Steninger is less than two hours away from home. He hasn’t been this close for almost a month. He hasn’t been this close since it happened. Twenty-three days ago millions of people died as the world fell apart around him.

Home by Michael Dick

I’ve been here hundreds of times before but it’s never looked like this. Georgie and I used to drive up here at weekends to walk the dog over the hills. We’d let him off the lead and then walk and talk and watch him play for hours. That was long before the events which have since kept us apart. It all feels like a lifetime ago now. Today the green, rolling landscape I remember is washed out and grey and everything is lifeless and dead. The world is decaying around me. It’s early in the morning, perhaps an hour before sunrise, and there’s a layer of light mist clinging to the ground. I’m alone, but I’m surrounded. I can see them moving all around. They’re everywhere. Shuffling. Staggering. Hundreds of the fucking things.

One last push and I’ll be home. I’m starting to get nervous now. For days I’ve struggled to get here but, now I’m this close, I don’t know if I can go through with it. Seeing what’s left of Georgie and our home will hurt. It’s been so long and so much has happened since we were last together. I don’t know if I’ll have the strength to walk through the front door. I don’t know if I’ll be able to stand the pain of remembering everything that’s gone and all that I’ve lost.

I’m as scared now as I was when this nightmare began. I remember it as if it was only minutes ago, not weeks. I was in a breakfast meeting with my lawyer and one of his staff when it started. Jarvis, the solicitor, was explaining some legal jargon to me when he stopped speaking mid-sentence. He suddenly screwed up his face with pain. I asked him what was wrong but he couldn’t answer. His breathing became shallow and short and he started to splutter. He was choking but I couldn’t see why and I was concentrating so hard on what was happening to him that I didn’t notice it had got the other man too. As Jarvis’ face paled and he began to scratch and claw at his throat his colleague lurched forward and tried to grab hold of me. Eyes bulging, he retched and showered me with blood and spittle. I recoiled and pushed my chair back away from the table, then stood with my back pressed against the wall and watched the two men choke to death. Seconds later, the room was silent.

When I eventually plucked up the courage to get out and look for help I found the receptionist who had greeted me less than an hour earlier lying in a pool of red-brown blood. The security man on the door was dead too, as was everyone else I could see. It was the same when I finally dared step out into the open – an endless layer of twisted human remains covered the ground in every direction I looked. What had happened was inexplicable and its scale incomprehensible. In the space of just a few minutes something – a germ, virus or biological attack perhaps – had destroyed my world. Nothing moved. The silence was deafening.

At first I’d instinctively wanted stay where I was, to keep my head down and wait for something – anything – to happen. I walked back to the hotel as it was the only nearby place I knew well, picking my way through the bodies, staring at each of them in turn, looking deep into their grotesque, twisted faces. Each of them was frozen in an expression of sudden, searing agony.

When I got back, the hotel was as silent and cold as everywhere else. I locked myself in my room and waited there for hours until the unending solitude became too much to stand. I needed explanations but there was no one left alive to ask. The television was useless, as was the radio, and the telephone went unanswered. Even the Internet seemed to have died; frozen in time at the moment everyone died. Increasingly desperate, I packed my few belongings, took a car from the car park, and made a break for home. But I soon found that the hushed roads were impassable, blocked by the tangled wreckage of incalculable numbers of crashed vehicles and the mangled, bloody remains of their dead drivers and passengers. With my wife and my home still more than eighty miles away I stopped the car and gave up.

It was early on the first Thursday, the third day, when the situation deteriorated again to the point where I began to question my sanity. I had been resting in the front bedroom of an empty terraced house when I looked out of the window and saw the first one of them staggering down the road. All the fear and nervousness I had previously felt was immediately forgotten as I watched the lone figure walk awkwardly down the street. It was another survivor, I thought, it had to be. Someone who, at last, might be able to tell me what had happened and who could answer some of the thousands of impossible questions I desperately needed to ask. I yelled out and banged on the window but the person outside didn’t respond. I sprinted out of the house and ran down the road, then grabbed hold of their arm and turned them around. As unbelievable as it seemed at the time, I knew instantly that the thing in front of me was dead. Its eyes were clouded, covered with a milky-white film, and its skin was pock-marked and bloodied. And it was cold to the touch… I held its left wrist in my hand and felt for a pulse but found nothing. The creature’s skin felt unnaturally clammy and leathery and I let it go in disgust. The moment I released my grip the damn thing shuffled slowly away like it didn’t even know I was there.

Out of the corner of my eye I became aware of more movement. I turned and saw another body, then another and then another. I walked to the end of the street and stared in disbelief at what was happening all around me. The dead were rising. Many were already moving around on clumsy, unsteady feet, whilst still more were slowly dragging themselves back up from where they’d fallen and died days earlier.

A frantic search for food and water and somewhere safe to shelter led me back deeper into town. Avoiding the mannequin-like bodies, I barricaded myself in a large pub on a corner where two once busy roads met. I cleared eight corpses out of the building (I herded them all into the bar before forcing them out the front door) and then locked myself in an upstairs function room where I started to drink. Although it didn’t make me drunk like it used to, the alcohol took the very slightest edge off my fear.

I thought constantly about Georgie and home but I was too afraid to move. I knew I should try to get to her but for days I just sat there, hiding like a coward. Every morning I tried to make myself leave but the thought of going back out into what remained of the world was unbearable. Instead I sat in booze-fueled isolation and watched the world decay.

As the days passed, the bodies themselves changed. Initially stiff and staccato, their movements gradually became more purposeful and controlled. After four days I observed that their senses were beginning to return. They were starting to respond to what was happening around them. Late one afternoon in a moment of frightened frustration, I hurled an empty beer bottle across the room. I missed the wall and smashed a window. Out of curiosity I looked down into the street below and saw that huge numbers of the corpses were now walking towards the pub. Attracted by the noise (which seemed louder than it actually was in the otherwise all-consuming silence) they moved relentlessly closer and closer. During the hours which followed I tried to keep quiet and out of sight but my every movement seemed to make more of them aware of my presence. From every direction they came and all I could do was watch as a crowd of hundreds of the damn things surrounded me. They followed each other like herding animals and soon their lumbering, decomposing shapes filled the streets outside for as far as I could see.

A week went by, and the ferocity of the creatures increased. They began to fight with each other and they fought to get to me. They clawed and banged at the doors but didn’t yet have the strength to get inside. My options were hopelessly limited but I knew I had to do something. I could stay where I was and drink enough so that I didn’t care when the bodies eventually broke through, or I could make a break for freedom and take my chances outside. I had nothing to lose. I thought about home and I thought about Georgie and I knew that I had to try and get back to her.

It wasn’t much of a plan but it was all I had. I packed the meagre supplies and provisions I found lying around the pub into a rucksack and got myself ready to leave. I made crates of crude bombs from the liquor bottles behind the bar and those in the cellar and storeroom. As the light began to fade at the end of the tenth day I hung out of the broken window at the front of the building, lit the booze-soaked rag fuses which I had stuffed down the necks of the bottles, and then began to hurl them down into the rotting crowds below. In minutes I’d created more chaotic devastation than I imagined possible. There had been little rain for days. Tinder dry and packed tight together, the repugnant bodies caught light almost instantly. Oblivious to the flames which steadily consumed them, the damn things continued to move about for as long as they were physically able, their every staggering step spreading the fire still further and destroying more and more of them. And the dancing orange light and the crackling and popping of burning flesh drew even more of the desperate cadavers closer to the scene.

I crept downstairs and waited by the back door. The building itself was soon alight. Doubled-up with hunger pains (the world outside had unexpectedly filled with the smell of roast meat like a summer hog roast) I crouched in the shadows and waited until the rising temperature in the building was too much to stand. When the flames began to lick at the door to the room I hid in, I pushed my way out into the night and ran through the bodies. Their reactions were dull and slow and my relative speed and strength and the surprise of my sudden appearance meant they offered virtually no resistance. In the silent, monochrome world, the confusion that I’d generated provided enough of a distraction to camouflage my movements and render me temporarily invisible.

Home by Michael Dick

Since I’ve been on the move I’ve learned to live like a shadow. My difficult journey home has been painfully long and slow. I move only at night under cover of darkness. If the bodies see or hear me they will come for me and, as I’ve found to my cost on more than one occasion, once one of them has my scent then countless others will follow. I have avoided them as much as possible but their numbers are vast and some contact has been inevitable. I’m getting better at dealing with them. The initial disgust and trepidation I felt has now given way to hate and anger. Through necessity I have become a cold and effective killer, although I’m not sure whether that’s an accurate description of my new found skill. I have to keep reminding myself that these bloody aberrations are already dead.

Apart from the mass of bodies I managed to obliterate during my escape from the pub, the first corpse I intentionally disposed of had once been a priest. I came across the emaciated creature when I took shelter at dawn one morning in a small village church. It had appeared empty at first until I pushed my way into a narrow storeroom at the far end of the grey-stone building. I was immediately aware of shuffling movement ahead of me. A small window high on the wall to my left let a limited amount of light spill into the storeroom and allowed me to see the outline of the body of the priest as it came at me. The cadaver was weak, barely coordinated, and I instinctively grabbed hold of it by the neck then threw it back across the room. It smashed into a bookshelf and was buried by falling prayer books. Constantly thrashing its leaden arms and legs, it eventually pulled itself back up onto its dead feet. I stared into its vacant, hollowed face as it dragged itself back into the light. The first body I had seen up close for several days, it was a damn mess. Just a shadow of the man it had once been, the creature’s skin appeared taut and translucent and it had an unnatural green-grey hue. Its cheeks and eye sockets were sunken and its mouth and chin speckled with dribbles of dried blood. Its black shirt and dog-collar hung loose around its scrawny neck.

For a moment I was distracted by the thing’s sickening appearance and it caught me by surprise when it charged at me again. I was knocked off-balance but I managed to grab hold of it by the throat. I straightened my arm to keep it at a safe distance, then used my free hand to feel around for something to use as a weapon. My outstretched fingers found the stem of an ornate candleholder behind me and to my right. I gripped it tight, then lifted it high above my head and brought the base of it crashing down on the dead priest’s skull. Stunned but undeterred, the body tripped back, then came for me again. I lifted the candleholder and smashed it down again and again until the head of the corpse was little more than a pulp of blood, brain and bone. I stood over the cleric’s twitching remains until it finally lay still.

I hid in the bell tower of the church and waited for the night to come.

It didn’t take long to work out the rules.

Although they have become increasingly violent as time has gone on, the creatures remain predictable. I think that they are driven purely by instinct. What remains of their brains seem to operate on a basic, primitive level and each one is little more than a fading memory of what it used to be. I quickly learnt that this reality is nothing like the trash horror movies I used to watch or the books I used to read. These things don’t want to kill me so that they can feast on my flesh. In fact I don’t actually think they have any physical needs or desires – they don’t eat, drink, sleep or even breathe as far as I can see. So why do they attack? It’s a paradox but the longer I think about it, the more convinced I am that they see me as a threat. I’m different and I’m stronger and I think they know that I could easily destroy them. I think they try to attack me before I have chance to attack them.

Over the last few days and weeks I have watched them steadily disintegrate and decay. And therein lies another bizarre irony: as their bodies have continued to weaken and become more fragile, so their mental control seems to have returned. They seem to have an innate sense of self-preservation and will respond violently to any perceived threat. Sometimes they fight amongst themselves and I have hidden in the darkness and watched them set about each other until almost all of their rotten flesh has been stripped from their bones and they can barely stand.

I know beyond doubt now that the brain remains the centre of control. My second, third and fourth kills confirmed that. I had broken into an isolated house in search of food and fresh clothes, when I found myself face to face with the rotting remains of what appeared to have once been a fairly typical family. I quickly disposed of the father with a short wooden fence post I had been carrying as a makeshift weapon. I smacked the repulsive creature around the side of the head again and again until it had almost been decapitated. The next body – the dead man’s dead wife, I presumed – had proved to be more troublesome. I entered a large, square dining room and the body of the woman came at me with sudden, unexpected speed. I held the picket out in front of me and skewered the damn thing through the chest. Its withered torso and parchment skin offered next to no resistance and the wood plunged deep into its abdomen and straight out the other side. I retched and struggled to keep control of my stomach as the remains of its putrefied organs slid out of the hole I had made in its back and slopped down onto the cream-coloured carpet in a slimy crimson heap. I pushed the body away, expecting it to collapse like the last one had, but it didn’t. Instead it staggered after me, still impaled and struggling to move as I had clearly caused a massive amount of damage to its spine with the fence picket. I panicked. I ran to the kitchen and grabbed the largest knife I could find before returning to the body. It had managed to take a few more steps forward but stopped immediately when I plunged the knife through its right eye into the core of what remained of its brain. It was as if someone had flicked a switch. The dead woman slumped down and slid off the knife and dropped at my feet like a bloodied rag-doll. In the silence which followed I could hear the third body thumping around upstairs. To prove my theory I ran up the stairs and disposed of a dead teenager in the same way as its mother with a single stab of the blade to the head.

It’s an unsettling admission, but I have to admit that I’ve grown to enjoy the kill. The reality is that it’s the only pleasure which remains to me. It’s the only time I have complete control. I haven’t ever gone looking for sport, but I haven’t avoided it either. I’ve kept a tally of kills along the way and I’ve begun to pride myself on finding quicker, quieter and more effective ways of destroying the dead. I took a gun from a police station a week or so ago but quickly got rid of it again. A shot to the head will immediately take out a single body, but I’ve found to my cost that the resultant noise invariably makes thousands more of the damn things aware of my location. Weapons now need to be silent and swift. I’ve tried clubs and axes and whilst they’ve often been effective, real sustained effort is needed to get results. Fire is too visible and unpredictable and so blades have become my weapons of choice. I now carry seventeen in all – buck knifes, sheath knives, Bowie knifes, scalpels and even pen knives. I carry two butcher’s meat cleavers holstered like pistols and I hold a machete drawn and ready at all times.

I’ve made steady progress today. I know this stretch of footpath well. It twists and turns and it’s not the most direct route home but it’s my best option this morning. Dawn is breaking. The light is increasing and I’m beginning to feel uncomfortably exposed. I’ve not been out in daylight for weeks now. I’ve gotten used to the dark and the protection it affords me.

This short stretch of path runs alongside a golf course. There seem to be an unusually high number of bodies around here. I think this was the seventh hole – a short but tough hole with a raised tee and an undulating fairway from what I remember. Many of the corpses have become trapped in the natural dip of the land here and the once well-tended grass has been churned to mud beneath their tireless feet. They can’t get away. Stupid things are stuck. Sometimes I almost feel privileged to have the opportunity to rid the world of a few of these pointless creatures. All that separates me from them now is a wooden fence and a stretch of tangled, patchy hedgerow. I keep quiet and take each step with care for fear of making any unnecessary noise. I could deal with them, but it will be much easier if I don’t have to.

The path climbs and curves away to the left. There are two bodies up ahead and I know I have no choice but to dispose of them. The second seems to be following the first and I wonder whether there are more behind? However many of them there are, I know I’ll have to deal with them quickly. It will take too long to go around them and any sudden movement will alert any others that might be moving through the undergrowth. The safest option – the easiest option – is to go straight at them and cut them both down.

Here’s the first. It’s seen me. It makes a sudden, lurching change in direction which reveals its intent. With its dull, misted eyes fixed on me, it comes my way. Bloody hell, it’s badly decayed – one of the worst I’ve seen. I can’t even tell whether it used to be male or female. Most of its face has been eaten away and its mottled, pock-marked skull is dotted with clumps of long, lank, grey-blonde hair. It’s dragging one foot behind. In fact, now that it’s closer I can see that it only has one foot! Its right ankle ends unexpectedly with a dirty stump which it drags through the mud. The rags wrapped around the corpse look like they might once have been a uniform of sorts. Was this a police officer? A traffic warden? A soldier? Whatever it used to be, its time is up.

I’ve developed a two-cut technique. It’s safer than running headlong at them swinging a blade through the air like a madman. A little bit of control makes all the difference. The bodies are usually already unsteady (this one certainly is) so I use the first cut to stop them moving or at least slow them down. The body is close enough now. I crouch down and swing the machete from right to left, severing both of its legs at knee level with a single swipe. With the corpse now flat on its stomach I reverse the movement and, backhanded, slam the blade down through its neck before it can move. Easy. Kill number one hundred and thirty-eight. Number one hundred and thirty-nine proves slightly harder. I slip and bury the blade in the creature’s pelvis when I was aiming lower. No problem – with the corpse on its knees I lift the machete again and bring it down on the top of its head. The skull splits open like an egg. It’s harder pulling the blade out than it was getting it in.

I never think of the bodies as people any more. There’s no point. Whatever caused all of this has wiped out every trace of individuality and character from the rotting masses. Generally they look and act the same now – age, race, sex, class, religion and all other previously notable social differences are gone. There are no distinctions, there are only the dead; a single massive decaying population. Kill number twenty-six brought that home to me. Obviously the body of a very young child, it had attacked me with as much force and intent as the countless other ‘adult’ creatures I had come across. I had hesitated for a split-second before the kill, but then I did it just the same. I knew that what it used to be was of no importance now, that it was just dead flesh which had to be destroyed. I took its head clean off its shoulders with a hand-axe and hardly gave it another thought.

Home by Michael Dick

Distances which should take minutes to cover now take hours. I’m working my way along a wide footpath which leads down into the heart of Stonemorton, and I can see bodies everywhere I look. The earlier mist has lifted and I can see their slow, stumbling shapes moving between houses and along otherwise empty streets. My already slow speed has reduced still further now that it’s getting light. Maybe I’m consciously slowing down? The closer I get to home, the more nervous and unsure I feel. I try to concentrate and focus my thoughts on reaching Georgie. All I want is to be with her again, what’s happened to the rest of the world is of no interest. I’m realistic about what I’m going to find – I haven’t seen another living soul for weeks and I don’t think for a second I’ll find her alive, but I’ve survived, so there must still be some slight hope. My worst fear is that the house will be empty, because then I’ll have to keep looking. I won’t rest until we’re together again.

Damn. Suddenly there are bodies right ahead of me. I can’t be completely sure how many are here as their awkward, gangly shapes seem to merge and disappear into the background of gnarled, twisted trees. I’m pretty confident dealing with anything up to ten at a time. All I have to do is take my time, keep calm and try not to make more noise than I have to. The last thing I want is to let any more of them know where I am.

The nearest body has locked onto me and is lining itself up to be kill number one hundred and forty. Bloody hell, this is the tallest corpse I’ve seen. Even though its back is twisted into an uncomfortable stoop it’s still taller than me. I need to lower it to get a good shot at the brain. I swing the machete up between its legs and practically split it in two. It slumps forward and I take its head clean off its shoulders before it’s even hit the ground.

One hundred and forty-one. This one is more lively than most. I’ve come across a few like this from time to time. For some reason bodies like this one are not as badly decayed as the majority of the dead and for a split second I start to wonder whether this might actually be a survivor. When it lunges at me, vicious but unsteady, I know immediately that it is already dead. I lift up my blade and put it in the way of the creature’s face. Still moving forward, it pierces its right eye and then falls limp as the machete slices into the centre of its rotting brain.

My weapon is stuck, wedged tight in the skull of this monstrosity, and I can’t pull it free. The next body is close now. As I tug at the machete with my right hand I yank one of the meat cleavers out of its holster with my left and swing it wildly at the shape which is stumbling towards me. I make some contact but it’s not enough. I’ve sliced diagonally across the width of its torso but it doesn’t even seem to notice the damage. I let go of the machete (I’ll go back for it when I’m done) and, using both cleavers now, I attack the third body again. The blow I strike with my left hand wedges the first blade deep into its shoulder, cutting through the collar bone and forcing the body down. I aim the second cut at the base of the neck and smash through the spinal cord. I push the cadaver down into the gravel and stamp on its expressionless face until my boot does enough damage to permanently stop the bloody thing moving.

With the first cleaver still buried in the shoulder of the previous body, I’m now two weapons down with potential kill number one hundred and forty-three less than two metres away. This one is slower and it’s got less fight in it than the last few. Breathing hard, I clench my fist and punch it square in the face. It wobbles for a second, then drops to the ground. I enjoy kills like that. My hand stings and is covered in all kinds of foul-smelling mess, but the sudden feeling of satisfaction, strength and superiority I have is immense.

I retrieve my blades, clean them on a patch of grass, then carry on my way.

In the distance I can see the first few houses on the edge of the estate. I’m almost home now and I’m beginning to wish I wasn’t. I’ve spent days on the move trying to get here – long, dark, lonely days filled with uncertainty and fear. Now that I’m here there’s a part of me that wants to turn around and go back, but I know there’s nowhere else to go and I know I have to do this. I have to see it through.

Here at street level, I’m more exposed than ever. Christ, everything looks so different to how I remember. It’s been less than a month since I was last here but in that time the world has been gone to ruin along with the dead population. The smell of death is everywhere, choking, smothering and suffocating everything. The once clear pavements are sprouting with weeds. Everything is crumbling around me. The world is changing, and yet it’s still recognizable. I know this place. It’s not the decay, it’s the memories and familiarity which makes everything so hard to handle.

This is Huntingden Street. I used to drive this way to work. Almost all of this side of the road has been burnt to the ground and where there used to be a long, meandering row of between thirty and forty houses, now there’s just a line of empty, wasted shells. The destruction has altered the entire landscape and from where I’m standing I now have a clear view all the way over to the red-brick wall which runs along the edge of the estate where Georgie and I used to live. It’s so close now. I’ve been rehearsing this part of the journey in my mind for days. I’m going to work my way back home by cutting through the back gardens of the houses along the way. I’m thinking that the back of each house should be more secure and enclosed and I’ll be able to take my time. There will be bodies along the way, but they should be fewer in number than those roaming the main roads.

I’m crouching down behind a low wall in front of one of the burnt out houses. I need to get across the road and into the garden at the back of one of the houses opposite. The easiest way will be to go straight through – in through the front door and out through the back. Everything looks clear. I can’t see any bodies. Apart from my knives I’ll leave everything here. I won’t need any of it now. I’m almost home.

Home by Michael Dick

Slow going. Getting into the first garden was simple enough, but it’s not going as easy as I thought trying to move between properties. I’m having to climb over fences that are nowhere near strong enough to support my weight. I could just break them down but I’ll make too much noise and I don’t want to start taking unnecessary risks now.

Garden number three. I can see the dead owner of this house trapped inside its property, wearing a heavily stained dressing gown. It’s leaning against the patio window and it starts hammering against the glass when it sees me. From my position mid-way down the lawn the figure at the window looks painfully thin, skeletal almost. I can see another body in the shadows behind it.

Garden number four. Damn, the owner of this house is outside. It’s moving towards me before I’ve even made it over the fence and the expression on what’s left of its face is terrifying. My heart’s beating like it’s going to explode as I jump down and ready myself. A few seconds wait that feels like forever, then a single flash of the blade and it’s done. The residual speed of the cadaver keeps it moving further down the lawn until it falls flat. Its severed head lies at my feet, face down on the dew-soaked grass like a piece of rotten fruit. One hundred and forty-four.

Garden number five is clear, as is garden number six. I’ve now made it as far as the penultimate house. I sprint across the grass, scale the fence, and then jump down and run across the final strip of lawn until I reach another brick wall. On the other side of this wall is Partridge Road. The turning into my estate is another hundred metres or so down to my right.

I throw myself over the top of the wall and land heavily on the pavement below. Sudden searing pains shoot up my legs and I fall into the road. There are bodies here. A quick look up and down the road and I can see seven or eight of them already. They’ve all seen me. This isn’t good. No time for technique now, I simply have to get rid of them as quickly as possible. I take the first two out almost instantly with the machete. I start to run towards the road into the estate and I decapitate the third corpse at speed as I pass it. I push another one out of the way (no time to go back and finish it off), then chop violently at the next which staggers into my path. I manage a single, brutal cut just above its waist which is deep enough to hack through the spinal cord. It falls to the ground behind me, still moving but going nowhere. I count it as a kill anyway. One hundred and forty-eight.

I can clearly see the entrance to the estate now. The wrecks of two crashed cars have almost completely blocked the mouth of the road like an improvised gate. Good. The blockage here means there should be fewer bodies on the other side. Damn, there are still more coming for me here, though. Christ, there are loads of the bloody things. Where the hell are they coming from? I look up and down the road again and all I can see is a mass of twisted, stumbling corpses coming at me from every direction. My arrival here has created more of a disturbance than I thought. There are too many of them for me to risk trying to deal with. Some are quicker than others and the first few are already close. Too close. I sprint towards the crashed cars as fast as I can. I drop my shoulder and barge several cadavers out of the way, my speed and weight easily smashing them to the ground. I jump onto the crumpled bonnet of the first car and then climb up onto its roof. I’m still only a few feet away from the hordes of rabid dead but I’m safer here. They haven’t got the strength or coordination to be able to climb up after me. And even if they could, I’d just kick the bloody things back down again. I stand still for a few seconds to catch my breath, staring down into the growing sea of decomposing faces below me. Their facial muscles are withered and decayed and they are incapable of controlled expression. Nevertheless, something about the way they look up at me reveals a cold and savage intent. They hate me. I want them to know that the feeling is mutual. If I had the time and energy I’d jump back down into the crowd and tear every last one of them apart.

Still standing on the roof of the car, I slowly turn around. And there it is. Home.

Torrington Road stretches out ahead of me now, wild and overgrown but still reassuringly familiar. Just ahead and to my right is the entrance to Harlour Grove. Our road. Our house is at the end of the cul-de-sac.

I’d stay here for a while and try to compose myself if it wasn’t for the bodies snapping and scratching at my feet. I jump down from the car and take a few steps forward. I then turn back for a second – something’s caught my eye. Now that I’m down I recognise the car I’ve just been standing on. I glance at the licence plate at the back. It’s cracked and smashed but I can still make out three letters together: HAL. This is Stan Isherwood’s car. He lived four doors down from Georgie and I. And good grief, that thing in the front seat is what’s left of Stan. I can see what remains of the retired bank manager slamming itself from side to side, trying desperately to get out of its seat and get to me. It’s being held in place by its safety belt. Stupid bloody thing can’t release the catch. Without thinking I crouch down and peer in through the grubby glass. My decomposing neighbour stops moving for a fraction of a second and looks straight back at me. Jesus Christ, there’s not much left of him but I can still see that it’s Stan. He’s wearing one of his trademark golf jumpers. The pastel colours of the fabric are mottled and dark, stained by dribbles of crusted blood and other secretions which have seeped out of him over the last four weeks. I walk away. Stan doesn’t pose any threat to me like this and I can’t bring myself to kill him just for the sake of it. I liked Stan.

I jog forward again. A body emerges from the shadows of a nearby house, the front door of which hangs open like a gaping mouth. It’s back to business as usual as I tighten the grip on the machete in my hand and wait to strike. The corpse lurches at me. I don’t recognise it as being anyone I knew, and that makes it easier. I swing at its head and make contact. The blade sinks three quarters of the way into the skull, just above the cheek bone. Kill one hundred and forty-nine drops to the ground and I yank out my weapon and clean it on the back of my jeans.

I turn the corner and I’m in Harlour Grove. I stop when I see our house, filled with a sudden surge of emotion. Bloody hell, if I half-close my eyes I can almost imagine that everything is normal and none of this ever happened. My heart is racing with nervous anticipation and fear as I move towards our home. I can’t wait to see her again. It’s been too long.

A sudden noise in the street behind me makes me spin around. There are another nine bodies coming at me from several directions. At least six of them are behind me, staggering after me at a pathetically slow pace, and another two are ahead, one closing in from the right and the other coming from the general direction of the house next to ours. The adrenalin is really pumping now I’m this close. I’ll be back with Georgie in the next few minutes and nothing is going to stop me now. I don’t even waste time with the machete now – I raise my fist and smash the nearest corpse in the face, rearranging what’s left of its already mutilated features. It drops to the ground, bringing up my one hundred and fiftieth kill in some style.

I’m about to do the same to the next body when I realise I know her. This is what’s left of Judith Landers, the lady who lived next-door but one. Her husband was a narrow-minded idiot but I always got on with Judith. Her face is bloated and discoloured and she’s lost an eye but I can still see it’s her. She’s wearing the remains of the hardware store uniform she wore for work. Poor cow. She reaches out for me and I instinctively raise the machete, but then I look deeper into what’s left of her face and all I can see is the person she used to be. She tries to grab hold of me but one of her arms is broken and it flaps uselessly at her side. I push her away in the hope she’ll just turn round and disappear in the other direction, but she doesn’t. She grabs at me again and, again, I push her away. This time her legs give way and she falls. Her face smashes into the pavement, leaving a greasy, bloody stain behind. Undeterred she gets up and comes at me for a third time. I know I don’t have any choice and I also know that there are now eleven more corpses closing in on me fast. Judith was a short woman. I flash the blade level with my shoulders and take off the top third of her head like it’s a breakfast egg. She drops to her knees and falls forward.

I have carried the key to our house on a chain around my neck since the first day. With my hands tingling with nerves I pull it from under my shirt and shove it into the lock. I can hear dragging footsteps just behind me now. The lock is stiff and I have to use all my strength to turn the key but finally it moves. The latch clicks and I push the door open. I fall into the house and slam the door shut just as the closest body crashes into the other side.

I’m almost too afraid to speak.

‘Georgie?’ I shout, and the sound of my voice echoes around the silent house. I haven’t dared to speak out loud for weeks and the noise seems strange. It makes me feel exposed. ‘Georgie?’

Nothing. I take a couple of steps further down the hallway. Where is she? I need to know what happened here. Wait, what’s that? Just inside the dining room I can see Rufus, our dog. He’s lying on his back and it looks like he’s been dead for some time. Poor bugger, he probably starved to death. I take another step forward but then stop and look away. Something has attacked the dog. He’s been torn apart. There’s dried blood and pieces of him all over the place.

‘Georgie?’ I call out for a third time. I’m about to shout again when I hear it. Something’s moving in the kitchen and I pray that it’s her.

I look up and see a shadow shifting at the far end of the hallway. It has to be Georgie. She’s shuffling towards me and I know that any second I’ll see her. I want to run to meet her but I can’t because my feet are frozen to the ground with nerves. The shadow lurches forward again and she finally comes into view. The end of the hallway is dark and for a moment I can only see her silhouette but there’s no question it’s her. She slowly turns towards me, pivoting around awkwardly, then begins to trip down the hall in my direction. Every step she takes brings her closer to the light coming from the small window next to the front door, revealing her in more detail. I can see now that she’s naked and I find myself wondering what happened to make her lose her clothes. Another step and I can see that her once strong and beautiful hair is now lank and sparse. Another step and I see that her usually flawless, perfect skin has been eaten away by decay. Another step forward and I can clearly see what’s left of her face. Those sparkling eyes that I gazed into a thousand times are now dry and she looks at me without the slightest hint of recognition or emotion. I clear my throat and try to speak…

‘Georgie, are you…?’

She launches herself at me. Rather than recoil and fight I instead catch her and pull her closer. It feels good to hold her again. She’s weak and offers no resistance when I wrap my arms around her and hold her tight. I press my face next to hers fight to ignore the smell of her decay.

I don’t want to ever let her go. This was how I wanted it to be. It’s better this way. I had known all along that she would be dead. If she’d survived she would probably have left the house and I would never have been able to find her, but I’d have never stopped looking. We were meant to be together, Georgie and me. That’s what I kept telling her, even when she stopped wanting to listen.

I’ve been back home for a couple of hours now. Apart from the dust and mildew, the place looks pretty much the same as it always did. She didn’t change much after I left. We’re in the living room together now. I haven’t been in here for almost a year. Since we split up she didn’t like me coming around. She never usually let me get any further than the hall, even when I came to collect my things. She said she’d call the police if she had to but I always knew she wouldn’t. That was just what he told her to say.

I’ve dragged the coffee table across the door to stop her getting out and I’ve nailed a few planks of wood across it, just to be sure. She’s stopped attacking me now and it’s almost as if she’s got used to having me around again. I tried to put a bathrobe around her to keep her warm but she wouldn’t keep still long enough to let me. Even now she’s still moving around, walking round the edge of the room, tripping over and crashing into things. Silly girl! And with our neighbours watching too! Seems like most of the corpses from around the estate have dragged themselves over here to see what’s going on. I’ve counted more than twenty dead faces pressed against the window, looking in.

It was a shame we couldn’t have worked things out before she died. I know I spent too much time at work, but I did it all for her. I did it all for us. She said we’d grown apart and that I didn’t excite her any more. She said I was boring and dull. She said she wanted more adventure and spontaneity and that, she said, was what Matthew gave her. I tried to make her see that he was too young for her and that he was just stringing her along, but she didn’t want to listen. And where is he now? Where is he with his fucking designer clothes, his city centre apartment and his flash car? I know exactly where he is – he’s out there on the streets, rotting with the rest of the fucking masses. And where am I? I’m home. I’m back sitting in my armchair drinking my whiskey in my living room. I’m at home with my wife and this is where I’m going to stay. I’m going to die here and when I’ve gone Georgie and I will rot together. We’ll be here together until the very end of everything.

I know it’s what she would have wanted.



Autumn: The London Trilogy omnibus edition