Samuel Buckley was born in Leicester and his lived and worked since then in Liverpool, Bedfordshire and London. He has been publishing fiction since 2012 in various magazines, while undertaking writing work for local government, charities and museums in the UK. His previous stories have appeared in Bewildering Stories, Eunoia Review, and Crack the Spine.
I have sixteen TVs in my spare room and no electricity. I couldn’t tell you exactly why they’re there. Call it art. In the light of the hurricane lamp they throw unsettling figure-like shadows across the walls; outside the night is overcast and dark. I draw the curtains and turn away from the dusty eyes of the televisions. The emblazoned names on the faded casings glint as the light moves.
I move over to my bedroom which is green and flickering in the light of a lantern I made from a wine bottle. Through the window I can see the light from Kenneth’s place shining to the northeast, about two kilometres off. I smile – he is probably reading a book, swotting up on hunting and distilling or enjoying classical literature in translation: either way, reading the words of dead people.
The house is secured against the elements, the fire in the living room’s main stove has burnt down, the storage shed is shut up, the curing fire is out, and the meat is stored away in the coolest part of the cellar. I wind the five clocks in the house, each with its own key aside from a grandfather clock for which I hoist up a counterweight.
I turn out my hurricane lamp, so that the last glowing embers in the window of the stove offer the only light in the living room I trudge upstairs, the creaking of them the only sound other than my own rustlings, and blow out the candle in my bedroom. The only light I leave burning is the tallow lamp hung in the landing window which shines towards Kenneth’s. I only put it out when Kenneth puts out the one he shines back, at midnight. We agreed to shine these lights a while ago to let each other know that we were safely home after nightfall.
There is no one else for miles and miles. No one at all.
For the last hour and a half before dimming this last light, I sow one of my jackets where a seam has perished with age, working by the glow of the stove. Distantly a dog barks and his call is taken up by a couple of others; the exchange continues before breaking off into a series of isolated calls, and, finally, silence. I have become conditioned and do not let the dogs bother me; I feel only the faintest fluttering in my stomach, the barest quickening of my pulse. I instinctively raise my head, calm but alert, but I see little beyond the light cast by the stove.
I move on to repairing a few socks. Another bark, distant, echoes away. Just after twelve I tread upstairs, snuff the flame of the lamp, let my eyes adjust to the darkness, tread back downstairs. Kenneth’s light is out too, and there are no more lamps for a thousand miles.
A mouse scuttles somewhere. The house clunks and settles and the wind rushes against it. Still there is the faint glow of the dying fire in the stove which is mine and mine alone to see. The heat is fading too and so with a quick shiver I tuck myself into the blankets. There is a loaded shotgun under the sofa, and I make sure it’s there before going to sleep: it is, covered with dust. I rest my head on a cushion perched on the arm and go to sleep. Wait – yes, the latch is up on the stove door. And yes, everything else is closed, locked and turned out.
After all these years the wool barely chafes. Before letting myself drift off I concentrate on each part of my body, its sensations, aches and pressures, from my toes to my forehead. I ache only a little, and the slowness of concentration and the stillness of the room quickly lull me. I am still here. You can forget this when you go whole days without talking or seeing another person.
A thump in the night brings to mind crashing cars. But this is just the house settling. When it wakes me the air is colder, though a least one ember still faintly glows in the stove. Later, when a dog barking wakes me a second time, the fire is dark and the first birds have started singing.
It is the sixth of March. It is a Monday. I open up the stove and build a fresh fire of dried weeds, bark and twigs so I can sterilise the day’s drinking water.
I cut firewood, huffing and sweating in the yard. I inspect my plots, then look at my stores – diminishing. Some of the apples, after holding out all winter, have been attacked by a rodent that’s managed to avoid my traps. Stored in the corner of the cellar is a shrinking pile of tins, faded and ancient.
After finishing with the drinking water, I assemble my crossbow for hunting and don my hunting gear – adapted more or less from some riot armour I found, complete with a helmet. I lost the shield a while ago but I still have a baton, for which I have rigged a special slot in my belt, alongside webbing for knives. I sharpen some and then I am ready to go, filling a lunchbox with apples and some bread.
After a quick inspection of the perimeter fence around the house and garden I move, swigging from a bottle of water and chewing a dandelion root, towards Land Rover Hill, which is around two miles from where I live and full of rabbits.
Kenneth and I named it after a 4x4 which seemed to have ground to a halt while climbing the mud track that used to cross over it – we’d never know the name of the owner, so we named it Land Rover Hill as a sort of memorial. The suit of clothes was still sat on the front seat when we found it; door unlocked, vehicle in gear, handbrake off, ignition on. It had stalled at the crest of the hill, facing east; the last thing the driver had probably seen was the light of morning over the farms and villages, and the spire of the local church.
Of course, nowadays the Land Rover is looking sorry for itself – it’s fallen from its old perch and lies at the foot of hill now, on its roof, a corroded mess that looks nothing like a car. The hill, true to its name, has actually started to swallow half of it, covering it with moss and brambles. Just another warren for the rabbits now.
So I squat, taking out my crossbow, and wait. I look like a member of a terracotta army, guarding some emperor’s tomb. The wind whistles around the chinks in my armour and between the stems of grass around me. Other than that, and the odd far off bark, it is quiet.
It’s funny. I probably sustained more noise in the last fifteen seconds of my old life – that is, before the world changed – than I did in the succeeding fifteen years. I remember that morning very vividly, and all the more for it being a noisy one. A jet plane going over, cars outside, my live-in landlady and her son laying into one another downstairs, someone’s music pounding across the street, the boiler whirring, the pipes rustling, a housemate showering, my thumb moving the striking wheel on my cigarette lighter as I went down the hall to the front door. I remember I was timing it so I’d have the cigarette lit once the door closed behind me.
I was twenty-one years old, just out of uni and poor. Only I had different conceptions of poor versus rich then: that is, I was rich in superfluous things, poor in actual stuff – tools, clothes that would last, animal oil, knives, bows. I certainly liked thinking of myself as hard-done-by. But I probably had more technology at my command over those crucial minutes than anyone would really ever have again. More access to knowledge. More parents. More people.
I am calm, still. First two rabbits, then two more, flit over the hill.
I was angry, I remember. Work was going be a handful, and the house was filthy. Someone had messed up the bathroom and I dressed to the sound of those two fighting it out in the kitchen, son and mum.
A rabbits slows down to look at something. Right in front of me. I breathe in, steadying the crosshairs.
I was almost at the front door. The landlady and the son were still having their dispute behind me, down the hall, in the kitchen. My thumb went over the striking wheel. I opened and closed the front door. The music playing from somewhere was louder. The cigarette was in my mouth. I lit it and breathed in and heard crashing.
The Land Rover crested the hill.
I fire and the wooden bolt hits the rabbit in its side, throwing it several feet. The other rabbits scatter. The tumbling body throws up speckles of dirt. Then there is stillness again. I breathe out.
And after the crashing, that was it, I remember: it was over. I wasn’t looking at anyone when I left the house, so I can’t say exactly what happened. But it was very quick. The crashing was loud but not loud enough that I didn’t carry on towards the train station to go to work.
But it was already much too still for half-past eight on a Wednesday morning.
And once I was off the side road I saw traffic backed up: thirty empty cars shunting each other. A few were still running but most had stalled: that was why it was so quiet.
Empty, all empty. Except for the clothes. Same with the pavements: deserted but heaped with coats and jeans and dropped smartphones.
After this, it gets blurry: I was scared but scared like you’d be if you knew you were dreaming, just waiting to wake up and for it all to be fine again. I went back to the house and the music was still playing. I had almost forgotten my cigarette and did a crazy dance because I dropped ash all over myself. My hands were sweating on the keys, and shaking. ‘You’ve got to see this, something’s happened,’ I was going to say. But what if I’d gone mad? They’d think I was dangerous, and lock me up. And mum, ringing every day even when I said she didn’t need to, would telephone only to find out they’d taken me away.
I had to get rid of my fag. I knew that, in spite of everything. I had to stub it out somewhere other than the doorstep or my landlady would kill me.
So after getting rid of the cig I went back to the front door, and the music was still playing behind me and I heard another crash far off and the sweat was freezing on me in the breeze and I went inside and no, I wasn’t mad. And the landlady wasn’t shouting. And neither was the son. There was a smell of burning, which was the bacon they’d been cooking while arguing, left to go black. I switched this off, wincing and waving at the smoke. And half-tripped on the clothes. Then I screamed. And the shower was still running upstairs and I hammered on the door and yelled but there was no reply. There was a TV playing – human voices on a sitcom rerun – and I changed the channel with my sweaty hands and skipped onto some live lounge programme but the camera was pointing at a studio which was quiet and empty and I screamed again. Then I remember ringing my mum. Nothing. My friends. Work. Nothing. I checked my smartphone to see if I could speak to my friends or family using this. Whatsapp, that was what we used then. People were registering as online but not responding to any of my messages. Was this some sort of conspiracy against me, some plot to drive me crazy and have me sectioned?
And that music just kept playing outside. I realised how much it was echoing.
After downing another rabbit I head back, holding each rabbit by its hind legs and packing away the reddened bolts with a view to sharpening them later. The country seems very empty today, with just me and the drizzle and the wind in the trees. There are no dogs. I come to the perimeter fence, letting myself in by the gate and performing another quick patrol of my plots.
I skin the rabbits, decapitate and dice them. Their skins I hang up; the eyes and guts I hurl over the fence.
Inside, I set an old pot on the stove and cook the rabbit in its own oil with some onions, before adding water, potatoes and carrots, and what passes for a selection of herbs. The two skinned heads I use as stock. Then, closing the vent up to keep the heat low, I leave the pot simmering.
I fetch the ladder, leaning it against the house and nailing down a bracket that has come loose. When I go in and try to stoke up the fire again, the logs I put on don’t catch.
A cold feeling goes through my middle and I am seeing a smartphone glowing in a bedroom that is too quiet. I have opened no less than forty conversation windows, so much that the device lags and fails to respond. I reach out to people I’ve met once. I reach out to people I haven’t spoken to for years. I reach out to sworn enemies. And I wait. I make call after call after call. I call my mum, my last grandparent, my aunt in Scotland. I call my big sister and want so much for her to phone and for us to have a blazing argument, because that would break this dreadful silence.
Then I lose the internet, power and every other utility, and after this marker the nights and days blend together in my mind so that I remember it just as being constantly evening for a long time. I live off tins (I stir my stew) and there are fires and pets howling everywhere (the stove is roaring into life) and I go from being crazy with terror to being sort of high to being amazingly angry at everyone for abandoning me. Aside from these broken images I don’t remember much and I guess that’s a good thing.
Two things saved me. The first was feeding all the pets before they either died off or forgot what humans were. The second was finally meeting other ‘Left-Behinds,’ as we called ourselves. The first was a guy named Rob, who wandered up rambling in a Rolex and a tuxedo. He lives a way over towards the remains of the local market town.
Eventually a few of us came together. There weren’t any power struggles, not really. In a way it’s been almost utopian. But once someone gets really ill, of course, they tend to die. What makes this even worse is when it happens it isn’t like there’s much life to begin with.
You have to wear a hard shell, like that riot armour. I suppose these houses we’ve all moved into on our own are kind of protective like that.
We have nothing in common, us Left-Behinds. We don’t know why were spared when so many others vanished into the morning air. We didn’t spend years hoarding tins and guns and whittling in the woods. None of us have superpowers. We’re just still here while the others aren’t. That’s all there is to it.
I manage to get the fire going and later I find myself eating quite happily in the glow of the stove. Remembering that feeling, though, of the days seeming to run together without landmark or distinction, has made me edgy. I should go and visit Kenneth.
Kenneth and I have a signal in place: we flash a light three times to announce an intention to visit. I use the tallow lamp upstairs, moving a sheet of metal back and forth to make the signal. I do this several times but receive no reply.
And you know, in spite of this something reckless takes me. I don’t want to be staring into the dead electronic eye of a computer, waiting for people to reply when they’ve already gone – or today’s equivalent, that is, the stove. I want to sit with Kenneth and talk. It doesn’t matter what we talk about.
So I head upstairs and once again don my armour, piece by piece. I close up the stove and after making a quick check of the house and the perimeter fence I head out to Kenneth’s.
I naturally go armed, but looking this way and then that all I see is the kind of magnificent desolation the explorers of the moon wrote home about. I cannot see the sun, even, but I can tell it is low, and I can see the way the sky darkens, and how the shadows lengthen. When the night comes down, it comes down fast, sweeping after you like a phantom. Sweat cools on my forehead. My skin crawls. No breath. I can’t reason my way out of this panic. This is stupid, I realise. I have strode out like a madwoman, not thinking how late it will be. Was that a bark? I am completely exposed, out here in open ground like this. I won’t be able to see them come on an overcast night like this. Or hear them, even, because they have become very good hunters over the years. Kenneth, not expecting me, may even shoot me on sight, thinking me some sort of monster from the countryside. Even if I turn back now, I might not outrun the dark. And no one ever goes alone through the dark.
Then my clocks will wind down one by one. Or the stove might overturn and burn the house down.
Then Kenneth’s light blinks four times – the signal for I see you, proceed – and it pierces the gloom of the gathering evening and my panic. I lurch into relief, then a giddy elation. I clank up to the Kenneth’s fence, let myself in, and he is waiting at the door with that look we all have when we meet: happiness and apprehension. What will I tell him, he is thinking. Is this a serious visit? Has someone died? Has something bad happened?
But I smile at him and he relaxes and my panic is gone.
Kenneth is nodding happily as I catch my breath on the doorstep. Wafting through the front door is the smell of dandelion coffee brewing. I smile.
‘Hi Alva,’ he says, and invites me in.