The air-drops came. And then the air-drops stopped coming.
I used to like this apartment for its view.
That view went sideways during the apocalypse. Instead of looking over city lights and buildings, snaking roads, gardens, trees, commuters, I felt as if I was most of the time looking over our creeping doom. And we’d started to see acts of violence played out down there. That doomed family hadn’t been the first and weren’t likely to be the last. And when the helicopters had come whirring overhead, the mobs had gathered, driven by hunger. The first chopper had nearly been swamped, it’d had to take off again. And after that the air-drops were strictly drops only. Crates and tarpaulin-wrapped parcels dropped from the sky.
I remember that initial surge of joy I’d felt at hearing them and seeing what they were. Army camouflage. “Army” in big stencil letters on the side. This felt like our salvation. I’d been counting cans, counting meal options: becoming grimly aware that things were looking bad. And the finally: rescue.
“We need to get out there quick,” I said to Zara, “there’s going to be competition.”
Down there: that meant through the lower floors. Now, they weren’t all carnage any more, there’d been time since the battle to clean shit up, to fix some of what was broken. But still, those hallways, that foyer, those stairwells, they were scarred. There were still shadows of blood, there were cracked walls, dismembered doors, and there were the memories of what we’d seen, the mangled limbs, twisted necks, blood spatter on such ordinary items of clothing. Beyond surreal. Look, we’d gone door to door, checking on people – those who’d been willing to believe us, who’d been willing to come out. We’d collected harrowing stories, some that had made me fucking dizzy just having to hear about them. We’d picked up bodies and helped cart them down into the basement – because let’s face it, what the fuck else were we supposed to do with them? Nobody was coming. And where could we bury or burn these neighbours of ours? Just give them to the gum?
It must have gotten hellish down there in that basement. After shoving the last body in, I walked away, knowing the door was being locked somewhere behind me. I’ve never been in there since. I don’t know what became of a whole fucking city. Most of the world, come to that.
So, when we headed out there for what I hoped was going to be food, water, medical supplies, we travelled through an area that was haunted. There were whispers of violence all the way through. But we needed the supplies. And so did everybody else. Faces I knew. Maybe between us we could keep some sort of order.
It wasn’t to be. We managed to get close enough to see faces – eyes really, the faces wrapped in scarfs and masks, or helmets. There were arms reaching to hand out dark-green packages. I saw Zara manage to get one and pull it to her chest.
And the tat-tat-tat of gunfire. I was learning to recognise what that sounded like. I turned to see these black-swathed figures with their metallic jewellery glittering in the sun. One of them wore something that vaguely looked like a late-medieval breastplate. I don’t know where the fuck regular people get those sorts of semi-automatic weapons from – looting a gun store or a police station? – but these guys had them. I remember thinking: if they’d come with that sort of ordinance when they tried to take the building, we’d never have held them off. If they go in there now? But the group didn’t care about us. They wanted what was on the chopper. The gunfire was a polite suggestion about where we might not want to stand, and what we might want to drop if we were carrying it in our hands.
But it was also a heartbeat shy of an all-out massacre. It could feel my heart rising in my chest. That same feeling I’d felt in that stairwell: shit just got real. And it was getting real all over us. I reached for Zara, grabbing her by the elbow and pulling her backwards. We both knew she should have let go of that package she was pressing up against her collarbone. We both knew that could earn her a bullet if any of those bandits glanced her way. But she clung to it, and I didn’t yell at her to drop it; instead we scurried backwards, melting against the wall of our building. I was eyeing up places to go: risk the main door? That side street? That alley? It was all thick with sticky whiteness, I could feel that same grubby webbing pulling at my back – it was laced into our walls.
Others were doing what we were. Getting out of the way. This let the black-clad figures surge forward. When the army officers tried to fend them off there was some close quarters fighting, a flurry of bullets, and the whizzing of blades as the helicopter lifted into the sky. A couple of those thugs went with it. They thrust themselves in, holding on until they were too high to imagine these soldiers would be willing to throw them to their deaths. Maybe they surrendered up there. They probably had to. Maybe they got to go to wherever it was the chopper came from. Maybe they got their way out.
For our part: we froze there, watching it all happen, depending on the shadows until the gang were done with the area. I wondered the whole time – almost idly – if they were going to turn around at the last minute and just mow us all down. Just for kicks. And because they could. And just in case we might be a problem for them later.
They were out of sight before we hurried for the door, half-afraid that those neighbours less fortunate than Zara might turn on us. It’s a pretty unworthy thought, I’ll own that, but times were getting desperate and we were all just so on edge. And maybe, in later months… well, we never had a chance to learn the truth.
On that day, we just barrelled on into the flat and knelt down over the package, unwrapping and unzipping to reveal the stacks of military rations – oat-cakes and dried meat, some sort of dried porridge mix, nutritional paste. Some nuts and dried fruits. Enough to at least double our meal-count before we ran out.
Fine, I thought, if we can keep it up.
But then I imagined living like this – being thirty-something and still rushing into the streets to fight for air-dropped food. It formed inside me, opening like a flower. We had to get out of there. The future was chaos and death if not outright swallow-up. We needed a way out of that.
The air-drops kept coming. But the gangs were getting better at intercepting them. And they were getting more liberal with their bullets. I heard from a guy in the hallway whose name I didn’t know that there was a new black market of sorts opening up. “But it’s nasty,” he warned, “Like really twisted. You can trade sex or drugs for food. Or worse stuff. Sadistic shit.”
The crates landed. The black swarms took them. People who tried to compete mostly got shot. Competition died away. And so our salvation became our damnation – perhaps the authorities saw that and that’s why they stopped doing it. Or perhaps they just realised we were fucked here and there was no point in wasting precious resources on us. Most of me favours the latter – but I always like to look on the dark side.
“You shouldn’t go,” my neighbour said, “even once you run out. It won’t be worth it. And getting there. There’s things out there, where its thickest. Like, not people, but something else. You see their shadows. I’ve heard that. From dusk. And if they catch you, they tear out your belly and leave you there. Or that’s the most current rumour.”
Even rumours were starting to get short in supply. The internet was gone. My chatroom lifelines. Phone lines and cell towers all nicely buggered. I would have liked to kick my inner luddite in the nuts. The fear and isolation just ran circles around us, encasing us in their own kind of web.
But before that, I’d eaten up the stories:
Umpteenth: oh yeah, these things have like ten arms, and two heads.
Sundiv3r: don’t mock it. Look where we are.
Umpteenth: you see them at night. Or don’t see them. Just the shape, behind a curtain of fungus. Hunting.
MobyRick: It’s when it starts forming lumps that you really gotta worry.
MobyRick: yeah, the gum forms into this kind of puffball shape. And then, wham, overnight, it just engulfs a place. There’s a whole fucking suburb in London. Just gone. Suffocated. Not that anybody’s going in there to check for life signs.
Droopus: It’s always evolving, it changes colours. It’s not so bad when its white. But there are places where it got real colourful over the course of just one day. Then, overnight: nobody left. Nothing. Just bloodstains on gum.
MobyRick: [He posted an image.] This is London.
Droopus: No way.
Albertine12: Well, fuck me.
MobyRick: It’s the future. It’s won, hasn’t it? And we’re all just sitting around waiting for it to come for us, because we don’t know what the hell else to do.
So, on the night that family were killed outside our window, I followed Zara into our room. She was sitting on the bed with her legs hugged up against her chest. She was beautiful and vulnerable and annoyingly erotic. This was really, really not the right time. “We have to talk about this,” I said, “you know we do.”
“Talk then,” she murmured.
“We’re waiting to die in here, okay? It’s just a matter of time.”
“Of course, it is.”
“Well, what if there’s somewhere out there, where it’s not like this, and we just have to get there somehow? Wouldn’t it be worth at least trying?”
“Come on, Nate. What are the odds?”
“They’re not zero.”
“They might as well be.”
“I can’t stay here, waiting to see how long it takes before I eat my own fingers.”
She giggled reluctantly.
“With or without me?”
“Fuck no. What?! I’m never leaving you. No way. But it’s only getting worse out there.” And by worse I meant that the contours of the gum were changing; it was no longer growing at the rate it had in the early days – we’d have been under it by now if it had – but it was changing shape and texture, buckling in places. Taking on streaks of colour here and there. All indications: something was happening.
“I think it might be now or never.”
She propped her chin up on her knees. “Maybe.”
“I don’t think I can stand for it to be never.”
She stared me down. I wasn’t sure if we were in battle or not. But eventually she said, “Okay.”
“Okay. If you want it. We’ll try.” Putting her life in my hands. The responsibility weighing like lead.
But I said, “Right. We’re going to do it.” Because I couldn’t see any other course of action, I couldn’t see anything but death in the whiteness past the window.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work