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The Swimmer (the prologue to Autumn: Disintegration)

I’ve begun to hate her. She’s one corpse in a world filled with mil­lions, but because she’s in here with us, I’ve begun to focus all my pain and frus­tra­tion direct­ly on her. Some­times I feel like she’s taunt­ing me, and it’s all I can do not to destroy her. Yes­ter­day when she was watch­ing me I stood on the oth­er side of the door with an axe in my hands for what felt like for ever. I want­ed so bad­ly to cut her down to noth­ing, bat­ter her into memory.

But I know I can’t harm her; we still need her.

She is The Swimmer.

They said I should have burned her with the rest of them. When every­one died I cleared this place out room by room, work­ing for hours until every trace of dead flesh had been removed from the build­ing. Except for her – the Swimmer.

I found her a cou­ple of days lat­er, when she’d just start­ed to move. I don’t know how I missed her before: poor bitch must have been about to take a dip in the pool when it caught her, and the doors had swung shut, trap­ping her inside. When I first found her she was shuf­fling about in the shad­ows like those on the oth­er side of the bound­ary fence, con­stant­ly drag­ging her­self from one end of the room to the oth­er, back­wards and for­ward, walk­ing into walls and lock­ers, trip­ping over upturned bench­es and oth­er obstruc­tions. She looked pret­ty com­i­cal crash­ing around, stu­pid almost, but I wasn’t laugh­ing. I was too scared. I still am.

When the oth­ers got here we talked for hours about get­ting rid of her. Gin­nie and Sean were dead against the idea of keep­ing her inside the build­ing with us, even though there was no way she could get out into any oth­er part of the hotel. Howard and Amir came around to my way of think­ing pret­ty quick­ly: it made sense to keep watch on her – Christ, those bloody bod­ies had dragged them­selves up onto their feet after they’d been lying dead for days. None of us knew what they might do next. The Swim­mer would show us – in a per­verse way she’s helped us to stay alive. Shut away in the chang­ing room as she is, shel­tered from the rest of the dead world out­side, we’ve been able to watch her decay and change. She’s shown us how the dead have evolved – what they’ve become.

The changes have been grad­ual; some­times noth­ing hap­pens for days, then she’ll react dif­fer­ent­ly to one of us and we’ll know that the hun­dreds of thou­sands of bod­ies on the oth­er side of the fence will soon be doing the same. None of what’s hap­pened to the world makes any sense, but what’s hap­pen­ing to the dead makes the least sense of all: as they’ve con­tin­ued to rot, so their con­trol and coor­di­na­tion has some­how returned. It’s like they’re start­ing to think again, and make deci­sions. Some­time soon I’m sure they’ll reach the point where they’ve decayed to such an extent they can no longer keep mov­ing – but when will that be? More to the point, what will they be capa­ble of by then?

It was a week after the day every­one died when I first realised she was watch­ing me. For a week her move­ments had been unco­or­di­nat­ed, ran­dom – and then sud­den­ly she could see and hear again. Her dark eyes stared back at me when­ev­er I approached. And when Howard’s dog barked she react­ed too; she lurched towards the win­dow and ham­mered her hands against the glass as if she was try­ing to escape. As the days passed her reac­tions seemed to slow down. They became more delib­er­ate and less instinc­tive. I realised she was regain­ing control.

I’ve spent hours watch­ing her since then. Some­times it’s like I can’t take my eyes off her, even though she dis­gusts me. I’m sure I saw her here before she died; I remem­ber a once-pret­ty round face, heart-shaped lips, slight­ly upturned nose and short, dark-brown hair flecked with high­lights. Joan­na, I think her name was. Her sub­se­quent dete­ri­o­ra­tion has been remark­able. Even in here, where she’s pro­tect­ed from the weath­er and the worst of the insects, I’m aston­ished at how quick­ly she has been reduced to a grotesque shad­ow of the per­son she once was. The colour of her flesh has changed from the white-pink of life to a cold blue-grey. Her skin has shriv­elled in places and slipped in oth­ers. There are bags under her bulging eyes where her mot­tled flesh has sagged. Her body is almost turn­ing itself inside out. Grav­i­ty has dragged her rot­ting guts down and now they’re drip­ping out between her unsteady legs. Even from the oth­er side of the door I can smell the stench of her decay.

It’s almost two months since this night­mare began. Recent­ly the Swimmer’s behav­iour has changed again. Per­haps it’s my imag­i­na­tion, but she seems more aware than ever now – not just more aware of me and the oth­ers but more self-aware too. I don’t know if she has any mem­o­ry of who she used to be, or if she under­stands what she has become, but what­ev­er she does or doesn’t know, a cou­ple of days ago I swear I caught her try­ing to open the door. I found her lean­ing up against it, bang­ing her right hand down on the han­dle repeat­ed­ly. She even­tu­al­ly noticed me stand­ing at the win­dow and stopped. She looked at me for a few sec­onds, then she stum­bled back into the shad­ows. If she’d run at the glass I’d have been less con­cerned, but she didn’t: she actu­al­ly moved away. She saw that I was watch­ing her and she tried to hide.

Yes­ter­day after­noon, for a short time, she stood in the mid­dle of the room look­ing back at me through the win­dow. I couldn’t take my eyes off her grotesque face and I found myself won­der­ing again who she might have been before she died. Does she see me and remem­ber what she once was, or does she see me as a threat? Am I her enemy?

I’ve begun to hate her. She’s one corpse in a world filled with mil­lions, but because she’s in here with us, I’ve begun to focus all my pain and frus­tra­tion direct­ly on her. Some­times I feel like she’s taunt­ing me, and it’s all I can do not to destroy her. Yes­ter­day when she was watch­ing me I stood on the oth­er side of the door with an axe in my hands for what felt like for ever. I want­ed so bad­ly to cut her down to noth­ing, bat­ter her into memory.

But I know I can’t harm her; we still need her.

 

THE AUTUMN SERIES