Fighting the Flood
Ben pulled back the curtain the tiniest amount and peered outside.
“Sssh!” He flapped his arm.
I moved up behind him, my hand on the small of his back. Rosie followed, pawing at my leg.
“He’s still there,” Ben whispered. “Nearly four hours now.”
I flopped onto the sofa. Rosie jumped up next to me, dropping a tennis ball in my lap. “D’ya think he’s drunk?” I asked quietly. Pete, from over the road, had wandered into our front garden and been there all morning, shuffling back and forth, sniffing the air. He was a recovering alcoholic, and this wasn’t the first time we’d seen him acting strangely. “The lockdown’s stressful. Maybe he relapsed?”
Ben made a non-committal noise but glanced at the rifle in the corner.
“Not sure,” he lied, ducking down as Pete turned and faced in our direction, lumbering aimlessly still. His eyes were red and stared blankly at nothing. There were two dried rivulets of blood running over his straw-coloured moustache. His mouth gaped open gormlessly.
Rosie nudged my hand again with her nose. I scratched behind her ears. “In a minute,” I murmured.
“You can’t go out,” ordered Ben. “It’s too dangerous. He looks…”
“I know how he looks, but she needs a wee!”
“We’ll make a litter tray for her.”
I raised my eyebrows at him. “I’ll just take her out the back real quick.” I moved into the kitchen before he could reply.
I opened the sliding door, wincing at the sound of the rollers. I knew Ben would have the rifle ready, and sure enough I felt him come up behind me. Rosie dashed outside to do her business. She was trotting back in when her head snapped to the left. Dropping her ball, she stood, pointing, tail trembling.
Two loud, sharp barks.
Something was thumping on the back gate.
“Move!” Ben shoved me aside just as the rotten wood crashed to the ground. There was a snarl, a gunshot, then all I could hear was Rosie’s barking.
I hardly dared look. But I had to know if Ben was alright. And the back door was still open. Slowly, trembling, I crawled past the cupboards and peered out. Rosie was still barking, jumping around the bundle on the ground like a gazelle. The gun lay on the gravel, and I could see a hand groping for it.
“Ben?” I ran outside.
I helped him haul Pete’s body off himself. Pete lay face up, eyes staring blankly. The hole in his forehead looked like an empty eye socket. I couldn’t stop staring at it. Ben brushed himself off calmly, then walked over to the hedge and threw up. That broke my trance and I ran back inside.
“Here.” I handed Ben a glass of water.
“Thanks.” He swilled his mouth out, then spat it down the sink. He took a few sips.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, but his eyes were staring into space. He stayed like this for a long moment. He had blood on his hands and t shirt. “I’m gonna have a shower,” he said quietly. He handed the glass back to me and wandered upstairs. Rosie looked from Ben to me, then trotted after him.
I sat at the breakfast bar and avoided looking out the back door. What do you do when your husband unexpectedly becomes a murderer? Should I ring the police? But it was self-defence. It was all my fault, I had to be an idiot about the dog, didn’t I? In the circumstances it hardly mattered if she weed on the carpet! Guilt crawled in my gut. What about Karen, Pete’s wife? And our other neighbours…surely they will have seen or heard something?!
My breath came in shaky gasps and my hands trembled. I balled them into fists to try and stop them, clenching them tight until I could feel my nails digging into my palms. Don’t panic, don’t panic. Deep breaths…
I got myself under control, but I needed reassurance.
“Hey,” I said loudly over the shower, stepping over Rosie on the landing. I opened the bathroom door an inch.
“Don’t come in!” shouted Ben.
“Why?” I asked, ignoring him, opening the door wide.
His filthy clothes were in a pile in front of the loo. I could see his blurred form through the steamy shower glass.
I peered round. “What’s the matter?” I asked, but he didn’t need to answer. An oval pattern of red tooth marks stood out against his pale stomach. I could feel my panic rising again, but from a distance, as if through binoculars watching a tidal wave approach a cliff face.
“Get dressed. I’ll drive you to the hospital,” I heard myself say. My brain had decided this was beyond comprehension and was acting on autopilot.
Ben wasn’t moving. “Come on!” I grabbed his hand.
I let go, confused. “There’s special wards for this stuff-”
“Don’t be silly, let’s go.”
“I’m not going!” he shouted. “The hospitals don’t do anything ’cept keep you sedated.”
“But they’re trying the blood plasma-”
“No. They can’t do anything, and I hate hospitals. Fifty-fifty chance if you’re young and fit, they say, and I’d rather stick it out here.”
I stared at the bite, dripping red under the shower. The tidal wave crashed towards the cliffs, and suddenly I was standing at the top, right in front of the huge swell. I could feel hot tears in my eyes. “I’m so sorry,” I wailed. Wetness fell down my cheeks. “I can’t believe I was so stupid!” Despite my clothes I climbed into the shower and grabbed him in a fierce hug. He winced at the sudden pressure against his stomach but hugged back.
I’m not sure how long we stayed like that, but eventually Rosie started scratching at the door. I stepped out and peeled my soaked clothes off. “So, what now? Do we ring the police or something?”
“I guess we have to. Karen deserves to know too…” Ben looked at my stricken face. “I’ll do it. Can you…make up a bed for me in the spare room?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak. We dressed in silence. My reflection looked pale, my straight brown hair still wet and black, and my dark eyes red rimmed, like a vampire. I felt guilty for letting that comparison even enter my mind, and I turned away from the mirror. After bandaging Ben’s stomach as best I could with our meagre first aid kit, I shoved our clothes in the washing machine – a pointless task, but one with some routine to it – and set about making the spare bed. I could hear Ben on the phone in our bedroom.
“…into our back garden. Our dog was out there, so I shot him.” Pause. “Yes, we don’t really know what to do with…” Pause. “Okay, thank you.” Pause. “No, we’re all fine.” Lie. “Thank you, bye.”
Ben poked his head round the door. “They’re sending someone over to recover Pete’s…to recover Pete. But it might take a day or two. They said to just leave him.”
I nodded, avoiding his eyes.
“You know why I didn’t tell them, don’t you?”
Of course I did. They’d force him to hospital, despite his wishes. I nodded again.
“And you know if it goes bad, you’ll have to do the same to me?”
I looked up in alarm. “No!”
“Please, promise me you will. I don’t want to get like Pete. He was a stupid bugger, but he didn’t deserve...” He trailed off, hand gesturing in mid-air feebly.
“I’ll…I’ll try,” I said. That was the best I could manage. Ben seemed to realise it too, and he looked back to his phone.
“Better ring Karen now, I s’pose.”
“Yeah,” I said on autopilot again.
He stared at his phone for a long time. When he finally put it to his ear, I could see the tension in his neck. I could hear the faint ringing. I gripped the bedsheet in my hand.
The phone rang and rang, until it eventually gave up.
“D’ya think she’s okay?” I asked.
“No,” said Ben. “I better go over there-”
“What else could possibly happen? I’ll just knock on the door and see if she answers. I’ll take the rifle, just in case.”
This didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but if this was his last day on Earth, I didn’t want an argument.
I watched from the upstairs landing as Ben crossed the deserted street. From my vantage point within the house I couldn’t see more than a couple of houses up the road, but from the middle of the street I knew Ben would be able to see all the way. He paused, gun raised, checking his surroundings.
My phone rang in my pocket, making me jump. It was Alice, another neighbour, but also one of my work friends, back when we went to work. It had been over two months since we’d gone into lockdown.
“Hello?” I asked, voice wobbly.
“Hey, is that Ben crossing the road?”
“Yeah, he, um, he’s going to check on Karen.”
“What happened to Pete? I saw him wandering outside this morning. Is he drunk again?”
“No, he-” my voice caught. “He wandered over here, and he-” I couldn’t get the words out. “He wasn’t drunk.” I said eventually.
“I heard a shot..?” Alice asked tentatively.
“We had to do it; he’d got into the garden with Rosie.”
“That’s why Ben’s gone over. We tried calling Karen but couldn’t get an answer.”
Ben was at their front door now. I clutched the phone to my chest. Alice was still speaking but all I could hear was a crackling voice against my ribs. He rang the bell. Nothing. Knocked the door. Nothing. He peered through the front windows.
I put the phone back to my ear. “What do you think we should do?” I asked.
“We’ve already rung them once. They didn’t even ask about her.”
“They’re idiots,” Alice said. “I’ll ring them. Tell them we need a welfare check.”
“Ben’s coming back, I’d better go.”
“Okay, stay safe. Don’t let him go out again!”
“You too, I won’t!” I said with fake cheeriness.
Rosie and I thundered down the stairs just as Ben walked back inside.
“No answer, couldn’t even hear Buster barking.” Pete and Karen’s Jack Russell was known throughout the village. I chewed my lip.
“Alice rang,” I said.
“Oh, yeah?” he asked with false casualness.
“She saw you in the road. I told her…about Pete. Didn’t mention you though.”
“She’s gonna call the police to check on Karen.”
He nodded again.
“So, er, what shall we do now?”
It was the worst afternoon of my life. I was full of nervous energy, wanting to do something, anything, to help. I set Ben up on the sofa with a blanket and a film, but I couldn’t settle down. I put our clothes on the airer, made some brownies, cleaned the kitchen, kept Ben fed and watered… As the evening wore on, I could see Ben struggling. He was pale and clammy, and when he got up to go to the loo, his nose started bleeding.
“You know I get nosebleeds all the time, this doesn’t mean anything,” he said, trying to reassure himself as much as me.
“I know, tilt your head back,” I said, shoving a tissue up his nostril.
But by ten o’clock, things were really bad. I put Ben to bed in the spare room with a hot water bottle and some paracetamol.
“Make sure……move…drawers…your door,” he gasped between breaths.
“I know, baby, I’ll do that when I go to bed. I’m not tired yet though, I’ll just stay here a bit.” I sat by his side, stroking his fiery forehead, until he dropped off. I waited a few minutes, checking the steady rise and fall of his chest. Rosie was stretched out on his other side, top to toe, her head resting on his leg. I could feel the tidal wave threatening to overwhelm me again.
I gulped and squeezed Ben’s hand. He gave the lightest of squeezes back, but his breath remained slow and sleepy. I refused to acknowledge the rattle in it. Fifty-fifty. Pretty good odds in any other situation.
“C’mon,” I whispered to Rosie, and she followed me out. I closed Ben’s door quietly and heaved a breath. She followed me round the house as I gathered up supplies. The gun, of course, then some ammo, a torch, some tinned food, water bottles, Rosie’s food and lead, some clothes, my waterproof jacket, and a sleeping bag. I rooted around under the bed, finally finding Ben’s old camping rucksack from Duke of Edinburgh, and tetris-ed everything inside. It was heavy, but manageable. I heaved it onto the bed.
Ready to hole up for the night, I tried to manoeuvre the huge chest of drawers in front of the door. It was too heavy, so I removed each drawer then painstakingly dragged the wooden frame across the carpet before rebuilding the drawers again. At least I could be certain no-one could get in. Rosie watched from Ben’s side of the bed, head cocked.
I checked the gun again, and carefully set it down next to the bed. I changed into pyjamas, put my phone on charge, and then… stopped.
My flurry of activity over, I was stumped. I needed to sleep, I was exhausted, but I was so full of nerves there was no way I would. I lay down on my back, limbs straight and stiff. Rosie shuffled around, creating a nest with the bed covers. Ben always moaned when she did that – his side of the sheet was perpetually covered in fur – and that unbidden thought released the tsunami that had been threatening all evening.
I don’t know how long I cried for, lying there in the dark. At some point I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke, Rosie was snuggled up to me and I could see the first tendrils of dawn around the curtains. My first thought was wondering where Ben was, then I saw the gun, the holdall, and the chest of drawers in front of the door. It hadn’t been a nightmare after all.
My phone told me it was five a.m., but there was no point even bothering to try to get back to sleep. I could hear the dawn chorus, but inside the house was silent. I dressed, then began the slow process of unloading the chest of drawers, dragging it back across to its normal place, and reloading it all again. Despite the noise there was still nothing from Ben’s room. The knot in my stomach twisted. I hesitated by the gun, pacing to and fro, before forcing myself to take it.
Holding the large rifle awkwardly in one hand, I opened the door the smallest sliver. All was quiet. Rosie was at my heels, trying to squeeze past. I opened the door fully and Rosie trotted to the top of the stairs, then turned back to watch me, tail wagging. But today I wasn’t going straight downstairs to put the kettle on. I turned to Ben’s door. It was ajar.
My stomach lurched. “H-Hello..?” I stammered. “Ben?” No answer. I held the gun up properly in two hands against my shoulder, cocking it.
I used the long barrel to push the door open.
The bed was empty, covers pulled back as if Ben had just nipped to the loo. His phone was still on the bedside table. Rosie jumped up and sniffed around the bed. I shooed her off and rushed to check the bathroom, just in case. Empty too. Heart in mouth, I checked every room, gun at the ready. All clear. The front door was still bolted, but the back was unlocked, although both our cars were in the driveway. Rosie slipped outside and sniffed a trail along the ground for a while, but soon she got distracted by Pete’s corpse still lying on the gravel. He was turning grey, and it looked like a fox had nibbled at his fingers in the night. I felt sick and called Rosie inside sharpish. I was alone, with no idea whether Ben was alive or dead or…something.
I had to tell Ben’s parents. They only lived about twenty minutes away. Although it was still early, his dad was one of those people who hardly slept. I was struck with the sudden hope that perhaps Ben had rung them in the night. But when I tried my phone, the service was down. I tried the TV: Netflix worked fine, but there were no live channels. BBC still had the emergency overnight test card with the various numbers to ring. But it was nearly seven now, and the breakfast news should have started… I shivered.
I was full of that nervous energy again, as was Rosie who hadn’t had a proper walk in days. She followed me around like a…well, like a puppy. I could tell my manic energy was temporary, and I was headed for a breakdown, but I wanted to put that off as long as possible. I paced the house, packing other bits into the holdall, retrying the phone without success. I made another pile to load into the car – more food, blankets, stuff for Rosie… I grabbed a couple of photo frames from the dresser too: one of Ben and me on our wedding day, and another one of us with Rosie at the beach.
There was a knock on the door, and Rosie went mad as usual, barking and jumping onto the back of the sofa to see outside. I ran upstairs to look down through the landing window. I could see a rucksack and brown curly hair – Alice.
I rushed back down and ushered her inside.
“Thank goodness you’re awake, I thought you probably would be,” she said. “I just couldn’t stand being home alone anymore. The TV and phones are down, did you know?”
“Where’s Ben? I’ve brought some foo-”
Oh my God, phones! Plural!
“Two secs!” I gasped at Alice, leaving her in the hallway, flummoxed, holding out her shopping bags.
I nearly tripped over Rosie on my way upstairs, grabbing Ben’s phone from the bedside table. My hands were trembling so much it took me three tries to punch in the passcode, and once it let me inside, I saw one notification: Message to Liv failed to send.
I took a shaky breath as I went into his messages.
I love you. I know you won’t be able to pull the trigger. I’m going before I get too dangerous. Please don’t look for me, I don’t want you to see me like that. Tell my parents I love them. I love you so much xxxxxx
A sob escaped my tight lips, and I suddenly realised Alice had come up behind me.
“Is…is everything alright?” she asked quietly.
“No,” I wailed. I started crying again. These weren’t the silent tears of last night, but great howling sobs that shook my whole body. I collapsed onto the bed. Alice sat next to me, stroking my back in big circles. Rosie jumped into my lap for a cuddle too. Alice had always been a good listener, and she waited until I calmed down, then waited again for me to be ready to speak.
“Ben’s gone,” I whispered. “Pete bit him, and he got really feverish last night.” I swallowed. “When I woke up this morning he was gone, no note, nothing. I just now thought to check his phone.” I showed her the unsent message.
She didn’t speak for a long time after reading it. “I – I’m so sorry, Liv. I can’t imagine…” Her breath caught in her throat.
I nodded. I couldn’t imagine it either, but then I didn’t have to.
We sat quietly together, Rosie at our feet, until Alice suggested making a cup of tea. She wandered downstairs and I took a moment to pull myself together before following. As I walked into the kitchen, the homely scene of a kettle on the boil was comforting. Alice had shut the curtains across the patio doors. I tried not to think about Pete lying out there, not to think about Will wandering off somewhere, tried to pretend everything was normal.
“What are you planning on doing now?” We were curled up on opposite ends of the sofa, clutching our hot mugs, Rosie’s small brown body sprawled in the middle seat, chewing a toy. I’d tried the TV again, but the emergency test card just flickered silently.
“I was gonna go to Ben’s parents. They don’t live far,” I answered. “You can come, if you like?”
I knew Alice’s family were all miles away: her sister’s family lived in Brighton and her mum lived alone on the Isle of Wight.
“I’m not sure…” She chewed the inside of her cheek. “I mean, obviously you want to tell them about Ben, and to check on them. But it’s dangerous out there.” She sent a worried glance out of the window.
“It’s safer there than here. They’re more remote, on an old farm outside Milton Abbas.”
“Yes, but getting there?” said Alice.
I considered this a moment. “The back lanes could be blocked. I’ll go the main way.”
“Through town? Are you sure?”
“Only a tiny bit. Then it’s A roads all the way.” I leaned across the couch. “Come with me. We’ll pick them up then head to the Island. There were no cases there, last I heard.”
Alice nodded. “Yeah, I heard that too. I guess my sister will probably try to head there, now there’s no phones…but she’s got little Leo to think about…”
We sipped our tea, and I was glad of a plan. Keeping moving stopped me thinking.
We packed Ben’s old Mercedes estate, somehow managing to think of more essentials as we went. Alice had the idea of leaving a note, just in case Ben’s parents came to check on us and we each missed each other, so I Blutacked a message to the inside of the patio doors before sliding them shut. I wondered when, or even if, I’d ever return to this house.
We got in the car (Rosie jumping happily into the back seat) and as I turned the key, the radio crackled into life.
“…at home, do not leave your house for any reason. The emergency services and armed forces are conducting welfare checks at all residences. Only open your door to uniformed personnel. You must stay at home, do not leave your house for-”
I clicked it off, but Alice and I looked at each other nervously. My gut twisted again.
“Well, here we go then,” I said nervously, pulling out of the driveway. I could see John across the road watching from his window. Would he report us? Oh well, no-one had come to check on Karen yet. With that cheery thought, I pulled away.
The roads were silent as the dead. We stared as we passed the shut supermarket on the edge of town. Two green army trucks flanked the entrance, armed soldiers on guard. Only three days ago I had queued around the huge building, gloves and face mask on, appropriately distanced from everyone else.
“Must be stopping looting,” offered Alice. I nodded and locked the car doors.
We drove on, winding through Blandford’s old Georgian streets.
“What happened?” whispered Alice. The main triangle followed a one-way system, and cars were always parked up the sides of the road. But now there were cars strewn across the high street, most facing the wrong way. One was on its side. This had obviously happened a while ago, maybe days, but I was surprised to see nothing official – no emergency services remained at the scene, of course, but nor did any signage or police tape. I slowly inched the long Merc in between the abandoned cars.
“Someone’s still in there!” exclaimed Alice, grabbing my arm. I slowed, and sure enough, an elderly lady was sitting in the driver’s seat of an old Renault. The window was broken and her white curls waved in the breeze.
“Don’t look,” I advised. “She won’t be alive.” I was beginning to realise that the village had been a safe haven, away from the population centres where this weird new virus had clearly taken hold.
“Stop!” Alice said with such urgency that I did immediately. “She is, she’s moving!”
Despite myself, despite knowing what I would see, I turned in my seat, squinting against the sun.
A wrinkled hand was grasping at the air feebly. Her vacant eyes, now turned towards us, were red and weeping blood. Rivulets ran from her nose and the corners of her mouth. In the back seat, Rosie started barking excruciatingly against my ear.
I remembered Pete’s empty expression and the red marks on Ben’s tummy. “There’s nothing we can do,” I said.
Alice swallowed and nodded. I drove on.
We didn’t look inside any other vehicles, but it was a relief to come out the other side of town onto the empty country roads, bursting with spring greenery. I zoomed down the deserted lanes.
The tyres screeched as I slammed the brakes to an emergency stop.
“Good spot,” breathed Alice in relief.
A bloodied bundle lay across the middle of the road. I could see the dark silhouette of a bird of prey circling above.
At first, I thought it was a person, but then I saw the golden legs and hooves. On the right, a car was half stuck in the hedge, bonnet crumpled and windscreen smashed.
“Where’s the driver?” I asked, slowly bringing the car around the deer’s body.
“There,” said Alice sadly, pointing to the deer’s belly. I leaned over her seat and could just see the back of a blue shirt moving up and down. Rosie started barking again, scrabbling at the window.
“Are they alive?” I asked.
“There’s nothing we can do.”
I drove on, and in the rear-view mirror I watched the man turn his head slowly, following the car, blood and intestines trailing from his mouth and hands.
When we arrived at Ben’s parents’, there was no answer from their front door, even after shouting through the letter box. They lived in an old farmhouse, which had been converted into many houses years ago. The others were owned by Londoners who only came for weekends and holidays, so I wasn’t surprised to find them empty. But Ben’s parents should have been there. Their car was still in the driveway.
We used next-door’s access to wander round the back. A cow mooed dolefully at us, looking up from its water trough. There were fields on three sides, with the road on the fourth. The back gardens were all long and thin, with short hollow wooden fences between each, mainly to keep the cows out. Rosie whizzed past, ducking under the fences, to sit at the back door hopefully, while Alice and I painstakingly clambered over them, passing the rifle between us. Chrissie’s flowerbeds looked beautiful in the sun, and I could feel the waves start to crash against the cliff again. I forced the emotion down.
I knocked on the back door, but there was silence. “Hello?” I shouted to the closed upstairs windows. The house remained unmoved.
“What’s this?” Alice asked warily. She had wandered over to a bed of pansies at the edge of the patio. The flowers were crushed and trampled, and there was something glinting half hidden in the soil. Something Rosie was very interested in. I shooed her away and managed to brush some more soil off it with difficulty. The earthy scent of Chrissie’s chrysanthemums drifted over and Alice sneezed, making me look up for a second. My fingers brushed something cold and rubbery.
“Oh my God!” I pulled my hand away as if burned.
Chrissie’s gold earring twinkled in the sun. The ear it was still attached to, however, was as grey and pasty as Pete’s body, probably still lying in the garden back at home.
“I can’t believe I touched that!” I looked around frantically, trying to find something to wash my hand with. The cow trough! I jogged across, scrambling over the fence, Rosie following excitedly, but with no comprehension of what was happening. The water was murky, but I could see pipes leading into it, evidence of a filtration system. I rinsed my hands as best I could and wiped them on my jeans to dry, still feeling disgusted. Then disgusted at my own disgust, because how could I be feeling anything other than grief?! First Ben, now his parents it seemed…
I managed to lift Rosie up to get a few sips, carefully making sure she wouldn’t jump in (troughs were a favourite pastime of hers) then walked slowly back. I’d panicked. Of course the virus wasn’t passed on just by touch, otherwise I’d have caught it from Ben or even Pete.
Alice’s round face was glum. “There’s blood there too,” she said, pointing over the fence to next door’s patio. There was a dashed line of red, but no sign of anything else.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t dare look round. I had visions of an infected Chrissie and Roger wandering aimlessly through the field behind, snacking on a lame calf. I snatched the rifle up from where Alice had left it leaning against the fence. “Do you think something could be…?”
“We should go,” Alice said.
“But what about Ben’s dad? He could be inside!”
“He would’ve answered the door by now, if he could’ve.”
I swallowed. Maybe it was best not to know. We hurried back to the car, mindful that we’d been making quite a lot of noise. But as I started the engine I found that I couldn’t just leave. I unclipped my seatbelt and opened the door.
“What..?” asked Alice.
“I have to know,” I said.
Alice and Rosie watched from the car as I rooted around under the flowerpots by the front door. Eventually I located a grubby key and used it to open the front door.
I heard a slam behind me and jumped and turned to see Alice wincing. She was stood outside the car with the rifle, Rosie pressed up against the window.
“Sorry,” she said. She walked towards me holding the gun half up with both hands. “Just in case.”
I turned back to the open hallway. The old farmhouse was dark, the thick walls and tiny windows creating shadows despite the sunny morning.
I stepped forward slowly, my shoes echoing on the stone floor. “Roger?” I called, trying to be heard and yet not heard all at once. “Roger, are you here?”
All the doors downstairs were open. We crept through the dining room and sitting room, expecting something at every turn, in every shadow. We tiptoed through to the kitchen, edging around the wooden table. I went ahead to check the utility. The old barn door was closed, the rusty iron latch pulled across.
Alice raised the gun.
“It’s always locked,” I said dismissively, walking back towards her. “Otherwise it swings open and blocks the fridge.”
There was a shuffling sound then a thump.
I whirled around and stared at the door in horror.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The door trembled.
After a false start, I managed to speak. “Roger? Is that you?” I stepped towards the door. The banging grew more urgent.
“Liv, stop!” said Alice, the gun shaking in her hands. “Let’s go, it’s not worth it.”
She was right. Whatever was in the utility room wasn’t human, not any more. I nodded and we turned to go.
We walked briskly back through the sitting room into the hallway, and I screamed. Silhouetted against the open front door was Chrissie – I could tell by the shape of her hair. She walked slowly towards us, arms outstretched. There was something wrong with one of her legs – her foot jutted out at an odd angle. As she came closer I could see a stream of dried blood down the left side of her neck. I could smell chrysanthemums again. Her mouth hung open, but I could see her jaw starting to work. I held in a sob. Poor, kind, Chrissie. She didn’t deserve this. Was this what Ben had become?
I backed away, and out of the corner of my eye I could see Alice trying to aim the gun.
“Don’t shoot!” I said. “Let’s just get out the back door – run!”
Alice turned and fled. I was hot on her heels, slamming the sitting room door behind us. I heard a crashing sound from the kitchen – the utility door must have given way. Shit. Alice skidded to a stop at the kitchen doorway and raised the gun.
The sound rang in my ears, but I kept moving. Alice was walking forward cautiously too now, into the kitchen, gun still ready. Behind me I could hear Chrissie scratching at the door, but I had more immediate concerns.
Roger was splayed out on the flagstones. The force of the shot had pushed him backwards, and he’d tripped over a chair. I could see the small hole the bullet had made in his stomach, about the same place as Ben’s bite wound. I held in another sob. Roger’s grey hands flailed as he tried to get up, like a turtle stuck on its back, pieces of the utility door strewn underneath him. I could see a red-brown bandage across his wrist – had Chrissie bitten him? Or had someone else? We shuffled around, making sure not to turn our backs on him, as we edged our way to the back door. I fumbled blindly with the bolt, then nearly fell down the step to the outside.
“Alice, come on!”
She ran after me and I closed the door as swiftly and softly as I could.
“Quietly now,” I whispered as we navigated the neighbours’ back gardens. “The front door’s still open. Chrissie could have wandered out.”
We kept a careful lookout as we turned round the end of the run of houses, back towards the car. I could see Rosie in the front seat barking towards the house, and I was glad her sound was muffled. I didn’t dare try to shut the house door, preferring to rush into the car instead. Alice followed, uncocking the gun with shaking hands as she leaned it upright next to her in the passenger seat.
We both took a few deep breaths in silence. Rosie was all over me and I stroked her absentmindedly, staring at the open front door. Eventually the silence stretched too long. I dug the heels of my palms into my eyes, to try to stem the waves, and took a breath. There was nothing left here. I turned the key in the ignition.
“Which way to the Island then?”
We used the back lanes to Wimborne, aiming to avoid any roadblocks, but it took nearly forty-five minutes. Despite very few other cars on the road, we had to slow down for obstacles blocking the route. At one point a tractor blocked the trail and I had to reverse up a winding single-track lane to find a layby for a tricky three-point turn in the long Merc. I was sure that was illegal, but it hardly mattered now. Alice had found Ben’s small stack of CDs, and we could at least maintain the illusion of normality. I tried not to think about an eternity of Chrissie clawing at the door and Roger stuck there on his back.
We didn’t look too closely at any other signs of life we passed, and it wasn’t until we reached the edge of Wimborne town itself that a roadblock stopped us.
An armed officer standing by a large green truck waved us down and I stopped the car, winding down the window.
“What’s the reason for your journey?” he asked. His voice was muffled through his face mask and he held a machine gun casually across his stomach.
I didn’t dare lie. There was no reason to anyway. “We’re trying to get to the Isle of Wight.”
“For what purpose?”
“My mum lives there. She’s elderly,” said Alice.
The officer’s eyes softened. “Pull up to the cabin. Remain in your vehicle. An officer will take your details and perform a quick health check.”
I thanked him and followed his instructions. A temporary hut had been erected and two more officers emerged from it. One was armed, but the other held a clipboard.
“Names,” he said tonelessly. We told him. “Address.” We told him each of our separate addresses. He raised his eyebrows but said nothing. “Destination.” Alice reeled off her mum’s address. “Wait there, please.”
He stepped back inside and sat by a computer, probably to check our details on some government database. The armed officer remained near us, scanning the distance. Rosie growled softly in the back of her throat. While we waited, I watched in the rear-view mirror for signs of…well, anything. But the world beyond the checkpoint was abandoned.
The clipboard-toting officer returned with two small test strips. “Hold this end in your mouth for ten seconds.” He watched us as we followed his instructions, then we waited for a long minute, to see if the strips would change colour. I’d seen this on TV: a colour change would indicate the level of virus prevalent in our bodies. The darker the shade, the more virus present. The officer held a colour chart, presumably to see if we hit any thresholds for self-isolation or hospital.
Alice’s strip remained paper-coloured, but mine began to turn the faintest of yellows. I watched it, willing it to stop, and shortly it did, at a horrible wee colour. I grimaced, my stomach dropping. Was it contagious from touch after all?
The officer consulted his chart. “Have you been in contact with anyone infected in the last seven days?” he asked.
I swallowed. “Yes.”
“Do you consent to a penetration check?”
“To see if the virus has penetrated the skin, any scratches etcetera...” He said all of this as if it was completely routine, and for him I suppose it had become the new normal. “I can ask a female officer to assist?”
“Remain in your vehicle with the engine switched off.” He marched back to his hut and we watched him radio for support.
We waited about twenty minutes, whilst I apologised profusely to Alice, until a police car arrived, and a female officer got out. She talked to the two army officers for a moment, before walking over to us. “Follow me,” she said.
I glanced at Alice nervously, but followed the officer over to the hut. I could hear Rosie barking in panic as I walked away. The officer closed the door behind her, muffling the rustling of the others outside.
“Please strip down to your underwear.”
I turned around as I undressed, trying not to feel embarrassed. I stood, shivering in the cool hut. The officer directed me to turn slightly on the spot as she looked me over. Arm out, other arm, one leg, other le-
A burst of gunshots from outside.
The officer peered around the blinds. “Get dressed, quickly.”
I threw my clothes back on. The gunshots increased, and there were more shouts of alarm.
“You’re okay,” she said hurriedly. “Your test results were mild enough that you shouldn’t feel any effects, and all traces of the virus will be gone in about a week.” She looked out of the window again. “When I open this door, run to your car, and drive.”
I looked at her in alarm. What on Earth…?
“Three, two, one. Run!”
I leapt out the door and barrelled across to the car, wrenched the door open and flung myself into the driver’s seat. Rosie was barking in the back at something behind us, and finally I turned to see all three officers now had machine guns and were firing at a ragged group of perhaps a dozen people – men, women and children. They walked with the same disjointed, jerky movements I’d seen Pete, Roger and Chrissie use. It looked like two or three families had come together and passed the infection around. They moved slowly, although not aimlessly – it was clear they were heading for the source of human activity, but whether it was due to smell or noise I couldn’t tell.
“Please, stop! Help me!”
A boy emerged from the hedgerow, his torn t-shirt flapping. He was so dirty and dishevelled that at first glance he looked like one of the Infected. The officers paused in their firing for a moment, clearly unsure what to do. I stuck my head out the window.
“Here! Come on!”
“You’re crazy, he could be bitten!” Alice shouted at me but didn’t lock the doors. The boy gratefully turned the angle of his run towards us. Rosie was barking. Alice grabbed her and pulled her through to the passenger seat.
He jerked open the back door and climbed inside. I started the ignition but I didn’t yet move. I needed to check he could talk, that he wasn’t ill.
“Is there anyone else?”
“No, they’re all…turned.” Snuffled the boy. This close up, I could see his hair was a mousey brown that might turn out to be blond if given a good wash. He looked about ten years old.
“Who are they?”
“My parents, sister, my aunt and cousins, and the Patels from across the road.” He turned in his seat to watch their shambling gait towards us, just as a burst of gunfire clipped one of the women across the head. She crumpled to the ground.
“Mum!” The boy pressed his hand against the window. He started wailing. “I’m so sorry, Mum! It’s all my fault!” He stared out the back window as the officers continued to fire at his family.
“We need to go,” said Alice, tears shining in her eyes.
I couldn’t have agreed more. The officers were too busy with the group of Infected to stop us, even if they wanted to.
“Hey, what’s your name?” I asked the boy.
“Noah.” He sobbed, unable to tear his eyes away from the stillness of his mother.
“You happy to come with us? We’re going to the Isle of Wight.”
He nodded, and although I wasn’t sure he’d really heard or understood, we had no choice. I put the car in gear and pushed down hard on the accelerator. Time to go.
It didn’t take long to get away from the violent scene. Soon we had twisted our way through Wimborne’s one-way system. It looked like people here had obeyed the “stay at home” order a lot better than Blandford – the cars lining the streets were parked properly, and the only movement was a cat prowling the deserted town centre. I pulled over.
“Yeah,” said Alice.
Noah nodded, hugging Rosie tightly.
“What happened?” I asked the boy, twisting round in my seat.
“We were on holiday at the caravan park. Mum had organised a big family thing with my aunt and cousins. Then Dad had to let the Patels share our caravan cause their gran was really poorly and had to isolate. I ended up sharing my room with their two boys, and by the next night, Raj got really sick. Dad went to find the site doctor, but when he told one of the wardens what was happening, he made us all stay in the caravan.” Noah started to cry.
Alice’s mouth was opening and closing in horror.
“What happened then?” I asked.
“One by one, everyone got sick. Dad helped me block them into various bedrooms using sofas and tables to stop them getting out. The nights were the worst…we could hear them moaning and banging on the door...”
The hairs rose on the back of my neck. I shivered.
“Then Dad got the fever and nosebleeds too. He knew I wouldn’t be able to get him into a bedroom on my own, so we were trying to get him into the room with Mum and Esme, but they escaped. The warden came back and tried to help but Mum got him backed into a corner, so he opened the other bedroom to escape. Mr Patel got him, right in the neck. By then Dad was flat out on the sofa so I just ran.” He sobbed.
“Did any of them bite you?” I had to ask.
“Raj did, right at the start.” He showed us a faint outline on his forearm. “Since then, none of them tried to. Not even when I was walking. They just followed my noise, I think.”
“My God…” whispered Alice.
I looked at her, and her puzzled face stared straight back. I wanted to discuss this with her, bounce around ideas about what this could mean, but not with Noah right there.
“Okay,” I said slowly, letting out a long breath and running my fingers through my hair.
“We’re trying to get to my family, on the Isle of Wight,” said Alice. “It’s safe there, no cases.”
“D’ya wanna come with us?” I asked.
“Yes, please,” Noah whispered.
We cruised through empty roads until we eventually entered the New Forest. Noah was distracted watching the ponies, but I could see Rosie getting restless.
“Let’s find a place to stretch our legs.”
The official car parks were all gated shut, but I simply pulled off onto the grass on one side of a long flat stretch of road. A nearby pony looked at me curiously, then he and his small herd wandered slowly off. Once they were far enough away, we clambered out, twisting and stretching from the hours spent sitting. Rosie bounced around excitedly, ready for a long overdue walk.
“Can I take her?” begged Noah earnestly, his blue eyes somehow even more puppy-like than Rosie’s.
I looked around nervously. In the distance, I could see the edge of the forest – a wall of trees in which anything could be hiding. I glanced at Alice – she was looking nervously around too.
“Here,” I said, tossing Noah a tennis ball. “Stay where we can all still see and hear each other!” It was an idyllic sight, Noah and Rosie playing together in the beautiful unspoilt countryside.
The shadows were starting to lengthen. Alice and I cobbled together a late lunch (or early dinner?) of ham sandwiches and apples, washed down with half our water. I used more water to give Rosie a drink and started to get worried. Three bottles had seemed plenty, but now there were four of us… Hopefully we could find somewhere to refill before the ferry. If it was even still running. I buried the thought.
“Should we stay here tonight?” Alice asked me. “It’s a pretty secluded spot. I’m just thinking that other people will likely be queueing for the ferry too, and Lymington isn’t set up for that many people at once…”
I nodded. “I think we’re gonna have to.” I tapped the fuel gauge. “We’re running on empty.”
“Shit,” said Alice, biting her lip. I nodded, staring at the trees rustling in the breeze. There was nothing else to say.
We repacked the boot, making sure the most important things were easily accessible. I gave Noah some antibacterial wipes to use as a makeshift bath, along with the most androgynous clean t-shirt I could find. He’d have to make do with his own dirty jeans. I spent most of the remaining daylight scouring the map for the nearest campsite which might have any jerry cans of diesel.
“D’ya think we ought to have someone on watch overnight?” asked Alice. I hadn’t thought of that, but really it was obvious. As the sun started to set, the distant trees seemed to move, their long shadows hiding something.
“Good idea, we’ll have to take shifts though.”
“I can help,” said Noah eagerly.
“No, it’s too dangerous.” Alice and I said in near perfect unison.
I looked at his enthusiastic face. “Please,” he said. “I can help.”
“Alright,” sighed Alice. “You can keep me company on first watch.”
As night descended, I settled down in my seat with a blanket. Alice and I had set up the back seats with my sleeping bag for Noah, but for now the boy was sat on the roof, armed with a torch and a large rock to bang in case of trouble. Rosie had commandeered Noah’s bed and Alice was laying out her sleeping bag in the passenger seat, ready for later. The night enveloped us and out in the Forest it was so dark I could barely see my own hands, let alone Alice’s face.
“Will you be alright up there?” I whispered. “I’ve been thinking…” I turned towards Alice in the dark. “If Noah’s immune, d’ya think-,” I hesitated, hardly daring to say it. “D’ya think he could be the cure?”
Alice’s sleeping bag rustled. “Wouldn’t that be amazing?” I could hear her smiling. “But first things first, we need to get him to the Island. It’s safe there. Then the doctors can check him out.” I heard her sleeping bag unzip. “You sleep – you drove all day. I’ll wake you at two.”
I whispered my thanks, and as the door shut behind her, I couldn’t help but give a massive yawn. Alice grabbed the rifle from the boot before I heard the car groan slightly as she joined Noah on the roof. I could hear Rosie making a nest in the back, but already the sound of her padding around seemed comforting and far away…
I woke up to Rosie’s loud barks by my ear. It was still pitch-black outside, and I couldn’t hear anything apart from the dog. I shushed her and hunted around in the glove box for the spare torch.
In the tunnel of torchlight, I could see a trail of blood down the windscreen. I shrank back in my seat, a scream stuck in my throat.
“Pull yourself together, woman!” I told myself and wound down the window slightly.
“Alice? Noah?” I called out into the oppressive darkness. Nothing. I angled the torchlight around the car as much as I could, but my view was blocked by the bonnet and the boot stuffed high with our gear. Rosie was going mad, rushing around the confined space, giving loud warning barks.
I shone the torch as far into the distance as possible. The illuminated grass swayed slightly in the breeze, but I couldn’t see anything else out of the ordinary. There was no sign of Alice or Noah.
I took a deep breath and made a break for the roof, rushing out the door as quickly as I could and dashing up the bonnet, covering my hands in slick and sticky blood. Rosie had slipped outside too, but she couldn’t climb the bonnet. She ran around the car, yelping and whining.
“Noah?!” I said in surprise. He was sitting cross-legged, his back to me. “Are you okay?” The rifle lay unattended, lodged in the roof bar, and I stooped to pick it up. “Where’s Alice?”
Noah spun towards me, and I saw red in his eyes. I leaned away on instinct and immediately toppled from the roof. The ground took the wind out of me as I landed, but I was grateful I hadn’t broken my neck. Rosie was next to me, barking, but so was the rifle, and I picked it up with both hands. I aimed it up, but my arms were shaking. The torch flickered on the ground; broken from its fall.
“Noah, stop!” I shouted. He was still on the roof, but his arms were lunging towards me, fingers grabbing at thin air. The old bite mark on his arm flashed in the blinking torchlight.
Noah’s face was contorted into a grimace, rather than the usual vacant expression from the other infected we had seen. “Noah, stay there! Deep breaths now! In…and out…in…and out…” He did seem calmer as he breathed in time with me. I kept the rifle pointed towards him, just in case. My hands were steadier now. “I’m gonna get back in the car. You stay there!”
I opened the door, and ushered Rosie in, but she wouldn’t go. She just kept barking at Noah, jumping around the car. He was getting wound up again. I could see his lip contorting into a snarl.
“Stop!” I shouted just as he launched himself from the roof, landing in a crouch on the grass. I fired the rifle and the recoil hit into my shoulder. I paused for just a second with the pain of it, but that was enough. Noah lunged forwards and grabbed my leg, biting down hard.
I frantically kicked him off, catching him in the elbow and dropping the rifle in the process. He screeched with pain and withdrew, holding his arm, where a bullet hole was bleeding through my old t shirt. I grabbed Rosie and chucked her in the car, throwing myself in straight after and locking the doors.
I took a moment to catch my breath. Rosie was still barking at the window, but she sounded a million miles away. Instead, I could hear the rushing of waves in my ears as I looked down at my ankle. I rolled my trousers up to see a greenish bruise. There was a line of tiny red dots, but they looked to be under the skin. Maybe I had got away with it. I leaned back against the chair, daring myself to feel relieved. Rosie had finally stopped barking. What had happened to Noah? I didn’t want to know. I shut my eyes and let the wave crash against the cliffs again. In the pitch-dark forest, my world was the car and the dog.
I woke up shivering, but from cold rather than fever, thank God. My neck ached from sleeping awkwardly in the front seat. It was still dark, but I managed to clamber through onto the back seats, where Noah was meant to have slept. I shoved Rosie across and cocooned myself in the sleeping bag. Lying across the bench seat was much comfier than sitting in the driver’s, despite Rosie draping herself over my legs. But sleep would not return. I stared upwards for hours as the ceiling slowly came into view. As the morning sun streamed into the car, I sat up and checked my ankle. The bruise was yellowing slightly, but other than that it looked no different from last night. I looked out the windows cautiously.
There was no sign of Noah, but of course he could be on the roof again. The rifle and broken torch lay on the ground where I had left them last night. There was a smudged smear of red down the middle of the windscreen. I looked down at my palms, the blood on them fading to a rusty pink. Where was Alice?
I reached through to the boot and after a rummage managed to find a large kitchen knife. I held it in my sweaty hand as I opened the car door, terrified.
Noah was on the roof again, cross legged, looking across the road at a group of ponies which had wandered over. I grabbed the rifle, dropping the knife, Rosie at my heels.
He turned his tear-stained face towards me. There was blood around his mouth. I knew it wasn’t mine.
“I’m sorry!” He cried. “It comes over me sometimes. I just…I can’t stop it.”
I kept the gun pointed at him. “Noah,” I asked slowly, clearly. “Where’s Alice?”
He looked guiltily over the other side of the car. I took a few steps back, putting some distance between myself and this shell of a boy. I slowly walked around the front of the car, keeping the gun pointed at him. Tucked around the front passenger wheel was Alice’s body. A bloody tear in her neck was coagulating with strands of her curly hair.
“Is she dead?” Noah asked from the roof.
Two months ago, I would have said yes, but I shot her in the back of the head to make sure. Rosie jumped and ran back inside the car, watching me nervously through the window. Tears pricked my eyes, and the tidal wave crashed against the beach again. I squeezed my eyes shut, swallowed and breathed out slowly.
I moved back around the car, so I didn’t have to face what I had done, picking up the knife as I went. I had nothing at all to bury or burn her. I sat sideways in the back seat, legs dangling out the door, rifle next to me, Rosie curled up behind. I had so many decisions to make, but my hands were shaking, and my mind was blank. I focused on the steady aches in my ankle and shoulder. Trying to appear calm I found the wipes and cleaned the blood off my hands and rifle. I could hear water rushing in my ears.
Noah stood opposite me, fiddling with a thread on my t-shirt. He didn’t seem to notice that his arm was still bleeding. I wondered if the bullet was still in there. “Are we going to the Isle of Wight today?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, Noah,” I said quietly. “I can’t take you there.”
“I’ll be good, I promise,” he leaned towards me, face earnest.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, and picked up the rifle. “We’ve run out of fuel. Besides, you’re…it’s too dangerous.”
“No!” he snarled. He snatched at the rifle, and his nails tore the skin on the back of my hand. I gasped, pulling the rifle back and slamming the door in his face. He pounded on the window, tears making tracks down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry!” I shouted through the glass, feeling sick with myself.
I couldn’t shoot him, of course not, but I couldn’t leave him in the middle of the New Forest by himself either. He was a monster. But he was also a poor, ill little boy. I sat for hours, shut up inside the car, watching Noah wander around outside, every so often turning towards me, alternating between pleading looks and pure hatred in his eyes. After a while I hauled a bag of food supplies around the headrests. Swiftly, I opened the door and threw it outside. He had a chance now. Noah inspected the bag, then looked at me with disgust.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, soundless through the window. I wanted to walk away, but my hand was really starting to throb. I wished I had something to soothe it. I took some paracetamol and gently flexed it. The scratches had raised and were turning a sickly purple. Tell tale. My palm was hot and clammy. A sob escaped my mouth, but I held the flood back.
I thought about what had happened to Roger and Chrissie, what might have happened to Ben. I couldn’t let that happen to me.
I spent the rest of the afternoon looking for the ball of string I knew I’d packed. Eventually I found it right at the bottom of a bag containing the photos I couldn’t bear to leave behind. My lungs didn’t seem to want to work properly and I had to pause to catch my breath before I knotted sections of it against the handles of the two rear doors. Then I carefully measured out the exact lengths needed, cutting it with the knife I had found earlier. Too short or too long and my plan wouldn’t work.
I worked slowly – the car was sweltering and my body was shaking. I wouldn’t be able to reach the trigger by hand, hence the strings, but I knew I wouldn’t have the strength left for it anyway. I checked the gun for ammo and jammed the rifle into place, wedged under the passenger arm rest. The empty barrels stared at me. Rosie looked at me quizzically from across the back seat.
I unwound a section of string and opened the door opposite me. “Go on,” I croaked at her, shooing her out. She jumped around my legs in a circle.
“Go!” I shouted at her, physically pushing her warm little body away with my feet. So full of life. She slipped off the seat and onto the grass outside. I started to cry, exhausted from the effort and just wishing it was over. With a huge effort I leaned over to shut the door, but she somehow wriggled her way back in. She leaned her full weight against me, nose on my chest. It was comforting. I didn’t have the energy to get her out anymore. I just had to hope Noah would open the door afterwards.
I set up the photos I’d saved against the window behind her. Ben never wore suits, apart from for weddings or funerals, and he usually looked so awkward in them. But in our wedding photo he just looked happy. We both did. Our whole lives ahead of us. I sniffed and wiped my nose with the back of my hand. It came away bloody.
Before I had time to think too much, I sat back into place and pulled the door handle.
Three months later
He watched through the bushes as the ragged group surrounded the car. Two men and a woman, all with curly red hair. They paused at the remains of Alice’s body, the fleshy parts all eaten by now, then peered through the yellowed windows at the stash of supplies. It was the height of summer now, and although all the fresh food had rotted, it was obvious there were plenty of tins, as well as sleeping bags, blankets, knives...not to mention the gun. The group looked capable, but tired, talking only when necessary, and even then, so quietly he couldn’t hear what they were saying.
He brushed his overgrown hair out of his eyes. It was so dirty now it looked brown. They eventually broke a back window and unlocked the car from the inside. As the door swung open, Rosie’s desiccated body tumbled out onto the grass and a veil of Liv’s dark hair fell from the back seat. He was sorry. Rosie had been a good dog, and he’d never plucked up the courage to open the car. He stepped out from the undergrowth.
“Hello?” His voice cracked from disuse. The group whirled around, homemade weapons in hand.
“Oh, it’s just a boy!” said the woman. “Are you alright?”
“My family, they all…turned.”
“Were you bitten?” asked one of the men, at the same time as the other asked “Where are they now?” They looked around warily.
“Months ago,” He showed them his arm. “Way back near Blandford. Some other people took me this far, but, they didn’t make it…” He gestured at the car.
“Oh, sweetie, come with us. We’re going to the Isle of Wight. No cases there, last we heard.” She put her arm around him. It reminded him of his mum, before he… before she died. “Say, what’s your name?”