into the jump but as she swings her leg goes into reach and they grab her. Fft fft fft, I shoot and I continue swapping mags with ruthless efficiency, but as I take them out more climb up frantic with hunger, snapping their teeth. They pull her off the roof and into the writhing mass so I can’t see which ones to shoot next. Then another figure climbs through the sunroof, but too much time has passed and the Dead now stand on each other, desperate for the food, as high as the car. They drag a young man in his twenties out of the car as he screams something unintelligible, he falls to the mass and I stop shooting. Over the frenzy I can hear the cracking of ligaments and the tearing of flesh. I drop the rifle on the roof and sprint to the tent. I fit the earplugs back in and sit in the tent, rocking, I don’t want to look over the edge any more. I don’t want to look over the edge. I don’t want to look. There is no hope. I’m gonna die up here.
Eventually I look.
The car stands there, all around are the lucky red Zombies that had a feast. I guess if there is enough of them you don’t get a chance to become one of them, you just get turned into red stains. Once again I tried to help. Once again it was futile. I cry. Not for them, for me, and after I feel better.
Retrieving the binoculars I decide to check on my silent neighbours’ progress. The mall behind was overrun so there is no need to check it, but ahead the city stretches out in archipelagos, gravel islands lifted to the sky by planning laws become desert islands in the Sea of the Dead.
I calibrate in on the Garage maybe half a mile away. ‘Bill’ and ‘Ben’ the two grease monkeys aren’t doing so well. They are still asleep on the roof (They were in different positions on the roof yesterday weren’t they?). I haven’t seen them eat or drink since this started, and yesterday I caught the tale end of an argument that nearly saw Bill thrown from the roof. I make a mental note of their positions in case they haven’t moved by tomorrow.
The girls at the deli, on the other hand, have started early morning sunbathing and are barbecuing something from the shop below, presumably using the fresh food as the city still has electric for all the use that is on my island. They have a jug of water on the table and an umbrella to keep the heat off. I bet they have Ice as well, I wish I was there.
Fuck. The office must have fallen overnight, I watch in despair as the survivors I hoped to meet if we got out of this mess now roam the roof with their new buddies. The young girl gnaws distractedly on an arm. Looking at the watch I realise it is the arm of ‘Prick boss’, I hope her Undead self enjoyed ripping the arm from him, he was a real asshole. I don’t see anyone else I recognise at the office and mentally cross it off places to look in the future.
I look closer to the Music shop just down the street. ‘Music Shop’ looks different today, he’s searching for something round the roof, not just looking over the edge or sitting on the office chair, like yesterday. The music shop is only two levels so I can see down onto his position. All four sides are tinted glass so I can’t see him when he is inside but he does pop out onto the roof occasionally. I see him peering over at my gun shop. It won’t do him any good if he does get here. Look at the shit I’m in. The artic that slewed into the building sits partway in the bottom floor, and I was surprised he wasn’t overrun, perhaps it sealed the hole it created.
Music shop is gathering something from the roof, looking closer I can see him coiling cabling in his arms. Either electric cables or phone wires I’m not sure, but he is working steadily coiling away. As he works I settle myself under the tarpaulin and watch with the binoculars.
Once he has a long length of cable he goes over to the roof and starts to uncoil it down the side. What is he doing? The cable drops until it reaches the floor. None of the Zombies seem to notice. He does something with his end and starts to pull the cable back up, coiling it as he goes. Then he uncoils it along the length of the roof and disappears back into the shop. For the rest of the day he goes up and down from the roof, measuring lengths of cable or hose and winding smaller lengths together to make something. Then late in the afternoon he stops and surveys the scene. I take stock of him properly through the binoculars. He is balding, grey haired, mid fifties maybe with a bit of a paunch and red skin from working in the sun all day. He has a wry grin on his face. I like him.
I shift my position to get more comfortable and when I look back Music Shop is tying something around his waist. Then he backs towards the edge of the roof and starts to shimmy his way down the wire he spent all morning making. He’s over the tanker wedged into the side of the building dropping slowly hand over hand down the glass sides of the building. What the hell is he doing? He drops onto the tanker roof and the Dead around him go wild, closing in around the tanker frantic for their next meal. Now he works quickly, he opens the small access hatch in the tanker, unties part of the cable he climbed down on feeds it inside and then gingerly closes the lid. On the far side I see a head pop up, followed by an arm that grasps towards Music Shop. I draw my bead and fire, an explosion of black wetness on the glass behind. Then Music Shop turns, squints in my direction and is frantically waving his arms at me. Is he committing some weird suicide? The Zombies are so densely packed they are clambering over each other and getting a grip on the top of the tanker. I see Music shop grasp his makeshift rope and start to climb, slowly.
Hand over hand he climbs, his age now betraying him. Agonising minutes with each faltering grasp I think he is going to fall. Finally he reaches over the roof and collapses on the gravel. I realise I have spent the whole time holding my breath and curling my toes in support. I relax too. To try and fathom his plan I try to see if there is an ID plate on the tanker. Unfortunately I can’t see it for Zombies. Is he siphoning off fuel for a generator when the electricity dies?
I am disappointed when Music shop slowly rises and disappears inside. I spent the whole afternoon watching him. The sun slowly sinks. I finish my water.
I’m thirsty. Bill and Ben haven’t moved since yesterday. No sign of the girls at the Deli. No sign of music shop. My shop is still full of them. I toy with the pistol.
I’m thirsty. Bill and Ben are definitely dead, but the girls in the Deli are hanging on, maybe they had sunburn and stayed inside yesterday. I have sunburn even though I’m mainly under the tarp. Weirdly I’m not as depressed as yesterday, maybe these things go in cycles.
I’m drawn to looking at the car from the crash the day before yesterday for some reason, after checking for Mother (she’s moved on I think), I inspect the vehicle. I’m sure it stalled when it crashed, if it did its still got fuel. I lean right over the edge of the roof to get the angle on the scope and the keys are definitely in it, with an interior light is still on. It still has power. My heart leaps until I see the density of the dead below. Even if I could teleport into the car I wouldn’t get it started before they ripped me out. It may as well be in the South Pacific. My island. My prison.
I sit under the tarp and watch single clouds drift across my vision in the summer sun. I stare at the girls on the deli roof. I throw gravel over the edge. I sit. I try not to think about how thirsty I am. I fail. I toy with the pistol. I stare at the sky.
A crash followed by glass hitting the floor. I can hear shouting. I fumble the gun and sweep with the scope. I miss it at first and have to sweep back. Music shop is stood on the first floor of the shop, shouting obscenities at the Dead below. Then he backs into the shop and breaks the next window, shouts some more and breaks another window. The Zombies below are wild with desire, they press up against the bottom storey grasping and tearing at each other to get to the meat. Music shop carries on breaking glass and shouting as he moves out of view around the corner. I can hear the reverberation of him as he repeats his mantra, break glass, shout, break glass, shout all the way around the building. Then silence. Silence?
Then he is on the roof waving a whiteboard at me. He props it up where I can see it and I focus in with the scope. FRIENDLY NEIGHBOURHOOD SNIPER WHATEVER HAPPENS DON’T SHOOT ME!!!!!
What? Why would I shoot Music Shop?
Then he runs to some cabling and plugs something in. There is a massive electrical bass sound and I see movement on the first floor. I realise he has arranged every speaker in the shop to face outside and I can see the speakers react to the power. Then he sits at the keyboard that I didn’t see him bring up from the shop and he starts to play.
Its quiet at first, barely audible above the roar of the dead below, but it carries. It carries so far the Deli girls can hear it and stand up to look, and I see others on buildings further away, others I haven’t seen before, other survivors coming to hear Music shop play. It starts gently as if carried on the wind. Then each note takes it higher, it is the most beautiful piece of classical music I have ever heard, and I don’t recognise it. It rises and I see all the dead turn, like a Cecil B Demille production of Thriller. It rises again and as I see the Zombies moan as one below, I cannot hear them over Music Shops’ perfectly set up sound system and I smile. They move as one towards the music.
Unconsciously I close my eyes and suddenly I’m there on the river bank, with a girl whose name I don’t remember. Laying back on the grass with the ripple of the water washing gentle tones over me, her skin against mine, laughing gently at her jokes and enjoying the freedom that summer brings while Music Shop plays an unseen score over my memory. I feel my shoulders relax at the warmth over the sun on my face and the smell of her lying across me, a perfect moment, a perfect memory long forgotten but brought here to this place of horror by his beauty. I lie back against the wall as the music detoxes my soul, and then? Oh my days, and then he sings! A beautiful baritone lifts above the city streets in Italian, from some unheard opera and once again it caresses me from this place to my perfect riverbank and for brief moments I am there with the smell of wild flowers and still waters, I feel myself sigh unconsciously and dream of her skin, her smell, her eyes and one unappreciated moment in my life consumed with consumerism and lost to vagaries of everyday life. I lie there and let him wash over me, a thin smile on my face as each note lifts the terror away, and for one brief second all is as it once was.
I blink awake and feel the riverbank fade at the noise below me, a crash, I stand and peer over the edge to see the dead streaming from the streets around and from my shop below. The Dead run, shamble and crawl towards his lilting tones, towards the power of his music. They surround his shop banging pitifully against the glass and crushing together, frantic to taste the voice above them. I close my eyes again but the moment is gone and I realise I don’t know what he is doing but by God I have to protect him, just for the glorious possibility that he sings tomorrow.
I grab the mags and line them up on the wall, I grab the empties and frantically load them dropping bullets over the sides of my island as my hands shake. I realise I have tears flowing down my face and quickly wipe them away. I haven’t saved anyone yet from my vantage point but I will save him. Somehow.
The street below is clear as I hear the crash. Thousands of Dead are so crushed up against the shop the sheer weight has shattered the safety glass and they pour in like ants over a dead bird. I glance at my watch to realise he has been playing for over an hour, long enough for each shambling corpse in earshot to add their weight to the number. I want him to stop so they will disperse and leave him be, and I want him to play to free my soul from this place for just one desperate second longer.
The crowd start to thin on that side as they enter the shop and I see a couple tumble stupidly from the smashed windows of the first floor. The rest rise up the sides of the building clambering on top of each other in their desperation.
I ready myself by getting comfortable and breathing slowly and regularly to level the sight. Music Shop faces slightly towards me as he plays and I see his chest rise and fall with each lyric. His fingers play gently across each key as he creates, in this city of destruction, a pure thing, a human thing reminding us that humanity isn’t survival, it’s creation.
Then I see the first head rise from the stairwell onto his roof, snarling and crusted with filth its milky eyes narrow at seeing him and it rises to its feet, mouth contorted in its snarling hunger. I hope my fingers can match the perfection of Music Shops playing.
It does and even from this distance I take the thing through the forehead, its skull shattering like glass and a wild hue of colours decorating the stairwell and Zombies behind. They come thick and fast now having located the source of the sound.
Crack. I shoot. It spins and falls to the ground. Crack. It falls to its knees as others push it over. Crack. Pure luck takes one and ricochets through the eye of another. Over and over I squeeze the trigger, my rhythm matching his, and I hear Music shop play as if he is at a recital. He doesn’t even see them scrambling up the stairs as I take each threat out. The pile of finally dead corpses grow as does the pile of empty magazines at my feet. I will not falter. I will grant him every second before they take him.
“No. No. No.” I whisper to myself as the tide turns. They come up in two or threes now and I have to swing wildly to target as they veer out of the stairwell stumbling towards their goal, their heads bobbing as they slip on the fallen, I find it difficult to to draw a bead and then when the mag runs out I realise they will be on him before I change it. One more I couldn’t save. I watch as they close in on him and for a moment I wish I had one bullet to save him the pain, and I remember the sign. They are barely ten feet away as he finishes. I see him pause and breathe out. Five feet. He picks something up and hold it in both hands, and then he turns and looks at me, smiling and I drop the gun from my eye. I see the distant rooftop and the trail of Zombies cover him, and I want to look away but can’t.
Then I see a flash from the side of the building and for a second the tanker bulges and warps before exploding. The white light make me squint as the shockwave takes a second to reach me. It knock me on my backside and as a wall of noise takes the air from my lungs I see glass, body parts and a guitar fly over my head. The explosion seems to last for ever and as I lie there I see a disembodied hand hit the roof not five feet from me. I wonder just how big an explosion needs to be to throw a hand a good quarter mile to my location.
Now the only sound I can hear is my ears ringing and I scramble up to the edge to see the source. I peek over and see that it wasn’t just gas in that tanker, whatever it was has levelled not only the music shop but also all the surrounding buildings and the buildings next to those, which are in the process of collapsing and finding their new shapes as the smoke rises into a mini mushroom cloud.
“Jesus!” I say to no-one in particular as I survey the scene. Papers and detritus fall languidly to the ground and small fires take root in amongst the red mist, Zombies turned to stains like their victims as the mist obscures the hole where the Music Shop used to be. I realise I never knew his name.
Then I look down. The streets are empty. No living or Dead. All I can see is the car below me and the empty street around me. I look up into the distance left and right along the road and realise they must have heard it and flocked to him, every damn one of them that could hear him. Shit I could do ‘Walking in the Rain’ down there!
My mind reels, still shocked by the blast, and suddenly I’m running. I grab the backpack and fling the door open. For the first time in a week there are no hands below me, only the ruined stairs. I turn and look once again at where the Music Shop was and smile. He knew exactly what he was doing, and not just for me but for all my island neighbours. He gave us hope and opportunity, and as I jump down into my shop I realise, for him, I will not squander either.