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“And so you see, Hitler’s great mistake was going to war with the Soviet Union. It split his forces in two and spread them too thin. Even more grievous was the German leader’s underestimation of Russian winter and the country’s poorly maintained roads. The Nazi forces froze to death without ever making it back home.” Mrs Malone looked at the clock on the wall and then at her watch. “Okay, you lot, that’s it for today. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the things World War Two gave us, like the jet engine and penicillin.”
The class – six children aged between four and twelve – filed out of the room while Mrs Malone used a tea towel to clean the whiteboard. In the months leading up to the demon invasion, St Catherine’s Primary School had completely phased out white- boards in favour of obscenely sized multimedia screens, but the new dark age had rendered that technology useless. They didn’t completely lack power at the school – they possessed batteries, hand-powered torches, and a small supply of petrol to power a small generator salvaged from a nearby builder’s yard – but they just needed to be conservative. Once a week, they put on a movie from the school’s DVD collection. This week, they were watching Flubber.
They had survived the last twelve months by first hiding in the school’s basement, living off supplies taken from the cafeteria and drinking from a rusty sink, and then cautiously spreading out into the school, keeping careful watch for demons. There hadn’t been any lately – possibly not for months. Maybe it was finally over. Was that too much to hope?
With the chaos of the classroom tidied, Mrs Malone headed out into the playground. Winter would soon attach itself to every- thing, so everyone was making the most of being outside before the weather turned nasty and forced them to hunker down inside the gym, which was the only space large enough to contain a fire. Its high, narrow windows would draw out the smoke, while its high ceilings would provide enough clean air to keep them all from suffocating. They’d survived one winter already, losing only the elderly Mr Granger. The cold had been too much for the former geography teacher’s delicate frame. They had buried him in the playing field beneath the rugby posts.
Mr Bradford, the school’s ex-maths teacher, spotted her standing by the nature pond – a square-framed box of water inhabited by newts, frogs, and boisterous insects. “Hi, Stella, how was your lesson?”
“Good, thanks. I think they’re starting to pay attention. Perhaps the horror is finally leaving them.”
Mr Bradford squeezed her arm playfully. “You still teaching them about Hitler?”
“World War Two, and yes I am.”
Mr Bradford perched on the edge of the box-frame and peered across the playground to where the children were happily rushing around. They did so quietly, obeying the cardinal rule of not attracting attention. “Why not teach them something they can actually use? I’m teaching them to tie knots and make snares.”
“I’ll leave the practical skills to you, Mr Bradford, but I’m teaching them something equally important.”
“What? How to outflank an enemy?”
Stella smirked but didn’t laugh. “I’m trying to help them avoid the mistakes of the past. One day, these children will inherit what’s left of the Earth. I’m trying to show them the futility of war.”
“That’s very noble of you, Stel. I just hope we survive long enough for any of it to matter.”
“I’m certain we will. You were right; I’ve taught them how to outflank an enemy. We are studying military history, after all.”
“Ha! Then perhaps there’s hope.”
For a while, they sat and watched the children play ‘stuck in the mud’. A gentle breeze carried leaves across the playground. The sun beamed.
Mr Bradford turned to her. “It’s been a while since we last saw any demons. Do you reckon we might be safe?”
She’d been asking herself that question a lot lately. It would be so tempting to rush back out into the world and see what was left, but it would be foolish too. “John wants to go looking for supplies in the weeks ahead, so I’m sure we’ll find out.” John was the school’s headmaster and one of the four adults living at the school. Miss Perrins, the school nurse, was the fourth. They were the only ones – along with the deceased Mr Granger – who had stayed behind with the schoolchildren when their parents had never arrived to pick them up. They were an odd sort of family, but they had survived together for a whole year.
“I hope John finds us something to eat,” said Mr Bradford, licking his lips. “I can’t survive on flour and water much longer.”
Stella laughed. “We ate cabbage this morning, so what are you complaining about?”
Mr Bradford reached out and gave her a tiny shove, then smiled at her a moment longer than was comfortable. A kaleido- scope of butterflies took flight in Stella’s stomach. She still considered herself married – still very much in love with her Dominic, who might still be alive somewhere – but the burden drifted away. She blushed, hot in the cheeks. “You know what I would love, Mike?” She dropped the school day formality; the kids weren’t near to them.
“If it’s a big juicy steak, I’m right there with you, Stel.”
Her hand moved to her mouth as she chuckled. When she removed it, she let it fall onto Mr Bradford’s thigh. “I would love to go for a walk. That’s it, just a walk. I want to take my shoes off and splash in a stream, or pick the prettiest flower I can find. I want to see what’s become of the world before my memories of it fade completely. I haven’t stepped outside the front gates in a year.”
Mr Bradford stared down at her hand resting on his thigh, and Stella grew horrified for a moment, fearing he might remove it in disgust. Instead, he placed his hand on top of hers. “That sounds like a great first date. What exactly are we waiting for?”
She laughed, then realised he was serious. “Are you mad? We can’t go walking around outside. The only reason we’re alive is because we barricaded ourselves in the basement.”
“But we came out of the basement and everything was fine. Maybe we should spread our wings again. Like you said, there hasn’t been a demon spotted in months.”
“That’s not so long, Mike.”
“Long enough to risk a stroll in the park, surely? You remember the little one on Pratt’s Lane? There’s a gazebo and benches, a nice little stretch of grass. It’s a five-minute walk. Imagine if we could make it safe? The kids could experience a slide again. They could sit on a swing.”
“Sounds wonderful, but it’s too dangerous.”
A cheeky grin spread across his square face. “It’s not dangerous at all, Stel. I’ve already checked it out. Once last week and again last night. Like you, I’ve been getting a little stir crazy.”
She gasped. By leaving the school, Mike had risked them all. Yet she wasn’t angry. She was excited. “You’ve really been out? What did you see?”
“Why don’t you come look for yourself? It’s safe, I promise. I saw nothing aside from a pack of wild dogs, and they seemed pretty well fed and docile. The danger has passed.”
“I can’t… The children…” Her insides sloshed all over the place. She had to take a deep breath of fresh air.
Mike continued staring at her. “The children are fine, John’s with them, and we’ll be back in ten minutes. I just want you to see that the world is still out there waiting for us. It changes everything, trust me.”
Stella shocked herself by nodding. Everything about this felt wrong and irresponsible, but she needed to leave this prison. She needed to get out. A ten-minute break from being a teacher, parent, protector, and nursemaid to six children who were not even her own would, like Mike said, change everything. “Okay, but we have to be quick. Take me to the park, but we head straight back. It’ll be fine, right? John is planning to leave soon anyway.”
“Exactly.” Mike stood from the edge of the pond and offered his hand. She took it, grinning from ear to ear. The touch of his skin was electric, the thought of leaving the school ecstasy in her veins. For the first time in a year, survival gave way to living.
She was going on a date.
Is this real?
Mike’s hand felt real in hers. The warmth in her cheeks felt real.
Despite committing to taking a cheeky jaunt, Stella wasn’t about to broadcast it. She whispered to Mike and asked if he had a plan. “There’re three sets of keys for the main gate,” he replied, “so I didn’t think anyone would notice when I took some. We just unlock the padlock and squeeze around the minibus parked in the way.”
“There’s a gap big enough to squeeze through?”
Mr Bradford patted his flat stomach under his grubby white shirt. “I wouldn’t have made it through a year ago, but it’s not too difficult anymore. Nobody will see us leave.”
There was something frightening about that. If no one saw them leave and something were to happen, the children would be forever left wondering. Her feelings of irresponsibility increased to a level that almost changed her mind. Almost.
“Okay, let’s be quick.” She kept hold of Mike’s hand and pulled him into a trot.
They exited the playground and used a side path around the school that took them to the front of the main building. The gate stood twenty feet away at the edge of a small staff car park. It was an area rarely visited as no one wanted to reveal themselves through the open bar fence that ringed the front of the school.
The staff minibus parked outside the gate was more brown than white nowadays, covered in a year’s worth of dust, crud, and bird droppings. It summoned memories of museum trips and days at the zoo. She supposed all the captive animals in England were now dead – the lions, giraffes, meerkats, and reindeer. Such a waste. Endangered animals now fully extinct. That hurt more than she would have thought. Enough to stop her feet moving.
“What’s wrong?” Mike asked.
“What’s it like out there, really? Are there bodies?
“A lot of bones and old clothes mostly. Nothing… fresh. You
stop noticing it after a while. I think the dogs and birds took care of the worst.”
“I don’t think I can do this, Mike.”
He grabbed her by both arms and looked at her, piercing her with his light green eyes. “Hey, this is a date – and I always look after my dates.”
“Go on a lot of them, do you?”
“Not recently. Come on, I promise it’s not as bad as your imagination is telling you.”
She took a deep breath and wiped her moist palms on the hips of her trousers. It took a moment, but she was able to swallow down her fear and stifle her doubts. “Okay, but I don’t give anything up on a first date.”
“Noted. Let me get the padlock.”
Stella waited while Mike used his key to open the gate. She knew it was her imagination, but she felt a rush of air leaping at her like a gasket had burst.
“Relax,” said Mike. “I’ve done this before, remember?”
Stella nodded and took his arm, then allowed him to guide her towards the gap at the front of the minibus. He slid through first but kept his arm out so she could continue to hold it. She pushed herself into the gap, and suddenly the sanctuary that had kept her safe was behind her. Her veins filled with ice. She wanted to dash back inside. Then she was past the minibus and standing firmly on the pavement outside the school. It sent tingles through her toes.
“I’m outside,” she gushed, barely able to control her mad grinning. “It really is safe, isn’t it?”
Mike was grinning too, her joy apparently contagious. “I’m not saying we should skip around singing ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ at the top of our lungs, but I think it’s safe to explore a little. We won’t have a choice soon, anyway. We’ve performed miracles with what little food we have.”
Stella grinned a little wider, knowing the credit belonged to her. She’d been the one to ration the supplies from the school cafeteria, using the most perishable items first, and stretching out the flour, pasta, and sugar for almost an entire year. The school’s vegetable garden and greenhouse had helped a little too. If not for her, they might have all starved. Not bad for a history teacher.
The first step, from the pavement to the road, terrified her, but that fear quickly faded as she took the second and the third. She could barely contain the emotions coursing through her and felt harassed by her own beating heart.
Then she saw the bodies.
As Mike had said, the corpses were more bundles of cloth and bone than anything that had once been human. A terrible thing, but the sight of them was surprisingly tolerable. It might even be possible to ignore them. Less easy to ignore was the torn apart cat in the gutter. Its corpse was fresh and half-eaten, a clear victim of the dogs Mike had spoken of. Mankind’s rule no longer existed. Only nature remained – and dog ate cat.
“The park’s just down here,” said Mike, leading her to a small access road running beside Marty’s Salon. Stella could still vividly remember the haircuts she had received there. Seeing the place again was surreal. The world was an echo, an echo spoiled by dead cats and piles of old bones. It took an effort to stay focused on the positive, on the fact she was outside for the first time in a year. That she was holding hands with a man.
On a date.
I’m being so silly.
They walked in silence down the access road, passing behind
shops that had once traded seven days a week. The only sound now was the clip-clop of their shoes – a noise that would never have competed in the days of grumbling car engines and ch- chinging tills.
“It’s right around here,” said Mike.
Stella nodded. “I remember. It’s like I was here yesterday.” “Weird, isn’t it? I can still remember every detail, even the
graffiti on the wall behind the Chinese.”
Sure enough, bright orange letters on the wall behind the
Chinese takeaway still read: MY NAME AIN’T COREY, BITCH. She giggled.
Mike frowned. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. Everything is different… but the same, you know? I can’t figure out whether I like it or not.”
“Nothing wrong with being reminded of how things used to be. It might help us get back to where we were.”
They exited the access road and strolled across a zebra crossing – not that such pedestrian aids were necessary anymore. Abandoned cars lined the kerbs, some with their doors hanging wide open. Some with decaying corpses behind the wheel.
But the park was perfect.
The aluminium slide glinted in the weak sunlight while a pair of swings swayed back and forth gently in the breeze. Leaves covered the ground inside the gated enclosure, but it only made things more unspoiled and grotto-like. Despite her age – she must have had her fortieth birthday by now, she thought – Stella yearned to climb the colourful bars and descend the slide, to have a carefree moment after so much desperation.
Mike seemed to read her mind, because he let go of her hand and raced ahead, hurdling the low metal railings and leaping up the stubby ladder that fed the climbing frame. From up top, he waved, a joyful grin on his face. “Who’s the king of the castle?”
With a roll of her eyes, followed by a laugh, Stella pushed through the gate and hurried to join him. He reached down and helped her up the ladder, and by the time she made it, she was cackling with laughter.
Then Mike kissed her.
He did so suddenly and with no warning, leaning in while she was still giggling. It was an awkward thing and his aim was off, but once the shock abated she worked with him. They held one another and smooched like teenage lovers. When she broke away, she was awash with emotions. Mike took it as a bad sign because his expression grew crestfallen. “I-I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”
She put her hand against his chest and smiled, albeit sadly. “No, it was lovely. It just feels like the end of my marriage. I know we’ve been trapped at the school for a year, but I still think about—”
Mike nodded and cut her off. “There’s no need to rush anything. The one thing we have plenty of is time, so I just want you to know that I’m here. I’m here when you’re ready.”
She smiled again, a little less unhappily. “I hope it’s not because of a lack of options, Mr Bradford.”
He seemed annoyed by that, despite her having meant it as a joke. He shook his head. “Do you really believe that, Stel?”
“No, I suppose I don’t. Come here!” She leant in to kiss him again, but the corner of her eye caught movement. The two swings were gyrating back and forth like Latin dancers.
Mike was puckering up, and he frowned when he realised she wasn’t kissing him. He glanced at where she was staring. “What is it?”
“Something disturbed the swings.”
“Just the wind.”
“There isn’t any wind. Only a breeze.”
“An animal then. Stella, don’t worry. It’s just us out here.”
A creaking noise from the far side of the playground alerted
her, and she whipped her head around like a bird. What she saw was a small metal roundabout spinning by itself.
“Something isn’t right,” she said. “I want to go back.”
Mike nodded, blessedly taking her seriously. “We can go right now. Come on.” He took her hand and started for the ladder, but then he leapt back and yelped.
“Mike? What the hell are you…?” Stella’s words fell away as her eyes focused on the demons gathered at the railing. They stood in a line, four of them. They seemed hungry, and one of them was drooling. Bigger than all the others, it wore a filthy striped jumper and was naked from the waist down, a distended scrotum between its thighs.
Stella shrieked in terror. The demons chittered like monkeys, excited by the noise – by her fear
Mike grabbed her and held her close. “Quiet! Don’t do anything. Don’t move.”
“Y-You told me it was safe. You told me they were gone. You bastard.”
As much as she wanted to strangle the life out of Mike, she was paralysed by fear. She prayed for him to get her out of this so that she could forgive him, but she didn’t see how.
Mike squeezed her hand and whispered. “Okay, after three we make a run for it. Head straight for the access road and back to the school, okay?”
“No! No way. We can’t risk leading them back there. The children.”
Mike stared at her for a moment, his eyes bulbous and white. “Damn it, you’re right. Okay, let’s head to the shops across the road. Maybe we can barricade ourselves inside.”
The demons leapt the railings.
Mike shoved Stella in the back. “Go!”
Stella raced across the climbing frame and threw herself
down the slide, nearly going head over heels at the bottom. Mike was right behind her and they rushed for the gate.
Demons filled the entire playground, more and more emerging from behind parked cars and alleyways. They hooted and screeched like taunting bullies. Their stink was awful.
Mike looked back and forth desperately. “They’re everywhere. Stella, I’m so sorry.”
Stella felt strangely numb. A demon moved in front of her, one eye missing and the other full of hate. There was no way to avoid this. No way out. “I’m glad I got to come here with you, Mike.”
“Hell of a first date, huh?”
“Don’t think there’ll be a second.” Stella reached out and took his hand, then closed her eyes and waited. “At least the children are safe.”
A crushing weight threw her to the ground. Strips of flesh were torn away from her body. Mike’s hand fell away from hers, leaving her alone in a writhing sea of monsters. The last thing she heard was distant screaming. The screaming of terrified children.
BEING an estate agent had its perks. You got to wear a suit; you met lots of different people; and when the apocalypse arrived, you had keys to two dozen properties. Zolten – or Z as his colleagues had used to call him – chose to take cover inside a gated mansion in the heart of Warwickshire. Served by a single country road, the contemporary abode sat on the edge of a steep grassy hill, with a two-metre-high brick wall surrounding the front. A heavy iron gate kept out unwanted visitors. The security alarms and cameras stopped working as soon as the power grid had failed, but a panic room in the master bedroom sat behind a mechanical lock. The mansion was the safest place he had been able to think of when the demons had arrived. It had worked out perfectly.
Z was proud of the fact he had kept his head during those first days of panic, thinking rationally while everyone else was running around screaming. Rather than risk the chaos of the supermarkets, he had hit a handful of corner shops, emptying his account to buy as much pasta, tinned food, bottled water, and toilet rolls as he could shove in the cavernous boot of his beat-up Freelander. Then he had floored it to Samdean Cottage – although the word ‘cottage’ was a misnomer seeing as the orig- inal structure had been extended to add an additional four bedrooms, three new bathrooms, a billiards room, and twin garages. It had belonged to a Mr Paul Standing, but that man was now almost certainly dead.
During the first days of the apocalypse, Z had witnessed cars flying down the country road and had heard endless sirens in the distance, but it didn’t take long for the world to go quiet. He’d been alone for almost a year and was in no doubt about the effect on his sanity. Instead of silence, Z spoke to himself constantly, even making himself laugh with ridiculous jokes. His beard had grown so long that it touched his chest even when he was looking up. He knew he stank, but he didn’t care. Water no longer came out of the taps, so to have a wash he resorted to standing outside in the rain. The garden was full of buckets and containers used to capture drinking water, which saved his life seeing as how the bottled water had lasted less than two months. Food was becoming an issue; there were only stale crackers and two jars of honey left. Soon he would have no choice but to go out into the wild and see what he could find. He had seen no demons since the early days but assumed they were still out there somewhere. If mankind had survived, the power would have come back on. There would be cars on the road again. He would have heard those sirens.
Often Z saw rabbits, and even deer, from the upper windows of the house. He could try to hunt them, which would be safer than venturing into town, but he didn’t know where to start. His lack of survival skills would disappoint his father back home in Romania – if he still lived – for there, many men knew how to hunt. It was not uncommon to live off the land in Romania. In the UK, people were fat and lazy, and Z had happily become one of them.
And yet I am still alive, Papa. Are you?
Part of me hopes so.
Part of me does not.
Z had left Romania mostly to get away from his father, who
was an unaffectionate man who cared more for his cattle than his son. While he respected his father’s toughness and willingness to apply himself to hard labour, it was not a life any young man dreamt of. No, Z had dreamt of fast cars and posh houses. He wanted to be a rich businessman, and property was where it was at. He had possessed no money so had got himself a job in real estate. Eventually, he planned to save enough to buy a first prop- erty of his own – a flat, most likely, in a nice area. Buy cheap and sell high, that was the name of the game. Look for the desperate sellers, the stupid seller, those with no idea where the market was headed. His agency’s clients were just pound signs to Z, and it was all practice for when he went it alone and made his fortune. Then his father would have had no choice but to marvel at his success.
And choke on it.
No chance of that now though. There were no more clients, no more banks, and no more use for money or fortune – only morning, noon, and night. Seconds ticking by on a clock. Nowa- days, you measured success by survival. Every day Z got through in one piece was a win, separating him from those already dead. In the new world, he was a rich man just by being alive.
But am I really alive? Is this life? I thought about food and water, but I wish I’d brought books. I wish I’d brought anything that would help me pass this time. How much longer can I keep doing this?
“I might be the last man on Earth,” he said to himself, chuck- ling. “I finally have the big house, but there’s no one left to envy me.”
Z spent a few minutes staring out the back windows at the rolling fields sloping down behind the house. Part of him suddenly broke, like a spring snapping past the point of no return. “A-ți lua inima ’n dinți, Z. It is time to do something. I would rather die than stay here another year. Papa would despise my laziness. I must work.”
And just like that, Z packed a bag and walked out the front gate. He kept himself company by whistling as he strolled down the overgrown country road. Every second he failed to meet a demon gave him hope, while every second he failed to meet another person caused him despair. No matter what, however, he was free. Free in a way that big houses and fancy cars could not make him. He had no burdens beyond taking his next breath and his next step.
When he reached a restaurant called the Coach House at the end of the road, he envisioned finding it full of people. They would tell Z that everything was fine, and that he had been hiding out in Samdean Cottage for nothing. Then they would all share a good laugh. That wasn’t the punchline he discovered though. The punchline was the number of demons amassed in the Coach House’s car park. It was like they’d been waiting for him.
Z slowly put his bag down at his feet. He opened his arms wide and made sure all the demons saw him. “Okay, dracu, let’s negotiate. You want this, you’ll have to come in with your best offer.”
The demons sprinted at Z, making his bladder leak into his briefs. He wanted to run, but the only place to go back to was Samdean Cottage. Even if he could make it, he would rather die than hide out there any longer. He had come to the UK to live fast and die young, not to cower and starve.
The first demon was fast and tiny, possibly a child in a former life. Z threw a punch and almost knocked its rotten jaw off, then threw another hard right at a second demon, which only glanced off its forehead. When it attacked again, Z saw an undead woman with a missing eye. A third demon collided with him and bit a chunk out of his arm. Z didn’t allow himself to scream. He head- butted the demon and sent it sprawling onto its back. “Sare din lac in put,” he said, then translated out of habit. “Out of the frying pan and into the fucking fire, no?”
The child demon lunged at Z’s legs, causing him to stumble. The undead one-eyed woman wrapped its arms around his shoulders and squeezed. He fought to break free but was unable to move his arms as the monster bit into his neck. Terror surged inside him as his blood spurted out. He couldn’t run from the fear, he could only use it. He snapped his arms free of the undead woman’s grasp and jammed a thumb into its remaining eye. It stumbled backwards, blind, and didn’t see it coming when Z booted its legs out from under it.
Next, he dealt with the child, dodging about and wrapping an arm around its throat. It was remarkably easy to twist its neck and snap its spine. Its frail body collapsed to the ground like a rag doll. That left only the third demon. This was the largest, an obvious male. Its burnt face oozed pus. The demon grabbed Z by the wrist and wrenched until something snapped. This time, the pain was enough to make Z cry out. His voice garbled, and he realised his throat was full of blood. His vision throbbed, colour coming and going, edges fuzzing. With his right wrist broken, Z couldn’t hit hard enough to take out the large demon, nor could he snap its neck. With no rational plan, he acted on impulse, lunging at the demon and sinking his teeth into its neck. Rancid flesh squelched between his teeth. Z tasted pus on his tongue but kept on biting, kept on chomping down with all his remaining strength. Eventually, he struck a cluster of fragile bones and crushed them one by one until the demon finally tore itself away. Its head lolled against its shoulder and it staggered like a drunk. Z tripped it to the ground and stamped on its skull, satisfied when it broke apart like a watermelon.
The blind woman snarled and lashed out at the empty air surrounding it. Z kicked it over and stamped its head to mush as well. Then he collapsed to the ground, panting and spluttering. His body had turned cold and it was hard to breathe, but he felt good. He studied the three dead demons, in awe of his own savagery. In this new world, he was indeed a very rich man.
Less than an hour later, Z’s fortune ran out as he bled to death where he lay.