Jack Spencer stood at his window and watched the world crumble. High in his apartment, he could see across the city. In the distance, buildings burned – black smoke spiralling. Three days before, a plane had come down. A military jet or similar. Jack had heard the whine of its engines. He’d rushed to the window in time to see the impact. The explosion had been huge – akin to a small nuclear bomb. Jack guessed it had been carrying weapons, or that it had hit a gas station. Perhaps both. A mushroom cloud had bloomed high into the cloudless sky. Seconds later, the building had shaken as though in an earthquake. Jack had braced himself, sure his time was up, sure the foundations would give way and he’d plummet to his death, riding the floors as he took a theme-park ride to Hell.
Three days and still the fire raged, unchecked.
Jack pressed his face against the window – breath misting the glass.
In the street below, a tracksuit-clad man was fleeing an infected. It shambled after him, dragging one leg. They were easy to outrun and, one-on-one, they were no problem. Assuming you had a weapon – anything half-decent, such as a baseball bat – you’d come out on top. Sheer weight of numbers was the problem. They were everywhere. As the track-suit clad man was finding out. Reaching the junction at the end of the street, he veered left, but a group of infected blocked his way. The man went right instead and disappeared from view.
‘Keep running,’ Jack said. ‘Don’t let the bastards get you.’
He’d seen enough.
In the kitchen he opened a tin of ravioli, spooning it into his mouth with little enthusiasm. It was eating for eating’s sake. For survival. This was all he ate now: tinned food. He’d always kept a good amount, because had known the world would go to shit at some point.
Jack had stocked up on batteries, toothpaste and brushes, shampoo, deodorant, books, razor blades, first-aid kits, paper and pencils. All sorts. He had a spare room full of stuff. People had thought he was mad when he showed them. They’d laughed. Shaken their heads. Betcha not laughing now. Betcha dead.
Jack scoured the cupboards for something more appetizing. He’d used the last of the fresh food weeks ago, but he searched anyway. A packet of crisps might have fallen over the back. A bar of chocolate might be hidden between the tins. He found nothing.
A hot meal. A hot bath. A toilet that still flushed so he didn’t have to tip his crap out of a window from a bucket. It was the little things in life he missed.
Electricity had been first to go. Then the gas.
When the water had stopped, Jack knew he had a real problem. He’d considered leaving the apartment and making a run for the local shop a few streets away. But the shop would have been stripped of everything edible and drinkable. And he didn’t want to venture outside. Screw that. He’d only resort to that if he was desperate. The solution? A bucket on the window sill to catch rain. So far he’d been lucky with the weather. With careful rationing, he’d had enough to get by. Enough to quench his thirst, at least. Washing wasn’t an option but, despite the stench, he found this strangely liberating.
He slumped into his armchair and stared at his reflection in the television’s blank screen. His face looked pale – eyes sunken in the harsh light from the window. He scratched his bearded chin and listened to the distant cacophony outside.
A noise above. Jack glanced toward the ceiling. Whatever was up there was on the move again. Clattering about, knocking things over. He was sure the apartment belonged to a single mum but it had been weeks since he’d heard the kid. A little boy. He tried not to think about why. Of course he might have risked opening his front door and walking into the corridor. Opening the door to the stairwell. Creeping up through darkness, waiting for the shadows to coalesce into nails and teeth.
They might need help.
But in the end, there was only survival. The bravest wouldn’t live – only the selfish. The poor bastards in apartment 83 were probably already dead anyway. It would explain the strange, brown stain which had appeared in his ceiling above the bath and the erratic movement, like that of a fly trapped in a bottle. The unintelligible grunts. No, Jack thought, there’s no one to be helped up there.
There weren’t only the infected to consider – there were other survivors out there. People who’d want to take what he had. His apartment. His supplies. Everything he’d been cautious to protect.
That in mind, Jack checked the front door was secure. He had performed this check a thousand times and would do so a thousand more, if necessary. Even before the infection had hit, the City had been a rough place to live. He’d fitted deadbolts and a thick metal bar running the width of the thick oak. All were in order. Satisfied, he sat back down and opened a novel to divert his mind from the noises. Once he got lost in a story, nothing else seemed to matter. For a while.
After ten minutes, his eyes began to shut. He stretched. Yawned.
When he awoke, it was dark. He couldn’t remember falling asleep. The book was on his lap, his head slumped forward and the back of his neck stiff. He stood and stretched. His spine cracked painlessly.
Usually, at night, he’d draw the curtains and light a candle. Since the plane had come down that hadn’t been necessary. The room was lit with an orange flickering glow – enough light that he could get around without bumping into things. The glow might have been comforting had he not noticed it was brighter each evening. The blaze was spreading.
A BOOM! from outside made Jack jump. Gunfire – a familiar sound. After the Outbreak, he’d lain in bed each night with his fingers jammed into his ears against the sound of firearms – jammed so tight he had made them bleed. But at some point it had no longer seemed to register.
Jack crossed to the window. Moonlight combined with the fire’s glow illuminated the street well enough. A pick-up truck was driving slowly past. Two men stood in the back with rifles. A tall, thin guy and a heavy-set man. Shooting at infected. Laughing. Though he was high up, Jack kept back, out of view. The last thing he needed was to be noticed, especially by people like this. The heavy-set man knelt down to pick something up. A can of drink. As he began to stand, the truck ran over a body and he lost his balance. He toppled backwards and fell into the road. The tall guy banged on the truck’s roof, yelling for the driver to stop. But by the time he did, it was too late. Hoards of infected streamed out of an alley and were all over the man before he could find his feet. The other man didn’t hang around. Didn’t try to help. He jumped down out of truck’s rear into the cab. It raced away, wheels spinning, ploughing infected that got in the way.
‘That’s what happens when you screw around,’ Jack said.
At what point had he begun talking to himself? He didn’t remember but it had happened early.
He surveyed the street. Most of the windows at ground level were broken, doors busted in. By a lamppost, someone’s Golden Retriever had been torn open and arranged like one of those animal skin rugs with the heads. Bodies were scattered in various states of decomposition. All of them bloodied. Some missing limbs. Some flayed. There were abandoned cars. Tarmac and pavements covered in broken glass. Shit.
Only the legs of the man who’d fallen from the truck were visible. They twitched. Infected feasted upon him. Gnawing, ripping, biting. More joined the frenzy – a writhing mass.
Jack had seen enough.
As he was about to turn away, movement caught his eye from the top window of an apartment block on the next street. A silhouetted figure was there. Man or woman? At first, Jack couldn’t tell. Then the figure stepped forwards and he was sure it was a woman. Slender build. Long, straight hair. Bumps and curves in the right places. Instinctively, Jack shrank backwards. Nobody had ever spotted him before and the shock of seeing someone standing there freaked him out. What am I doing? he thought. It’s too late to hide. He stepped forwards again but the woman had gone.
Jack wondered whether his overactive imagination had conjured the one thing he most wanted to see: a potential companion. But he was certain she’d been there so he stayed put for a while, scanning the apartment block’s windows for signs of life. Probably freaked her out as much as she did me, Jack figured.
Fifteen minutes later, he gave up. He lit a candle and placed it on the coffee table by his armchair. Then he sat back down and began reading again. Or tried to. An image of the girl kept popping into his head. He wondered what colour her hair was. Brunette? Blonde? Red? Black? He plumped for blonde. And her eyes: brown or blue or green? He mulled this over for a second, then decided on a soft, deep blue – like azurite. Her facial features? In his fantasy, she had high, curved cheekbones, soft, kissable, pouting lips and almond-shaped eyes. When she smiled, she had dimples and a coy innocence about her. Jack realised he was getting a hard-on. He put the book down and fetched a wooden stool from the kitchen. Placing it by the window, he perched there and waited for her.
Only the empty darkness of the rooms and the orange flicker of flames in the glass, reflecting from his building onto hers. Maybe I did imagine her, he mused. He slumped forwards, pressing his forehead against the window. Maybe I’m losing my mind. Perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. Welcome even…
It wasn’t until the early hours that he fell asleep again.
When Jack woke it was daylight. The sun was high in the sky. He squinted into the glare, then raised his head. This time, not only did his neck ache, his back did too. He held up a hand to shield his eyes.
And that’s when he noticed the girl again. In the same window he’d seen her before.
Jack shot to his feet, sending the stool flying. It hit the floor and one of the legs came off. He didn’t notice. He forgot all about the pain in his neck and back. He was transfixed by the girl. He’d been right about her hair: she was a blonde. But he was too far away to see details. This was partly a good thing as it meant she couldn’t see how much like shit he looked.
Blonde hair and a black jacket. Probably leather. She waved.
Jack waved back.
Abruptly, she motioned in a manner he recognized. Raising her hand, she touched her forehead with her index finger and middle one, then held them out. Similar to a V for victory gesture, but with her fingers together. She pointed to herself. Lastly, she made a P with her hands, then spelt the rest of her name by pointing to her thumb, little digit and palm: Paula.
My name is Paula.
Jack knew Sign Language. Before the Outbreak, he’d taught kids at the City School for Deaf and Dumb. It had been a testing but rewarding role. One he missed. He wondered what had become of the students. Surviving with all your senses working was enough of a challenge, never mind when you couldn’t hear or speak. He pictured them holed up at the school, waiting for someone to rescue them – perhaps oblivious to the dangers at their doorstep. Immediately he banished the idea and locked it behind bars in his head to join about a thousand others.
So, they were both familiar with a language which would actually allow them to communicate. This he hadn’t expected.
Paula signed again: Do you understand me?
Jack hesitated. For reasons he couldn’t have explained, this felt like crossing a line. Yes it opened possibilities but it also allowed her into his world. The one thing he had most desired, human contact, suddenly seemed altogether terrifying. Perhaps he had been alone for too long.
Afraid she would disappear again, he replied: Yes.
He stood there, shaking. But she jumped up and down and clapped her hands in excitement. Witnessing her glee, all doubt and reservation left him. This was ok. This was wonderful.
He introduced himself, then asked if she was safe. She said she was. Sort of. The apartment she was hiding in had a lock on the door, but it wasn’t the strongest. One good kick from a determined attacker… So Jack told her to barricade the door. Find something heavy – a chest of drawers or similar – and jam it beneath the handle. She said she’d try.
How long have you been there? Jack signed.
Only a day, came the reply. She explained how she’d had to flee her parents’ house because men with knives and baseball bats had tried to break in. Her father had been first to contract the infection. He’d put a bullet through his temple before he could turn. Then her mother had exhibited signs – the flu-like symptoms: fever, muscle aches, headaches. She, too, had turned. Strapping her mother to her bed and locking her in her room had been the hardest thing Paula had ever done. She waved a finger, changing her mind: The hardest thing I’ve had to do was to leave her there when the men came.
There was nothing to say, so he told her about himself. How he’d stockpiled stuff because he knew something like this would happen. How bored he was, stuck in his apartment, day after day. How he’d turned it into a fortress. How scared he got at night, lying in bed, listening to the sounds of this God-forsaken world. How lonely he’d been.
I’m lonely, too, Paula said. And scared.
Jack wished he could pull her close. Hug her. Tell her everything was going to be okay.
She looked behind her. Then turned and signed to Jack: I can hear someone moving about in the corridor. Outside my door.
Jack motioned frantically with his hands: Keep quiet, don’t make a noise.
Paula disappeared from view for about thirty seconds. To Jack it seemed an eternity. When she returned, he sighed with relief.
Whoever it was has gone, Paula signed. I think it was one of them.
They’re everywhere. Nowhere is safe.
Don’t think I’ll ever feel safe again.
She kept snatching glances over her shoulder, so Jack changed the subject. He asked her how old she was.
Twenty-six in a few weeks.
Jack marked the passing days in a notepad. Two hundred and four since he’d locked himself in. God, he thought, is it really that long ago? Time flies when you’re having fun.
He asked about her supplies.
I’ve enough water for a few days, assuming I’m careful. Got some food but I need to go out soon for more.
The thought of her out there on her own made Jack’s blood run cold. Don’t leave your apartment, he advised. Too dangerous.
I have to eat.
The main thing is that you have fluids. Let me know when you’re low on food and I’ll help you.
Thank you. You’re lovely. A gentleman.
Jack felt himself blush.
She signed: How bad is the fire now? At night, I can see it in your block’s windows.
Eyeing the flames in the distance, Jack shook his head. Okay for now. I’ll let you know if that changes.
They continued to sign throughout the day, about their lives, their pasts – what they were doing when the epidemic first hit. Paula told him her mother had been deaf, so she’d learned to sign from her. He told her about the centre and his work there.
Several times, Jack was tempted to open his window and talk to her, just so he could hear her voice. But he would have needed to shout to be heard, and so would she. The infected didn’t bother him. They were dumb and would just congregate in the street below, looking up, with no idea how to get to them. It was the non-infected he worried about – like the men with the pick-up.
Eventually, the shadows lengthened and it became harder to see. Jack signed that he’d be back at his window at daybreak. Paula said she would too. Then she blew him a kiss that sent his heart into a flutter. He blew one back. It should have felt ridiculous and didn’t. He imagined kissing her for real – leaning in close, his lips touching hers, hands clasping her hips, pulling her close. He imagined cupping her breast in his hand, while the other…
‘No, no,’ He was getting aroused again.
In his bedroom, he ensured the curtains were drawn before lighting a candle. He lay on the bed, hands behind his head, fingers laced. Inevitably, she filled his thoughts.
Then it hit him; what if she needed his help in the night? They had no way to communicate other than via hand signals. How could she tell him if she was in trouble? He pounded his fists on the headboard in frustration.
‘Idiot!’ he screeched. ‘Bloody idiot!’
In response, the noises from above resumed.
‘And fuck you too,’ he bellowed to the ceiling.
Swinging his legs around, he sat on the edge of the bed. Did she have a torch or candles? Her curtains weren’t drawn but he’d seen not even the faintest of glows to suggest she had a light source over there. He imagined her alone and cold in the dark. Cowering in a corner – her knees tucked under her chin and her arms wrapped around them. Shivering.
Jack sprang off the bed. He took the candle to the living room and placed it on the window sill. Anyone in the vicinity would be able to see him, but he did it anyway. Yell for help if you need me … He signed the same message over and over again.
No evidence of movement at her window. Too dark. No moon. All he could see with any clarity was his own haunted reflection in the glass.
Throughout the night, every hour or two, he stood at the lighted window, conveying the same message over and over. Until, finally, at some time in the early hours, he fell asleep in his armchair.
He awoke to daylight. Rising stiffly, he returned to the window. It was raining heavily. Dense, pregnant clouds had replaced the sky. The wind roared, firing the downpour horizontally. At least it might extinguish the fire, he reasoned.
Below, two figures moved erratically in the street. One of them gnawed on an arm as if it was a chicken leg from a Sunday dinner. The other had something protruding from its eyeball. It looked like a screwdriver. I wonder if that hurts, he thought. Can you feel pain, you dumb fuck? Perhaps the arm once belonged to the owner of the screwdriver. “Should have tried the socket wrench,” Jack murmured to himself, then laughed loud and hard. He couldn’t remember the last time he had done so. Christ it felt good.
He noticed a figure watching him in the apartment block across the street. Paula was back at her window…
She signed: Good morning.
It is now, Jack signed back. He smiled and waved.
How was your night?
Lonely and cold, as ever. You?
Same. But I don’t feel so lonely now.
Jack’s heart fluttered again. Did you get my message last night?
Yes. Paula nodded. You did it maybe a thousand times.
I was worried about you.
I waved and waved – you couldn’t see me.
Doesn’t matter now.
You really are a gent …
Paula’s head snapped around.
What’s wrong? Jack asked when she looked back.
A noise in the hallway. Someone banging.
Probably one of them.
Paula looked back again. Then disappeared from view. When she returned she signed frantically: someone’s trying to break in!
Find a weapon and hide, Jack said.
Someone must have seen her at her window.
The door’s breaking!
What number are you?
Seventy-five. End of the corridor.
Hide. I’m coming now.
Jack threw his faded leather jacket on and raced into the kitchen. He opened the cutlery drawer and pulled out the biggest knife he could find. A Chef’s Special. Long. Serrated. He tested the edge. Satisfied, he shoved it inside his jacket.
From the utility cupboard, he retrieved a baseball bat which he had studded with six-inch nails. Its weight felt good. Briefly reassuring.
He grabbed the keys from the sideboard and unlocked the front door. Then the dead bolts. The metal bar clunked as he pushed that back too.
Throwing the door open, he breached the corridor.
A moan. A squelching sound. Rotting flesh assaulted his senses. There were no windows to light the corridor. Only shadows which might not be. Jack owned a torch – he couldn’t remember where he’d put it.
No time. She needs me.
He slammed the door more forcefully than intended – the retort reminiscent of a shotgun blast.
‘Idiot!’ he spat.
Then he locked it behind him and wondered if he would ever cross the threshold again.
Moaning from his left, so he headed right. At the stairwell, he took the steps as quickly as was prudent.
Each landing area enjoyed a small window so briefly he could see before descending once more into darkness. Again and again.
Sixteen floors …
On the seventh floor landing, Jack vaulted the rotted corpse of a little girl. He tried not to look but couldn’t resist. A bloated, pallid face. Her fixed, vacant stare. Blood-matted, encrusted hair. Maggots oozing from her mouth. Flies. He recognised her. Megan-something. She’d had a red bike.
The image went behind the bars in his head and he wondered how long they would hold.
Jack slipped on a step and nearly went down.
‘Oh fuck!’ he said, seizing the banister. He regained his footing. ‘Keep moving…’
Graffiti. Rubbish. Shit.
A noise below.
He didn’t even stop.
He’d gathered a momentum now – a psychological immunity he was afraid would puncture should he pause to question himself.
At ground level, Jack met the source of the noise. An old man charged, foam oozing. Jack smashed him over the head, the nails of the bat pulverising the man’s skull. The man went to his knees, his wizened face a mask of rage. Life faded from his eyes and he fell. Jack stood on the man’s face and tore the weapon free. Fragments of skull and brain tissue came away and he felt nothing.
There was only the next step.
There was only her.
He exited the building, rain drenching him instantly, and veered around a burned-out car.
Across the street – not looking left or right.
The rain intensified. Putrid puddles infested his shoes. Now he could actually smell the distant smoke. The acrid taste of fumes.
Had Paula’s door given way yet? Had she hidden well? He imagined her beaten. Raped. Brutalised.
He ducked down an alley. Up ahead, a fallen bin blocked his path – its contents spilled. Jack leapt and tripped on something hard and metallic hidden beneath the rubbish. He went down with a thump. The bat slipped from his grasp. It skittered away, under some nearby industrial sized dumpsters.
Three infected appeared ahead. Two men and a woman. They charged.
He found his feet. No time to double back. Any route he took would be the same.
Jack drew the Chef’s Special and met the on-comers one after another. He jabbed the knife’s blade into the first man’s eye. Kept moving. He shoulder-barged the woman. Kept moving. He let fly with a hook, knocking the last one on his arse. And kept moving.
Don’t think. Act.
At the head of the alley, Jack took a right towards Paula’s block. Its façade loomed ahead, large and mockingly high. Twenty or so floors of concrete and glass stretching for the clouds. Hang in there, Paula. I’m coming.
Reaching the building’s glass-fronted double doors, Jack threw one side open and entered a foyer mercifully empty. He darted up the stairs in twos and threes. Behind him, infected flooded the stairwell. He had created a scent trail.
Halfway up now. Almost spent. Sweat blinded him. His heart hammered. A stitch clawed at his side. But he would not permit himself to slow.
Moans and inhuman footfalls echoed from below. His grip on the knife’s handle tightened.
Up and up. Ever closer to Paula.
On the eighteenth floor, he encountered a man handcuffed to the railings. Infected. The man foamed at the mouth, his eyes bloodshot and bestial. Jack charged past, batting away the flailing arms.
At last, the top floor. There were two doors; the left marked 76 – 80, the right 71 – 75.
He went right and encountered a gloomy corridor. Her room must be at its end. His breath labouring, he made his way towards it – hand on the wall for guidance. The stair door hissed shut behind him, cutting out the sounds but plunging the corridor into darkness. Soon they would be upon him.
Too many to fight.
No other way back.
Jack found her door open but undamaged. He’d expected men. Infected. Carnage. Instead, this…
He stared at it. Some of that clarity of purpose deserted him.
‘Tell me you’re in there, Paula,’ Jack said – his voice shrill and wavering.
No response. He readied the knife and ventured inside.
The entrance hall was empty – no signs of violence or massacre. Light emanated from a partially open door – the living room. He moved in that direction.
From somewhere behind came the sound of the stairwell door bursting open. There were infected in the corridor. Closing. He glanced back, intending to close the door.
That instant, a man appeared from nowhere – an axe held above his head. The business end glinted as he swung it. Jack recoiled instinctively. A split-second later and the blade would have taken off the side of his face. Instead, it connected with his chest, ripping through his clothes. The impact made a muffled thud against his pectoral, but did not penetrate.
The man peered at Jack, perplexed.
Jack plunged the knife into the man’s throat. Blood erupted – a crimson cloud. Inhuman sounds closing from behind. Almost at the door.
Don’t think. Act.
Before his attacker could drop to his knees, Jack seized the man’s collar and dragged him to the entrance, the knife still handle-deep in his neck. He threw him to the ground outside then shut the door and threw the bolt across.
No scream but the immediate squelch and crunch of flesh being torn from bone and the gnashing of teeth. Something heavy hit the door. It bowed slightly inward. Held.
Exhausted now, Jack staggered to the living room. She was not there. Not in the kitchen. Not the bedroom. She was nowhere. Sitting on the bed, he glimpsed discarded women’s shoes. He put his head in his hands and wept. She was gone. He had been too late. Briefly, he wrestled with an image of her face – with echoes of her imagined touch. Her imagined kiss. Then he bundled the impressions together and pushed them behind the bars in his head.
Only the selfish survive. Only the selfish…
When he had caught his breath, Jack adjusted the knife-proof vest. He never removed it, night or day. He had known it would save his life one day. In another dimension he’d have left glowing feedback for the seller: “A++++++ Recommended!”
‘Axe-proof as well,’ he whispered, giving his chest a reassuring pat. There would be a nasty bruise… and he didn’t give a shit.
Refocusing, he explored the apartment: a few tins of food, a first-aid kit, a small torch that worked, batteries, books, painkillers, toothpaste, floss and deodorant. Not much but better than nothing.
He crossed to the window to see what she had seen: his window and a shadowy outline of his apartment beyond, haloed in rain and firelight; just another, anonymous pane of glass onto a solitary space which had become his universe. It was strange seeing it from this perspective. He thought of those early astronauts, enticed to slingshot the dark side of the moon only to discover a distant, sapphire Earth when they emerged. Only then to conceive their true origins.
And then he saw it; movement behind the glass of his apartment.
Their eyes met. He couldn’t be certain, but she appeared to be smiling. And he understood.
I’m sorry Jack.
I killed him, he signed – his hands shaking violently, almost unintelligibly.
She shrugged, placing an automatic pistol on the sill. Good for you. But stay there.
No. Fuck you. No.
The bars in his head gave way, staining his vision a murderous red. Jack reeled towards the nightmarish sounds outside.
And he opened the door.