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Kieran Cope

We all think we know how we’ll react when the shit hits the fan and the world comes crash­ing down around us, but would the real­i­ty match the fantasy? 

Kier­an Cope is a key char­ac­ter from AUTUMN: AFTERMATH. He’s inspired by the real Kier­an Cope, who made an extreme­ly gen­er­ous dona­tion to Genre for Japan (in aid of the British Red Cross appeal for vic­tims of the Japan­ese Tsuna­mi in March 2011). Huge thanks to Kier­an for his gen­eros­i­ty, and for being so will­ing to share the details of his world for this short tale. All names and sit­u­a­tions have been used with permission.

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 explod­ed 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 con­ver­sa­tions. 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 over the road 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 all over the place.’

‘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 like your mom told you 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 this through, 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 tooled-up 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, some­thing like that. 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 stay­ing with you’ll be a good move? 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 tight bug­gers 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 just 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 at 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 places. 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. 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, reports linked to projects he’d long since ceased to have any involve­ment with, inane con­ver­sa­tions between peo­ple who didn’t under­stand the dif­fer­ence between ‘reply’ and ‘reply to all’ … At this time of the morn­ing every­thing annoyed him. He fired off an abrupt reply to an infu­ri­at­ing col­league from anoth­er depart­ment, sug­gest­ing that if he’d read his pre­vi­ous reply, he’d have found all the infor­ma­tion he was ask­ing for now. 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 find, 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 real­ly 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, so 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 respons­es to 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 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 quick­ly because 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 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 to hear — the chat­ter from the can­teen, the rum­ble of machin­ery from the pro­duc­tion line down­stairs, the hus­tle of peo­ple scram­bling to get to their desks on time – was absent. Just the back­ground hum of the build­ing in its place: the low groan of the air conditioning.

Kier­an soon found some­one else.

He walked into the can­teen, then stopped in utter dis­be­lief. Bod­ies. There were bod­ies every­where. One of the can­teen staff 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. He said his friend’s name again … still no response. 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 move, 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 the hell hap­pened here? What do I do?

He looked out of the win­dow, head spin­ning, bare­ly able to focus on what was going on inside the build­ing, nev­er mind out there. But once he looked past the fac­to­ry grounds he saw that, for as far as he could see in every direc­tion, the rest of the world appeared to have suf­fered the same inex­plic­a­ble fate as the peo­ple here. From the streets direct­ly below, all the way 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.

#

A return to the famil­iar gave Kier­an a mea­gre crumb of com­fort to hold onto. He cursed him­self, but he didn’t know what else to do. Every­one else was dead and yet there he was, sit­ting in front of his com­put­er plough­ing through his work as if noth­ing had hap­pened. He clung des­per­ate­ly to dis­trac­tions, work­ing through his dai­ly to-do list, using the banal­i­ty of the most menial tasks he could find to block out the fear. He was ter­ri­fied when he thought about what was wait­ing for him on the oth­er side of the office door: What if I’m next? When am I going to die?

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 and helped coun­ter­act the bizarre alter­na­tives and expla­na­tions now fill­ing his mind: 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. He tried con­stant­ly to con­tact the peo­ple who mat­tered with his mobile. 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. No one.

It was then that he remem­bered the drunk­en con­ver­sa­tion from the club the oth­er week. It felt per­verse to now be try­ing to remem­ber what was said to help him stay alive. Kier­an had been try­ing to pluck up courage to try and get home, but hadn’t Marc said some­thing about the office being an ide­al place to hide? 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 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 hide.

On autopi­lot, Kier­an fin­ished his drink then walked across the can­teen and switched on the TV mount­ed on the wall. The BBC news chan­nel was silent. He felt around the out­side of the TV’s hous­ing for con­trol but­tons and changed chan­nel. He clicked up again and again until he’d worked his way back around to the start. No one was broad­cast­ing. Some sta­tions showed noth­ing at all, oth­ers a mix of 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.

#

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 remained where he was, sit­ting under his desk like a kid hid­ing under his bed, occa­sion­al­ly drift­ing off to sleep for a few sec­onds at a time, only to jolt back into real­i­ty and scare him­self stu­pid over noth­ing. No mat­ter how dark and unset­tling it was, at least here in the office he was alone. The thought of being out­side this room with them — his dead col­leagues and friends, the unknown thou­sands beyond — was unbearable.

He checked his phone reg­u­lar­ly. The sig­nal was no bet­ter, and still no one called or sent mes­sages. As the hours crawled by he felt increas­ing guilt, sit­ting here 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 (increas­ing­ly the cer­tain­ty) was that they were all dead. He couldn’t do any­thing for 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 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. Despite being sur­round­ed by corpses inside, he’d been shel­tered from the real­i­ty of the illog­i­cal night­mare out­side. He could feel the wind and rain on his face, a con­stant reminder that he was no longer hid­ing behind walls, win­dows and doors. Now he felt vul­ner­a­ble; naked and exposed. It was what he couldn’t see or hear which unnerved him most of all. There was no traf­fic noise; no engines, horns or brakes. No peo­ple mov­ing or talk­ing. Every­thing was in the exact same place it had been yes­ter­day. He looked back up at the can­teen win­dow, won­der­ing whether Marc had been right and if he’d made a mis­take com­ing out. Too late now. He couldn’t go back inside … From the out­side look­ing in, his work build­ing now looked like a tomb.

The silence was deaf­en­ing. It felt like a dead­weight, press­ing down on him, get­ting heav­ier by the minute. He made straight for his car: a sil­ver Ford Fies­ta Zetec. It was noth­ing spe­cial, but right now it felt price­less. The smell of its uphol­stery, the feel of the steer­ing wheel in his hands, the noise the door made when he shut it … all reas­sur­ing­ly famil­iar. He start­ed the engine and turned up the stereo to can­cel out the qui­et of the last twen­ty-four hours.

He pulled out of the car park and onto the road, the famil­iar jour­ney home already any­thing but. Progress was slow. It had been the height of rush hour yes­ter­day when it — what­ev­er it had been — 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, one last look over his shoul­der at the dev­as­tat­ed world, then he went inside. There was no one else 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 silence inside his home was as omi­nous as the lack of noise out­side, but frac­tion­al­ly less intim­i­dat­ing. At least for the time being, this place felt like it used to.

#

Anoth­er end­less night fol­lowed; hours spent star­ing into space, 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 they must have felt when they’d died, try­ing to supress his guilt at not going out and look­ing for them. 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. 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 the dead. At least for them the tor­ment was over.

But as the hours pro­gressed, he forced him­self to 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 think about his long-term sur­vival. Either that, or maybe he should just end it all now. Fuck no, he thought. That idea didn’t 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 made him­self eat and drink some­thing. His plan this morn­ing was sim­ple: get out, find enough food to fill the car, then get back. If it went well, he thought he’d maybe 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, know­ing they were pass­able. 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 his brakes and stopped just short of dri­ving over the driver’s out­stretched arm.

Where to go? The Wait­rose near to work was an option, but there were near­er stores. He aimed for the Sains­burys near Thorn­hill, think­ing that if things got dif­fi­cult he could always dis­ap­pear into the Pen­drag­on pub next door and drink away his fear. He took a wrong turn in the chaos, the abhor­rent sights all around dis­tract­ing him. 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 new 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 he kept ask­ing him­self, what could he have done … ?

With his mind unfo­cused and tears in his eyes, he clipped the wing of anoth­er wreck then react­ed too slow­ly and hit the kerb. He then over­com­pen­sat­ed and lost his grip on the steer­ing wheel. His beloved Fies­ta ploughed 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 swell.

He tried to reverse out of the rub­ble, but it was no good. He’d beached the car chas­sis on what was left of the wall. Dazed, he got out 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 lip, and it was begin­ning to piss down with rain. He need­ed to get 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. As he walked, hop­ing he was mov­ing in the right direc­tion, but not 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 clos­er. 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 hide away in his emp­ty house. The hard­er he tried to sur­vive, it seemed, the worse things got.

#

When Kier­an got up next morn­ing, there was a woman in the street out­side. He’d dragged him­self out of bed feel­ing no bet­ter than when he’d crawled under the duvet last night, but now, sud­den­ly and whol­ly unex­pect­ed­ly, things had changed. 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 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 his noise and blus­ter, he grabbed the woman’s arm and turned her around. Her flesh was bare, and he imme­di­ate­ly thought she felt unnat­u­ral­ly cold. Her face was vacant and inex­pres­sive, and his legs weak­ened 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 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. She was dead …

And then Kier­an saw more of them. Many, many more of them. The near­est tripped ever-clos­er, it’s mouth hang­ing open as if stuck mid-scream. Tem­porar­i­ly par­a­lyzed with fright, at the last sec­ond he stepped out of the way and the crea­ture dragged itself past. Then anoth­er, com­ing from a dif­fer­ent direc­tion this time, but again seem­ing to be mov­ing direct­ly towards him. Kier­an ran back to the house, not know­ing what else to do. He locked the door, then ran into the front room and peered around the cor­ner, watch­ing that per­son — that thing – com­ing towards his home. It crashed into the win­dow then fell back and col­lapsed in a heap on the dri­ve before pick­ing itself up, ago­nis­ing­ly slow­ly, and walk­ing away. 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 enough hor­ror films over the years. Those damn things would grav­i­tate around his house, even­tu­al­ly flush­ing him out and rip­ping him apart. He’d watched count­less 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, but instead of open­ing up the rest of the world to him, every­thing had become infi­nite­ly more restrict­ed. He couldn’t get those damn zom­bie movie sur­vivors out of his mind … some­thing had always both­ered him before, and now it pos­i­tive­ly ter­ri­fied him. Those peo­ple inevitably nev­er made it to the end of the film alive. When they bar­ri­cad­ed them­selves in, it was like they were giv­ing up; no longer run­ning, resign­ing them­selves to their inevitable deaths at the vicious hands of the liv­ing dead.

But some­thing hap­pened as he lay there, sob­bing. 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, ready and wait­ing for him. He thought about his fam­i­ly, and how he’d aban­doned them — wher­ev­er they were — because he’d been too afraid of find­ing them.

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, obliv­i­ous to the danger.

‘Melanie!’ Shirley yelled, before hid­ing again, ter­ri­fied the bod­ies would see her too. Mel ignored her noise and kept run­ning, push­ing one corpse out of the way and side-step­ping anoth­er. 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 at a ter­ri­fy­ing speed. 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 move­ments of swarms of impos­si­bly mobile corpses all around him.

‘Stop you fuck­ing idiot!’ she screamed.

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, furi­ous but relieved.

‘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 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 as long as I can.’

THE AUTUMN SERIES