Tap, tap, tap.
Once again I find myself stood at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the only way out of my prison. Like a salmon returning to the spawning grounds I seem to find myself drawn there by instinct. I don’t even remember getting out of the chair and walking this far.
The tapping happens every day, never at the same time, but always on a daily basis, tapping at the only way in or out of my bunker.
It was an old bomb shelter, built at the end of my garden, a left over hole in the ground from the Second World War. I never really had any hobbies before, so when me and Michelle moved into our new house in the country I decided to turn this abandoned shelter into a place to hang out with the friends (I hoped) I would make.
Michelle left me to it. Whatever materials I didn’t use renovating the shelter I used to renovate the kitchen and build an extension on the garage, so she was happy.
After a year we had a house worth twice what we paid for it, and I had my Man Bunker. Then came talk of war. For the first time since I started the build, Michelle actually saw some benefit in the bunker.
I started to horde supplies; long lasting goods, bottles of water, books, films and cans of petrol for the backup generator. Of course the war ended up being a nice word for the zombie apocalypse, and so when the news said to stay put and seek shelter there was only one place I would go. For the first time in almost a century the bunker would again be used to protect the innocent from the horrors of war.
I waited three days for Michelle to come home, listening to reports on my wind up radio as the world went to shit. After those three long painful days filled with reports of the world going to hell, I finally gave up on the idea I would ever see my wife of two years ever again. And so I resided myself to living as long as I was able to in this three room bunker I had spent a year building.
After some time, maybe a month, on my own I started to hear the tapping. My first thought was that Michelle had come home; somehow she had survived and made her way her way back to me, but my instincts told me it was the undead, trying to break into my sanctuary and feast on my flesh. And so I stand here, at the bottom of the stairs almost every time I hear that tapping, undecided as to what I should do; open the door and maybe die, or stay put and live; I was Schrödinger’s cat, neither alive nor dead until the box was opened.
Once again I decide to go back to my chair and pick up one of the many books I stashed and try to ignore the tapping.
The tapping continues and I decide enough is enough. Nothing can be this consistent, it has to be life. I walk to the stairs and slowly make my way up. The bolts are a little stiff but slide back after some force. I twist the wheel that holds the final bolts in place and pull the door open.
The first thing that hits me is the sunlight; I didn’t even think it might be daylight outside. After so long under artificial light, my eyes take a few moments to adjust.
Before I have chance to fully adjust the rotten hands reach for me. I fall backwards down the stairs. My head hits the railing on the way down and blood stains my clothes.
I look up at the decaying bodies fighting to make their way through the door. One makes its way through the crush, lurching free of the throng like a cork from a bottle. It falls down the stairs, barely missing landing on me. I scuttle away on my back like a crab and reach for my replica sword that I don’t actually remember owning.
Getting to my feet I turn just in time to see the first zombie come at me. I swing the sword, taking the top off its head, opening its decayed head like a pot of red paint. The momentum mixed with my head wound causes me to lose my balance and I tumble to the floor.
The others have now made it through the door and in a combination of falling and lurching make their way down the stairs. There are more than I can handle. I manage to crawl across the floor and make my way to the bedroom. I slam the door and force a handmade cabinet behind it. As I climb on the bed, blood pouring from my head wound, the door starts to give.
Rotten hands start to reach through the gap that has now been made by the many zombies pushing against the last defence I have.
I lay on my bed waiting for death to claim me. The sound of the door hitting the cabinet, the only thing I could find to keep them out.
Tap, tap, tap.
I’m awake before I even realise I’ve been asleep, my book laying splayed on the floor.
I’ve dreamt of the undead many times, even before the rapture, but never so vividly or based on something so close to home. I look at my watch: not more than thirty minutes has passed since I sat down.
The tapping has now stopped, but I know it won’t be for long. It always comes back. Always tempting me to open that one portal that separates me from what may be beyond.
I pick up my book and continue to read for another hour before I get bored and decide on a change of stimulation.
I visit my small collection of DVDs, the ones I was able to store before locking myself away for an undeterminable amount of time.
I never have to worry about lose of power. A small set of solar panels fixed to the shed roof supply power to my bunker via cables buried deep in the earth. A gasoline generator will last only so long.
I decide on an old western flick, settle down in my chair and press play on the remote.
Half way through the movie the tapping starts again. That I did not expect.
My mind drifts back to the dream and I wonder if I should ignore it, but as if by instinct I stand and walk to the bottom of the stairs. I press pause on the remote and at the edge of my hearing I make out a voice. If there’s one thing I know about zombies, the dead don’t talk. I hurry up the stairs and pound on the door twice. Silence. Then two taps.
I pound again in a rhythm; two then three. A few seconds pass, then a reply in the same. That doesn’t show a random, that shows intelligence.
Locks slide back and the wheel turns. I pull the door open and two men burst in before I can fully take stock of the situation.
“Shut the damn door,” one yells, “they’re swarming all over the bloody garden.”
It takes me a second to realize he wasn’t talking to me as the second man slams the door closed and spins the wheel whilst I take a few steps back down the stairs.
“Fuck that was close,” the first man says over a long sigh. He turns to look at me. His face, what is visible through the mass of hair covering it, is dirty, and cold eyes glare hatred at me.
His fist hits me hard and I fall down the remaining stairs.
“Now why did you try to kill us?” he asks.
I stare blankly back at him, my mouth moving but not knowing what words should come out.
“We’ve been out there for days,” he continues, “knocking on your door, waiting for you to let us in. Every day we knock and when the zombies look close to overwhelming us we run off, taking them with us. After we lead them far enough away we come back, but you never let us in.”
“It’s people like you who’ll see this world overtaken by those things,” chimes in the second man. “In this time we need to band together, but here you are, selfishly holed up in your little piece of paradise, ignoring the suffering of those outside.”
I think about protesting my innocence, explaining that I never thought of it like that, but maybe I am selfish; maybe I should’ve opened the door sooner.
I just look blankly at the floor, the shame of their words hurting me more than their fists ever could.
Sudden, harsh laughter makes me look up. Both men are smiling the smiles that I’ve seen on villains just before they press the red button that means the end of Mr. Bond.
“Fuck me this place is better than I hoped for,” the first man says. “Check for others,” he orders the second man, and pulls out a gun which must have been tucked into the back of his trousers.
Silence descends as I stare at the black hole pointed at me.
“We’re good,” comes a shout after a few seconds. “Plenty of supplies though, and running water.”
A clever set up that recycles the old water and cleans it. Cost me nearly twenty thousand. I don’t know why that thought crosses my mind, but there is anger that I spent so much money on something that some stranger will now use.
“How much food?” asks the gun owner.
“More than enough to last months,” comes the reply.
“Then we don’t need you,” says gun man.
I jerk awake.
“I owe you one pardner,” says the cowboy on TV.
Once again I’d fallen asleep. It takes me a few moments to grasp the realism that I’m still alive.
A film of perspiration covers me, and my heart is beating fast in my chest. I’ve missed most of the movie, and the last two instances convince me it’s time to call it a night. I turn off the TV and DVD player, and make my way through my “paradise” turning off lights. I get undressed and climb into bed, a haze of terror in my heart at what further dreams the night will bring.
I follow the sound of the tapping up the stairs to the door at the top. I pull open the wooden portal and stare into the eyes of my beloved Michelle. Wordlessly she takes my hand and I pull her close to me.
I sweep her off her feet and into my arms. I turn and carry her up the marble staircase to the bedroom at the top. We get into bed, her on top of me. She leans in to kiss me and I feel her lips on my nose. When she rises again, the ragged stump of my nose sits between her beautiful red lips; red through a mix of makeup and blood.
I watch enthralled as she chews my appendage. A quick swallow and she goes in for another kiss; this time when she comes up a tattered strip of flesh that was once my cheek hangs between her lips.
I look on in awe at her splendour as she finishes the second morsel and goes in for thirds.
I wake after only six hours feeling strangely refreshed. I lay in bed, my mind going over the only dream I can remember from my nights rest. It worries me when I realise I wasn’t scared of the dream, but the fact that I didn’t wake in a cold sweat. Have I finally given up hope of living; that I now would welcome the embrace of death if it came to me, or worse that I have given up all hope of seeing Michelle alive again?
As I ponder this troubling thought I notice the lack of sound. No tapping. I climb out of my bed and walk into the main room. Nothing. Maybe my torment is finally over.
I flop into my chair and wait, the silence is strangely discomforting. A few seconds later I hear tapping, but not from the door; it’s coming from the right hand side of my chair.
I look down and watch transfixed as my index finger of my right hand taps on the arm of the chair. Was it me all along? Was I the source of the tapping?
I lift my hand and place it in my lap, adding my left hand as a second thought. Once again silence falls.
After several minutes I climb back to my feet and walk to the bathroom to shower and get ready for my day. Although it is silent now, I can’t help but wonder at what point the tapping will begin again.
I’m only a few pages into my book when I hear the noise. Not a tapping but a “plopping”. It goes on for a few seconds before stopping. I go back to my book but no more than a paragraph later it starts up again. Putting my book aside I go in search of this new sound.
I discover the source of the sound in the bathroom. The shower head is dripping water, the drops directly hitting the plug hole. I’m no plumber; I have no idea how to fix it so decide to leave it and try to ignore it. I’ve done well on the tapping; another annoying noise will soon fade into the background.
I relax back into my chair, pick up my book and try to push the dripping to the back of my mind.
It’s not long before I have all but forgotten about the new annoyance, but fate seems to have a vendetta against me.
The halogen strip-light above me flickers a few times before coming back on. It’s not long before it flickers again. Then again. Then again.
I now have the dripping shower head and flickering light to test my patience. One I could handle but two is really starting to grind on me, like a child asking why after every question.
In a final attack on my senses the tapping starts up again.
The anger that has been building up in me finally boils over and I lose all control. With an animalistic roar I rocket to my feet and hurl my book at the wall.
“I HAVE HAD ENOUGH!” I yell at the empty room. This has to stop now.
I pound up the stairs to the door, unlock it and end the tapping once and for all.
At least I’m sure I do in one universe, however in this one I stride into the bathroom, remove the shower head and drop it into the bath. The water still drips out but without the distance to fall the sound is silenced.
Back in the main room I switch off the lights and with the aid of a battery powered camping light I remove the dying strip light and replace it with the finite supply I stored away for just such an occasion.
I switch the lights back on, pick up the book and flick through until I find the page I was on. I settle back into my chair and sigh happily as I continue to read about the American Revolution, the sound of tapping my only companion.
Time passes, how long I couldn’t say. Seconds, minutes, hours, maybe even days, it doesn’t matter; the only constant is the tapping.
I have been sat in my chair doing nothing but looking blankly at the whitewashed walls. I gave up on the book a while back, boredom finally settling in.
I stand before I even think about it and walk over to the stairs. It’s like I’m watching myself do it, no conscious thought is involved.
For what could be the final time I am once again at the foot of the stairs. This is it, this time I will do it. Maybe death awaits me, maybe salvation; I just don’t care anymore, I need to know.
My foot raises and settles on the bottom step, slowly followed by my other foot on the next. Step by step I get closer to the tapping, and before I know it I’m at the door.
The bolts slid back, pulled by hands which aren’t my own. The wheel spins and the click of the final bolts is just audible over the tapping.
I take a deep breath, maybe my last, grip the handle and pull open the door.
A tree branch, trapped between the door and the bottom step that lead to the door shakes in the wind, an off-shoot of it now rocking back and forth in the empty space where the door once was.
The zombies that had been desperate to get in now have an opening, and in one mass movement pile through the open portal.
Michelle, half naked and thin as a rake, starts to cry as she sees me. She slaps me, and then holds me so tight it’s hard to breath.
The man in army camouflage grabs me and pulls me into the open. I’m bundled into a truck full of other survivors and driven off to a safer location.
The metal door waits in front of me, my hands still on the wheel.
“Coward,” I whisper, the word barely audible above the tapping. I make my way back to my usual haunt; the chair where I wait to find if I will one day have the courage to venture outside these walls, leaving the ghosts of what could be behind me.
It could be salvation, I think to myself. Or suicide, my other half chimes in.
I settle into the chair, and pick up my book. Sighing deeply I find the page I had started all that time ago. I read a few more pages and come to the realisation that this particular work isn’t to my liking. That’s the cause of my indecision I decide.
I walk to the wall of books, putting my latest choice on the bottom shelf; the “no thanks” shelf.
A wry smile crosses my face as I make a pact to myself. I shall make my decision based on a book. I pick one book and read it cover to cover. If I like it I stay, if not I leave.
Closing my eyes I reach out to touch the spines before me. My hand moves back and forth, up and down. I do this for several minutes when suddenly the tapping stops again. As it stops, so do I. Still with my eyes closed my hand closes around a book and I remove it from the shelf.
I hold the book in both hands, lift it in front of my face and open my eyes.
I can’t help the solitary bark of an ironic laugh that escapes my lips at seeing the title. A book I’ve never read, but always said I would.
I take it back to my chair and settle in as I open the book and, with the silence awaiting my ultimate decision, I begin to read the book fate has chosen for me, Hamlet.
To be or not to be, indeed.