|Shorts ||Full Length |
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
Copyright © Ian Stevens
Copyright © Ian Stevens
The small branch skimmed across the grass, the deep brown of its bark in sharp relief to the sun bleached yellow of the ground against which it moved. To the casual observer, all would seem as normal; a localised eddy of wind having caught the fallen vegetation, elevating it slightly skyward, propelling it kinetically for a moment or two before the wind relented.
Lisa’s arm snaked around Twitch’s back, pulling him towards her slightly, both pairs of eyes locked on the dancing branch, Lisa content simply to observe as Twitch practiced his craft.
‘You’re good at that, now,’ she commented absently, not for the first time.
‘Better than you.’
She pinched him suddenly, taking an inch of skin from his hip through his t-shirt and squeezing as hard as she could, causing him to flinch, the branch dropping to the ground as his mental hold was temporarily lost.
‘That hurt,’ he protested, wriggling a little to try to release her hold on his flesh, liking the sound of her giggling even as the slight pain continued.
‘Gerrof,’’ he grunted as he swivelled his body away, laughing as he did so despite himself, the pinched skin freed at last.
Lisa nudged along the grass slightly, nestling against him once more.
‘Show me again,’ she suggested, the arm over his back once more, this time without inflicting her torment, happy just to feel his body close to hers.
‘Promise you won’t try anything.’
Twitch turned his attention back to the branch some ten metres away, clearing his thoughts of everything besides, seeing it in his mind’s eye lifting from the ground, the branch dancing into life almost before the thought was even fully formed, standing on end, dead straight, a soldier on parade. Twitch blinked, blinked, blinked and, each time he did so, the branch lifted higher into the air, though not smoothly, jerking upwards a foot at a time until it was suspended at waist height.
‘Dance for me,’ Lisa breathed beside him, so Twitch did as he was told, enjoying her attention, pleased to be able to show off his talent. The branch span through the air, defying all laws of gravity, physics and motion, spiralling this way then that, dipping, arcing, at times seeming in danger of striking the ground, dance terminated, before swooping back into the air triumphantly. By his side, Lisa laughed delightedly, his telekinetic powers a source of unending entertainment.
‘Watch this,’ he said, bringing the branch to a stand still, poised in the air for several seconds, motionless, before slowly dropping straight down a foot or so then moving six inches to the right. The manoeuvre accomplished, Twitch exerted his will once more, raising the branch upwards, but slightly to the right before lowering it a foot again, Lisa puzzled as to his objective momentarily before realising his intent.
‘You’re spelling my name!’ she said, as if informing him of something he was unaware of. ‘You old romantic.’
Twitch finished the job before allowing the branch to settle to the ground once more then turned towards his love, eyes gleaming, wide, vibrant, pulling her towards him, kissing her, warmly to begin with, then with more fire, feeling her respond against him until they broke apart, breathless.
‘Dancing branches make you horny, eh? You pervert,’ she chided.
‘It’s not the branch that’s doing it,’ he smiled, and she kissed him again.
Many years had passed since the events that had so changed their lives, The Gift now as much a part of them as the ability to breath, the ability to walk. The Black Country Butcher, though never forgotten, had faded into memory, as had their initial fear and confusion when confronted with their strange new abilities. Initially, it had seemed that they were almost superhuman, and they fretted about their ability to blend in, to belong to a society that they so differed from but slowly, with the passing of time, they had come to realise that they weren’t superhuman at all, just different-human. The ageing was the trickiest thing to deal with for, though now well into their thirties, neither looked as if they were out of the teens, The Gift imparting youth which, whilst not everlasting, was certainly more prolonged than usual. Soon, they would have to move on, before the current awkward questions from acquaintances became more insistent.
They walked through the park slowly, hand in hand, no clear destination in mind, simply idling the time away before the evening came and Lisa’s shift waitressing at the local Italian restaurant began. At two thirty in the afternoon, the park was unusually quiet. No families picnicking, no children at play, lending them the sense that they were the last two people alive.
‘Do you ever think about your family?’ Lisa asked suddenly, unexpectedly.
Twitch paused for a moment or two before responding,.
‘Pretty much every day. Why?’
‘I’ve been thinking about getting in touch with my mom. Not sure why.’
Twitch stopped walking.
‘You been thinking about this long?’
‘Last couple of weeks. It’s come from nowhere, really. Probably just a phase.’
‘Maybe you should.’
‘Maybe you should, too.’
Twitch dropped his eyes to the ground, stung slightly by her words, reading them almost as an accusation, whether that was her intent or not.
‘Why would you say that?’
Lisa placed an arm on his shoulder, sensing the sudden change in mood, eager to avert any bad feeling.
‘I’m not blaming you for what happened, Twitch,’ she said.
‘Blame him, not me.’
Him: Chris, the sexual predator that had driven Twitch from the family home so many years ago, still not forgiven. Eyes closed now, attempting to choke back the emotion welling up he could still see his face, could still feel the foul breath on his skin, could still remember the sensation of underwear being yanked down and rough, loveless hands delving where they ought not.
Lisa pulled him close, sharing his pain as they shared all, the mental link established by The Gift forging a bond that went beyond the mere emotional and became something near physical.
‘I’m sorry, Twitch,’ she soothed, ‘I wasn’t thinking.’
He didn’t respond at first, perhaps gathering himself, before saying simply ‘It’s Ok.’
And it was as she held him that Lisa noticed it for the first time; a sudden, unnatural hush had fallen on the parkland, a silence complete save for the rustling of the trees in the wind, though even this seemed diminished, as if the trees themselves were aware of the strangeness in the air and were collectively holding their breath.
‘Twitch, listen,’ Lisa said urgently, causing Twitch to open his eyes, to step back from her slightly so that he could look at her, the innate connection between them tingling, a feeling somewhere between fear and excitement.
‘What is it? I can’t hear anything.’
‘That’s what I mean.’
As she spoke the words, Twitch noticed it too and, instinctively, both began to take in their surroundings, spinning slowly on the spot. In the deafening silence, their eardrums strained, brains unaccustomed to so little stimulus attempting to pick out something, anything, to make sense of what was happening. Perhaps a fight or flight instinct had begun, their bodies hyper-sensitive, alerting them to a potential imminent threat.
‘There,’ Lisa cried, pointing forward, Twitch turning in that direction, trying to glimpse the thing that had caught her attention.
Something struck Twitch on the head, a small object, then again, again, and Lisa called out once more.
Pointing in slightly different directions with each repetition of the word, and this time Twitch did see something, a dark object falling from a nearby tree.
They stayed where they were, bewildered, and this time it was Twitch who spotted something strange.
‘Lisa, look,’ he said, even as two, three, four more objects hit him from above, striking head and shoulders, Lisa turning her eyes to spy what he had seen; two dark shapes falling to the ground. Lisa too now felt the smaller objects striking them from above, waving her hands around in slight panic as, nearby, something larger and more solid hit the ground with a thud, causing them both to jump a little, before moving towards it.
Six feet away, dormant, motionless, a large blackbird lay, dark, beady eyes wide open, unblinking. Nearby, another thud, then another as still the objects fell.
Lisa and Twitch could only stare, helpless, as all around them birds and insects dropped from the sky to strike the ground, stone dead.
The local train rattled along the tracks, swaying worryingly from side to side as it hurtled forward, Douglas and Daniel Shawcross forced to clutch onto the hand rails situated overhead to steady themselves to prevent a fall. Beyond the windows, the scenery of industrial neglect passed by swiftly; corrugated iron fences delineating factories long since abandoned; stacks of unwanted car tyres piled in untidy heaps; rusting, disused mechanical diggers that looked as if they had sat in situ since Neolithic times. As the train swept beyond the derelict factories into more urban areas, here too were visible signs of a society in decay, as the grass embankments lay littered with all manner of cast-offs from the local population. Mattresses, soiled nappies, black bin liners torn asunder by hungry scavengers, each hoisted over the rear fence of the dwellings that lined the tracks, the personal dumping ground of the residents that occupied them.
Daniel stared sightlessly at the world passing by, trying his best to ignore his father by his side.
‘Come on son, cheer up.’
Daniel failed to respond, though he had heard the words clearly enough, instead choosing to pretend to be fascinated by a poster at the rear of the carriage seeking to recruit any number of lost souls into the Armed Forces.
‘For Christ’s sake, we’re only a few minutes late.’
There was an edge to Douglas’ voice now, one that Daniel clearly recognised as the wearing thin of patience. He decided to thaw a little.
‘I know that. It’s just annoying. Why did you have to have that last pint?’
At 16, Daniel had only allowed alcohol to pass his lips on three occasions and, on the last of those, he had exceeded his limit and had proceeded to be violently ill the whole of the following day. To his mind, he would never drink again, and anyone foolish enough to wish to do so was almost beneath contempt. Especially when it meant he would arrive late to a football match because of it.
‘OK, ok. I apologise but, believe me, one day you’ll understand.’
‘Not a chance.’
His father had heard enough.
‘Bloody hell Daniel’ – a bad sign. His father usually referred to him as Dan, saving the lengthier version of the name for moments of anger – ‘I paid for these bloody tickets, so I’ll turn up when I damn well want.’
Daniel fell silent, knowing that any further protests would only inflame the older man further, opting for brooding hush over defiant words.
‘Suit yourself,’ was his father’s parting shot, as they completed the remainder of the journey in an awkward silence.
The steps leading up to The Holte End rose majestically before them, the three tier staircase an impressive centrepiece to a redbrick modern temple, a cathedral of drama to which thousands made a bi-weekly pilgrimage for worship. Daniel reached them several seconds before his father, forcing him to turn around to encourage the older man to make more haste.
‘Come on, Dad,’ he called, all frostiness forgotten in his excitement.
‘I’m not as young as I used to be,’ Douglas huffed as he attempted to keep pace with his son, smiling all the same, glad that the bad feeling seemed to have dissipated.
‘It’s about to start.’
Sure enough, as they scaled the staircase, the strains of music that accompanied the players taking the field faded and, in its place, a hushed expectancy from within, followed several seconds later by a mighty roar as the referee blew for start of play.
‘Come on Dad!’ Higher pitched, more strident, anxious not to miss a single second of the action. ‘It’ll be two nil by the time we get in there.’
Douglas reached the head of the stairs and was forced to pause for breath, clutching his hand to his heart dramatically for the benefit of his overly eager son.
‘You trying to kill me or something?’
‘Well, if you do die, can I have your season ticket?’
‘Get in there, you cheeky sod.’
Predictably reaching the turnstile for the Upper Holte first, Daniel hopped from foot to foot as he waited for his father, barely able to conceal his frustration as Doug proceeded to search for the tickets.
‘They’re here somewhere……I’m certain.’
Daniel managed to stand still, but only to allow him to shrug his shoulders and hold his hands up in mock surrender, apparently at the end of his tether.
‘I’m sure I brought them out with me….’ Douglas chuntered to himself, but a sly glance beneath his brow at his son gave the game away.
‘You’re winding me up, aren’t you?’
‘Course I am,’ he admitted, holding aloft the plastic, credit card style season ticket and regular paper ticket, passing the latter to his son who dashed to the window of the turnstile, thrusting the prized possession through at the attendant and trying to push his way past even before the man had chance to press the ‘go’ button. Douglas followed at a more sedate pace and, once through, his son was already gone. Muttering under his breath, he made his way to the appropriate section and mounted the stairs to the ground proper, finding Daniel gazing down at the spectacle before him, grinning from ear to ear.
‘Thanks, Dad,’ he said, though he was unable to tear his eyes away from the action on pitch.
‘You’re welcome, son,’ Douglas said as they made their way to their seats.
The sound of the crowd echoed through the concourse beneath The Holte End, the combined din of more than twenty thousand voices crying out in unison, delight or despair infused within the roar, dependent upon the state of play.
As a chorus of booing began, Matthew Price bit down hard on his beef burger, top and bottom jaw clacking together firmly enough to bring a stab of pain and a blink to the eye. He leaned against the concessions stand, apparently alone in the concourse save for the staff preparing the food in readiness for half time, when several thousand people would descend the steps leading from the stand to purchase the over-priced, grease laden offerings.
His head throbbed.
Another chorus from above, this time one of apparent triumph, was enough to force Matthew to close his eyes, desperate to block out the sound of other humans, just wanting to be alone though, with nowhere else to go, out of force of habit he had made his way to the match, running on auto-pilot, not really thinking.
‘’Scuse, mate,’ said the vendor behind the counter of the burger stand, causing Matt to open his eyes, his vision out of focus momentarily, uncertain what was required of him until clarity returned to his sight and he saw the man holding aloft a damp cloth, pointing at the surface against which his elbow was propped.
Without a word, he lifted his arm, allowing the man to clean down the surface, annoyed that his reverie had been interrupted for so trivial a reason. The damned thing hadn’t needed cleaning anyway. He was the only fucking customer, and he had made no mess. So why had he demanded he move? Did he want rid of him? ‘You’ve paid for your food, now fuck off.’
Was that it?
Matt took another bite of the burger, mentally preparing himself before turning to confront the man, to demand an explanation, perhaps even to drag him over the counter and beat the living shit out of him, but all furious intention was denied as the vendor had disappeared from sight, perhaps a toilet break before the mayhem to come, perhaps a sneaky cigarette by the fire exit.
Either way, the man was nowhere to be seen.
But the fury remained.
The dark, foreboding sense of impending incident lingered with Matt, a sensation that, on any normal day, would bring butterflies to the belly and trepidation to the heart.
But not today.
Today was different.
Today was a day when rash action and spontaneity were well within his rights, and God help anybody that so much as looked at him inappropriately.
As he brooded, he polished off the burger, though for all the taste he noticed he may as well have been eating soggy paper. There, halfway down the concourse, an old woman had appeared, sporting a claret and blue tabard and a broom that seemed disproportionately large against her frail frame. She took to the floor with apparent glee, sweeping back and forth, back and forth, the sound of the bristles against the concrete not dissimilar to the sound heard internally when teeth are being cleaned, an abrasive scratching of bristle on hard surface. Each stroke of the broom set Matt’s nerves on edge so that, as she drew near, he was physically flinching at the sound.
‘Do you mind,’ he shouted as she came level, causing the old woman to start, looking at him over thin-rimmed spectacles, pouting her lips slightly as if a child mid-sulk.
‘What?’ she demanded.
‘Do you mind not doing that?’ he asked abruptly, no thought as to manners, nor notion of the irrationality of his demand.
‘’Smy job,’ was her curt reply, before turning her back on him and continuing with her task, brushing this way and that, this way and that, each stroke of bristle on concrete like a razor blade through gums to Matt and, briefly, he thought of rushing her, of dashing her to the ground and claiming the broom for himself, to be used on her slender frame for an altogether different type of task but, though the darkness still sought to wrest control of his mind, he resisted, opting instead to move away from the stand, away from the sound of the old woman sweeping.
Above, another cry from the crowd, this one despairing, almost mournful, a sudden intake of collective breath as some kind of near miss occurred.
Yeah, so help anyone who crossed him today. Though he had arrived at the ground almost by chance, a Saturday afternoon ritual followed habitually, perhaps he had been drawn here with method to the meanderings for, with twenty thousand souls to choose from, surely one of them would look at him inappropriately.
And then he would teach them the true meaning of despair.
‘I’ve got something in my eye,’ Emily complained, lifting her head towards the heavens and using both hands to peel the skin back from her left eyeball as far as she could.
‘Yeah, it’s your fingers,’ James replied.
‘Droll. Very droll. Have a look would you. I’m missing the game.’
Seated midway up the Holte End and roughly midway along, Emily and James enjoyed magnificent views of the action at Villa Park, so each moment spent with eyes troubled by an unknown object was a moment Emily resented.
James edged inwards, peering down at Emily’s exposed eyeball rapidly filling with fluid as she wilfully prevented herself from blinking to present him her upturned orb.
‘What the hell am I supposed to be looking for?’ he demanded, a touch too much of an edge to his voice, self-consciousness getting the better of him, aware that the strangeness of their behaviour was attracting attention from those around. Emily relaxed her grip slightly and blinked a few times to clear the excess fluid.
‘I don’t know. An eyelash? An insect? A tiny fragment of the Shroud of Turin?’
James laughed at that, the unexpected burst of humour settling him somewhat, helping him forget the watching masses.
‘You’re crazy, you know that,’ he said as he inched closer to her face, bringing his own eyes down so that he could stare horizontally across the line of her up tilted face, squinting now, trying to spot any foreign matter in her quickly reddening eye.
‘I must be to put up with you.’
James brought a finger up to prod at the corner of her eye, perhaps hoping to dislodge whatever it was that was causing her such discomfort, to force it to reveal itself.
‘Never insult a man with his index finger right next to your glistening eye socket,’ he whispered in a mock threatening tone.
‘You squish my eye I’ll squish your nuts,’ was Emily’s blunt retort, bringing a slight snigger from James.
‘Can you see anything?’
‘Not a thing. All seems clear from here,’ he said, before adding ‘My dear,’ as a poetic afterthought.
‘You amusing yourself over there?’ she asked, settling into a more orthodox seated position, using the ball of her left hand to rub at her eye, the skin coming away sodden..
‘Bloody hell, are you alright?’ asked James, concern in his voice for the first time, the dramatic amount of fluid seeping from the socket lending a sudden seriousness to the situation.
‘I don’t know. Yeah, I think so.’
‘Lean forward,’ was his advice, which she dutifully followed, placing her forehead in her hands and gently shaking her head back and forth, allowing the excess fluid to drip from her eye and the end of her nose.
‘I think it was an insect,’ she told him. ‘Something flew straight into my eye. I kind of blinked, because I thought I saw something, but it must have snuck in anyway.’ She took a sniff before finishing, ‘The cheeky beggar.’
James placed his hand on her back, not quite sure what else he could do, hoping that his tactile presence alone would make her feel slightly better and, after a while, she sat back up straight, taking a pack of tissues from one of the capacious pockets of her duffle-coat and dabbing away the last of the moisture, turning towards James and winking at him strangely as she tested the functionality of her temporarily disabled organ so, inevitably, he winked back in like manner, bringing a quick, light, loving slap to the chest.
‘You OK now?’ he asked.
‘I think so. Christ, that was epic.’
He leaned in towards her to place a kiss on the tip of her nose.
‘That’s one word for it.’
Emily turned her attention back to the pitch, the match now a few minutes old and having seen barely a moment.
‘Right, what did I miss?’
‘No idea. For some reason, I was more concerned about you than the match.’
‘And you call yourself a real fan?’ she chided.
‘I don’t call myself anything. You’re the obsessive.’
She turned his way briefly and flashed a smile, knowing he was right then, as her favourite player streaked into the opposing penalty area, she was on her feet, the crowd around them both rising in unison, an instinctive response to a potential moment of triumph, as natural to a football fan as whistling a tune was to a pianist, as rapping out a rhythm to a drummer and, as the striker flashed his shot just wide of the far post, as one they rocked back on their heels, hands clasped to their brows, each exhaling a groan, the player on the pitch mirroring their reactions, a lone reflection of the massed spirit. In those moments, Emily knew how it must feel to be part of something larger, part of something greater than she alone, an element in a gestalt that, though individual and divisible into constituent parts, somehow merged, somehow spliced, became an organism unto itself.
In those moments, she truly felt she belonged.
The Aston Villa player received the ball one third of the way into Liverpool’s half, trapping it deftly beneath the studs of his boots before taking a second to study his surroundings. Short in stature, his centre of gravity was lower than most and, as an opposition player came in to try to claim the ball, he neatly side-stepped the clumsy attempt, leaving the club-footed defensive midfielder for dust as he burst into a full sprint, the amount of time it took to accelerate from total standstill to flat out run no more than a single blink.
As he ran, the crowd voiced their appreciation and, as they roared, Daniel’s pulse began to race, began to accelerate almost as quickly as the player he cheered on.
Another opponent closed in and, this time, the sprightly player feinted one way, before ducking inside, pushing the ball down the channel, ten feet ahead of him, confident enough in both his own ability and his out and out pace to leave clear distance between himself and the ball. His shaven head glistened with sweat in the sunlight, the angle of the glare altering as he reached the ball and pivoted, swinging back his left leg in perfect synchronicity with the motion of the ball, timing the essence of his craft now, as he swung the leg forward, time seemingly at a standstill for him, as if he were the only thing in motion, the ball, crowd and other players now statuesque until point of contact was reached, the forward motion of his precisely angled in-step catching the ball just right, changing it’s direction immediately and dramatically, casting it aloft, forty thousand sets of eyes upon the small, white sphere as it arced through the air, angled, not dead straight, the curve imparted by the precision of his touch.
Again, the crowd were on their feet, Daniel amongst them, the flight of the ball all he could see, unsure where it would fall until the moment the sturdy brow of the Villa centre forward struck it dead centre, propelling it goalwards at great speed. Daniel’s heart thumped against his ribcage, a jubilant cry of exultation about to issue forth, about to be voiced until the Liverpool goalkeeper skimmed across the grassy surface just in time, one outstretched palm sufficient to tip the ball off target by 20 degrees, no more, but enough to divert it around the post and out of play.
The groan was physical, a cacophonous outpouring of communal disappointment that reverberated through Daniel’s lungs as he sank back into his seat, feeling the jostle as his father followed suit, a large hand striking his thigh twice, three times, a moment of inter-generational male bonding that encompassed more than any words could convey.
‘Come on, Villa,’ Doug suddenly bellowed, startling Daniel a little, even as he too found himself repeating the words, not really thinking about it, just echoing the sentiment, noticing too that he had started clapping, without even being aware of it, striking up the same rhythm as those around him. As the hand clapping rippled out around the stadium, now voices began to sing, all at the same metre, at the same pitch, a primal, rhythmic chant, the words of which Daniel was unable to discern, but the meaning, the emotion, surged through him so that he too began to sing, wordless, imbecilic noises if taken out of context but right then, right there it felt real, it felt right. Hands above his head now, still clapping out the rhythm, Villa Park rocked, a savage tattoo rejoicing their would-be King even as he made his way back to the half way line to begin the next phase of play.
Daniel had never known such joy.
Unbidden, tears leaked from his eyes but he was quick to wipe them away, quick to hide his weakness from his father who snuck an arm around his shoulder and pulled him towards him once, twice, powerfully, the grip so strong it crushed the breath from his lungs briefly before he was released, Doug’s own emotions apparently spiralling too, these fleeting, tactile moments of connection unusual behaviour for him. Perhaps here, in this testosterone fuelled environ, it was acceptable to reveal more of oneself, to allow the world a slim peek at that which dwelt within.
Perhaps, here, it was OK for the mask to slip.
‘Come on, Villa,’ Daniel cried again, alone this time, feeling a touch silly to begin with, self-consciousness the enemy, but he fought it off with each repetition of the phrase until he was bellowing the three word anthem at regular intervals, grinning as he did so, clapping his hands to the beat which still held, though less fervently.
In his excitement, he barely even registered the itch at the corner of his eye that seemed to be intensifying, able, for the moment, simply to blink away the discomfort with little conscious thought.
Each footfall on the steps brought an increase in volume from the crowd and, with it, an ever increasing agitation. His breathing was laboured, forced, like his lungs were somehow suddenly resistant to oxygen, the air itself turning to treacle so that he had to force each inhalation down as if swallowing something solid, had to exert mental will over the desire of his own body just to suck the air into his lungs. Halfway up, and he could feel his temper beginning to spike, his emotions accelerating out of control irrationally and, though he knew this to be the case, still he did nothing to resist the urges, happy for the reptilian aspect of his brain to take dominance, unsure of the outcome, though eager for something to occur.
He reached the head of the staircase and stared down at the pitch before him, eyes clouded, really, not seeing anything in particular, just allowing the faint green hue of the surroundings to soak through, aware of motion on the pitch below, not focused enough to discern the source.
‘See your ticket?’
Matt’s eyes swam back into focus to see a short, balding man who could only be in his early thirties but, due to the receding hairline and unsightly paunch, looked fifteen years older.
Matt’s eyes drifted away again, barely even registering the words that had been spoken, much less acknowledging the speaker himself.
Closer now, louder, making Matt’s head hurt some more, each syllable a jagged, blunted needle jabbed into his cortex.
There was animosity in the air with the latest call and it was all Matt could do to prevent himself from screaming out his rage and lashing at the man. He forced himself to focus once more, looking down at the bald man in the bright yellow flak jacket, the internationally recognised uniform of the match-day steward, with barely disguised contempt.
‘What?’ he demanded of the luminous one.
‘I need to see your ticket before I can let you past.’
He spoke slowly, enunciating every word carefully, and it was hard for Matt to decide whether he was being mocked or if the steward felt he was dealing with somebody dim-witted, who needed patient, careful handling.
‘Why are you speaking to me as if I’m retarded?’ Matt demanded, as he reached for the back pocket of his jeans to claim the match ticket.
Flak Jacket remained silent.
‘Here’s your ticket,’ he spat, jabbing it in the steward’s direction.
‘Your seat is down this flight of steps, on your right. Enjoy the match.’
Matt yanked the ticket back, thrusting it back into his jeans.
‘I know where the fucking seat is.’
The steward took a step towards him.
‘Sir, if you don’t control your language I will be forced to eject you from the stadium.’
Matt blinked back at him, surprised by the reaction, the man’s slight stature fooling him initially, setting him apart as an easy mark but, through circumstance and the governance of authority bestowed by a luminous yellow uniform, he held all the power here and, pulsing with rage though he was, Matt knew this was a fight he could not win.
‘Enjoy your moment,’ he snapped bitterly, before making his way to his seat, Flak Jacket watching him every step of the way.
Emily dabbed at her eyelid, her finger coming away damp, moisture still clinging to the flap of skin, though the amount being produced had diminished considerably.
James looked across at her, still a little anxious.
‘You sure you’re ok?’
‘Yeah. It’s going away, I think.’
James settled back in his seat, but only momentarily, before he was on his feet again as a raking cross field pass from deep within Villa’s half set free the sprightly midfielder on the left wing, his fleetness of foot and deftness of touch ensuring that he took the ball perfectly, mid-stride, without having to stem the flow of his run, knocking the ball up field even as he jinked past the more cumbersome defender, back again in the same attacking position as just a couple of minutes previously, switching the ball onto his favoured left foot, ballooning the ball into the opposition penalty area only for the six foot plus striker to miss the arc of the ball by a matter of inches, eliciting a groan from the crowd that must have been audible in the city centre, some three miles away.
‘We’re getting closer,’ James stated defiantly, refusing to be deflated by the flurry of near misses.
‘Closer to my Italian meal?’
‘If we win, I might even come with you.
Pre-match, it was a ritual of theirs to set a wager on the result. Today’s predictions meant that a home win would earn Emily an evening meal at a restaurant of her choosing, whilst James had settled for a draw and, if that scoreline came to fruition, Emily must agree to accompany him to the local cinema the following day to watch the latest torture-porn offering from Lionsgate.
‘Well, either way, you’ll be paying for two, so either I have double helpings or you have to finance your love-rivals appetites.’
‘Oh yeah. What’s this mystery man’s name?
‘And when did you pop by the local centre for the blind?’
Emily pinched his thigh suddenly, hard, catching him off guard, making him jerk forward, spluttering mid-swallow so that he made a noise akin to a sea lion at feeding time.
‘How attractive,’ she observed, dryly.
Around them, the crowd began to quieten.
The deathly hush seemed to press down on them like a physical force, pushing against shoulder and spine and diaphragm to the point that breathing felt uncomfortable.
The park was utterly silent, save the occasional rustle of leaves and creak of branches, and scattered around them lay the corpses of several birds. No one species seemed to have been affected, the phenomena that had affected the creatures striking down blackbird, sparrow, pigeon, as well as other species less readily identifiable by the layman. Here, a Northern Shoveler, its distinctive jet black head and beak in stark contrast to the purest white of its breast. There, a Common Goldeneye, a tiny duck, clearly caught mid-flight either approaching or leaving the lake that dominated the centre of the parkland, the bright yellow eye that gave its name seeming to glow from within the pure black feathers of its face, now unblinking, apparently lifeless. Five metres away, the largest of the birds to have plummeted, the majestic arch of a Tundra Swan’s neck now splayed away from the torso, staring upwards, the black beak open to reveal the thin, pink tongue.
Just as the birds had ceased to fall, so too the insects, the smattering of tiny bodies that had bombarded Lisa and Twitch slowly dwindling before stopping altogether.
Lisa turned to Twitch, eyes wide, almost frantic.
‘What the hell is happening?’
Twitch could only shake his head, alarmed by both the mass deaths of the bird and insect, and by Lisa’s look of wild desperation. In all the time he had known her, she had been the rock upon which he leant, the foundation upon which their relationship was built. Without speaking a word, Twitch moved and span so that he was standing directly in front of her and, for a moment, it seemed that she would push him away, seemed that she was primed to burst into a sprint to flee this place but, resolutely, he gripped her on each hip, drawing her to him slightly, closing his eyes, allowing his thoughts, his emotions, to pass between them, to flow like quick-silver, picturing it in his mind the way he always did, the trickle-trickle of mercury against flesh, the magical properties of the liquid metal that symbolised his thoughts absorbing through the pores in her skin. Previously when they had shared this intimacy it had been to forge togetherness, to help them understand each other completely, but now Lisa was a submissive partner in this mental marriage, Twitch the one in control and, though he too felt distressed by the events of the past few minutes, he closed off this aspect of his mind, focusing instead only on the bond that existed between them, using this to soothe her, to steady the emotional eddies he felt coursing through her so that slowly he felt her heartbeat calming, felt her breathing lighten.
Twitch stepped away.
Lisa opened her eyes.
‘Thanks,’ she said simply, control restored.
Twitch took her hand in his, pulling her gently in the direction he wished to move.
‘Let’s head into town.’
Lisa shook her head. ‘We should just go home. We can check the news from there.’
‘Aren’t you curious?’
She frowned at this, clearly thinking it through.
‘A bit, I guess.’
‘Let’s go then. If it seems too weird, we’ll go home. Promise.’
They crossed the grass slowly, paying great attention to where they were stepping, not wishing to inadvertently step on any of the birds which lay stricken. At each footfall, there was the unmistakable crunch underfoot, as hundreds of insect carapaces were destroyed by their weight, Lisa flinching each time she felt something relatively large give way beneath her heel.
‘This is gross.’
And Twitch could only agree, though he chose to say nothing, not wishing to add fuel to the fire of her revulsion.
‘This way,’ he said, pointing to the left, intending simply to circumnavigate the large lake that served as centrepiece for the park, but his pace slowed as they neared, coming to a standstill on the concrete paving that lined the circumference.
The water could barely be discerned through the floating corpses of geese and swans and ducks and, even in the few gaps between the poor creatures, a mottled black sheen smothered the surface of the lake, thousands upon thousands of insects coating the expanse.
‘Christ,’ was all Twitch could manage, his throat feeling clogged up, as if he had swallowed a great wad of cotton wool and it was all he could do to stem the tears he felt welling.
‘How could this happen?’ Lisa opined beside him, she too transfixed by the extraordinary spectacle.
‘ I don’t know,’ he replied honestly, pulling on her hand, aware that they needed to keep moving else be overwhelmed, the sound of crunching from underfoot putting Twitch in mind of some demented perversion of a breakfast cereal advertisement.
They increased their speed, eager to be around the lake, both staring pointedly ahead, the image of death floating mere metres from where they stepped indelible, yet neither wishing to be reminded of the grim reality.
Away from the lake, now, across another area of grass, forcing them to slow their pace once more to sidestep the larger of the deceased fauna, deaf now to the sound of the insects they were crushing, their minds seeming able to block it out, a defence mechanism, perhaps for, truly, there was little they could do about it.
Their powers were strong, yet neither had mastered levitation.
Off the grassy area, onto the concrete driveway that led to the main entrance to West Park, the huge wrought iron gates swung open and pinned in place during daylight hours. They passed the small cottage that served as an administrative office for the park keepers, slowing up slightly to allow them to peer briefly through the windows, looking for signs of life, but none was present.
Through the gates they swept, almost running, the oppressive silence urging them forwards, searching for solace in the normality of suburbia but, even here, things were not as they should be.
‘Listen,’ Twitch instructed, drawing them both to a sudden halt, finger against lips.
They stood motionless, straining their ears for the slightest sign of life; a car traversing a back street, a child crying for attention, a dog barking through play, but all was still, all was silent.
Twitch felt numb.
‘Let’s go,’ Lisa said.
They moved as one, crossing the main road that ringed the entire perimeter of the park, not even bothering to look for any traffic, the stillness so absolute that nothing could be moving their way On the right, an Evangelist church, all red brick and sharp angles, had positioned a sign which carried a stark message in eight inch high, block lettering:
‘God is perfect. Only man makes mistakes.’
‘God is perfect. Only man makes mistakes.’
Perhaps the words were meant to provide comfort to lost souls in times of crisis, or perhaps they were merely to serve as a reminder to the sinful of the reason for their erroneous behaviour. Either way, as Twitch scanned the foreboding declaration he sensed, for the first time in his life, that perhaps there was truth in the religious sentiment, for surely birds falling from the sky could only be a portent of some coming, manmade apocalypse.
Still they moved, approaching the T-junction that would lead them to the main filter road into Stourhampton town centre itself, a road usually densely populated by both cars and people but, as they neared, nothing seemed to move. They turned the corner, heading left, stopping in their tracks as they tried to take in just what they were seeing.
Though from the adjoining street it had seemed that there was no sign of life, the vantage point had belied the true nature of the situation. The long, straight road, half a mile from where they stood to the High Street, was populated, though it seemed as if time itself had ceased to move forward. Cars were dotted down both lanes, though all were motionless. Some were as they ought to be, in lane, facing the correct way, whilst others had veered off, coming to a halt either at pavement or wall. Several vehicles belched steam from beneath their bonnets, the impact with buildings or walls crumpling the structure and damaging some inner component. Still more vehicles seemed to have drifted across the lanes, only stopping their forward motion when they struck something coming the opposite way yet, curiously, no car horns blared, nor alarms wailed as may have been expected. Moving in slow motion, minds awash with this fresh, surreal stimulus, it took a few seconds for Twitch and Lisa to notice that there was something else to bewilder. Along the pavement, bodies were strewn, apparently dropping on the spot where they walked as if, whatever fate had befallen them, had struck without warning.
A woman in her late thirties, tumbled to the ground, legs bent beneath her at an impossible angle, the shopping she had been carrying spilling out onto the concrete.
A young man, arms akimbo, the bicycle he had been peddling entangled with his legs.
Nearest of all, an old woman, seventy maybe, lying flat on her back.
Lisa and Twitch approached her, fearful of what they might find but, be it morbid curiosity or simply the need to know, aware that they had to investigate. They stopped as they reached her prone form, Lisa holding one hand over her mouth, suppressing a gasp as she noticed the trickle of thick, bright red, oxygenated blood oozing from her ear and onto her cheek. Whether the discharge was as a result of the fall or some symptom of the collapse was impossible to determine, but the vibrant red against the pallid, almost blue-thin skin was a shocking sight.
Twitch bent down slightly, stooping at the waist.
‘What are you doing?’ Lisa demanded, appalled at the thought that he was about to touch her, wanting to pull him away, too appalled to do anything at all.
Twitch knelt down, moving nearer to her, the better to search for any signs of life. He pivoted at the waist, drawing his face towards hers, at the same time bringing one hand up and holding it above her mouth. Briefly, he considered checking for a pulse, but thought better of it, having no real idea where to start. He held his hand over her mouth, concentrating, hoping to feel the warm brush of breath against his palm but, defeated, he allowed his hand to fall back to his side.
He stared at her opened eyes, bloodshot capillaries lacing the irises, the first telltale, milky whiteness of early onset cataracts visible in the lenses.
The old woman blinked.
She’d left him the night before.
At least, not on her part.
He’d thought it was strange when she had suggested meeting in a pub, instead of him heading over to her place as normal. Sometimes they would head out for food or drinks, sometimes just stay in and watch a movie.
But not last night.
Last night she’d wanted to meet at the pub.
What the fuck? Was she making sure there were witnesses? Was she afraid he might do something reckless? Was she frightened of him?
Christ, he hoped so.
Matt squeezed his eyes tight shut as he recalled the events, not trusting himself to remain in control should he open them. Around him the crowd cheered and roared, jeered and caterwauled but he was deaf to all but his Friday night memories
‘We have to talk,’ she said as he took his seat opposite her in the Seven Stars.
‘OK,’ he said, bringing the pint glass to his lips, oblivious to the gravity of those four words.
‘I want to end this,’ she said, calmness personified, almost cold, her mouth set tight in a thin, red strip; resolute.
He’d looked at her quizzically then, still not grasping the meaning of her words. Christ, he’d made a fool of himself, but it had come out of nowhere, caught him blindside.
She let out a frustrated breath through her nose, sitting back in her seat, shaking her head, acting as if somehow he were the one ruining her night.
‘This, Matt. Us.’
His mouth opened as if about to speak, but no words were formed, his thought processes struggling to catch up.
Such an obvious question, but the best he could do.
‘It’s not you…’ she began, before stopping herself mid-cliché.
‘I’ve met someone else.’
He sat staring at her, head shaking in disbelief, a riot of emotions cascading through him, a fog of confusion and betrayal and pain and despair and, gradually, gradually, over-riding it all, rising through the miasma, crushing all other feelings with its ferocity, came the rage.
‘Fuck you,’ he screamed at her suddenly, unable to control himself, one fist smashing down onto the wooden table hard, beer sloshing from the pint glass, pleased to see that Sarah flinched in her seat, raising the fist, smashing it down again, picturing in that instant that it wasn’t a wooden table he was pounding.
‘I’m going,’ she said simply, making to stand, but Matt pushed the table towards her, hard, preventing her sliding out from under it.
‘Sit down,’ he barked, his voice cracking with the volume and, though it surely must have been drawing attention from the other bar-dwellers, Matt saw only her.
‘Let me out,’ she insisted, attempting to jiggle the chair out a little to allow her escape, but the seat was positioned against a wall.
‘Who is he?’ Matt demanded, still shouting, again striking the table with his fist.
‘Who is he?’ he shouted again.
‘Who is he?’
This one a shriek, deafening in the plush confines of the pub lounge, loud enough even to stir Matt from his madness. Shaking his head, attempting to clear it, he got to his feet groggily, the adrenaline which had so spiked his fury now abating, leaving him suddenly weakened and dizzy so that, as he moved away from the table, he crashed into it with his thigh, toppling the glass over completely this time, the beer spilling into Sarah’s lap. Matt watched the fluid leave the rim of the glass, seeing it all in slow motion, observed as it skimmed across the table, spreading out, forming a near perfect arc before flowing off the edge, an alcoholic waterfall that drenched her where she sat.
Matt stopped in his tracks.
‘You deserved that. Bitch,’ he spat, genuine menace in his words, the dizzy spell having passed, replaced by a cold fury.
Suddenly, Matt felt a hand on his arm and turned to see the landlord.
‘I think you need to leave,’ he advised.
‘Don’t worry, I’m going,’ before turning to Sarah one last time to deliver his parting shot.
‘You gonna fuck him, too?’
‘Just get out, Matt,’ and her advice was furthered by the landlord who began encouraging him towards the exit, holding the door open as he left.
‘Don’t come back here tonight. You’re not welcome.’
He slammed the door.
As a Liverpool striker scuffed a shot towards the Villa goal, Emily covered her eyes with her hands, only peeking at the action through slightly splayed fingers, rocking back in her seat as the goalkeeper just managed to parry the ball, though not to safety. Liverpool’s auxiliary striker advanced on the freely bouncing ball, drawing his foot back, seeming sure to score when Villa’s hefty centre back stretched out a size thirteen boot and chipped the ball out of his path and behind the goal.
Emily groaned with relief, her team having conceded a corner, but saving what would have been a certain goal against. The groan died in the throat, and was replaced by applause as Emily, James, and those around them signalled their approval for the definitive action of the defender, spurring him on for further heroics if needed later in the game.
‘A vital interception from the big number 3 spares the keeper’s blushes,’ James intoned in his best sports commentator voice, making Emily laugh.
‘You’re good at that.’
‘Thanks,’ said James, unsure as to whether he was being mocked. ‘Really?’
‘Oh yeah,’ she replied, adding no clarity at all.
James remained silent, waiting for the barb.
‘You know, like you’re good at doing Robert De Niro and Rolf Harris.’
Her mischief now obvious, James went along with it, holding his hand out in a fist towards her, though upside down, before slowly extending the middle digit, asking in an Australian accent ‘Do you know what it is yet?’
Emily laughed again, swatting the offending finger away.
‘Still on for the draw, though,’ James remarked, reminding her of this weeks wager.
‘We’re only ten minutes in. Give them a chance.’
‘Yeah, I know what you’re saying and I think that, when we go on to an inevitable victory, tonight we will dine at Casado’s.’
James almost choked on his tongue.
‘You’re kidding, right?’
Emily blinked at him innocently.
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘It’s fifty quid a head there.’
She simply continued to blink in defiance.
‘So, let me get this straight. You win, I have to shell out £100, I win, it costs you fifteen?’
‘Heh, I didn’t make you choose the cinema,’ she protested, continuing the teasing, no genuine intention of insisting on the venue.
‘Well, bloody hell….’ James moaned, apparently unaware that he was the butt of a joke. He sank back in his seat, a look of such genuine misery on his face that Emily felt suddenly guilty. She placed her hand on his thigh and squeezed, considering her next move: confess or continue?
She bided her time.
‘I could always skip desert,’ she suggested, eliciting nothing more substantial than a grunt.
‘Just the one helping of lobster…’
‘Em, you know money’s tight. Christ, I had to pay the water and gas this month, and you still owe me a couple of hundred from Christmas.’
A little hurt by his words, Emily relented.
‘Alright. We’ll go to The Dilshad,’ she said sulkily, eyes on the pitch but, when she turned his way, she found he was grinning from ear to ear.
‘Gotcha,’ he said.
‘You pig,’ she replied, but squeezed his thigh again all the same, relieved that he had only been playing her at her own game.
On the pitch, a Villa attack was underway, the ball fed through the centre of the park this time, not down the channel.
‘Here we go,’ said Emily.
The midfielder picked up the ball and dribbled past a Liverpool player before slotting the ball to a team-mate.
‘Come on, Villa,’ Emily cheered, slipping her scarf from around her neck.
The ball skimmed across the surface of the pitch, again finding the intended target.
‘Come on,’ she called, louder this time, beginning to whip the scarf around, windmill fashion, above her head.
On the edge of the penalty area now, the Villa player assessed his options before chipping the ball delicately over the defensive line.
‘Yes,’ she cried, the scarf spinning furiously now, the pace of the rotations seemingly in synch with her levels of excitement.
A Villa player broke through, beating the offside trap, though only just, reaching the ball in the clear, no other player anywhere near him, but his shot was imperfectly angled, skewing wide of the goal when it seemed far easier to score than to miss.
‘You donkey,’ Emily complained loudly, drawing a laugh from James so that, as they settled again he was compelled to ask ‘Donkey?’
‘I don’t know,’ she shrugged, ‘I’ve heard it said. I’m just going with the crowd.’
‘And you’ll have someone’s eye out with that thing,’ James observed, pointing at the scarf which was now placed in her lap.
James looked down at the scarf.
‘Look. I told you it was dangerous.’
‘That scarf is a dangerous weapon, I’m telling you. I’m going to recommend they confiscate it on the way in next time.’
‘What are you wittering on about?’
‘Look,’ he stressed, pointing towards her lap. Emily peered at the spot indicated, a small frown creasing her brow. She lifted the scarf towards her, and saw a wasp perched on the fabric. She panicked a little, her fear of buzzing, stinging things instinctive.
‘Oooh, get rid of it, James.’
‘It’s alright,’ he said, prodding the small body with an index finger.
The itch had intensified to the point that Daniel was unable to ignore it anymore, balling his right hand into a fist and scrunching his curled up index finger into the socket, attempting to dislodge whatever foreign matter was causing the irritation. Fluid leaked copiously from the organ, streaking his face, the outpouring so strong tiny beads of salty water dripped from his chin. Beside him, Doug remained unaware, his attention on the game all consuming, until Daniel sat down, still rubbing, not really in pain, simply irritated by the sensations he felt.
‘You ok?’ Doug asked as he peered down at his son, noticing the problem for the first time.
‘Yeah. Eye’s watering. Don’t know why.’
Doug, too, took his seat, moments before the crowd around them followed suit, the phase of attacking play that had caused them to rise in the first place over for now.
Daniel continued to rub at the stricken orb, though with little effect. Indeed, if anything, the tears seemed to be flowing more keenly.
‘Tilt your head back,’ Doug instructed, and Daniel did as he was told, feeling as his father pulled his hand away from his face.
‘Try and open your eye.’
Again he tried to follow the instruction, though no matter how hard he concentrated, he was unable to carry it out.
‘I can’t open it.’
‘OK. Hold still.’
Daniel felt firm fingers on his cheek and on his brow, then slight pressure, as Doug prized the eyelid open, exposing the eyeball which still leaked tears. With the eyelid held in place, Daniel was unable to blink, though the instinct to do so was strong, and he had to fight the urge to push his father’s hands away from him.
‘Can you see anything?’
‘Hold still, I said. Give me a minute.’
Doug bobbed his head up and down, side to side, squinting his own eyes into slits as he peered, searching for anything that could be causing the discomfort. Perhaps an eyelash had bent back on itself and was jabbing at the sensitive surface, or perhaps a small insect had foolishly found its way onto the orb, the salty fluid that serves as lubricant a lure that would lead only to certain death. Gripping more tightly, Doug manipulated the position of Daniel’s head, scoping every possible angle, unable to spot the offending object.
‘Well?’ Daniel asked, struggling now to fight the urge to yank his head away, just so that he could blink.
He let go.
Instinctively, Daniel resumed the rubbing.
‘Try to leave it alone for a few minutes. See if it clears itself up.’
Grumpily, Daniel obeyed but, when the time had passed, still the tears flowed, unabated.
‘It’s starting to really hurt,’ Daniel complained. ‘Bloody hell,’ he cursed, the misery he felt more to do with missing the game than the discomfort.
‘Come on. We’ll go and see the St. John’s. See if they’ve got something that can help.’ They stood, wending their way through the crowd, forcing fellow supporters to stand briefly to allow them past. Down the stairs they went, stopping momentarily to ask a steward for directions.
The St John’s Ambulance team were dutiful, conducting a brief examination of the eye, but they too could find no culprit in the eye itself, prompting a brief discussion about potential causes.
‘Conjunctivitis is possible, though I would expect to see some swelling or inflammation. It could also be a blocked tear duct. Unusual in young people, but not altogether unheard of.’
‘Thanks,’ Daniel said rather ungraciously, the thought of having contracted some form of early onset condition usually associated with the elderly clearly not brightening his mood.
‘Is there anything we can do?’ Doug asked.
‘Well, it is still most likely that there is something in the eye that we just can’t see, in which case it will clear itself up. If the problem persists into tomorrow, I’d book him an appointment at the doctor’s.’
Doug thanked the man and received a handful of antiseptic wipes, then walked away, Daniel in tow but, instead of heading back the way they had come Doug was heading straight for the exits.
‘Where you going?’ Daniel demanded.
‘We might as well go home.’
‘What? Why?’ Daniel seemed appalled. ‘You heard what he said. There’s nothing we can do.’
‘Yeah, but…’ Doug began, but was swiftly interrupted.
‘I’ll watch with one eye if I have to. Come on, Dad, we’ve already missed five minutes.’
And, without waiting for approval, Daniel dashed up the stairs, forcing Doug to follow in his wake.
‘I’ve met someone else.’
The phrase reverberated around his head, over and over, a round robin effect, intense, maddening, uncontrollable. As he tried to block it out, the more insistent the repetitions became, her voice going up in pitch gradually as the iterations became more frequent, like a tape recorder breaking down, about to burn out, the spools spinning ever more swiftly until surely the thing would burst into flames.
‘I’ve met someone else. I’ve met someone else. I’ve met someone else.’
As around him people cheered and encouraged, all he could think about was the look on Sarah’s face as she had delivered the news. In his mind’s eye, Matt studied her expression, recalling it as surely as if she were sitting in front of him now. The pinched lips, the clenching of muscles at the jaw yet, most pertinently, the emptiness in the eyes, devoid of emotion, soulless, blank, as if she were telling him nothing more significant than the fact that they had run out of milk.
‘I want to meet him, too’ Matt thought to himself, allowing the idea to bubble to the surface of his mind, focusing on this thought instead, trying to push aside the ever-repeating, inexplicably cold delivery of her words.
‘Let me meet him too, Sarah,’ he said quietly to himself, a slight smile troubling his soured expression. ‘Let me meet him, too.’
Something bumped against the back of his chair, and Matt grunted his annoyance briefly.
Who could it be, he wondered? Someone from work? Or maybe the badminton club? Her circle of friends was small, select and, truthfully, she seldom left the house. Tuesday nights was badminton, then work, obviously, and every other Saturday a girl’s night out. Other than that, she was either at her own flat or round at his.
Or so she claimed.
Now that he considered it, how was he to know that she was really at home when she had claimed to be? Even when he had called, there was every possibility that she had been elsewhere, simply claiming to be at home. Yes. It made sense. Just last week he had called on a night they had planned to spend apart and, when he had suggested he pop round to see her she had made an excuse. What was it? Washing her hair? No, but something almost as trite. Tiredness. That was it. She had said she was too tired and just wanted an early night. Yeah, I bet she wanted an early night, he thought, only not the type that results in much sleep.
Had he been sitting beside her?
Had he been right there in the room when she had been speaking? She, the spiller of lies, insisting she was fatigued even as she smiled across at her companion in deceit, laughing maybe, silently, holding her hand over the mouthpiece so that he could not hear, mocking him, the pair of them.
Again, the bump from behind brought him out of his thoughts, briefly, long enough for him to ram a fist against the back of the chair to signal his disapproval.
Yes, he could see them clearly enough, now that he thought about it, his disembodied voice on the telephone a source of amusement. Maybe they had been naked, in bed, he holding her in his arms as she span her tangle of untruths, both of them barely able to belief his gullibility. When she hung up, the pair of them laughing out loud.
‘What an idiot!’
‘Matt’s an idiot.’
‘He is such a fucking idiot!’
Matt trembled in his seat, adrenaline taking hold, the rage, resentment and sense of betrayal a potent blend, his blood stream thick with the natural stimulant, his system so anaesthetised he did not even feel the nails of his thumbs jabbing into the fleshy part of his index fingers, fists clenched so tightly blood was drawn.
But what to do?
Even through the fog of his fury, he knew that he must act cautiously. Any cavalier, ill-prepared action could have adverse consequences, could see him back inside, and that was something he would not permit. He remembered when he and Sarah had first become an item, it had been the first promise he had made to her. No more brushes with the law. He’d clean up his act, sever ties with the life he had lived before and, to an extent, he had been successful. Now, though the promise had been made for her sake more than his, he planned to stay true to his word, planned never to set foot in Winson Green ever again and, by doing so, he would have time to claim retribution against the very person for whom the promise had been made in the first place. The irony of it all was not lost on him, and it brought a rueful smile to his features, though only fleetingly.
Once more, something crashed into the back of his seat and, this time, fuelled by the turmoil of his rage, he sprang to his feet, turning in an instant to face the culprit.
‘Kick it again and I’ll fuck you up,’ he spat, the slight, bespectacled man he was addressing simply blinking at him in confusion. When it was apparent that no reply would be forthcoming, Matt turned back, dropping into his seat, hearing the babble of commotion his outburst had provoked behind him, but choosing to ignore it.
Let them bluster, he thought.
Blind to all around him, with a clarity of focus that only ever came to those with a sense of righteous indignation, a plan began to form.
He’ would claim his retribution, alright.
One way or another.
In unison, Twitch and Lisa jumped back from the prostrate form of the old woman, the sudden blinking of her eyes startling them both. Panicked, Twitch fought hard to control his breathing, harder still to override the urge just to run, to take Lisa’s advice from a few minutes past and head for home.
‘I swore she was dead,’ he hissed at Lisa, eyes alive with confusion.
‘You said she wasn’t breathing,’ Lisa replied.
‘She wasn’t,’ he insisted.
‘Well she is now,’ Lisa objected, her response more spiteful sounding than she intended, the stress of the situation causing her to lash out, perhaps, to seek someone to blame.
‘I’m not so sure,’ Twitch countered, motioning downwards with his head, prompting Lisa to look back down at the old woman who was motionless once more, no visible sign of life present.
‘But she blinked?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe some form of impulse. Residual energy in the nervous system, perhaps.’
Lisa turned to him, puzzled both by his choice of words and his demeanour. Instead of sounding compassionate, concerned or even alarmed, instead he had taken on the air of one in authority, used to dealing with crises, merely reporting the facts with no thought to the implications.
‘What’s the matter, Twitch? You’ve suddenly come over all Gil Grissom.’
He just shook his head, unable to tear his eyes away from the old woman’s prone form. It was Lisa’s turn to take action, so she bent at the knee, leaning forward over the old woman’s body, pulling at the zip at the top of her coat, yanking it down to reveal a floral print blouse beneath.
‘What are you doing?’ Twitch demanded beside her.
‘Just a minute.
Lisa pressed a palm flat against the old woman’s chest, hard, pushing down firmly, searching for any trace of a heartbeat, but none was evident.
‘Nothing,’ she said simply. ‘Damn it.’
Twitch reached into his pocket and pulled out his mobile, tapping quickly against the key pad three times – 999 – holding the phone to his ear, hearing the call connect, waiting anxiously as the call rang three times, four, five, losing count, aware that he had brought his fingers up to his mouth and was gnawing at his nails as still the call went unanswered. After two minutes, maybe more, he terminated the call.
‘I can’t get through to the police or ambulance,’ he told Lisa.
She nodded. ‘Probably flooded.’
‘So, what do we do? We can’t just leave her here.’
‘I don’t think we have any choice.’
He knew she was correct, but somehow it did not seem right, seemed almost callous but, quickly scanning the street in both directions, surveying the surreal scene all around them, Twitch could see no alternative.
‘We’ll come back for her,’ he said, not a question, a statement of intent.
‘OK. If we can,’ she agreed.
Lisa took his hand, leading him away, his reluctance apparent. They walked in silence, heading down the main road towards the town centre, alert, looking round constantly, behind and in front, alert for any sign of movement that could indicate a survivor or an imminent threat. The near total silence was claustrophobic in its intensity, setting every nerve ending on edge, heightening the senses. In the middle of the road they passed two cars rammed together, the impact minimal judging by the damage inflicted to the vehicles themselves but, within, the drivers sat slumped, one pushed firmly back in his seat, looking for all the world like a man simply taking a nap, whilst the woman driving the other was positioned in a more ungainly manner, body hanging forward awkwardly, lolling at forty five degrees, the seatbelt she wore holding her in position in absolute defiance of the laws of gravity.
The engines of both cars ticked over.
Onwards they walked, initially stopping whenever they encountered fresh pedestrians who had fallen as they walked but, after four, maybe five fruitless investigations, they gave up hope, simply side stepping them as they headed towards town.
‘They can’t all be dead,’ Twitch said suddenly, breaking the silence.
‘I mean, it’s just not possible.’
‘I know,’ she said again, not through disinterest in the conversation, merely because she had nothing else to add. Lisa’s head was spinning, the initial numbness replaced now with almost hyperactive thoughts, searching for answers that were impossible to know, given the information available.
What had happened to all these people?
How had it happened?
And why did it seem that only she and Twitch were unaffected?
The only thing that separated them from the rest of the population was The Gift, the powerful, preternatural mental abilities they possessed. Yet that did not render them superior in any other regard, save the prolonged lifespan.. True, whilst their initiation into the few that were chosen had made them resistant to such things as the common cold or stomach upsets, that had been as a result of the cocktail of drugs with which they had been administered by Tom, the Elder of the group but now, having flourished, having awakened, the drugs were no longer needed and, accordingly, they were just as susceptible to the mundanity of general ill-health as anyone else. Yet here they were, walking, apparently fit and healthy, whilst all around their townsfolk had perished.
Again she formed the question in her mind: what made them so different?
Nearing the traffic lights that served as traffic control to the main roundabout servicing the town centre, a sound could be discerned, growing louder with each step they took. Traversing the pedestrian crossing, they made their way across the walkway between lanes and crossed the road on the other side, turning right, past the Indian takeaway that served the finest Lamb Rangoon in Stourhampton – they would pep it up to madras by special request – before taking the final left turn that brought the hill into view that served as the town’s Lower High Street and, as they turned the corner, suddenly the sound that had been growing steadily louder intensified as, by clearing the buildings, the muffling effect was removed so that, instantly, its source could be identified: the clarion call of countless alarms, their piercing wail precipitated by cars careening out of control and slamming through the glass fronted shops and offices that lined the street.
Here, a brand new Fiat 500 had left the road and ploughed through the window of a small newsagent, there, a banged up Ford Fiesta had taken out the main entrance to a clothes store, as though the driver had been considerate enough to at least attempt to drive through the front door. The further they walked, so too the scene of chaos and destruction intensified.
A minibus from a charity that helped children with disabilities overturned, the driver flopped through the windscreen, bleeding, broken.
A passenger bus had left the road, crashing through the thick wooden post that held a billboard in place, bringing the advertising hoarding down, an apparent final protest by the driver at the prospect of another dim-witted romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston.
A taxi straddled the pavement, the driver bleeding within where his head had made contact with the steering wheel and, beneath the wheels of the vehicle, a child’s pushchair, crushed though, mercifully, of the child that surely had been present, there was no sign, and neither Twitch nor Lisa had the inclination to conduct a search, fearful of what they might find.
And everywhere, all around, pedestrians, shoppers and passersby slumped to the ground, the goods they had been carrying rolling away from them, into the gutter, down the hill, lost.
For all the world, the town appeared to have perished.
The ball moved from left to right, a passage of midfield possession play that had no-one enthralled, however tactically astute it may be.
‘I hope that Donna’s alright,’ Emily said to James, eliciting nothing more comprehensible than a grunt.
‘I hope that Donna’s alright,’ she repeated, a little more loudly, though still his concentration was on only the match.
‘Me and Donna had sex last week,’ she said matter of factly. ‘I covered her in baby oil and we….’
‘You did what?’ he asked, suddenly tuned in.
Emily nudged him in the rub, hard.
‘What???’ James protested. ‘What have I done now?’
‘You bloody ignore me right up to the moment I mention Donna covered in baby oil. That’s what you’ve done.’
James laughed involuntarily, and Emily herself was struggling to keep a straight face.
‘I’m only flesh and blood,’ James opined.
‘Yeah, don’t I just know it,’ she said, nudging him again.
He moved towards her a little, taking hold of the waistline of her coat and pulling her his way.
‘Don’t sulk. You know I’ve only got eyes for you,’ he said earnestly, before planting a deliberately wet kiss on her cheek.
‘Gerrof,’ she said, wriggling away and wiping her cheek, but laughing as she did so.
A roar from the crowd brought their focus back to the match and, initially, Emily was unable to spot the source of the spectators’ consternation. There, though, almost exactly on the halfway line, a scene was developing, as players gathered around the referee, some gesticulating wildly, others merely there to add moral support to their team mates. As the crowd parted, Emily spied a player on the ground and, a quick look at the big screen that dominated the far corner of the ground, showed a Liverpool defender scything through one of the home teams wingers, sending him sprawling, unmoving, where he still remained. As a general rule, she knew, if the player remained motionless after such a challenge, some form of injury had been sustained, else the player would be writhing around, pretending to be in agony, so the sight of her star player, immobile, was a cause of great concern.
‘Have you seen it?’ she asked James, pointing at the big screen which was showing the tackle in a constant loop whilst the felled player was treated.
‘He’s moving now,’ said James, watching as the player clambered to his feet, appearing groggy, winded perhaps, but nothing more serious.
As the player was manoeuvered off the field of play, the game was allowed to resume, a free kick signalled by the referee following a yellow card for the offending player. Villa chose to take the free kick quickly , hoping to catch Liverpool unprepared but, instead of mounting an attack on the Liverpool goal, the Villa striker lost control of the ball as he neared the penalty area, allowing himself to be dispossessed far too easily, left standing with hands on hips, shaking his head in annoyance when really he should have been doing all in his power to reclaim the ball. As it was, one pass, two, three, and suddenly it was Liverpool on the offensive, Villa in need of a spirited defence that was sadly lacking. The Liverpool player on the ball side-stepped a lumbering challenge from a defender before slotting in a perfectly weighted ball to his striker, eluding both the Villa defensive line and the offside trap that had been prepared. With the assuredness that comes from two hundred and fifty three games in the top flight of English football, the striker went one and one with the keeper, feinting to the right, sending the keeper sprawling in that direction, allowing the Liverpool man to fire home into an empty net.
Around Villa Park, the home faithful groaned.
From the away end, where all should have been raucous jubilation, there came not a sound, and the lack of congratulatory noise caused the scoring player to cut short his celebration, shrug his shoulders and head back to the halfway line for kick-off.
‘They did just score, right?’ Emily asked James.
‘I think so,’ he observed, puzzled by the lack of reaction from the Liverpool fans, scanning the pitch for the referee who had returned to the halfway line himself and was simply waiting for the players to line up appropriately.
‘Yeah they definitely scored.’
‘So why are they so silent?’
‘I don’t know,’ James replied honestly, for some reason deeply troubled by the odd behaviour.
‘Weird,’ Emily said. ‘Bloody weird.’
Daniel prodded teasingly at the corner of his eye, the worst of the weeping seeming to have ceased. He drew his finger back and examined the tip, satisfied when all that was in evidence was excess moisture. No trace of sleep, any that had been present having presumably been washed away by the flow of tears and, most comfortingly, no sign of any kind of discharge. The St John’s guy had invoked the dreaded C word – conjunctivitis. A friend of Daniel’s at school had contracted the condition, and had suffered near two months of pain and discomfort as his doctor went through the entire list of possible causes, before identifying the culprit as a newly acquired allergy to dust mites. In the meantime, with eyes swollen and leaking an off white, yellowy gloop, his life had seemed difficult indeed. To think that something as apparently innocuous as a near microscopic mite could cause so much distress seemed remarkable to Daniel.
Christ, he hoped it wasn’t that.
‘You OK, son?’ Doug asked, looking down at him from the next seat along.
‘Yeah, I’m fine, Dad, thanks. Just testing it. Feels a lot better.’
‘I bet those antiseptic wipes have cleaned out whatever it was that had gotten in there.’
‘Hope so. I was just thinking about Tim. Remember when he got conjunctivitis?’
‘He really suffered with it,’ Daniel remarked. ‘It couldn’t be that, could it?’
Doug turned his way again. ‘I doubt it, but there’s no way to know for sure. I reckon, though, that if it were you’d still be in pain.’
Daniel nodded, pleased to have confirmation of his own suspicions.
‘Can you still watch the match?’
‘I think so,’ Daniel said, blinking twice, three times, four, still slightly troubled by excess moisture, having to clear it out frequently so as not to be partially blinded.
‘Well, we’re a goal down, anyway, just in case you missed it.’
‘I gathered that. Good goal?’
‘From their point of view, I suppose so. We lost possession and they just took it up field and slotted it home.’
‘Very similar to the one we scored against Everton a couple of weeks ago.’
Daniel smiled, recalling the goal, as well as how furiously his Dad had celebrated it, coming so late in the game.
‘I thought you were going to rupture something,’ he said.
Doug laughed. ‘I was a bit over-excited, wasn’t I?’
‘Over-excited? I thought someone had slipped something in your drink before the match’
Doug placed a hand on his son’s head and ruffled his hair affectionately.
‘I’m glad we have this time together,’ he said, his voice taking on a deep, throaty resonance, suddenly serious and emotional.
‘Dad,’ Daniel protested, a little embarrassed by the unprompted display of fatherly love.
‘I mean it, son. I never had it with your Grandad, and I always resented him for that.’
Daniel lowered his eyes, unsure how to respond, his father seldom the emotional type but, when he lifted his gaze and found him still looking his way, he replied simply, ‘Me too, Dad. We’ll do this forever.’
With a last ruffle of the hair, the moment was over, and both turned their attention back to the game, which had settled into another period of midfield dominance, both teams seeming to have tightened up their defences, Liverpool to hope their lead was held, Villa to try to ensure no further goals were gifted. As Doug watched, his attention was caught by activity at the far corner of the ground. As was usual, stewards were strewn along the advertisement hoardings just in front of the away end, to persuade any would be interlopers onto the field to think carefully before crossing the barriers. Now, as Doug watched, the yellow jacketed stewards dashed to the corner of the ground where one of their number appeared to be lying on the floor. He had clearly taken a turn for the worse, the poor chap. Perhaps standing up for a prolonged period had brought on a dizzy spell, or maybe he had some pre-existing condition. No way to know for sure and, just as Doug was about to turn back to the game in progress, another steward, one that was already tending to the fallen man, collapsed to his knees.
‘Can you see that, Dan?’ he asked, pointing into the far corner.
‘What am I looking at?’
But Doug lapsed into silence as a third steward fell to the floor.
Saturday night was girl’s night out, or at least every other Saturday and, if memory served, Matt knew that Sarah would be out on the town this very evening. After the break-up, he doubted she would want to stay in either with company or without, would worry lest he pay an unprompted visit. No, she’d be out, alright and, whilst she drank, he would take the opportunity to gain access to her home. Through the kitchen window, perhaps, though the noise if he was forced to break it would be troublesome. Perhaps the back door was a better option. Wait until darkness fell, then lever the door open, cleave it from the jamb. Yes, there would be some sound, as wood splintered and wrenched free, but inconsequential noise at best. Nothing that the sound of a television in a neighbouring house would not disguise. Certainly not sufficient to draw unwanted attention.
He still had a spare key.
He still had a spare key.
As he ruminated, plotting his means of access, he remembered. It seemed strange that she had not demanded he return the item. Perhaps his outburst in the pub had caused a mental lapse, her eagerness for him to leave the premises so potent that the thought had never occurred.
Would she change the lock?
At some point she would realise her error and, rather than contact him to request the key back, perhaps she would take preventative action to ensure he could not easily gain access to her house. But, even if she did realise her mistake during the day, it would still take some organising and, besides, most locksmiths would charge out of hours rates over the weekend. No, in all likelihood, she would take the risk, arrange for the locks to be replaced Monday at the earliest, which gave him the best part of forty hours to pay her a courtesy call.
Yes, tonight would do very nicely.
No need to force entry. He could watch from the end of the road, make sure she had left for the evening, then simply stroll up and let himself in. Ransack the place, maybe, make it seem as if a burglary had taken place when first she set foot in the living room, set her pulse racing, before jumping her, pinning her to the sofa.
Then the real fear could begin.
But what if she had company? What if she came back with an unexpected guest? Well, he’d take care of him, too, make him wish he’d never set eyes on the whore.
So caught up in his own musings was he, Matt did not even notice the commotion at the other end of the pitch as, to a man, the stewards dropped to the ground, apparently pole-axed, as if some unseen sniper were taking pot-shots from the crowd.
Around him, troubled voices began to murmur as the crowd began to realise that something was very, very wrong.
The walk up the hill into the town proper was a surreal, disturbing affair, and Lisa and Twitch clung to each other, finding some small fragment of comfort from the touch of the other whilst all around: chaos.
Picking their way through the madness, they focused on their environment intently, not through any real desire to see what surrounded them, for the sight was grisly indeed, but in the desperate hope that they would encounter someone else like them; functioning, conscious, alive. Twitch flinched visibly as they neared a red Nissan Micra that had mounted the pavement, apparently at some speed, the driver slumped in the seat but the passenger, clearly defying the rules of the road and dispensing with the seatbelt, flung forwards, head smashed straight through the windscreen, body coming to rest so that the neck rested precisely against the jagged shards that remained in the window frame, their vicious teeth carving deep ruts in the unfortunate’s flesh.
‘What is it?’ Lisa asked beside him, oblivious to the grisly tableau, her attention elsewhere and everywhere all at the same time, eyes scanning the street twenty metres or so ahead.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Twitch, ‘Just don’t look to the left.’
A stupid thing to say he knew, even as the words came out of his mouth, for human instinct will always defy clear, negative instructions and take the opposing action, and Lisa baulked as she caught sight of the savaged passenger.
‘I told you,’ Twitch said, though not unkindly.
Lisa swore infrequently, and Twitch squeezed her hand tighter still.
The climb up the hill was complete and, now on the top bar of a T-Junction, to their left a descent which took in more shops, café’s and take away joints. Straight ahead lay the art gallery on one side and another row of shops opposite and, just before the row of shops began, on the right hand side of the road, a pedestrianised area that also gave access to one of the town’s two shopping centres.
‘Let’s head indoors,’ Twitch said, indicating the pedestrianised area, and Lisa agreed.
‘Maybe those inside weren’t affected,’ she suggested.
‘It’s possible,’ I suppose,’ he replied, though his voice gave lie to the statement.
Hand in hand, still, they crossed the road, not bothering to look for oncoming traffic, knowing that they were alone. They passed the water fountain and concrete seating area, a magnet for emo and goth kids, and so it was today, their myriad bodies clad in black jeans and black t-shirts, bedecked in all manner of ornate and bewildering jewellery, make-up and hairstyles, each and every one of them collapsed and lifeless, the pale make-up they wore making them appear even more cadaverous than the other afflicted.
‘Could have been me a few years ago,’ said Lisa.
‘You always struck me as more crust than goth,’ said Twitch, surprising Lisa with his counter-culture knowledge.
‘Who’s been reading the NME, then?’ Lisa asked, both of them desperate to lighten the mood though, with the sights they were surrounded by, such attempts were pure folly. They moved on, away from the goths, into the pedestrianised zone proper, past a bank then a cafe then a photo processing shop before cutting right through the alleyway that led past a small, family run butcher’s shop, a tiny amusement arcade that must surely be the front for some money laundering scam, for no business could genuinely make a profit from four slot machines and a toy grabber, then through the automatic doors that led into the shopping centre.
‘Electricity is still on, then,’ Twitch commented.
‘We knew that, though. The shop alarms.’
‘Not necessarily. Most of those alarms have emergency battery power, in case someone deliberately cuts the power to gain access. The battery kicks in, and the alarm goes.
‘The NME and What? Burglar Alarm, apparently.’
Twitch smiled beside her, pleased that she could retain her sense of humour, even in such peculiar circumstances.
‘Heh, I’m a fountain of knowledge.’
‘You’re a shower of something, that’s for certain,’ she retorted as they entered the main concourse, though on the upper floor, the lower floor carved into the earth so that ground level served as the first floor. With much trepidation, they approached the balcony directly in front of them, affording them a view of the entire lower section. Whatever calamity had afflicted the population, those indoors had not been spared as Lisa had hoped for here, too, bodies lay strewn, anything they had been carrying cast away as their momentum sent them sprawling, clear indication that whatever had struck had done so in an instant, giving no-one any time to respond. Men, women, old, young, yellow, white, brown and black, none seemed to have been spared, the entire gamut of humankind felled in one motion.
Save for Lisa and Twitch.
‘It’s like that movie,’ Twitch said breathlessly, his tone hushed, as if fearful of awakening those that had fallen.
‘Which one?’ Lisa asked, only half listening, head reeling anew with the grim certainty that they were the only two people left alive in the area.
‘The one in the shopping mall.. Old film. Can’t remember the name.’
‘I know the one you mean.’
‘What are we going to do, Lise?’ he asked, his tone desperate, plaintive.
She didn’t answer immediately, eyes dancing around the scene before her, drinking in every detail, no matter how ghastly it all seemed.
‘I haven’t got a clue.’
Though on field, the game seemed to be continuing as normal, it was clear to the spectators in the Trinity Road Stand that all was not as it should be. Emily had hold of James’ arm and was gripping it tight. She looked around and, though to the casual observer it may have appeared that all eyes were on the game, it was apparent that most in the crowd were staring past the passage of play to the farthest end of the ground where, seemingly, something strange was occurring. The yellow clad stewards lay on the ground where they had fallen, as yet unseen by the match officials as the focus of the game had been at the opposite end of the field. But, there was more than that. Behind the stewards, in the stands, it seemed as if time had ceased to move forwards. Though the stand was full to capacity, of movement there was no sign. All around, a hush began to fall, as everyone present in the stadium began to sense something alarming, something perhaps even dangerous in the air. Like the onset of a coming storm, or the moments before an outburst of rampant violence, a calmness washed over the place, though pregnant with anxiety; anticipation.
Something was clearly wrong.
‘Why aren’t they moving?’ Emily asked James, clutching his arm even more tightly, forcing him to flinch back a little from her touch.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Let’s go, James. I don’t like it.’
He sat where he was, not moving, not acting on her plea, seeming pinned in place by the oppressive stillness that had suddenly befallen the venue.
‘James,’ she hissed, insistence her master now, making to stand.
‘Wait a minute,’ he said, nervous beyond reason, his mind awhirl, weighing up the alternatives. Stay where they were and await whatever occurred, or make a dash for the exits now, the only thing keeping him in his seat the fear of a stampede. If something truly calamitous were happening then, once revelation came, panic would soon follow, and the weight of twenty thousand frightened, desperate people would suddenly descend upon the four or five exits from the stand. Perhaps the best course of action was to stay where they were, let the rush happen around them, then take decisive action in those safer moments that followed.
A note of anxiety in her voice now, the sound of a frightened child just wanting out of the situation they found themselves in, but still he resisted the urge to flee, however strongly it surged through him.
Total silence had fallen and, in the quiet, the sound of the referee’s whistle seemed incongruous. James glanced at the pitch, tearing his eyes away from the far North Stand, to see the referee ushering the players towards the centre circle, the collective huddling around the man in black, looking for all the world like an American Football style timeout had been called. From the sidelines, two suit clad figures raced from the dugout, the manager from each team, eager to know what was happening.
‘We’ve got to go,’ Emily said beside him.
‘We’ve got to wait,’ he snapped.
His eyes were drawn to the North Stand again as a sound began to build, at first unidentifiable, a sort of rustling, crumpling with an undercurrent of something more solid, like the splintering of wood, that built in intensity and, unless his eyes deceived him, activity of a sort had commenced, starting in the crowd at the point where the two lengthways stands intersected the North Stand. Where the fans there had been on their feet, craning, trying to see what was happening both to the stewards and to the supporters in the North Stand, now they seemed to be falling, too, just as the stewards had moments before and, with genuine horror, James realised that this had already taken place in the North Stand. The reason for the lack of apparent activity there was simple: they had all collapsed, either into their seats or to the floor, and now the phenomena was spreading, rippling out down the length of the pitch, the supporters in both the Doug Ellis and Trinity Road stands stricken. Like a corruption of the Mexican Wave, instead of casting their arms aloft in synchronicity, the people fell where they stood or sat, the sound he heard a combination of bodies and limbs and skulls cracking against plastic seating, the rustling noise the sound of hundreds of sweatshirts, t-shirts, blouses and coats crumpling as their wearer collapsed, and the phenomena surged towards them
‘OK, you’re right. Let’s go,’ he said, grabbing her arm and pushing past the person next to him, just as the sound of screaming reached their ears.
Finally dragged from his own mental ramblings, his mind filled with images of violence and bloodshed and a sense of pure, distilled retribution, it was only the sound of the referee’s whistle in the now unnatural silence that stirred him from his revenge fuelled reverie.
Matt stood and glanced about him, to the left and to the right, aware that everyone in his part of the stadium, The Holte End, appeared transfixed. It was as if they had all been hypnotised, though what held them in mesmerised silence was not the work of any stage performer but that uncanny ability known as the sixth sense. Each and every one of them knew that something significant was taking place, something that would change everything and everyone of them and, laced within that sense of portentous certainty was also a fear so profound, so crippling as to render all present temporarily paralysed. Matt had escaped the apparent mass delusion, the effect that gripped all present as, for the last several minutes, though physically he had been present, mentally he had been far away indeed.
Now the sound caught his attention, and he gazed in awe struck wonder at the anti-Mexican Wave that swept down both lengths of the stadium, not particularly quickly, the apparent leisurely nature of the phenomena somehow imbuing it with more power, with a sense of the magnificent. Like one of those elaborate attempts at a world record, spectators on both flanks of the stadium fell like dominoes, some slumping straight back into their chairs, others losing their balance completely and tumbling into those nearest to them, whilst yet others pitched forward, jaw or teeth or skull cracking sharply against the plastic lip at the top of the seat in front.
With such a bizarre spectacle, Matt would certainly have expected some of those around him to begin to panic, to make a charge for the exits but, as far as he could see, nobody moved, all apparently pinned in place by the sheer magnitude of what they were witnessing, as ten thousand, eleven thousand, twelve thousand – the number increased with every passing second – people succumbed to the phenomenon.
Matt’s eyes were drawn to the centre circle now, where the players from both teams were assembled, along with the match officials and the respective managers, both of whom were flapping their hands wildly, gesticulating to the referee and his assistants in an almost comical manner.
‘What’s happening?’ they demanded.
What are you going to do?
Does the match go on, or do we leave the pitch?
Ironic, thought Matt, that the very men who, post-match, would usually be heard berating the referee for the most minor indiscretion now, in this most unusual circumstance, clearly deferred to his authority perhaps, even in this unprecedented moment, considering their own reputations with the sports governing body.
‘We only did what the ref’ told us to,’ they could bleat.
Of course, from such a distance, Matt heard nothing of what was said, but so dramatic and elaborate where their gestures it was possible to ascertain the meaning without understanding a single thing that passed their lips.
‘Fucking worms,’ he hissed beneath his breath and, as if the curse were somehow a command, everyone inside the centre circle, players, managers and officials, fell to the floor, victim of the same condition that was befalling the paying customers. Matt glanced down both flanks of the ground, confirming his suspicion that the effect had reached the halfway line, that those on the pitch were stricken at the same moment as those in the stands.
Plastic chairs swinging back into place with a sharp crack as, en masse, those still left standing began to move. It seemed to Matt for all the world as if a switch had been flicked, that whatever power of possession had gripped the spectators had been shut off and that now, as the grim realisation dawned that, if they did not move, they too seemed certain to be struck down, panic reigned.
Matt chose not to move, allowing those around him to act like animals, listening with revulsion as people cursed, screamed and even wept, any form of civility now forgotten, instinct taking hold.
Push an old man out of the way to reach the exits first? No problem.
Punch a young child in the face to slow her down? Certainly.
Where before there had been inaction, a form of mass delusion that held all in thrall, now there was nothing but action, a kinetic outburst of energy driven by the fury of blind panic, and Matt wanted no part of it. As a stout man in his mid-thirties attempted to force him out of the way, Matt chose to stand his ground and, briefly, it seemed the man would object, would attempt to turn the encounter into something more physical, but something in Matt’s eyes warned him off and, instead, he sprang over the back of the seats and onto the next row, forcing his way into the river of bodies that flowed for the exits.
Still standing where he had been seated, as the perversion of the Mexican Wave neared the point where the lengthier stands intersected with The Holte End, Matt merely closed his eyes and waited.
The screaming continued to build in intensity, starting to hurt her ears and it wasn’t until she noticed the dull ache at the hinge each side of her jaw that she realised it was she herself that was causing the din. Something about the atmosphere within the stadium had kick started a deep, primal terror within her. It was as if the reptilian instinct that dwells in the lower brain stem knew that something truly awful were occurring, but her higher reasoning faculties were unable to identify the cause or the source. Yeah, the people collapsing looked bad, but she felt ashamed at her lack of control, at her inability to keep a grip on herself, even as James tried to lead her past those around them, but it seemed others in The Holte End had begun to have similar thoughts and, like Williams in Enter the Dragon, suddenly everyone wanted to leave the island.
‘Excuse me,’ she heard James say, genuinely impressed with how calm he appeared, at least outwardly, seeming the very model of measured patience and politeness but, instead of acceding to the request, the man to whom he had spoken placed a hand on James’ shoulder and pushed him back.
‘Heh,’ she called out from behind James, not pleased at seeing her boyfriend man-handled in such a way, but James just gave her a quick reassuring nod, allowing the man to make his way towards the exit first.
Emily glanced to her left, staring straight down the line of the Trinity Road Stand, eager to see where the collapsing Mexican Wave had reached, and was alarmed to see that all present seemed to have perished, passed out, fallen, whatever the hell was happening to them and, as her eye line drifted, she just spied those not ten metres away keeling over, or flopping back into their seats like so many discarded knitted toys. She spun her neck a swift one eighty degrees and saw that the exact same thing was happening on the opposite side of the ground.
‘James,’ she urged from behind, seeking to draw his attention to the close proximity of the activity.
‘I know, I know,’ he said, taking her hand now and dragging her swiftly behind him as he hurdled over the back of the seat to the row behind, the places already vacated by those who had been sitting there. With his lengthy legs, it was a simple manoeuvre, but for Emily, standing only five foot three, there was no chance she could just hop over so James, feeling the resistance from behind as she came to a stand still as her hips met plastic seating, turned back towards her and grasped her under her arms, hoisting her over the seat she had occupied not three minutes prior, lifting her as easily as she could a toddler.
‘My man,’ she sighed dreamily, making him laugh despite their predicament.
‘Stop messing around. We’ve got to get out,’ he insisted, quite reasonably and, as if she needed any further encouragement, her brief moment of levity was stifled as, not ten feet away, people began to collapse, the rate of advance seeming to intensify so that, before they even had time to think about the consequences, those collapsing nearest were closer to them than the concrete steps that would lead them to the exit.
James spun around.
‘That way,’ he barked, no smile on his face anymore, and Emily took him at his word, spinning on her heels and dashing for the next walkway along, their only chance seeming to be to reach the concrete flight of steps and plunge into the bowels of the stadium, in the hope that whatever was causing the affliction could not permeate beneath the stands.
A slim hope, and she knew it.
‘Come on James,’ she urged, turning her head slightly, just sufficient to catch a glimpse of strange movement behind her, which rooted her to the spot. In front, every soul within sight had now fallen, she the lone survivor in this sea of insanity and, though she knew what had occurred behind, still she could not bring herself to turn, to face the grim certainty. In the same way that a dog sometimes foolishly believes that if it is behind a glass door it cannot be seen, so too Emily clutched onto the notion that, if she did not look, then the awful truth would not blossom into cold reality; Schrödinger’s Cat made flesh.
Let him grasp my shoulder, she thought.
Let him just have slipped momentarily so that, any second, I’ll feel his hand on my shoulder, hear him call out my name and we will escape this madness together but, when no such thing occurred, she forced herself to turn.
James lay where he had fallen, body half over one of the chairs on their row, his hair flopping down slightly, almost touching the floor of the next row up, but not quite. Emily moved to him, crouched down beside him, touched him, pulled at him, but no response was forthcoming.
Like everyone else in the place, it seemed that James was dead.
As the wave approached, Daniel and Doug had failed to move, both seeming pinned in place, not through any misguided belief that they would be immune, or even through any sense of bravery or dignity in the face of unimaginable horror, simply through fear. Though Doug was the senior by some thirty years, the terror that gripped him as he saw those people fall had been as palpable as that of his son and now, as the human wave swept towards them, it was all he could do to prevent himself from screaming aloud. Instead, he clenched his fists tight, pushing down hard on the muscle of his thighs and gritting his teeth, feeling his son’s body beside him go through a similar preparatory process, the tension in the arm that was pressed against his, the rocking of his body as he shook his head from side to side vigorously, some unconscious form of denial of the certainty that seemed to await.
No blackout. No pain. No sense of nausea or sickness or other untoward symptom yet, all around, he heard the sounds of bodies crumpling to the floor, nearer, nearer, then right on top of him before seeming to pass over him.
Was that it?
Had he been claimed?
Taken to the other side?
Not a religious man, still it was hard to hush those insistent voices, echoes of tales long since rejected, of Sunday School classes where terrifying women with scraped back hair spoke of damnation, punishment and lakes of sulphur with genuine fervour then, occasionally, to spare the poor mites constant nightmares, would insist that God and Jesus would guide them, if only they allowed them into their heart, and resisted the urge to touch their boyish bits.
Something bumped against Doug’s leg. Hard. Though filled with fear, Doug opened his eyes slowly, eyes dazzled fleetingly, soon adjusting as they had not been closed for long.
All around, silence held.
The sound of his own breathing seemed deafening in the stillness, his heartbeat equally cacophonous, but there was little he could do about either save try to ignore them.
The sound of Daniel’s voice seemed as sweet as the chorus of ten thousand angels to his ears, and he swivelled in his seat, casting his eyes upon his offspring, unable to contain his emotions, leaning forward, taking Daniel’s head in his huge hands, swinging his body inwards, planting a huge kiss on the boy’s brow.
‘What’s happened?’ the youngster asked. ‘Why haven’t we blacked out like the rest of them?’
‘I haven’t a bloody clue,’ Doug responded honestly, the feelings of joy that he had first been flushed with upon hearing Daniel’s voice abating somewhat as the grimness of the situation sunk in.
They were ok, it seemed, but nobody else was.
As if acting on some unspoken command they both stood up, swivelling on the spot where they stood, taking in the ghastliness of the scene.
Not a sound could be heard.
Doug turned to the fallen spectator who occupied the seat next to his own, and leaned down towards him, carrying out a brief inspection of the poor fellow.
‘Is he alive?’ Daniel asked, watching him keenly.
‘It’s hard to say.’
‘Well, is he breathing? Is his heart beating?’
‘It’s what I’m checking,’ he replied patiently, knowing that his son was simply asking the obvious through sheer fright, not to be awkward.
Doug held his hand in front of the stricken man’s mouth, palm turned upwards so that the back of his hand was closest to the mouth, then changed the angle of the hand slightly so that the back was now pressed closely against the nostrils. Frowning to himself, he leaned in some more, this time pushing down on the gentleman’s chest, one handed first, then bringing down the other so that he was pressing with considerable force.
Of a reaction, there was no sign.
‘Anything?’ Daniel asked.
‘I think there’s a heart beat, but it’s very faint. I might be imagining it. Breath? I really couldn’t tell.’
It was Daniel’s turn to investigate. Turning away from his father, he began to inspect the spectator who sat closest to him who conveniently had simply fallen straight back in his seat, arms dangling by his side. As Daniel moved in for a closer look, he was disturbed to find that the eyes were wide open, staring blankly towards the heaven’s, but there was no sign of movement at all.
‘This one’s eyes are open,’ he told his dad.
‘Be careful, lad. We don’t want to frighten him if he is alive.’
‘Frighten him?’’ Daniel thought, bemused. ‘What about us?’
Leaning in again, Daniel stared intently, focusing on the eyes, figuring that if there were any signs of life, the eyes would be a sure give away. It’s impossible to keep your eyes completely static, he reasoned. After twenty, maybe thirty seconds he conceded that there was no activity at all, and took instead to waving his hands in front of the man’s face. Again, nothing.
‘I’m gonna pinch him,’ he told Doug, who seemed to have completed his inspection and was now standing over his son, watching what he was doing.
‘There’s no point,’ the older man said, a grim finality in his tone, the very definition of hopelessness in his manner.
‘We have to leave.’
Though all in the shopping centre seemed to have fallen, the power still persisted so that, as they neared, Lisa and Twitch could hear the hum and roll action of the escalators. Dutifully minding his step, as the sign instructed, Twitch climbed aboard, with Lisa right behind.
‘What are we looking for?’ he asked.
‘I’m not sure. Let’s just take a look around.’
‘I think we should head home, Lise, I really do.’
‘Heh, it was you who suggested investigating back in the park, remember,’ she reminded him. ‘Let’s just have a look around, see if there is anyone else about and awake. Give it ten minutes. If we get nothing, we go home. Ok?’
Twitch considered it. There seemed no real harm in exploring briefly, he supposed.
‘OK. But ten minutes, yeah? This place is scary.’
They reached the bottom of the escalators and Twitch nimbly jumped off the moving platform, Lisa stepping off in a more orthodox manner. They looked around, taking in the scene around them from a fresh perspective. Having looked down from the level above, it was clear that no one nearby was moving, so Lisa took Twitch by the hand and marched him through the main concourse, off down one of the three ‘wings’ of the shopping centre which sprouted from their current position.
‘Hello,’ Lisa called suddenly, making Twitch jump.
‘Heh,’ he protested, tugging at her hand a little to try to slow her pace.
‘Hello,’ she called again, louder this time, cupping her free hand to her mouth to amplify the sound, picking up her pace even more as she did so.
‘Slow down, Lise. What’s the rush?’
‘I want to search as much of this place as we can before we leave.’
Nearing the automatic doors at the end of the section of the shopping centre, Lisa turned around and marched back the way they had come, pulling Twitch along behind her, turning left when they reached the main concourse again, moving determinedly up the next ‘wing.’
‘Anyone here,’ she cried out as she moved, the only response forthcoming the sound of her own voice echoing back off the tiled walls and floor.
‘Call out if you aren’t dead,’ she suggested loudly, causing Twitch to chuckle.
‘What’s so funny?’ she demanded angrily
‘Well…..call out if you aren’t dead?’
Lisa said nothing.
‘It’s like, put your hand up if you’ve got arms or nod your head if you’ve got a neck.’
Suddenly, the oddness of her comment dawned, and she smiled at him.
‘Bloody hell!’ she said.
Twitch pulled her towards him.
‘You OK, Lise?’
‘I am now. Christ.’
She exhaled a long, deep breath.
‘I nearly lost it there, you know.’
‘I know you did. I could feel it,’ and, because of The Gift, she knew that he meant it more than anybody else could.
‘What shall we do?’ she asked. ‘Still want to go home?’
‘Yeah, I do, but let’s finish looking here, first.’
She smiled again, pleased that he still took her suggestion seriously..
‘I think it was a kind of controlled panic,’ she explained as they walked. ‘It was like if I kept moving, nothing bad could happen. Does that make sense?’
‘Total sense. This is pretty weird,’ he said, waving his hand around at the bodies that littered the place, ‘So it’s OK that you freaked out.’
‘Thanks.’ She squeezed his arm.
They reached the end of the second ‘wing, so doubled back on themselves to explore the final section and, to both of their disappointment, found no sign of life or movement there, either.
‘Home it is then, I suppose,’ said Lisa.
‘Let me just try something.’
Twitch took his mobile phone out of his pocket and dialled three nines again, hoping to get through to the emergency services but, as before, there was no answer, not even an automated message.
‘Maybe the signal’s bad down here,’ Lisa suggested, but Twitch shook his head.
‘It’s ringing just fine, but no-one’s answering.’
Lisa took out her own phone and studied the display.
‘My signal’s fine, too.’
‘Call someone,’ Twitch suggested.
‘I don’t know. Anyone. Doesn’t matter.’
Lisa thought for a second, then navigated to the number for work and hit the green button. The call connected immediately but, as with Twitch’s call to the emergency services, there was no reply.
‘What time is it?’ she asked.
‘There should be someone there by now,’
Between them, they tried eight numbers and, though each called connected, not one was answered.
‘Let’s try further afield,’ Twitch said. ‘Do you know any dial codes for any cities?’
Lisa thought for a moment.
‘Further away than that.’
‘Erm…..Sheffield is 0114’
‘How far’s Sheffield?’
‘Dunno. About a hundred miles.’
Twitch punched in the area code, then proceeded to make up a six digit number to follow it. When the first two attempts proved unsuccessful, leading to dead dial tones, suggesting that the number did not exist at all, he hit upon the correct formula with the third attempt, the fourth, fifth and sixth but, as with the local calls, nobody picked up at the other end.
‘So maybe it’s not just here,’ Lisa said, echoing the thought that had begun to form in Twitch’s mind. ‘What if it’s the whole country?’ she asked.
He responded with a question of his own.
‘What if it’s the whole world?’
Though nothing could be heard, Matt kept his eyes closed, his internal vision filled with the image of Sarah, her face contorted in a mask of amusement, laughing aloud, fingers pointing, the corners of her eyes creased, brow furrowed, rocking back on her heels, unable to contain her joy. As if watching a movie of his own life, though a version of a life that had never truly been lived, merely perceived, Matt saw the scene as if it were being directed, a camera angle swooping around, Sarah’s face leaving the field of vision, the camera following along the length of her arm to the mockingly pointed finger then, done with her, the director swooped the camera around in a tight circle, honing in on a fresh scene, of Matt collapsing to the ground where he stood, the last sound he could hear the scornful howls of joyful derision issuing from her mouth.
A total, crushing silence.
Not even the sound of a bird, the buzz of an insect or the distant drone of traffic or aircraft.
Utter, oppressive nothingness.
Matt opened his eyes.
The scene that greeted was precisely as he had expected, the only slight variation from what his mind had conceived the fact that he was still standing, that he had not crashed to the ground along with the rest of them.
‘Always knew you were different,’ he thought to himself without irony. ‘Always knew you were stronger than the rest. Always suspected you’d be the last man standing.. What was it they said? Come the revolution? Come the next war? Well, whatever it is that has come, you’ve made it, sunshine. You’re a survivor. One of the strong. One of the elite.’
Matt stood stock still, only moving his head slightly to gaze up at the sky, mainly blue, though sparsely flecked with thin cloud, high up in the atmosphere. He held his gaze intently, unblinking, feeling a swell of pride so intense that he was compelled to raise his right arm, to ball his hand into a fist and to thump the flattened fist against his chest, a machismo drenched signal of what he felt he had achieved He had risen above the ranks, soared above the squalid and the soulless and emerged, fighting strong. Who knew, perhaps he was soul survivor of the human race, he thought, the one chosen by fate, destiny or deity, the only man remaining in the entire cosmos. He wanted to cry aloud, to scream out at the pure blue sky, to declare himself king of all he saw, but he held his silence, content, for the moment at least, to drink in the sense of his victory, to bask in self-generated adulation.
Matt the Survivor.
Matt the Strong.
Matt the Fucking Invincible.
As all around had perished, had withered like corrupted fruit on a vine, he had lived on, had not only survived whatever had befallen all others, but had in fact blossomed into something beyond what he was before. Now he was unique, a prince amongst the pestilence that was sure to come for, as he turned now to survey what lay before him, as his eyes drifted from corpse to corpse to corpse, even then he was processing the decay that was to follow for, where there is freshly fallen flesh, soon other creatures swarmed, be it rodent, insect or bacteria, chewing, burrowing, gnawing, even dissolving, until nought remained but the bone itself and, with time, even this would be claimed by the wind. He pictured himself once more, strolling through the ruins of a once great civilisation, now cast to dust and, in the image he conjured, he was seven feet tall, with a mane of hair so dense and lustrous a lion would have turned away in shame and, clad in nought but a loin cloth made from the skin of an animal slain by his own hand - perhaps the self same lion that could barely meet his gaze - he wandered about a land littered with the bones of the fallen, a broadsword strapped upon his back.
As his mind played its little game, conjured images of Conan and Krull and Hawk the Slayer, it would have seemed strange to others that at no point did Matt realise he had gone stark raving mad.
Daniel stood up straight, the top of his head only just reaching the level of his father’s shoulders.
‘Which way’s best? Left or right?’
Doug surveyed the area nearest, trying to pick out a route through which they could clamber, a task which seemed likely to prove challenging, whichever way they elected to move.
Doug shrugged , looking down at his son’s upturned face, feeling impotent, somehow, as if his brain had simply locked up, rendering decision making impossible.
‘Not sure, Danny. You choose.’
Christ, he felt foolish. He should be the one making the decisions, leading the way, showing strength of character and fortitude of inner courage, yet it seemed that the surveillance of the scene all around them had robbed him of both mental fibre and physical energy. For his part, Daniel looked a little puzzled, though only momentarily. Perhaps his young mind was more malleable, Doug reasoned, more capable of taking in the ghastly preposterousness of the situation they found themselves in. Though hardly a child these days, more a young man, still his neurons and mental pathways were freshly forged, not yet set in hardened, granite-like stone as were his own. His very youthfulness may well be his greatest strength, and his next statement seemed to lend credence to the notion.
‘Well, let’s see. To the left we have a couple of feet before we have to start scrambling over corpses, whereas to the right we have a clean four foot before we have to make contact with a cadaver.’
Doug shook his head in amazement. How could he make jokes at a time like this, but boy was he glad that he could. With a sense of pride so powerful he felt sure his chest would burst, Doug placed a large hand on his son’s head and ruffled his hair again, the affection he felt bringing tears to his eyes and, this time, he did nothing to fight them back, allowed them to flow freely, no matter the embarrassment it would doubtless cause the boy but, to his surprise, Daniel made no protesting comment, instead taking a step towards him, head bowed, flinging both his arms around him, the younger man’s shoulders spasming subtly, the only indication that he too had broken down in tears so that, in the famous Holte End at Villa Park, two generations of Shawcross’ stood locked together, tears streaking their faces whilst, all around, the stand was littered with the bodies of those that had fallen.
“Come on, son,” Doug said, pulling away gently, breaking the hold his son had on him, though tenderly, easing the young man’s arms back down to his side, who finally turned his face towards him, and Doug took his thumb, seemingly massive in comparison with the fragile, delicate cheek of his offspring, and wiped a tear away.
“We’ll get through this,” he said quietly, attempting to instil in his son a confidence he truly did not feel himself but, before they could be swept away by the emotion of the situation again, he came to a decision.
“Left,” he said, “The way we came in.”
“Let’s go,” Daniel concurred.
Emily flopped into the seat where she was standing, eyes locked onto James’, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. She had pulled him back, off the seat in front, so that he was slumped onto a seat of his own. His eyes remained open though, even from where she sat, it was apparent that they saw nothing at all. His hair, a floppy blond mess, hung forward over his brow, reaching his eyebrows, and she lifted a hand slowly, inching towards him until her fingers made contact with it, stroking it away so that she could see his face more clearly. She allowed her hand to slide down slightly, stroking the side of his face that was nearest, the touch of his still warm skin giving lie to the information her eyes received for, warm, pliant, still flushed with life, it was difficult to believe that he had passed.
Tears began to flow, and Emily made no effort to prevent them, allowing the sudden, piercing grief to wash over her, unbidden, yet even in her anguish, she retained enough control to mourn softly, quietly, the unnatural, deathly hush that occupied the space that not ten minutes ago had been a cauldron of excitement seeming to pin her in her seat, seeming to rob her lungs of any strength so that her moans left her lips softly, as if she were afraid to break the silence.
As she watched, unable to tear her gaze away, it seemed as if the colour was beginning to drain from James’ skin, though Emily knew that this could be an illusion, a trick of the light or even a figment of her own over-wrought imagination. Momentarily, she thought she saw something in his eyes, a glimmer of life, but quickly she dispelled the notion, aware that she was gripped by a profound sense of denial that, in her current predicament, would do her no good at all.
“James,” she whispered softly, hand still gliding up and down his cheek, a tenderness in her expression of grief, before she broke away, turned from him, cast her eyes all about her, drinking in the scene in which she sat, the sight which greeted her, of thousands upon thousands collapsed in their seats, in the aisles, on the walkways and stairways grounding her, permitting her to push the true personal horror of the situation – the loss of a loved one for, despite the calamity that had befallen all others in the stadium, despite the scale of the situation and the unimaginable loss of human life, still the only one that truly mattered lay by her side, lifeless – to one side, for now at least. Perhaps a deep rooted survival instinct had been called upon, a reservoir of inner strength that could yet see her through this situation, or perhaps it was merely another manifestation of the denial. If she ignored the reality of James’ plight, maybe it wouldn’t be real, after all. Heck, as she sat there, sobbing still, though less intensely, Emily prayed to God that it was nothing more than a terrifying dream, that she would awaken shortly next to James who would doubtless have an arm around her waist, if he wasn’t up already making coffee, toast and eggs in readiness for the match day that lay ahead. Emily willed herself, actually closed her eyes and strained her mind, trying to force herself to awaken but, of course, nothing at all changed, and she remained where she was, alone, afraid.
Like the sound of gravel underfoot.
With a tremor of dread Emily realised that, nearby, something was moving.
Lisa and Twitch made their way back to the central concourse of the shopping centre, phones placed back in pockets, useless, for now at least. All around, stillness and silence, the dim hum of the overhead fluorescents the only sound apart from the pad-pad-pad of their own shoes on the tiled flooring.
“It’s strange,” Twitch said.
“No shit, Sherlock” Lisa replied caustically, though with little venom.
“No, not that. I mean, it’s obvious that this is strange,” he countered, waving a hand around vaguely, indicating the walkway strewn with bodies. “I meant how quickly we adapt.”
“To the oddness?” she asked.
“Yeah. The oddness. Exactly that.”
Lisa was silent for a moment or two.
“You getting used to this, then?”
Twitch stopped dead in his tracks, deep in thought.
“Getting used to it isn’t quite right. It’s more….adjusting. Adapting.”
He shrugged helplessly, seeming unable to find the words he sought to clearly express himself.
“It’s alright, Twitch. It’s me. No judgement, here.”
He smiled at her coyly, reminding her fleetingly of that young, innocent boy she had met in the greasy spoon café all those years ago, before The Black Country Butcher, before The Gift, and it made her heart ache.
“Look around you, Lise,” he instructed, and she did as she was bid.
“What now?” she wanted to know.
“Tell me what you see?”
She paused, eyes scanning left and right, left and right, not sure what he was getting at, but trusting him implicitly all the same.
“Well, nothing really. Nothing new, anyway.”
“Exactly. Nothing new. Don’t you see. We’ve adapted to our surroundings, so now this seems like normal reality. Yeah, still pretty weird, but not as much as before. When we were in the park, we were really freaked out. Now we’re just….adjusted.”
They both stood in silence for a few seconds, thinking about what he had said.
“It’s like the news footage you see, I suppose,” she said at last, “After a disaster. As we are watching from the outside, it seems horrific but, every so often, you’ll see someone by a roadside, by a collapsed building or a burning car and they just look….normal. As if it’s the most everyday thing in the world. I always used to feel a little bit of anger towards those people, as if their acceptance of the situation somehow made a mockery of my emotional response to what was happening.”
“Maybe it’s a bit easier to understand now,” Twitch replied, taking her hand suddenly, the warmth flowing between them in a manner that only they could ever know, starting at the point of contact but spreading outwards rapidly, flowing up the limb, seeming to seep into the bone itself until every part of them was alive with its energy and, with it, an inner peace surged, too, calming them.
“Let’s check out Dixons,” Lisa said softly, the tranquillity she felt utterly at odds with their circumstance but, such was the power of The Gift that, at times, all else seemed inconsequential.
“What are we looking for?”
Twitch and Lisa moved together, aware of the others’ intent, and rescaled the escalator to the top level, not quite running, not quite walking, circumnavigating the central partition, past the glass fronted lift for disabled, elderly and chronically lazy shoppers, arriving at the entrance of the electronics shop, nervous suddenly, the thought of entering seeming somehow more daunting than being there, on the walkway, in the open.
“We’ve got to,” said Lisa and, together, they entered, past the security panels designed to prevent shoplifting, though such a concern seemed incongruous today. Inside, the shop looked much as it would any other day, save for the staff and customers slumped where they had been standing, some having careened into display units as they fell, taking down valuable equipment as they crashed to Earth, others lolling over counters and even, in one case, a male customer still upright, his forehead resting against a supporting pillar so that it looked for all the world as if he were merely taking a rather unorthodox nap.
“There,” Twitch said, pointing to the rear of the shop, where myriad television screens blinked back at them. Flat screens one and all, the only variance seemed to be in scale as, no matter which make was branded on the front of the set, the units themselves looked remarkably similar.
“Very nice,” said Lisa admiringly as she stood in front of a 46 inch plasma screen then, noting the price tag, let out a slight whistle.
“One day, eh Twitch?” she said.
“You are still doing the lottery, right?” he asked, both aware that their small talk was mere distraction.
The TV’s were arranged along one aisle, flush to the back wall of the shop, both sides of the walkway taken up with the sets but, to their dismay each screen, though on, displayed nothing at all. Some sets showed the usual bright, eye scorching blue that denoted the lack of a signal, whilst others broadcast nothing at all.
“Try and adjust the settings,” Twitch suggested, so both selected different units, searched for a little while to find any controls but had to give up, defeated.
“We need the remotes,” Lisa said.
“I don’t think so.”
“But, how else can we tune them?”
“There’s no need. If there was anything broadcasting on the usual channels, we’d see something. It’s no good, Lise.”
“What about the BBC? I thought there was an emergency broadcast?”
“I think that’s a bit of an urban myth. Look, let’s try the computers instead.”
“Shit,” Lisa exclaimed. “This can’t be real.”
Having negotiated their way out of the rows of seating, Daniel and Doug clambered the concrete stairway, picking their way past the collapsed stewards, whose habit was to congregate at the mouth of the exit from the stands. One unfortunate soul had fallen from where he stood, down the concrete stairwell, his head seeming to have struck every other step along the way so that a crimson trail of his final moments was visible, leading to where he now lay, motionless, pooled in blood, the bright yellow of his official work uniform a sharp contrast to the fluid that leaked from his body. Three other stewards had collapsed at the exit, so Doug was compelled to move one of the poor sods, using his foot, loathe to touch the deceased with his hands lest he be contaminated in some way. He nudged at the carcass, gently at first but, realising that something more akin to brute force was required, heaved the man, torso first, with his boot, careful that the victim should not be cast down the steps leading into the food, bar and toilet area that occupied the large, open space beneath the stand.
“Watch where you put your feet,” he advised sagely as Daniel followed in his wake.
As they passed from the sunlight into the dinginess of the inside world, Doug paused on the steps, holding his hand in the air, fist clenched, his manner akin to that of a soldier in a Vietnam movie, sneaking through the dense foliage of the Northern Territory jungle, taking point, eager that Charlie not detect his platoon’s presence. As his eyes adjusted, he dropped the hand and, cautiously, began the descent once more, uncertain as to what awaited at the foot of the steps.
A deafening silence greeted them, punctuated occasionally by an oddly familiar crackle that was hard to place. The area was sparsely populated with the fallen; a cleaning woman had collapsed in the middle of the main gangway, her mop comically propped up against her back, her body clearly succumbing to gravity with more suddenness than the cleaning implement; an occasional punter making their way to or from the food service area, burgers and hot dogs lying strewn nearby, the contents smeared across the floor, hot drinks and fizzy pop streaked across the concrete where plastic lids had burst open.
A strange smell reached their nostrils, not altogether unpleasant, reminding Daniel of summer evenings round at his friend Paul’s house, whose father insisted on firing up the barbecue whenever weather permitted.
“Dad, I’m scared,” he admitted, holding onto the back of his father’s coat.
“Me too, Danny. It’s OK.”
Doug looked left and right, trying to figure a way out of the stadium. As the match was supposed to be currently in progress, the main exits were closed, not due to be opened until fifteen minutes before normal match time ended. The turnstiles to the right presented an impassable barrier, designed for one way traffic only as fans poured into the stadium prior to kick off. Then, there, to the left, he spied what he sought, an emergency exit sign glowing green above a large, red door, the type with a push down metal bar at its centre.
To reach the door, some thirty metres away, the pair had to pass directly in front of a fast food stand and, as they approached, the crackling sound intensified and it was with a groan that Doug identified the source. The vendor, clearly in the process of preparing food in readiness for the half time rush, had collapsed face first onto the red hot griddle, his hair now aflame giving rise to the crackle and, worse still, that familiar sweet smell could only be coming from the flesh on his face as the flames cooked him as surely as the meat he usually served.
“Daniel, don’t look left,” Doug instructed firmly, but it was too late, the gasp clearly audible even above the sound of the flaming scalp, followed by his son retching. Doug stopped and backed up a step or two, taking Daniel around the waist, guiding him as quickly as he could away from the scene, eager to be away himself, not able to un-see the plight of the man, but with no wish to see it again if he could at all help it.
They approached the door, the sweat pouring from them little to do with the temperature of the air that surrounded them.
“It is real, Lise, you know that.”
She had balled her hands into fists and planted them on her hips and, with lips pouting and brow furrowed, she looked every inch the petulant school girl, remonstrating with an angry teacher or irritated parent.
“’Snot fair, ‘snot fair, ‘snot fair,” she may as well have been complaining and, for all that Twitch understood her reaction, however sudden – perhaps some delayed reaction to the day’s events – still he couldn’t help but feel frustration with her, something that seemed entirely alien to him.
“Shit,“ she said again before, “Shitley shitington,” and that brought an unexpected bark of laughter from him and, seconds later, she was smiling too, and the moment had passed.
“Shitley Shitington?” he enquired benignly.
“Don’t ask me,” she said, “Some dark recess was tapped there, I think.”
“Come on. Let’s take a look.”
Twitch led Lisa – he was beginning to become accustomed to taking the lead – to the computer aisle, laptops all hooked up and ready to go, samplers to help customers decide which model was to their choosing.
Twitch stroked at the touchpad of the first laptop in the line up, and its seventeen inch monitor flickered into life almost instantly.
“What shall we look for?” he asked, mind suddenly blank.
“The trusted BBC first, I suppose,” she said, no more wise than he.
Twitch fired up Internet Explorer, helpfully short-cutted from the desktop, and was a little surprised when Dixons’ corporate website was the homepage that appeared. Somehow he’d been expecting Google.
Twitch tapped in the BBC address, and waited for a second whilst the screen refreshed, slightly surprised when the familiar layout of the BBC homepage loaded.
“News or weather?” he asked, aiming for a touch of levity, but the tone of his voice betrayed the lie to his demeanour.
“Come on, stop messing about.”
Twitch clicked on the appropriate link for the main news page, not really sure what he was expecting – maybe a blank screen, maybe a 404 Error – but the mundanity that was issued forth was a sour disappointment. The news page was still up and running, though the most recent page refresh appeared to have occurred over two hours ago and, certainly on initial scan, nothing was mentioned of the current crisis. Issues in the Middle East, perennial problems in Ireland, something about the value of the Euro against the pound, and another footballer caught with his pants down, but no mention of Stourhampton, or the surrounding area. But the lack of recent refreshes worried him.
“These pages haven’t been updated in a while.”
“So?” asked Lisa.
“It’s too long. This site is updated at least once an hour.”
“What are you saying?” There was an edge to her tone, and he feared that if he misspoke, he might lose her again.
“It’s weird, that’s all,” he opted for, knowing that he could not brush it off entirely – she just would not buy that – but attempting to be vague in his response.
But she saw straight through his tactic.
“What do you think it means. Be precise. Don’t patronise me, Twitch.”
He drew in a deep lungful of air, aware that he was backed into a corner.
“Seems to me that whatever has happened here has happened in London for certain. And probably Manchester as well.”
She filled in the rest for herself. “That’s where they are based…..”
“You got it.”
“But couldn’t this be, I don’t know, cached or something? Couldn’t it be that the computer is actually offline, and we are looking at an old page, stored somehow?”
It was smart thinking, and momentarily caused Twitch to pause, but only fleetingly. He pointed at the screen, indicating the clock in the top right hand corner of the page. The time was correct.
“That’s a live page, Lise.”
She seemed to shrink as he spoke, to dwindle somehow, as if each molecule in her body were being drawn tighter towards the next.
“Listen, we just have to assume we are by ourselves. I know it’s tough…”
He let the sentence trail off, fearful of doing more harm than good.
The sound again.
Close to her.
Emily spun in her seat, swivelling first right, then left, looking for any sign of movement amongst the bodies that littered the terrace, but could see nothing. Instinctively, she ducked down a little, leaning forward, dropping onto her knees, sliding off the plastic seat, shoulders hunched so that only her eyes and the top of her head were visible from the front and, hopefully, from behind she was invisible.
If somebody was there, she wanted to see them before they saw her. Give her time to decide on a tactic: approach or avoid.
There it was again.
Louder now, seeming to gather in intensity, but the strange thing was she found it impossible to determine the direction the sound was coming from.
Emily lifted her body a little, chancing a glance at the rows behind her, scanning along, quick as she could whilst still taking in the details, left and right, left and right, but still it seemed that she was all alone.
What was that fucking noise?
Like gravel, she had thought initially, but that didn’t seem quite right anymore. When in her first year at secondary school, she remembered going on a school trip to The West Midlands Safari Park. As she had clambered aboard the coach that would take them there, she realised she had gotten on much too early, well before her only real friend in class, Emma but, as she had tried to get off to wait for her, the teacher had insisted she keep moving. Herded on, she had found herself seated with some of the rougher boys, pupils she tended to avoid whenever possible. Nervous, intimidated by their language and their manner, initially she had tried to ignore them altogether and, when it became obvious that she was to be the centre of attention for the journey - their eager eyes and grubby faces turned her way from the moment she sat down – she had decided to try to befriend them. She’d failed spectacularly. One of their number had retrieved three pea-shooters from his bag and, for forty five minutes, they had pelted her with peanuts and hard, dried peas, she too afraid to protest or to inform the teachers on duty, sitting there in silence as the ammunition struck her face, her body, and the window by her side. And the memory flooded back, that sound of something small yet solid striking glass similar to what she was hearing now. Growing in ferocity – ping, ping, ping, ping – the intervals between each strike decreasing, this noise was similar indeed, though this time, there was something of the metallic to it. Turning her head this way and that, Emily tried to pinpoint a direction, and it was only when she turned her left ear upwards that she realised the noise was coming from above, not from the rows of seating at all.
Something struck her face.
Just as on the coach trip, something struck her sharply on the cheek, stinging her by its sudden unexpectedness, bringing tears to her eyes. Another strike, and another, and suddenly she was being showered by small, foreign objects falling from above, the angle of the wind driving them beneath the large, metal canopies that sought to keep the rain off spectators during inclement weather. Shaking, Emily gasped to herself, no idea what was happening, just knowing that she wanted out of there. Was it hail? The clear sky seemed to eliminate the idea but, with British weather, anything seemed possible. Something larger thumped to the floor nearby, again, and again, and Emily stared around her disbelieving as several birds struck the floor, their frail bodies bursting open on impact with the concrete and, looking down at herself now, she realised what it was that was raining down on her, as tiny insects, apparently dead, caught in the material of her scarf and coat.
Just in front of her, another bird tumbled to the Earth and seemed to explode.
Unable to control herself any longer, Emily began to scream.
Matt held his hands high above his head, eyes closed, head tilted back so that his face caught the weak glare of the sun, enjoying the warmth on his skin, imagining himself in such a pose at the end of a mountainous climb, all the better to survey his domain. His mouth was set in a rictus grin, lips cracked open slightly to reveal teeth clamped together.
Then the heavens opened, and insects rained from the sky.
Matt opened his eyes, though did not alter his position, not flinching at all as tiny bodies struck his upturned face, knowing they could not harm him, believing in that instant that he had caused this to happen, had summoned them somehow. The fact that they were dead did not prick his delusion, for here came his army; a million million tiny soldiers, set to do his bidding. He laughed aloud, quietly, a throaty, menacing sound that would freeze the blood of Sarah later that day, he felt sure, when he marched upon her threshold with his compound-eyed, arthropod friends as allies. For now his plans had changed. Though unaware of it, the moment his mind had snapped had brought with it a fresh resolution, for whereas before he had believed that he would find contentment through sheer intimidation, now he knew that more was required. Perhaps he would instruct his insect army to devour her where she stood, the very moment she opened the door, or perhaps he would use them to pin her in position whilst he meted out his punishment, raining blow after blow upon both body and face, the splash of blood each fist fall produced food for his six-legged army. Imagine her terror as the tiny black bodies flowed over her, thousands upon thousands of pincers and mandibles nipping at her flesh, carrying her on their backs, perhaps, the flapping of one set of wings impossibly feeble, but an avalanche of insects, wings buzzing, had the strength of a thousand men and could easily hoist her aloft, helpless, carry her through into her home, set for the defilement to begin. At that point, who knew what he would do, for he would be unable to control his urges and would, like every great leader, merely act on impulse. Perhaps he would plunder her body in the way that she had never allowed, despite his pleadings, and delight in her wriggling protests as his stiffened member pierced her unwilling anus. And, though it may amuse him to hear her scream, he had no great desire to hear her mouthing obscenities at him as he sated his own appetites, so first he would instruct his tiny army to flood her mouth, to push their small, fragile forms in over lips and teeth and writhing tongue so densely that they compacted, a solid ball of life acting as a gag to silence her whilst he worked at her tail end.
Matt felt himself becoming aroused as he imagined Sarah’s plight, allowed his hands to drift down his body, began to caress himself through the front of his jeans, content to stand there in the football ground, in the midst of the human disaster that surrounded him, groping at his organ clumsily through the denim he wore. Swiftly, his desire began to get the better of him, so he tugged at the buttons at the front of the garment, one hand snaking through the gap, yanking at his underwear, his penis stiffening in sympathy with his lustful thoughts so that, as he took himself in hand and began to rub rhythmically, it required every ounce of willpower to resist an instant outpouring. In his mind, he saw her body held aloft, buttocks lifted high to allow ease of entry and watched as the swollen tip of his cock was guided towards the puckered orifice and, plunging savagely into her once, twice, three times, so he was unable to contain himself, groaning as he spat forth his spunk and, as he mentally withdrew from her, so too did his tiny army leave her mouth and, as they flowed, freeing her mouth, she began to scream, insistently, distracting him from his pleasure but, as he mentally prepared to terminate her life, Matt realised that the scream was not in fact coming from his fantasy world but from the very real present.
His eyes snapped open.
He put his cock away quickly and wiped his soiled hand on the backside of his jeans.
“Sarah?” he whispered, his madness struggling to separate the reverie from the real.
“I’ll find you, Sarah,” he promised, moving in the direction of the screams.
And when I do…...” he giggled.
Daniel reached the red emergency exit door several steps ahead of Doug, his eagerness to be away from the smell of burning hair and cooking flesh considerable, his youthfulness adding fuel to his flight. He placed a hand on the door and swung his head, just sufficiently to see where his father was, trying to avoid, but unable to do so, the bright glow emanating from the fast food bar where the worker still burned.
“Let’s go,” Doug urged, prompting Daniel to push down on the metal bar positioned horizontally at the centre of the door, swinging the exit outwards, half expecting the clamour of a strident alarm, protesting at their break for freedom.
A scream pierced the air and, with a gust of wind blowing in from the exterior of the stadium, for a moment Daniel was not sure if the sound was coming from within or without. He grabbed hold of the metal bar and pulled the door back into position, waiting for the sound of the scream to fade as the outside world was cut off but, if anything, with the cessation of the wind the sound seemed only to intensify.
“Someone’s alive,” Doug stated, a strange, far off look in his eyes. “We should go and see,” he said, but moved not one inch. Externally, his words made complete sense and, perhaps, he was simply saying what he knew he ought so as not to embarrass himself in front of his son. Internally, however, his every instinct told him to flee, to ignore the sound, just to grab hold of Daniel’s hand, burst through the emergency exit and take flight down the concrete steps he knew lay beyond.
The scream faded away and, for a moment, Doug was able to imagine that it had never sounded at all, that his imagination had momentarily got the better of him that. Maybe, he thought, the stress and strangeness of their situation had rendered him temporarily unbalanced so that the sound of a woman screaming could be readily dismissed as nought but the screech of a phantom, something conjured from within.
Then it came again, and one glance at Daniel’s face told him all that he needed to know. There would be no fleeing for them and, truthfully, he was relieved for he knew that, had he left, the guilt in the aftermath would have been too tough to take.
“Which way?” Daniel asked, the sound once more fading, this time not to recommence, for the moment, at least.
Doug pointed to the right, mercifully, so that they did not have to cross back in front of the food stand, and Daniel raced to the foot of the stairs that would lead them back into the stadium proper, waiting there for a moment to allow his father to catch up.
“It was a woman,” Daniel told Doug, “Do you think she’s hurt?”
“I’m not sure. Let’s find her,” Doug replied as they mounted the concrete steps standing abreast, emerging into the sunlight that had turned suddenly milky as a blanket of thin, wispy clouds passed overhead.
“Do you hear that?” Daniel asked, and Doug cocked his head slightly, spaniel style, his hearing not as good as it used to be, yet still the occasional, intermittent noise could be heard, of something solid striking metal or concrete. He pushed it to the back of his mind for the moment as he surveyed the stand in front of them, able to see the majority of The Holte End from their elevated position.
“There,” Daniel said, pointing down at the lower section, some seventy or eighty metres across, the sight of a lone woman sat bolt upright in her seat and clearly, unlike all around her, she was unmistakably alive, the shuddering of her shoulders just about distinguishable even at such a distance. Daniel was about to call out, to alert her to his presence when his father’s hand on a shoulder stopped him.
“Don’t.” There was a tension to his voice that demanded attention.
“What is it?” Daniel asked.
“There,” Doug said, and this time it he who was doing the pointing, again into the lower section, to a position directly in front of them.
A figure, moving along the rows, careful not to trip over any of the bodies sprawled at his feet and, clearly, equally careful not to make any sound as he crept towards the woman who, in her grief, remained oblivious to his presence.
She had not moved in a while, her gaze vacant as she stared blankly at the screen, eyes locked on the clock at the corner of the page as if, somehow, if she stared long and hard enough, she could alter reality.
“It’s not possible,” she declared suddenly, startling Twitch a little.
“I know it’s difficult, but….” he began before she cut him short.
“No. What you’re saying. It’s not possible.”
“What do you mean.”
She moved at last, turning his way, taking him by the shoulder.
“Don’t you see?”
“No, I really don’t.” He didn’t mean it, but he knew that his tone had become hard, stern even.
“Look, even if what you say is true. Even if this has happened all over the country, there are offices everywhere. All over the world.”
“That’s true,” he conceded.
“So, even if Manchester is affected, and London, what about New York? What about Sydney? What about Moscow?”
“What about them?” He was starting to lose patience now, eager that they accept the little that they knew and moved on. Staying in the electronics store was fruitless.
“Well, there must be back-ups. There must be contingencies.”
“Let’s say Britain had been hit by a nuclear weapon. Several nuclear weapons. There would be plans in place, surely. Ways of letting people know what was happening from further afield.”
“So all we have to do is wait. Maybe it takes a while to get things up and running. Maybe, right now, things are happening. The only way we will know is if we stay here and wait and see.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Lise.”
“Of course it makes fucking sense,” she snapped, and Twitch physically flinched away from her as she spoke, startled by the sudden venom.
“I’m sorry,” she said instantly, his reaction apparent even in her state of denial. “You’re right.” Then, after a momentary pause: “I’m frightened, Twitch.”
He moved towards her, taking her in his arms, pulling her towards him, feeling her pain as only he could.
“It’s OK, Lise. I’m frightened, too.”
And they stayed that way for a while, words unneeded as they shared in the comfort of the others’ presence.
“Look,” Twitch said, breaking away from her gently, “Maybe we can try something else. They must have radios in here.”
“You want to find out the football scores?” she asked, and Twitch smiled at that, pleased at the glimmer of humour, knowing it meant she was on her way back.
“Well, Wolves are at home…” he remarked, continuing the game.
“Wondered why you were being so edgy.”
Twitch turned and moved away, heading for the front of the store, past the computer accessories, past the MP3 players and mobile phones, finding one small shelf of radios tucked away. He moved to the nearest and switched it on, the DAB device delivering no sound, the display on the front indicating that it was set to a particular station. Twitch turned the volume up, but no result, so he cranked it to full. Only silence emitted. He moved to the next device, with the same outcome.
“No good?” Lisa asked.
“These are all digital.”
The explanation meant little to Lisa, but she chose not to question him. He moved to the next device, and the next, at the point of giving up, his frustration apparent as he slapped at the off button. It was only as he reached the end of the short run that he spied something that may be more suitable: an old fashioned, analogue radio, which could be tuned by hand.
“Gas powered,” he said as he picked it up, finding the on switch. To begin with, nothing could be heard, and Twitch was concerned that, perhaps, the confines of the shop and the exterior building were blocking all signals but, a quick turn of the tuning knob brought a brief stab of static then, faintly, the sound of music; an old Cranberries tune. Twitch readjusted, the Irish soft rock fading, to be replaced by the customary white noise.
“Nothing,” he said, more to himself than to Lisa as he swivelled the knob on top of the player, switching from FM to MW, disappointed to find that, here too, only the aeons old sound, echoes of the Big Bang could be heard, the background cosmic radiation picked up by the device and reported back as static.
“Bloody hell,” he hissed, his frustration mounting.
He flipped the switch on top of the radio from MW to LW, and swivelled the tuning knob, initially without success but then, faintly, a voice: clear, though foreign, before this too was swamped by the white noise.
He turned the tuning knob back again, the voice drifting into range before fading, back again, drifting until, with exquisite patience, Twitch was able to tune in to the sound of the lone voice, though his reward was tempered somewhat by the fact that the voice was speaking not in English but in French, a single statement repeated over and over, the tinny, Long Wave frequency lending the voice a sense of the lonely and the disembodied and, though Twitch’s French was not exactly fluent, he could decipher enough to feel a sense of fear and dread grip his every morsel.
‘Effrayés nous sommes, unis par la peine, car l’Enfer recrache ses âmes.’
‘I see you…’ he crooned, entertaining himself.
‘They’re coming for you, Barbara,’ he said, invoking a movie reference, though the name of the film escaped him.
A giggle escaped him again, and he swabbed away the trickle of saliva that escaped the side of his mouth.
‘Matt’s a naughty boy, dribbling like that. Mommy don’t like it. Mommy ought to teach him some manners.’
He wiped his hand against his jeans, transferring the spit from flesh to fabric.
The scream came again, louder this time, more insistent, a high pitched wail that actually hurt his ears.
‘What should I do, Mommy?” he asked aloud, pausing for a moment or two as though actually listening to a response.
‘I can’t do that,’ he said, apparently aghast. ‘Who’d clean up the mess?’
Giggling quietly again, he began to move, heading in the direction of the scream, not really looking where he was going to begin with, tripping over once, twice, before regaining concentration.
‘Fucking scab,’ he chastised the fallen spectator nearest. ‘Picked off and cast aside.’
Predictably, no response was forthcoming, which seemed to infuriate him further.
‘Nothing to say for yourself, scab?’ he demanded, swinging back a leg before kicking the fallen man savagely, his foot connecting sharply with the forehead of the one on the ground.
‘You like that?’ Matt asked, quietly, more a whisper than anything else.
‘Plenty more where that came from,’ he threatened, making good on his word by kicking the fallen man again, again, again, clamping one hand over his own mouth to contain his excitement, wanting to scream out his delight, something instinctive telling him that discretion was the wisest approach.
‘Fuck my girlfriend, would you?’ he enquired between kicks. ‘Not again you won’t,’ he stated, continuing his assault on the lifeless form.
‘Thought you could get away with it? Thought I’d never find out?’
Another swing of the leg, another dull thud of shoe on skull.
Matt stumbled back, breathless, senses suddenly alive: He didn’t need to take out his frustrations on this pathetic scab. A more pertinent victim was close by. Sarah was near. The whore. The betrayer. Sarah the slut who had cast him aside, picked him off suddenly and flicked him away. He knew she was near for he’d heard her scream a moment or so ago. He gathered himself, annoyed, really, ashamed that he had lost control so suddenly and taken out his rage on the man lying on the ground. With clarity returning, it was evident that this poor wretch was not the one who had been a party to the betrayal. This poor soul on the floor was too old, too portly, his head too bald and eyes too porcine. No. Sarah would never have fallen for him. The man with whom she had laughed as he had called her that night would be a rugged, muscular sort, with arms as thick as logs, a chest akin to a grizzly, with thick, lustrous hair, a square jaw and perfect Hollywood looks. He knew the sort she went for. He’d seen the way she looked at other men when they were together, knew the type that piqued her interest.
Matt bent down and touched the man on the forehead.
‘Sorry,’ he said gently, meaning it as well. The sound of her voice must have sent him over the edge, must have forced his excessive impulses so that rationality of thought had left him, briefly.
‘Not anymore. My thoughts are pure and true, Mommy.’ he said, aloud.
He began moving again, this time taking care not to trip over any of the bodies that littered the rows, stepping over them where they had fallen, occasionally having to cross to a different row when the way was altogether blocked. As he moved, he scanned the seating, looking for the source of the sound, eyes darting left right, left, right, wanting to see her shock of blond hair, hoping that she would not see him until he was upon her.
Three rows down. About fifty or sixty metres ahead, a lone figure seated upright, moving slightly, though seeming to stare straight ahead. Matt slowed his pace, all senses on alert now, and concentrated hard to control his breathing, to slow his heart rate, the excitement he felt at the vengeance that was his to be claimed making his efforts a struggle. Blood thundered through his system, the throb at his temples almost deafening so that he was sure that, any moment, she must hear, but her attitude remained the same and he knew that it was only in his head, that he alone could hear the inner workings of his own body and all he had to do was to concentrate on moving quietly and he would be upon her and he could do with her as he saw fit as there was nobody else around to stop him and she was so weak and feeble in comparison to him that she would not be able to put up any sort of a fight so he could rip at her face and her eyes and her clothes and make her understand just what it was she had……
Her head began to turn.
Instinctively Matt dropped to the ground.
Counted in his head.
Staying low, he moved again.
The disembodied voice continued, the same phrase repeated over and over again.
‘Effrayés nous sommes, unis par la peine, car l’Enfer recrache ses âmes.’
‘Effrayés nous sommes, unis par la peine, car l’Enfer recrache ses âmes.’
‘Effrayés nous sommes, unis par la peine, car l’Enfer recrache ses âmes.’
‘What’s he saying?’ Lisa asked.
“Not sure. We are….. something. That’s all I can tell.”
She looked at him strangely, almost disbelieving, but Twitch held his nerve, refused to be cowed.
‘OK,’ she said eventually, apparently convinced.
‘Whilst we’re here, we may as well pick up some equipment,’ said Twitch, eager to change the subject, knowing that Lisa was doubtful of his ignorance, not wishing to lie to her again for it pained him to do so.
Lisa nodded. ‘What kind of equipment?’
‘Dunno, really. Walkie-talkies, that kind of thing,’ he said distractedly, looking about him eagerly, trying to spot the most likely aisle, setting off randomly, no clear idea where to look.
‘Is this what you mean?’ Lisa called from an adjacent aisle, holding up a small, plastic device, though too far away for him to be sure. He moved closer, pleased with her find.
‘That’s the very thing.’
‘Do you think these will work? Maybe they’re just display models.’
Twitch took the hand-held device from her, stared at it for a few moments, puzzled.
‘Here,’ Lisa said, pointing at what she thought to be the power button.
Twitch pressed it.
He pressed it again, holding it down for a second or to and, this time, the power indicator blinked into life.
‘Grab another one,’ he instructed, and Lisa did as she was asked, holding down the on button, pleased to see her device burst into life, too.’
‘How does it work, then?’ Twitch wondered aloud, slightly baffled by the controls.
‘That’s your channel select, see,’ said Lisa, flicking through the channels, holding the two-way radio so that Twitch could see what she was doing. ‘Set yours to channel 2, for example.’
‘Now, give me a sec…..just scrolling through. There we go.’
Lisa pressed the large button on the right hand side of the unit and Twitch’s radio crackled loudly, causing him to jump slightly. ‘We have the technology,’ he said ruefully.
‘Tango, Wilko, Indigo,’ Lisa said, in her best RAF pilot’s voice. ‘Tango, Charlie, Hotel, come in please, over.’
‘Pack it in,’ said Twitch, chuckling all the same, secretly pleased to see her spirits lifted, even if only temporarily.
‘Check yours,’ Lisa instructed. ‘We need to know they both work alright.’
Dutifully, he did as instructed, Lisa’s device receiving his voice perfectly.
‘What’s the range on these things, I wonder?’ asked Lisa.
‘Not sure. Couple of miles at least, though. Outdoors, that is. Inside, pesky things like brick walls get in the way of the signal, I should imagine.’
‘Go to that corner,’ Lisa said, pointing at the far end of the store. ‘I’ll go to the other end, over there,’ she said, indicating the furthest point away. ‘We’ll just test them quickly.’
Twitch nodded, and picked his way past the bodies of two customers, one sprawled flat, dead centre of the aisle, as if placed there deliberately, the other fellow having fallen more awkwardly, so that his torso was balanced precariously on a display unit showcasing mobile phones, his knees bent, feet dangling comically in mid-air, the merest breath of wind as Twitch past would surely send him tumbling. He reached the corner, the customer still in position on the display unit, and spied Lisa just as she negotiated her way to her spot. A quick thumbs up from Twitch, and his hand-held crackled into life.
‘Spot of bother with the Jerry’s, Captain, but I’ll be back before supper,’ were her chosen words of wisdom, and Twitch smiled once more..
‘Right-O,’ he replied, joining in the game. ‘I’ll let Edna know you’re intentions, what. Over.’ Though he could barely hear her, he saw clearly enough the impact of his words, her amusement apparent even at distance. He strained his ears, keen to enjoy the sound of her laughter, something he would never tire of, but gradually, the laughter softened, softened. No, rather, the sound of her laughter was muffled somehow, drowned out, another noise rising slowly. Right at the range of his hearing, Twitch found the phenomena disturbing, almost painful, his eardrums feeling stretched to the point of rupture in his efforts to clearly perceive the sound, in order to make sense of it; to identify the source. Low pitched, it was akin to the breathing of something huge, the gargantuan rumble of a giant’s lungs, perhaps, or a mighty blue whale letting out litres of air as it drifted gracefully back to the ocean’s surface.
Suddenly, a new sound.
His radio, bursting into life.
‘Can you hear it, Twitch?’
‘Just about. What the hell is it?’
‘Don’t know. Let’s get out of here.’
He began to move, heading straight for her, to do so forcing him to pass the dangerously balanced man once more and, as he drew nearer, he realised the volume of the deep rumble was increasing. Twitch drew level, and knew with certainty now; the sound was emanating from the dead man. Motionless, still, it permeated from his diaphragm, clearer now, louder, gaining in intensity and frequency so that there was a perceptible change in pitch, as if this were some ghastly recitation of musical scales before a performance.
He moved away from the balanced man, stepping past the customer who had fallen dead centre of the aisle and, here too, the volume of the susurration increased, becoming more pronounced with every step taken until Twitch was past him and away into the centre of the shop, still moving towards Lisa. He reached her, took her hand.
Twitch turned one eighty degrees, listening intently, gauging the direction the sound was coming from, trying to locate a single source, despite the evidence he had already discovered. Perhaps his mind was having difficulty accepting what was happening but, standing dead centre of the shop, it was clear and beyond doubt.
Every dead body in the place seemed alive with sound.
His breathing was shallow and swift, the blood pumping through his veins craving oxygen but, as he neared his prey, he controlled his body’s natural rhythms, refusing to draw in deep breath after deep breath, keen that she not hear his approach.
Forty metres now, and still she had no clue as to his presence.
She glanced around, seeming lost, confused, and Matt doubled his speed, remaining crouched as he stalked her, he the leopard, she the impala. As he neared, it seemed as if she altered in his vision, her form morphing, transforming into something else, someone else, no longer a stranger, now this woman was known to him, the betrayer of hearts, smasher of dreams, wrecker of plans. Where before he had known it was Sarah through instinct, now her physical form confirmed his suppositions: she had been sent here to taunt him, to diminish him, somehow.
Oh, such folly.
Sarah sat in the football stadium alone, surrounded by death and, shortly, she would join their ranks.
All rational thought had now left Matt’s mind, earlier intentions to remain smart, ahead of the game eluding him. Prison, though a frightful experience at the time, no longer presented a true deterrent, not anymore.
Not in the moment.
His nostrils twitched, and he paused in his movements, turning his face upwards, looking for all the world like the big cat he imagined himself to be, attention attracted by something on the wind.
That’s when she turned and looked his way, catching him straight in the eye.
Thoughts tumbling through his head.
What to do?
He could not flee, for fear was no longer an aspect of his personality he would allow himself to acknowledge.
Possible, but there were still rows of seats between them and, though confident in his capability to bring her down if need be, why waste energy on a struggle?
He was the one in control here. He was the strong. He was the Alpha Male. Nothing to fear from a young woman, pretending not to be Sarah. His mind was cloudy all of a sudden, the face turned towards him swimming in and out of focus, her features seeming alive, confused, in constant motion. One second, it was Sarah staring at him, a look of smug sarcasm smeared across her features, the next a total stranger, wary, inquisitive, afraid.
‘Why are you sneaking up on me?’ the Sarah-thing demanded, and the voice seemed to shatter the illusion, to break Matt, at least temporarily, out of his reverie, for the voice belonged to no one he knew.
He stood upright.
‘I…I wasn’t’ he stammered, hands held upwards, facing forwards, a gesture of supplication and trust, designed to ease her mind.
‘Are you….normal?’ she asked him.
‘I think so. What the hell’s happened?’
The girl looked down at something beside her, and Matt realised it was the man in the seat next to her.
‘They’re gone,’ she replied, as if that explained anything at all, but what else was she supposed to say?
‘I’m Matt,’ he said, clambering over the seat in front of him, drawing steadily nearer.
‘You still haven’t answered me, Matt. Why were you sneaking around? Why not just walk straight up to me? What are you up to?’
There was sudden anger in her voice, and Emily wondered at her own actions. Even in the midst of all this chaos, it was a bold approach to take, shouting at strangers.
‘I’m sorry if I scared you. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know who you were or what you were doing.’
Still she eyed him suspiciously, so he pulled the emotional ace from his sleeve.
‘I’m scared, just like you. You get that, right?’ he said, gesturing around, the message clear: How could I not be afraid?
She softened visibly, her shoulders dropping, her brow unfurrowing.
‘Yeah, I get that.’
‘I’m Matt,’ he said again, clambering over the final seat that would bring him in line with her, just three metres away, on the same row, still undecided what he was going to do. ‘And you are?’
‘Emily. I’m Emily,’ she said, before warning, ‘I’m watching you.’
Seat negotiated, he kept his hands aloft, trying to soothe her, sensing the anger and fear and worry and dread emanating from her, seeming to seep from every pore.
‘Watch away, Emily. I mean you no harm. I promise.’
She grunted something unintelligible by way of reply.
‘Dismissive little bitch,’ he thought, though made no move. He could wait.
‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ said Matt, again gesturing around the stadium to reinforce his point.
‘I can’t leave him,’ she replied, indicating the man beside her.
‘Who was he? Boyfriend?’ Matt’s voice was gentle, tender almost.
She looked at him, surprised.
‘Yeah,’ was all she could manage.
‘We’ve got to go, Emily.’
She shook her head defiantly.
‘Once we’re outside, we can send someone to fetch him.’
‘We could carry him,’ she suggested.
‘Not through this, we couldn’t,’ he said, logically. ‘Too many obstructions.’
She began to sob, gently.
‘I can’t just walk away.’
Matt remained silent for a moment or two, allowing her to grieve then quietly he said, ‘We’ve got to move.’
He reached forward, placed a hand on her shoulder and, in her misery, she did not resist, her distrust seemingly forgotten, the emotions she was experiencing over-riding all that had gone before. Matt tried to lift her and, initially, she did not budge. With a little persuasion, she clambered to her feet and Matt turned her towards the concrete stairwell, intending to guide her out and up the stairs, down into the bowels of the stadium and, there, he could decide on his next action. Strike her down, or allow her to leave. Still, he was unsure.
‘I can’t walk through all of them,’ she said softly, shaking her head again.
‘We’ve got no choice,’ he said, as patiently as he could manage.
‘Not gonna happen,’ she insisted.
‘We’ve got to leave.’
‘Then we go that way,’ she said, and pointed at the pitch.
Doug placed a hand on Daniel’s shoulder, sensing that his son was about to call out, perhaps to warn the woman, perhaps to alert the man creeping toward her that he was being watched. Dan turned his face upwards, towards him, and Doug simply shook his head – no. They did not know these people, had no idea who they were or what they were capable of and, for the time being at least, he intended to remain anonymous, undiscovered.
He placed a finger briefly to his lips, reinforcing the call for silence, then pointed back to The Lower Holte. Daniel returned his attention to the scene below, to find the man and woman in conversation now, though still separated by some distance, the male stranger gradually making his way to where the young woman stood. Though hardly friendly, her countenance in no way indicated an imminent threat.
Beside him, his father did, too.
For now, all was peaceful, if the dead bodies littering the stadium could be pushed to the back of the mind.
‘What are we gonna do, Dad?’ his son whispered.
‘Just watch for a while.’
‘Shouldn’t we let them know we’re here?’
‘What if they are involved in this?’ Doug replied.
‘Christ sake, Daniel,’ he hissed, teeth gritted to keep the volume low, annoyance evident all the same, ‘ How the hell am I supposed to know?’
Daniel’s face fell.
‘Just asking,’ he said, sulkily, looking back towards the pitch.
Doug placed a hand back on his shoulder, reassuring him that the moment had passed.
‘We could climb down,’ Daniel suggested.
‘Are you mad?’
‘Why not? I’ve seen people doing it.’
‘No you haven’t.’
‘On YouTube I have. Kids being passed up and down between the tiers.’
Despite the situation, Doug smiled.
‘Gonna have to increase the filter on that damned machine.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ve seen worse than that.’
‘Have you now?’
Doug stepped forward a few strides, careful to move as silently as possible, watchful of what was happening below. He reached the front of the terrace, leaning forward slightly to allow him to evaluate the drop. The concrete wall that fronted the Upper Holte furnished with a convenient hand-rail, all the better for dangling off.
‘We can make it,’ Daniel said quietly. ‘It’s easy.’
‘Maybe for you, you spring chicken. What about my creaking bones?’
‘I’ll go first. I can catch you.’
Again, despite the circumstances, Doug found himself smiling.
‘Catch me? I’ll bloody squash you flat.’
On the terrace below, the man and woman were on the move, heading to the pitch.
‘What do you think?’
‘I dunno.’ Doug said.
‘I’m going. Come on, follow me down.’
Daniel sprang forward, taking hold of the hand rail, lifting himself over the edge, carefully but with surprising speed. Slowly, he lowered himself, Doug grimacing every inch of the way, fearful of a slip or misjudgement that would see his son plummet, out of control, to the concrete stairwell below, surely breaking a limb, fracturing his skull, or maybe worse still. Arms fully extended, Daniel looked up at his dad, a glint of excitement in his eyes, the reckless abandon of youth staring Doug straight in the face, a direct counterpoint to the emotions he was feeling.
‘Ready, Dad?’ Daniel asked.
‘Born ready,’ Doug replied.
Daniel let go.
They edged towards the centre of the electronics store, each scanning this way, that, minds alive with anxiety and fear, adrenaline heightening their already considerable senses.
Twitch squeezed Lisa’s hand, a little too hard.
‘Sorry,’ he said softly, speech difficult, his throat so tight it felt as though a hand were clamped on, physically constricting his breath.
‘They were dead,’ Lisa hissed, turning now, positioning herself so that her back was against his, facilitating a full three sixty degree view of the shop between them.
‘I know,’ was all he could manage, bafflement now poured into the mixture of emotions he felt.
The motionless forms of staff and customers alike remained static, but from every one a low keening emitted, the combined volume a steady rumble that continued to build in intensity, pitch and volume, as if the drone of a million bumblebees were morphing into the din of a thousand wasps, rising, rising, each change in pitch bringing with it an extra edge to the fear they both felt.
Twitch broke away from the back to back formation they had adopted, Lisa turning to observe his actions. Nervously, he inched forwards, almost on tip-toes, the bizarreness of what was happening around them clearly draining him of confidence. Three feet in front of him, an old woman sprawled face down on the floor, her grey hair splayed out around her head in a halo, the contents of her shopping bag spilling into the aisle. He reached her prone form and, tentatively, bent down, pressing his hand flat against her back, feeling for any indication of life.
No movement, not even the shallowest sign of breath being drawn.
Twitch crouched, tucking his hands beneath the woman’s body, one hand level with her belly, the other with her breasts, and heaved, the slightness of her frame affording him little difficulty, utilising the additional advantage of The Gift, his mind reaching out, probing swiftly at the fallen body, latching on, lifting, easing the process, her body hovering just above the ground, suspended in midair by his mind alone, The Gift holding her in place whilst Twitch spun her over completely, stepping back briefly in surprise as her face came into view, eyes wide open, seeming to lock right onto his own, giving the impression she was staring straight at him but, as she flipped fully onto her back, still airborne, it was clear that this was merely illusion, a coincidence of angles, for now she stared sightlessly heavenwards.
Gradually, Twitch mentally relaxed, allowing her body to softly fall the two or three inches to the ground, coming to rest silently against the polished surface.
Again, Twitch leaned forward, hand held palm upwards against her mouth, the sensitive skin on the back of his hand finding no sign of life.
Yet still the sound persisted.
He leant closer.
Tilted his head.
Directed his hearing as best he could, again calling on his augmented powers, his hearing far superior to those unaltered. On hands and knees, he scanned his head up and down her frame, a human metal detector, though precious metals were not what he sought, instead answers to a biological riddle: how could something lifeless make noise?
He swayed left to right, though slowly, straining, pushing his auditory ability to the limit, though he sat back no closer to a solution to the extraordinary puzzle. The sound seemed to emanate from her entire frame, or her diaphragm at least, as if gas were building up, somehow, finding release through a valve, though a valve that was ever tightening. Like a pressure cooker on a stove the sound she, and all the others present, were making could only be caused by a force pushing from within, finding a way out into the exterior world, the change in pitch merely a further dimension to the enigma.
Suddenly, movement behind, and Twitch jumped slightly, startled, but calmed as Lisa placed a reassuring hand on his head, running her fingers through his hair as she often did. He turned to look at her, neck straining to find the angle.
It’s weird, Lise.’
‘Understatement of the year.’
‘I mean, I’ve heard of decomposing bodies making weird sounds. In morgues, and stuff. But that takes ages. These people have only been dead for, what, an hour?’
‘It’s strange. She looks so peaceful.’
As he spoke, Twitch turned his attention back to the old woman’s face.
She was looking straight at him.
He jumped back in alarm, scrambling backwards like a startled dog, on all fours, struggling to find his feet, failing.
‘Twitch?’ Lisa asked just as anxious.
He gained his balance, pushed upwards with his arms, struggled upright.
‘Her eyes,’ he stammered.
‘Eyes? What about them?’
‘She moved her eyes, Lisa. She stared right at me.’
Lisa gazed down at the old woman as something cold and fibrous seemed to caress the base of her spine.
She shivered involuntarily.
The eyes moved again.
Matt held out a hand, gesturing that Emily move first, away from him, towards the stairwell that would lead them the five metres down towards the pitch. For a moment, she hesitated, a frown creasing her brow, doubt evident, as though she sensed that he was not to be trusted, before she turned and moved off.
Woman’s intuition, he wondered, brushing the thought aside almost as quickly as it had formed. Fuck that. Bitches intuition? An illusion. A myth. Something bragged about by she-cunts who hadn’t yet learnt their place, and in hushed tones by men who had been cowed by the hags. ‘I don’t know how she always finds out,’ they would say. ‘It’s like she has ESP or something,’ bringing a smile to the lips of the male companion they were griping to. It’s not ESP, Matt knew. It’s not intuition. It’s not fucking telepathy. It’s because the men in question were weak, their will had been broken, their emasculation complete. ‘Coming down the pub, Neil?’ ‘Ooooh, best not. Don’t want to get an earful.’ Such worthless scum had become the norm, become commonplace. Well, it seemed things had changed for Matt knew that this place, right here, right now, was not unique. The world beyond had been transformed. A wasteland, perhaps, an apocalyptic environ where he would stride with purpose, with confidence: the true ruler. And here, this woman, the Sarah-whore masquerading as one known as Emily, she would be his, to do with as he wished. Control her, maybe. Humiliate her? Defile her? Maybe use her as a worker, or chain her up for days at a time without sustenance. Strike her with bricks, stones. Cut her with glass. It was up to him, entirely. This new world brought with it new rules, new conditions, all yet to be determined.
It was a good day to be alive, he thought.
They reached the front of the stand, Emily hopping over the thigh high wall that separated supporters from true ground level. Matt followed before, together, they scrambled over the advertising hoardings that divided the last line of segregation between onlookers and pitch.
They approached the white line that marked out the start of the playing area.
‘Spooky, isn’t it?’ Matt said, causing Emily to turn to look at him, though she did not speak. ‘All these people,’ he continued, casting his arm around vaguely in the general direction of the stands that surrounded them.
Still she remained mute.
‘Why do you think we were spared?’ he enquired, trying his best to keep the amusement from his voice, knowing the answer well enough, even though he knew that she could not possibly share his insight.
She spoke for the first time since leaving the stands. ‘I don’t know.’
But it was not curious to him, at all. Clearly, his salvation merely reflected his true greatness, his strength, his indomitable levels of endurance. And he believed every word he was thinking, the snapping of his sanity filtering the world through a gauze utterly disconnected from any sense of reality. To him, he was a leader, a king, a warrior, perhaps of noble blood, certainly of infamous heritage. Who knew, his wonderings continued, perhaps somewhere in his lineage lay Genghis Khan. Or Alexander the Great. Certainly, in this new world, any survivors beyond the walls of the stadium would soon be adopted as disciples. He would lead. They would follow. It was the natural order of things, a role he would accept gratefully and would fulfil with ease, for he was Matt, leader of men, and fear would fill anyone who crossed him.
The image of Sarah flashed into his mind.
He looked at Emily, her face once more morphing, swirling, running like wax to his perception, flickering between her true likeness and that of the Sarah-cunt. Suddenly, his breath was coming in short gasps, a roar of rage building within him, and it was all he could do to prevent himself from lashing out at her there and then, smacking her to the ground to rain blows down upon her deceiving head then, once unconscious, he would pleasure himself on her motionless form, perhaps snapping her neck as he thrust within her polluted corpse.
‘Are you OK?’ he heard it ask, each word coming to him as if spoken through a damp cloth; muffled, distorted, almost masculine.
His vision swam and, suddenly, he was no longer on the pitch, no longer with the Sarah-cunt, but back home, a small boy playing in the back garden. Two boys, bigger than he, climbed over the wall quietly, without his knowledge, grabbing him from behind. They pinned him down, face first to begin with, pushing his nose into the dirt of his father’s cherished flowerbed, and boy-Matt pissed his pants, knowing how much trouble he would be in, knowing his father would never believe that it was not he who had damaged the plants. Hands, then, tugging at him, flipping him over, one of the boys holding him in place by resting his knees against Matt’s chest, the other boy hunting for something in the soil, coming back quickly, a sadistic grin smeared across his face, catching Matt’s attention so that, to begin with at least, he did not notice what was held in his hand, and it was not until the boy started to lower his arm towards Matt’s face that he realised what he carried, and the boy kneeling on him used his free hands to prize Matt’s mouth apart, forcing the jaw open with difficulty, but he was stronger than the youngster, and Matt was powerless to resist. The worm the other boy held reached his lips, and Matt tried to flinch away, the cold, wetness of its touch against his flesh utterly repellent, but the tormentor persevered, readjusting, waiting until just the right moment before dropping the segmented, tubular creature right into his mouth, gravity taking it to the back of his throat, causing him to retch instantly. The boys scrambled away, then, back over the fence, laughing, joyous at the misery they had inflicted, leaving Matt lying in the dirt, coughing and spluttering, struggling to right himself before spitting the worm from his mouth.
‘Can I help at all?’
The voice came to him from somewhere else, a stranger’s voice, he knew, a woman’s voice, though only just and, back in the now, his knees gave way.
The drop from Upper Holte to Lower Holte was fifteen feet, no more so, dangling at full stretch, Daniel’s fall could be no greater than nine feet, yet still he felt as if time stood still, leaving him suspended in midair, helplessly defying the laws of gravity. As feet struck concrete, his knees, already bent in preparation, buckled under the momentum, and he flopped to the floor, causing Doug, watching, heart seemingly frozen in his chest, to worry for his well-being. Though the impact looked severe, the cushioning effect of his lower limbs took much of the force so that, within a second or so, Daniel was struggling to sit upright, a grin plastered from ear to ear.
Doug shook his fist at him in mock annoyance, clutching at his heart for added effect, causing Daniel to laugh out loud, a brief burst of sound, before he clamped a hand over his face to stifle any further outbursts.
The youngster watched nervously as his father, less athletically than he had done previously, hoisted himself over the wall, taking firm hold of the hand-rail, lowering himself as gingerly as he could. Daniel wriggled along the floor on his bottom, anxious to be clear of the drop zone, the thought of sixteen stone of Dad-weight crashing on top of him not one he cared to actually live through.
Doug hung, fully outstretched, blood pumping furiously through his veins.
‘Let go, let go,’ he hissed, seemingly immobilised, his hands not responding to the simple instructions his conscious brain was transmitting: open your palms. Internally, something was blocking the correct electro-chemical signals being relayed, some subconscious anxiety paralysing him. It was irrational, and he knew it. Though older than his son, and surely less supple, the only danger lay in a blow to the head if he landed awkwardly and fell, and there seemed only a small chance of that.
‘Open your bloody hands,’ he instructed and, this time, his body did as it was told and, suddenly, he was airborne, but only for a second, the impact coming much quicker than he had expected, eliciting a grunt as, just like his son, his legs gave way, and he landed in a heap on the concrete aisle between seats.
‘Well done, Dad,’ Daniel said quietly as he struggled into a less ungainly position.
‘Thanks. You made it look a lot easier than it was, that’s for sure.’
Daniel smiled at him, the warmth of real emotion making his eyes sparkle.
‘What do we do now?’ the youngster asked, and Doug pointed instantly towards the pitch, indicating that Daniel should keep low. With Doug taking the lead, together they edged along the row of seats they had landed between, until they reached the steps that led to pitch side, and here Doug craned around the final plastic seat, scanning the pitch, or as much of it as he could see from such an awkward position, spotting the two strangers some twenty metres away, on the touchline, apparently in conversation once more.
‘Let’s make our presence known,’ Doug said, and was about to stand when a hand on his back made him turn.
Daniel looked worried.
‘You sure about this, Dad? We don’t know who they are or what they want.’
The roles seemingly reversed, now it was the boy who was anxious, hinting that perhaps staying hidden was the superior strategy.
‘They’re just like us, Danny.’ Doug said, trying his best to inject his tone with a sincerity he did not altogether feel. ‘They’ve just come to watch a game of football when all of this happened,’ he finished, waving his hand around vaguely.
‘Suppose you’re right,’ Daniel replied, clearly unsure.
‘Look, worst case they aren’t very friendly. If that’s true, we’ll head off on our own. Ok?’
A pause. Two seconds, three, then, ‘Ok.’
Doug climbed to his feet, feeling both his spine and the backs of his knees crack as he did so, no doubt symptoms of the drop from the upper level.
Daniel rose, too.
‘Hello, there,’ Doug called.
On the pitch, two sets of eyes turned their way.
The old woman’s eyeballs flicked left, right, left, almost as if she were looking for something. Slowly, her mouth opened, kept opening, yawning wide, skin stretched tight at the corners, looking as if surely it would tear clean through. The eyes ceased their movement, but only for a moment, before swivelling right back, only the whites visible and the furthest, lowest edge of the green irises.
The eyeballs bulged in the sockets.
Some great pressure seemed to be exerted from within and, for one ghastly instant, Lisa was convinced that the orb was going to burst free of the socket, to explode towards her. The old woman’s mouth continued to gape, the limit of the hinge-like joint of the jaw having been reached. As Lisa gazed down at the upturned face, she could see straight down the woman’s throat, the tongue flopping about within, as if she were trying to speak, to communicate with the two observers, perhaps to indicate what best they could do, but no sound emerged.
Twitch’s voice was high pitched, urgent, so Lisa broke her gaze from the old woman’s face, turning towards him, looking up.
‘Look at them all,’ he said, sweeping a hand around the shop, and Lisa rose to her feet, spinning slowly on the spot, taking in the details. Every person in the shop, customer and staff, was behaving in the same way as the old woman; mouths gaping, eyes rolled back, struggling with some internal energy that seemed to be trying to force its way out. In their necks, tendons strained, bulging through skin pulled taut.
Now Lisa walked slowly forwards, drawn almost against her will, a strange sound emanating from the next aisle arousing her curiosity. She rounded the corner at the end of her aisle, walked into the next to find an elderly gentleman, lying flat on his back, in similar condition to the rest of the people in the shop, but something was different. She moved in to inspect, peering down at him, listening to the sound that came from him, akin to a gargle, as if something were trapped in his throat, rattling around as he tried to breath,
From behind, she felt Twitch’s presence as he joined her.
‘What’s that noise?’ he asked, and Lisa bent in closer, realising what was different about him.
‘His tongue,’ she said, noting its absence from his widely stretched mouth. ‘He’s swallowed his tongue.’
‘Shit. What do we do?’
‘We’ve got to get him into the recovery position.’
‘And what does that look like?’ Twitch asked.
‘Lying on the side, knees bent, arms out front.’
Twitch nodded, clearly impressed.
‘And how exactly do you know all of this?’
‘I watch too much TV. Now shut up and give me a hand.’
Lisa dropped to her knees, leaning forwards, over the man’s body, about to grab at his waist to try to tip him onto his side, when something changed.
All movement ceased
All sound stopped, too.
Suddenly, the shop was silent, save for the sound of their own breathing.
‘What now?’ she heard Twitch say, as she turned to look down at the old man’s face.
His eyes were locked on to her, staring right back.
That’s when he moved.
Hands coming up, he grabbed Lisa by the throat.
They met just behind the goal, Doug clambering awkwardly over the advertising hoardings in Daniel’s wake, his son suddenly seeming energised, eager to meet the strange people, all anxiety apparently gone. For his part Doug still felt troubled, nervous, puzzled as to why, from the many thousands within the football ground, only they four appeared to have been spared.
Just what made them different?
As they neared the unknown man and woman, Daniel slowed his pace, dropping back so that his father drew level, allowing the older man to take both the lead and the initiative.
Doug held out a hand towards the woman, expecting it to be shaken.
‘Who the fuck are you?’
It was the man who spoke, such venom in his tone that Doug almost took an involuntary step back.
The man looked at him in disgust, as if he and his son were repulsive, somehow, something that had crawled from the nearest sewer.
‘I said who the fuck are you?’
Doug struggled to keep his temper.
‘I’m Doug. Doug Shawcross. This is my son, Daniel.’
‘Where’ve you come from?’
‘Upper Holte. Listen, we’re not looking for any trouble. We just wanted to say hello.’
Matt laughed at that, a short, sardonic bark that sounded unpleasant to Doug’s ears..
‘Just wanted to say hello? What do you think this is? A general get together? A ‘happening’ of some kind? Get a grip.’
Doug’s blood was pumping now, and he was about to respond to the taunt, when a hand on the shoulder from Dan soothed his ire, temporarily at least.
‘Look, we’re all scared,’ he began, but Matt cut him short.
‘I’m not scared, pal. Don’t try and fucking think for me.’
Emily spoke for the first time, softly, a quiver to the words that gave credence to the sentiment expressed.
‘It’s OK to be frightened,’ Doug said, addressing the girl. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Well, it’s nice to meet you at least, Emily. Do you two know each other?’ he asked, jerking his head in the direction of Matt.
She shook her head, two quick flicks of the head.
‘No. We just…..survived.’
Doug nodded. ‘Do you have a name?’ he asked Matt, trying to keep any hint of animosity from his voice, not really succeeding.
A multitude of names flashed through Matt’s head in an instant – Thor, Khan, Attila – but, even in his fractious mental state, he knew that to say them aloud would be inappropriate, at least for the time being.
‘Matt,’ he growled, giving the single syllable a menacing edge.
‘Well, Matt, Emily, I guess we need to decide on a plan of action.’
‘What’s the point?’ asked Emily. ‘Everything’s dead.’
Lisa’s eyes bulge madly as she rocked back on her haunches, startled by the swiftness of the old man’s movements. His hands were at her throat in an instant, then round it, large hands, big enough to completely encircle her neck.
He began to squeeze.
Lisa brought her own hands up to grab onto his, attempting to prise between his fingers and her own skin, failing completely, his grip so complete access was impossible. Increasing the pressure, now he began to hoist himself up, using Lisa’s body as a sort of counter-weight, dragging himself into a sitting position, Lisa’s face now a vivid red as the pressure of blocked blood and, more troublingly, blocked windpipe began to tell.
‘T-T-T,’ she stammered, unable to utter a coherent syllable, but Twitch was on the move, the commotion having drawn him from the adjacent aisle, he too grabbing at the old man’s fingers, his own hands dwarfed. Twitch curled his hands into claws when levering beneath the man’s hands failed, attempting now to slide his own digits into the cleft that separated each of the man’s fingers, pushing, pushing, ignoring the discomfort he felt as the tips of his own fingers were squashed flat, desperate to force him to release.
‘It’s no good,’ he said, giving up his futile efforts, standing straight again, taking a step back.
Twitch closed his eyes, took a deep breath and concentrated his mind, forming the force within his diaphragm that they knew as The Gift, feeling the warm surge of energy mount, mount, seeing what was before him even through closed eyelids, focusing the pulse of power on one spot, holding it there. Though he could not see it directly, he knew precisely what was happening: the old man’s hands were prising free, powerless to resist the overwhelming strength channelled from Twitch’s mind. He pinned him in place for a second, before forming a second pulse of energy, not needing to diminish his grip at all in order to do so. This one he focused on a different spot, somewhere within the old man’s chest, the place where he now believed the spirit to reside. Not a specific organ or component of the body, more a place within the chest cavity that only a sensitive could detect, Twitch had learnt to manipulate this region, to stroke it, almost, but mentally. In the past, this had been used to quell an angry encounter, or to soothe someone on the point of hysteria but, curiously, though his insight pierced the man’s flesh, Twitch could detect nothing at all.
Lisa still held her throat, rubbing tenderly, red welts forming, so savage had the old man’s grip been.
‘What is it Twitch?’ she said, noting the expression of confusion on his face, though his eyes were still firmly shut.
‘There’s nothing there, Lise,’ he explained.
‘Inside him. His essence. It’s empty. Vacant. It’s as if…..’
‘As if what?’ she demanded, impatience lacing her demeanour.
‘It’s as if he’s not really alive.’
He opened his eyes, though the hold on the man’s body remained.
‘But that’s impossible,’ Lisa protested, her voice rising in pitch in a way that she did not at all care for. ‘He’s moving.’
‘I can see that, Lise’ he said, but tenderly, no sarcasm evident.
‘So what are you saying. He’s a…he’s a, what? He’s a zombie? A ghost? What?’
She was speaking quickly, each word louder than the last so that, by the time she reached the last, single-word question, she was on the verge of shouting.
‘I don’t know what I’m saying, Lise. I can only tell you what I feel.’
‘And what about the rest of them?’ Lisa asked, rising to her feet, spinning around to point at the rest of the shop, stopping dead at the sight that greeted her.
All around the shop, those that previously had seemed lifeless were clambering to their feet.
They were utterly silent.
Lisa held a hand to her mouth to stop herself from screaming.
She grabbed at Twitch’s arm, jerking it blindly, demanding his attention.
He looked her way.
Saw over her shoulder.
Lost his mental hold on the old man, who slumped to the ground
The Risen turned their way.
‘Are these still working?’ Doug asked, heading over to one of the TV cameras that dotted the stadium. Positioned just behind the advertising hoardings, Doug leaned in close, squinting into the lens, the other three serving merely as spectators. Daniel stood next to his father, Emily just behind and, several metres further back, Matt, fury etched into his features.
‘Who the fuck made you boss?’ he thought savagely, eyes drilling into the back of Doug’s skull, boring, perhaps attempting to burrow through the bone itself to access the brain, there to inflict damage.
‘Normally they’d be moving,’ he explained to the group.
‘Fountain of all knowledge, are you?’ Matt thought sardonically. ‘Just give me an opportunity, you old cunt, and I’ll show you who’s in charge, here.’
‘What does the light mean?’ asked Emily, pointing at the top of the device, a red light blinking hypnotically.
‘Not sure. Light on? Does that mean it’s broadcasting? Or does the red light indicate it’s stopped? Hard to say, love.’
‘Where are the others?’ Daniel asked. ‘Maybe we should check all of them?’
‘There’ll be a few along each touchline, in the same position as this one. Then some high up on each stand.’
Doug held his hand up to his brow, shielding his face against the dim glare of a sun that was barely filtering through thin cloud that skitted overhead.
‘There’s one. Look.’
He pointed at a position halfway along the Doug Ellis stand.
Emily and Daniel peered in the general direction of his extended finger, Emily spotting the device first.
‘Doesn’t seem to be doing much,’ she observed.
‘Could be working, still. There’s no real way to tell,’ said Doug.
‘You lot are pathetic.’
Hissed through gritted teeth.
‘Who gives a flying shit about the fucking TV cameras. We need to get out of here. ‘
Dug swivelled on the spot, turning to face the younger man.
‘If we know these are still working, that gives us a good indication that everything outside is still operational. We need to know what we are walking out into. Do you see?’
His tone was reasonable, though strained, as though there were effort going into controlling his voice.
‘I see, alright. I see that you’ve suddenly decided to take charge of this group. I see that you think you are some kind of fucking Alpha Male, here, and that the rest of us should just follow along in your wake like obedient little puppy dogs.’
He paused for breath, temper flaring, adrenaline spiking.
‘Oh yeah, I see, you old fucking cunt.’
Doug blanched, colour draining from his face, jaw clenching.
‘Look, there really is no need for that. I’m just trying to help.’
‘No you’re not. You’re just trying to control. Do you think you’re going to be the hero or something? The big man, leading us all to our salvation?’
Matt advanced a step forward, menace clear in his manner.
‘Who knows. Maybe you think she might even fuck you, if you’re brave enough. Is that it?’
Doug’s eyes flicked involuntarily towards Emily, his cheeks reddening, partly through embarrassment, partly the anger building inside.
‘Now look here, Matt,’ he begin, his turn to take a step forward, ‘I’m going to check on the rest of the cameras down this side of the field. I suggest you follow behind and keep your mouth shut.’
Matt’s eyes narrowed, sizing up his rival. Though older, the superior bulk would make for a worthy adversary, he thought, again the image of himself in loin cloth, broadsword strapped across a powerfully muscled back consuming him momentarily.
‘Are we clear?’ Doug asked, bringing him back to reality once more.
‘Oh, yeah, we’re clear, all right.’
Doug turned away.
They stood there.
Eyes that, moments ago, were utterly devoid of life, now locked on to the two people who had not befallen the same fate as they. As one, The Risen moved and, for a moment, Twitch and Lisa were frozen to the spot, quite unable to believe what their own eyes were telling them to be true.
Somehow, the dead had returned to life.
Like a scene in a bad eighties horror movie, The Risen advanced. Impossibly, where no heart beat, where no blood flowed, where no breath was drawn, still there was purpose and, terrifyingly, the purpose seemed to be centred around the two that were different from they.
‘Move,’ Twitch bellowed, already taking his own advice, grabbing Lisa’s hand and pulling her along behind him, down the central aisle, heading for the main entrance, the way suddenly blocked by two, three, four of the advancing throng, forcing Twitch to double back, to the opposite end of the aisle, moving quickly, hoping to confuse the….the….things that seemed to pursue them. Reaching the end of the aisle, he turned right quickly, planning to turn right again, down the next aisle, speed his ally, or so he thought. Halfway down the planned exit route, two of The Risen ambled towards them, neither fast nor slow, their movements spasmodic, as if communication between brain and limbs was functioning, but just barely.
Lisa drew level as Twitch stopped in his tracks.
‘Why are you doing this?’ she asked of the things that approached them but, if they understood her at all, they showed no sign of it, vacant eyes gazing at them blankly, like cattle observing orienteering enthusiasts passing through a field, dimly aware that something was moving, no clear idea as to the precise nature.
Twitch span on the spot, about to move away, shocked to discover that more of The Risen had moved in behind them, ensnaring them in a pincer movement as deftly as a great general, plotting a triumphant battle strategy, though surely here the success was mere coincidence, for these things were incapable of thought.
‘Aren’t they?’ he thought.
As The Risen approached, their arms were elevated, the intent clear in their motion; to grasp at Lisa and Twitch who, temporarily, stood transfixed.
‘Do your stuff,’ Lisa said and, for a second, perhaps two, Twitch knew not what she meant.
‘Twitch…’ she implored, spurring him into action. He concentrated as best he could, rushing, circumstances allowing no time for nuances, instead he focused on brute force. A pulse of energy burst from him, though invisible, knocking The Risen that approached from the front back, two tumbling to the floor, the last maintaining her feet, though seeming disoriented. Twitch and Lisa took their chance, pushing past her, oblivious to hands that clutched at their clothing, their momentum overpowering the ‘dead’ woman’s feeble attempts to stop them.
Onwards, to the far corner of the shop, Twitch sent out another pulse of energy as more Risen advanced, sending one tumbling into a display of mobile phone fascias, the small plastic casings cascading to the floor and, suddenly, they were in the clear, increasing their speed, leaving the shop at full sprint.
Stopping dead in their tracks.
Outside the shop, forming a perfect semi-circle, The Risen stood motionless.
For moments, time seemed to pause, or perhaps to miss a beat, as if reality no longer had meaning.
Then, The Risen began to move.
And reality bit.
He watched them walking, several paces in front. Such arrogance in their gait, particularly the leader, or the one who liked to think of himself as such.
‘Think it, old man,’ Matt thought. ‘For now.’
They clambered back over the advertising hoardings, walked to the edge of the grassed area of the pitch.
‘You coming?’ the she-cunt demanded of him.
He just shook his head at her, denying her the sound of his voice. Who was she, after all, but a scrawny vessel for his seed? And soon, too.
The boy, he was altogether different. Though young, he had great potential. The older one would have to be dealt with, certainly, for there was no chance of him being turned.
But the youngster?
Perhaps, in this new world, he would need someone to stand at his side. A prince to his king, a lieutenant to his general. With good leadership, training and hard work, he could be forged into just such a specimen.
Matt’s thoughts turned to warfare.
As they strode through a landscape littered with the bodies of their fallen enemies, perhaps Daniel would be responsible for a great many of their deaths. Wielding a broadsword, or even a longbow – yes, a skill in archery seemed like a good fit – they could quell any who opposed them. And then, the celebrations. Such joyous, abundant wantonness. Draining gobbets of the finest wine, they would gorge themselves on food and spirits, before retiring to quarters, womenfolk scurrying after them, desperate for their attention.
And the Sarah-cunt would be one of them.
Scuttling along in their wake, like a cockroach following the aroma of putrescence, he would let Daniel take her, would watch on as he threw her to the ground, ripped the clothing from her slender frame. She would squeal in protest, he knew, but Daniel, fresh from victory and charged with the lust that only calls post-battle, would be deaf to her entreaties, instead forcing her onto her hands and knees, squatting down behind her and, swiftly, before she had chance to resist, stabbing his engorged penis, hard, into the unwilling anus she offered, her shrieks of protest only serving to fuel his lustful thrustings until, finally, he pulled himself from her, pumping at his shaft vigorously, spraying his manliness against the still puckered orifice, roaring his delight.
‘Fuck the bitch,’ Matt whispered under his breath, realising that he was losing control of himself, unable to prevent his mental wanderings, eyes blind to the activity of the others as they reached the nearest spectators and began to search through their pockets, looking for mobile phones, their own efforts to contact people they knew having failed. Matt clutched at himself through his trousers, his cock stiffened to the point of pain, groaning a little, but holding it in the back of his throat, desperate now to rid himself of his own fluids, the yearning almost overpowering him. What would they do about it, anyway, if he took her, right here, right now? Perhaps it was his destiny, to slay the old man this instant, to force the youngster to observe his technique, instruct him in the ways of the flesh, to prepare him for the future he foresaw.
‘Got one,’ he heard her say, seeing her face clearly, though not with his eyes, in his mind only. He watched on as her mouth opened, taking his full length before pulling back, the sheen of her saliva coating the shaft so that, when next she moved forward, it slid in with ease.
And Matt grabbed at her.
Forced himself further and further in, causing her to gag, eyes bulging wide, panic replacing the desire she had initially felt, as her oxygen supply was cut off.
The older man’s voice, interrupting his reverie, clearing his head, bringing the real world back into view. There, ten metres away, the she-cunt in the second row, phone held up to her ear.
‘Nothing. It’s ringing but there’s no reply.’
‘We are all alone,’ Matt screamed suddenly, causing Emily to drop the phone, the plastic casing and battery breaking apart.
‘Don’t you get it, bitch? There’s no-one else alive’
‘Can you hold them?’ Lisa gasped, pushing against the first of The Risen to reach her, arms outstretched, clawing for her throat. She held it at bay by sheer brute force, but others followed in its wake and, she knew, soon their numbers would overwhelm her.
‘I can try.’
‘Do it, Twitch, for God’s sake.’
Twitch focused his mind, picturing the gathered hordes in their entirety, sending out that special mental pulse, but spread, this time, like the shaft of light from a wide beam torch. In his head, he saw the pulse reach its target and envelop them and, sure enough, as Lisa watched, she saw The Risen rock backwards as if struck by something substantial, saw their efforts to move forward curtailed. Though their feet still moved, their legs still bent at the knee, attempting to take a pace forward, instead they remained where they stood and now, slowly, slowly, Twitch strained harder. In his mind, the pulse held them all, like fish in a net, and he used the mental energy to push against them, to force them back, away from where he and Lisa stood, vulnerable.
‘I can’t hold this much longer,’ he informed Lisa. ‘Help me.’
Though not as powerful as Twitch himself, Lisa, too, had learnt the rudiments of this particular aspect of his Gift, and she too channelled the energy from within her mind, adding to the momentum that Twitch had already initiated.
‘A bit further,’ he intoned, using his words as encouragement, knowing how difficult she found this, her skills lying elsewhere, with talents that he did not truly possess.
Lisa redoubled her efforts, picturing the dozen or so Risen stumbling, forced back by a wave of inner power and, indeed, back they moved, shuffling awkwardly, moving in contradiction to the motion of their legs, like some ghastly parody of a Michael Jackson dance routine.
‘Right, when I say release, release.’
‘Yeah, I think I can crack that code,’ she quipped, bringing a smile to Twitch’s lips despite their predicament.
‘Then we run,’ he advised. ‘Straight back the way we came in. We are vulnerable in here. Outside, we’ve got more places to escape to.’
‘OK. I’m ready,’ she said, strain in her voice as she struggled to retain her concentration, the effort required to divide her mental energy between speaking and ‘repelling’ almost too much for her.
‘Three, two, one,’ said Twitch. ‘Now’
The force permeating from both Lisa and Twitch vanished.
They had a second or two to catch their breath.
Twitch took Lisa’s hand.
The Risen began to advance, quickly this time.
Emily, Doug and Daniel stared at Matt, still on the pitch, in stunned silence, his outburst, as far as they could tell, utterly unprovoked.
‘Who do you think you are?’ Emily demanded from the stand, anger starting to cut through the initial numbness.
‘Well, from here it seems I am talking to three delusional twats,’ he replied, pointing his index finger at the side of his head and spinning it in a circular motion – the universal gesture of mental disturbance.
’You’ve got a real problem,’ she spat back at him. ‘At least we’re trying to do something. What have you contributed so far? Nothing, that’s what,’ she completed, without waiting for a response.
Doug moved to her side, placing a hand gently on her shoulder, no words necessary, just letting her know that she was in the right, and that he would back her up if necessary.
‘Ooooh, look at the old man getting all defiant,’ Matt mocked from pitch side, moving now, advancing on their position in the stands.
‘Look, young man,’ Doug began, but Matt cut him off.
‘Who the fuck are you calling young man? I’m not your son. I’m not your junior. I’m not your subordinate.’
Doug watched on, impassively, but Matt was not done yet.
‘You’re not in charge of me. You’re not my boss. In fact, let me tell you something, Doug….’
He drew out the single syllable of the rival man’s name, a sneer to his tone that was unmistakable.
‘I’m all ears,’ Doug said, his voice flat, emotionless.
‘I’m everything that you are not, Doug. I’m twice the man you are.’
Doug shook his head. ‘This is just nonsense, and we really don’t have time for it.’
Matt laughed, a short, sharp, high pitched sound, dangerously close to mania. ‘We’ve got all the time in the world, Doug. Nothing’s going to change if we sit here for the next hour, two hours, the next fucking three days. Don’t you get it? It’s a brave new world.’
Doug frowned at that, perhaps sensing for the first time just how far gone the man he was dealing with was, aware, instinctively, that his presence could indicate genuine jeopardy for the entire group.
‘Well, if that’s all true, Matt,’ Doug said, attempting to keep his tone calm, neutral, none-provocative, ‘It doesn’t really make much difference what we do, right? So we may as well try to make contact with the outside world. Right?’ he asked, again.
‘You make me fucking sick,’ Matt replied, though his motion had ceased and, for now, he seemed content simply to watch them from where he stood.
‘You try him,’ Doug suggested to Emily, a quick squeeze of the shoulder followed by a pointed finger at the spectator lying nearest to her. ‘I’ll try this way. Dan, try one over there.’
The three of them separated, though only by a few metres, and Emily was the first to announce success.
She held up the mobile phone she had found, figuring out how to unlock it easily enough, clicking through until she found the contact list, initiating a call. She held the phone up to her ear and, as the call rang out, unanswered, all the other three could do was watch.
Skirting the edge of the thoroughfare, Twitch and Lisa dashed away from the electronics shop, The Risen moving swiftly in their wake, though not quite able to match their speed. Whatever malady or affliction had befallen them, motor control was at least partially impaired and, as Lisa craned her neck to look behind, allowing Twitch to guide her, she saw a couple of the followers tumble, apparently disorientated by the sudden change in speed.
‘Which way?’ she asked, breath coming fast and heavy.
‘Up there,’ Twitch said, pointing at the escalators.
Around them, where on the way in bodies lay scattered, now most had clambered to their feet, and those that had not entirely attained an upright position were at least attempting it. Here and there, one or two late bloomers still lay prostrate, juddering in the spasmodic manner that indicated life, or at least an approximation of it, was returning, and Lisa knew that time was very much of the essence.
It was imperative that they leave the shopping mall, before they were drowned by sheer force of numbers.
As one, they reached the foot of the mobile staircase, Twitch dropping back slightly to allow Lisa passage, barely slowing their pace as they adjusted to the added momentum of the moving carriageway.
‘Twitch,’ Lisa cried,’ demanding his attention, and she pointed ahead of them, to the top of the metal staircase where, gathering, preparing, more Risen, almost as if those below had informed them of the passage of the pair of interlopers, and they had been despatched to intercept.
‘That wasn’t possible, was it?’ she thought, troubled by the notion.
Halfway up, they had to make a decision and, without the need for words, Lisa told Twitch what she wanted them to do. He squeezed her hand, confirmation that he had understood her.
They kept moving forwards, three quarters of the way up, and Lisa noted the change that seemed to manifest in The Risen above them. Where initially they were almost motionless, simply watching, as she and Twitch neared, now an excitement seemed to build, a collective energy, like hunting dogs just before a kill.
Together, Twitch and Lisa came to a standstill, though the motion of the escalator propelled them forward, forcing them to step backwards every second or so, to maintain their distance from what lay above. Turning, The Risen that had followed them and had negotiated the tricky step onto the escalators neared and, last second, Lisa jumped onto the polished metal surface that divided the up and down lanes of the staircase, using her arms to pivot her body so that she landed athletically, rump first, the soft material of her dress affording no resistance so that she skimmed downwards, faster than she expected, a triumphant squeal of delight escaping her lips as she slid past those that followed. As she reached the end of the slope, she dismounted with the precision of a gymnast, landing perfectly on her feet, side-stepping immediately just as Twitch landed beside her.
‘Keep moving,’ he instructed, and she needed no second bidding, clutching at his hand as they sprinted for the entrance through which they arrived, bursting into daylight, not stopping, joining the main pedestrian shopping thoroughfare, no longer the sole occupants of the streets.
Everywhere they looked, The Risen gathered.
Emily ditched another phone, the third she had tried, the plastic casing clattering loudly against the concrete flooring in the unnatural silence of the football stadium.
‘This is useless,’ Doug stated as he, too, discarded another mobile, the continual sound of the unanswered ring distressing him greatly.
‘Oh, you think?’ Matt mocked and, instantly, Doug’s jaw began to clench and unclench threateningly, a tell which Daniel knew well. He reached over and touched his father’s forearm, a message: I understand why he is infuriating you, but best ignore him.
‘Can we check on the players?’ the youngster asked.
‘What’s the point?’ asked Emily.
‘Dunno. Just want to see if they are the same as everyone else.’
‘Why wouldn’t they be?’
‘I dunno,’ he replied with a shrug of the shoulders. ‘We aren’t though, are we?’
The weird logic of the statement silenced her, and Daniel turned to his father for consent.
‘Can’t see the harm, I suppose,’ he agreed reluctantly.
‘Will only take a minute.’
Daniel moved before anyone could voice disagreement, hopping over the two rows of chairs that separated him from the pitch, not pausing when he reached the exterior barrier, feet on grass before either Emily or Doug had had a chance to move a muscle. He clambered over the advertising hoardings, and passed close to Matt, who fell in line behind him, barely a foot to the rear.
‘Gonna suck one of their cocks, are you?’ the older man enquired, mock innocence to his tone.
Daniel ignored the taunt.
‘Which one you gonna do first? A black one or a white one? ‘Spect you’d like nothing better than to suck on a big, black dick…..’
Daniel stopped in his tracks, turned and, initially, it seemed he would confront Matt for his disgraceful jibes but, instead, he addressed his parent, pretending that he had not even heard the words addressed to him.
‘Hurry up, Dad.’
Five metres away, Emily gave Doug a helping hand as he scrambled over the adverts, hopping over as soon as he was safely on the other side.
With his back to those following, Matt addressed Daniel once more.
‘You always such a Daddy’s boy?’ he asked. ‘Time to man up, sunshine. I’ve got big plans for you.’
Daniel tried his best to ignore him.
‘Me and you, Daniel. We can rule the fucking world.’
Doug and Emily reached them at last and, without another word, Daniel turned and headed directly to the centre circle where, still, the prone players lay.
As he approached the nearest, he thought he saw a hand spasm.
Time stood still.
Lisa and Twitch were static, the sight of so many heads turning their way unnerving. For a moment, it seemed that nothing else would happen and that, maybe, they would simply be able to walk through the ranks of The Risen, and away. Then, a sudden sound, throaty, deep, utterly intimidating. Instead of the silence that had prevailed amongst those in the shopping mall, instead a roar issued from one of The Risen nearest to them, guttural, a sound surely no human should be capable of making. As if it were some kind of cue, the other Risen took up the call, a sweeping wall of sound so loud Lisa felt sure her eardrums would burst.
Then, they moved.
As if an unspoken command had been issued, forty, fifty, perhaps sixty Risen swarmed towards them, and Lisa joined in the commotion, screaming herself, a sound wrought from her diaphragm through abject fear.
Five metres away, only, the nearest of the creatures – for that was how Twitch had begun to think of them – advanced quickly, arms lifting, eyes not quite empty, not quite alive, locked onto Lisa, identifying its target. Twitch responded first, using his Gift to send the thing sprawling, turning his head slightly, repeating the action again, again, but, for each one that fell three others took its place and instinctively they knew that to stay where they were was to surely invite death. Without saying a word, at least aloud, they broke into a run, Twitch dropping a shoulder to barrel into one of the creatures, physically knocking it onto its backside, this time, rather than mentally. Lisa followed in his wake, she too now casting her energies, repelling the advancing throng as best she could then, suddenly, they were in the clear, dashing headlong, barely able to breath, a combination of the sudden burst of activity and abject terror constricting their throats, seeming to paralyse their normal bodily functions.
‘Which way?’ Twitch gasped.
‘Just out of town.’
And back the way they had arrived in the town centre they headed, past the devastation, the broken windows, the buses, past the car smashed through the shop front. Only two minutes could have past since they left the shopping centre and, for the first time, Lisa dared a glance behind, pleased to see that they had not been followed. Though The Risen that milled about randomly here in this quieter part of town watched them as they sped past, they showed only rudimentary interest in them, and made no attempt to pursue.
They slowed their pace, jogging instead of running flat out, a necessary lull in physical exertion, a chance to catch their breath, to recharge their energy levels for, whilst the run had certainly tired them, having to deploy their Gift so frequently in such a short space of time had drained them further still.
‘So where do we go?’ Lisa asked him after a short time, her breath still short, though more controlled.
‘There’s only one place we can go,’ Twitch replied and, instantly, she knew the destination he had in mind.
‘Dad, this may sound crazy but, I think he moved,’ Daniel said as he stared down at the stricken footballer.
‘Think who moved?’ his father asked.
Instead of replying, Daniel just pointed towards the player, almost as if he were fearful further sound might disturb the stricken soul, somehow. Doug reached his son, and placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing tenderly, the youngster’s difficulty in grasping the enormity of what had happened understandable.
‘He didn’t move, Danny. He’s dead, mate.’
Daniel jerked his shoulder away from his father’s touch, irritated by the response.
‘I know that, Dad. I’m not an idiot. But I also know what I saw.’
‘It was a trick of the light. No more.’
‘You make it sound like I’m a nutter. He bloody well moved!’ he insisted, real defiance in his voice.
‘Look, if he said he saw him move, then I believe him,’ said Matt, surprising everybody. He turned from one to the other, three sets of eyes studying him, puzzled. ‘Like he said, he’s not an idiot,’ he explained, shrugging his shoulders matter of factly, as if nothing further needed to be said.
‘Since when did you become so reasonable?’ Emily enquired, suspicion her primary emotion.
‘Look, bi……’ he began, managing to stop himself, aware that name calling would only undermine him further. ;’Look, Emily,’ he managed through gritted teeth, ‘You haven’t known me long, and the same’s true for me, him, all of us.’
‘Your point being?’
‘Well, I think it’s fair to say that this has been a trying period in each of our lives, what with the mass extinction, an’ all.’ Again he moved his gaze from one to the other, enjoying the attention, feeling like a performer playing to a captive audience, though an audience that had no idea as to his true motivations.
‘That’s certainly a fair comment,’ Emily conceded.
‘We’ve all been under enormous strain,’ he continued, ‘And, I confess, I haven’t shown myself in a particularly good light, for which I apologise.’
As he watched them, in turn they nodded, clearly relieved at this sudden volte-face of personality.
‘I let it get to me,’ he elaborated, intent on driving the point home, convincing them of his regret. ‘I was rude, aggressive, and totally objectionable. Look, hands up, I was a prick and, frankly, I’m pretty embarrassed with myself.’
Doug was first to reply.
‘Heh, we got off on the wrong footing. As you say, it’s been a strange kind of day. No wonder our reactions were a little….odd, shall we say. Let’s start from scratch. What do we reckon?’
Matt simply smiled at them shyly, the very embodiment of embarrassed gratitude.
‘Let’s get out of here, I say,’ he said.
‘Agreed,’ Emily said simply.
‘Only question is, which way?’ asked Doug.
‘Well, we know there’s a door we can open where we were sitting,’ Daniel reminded him.’
‘We’d have to climb back up, though. Upper Holte,’ said Doug.
‘Shouldn’t be too hard. We can boost you, then you can help pull us up,’ Matt suggested.
‘Not sure if I can make it,’ said Emily.
‘Course you will,’ Matt assured her. ‘Me and Daniel can give you the boost, and Doug’s strong enough to haul you up the rest of the way.’
‘And I’ll come up last. I reckon I could scramble up, no problem,’ said Daniel confidently.’
‘I’m sure you can, an agile chap like you,’ Matt agreed, again eager to compliment the youngster.
As they spoke, none of them noticed the strange keening sound that began to emanate from the terraces.
They jogged back down the main road that led into Stourhampton town centre, the street still littered with signs of destruction and chaos. Here and there, The Risen milled aimlessly around, paying them scant attention as they jogged past and, curiously, Twitch realised that he was already becoming accustomed to the bizarreness of the situation. It could only have been twenty minutes since the ordeal in the electronics shop, yet it seemed an age ago and now, as he surveyed the scene before him, somehow it all seemed so….normal.
‘Why aren’t they chasing us like the ones in the shopping centre?’ Lisa asked him as they ran.
‘I’ve got no idea. Maybe these ones have only just awoken. It seemed to take the others a while to get fully mobile.’
‘I guess….’ she said, clearly unconvinced.
‘These are the weirdest ones,’ he said as they passed a car, front tyres on the pavement as they ran by, the driver no longer immobile, as before, instead full of life, or unlife perhaps, struggling to free herself from the confines of the vehicle but clearly without the skill or dexterity required to remove the seatbelt, holding her in place.
‘It’s horrid, Twitch.’
‘It is, he agreed.
‘I want to help her, but I know it’s useless.’
Twitch felt her anguish keenly, The Gift that bound them together highly attuned to extremes of emotion.
‘For now, Lise, we’ve just got to get somewhere safe.’
They reached the turn off from the main road, relieved to leave behind the scene that had more than a whisper of the post-apocalyptic, finding the street that led to the park completely deserted, save for the body of a cat, stricken, apparently, by the same affliction as the people but, for now at least, yet to be resurrected in kind.
They kept running.
Reaching the park, they passed through the wrought iron gates, both knowing the route off by heart, crossing the grass, the feel of insects underfoot still present, no less unpleasant and, as they skirted the lake, again they were horrified by the sight of so many waterfowl floating, dead, atop the surface, the swans in particular seeming most striking.
‘They haven’t come back to life, then,’ Twitch observed redundantly.
‘Thank God for that,’ Lisa said wryly. ‘I don’t think I could cope with zombie swans.’
Despite the circumstance, Twitch laughed at that.
‘Once this is all over, I might write a story about that. Swans From Beyond. Something like that.’
‘You daft sod,’ she said, fondly. ‘I’ll expect royalties.’
Past the lake, onto the next expanse of grass, then out of the park altogether. A cut through from the next street took them out of normal habitation, onto a dirt track lined with bushes and, within a minute, they reached the canal, slowing their pace, at last, confident that here at least there should be no danger.
They walked along in silence, both flooded with memories. The Black Country Butcher. The squat. The hypodermic needles. The Gift blossoming, blooming, becoming fully formed within them. And, there, in the distance, the derelict house, set back from the canal towpath, that had served as their temporary home all those years ago. A place which brought back confused emotions for both of them for, once, they had been safe there when nowhere else had seemed like home, yet also it was the place where they had been forever altered, forever changed.
‘What was he saying really, Twitch?’ Lisa asked suddenly as they drew near.
‘What was who saying?’ he asked, brought back from his own reverie.
‘The Frenchman on the radio.’ She touched his arm. ‘I know you were trying to protect me. It’s alright.’
Twitch paused, weighing up whether to lie once more to shield her from the truth, or to come clean.
‘I didn't understand it, Lise,' he said and, though they both knew that he was lying, they continued in silence.
‘We all in agreement then?’ Doug asked his three companions.
‘What’s that?’ It was Emily who spoke this time.
‘What’s what?’ Matt.
‘What’s what’s what?’ said Daniel, his juvenility exposed.
‘Shh. I’m serious,’ Emily snapped, wiping the smile clean off Daniel’s face.
‘Just messing about,’ he mumbled, moping.
‘Can you hear it?’ she insisted.
‘I can’t hear anything,’ Doug replied.
‘Me either,’ Matt concurred.
‘What about you, Danny?’ his father asked.
Still sulking, the youngster simply shrugged his shoulders, not really interested in the conversation, until Doug repeated the question, a touch more forcefully.
‘What am I meant to be listening for?’ he demanded angrily.
It’s hard to tell,’ Emily explained. ‘It’s like some kind of rumbling sound. Really low frequency. Like a train or plane when it’s a long way off.’
Like a spaniel cocking an ear at the postman’s imminent arrival, Daniel turned his head slightly to one side, causing Emily to snort out a short, bark of a laugh, clamping her hand over her mouth and nose to contain herself.
‘What you laughing at?’ Daniel demanded, suddenly self-conscious.
‘Sorry. Just ignore me,’ she assured him, stifling herself, feeling guilty about laughing, anyway, so soon after the loss of James but, in the short time that had passed, so much had happened, it already felt like an age ago.
‘There is something, you know,’ Daniel confirmed.
‘Can you tell what it is?’ Doug asked, head swivelling from side to side, attempting to scan every corner of the ground, having to turn from left to right from his position in the centre circle to get a clear view of anything happening behind him.
‘Dunno. It’s like Emily said. A low rumble. An explosion, maybe?’
‘Wouldn’t be going on for this long,’ said Doug, rejecting the notion.
‘How the fuck do you know?’ snapped Matt, regretting it instantly for he had forgotten, briefly, his new guise as Mr. Reasonable.
‘Sorry,’ he said, shaking his head as if ashamed of himself, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. ‘What makes you say that, Doug?’ he continued in a more measured manner.
‘An explosion is an immediate thing, surely, not something that rumbles for a period of time.’
‘Maybe it’s a fire?’ suggested Emily, worry troubling her expression.
‘Well, I guess we need to get out of here for sure, now,’ said Matt. ‘If there is a fire raging nearby, I don’t really like the thought of being trapped, know what I mean?’
‘Agreed, said Doug, taking a couple of backward steps, his movement designed to get the whole party in motion, and it worked, as Emily, Daniel and Matt made to follow him.
‘We’ll do like we said,’ he advised, talking more to fill the silence than through any genuine purpose. ‘You lot help me up, then I’ll hoist from above.’
As the four moved, it was clear the volume of the strange sound was increasing, as was the tone, the low rumble gradually raising in cadence, though ever so slowly, to the point that it was difficult to tell if it was imagined, or truly perceived.
As they neared the edge of the pitch, Doug prepared to clamber once more over the advertising hoardings to reach the Lower Holte, but a hand on his shoulder from Emily stopped him.
‘Look. There,’ she said, pointing towards the rear of the stand. Doug squinted in the direction she indicated, the shadow which veiled the furthest depths of the stand making it difficult to pick out anything in great detail but, it seemed clear, something was moving in the darkness.
The silence held between them held until they reached the house, laid back twenty metres or so from the canal towpath, the grassed area in front littered with broken bottles, empty beer cans, house-bricks, and all manner of other debris, all seemingly selected for the sole purpose of potentially inflicting wounds on the feet of anyone foolish enough to walk across the area. Acting as an impromptu minefield, there could appear to be method behind the madness, though both Twitch and Lisa knew that not to be the case.
They gazed at the house.
‘What do you think it means?’ she asked. ‘Hell spits out its souls.’
Twitch pondered the question, one that he had asked himself several times since first he had heard the phrase.
‘I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s meant to be taken too literally.’
‘It’s imagery,’ she said, thoughtfully.
‘Exactly that,’ he agreed.
‘So go with the image, Twitch. What would be the result? If Hell exists, and suddenly those that live there are expelled. What happens then?’
His eyes glazed over, her words seeming to affect him on an emotional level and, for one moment, he felt as if he were going to burst into tears.
‘Maybe this,’ he said, with a wave of the hand back in the general direction of the town centre.
‘It’s awful,’ she said, not unreasonably.
Twitch didn’t speak for a while and, when he did, it was only to add to the sentiment.
‘It’s worse than that.’
Lisa took his hand and, together, they advanced on the house that, so many years ago, had seen them change from what they were, to what they would become.
‘It’s been so long,’ said Lisa as they neared the front door, and Twitch squeeze her hand, letting her know that he, too, felt the weight of memories and, for the moment, he was rendered speechless.
Reaching the battered front door, only a few fragments of peeled paint left on the otherwise weather exposed wooden frame, Twitch placed a palm flat against one of the panels and pushed, surprised when the door swung open, albeit reluctantly, a dull squeal accompanying the motion.
Inside, all was darkness.
The shaft of light which cascaded from the open door caught thick motes of dust, swirling in air that seemed thick as treacle and, as they moved from hallway to living room, the impression that nothing within had moved for many, many years was utterly oppressive but, if initially they had thought the place deserted, their suspicions were proved wrong almost instantly as, from somewhere deep within the building, the now familiar low keening sound could be heard.
‘Twitch, they’re here,’ Lisa hissed, turning anxiously, Twitch doing likewise, intending to head back the way they had come when, suddenly, their world was plunged into darkness as the front door slammed shut.
Doug held his hand up to his mouth, cupping his lips, projecting his voice, wincing at the volume as it echoed back to him from the rear of the stand, far louder than he had intended, the total stillness within the stadium – not even a breath of wind stirred the scene – amplifying the sound beyond what would seem feasible. He squinted towards the source of movement, pausing a few seconds, hoping for a response but, when none came, he simply repeated the greeting, though dialled down somewhat.
‘Why aren’t they replying?’ asked Emily, puzzled as to the continued ignorance.
‘Maybe they’re frightened,’ said Daniel, a sensible notion given his and his father’s response to the appearance of both Matt and Emily.
‘Frightened of little old me?’ said Matt, pitching for playful but, judging from the expression worn by Emily and Daniel, coming off more the sinister jester.
‘It’s weird,’ Doug muttered, still eyeing the motion at the back of the Holte End.
‘I’m not that scary, am I?’ Matt asked Daniel and Emily. ‘I’m only messing around.’
‘Hello,’ Doug called again.
‘I wouldn’t say scary,’ began Emily, but Daniel cut her off.
‘Yes, as a matter of fact. You’ve been totally fucking weird since we met you.’
‘Daniel,’ Doug snapped automatically, hearing his son curse.
‘Well, how rude,’ Matt said, indignation in his voice, and it was difficult for Daniel and Emily to know if it was genuine or not.
‘Just the truth,’ Daniel shrugged, non-committal now, the moment of confrontation behind him, suddenly full of the anxiety of youth.
‘Daniel, Daniel. Don’t disappoint me,’ said Matt. ‘I keep telling you, I’ve got big plans for the pair of us.’
Emily frowned. ‘Plans? What the hell are you talking about?’
‘Keep your fucking nose out, bitch,’ Matt spat suddenly, causing both Emily and Daniel to flinch away, and Doug span around, away from the stand he was peering into, all attention once more returned to Matt.
‘Thought you were going to play nice’ he reminded him.
‘It’s difficult, Doug. It really is,’ Matt bawled. ‘Have you seen what I’ve got to work with, here? Is it any wonder I’m struggling to keep my temper in check.’
‘What’s did we do?’ Daniel protested.
‘What did you do?’ Matt was nearly screaming now. ‘What did you do? I gave you the chance, Daniel. Danny-boy. Dan the Man. I gave you the fucking chance. You could have stood by my side. You could have been my fucking wing man. Don’t you get it? You and me, Daniel. You and me against the world. I see it in you. I can see right through you, peer inside you and, in there, though you don’t know it, a primal heart beats. Strong. Fierce. You may have been spat from the cunt of something vile, germinated from the seed of something feeble,’ he ranted, jabbing a finger in the direction of Doug, who simply stood and watched Matt’s wide-eyed tirade, spit flicking from the red slits of his lips.
‘Me and you, Daniel. Warriors. Side by side. Just us against the whole fucking lot of them. And we’d win. Once we get out there, Daniel, only the strong will survive. And I’d selected you as prince to my king.’
He stopped speaking suddenly, put his hands up to his head, started yanking at his hair, hard, seemingly intent on tearing it out right from the root.
‘Stop disappointing me,’ Matt shrieked.
Emily screamed again, though this time there was form to her fear. ‘Doug,’ she yelled, a hand up, pointing. Doug span, following her finger, struck numb by the sight that greeted him. Not five metres away the spectators that, previously, had been without movement, even without life, clambered over the wall that separated the stand from the pitch.
Dozens of them.
Their target clear.
For moments, nothing happened. A terrible hush seemed to have fallen as if, with the shutting of the door, a temporal shift had occurred, the house and everything within it hurled backwards in time to a point when nothing existed at all.
Then, true terror.
From the corridor which they had traversed not ten seconds ago, the sound of shuffling, something clearly on the move, though with an awkward, spastic gait, as if it were not truly in control of its own anatomy. In the living room, more movement, as multitudinous forms arose from a slumber of sorts, perhaps the presence of organisms warm and wet arousing them.
From somewhere close by, Twitch heard screaming and, momentarily, thought it was Lisa he was hearing, before realising that it was he himself who was making the noise. Controlling his actions, his mind awhirl, he reached out mentally to touch Lisa’s mind, reaching his arms out at the same time, trying to find her in the dark, sure she was right beside him, alarmed when his grasping fingers found nothing but sodden, mouldy wallpaper.
‘I’m here,’ he heard, though not with his ears, inside his mind, and he moved in the direction the energy sprang from, no idea what to do, on the verge of panic. Lisa found him, just as something altogether more ghastly found her and, this time, the screams that resonated throughout the building did belong to her, though not a shriek of fear, this was all about pain, as something sharp dug into the flesh of her cheek, drawing blood, scratching downwards, the fingernails of something that should have been dead scything four gashes from cheekbone to chin.
Back to back, Lisa and Twitch were penned, The Risen crushing inwards and, in her mind, Lisa saw it as a tide of purest evil, come to suck at their souls and substance, until all that remained were husks.
They had to do something.
Perhaps through the wall would be best, a transubstantiation of their own molecules, to flow into and through the wall, but quickly she realised there simply was no time for that, so instead they would have to rely on their powers of repulsion.
‘Focus, Twitch,’ she shouted, her voice deafening in the confined space of the corridor that they had manoeuvered back into for, despite all the movement, The Risen remained utterly hushed, silent predators seeking soft flesh.
‘There’s nothing to focus on,’ he bellowed back, struggling with his Gift, unable to project at nothing, for nothing was all he could see.
‘You know roughly where they are,’ she said. ‘Just imagine you can see them, and push.’
For a second, nothing happened, Twitch horrified when he felt cold, lifeless hands clutching for his face and throat, and perhaps it was that which spurred him on for, suddenly, the mass of matter that had been pressing against them was pushed back slightly.
Though not far enough.
‘Again, Twitch,’ Lisa demanded of him, and he did all he could, the strain on his mind wearying, his fear over-riding the exhaustion, sending out another pulse of energy, forcing The Risen back. Again, again, again, they repeated their actions, each time inching another three, four inches down the corridor until, unbelievably, they reached the front door.
‘One more push,’ Lisa instructed.
Twitch turned the knob.
The door opened.
Light rushed in.
They burst out.
Silently, they advanced, an army of sorts, the uniform of choice a claret and blue t-shirt atop blue jeans. Though no sound came from them, still there seemed to be an energy, a force, something that stirred the air around them and before them, almost visible, though frustratingly intangible.
‘Doug?’ Emily called again, looking for guidance, the natural instinct to turn to those eldest kicking in and, in this regard, even Matt seemed to have fallen in line, turning to Doug as if awaiting instruction. Instead of acting or issuing orders, Doug posed a question: ‘What are they doing?’
They all turned to face the Holte End and, though some of The Risen had scrambled over the advertising hoardings, they advanced no further, seemingly content to wait then, incredibly, the reason for their pause became clear. From the stand behind them, The Risen that teemed in the aisles and on the stairwells were passing things forward and, to begin with, it was impossible for the four watchers to discern the nature of the items, though it was clear that they were large. Only as the ‘package’ cleared the umbra cast by the stand’s roof was the true nature revealed and, as a unit, the quartet gasped, for propelled forward, above head height, as coordinated as any military operation: bodies.
‘What the….?’ Emily began, the horror she felt preventing her from completing the sentence, every instinct she possessed telling her to turn on her heels and run, yet she remained where she was, rooted to the spot.
Still The Risen did not move, save for the obscene version of Pass the Parcel they seemed to be playing and, as the first of the bodies reached the front row of the assembled ranks, they were simply dropped to the ground, gravity allowed to take control, so that they flopped and rolled where they landed until they came to a stop but, even now, they were not motionless, instead the bodies seeming alive with movement, twitching and spasming as if an electrical current were being passed through their form.
‘What’s wrong with them?’ asked Daniel, to no one in particular and, so numbed were they by what they were witnessing, no-one offered a response.
Now, the focus of attention of the silent army shifted, switching from the four outsiders, turning instead to the poor souls whose bodies had been dumped so unceremoniously and, without any clear sign of communication, they moved as one, those at the front of the assembled throng falling on all fours, heads down and, initially, the four watchers had no clear idea what they were doing but, when the heads lifted, there purpose became clear. Blood smeared the features of The Risen, teeth bared, gleaming crimson and, the bodies on the ground, still pulsing with unnatural life, writhed with fresh vigour, the pain inflicted seeming to penetrate even the fervent paroxysms that wracked them. Again, The Risen dipped their heads, attacking the flesh once more and, behind them, excitement seemed to be building, be it the intensity of motion from the victims, or the copper like tinge of blood on the wind that spurred them so that, within seconds, where initially there were four, perhaps five Risen gorging, now twenty, thirty crammed around the bodies, ripping with tooth, with nail, each intent on gouging, tearing, obtaining whatever flesh they could grasp.
It took less than a minute for the bodies to be stripped of skin and meat, so that only sinew, gristle and bone remained and, acting in tandem, those that feasted moved from the bodies, standing erect, faces smeared with meat and matter.
Now all eyes turned once more, to those that were different.
Emily clutched at Doug’s arm, the sudden shift in behaviour seeming to break the four of them from the trance that had befallen them, the sheer ghastliness of what they had witnessed acting as an anaesthetic.
Daniel took a pace back, two, involuntarily.
Matt’s breathing increased though, unlike the others, his emotions wavered between excitement and sexual arousal. Perhaps this was his moment. Perhaps this was the army he had been born to lead but, when The Risen moved forward swiftly, all thought of domination failed him and, just like the three he stood with, he fled.
The Risen gave chase.
The sudden brightness seemed like a physical force, painful as the shock of it hit their eyeballs and, momentarily, Twitch felt dizzy and sick and disorientated all at the same time. Beside him, Lisa stumbled, her left leg going from beneath her so that she landed awkwardly on her knee, the patchy grass acting poorly as cushioning, and she winced as a large pebble struck the bone of her kneecap.
The sound of scuffling feet behind them brought Twitch back to attention, and he pulled anxiously on Lisa’s arm, helping her to her feet.
‘You ok?’ he asked as they moved away from the house, crossing the hazard strewn grassed area that served as its front garden.
‘I think so.’
They reached the towpath without further incident, and Twitch chanced a glance back towards the house, dismayed to see that the creatures which had lurked within were giving chase though, fortunately, they were unable to match their pace, the awkward, shuffling, shambolic nature of their movements a severe handicap but, where their advantage lay, clearly, was in force of numbers. Twitch slowed down, counting them, ten, eleven, twelve, still more pouring forth from the opened front door.
‘Where’ve they all come from?’ he wanted to know.
‘They were just like us once,’ Lisa observed, slowing too, matching his speed. ‘Homeless. Abandoned. Forgotten.’
Twitch pondered the response, thinking back to the time they had first arrived at the house, remembering the fear he felt, the trepidation as they entered, the genuine anxiety as he settled down for his first night of sleep in the squat. Now, so many years later, the building still served as a sanctuary for those that society had failed but, even here, where those that resided should have been safe, the same phenomenon that had befallen everyone else they had encountered had struck and, despite the fact that they could now be considered an enemy, still he felt sadness for them.
‘I know how you feel,’ Lisa said, though he had not spoken aloud, her ability to perceive his emotions informing her of his thoughts.
‘Could have been us, Lise.’
They jogged down the towpath,
‘But it wasn’t.’
‘So what makes us different? What makes us special?’
She was silent and, initially, Twitch assumed that she was contemplating his question before replying but, when her pace began to slow, he was about to turn to her when her hand came up, pointing at something further down the towpath.
‘They followed us from town, too,’ she said, and Twitch peered further along the path, his heart starting to race as he spied what she had spotted. Along the canal pathway, a steady stream of Risen shambled, twenty, perhaps thirty in total.
Twitch and Lisa came to a standstill, spinning around, The Risen that had emerged from the house little more than five metres behind them.
They were surrounded.
‘Do you think they can swim?’ Twitch asked.
‘Let’s hope not,’ replied Lisa.
On the count of three, the pair leapt into the water.
With Doug in the lead, Matt, Emily and Daniel sprinted away from the edge of the pitch, heading for the centre circle, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps with logic, attempting to reach the point furthest away from the stands, and any danger which resided therein. Emily chanced a glimpse behind her, slowing her pace slightly to peer around, wishing instantly that she had not done so.
The Risen appeared to have grown in number so that, as best she could estimate, they were pursued by two hundred, perhaps more. .
‘Dad,’ she heard Daniel call, turning around to observe him pointing forwards, towards the Trinity Road Stand where here, too, Risen poured over the advertising hoardings.
Veering suddenly to the right, Doug seemed as if he were about to double back on himself, instead heading straight to the opposite end of the pitch, reaching the touchline at the Doug Ellis Stand side of the pitch and following it, The Risen following him blindly, like sheep following the leader, no strategy in place, just legs propelling them forward. As the foursome ran, each was struck by the eerie silence coming from those that chased them for, save for the soft sound of their footfalls on well tended grass, nothing could be heard.
Dashing along the touchline, Emily, Daniel, Doug and Matt looked for all the world like players warming up, desperate to attract the attention of their manager, but The Risen in pursuit gave a lie to the image and, though their numbers were swelling, still the pace of those in pursuit could not match those they were following, forming a ‘human’ chain along the touchline, the distance between the four in the lead and the multitudes that chased growing.
Doug reached the corner flag, veered sharply to his left, along the baseline, reaching the goal-post, glancing to his right, at The North Stand, The Risen here now beginning to struggle over the advertisements. Strange, he thought, that they had not moved earlier but, perhaps, the distance had been too great, so they had not been seen. Whatever the reason, Doug was pleased. As he reached the goalpost, he sidestepped onto the pitch, keeping up his pace, surprised that neither of the other three had overtaken him, whilst also aware that they were looking to him for guidance, the elder figure automatically becoming the authority. Even Matt, disturbed as he clearly was, seemed subservient in the face of immediate, overwhelming danger.
The next corner flag reached, Doug turned again, down the flank of the pitch once more, but the opposite flank, The Trinity Road Stand edge of the pitch, knowing that shortly their safety would be imperilled when, suddenly, the solution to their predicament presented itself.
With Risen swarming across the pitch towards them from the opposite side – the latecomers scrambling from the stands had made a beeline for them, cutting straight across the pitch – Doug suddenly veered right, heading straight down the players tunnel, no idea what he would find down there, but all too aware that it could not be any worse than that which awaited them outside.
Emily, Matt and Daniel followed quickly.
Seconds later, the first of The Risen followed, too.
The plunge into the cold water hit them both hard, the feeling akin to being smacked straight in the chest by a wrecking ball. Though the air temperature was moderate, on the verge of warm, even, the still waters of the canal took more than a wan, autumnal sun to warm them. Twitch kept his eyes open as he sank down into the murky depths, unable to see much, visibility down to almost nought due to the rush of bubbles caused by the downwardly mobile bodies, as well as the general dirtiness of the water itself. As his arms began to pump, to help propel him towards the surface, his hands were just discernible through the brown, swirling liquid, and Twitch span around once, twice, trying to pick out Lisa, but of her, there was no sign. His head broke the surface, and he drew in three great gasps of air, lungs eager for breath because, though he could not have been underwater for more than ten seconds, the shock of the cold had knocked all oxygen from his lungs. Five feet to his right, Lisa emerged, her hair matted to her skull, she too dragging in great rasps of nourishing air, an involuntary moan emanating from her with each exhalation, the cold clearly affecting her more than he. Twitch swam to her, grabbed her around the shoulders, forcing his left arm under her right, snaking around her back and out the other side, using his body to support her in the water, fearful that she was about to go under without assistance. She blinked water from her eyes, turned to him and reassured him with a quick smile, though she said nothing, still struggling for breath.
Gradually, things calmed, and Twitch felt confident enough to withdraw his arm, Lisa capable of supporting herself, treading water, staying afloat, whilst he slowly span in a three sixty degree turn, surveying the banks of the canal. The towpath they had leapt from was now akin to a viewing gallery in a hospital theatre, ranks five deep of The Risen gazing at where they floated in the water, eyes wide, staring, a hunger within them, despite their lifelessness though, as ever, they remained eerily silent.
‘Say something, damn you,’ Twitch shrieked at them suddenly, perhaps hoping to provoke a movement, a response….something, but The Risen merely watched him impassively, no reaction to his sudden outburst.
The bank opposite remained devoid of activity, and Twitch began to gradually manoeuvre in that direction, bringing Lisa with him, guiding her by the force of his body and, after a minute, they reached the opposite towpath, clambering out with some difficulty, wet hands providing limited grip on the stone paving that formed the rim but, eventually, they scrambled clear of the water, content initially to simply lie on their backs, drawing energy from the weak, watery sun that beamed down onto their damp bodies. In other circumstances, it would have been ideal to remove their clothing altogether, to lie there naked, free, unshackled from the conventions of society but, with myriad eyes upon their form, more quickly than they would have wished they were compelled to move.
Lisa sat up first, eyeing the situation on the opposite bank, then looking left and right down the towpath, ensuring no Risen were sneaking up on their position then, when satisfied that they were in no immediate danger, she nudged Twitch gently.
‘Wakey, wakey,’ she said gently, and his eyes opened.
‘Whose idea was it to swim?’ he asked her.
‘That would be yours.’
‘Really? Well, next time, we levitate.’
‘That would be ostentatious,’ she retorted.
He grunted. ‘What’s this?’ he asked, concern in his voice as he struggled to a seated position, bringing his fingers up to her cheek, touching tenderly around the wound, four deep gouges sliced into her face.
‘Happened at the house,’ she explained. ‘One of them,’ she said, pointing across at The Risen opposite.
‘Looks nasty, Lise. We need to get it cleaned up as quick as we can. Don’t want it getting infected. Especially after the dunking.’
‘OK, Doc,’ she said, though cheerfully then, seeing the concern still on his face, ‘Don’t worry about it, Twitch,’ she said. ‘I’ll live.’
The tunnel was wide, wider than it ever appeared on TV. Passing beneath the fabric canopy that served as the main entryway, Emily noticed a TV camera, attached to the ground with huge nuts and bolts, as if the television company were worried that somebody could just pick it up, pop it in their bag and be away with it, despite the enormous size. As Emily approached the camera, she slowed her pace, running directly towards the unblinking eye that served as its lens, mouthing words carefully, deliberately, enunciating each syllable so that even the densest viewer would be able to lip-read, if indeed any viewers even existed.
‘Help us,’ she mouthed. ‘Help us,’ then she was gone, past the camera, into the tunnel proper, where the fabric canopy was replaced by actual brickwork and tiles, and now their own footsteps echoed loudly back at them, sounding for all the world as if dozens of people were in flight, not just the four of them
Doug glanced back over his shoulder, noting that his three companions were still close at hand, equally noting the distance between Emily, bringing up the rear, and the nearest of The Risen, pleased to see that they were still unable to keep pace with the ‘normal’ people that served as their quarry.
Before them, a set of steps, seven in all, and Doug bounded up them in three strides, hearing a grunt from behind, turning to see Daniel lying on his front, having misjudged the stairway. With some surprise, Doug watched as Matt paused in his flight, crouching to help the youngster to his feet, saying some words to him – presumably checking that he was ok to continue, Doug thought, though anything was possible, he knew – before the pair of them were on the move again, Emily having drawn level.
Ahead, the tunnel came to an abrupt end, a wall of glass peering through at a reception area of sorts, clearly the corporate part of the stadium into which mere mortals were not permitted to venture. Before the glass barrier, four doors, two on each side of the corridor, each unmarked, all identical, painted in the signature claret of the home team.
Doug reached the first, on the left, and tried the handle, frustrated when it turned, but the door refused to budge, locked from within.
‘I’ll try this side,’ called Matt, pointing to the right hand side of the corridor, allowing Doug to move on to the next door on the left, some five metres further down.
Matt reached the first door on his side, tried it with the same result and, as he heard Doug curse from a little further along the tunnel, he knew that the third door was locked, also. Emily and Daniel stood in the middle of the corridor, midway between Doug and Matt, eyes wide with fear, watching, powerless, as The Risen advanced, penned in, certain that this was the end, Matt dashing for the final door, however fruitless it seemed certain to be, shouting in both triumph and surprise when the door swung inwards. Emily and Daniel moved instantly, crowding behind Matt as he passed over the threshold. Doug following them in immediately, Matt swinging the door shut as soon as he was through, pushing all of his weight against it, turning his hands palm upwards and tensing his biceps as he felt pressure on the door handle as the things outside attempted to gain access.
‘Find something to block it,’ he bellowed, not sure how long he could hold them off.
Slowly, inexorably, from beyond the pressure became too great and the handle began to turn.
The Risen simply watched them, nothing moving on the opposite towpath, the narrow strip of land that skirted the canal now so packed it seemed any motion at all would surely send those at the front tumbling into the water.
‘At least they can’t swim,’ Lisa said.
‘Who says they can’t? Maybe they’re like cats. They only get in the water when there is no other choice.
‘Yeah, and they hate being sprayed with the showerhead,’ she joked.
Twitch laughed, sort of, a short, involuntary snort that whistled through his nostrils.
‘Very attractive,’ said Lisa.
‘You're one to talk,’ he rejoined, the bedraggled nature of her dress and hair comical in nature. ‘You look like Wurzel Gummidge’s uglier sister.’
‘Now that’s a step too far,’ she said, mock severity in her voice.
They lapsed into silence, both of them gazing across the murky water that served as a protective barrier to the hordes that stared back at them.
‘What should we do?’ Lisa asked at last.
In response, Twitch swung the rucksack that had miraculously stayed strapped to his back, despite his plunge into the cold water. He tugged the top flap open, reaching inside to retrieve the walkie-talkies taken from the electronics store, shaking them despairingly when he found them both sodden.
‘They might still work,’ Lisa said, more in hope than expectation.
Twitch flicked the on switch of one, expecting nothing, and the device delivered precisely that. He swivelled the tuning knob hoping that, perhaps, he was between channels. Again, no response. A quick check on the volume level ensured that the two way radio was indeed lifeless, and Twitch hurled it into the canal in frustration.
‘Seemed like a good idea at the time,’ Lisa observed, stroking a hand through his hair. Twitch threw the companion device into the canal, too, useless without its brethren, delving into the bag once more, coming out with a plastic lunchbox. He removed the lid, peering in at the contents, prodding at the top sandwich, ensuring it had survived intact.
‘Well, it’s dry,’ he said to Lisa, holding the sandwich container towards her, that she might take one.
‘You serious?’ she asked.
‘What?’ he appeared genuinely mystified.
‘You want to eat here?’
‘Well, I know it’s not exactly haute cuisine, but you got anything better in mind?’
Chuckling to herself, Lisa took the food on offer, biting into the salami sandwich thoughtfully.
‘Do you think they remember who they used to be?’ she asked between chews.
‘Dunno,’ Twitch replied, mouth also full. ‘If they do, it must be buried somewhere deep down. Seems like they are just acting on instinct.’
‘I wonder who they were?’ she said and, once more, they lapsed into a comfortable silence.
They stood up together, meal consumed, and Twitch took Lisa’s hand in his own.
‘She was a mother,’ he said, pointing across at the massed ranks of The Risen, a sorrow to his voice that damned near broke her heart.
‘A mother? Which one?’ Lisa asked, trying to follow the direction he was indicating, the numbers opposite a blur; indistinct.
‘Take your pick. A mother. A daughter. A father. A brother,’ he said, his voice weary with a resignation she had never previously heard. ‘They were all someone, Lise, before…..’ he struggled to find the words to complete his sentence.
‘Before this,’ Lisa finished, understanding the nature of his sudden melancholy, almost consumed with it herself, as she thought about his words.
‘There’s nothing we can do for them, Twitch. Not yet, at least.’
‘I know. I know it,’ he spat angrily, his ire not aimed at her, nor at himself, but at the universe in general. ‘What’s the point in this fucking Gift if all we can do is avoid those afflicted?’ he demanded of her. ‘Why did He bother with it?’ he asked, furious now, jabbing a finger skyward. ‘He can’t be that much of a bastard, can He?’
‘Twitch,’ Lisa said soothingly, but her efforts fell on ears deaf to reason.
‘It was bad enough before, Lise. Bad enough the cancer. Bad enough the child molesters, the rapists. Oh, did I forget the terrorists, the murderers, the perpetrators of mankind’s misery.’
Lisa had never seen him like this and the sight of him, suddenly wild of eye, arms flailing, gesturing provocatively at the Heaven’s, troubled her deeply, as if it hinted at something deeper, perhaps, some weakness in the psyche that only now was made manifest.
‘Twitch, it’s no good….’ She began, only to be cut off, curtly.
‘He gave us this Gift, Lise. Sure, I know the drug awakened it, but it was innate within us, genetic, an artefact of birth. There must have been a reason. There must be some hope,’ and, as quickly as it had arrived, the mania seemed to pass, his legs giving out on him as, suddenly, he slumped to the floor, knees first, not checking himself, allowing gravity to take hold of him completely, flopping forward so that his head struck the ground in front of his legs with some force.
‘Twitch,’ Lisa cried out, her attempts to clutch at him to prevent the fall too slow, and she grimaced as she heard the sound of his forehead smacking into the ground, thankful that it was grass they were standing on.
‘Twitch,’ she repeated, kneeling beside him, wanting to hold him, wanting to feel his warmth against her, perhaps in the hope that some of her own body heat would bleed into his soul, to thaw the frost that seemed to have gripped his heart.
It was as if he did not hear her at all so that, in the end, all she could do was sit beside him, and wait for the tears to cease.
Sweat trickled down Matt’s brow, the exertion required to resist the downward momentum of the door handle requiring every ounce of his strength and, it was clear, this was a battle he could not win.
‘Find something. Quick,’ he called through teeth gritted.
Emily, Daniel and Doug scanned the room they found themselves in, an antechamber of sorts, with another door at the far end, only three metres away.
‘There’s nothing here,’ Emily shrieked, panic-stricken.
‘Next door,’ Matt urged ‘Look next door.
Doug moved first, dashing to the far door, relieved when it opened without a struggle, bursting through into a dressing room –the home dressing room, it seemed, for the livery and artwork on the walls detailed the clubs past glories – eyes darting left, right, left, looking for something, anything that could be used to barricade the door.
‘Hold on,’ he shouted back through, a redundant statement, he knew, for Matt would surely not relinquish his heroic efforts, the words merely used to mask the frustration he felt at his sense of helplessness.
The room was large, consisting of rows of benches along each wall, hooks attached to the walls at intervals. In the centre, another row of benches, to the left a door marked ‘Shower Room’ and, there, in the far corner, a small cubical, another door hiding what was housed within. Doug rushed to the door, grasped the handle, turned, grunted his annoyance when the door refused to budge.
‘Shit,’ he bellowed, stepping back, dashing at the door shoulder first, feeling his teeth rattled in his jaw as he made contact.
The door shifted not.
He stepped back again, repeated the action and, this time, a wry smile as he thought he heard a splintering of wood. Slight, but clearly audible. Again, the backwards steps, again the shoulder charge and, this time, the door began to creak in its jamb but, when he tried to wrestle it open, still the blasted thing would not move, inwards or outwards.
‘Come on….’ he urged, terrified by the sound of Emily screaming from next door, his fear lending him extra strength so that, this time, as he made contact, the door burst inwards in an explosion of wooden shrapnel, strewn from the latch as the structure finally gave way to sheer brute force, sending him stumbling in after it..
Breathless, Doug regained his balance and surveyed the small closet, a cleaner’s cupboard, just as he had hoped and, there, an object to lift the heart.
Leaning forward, he snatched up the three-rung aluminium stepladder, the adrenaline that coursed through him rendering the already light object all but weightless in his grasp, spinning on his heel, dashing back the way he had come, entering the antechamber, finding both Matt and Dan at the door, a door that was now partially ajar and, through the small gap that the external pressure had forced, multitudinous arms snaked, some palm down against the wall, stroking, probing, searching, where others were turned outwards, hands curled into claws, grasping at thin air in their desperate hunt for those that eluded them.
‘Move. To the side. Danny, now.’
Daniel did as he was bid, retaining his grip on the door handle, afraid that any dip in pressure would surely have catastrophic effects. For his part, Doug hoisted the stepladder into his arms, turning the object so that it was pointing away from him, the strip of metal that served as the top perpendicular to his torso. He strode forward, not caring to aim, simply striking out, hitting hard, the thick bar of metal impacting firmly and, where it found a target, the arms withdrew instantly. He struck again, more carefully this time, aiming for where the flailing forearms where most densely packed, pleased when the resultant contact again caused a retreat. Twice more, he wielding his makeshift weapon, until only two arms still snaked and weaved in the gap, and now he joined Daniel and Matt at the door, the three of them combining their weight, pushing, pushing, reducing the gap, trapping an arm, Doug kicking at the bottom of the door to increase the pressure, the fingers of the remaining arm now seeming to spasm in sympathy with his foot-strikes.
‘When I say, pull the door our way slightly,’ he instructed. ‘Then we slam it.’
Matt understood the reason, but the youngster appeared confused.
‘But, Dad….’ He started, silenced by his father’s bellow.
‘Just do it, Daniel.’
The formal use of his first name caught the words in the back of his throat, and Daniel turned his attention back to their task.
‘Ready,’ Doug warned. ‘Now.’
The three men relinquished the force they had been applying, and allowed the door to swing inwards slightly and, as they did so, the two remaining intrusive arms withdrew instantly.’
‘Slam it,’ Doug barked, and Matt and Dan needed no second prompting, slamming the door shut firmly, Doug swinging round, pivoting at the waist so that he could slide the stepladder that he still held in his free hand into place, beneath the door handle, effectively wedging it shut.
The chests of all three heaved, energy sapped, and Emily was hopping from one foot to the other, almost delirious with fear.
‘Will it hold? Will it hold?’ she demanded.
‘Not for long. We’ve got to move. Now.’
And, as they moved from the anteroom, into the changing rooms proper, they all heard the sound of something solid striking the wooden door from beyond.
Slowly, the sobs subsided, and Twitch raised himself from his hunched over posture, rocking back a little so that his weight was carried by his thighs, placing hands on his knees to support himself more fully.
‘Christ, I really lost it,’ he said, his voice somewhere between a snivel and a laugh.
‘That you did, son. That you did.’ For reasons she could not quite fully explain, Lisa spoke with a South Yorkshire accent.
‘Who are you doing?’ Twitch asked, pleased at the distraction.
‘Not sure. Think it’s somewhere between Brian Clough and Brian Glover.’
‘Something you want to tell me about this sudden Brian fixation?’
Twitch wiped at his nose with the back of his hand as he spoke, every bit the snivelling, snotty schoolboy.
‘I think I’m in love with Brian Dennehy.’
And the moment was passed. As easily as that. The temporary madness, his mind riven by a melancholy so profound he felt certain he would never recover, swept away as surely as a paper boat in guttering during a rainstorm, the words she spoke meaningless, really, and yet so powerful, so warming so…necessary.
‘I love you, Lise.’
‘I know you do,’ she teased.
‘So, what now?’ he asked, nodding his head in the general direction of The Risen on the opposite bank who, though their numbers had ceased multiplying, were no less lustful in their ceaseless gaze across the water.
‘Let’s get out of here, I guess,’ Lise advised.
Twitch nodded sagely.
‘But go where?’
‘Dunno. Head back to a road. Grab a car. Get the hell out of Dodge until we find signs of life. Real life, I mean.’
‘Sounds like a plan. But what if we never do?’
Lisa leaned forward and planted a kiss on his lips, softly, briefly.
‘We’ll still have each other.’
‘No need for sarcasm,’ Twitch chided.
They stood, lapsing into a silence as comfortable as well worn slippers, and walked slowly back towards town.
On the opposite bank, The Risen moved as well, matching their pace.
For six, maybe seven hundred metres, they walked slowly along the grassy bank of the canal, eyes turning occasionally to observe The Risen as they continued to follow, their expressions vacant, yet strangely hungered.
‘Should we run?’ Twitch asked.
‘No point, really. They’d only do the same.’
‘We haven’t seen any of them run properly. Totter, maybe.’
‘We haven’t seen any of them not run, either.
Lisa’s bizarre statement silenced him momentarily, as he parsed the logic through his frontal lobe.
‘Well, I haven’t not seen a cheetah not run, but I’m pretty sure they can.’
‘Can run, or can walk, or can not not walk or run.’
Twitch nudged her with his elbows.
‘You’re making my brain hurt.’
‘Least it proves you’ve got one. I’m not so sure about those poor blighters over there.’
‘They must have a brain,’ Twitch observed. ‘They’re walking, they seem to be functioning, at least in part. And besides, they’re obviously following us. That indicates thought, surely.’
‘Cockroaches can live for weeks without a head,’ Lisa told him. ‘No head, no brain.’
‘Urban myth,’ Twitch countered..
‘Scientific fact,’ Lisa assured him. ‘They have an open circularity system, so they don’t bleed to death.’
‘Yeah. Also, they don’t breath through their mouth. They breath through their spiracles.’
‘I think you might be talking out of your spiracles right now, as it happens.’
It was Lisa’s turn to nudge.
‘Don’t be scared of knowledge, Twitch,’ she teased.
‘Talking of which, I’ve got a fact for you,’ he said.
‘Oh yeah. Impress me.’
‘Bridge. Fifty yards and closing.’
‘What do we do?’
‘We stop and think.’
They stood still, Lisa now turning to study The Risen, pondering their next move.
Turn back? What would be the point? They would come to another bridge soon enough, and encounter the same issue.
Head away from the canal?
A possibility, but it would mean taking a circuitous route into town, first through the woods, then along the country roads.
Two hours, at least.
Too long, for sure.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ she said suddenly, grabbing Twitch’s hand. ‘Just do exactly as I say.’
‘Sir, yes, sir.’
And, though his affirmative was flippant, his veracity was earnest, for trust was a force that bound them, unshakably.
They began to walk, as before, not hurrying, not dawdling either, back towards the bridge. Lisa whistled quietly to herself, and whether this was to steady her own nerves, or to give The Risen the impression that she really did not give one single shit, Twitch was unsure. As they neared the old brick structure, the tune she had selected altered slightly, gaining in speed, indicative of the tension in the air. They reached the bridge, and Lisa ducked underneath it, along the cobbled footpath that passed to the other side, Twitch following close behind.
The Risen opposite seemed confused, some following, others hesitating, as if fearful.
Lisa reached fresh air once more, stood straight, and pointed, indicating they double back on themselves, only this time taking the alternate path which would lead them over the bridge, should they wish to do so.
‘Hello,’ she called suddenly, causing Twitch to jump nervously.
‘Hello, shambling things. We’re over here,’ she shouted, her voice joyous, redolent of long lost friends greeting each other after many years.
On the other side of the canal, movement, as The Risen seemed to take the hint. Maybe it was the bridge, confusing their enfeebled capacity for thought, but it took a while, longer than either of them would have suspected but, eventually, the gathered masses began to cross, picking up speed as they neared, the scent of fresh meat an enticing lure.
‘That’s it,’ Lisa whispered under her breath, just loud enough for Twitch to hear. ‘That’s it, keep coming.’ Then, when the nearest Risen were no more than three metres away, she yanked at Twitch’s hand.
Dragging him along behind her, Lisa went back to the far side of the bridge, from which they had emerged just a few minutes ago. Once there, she pulled Twitch close, pressing her free hand against the red brickwork.
Instantly, Twitch understood, and placed his own free hand over hers, flat against the side of the bridge.
‘Concentrate,’ she said simply and, as they focused, as their minds attuned to one another’s whilst, simultaneously, attuning to the very fabric of the wall, something stirred within them or, more precisely, amongst them. It seemed as if the molecules of the materials they touched were suddenly entirely apparent, as if every element that bound the structure together, formed its substance, made it whole, solid, were theirs to command, to manoeuvre, to manipulate and, even as this sensation manifested, the fabric of the wall began to break apart so that, as one, their hands seemed to melt into the wall, next their arms, compelling them to take a step forward and, as they did so, their heads, arms, legs and torsos continued the merge, fused with matter in a manner which should have been impossible but which, in their current state, infused with the powers The Gift bestowed, seemed as simple as stirring a spoon in a mug of tea. With Lisa the leader in this conjoining, Twitch merely adding extra mental impetus, for she was far superior in this capacity, further they passed so that, ten seconds after initial contact, they were entirely contained within the stonework, entombed, though an entombing of their own choosing, controlled, disciplined, wanted. Statuesque they stood, encased in solid brick, yet as free as a dolphin skimming through the waves, biding their time, waiting out the horrors that marauded not two feet from where they stood, the structure of the bridge an impenetrable barrier to all save those so blessed. They were unable to speak, but their minds were in constant communication and, though not telepathy in its truest sense, for individual words were not present, instead they spoke through feeling, sensation, emotion, both reassured by what they sensed from the other.
Time passed though, when touched by The Gift, time itself seemed to morph somehow, become malleable, changeable so that, when Lisa braved the outside world, popping her head out the opposite side to that which they had entered, all was clear.
Of The Risen, there was no sign.
Freeing themselves completely, they brushed themselves down, then turned to each other and smiled a knowing smile.
‘Good thinking, Batman,’ Twitch commended.
‘I have my moments,’ she concurred.
They crossed the bridge.
Matt slammed the second door shut behind him and, as he did so, Doug was already searching, looking for another impromptu barricade, worried lest the….the….people? break through the door prior and attempt a second invasion. He headed back to the cleaner’s closet, grabbed a mop, snapped it in two across his knee as easily as if were made from balsa, his body so pumped full of adrenaline he felt certain he could have cleaved apart a concrete block with nought but his bare hands should the need arise. Dropping both pieces to the floor, he proceeded to stamp on them, crushing the ends down as flat as he could, before scurrying along, almost on hands and knees, jamming them under the door itself, kicking at the protruding ends, testing the door, satisfied that this rather feeble barrier would at least present a momentary problem to any pursuers.
‘We’ve got to hurry,’ he urged as he stood but, suddenly, hands were upon him and, in a moment of panic, he felt certain that some of The Risen had circumnavigated their position, had caught them in a pincer movement, taking them from the rear and that, tragically, all of their efforts up to now were in vain.
Doug swung around, expecting to find the face of someone that once was, but was no more, staring at him, surprised and partially relieved when it was Matt, snarling, bristling, clearly as amped up as he.
‘Don’t fucking tell me what to do, old man.’
Doug pushed back at him, hands against his chest, the adrenaline still coursing, aggression his master momentarily, so Matt stumbled backwards. For his part, Matt regained his footing quickly, came at Doug once more, hands balled into fists, left arm swinging, telegraphing the strike, though, so Doug easily sidestepped the potential blow.
It was Emily, shrieking, the high pitch of her voice almost ear-splitting, but neither man paid her any heed.
Doug rocked back on his heels, adopting the traditional boxer’s stance, his formative years at a boxing club suddenly called upon, after so long.
‘Back off,’ he warned.
Matt saw the lips move, heard not the words, choosing instead to discern what suited, watching the pattern of the lips, the way they split and joined, the shape they formed, hearing the word ‘Master’ as clearly as if it had truly been spoken.
‘That’s right, Douglas,’ he mocked. ‘I am your master. I’m in charge,’ he bellowed as, once more, images of medieval battlefields, of knights in shining armour, slain with his own broadsword which dripped with their blood, flooded through his fevered mind. ‘Kneel,’ he roared and, as he spoke, he feigned a jab with his left hand, dropping it short before swinging in an uppercut with his right, catching Doug off guard, connecting sharply, bringing the older man to his knees, just as he had commanded.
‘Get off him.’
Daniel, this time, screaming, attempting to come between Matt and the old man, but Matt simply swatted the youngster aside, raised his fist to strike at the father once more and, as he did so, the image before him altered, giving him cause to pause. Instead of Douglas, before him was something else. Bipedal, sure, but not the old man. The flesh seemed to flow, the alteration happening in triple time, and Matt was shocked that neither Emily nor Daniel cried out in horror, as a transformation began to take place. Where Doug had knelt only moments before, now a seething broth of boiling matter, humanoid in shape, quivered then, as time seemed to slow to a crawl, the trembling monstrosity reassembled, became something new and, with a gasp that he was unable to control, Matt was staring at someone else entirely, though no stranger, this.
On her knees before him, Sarah, the liar, the deceiver, the evil-doer, sucker of cocks, cowered.
‘Forgive me, Matthew,’ she begged.
‘How did you get here?’ he asked of her, mind still refusing to believe what his own eyes were telling him.
Sarah blinked up at him uncertainly.
‘Fucking hell, Matt. We don’t have time for this.’
It was the other whore who spoke this time, the one from the stadium, and, even in his mental fug, Matt was impressed by the fact she actually swore.
‘We’ve got all the time in the world,’ he replied, the crashing of something solid against wood coming from next door putting the lie to his words, but he seemed not to notice at all, the room around him swimming once more, becoming fluid, the patterns on the wall seeming to drip, the benches that lined the room buckling, bending, as if he were suddenly seeing the world through a goldfish bowl, all around distorted. As quickly as she had materialised, Sarah was gone, the transformation instant this time, one second the shatterer of his dreams, the next it was Douglas on the ground, watching him, a mixture of fear and loathing in his eyes.
‘That’ right, Douglas,’ he jeered. ‘You will hate me.’
He span towards Emily, emotionally caught somewhere between fury and shame, the invocation of his full name a reminder of a past life, a time before all of this, when he would stand before his mother, a small child scolded for some minor misdemeanour, head bowed, listening to the words, flinching each time she addressed him as Matthew, a sure sign that she was truly angry.
Emily took a step back, the cold rage that burned in his gaze terrifying and, for a moment, she felt certain he would strike her too but, a moment later, the fire was dampened and, instead, he looked at her with confusion.
‘Where am I?’ he implored, and there was such desperation in his voice that Emily thawed instantly, actually taking a step towards him, wanting to put an arm around his shoulder, to tell him it was all ok, but he backed off himself, this time.
‘It’s alright, Matt. You’re amongst friends.’
The lie came easily enough, but still she felt a little ashamed, despite the necessity.
‘She was here,’ he said, clarifying nothing.
‘Who was here, Matt?’ It was Doug who spoke, standing now, eager that the conversation end as soon as feasible, all too aware of the commotion still audible from the next room.
‘Sarah. She was here.’
‘There’s no one called Sarah here,’ Emily assured him.
‘It was you,’ he said, jabbing a finger towards Doug.
‘Maybe it was,’ Doug conceded. ‘But I’m me now.’
Though to Doug’s ears the words he spoke were gibberish, they seemed to mollify Matt, somehow.
‘Thank you,’ he said softly.
‘No problem,’ Doug replied, no clear idea what he was being thanked for. ‘We’ve got to move.’
Doug led the way.
The dirt track, lined with hedges, usually a scenic route back into town, today brought sights to trouble the soul. Intermittently, along the route, things lay dead, birds mainly but, as well, small rodents, five or six in total, each lying centrally to the path, as if whatever malady had befallen them had not done so as swiftly as with the birds and the insects, and even the townsfolk who had succumbed. Instead, these small creatures, mystifyingly more resistant to the affliction, however briefly, appeared to have attempted to escape, to flee from their burrows in the vain hope that, by being elsewhere, perhaps they would be spared.
‘Poor little buggers,’ Lisa commented, carefully sidestepping past the still, brown body of a mouse.
‘They tried to run,’ Twitch observed.
‘Worse than hopeless. Desperate and futile.’
‘We're not the same as them, Twitch,’ Lisa said, worried least he descend once more into the mentality of the mawkish.
For a moment she took his comment literally, but the sly smirk on his face revealed the truth.
‘Wonder why they are different?’ Lisa asked.
‘Yeah. The birds. The people. They seemed to drop in an instant. These, though, they had time, short as it was.’
They walked on in silence, watching where they trod, keen to let the fallen rest in peace and, two minutes later, they reached the end of the dirt track, joining back onto a road proper, the cut through to the canal terminating in the middle of a housing estate.
'How's your face holding up?' Twitch asked her.
'You calling me ugly?' she rejoined.
'Not a bit of it, but that's gonna make for a lovely scar,' he said, nodding towards the four individual gashes cut into the flesh of her cheek.
'Maybe I'll turn,' she said.
'Don't even joke about that.'
'It's what happens in the movies.'
'Yeah. In the movies. Not in real life.'
She paused before replying. 'Thing is, none of this happens in real life.'
He had no answer to that one.
As the dirt track reached the pavement proper, Twitch and Lisa paused at the end of the row of hedges, peeking out cautiously, ensuring nothing moved on the road, or beyond.
‘Keep ‘em peeled,’ Lisa advised as she broke cover, slowly, half crouching, still watchful.
‘No sign of life,’ Twitch assured her.
Twitch followed in her wake, though he chose to remain upright, all the better to spy any suspicious movement, relieved that nothing was in sight. Fifty metres along the road, right tyre jammed against the pavement where the driver had collapsed, losing control, a silver Renault sat, engine idling, the female occupant slumped forward against the steering wheel.
‘You thinking what I’m thinking?’ Lisa asked.
‘Would seem rude not to.’
They approached the vehicle, hearts racing, the air pregnant with tension.
‘Why hasn’t she awoken like the rest of them?’ Twitch wanted to know, and Lisa had no answer to the question that she too had been pondering.
Reaching the front of the vehicle, they paused, Lisa leaning forward as far as she could, squinting, peering in at the woman behind the wheel.
‘Is she alive?’
Lisa moved, approaching the driver’s side door, pulling at the handle, swinging the door open quickly, stepping back as she did so, well out of arm’s reach.
The woman did not move.
Lisa stepped forward again, studying the interior of the vehicle, seeing that the woman was a careful driver, her seatbelt still fastened in place.
‘I’m going in,’ she said.
She leaned forward, half crouching, and snaked a hand through the crease between belly and lap, probing urgently, searching for the release button of the seatbelt, frustrated when her fingers found the gear stick, the passenger side seatbelt lock, the seat adjusters. Finally, she located the correct object, pressed down firmly, satisfied as the metal connector snapped out of its housing and, twisting slightly at the waist to allow her more purchase, she pushed at the woman’s chest, forcing her back into the seat, sitting upright.
As Lisa made to retreat, she glanced up at the driver.
The woman’s eyes were open and, for one awful moment, Lisa was convinced that she was staring right at her, a small gasp escaping from her, bringing Twitch to her side, hand on her back.
‘What is it?’
Lisa shook her head.
‘Just my imagination. I thought she was looking at me.’
The woman's mouth slowly opened.
The dressing room door opened onto a carpeted corridor, the colour scheme matching the livery of the home strip, a deep claret the main background, with occasional blue dots for decoration then, every two metres or so, a golden lion dominated, centrally.
‘All clear,’ Doug whispered over his shoulder, his three companions crammed close.
‘We should stay here,’ Emily hissed back, tugging at the back of Doug’s jumper, eager to prevent him from stepping foot over the threshold.
‘We’ve got to go,’ Doug contradicted.
‘But we’re safe here.’
‘Not for long,’ Matt advised, the sound of movement still present from the anteroom, as bodies pressed and jostled against the far door and, intermittently, something solid struck wood, a tool being used of some kind, those that dwelt beyond eager to claim their prize.
‘But there’ll be more out there,’ Emily said, a note of desperation to her voice.
‘There’ll be plenty in here any minute.’
It was Daniel who spoke and, strangely, his concession that remaining where they were was not an option appeared to have an effect on Emily that the other two men did not. Perhaps it was the break from his usual quietness, perhaps the confidence with which he said the words but, either way, she buckled, relinquishing her grasp on Doug’s clothing, sighing wearily.
‘OK, but we need a plan. We can’t just charge out and hope for the best.’
‘She’s right, as well,’ Daniel said.
They stayed static, all lost in thought, mulling possibilities.
‘I’ll go ahead. Scout the area. You three stay here, and wait for me to come back,’ Matt said.
‘You can’t go out there by yourself,’ said Doug though, inwardly, he was relieved the burden had been lifted from his own shoulders.
‘I’ll be quicker by myself. And don’t worry, I’m no hero. First sign of trouble, I’ll be back.’
‘Be careful,’ Emily implored, and Doug merely stepped aside as the younger man strode past him, out of the dressing room, onto the carpeted flooring, grateful for the cushioning, muffling his footfalls efficiently enough so that each step was near silent. Without looking back, he tiptoed to the left, creeping along, back pressed against the wall, breath held for as long as he was able, then, controlled, he released the contents of his lungs slowly from his lungs, not worried so much about the noise of his own breath alerting others to his presence, more concerned with his own ability to hear as clearly as possible.
Matt reached the nearest corner, poked his head around swiftly, darting back into cover, spotted nothing suspicious so popped his head out again, staying exposed this time, scanning as quickly as he could. The way seemed clear and, just ahead, a green, illuminated sign that sent his heartbeat racing, a sense of wonder and joy and hope and disbelief all flowing as one, mingling, almost overwhelming him so that, momentarily, he felt dizzy, light-headed. It was too good to be true. A fire exit, right there in the corridor, not ten metres from the dressing room door and, as far as he could ascertain, the route was safe. Perhaps it was a sign of some kind, a blessing from the Gods he felt certain were his equals and, once more, with visions of toga’s and head-dresses and broadswords and arrows, he knew that he was untouchable. One of the chosen. A survivor. A special one. On a mission of vengeance, though one only he was aware of; his future seemed certain. Leave this place, this cauldron of human catastrophe and things walking that truly should not, and begin the quest anew in the outside world. Find a means of transport which, to a leader such as he, should prove simple enough, then make his way to the home of the viper, where the black-hearted thing that once had known love still dwelt, and mete out her punishment.
Swaying, breath now coming in ragged bursts, it took all of his self control not to simply race for the exit alone, to leave the others behind but, in a brief moment of clarity, he realised his folly. Safety in numbers must be the watchword. Without even being aware of his manipulations, they could help him complete his quest.
Turning, he beckoned them forward.
They followed his command.
Lisa felt a surge of panic, imagined the woman leaning towards her, hands somehow pinning her in place, mouth yawning open to reveal multiple rows of razor sharp teeth, shark-like, bringing them to bear on Lisa’s exposed neck.
Struggling to withdraw from the awkward position, leaning over the lady’s lap, arm still outstretched, Lisa yanked at her own shoulder stupidly, feeling a stab of pain as she did so, unconcerned for the moment - dislocations could always be dealt with later – and pulled her arm free from the confines of the vehicle.
‘Lise, we’ve got trouble.’
‘No shit,’ she said, assuming he was referring to the sudden spurt of life from the woman in the car.
‘No, not that,’ Twitch said, grasping her misunderstanding then, not of her own accord, a fresh image leapt before her eyes, cancelling out that which she was truly seeing, as Twitch used part of his Gift to project his own sight onto hers.
Lisa felt numb.
Back the way they had come, past the dirt track that led to the canal, maybe thirty metres further up the road, a group of ten, maybe twelve Risen walked down the centre of the road. For the moment it appeared that they had not spotted the pair of them, but that truth could only hold for seconds longer. The angle of the viewing field altered as Twitch crouched down, using the open door as a shield of sorts, hoping to delay the inevitable sighting that could only be mere moments away.
‘We’ve got to get her out,’ he advised, and suddenly Lisa’s sight was her own once more, as Twitch broke the connection, like clicking the ‘End Call’ button on Skype.
In agreement, Lisa reached back into the car and grabbed at the woman’s ankles, nothing gentle about her actions now, lifting the feet off the floor of the car physically and yanking them towards her, forcing them down onto the ground proper. Twitch scurried to her side and, between them, they hoisted her torso away from the seat, planning to simply let her fall between them, gravity and momentum their allies but, as she pivoted outwards, the pace of her forward motion took them by surprise so that, instead of neatly folding to the ground, she collapsed onto Twitch in a heap, her open eyes mere inches from his own, and still her mouth opened, closed, opened, closed, looking for all the world as if she were fantasising about the act of chewing, and Twitch did not wish to contemplate the precise nature of the matter upon which she chewed.
‘Get her off me,’ he squealed and, with a quick glance over the doorframe at the approaching Risen, Lisa did as she was bid, struggling for a moment or two, eventually finding purchase, opting to roll instead of lift, dropping onto her bottom, back pressed against the drivers seat, using her legs and an aspect of her Gift to propel the woman away from Twitch altogether. He staggered to his feet, shocked into more immediate action by the proximity of The Risen on the street heading straight for them, the commotion with the female driver having alerted the creatures to the presence of a fresh food source.
‘Move,’ he bellowed, the need for stealth removed, and Lisa scrambled to her feet, Twitch offering a hand to assist.
‘In,’ she instructed, and Twitch uttered no words of protest, diving into the vehicle head first, bringing his knees up suddenly, scurrying over the gear stick and handbrake, dropping his hands, spinning to face forwards as Lisa jumped in after him, the door swinging shut just as eager hands grasped at the handle.
‘Lock. Lock. Where’s the fucking lock?’ she shrieked, as those same hands attempted to prise the door open, their apparent reliance on instinct sufficient for them to remember the mechanics of door opening technique. Twitch slapped at the locking mechanism on his passenger side door, hoping that it would activate the central locking, but no such luck.
‘Your side, Lise. Halfway down the door.’
With one hand tugging at the internal handle, to keep the door from swinging open, Lisa groped blindly with the other, unable to see what she was doing, trusting to touch alone and, after a second or two, she found what she sought, pressed inwards firmly and, with a reassuring ‘clunk’ all four doors of the vehicle locked tight.
Lisa slumped back into the seat.
Twitch took her hand.
Both gasped for air.
Around the car, the multitudes gathered, hands slapping uselessly against the glass, others tugging at door handles that now served no practical function.
Suddenly, the sea of bodies parted, allowing light in once more and, briefly, Twitch thought that The Risen had given up their quarry, had decided they were a lost cause. The opposite seemed true for, as both he and Lisa watched, a single Risen approached the driver’s side. Innocuous to begin with, it was only as he raised his hand that Lisa reacted, scrabbling for the keys which, thankfully, were still in the ignition.
The Risen held aloft the house-brick he carried, a trophy, perhaps, or a symbol of what life used to mean, before swinging it at the side window.
The engine spluttered into life.
The Risen pulled his hand back once more.
Lisa punched the accelerator and, momentarily, the car did not move, the sudden burst of power too much for the traction with the road so that the tyres squealed uselessly against the tarmac then, with a bite, grip took hold, and the car seemed to explode forwards, taking a couple of Risen with it, riding the bonnet momentarily before gravity and momentum overruled, toppling them to the ground.
Almost blind with panic, Lisa steered the car away from danger.
‘Christ, they’re determined,’ Twitch observed.
‘Must be our charm.’
Lisa guided the car around a corner, heading back towards town, no real destination in mind, just driving to kill time, and to give herself something to concentrate on other than the horror of the world around them. They drove in silence, both still recovering from the trauma of the last few minutes, minds and bodies in need of relief.
‘What do you think they do if they get hold of you?’ Twitch asked eventually.
Lisa did not answer immediately, concentrating on manoeuvering past two other cars which had struck each other, bonnet to bonnet.
‘Well, I think it’s safe to assume a warm handshake is out of the question.’
‘I’m serious, Lise,’ he said, a slight edge to his voice.
‘So am I.’
‘Do you think they…..eat you?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine, but I think it’s a decent guess.’
Along the pavement, intermittently, Risen wandered absently, each turning towards the vehicle as they approached, attracted by the sound, clearly, and perhaps curious as to what resided within the confines of the vehicle.
‘It just doesn’t seem real.’
‘You’ve seen the movies, too,’ she stated matter-of-factly, a coldness to her tone that Twitch did not care for at all.
‘Doesn’t it bother you, Lise?’
She slammed the brakes on suddenly, throwing both of them forward in their seats, Twitch relieved that he had thought to fasten the seatbelt, else his face would surely have connected sharply with the windscreen.
‘Of course it bothers me,’ she snapped, more harshly than she intended. ‘I’m scared shitless, Twitch. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know who’s alive and who’s not. I don’t know where to go and, worst of all, I can’t fucking think straight. My head feels like it’s on fire.’
She sagged back into her seat, hands gripping the steering wheel tightly, knuckle bones white through the skin.
From behind them, something solid struck metal.
‘Move, Lise. Now.’
She jammed her foot down on the accelerator, and the car punched forward. Twitch craned around in his seat, looking for The Risen that had struck the car, puzzled when the road behind was clear.
‘There’s nothing there,’ he said, worriedly.
Then, something banged against the window on his side, causing him to jump, startled, spinning to the source, aghast as he saw a fist raised, striking the window once more.
‘On the roof. There’s one on the roof.’
His voice was high pitched, almost a squeal.
‘Hang on,’ Lisa said.
Moving through the gears, she forced more speed from the little car.
The fire exit gave onto a short corridor, unexpectedly still indoors. The corridor was bare, nothing on either wall, nor anything on the floor save the concrete that formed it. Matt, still in the lead, dashed for the door that presumably served as the final barrier to the outside world. A push-down metal bar was all that stood between them and freedom from this place, yet Matt hesitated, hand touching the cold steel, suddenly reluctant to leave. Here, he knew his place, understood the order. He was the alpha male, the one pulling the strings whereas, beyond, who knew what calamity awaited, what world of tumult and turmoil and, sure as he was of his own superiority, still the fear of the unknown gave him reason to pause. No, not fear, he thought. Awareness. A true soldier, a true warrior, acknowledges the difficulties, accepts the trials and tribulations that will come and, however daunting they seem, knows absolutely that they can all be overcome.
‘This is my world now,’ he whispered, as his three companions – he almost laughed at the label, so unworthy were they for such an accolade – bunched together behind him, anxious to taste the breath of fresh air, apparently oblivious to the perils it might bring.
‘Get on with it,’ Doug snapped, such arrogance to his tone that Matt had to fight the urge to spin around on the spot and punch him to the ground, knowing for certain that, should he begin the onslaught, he would not cease until all breath had left the older man’s body.
‘Shut your fucking face,’ Matt hissed, with such severity that no form of protest was uttered in response and, with a final swell of resolve, he pushed on the bar, lifting the floor-bolt that held the door in place clear of its housing, swinging the door outwards, though slowly, eager that his eyes be given a second or two to adjust to the inevitable brightness beyond, wary of a surprise attack by…..something. Stepping clear of the building, Matt scanned in all directions. He found himself on the main road, three quarters of the way along. All down the road, Risen milled absently, unaware of the newcomers in their midst, for the moment at least.
Matt turned quickly to those that followed him, holding a finger to his lips, demanding silence, pointing around him when they looked at him puzzled, indicating their predicament. Nodding their understanding, his three fellow ‘normals’ held their tongues when, suddenly, commotion behind them, from within the building, as the sound of footsteps echoed along the short corridor they had just left. It was Doug who turned first, and it was the last thing he would ever do as out of the fire exit poured The Risen, the ones they had presumed safely barricaded. Somehow they had found a way through, defeated the obstacle placed in their way, the incessant pounding on the door clearly proving successful, though belatedly and, without even pausing for a second, they fell upon Doug, who tumbled to the ground, four or five Risen going down with him.
Emily screamed, Daniel too, and Matt merely took a step back, surveying the effect the sudden noise had on The Risen that patrolled the stadium, troubled when their curiosity was instantly piqued.
‘Do something,’ Emily shrieked.
Daniel took it upon himself to try to intervene, kicking at the back of The Risen nearest to him, his efforts hampered as more of their number fell through the door.
From beneath the pile of bodies, Doug could occasionally be glimpsed, limbs thrashing, face contorted in a mask of fear and rage and panic and fury, eyes bulging as one of The Risen clamped its jaws onto his throat and bit savagely, blood gushing in a parabola that soaked the attacker; lots of blood; too much blood. Daniel kicked out again, but a grasping hand caught his foot and almost sent him sprawling onto the tangle of bodies, his balance only restored as Emily clutched at him, and any further efforts proved futile as more Risen bit deeply into Doug’s form, the sound of tearing flesh audible even over the mêlée and, as the threesome caught sight of his face once more, it was clear that the battle had been lost.
‘We’ve got to move,’ Matt instructed, indifferent to the trauma, thinking only of his own survival and, as he spoke, several of The Risen in the heap atop Doug looked up at the three survivors, faces smeared with blood, one chewing on a tendril of flesh which dangled limply from the corner of its mouth.
Stumbling backwards, unable to take his eyes off the plight of his father, eyes awash with tears which refused to spill, Daniel moved, numb to all save the suffering he had witnessed.
A pool of blood had formed beneath his father’s body, and a small stream of it trickled outwards.
‘Daniel. Move. Now.’
The three of them ran.
Lisa spun the wheel, foot pressed down so firmly she felt certain the spindle that held it in place must surely snap. As the vehicle gained speed, she carefully manoeuvered around one car, two, then swept past a bus, the interior of which was alive with activity, Risen pressing their faces against the glass, eager to catch sight of potential victims.
‘Steady,’ Twitch advised as they rounded the larger craft, Lisa turning the steering wheel to full lock, screeching the car around the T-junction they found themselves at, back on the main road that led into town, though facing the opposite direction and, despite the ferocity of the movement, still The Risen atop the vehicle clung on, somehow. The road ahead was clear of cars but, there, ten metres ahead, a group of five, maybe six Risen were gathered in the middle of the road, spread out sufficiently to prevent an easy route around them.
‘Hang on,’ she told Twitch, coaxing yet more speed from the small car, Twitch gritting his teeth as he realised her intent, Lisa herself narrowing her eyes, allowing just sufficient light through to enable her to see the road, not wishing to witness the full extent of what was about to happen. As the bonnet struck the nearest of The Risen, the interior of the car was filled with a dreadful, muffled thump, the muscle and bone of the creature's thigh no match for the metal structure of the speeding vehicle, struck with sufficient force that it bent unnaturally – though there was nought natural about these monsters, anyway – its head bouncing off the metal of the hood, the momentum propelling it skyward, though only a little, its body landing fully on the bonnet, then rolling, rolling, forced over the windscreen and out of sight, Twitch twisting around to see what occurred behind, Lisa doing likewise in the rear-view mirror, pleased to see the body tumble off the rear of the car, though disappointed that it had somehow managed to avoid taking the other with it, too. Still the car rocketed forward, striking the next Risen a more glancing blow, and Twitch winced as he looked behind to see the creature’s leg bent the wrong way at the knee, the joint having been shattered. Through the throng, Lisa opened her eyes properly once more, all concentration focused on the creature that still rode atop the car in which they drove.
‘Why won’t this thing shake loose?’ she demanded rhetorically, not expecting a reply.
‘Focus,’ Twitch said, and she took his meaning instantly, slowing the vehicle as she turned her attention upwards, allowing her mind to wander, to drift, to go to that place that resides in all of us, but which in all but a handful remains untapped. An envelope, of sorts, though a conceptual one, nothing visible, rose from their minds, wrapping itself around the Risen interloper, snaring it as surely as a net snares a school of mackerel.
‘Now,’ Twitch instructed and, together, they deployed their mental energies, lifting the helpless monstrosity away from the roof, so that it was suspended, though still moving at their pace then, with no further word spoken, they projected, flinging it back the way they had come, off the car, into the road where, with mental bubble still in effect, they actually felt the body break internally, organs ripped from their housing, smashing against the ribcage and spine until it finally came to rest, devoid now of the unlife which had fuelled it.
‘Jesus Christ,’ was all Twitch could manage and, for her part, Lisa remained silent as the pair of them mentally withdrew from the creature’s broken form.
Matt, Emily and Daniel moved quickly, no time to pause, no time to reflect, certainly no time to grieve – that would come later, for two of them, at least – pursued by a cluster of seven Risen, these ones seemingly quicker than their brethren within the stadium. The ones that had spilled from within the building did not join in the pursuit, the meal they had acquired sufficient to occupy them, and Matt pondered the new found swiftness of those that did follow. Maybe, like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, the simple expediency of time was all that was required to shake off the sluggishness of slumber. As they passed over, perhaps it was not death that gripped them at all, but a form of sleep, a transitional phase between normal life and whatever they had now become.
As Matt, taking point, neared the corner of the building, where the Trinity Road Stand met The Holte End, he knew that the left presented no threat, for a brick wall served as a barrier to anything approaching from that direction, but still danger lurked elsewhere and now, drawn by the activity, the Risens' numbers began to swell, those that had merely milled around absently apparently keen to join in the game, adding to the multitudes already in pursuit.
Emily, gasping for breath, put on a burst of speed, drew level with Matt and, between lungfuls of air, stated the blindingly obvious.
‘We’ve got to find a car.’
Even under such dire circumstances, Matt found sufficient room in his blackened heart to loathe her, the statement so bland, so mind-crushingly vacuous that he struggled not to laugh. Truthfully, he wanted nothing more than to simply throw her to The Risen that gave chase but, for all that he knew the pleasure such actions would bring, he resisted, still convinced that she could be made use of somehow. Maybe, with a female as companion, the Sarah-cunt would be less distrustful when he knocked on its door in a couple of hours time, would be more willing to believe that he was prepared to be reasonable.
Oh, but such foolishness to those thoughts, harlot, for judgement is coming.
Daniel, keeping pace with the others, but two paces behind, struggled to see where he was going, tears blearing his vision and, in his anguish, he was on the verge of giving up hope, of simply drawing to a stop, allowing the creatures that pursued to take him, to end his torment, the only thing preventing him the certainty of the agony that would have to be endured before oblivion came. Still, the sound of his father’s screams echoed and, worse than that, the unmistakable noise of flesh tearing, as teeth that had once been human ripped into him. He could not suffer that, he knew, so onwards he ran, almost blindly, close to banging into Emily as she and Matt slowed, stumbling as he himself adjusted, altering to their pace and, without even thinking, he followed where they led, obeyed Emily’s instruction to jump into the back seat of the car they had approached, slamming the door shut behind him, Emily and Matt doing the same, central locking engaged, safely ensconced within a vehicle, secure, at least for the time being, from the things that now encircled them.
It was Emily who spoke.
‘Problem?’ Matt demanded.
Emily slapped her hands against the steering wheel in frustration.
As Lisa accelerated away, Twitch fixed his attention on the creature, smashed, surely immobile, on the ground behind them, anxious lest it suddenly surge with life and, though against all known laws of physics and medicine, pursue them once more. The figure in the road dwindled into the distance until, satisfied, Twitch turned back the right way in his seat.
‘That was unreal.’
‘One way to put it,’ Lisa replied cryptically.
They seem stronger than normal.’
‘Yeah, than normal people. No-one could have hung on to the top of this car like he….like it did,’ he corrected himself, aware of the conscious choice he had made to think of the creatures as things, rather than as fellow members of the human race. The discussion by the canal-side, which seemed so long ago now, had near broken him, and it was the realisation that these things were simply alternate versions of themselves, diminished, yes, but recognisably of them, that had made the thoughts so potent so, to save himself further mental difficulty, creatures they would remain.
But surely not human. Not anymore.
‘I guess you’re right.’
‘And stuntwomen,’ Lisa added.
‘I’m not so sure.’
‘Sexist pig,’ she chided, the pair of them talking aimlessly, simply filling the void, preferring the sound of their own voices, chatting insensibly, to silence and, most pertinently, to the terrible thoughts that would swarm to fill that silence.
As they followed the long, straight road, Lisa occasionally guided them around abandoned vehicles, wrecked vehicles, even small groupings of Risen, banded together as if seeking the comfort of their own kind.
‘Seems they are not so different to us,’ Lisa observed.
‘I think you’re wrong,’ Twitch said, more forcefully than he intended, his own paranoia invoking a rush of anger.
‘No, look at them. Huddling in groups.’
‘More like penguins than people,’ Twitch said.
‘That’s not it. It’s like…’ She paused, piecing her thoughts together ‘It’s like they remember, somehow. They know that they are social creatures, or at least used to be, so they are clinging on to it.’
‘You’re reading too much into it. They're just animals now’
Lisa slowed the car as they neared a larger group of The Risen, some glancing their way, the sound of the car’s engine catching their attention, but only fleetingly, for these were on all fours, focused on something before them and, as the car slowly cruised by, both Lisa and Twitch were forced to turn away, the ghastliness of the sight of them feeding on what once was a small child too much for them to endure.
Outside the vehicle, the masses of The Risen seemed to swell exponentially so that, by the time Matt and Emily had swapped seats, all sunlight was blotted, the interior cast into such shadow that Matt was forced to turn on the overhead light.
‘You know what you’re doing?’ Emily asked.
‘Shut the fuck up, cunt,’ Matt replied, and it was delivered with such anger that Emily rocked back in her seat as if she had been physically assaulted. Reeling, she turned to Daniel, who cowered in the back seat, the combination of the grief he felt over his loss, and the terror invoked by the masses that pressed against every inch of glass too much for his young mind to bear, and his eyes bulged madly in their sockets.
‘It’s going to be alright, Danny,’ Emily said as softly as she could, whilst still being audible above the commotion from without. Surprisingly, he turned to her – she had expected no response at all – and, for a moment, she believed he was to remain mute, then suddenly, an outburst
‘How the fuck do you know? My Dad’s dead. Eaten alive. By them. Eaten alive!’ he repeated, clearly struggling to process the enormity, the horror, both, of what had occurred. ‘We’re trapped here, and those things are going to get in,’ he continued, voice gradually rising with each word uttered, ‘And when they do, they’re going to eat us too. And there’s nothing we can do about it.’
Daniel’s voice was all but a scream by the last syllable and, once more, Emily rocked back in her seat, stunned into silence, the onslaught she had endured from the right and the rear rendering her mute, but the ranting was not over, for now it was Matt’s turn. He span in his seat and eyed the younger man angrily.
‘Keep bleating, sunshine, and I’ll open the door and feed you to them myself,’ he snarled, and neither Emily nor Daniel doubted his word.
‘I’m trying to concentrate,’ he said more calmly, turning his attention back to the steering column, from which he had successfully yanked away some of the plastic casing, exposing the wires beneath. Fumbling, fingers feeling thicker, fatter, more awkward than under normal circumstances, the adrenaline that spiked his blood stream making subtlety of movement difficult, he felt his way around beneath the exposed plastic panelling, fingers touching the wiring hidden there, four in all, and he yanked on them, hard, unconcerned as to the damage he may cause; it wasn’t his car, after all. Another tug, and the wires came free. With a little more effort, Matt pulled them completely clear of the steering column and peered down at them, identifying which was which; brown for the two starter wires, red for the pair of battery wires.
The car began to rock slightly, the sheer weight of bodies pressed against the vehicle causing the movement, or so Emily hoped.
Matt dropped off the seat into the footwall, a tight fit, and went to work with his teeth, stripping the plastic casing from the wires, taking extra care with the starter wires, for here current flowed freely. It took about a minute, the whole time the car rocking back and forth, but eventually the four wires ends were exposed, so now Matt twisted the two battery wires together, grunting in satisfaction as the electrics kicked in, illuminating the dashboard. Manoeuvering himself back into the regulation seating position, he checked that the car was in neutral, then twisted the two starter wires together, pleased when the car responded appropriately, the engine firing into life, idling, awaiting instruction.
Outside, there was more movement, though this appeared to have clear intent, as a path was cut between the bodies, and light found its way into the car. Briefly, Emily thought The Risen were falling back, perhaps fearful of the sound of the engine, but her suspicions were proved fallible as something solid struck the rear passenger window, and glass sprayed inwards.
‘Move,’ she screamed at Matt who, for all his blustering, had no offensive retort on this occasion and instead scrambled for the gear stick, jabbing at it first time, crunching the gears, getting it right the second time and, with a squeal of tyre rubber, the car lurched forwards, The Risen unfortunate enough to be in front scattered like bowling pins, Matt taking a second or two to get his bearings, almost spinning them off the road straight into the side of the stadium wall, averting calamity at the last moment, finding the lane, concentrating on his breathing to bring a level head, then flooring it, taking them away from the masses of The Risen who were powerless to do ought but watch on as they sped away.
‘Everybody ok?’ Emily wanted to know, breathless.
‘Well enough,’ Matt replied cryptically.
Emily span in her seat, gasping as she found Daniel slumped over, blood trickling from his right ear, the brick that had been used to shatter the window having caught him squarely on the side of the head.
‘Danny?’ she said again, reaching back, nudging him, rocking him a little, trying to coax some life from him.
Daniel did not move.
‘Any point in heading for home?’ Lisa asked.
‘None that I can see,’ Twitch said. ‘Everywhere here is doomed.’
‘Doomed?’ Lisa was struck by the choice of words, almost Biblical in nature.
‘Ever read about The End of Days?’ he asked her.
‘Not recently,’ she confessed, a jocularity to her voice that seemed ill-fitting, almost desperate, perhaps indicating that she did not want the conversation to head into the darkness, for there was enough of that to be seen beyond the windows.
‘This could be the end, Lise. The animals dying. Mankind turning in on itself.
‘Or it could be a localised event,’ she challenged.
‘No. It’s not.’
She glanced at him for a second, before turning back to the road.
‘Why are you so sure, Twitch. What are you not telling me?’
‘The radio broadcast. The French guy speaking….’
He let the sentence tail off, not wishing to reveal the truth, knowing that the conversation had already gone too far to prevent it.
‘I knew you were keeping something back from me,’ she said, her irritation clear.
‘Effrayés nous sommes, unis par la peine, car l’Enfer recrache ses âmes.’
‘What does it mean?’ she demanded.
‘My French isn’t quite up to it, ‘ he protested, his bid to buy more time transparent enough to raise her irritation still further.
‘Twitch, what does it mean,’ she said severely, back to the maternal role that crept into their relationship occasionally.
‘Best I can get, Lise, and I’m not fluent….’ he dallied.
‘Afraid we are, united by grief, for Hell spits out its souls.’
Lisa stayed silent, the words tumbling through her head.
‘It’s just a metaphor, Lise. It has to be.’
But now it was her turn to play doom-monger.
‘I think he was being absolutely literal.’
‘Lise, you need to speed up.’
‘You need to speed up.’
As their conversation had continued, so Lisa’s foot had gradually eased off the accelerator so that, now, they were barely moving at all and, behind the car, The Risen gave chase on foot. She did as instructed, still struggling to grasp what she had heard.
‘Say it again.’
‘What the hell for?’
‘I just want to hear it. Say it, Twitch, please.’
‘Afraid we are, united by grief, for Hell spits out its souls.’
The muscles at the side of her jaw pulsed, her brow furrowed, her face set in a mask of sheer determination.
‘Let’s head to the city. There have to be more people like us.’
‘Lise, I think we’re all alone.’
‘Not possible. What were they feeding on back there? That child certainly wasn't their own kind, I'm sure’
‘It’s The Gift. We’re different….’ Twitch began, refusing to acknowledge the logic to her argument, so Lisa cut him short.
‘You don’t have to remind me about the fucking Gift but, until I see it with my own eyes, I won’t believe it. There have to be more like us. There have to be. It’s just not possible. It’s not possible.’
Without another word, she pushed her foot down harder on the accelerator.
Now she had a destination.
Finally, she had a purpose and, though simple, it was all she would allow herself to think about: find the other survivors.
In the rear-view mirror, the stadium receded, as Matt guided the car down street after street of terraced housing. Narrow, efficient in design, a street just a few hundred metres long could house forty or fifty families, as the homes were built long and narrow, allowing ample room within for comfort, but taking up as little street space as possible. When initially built in the mid to late nineteenth century, the town planners could not have conceived of the proliferation of the motor vehicle so that, now, on both sides of the street, cars lined up with no perceivable gap, bumper to bumper. Occasionally, milling along the pavement, one of The Risen stumbled through a gap, and Matt did not hesitate, simply running the creature over, not slowing at all and, each time he did so, Emily glanced across at him, appalled to find him smiling broadly, clearly enjoying the killing.
‘You don’t like it, get out and walk,’ he snapped, unprovoked, apparently aware of her studying him, and interpreting her thoughts correctly.
‘What are we going to do about him?’ she asked, gesturing with a thumb, over her shoulder.
Matt did not respond.
‘He might be badly hurt,’ she continued, unperturbed by the silence.
‘What do you suggest? You think I’m gonna give him the kiss of life? Think again.’
‘Maybe we should head for a hospital.’
Mat laughed at this, an unpleasant, guttural snort that made Emily’s blood boil, though she kept her temper under control.
‘I’m not joking.’
Again, Matt elected not to reply, not really listening anymore, instead planning his route to the Sarah-cunt’s house, pondering whether motorway or back streets would be the wisest choice, under the circumstances. If there were survivors, and they were all trying to get away, it may well be that the motorway would be clogged with traffic. On the other hand, if they were the only survivors – and so far, that idea seemed to hold true – then the motorway would be devoid of activity, and by far the quickest option.
‘…..police or doctors might be there. Maybe we can find help.’
No idea what she was talking about, Matt turned his head, looking Emily straight in the eye.
‘Listen I don’t care what you do. Suck his cock, if you want to, just shut the fuck up.’
By the time he reached the end of the sentence, he was screaming, eyes bulging and, even in his fury, he noticed the gobbet of spittle which sprayed from his mouth, flecking Emily’s top lip, who just shook her head, bewildered but, by now, not surprised by the outburst, for it was clear that, of all the misfortune to befall them, one of only four survivors was clearly quite, quite mad and, having seen the whites of his eyes, having gazed through the window straight into his soul, she knew this was not a man to provoke.
Matt was dangerous.
She knew it. She feared him, but she needed him, too, at least for now.
Silence descended within the car once more.
Matt guided the vehicle to the right as they approached and traversed a T-junction, slowing the vehicle slightly as he guided it round the corner, then hitting the brakes hard.
The road ahead was blocked, cars rolled into place to fashion a barricade, clearly a deliberate act; an obstruction designed, but for what purpose?
Immediately, the answer came: ambush.
From between the parked cars on either side of the street, The Risen swarmed and as Matt, in his panic, scrabbled for the gear stick to find reverse, he was still able to note that most of them now carried weapons.
‘Try it,’ Lisa said.
‘It won’t work.’
Twitch reached forward anyway, turned the dial, the reassuring click signalling that the car radio was now on, but no sound issued forth. He tutted, turned the dial some more, cranked it to half maximum volume, to dispel the notion that he simply hadn’t given it enough juice.
‘Try the tuner,’ Lisa said, glancing down at the recalcitrant gadget.
‘There’s no other knob.’
‘I’ll skip the obvious gag, Twitch.’
‘Yeah, that could have come out better, couldn’t it?’
They were both laughing now, and it felt good, the tension that had seemed to be building within the car, in the air itself, even between the pair of them, totally dispelled by the sudden release.
‘There’ll be a button on it somewhere. They all auto-tune these days.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Get with the times, Grandad. I thought you were meant to be the tech-head?’
Twitch peered at the front panel of the radio, having to squint, the light piercing the car insufficient to read properly.
‘So, because I can knock a bit of code up for a website, suddenly I’m an expert on every piece of electronic equipment in the world?’
‘If you say so,’ she said, throwing his own phrasing back at him, enjoying the game, pleased for the distraction. ‘Bit big-headed of you though. Best wait until others make the observation, rather than making it yourself.’
‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it,’ Twitch said as he pressed a button blindly, no real idea what it would do, the car suddenly filled with the sound of music, a tune Twitch recognised, but could not identify.
‘You’ve done it!’ Lisa exclaimed.
‘Don’t think so. It’s the CD, I reckon. I think I found the play button.’
‘My whiz-kid,’ Lisa sighed wistfully.
‘Shut up!’ said Twitch, laughing again.
‘Well, turn it off, if you can.’
‘Not to your taste?’
‘It’s Coldplay. I’d rather spend time in the company of the zombies out there.’
‘Everyone’s a critic,’ he muttered, finding the stop button, plunging the car into silence once more.
‘So, if that was play and that was stop, that must be forward and back,’ he continued, speaking to himself, ‘So this….’ he said, as the sound of static filled the car, ‘Must be the radio.’
‘Well done,’ Lisa said, dead serious, suddenly. ‘See if you can find a broadcast.’
Twitch ran his fingers along the panel once more, selecting what he hoped was the auto-tune by a process of elimination, pleased to see the frequency display begin to change.
The static altered, wavered, occasionally building to a crescendo before dropping in volume, but of civilisation there seemed no sign.
‘There’s nothing Lise,’ he said, about to turn the device off.
‘Just give it a minute. What harm can it do?’
And Twitch relented, sat back in his seat, happy to let the instrument cycle through as many times as was necessary to satisfy her though, in his heart, he knew that all they would hear were the echoes of black holes, the anti-melodious fragments of background radiation, formed from The Big Bang itself, the very birthing of the universe and, with the cataclysmic events that the day had brought, somehow it felt appropriate to listen to sounds forged in fire, some 13.7 billion years ago.
The hordes slammed into the side of the vehicle with a dull, organic thump, soft flesh meeting hard metal. Matt swivelled his head left, right, spinning in the seat so that he could see what was happening to the rear, troubled to find his view out of the back window utterly obscured by the creatures pressing against the glass, more troubled still by the hands that flailed through the broken side rear window, reaching inwards, desperate to hook their fingers around something warm, where blood still flowed.
Daniel, flopped in the back seat, was oblivious to the chaos around him, a good thing, as the hands that groped through the rear window could be no more than six inches from his face.
Suddenly, glass exploded inwards, the windshield shattered into a thousand tiny fragments, Matt thanking any Gods that were listening for the fact that he had been facing the opposite way, sparing his eyes, Emily sufficiently reactive that she covered her face with her hands, for she had been fortunate enough to see the wielder of the house-brick used to stave in the glass, the warning time sufficient to protect herself. Now she screamed, unable to prevent herself, breath riven from lungs so forcefully she felt things popping within her very diaphragm, inside her throat, but she kept screaming all the same, powerless, overcome.
Matt swivelled back to face the front and, before he could engage the reverse gear once more, hands were upon him, several Risen having scrambled onto the bonnet in their eagerness to claim the living spoils within the vehicle, and now they clutched at him, grabbing at his hair, nails scraping against his face, unable to find firm purchase as he snapped his neck left, right, away from the vileness of their touch. Emily, too, was not immune from their advances, and she reacted by dropping as low in her seat as she could, knowing her gesture to be futile, merely delaying the moment they would claim her, but Matt had no intention of relinquishing his life to the hordes, so instead he span back around and, with one arm only, in a feat of near superhuman strength, began to haul Daniel’s still inert form through the gap between both front seats. Initially, Emily was unaware of his activities, utterly focused on the monsters that strained for her but, as Daniel’s limp body began to pass overhead, she spotted the danger to him, and shrieked afresh, though this time her cries held purpose.
‘Matt, no. You can’t. It’s inhuman.’
But Matt was deaf to her entreaties, and manoeuvered the younger man further forward, his torso now fully through the gap, Matt having to exert even more force to drag his legs through then, suddenly, the effort was taken away from him as other hands grabbed the unconscious teenager and clutched at him keenly, pulling him through the windscreen more fully, so that all that remained within the car were his legs and Emily, struggling into a sitting position, hoping to help somehow, was forced to watch, frozen with sheer terror, as those beyond began to feast on his form, teeth ripping into his neck to begin with, shredding the skin, encouraged as the blood began to flow, more of The Risen climbing onto the bonnet tugging at his body, legs flapping about, body flipped over suddenly, The Risen going to work on his throat, his chest, his abdomen, the multitude of teeth and nails and even shards of glass making short work of Daniel’s skin, exposing the meat within swiftly, the sound of tearing causing Emily to gag. Matt, transfixed also, suddenly seemed to realise the jeopardy they still faced, focused once more on the gear stick, the engine revving in neutral as he applied pressure to the pedal, finally managing to engage reverse, tyres squealing, too much gas, relieving the pressure, simultaneously lifting Daniels legs slightly so that, as the car bucked backwards, the youngster’s now lifeless body slipped completely through the shattered windscreen, the monsters beyond falling on him as soon as he hit the floor.
The background static undulated, fading in and out, in and out and, just as Lisa was on the verge of admitting defeat, had even opened her mouth, pursed her lips to say ‘turn it off, Twitch,’ suddenly, a voice, ethereal, distant, barely there at all, and both of them looked at the other, the expressions they wore mirror images; frowning, perhaps wondering if they had really heard anything at all.
‘You heard it, right?’
‘I heard it,’ he confirmed, as Lisa turned left, entering the outskirts of the city, no clear destination in mind, content just to drive, for now. The fuel gauge still read three quarters full.
Again, Twitch fumbled at the front panelling of the car radio, trying to locate the fine tuning option, stumbling across it accidentally, the read out moving by smaller increments now, rather than flashing through the channels and slowly, the voice came into focus, but Twitch overshot, the voice fading, before he corrected, bringing it back, making Lisa think of queuing for the pirate ship at the funfair, the screams and cries of the people already on board transient, caught on the wind, projected forward, buffeted as the craft swung back and forth so that, at times, it seemed the noise was coming from somewhere much further afield.
Twitch brought it back, tuned it as best he could, the quality far from perfect, but audible at least, and both listened keenly
‘…..protocol. The seemingly draconian enforcement of such a policy has been brought into effect during a meeting of the emergency cabinet. Members of the war panel voted eleven to one in favour of the invocation of the act, which will commence eighteen hundred hours today, the year of our lord two thousand fourteen.’
The voice spoke in English, delivered with clipped precision, the type of voice that Lisa had all but forgotten existed, invoking images of fifties broadcasts on tiny black and white television, so famously mocked by comedians in the nineties that they had entered the realm of cliché.
‘The broadcast you are currently listening to is being transmitted from Calais, France, by arrangement with the French government. Under no circumstances should any British citizen attempt to cross the Channel. Any such attempts will be met with lethal force. A this point in time, no other region of Europe seems to have been affected.’
Bewildered, Lisa could only shake her head.
‘If there is anybody listening,’ the disembodied voice continued impassively, the lack of emotion evident seeming incongruous, given the nature of the words being spoken, ‘the citizens of Great Britain have been struck by an unknown condition. At this point, it is undetermined whether this is as a result of a natural pathogen, or a biological attack. The citizens have been struck with madness, and anyone affected should be avoided at all costs.’
‘No shit,’ Lisa said, ruefully.
‘Society is in total meltdown and, at this point, there are no functioning emergency services.’
A single tear trickled from the corner of Twitch’s eye.
‘I say again, the citizens of Great Britain have been struck quite, quite mad…..’
‘This is a bad dream,’ Twitch said, looking at Lisa as she drove, her face ashen, drained of blood.
She said nothing. What on Earth could she say, anyway? What words would be sufficient to convey the profundity of what she was feeling so, instead, she reached out to him with her inner feelings, the force of The Gift enveloping him, causing him to start, briefly, as if concerned, then he relaxed slightly, settled back into his chair, the sensation of her emotions swaddling him like a newborn soothing, even under these direst of circumstances.
‘If anybody can hear me, and if it is in any way possible, I urge you to head underground immediately. Anybody listening, who is still in their right mind, you have until eighteen hundred hours, six o’clock this evening, to find a place of safety. The nation of Great Britain, by international law, has been deemed obsolete. I say again, the nation of Great Britain, by unanimous vote of the United Nations, has been dissolved, and, to all intents and purposes, no longer exists. Any citizens still alive and capable of understanding this broadcast, head underground, find a place of safety, for the Scorched Earth protocol, as drafted in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, has been enacted. There is no going back. I repeat, the United Nations has enacted the Scorched Earth protocol. The seemingly draconian enforcement of such a policy has been brought into effect…..’
And so the message repeated, with Lisa and Twitch listening, neither able to speak, barely able to comprehend what they had heard.
Lisa reached forward, turned off the radio, the sound of the announcer’s voice, recounting such terrifying words in a cold, monotonous drone, impossible to bear after a time.
‘How can we not exist?’ Twitch asked, rhetorically.
‘He’s right. I think I may have gone mad,’ was all she could manage.
Smoke poured from the front of the car and Matt worried that the engine was about to give out, before realising that the source was the tyres, not the engine, so he eased his foot slightly off the accelerator, still giving it plenty of gas, but the slight drop in pressure allowed the rubber to take a firmer grip on the road, and suddenly the car was hurtling backwards, feeling faster than it truly was, the combination of adrenaline, panic and backward velocity giving a false impression of speed.
As the small vehicle approached a crossroads, Emily called out, but too late.
The car careened across the Give Way line, oblivious to the written warning, and broadsided another vehicle moving along the adjacent road.
Twitch was the first to scream as he spotted the car approaching them at speed from the intersecting road, hurtling backwards, the driver clearly blind to their presence.
‘Hang on,’ Lisa cried, yanking the steering wheel to the right, attempting to swing their car out of the way, knowing it was useless even as she began the manoeuvre. When the impact came, it was as if time had ceased to have any true meaning, as events flicked into a form of super slow motion, so that even auditory information was conveyed as if they were underwater. The dull ‘whump’ of the initial strike seemed to echo onwards, lasting far longer than it truly could have, then the low, ominous screech as metal tore metal and plastic bumpers collapsed under the sudden explosion of energy near deafened them. Glass shattered, too, the windscreen of Twitch and Lisa’ vehicle cascading, though mainly outwards, sparing their skin and eyes any serious peril.
Emily’s head hurt. It reminded her of the time she went on the Corkscrew at Alton Towers, though this was a little more intense, the buffeting caused by the impact seeming to have bashed her brain around a little inside her skull, leaving behind a dull buzzing sound in her inner ear. Without thinking, she yanked the door open, scrabbling for a hand hold to help hoist her from her seat, as much to get away from the madman beside her as to escape the wreckage of the vehicle. In her mind’s eye, she could still see Daniel, Risen crawling all over him, eating him alive and, as she replayed the events, she felt her gorge rise, struggled out of the seat, made no attempt to fight it, simply pivoted at the waist and puked where she stood. Voided, she wiped at her mouth with the back of her hand, hearing the sound of broken glass crunching underfoot and turned to see Matt, now also out of the car. Instinctively, she recoiled from him, even though there was the entire metal frame of the vehicle between them and, unbelievably, he smiled at her, though there was nothing sincere about the gesture.
‘Stay away from me,’ she instructed, mustering every millilitre of venom she could, surprised at the sound of her own voice, for it was inflected with cold, sharp edged hatred for the first time in her life.
Matt did not bother to reply, instead turning to the car they had struck, moving towards it, and Emily followed, making her way around their own write-off, afraid, not sure what Matt was planning to do, worried for the people within. He reached the vehicle and tugged at the passenger door, but it would not budge, so he quickly dashed to the other side and tried the driver’s door, this time with success. Emily saw the woman driving flinch away from Matt as he reached into the vehicle, but it appeared he was merely assisting her out of the car, which was now useless, anyway. On the passenger side, the male companion was in motion, also, using his shoulder to barge at the door, which seemed resolutely wedged in place but, with the application of sheer brute force, he managed to shove it open, scrambling to his feet just as Matt helped Lisa to her feet, also.
‘Don’t trust him,’ Emily shrieked, pointing at Matt. ‘He’s a murderer.’
Matt went to protest his innocence, but before he could say a word, Twitch spoke.
‘Lise, we’ve got problems.’
And they all stared in horror as fifteen, perhaps twenty Risen raced at them from the intersecting road.
Time is a curious beast, Twitch thought, mind alive, dynamic, absorbing all around him in madcap slow-mo, the world reduced to single events flitting by frame by agonising frame. He heard voices, deep, resonant, but the words being spoken were meaningless, the time taken for each syllable to be formed rendering the previous phoneme meaningless, so that the bass boomings blurred together, a steady background thrum to the nightmare advance of the Risen as they neared, though these creatures too moved far slower than reality should normally allow, at least through Twitch’s enhanced mind-state. He turned his head, and saw Matt make a grab for Lisa, hands clasping onto her shoulders, and the time-lapse effect was so profound, Twitch had time to focus absolutely on the stranger’s actions, to peer within him, past the outer shell of the skin, through the epidermis, beyond, seeking, finding, watching as the man’s nerve endings pulsed with electro-chemical information, the instruction from the brain clear: flex.
Twitch responded instantly, not quite sure what the stranger was up to, knowing only that it would be no good, so he pinned him in place, inflicted absolute paralysis in him, so that even his eyes would not blink.
‘Lise, stop them.’
And she did as he asked, throwing forth her own mental energies, stopping The Risen dead in their tracks. Twitch looked at them where they now stood, immobile, and caught a laugh in his throat, for the expressions they wore, frozen as they were in time, ranged from the bemused to the downright annoyed; a perfect microcosm of the day they had endured so far.
‘This is a bad man,’ Lisa said to him, and she had no need to explain who she was referring to.
Twitch examined Matt’s face more closely, as tears began to course down his cheeks, not of remorse, or guilt, or even fear, simply practical tears for, unable to blink, there was no means to control their flow. Closer still Twitch went, though not physically, with his mind, inwards, inwards, so that his mind touched that of the stranger and, as it did so, instinctively, Twitch recoiled, for the thing he found there was dank and swollen, tumescent, as if his head were filled with something truly rotten.
‘He’s worse than bad, Lise. He’s evil.’
‘He’s a murderer,’ Emily repeated, and Twitch listened as she quickly recounted what had transpired in their own car, culminating in the death of Daniel at the hands of The Risen.
‘That is murder, Twitch,’ Lisa agreed.
‘And he plans to murder again. First you,' he said, nodding towards Lisa, ‘Then me. And finally another. A stranger to us all.’
The image of Sarah pulsed through Matt’s mind and, in the brief moment of connection, Twitch had detected the obsession that presented, a cloying blackness that flowed through his brain like a thick, bloody sludge. ‘What about me?’ Emily asked. ‘What was he planning to do with me?’
Twitch looked at the young woman kindly. ‘You don’t want to know.’
Emily merely nodded: message understood.
‘We’re in a bit of a pickle, here,’ said Lisa.
‘No arguments from me,’ Twitch concurred.
‘Just do it, Twitch. No arguments, you said.’
‘I don’t know if I can.’
‘It’s what we do to murderers, remember? No remorse. No compassion. No guilt.’
‘They bring it on themselves,’ he agreed and, as he spoke, so too he released his paralytic grip, switching mental hold, elevating the man now so that his feet were off the floor and, now that he was free to move again, Matt started flapping his arms around, as if attempting to fly, but in reverse, to force himself back towards the pavement.
‘You’re a bad man,’ Twitch told him, then flung him towards The Risen, Matt landing at their feet just as Lisa released her hold on them. Without a pause, they fell on his body, ignoring the three others.
‘I did it,” Twitch said.
‘You’re getting stronger with each passing day,’ Lisa said.
‘I feel it.’
‘I’ve Risen,’ he declared.
Lisa punched his arm. ‘Not funny.’
‘Let’s go,’ said Lisa.
The end-terrace was joined to its neighbour at first floor level only, the ground level separated by an entryway that serviced both homes. Twitch took the lead, eyes momentarily rendered useless by the gloom, Emily in the middle, hands holding onto his shoulders tightly, as if afraid he would make a sudden dash away from her, abandoning her in this umbra, Lisa following a few paces behind, facing the way she had come, walking backwards slowly, using hands as guides to keep her away from the dampness of the walls.
‘Anything?’ she called over her shoulder.
‘Stay frosty,’ she advised.
‘Sir, yes sir,’ he replied, the lightness of tone seeming somehow forced, even to his own ears.
‘I’m scared,’ Emily told him, unbidden, but Twitch felt no irritation.
‘We’re all scared. We need to be strong.’
He reached the end of the passageway and, here, the property divisions became clear, both back doors guarded by fencing and gates. Twitch chose one at random, turning left, testing the latch, pleased when it opened freely and swung away from him without a squeal of protest from the hinges.
Ominously, the back door lay wide open, the dimness within as unnerving as that of a cave in an unfamiliar forest but, unlike the mysterious cave, here, Twitch knew, monsters truly could lurk, only adding menace to the yawning entrance. He paused, considering his strategy; slow and steady, the advantage being the relative silence, or fast and sudden, the advantage surprise.
He chose the later.
Catching Emily off guard, Twitch dashed through the door, not pausing when he got there, moving instinctively, heading left, into the house proper, detecting nothing that seemed threatening, still moving, into the living room, and still all seemed quiet.
He was alone.
Satisfied that no unexpected welcome was awaiting them, he headed back through to the kitchen, into which the back door led, and beckoned that Emily should follow.
With all three inside the house, clustered in the kitchen, unnaturally close, almost, the normal bounds of society seemingly shattered, the need for proximity over-riding any sense of embarrassment, particularly from Emily’s point of view. Here she was, a total stranger, but feeling the need to touch, to hold, to feel the warmth of another.
‘It’s alright, Emily,’ said Lisa, and Emily blinked in surprise, both because of the uncanny timing of the comment, almost as if the stranger could read her mind, and because she had not told either of her new found companions her name.
‘Do you know me?’ she asked, confused.
‘Not yet,’ said Lisa, smiling reassuringly.
'How did you do that out there?'
'We'll explain. All in good time,' Lisa said, but Twitch had matters more practical on his mind.
‘We need to block that door. Here, give me a hand.’ He indicated the table situated centrally in the medium sized kitchen, and the two women moved to assist and, though both Twitch and Lisa knew that they could have shifted it far more easily through their telekinetic ability, both sensed that it was too soon to reveal themselves fully to the new girl in their lives.
Table in place, Twitch slid the bolts into their housings, top and bottom of the door, testing the handle, seemingly satisfied that the barricade would hold should any curious Risen attempt to gain entry.
‘I’m going to look upstairs. Make sure everything is clear.’
As he left the room, Lisa felt an almost overpowering urge to call him back, to ask him not to leave, the thought that this might be the last time she ever saw him suddenly flooding her, but she knew she was being foolish. For all her powers and abilities, premonition was not numbered amongst them.
‘You called him Twitch. That’s a strange name,’ Emily observed, now the two women were alone.
‘He used to have a facial tic. His cheek would spasm. He couldn’t control it. He christened himself Twitch. A way to own the affliction, I guess.’
Emily nodded thoughtfully.
‘What’s happening?’ she asked, an open-ended question under normal circumstances but, with the world falling apart, Lisa needed no further clarification.
‘We’re not sure. All we know is that the whole country is affected.’
‘How can you be sure?’
‘A radio broadcast.’
The pair fell silent, the only sound they could hear movement from the floor above then, eventually, the sound of feet descending the stairs.
‘I hope it’s Twitch,’ thought Lisa, choosing not to share the musing for fear of frightening the young woman she was with further.
He re-entered the kitchen, grim-faced, looking more fragile than Lisa could remember since the day, all those years ago, she had first encountered him in the cafeteria.
‘We’re all alone,’ he said, and instantly regretted it, the profundity of the statement lost on no-one.
With the respite in activity, and no apparent danger imminent, thoughts turned to matters of the stomach, Lisa realising that she was ravenously hungry, Twitch too, the energy they had expended in using their Gift so frequently in one day demanding replenishment. For her part, Emily felt queasy, not hungry, but knew that she too must eat, though the loss of her boyfriend just a short while ago – how long was it, in reality? She was unsure – quelled her appetite as surely as the sight of those she had known, however briefly, being torn limb from limb by things that had once been human.
She closed her eyes, regretted it instantly, as Doug, Daniel, then finally James’ faces swam through her mind and, though she tried to control herself, tears began to flow, so she wrapped her arms around herself for comfort, pleased when she felt the arms of another also envelope her, allowing Lisa to guide her to a chair, sitting down, trying to stem the flow, failing, then just letting herself go completely.
‘Is she going to be ok?’ Twitch asked.
‘She just needs time,’ said Lisa. ‘We all do.’
‘Unfortunately, if that report was right, time is the one thing we most definitely do not have.’
He did not mean to sound so cold.
They each took a bowl, the steaming hot soup giving off an aroma that, under normal circumstances, would have been appetising and comforting but which, to Twitch’s nostrils at least, smelt vaguely repellent.
‘You should eat something,’ said Lisa.
‘Seems kind of pointless,’ he replied, lifting the bowl towards his face all the same, sampling a spoonful, nodding his appreciation. A lie, but a small one.
‘Nothing’s pointless, Twitch. Surely we’ve learnt that during all these years.’
‘We’ll find out soon enough.’
Lisa’s eyes were drawn, almost against her will, to the clock on the kitchen wall, the analogue hands telling her that in twelve minutes, the Scorched Earth policy would be invoked.
‘Shouldn’t we try to find somewhere underground?’ Emily asked them.
‘It’s not for us,’ Twitch said. ‘The world that remains will be too awful to contemplate. Better to let it end here and now."
‘But, you don’t even know what they are going to do,’ Emily protested.
‘The name of the protocol is fairly descriptive,’ Twitch replied, though kindly, no sarcasm to his tone.
‘Let’s go through,’ said Lisa.
And the three of them moved to the living room at the front of the house, gathering at the window, careful not to put the light on, even though the natural light from outside was rapidly fading as darkness began to take its grip on the day.
‘Can I try the TV?’ Emily asked.
Hang on,’ said Lisa, pulling one half of the curtains closed, Twitch doing the other.
Emily turned on the set and, to the surprise of all three, found a channel still broadcasting.
On screen, a simple message:
‘Report to follow in 23, 22, 21…..’
No continuity announcer.
No spoken words.
No reassuringly soothing music, to relax the viewer, make them feel all was well in the world.
Simply the digital countdown.
‘3, 2, 1.’
Then the image changed, an aerial shot of some kind, a lens peering at a town or city, but from a great distance, so far that it was hard to make out the details, though it was clear that the vehicle transporting the cameraman was flying far out to sea, coming just near enough to the coast to afford a dim, distant glimpse of what was happening on solid ground.
‘The scene is one of devastation,’ the reporter began suddenly, her tone suitably sombre, suitably inflected with melancholy and gravitas, in the best traditions of John Simpson and Kate Adie, as if she were reporting on a scene of war and explosions, rather than one of illness and malady.
‘We are flying a few kilometres off the coast of Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. This is as near as we dare travel and, even here, we have been advised that we may not be permitted to land at the base in France from which we departed.’
The camera swung around, away from the coastline, into the interior of the chopper, the reporter’s face swimming into focus, her eyes, even in the dimness the inside of the aircraft bathed her in, seemed sunken, sad, eyes that had glimpsed something that no-one should ever have to witness.
‘The scene we have been witnessing, in this medium sized town popular as a holiday destination for families young and old, is one of bedlam. It seems – and even as I utter these words, I know how incredible they must sound – but it seems that these normal townsfolk have become something altogether different. Where once elderly relatives, young grandchildren, and all in between lived in harmony, now the population has turned feral. Has taken to eating human flesh.’
The reporter paused, actually hung her head, as if she could not quite believe the words she was obliged to say.
‘Most people are affected, though reports have been coming in of a very select few who seem immune. If you are amongst those number, please, get underground. Find the cellar of a pub, the basement of a house. Get off the streets. Get out of the houses for, in five minutes, a cataclysm is coming, though this is no natural disaster, but one ordered by the highest echelons of European, even world power.’
Again, she paused, seeming out of breath, every syllable a sufferance, and it seemed that all she truly wanted to do was to break down and cry and, Twitch thought, who could possibly blame her.
‘The condition at this time has no formal name, but those afflicted have come to be known as The Risen. Best guess so far, it is believed to be transmitted as an airborne pathogen and initial reports appear to indicate that the agent is not of natural origin.’
Lisa and Twitch exchanged glances at this development.
‘Though no organisation or state has as of yet claimed responsibility, attention is very much focused on the Middle East, with Iran, just moments ago, issuing a statement denouncing the biological attack, and assuring the West that it was not responsible……’
As the report continued, the ground shook with the first rumble of a distant explosion.
Emily stepped between Lisa and Twitch, reached out and turned off the set.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said ‘I can’t watch any more.’
Lisa extended an arm, and squeezed her shoulder reassuringly. No words were exchanged for, truly, none were needed. Instead, Twitch moved to the window once more, pulling the curtains wide now that the television had been switched off.
‘Come look,’ he said to the two women.
Emily and Lisa joined him, and all three stared, puzzled, at The Risen in the street beyond, for they were now motionless, all facing the same direction, gazing off to the right, though upwards, staring into the sky.
Again, the trio felt the ground tremble, more intensely this time and, though the world outside should have been almost completely dark, instead a dim glow seemed to permeate from the direction of The Risen’s focus.
‘Let’s go see,’ said Lisa and, when no-one argued, proceeded to head back through the house, moving the table out of the way with her mind, ignoring the small gasp that escaped from Emily, out the kitchen door, through the gate and back down the alleyway, cautious as she approached the end point of the passage, lest The Risen’s attention have moved on. But no. Still they stood, statuesque, staring to the right and, as Lisa exited the entryway and joined the street herself, it was easy to see why they, even in their animalistic, instinct driven way, should be so awed for, from horizon to horizon, as far as could be seen over the rooftops and trees that lined the street, the sky was ablaze, a red-orange inferno, almost blinding in its intensity, a possible portal into a Dantesque vision of hell and the diabolica, and a sight that numbed Lisa so absolutely she felt certain her heart was about to cease beating.
Behind her, the footsteps of Twitch and Emily.
Nobody spoke as the fireball raced towards them, heat steadily rising.
Lisa felt someone take her right hand, then her left, and realised that both Emily and Twitch had joined with her for this moment, surely their last on Earth and, strangely, Lisa felt the same connection with Emily as she did with Twitch and, in that instant, she realised that Emily was the same as them, one of The Gifted, though her powers had never manifested as she had never been exposed to the necessary drugs. Perhaps that’s why she survived, Lisa surmised. Perhaps that’s why all three of them had. Just one more effect; the survivors, Gifted all.
Still the flames raged towards them and now, suddenly, The Risen around them stirred, though not with motion, with sound, each issuing a low, sibilant moan which, for all the world, sounded like a field of aggravated cows mooing their displeasure at something that had unnerved them; a dog perhaps, or a fox. But the calamity that raced towards the street where they stood was far more perilous than a mere animal, and Lisa knew with absolute certainty that this was the end of her life and, oddly, she felt little in the way of fear, instead turning her mind to the positive, pleased that, if it were to end, at least it ended with Twitch at her side; her companion; her soul-mate; her friend.
'Guess we'll never know,' she said, pointing at the wound inflicted on her cheek.
'Guess not,' he said softly.
‘I love you, Twitch,’ she said simply.
‘I love you Lise,’ he obliged, then the fireball struck and, for seconds, at least, the pair of them joined their minds, fought against the enormous energy, kept the forces of raining tumult and heat and fire away from their bodies, formed a force-field of sorts so that, should anybody have been observing, the three of them, Twitch, Lisa and Emily, would have appeared to exist in a bubble, protected from the devastating heat-wave that surrounded them but, as powerful as they were, even they could not resist this onslaught and, with one last pulse of love sent outwards towards each other, the force they emitted died and, in that instant, their bodies vaporised, carried on the winds that aimed to purge the lands, to blast it clean, sterilised, so that life could once more flourish.
But that was then.
One Year Later:
The small vessel bobbed on the surface of the English Channel, apparently unoccupied, though certainly not unobserved. Carried by currents from the south coast of England, the craft was five kilometres from Cherbourg, France when the missiles struck, obliterating it completely.
Ten Years Later
The leather booted feet that trod on the jetty at Plymouth moved quickly, their owner clad from head to foot in camouflage gear. Behind him, more soldiers, some American, some French, some Canadian. All wore expressions that screamed of their anxiety.
No need for HazMat suits, they had been told, no pathogen could have survived this long.
Britain is clean, they were assured, your job is to see if anyone survived.
Soldiers they may be, but stupid they were not, and each and every one of them knew the true purpose of their mission. It was why the nationalities were mixed. No one nation would commit to the mission, so lots were drawn, in effect, and a coalition formed.
They were guinea pigs, a scout party, sent to see if the air really was clear, sent to determine if the devastating biological agent deployed by an Iranian government long since removed from power had indeed survived.
Within ten minutes, the answer was clear.
On the ground, eight soldiers lay motionless..
Then the keening began, and unlife returned to their corpses.
And Britain remained no more.
© Ian Stevens (2017)
© Ian Stevens (2017)