‘What's that coming over the hill?’
‘Is it a monster?’ Sang Ben.
‘Come on stop being flippant,’ accused Laura. ‘This is serious, we haven't got time to play the song game.’
‘Is it one of them?’ Asked Ben.
‘I think so, though it's hard to tell from this distance.’
‘Well, we'd better get a move on just to be sure.’
‘Anywhere but here.’
Laura stood staring at what was coming towards them, unable to move, feet like cement anchoring her to the floor.
Billy grabbed her hand & galvanised her into action, pulling her along behind him as they ran for cover.
Since the disaster, they'd seen few people in the area until today, but those they had seen had instilled in them a terrible fear, and now they were even more afraid to see one of the emaciated bodies hot on their trail.
When something normal, familiar and comfortable ends, and is replaced by an aberrant and disturbing phenomenon, it’s obvious there has to be a period of adjustment. The more significant the occurrence and the more pronounced the devastation, the longer it takes to adapt. An event involving death and carnage on a catastrophic scale – like what they were witnessing, and the adjustment needed is colossal.
Billy steered Laura quickly towards the shopping centre.
‘Why are we coming in here?’ Asked Laura, out of breathe.
‘It's where we were coming before we knew we were being followed.’
‘Yes but it's the place where IT will be coming too.’ They referred to some of the survivors as IT and THEM and THEY.
‘But hopefully IT is not going to be too interested in us for a while as there'll be too many other food distractions on offer. And we need supplies ourselves – I’m starving. We'll just make it a quick visit.’
They entered the supermarket. Laura headed off to the milk aisle, with Billy following.
‘Let's get some water and some UHT long life milk – I’m desperate for a cup of tea,’ suggested Laura. She started reading the dates on the cartons.
‘Laura, just grab a couple we haven't got time to read the sell by dates or the milk will have a longer life than us,’ urged Billy.
‘OK.’ She grabbed two cartons. ‘Let's go and get a few tins of stew & some tinned veg, something filling, but I can't carry too much in my back pack now we have to make a hasty escape. We'll just get the bare bones today and come back tomorrow.’
‘We’ll get the bare bones today alright if we don’t hurry, or more like the bare bones will get us, and then there won't be a tomorrow.’
‘You can't rush a woman when she's shopping. What have men got against shopping?’
‘Not anything majorly, but as my life is in imminent danger, browsing is not high on my agenda. I want to eat not be eaten.’
‘Wait did you hear something?’ Asked Laura.
‘No, come on,’ encouraged Billy.
‘Hey. Over here.’ A face appeared from behind a door. It looked normal. Not haggard looking and malnourished, just cold.
‘You OK?’ enquired Billy, ‘you look chilled to the bone.’
‘I'm fine, but for her in there it's a different story,’ replied the man.
‘In where?’ asked Billy.
‘In the freezer.’
Billy and Laura looked in the large walk in freezer and saw a skeletal figure lying on the floor, literally frozen to the bone.
‘Did you kill her?’ Asked Laura, worried they’d found another crazed citizen.
‘No, she looked nearly dead when she came in. I saw her go into the freezer, probably after joints of meat but they went ages ago, only desserts left now. She didn’t come out again so I sneaked a look and that’s when I found her dead,’ replied the man.
They saw she was nursing a black forest gateau. ‘She obviously got her just desserts,’ commented Laura.
‘She must have been too bone weary to carry on anymore: collapsed and the cold finished her of,’ suggested Billy.
‘We’ll make good use of the gateau then,’ replied Laura, prising it from the body and stuffing it in her rucksack.
‘Then let's get out of here, there's another one heading this way and it will be almost here by now,’ impelled Billy.
‘Come on we'll head out the back way, it's through the warehouse,’ said the man. ‘Follow me.’
Billy and Laura followed the man towards the back of the store. Billy picked up a bottle of whisky as they were running past the spirits section. ‘This might come in handy if IT catches up with us,’ said Billy.
‘Why are you gonna offer IT a drink?’ asked Laura.
‘No, but we can use it as a weapon. Whisky may not be the answer but it’s worth a shot! And we can always drink it later if it’s still intact.’
‘You know alcohol doesn't solve any problems,’ admonished Laura.
‘Neither does milk and I know which one I prefer,’ replied Billy.
The three of them found themselves at some double doors which were clearly locked.
‘It's OK I've got a Skeleton key,’ said the man.
‘Did she work here?’ Enquired Laura. ‘I thought she just came in to get food.’
‘I've no idea why?’
‘She must do or why would she have a key to the place?’
‘It’s not her key, it’s a skeleton key – that fits any lock.’
The man unlocked the door and they ran out slamming the door behind them.
They knew what had happened – a deadly virus had swept the globe engulfing country after country, community after community, family after family. They knew why it had happened – the virus had been allowed to escape from a lab somewhere on the other side of the world. But what they had no idea of, was what they were going to do.
Hardly any scientists to work on a vaccine: fewer medics to treat the ill and the dying; and scarcely any workers to harvest crops, manufacture and deliver food. The world was grinding to a halt and the future – if there was to be a future, looked bleak.
It would depend upon how many survivors there were, what knowledge they pooled, what skills they shared and how humane they behaved. How 'human' they behaved. Because what Billy and Laura had seen these last few weeks from their fellow citizens was not human behaviour. Far from it. It was depraved.
Admittedly the practices had not been for ceremonial, religious or magical purposes, but for actual survival. Yet degenerate nonetheless.
‘Wait!’ Shouted Laura, coming to an abrupt halt.
‘What?’ Cried Billy.
‘We have to go back.’
‘What, did you forget to pick up something for dessert?’ Asked Billy, sounding disappointed.
‘No we've got the gateau for dessert remember, but we can't leave IT behind.’
‘Watch me.’ Billy was ready to set off running again.
‘No,’ she pulled him back. ‘We don't know what lies ahead but if we leave a starving man to die of hunger, then we're behaving as inhumane as THEY are.’
‘He won't die of hunger – not today anyway, there's food for him in there.’
‘Yes, but we need to help him, he's on his last legs. We need to look after him, feed and care for him. He's less likely to turn cannibal like some of the others if we help him now.’
‘And he may be a skilled and valuable worker who can help us in the long run?’ Piped up the man.
A quick discussion and they all agreed to turn back and offer help.
They entered the warehouse just as IT was exiting. He was exhausted. He could hardly talk and was gasping for air in between words. I've.. got.. a.. bone.. to.. pick.. with.. you,’ he wheezed.
‘Come on, I told you it was a mistake to come back,’ yelled Billy? ‘We're on his menu.’
‘No.. wait.. I saw you.. over the hill.. and I tried.. to tell you..’
‘Tell us what?’ asked Laura.
‘There's a little community.. we formed back there.. and you're welcome.. to join us.’
‘Oh right, thanks,’ said Billy – he thought the starveling seemed humane after all.
‘Yes, we're all ages.. and have many skills.. we need others to join us.. the more people in the mix means we have a better chance of survival.’
‘You’re right, and I’m sorry we ran away; you look dead on your feet,’ apologised Laura.
‘It's fine. I'm an athlete and used to running, though I'm not usually so hungry when I do.’
‘I'd love to join you if the others are in agreement,’ said Laura.
Billy and the man looked at each other and nodded, so they picked up some more food from the shelves to take with them, then followed IT slowly back to his commune. Even though they didn’t know what the future had in store for them: today it was good to be alive.
There were a few people came out to meet them when they arrived.
‘It’s only a skeleton crew,’ explained IT. ‘The others are out shopping.’
‘We didn't see them back at the supermarket,’ said Laura.
‘No they're pursuing food elsewhere. Now make yourself at home.’
‘Oh that's a big cooking pot – there must be a lot of you live here,’ remarked Laura.
‘No, not that many, but if we catch a big animal then what we need is a great big melting pot.’
'Big enough..... to take the world and all its got,’ sang Billy.
‘I see you like music,’ said IT. ‘As I told you I'm an athlete. I’m also a hunter.’
‘I'm a marksman,’ said another IT joining the group, holding a gun pointed in their direction.
‘I'm a butcher,’ said a third.
‘I'm a cook,’ said a fourth.
'The huge cauldron is not big enough to take the world, but it seems it's big enough for the three of us,' said Laura.
'Apparently, our Good Samaritan is indeed a skilled and valuable worker, but for the benefit of his fellow degenerates, not for us. It seems he's made mincemeat out of us,' said the man.
'All in good time,' stated the chef.
‘It appears we've also got a melting pot of cannibals waiting to treat themselves to our fleshy bodies,’ said Billy. ‘I knew it was a mistake to turn back. I don’t suppose it’s any use me ‘singing for our supper’?
None of the anthropophagists replied – they were too busy licking their lips.
‘Well I for one don't want to turn out like one of these deviant people-eaters, I think I would rather die,’ announced Laura.
‘Me too,’ seconded Billy.
‘And me,’ agreed the man.
‘A 'Skeleton at the Feast',’ quoted Laura. ‘Or should I say skeletons – they are so thin they resemble skin and bone.’
‘What’s the quote mean though?’ Asked Billy.
‘The saying a ‘Skeleton at the Feast' is meant to remind us that life holds tragedy as well as pleasure, and that even when we’re feeling most alive, death is always nearby.’