filled his backpack with bottle after bottle of whisky. He watched
the others gather food, whatever they could find in refrigerators and
pantries – cheese, biscuits, canned goods. Edibles that weren’t
going to rot too soon. McGrigor just brought bottles of Scotch; all
the way up that hill he rattled with the sound of clinking glass.
Preacher gave him long looks of disapproval, making it clear he’d
feel righteously indignant when McGrigor asked for food. Except
McGrigor never did. Whenever they stopped, he just raised a bottle
and poured back another mouthful of brown liquid.
walked for hours that day, hitting the higher ground. The Preacher
led them, and when he spotted the cottage he spun back excitedly and
pointed. The Preacher wore a big smile, but a smile no longer suited
his face – whenever he attempted one he just looked like a
harbinger of death. His appearance was now so tired and careworn that
deep grooves replaced the lines on his face.
were only four of them walking. McGrigor took the rear; it suited him
to keep the others up front. The Kid staggered on in front of him in
perpetual shock, his emotions as if pressed hard to a cheese grater.
He barely spoke, just followed and stared on with confused moon eyes.
He’d seen some terrible things. But they all had.
Woman walked in front of The Kid. She wasn’t that much older than
the boy and was holding it together only slightly better than him. A
sob or a tearful murmur accompanied every step; a hand constantly
wiped her eyes, her nose, her dribbling mouth. Her constant gasps
made her forever breathless.
Preacher – the guy in charge, the guy who so obviously cared –
took the lead. He had that do-gooder preacher quality, always
leading, absolutely convinced salvation awaited them and that they’d
somehow be saved. Forever wittering about right and wrong – as if
that mattered anymore.
cabin was isolated on the rocky terrain, but it was shelter, a place
to go. The Preacher smiled that dreadful smile,
which whilst sincere was as far away from hope as any smile could be.
The Preacher was breathless. “I told you I’d find somewhere
Woman cheered at The Preacher’s announcement, a thin struggling
sound, like an asthmatic pleased to have finished a race. The Kid
just stopped and stared. McGrigor didn’t know if a smile or any
other emotion crossed his dazed face.
pulled the bag off his shoulder and removed a half-drunk bottle. He
raised it to his mouth and poured back a long gulp. The Preacher’s
disapproving glare made him lower the bottle. A stiff drink
evidentially wasn’t the reaction The Preacher wanted to his news.
He wanted joy, rapture, an acknowledgement that he – The goddamn
Preacher! – had led them to sanctuary.
response, McGrigor just took another drink. Why had he even followed
The Preacher? He knew it was because he was scared, like a four year
old who has lost his mother. For some reason McGrigor had believed
The Preacher when he started his tales about a better place,
somewhere everything was still okay.
had believed even though part of him screamed he was being stupid.
And now he had woken up, realised there were no sanctuaries, that
they were doomed just like everybody else. It was real nice of The
Preacher to find somewhere for the night, a place to keep the cold
off, but he wasn’t going to fall to his knees and proclaim
‘Hallelujah!’ for it.
took them three hours to get there – the rocky terrain, the
treacherous path, the fact they were all so tired. For a long time,
the cabin remained rooted on the horizon. McGrigor wondered if it was
just an illusion, a mirage, a trick played by their wearying minds to
give them a false sense of hope.
Kid and The Woman took turns at stumbling, their hands reaching out
to stop their faces from smashing into the hillside. Whenever it
happened they looked up quickly, in the direction of the cabin, as if
trying to make sure it was still there, that it hadn’t vanished in
that instant of distraction.
reached it just before nightfall, a wood and stone cottage with a
couple of rooms – rustic and rural. Once upon a time it was no
doubt home to some rosy-cheeked labourer and his plump and fruity
wife. Now it stood deserted, now it seemed lost, as if it had
wandered away from its hamlet and stranded itself high up in the
took a breath – his chest aching, his legs swollen, his brow
strained with furrowing. He wasn’t drunk; he’d drunk too much for
that in recent weeks. The booze kept him going.
the spirit of charity he should probably have given The Kid some
alcohol, remove that dreadful puss from his face. Maybe The Woman
would have appreciated it, to stop her crying, maybe make her really
cry so she could flush it all from her system. And The Preacher –
let him go crazy, let him indulge, get him paralytic so he wouldn’t
be so ridiculously insufferable.
was, McGrigor didn’t want to share. He had a limited supply and
didn’t have the strength to stagger back to get more. If only he
hadn’t listened to The Preacher, if only he’d stayed in the city
and hadn’t been convinced by fairy tales. There was plenty to drink
in the city, enough to keep him going – and he’d been stupid
enough to walk away.
Preacher’s smile – tombstone teeth in a dead face – tried to
force optimism on them all. He waited for them to catch up; he waited
for The Woman. She staggered towards him on unsteady and bruised
legs. The Preacher took her arm to support her, to give her little
choice but to fall into him. This was no righteous preacher.
her waist in his clasp, he turned and walked to the cabin. He didn’t
wait for The Kid; he didn’t even look at McGrigor. He just led The
Woman, dragged her, to the aged safe-house. If he’d had the
strength he’d have carried her over the threshold.
we are!” said The Preacher. “Here we are. This should look after
our needs for a while.”
was dank inside. There were three rooms – a front room, what once
had been a kitchen and what once had been a bedroom – each with
cold stone walls and wooden beams. There was no furniture anymore, it
had clearly been abandoned a long time and now mainly functioned as a
lavatory for wild animals. The windows were secure, the doors were
heavy with big locks, and once inside they’d supposedly feel safe.
Preacher led The Woman on a tour, like it was their first home, a
grin on his face, a sparkle in his eyes – all so distant from the
reality of the situation. The Woman snivelled beside him, wanting to
sit down, desperate to collapse but too weak to separate herself from
Kid did collapse. He slid down against the wall, his clear blue eyes
staring out with no hint of life behind them. McGrigor took another
drink, silently toasting what he knew would be his last ever home.
Preacher let go of The Woman and she fell away from him. An almost
faint, her body just remembering it had to bend its legs and drop its
behind to sit down. The Preacher looked around at his companions.
he said to The Kid. “How are you, Andrew? Are you alright? We’re
here now. We’re away from it.”
Kid didn’t even look at him.
know you’re scared, I know you’re frightened, I know you’ve
seen terrible things – but really, we’re in the best place now.
nothing from The Kid.
it.” said The Preacher. “You just rest now.” He looked at
McGrigor. “You. Are you enjoying that drink?”
you think there are more constructive things for you to do than drink
yourself to death?”
really would think so, wouldn’t you? But to be honest I think I’ll
just keep on drinking and let death take its chances.”
Preacher glared at him, and McGrigor took a triumphant sip, careful
not to spill a drop.
each settled into a corner for the night. The Preacher would clearly
have loved to slip his arm around The Woman, hold her through the
night, soothe her, warm her with the heat from his body – but she
whimpered when he came near. He whistled it off, a brief tune of
disappointment, and then he settled opposite her, his eyes nowhere
but on her. The Kid stayed where he’d collapsed, and McGrigor
crouched by the door, bottle in hand.
fell and McGrigor tried to get comfortable on the cold stone floor.
He drank and calculated how long he could keep drinking from the ten
bottles he still had. Seven days, maybe more. He’d lost track of
how much he’d already drunk; it was like asking someone how many
particles of breath they’d used. He figured about a week and then
he’d have to decide what to do, whether he could still get some
dawn came The Kid shivered at the cold and clutched his hands around
him, The Woman brought her shoulders together, and The Preacher,
after a moment of stiffness – after a moment of nervous shaking
where he gave away a fraction of what he really felt – grabbed onto
the cold as if it were bracing, as if it were something that would do
to do?” he asked. “What to do?”
course, there was nothing to do – not really, not that would make
the slightest difference. There was a chance they were the last four
people alive, the soggy cigarette butt of humanity. There was nothing
they could do, no decisions they could take, no changes they could
make – nothing. They could just wait and stare or wait and sob or
wait and drink.
Preacher didn’t agree. He’d clearly been one of those people who
enjoyed having every moment of his time occupied. The type who
revelled in daybreak starts and enjoyed long hikes to some pointless
wherever, who once at that pointless nowhere clung to a grim
determination to make the best of it.
Preacher wandered through the cottage, and McGrigor watched him from
the corner of his eye, careful not to stare, avoiding eye-contact.
The Preacher had an eagerness about him, a desperation to please and
be pleased. And even though McGrigor knew it was coming, even though
McGrigor saw its arrival, he still greeted The Preacher’s clap of
hands with a shudder. It was an unpleasant sound, a burst of thunder
when you’re lost in a valley with nowhere to hide.
said The Preacher. “We really shouldn’t spend all day idle. There
are things to do. I think we’re going to be here awhile, aren’t
we? Yes we are. And since we’re going to be here awhile, we have to
make what they call the best of it.”
The Woman looked at him, and even she seemed baffled.
don’t know about you people, but I was cold last night,” said The
Preacher. “Actually, I do know about you people. I saw you
shivering there, Andrew, there’s no need to pretend to be hardy
now. And Linda my dear, I nearly put my arms around you last night to
keep your teeth from chattering. And You… Well, how could you
possibly get cold with all that
smiled at the stone floor.
what I suggest is that we get some firewood, some kindling for
tonight. There are those trees outside and I think we can take off
the loose branches quite easily.”
they trees?” asked McGrigor, still not looking up.
trees!” said The Preacher. “Do you think I don’t know what
trees are? Do you really think I’d lead you elsewhere?”
waited for McGrigor to meet his eye, then realised it wasn’t going
to happen this lifetime.
what I suggest, Andrew, is that you go out and get whatever loose
branches you can. Either those that have snapped and fallen to the
ground, or those you can break off yourself. That way we can make a
base for our fire. And – you’ll be pleased to hear – I’ve
already taken a look around, and behind this cottage is an axe. It’s
old and it’s rusty, but I think I have the smarts about me to
sharpen it up. So what do you say, Andrew? You get the easy wood, and
I’ll come behind and get the solid fuel. Does that sound like a
plan? Does it?”
Kid said nothing, and The Preacher took that as assent.
then, Linda,” he said, leaning over her, his mouth a few inches
above the top of her head. “Now then – what are you going to do?
Well, it occurs to me that we have plenty of canned food – and of
course our friend there has supplies if we should ever want to throw
a party – but it strikes me it would be silliness to come all this
way and then die of scurvy. So what I suggest is: there are a number
of bushes out beyond this cottage – and they are
bushes – and what you could do is take a look if there is anything
edible on them. Just go out and pick a berry from each –
remembering which you took each berry from – and bring them back
here. Don’t eat them, whatever you do, just bring them back and
show them to me. I’m not a horticulturist, but I have been on
enough nature rambles to have a good idea what’s sweet and what’s
not. Can you do that for me? Can you, my dear? Can you?”
she said, with a nod that could easily have been a shiver.
He stroked his hand across her hair, resisting the urge to reward her
with a kiss.
you,” said The Preacher. “What are you going to do?”
took a swig from his bottle.
not very helpful!”
the contrary,” said McGrigor. “It’s helping me no end.”
about like a drunken bum is helping, is it?”
if you play nice I’ll let you try some and see if it helps you,
too.” He took another gulp.
you going to do nothing, is that it?” asked The Preacher. His face
turned an odd shade of puce, and McGrigor noticed how weary the
Preacher looked. “Are you just going to sit there and drink and
obliterate yourself? Is that all you’re going to do? Is that all
you’re capable of doing? Is it? Is it? I’m trying to help here,
I’m trying to make things easier for all of us, and that task would
be a great deal simpler if you would get up off your drunken backside
and lend some kind of support.”
the point?” asked McGrigor. “How long do you think you’re going
to live? A day? Two days? Do you think our brief time in this old
shack will be improved by you managing to hang curtains? What does it
matter? Berries? Do you think we have enough time to die of scurvy?
Do you really think – all things considered – that the illness we
have to worry about is the common cold, the flu, hypothermia?”
Preacher’s face reddened and his lips pouted; he looked like a
child about to throw a tantrum. “Don’t say that! Do not say that!
You don’t know how long we can live for up here. We’re away from
the city now; we’re away from that-that… that illness. It’s a
different air up here; it’s a different feel. You don’t know how
long we can live for. We could get better, we can make a new start.
If we have some heat, if we have some fresh food – you never know
what might happen.”
won’t get better,” said McGrigor.
don’t know that!” screamed The Preacher.
might get better,” The Woman sobbed.
listen to him.” said McGrigor. “It’s inside us, in our bones.
It’s not about to go away because we’ve started eating berries.
Do you understand me? This is it, this is over, this is where we
say that!” said The Preacher, taking an angry step towards him.
you think no one lived on a hill? Do you think no one lived on a
mountain? Of course they did – they lived there with all the fire
and berries they could possibly want – and it got them too. People
went to the goddamn hills when this started, they got in their cars
and just zoomed. We haven’t heard from them since, have we? Not one
of them sent a message back saying its all fine up there, that the
human race can be saved with just a switch to higher ground. They
haven’t done that, they haven’t made a peep… And do you know
why? It’s not because they’re trying to keep all the berries and
fire for themselves. It’s because it’s not safe there either.”
the rage popping out in sweat bubbles on his forehead, The Preacher
stood a good half a foot shorter than McGrigor, and his eyes darted
to the bottle in the bigger man’s hand. He took a wary step back,
spluttering and clenching his fists but keeping a comfortable
what exactly are you going to do?” asked The Preacher.
hardly fair.” said The Preacher. “If we’re out there toiling,
it’s unreasonable for you to stay in here and just inebriate
Preacher,” said McGrigor. It was the first time he’d actually
called him that, and surprised confusion crossed The Preacher’s
face. “I won’t eat any of your berries, I’ll keep a respectful
distance from your fire, and I won’t take the benefit of any of
your labours. You just leave me be, and I’ll let you enjoy your
are you going to do when that whisky runs out?” asked The Preacher.
the big question, isn’t it? But tell you what, you can let me worry
you just help us a little bit?” asked The Woman, her tearful blue
eyes meeting his. It was the first time he’d looked into a pair of
eyes for what felt like an aeon. He’d kind of lost his taste for
them. “There’s a lot to do, and you’re the strongest of us.”
looked away. “You’ll manage. If The Preacher is right, this
mountain air is so bracing you’ll have all the strength and energy
you’ll want in no time.”
on, my dear,” said The Preacher. He wound his arm around her
shoulders and pulled her to her feet. “Come on, my dear; let’s
leave him now.”
Woman continued to stare at McGrigor, and he continued to stare away.
one arm holding The Woman, The Preacher leant down and cupped his
hand around The Kid’s jaw. The Kid just stared ahead, seemingly
unaware of anything around him.
on then, young man,” said The Preacher. “You can still be
helpful. Yes you can. Let’s go outside now, get us some firewood.
Don’t worry, Andrew, I know how dreadful it’s been for you, I
know how awful it’s been for all of us. But it’s going to get
better from now. I promise.”
Kid staggered up, and McGrigor felt sorry for him – the poor
bastard was little more than a zombie.
the low sun blessed them all, the noise of work began. McGrigor heard
The Preacher give his instructions again, and then there was a silent
interlude before the sound of lovely hard work beginning. McGrigor
guessed The Preacher was sharpening the axe – using stones and
swinging the blade back and fore against them. He even heard The
Preacher whistling and knew it was entirely for effect; the idiot
just wanted to show what a good worker he was, how enjoyable the
whole business of
wondered if anyone else could hear him, and then wondered how far
behind the cottage those bushes were. Maybe The Woman was just out of
his sight and The Preacher was once again pretending it was just the
two of them in a countryside idyll.
McGrigor straightened his limbs and made it out of the cottage,
sitting on the doorstep with the sun’s rays upon him. Of course, in
his right hand was a sensible daytime draw of whisky.
squinted at the view. He hadn’t realised how far up they’d come,
how far they’d removed themselves from the city. It was a grey,
amorphous mass in the distance. The Preacher had promised to take
them away from it.
wasn’t going to save them, though.
Preacher had managed to snap The Kid into something resembling work.
He slowly bent down and picked up dry twigs and branches and made a
neat little pile. He still stared vaguely though, he still looked
like he had no comprehension of the world around him. McGrigor heard
The Preacher, still sharpening the axe, the repeated sound of metal
against rock. The Woman came round the corner. She held the frayed
hem of her T-shirt in front of her – a tray for her collected
berries – and she hesitated when she saw McGrigor. She stumbled a
little, bit her lip, and then perched down next to him.
she said. “Are these berries edible?”
looked at them, a collection of reds, oranges and greens. “I’ve
no idea. I’m not what you’d call a berry man.”
worry, The Preacher will know.”
he a preacher?”
shrugged and smiled.
scream was revolting. They’d heard similar screams, but somehow up
here it was much worse. They’d got used to that sound in the city –
from friends, loved ones, strangers at the distance – but up here
it echoed, up here it was only the scream and a void.
Kid convulsed in agony. Blood spurted from his eyes and mouth, and he
screamed as if his tongue were being ripped loose. His arms and hands
writhed at his side, and blood dripped down from his fingernails.
feet were first to go. The feet were always first to go. He screamed
as his toes and heels broke through his skin and attached themselves
to the ground. He staggered as the blood spurted from his soles, but
he couldn’t fall – he was spiked to the ground by his own
skeleton. He tried to pull away, to raise his feet up before they
took hold, to snap himself off at the ankles – but he was stuck,
caught in agony, and he cried out in desperation.
bones in his feet took firm hold of the ground beneath him, and then
his flesh started to break apart. His shins first, ripping out of the
skin and muscle of his legs. The blood sprayed off, both red and
green. The shin-bone gleamed in the sunlight, the white of the bone
tainted by a plant-like hue. His arms went next, the bones forcing
themselves up so that the blood and flesh dropped to the stone below.
convulsions were extreme, his hips and waist shaking themselves free
of flesh – his stomach and colon slipping down as if slurry. They
splattered to the ground, rotting almost instantly in the sun. He
screamed again, a gargle – as he was now without tongue. What had
once been his heart, what had once beat and kept him alive, now burst
from his chest. Moments before it had been the centre of a human
being, now it looked like long forgotten carrion.
the head remained, the final hint of humanity on a twisted skeleton.
The skin and tendons and veins and muscles were all torn away at the
neck, the face showered and smothered in blood. But despite the
tortured expression of terror and pain, The Kid was still
recognisable. His eyes still wide.
head spasmed. Its
head spasmed. It rocked back and fore, jerked violently, tried to
free itself from the encumbrance of flesh. The rigid skeleton stood
transfixed; in a strong wind it would only bend slightly. The head
contorted, blood and flesh flew from it, red and green globules
thrown through the air, removing the last taint of man.
only took a moment, but it seemed so much longer because of the
sound. Somewhere in that husk of a head was still a larynx, and The
Kid screamed – hoping for someone to save him, for the pain to end.
didn’t last long. Every sinew fell away, and all that was left was
a distorted skeleton, a dark artist’s terrible representation of a
bare human being, a green twisted sketch of a man rooted
the ground, the eyeballs hanging in their sockets as two shiny
screamed The Preacher. He charged forward, the axe above his head,
the blade glinting in the sunlight.
Woman got up, spilling her berries, eager to help. McGrigor grabbed
her arm and threw her back, flung her through the doorway to the
cottage. She gave a scream and a thud as she hit the floor.
Preacher made it to what had been The Kid and almost slipped on his
blood. He steadied himself – his look of anguish visible from the
cottage – and took a swing.
skeleton was tough; you couldn’t just break it with a swing of an
axe. You could pierce it maybe, but you weren’t going to fracture
the bone. It shook a little at the blow, but didn’t really move.
The flower eyes swung from side to side, staring at The Preacher with
Preacher tried again, swinging at the leg. This time the handle of
the old, neglected, damp axe snapped, and the blade spun away. The
skeleton stood, while The Preacher fell to his face on the blood and
flesh splattered rock.
stepped inside the cottage and looked at The Woman. He shut the door
behind them, bolting it as securely as he could.
started six weeks earlier – people just began to change. A few
changed, and then all in their vicinity changed, and soon it was
clear that everyone was sick. While there was still a media – when
there were still enough people alive to run newspapers and television
and the internet – various theories were put forward. Pundits said
it was a virus from outer space, that it was a chemical weapon leaked
from one of the world’s more aggressive regimes, that it was a
sudden step in evolution.
didn’t really matter, all that mattered was that millions of people
were dying, sprouting into these terrible plants.
Preacher raised himself on slippery fingers, wailing skywards at the
horror of it all. He looked at the cottage, and his wail stopped, his
righteous fury as to what was happening in the world choked by his
immediate fury. He staggered forward, getting his balance, his shirt
smothered by what had once been The Kid.
grabbed one of the empty bottles and rammed it into the wall –
breaking it. He heard The Preacher yelling at him, yelling at them –
some garbled rant as he charged towards the cottage.
are you doing?” asked The Woman.
in all of us,” said McGrigor, his eyes not leaving The Preacher.
“It’s already there inside us; it’s just a question of when.
But if you go near one of those things, if you break it – say with
an axe – then it gives off a spray, an invisible scent that speeds
up your own change. If you roll around in that thing’s blood, that
also accelerates your transformation. That bastard Preacher is so
stupid he’s managed to do both. He’ll be gone by morning, and I’m
not having him in here when he does.”
Preacher raced towards them.
are you doing?” he yelled. “What are you doing to me? You can’t
leave me out here! I brought you here. I made this place. I gave it
to you. You filthy drunk! What the hell are you doing? How can you do
this to me? My dear, don’t listen to him, don’t listen to what
he’s telling you. Let me in there please, you have to let me in.
Don’t listen to what he’s saying, just let me in – just bloody
let me in!”
reached the door and started to shake it. McGrigor stood the other
side with broken bottle in hand, just in case The Preacher was more
powerful than he looked. The Preacher grabbed at the door, rattled
it, but got little give.
Preacher went to the window and McGrigor went with him, holding up
the jagged weapon. The Preacher shuddered, unwilling to break his
hand through just to have that forced into him. He vanished from
sight and McGrigor went to the next window and the window afterwards,
and each time found The Preacher on the other side pushing his
fingers to the glass.
me in!” screamed The Preacher. “Please let me in. You have to let
me in, you just have to!”
have to let him in!” yelled The Woman, still on the floor. “Please,
you have to let him in!”
long do you want to live for?” snarled McGrigor. “Do you want it
to be a day or do you want it to be an hour? If it’s the latter,
then I’ll unbolt that door right now. Why not? If you want to give
yourself up so easily then why don’t we do that? But I figure if
you marched all this way, then you’re not that keen on a quick
death. And if that’s the case, then shut up and let me do this!”
me in!” said The Preacher, weeping now. “For God’s heart, let
him in,” cried The Woman, “Let him in.”
up!” barked McGrigor.
made it round every window in the cottage, The Preacher’s face
becoming more anguished as McGrigor’s became more determined. They
did a second loop, dancing together through the stone wall. It was as
if The Preacher thought he’d get to a window McGrigor had
forgotten, as if he thought McGrigor would keel over drunk. They went
round a third time – McGrigor more animated with the bottle, bored
of the game, annoyed that The Preacher wasn’t taking the hint.
fell and The Preacher drifted away – he wasn’t at any of the
windows, he wasn’t in sight. McGrigor peered out but couldn’t
glimpse him. He guessed he was hiding, waiting. McGrigor kept the
broken bottle at his side, just hoping his own stock of strength
lasted longer than The Preacher’s.
unscrewed the top of a full bottle and took several gulps. The Woman
continued to stare at him, fear in every inch of her.
sorry,” he said. “I’ve just got very used to looking after
myself. That isn’t about to change now, and you should feel
thankful I’ve saved you too.”
night-time gloom came on them fast. McGrigor kept vigil, trying to
penetrate the dark – but there was no Preacher, no movement. That
insufferable bastard couldn’t have changed yet; they’d have heard
it. They always screamed, every single one of them screamed.
Woman brought her knees up in front of her and started to rock
backwards and forwards. There were tears on her cheeks, but they
didn’t look fresh, they looked like they’d been wept months ago
and had stained the skin permanently. She didn’t look at McGrigor;
she just looked at that solid stone floor on which – you’d
imagine – it would be impossible for any plant to grow. McGrigor
paced in front of her, a full bottle in one hand, the broken one
ready in the other.
first rock shattered the glass just as full darkness came. It burst
through the front window and landed beside The Woman’s legs. She
screamed but seemed unhurt. McGrigor held his weapon up and moved
cautiously to the broken frame, he couldn’t see anything.
was another smash, in the kitchen this time, another rock hurled
through the glass. McGrigor ran, ready to confront The Preacher if he
came through. Again he peered out and there was nothing. There was no
movement, no glimpse of man – only a third smash, this time in the
bedroom. The Woman screamed as McGrigor raced past her. Again there
was nobody trying to crawl through, no smug face of The Preacher.
other window in the front room exploded – this time a shard of
glass flew by and cut The Woman’s ankle. She screamed and then
stopped, clutching it with a pained expression that showed more
stoicism than McGrigor had credited her with. Again there was no
Preacher, but McGrigor knew what was next and made it to the kitchen
before the rock took out that other window, and to the bedroom before
the stone removed the remaining pane. He even jabbed at it with his
trusty weapon – but there was no hand reaching through, there was
stood and listened. There were no windows anymore. There was no
sound. He wouldn’t have said The Preacher was the kind of man to
crawl through broken windows. He certainly wouldn’t crawl through
to have a bottle forced into his face. It was all down to waiting
again, it was all down to who lasted the longest – him or The
Preacher. He took another swig of whisky.
patrolled the inside of the cottage. It was darker inside than out,
but McGrigor soon found a path and even knew when to raise his feet
to climb over The Woman’s legs. She was quiet, maybe listening in
the dark, maybe dozing.
talked the whole time, letting The Preacher know he was awake. He
invited him in, told him what would happen if he tried to get in. He
called him a bad preacher, a worthless preacher, a lecherous
preacher, a lonely preacher, a preacher without a flock.
were no sounds outside; when he stopped his monologue he couldn’t
hear a thing. Sometimes he thought The Preacher was near – that he
was crouching down just below one of the windows, waiting for his
opportunity. He could almost smell The Preacher’s sweat, that
disgusting mix of salt water and pollen they always produced at the
end. He stayed vigilant, stayed awake, stayed ready. His hands
trembled, he knew too well what would happen if The Preacher got in,
if he was allowed to change within four close walls. He and The Woman
would be gone by afternoon, and he intended to live longer than that
– even if he was the last man on Earth.
Preacher was furtive, The Preacher was quick, The Preacher was
sneaky. McGrigor looked out at the darkness and wished it was light,
wished there was something to see. His legs ached, his chest was
filled with fluid – weighing him down, drowning him.
throat hurt but he continued to speak: “You alright there,
Preacher? How you doing, Preacher? I don’t recommend coming in,
Preacher, I really don’t!” He wanted to sit down, he wanted to
rest, he wanted to close his eyes for a moment. How could The
Preacher have more energy than him? How could he possibly have more
stamina? He was sicker, older, wandering around on rough terrain as
opposed to the flat floor of the cottage. It wasn’t right he could
do that. It was wrong he had so much fortitude.
it happened. McGrigor was prowling the front room, while The Woman
shivered in silence. They heard the scream; it came from the
direction of the kitchen. Both swallowed with familiar dread.
McGrigor slammed the kitchen door, bolting it so nothing in there
could get out. The scream burst in at them – dreadful, high pitched
and accelerating. It seemed to go beyond the range of a human voice
box, as if every muscle, tendon and bone was being forced through a
grinder to create this scream.
Woman scrambled to her knees and clutched McGrigor’s legs. The
scream got higher – they could hear bones tear through flesh, the
limbs of the plant ripping apart the limbs of the man. There was the
splat of blood and the slide of flesh and the scream stopped.
Somewhere in the dark was another of those plants. The Preacher’s
eyes staring out, a sad flower.
shook The Woman’s grasp from him and collapsed to the floor,
leaning back against the wall and taking another sanctuary bolt of
should never have left the city, but they were everywhere in the
city. You’d find them on street corners, in supermarkets; the doors
of second floor apartments were broken down and there it was in front
of the TV. People cut them – they used knives, they used machetes,
they charged at them with their cars.
it didn’t matter. It was soon clear that if you broke one,
something was released that sped up your own illness – so before
long you’d replaced it. That was the reason they couldn’t
research it properly. No matter how many layers of protective
clothing the scientists wore as they wielded their scalpels, it
always got through, it always took them. Soon there was no one left
to research it, and even the thinnest slice of hope was given up. It
got into you, got into your bones, twisted their DNA, made you
something that wasn’t you. As soon as it was strong enough, it
discarded the flesh and the heart and the brain and stood on its own
in the world. It destroyed what was you and then replaced you.
Speller was the first – he was a nobody, a farmer, a man who’d
never done anything interesting in his life. Two weeks later the
President of the United States was on television announcing his plans
to save the world; in two more weeks there was no President of the
United States. Not long after that a band of survivors came together
and made a bid for the higher ground. One of them took on the mantle
of authority and told them things would be better up there.
was sitting in a doorway when they found him. They’d jumped on him,
hugged him, held him as a friend. He hadn’t really believed The
Preacher, but he had no better idea and nowhere else to go. There’d
been seven of them originally, but they’d lost three on the way –
one before they even left the city – and now there were only two.
Possibly the last man and woman on Earth, Adam and Eve in reverse,
soon to leave this planet with nothing but animals and plants.
dawn came they sat on opposite sides of the front room. McGrigor had
let the broken bottle fall, but kept a firm grip on the whisky laden
one. The Woman looked as if she was in a trance, her eyes open but
stood slowly and took a swig of booze. He glanced at The Woman, and
then cautiously opened the kitchen door.
it was, right outside the broken windows, a green/white twisted
version of a human skeleton. He stared at it, examining the skull,
trying to make out something of The Preacher, a sign it had once been
a man. It was clearly based on man, but distorted. The agonies of
death had stretched and bent and elongated the skull, so it was now
impossible to place a human face on top of it – even if you knew
what that face had looked like.
only humanity was the eyes, the same eyes that had been there when it
wore an overcoat of flesh. Now they shone in pain and agony, in
astonishment at what had happened, even though they knew it was
coming. They were The Preacher’s eyes, but they weren’t. No one’s
eyes really look like that except in the throes of torture. Before
long the whites would turn green, and then other similar flowers
would grow across the bones – green and blue, green and brown,
green and green – the fruit of this unusual plant.
bolted the kitchen door and sat opposite The Woman – Linda. They
stared at each other across the cold floor.
you want a drink?” he asked.
shook her head.
shake was more of a tremble this time, but still adamant.
should,” he said. “It’s good for you.”
watched her, her hand still clutching her injured leg, her eyes still
weepy. He’d never seen them anything other than tearful. When he
first saw her, she already looked like she couldn’t walk from
have you lost?” she asked.
have I lost?” he said. “The usual, a few people, a few things –
what would basically constitute my life. How about you?”
parents,” she said.
I lost my parents too. At least I think I did. They live a long way
from here and one day they didn’t pick up the phone. By that point
it was just too far to travel, so I had to assume I’d lost them. In
a way that’s more comforting, as there’s always that small chance
they might still be there.”
lost my brother,” she said.
think I lost my sister. She lived near my parents. Did you see
lost all my friends.”
lost both of mine.” He smiled. She didn’t acknowledge it.
you lose a partner?” she asked.
lost my girlfriend. We were in the process of breaking up. It had all
got very unpleasant and then this happened. Kind of put what went
before into context. I don’t regret what I said to her. A lot of it
she deserved. I just wish we’d both had that time to move on. You
know, that period where you try to meet someone else and the break up
doesn’t look so bad anymore. How about you? Did you lose a
boyfriend, husband, some dashing fiancée?”
shook her head.
took another bolt of whisky.
going to die, aren’t we?” she said.
were always going to die,” he said. “We just weren’t going to
die like this.”
so horrible,” she sniffed. “I’m going to die alone.”
laughed. “We’re both going to die alone.”
just feel so ill,” she sobbed. “I feel so sick and tired. I feel
you want that drink?”
raised her hand from her ankle and the wound was red and green.
stared at it.
he said. “It’s too late.”
shot across the floor, grabbed her arm and yanked her up. She offered
no resistance. He opened the bedroom door and hurled her in. She
screamed as she landed, looking at him with hurt and confused eyes.
Eyes like flowers. He shut the door and bolted it tight.
was infected – they were both infected – but she wasn’t far
off, and he didn’t want to sit with her as she turned. She used up
her last dregs of strength throwing her weight against the door. She
screamed, she begged, she pleaded – and then she stopped, the only
sound he heard was soft weeping.
were the windows, of course. They were all broken, but she’d seen
him with the bottle and he didn’t reckon she was any more foolhardy
than The Preacher. He guessed she’d stay where she was, and he’d
stay where he was.
took another drink. Back in the city he’d noticed how the
alcoholics were more resilient to this infection. The drunks in the
bars and the winos on the street corners all seemed to be the last to
go. There must be something in alcohol that suppressed it, kept it
under control. It was only when they ran out of booze that it
had nine bottles left. Maybe seven days drinking. What was he going
to do when he ran out? He knew he’d made a mistake following The
Preacher – but despite his cynicism, part of him had believed The
Preacher’s sermon, had hoped there’d be a new lease of life
higher up. He now knew how wrong he was. His future lay back in the
city, near a bar, a pub; maybe with some like-minded dipsos who’d
also figured it out.
what was he going to find if he went back? Would he be the only one,
would he wander familiar streets alone, staring at green eyes to try
and find old friends? Maybe it was better to accept his fate up here,
maybe it would be simpler to find the highest point and throw himself
off. He didn’t know what to do – drink himself alive or drink
himself to death. He had nine bottles left. He took another swig and
thought he’d decide in a day or two.
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had he done it?
had he said “Yes” to that absurd offer?
all, he’d felt an intense fear the moment that first email arrived.
The portents had been there, but he’d chosen to ignore them.
had got home late that night, having treated himself to a quick
after-work pint. Of course it had turned into a bit of a session and
three hours later he made it back. He came in, yelled “Hello,” to
his flatmate – who hadn’t actually made it home yet himself –
and then micro-waved some pasta from the fridge. While it was going
round and round he changed into the shorts and T-shirt he always wore
to bed and switched on his computer.
that point all was still okay.
some reason he wanted to check his email. There was no pressing need,
he wasn’t expecting any urgent missive, but since work didn’t
allow him access to his personal account he thought he’d take the
opportunity. It would all be spam no doubt, a dozen clicks of the
delete key and nothing useful for him whatsoever. But still he wanted
That was the question he asked himself later. What had got into him
that he was so anxious to see his email that night?
then, what did it matter? Even if he hadn’t seen it that night,
he’d have seen it the day after, or at the weekend, or whenever he
next checked it. He’d have looked at it at some point, and maybe he
would have responded in a different way then, or maybe he wouldn’t
have responded at all. Perhaps he’d have saved himself. But he
didn’t know that. He didn’t know what he might have done. It was
possible he’d have always replied “Yes” and that all of this
was always going to happen.
microwave beeped before the computer started and he whistled as he
went to the kitchen. It was odd, despite the beer he’d drunk he
didn’t feel that pissed. He felt merry certainly, but he should
have been drunker after what he’d had. Instead he felt good and
opened another can, as there was no point ruining that feeling by
whistling he emptied the pasta from the Tupperware container into the
bowl. He chucked the container into the sink, where it landed amongst
all the other kitchen detritus that neither he nor his flatmate had
been bothered to wash up. Sod it! That’s what they made weekends
for after all. With an actual skip in his step he carried the bowl
and a fork and went into his room to start up the internet.
world was still fine then, he thought. There was absolutely nothing
wrong with it that some more money, the right girl and a long holiday
in the sun couldn’t cure.
was maybe very little wrong with it at all, he realised later. He was
being spoilt, pampered. Everything around him was good – not
perfect – but good, he had the kind of life that lots of blokes his
age would have idly dreamt of. Any whines he had were pathetic.
soon find out how miserable life could get.
the bowl in one hand he typed his password into Yahoo and waited for
it to open. They did have a broadband package in the flat but it was
a shit one, they kept meaning to update it – another thing that
never managed to get done properly of a weekend.
it opened and he clicked through to his message page. It took a
moment to get there, so he grabbed the opportunity to shovel back a
couple of steaming forkfuls of soggy pasta. While still chewing he
slurped down some chilled lager straight from the can.
last the page appeared and it was pretty much what he’d expected. A
missive from his bank, something from an old friend who was currently
bumming around Spain and a load of spam emails offering him
credit-free loans and a super hard dick – sometimes in the same
there was something else too.
was an email he hadn’t expected.
when he thought back, he was convinced he’d felt a shudder even as
he pointed the curser at that message. It was as if he already sensed
trouble. But then he’d had to open it. There was a message from a
name he barely recognised, a person that he hadn’t heard from or
seen in such a long time and which at first glance he’d just
dismissed as spam. Perhaps he did have a slight chill on that second
glance when he recognised it, when he saw it was something more than
your randomly generated message. Maybe, when he realised that it came
from a person in his past – a person he thought was gone for good –
then he did have a brief flash of impending horror.
did he? Was there even a hesitation as he clicked on that message? He
didn’t know, he really didn’t. His memory played tricks on him,
after all he’d been through how could he not have an imagination
that lingered in the darkness? There was no way he could tell anymore
what he actually felt at the moment. Maybe he did have a cold sweat
that lacquered his entire body, or perhaps the food virtually rotted
in his mouth so that he nearly spat it out. It’s even possible he
wanted to run screaming into the street.
if he was honest, he’d have to say that he wasn’t as scared at
that moment as he should have been. There was some trepidation, but
any fear he remembered was an artificial memory. Sometimes he thought
he’d continued shovelling the food down as he waited to see what
this prick from university had written. He wasn’t a man gripped by
terror then, not someone who sensed what horrible things were in
store for him. At that point he was still a bloke who had a good
life, even if he didn’t realise it.
was only when the message opened that he actually felt a mild choke.
That was when the first feeling of terror gripped him.
stared at it, his jaw hanging momentarily slack.
stunned him was not the message itself, it was the way it was
written. The prick had sent it in the most bizarre font he’d ever
seen – not a style normally available on email, or even in Word. It
was gothic, but more than gothic. The words came through in a thick
and vicious scrawl. The letters all joined together as if they’d
been scraped onto paper in a passion of rage. That’s what they
looked like. Not that they’d been typed into a computer, but that
they’d been carved out and then scanned into the body of the email.
It was all perfect jet black, dark and deep, as if whichever fist had
committed these words had done so with furious force. Maybe it was
supposed to be funny, meant to remind him of artwork from the kind of
heavy metal albums he’d listened to at fourteen. Instead, the
unflinching black made him tremble.
was a moment when he literally shuddered. His fork was half-way to
his mouth and some of the pasta dropped away to his lap. He didn’t
even notice the heat against his thighs. The subject matter was
bland, the message itself was curious but innocuous, yet he was
suddenly incredibly scared. This wasn’t his memory playing tricks
with him, this was genuine. Fear had grabbed hold of his spine.
was as if there was something in the flat with him, something huge
and terrible that his mind couldn’t even begin to comprehend. His
eyes swivelled nervously, checking every corner of shadow in case
whatever this monster was leapt out at him. It was dark, why was he
checking his email after dark? That’s what his mind screamed out,
actually berating him for being foolish enough to check his messages
at any time other than safe daylight.
though he’d been eating, he now felt incredibly hungry. It was
almost as if there was something else inside of him, eating
everything he’d eaten and soon about to eat him. His hand trembled,
almost dropping the bowl, his mind consumed with fears of these
creatures that were all around him and inside of him.
was the matter with him? He tried to be calm, to breathe properly.
This was his flat after all, he’d lived there for three years and
knew he was perfectly safe. What did it matter if Bob wasn’t in? He
still wasn’t in danger in their flat. And for Christ’s sake, what
did it matter if it was night? He was a big boy now, it was a long
time since he’d been scared of the dark.
bowl was placed down by the side of the laptop and with a trembling
hand he took a hearty gulp of lager, trying to calm himself.
was all okay, everything was fine. This was just a short burst of
stupidity. Maybe someone had slipped something into his drink at the
pub. Very funny if they had, he’d never give them the satisfaction
of mentioning it.
he calmed, the panic subsided. It was just an email, a ridiculous
message from a bloke he hadn’t seen in ten years. There was nothing
disturbing in it, nothing to worry about. This bloke had always been
a prick, and so of course he was going to do something melodramatic
in his “long time no see” communication.
was no problem, certainly nothing to be scared of, but still he
couldn’t stare at it without seeing how creepy it was. It was the
way the words were typed – if they had been typed and not scrawled
out and scanned onto the screen. But why would the prick do that? Why
go to all that trouble? Whatever the reason, it took Mark a few
attempts before he could look at it without flinching.
was an old acquaintance catching up with him. Obviously this bloke
had thought about him and gone to the trouble of finding out how to
get in touch. But the feeling Mark got from the way the words were
laid out was sheer hatred.
subject line was simple enough, standard Times New Roman text.
was the body of the text that was disturbing – like a party of
tarantulas had been coerced into scraping their ink-stained legs into
these shapes – making it look as if something disgusting had been
even then, the message itself was fairly innocuous. It said:
have a proposition for you.
stared at it for a long time. His food got cold, his lager went flat.
A voice in his head told him to delete it, to add Giles White to his
spam list so that he’d never have to look at one of his messages
again. But instead he sat transfixed, simultaneously scared of the
words and trying to work out what it was that scared him so much.
he’d never wanted to see Giles White again, so why should he reply
to this email? But then, he had a curiosity as to what the man wanted
and so a hesitation to delete.
was torn between feeling horrified by the message and somewhat
impressed that a prick like Giles could pull off such a reaction.
Who’d have thought he had it in him?
finger lurked on the mouse ready to delete, yet there was an inertia
to actually do so.
might have sat there all night. It was only when he heard his
flatmate stumble in that he finally moved. Quickly he switched off
the computer and went out to join him. In his shaken-up state he
could only manage fake bonhomie, but even fake bonhomie was better
than nothing. And gradually as the cans were consumed and the chatter
got louder as they watched crap TV, there was a real bonhomie.
drank a lot that night. Tomorrow was Friday so they could coast.
drank a lot because he knew that email was still undeleted.
drank because he knew he’d need something to help him sleep.
then, hungover the next morning, he couldn’t resist taking another
look at the message. He sat back from the screen as it opened in case
his stomach churned. His fingers itched next to the keyboard and it
was with a deep breath that he began to type out a reply. It read:
are you talking about?”
life wasn’t actually fine anymore.