KIERAN COPE

 

A few weeks back, Kieran, Drew, Marc and Duncan had spent a long evening together talking about the end of the world. They sat in a dark, dank corner of the Oceana club, as far from everyone else as they could get. How they’d ended up in such a shit-hole, none of them were sure. It was Duncan’s leaving do, but none of them could remember who’s idea it had been to come here. They all denied it. It probably had something to do with the price of booze in the foul, overcrowded place, or it might just have been because it was one of the only places left open at that time of night. Whatever the reason, they were determined to see Duncan off in style with the longest session any of them could remember. The chaotic noise inside the club, the bright lights and the mass of writhing, sweat-soaked, predominantly underage bodies had added to the evening’s bizarrely apocalyptic vibe. It felt claustrophobic, like being locked-down in a nuclear bunker with the cast of a bad teen-soap while the bombs detonated overhead.

     Drew had been watching some film or other – so good he couldn’t even remember the name of it – and that had set his mind racing. Talking about Armageddon and remembering all the films they’d seen and the books they’d read over the years proved to be a welcome distraction from their usual work, sport and sex-orientated discussions. In some ways it made them feel like they were kids again, escaping in their minds into desolate, empty worlds where they could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted to. No rules or restrictions. No work. No responsibilities. No deadlines. No managers constantly barking at them to get stuff done by yesterday... Unbridled freedom in a brave new world.

     ‘Seriously?’ Kieran said. ‘You’d seriously do that? You’d stop at the office?’

     ‘Why not?’ Marc replied. ‘It’s as good a place as any. Or I’d start at work anyway, then maybe move out once things had calmed down. Think about it... you’d have everything you need there. There’s the hotel, the supermarket... there’s the frigging Jaguar dealership for crying out loud. I tell you, mate, you’d barely need to go anywhere else.’

     ‘What about you?’ Duncan asked Kieran. ‘What would you do?’

     ‘Dunno. Depends what happened, I suppose.’

     ‘Why?’

     ‘If it’s a war or something that’s wiped everyone out, it won’t matter where you go, will it? Everywhere’s going to be poisoned, isn’t it? There’ll be radiation or germs or whatever everywhere.’

     ‘Okay, so what if it’s nothing like that. What if it’s some kind of flu?’

     ‘And I’m immune?’

     ‘Yep. You’ve dosed up on Calpol and you’re immune. You’ve got the whole world at your feet. No one there to tell you what to do anymore.’

     Kieran thought for a moment. ‘Dunno.’

     ‘What do you mean, you don’t know?’ Drew protested. ‘Christ, Kieran, you’re the one who’s always on about living for the moment. Work hard, play harder you always said.’

     ‘What’s the end of the world got to do with that?’

     ‘You need to be ready, mate. You need to be prepared. You have to grab every opportunity with both hands.’

     ‘I didn’t say I wouldn’t...’

     ‘I know exactly what I’d do,’ Drew continued, more animated than he had been all night. ‘I’d find myself somewhere strong to hole-up, somewhere off the beaten track.’

     ‘Like I said, work’s as good a place as any,’ Marc said.

     ‘Hardly off the beaten track though, is it mate? Anyway, I’ll get sorted then load up with supplies and weapons—’

     ‘Weapons?’ Kieran laughed. ‘Where you going to find weapons round here? This is Cardiff, man, not the Bronx.’

     Drew’s enthusiasm was unabated. ‘Farmers, man. There’s loads of the buggers round here, and they’ve all got shotguns under their beds. I’d start there. Then there’s the police, maybe the army even.’

     ‘You’ve really thought about this haven’t you, mate?’ Kieran said, swilling the dregs of his pint around the bottom of his glass, hoping someone would get up and buy another round.

     ‘Course I have,’ Drew said, sounding surprised that Kieran hadn’t. ‘You’ve got to be prepared.’

     ‘Don’t know if I’d want to survive if everyone else was gone.’

     Drew looked at him in disbelief. ‘You’re joking, right?’

     ‘No.’

     ‘Bloody hell. Anyway,’ he continued, ‘I’ll get myself armed and—’

     ‘But why do you need a gun if everyone else is dead?’

     Drew sighed. ‘Kieran, man, have you not seen enough films? There’s always something needs shooting at. Jeez.’

     ‘Well if that’s the case I definitely don’t want to be the only one left alive.’

     ‘So what happens next?’ Marc asked, ignoring him. ‘You’ve got your safe place and your weapons – whether or not there’s anyone else left to shoot – now what?’

     ‘Supplies. I’d get myself a truck or a van, and I’d load it up with food and water. Biggest one I could find. Maybe even a delivery truck from Waitrose, ready stocked. I’d get as much as I could together, then stash the lot of it away.’

     ‘You wouldn’t need that much if you were on your own,’ Kieran suggested.

     ‘Have you seen how much this fat bastard eats?’ Duncan laughed.

     ‘Probably wouldn’t be on my own for long,’ Drew continued. ‘You’ve really not been paying attention, have you Kieran? I might start out on my own, but there’s probably going to be a busload of fucking gorgeous female survivors coming over the hill at any moment.’

     ‘And you reckon they’re going to see you, sitting there in your underpants with a farmer’s rifle in your lap, shoving a bloody Waitrose pork pie down your throat, and think it’ll be a good move to stay with you? Think again, mate, think again.’

     ‘Power!’ Drew shouted when the laughter had died down. ‘Forgot about that. I’d need to get some kind of generator hooked up. Wouldn’t have to be anything fancy – just a small petrol-fired generator to start with, enough to power the lights, keep me warm, and let me play Xbox.’

     ‘Wouldn’t need Xbox, mate,’ Duncan said. ‘You might be playing live action Left 4 Dead if things really get that bad.’

     ‘That’d be cool.’

     ‘You think? Be fucking terrifying, I reckon.’

     ‘So what then?’ Kieran asked.

     ‘What do you mean?’

     ‘What happens next? You’re all set up, probably on your own. So what happens after that?’

     ‘Nothing. It’d be paradise, mate. No distractions or complications. No one telling me what to do or where to be all the time. Bliss.’

     ‘Wouldn’t you get bored?’

     ‘I’d have plenty to do.’

     ‘You’ll run out of games and films eventually.’

     ‘Maybe after a few years.’

     ‘But you would run out eventually.’

     ‘And there’s the loneliness,’ Marc added, picking up on Kieran’s point.

     ‘I can handle it.’

     ‘I think it’ll be harder than you’re making out.’

     ‘I’ll tell you what then,’ Drew said, grinning, ‘I’ll come back here and drag in a few shop window dummies to keep me company while I drink myself stupid. I’ll call them Kieran, Dunc and Marc. I’ll write their names on their foreheads in black pen so I remember which one’s which.’

     ‘So then, Kieran,’ Duncan said, ‘I’ll ask you again. What would you do?’

     Kieran thought for a moment. ‘What Drew said, I guess,’ he answered, laughing as he got to his feet. ‘Now, as none of you lot are going to put your hands in your pockets, does anyone fancy another drink before the world ends?’

#

The conversation in the pub had continued for a while longer, drifting back into surreal territories on more than one occasion. The four work colleagues had talked about the various ways they thought the world might end, with conversation then turning to all the ways they’d seen it happen on film.

     It was just over two weeks later when it happened for real.

     All the noise and bluster they’d imagined never came to pass. Only a fraction of the immediate chaos and devastation they’d envisaged actually happened. Most people simply dropped dead as if they’d simply been switched off. A little noise, panic and blood first, of course, then nothing but silence. Survivors of the infection which swept around the world were few and far between. If people were looking in the wrong direction – or not looking at all – they might even have missed it. Bizarrely, that was exactly what happened to Kieran. The end of the world crept up on him and tapped him on the shoulder, and he didn’t even notice.

     The working day had begun like any other Tuesday. Kieran was first to arrive in the office, as usual. He’d driven in along the Pentwyn Road, enjoying the early morning sun, hoping it would last until home-time. Autumn was coming, and winter would be here soon after that. Too soon. Short days and long nights. Winter could be a bind in this job. The research and development workspaces were, by necessity, large, windowless, soulless shells. Kieran hated how he’d often arrive at work in the dark on a winter morning, then not leave again until gone five when it would be pitch-black outside. Some days he didn’t get to see any daylight at all. It made him feel like a bloody vampire.

     But it wasn’t the lack of light which was bothering him this morning, it was the heat. He couldn’t understand why people did it. One cool day – not even a cold day, mind – and they’d crank up the heating to furnace-like levels, then go home without bothering to turn it back down again. They’d all deny doing it if he asked them, of course. They weren’t bothered because by the time they’d all dragged themselves into work, he’d have sorted the temperature again. Grumbling to himself, he adjusted the thermostat then sat down to check his emails.

     It never ceased to amaze Kieran just how much crap ended up in his inbox overnight. The system filtered out and deleted the obvious rubbish, so there was a fair chance that every message which got through to his account might be important and had to be checked. He wanted to develop his own kind of spam filter: one which would detect and remove the things which really wasted his time... multiple invites to the same meetings from different people, countless requests for information he’d already provided before, reports linked to projects he’d long since had any involvement with, inane conversations between people who didn’t understand the difference between ‘reply’ and ‘reply to all’... At this time of morning everything seemed to annoy him. He fired off an abrupt reply to an infuriating colleague from another department, suggesting if he’d read his previous reply, he’d have found all the information he was asking for this time. He paused just before he clicked ‘send’. Too hasty. Too risky. He deleted his reply and rewrote it using far less confrontational language. A slanging match in front of the rest of the team was definitely not what he wanted this morning.

     An error in a formula in an Excel spreadsheet kept Kieran occupied for far longer than it should have. He’d wasted the best part of half an hour before spotting a rogue comma in place of a period. He thought it frustrating that it had taken him so long to spot, and also that such an inordinate delay could be caused by a single tiny mistake. That one character out of place had prevented a whole stream of calculations from being completed. It was the same with everything he did, really. Attention to detail was of paramount importance, and there was no margin for error. That was one of the reasons he liked to get in before everyone else. The quiet gave him chance to get a head start on today before the room filled with other people and their constant chatter and noise. Well, usually it did, when he wasn’t being distracted by stupid bloody schoolboy errors in simple spreadsheets.

     The others were late.

     He couldn’t remember anyone saying they were going to be in late today. They’d all left as normal last night, and no one had said anything about doing anything different this morning. Drew and Marc should definitely have been here by now. Maybe they’d got stuck in traffic? He’d have got up and looked out of one of the windows, had there been any. Leaving the office would have taken too much effort, and he returned his attention to his emails, chuntering angrily because although he’d replied to all the messages he’d received this morning, as yet no one had got back to him with any of the questions he’d asked. If I took as long as the rest of them, he thought, there’d be hell to pay. He remembered back to his most recent trip to Japan, to the firm’s head office. This simply wouldn’t have been allowed to happen there. Everything felt like it was calculated down to the second in Japan. He’d hoped to bring back some of the Japanese work ethos with him, but his efforts hadn’t gone down well. ‘Look outside, lad,’ one of the old hands on the production line had said to him. ‘What do you see? This is Welsh Wales, man, not Toyko!’

     Another fifteen minutes passed. Kieran was starting to get genuinely concerned now. His colleagues were no longer just slightly delayed, they were now seriously late. And the fact it was all of them turned his concern into something resembling mild panic. Am I the one who’s in the wrong place? Am I supposed to be somewhere else? Was today the day of the offsite meeting? He frantically checked and double-checked his diary. It wasn’t like him to be this disorganised...

     Nothing. A blank screen. No scheduled meetings.

     He started to feel a little better when he remembered Drew having said something about running diagnostics first thing before the production line reached full capacity, but the temporary relief disappeared again when he realised that the fact remained, everyone else had failed to show for work.

     He fished his mobile from his pocket, checked for messages, then dialled Marc’s number. It rang and rang, eventually switching to voicemail. Kieran cancelled before leaving a message, worried he’d sound like a nagging old woman. He tried Drew’s number next. Same. No reply. He didn’t like it when his routine was messed-up like this. He wasn’t obsessive-compulsive or anything like that, but he did like logic and order to be maintained. As a software engineer, he’d learned to think methodically and predict logical outcomes, and what was happening this morning just wasn’t making sense. There was probably a simple, straightforward explanation for all of this, but he couldn’t find it. Maybe there’d been an accident since he’d arrived? Any snarl up on the A48 would inevitably impact the traffic trying to get onto the business estate.

     Kieran got up and angrily shoved his chair under his desk. He headed for the door, phone still in hand. The signal strength was poor this morning. Maybe that was it? Maybe they’d been trying to call him but hadn’t been able to get through? Bloody Vodafone. Sometimes he thought it would be easier to go up to the roof and shout rather than try to get through to anyone on this network. He tried a few more numbers as he walked. Mum and Dad, a couple of friends, his sister, his other half... still nothing.

     Christ, it was quiet on the landing outside his office.

     All the noise he’d expected – the chatter from the canteen, the rumble of machinery from the production line downstairs, the hustle of people scrambling to get to work on time – all gone. Just the background hum of the building in its place: the low moan of the air conditioning units.

     Kieran eventually found someone else.

He walked through into the canteen then stopped and stared in utter disbelief. Bodies. There were bodies everywhere. One of the canteen staff – Joan, he thought her name was – was slumped against the wall behind her till, face pressed against the plaster, blood dribbling down her chin and onto her white apron, dripping on her name badge. A little further ahead was one of the guys from the production line. It took Kieran a few seconds to recognise him, so agonised was the expression on his lifeless face. Blood pooled around his mouth which hung open in a never-ending scream. At a table nearby sat one of the HR managers, slumped forward in a chair surrounded by the corpses of several visitors. They were young and smartly dressed, probably here for interviews, he thought. The last wisps of steam still snaked up from their unfinished drinks.

     And there, right on the other side of the room by the window, facedown on the carpet, was Andrew.

     ‘Drew?’ Kieran said as he stood over him. He cringed, his voice seeming to echo endlessly off the walls, amplified by the silence of everything else. He called his friend’s name again... still nothing. Kieran knelt down and looked around, hoping someone else would come along who could explain what the hell was going on. He reached out and rested a hand on Drew’s shoulder, then shook it lightly. When he didn’t respond, Kieran shook him again, harder this time. Then again and again before rolling his dead friend over onto his back. He could only stand to look into Drew’s pallid, blood-splattered face for the briefest of moments before staggering away, reeling with shock.

     What do I do? What the hell happened here?

     He looked out of the window, his head spinning, barely able to focus on what was going on inside the building, never mind out in the rest of the world. But once he looked past the grounds of the factory he saw that, for as far as he could see in every direction, the rest of the world seemed to have suffered the same inexplicable fate as the people here. From the streets directly below, to the centre of Cardiff in the near distance, nothing moved. Dead builders littered the housing development, construction abruptly halted. The Waitrose car park was an unruly mass of crashed cars, abandoned trolleys and dead shoppers. One of the slick sales guys from the Jaguar dealership lay sprawled in a puddle, the water ruining his expensive designer suit. Birds occasionally darted across the grey sky, and the tops of the trees shook in the wind, but other than that, nothing and no one moved.

Everyone was dead. Everyone but him.

#

Returning to the familiar gave Kieran a crumb of comfort to hold onto. He didn’t know what else to do. He cursed himself, but he was too afraid to move. The rest of the staff lay dead in rooms alongside and below him and yet there he was, sitting in front of his computer doing his work as if nothing had happened. He clung desperately to distractions. Without realising, he began to go through his task list for the day, using the banality of menial jobs to block out the terror and mask his fear. When he dared stop and think about what was waiting for him on the other side of the office door, he became even more afraid. What if I’m next? When is it going to get me?

     It felt like hours, but only a few minutes had passed before he got up from his seat again. He’d been trying to type, but his hands were shaking. His throat was dry. He picked up a water bottle he’d brought with him from home, but he could barely hold it steady enough to drink.

     I can’t just sit here like this.

     He had to do something. He left the office and returned to the canteen where he helped himself to a coffee from one of the vending machines. He stood on the far side of the room and stared at Drew from a distance, forcing down the hot drink so fast he scalded himself. The pain and bitter taste was welcome. It made him feel alive. His mind was filled with the inexplicable impossibilities of what had happened, and he started to consider all manner of bizarre alternatives. What if it’s me? What if I’m the one who’s dead? It was marginally easier to believe he’d passed away and found himself stuck in a live-action Twilight Zone episode, than to have to accept that everyone else had died just like that, without any immediately obvious reason. How could he have not noticed the world ending?

     The light, open space of the canteen was reassuring. He sat at an empty table a few seats down from the dead manager and his equally lifeless guests. In Kieran’s hand he held his phone, and he tried constantly to contact the people who mattered. When they didn’t answer, he tried anyone else he could think of. He worked his way through his entire address book, then picked up Drew’s phone from where it had fallen near to his corpse, and tried all his contacts too. Nothing.

     It was then that he remembered the conversation from the club the other week, and it felt surreal to now be trying to remember what was said to help him stay alive. Kieran had been trying to pluck up courage to go outside and try and get home, but staying here somehow felt easier. Marc had said something about the office being an ideal place to hide, hadn’t he? He’d talked about getting food from the supermarket and maybe taking a car. All those things could wait, Kieran decided. He had enough food here in the canteen to last a while, and his own car was in the car park, visible from the canteen window. He still had a gnawing, nagging feeling in the pit of his stomach that he should try and get home, but he placated himself by constantly repeating Marc’s drunken assurances that this was a good place to be. Without really thinking about what he was doing, he finished his drink, got up and walked across the canteen and switched on the LCD TV which was hanging on the wall. The BBC news channel was silent. He felt around the outside of the housing for control buttons, and found the switch which changed channel. He clicked up again and again until he’d worked his way back around to the start. No one was broadcasting. Some channels showed nothing at all. Some showed motionless studios, dead presenters and slumped audiences; real-time freeze-frames.

     Face it, he told himself, it’s actually happened. You’re the only one left alive.

#

The day felt never-ending, the night even more so. All the comfort and familiarity of the office disappeared along with the light. The electricity had failed in this part of town late into the evening, but he’d been paralysed with fear and had remained where he was, sitting under his desk, occasionally drifting off to sleep for a few seconds at a time, only to jolt back into reality and scare himself stupid over nothing. He had to remain in the office, though, no matter how dark and unsettling it was. At least in here he knew he was alone. The thought of being outside this room with them – his dead colleagues and friends, the unknown thousands beyond – was too much to consider for even a second.

     He checked his phone regularly. The signal was no better, and still no one called or sent messages. He felt enormous guilt, sitting there like a coward while his parents and his partner and everyone else he cared about was out there. But what else was he supposed to do? The probability (which felt increasingly like a certainty) was that they were all dead. He couldn’t do anything for any of them. Dad would most probably be on the golf course somewhere. Mum . . . well she could be anywhere. Kieran pulled his knees up to his chest and sobbed himself to sleep.

#

It was morning but still dark outside when he finally left the office. He could stand being there no more. He put on his coat and filled his pockets with food from the canteen, then went outside—

—and almost immediately turned back again. Inside, despite being surrounded by his dead workmates, he’d been sheltered from the extremes of the illogical nightmare which had inexplicably destroyed the world outside. Now he felt vulnerable; naked and exposed. It was what he couldn’t see or hear which unnerved him most of all. Outside today there was no traffic. No engines, horns or brakes. No people moving or talking. Everything and everyone remained where they’d been when he’d watched them from the canteen window yesterday. He looked back up, wondering whether Marc had been right and if he’d made a mistake coming out. Too late now. He couldn’t go back in there, he just couldn’t... From the outside looking in, his work building now looked like a tomb.

The silence was deafening. It felt like a weight, pressing him down, getting heavier by the minute. He made straight for his car: a silver Ford Fiesta Zetec. It was nothing special, but at this moment it felt priceless. The noises it made and the familiar smell of the upholstery and the feel of the steering wheel in his hands were all immediately reassuring. He started the engine and turned up the stereo to cancel out the quiet of the last twenty-four hours, only to almost immediately turn it back down again. The lack of noise felt wrong and unnatural, but to make any unnecessary sound felt even more so.

He pulled out of the car park, the familiar journey home already anything but. Progress was uncomfortably slow. It had been the height of rush hour yesterday when it – whatever it had been – had happened, and every stretch of road now was clogged with mile after mile of stationary traffic. From time to time he was able to use hard shoulders, bus lanes and pavements to build up a head of speed, only to suddenly have to brake again to avoid crashed cars and other obstructions. He drove around bodies with care and concentration. Even after all that had happened, the thought of wilfully causing any further damage to these poor people was abhorrent.

Home.

He finally reached the front door of his house, but paused before going in. A deep breath, a last look over his shoulder at the devastated world outside, then he opened the door and stepped through. He knew instantly that no one else was there; he could tell from the way the alarm had been set and from the gaps on the pegs where Mum and Dad’s coats would have been hanging. The fact they weren’t there actually felt like something of a relief. The silence inside his cold home was as ominous as the lack of noise outside, but fractionally less intimidating. This place, at least for now, felt like it used to.

#

Another endless night followed; hours spent looking for answers he was beginning to think he’d never find, imagining the fates of the people he loved and trying to block out the pain he was sure they all must have felt when they’d died, trying to supress the guilt at not going out there himself and looking for them, despite knowing it wouldn’t have done anyone any good. The conversation from the nightclub still rattled around and around in his head. All that talk of trying to survive, of finding weapons and hoarding supplies. Fucking idiots, he cursed to himself. They’d talked about the end of the world like it would be an adventure. Well, he was here to tell them it wasn’t. It most definitely wasn’t. It was a living hell. He was almost beginning to envy those who’d not survived. At least for them, this torment was over.

     But as the hours progressed, he forced himself to try and get a grip. The initial shock was beginning to fade – whether or not it would ever completely disappear, he wasn’t sure – but he was, gradually, starting to think more clearly again. He was going to need food and, whether he liked it or not, he was going to have to start thinking about trying to get through this chaos. Either that, or maybe he should just end it all now. Fuck no, he thought. That idea didn’t even bear thinking about, not even for a second.

     When daylight came, he got up (he’d fallen asleep fully clothed, lying on his bed), then forced himself to eat and drink something. His plan was simple. Get out, find enough food to fill the car, then get back. If this went well, he thought, then maybe he’d try something else tomorrow. Perhaps he’d drive a little further and start looking for other survivors. Because he couldn’t be the only one left alive, could he?

     He drove along the roads he’d followed yesterday, because he knew they were passable. It was strange still how absolutely nothing had moved. His route was harder to stick to than he’d expected, because everything looked different driving in the opposite direction. A bike which had skidded out from under its dying driver had been easy to spot yesterday. Travelling the other way, however, Kieran almost didn’t see it until it was too late. He slammed on the brakes and stopped just inches before driving over the driver’s outstretched arm.

     Where to go? The Waitrose near to work was an option, but it wasn’t an option he was particularly keen to take. Instead he decided to aim for the Sainsburys near Thornhill. If things got difficult he could always disappear into the Pendragon pub next door and drink away the fear. He took a wrong turn in the chaos, the abhorrent sights all around him making it impossible for him to concentrate. There was a car flipped over onto its roof, the bodies of its dead passengers trapped inside in full view, their faces smashed up against the broken glass. Every face he saw made him think about the people he’d loved and lost; the people who mattered who’d be out here somewhere like this. Helpless. Dead. The thought of Dad out on the golf course really hit him hard and he began to sob. Should he have tried to find them? Was he as useless and selfish as he now felt for having abandoned them all? But again, what could he have done...?

     With his mind unfocused and tears obscuring his view, he clipped the wing of another wreck then reacted too slowly and hit the kerb. Spurred into action, he overcompensated, lost his grip on the steering wheel, and ploughed his beloved Fiesta into a low brick wall outside a house, the force of the unexpected impact throwing him forward. His face thumped against the steering wheel, and he felt his left eye immediately beginning to bruise and swell.

     He depressed the clutch and put his hand on the key, but stopped. There was no point trying to restart the engine. He’d come to rest amongst the rubble and he already knew he’d done more than enough damage to render his car completely useless. Dazed, he clambered back out onto the street and began to walk back home, his feet leaden, the effort almost too much.

     He felt more vulnerable than ever. His head was thumping, and he could taste blood in his mouth from a split inside his lip, and it was pissing down with rain now too. He needed to get back home – the only place left – but he wasn’t even sure where he was anymore. He’d probably driven along this road a hundred times before, but he’d never walked along it and even if he had, it was unrecognisable today amidst the devastation and destruction which had consumed everything over the last two days. As he walked – hoping he was moving in the right direction, but nowhere near completely sure – he thought back to that night in Oceana with Duncan, Marc and Drew again. He remembered their conversation: so trivial and unimportant at the time but now, in the cold light of this post-Armageddon day, he wished he’d listened. He wished he’d paid more attention and taken notes because, although half-drunk, his friends had clearly had enough about them to have been instinctively able to survive. But him... well he was a fucking disappointment to himself. The entire world at his feet, anything he wanted within reach, and yet here he was, soaked through and crying like a baby, limping back to his cold, dark, empty home. The harder he tried, the more it all went wrong.

     Duncan, Marc and Drew, they’d made it sound easy. Christ, Marc had almost sounded like he was looking forward to the end of the world. If only they’d known what it was really going to be like. If only he’d known. Maybe it would have been better not to have survived.

#

When Kieran got up next morning, there was someone in the street outside. He’d dragged himself out of bed feeling no better than he had when he’d crawled under the duvet last night but now, suddenly and wholly unexpectedly, everything had changed again. He ran downstairs, pulling on his dirty clothes as he tripped down the steps, checking from every window he passed that she was still there, desperate not to let her out of his sight. He ran outside, ignoring the cold and the pain of gravel digging into the soles of his feet. Without stopping to consider the improbability of it all, or wondering why she hadn’t reacted to all the noise and bluster he’d made trying to get to her, he grabbed the woman’s arm and span her around. Her flesh was bare, and he immediately thought she felt unnaturally cold. Her face was vacant and inexpressive, and his legs became weak with nerves. The way she looked through him but not at him, the way she almost tripped over her own feet as she turned, the way she failed to acknowledge him at all... He let go and she immediately began to traipse away, barely lifting her feet off the ground as she shuffled down the street, now moving back in the direction from which she’d originally come.

     And then Kieran looked up and saw more of them. Many, many more of them. The nearest tripped ever-closer, it’s mouth hanging open as if stuck mid-scream. Paralyzed with fear, at the last second he stepped out of the way and it dragged itself past. Then another, coming from a different direction this time, but again seeming to be moving directly towards him. This time Kieran turned and ran back to his house, not knowing what else he was supposed to do. He slammed the door shut behind him then ran into the front room and peered around the corner, watching that person – that creature - continuing towards his home. It crashed into the window then fell back and collapsed in a heap on the drive before picking itself up onto its hands and knees, agonisingly slowly, and crawling away. These people were dead. He knew it, but he could barely believe it. He’d seen them littering the ground since Tuesday morning. No matter how impossible it seemed, the things swarming in the street outside his house today were dead.

     He sank to the floor and covered his head, sobbing with fear. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take.

#

Kieran didn’t move for hours. He didn’t dare. Didn’t even get up to look out of the window. He knew what was coming next. He’d seen more than his fair share of horror films over the years. Those damn things would gravitate around his house, eventually flushing him out and ripping him apart. He’d watched more than enough scenes of desperate survivors fighting with each other in their inadequately fortified shelters, dead arms reaching in through the gaps between the planks they’d hurriedly nailed across windows and doors. Damn. All that talk the other week about surviving and lording it up over the rest of the world, and what had he done? Drew, Duncan and Marc had talked about mankind’s imagined downfall as if it would be some incredible, liberating event. The truth had proved to be entirely different; the opposite was true, in fact. Instead of opening up the rest of the world, everything had become infinitely more restricted. He couldn’t get those damn survivors from zombie movies out of his mind... something about that image had always bothered him before, and now it positively terrified him. Those people inevitably never made it to the end of the film alive. It was as if they were locking themselves in and resigning themselves to an inevitable death at the vicious hands of the living dead.

     But something happened as he was lying there, sobbing to himself. In the quiet emptiness, he thought back over the last few days of hell, and realised how pathetic he must have looked. He was cold, scared, hungry and dirty. He’d always taken pride in his appearance, but he’d let himself go since the world had fallen apart, and he couldn’t understand why. Was it shock? Grief? Sheer fucking laziness? He thought about what his friends had said in the club that night, how they’d made excited plans for Armageddon together. And here he was, with all the chances they’d foolishly craved, opened up to him. He’d taken none of them. He thought about his family, and how he’d abandoned them – wherever they were – because he was too afraid to go outside.

     Fuck it.

     It’s not too late.

     Was he really going to allow himself to go out like this, with the most miserable of whimpers rather than a bang? He was in an incredible position – incredible yet terrifying – and there had to be more he could do than this.

     Kieran cursed himself, stood up and brushed himself down. He checked himself in the mirror, wiped his eyes, sorted out his hair, then stared at his reflection.

     Last chance, mate, he said to himself. Make or break.

#

The terrified survivors hiding in the ruins of Cheetham Castle ran to the gate when they heard the engine outside. The smoke from their bonfire must have worked. Shirley was too afraid to go out, but Melanie had had enough of the other woman’s timidity and wittering.

     ‘Get out of the way, you silly cow.’

     ‘But you can’t go out there. Please, Mel, please don’t open the gates. They’ll see us. They’ll get in...’

     ‘That’s what I’m counting on.’

     She shook Shirley off and pulled the heavy gate open just enough so she could slip through the gap. She ran down the track, waving her arms and screaming, desperate to be seen before the truck disappeared. Some of the dead which had gathered at the bottom of the rise now began to climb towards her, moving painfully slowly but with inexorable intent. Others moved towards the approaching truck, sniffing the air like animals.

     ‘Melanie!’ Shirley yelled, before hiding behind the tall wooden door again, terrified the bodies would see her too. Mel ignored her and kept running, pushing one corpse out of the way and side-stepping several more. It might have been her nerves playing tricks, but they seemed a little quicker than last time she was out here, more determined.

     Another burst and she was through the bulk of them. She stopped in the middle of the road and waved down the driver of the vehicle now hurtling towards her. She could see its headlamps rapidly increasing in size, could hear the roar of its engine getting louder and louder by the second. Christ, what was she doing? She hadn’t intended playing a game of chicken with almost the only other living human being she’d seen since this nightmare had begun.

     She could see the driver now, his face screwed up with concentration, eyes flitting from side to side, trying to anticipate the random movement of swarms of impossibly mobile corpses all around him.

     ‘Stop you fucking idiot!’

     At the last moment she dived to one side, a trio of lethargic corpses cushioning her fall. She was faintly aware of the sound of screeching brakes somewhere behind her, but she was so focused on getting back up the hill and escaping the clumsy swipes of countless dead hands that she didn’t notice the truck until it thundered past her. She watched as Shirley hauled the gate fully open to let the driver through.

     By the time Mel had reached the top of the climb and was safely inside the castle grounds again, the truck had stopped and the driver was out. He was a tall, relatively thin man who looked remarkably well dressed for the end of the world. He’d certainly had more chance to scrub himself up than she had.

     ‘You could have given me a lift,’ she yelled at him.

     ‘You’re lucky I didn’t run you down. Bloody hell, what were you thinking, standing in the middle of the road like that. You got a death wish?’

     She didn’t bother answering. Instead she just looked him up and down, then peered into the back of his truck which was piled high with supplies. She noticed he carried a shot gun, though she didn’t like to think where he’d got it.

     ‘So who are you?’

     He put down his weapon and visibly relaxed. For a moment he seemed overcome, so much so that it was impossible for him to speak. He gazed around at his crumbling and ancient, though still substantial, surroundings, and nodded approvingly. ‘I’m Kieran Cope,’ he said. ‘I’ve had a fucker of a time getting here, wherever here is.’

     ‘Where’ve you been until now, Kieran?’ Shirley asked.

     ‘Lost,’ he answered, ‘but I think I know where I’m going now. I’ve got my gun and my supplies, and this place looks as good as any. Don’t know about you two ladies, but I plan on surviving.’