The Human Condition (part ii) — Going Down
A handful of people have been forced to sit out the end of the world together in a top floor hotel penthouse.
Ten days have passed.
Thousands of bodies are heading their way.
And there’s no way out.
Ten days. Ten fucking days. That’s how long we’ve been here now. That’s how long we’ve been sitting here doing nothing but shout, argue and fight with each other. This can’t go on much longer.
John Proctor slumped against the wall, his head in his hands and watched the others through the gaps between his fingers. Christ, how he’d grown to despise these people over the last week and a half.
In every aspect of his life before this disaster, John had been taught (and had taught others) to always look for the good in people. But trapped up here on the top floor of this hotel, waiting to either starve to death or be flushed out by an army of dead bodies, he couldn’t help but concentrate on the irritating personality traits which made the five other survivors trapped here the worst cell-mates imaginable.
Barry Bushell. Now there was an interesting character. John still wasn’t sure what the dress-wearing man was about. Barry had been understandably annoyed when the other survivors had arrived and compromised the safety of his precious hotel hideout. Even now he continued to maintain a distance from the others, spending much of him time alone in the master bedroom. John had initially admired his confidence in wearing women’s clothing in public, but he still couldn’t understand why he did it. There must have been some underlying sexual confusion, he thought. Whatever the reason, he’d been equally surprised when, a couple of days ago, Barry had reverted to wearing ‘normal’ clothes. He’d asked him why he’d made the change, and Barry had explained it was just to shut the others up. He’d said he’d had enough of the constant jibes from Nick and Elizabeth, and the endless pointless questions and sideways glances from that bloody woman Doreen. Why couldn’t they just leave him alone, he’d asked? What difference did it make to any of them what he was wearing? That said, John found it far easier to relate to Barry when he was wearing jeans and a T‑shirt rather than full drag. It really shouldn’t have made any difference, but it did. Barry now sat on his own in the doorway of his bedroom, quietly reading a book he’d already finished once this week.
Elizabeth and Nick had a strange relationship. One minute they were fighting, the next laughing. They were of a similar age and background, and maybe that was the connection? John sensed that the decision to fight or laugh was usually down to Elizabeth. She used her femininity to twist Nick around her little finger, dangling him on a string. Then again, maybe he was doing her a disservice? Perhaps he was jealous?
Now Doreen Phillips he couldn’t stand. There were no ifs, buts or maybes when it came to Doreen, he simply couldn’t abide the woman. He hated her grating voice and her witch’s cackle of a laugh. He hated her smell and the cloud of cigarette smoke which followed her around the room. He hated her wizened, wrinkled skin and her yellow teeth. Most of all he hated the fact she moaned constantly about everything to anyone who’d listen. She had more aches, pains and problems each day than the rest of them combined. No matter how low or desperate you might be feeling, Doreen always had it worse. John tried to avoid all contact with her, which wasn’t easy being trapped together in such a confined space.
It was interesting how little everyone seemed to have to do with Paul Jones. Nick in particular hardly spoke to him. Perhaps there was an element of competition, both of them considering themselves the all-important alpha male? Whatever the reason they kept their distance from each other, although Paul tended to keep his distance from everyone. He both infuriated and fascinated John. Such an isolated and solitary person and yet, when he could be persuaded, he brought so much to the group. He was obviously intelligent, but his distance from the rest of them came across as an unpleasant arrogance. Maybe he just wasn’t very good at relating to other people? Or did he think he was better than the rest of them?
Funny, John thought, that we should easily overlook the good and find so many faults with each other. There they were, all living through the same nightmare, and yet they couldn’t put aside their differences and work together for love nor money. They focused on trivial differences rather than trying to work together for the common good. It spoke volumes about the human condition.
Doreen and Nick were at the dining table playing cards, their poker faces emotionless. Close by, Elizabeth dozed on a couch. Like Barry, Paul also had also marked out a small area as his own: sitting on a chair, looking out of the wide floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of the hotel. From there he could see the rear-end of the bus sticking out of the gaping hole where the main entrance to the building had been. Ten days on and the dead were still fighting through the rubble to get inside.
Boredom and curiosity caused John to get up and wander over to Paul. Paul didn’t react, hoping he’d go away again. He didn’t.
‘Yeah, they’ve all gone. What do you think?’
‘Still more of them coming?’
‘You’d think they’d have given up by now, wouldn’t you?’
‘Fuck all else left to distract them, isn’t there? Just the noise up here.’
John knew he was annoying Paul, but he couldn’t help incessantly asking questions. It was a coping mechanism, he’d long-since decided. ‘You think they’ll ever stop?’
‘What, stop moving or stop trying to get in here?’
‘Yes they’ll eventually stop moving and yes, they’ll eventually stop trying to get in here.’
‘Quarter past six tomorrow night. Christ, how the hell should I know?’
‘They’ll stop moving when they’ve rotted so much they just can’t do it any more, and they’ll stop trying to get in here when there’s so many of them crammed into this fucking building that there’s no more room. And please don’t ask me which is going to happen first because I don’t have a fucking clue.’
John took that as his cue to go. A sudden tirade like that from Paul usually meant you should go before he told you to. Dejected, he ambled slowly back into the middle of the huge penthouse apartment. It had been an impressive sight when they’d first arrived there, palatial and immense. Now the Presidential Suite looked as dilapidated and rundown as the rest of the world; a millionaire’s home taken over by squatters.
John wandered into the kitchen area to look for scraps of food he knew he wouldn’t find. They were rapidly running out of everything, but he kept looking regardless. Maybe he’d find something in the rubbish that one of the others had missed …
As he waded through the discarded boxes, bags, wrappers and other litter that covered the floor, he thought about what Paul had just said. He was absolutely right, the bodies would keep trying to force their way into the building until there was no more room. That was a terrifying prospect which had generated a lot of very animated discussion but little action over the last ten days. If things kept progressing as they had (and there was no reason to suggest they wouldn’t) then a time would inevitably come when the building in which they were sheltering would be filled to capacity with dead flesh, leaving them stranded and starving. But what could they do? They’d talked and talked about it without reaching any conclusions or workable solutions. There had always been enough food in the kitchen and enough space between them and the dead to enable them to put off making difficult decisions until tomorrow, and then the day after that, and the day after that. John sensed that very soon, one way or another, they’d have no choice but to act.
He had, for his part, tried to do something constructive. Granted it wasn’t much, but (as he frequently reminded them), it was more than anyone else had done. A keen photographer, five days ago he’d found a camera and batteries lying around the suite which Barry had brought back with him from an early trip into town. In a moment of inspiration, he’d crept out onto the landing, attached the camera to the end of a fire-hose, and lowered it down the middle of the staircase. Through trial and error he’d managed to work out what length of hose was necessary to lower the camera between floors and, at the same time, he set the timer to take a single picture once the required level had been reached. With a surprising degree of accuracy he had soon developed a means of taking photographs of each level down as far as the hose would reach. He had, therefore, found a way of measuring the progress of the dead when they finally appeared. Their incalculably vast numbers meant that those bodies at the front of the crowd were continually being pushed forwards, inevitably beginning to climb the stairs. With corpses continuing to pour through the bus-shaped hole in the hotel’s outside wall, once the ground floor reception had been completely filled there was nowhere else for them to go but up. Moving almost as one huge dripping mass, the enormous crowd was slowly being funnelled deeper and deeper into the building, climbing higher and higher.
Each time John hauled the camera back up to the top floor, the group crowded around to check the progress of the slowly advancing cadavers. There had been no sign of them initially, but John continued to take his photographs every morning regardless. And then, yesterday, the dead had been photographed on the twenty-second floor. It was a simple enough calculation to make – they’d covered twenty-two floors in about nine days, so they were climbing at the rate of just over two floors a day. The second simple calculation made was altogether more disturbing. It was Thursday today. If their rate of climb continued at the same speed (and there seemed no immediate reason why it shouldn’t) then the bodies would reach the twenty-eighth floor sometime on Saturday, Sunday morning at the very latest.
Bizarrely, John enjoyed his role of chief cameraman and body-watcher. It gave him a purpose. Perhaps even more importantly, it became something he could hide behind and use as an excuse for not doing anything else.
Three forty-five. The afternoon sun was dropping down towards the horizon, filling the Presidential Suite with orange light and long, dragging shadows. Rather than spreading themselves around the edges of the apartment, on this rare occasion the six survivors sat together around the dining table. They needed to talk. No food, very little time.
‘So exactly how much stuff have we got left?’ Doreen asked.
‘Enough for a day,’ Barry replied, ‘maybe two at the very most. After that there’s nothing.’
‘We must have something?’
‘No,’ he said again, shaking his head. ‘Nothing.’
‘It can’t have all gone, can it?’
Nick had reached breaking point. How were they supposed to get through to this bloody woman? ‘Listen, Doreen, the cupboards are empty. We’re down to our last crumbs. There isn’t an extra little stash of food tucked away for emergencies. After this we’ll have absolutely nothing. Zip. Fuck all.’
Doreen slumped back in her chair. ‘So what are we going to do?’ More sighs came from around the table.
‘That’s what we’re trying to work out, you stupid cow,’ Nick said, sitting on his hands so he didn’t throttle her. ‘Bloody hell, are you on the same planet as the rest of us?’
‘Wish I wasn’t.’
‘So we’ve got two problems,’ John summarised, trying his best to control the conversation. ‘We need to try and get out and get supplies but—’
‘—but this building is full of bodies,’ said Barry, before adding, ‘thanks to the hole you lot made in the front door.’ ‘So what do we do?’ Doreen asked again.
‘Is there any way of getting out of here and back up again?’ Elizabeth wondered.
‘Don’t think so,’ Barry answered quickly. ‘Getting down’s no problem, we can use the fire escape.’ He nodded over at an inconspicuous looking door in the far corner of the room. ‘The problem is what to do once you’re down there. Open the fire escape door on the ground floor, and you’ll find yourself right in the middle of a few thousand bodies. And if you manage to get outside, you’re not going to get back in again afterwards. It’d be impossible empty-handed. No chance if you’re carrying supplies.’
‘But there must be a way?’
‘Get a sheet, hold it like a parachute, climb up to the roof and jump off,’ Nick suggested.
‘You think that’ll work?’ Doreen said, her bewilderingly stupid response meeting with groans of disbelief from the others.
‘Try it and let us know, Doreen,’ he said.
‘But how would I get back up again?’
‘Flap your arms,’ Nick said. ‘You know what I think? I think we should just get out of here. This place is fucked. We should go downstairs and torch the place on our way out. Set light to the building and watch the whole fucking place go up in flames.’
‘What good’s that going to do?’ Barry said.
‘Well it would distract them for a start. Christ, the heat and light this place burning would generate would be more than enough of a distraction to let us get away. They’re not going to be interested in a handful of people sneaking out the back door with all that going on, are they?’
Nick’s suggestion was met with an awkward, muted silence. They each thought long and hard about it, but none of them were sure. It wasn’t the wanton destruction that put them off, rather it was the thought of being out on the run again, searching for places to hide …
‘What about the cradle?’ John said. ‘We’ve talked about it before, haven’t we? Barry said there’s a window-cleaner’s cradle half way up the side of the building. We could use that to get us down, couldn’t we? We might even be able to use it to get back up as well …’
‘What about power,’ Paul said. ‘How do you think you winch it? You think the window-cleaners used to pull themselves up thirty floors by hand? No power, no cradle.’
Another idea quashed.
‘Seems to me that if we can get out of here in one piece, then maybe that’s what we should do,’ Elizabeth said dejectedly.
Barry shook his head. ‘I don’t want to leave here. I can’t see any point running.’
‘Of course there’s a point,’ Doreen said.
‘Yes,’ she answered, sounding far from convinced. ‘There must be …’
‘Well let me know when you find it.’
‘So what are we actually saying?’ Nick asked. He pointed at Barry. ‘Does she just want to sit here and starve? Good plan, well done!’
Barry was unfazed. ‘But why run?’
‘Because I don’t want to die.’
‘Good answer. Why don’t you want to die?’
‘Stupid question. No one wants to die, do they?’
‘But is it the end of your life you’re worried about, or is it death itself that scares you?’ Barry said.
‘What? You’re just talking bollocks now.’
‘No, I’m not. Are you worried that you’re not going to achieve everything you’ve always wanted to achieve, or is it the prospect of being torn apart by hundreds of bodies that bothers you most?’
‘What point are you making, Barry?’ John wondered.
‘Sorry, I guess I’m just thinking out loud really. I’m not trying to wind anyone up. I think what I’m saying is that I genuinely can’t see an easy way out of this. If we run we’ll find somewhere else to hide for a while, then something will happen and before you know it we’ll be moving on again, then again, and again, and again …’
‘Not necessarily,’ Elizabeth said.
‘No, but that’s probably what will happen, and we have to accept that. We’re not in control here. Christ, I thought I’d hit the jackpot finding this place until someone drove a bloody bus into the building.’
‘But running’s got to be better than just rolling over and waiting to die, hasn’t it?’
‘I’m not so sure,’ Barry said. ‘That’s what I used to believe, but I just don’t know any more. Every morning when I wake up, it’s getting clearer and clearer that my life is just about over. We’re massively outnumbered and society is finished. Christ, we’re sitting here talking about risking our necks just to get food. What kind of a life are any of us going to have if getting the basics like food and shelter are so difficult?’
His words were greeted by almost total silence. ‘Still don’t understand you,’ Doreen said. ‘What were you saying about death and dying?’
Barry rubbed his tired eyes and explained further. ‘I don’t want to keep struggling and fighting forever,’ he said sadly, ‘and I don’t think any of you do either. If I’m completely honest, I just want to relax and let things happen naturally. We’re in the minority now, and I don’t think we were supposed to survive. So while I don’t relish the idea of letting those things out there tear me limb from limb, I guess I’m not bothered if I die.’
‘But that’s—’ John started to say.
‘Not normal? I accept that. It’s not what any of you were expecting me to say, I know. We’ve been pre-programmed all of our lives to keep fighting and keep struggling. All I’m saying is I’ve realised there’s no point any more. Just sit back and relax. Let nature take its course.’
‘No,’ Nick said. ‘There’s no fucking way I’m just going to sit here and wait to die. Absolutely no way …’
‘I’m with you,’ Paul said, similarly unimpressed. John looked up in surprise. He couldn’t remember when the two men had last agreed on anything. Strange how their dislike of each other could be put to one side when their backs were against the wall.
‘So what do we do?’ asked Elizabeth.
That was the million dollar question which no one could answer. The ominous silence continued for several minutes until Paul spoke again. ‘Exactly how full of bodies is this place?’
‘They’re almost up to the twenty-fourth floor,’ John said. ‘I told you that a few minutes ago. You don’t listen to a word I say.’
‘No, you told us how far up the staircase they’d managed to get, you didn’t tell us how full of bodies the building is.’
John struggled to see the difference and he wasn’t alone in his confusion. ‘What do you mean?’ Elizabeth asked.
Paul shook his head. Christ, these people were infuriating. More to the point he was annoyed with himself. Why hadn’t he thought of this before? ‘A couple of minutes ago we were talking about getting out of here, weren’t we?’
‘So how was Barry talking about getting out?’
‘Do you always answer questions with questions?’ she snapped.
‘Do you?’ he replied, before re-phrasing and asking his previous question again. ‘There’s another way out of here, isn’t there?’
‘The fire escape,’ Barry answered.
‘Which is still clear, correct?’
‘As far as we know. Why, what are you thinking?’
‘Is the fire escape anywhere near the main staircase?’
‘Of course not,’ John interjected. ‘What would be the point of that? The fire escape needs to be on the other side of the building so that—’
‘My point exactly. The fire escape gives us a way of moving around the building that’s well away from the main staircase where we think all the bodies are.’
‘And there’s a good chance the bodies are still only on the staircase,’ Nick added, finally understanding where Paul was coming from. ‘Which means that if we’re careful we could still go out onto the landings and into the rooms.’
‘What’s the layout of a typical floor?’ Paul asked.
‘Just one U‑shaped corridor,’ Barry answered. ‘Staircase in the middle, fire escape at either end I think.’
‘And when you first set yourself up here, did you clear the place out?’
‘I checked all the rooms for bodies and I took what I needed but—’
‘Did you take everything?’
‘No, I didn’t need to.’
‘So there’s your answer,’ Paul said, rocking back on his chair, almost looking down his nose at the others. ‘We go back down as far as we need to and grab what we can. Should keep us from starving to death for a few days longer. Delay the inevitable.’
‘But that’s all you’re going to do,’ Barry reminded him. ‘You’ll just be delaying what you know is going to happen anyway.’
‘He’s right, isn’t he?’ Doreen said. ‘It’s not going to change the fact that those bloody things will be up here with us in the next couple of days, is it? It’s not going to help us get away.’
‘No,’ Paul agreed, ‘it won’t. But it will give us a little time and space.’
‘To do what?’
‘To decide how we’re getting out of here and where we’re going to go.’
Eight thirty-five. Pitch black. Paul, Nick and Elizabeth crept down the fire escape staircase towards the lower floors of the hotel. Hunger, claustrophobia and fear had combined to deadly effect to kick-start their hastily considered, semi-improvised plan. The risks seemed to increase with every step of the descent. Paul had suggested they go all the way down then work their way back up, but they’d only made it as far as the seventeenth floor when he stopped.
‘What’s the matter?’ Elizabeth asked, immediately concerned.
‘I want to have a look.’
‘What do you think?’
‘But you said …’
‘I know what I said. We know those things are on the stairs, but we don’t know for sure where else they are, do we?’
Paul moved to the door and gently pushed it open a fraction. He shone his torch out onto the landing.
‘Can’t see any movement,’ he replied, his voice little more than a whisper. ‘I’m going to have a look around.’
Without waiting for either of the others, Paul slipped out onto the landing. He switched off his torch, concerned that the light might attract unwanted attention, and then slowly moved down the hallway to the first corner. The layout, as far as he could see in the gloom, was pretty much as Barry had described: a long corridor with a right-angled right turn towards the central part of the building where, he presumed, he’d find the staircase and tens of thousands of rotting bodies. He moved closer and peered around the corner, holding his breath for fear of making any sound which might tip the balance and alert the dead to his presence. He couldn’t see anything. It was too dark.
Paul felt his way farther along the wall and paused at the door to one of the hotel’s many bedrooms. Did he go inside? It would be worth having a quick look around the room before he going back to the other two waiting on the fire escape staircase. He wanted to see the layout of a typical room so he could get a feel for what they were dealing with. How quickly would they be able to thoroughly check a room for food? What were they likely to find? Would there be a mini-bar or similar? Christ, he needed a drink, and his stomach started to growl at the thought of eating again.
Paul tried the handle. Damn thing was locked and it needed a swipe card. No surprise really. Barry had a few master cards which he’d taken from the bodies of cleaners and other staff. Elizabeth had one with her. He shoved the door again, hoping it would open. It didn’t matter. He’d go back to Elizabeth and …
What was that?
He sensed movement up ahead. He felt something brush against his arm and he froze. He lifted his torch and switched it on. Ahead of him the whole corridor was filled with bodies, all of them oblivious to his presence until he’d started messing with the door.
‘Fucking hell,’ he mumbled as he tripped back away from the dead. Illuminated now and then by the unsteady light from his shaking torch, he saw that the corridor was filled with constantly shifting corpses which had obviously spilled out from the staircase. Almost as one they began to move towards him. He ran back to the fire escape and hammered on the door. Elizabeth opened it slowly and he barged through, shoving her out of the way.
‘Move!’ he yelled, slamming the door shut behind him.
‘Bodies?’ she asked, already beginning to climb back up.
‘Fucking hundreds of them,’ he answered breathlessly. ‘It’s worse than we thought.’
He looked around for Nick but he’d already gone. He was way ahead of them both, on his way back to the top floor. Cowardly bastard. He made a mental note never to put himself in a position where he needed to rely on Nick for anything.
They pounded up the stairs, no longer concerned about the volume of noise they made, just desperate to get back to the Presidential Suite. ‘Wait a minute,’ he shouted, stopping Elizabeth in her tracks. Breathless, he shone his torch at the nearest fire door. Floor twenty-six. It was worth taking a chance to see if this floor was the same as the one ten floors below.
‘What are you doing?’ Elizabeth asked, almost too afraid to know.
‘According to John they haven’t reached this floor yet. We thought they were just filling the stairs, but there’s so bloody many of them they’re filling the entire building. We should check this level for food before we go back. We won’t have chance again.’
They slipped out through the fire door, leaving it propped open with a fire extinguisher, then moved slowly along the corridor to the first corner. Paul put his head around and shone the torch down its length.
‘Clear,’ he said, the relief in his voice obvious. ‘Stick to this end of the corridor and stay away from the stairs.’
The layout of floor twenty-six was different to floor seventeen. Here there were several large suites instead of many smaller rooms. They went into the nearest.
‘So what are we looking for?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘Anything. Just make sure you split what you find into two piles. Keep one for us, then we’ll share the rest with the others.’
‘—that’s completely fair. How many of those fuckers are here helping? If they want more they can come and get it themselves.’
He began to ransack the room.
A little under an hour later Elizabeth and Paul returned to the Presidential Suite, carrying with them almost the entire contents of the minibars of the Executive Suites on the floor immediately below. They’d found little in the way of any substantial food, but that didn’t matter. The others gratefully took what they were given and ate and drank quickly as Paul broke the bad news about what they’d seen on the lower levels.
‘Feels like a last supper, doesn’t it?’ Barry said quietly. To no one in particular. He couldn’t see who was where. No one had lit any lamps this evening.
‘So what do we do next?’ John asked, sitting on his own a little way behind Barry. ‘We never decided. Do we just sit here and wait for them, or do we run?’
‘Nick will run,’ Paul said, remembering how he’d left them on the fire escape. ‘You’re good at running, aren’t you Nick?’
‘Shut your fucking mouth,’ Nick said angrily, glad of the dark because he didn’t know how to react.
‘So what do we do?’ John asked again, desperate for someone to answer and give him something to cling onto.
‘Let’s just think about it logically, shall we,’ Barry suggested. ‘They’re still coming in through the front door, and they’re climbing the stairs because of the growing pressure of other corpses behind them. So what’s going to happen when they reach the top? They’re not going to turn back around and start heading for the ground floor again, are they?’
‘They’re going to keep coming,’ Paul said ominously. ‘They’ll spread onto the landings like we saw downstairs.’
‘And even when there’s no more room on the landing up here,’ Barry continued, ‘they’ll still keep coming. Before we know it they’ll be up against our door and then, when the pressure gets too great, it’ll give and this place will be flooded.’
‘Lovely,’ Doreen mumbled.
‘So you don’t think we’ve got any chance?’ asked Elizabeth.
‘It’s like I said earlier,’ Barry replied, ‘what’s coming is coming. I think we’re all going to die, and the only choice left is how it happens. Now I don’t personally intend on being torn apart, but I also don’t like the idea of running either.’
‘So what are you going to do?’
‘Not sure yet. I haven’t decided.’
‘You don’t have long.’
‘I’m running,’ Nick said.
‘You would,’ Paul said quickly. ‘But fair play, I’ll probably run too.’
‘What about you, Doreen?’ Elizabeth asked.
‘Too tired to run, too scared not to. We’ll just have to wait and see what tomorrow brings, won’t we?’
Next morning. First light. John picked up his camera and walked across the landing to carry out his self-imposed daily duty and measure the progress of the dead. He walked out to the staircase and leant over the banister, then immediately pulling himself back again. There was no longer any need for cameras. They still had several flights of stairs to climb, but he could now see the first few bodies. He ran back to tell the others.
‘How far?’ Elizabeth asked as he burst back into the room.
‘Couple of hours.’
Doreen began to sob.
‘Shut up you silly cow,’ Nick snapped at her with his typical lack of compassion. ‘All you’re going to do is get them up here quicker with your stupid whining.’
‘So we just sit and wait?’ John asked.
‘That’s what I’m doing,’ a voice said from behind him, ‘but I’m not ready to die just yet.’ Barry emerged from his bedroom wearing a skirt and blouse, a blond wig, full make-up and his favourite high-heeled boots. He stormed into the main part of the suite with rediscovered confidence, completely at odds with the others who sat around dejectedly, each contemplating the dark decisions they would soon have to make. ‘I did a lot of thinking last night,’ he explained.
‘We can see that,’ Nick said.
‘And …?’ Paul pressed.
‘I wanted to know if I was wrong. I didn’t know if I’d been looking at everything the wrong way.’
‘And?’ Paul pressed again.
‘And, unfortunately, I think I’m right,’ he admitted. ‘In fact the more I think about it, the more I’ve come to realise our situation really is hopeless. I can’t see any obvious way out, and I’m not just talking about the hotel here, I’m talking about what’s left of our lives in general. Whatever we do, wherever we go, we’re fucked.’
‘Nice. Thanks for that.’
‘Seriously, just stop and think about it. I’m not being defeatist here, I’m just being honest. Whatever we decide to do, it’s going to be a struggle. We’re going to have to fight for absolutely everything, and that’s bloody stupid when you think there’s probably only a few people left. The world’s our oyster, but I don’t think we can have any of it. What does that say to you?’
Blank, confused looks. Silence.
‘It’s like you said,’ Elizabeth eventually mumbled. ‘We’re fucked.’
‘Exactly. There’s nothing any of us can do about it. We’re massively outnumbered and nowhere is safe. The only thing we have any control over now is what we do with the time we have left.’
‘But we don’t know how long that is,’ John protested.
‘We never have done,’ Barry argued. ‘Seems to me we can either spend our last few days and weeks hiding in the shadows out there, starving to death, running from place to place and freaking out every time someone farts …’
‘Or we can stop trying so hard to survive and just let things happen naturally. Go out with a little dignity.’
‘You’re talking crap,’ Nick said.
‘Am I? Do you really think you’re supposed to survive all of this? There are some things that are bigger than us.’
‘Please don’t start talking about God and divine retribution and all that shite,’ John sighed. ‘I’ve given all of that up.’
Barry smiled and brushed away a stray wisp of long, blond hair. ‘That’s not what I’m talking about at all. What I’m saying is that whatever happened here was the twenty-first century equivalent of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.’
‘Now you’ve really lost me,’ Paul said.
‘This is our ice-age. This is our apocalypse. This is the end. We should just accept it and let nature take its course.’ Barry’s comments were met with silence. ‘Our problem is we’ve all fallen foul of the programme. We think we’re so bloody superior and we think the planet can’t go on without us. It’s part and parcel of the human condition. Truth is the world’s going to thrive without us here to keep screwing it up.’
‘The human condition?’ Nick said. ‘What the hell are you on about?’
‘I can’t think of a better way to put it. I was looking out of the window last night, watching birds flying from building to building …’
‘Fucking hell,’ Paul said, ‘he’s really lost it. I’ve long had my doubts about him but I think he’s finally lost it.’
‘I was watching the birds,’ Barry continued, ignoring him, ‘and I started thinking about the difference between us and the animals. Seems to me there’s one huge difference that doesn’t often get talked about.’ He paused to give the others opportunity to make a cheap joke or to hit him with another insult but, unusually, they didn’t. ‘The difference is we know we’re eventually going to die and they don’t. Animals strut about the place thinking they’re going to go on forever, we spend our lives worrying about how they’re going to end. That’s what I mean when I talk about the human condition. We’re too busy thinking about death to enjoy life.’
There followed an unusually long moment of quiet contemplation and reflection which was only disturbed when John remembered the bodies on the stairs. ‘That’s all well and good,’ he said anxiously, ‘but what are you going to do now? Are you going to wait for the bodies to get in here, or are you going to kill yourself and get it over with?’
‘I’m going to sit in here and relax, and what will be will be. I’m going to try and slow the bodies down, then let nature take its course.’
‘Are you high? How are you going to slow them down?’
‘Well we’ve already established that they’ll keep moving forward until they can’t go any further, so instead of letting them stop here on this floor where we are, let’s help them keep going.’
‘What are you suggesting?’
‘Channel them up onto the roof.’
‘And that’s it. What they do up there is their business. If they stay true to form they’ll follow each other up, one after another, until there’s no room left. Then they’ll either come back down, which I doubt, or they’ll end up pushing each other over the edge.’
‘Brilliant,’ Paul said, grinning with genuine enthusiasm. ‘That’s absolutely fucking brilliant!’
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. A man in a dress was suggesting they spend their last few days on Earth sitting in a luxury hotel suite watching three week old corpses falling off the roof.
‘It’s got to be worth a go, hasn’t it?’ Barry said.
‘Okay,’ Paul agreed, surprising even himself. ‘Let’s do it.’
The roof of the building was accessed via a final narrow flight of steps. With the bodies continuing to make unsteady progress towards them, Paul and Barry crept up towards the door that would lead them outside.
‘It’s locked,’ Barry grunted.
‘Don’t you have the key? You’ve got keys to everywhere else.’
‘Smash it open then.’
‘What about the noise?’ he instinctively asked. Paul looked down the staircase behind them, back into the heart of the building. Even from here he could see the constant movement of the dead.
‘Bit late to worry about that.’
With limited space to manoeuvre his coiffured bulk, Barry held onto a handrail, swung back, then crashed his shoulder against the door. It rattled in its frame but didn’t open. Another couple of attempts were equally unsuccessful.
‘Let me,’ Paul said, pushing Barry to one side. ‘You’re not wearing the right shoes for breaking and entering.’
He launched a barrage of well aimed kicks at the lock. The wood began to splinter and crack. Another few heavy boots and it flew open, allowing the two men to scramble out onto the roof. A phenomenal wind threatened to blow them off their feet.
‘Jesus,’ Paul said, having to shout to make himself heard, almost enjoying the volume of his voice. ‘Bit blustery.’
Barry didn’t answer. He was busy trying to wedge the door open. For the bodies to be able to keep moving forward, the way out onto the roof would need to remain unobstructed. Paul picked up a strip of metal lying on the asphalt and used it as a prop.
‘That’ll do,’ Barry said. ‘Let’s get back inside.’
The two men clattered back down the staircase towards the Presidential Suite. Paul stopped and stared at the bodies still coming towards them. Was it his imagination, or were they moving slightly faster now? He tried to think logically as the distance between the living and the dead rapidly evaporated. Previously the bodies had been driven forward by the pressure of others pushing them from behind, but now those corpses furthest up the stairs knew there were survivors above them. Rather than wait to be pushed forward, those at the front of the queue were now moving under their own steam. Barry was next to him.
‘They’re getting faster,’ Paul said quietly. ‘I think we should—’ He stopped speaking instantly when one of the bodies looked up at him. Was he imagining it? No, now Barry had seen it too. The foul creatures were actually looking at them …
‘Move,’ Barry said, and Paul didn’t argue.
‘Done it?’ John asked as they burst back through the main doors together.
‘Sort of,’ Barry said.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘We might have a problem …’
‘What’s the matter?’ Doreen asked, concerned.
Paul was still by the open doors, looking back down the corridor. The first bodies appeared on the landing. Elizabeth covered her mouth in horror and stifled a scream. John scrambled away from the open door as Paul slammed it shut.
‘Fuck me,’ said Nick.
‘They saw us,’ Paul said, sounding almost embarrassed. ‘They know we’re here now.’
‘Did you open the door to the roof?’ Doreen asked.
‘Yes, but …’ Barry began to say.
‘You pair of bloody idiots,’ she screamed at them both.
‘Be quiet, Doreen,’ John pleaded from behind the sofa. ‘Please, Doreen, don’t let them hear you.’
‘Bit late for that,’ she said. She looked around and saw she was the only one still out in the open. ‘So is that it? All that noise and effort and that’s it? That’s all you’re going to do?’
Barry tried to respond but he couldn’t coordinate his brain and mouth enough and make it happen.
‘What else can we do?’ Paul shouted. ‘We’re completely screwed.’
‘Pathetic,’ Doreen said. ‘Absolutely bloody pathetic. If you think I’m going to sit here and wait for those damn things to have their way with me, then you’re very much mistaken. I’m a woman with standards. I’ve still got my pride.’
More interested in the relentless approach of the dead than the prattling of a nervous old woman, no one paid her any attention. Infuriated by their lack of response, Doreen took it upon herself to take action.
‘You’re bloody useless, the lot of you,’ she said. ‘Wish I’d never got mixed up with your little gang. Enjoy your little party or whatever it is you’re planning …’
She was tired and she’d really had enough. Wiser and more shrewd than any of them gave her credit for, she’d listened to everything that Barry had said and she’d found herself agreeing with him. Death was inevitable, and she didn’t have the energy nor the desire to go on running. She opened the door again, stepped outside, then slammed it shut. With a total lack of nerves she walked into the bodies and pushed her way through them. Although their numbers were imposing, they were individually weak and even with her bad back and countless other ailments, getting through them was easy. They swung their rotting fists at her and tried to grab at her with gnarled, talon-like hands but she was as wiry and thin as they were and she slipped past, weaving between them with the sudden grace and subtlety of a woman whose various disorders and complaints were ten per cent physical and ninety per cent attention seeking bullshit. She pushed deeper into the throng until she reached the foot of the stairs up to the roof. She then gave a loud whistle and threw herself up the last few steps and out onto the roof. Distracted by Doreen’s sudden speed, noise and movement, many of the bodies turned away from the door to the Presidential Suite and began to follow her.
Bloody hell it was cold outside. Doreen wrapped her cardigan tight around her willowy body and braced herself against the wind. Now what did she do? She hadn’t quite thought this through. She knew what she was doing, but now that she was standing unprotected on the roof, the consequences of her actions really began to hit home. This was it. No more running or hiding or sleeping on the floor. No more fear or confusion or disorientation. No more arguments or fights. It was finally time for a long overdue rest. It felt good, actually.
Doreen walked to the edge of the roof and peered down.
Bloody hell, it’s higher than I expected.
That was probably a good thing, she decided. Although she was only a few feet higher here than she’d been in the suite just below, the difference was stark. Perhaps it was because the protection of glass and concrete had gone. Perhaps it was because now there was nothing left between her and the rest of the world.
She looked back as the first few bodies staggered out onto the roof.
This is it then, time to do it.
She’d been toying with the idea of suicide for a few days – a few weeks if she was completely honest – but she’d always clung onto the slim hope that things would somehow get better. Like Barry had said, she just kept trying to survive. Suicide had always seemed to be the coward’s way out before today, but after listening to him earlier she’d come to realise that this was far from a cowardly act. Her fate was sealed, whatever she did, but by ending her life this way she’d hold onto some dignity and control. This choice was all she had left. And she might even help those miserable bastards in the Presidential Suite too.
She climbed up onto the low concrete wall which ran around the perimeter of the building. The wind seemed to blow even stronger as she gingerly stood upright. She held out her arms like a tightrope walker, struggling to keep her balance.
Bloody hell, I can’t do this. I can’t go through with it.
She looked down towards the street many hundreds of feet below. Save for the occasional body staggering by, the pavement on this side of the hotel was relatively clear. Her mind began to fill with stupid questions: was this going to be painful? Would it definitely kill her or would she somehow survive and end up lying helpless on the ground with her arms and legs broken as the dead swarmed over and around her? She thought about the old adage she’d heard countless times before — it’s not the jump off the top of the building that kills you, it’s hitting the ground that does it — and she managed half a smile. Would she feel anything? What would the fall be like? Would she know when she’d hit the ground or would it all be over before then …?
Doreen looked around and watched more bodies piling out onto the roof. They hadn’t noticed her yet. They wandered around aimlessly like the empty, soulless vessels they were. She turned her back on them again and looked forward across the town, knowing there was no going back now. Even if she changed her mind, she couldn’t get back inside.
Do I do it now or wait for them to get closer to me? Do I wait until the last possible second? Is it worth clinging onto a few more seconds of life? What good will it do? Do I want to stand here, freezing cold and terrified, trying to keep my balance and not think about those bloody things behind me, or do I just let it happen? Think about finally being able to stop and rest. Think about not having to run and hide …
Doreen closed her eyes, tipped forward and let gravity take over.
‘Well?’ Elizabeth asked, sobbing. Barry peered out onto the landing through the spy-hole in the door.
‘Not good. There are too many of them. They know we’re in here now.’
Elizabeth began to cry uncontrollably. John tried to put his arms around her, but she pushed him away.
‘So what do we do now?’ Nick asked, sounding nothing like the confident, cocksure man who’d first arrived at the hotel.
‘Can’t see that anything’s changed,’ Barry answered, his face still pressed against the hole in the door. ‘We’re still in here, they’re still out there. If you were thinking about running, now’s your last chance.’
‘I’m going,’ Paul said, already edging closer to the fire escape door. ‘I’m not sitting here waiting for them to get in. Fuck that. I’m getting out of here …’
‘And me,’ Nick said.
Barry looked across at John and Elizabeth. They both began to edge closer to the two men waiting by the fire escape. ‘Come on, Barry,’ she said, almost pleading with him. ‘Don’t stay here. It’s suicide.’
‘You don’t have to keep fighting, you know. That’s the difference between us in here and those things out there. You can stop and switch off if you want to. They’ll just keep going until there’s nothing left of them.’
‘Come on, Barry,’ John said.
‘Nah,’ he replied, smoothing a wrinkle in his skirt. ‘I think I’ve had enough.’
The four remaining survivors disappeared through the fire escape door and began their dark descent down towards the ground floor.
The hotel suite was suddenly quiet, save for the thumping coming from the mass of decomposing bodies on the other side of the main door. More importantly, Barry’s space was his again. His and his alone. Just how he’d wanted it.
He knew he didn’t have long. He tearfully walked around the vast suite, collecting together his things. He salvaged everything he could from the little that was left and packed it all against the wall of the master bedroom. Another noise from outside distracted him, and he peered through the spy-hole and saw that the corridor was now a solid mass of flesh. It wouldn’t be long before they broke through. He wiped a tear away from the corner of his eye, taking care not to smudge his make-up, then took one long, final look around the suite which had been his home for the last few weeks of his life. He took a moment to walk around and look out of each of the windows in turn, staring at the remains of the city where he’d lived and remembering … The memories were harder to deal with than the thought of what was to come. It surprised him how much it still hurt to think about all he’d lost. The little he had left to lose didn’t seem to matter so much now.
With the door rattling and shaking in its frame as more and more of the damn things threw themselves against it, Barry slipped quietly into the master bedroom. Once inside he shoved the bed across the entrance to the room and wedged it into position with other furniture and belongings. If he’d had a hammer and nails, he thought, he would have nailed it shut. I didn’t really matter. That door wouldn’t be opening again.
Barry Bushell, with tears streaming down his cheeks, selected another outfit from his wardrobe and changed. Finally feeling presentable, he lay down on the bed and picked up a book. With his hands shaking so badly that he could hardly read, he lay there and waited.
‘Keep moving,’ Elizabeth yelled, slamming her hands into the middle of Nick’s back, sending him tripping down the last few stairs to the ground floor. He grabbed hold of the handrail to stop himself from falling.
‘What now?’ John asked, still a little further back. They’d finally reached the bottom. It was another of his pointless questions, pointless this time because they only had one choice. Nick teased the door open then quickly closed it again.
‘Well?’ Elizabeth asked hopefully.
‘Not as bad as I thought,’ he replied. ‘There are hundreds of the fuckers, but I was expecting more. We’ll probably make it through if we’re fast and we keep moving.’
Paul shoved Nick out of the way and peered around the side of the door. He pulled his head back in and composed himself.
‘This is it then. Time to say goodbye. I’d like to say I’d had fun, but I’d be lying.’
‘Goodbye?’ Elizabeth said, surprised.
‘We’ll stand more of a chance if we split up.’
Paul shrugged his shoulders. ‘Who knows. Anyway, see you. Good luck.’ He took a deep breath, opened the door again, then slipped out into what was left of the hotel reception.
It was surprisingly bright after the enclosed gloom of the fire escape and the air, although still heavy with the stench of death and decay, was somehow fresher. Several of the nearest bodies noticed his sudden appearance and immediately turned towards him. Paul, terrified, pumped full of adrenalin, ran, pausing only to stare in utter disbelief at the main staircase of the hotel which was a solid column of still climbing flesh.
He skipped and weaved through the lifeless corpses which even now fought to get into the rubble-strewn hotel ruin, then he burst out onto the street. The dead were fewer in number out here, but he knew they’d be upon him soon. Not knowing where he was going or why, he just ran.
‘Bastard,’ Nick sobbed as bodies began to slam against the other side of the fire escape door. ‘That bloody bastard, he’s let them know exactly where we are.’
‘Don’t think it matters now,’ John said as he descended the final few steps. The three remaining survivors stood together at the foot of the staircase. Elizabeth thought about Barry, twenty-eight floors above them, and the sense of his actions became painfully clear. It was no longer about surviving, it was about choosing where and how to die. Still tearful, and without saying anything to either of the others, she opened the door and barged past the rancid corpses clawing against the other side. In a blind panic, John ran out after her.
But Nick froze. He couldn’t do it.
As the fire door had swung shut again, one of the bodies had become trapped, leaving it wedged open. More of the sickly cadavers immediately began to gravitate towards the opening, clambering over the first trapped corpse. Nick watched in horror as the first of them lunged at him. What did he do? Still breathless from the sudden descent, he began to climb back up again.
He realised what he was doing was pointless, but he couldn’t stop. His legs burned with effort, but he couldn’t slow down either. He looked around saw that, for now, he’d left those fucking things at the bottom of the stairs for dust.
It took him more than half an hour to get back to the twenty-eighth floor. He burst through the fire escape door, keen to find Barry and apologise for everything he’d said and—
—and the Presidential Suite was full of bodies. The dead reacted to his unexpected appearance en masse. They surged towards him like a tidal wave of green-grey gore and knocked him clean off his feet. As their sharp, bony fingers dug into his flesh he lay on the ground and looked across at the open fire escape door through which he’d just emerged. If he really tried, he thought, he might be able to crawl through it and give himself a little more time. Maybe get back down to another floor and wait there …
For a second or two longer he fought, then he stopped. What was the point? Barry was right. Just give up, lie back, endure the pain, and wait for it all to be over.
Elizabeth didn’t know that John had followed her out until she heard him shouting at her to slow down. She glanced back over her shoulder and saw him running after her but she wasn’t interested. She didn’t want to be with anyone else now, certainly not him. She kept moving, increasing her speed. Not knowing the city particularly well, she didn’t have a clue where she was going. She’d wanted to head out of the centre but, instead, had inadvertently found herself running deeper into the main shopping area. The bodies there were still relatively dense in numbers but she moved with enough speed and control to be able to barge through them.
She needed to rest and took a left into a dark alleyway. Momentarily free of the dead, she stopped running and rested with her hands on her knees, sucking in as much precious oxygen as she could. There was a door halfway down the passageway. She looked through a small, dusty window, and when she couldn’t immediately see any movement inside, she pulled the door open and slipped through, too tired to care.
Bloody hell, she thought as she climbed a wide, white marble staircase. Of all the doors in all the alleyways, she’d found the staff entrance to Laceys department store. She’d never been able to afford to shop there although she’d always wanted to. It was one of those places that made you feel unworthy if you walked in without a purse full of gold and platinum credit cards. Today, of course, it was a grim shadow of its former self just like everywhere else, but what the hell, she thought, it was still Laceys.
Barry Bushell’s words continued to play heavily on her mind as she climbed further up the stairs and deeper into the store. How right he’d been. She couldn’t think of anywhere she’d be completely safe anymore, and even if she could, she had no way of getting there now. She continued to climb, stopping when she reached the jewellery department on the third floor. There were no bodies around that she could see. Always a sucker for gold and pretty stones, she found herself drawn to the cobweb-covered display cabinets. They were still filled with beautiful pieces that would have been worth a fortune a month ago. Today they were worth nothing. But hell, she could still dream, couldn’t she? Dreaming was just about all she had left …
Elizabeth enjoyed her long-overdue shopping trip around Laceys. She worked her way through the building floor by floor, hiding from the occasional lurching corpse and staring in wonder at all the things she’d wanted but never been able to afford. When she reached the ladies clothing department she changed out of her dirty clothes and dressed in the most expensive outfit she could find. She climbed to the very top floor and sat on a plush leather sofa where, draped in jewellery, she drank wine, ate chocolate and swallowed enough headache tablets to kill an elephant.
Paul Jones stopped running and hid in a paper shop until the after-effects of his sudden appearance and disappearance had faded away and the bodies had lost interest again. Fortunately Elizabeth and the others — whatever they had decided to do — seemed to be causing enough of a commotion to take the pressure off him for a while. He lay on the floor of the shop behind the counter and read the last ever editions of half a dozen newspapers and lads’ mags until the sun disappeared and the light faded away. All the headlines on the newspapers that had once seemed so important and relevant now seemed puerile and trite. All the glamorous girls he lusted after in the magazines were dead.
Walking slowly through the gloom of early evening without fear or concern, Paul eventually reached a construction site. With a rucksack full of booze on his back, he climbed to the cab at the very top of a huge crane which towered over the foundations of a never-to-be-finished office block. Protected by the height and enjoying a view which was even more impressive than the one from the hotel, he drank and slept.
In the morning, when the sun finally came up, he looked back across town at the hotel he’d left behind and watched the occasional stupid body fall from the roof. Many hours had passed, but even now the dumb fuckers were still dropping like stones. He laughed out loud without fear of retribution.
Paul Jones had decided to take his own life, but not yet. He’d do it when there were no other options left.
Once John had lost sight of Elizabeth he’d stopped running too. He slowed his pace to match that of the dead and, for a time, had been able to walk among them undetected. I can do this, he thought, I can outwit them. I can move around them and between them and I can do this. Barry was wrong. They were all wrong. I don’t have to run and I don’t have to give up. It’s not over yet …
For almost a day he managed to survive, but his foolish confidence proved to be his undoing. It took only a glance into the sun and a single sneeze to blow his cover. One sneeze in the middle of a vast crowd of bodies and his position was revealed. And John, being a cowardly man, tried to run. Instead of standing his ground and continuing to mimic the actions of the lethargic bodies all around him, maybe blaming the sneeze on the corpse next-door, the stupid man tried to get away. Deep in the middle of a mass of several hundred rancid, rotting, dripping cadavers, he didn’t stand a chance. They ripped him to pieces before he had chance to scream for help.
Wouldn’t have mattered. No one would have come.
Barry Bushell lasted for several more days. The hotel suite was overrun with bodies but, as far as he could tell, they didn’t know he was in the bedroom. He remained quiet and still. Without food, water and exercise, however, he soon became weak.
Barry died a relatively happy man. He’d rather not have died, of course, but he’d managed somehow to retain the control he’d so desperately craved — the control that death had stripped from the millions of bodies condemned to walk tirelessly along the streets outside until they were no longer physically able.
Dressed in a silk negligee and lying in a comfortable (if slightly soiled) bed, he died peacefully in his sleep halfway through a really good book.