Wilbur was having a pleasant apocalypse. The chickens were finally laying again, the roses were coming on nicely and- if anything- the neighbours had become much more reasonable since succumbing to their sudden penchant for brains. They were certainly quieter.
He perused his record collection, looking for something suitably bombastic for a Friday evening. Wagner, maybe? Mahler? No, Beethoven. His fifth. A cliché choice, perhaps, but he didn't have to worry about snobs any more. It was famous for a reason and he was going to enjoy it at full volume. No one would try to stop him.
He hesitated before placing the needle, thinking he heard a noise from outside. He went to the window and looked out, forgetting that the security light had blown a few days back. He'd fix that at the weekend. It would just be Fred, riled up by some squirrel running about in the row of conifer trees. A bloody eyesore, he had told the neighbours, but they were useful for keeping things out. He wouldn't need to replace them like he would the fences.
Beethoven blared into life. Wilbur pottered downstairs to the kitchen. He slid a bottle of elderflower wine from the fridge, reconsidered, placed it back and began to methodically unpack the store cupboard. There- at the back. Cocoa. Well, why not? He couldn't make more, but there was no sense in letting it spoil. A well earned treat for another weeks’ hard work.
He went back upstairs and sat in his study surrounded by all the books he would now have the time to read without distraction. The sweet scent of the cocoa wafted pleasingly to his nostrils as he conducted the invisible orchestra with his spare hand. Something knocked at the door, but it was of little concern to him, safe within the walls of his sanctuary. By 10pm he was tucked up in bed and dead to the world.
Yes, the apocalypse was going well.
Things were not going well.
Sasha’s legs were aching. There weren't many parts of her body that weren't. It felt like she had been running for hours, but there wasn't time to stop or think or even breathe. She was still being followed.
That was the thing- the terrifying thing. They didn't stop. They didn't sleep. They didn't tire. They just kept coming, relentlessly. You ran as far and as fast as you could to steal a few moments of rest and when you woke up they were waiting for you.
She veered off to one side of the street, almost tripping over the curb, and picked a house with a climbable looking side gate. It swung open as she put her weight against it. Her stroke of luck caught her so off guard that she almost fell through. She slammed the gate shut behind her and slid the bolts.
Put a few more fences between you and them, she thought, then find a house, clear it out and barricade the entrances before they catch up again. It would be easy with four people.
House number one was too close to the horde. Gritting her teeth, she threw the daysack and Amanda's rucksack into the next garden along. She followed them, boots spraying flakes of mud on the peeling red paint as she scrabbled to find a foothold. She swung herself over the top and landed heavily on the other side.
She grabbed the bags and dragged them through the long grass, gouging out a trail wide enough for three people.
It took her a few attempts to get the bags over the next fence. A noise behind her made her panic and Amanda's bag sailed through the air and struck the rotting fence panel hard. The top pieces of wood splintered, leaving a jagged edge that would be painful to roll over.
She rammed the fence, feeling it bend and creak beneath her weight. It snapped and she grabbed the cricket bat from the bag's side pocket to hammer the pieces out of the way. She squeezed through.
Some bastard had planted conifer trees alongside their fence and it took her too long to find an opening. The low moaning sound was getting louder, gaining on her faster than she would have liked. She got down on her hands and knees at the far end of the garden and forced her way through a gap between the tree trunks. She gripped the base of the fence panel that blocked her way and lifted. It jerked unsteadily upwards against the grooves of the concrete posts. She wedged the daysack in the gap and rolled through, still hugging the cricket bat.
She fell straight into a ditch.
She wasn't alone there.
Screaming, she scrambled up the side of the trench. It was a good six feet deep and it was sheer adrenaline that carried her upwards. She managed to fling enough of her body onto the ground above to drag herself the rest of the way up. Sweating and shivering with fear, she pulled herself to her feet.
The moan was loud enough to send a shiver down her spine. And it came from in front of her.
The thing lurched across the garden at her. The bat connected sharply with its head, sending it stumbling backwards. Sasha hit it again whilst she still had the upper hand. And again and again, until the skull crumpled like a hard-boiled egg hit with a spoon. The zombie fell down and didn't get back up. Only then did she notice the rattling of the chain, the spike in the middle of the garden, the circle of worn grass around its tether. What the...?
A curtain twitch caught her attention from the corner of her eye. The house was still occupied. A little old man by the looks of it.
Sasha sprinted across the lawn to the house and hammered on the back door. The downstairs windows were boarded up, but the door had a frosted glass panel. The room beyond was dark.
"Let me in!" she hissed, too afraid of attracting more zombies to make much noise, "Please! You have to help me!”
Old man with a stairlift. She could see it now- him trundling down at a mile a fortnight whilst she got her brain pulled out through her eye sockets. Christ.
"Please hurry!" she begged, "They're coming!"
A light came on and a shadow shuffled past. She knocked again. After a few agonisingly long minutes the figure came back. She held her breath, daring to be hopeful, but the figure left again without hesitating. The old man must be deaf.
She tried a few more times, giving in to her common sense and yelling at the top of her lungs until her voice cracked and faltered. After a while she realised that no one was coming to the door.
She was alone.
Wilbur opened his curtains to the rising sun, expecting to bask in the beauty of the light as it chased away the shadows of the night and painted the clouds with streaks of fire. What he saw instead was chaos.
He took it all in. The smear on the lawn, the mess in the chicken coop, the few remaining shamblers trampling the vegetable patch. Then he showered, shaved, dressed himself. He ate breakfast. Cleaned his teeth. The power was off, the water cold, the fridge dark.
Time to assess the damage. He took the fishing rod and rake from the rack by the back door, selecting some bait from Fred’s food fridge. He strode out into the garden, prime cut of frontal lobe dangling in the air ahead of him. The shamblers, entranced by the sight, followed it with outstretched arms, but the fetid lump of brain was always just out of reach. Wilbur offered encouraging prods with the rake and shepherded them into the ditch. Without the coordination to lift their knees more than a few inches off the ground, they stood no chance of ever climbing out. Later, Wilbur would bring the axe down and finish the job. Then whatever leftovers could be salvaged would be put aside for Fred.
Fred. No. Not yet. Chickens first.
The wire fence of the coop had been pulled apart or, more likely, walked into aggressively until it gave way. The shamblers were messy eaters. A few of the girls had died, but the rest had turned. These pecked at their fallen sisters or at each other. It was much the same, at this point. The change was harder to spot with chickens, given that wandering around as if they only had one brain cell was their general schtick, but the bite marks and missing chunks were a giveaway. One by one, he picked up each hen and calmly broke their necks.
He couldn't put it off any longer. He stood by the stake in the middle of the lawn and looked down at what remained of Fred. Not a lot, was the answer. He had been falling apart for weeks, to be fair. He always had been a flakey individual. The blood from the hole where his head should have been was thick and inky black against the faded red of his royal mail fleece.
Wilbur said nothing. He stood there for a few minutes, jaw set. He didn't know why.
Generator. Right. He shook himself from his reverie and rolled up his shirt sleeves as he scuttled to the shed. He'd moved it up against the house months ago, added the cage around it a little while later. The cage was never locked, but that shouldn't have mattered. No zombie would have the patience to slide the bolt- not without good reason.
The cage door was wide open. The shed door had been smashed in, the window shattered. Wilbur glanced in at the charred remains of the shambler who had mistaken the tangle of wires for a particularly strange-looking brain. The generator was salvageable if he could find the parts. That was more than could be said for this years harvest. You couldn't salvage time. Rations would have to be strict. As he left the shed a flash of movement caught his eye.
There was a girl sat on the roof. Young, but haggard. She was hugging a cricket bat.
”Did you do this?” he demanded, suddenly angrier than he had felt in years.
She looked at him dumbly, slack-jawed.
”I asked you a question,” he barked.
Something snapped in her then, as though he had slapped her around the face.
”I could have died out here,” she managed, her voice dry and cracked, ”You could have helped me. I shouted for help. You must have heard me.”
”No,” he lied, ”But they certainly did. You must have called them here from miles around. Look at what they did!”
”You’re the one who keeps them around! That one tried to kill me!”
”Fred wouldn't have killed you. Not if you weren't a bloody idiot.”
”Fred?” she raised an eyebrow at him.
”You heard me,” he said, ”He keeps the place safe, drives the others off into the ha-ha.”
Kept he reminded himself. Past tense. Fred was dead... deader.
”The great blimen ditch at the end of the garden,” he waved one hand towards it, ”It's hidden by the slope."
”I fell in it,” she told him, ”It wasn't very funny.”
”You got out,” he shrugged.
”Yes,” she nodded, ”And that's when that thing tried to grab me.”
”You could have just walked around! You didn't have to kill it.”
It. It felt wrong to say, somehow.
”Oh yeah?” she snapped, ”What about those chickens? I didn't exactly have time to think, but you? You-”
”That’s different,” Wilbur said.
”How is it-”
He changed tack before she had a chance to argue with him.
”You had time to think about the shed,” he jabbed a finger at her.
”I was thinking I might find something useful in there.”
”So you just broke in? Helped yourself? To what? There was nothing in there except the generator. Which is now broken, thanks to you. You young people. Clueless, the lot of you.”
”All my friends are dead.”
She said it quietly, as though admitting it to herself as much as anything.
”You get to my age,” he told her, ”You see all your friends die.”
That did it. The rage, fear and sense of self-preservation that had been holding her together cracked and the floodgates opened. The grief flowed out of her through her eyes and mouth and nose. There was a lot of snot. Wilbur gawked.
”Stop that,” he said.
”No,” she gasped between sobs, ”I don't want to.”
”Get down from the roof.”
”I don't want to.”
”You have to move on,” he said, ”Crying about it won't help.”
”Move on?” she scoffed, ”Like you with Fred?”
That struck a chord.
"He was your friend, wasn't he?
Wilbur said nothing.
"No, I guess not," she shook her head, blew her nose on her sleeve, "He was probably just some guy who said hello and spoke about the weather with you when he delivered your post. You don't like people. Don't need them.”
It was true, a point of pride in fact. There wasn't much that he couldn't fix by himself. It still stung though, what she said about Fred. Was that true? Would Fred have called him a friend? Probably not, but he had been the only person Wilbur really spoke with, the closest thing to a friend he had left.
"You're just a selfish old man," the girl continued, "You holed yourself up in here and ignored all your neighbours until they either left or turned. I bet you fed some of them to that pet of yours."
He would have argued, but she had guessed right. Hadn't he even felt a little bit of joy as he did it? Payback for all the noise they made, the greenhouse panes they smashed, the mess they left?
"Look at what you built here. You could help people, you know?”
"There’s no helping some people," he told her, "You'll learn when you're older.”
”Then maybe I don't want to get old,” she sneered, ”If getting old means just accepting all this... what’s the point? I might have lost everything, but at least I'm still human. I'd rather be one of them than forget what that means.”
The girl wiped the tears from her face with one dirty sleeve. Wilbur regarded her silently for a moment. Something stirred in him, something he hadn't felt for a long time.
"Get inside," he told her, walking off into the house.
He fetched some blankets and set up a bed on the sofa. He didn't use the sitting room much these days, anyway. Eventually, she appeared, looking a little sheepish.
"Why?" she asked him.
"You looked ready to fall asleep up there," he said, "If you rolled off and broke your neck, I'm the one who has to clean up after."
"Thanks," she grunted.
He nodded without looking at her, straightened a pillow.
"Bath's upstairs," he said curtly, "You stink. Towels are in the cupboard. Water's cold, but you'll have to deal with it."
He left her without waiting for a reply.
Sasha took a long shower, despite the cold. She cried some more, cried until she couldn't tell where the tears ended and the water began. Cried until her chest felt hollow and her eyes ached. She wrapped her arms around herself and stood there for as long as she could tolerate it, and then she stepped out of the bath, numb. Dried herself, changed into almost clean clothes. Still numb.
The sofa was too short for her. She curled up under the mountain of blankets and tried to get comfortable. She didn't want to close her eyes, didn't want to see the picture of the moment she had lost everything that she knew was painted behind her eyelids. Before long, sleep took her anyway. She was too exhausted to dream.
Eventually, noises started to break through the blackness. The crashing of pots and pans, the rattling of drawers. She woke slowly, pulled herself upright.
"What time do you call this?" called the old man.
She rubbed her eyes and looked at her watch. She didn't feel like she had slept at all, but somehow the hands had made their way around to 2pm. The sound of drawers slamming open and shut in the kitchen continued. Not the best wake up call ever, but then again, not exactly the worst either these days.
"What are you doing?" she asked groggily.
She shuffled into the kitchen. He wasn't just clearing up- he was clearing out. There was an old fashioned leather suitcase on the table full of neatly folded clothes and odds and ends.
"Why?" she asked.
It seemed a fairly good set up here. Maybe that's what they should have done. Picked a place to settle down, made it safe, made it theirs. What had they been searching for?
”The garden’s ruined,” the old man said.
”But you can fix it, can't you?”
"I could. Doesn't seem worth the effort though. Easier to start again somewhere else where there's more to scavenge.”
She felt her eyes begin to well up again and scolded herself for it.
”It's not your fault,” he sighed, ”It’s just... Time to move on, I suppose. Time to give people a chance again, instead of being a bitter old man.”
Old man... She still hadn't asked his name.
”Could I... Come with you?” she asked.
Wilbur snapped the suitcase closed. He shrugged differently, but Sasha thought she caught the briefest glimpse of a smile there, as though he had secretly been hoping she would ask.
”Fine,” he shrugged indifferently, ”But you'd better be ready to learn a thing or two.”