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