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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

THE AUTUMN SERIES