Involuntarily my face screws up in anguish. My eyes clenched to prevent escaping tears. I want to heave with sobs and shout and rage at the injustice, at the horror, and at the loss of it all. I want to stand up and take my gun and fight until every last one of those things is a proper corpse. Just as it should be. I screw my face up harder. I can’t take this anymore. I think of happier times. Her third birthday, on a beautiful summer, sunny day. Unlike mine in the depths of January, her birthday will always be full of sun and laughter. In a pretty pink party dress and light up trainers, set off with a pair of Mum-made tissue fairy wings. She bounces around singing some inappropriate pop song while I try, and fail, to fashion a horse from balloons for her rapt friends. Here and now, my chest aches from holding back great, tearing sobs. I bury my nose in her soft blonde hair. It smells of smoke and grime but beneath that it still her unmistakable sweet smell. My girl. My daughter.
Slowly I calm, and using my free hand I wipe my eyes, letting tears flow down my arm into my sleeve. I can’t afford for even one to fall onto her sleeping head for fear, even that, may wake her from her disturbed sleep and rampant nightmares. She knows to be quiet, she has learnt and is a good girl, even when she dreams.
I open my eyes breathing freely, the moment has passed again. I look around the room and take it all in. It seems important to remember it for some reason. A simple flat. A new build by the outside of It, and empty. A bit of imaginative climbing, and daughter tossing, got us in, and the fourth floor should prevent too much sound from getting to street level. Its cold but I didn’t get a chance to take this stolen mountain jacket off before she fell asleep. So we keep each other warm as she lies on my chest. I have one arm tucked between her back and the armrest to keep her safe. This sofa is new, and smells of moist leather, but not unpleasantly. The window was left open so I took the risk of closing It when we arrived, but It hasn’t rained too much since it all started I think. When did it start? I try to think back to when we left home, but I can’t remember and haven’t worn a watch in all this time. My smartphone lies in a ditch somewhere between the city and our current location, becoming only extra weight after the internet and phone systems went down. I look at the layer of dust in the room, but as I have no frame of reference as to how long a layer of dust that thick takes to accumulate I am left with only one measure of time. Too long. Too bloody long.
I long to switch on the TV and watch some crap eighties action film like First Blood or Commando but I’ve seen enough blood, and besides the remote is over there, out of reach. I smile. Even now I don’t want to wake her even though it would be to grab a useless piece of plastic. Like all the other useless pieces of plastic in the world. Food, weapons, and water are the only things that matter now.
Whoever they were, they had nice taste in furniture. This sofa is very comfortable and part of me wants to sleep. I can’t. Some stuff to think about. Some stuff to do. I recognise the coffee table and some of the vases from our last trip to Ikea, although the art looks expensive, and pointless. There are lots of coffee table books I can see, mainly of photography, and a rack of dvd’s. Mainly arty french and old kung fu movies. I don’t think I would have liked the person who lived here. A bit pretentious for my tastes I think.
On my chest she stirs, brow furrowing, so I use my free hand to stroke her hair and it calms her down.
It was my fault. I was being stupid and greedy I tell myself. In a old cellar I found a rack of tinned foods and army issued MRE’s., but the Dead found us and crammed themselves through the tiny window as best they could. One fully got his head through, but I reached to grab one more tin, just for myself, just to fill my own belly for a change. I knew my hand was gonna be close to its snarling maw, i could see its blood flecked eyes scan the choicest parts of my flesh, but it was trapped at the shoulders with no way to get me. So I reached out and grabbed the tin of chilli just as another one forced its arm through the corner of the window. It grabbed my wrist in a flash and pulled me towards its colleague, and yet even though it was easy to wrestle free from, its snarling mate just pinched my skin with its teeth. Barely a nick yet I saw the drop of blood form from the scratch, slowly, laboriously, like my body knew the implications of the open wound and fought with all its might to resist. Now, in the candlelight, I look down at my trapped hand and see black veins tracing their threadlike poison through my system. My hand tingles. I want to think it is her weight slowing the blood flow, but I know that it isn’t. How much time have I got? Hours? Days? Minutes? I have no idea.
I sit here, with her breathing slowly on my chest, and I have to make a decision.
Well I wouldn’t have to make a decision if my wife hadn’t died. It was a stupid death, that’s the worst of it. It was pointless and I could have stopped it. All I had to do was look at how many of those things were beyond our tall hedge in the street beyond. It would have taken seconds. Just a few moments to run upstairs and check. We could have done something else to get us all to the car and past the two cadaverous things that looked disinterestedly round our garden, like some supernatural flower show judges. On the signal from me, she ran out of the door attracting our two critics and then went for the side gate. I got our little one in the car and, before I got in myself, I heard her screams. I reversed out and sped the car to the junction. I looked down the road expecting to see her sprinting to the car. Instead I saw her being pulled from side to side as more of them closed on her position. I saw them pull her arms apart wide so they could each access a part of her. I saw her look at me in stricken panic as I drove away from the creatures banging on our window, holding my daughters rapt interest in horror. I drove away before my daughter saw her mothers fate. The question I can’t answer is, did I drive away because two days earlier she announced she was leaving? Running off after fifteen years to shack up with her fitness instructor. I laughed at the cliche of it. I didn’t laugh when she announced she was taking my daughter with her. No. I am not that vindictive, and she was leaving me, not the other way around. I still love her, and here we are again, face screwing up, chest tightening. I feel stupid, and foolish, and weak. I know I am not. The one thing I have learnt throughout this madness is that I am good at survival, good at running, and good at looking after my little girl. Well, I was anyway. For a while.
I realise I am hot. I’m not sure if it is just the thick jacket and warm body lying on my chest, or if it is the infection spreading. Probably both. I daren’t reach for the bottle of water on the coffee table in case she slips off, so I gently use my foot to lift the coffee table from underneath. Then I bend my ankle and bring it an inch closer. Bottle wobbling precariously as I do so. Then I lower coffee table and repeat until the table is touching the sofa and my fingers clench around the bottle. With one hand I twist the cap of and finish the brackish water, being careful to relieve the pressure inside to prevent the plastic from collapsing with a crack. Its funny how I study each movement carefully now to try and anticipate any noise or effects this could have on her or the things outside.
Immediately I start to sweat. I can’t take my jacket off but I manage to slip my walking boots off. The smell hits me instantly. I try to analyse how long its been since I had a change of clothes. No idea. A week maybe?
I continue sweating and realise I am unlikely to stop. It must be the infection. Reality bites and I have to think about the decision. I have to do it now before tiredness overtakes me and I pass out. If I do that then the worst possible scenario occurs. She wakes up to find her Dad snarling at her and chewing on her body, her last few moments lived in absolute terror as the only thing she trusts (trusted?), becomes one of those monsters and chases her down before making her one of them. The even worse scenario, for me anyway is she doesn’t wake up and I kill her her. Consuming her small body utterly until all that is left is a pile of bones and toughened sinew. I can’t face the possibility that these things retain some memory of their former lives, or, even worse, are fully conscious behind those milky eyes. Fully aware but utterly powerless to prevent the atrocities like some animate coma victim. That choice is no choice at all.
So. Choice two. This involves me slipping out from under her, gently lying her onto the sofa, placing my jacket over her, before laying one final, loving, kiss good bye on her head. I then leave and either find a quiet spot away from her to sleep, locked in some dark cupboard or store room until I turn. Ultimately rotting away to dust. Or I go and join my new family outside to hunt with them for a while, just another faceless creature howling into the night. What happens to her then? She wakes to find me gone, and I will have betrayed her for the second time in her small life.
The first time was a few days, or even weeks ago. We got caught out in an old pub, hiding round a doorway while the cadaverous landlord stalked us through the darkened building that smelt of evaporated beer and stale farts. She was shaking with fear in my arms, making a pitiful keening, sobbing noise. I whispered for her to be quiet but she was lost in her own overwhelming world of fear. God help me I slapped her. Not hard, but hard enough. I slapped and she stared at me in shock, bright eyes alive with fear in the darkness. Then I heard our stalker on the other side of the doorway. I clasped my hand across her small face, cover her eyes and mouth. Our hunters peeling face looked through the doorway, scant inches from mine. The sweet smell of putrid flesh assaulting me from every angle, consuming me. I held her so still and tight. He scanned the room and turned to look me straight in the eyes. I thought it was over. I expected him to snarl and rip into us, but his gaze moved on, the head retracted and it carried on its search. It was only then I realised I had held her so tight, for so long, she had been on the verge of passing out. Her limp body sagging against mine. I could have killed her.
That night I tried to make it right, I apologised over and over. I offered her things I couldn’t possibly obtain, good food, fresh milk, new toys. All she wanted was Mummy, and when she looked at me it was with a furrowed brow and dark eyes. Suspicious. Untrusting. For the first time since this started she slept alone on the other side of the room, her back to me.
It broke my heart.
I justified it to myself as survival, but it was a thin justification. In the normal world I had become a child abuser and no matter how I rationalised it, I couldn’t escape that feeling. I know that no court in the land would convict me but it was all just rationalisation. It was from that day she learned to be quiet when told, but it was with fear in her eyes, each shadow of terror on her face like a knife in my heart.
If I leave her here she wakes up alone, betrayed, scared. Then what happens? Does she become so full of fear she can’t leave the building and starves a slow agonising death. Does she make it for a few weeks, months, years until she makes a mistake and gets caught, or contracts some disease with no idea whats happening to her. Let’s assume she survives until she is a teenager. What would she become. Alone, uneducated, half starved and feral. Would she be any better than those things? She’s clever, articulate, and smart for a three year old. Smart enough to survive? Smart enough to grow into womanhood, and ultimately be happy? Lucky enough? It’s possible she could find other survivors, if there is anyone left. Could they be trusted? Would they help her grow and become something good? I doubt it. There are too many risks, too many variables, too much pain ahead for her this way.
The road is too tough, she would have to make too many compromises, and she would grow up hating her father for disappearing. Its not like I can leave leave her a note explaining why I did it. Option 2 is attractive, but a cowards way out, for me anyway.
Besides, this option has another problem. She has been asleep on me a while now. What if she wakes and I can’t get her back to sleep? That would make whatever choice I have to make so much harder to implement.
No. This is no choice either.
Time is running out and all along there has only ever been one choice. The candle is barely a stub. My head thumps with pain as my white blood cells fight a losing battle with the infection. The room is lit with a pale blue tinge as morning approaches.
I’m left with the final option.
When you put it like that it sounds so….not me. I’ve known for hours this was the only answer, but that is what is making my eyes stream and my face screw up. It’s unbelievable that just a few days, or weeks, ago life was so normal, so quiet. Its the little things I find the strangest. Like the fact I keep checking for my wallet, and when its not there I have a moment of panic. Yet I threw it away ages ago. No point in carrying that extra weight. Now I wish that I had kept it so at least someone would think about who the two skeletons in the living room are. The thought passes. We’ll be just two more corpses in a world of corpses.
I reach down with my free hand to the backpack at my side and feel inside. In amongst the bandages, painkillers, antibiotics, bedtime story books and water bottles I feel the cold steel of the gun. I feel the chill of it run up my arms as fear and want to recoil, but I feel for the hilt and pull it out. Its an automatic, I know that, but other than that I don’t know anything about guns. I nearly blew my arm off the first time I used it, but I learnt quickly, out of necessity. I’ve used it sparingly as the noise attracts them. I hold it up and look at it. I look at how I can position it but the very act of it, and the sight of the gun, makes me fill with raw emotion once again and I have to force myself to relax. The gun is cold and I think I’ll have to position it close to her. I jam it under my leg to warm the metal. Part out of concern the cold will wake her and part as a delaying tactic.
I leave the gun drawing the heat from my leg and stroke her hair from her face, which calms me. From this angle she looks like her mum, large, wide eyes barely closed in relaxation. A small nose changing from the upturned baby shape into a little girl nose, but her cheeks are drawn and pinched and her wrist is skinny. Grime marks her exposed skin and her pink lips are chapped and dry. This is no life. No life at all. She doesn’t deserve this. Fuck it I don’t deserve it. I know life is not fair. I’m a realist but this whole situation is so monstrous it defies comprehension. Is it possible that humanity did this? Warping and twisting genetics into a virus of mass destruction. I can’t see it. Those things are dead, no doubt about it. Some of them are so badly injured there is no way that they could be alive. So what then. The supernatural? God wiping the slate clean? None of it makes any sense and to go from a world where information was as free and reliable as tap water to a void of nothing, only what you can see with you own eyes, did weird things to my sense of place. I spent days convinced this was some sick reality show. Eventually I pleaded for them to come and tell me it was all a twisted game and we’d won some huge amount of money. Then, from out the curtain would step my wife, alive and wearing that summer dress I like. The one with the orange flowers on it. We would kiss, go to a Hotel where I would eat rump steak, chips, peppercorn sauce and drink cold fresh beer. I would hold my hands up with a ‘You got me!’ grin and smile. After a while I put this down to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, then the depression really kicked in.
The world isn’t a game show. I’d give anything to smell a pleasant smell, like soap, and steak? I can’t even remember what it tastes like. Life is now constant unremitting, fear and darkness. Every noise is a danger and every bend to go round is death. Sometimes I am convinced it is there, silently waiting around the corner with dribble running from its black teeth. It is waiting for me to turn the corner and then face it before pouncing. The worst thing? Sometimes it is.
I can barely keep myself alive, never mind my little girl. This is the best way out for both of us. This is the only option.
Quickly I slip the warmed gun out from under me and flick the safety off with the same hand. I need to twist my wrist back as far as it can to get the angle, up through her head and into mine above. I try to pull the trigger, I can feel its morbid resistance against my finger. I know this is the only way, but I waver, after long seconds of turmoil where internally I shout and scream at myself to just do it, stop being a wimp and do the right thing. I can’t. I haven’t the strength. She stirs and curls her perfect, dirty fingers around the barrel, as if it was her favourite cuddly. The poignancy hits me in the stomach like a speeding car.
Maybe if I was a religious man this wouldn’t be so hard, maybe I would have enough faith in God to believe that some spurious idea of heaven awaits us where everything is ok and God looks down on us with a warm glow. Meh. I didn’t believe in Him before and after spending all this time running, starving, fighting and seeing things that no-one should ever have to see, I sure as hell don’t believe in Him now. Sitting here with infection running through me why should I pray to something that can inflict so much horror on the world. If He does exist hes a vengeful, untrustworthy shit.
The gun shakes, my wrist has running pains from holding it in position. I turn it and slide it out from her grip. I place it on the couch beside me and flex my hand. It feels like I have been working out for hours. The infection feels like a low ache in my muscles.
I lean my head back and sigh, quietly.
I’m trapped in this paradox by my own guilt, my own humanity, and I can’t rise above it. Somehow I need to let it go and not think about what I’m doing. There is a proper order to these things. I take a minute to calm myself. I stroke her hair, letting it run through my fingers like water, and study each aspect of her innocent face, the curve of her nose, her brow, her closed eyes. How they fit together as parts of her Mum and me to be something new. Even under the grime her skin is perfect, untouched by sun or age, it becomes the retainer of all she is, all we made her. I’m woken from my reverie by the moans outside as they track someone else, or us.
I could be wrong about God. I mean, I’ve got no idea how the Dead walk. Nothing I saw on the news before it died indicated anyone knew the cause. I’d always thought it was a virus or something but maybe it was God. Why not. What harm can it do. I pray, for the first time since I was a child I tell God who I am and why I need his help. I tell him what I’ve done wrong and regretted, and what I have tried to make amends for. I tell him all I’ve told you above and more. I even half expect a sign, but nothing happens.
Calmer. I look down at the gun, pick it up in my hand. It seems heavier than before. I twist my wrist with a crack and move it back under her neck. I need to keep a clear head, just pull the trigger without thinking. I feel the cold metal of it on my finger. I check the position again and an image of us lying there, in a ruined apartment, spattered in our blood robs me of my resolve. My hand starts to shake again. My face screws up. I can’t do it.
And then, without warning she stirs. She stretches out across me, flexing her arms in that cat-like way kids do, around where I’ve placed the gun. My legs go weak. Its too late. She’s waking up. She stretches out her legs and neck, craning her face towards me. Then I see her eyes open, blankly at first as her consciousness catches up and I see it. Time slows to a crawl as I take in every last moment of our lives. She exists there, in that precious second we all see between sleep and awake. That moment before all the weight of the world rushes in and she remembers the horrors around her, her dead mum, her dead friends, her lost toys. And just for that second, our last second, our only second, she takes me with her and the universe compresses to just her eyes and that feeling.
God I love her.
I find a rush comes over me, fear and adrenaline and something else that stretches out into the infinity of our little universe. Just for that second I have faith. I believe, just for that second that no matter what we find after, what we find together, won’t matter. Perhaps even if it just an eternity of blackness I will always have this moment, this second, in her eyes, her universe, my universe, together. I know that whatever happens it will be better than this and she will be safe. I still don’t believe in God, but I feel my faith in what I need to do reflected and amplified by her, and suddenly there is no guilt, and any other option feels wrong. Maybe this is how faith works. In her sleepy, part-awake voice, I know so well she mutters:
“Morning Dad.” I look at her with all the love in her universe, eyes moist, throat tight and I just smile a smile that is full of nothing but my love for her. She smiles back. And before the moment is lost, I gently squeeze the trigger.
This is my favourite story from “All The Dead Are Here”. Its a very personal story that was extremely difficult for me to write. In fact I had to step away and change the protagonist from being my daughter and I, to someone else.
I always wanted to post this on TOWWZ and as its around the first anniversary of “All the Dead are Here” being released it seemed an appropriate time to post it.
“All the Dead are Here” is still available in paperback and kindle.
And if you have bought it and not left a review then shame on you