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The Strand (excerpt from the beginning of Autumn: Dawn)

There must have been sev­er­al hun­dred corpses on the oth­er side of the win­dow, and it felt like every last one of them was star­ing right at Vicky. It had been over a month since they’d died. She’d been ter­ri­fied non-stop from the out­set, but in the last hour things had become immea­sur­ably worse. Until now the dead had been mean­der­ing, appear­ing vacant and direc­tion­less, react­ing to occa­sion­al move­ments and noise. Inex­plic­a­bly, today they had begun herd­ing pur­pose­ful­ly togeth­er in unprece­dent­ed num­bers along The Strand. It felt like they were hunt­ing, seek­ing out the last of the liv­ing, and, in the absence of any­thing else capa­ble of con­scious con­trol in this decay­ing shell of a city, Vicky, Kath and Sele­na felt like easy tar­gets. Vicky couldn’t think of a worse place to be trapped at the end of the world than this sprawl­ing, chaot­ic, over­crowd­ed metropolis.

Kath hauled her ruck­sack onto her aching shoul­ders. ‘What could have caused this?’

‘Us,’ Sele­na said. ‘You’ve not worked that out yet, Kath? It’s always us. I wish they’d just fuck off and leave us alone.’

‘Lan­guage,’ Vicky said.

‘What­ev­er.’

‘We’ve talked about this. It’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly us, per se, it’s more the fact there’s noth­ing else left. This is dif­fer­ent, though. There’s some­thing new going on out there. We haven’t seen them act­ing like this before.’

‘Dif­fer­ent? How?’ The teenager’s voice was edgy, her pan­ic bare­ly contained.

‘They’re most­ly head­ing in the same direc­tion, for a start. We’ve nev­er seen them do that. Before now they’ve always just drift­ed along. It’s like we’ve walked into the mid­dle of a migra­tion. There could be tens of thou­sands of them head­ing this way. There prob­a­bly are.’

Kath moved a lit­tle clos­er, out of Selena’s ear range. ‘Care­ful what you tell her,’ she whispered.

‘She needs to hear this.’

‘I know, but she’s not in a good way this morning.’

‘None of us are in a good way, Kath. Being in a good way went out the win­dow when the rest of the world dropped dead then decid­ed to get up again.’

‘I know, love, but she’s just a kid. Imag­ine every­thing we’re both hav­ing to deal with – the loss, the fear, the dis­ori­en­ta­tion – then chuck in a load of hor­mones and angst as well. She can’t help it.’

Vicky sighed and leant her fore­head against the cold glass. Out­side, a woman, who might have been a sim­i­lar age when she’d died, clat­tered into the front of the store. Vicky caught a glimpse of her own reflec­tion, mapped almost per­fect­ly onto the face of the corpse by chance. Where Vicky’s com­plex­ion was rel­a­tive­ly clear, the dead woman’s skin sagged like an ill-fit­ting mask, slip­ping down and leav­ing droop­ing bags under her eyes. Her mouth was pulled out of shape like she’d had a stroke, and she ground her jaw con­tin­u­al­ly, mak­ing her look like she was alter­nate­ly chew­ing then groan­ing. A string of drool the colour of mud oozed down her chin. Her clothes were tat­tered and soiled, her decayed body mis­shapen, swollen in some places, hol­lowed out in others.

You look as bad as I feel, Vicky thought. She’d known noth­ing but loss and dis­ori­en­ta­tion for more than a month now. Five weeks of run­ning on adren­a­lin, scav­eng­ing for food, and snatch­ing frac­tured moments of sleep. It was thir­ty-six days since the world she’d known had been stolen from her and replaced by this utter hell and right now, oth­er than a heart­beat, Vicky could see lit­tle dif­fer­ence between the liv­ing and the dead. Like the mil­lions of impos­si­bly rean­i­mat­ed corpses roam­ing the streets with­out pur­pose, she too was bare­ly even existing.

‘We should make a move,’ Kath said. ‘There are more and more of them. The longer we leave it, the worse it’s going to get.’

‘I’m not going back out there,’ Sele­na said, nervous.

‘Kath’s right. We can’t stay here,’ Vicky told her.

‘Why not? There’s food and space and—’

‘And judg­ing from the num­bers out there today, if we wait much longer we won’t have any choice. Love­ly as it is, this place will be our tomb. Is that how you want to end your days, hid­ing in the cor­ner of a bloody Tesco Metro store?’

‘Go easy on her,’ Kath hissed, try­ing not to let Sele­na hear.

‘I’ll go easy on her when we’re safe,’ Vicky replied, at full vol­ume. ‘We don’t just need to get out of this bloody super­mar­ket, we need to get out of Lon­don altogether.’

Sele­na edged clos­er to the front of the store. The sheer num­ber of corpses out­side was now block­ing much of the avail­able light. ‘Why are they all com­ing this way?’

‘It doesn’t make sense,’ Kath said. ‘They’re head­ing out of the city. Why would they be doing that?’

‘They must be react­ing to some­thing,’ Vicky said.

‘Us?’ Sele­na asked, panicked.

‘I don’t think they know we’re here.’

‘Good.’

‘Not yet any­way. It’s only a mat­ter of time, though.’

THE AUTUMN SERIES