From the #1 bestselling author of the beloved Calendar Girl books comes the first in a witty, wise and emotionally compelling new series, where coming home is just the beginning… “Fly free.” For ten years those words, written on pink parchment paper in her mother’s...
I think I was the first person to catch the virus. It was hideous, I felt gummed to my bed and wracked with pains for two whole days. I crammed myself full of vitamins, Manuka honey and Paracetamol but after a lost weekend I got back to work last Monday. No one else seems to be shaking it off as quickly as me, no one else has come back to work yet, and more get sick every day. Tempers are fraying, we’re all tired and fed up from covering all the sick leave. Experts assured us it wasn’t bird or swine flu at first, but then they went quiet about what it actually is. They’re probably all sick in bed too. The News got really depressing, full of reports of deaths and over flowing hospitals so I stopped watching it.
I’ve worked eleven days straight without a day off and my manager has been begging me to work Saturday as well, but even a full shift at time and a half can’t persuade me. I am exhausted; I need two solid days’ rest. I need more ideally, but two is the best I’ll get. I do a shop in my lunch-break on Thursday, so I won’t have to leave the house while I’m off, and treat myself to a taxi home with my goodies. Waiting at the bus stop for the increasingly sporadic service is too much for me today, my feet are so sore they’re fizzy. But the taxi driver is grey and gets greyer and sicker as the journey passes, and I start to doubt he’ll get me home at all. When I pay him I recommend Manuka and hot lemon, but he barely even grunts a response.
I have a long bath with an indulgent dollop of vanilla and rose bath oil, and then, clean and sweet smelling, I sprawl on the sofa ready to binge-watch Hemlock Grove on Netflix, but I only manage one episode before my eyes are rolling, and I give in and head off to bed. My sleep is feverish, broken by violent dreams, and jolting awake yet again Friday morning I give up trying to sleep. Wrung out and groggy, I spend the next two days on the sofa feeling otherworldly and out of sorts. I lounge away both days, ploughing through three series of Hemlock Grove between naps, but not really absorbing the story. I don’t get dressed; I don’t open my curtains, I can’t even be bothered to go on Facebook or Twitter and I leave my phone on silent. I need a couple of days off everything.
On Sunday morning when my alarm goes off, I’m still exhausted, sleep haunted and foggy. I press snooze twice, so there’s no time for coffee, then I keep zoning out while I’m getting ready. I find myself coming too, still scrubbing my teeth five minutes after I started, and brushing my hair until it frizzes with static. These stop start mornings are a lingering gift from the flu made worse by overwork. There’s no time for makeup and I hurry out of my house about five minutes later than I normally leave. Although the buses usually run late, every now and then they turn up five minutes early, especially on a Sunday so I’m in a bit of a panic. As I turn to fight it out with the faulty front door handle, my eye snags on a man staggering down the steep hill I live on. He’s got a strange lurching gait, as if his limbs won’t bend and every couple of steps a shimmering spasm shakes him from head to toe, flicking his hands like autumn leaves. My great uncle had Parkinson’s and the limb locked stumbling reminds me of him, but I don’t remember the strange vibrating shimmy, he’d had more of a continual tremor. Shaking myself back into the present, I finally manage to turn my key and I’m just about to rush down the garden when there’s a soft thud against the back of my leg.
My neighbour’s chubby cat is bouffing my leg with her head. I’ve got no idea what her real name is, but I call her Missy, as in ‘Listen here Missy!’ when she tries to invade my kitchen at dinner time. She’s an eternal optimist, always trying to convince me she’s starved and abused, although the belly hanging to her knees exposes her lies. I stoop to pat head and she flips beguilingly, begging for a tummy rub. I recognise this trick too, inviting me to stroke, then latching on with her front claws while she rakes my arm with her back legs.
‘No chance Miss,’ I laugh, then I remember I’m late again and a jolt of anxiety shoots through the fog in my brain. I start to hurry down my front path but slow down on the steps, my coordination, appalling at the best of times, definitely isn’t up to scratch today. When I look for the lurching man, he’s disappeared down around the corner; I feel a twinge of guilt that I didn’t offer to help him, and then a pang of panic that the cat has distracted me for so long when I’m already running behind. I glance at my watch and gulp in horror, I am properly late now. The only thing to do is hurry down to the stop on Broad Street, I usually catch the bus from the stop at the bottom of my road, but if I cut through the Memorial Hall car park it doesn’t take much longer to get to the next stop. Meanwhile the bus has to detour down to Morrisons, and then back up so I’ll gain almost five minutes on it, and if I run I should be ok. I hate running. I’m not made for running, but there’s no choice today. I start trotting down the hill, one arm under my bouncing bust, the other gripping my handbag straps to my shoulder while my elbow clamps the top closed in an attempt to stop everything flying out. It would be easier to stop and zip it up, but that would gobble up precious seconds.
I dash across the road and veer down the steps into the carpark, well, I have to walk the steps, gripping the central handrail and watching my step. They’re stone stairs, and steep, and I don’t fancy falling down them. Panting heavily by now, with my head down, concentrating on where each foot is going- I can trip over a leaf- I chug across the car park, glancing up briefly to confirm the road is clear. I sprint across, thanking my lucky stars Sundays mean quieter roads.
With my last spurt of energy I slog around the corner by The Gulag- what I call the hideous new sheltered accommodation complex with the unfortunate metal entrance arch- and see there are several buses already at the stop. This often happens, and it causes buses to stop right the way down the road, blocking traffic. The last bus in the row is mine, so I dig deep, get my head down, and sprint the last few steps. I’m flushed and gasping for breath as I arrive at the doors, they’re closed so I tap on them, worried the bus might pull away without me, but I realise the engine isn’t running. None of the buses’ engines are running. I frown and lean closer to the doors, peering through to try to make eye contact with the driver. Drivers sometimes take a break at this bus stop if they’re running early, but not three at once, and not in the middle of the road.
A familiar shimmering movement catches my eye through the murky glass, for a second I think the man I saw earlier has got here before me and it’s his hand twitching. For a moment I wonder how he got here so much quicker than me, with his lock-legged lurch, but it’s a woman in a long skirt with her back to me, who has the same tremor. As I watch my tapping causes her to turn around, in a slow and twisted motion. She shuffles closer to the door and at first my eyes don’t want to see that the t- shirt she’s wearing isn’t strangely patterned, but has a big patch of dried blood on the front; or that her face is flaccid, mouth sagging, eyes rolled back into her skull. I especially don’t want to see that her head lolls at a strange angle because something has taken a bite out of the side of her neck.
Looking at her; and beyond her to the sagging driver, the details fight past my exhaustion misted preoccupation with getting to work on time; and through my pure disbelief and denial, and my heart starts to pound as I comprehend what I am seeing. An involuntary shriek escapes me before I clap a hand over my mouth and an icy sweat breaks out all over me. Time slows down into stark, over-exposed seconds. The woman tilts towards me, sniffing deeply as fear spices my sweat. She lurches straight into the door and smacks her face against the glass. Her skin softly splits, so a limp gash yawns over her cheek bone, yellowed fat over burgundy muscle, like a text book diagram. No blood. She bumps against the door, wiping greasy smears from her sub-gluttonous layer over the pane, while over her shoulder the bus drive starts rocking as he tries to move towards me too, sniffing and shuddering, but he is stopped by his booth.
The woman keeps sniffing, and her hanging mouth starts to leak strings of thick white saliva, that swing and slap the doors with each attempt to push through the doors. I step back in horror, and look down the length of the bus. All along the side windows, nightmare faces are pressed against the glass, eyes rolled back, nostrils flexing, drool streaming from their maws, like expectant mastiffs. Their bodies shimmer and shake the same dying fish twitch, as they bump against the glass, trying to reach me. Their movements send a wave of stench rolling out of the open windows, an abattoir reek of blood, and shit, and sweetly rotten flesh.
I stumble back further, tripping over the curb as I hit the edge of the pavement, bumping hard onto my bum. I drop my bag with a clatter and watch in horror as the noise draws the attention of the vague figures in the foyer between the coffee shop and the hairdressers, and they turn and stumble towards the electric doors. I watch in appalled fascination as the first to stagger through the door do not bend their knees at the step, and they crash to the ground, allowing the next wave to walk across them, only stumbling slightly as the move onto the pavement, scenting the air, saliva strands whipping to and fro with every step. All of their eyes are sightless milky orgs, and each one is mauled in some way, sides of faces missing, throats torn away, entire arms missing. The high sweet scent of road-kill is unmistakeable. These people aren’t ill, or injured, they are dead. But still moving. Towards me, sniffing and drooling, blind, but powered by their desire to feed. On me. I stare and stare as terrible realisations slot into place.
Finally shaking myself into action, I snatch up my keys but abandon the rest of the contents of my handbag and wheel away from the reaching hands of the undead. I sprint out into the road and around the bus, away, away from this unreal, too real horror. I pound around the corner, back towards the Memorial Hall, back towards home. As I leap up the curb, the toe of my boot catches the uneven edging stone, and cursing my clumsiness I sprawl, tearing my jeans, scraping my knees, my palms, even my chin. I’m winded and gasp on my belly for long moments catching my breath before I can scrabble to my feet.
A figure that used to be a man is in the car park, drawn by the noise I made falling, he starts towards me, bobbing against the ankle high wall around the war memorial sculpture. He hits the hurdle, sways, and shuffles to the side, sniff scenting the air with every step. It isn’t going to take him long to bump and shuffle his way around the hurdle and he is between me and the steps, but the corpses following me have negotiated their fall off the pavement, and the front of the pack are stumbling and falling up the curb behind me. I grab my courage with both hands and run away from their grasping clutches, past his snatches in my direction, and up, up the stairs, clutching the railing so I won’t fall again. I’m convinced with every step I’ll be grabbed by the ankle and hauled back down, bouncing and crashing against the steps, into the greedy mouths beneath me that gnash and groan at my escape, calling others to join the hunt.
The remains of a plump middle aged woman suddenly appears at the top of the stairway, swaying and lurching towards me. I get a brief snapshot of middle class suburbia befouled by blood and gore before she totters forward and overbalances. I swing under the central banister, drawing my knees up just in time as she clatters past me. She is grimly silent apart from her snapping teeth and clicking acrylic nails grabbing at me as she passes, before splattering into the zombies beneath me with a sickening squelch of flesh and popping of bones.
Scraped knees stinging, I drag and hop up the hill towards home, with lungs searing as I push for each step. Time slows nightmarishly until at last I crash through my garden gate, wedging it closed behind me with my recycling boxes, glad I didn’t get around to putting them away. I snatch up an indignant Missy from her sunbathing, and squeeze her to me despite her mewling protests. In the house I let her down to explore, while I barricade us in as best I can. I’m not too worried, the corpses do not seem able to manage stairs or hills, since their legs don’t seem to bend. Approaching my house from the front will be difficult for them, and strong high fence shelters the back of my property. The whole house is double glazed so I’m confident they can’t get in but to be sure, I empty and drag my bookcase in front of my back door, refilling it with my thickest, heaviest books, stacked as high and as tight on each shelf as I can get them.
My lounge has two huge windows, one facing the rear garden, and one opposite, looking over the town and out to sea. The back window is potentially vulnerable to the dead moving down the hill, if they breach my fence, so I tug the mattress off the spare bed and almost kill myself getting it downstairs. I wedge it in front of the window with my sofa, and stand back, panting and sweating to admire my handy work. The adrenaline is wearing off now, and my limbs are turning shaky and rubbery. The big front window is left uncovered so light still floods in, cheery and golden, belying the horrors outside.
In the kitchen, I open a tin of tuna for Missy, and grab myself a bottle of water, snacks, and my biggest sharpest carving knife. Satisfied at last, I pull my velvet armchair to the lounge window, and settle down to keep watch. My tablet is charged from its weekend of disuse, and I keep it to hand, so I can flick back and forth, unsuccessfully trawling the internet for signs of life, and the front garden for signs of approaching death.
I’m unaware of dozing off, but I jerk awake from dreams that don’t want to loosen their grip when my landline rings. It’s so long since the landline rang that I spend several bewildered seconds trying to recognise the noise that woke me. The old cream handset with huge grey buttons is under a pile of ‘pending’ post and takes a moment to find. Habit makes me expect a pre-recorded sales message; instead my brother’s voice startles me.
‘Kate, Katie, is that you? Are you there?’
‘Uh, yeah,’ I reply, my tongue fumbling over the words. My brain feels disconnected from my mouth, everything feels packed in cotton wool. I think I’m in shock, limbs leaden in the aftermath of so much adrenalin.
‘You’re safe?’ he sounds disbelieving. He is the brains of the family, a microbiologist, and I’m the dreamer. Obviously he didn’t expect me to survive a zombie apocalypse. I can’t blame him.
‘I slept through the worst of it, I think,’ I explain.
‘Of course you did,’ he exhales a gale of slightly hysterical laughter.
‘How did you survive? Did you predict it or something?’ I’m a bit offended to think he didn’t warn me. He is that clever.
‘God! No! Not this. Stuff of nightmares and lurid comic books, this. Pure luck. I was stuck in work all weekend, on an experiment that’s just reached a delicate point,’ he explains something here about, slopes, bacteria, cross contamination, timings and hypothesis, but I can’t really follow what he’s saying. I understand that he stayed in his office all weekend because he needed to check something every two hours, and not leaving his lab reduced the risk of bringing in outside germs which might have influenced the outcome of his experiment. He only discovered what had happened when he checked social media this morning. Well this weekend there would have been an exceptionally high chance of cross contamination. I snigger at this thought, and share it with him. He chuckles dryly. Black humour runs in the family.
‘So, what the fuck? What’s happened? Like you say, nightmares and comic books, not reality, yet here we are?’ I demand, sure he’ll be able to spiel off some semi-understandable explanation involving science things.
‘I don’t know. Is it really as bad as it they said on Twitter?’
‘Worse. All the reports are a day out of date. Is it something to do with the flu bug everyone had, do you think?’
‘I’m not sure. Like I said, my research was at a delicate point this last fortnight, I’ve been here or asleep, I seem to have missed all of it, you know what it’s like’. Well, I do and I don’t, I’ve never been so passionate about anything I will give up great swathes of my life to it, but I do know him. When he’s working intensely he goes into a strange sort of hibernation, only eating what he can grab from the vending machine, sleeping in snatches, only contactable by social media, replying to queries about his continued existence at strange hours. He’s given up trying to explain what he’s doing to anyone other than his colleagues and peers.
‘Last thing I was aware of was that shuttle crash landing back to earth, the one that had been probing Mars. They thought they had something interesting, but the fire burnt everything’.
‘Did it?’ Something vague is stirring at the back of my mind, we had a visit from the big bosses from the U.S at the time, and everyone was distracted getting ready, but thinking about it, yes, the timing is right. I’d even joked about the American team bringing their germs over when I got sick before anyone else I explain to him, a bit sheepishly. He’s always appalled at my ignorance of current events.
‘That was when you got ill?’ Zak asks. ‘Right then?’
‘Yeah, and then everyone else started getting sick, but they got it worse.
‘Did you know there are some seeds which only grow after a fire? They’ve evolved to need the scorching of a wild fire to start their germination process,’ his voice has developed the musing tone he gets when he’s rubbing his chin with his long pale fingers and pursing his mouth in contemplation. I can see him so clearly in that moment, and I feel teary with relief that he’s survived. Our mother often joked that if he was working he’d miss the end of the world. It appears she was right.
‘You did try everyone else before you tried me didn’t you?’ I ask softly. ‘I was the last one you thought would’ve survived, so you tried me last?’
‘Yeah, sorry sis,’ he murmurs. I’m not sure if he’s sorry for discounting my survival abilities, or for confirming my worst fears.
‘That’s ok,’ I reply. He hasn’t told me anything I hadn’t already guessed. We’re both silent for long heart-beating moments.
‘What were you on about with the seeds thing?’ I ask returning brusquely to the point, he doesn’t deal with sentimentality well.
‘Nothing… well, it’s just the timing is interesting. The shuttle, the flu, the zombies, I’d like to have a good look at your blood. And some zombie blood’.
‘I’m not bringing you zombie blood,’ I snap.
‘But you’ll bring me some of yours?’ he sounds excited, and I like to think at least some of that pleasure is about seeing me, as well as my blood.
‘Well, there are lots of cars around which nobody needs anymore. I’d just need a key,’ I’m already musing about next-door; I can see her car on the road from where I’m standing. It’s one of those new-fangled hybrid things that can drive to the moon and back on one tank on petrol.
‘You can’t drive,’ Zak splutters.
‘Yes I can. I know how to do it. I’m just not safe to be around other drivers. Well, now there aren’t any other drivers. There’s no reason her Satnav shouldn’t still work, is there?’
‘Hmmm,’ he doesn’t sound convinced.
‘Look, it doesn’t matter if I drive all the way there at twenty miles an hour, and it takes two days, does it? I just need to get there safely. There’s no point you coming here, you’ve got the science shizzle up there, and I’ve got the blood you need to investigate’.
‘Science shizzle,’ he says.
‘Right, I’ll get a good night’s sleep tonight, then raid next-door for her car keys. Such a shame we weren’t the sort of neighbours who gave each other front door keys. Hey ho, there’s always a first time to break and enter,’ I muse.
‘God Katie, be careful, if her car’s outside, she’s probably in there, turned,’
‘Like milk you mean?’
‘Turned, like milk, on the turn, gone off, gone sour,’ I giggle a bit hysterically.
‘Yoghurts,’ he deadpans.
‘Cheese!’ I respond
‘Camembleurgh,’ we giggle together for a while, before I become somber again.
‘Are you sure you’re ok? You’re being very calm about everything,’ he says.
‘Yup, I’m fine, everything is strangely numb. I might be in denial. I can understand the concept that everyone we love is dead, but I can’t believe it’s true yet. As long as I can get up there before I fall apart we’re ok’.
‘Yeah, well lock up well, and get a good night’s sleep. Ring me before you leave tomorrow,’
‘Ok, I’m just going to pack up supplies to bring with me, water and stuff. Yes, and you Missy Madam,’ next door’s cat, who has apparently decided she’s my cat now is rubbing herself against my toes, purring like a pneumatic drill.
‘Missy what?’ Zak asks.
‘Oh, I’ve been acquired by next door’s cat. She’ll be coming too,’ I tell him.
‘Really? A cat? Now? Bloody hell!’
‘I can’t leave her, she’s always preferred me, and now she needs me’.
‘Ok, whatever you say. Sleep well, I love you,’ he sounds stilted and awkward, we aren’t the sort of siblings who hug or gush, but it’s the end of the world, so a little sentimentality is acceptable.
‘Yeah, love you too big bro,’
I’m a bit hyper after I put the phone down, exhilarated Zak’s alive and we have a plan. I decide to get the keys for next door’s car now. Driving is a challenge I’m pretty sure I can conquer, but hot wiring? No chance, I need those keys. I’m also hoping she will have a cat crate for Missy, I’m not sure I want her free range while on the journey.
One snagged pair of jeans and a few swear words later and I’m over the fence between our back-gardens. I may be on my back, but I’m over. Wearing a thick waterproof jacket my ex-boyfriend left behind, and a pair of knee high boots under my jeans made climbing a challenge, but hopefully I’m less biteable. I circle her house looking for an open window, trying her front and back door, but she was one of those damnable security conscious folk, and everything is locked up tight.
I peer in through her windows, trying to see her, needing to know where she is so I can judge my entry, but there’s no sign of her, just an obsessively tidy kitchen and lounge. I try shoulder shoving her back door a few times, but it’s double glazed, with that multi point locking thingy the salesman used to persuade me to invest as well, so it doesn’t budge. As I step backwards to look up at the house again, waiting for inspiration to strike, I tread on a squeaky mouse, which squeals its protest. I freeze, terrified of what the noise will bring.
Doink! The neighbour’s fetid face smears itself over an upstairs window. Good, that means she’s upstairs, so as long as she keeps her keys downstairs, I won’t have meet her face to face. I look in through her kitchen window again, pressing my face closely to the glass now I’m not worried she’ll suddenly appear on the other side. And then I see them, a bunch of keys on a hook beside the front door. Not so security savvy after all. I skip back to the front door, pull the too long sleeves of the coat over my hands, and then snap a good long spikey branch off the hedge. Squinting through the glass section of the front door I realise that there’s a mirror opposite and if I press one eye to a section of the warped and swirled obscured glass door panel I can just about make out the reflection of the keys on their hook.
It takes a lot of manoeuvring through the letter box, tongue clamped between my teeth, and I knock a few things over, including a Babacombe cat which shatters noisily, but finally I slip the end of the stick through the hoop of the key ring. I wedge the ring between two prongs of thorn, and then carefully, so carefully I lift the keys off their hook. They slip from their spikes, and jangle and chime down the stick to the edge of the letter box. I drop to my knees and peer through the letter box, slipping my other hand in and catching them, I can’t risk them falling to the floor. As I grab the keys, the stick is ripped out of my hands as, with a clatter and squelch, my neighbour plummets down her stairs and lands in a heap against the front door. Silently, I retract my shaking hand that’s clutching the keys. Sod the cat basket, Missy will just have to sit next to me, we’ll make it; I’m not going in there.
Once I’ve hurried home, back over the fence, I pack up as many supplies as I think will fit into the car, including every tin of tuna I can find, and a roasting tin I’ve filled with garden earth which will have to do as a litter tray. Then I call Missy up to bed with me, and she massages the duvet covering my tummy as I lie curled like a comma around her. I thought sleep would be difficult, but Missy’s purrs soothe like a lullaby and I drift off.
-Command, are you receiving? This is 000001.
-000001, this is Control. We are receiving your communication.
-Command, apologies for the delay in contact. It took longer than anticipated to gain full control of my host. Her own processes resisted rewriting, however by gradual sedation, I have finally exerted full control in the last darktime. Connecting her antiquated technology to our communications system was difficult. However I can confirm my mission has been a success.
-000001, You are the only contact so far
-Command, yes, there seems to have been an unanticipated mutation in the other formats. The burning was successful in releasing the DNA, but it was damaged in transit. The results were unexpected, and have reduced the supply of viable hosts.
-00001, some variables were expected, hence the different DNA formats sent to the new environment. Are there enough hosts remaining to re-establish our species as anticipated?
-Command, affirmative. This DNA has fused with a female of the original species. She has had contact with a surviving male. He wishes to use her blood to research her survival. We will establish a vaccination programme for survivors, bringing me access with any other surviving hosts. However, I have a breeding pair so the survival of our species at this new location is ensured.
-000001, This is positive. Conditions here deteriorate rapidly. Remember why you were selected and the tenants on which you are to build the next world.
-Command, We shall share resources, we shall conserve life, we shall conserve our planet, we are all equal, we are all precious.
-000001, these must be your teachings, it is the only hope for our species fut…