In the grey nothingness between waking and sleeping, she sometimes remembers Before. It’s like falling into a swirling mass of colour and noise, with people milling about in crazy patterns. They’re laughing and shouting and singing in a hundred different languages. Machines thrum in the background to make everything go faster.
Those are the bad days. When she remembers Before, she wakes with her heart pounding and the memory of flames behind her eyes. On those days her ears ring with the sound of screams that were silenced nearly two decades ago. Her hands shake as she goes about her work. She drops her firewood and fumbles her snares. If she tries to skin a rabbit, it will end up like a pile of torn slivers. When her hands shake too badly, she sits by the river and listens to the sound of the water as it murmurs around rocks. That way she doesn’t have to listen to the echoes of people long gone.
That morning it is the cold that wakes her. No matter how much wood she puts on the fire and how many blankets she wraps herself in, it creeps into her bones. The last four winters have been hard, and now there is frost on the windows even though it is spring by her reckoning. Perhaps the winters are really getting longer. She rubs warmth back into her frozen fingers and tries not to think about the frost. It feels like a great beast on the prowl. She knows that she could die any day. Will it be the cold that takes her, or the lack of food from a failed harvest? But she also knows that she doesn’t want to die alone in her rundown cottage, curled up in a corner. The last human should die like humanity lived: while doing something adventurous and utterly stupid.
Once it gets warm enough to travel, she’ll go south.
He hasn’t thought about his name in a long time. There is no one to call him by it, and it’s easier to just forget. He hasn’t always been alone. For three years after the Event, he travelled with a ragtag band of survivors. They taught each other whatever skills they had. There was an old hunter, a retired nurse, a keen gardener, a kid who could climb like a monkey. At some point, they even had a musician with a broken guitar. One by one, they died. He never knew if they were late victims of the Event or whether it was just natural causes. At first, he tried to keep their memory alive by naming his chickens after them, but once he named the birds he found it hard to kill them. So now he doesn’t name anything, including himself.
He still talks to the chickens, like he talks to the trees and the rocks and the vegetables in his kitchen garden. The alternative is thinking about the loneliness that lurks at the edge of his consciousness like a black hole, waiting to swallow him. There’s only him left now. So he talks to the chickens, and they peck at his ankles. The chickens are thin, vicious little things that he found in an abandoned farmyard. He tosses them scraps and takes eggs in return. Foxes are a problem, and he wishes he could find a guard dog. Some were killed during the Event, some in the days after, and in all the towns and villages he has walked through he has never found an animal that would be useful to him alive, except his chickens. So he locks them up at night and hopes for the best.
It’s early morning when he smells the smoke. He’s sitting outside, watching the eastern sky lighten. Woodsmoke is such a familiar scent that he doesn’t notice it at first. It’s only when the wind blows his hair into his face that he realises it’s not coming from his chimney but from the line of hills on the horizon. For a moment he sits there frozen, while panic crystallises like ice in the pit of his stomach. Then he jumps to his feet. He whirls through the little house that his been his home for so many years, stuffing everything he can into an old backpack. Food, clothing, tools, and his most treasured possessions: a book about edible fungi and a packet of antibiotics, so old that he can’t read the name on the packet. He stuffs the chicks that hatched this year into a basket. The older chickens are left to fend for themselves.
He’ll go east, to the coast. It’s cooler and wetter there. Forest fires shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s been years since she left these hills, but she remembers the way. Within three days, she emerges on the old north-south motorway. The tarmac is almost completely hidden under a tangle of thorny shrubs, but a line of rusted cars marks the way. There are faint paths in the vegetation, but she knows not to get her hopes up. The tracks are those of deer and wild boar. No human has been here for years. Even the skeletons have been picked clean.
She follows the road south. It runs straight as an arrow, through a region that must have been populous Before. Every day she passes ruins. Houses and tower blocks, shops and schools, factories and power lines, rusted heaps of metal that might have been art or machinery. Some of the ruins were old even Before, like the old bridge across the river and the castle on the hilltop. Perhaps the Romans built them. They’re all she remembers from her history lessons at school.
There’s always a house where she can spend the night. If her supplies are running low, she spends a day scavenging. Most of the useful stuff has already been taken by others, long ago, when there were still people fighting for survival. Animals, and time itself, have wreaked havoc on what remains. In one village, she is delighted to find a pair of boots in her size, only to have the rubber soles crumble when she puts them on. Still, it doesn’t take much to make her happy. A tin of food with a label that has long since disintegrated. A woollen blanket, torn at the edges. A knife. A book full of maps. A plastic bottle. It’s enough to survive on, along with what she finds in the wood.
At night, she sometimes sits and watches the Milky Way turn slowly overhead. She thinks, perhaps, that she lived in a city Before, and that that is why every star is a blessing. Perhaps her friends and family are up there, silently watching her. She prefers the stars to her noisy memories of Before. They don’t intrude on her thoughts, but simply show her how far she has already walked. The North Star hangs lower in the sky every night.
She doesn’t know what she’s looking for, not exactly. She’ll spend the summer walking south, and she’ll know it when she sees it.
He follows what remains of the gravel road out of the valley, past the other houses of the abandoned village. He has tied the basket containing the chicks to the outside of his backpack. It swings slightly as he walks, and the chicks chirp indignantly as they are jostled. The sun blazes down from a cloudless sky and before long his clothes are soaked with sweat. He keeps them on, because the alternative is sunburn. It’s warm for spring, and it wouldn’t surprise him if the whole valley was swept away by fire. The chirping of the cicadas is deafening. Lizards dart away as he approaches. The air smells of baked earth and thyme, with a faint edge of smoke. Keep walking, he tells himself. And he does. Three days of walking, one day of rest and foraging. Then three days of walking again. It doesn’t take long before he has left the distant smell of smoke behind. One day, he crests a hill and sees a faint glint on the horizon. Three days later, he’s standing on a beach. He takes his shoes off and digs his toes into the warm sand.
He doesn’t stay in the city by the sea. There’s a row of apartment blocks overlooking the beach, and they remind him of grinning skulls with empty windows for eye sockets. Nature is slowly taking back what is hers, but the ghosts of civilisation still linger. He heads north, along the coast. After the Event, he travelled. First with the others, then alone. Every town he passed through was the same. Weeds sprouted from cracks in the roads and the buildings had fallen in like rotten teeth. It took him years to admit to himself that there were no survivors. Walking along the coast now, with only the chicks for company, reminds him of those days. But he can’t resist the lure of the towns that he meets. He climbs through broken windows and sifts through the wreckage inside. There are bones everywhere.
The chicks grow steadily. Soon they won’t fit into the basket anymore, and he’ll either have to settle down or let some of them go.
Summer is fading, and she keeps walking. She has passed a thousand houses that, with a little repair work, could be suitable, but none of them looked like they could be home. There are practical considerations, of course. Her new home must be sheltered from the north wind. There must be running water nearby, and woods to forage in, and good soil so she can plant some crops. But she wants something more.
The abandoned road leads her south, and a road that branches off leads her into a region of pleasant hills that smell of thyme and lavender. The skeletons that lie by the roadside are almost completely covered by vegetation. Small villages are dotted along the slopes. A broken church tower peaks through a stand of young trees. The fields are as overgrown as anything else, but she can still discern a number of fruit trees. There’s a river too.
Now all she needs is a house.
The days are still hot but the nights are getting cooler. Somehow he still has eleven chickens. There are now four baskets tied to the outside of his backpack. The chickens are nearly fully grown, and peck each other viciously. He has cut holes in the baskets so the chickens can stick their heads out, which helps a little. The three new baskets are from a shop that sat, incongruously intact, between buildings with bullet holes in them. He didn’t stay long in that town.
He has lost count of the number of days he has been walking. He followed the coast at first, and went inland when he found he couldn’t cross a river because the only bridge had collapsed. Inland is as good a direction as any. He doesn’t mind. Those hills in the distance remind him of his own valley. He tells his chickens that they will find a place to live there. They cluck at him.
The hills are higher and farther than they look, but he doesn’t mind. He explores the towns and tries to remember everything that might come in useful later. One afternoon, he finds a tall stone wall, covered with ivy. There’s a door, which hangs broken from its hinges. He squeezes through the opening and finds himself inside the remains of a walled garden. It’s overgrown, but still beautiful. Gnarled trees stand amid clouds of wildflowers and tangles of brambles. He puts down his pack and lets the chickens out to explore.
They meet in the garden, under a tree laden with fruit. He hasn’t seen a living person for more than a decade, but somehow he’s not surprised to see her. She looks at him, and knows that she has found what she was looking for.
An adder slithers through the long grass and disappears behind the tree.
The tree has dark green leaves and round fruit with a deep red colour. She remembers them, she has eaten them, sometime Before. She reaches up to the nearest branch. Picks a fruit and hands it to him. Takes one for herself, too.
“Apples,” she says. “That’s what these are.”
She bites into it. The sweet, tart juice runs down her chin.
He takes a bite, too.
“I remember,” he says.